Category Archives: Speculative Fiction

Science fiction and/or fantasy.

Interesting Links, April 2024

I keep reading things, thinking “I should link to this on my blog,” and forgetting about them. Here are some I remembered.

Adri Joy reviews John Wiswell’s Someone You Can Build a Nest In

A review of a recent cozy fantasy romance starring an adorable Shoggothy creature who murders people for their organs. Adri Joy’s review gestures towards what I think is a minor trend in SFF—stories whose empathy only extends so far, as does their characters’ responsibilities towards others, and whose underlying moral logic is based more on vibes than on coherent ethics. The protagonist’s actions are good because the protagonist feels like a good person.

If the logic of the story requires they do something nasty to someone, the author gives the gift of a conveniently nasty person to do it to. Often it feels like these stories’ minor characters and extras aren’t just different in story-function but are different classes of people within the story; the main characters know it’s okay to treat them differently.

Zachary Gillan, “The H Word: Bartleby and the Weird”

The last time I read “Bartleby the Scrivener” what struck me was its weird-adjacency, how naturally it would fit alongside the work of Robert Aickman and Shirley Jackson. It’s metaphorically the story of a haunting. Zachary Gillan has noticed this, too, and here he teases out the story’s weirdness:

If we take “weird fiction” to refer to horror that focuses on dreadful unsettlement, “Bartleby” is a prime early wellspring, an initial example in a genealogy of the weird that begins not with Lovecraft or Poe but with Melville.

The Breakfast in the Ruins podcast on Robert Sheckley’s Options

Robert Sheckley is one of the most underrated SF writers and Options is one of his most underrated novels, my favorite of his works. It’s a shambolic metafictional plea for SF to abandon cliche and embrace play; I reviewed it here a few years back. It’s great to see someone else notice it and give it a solid ninety minute discussion.

Typebar Magazine

There’s not enough really thoughtful SFF criticism on the web, so I’m happy to see Typebar Magazine—which covers both SFF and general pop culture—show up. Highlights include J. R. Bolt on K. J. Bishop’s oddly forgotten New Weird novel The Etched City, and Gwen C. Katz’s exploration of how SF writers have imagined the death of the sun. The latter examines the history of a SF concept in tandem with the history of the science that inspired it, a surprisingly rare approach.

I’m not as sold on Simon McNeil’s Nobody Wants to Buy The Future—the comments on non-literary SF media don’t really come together; and, folks, no one is using the term squeecore “often,” stop trying to make squeecore happen. But McNeil’s main point is spot on: if SF has lost cultural capital to fantasy, one major reason is that the most SFnal parts of reality are also the crappiest. The long-promised environmental collapse is here, the entire tech industry is based around selling us the apartment door from Ubik that charges you to walk through it, and everybody has novum fatigue. “We got to one of the futures Science Fiction proposed,” says McNeil, “and it sucked.”

Speaking of the future sucking, some politics:

Samantha Hancox-Li, “How Movements Win”

One of my most dispiriting political frustrations is that left-wing politics feels almost entirely disconnected from civic maintenance, the pursuit of institutional power, or any attempt at real material progress. Politics is instead a form of personal expression—it’s about curating your opinions and expressing them through posting, demonstrations, and consumer choices. The effect is that even though the left has the correct moral take on most issues, it has no effective response to any of them.

Which is why Samantha Hancox-Li’s essay feels like the most cogent political analysis I’ve read in a while. In Hancox-Li’s terms, we don’t have an inside strategy:

The overall strategy was best theorized by ACT/UP. They called it the “inside / outside strategy.” The movement had two components. The first was the outside component. This was protest, die-ins, the AIDS quilt—dramatic public acts that worked to raise awareness of the issue and create a sense of urgency—that something must be done. The inside strategy was more boring. It was the people who would show up at city hall at 3pm on a Wednesday to explain the specific policy changes they wanted to regional hospital management. Presentations to the FDA explaining the ethical calculus behind allowing AIDS patients to access experimental medicines. White papers and pocket protectors, speaking the language of policy and evidence. “Something must be done? Here is something you can do.”

Speaking of politics, Hancox-Li’s discussion of outside and inside strategies led me to remember:

A comment on MetaFilter (where I sometimes read the discussion threads) that I often think about.

Sometimes I read comment threads on MetaFilter. I still remember a comment by someone calling themselves “Jane the Brown” who has thoughts about “Entrophic Labour vs. Heroic Labour.” As Jane describes it Heroic Labor is work you can finish definitively; it gives you a sense of accomplishment. Entropic Labor is the cyclic infrastructure maintenance that’s never done but keeps the world from deteriorating—cleaning, laundry, doing dishes, repairs. Entropic labor is less fun, and we treat it as lower-status work.

I often remember Jane’s comment when I think about politics. A lot of the most basic and effective political work—much of what we need to support Hancox-Li’s “inside strategy,” in fact—is entropic labor.

But back to art:

John Coulthart’s Feuilleton Blog

John Coulthart’s Feuilleton has long been an amazing source of links to surrealist art; I mention it now because it recently introduced me to another blog:

The Unquiet Things Blog

Unquiet Things is an art blog dedicated to fantastic and surrealist art. The post that first caught my attention was one on an artist named Anna Mond, who paints work that looks like forgotten 1970s children’s books for goths, but there’s lots of interesting stuff here.

The Time Wayne Douglas Barlowe Designed an Action Figure Line

I had a few weird and nightmarish Power Lords action figures as a kid; I was reminded of them recently when I saw someone post an old ad for the things on social media. What’s interesting is that they were designed by Wayne Douglas Barlowe, the prominent SFF illustrator who wrote Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials. In fact, according to the linked article the figures came about after the toy company came to Barlowe wanting to make figures based on the Guide and he had to explain to them he didn’t have the merchandising rights to fifty different SF novels.

On L. P. Hartley’s “The Travelling Grave”


At about the age I was getting over the extreme nervousness of my early childhood I ran across Jack Sullivan’s Lost Souls: A Collection of English Ghost Stories at the library. It’s one of the best ghost story anthologies I’ve ever read—more rarities than familiar chestnuts, and every one a banger.

One of the many stories that stuck with me, mostly due to its absurd and singular final image, was L. P. Hartley’s “The Travelling [sic] Grave.” What’s weird is “The Travelling Grave” is not a ghost story—it’s a thriller, and arguably early science fiction—but it felt at home in Lost Souls. And this isn’t the only time it’s turned up in an anthology of specifically ghost stories—no less an authority than Robert Aickman selected it for the first volume of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories.

Why does “The Travelling Grave” feel haunted?


Cover of The Travelling Grave and Other Stories

First, go read the story. It’s been reprinted all over. Hartley’s collection The Travelling Grave and Other Stories is in print from Valancourt Books. It’s the kind of ironic biter-bit anecdote Alfred Hitchcock Presents specialized in: a villain sets an ingenious deathtrap only to fall into it himself. Anyone who’s seen a few episodes of AHP or The Twilight Zone will guess where it’s going—but not how it gets there.

The first sentence introduces us to Hugh Curtis, whose name and biography are typical of Edwardian adventure stories—public school, service in the first World War, a private income and a gentleman’s club. But the same sentence suggests indecision: Hugh’s waffling over an invitation to a weekend at the country house of Dick Munt. If he’s accepted, it’s only because “they can’t kill me.” This is a habit. Ever since his school days Hugh has reassured himself that they—he’s is one of those unlucky people for whom there’s always been a “they”—can’t kill him. “With the war, this saving reservation had to be dropped: they could kill him, that was what they were there for.” But it’s peacetime again, and Hugh is back to his old habits.

So it looks like Hugh’s our hero, but this brief portrait reveals a nervous, indecisive man, and as he’s arriving late to the party he now disappears altogether.


Instead we follow Hugh’s friend Valentine Ostrop. You can tell from the name Valentine is a different type of character. Hugh likes Valentine but doesn’t understand his “foppishness,” the kind of thing that at this time signaled a character was gay. (Hartley was apparently a gay man himself.) As the story goes on it becomes clear Valentine has an unrequited attraction to Hugh; later the cast will be badgered into a game of hide-and-seek and when Hugh catches Valentine the story compares Valentine to Atalanta.

Valentine’s default conversational mode is Saki-esque piffle. Munt is famous as a collector but nobody knows what he collects. As Valentine settles in with Bettisher, the only other guest, he riffs on the notion Munt collects perambulators (or, as we Americans know them, baby-carriages). This leads to a conversation at cross-purposes when Munt arrives and Valentine plays a guessing-game about his collectables—they carry bodies, they’re mostly made of wood, at some point they perform an “essential service” for everybody—Munt agrees with everything. Only when Munt says his latest self-propelled acquisition doesn’t need a sexton or a priest do we realize Valentine’s error: Munt collects coffins. The house is full of coffins. (Some contain dummies. Or maybe skeletons, which Bettisher says are a kind of dummy.)

This conversation carries on longer than seems necessary and at a certain point Valentine thinks the joke is past its sell-by date. That it sticks out is a clue that it has an important function in the story. Actually, it has three functions.

First, there’s the irony: it unifies two things as chalky and cheesy as coffins and perambulators—one comes at the beginning of life, one at the end, otherwise what’s the difference? I mentioned above “The Travelling Grave” has the same ironic structure as the median episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Irony is not just the structure but the tone; it’s a story of reversals and double-meanings.

More subtly, the conversation positions Valentine and Munt as opposing forces, life and death. And it takes a joke, carries it past the point it stops being funny, then turns it sinister. This will come up again: the story rides the knife edge between funny absurdity and the disconcerting kind. Everyone talks piffle but it’s nightmare piffle. Ha ha funny repeatedly becomes funny peculiar.


Cut to a freshly unpacked Travelling Grave, a wooden cube sitting on top of a tangle of machinery and knives, which seems “to move all ways at once, like a crab.” It’s designed to hunt a guy down, kill him, fold him in half backwards with the head tucked under the heels, and bury itself in the ground. Or the floor—it can drill right through wood and for camouflage Munt inlaid the lid with his own pattern of parquet.

I don’t know whether Harley knew the word “robot”—it was coined less than a decade earlier—but that’s what we have here: a killer robot that seems to anticipate a Dalek. A drone, or one of those dog-bots you can mount a rifle on with the added feature that it cleans up its own mess. This is proto-science-fiction.

But you can see why tradition sorts “The Travelling Grave” into horror—the Grave feels less like a robot than a monster. The point of a robot is that you understand how it works, or at least know it works in a way that’s understandable. It’s programmed, directed. The Grave is more ambiguous. Munt talks like it consciously stalks its prey, but it has a safety-catch and in other moments behaves like a passive booby-trap. How self-directed is that crabwise glide?

Monsters and ghosts have this same ambiguity; their motives are opaque, their intelligence unclear. Could you talk to a Xenomorph if you knew its language, if it has a language? Does Sadako have free will or is she a magical VHS computer virus? Is the bedsheet ghost from “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You” someone or something? The Grave feels like it might fall on the “someone” side; it feels angry.


“The Travelling Grave” jump cuts straight from Munt’s admission that he collects coffins to the party standing around a Grave unpacked and introduced to Valentine in the section break. The group is in mid-conversation. Hartley’s reticent—he tells only as much as we need and trusts us to keep up, to a degree striking in an era where genre fiction errs on the side of over-explanation. But it’s also how transitions work in dreams—you’re in one place one moment, in another the next, context already understood. From here the dream-tone increases. This key to why “The Travelling Grave” fits into a book of ghost stories: it’s proto-SF, but tonally irrational.

Munt plans to welcome the soon-to-arrive Hugh with a game of hide-and-seek. The dream-tone ramps up as the lights go out. Valentine hides in a lidded bath, which he soon realizes is not a bath—Hartley doesn’t tell us what it is; he doesn’t need to—and overhears Munt planning to “test” the Grave when Hugh arrives. Hugh still has not reappeared but in his absence his narrative function has reversed: not only is he not the hero, he’s the damsel in distress.

More sudden shifts: Munt assures Bettisher the Grave’s safety-catch is on, but when Bettisher leaves Munt turns abruptly, titteringly irrational, “chanting to himself in a high voice.” Munt seems to appear and disappear. Valentine, alarmed for Hugh, seems to teleport right to the spot Munt has hidden the Grave.

Up to now Munt has been as identified with silence as with death. (Also as in a dream, it feels like things aren’t making noise when they really ought to—a pretty impressive achievement in text.) He first appears “on silent feet and laughing soundlessly.” His chauffeur, now picking Hugh up at the station, is equally soundless and seems an extension of the car. Valentine is also silent as he carries the Grave to a more out-of-the way bedroom, like picking up the Grave also meant picking up Munt’s narrative role. He’s relieved to make noise again once he sets the Grave down. (Is it really a footstool he trips over on the way out?)


Hugh is greeted by a dark house and an absurd game. The spectacle of grown men playing hide-and-seek should be the funny kind of absurdity. Somehow it isn’t. Valentine thinks up a fatuous excuse to leave, repeating it to himself until it’s “meaningless, even its absurdity disappeared.” Munt vanishes. The rest of the party are left to navigate a country house party without their host, which again should be farcical but leaves everyone uneasy.

All this is leading up to the moment Hugh makes a funny discovery in his room. He reassures Valentine it’s really funny, “not funny in the sinister sense.” This will not last. It’s a pair of shoes upside-down on the parquet floor, seemingly stuck.

Hugh is slow on the uptake and still knows nothing of the Grave, so it’s (again) ironic that he’s the first one to realize the truth, his dialog sliding seamlessly from jocular to hysterical as the penny drops: these shoes are worn by a pair of feet sticking out from between the parquet. For reasons Hugh cannot imagine his host has been crushed and embedded in the floor, a grotesque death and a humiliatingly silly one. Munt is a grim joke, both really and sinisterly funny. Valentine has plucked Death’s sting by rendering him ridiculous.

But we were asking what makes this a ghost story, and still haven’t fully exhumed the body under the floorboards.


When you come to a story written in another time, contexts obvious to the original readers can be invisible to you. Stories don’t say things that go without saying.

Let’s go back to the moment when Hugh thinks “they can’t kill me,” a habit he’d at one point suspended: “With the war, this saving reservation had to be dropped: they could kill him, that was what they were there for. But now that peace was here the little mental amulet once more diffused its healing properties…” But should it?

When Valentine arrives at Munt’s he gazes through the window and remarks “How lovely everything looks.” The wind immediately blows the smell of burning garbage in his face. I keep coming back to tone: “The Travelling Grave” is ironic. Paul Fussell might find that appropriate. In his The Great War and Modern Memory Fussell identifies irony as the characteristic tone of postwar literature. Heck, Fussell argues World War I itself made irony one of the twentieth century’s dominant moods: “I am saying that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.”

When “The Travelling Grave” was first published, in Cynthia Asquith’s 1929 anthology Shudders, the Great War had been over for just ten years. In the entire story, the “they can’t kill me” paragraph is the only time the war is overtly mentioned. But it’s everywhere under the surface. A country house visit is described like an extension of the carnage requiring a “violent mental readjustment … the fanciful might call it a little death.” The house is “pierced” by windows—an odd choice of words unless you’re calling up violent imagery—and hide-and-seek is “mimic warfare.”

And the Grave itself is a thoroughly modern killing machine. The lasting cultural memory of WWI is that it was a modern war, specializing in mechanized mass-produced death. The most indelible image of the war (accurate or not) is one of old-fashioned generals marching waves of infantry into machine gun fire to be mown down factory-style. Armies developed new weapons and defenses—chemical gas, gas-masks. WWI was the first war in which tanks were used and the Grave is like a tiny tank. To contemporary readers the Grave would have been a killing machine with specific contemporary associations, the way cold war audiences got a particular kind of vibes from anything nuclear.

“The Travelling Grave” feels haunted not because there’s a haunt in the story but because the story is itself haunted by an almost unmentioned war. They could kill Hugh; that’s what they were there for. But he shouldn’t have stopped worrying with the armistice. They can still kill him, or anyone who stumbles into the wrong room in the wrong country house. “The Travelling Grave” is a story about how the war permanently broke this now fatally absurd and meaningless world. Death is a mechanism that may strike you down at random if you don’t have someone looking out for you, someone who may not even know what he’s doing but at least has a sense of the absurd. The man most fit to deal with this weird postwar existence is not a conventional English gentleman but a fool.

On Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, and Worldbuilding


A critical term used in science fiction and fantasy and rarely any other genre is worldbuilding. Hardly anybody talks about how other genres build worlds because other genres take place in a simulacrum of reality. The real world, we assume, doesn’t need to be built.

The most hapless world builders, it’s agreed, assemble the world before the story. This is not always bad—for some writers thinking up a place and asking “what could happen here?” might get results. But some wannabe writers get stuck perpetually constructing their worlds like cosmological Winchester Mystery Houses and never get around to making anything happen in them.

Which makes sense when you realize what they’re building: pantheons of gods, lists of kings, timelines of historic wars, magic systems—what M. John Harrison calls “the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there.” I see how they might want to start with the big picture—think how much of the world today was shaped long ago by the Roman empire, or the Reformation. But exhaustive-survey cosmology is mostly not story-stuff—at least, not the stuff of the stories these writers imagine themselves telling. Rome shaped our world, but how many contemporary novels need to explain how? You don’t need to know who founded London to get the point of David Copperfield.

In Aspects of the Novel E. M. Forster made a famous distinction between story and plot. For Forster story is a description of things happening, a plot is that plus cause and effect. “A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.”

He has a point, although I can’t read this without wincing because, dammit Forster, you’ve got those words the wrong way round—“plot” is a better word for the bare description and “story” for that plus meaning. Either way meaning is the point—“the queen died of grief” is not just cause and effect, it’s a cause and an effect readers immediately get. They can start thinking about what work the queen’s death is doing in the story. By contrast, it’s going to take Herculean authorial labor to guide the reader to a point where “after the trade negotiations over the Blorple crystals fell apart in year 37 of the Meat Century, the Duke of Gorp went to war on Mustachia” tells them anything.

The world is not the point of SFF. It’s an element a story uses to say something, a vehicle for expressing a point of view. The point of view comes before the world; it’s the stuff the world is built of.


Cover of The Mezzanine

Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is about an office worker (who is maybe Baker, or maybe not) buying new shoelaces on his lunch break. The whole novel takes place in the narrator’s reverie as he rides the elevator back to his office. Most SFF fans would not consider this a plot in the Forster sense but its mundanity makes it a usefully extreme demonstration of how to infuse descriptions with meaning.

The Mezzanine notices ordinary, everyday actions in precise detail. Here’s the narrator opening a milk carton: “the radiant idea that you tore apart one of the triangular eaves of the carton, pushing its wing flaps back, using the stiffness of its own glued seam against itself, forcing the seal inside out, without ever having to touch it, into a diamond-shaped opening which became an ideal pourer…” From there the narrator’s thoughts open out into the history of milk packaging, and memories of home milk delivery—how it worked, how it gradually ended.

He recalls the precise movements you make to use a stapler. The unspoken rules governing a trivial interaction with a coworker. The relative merits of different strategies for putting on your socks. The efficiencies we develop around daily routines, like his discovery that when he forgets his deodorant there’s a way to put it on without taking off his shirt. The feelings we have and unconscious calculations we make over actions so commonplace we long ago stopped noticing them.

What makes The Mezzanine more than a novella-length catalog of trivialities is that Baker is deeply interested in these details. His narrator remembers placing objects alone against white cardboard backgrounds when he was a child, how it made any object seem worthy of attention. Trivialities segue into bigger philosophical questions—this is not just a cause-and-effect plot but a chain of ideas. How do I know when I’m an adult? What if I’m not important? What does “important” vs. “unimportant” even mean when applied to human lives?

What’s life about? We remember big events—a wedding, a birth, the first day at a new job. But the time we spend on those landmarks pales before the time we spend sitting, typing, eating, shopping, commuting, tying our shoelaces. Inane interactions with people we barely know. Putting on our clothes in the morning and taking them off at night. These time-fillers and maintenance activities are in The Mezzanine “the often undocumented daily texture of our lives.” Disregarding details means missing most of your life.

The narrator is struck by a line from Marcus Aurelius: “Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!” The Mezzanine argues we should philosophize where chance finds us, take an interest in everything we spend our time doing whether or not it’s interesting.


Twenty years ago (I shriveled up like a leaf as I typed that) a parody by a writer named Mark Rosenfelder went the 2004 equivalent of “viral”.“If all stories were written like science fiction stories” described an airplane trip in the explanatory voice of golden age SF:

The surprisingly large passenger area was equipped with soft benches, and windows through which they could look down at the countryside as they flew 11 km high at more than 800 km/h. There were nozzles for the pressurized air which kept the atmosphere in the cabin warm and comfortable despite the coldness of the stratosphere.

Sizable chunks of golden age SF stories took this explanatory tone, infodumping about their fictional innovations to the reader. Skim any of the out-of-copyright SF stories on Project Gutenberg and you’ll probably find something similar.

But it’s also a lot like what Nicholson Baker is doing all through The Mezzanine! Compare it to the bit about the milk carton. But the parody, like the middling SF it’s parodying, is flat, affectless. Anhedonic. That’s not The Mezzanine: to Baker a milk carton is a “radiant idea.” As the narrator describes tearing open its eaves and using its seam against itself you feel his pleasure in its workings.

The Mezzanine is suffused with joy. Baker approaches milk packaging and escalators and shoelaces with—heck, I’ll just say it—a sense of wonder. The proliferation of shampoos in CVS is an astonishment, the perforations on a paper towel an underappreciated technological miracle. All but the best SFF struggles to infuse deep time and infinite space with wonder; Baker can find it in an office men’s room.


It’s a commonplace in SFF criticism that infodumps are boring. But infodumps aren’t the problem.

The Mezzanine is a fascinating book and, again, all infodump. The key is that its essays are not just plot-scaffolding, or world-scaffolding. They aren’t purely functional prose getting the book from one place to another or showing how neatly its world fits together. They’re part of the book’s arguments.

An element of a story that does not even tangentially tie into the story’s themes is an element that did not interest the writer. Any element of a story not infused with meaning will be boring, whether it’s an infodump or a love scene or a climactic fight. The point of view comes before the world.


Sometimes Baker’s narrator wonders what it means to be the kind of guy whose philosophy dreams of shoelaces and paper towels: “I was the sort of person whose biggest discoveries were likely to be tricks to applying toiletries while fully dressed. I was a man, but I was not nearly the magnitude of man I had hoped I might be.” On the other hand, a footnote praises people who don’t seem to have accomplished much yet know “all that can be known about several brief periods of Dutch history, or about the flowering of some especially rich tradition of terra-cotta pipes.” These people, Baker declares, quietly sustain civilization.

Most SFF novels are about heroes, people with exaggerated agency. Other people may not think they’re important, but they wind up in the right place at the right time to change the world. They’re people of magnitude. This seems unremarkable to SFF fans but is one of the strangest aspects of SFF. How many mainstream novels are about heroes? Not a lot. Most find meaning in the lives of people who don’t bend the world to their will. Even in other kinds of heroic genre fiction—adventure stories, mysteries—heroes solve small problems, intervening in a few lives. (Sherlock Holmes solves mostly domestic problems, just a few of national significance, and never saves the world.)

Most of us live in the long tail of historical significance. The books that speak most deeply to most people deal with problems of our magnitude and help us come to terms with our mundanity. Much of SFF assumes without thinking about it—and, in assuming, inadvertently argues—that the only people of significance or interest are the ones whose lives take place on the cosmological/world-historical scale of exhaustive worldbuilding. Part of becoming an adult is accepting that you’re really Toiletry Application Guy, and that being this kind of person is okay. That so much SFF daydreams about being someone of greater magnitude is a sign of its continued immaturity.

(It’s a side issue, but there’s also the political naïvety encouraged by stories where the world is changed exclusively through personal heroism instead of the long-term cooperation and compromise change tends to require in real-world democracies.)


Some SFF exhaustively surveys the world. Some SFF has what might be the opposite problem. (Although it’s not so opposite that the same story can’t tend in both directions, as bad epic fantasy often does!) We’re on a spaceship, but what kind of spaceship? A swordsman walks into a tavern, but what kind of tavern? Most fiction doesn’t stop to describe the world at length but will drop a few important details, enough to clue us in to what’s significant. Some SFF assumes its readers come equipped with a mental store of stock genre furnishings. It’s assumed we’ve seen spaceships and fantasy taverns before and know what they look and feel like.

Based on the tone of a story we can say this spaceship must be like the Enterprise, and that one like the Millennium Falcon. In the age of remakes and remixes this might even be what the writer wants. But these spaceships are indistinguishable from those earlier spaceships. Specificity is lacking. What’s the operating system like on the computers? Is there a background noise that gets on your nerves until one day you stop noticing? Are the chairs comfortable? If it’s a city-sized ship, do people get around on bicycles? Has the crew figured out a trick to keep the sliding doors open?

What a character notices about their world tells us about the character. What the narrator asks us to notice about the world tells us about the world, and about the narrator, and hints at the story’s preoccupations. A story whose narrator and characters don’t notice much, asking the reader to fill in the details of the world, is leaving opportunities to communicate on the table. A spaceship that’s not specific is not significant, in the sense that it doesn’t signify anything.

Once when asked what she’d change about her work, Ursula K. Le Guin joked that she regretted not mentioning Anarres’ street-corner pickle barrels in The Dispossessed. She didn’t mean she’d passed up a chance to explain how pickle barrels were a cosmologically important puzzle piece in the Hainish universe. It’s a detail that would have said something unique and evocative about Anarres.

It’s hard to connect with a world when the immediate environment doesn’t feel specific—if characters aren’t noticing the details that should matter most to them. We’ve seen an office and a CVS; they’re naturally part of our stock furnishings. But The Mezzanine notices specific meaningful details that remind us of what it is like to exist in them—how a drug store feels. Exhaustive SFF instead spends its time on abstractions like magic systems or some kind of pixie/gnome war from fifty years ago. It doesn’t philosophize where chance finds its characters.

Let’s return to that M. John Harrison line, part of a short online rant that stuck in a lot of memories, mine included, calling worldbuilding “the clomping foot of nerdism”:

It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study.

Worldbuilders want their worlds to feel real but it’s hard to get that feeling from an exhaustive survey. Lifelike worlds aren’t built from the top down, but from the characters and their surroundings out. They allow for ambiguity, lacunae in our knowledge, the way reality feels no obligation to make sense. Exhaustive worldbuilding aims for worlds logical enough to be mastered, which aren’t worlds at all but clockwork orreries. We can hear the gears click.


The Mezzanine focuses on the most mundane details of an insignificant office worker’s uneventful lunch hour. It feels more real than the most encyclopedic and carefully worked-out photocopy of Middle Earth because of the loving attention it pays to the world. “Worldbuilding” is a term applied to SFF but realist fiction also builds worlds, using a lot of the same techniques. (I’d say SFF’s worlds are imaginary while realist fiction’s world is real—but is it? Maybe it gives us versions of the real world as filtered through different writers’ points of view.) Properly done worldbuilding is not so much building as describing a world, starting where the characters are and radiating out to wherever the writer’s themes take them.

In M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again something big is happening to the world, a literal sea change. Its two protagonists stay on the margins, see only its edges; like Nicholson Baker they attend to what is striking and memorable in their own lives. That attention to life is the stuff the book’s meaning is built from. We don’t need the details on what’s happening to the larger world. Harrison philosophizes where chance finds him. The Sunken Land is the most vivid work of SFF I read last year.

It’s time for SFF to dare to be trivial.

On Stanislaw Lem’s The Chain of Chance

The Chain of Chance is, first, not a direct translation of the title. The book’s Wikipedia entry—not the greatest source, I know—renders it as Catarrh, or Rhinitis. Hay fever. Not a disease, an annoyance.


Cover of The Chain of Chance

What’s most striking about The Chain of Chance is its structure, which is not conventional at all. (As we’ll see, this book’s themes are directly integrated into the structure and the prose. This is something a lot of SFF could learn from!) The first section is a rambling avalanche of frustrations, raindrops building to a storm of aggravation. The narrator, John, is driving to Rome. Severe allergies clog his sinuses. It’s too hot and too humid. Traffic is heavy; the fan blows exhaust fumes in his face. It looks like rain but the storm won’t break, until suddenly it’s a downpour. “My stomach felt like a lump of dough, my head was on fire, and stuck to my heart was a sensor that caught on my suspenders every time I turned the wheel.”

John doesn’t explain what he’s up to. He doesn’t notice he hasn’t explained it. He’s the guy next to you on the plane who spends the flight pouring out his least interesting troubles. We pick out the plot from sporadic details like that sensor: John is posing as a dead man named Adams, using his belongings, monitored by electrodes as he follows Adams’ last journey. How Adams died is a mystery; John imitates his actions precisely, hoping for clues along the way.

Before he took this job John was an astronaut. He didn’t get past orbit, disqualified by allergies. Even his memories of space are annoyances: chasing down floating crumbs and dandruff with a vacuum in zero-G, readjusting to gravity when he came back down.

John stops at a gas station. It’s empty except for a woman who walks in and for some reason faints. What does this mean? Does it mean anything? Just because something seems anomalous, is it important?

An escalator in the station starts when John comes near and stops when he leaves as though, John thinks, it’s announcing the end of a scene.[1] But there’s no intent there, just a sensor. A mechanical process.


Stymied, John flies to Paris, where his journey started. (He still hasn’t gone into details. Who was Adams? Who’s interested in his death, and what’s mysterious about it?) He’s delayed by an airport bombing.

You might assume this is a plot point. It is later, although not in the way you’d expect. For now it’s a thematic bomb. The Chain of Chance was published in 1975 and in the early 1970s terrorism was on everybody’s mind—there was an epidemic of hijackings (over 130 between 1968 and 1972), and Italy was deep in the Years of Lead. In 1975 a bomb would have seemed a logical way to inconvenience the protagonist of a novel in an Italian airport.

Terrorism feels uncanny. The victims are random. The perpetrators are distant, unseen; there’s no direct link. The motive is impersonal—somebody thinks they have to make a point (or that they have a point at all) and to make it they’re going to kill… I dunno, let’s see, maybe you? We don’t know who the somebody is but we know there’s a somebody. When disasters happen in patterns we expect someone is causing them for a reason, an enemy we can fight. As one character observes in an entirely different context, “It’s always convenient to know who’s to blame for everything.”


In the 1960s a programmer named Joseph Weizenbaum created a program called ELIZA. ELIZA was what we’d call a chatbot. It could have followed any number of scripts, but Weizenbaum set it up as what’s known as a Rogerian psychotherapist. (This is the ELIZA we’re all familiar with today, but Weizenbaum called this script DOCTOR.) The technique involves asking open questions and reflecting the patient’s answers back to them, which could be simulated simply by saying things like “That’s quite interesting,” and “Can you elaborate on that?” and occasionally regurgitating whatever the “patient” just typed (“You say the owls are not what they seem?”). What Rogerian psychotherapists thought of all this is not recorded.

In his book Computer Power and Human Reason Weizenbaum described what happened next.[2] When he suggested recording conversations with ELIZA colleagues objected that this “amounted to spying on people’s most intimate thoughts.” Not that Weizenbaum was cool with spying on intimate thoughts, but it hadn’t occurred to him anyone would share intimate thoughts with ELIZA. People were treating ELIZA like a real therapist. Even Weizenbaum’s secretary asked him to leave the room so she could chat privately. Three psychiatrists (including his colleague Kenneth Colby) writing in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease saw a future where “Several hundred patients an hour could be handled by a computer system.” To Weizenbaum this was weird and creepy. Any real therapeutic relationship is based on empathy. How could anyone think this half-assed algorithm was capable of empathy?

Pareidolia is the psychological quirk that makes you see unintended images—often faces—in random or meaningless arrangements of shapes. It’s what’s happening when an electrical outlet looks like a surprised little guy, or when you see a major religious figure in your English muffin. It’s a form of apophenia, the temptation to find meaning in things that aren’t meaningful or even connected. Like, lefty urbanists sometimes insist cities don’t plant fruit trees along the streets due to active collusion between planning departments and supermarket owners, who meet in smoky backrooms nationwide to prevent free food. Nobody thinks of the ordinary and obvious fact—because it’s not an interesting story—that fruit leaves a goddamn mess on the sidewalk. This story takes isolated data points—ornamental trees don’t have fruit, business owners don’t like competition, they’re often tight with local politicians—and perceived a pattern that isn’t there. That’s a form of apophenia.

Humans also tend to anthropomorphize inanimate objects; some small corner in every human mind will see a stuck Roomba banging around under a couch and imagine it’s frightened. Sometimes people see more humanity in objects than humans. The point of all this being that no one who has accidentally sent a text message about ducks thinks the autotext feature on their phone is smart, but put a better version of the algorithm in a different context and you’ll convince a lot of people—educated people, even—they’re talking to Deep Thought. People like to see people and, more than anything else in the world, people want to believe in agency.


Stymied, John visits Dr. Barth, a computer scientist who consults with the Sûreté. We’re halfway through the book and up to now we’ve had to piece the plot together by picking relevant details out of a torrent of grumbles, but here John finally explains what’s going on.

John’s story is the best kind of telling instead of showing, not a dramatization but a report. It’s a long chunk of exposition, but efficient. The Chain of Chance takes advantage of its status as prose and doesn’t draw the explanation out with flashback scenes or extra dialogue. Lem loved crossing fiction and nonfiction; he was a master of storytelling through exposition and his novels include Borgesian volumes of reviews and introductions to nonexistent books.

Adams was one of a series of men—all middle-aged, all single, all balding, all with allergies—who visited a spa famous for its sulfur baths. Each one subsequently developed paranoid delusions—hinting they were on to some mysterious journalistic scoop, or being hounded by terrorists. (Apophenia again.) Finally each man either committed suicide or died through accidents so careless they might as well have been intentional. Adams’ family noticed the similarities and hired John to make sense of this—not that he’s had much luck. Is it a poison? Is someone testing a chemical weapon? Why balding, allergic men, and why single—is that part of the profile, or did they just not have anyone to notice their strange behavior and get help? Just because it’s a point of commonality, is it important? John isn’t sure what details to pick out; he’s been reading the situation the same way we read the first sections of the novel.


Dr. Barth introduces John to a colleague, Dr. Saussure (no relation). Dr. Saussure doesn’t have a solution but he does have a hunch, expressed in metaphor: imagine a table held together with nails, the nail-heads visible on its surface. Imagine a drop of water perfectly positioned on each nail. You’d conclude someone had been by with an eyedropper. But leave the table out in a rainstorm and of course the nails will be wet, no eyedropper required: in a storm some drops will inevitably hit.

Or imagine a fly landing on a firing range. To hit the fly with a single bullet would be impressive marksmanship. But what about a real fusillade, a room packed with bullets? Shoot long enough, and one’s bound to hit. The dead fly would only impress you if you didn’t notice the misses, if your perceptions were somehow limited to that single bullet.

As an astronaut, John had a metaphorical long-distance view of humanity; he could take in the entire world at one glance. On Earth, he’s one of the flies on the firing range.


Here John returns to his catalogue of annoyances. Chief among them is a tabloid suggesting impropriety between John and the young woman who survived the bombing with him; he’s pissed off enough to get careless. In his angrily random roamings he ingests exactly the wrong combination of snacks, allergy medicine, and shampoo—and now he stumbles into the solution to the mystery, nearly adding to the list of victims in the process. The dead men weren’t poisoned by people. What drove them to suicide was an unlikely chemical reaction involving sulfur, allergy medicine, hair tonic, and candied almonds (hey, everybody likes candy).

Lem opens a chapter of his novel Fiasco by insisting “That which mathematically has an extremely low probability also has this characteristic: that it may nevertheless sometimes happen.” Lem keeps coming back to chance and contingency; when he published a book of literary theory he called it The Philosophy of Chance.[3] The Investigation is another mystery where the villain may be an improbable natural process. His Master’s Voice offers this as one possible explanation for an apparently alien signal.

Any wild improbability may be inevitable including, the last line suggests, the writing of The Chain of Chance, a novel that looks at the twentieth century and sees more people alive than at any point in history and a world moving faster every year. This is a human rainstorm: every day enough people take enough weird and random actions to hit every spot on every table and then some.

Surely such a complex repeating pattern must have been planned? But a lot of people die, and a lot of those deaths also have complex backstories, and a lot of those backstories inevitably happen more than once. It’s just that no one picked those specific wet nails out of the many raindrops hitting the table, assumed they’d found a pattern, and deduced intent. John’s investigation is based in the same kind of apophenia the dead men experienced.

Of course, there is an intent behind The Chain of Chance: Lem’s. But we aren’t living in a novel. We can’t read the world like a story. A lot of political discourse is real people fanfiction about the machinations of perceived enemies who are in reality confused and fumbling. Banal contingencies become plots. Anyone who is at all online has seen people confabulate elaborate stories to explain why strangers took actions that were in fact unimportant or random. Think of the people on Nextdoor who see a van driving slowly and warn that burglers are casing the neighborhood when it was just some guy looking for an address.

Purpose and agency are weirdly comforting even when they seem malevolent. Things don’t just happen. Someone is running the game even if it’s rigged against you. Anyone who’s read a detective novel knows mysteries are caused by villains, and at the end of the story the villain will be revealed. You can do things about villains: arrest them, or fight them, or at least call them out. You can’t call out a random combination of chemicals. You can broadcast warnings and pass laws and regulations; but they take a lot of work, and the work doesn’t feel like a fun adventure, and anyway there’s only so much you can do to protect people from their own haplessness. In that sense a villain is, oddly, less frightening. The Chain of Chance is a detective novel where the villains are nature, chance, and apophenia. These are the enemy more often than most of us would care to admit.

  1. Which is is, but only from the reader’s perspective.  ?
  2. I have read just excerpts of this book and would like to read the whole thing… but it’s out of print, used copies are expensive, and the available ebook for some reason consists of page images cut in half and displayed sideways.  ?
  3. As far as I know this has never been translated into English but there’s a summary at that Wikipedia page.  ?

On James Tiptree, Jr.’s Up the Walls of the World

(Spoilers from the first line this time!)


Cover of Up the Walls of the World

Late in Up the Walls of the World, after the human protagonist Dr. Daniel Dann has transcended his mortal existence, the book throws a good-natured jab at 2001: A Space Odyssey: “I’m not going to be reborn as the embryo of humanity transcendent in the cosmos,” thinks Dann. “I’ll just be me.”

Up the Walls of the World was out of print for years. (It’s back now, as an appallingly typo-strewn ebook.) Tiptree’s novels don’t have a great reputation. They’re not as brilliantly intense as her stories; Tiptree dilutes with length. But Up the Walls of the World is still great (and better than 2001 the novel, which has its moments but mostly survives on the coattails of the superior movie).

UtWotW is structured as two alternating and converging strands with occasional interjections from a standard-issue MYSTERIOUS ALL CAPS ENTITY. Tivonel, a telepathic flying manta from the gaseous planet Tyree,[1] travels to the Wall of the World to hook up with an old lover. Her tryst is interrupted by her world’s impending destruction and certain Tyreeans’ plans to escape via interplanetary mind-swap. Meanwhile, Dr. Dann consults on a military experiment in telepathic communication while managing the drug habit that numbs his overwhelming empathy. His determination to detach from humanity is shaken when he finds himself attracted to the equally distant computer programmer Margaret Omali. (UtWotW could have stumbled here—Margaret is a generation younger than Dann, rather Spock-like in personality, and Black, and Dann initially exoticizes her a little. It would have made for an awkward romance. But where a modern SFF novel might consider romance obligatory, here their relationship settles into a more interesting friendship.) After a series of telepathic contacts and human/alien body swaps everyone ends up as telepathic presences crewing an alien machine built to preserve life from dying worlds—an apparent Destroyer that, in an anomalously eucatastrophic move for Tiptree, turns out to be a Saver.

Up the Walls of the World tells its story in a present-tense third person that sticks close to the point of view characters but allows itself moments of omniscience to let us know what they don’t. (Dann, for instance, doesn’t understand how much better his patients feel after they talk to him, even as he pulls away.)

Tivonel’s voice is all exclamation points and excited questions. She uses the word “how” primarily to marvel at things: How thrilling, how huge, how beautiful, how incredible. (Tivonel thinks less often about how to do things. She just does them.) And there’s something to marvel at everywhere, or in almost everyone. Everything is rich, strong, intense; colors are everywhere.

Dr. Dann’s internal monologue introduces itself by repeating the phrase “as usual.” He’s prone to short sentences and cursory observations, occasionally almost telegraphic. (“Specimen of young deskbound Naval intelligence executive: coarse-minded, clean-cut, a gentleman to the ignorant eye.”) Dann notices what annoys him: asinine projects, substandard door frames, disgusting electrode paste, Naval intelligence executives. The first person he pays detailed attention to is the ironically named Lt. Kirk, who Dann can’t stand. Conversely, he thinks of his patients as their code numbers (“Subject R–95”) to keep them at arm’s length, not because he doesn’t care about them but because in his experience caring hurts. (He warms to them as the book progresses, to his alarm.) Margaret’s POV enters after she leaves her body behind; her chapters are heavy on abstraction and computer metaphors. She sees herself as “ghostly circuitry.”

Tiptree being Tiptree the novel pokes at gender. The Tyreeans swap human gender roles—men carry and raise young and are more emotionally intelligent, women are more action-oriented—but still privilege male activities. Lt. Kirk is everything the Tyreean men aren’t, a symbol of self-destructive male aggression; he’s introduced after kicking a computer and almost castrating himself on the cooling fan. When he’s mind-swapped he ends up as a child—he’s the one with the most to learn from the Tyreeans. But to the extent anyone talks about Up the Walls of the World, gender is the thing they’ve talked about already. I felt more like writing about two points relating back to the quotation at the top of the post.


“I’ll just be me,” thinks Dann, and he will continue to be himself for some time. Visionary or psychedelic SF stories like 2001 often end on a moment of transcendence, where the main character levels up in a cod-evolutionary sense. It’s a metaphorical epiphany, the moment after which everything is different. But we don’t learn how everything is different; the next stage of existence is indescribable. (Or the next world. Closely related are stories that transport the protagonist into the future, or an alien world, but end before we see it because it’s too wonderful to describe.)

It’s the end of the story (2001, Lafferty’s Fourth Mansions, the movies The Black Hole or Repo Man). Or the POV characters watch someone else transcend (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Clarke’s Childhood’s End, the sublimed civilizations haunting the background of Banks’ Culture novels). Or the character de-transcends for the epilogue, returning to ordinary life happier or wiser but not much different. (This risks bathos. Either intentionally, as with the wickedly cynical punchline of Dick’s Galactic Pot-Healer, or unintentionally, as in “Threshold” from Star Trek: Voyager, unrecognized cousin to 2001: For a moment Tom Paris is omniscient, existing everywhere in the universe at once; the writers can’t imagine what comes next and in desperation turn him into a mudskipper.)

What’s the transcendent ending doing? At the simplest level, it’s a literalized metaphor. A novel is supposed to end with the protagonist changed, in a new phase of their life, ideally wiser. Ascending to a new evolutionary phase makes the change more concrete…

…But also more abstract. Growing as a person is good in itself, but in a realist novel we can also appreciate what the protagonist has learned and guess what they’re going to do next—assuming this isn’t a tragedy, where the protagonist won’t be doing anything next—because we know what life looks like. They’ll marry the guy they’d assumed was a jerk; or move back to the midwest and forget about joining the beautiful people; or go on another, hopefully less doomed, whaling voyage. Becoming a space embryo is vaguer. What does an ascended energy being do, besides hassling starship captains? What has it learned that our puny human minds can comprehend? We don’t know what transcendence means; we’re just meant to be impressed these guys transcended. At worst the transcendent SF climax is the idea of wisdom without the specifics, an escapist fantasy for SFF fans who like to congratulate themselves on how much more expanded their minds are than everyone else’s.

So the human and Tyreean cast of Up the Walls of the World ascend to a new existence as pure minds. What’s interesting is that where other stories end there, Tiptree carries on well beyond that point.

“For though he was master of the world,” says 2001, “he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.” Up the Walls of the World says: Okay. So think of something, already. So you evolved. What do you do with that?[2] What’s transcendence for? One of Tiptree’s humans loses himself in a dream world. For a while the Tyreeans live in a virtual recreation of Tyree. But what’s the point of that existence?

Margaret, having taken control of the Saver, knows its crew needs a task. Possibilities flit through Dann’s mind in a rush of em-dashes: its powers can rescue endangered species, turn back and rerun time to save lost civilizations, stop wars. Tivonel, characteristically, wants to try everything. But the important thing is to engage with the world and contribute to the general struggle against entropy instead of retreating into self-absorption. Up the Walls of the World argues growth can be an end in itself but declaring it the end is a failure of imagination. Wisdom isn’t knowing the secrets of the universe; it’s knowing what to do with them.


“I’ll just be me,” thinks Dann, chagrined his cosmic transformation hasn’t granted wisdom: “But what new great necessities have I discovered, beyond the old necessity of kindness?”

On Tyree the Wall of the world is a giant stable windstorm, a mountain of air currents allowing the Tyreeans to climb high into the atmosphere. Only at the top of the Wall can Tyreean telepaths listen to other planets and, if sufficiently morally flexible, swap bodies with aliens.

The arc for these characters is about learning to go over the walls between people. Learning not to fear empathy. Dr. Dann spends the early chapters trying to be colder than he really is because he fears other people’s pain. In one of Tiptree’s more obvious metaphors, as a Tyreean Dann gains an empathic healing ability but has to feel his patients’ pain to heal them. Acknowledging others’ pain can be painful in itself, especially if we’re even indirectly implicated. And comprehending the reality of other people. Some Tyreeans are steal human bodies because to them the humans are supporting characters while they’re the protagonists. But this works the other way around: as an empathic being Dann understands “the reality of a different human world. A world in which he is a passing phenomenon, as she was in mine.” For a Tiptree story this thing is startlingly warm-hearted.

For the first time he has really grasped life’s most eerie lesson: The Other Exists. Cliché, he thinks dazedly. Cliché, like the big ones.

And, yeah, you understand why Dann isn’t that impressed by his own insights. Stated baldly, this is a cliché. Look at it one way and all Up the Walls of the World is saying is that people should be more patient with each other. Tiptree is almost apologizing here for abandoning her usual melancholy, like a goth embarrassed to be caught watching the Lawrence Welk Show. It’s like she’s asking: is this really all I’m saying?

I feel like I need to defend Up the Walls of the World from its own narrative. Stated baldly most moral insights—Dann’s “big ones”—sound like clichés. Any incompetent critic in a bad enough mood can reduce any novel to the bit at the end of the He-Man cartoon where Orko belabors the moral for the less attentive children. And some writing is satisfied with that. The equation of happiness with shallowness is itself a cliché, but it’s a cliché with some basis: the history of SFF is littered with stories written to soothe the reader with reassuring platitudes. (Although the problem isn’t only the stories telling us love conquers all, or the modern variations about how finding a properly affirming friend group solves everything—the hard SF story written to tell its readers how intelligent and tough-minded they are is the same candy, just in a different flavor.)

The real question is whether a story expects the reader to be satisfied with the platitude. And I think Up the Walls of the World passes that test. Whatever doubts the book puts in Dann’s mouth, this happy ending is hard-won; climbing those walls is difficult in ways UtWotW can only express in metaphors, not morals. As the novel ends not everyone’s problems have been solved. Again, the point of the last chapters is that transcendence means ongoing work.

Most stories circle around insights that are both profound and ordinary. Sometimes the difference between bad writing and good is simply that bad writing flattens eternal truths into cheap morals, while good writing finds complexity hidden under clichés.

  1. One of the literary aliens Wayne Douglas Barlowe illustrated for his book Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials.  ↩

  2. To be fair, in 2001 the novel, unlike the movie, the Star Child does do something, usefully vaporizing some weapons satellites.  ↩

On Travis Baldree’s Legends and Lattes


I often wish more fantasy novels would focus on ordinary lives. Literature in general is not about adventure, but about… well, life. What it means to be a person in the world, even (especially) an ordinary person who is not going to save it.

And then Travis Baldree’s Legends and Lattes came along. And I said, “No, not like that.”

I tried Legends and Lattes because it’s gotten buzz as a popular self-published book that got picked up by Tor. I finished it merely because it was so insubstantial finishing was as easy as quitting. This book has nothing to say. It feels like the work of an author unfamiliar with the idea novels can be more than descriptions of things happening. It is innocent of theme or subtext. (Well, not entirely innocent; there’s that “the real treasure is friendship” business beloved of children’s cartoons. But this is as close to the surface as a theme can be. And what kind of friendships are we talking about? We’ll get to that.)


Cover of Legends and Lattes

What Legends and Lattes describes happening is the opening of a coffee shop in a generic fantasy world. Viv, the protagonist and proprietor, is an orc who’s abandoned Dungeons & Dragons adventuring for peaceful entrepreneurship. Her business attracts a found family of employees, contractors, and customers. These include a succubus, a rat guy, and a legally distinct pseudo-hobbit. Legends and Lattes is a diverse book in terms of D&D races. If any of the human characters were nonwhite I don’t recall, but it does teach us not to stereotype succubi or gnomes.

Even sans theme this might have been logistically interesting: how does a coffee shop work in a world where “adventuring” is a career? How do you establish a business in a fantasy city? How do you rebuild a livery stable into a restaurant? How does an orc make coffee? Where does an orc get coffee? Alas, where the answers to these questions are not easy Legends and Lattes handwaves them. Most of the detail is decision-making, a series of brainstorms as Viv and friends invent the familiar amenities of a 21st century American coffee shop—iced coffee! Biscotti! Live music! Travel mugs! But what specific carpentry is needed to transform a stable into a shop? Well, Viv’s Hob friend handles that. How does the oven work in a city with no electricity or gas? That’s the rat chef’s business. How does Viv make coffee? A vaguely described machine does it. Both machine and coffee are delivered by an improbably reliable postal service for a low-tech, monster-strewn world. With shipping this convenient, it’s hard to believe no one but Viv has heard of coffee.

Tonally, the book feels like Terry Pratchett minus anything as unruly as jokes. Moments feel like they should be jokes, like when Viv, the orc living in a D&D world, posts a want ad including language like “food service experience desired,” “advancement opportunities,” and “wages commensurate.” But there’s no sense the book realizes this might be funny. It just assumes this is what want ads say the multiverse over.

As a tale of found family, the tone the book aims for is “heartwarming,” but it begs to be loved with such earnest seriousness it lands on “smarmy.” And something about the family Viv finds feels false: Her family includes employees, contractors, and customers, but not neighbors or coreligionists or people she meets through hobbies. Viv doesn’t have friends whose relation to her is not transactional. They’re the ones with the actual skills that make her business work while she organizes them. This is a workplace family, and Viv is the heart of the family because she’s everybody else’s manager.


Fans of Legends and Lattes call it cozy. We’ve all heard of cozy mysteries. Ask aficionados and they’ll tell you their attributes include an amateur detective, a small, close-knit community (a subculture, or a country house, or a literal small town), and a lack of sex, violence, or profanity. These remove… let’s say literary turbulence—features that make readers anxious. Amateur detectives are fun to identify with; they don’t have to follow annoying rules and don’t work for a corrupt carceral system. Close-knit communities feel insulated; troubling social issues seem distant if they come up at all. Draw a veil over the awe and terror of violence and the mystery becomes pure puzzle. And you also don’t have to read the word “shit.” If the appeal of mysteries is the restoration of order after trauma, the appeal of a cozy mystery is that you never feel trauma in the first place. What’s interesting is that cozies descend from and style themselves after “golden age” mysteries, but golden age mysteries were not cozies. Writers like Christie and Sayers were often out to trouble the reader.

Similarly, Legends and Lattes descends from the fantasy works that inspired Dungeons & Dragons, but without the mixed emotions and scary bits that are part of what made Tolkien, Lieber, or Moorcock memorable. Instead, this is genre as warm fuzzy blanket. Unlike almost everything else in this review, this is not a criticism; there’s a place for fuzzy blanket books. I just don’t think there’s any reason they can’t have ambitions along some other axis, even as they build a cozily familiar world.

Familiarity is definitely part of the coziness here. A world like a D&D game feels comfortably homey to a lot of geek-culture readers. Even many of us who’ve never played actual D&D have spent time with Baldur’s Gate, not to mention D&D-adjacent games like Dragon Age and Skyrim. Elfy-dwarfy stuff feels like visiting the old neighborhood. And, like Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age, where the world doesn’t need to be medieval or fantastical it feels contemporary. The characters are modern Americans in spirit, the better to identify with. (That’s important in a game!) Pratchett does this too, but where the Discworld books mixed modernisms and fantasy clichés with satiric intent Legends and Lattes is just worldbuilding by default. Pratchett was interested in how societies work and had serious criticisms about the ways in which they don’t. Legends and Lattes puts a fantasy filter on an idealized version of middle-class America, like a D&D Hallmark movie.

Even here, I’m not complaining. You could do something with this! It’s just that Legends and Lattes isn’t doing anything with this.

The real problems come in when you notice what parts of the world are left out—and, to return to a previous theme, what parts of the logistics of coffee.


A lot of books have worldbuilding which is technically, from a strictly logical perspective, bad. This is not a problem. Worldbuilding is part of how a story communicates its themes. If part of the world is effective theme-scaffolding it doesn’t need to make literal sense. I mean, Kafka’s good, right? And it’s not like he’s the most realistic world builder ever. (You’re a bug? How did that happen?)

But when a book has nothing going on but pedantic descriptions of the decision-making surrounding D&D world’s first coffee shop, I start wondering about the internal logic. And my biggest question is: how does this city work?

Seriously, who runs the place? Is there a city council? A monarch? We never learn what kind of government it has. Someone is maintaining kerosene streetlights and cleaning the streets. The water is clean. Sewage is taken away. The postal service implies safe and well-maintained roads, and a system to find addresses. We don’t know who or what runs any of this. A late disaster gives a brief glimpse of emergency services, but the book depicts them less as people and more as weather. There’s no sense the infrastructure of this society is maintained by anyone—it’s just there, like a natural resource.

What’s particularly striking is what Viv doesn’t need to do to build her business. She doesn’t need a business license; alternately, assuming a more medieval setup, she doesn’t need to join a merchant’s guild. No one makes sure she’s following building standards as she remodels. Her coffee shop doesn’t need to pass health inspections. No rules, whether laws or guild regulations, govern how she treats her employees. She doesn’t pay taxes. Opening a business is as simple as buying a building, remodeling, and hanging a sign.

The problem is the local crime boss, a woman named Madrigal who runs a protection racket. If Viv doesn’t pay a sizable monthly tribute something unpleasant will happen to her business or her employees. Exactly what isn’t specified; as organized crime goes, this is pretty G-rated. But everybody warns Viv Madrigal is serious. People who refuse to pay have regretted it.

Viv consults her old adventuring troupe. Paying is out of the question, but does she want to fight? Again, it’s interesting to see what isn’t suggested: nobody suggests going to a police department, city watch, or government agency of any kind. An American might assume the local police-equivalents are murderously corrupt and racist, but that’s not the problem. It’s also not that they can’t touch Madrigal, or that they only help the rich. They just don’t exist. Laws do not come up as a concept. It doesn’t occur to Viv or her friends that this city might have laws to protect its citizens’ rights, or provide recourse if they’re broken. The idea is outside their frame of reference.

It also doesn’t occur to anyone to band together with other victimized businesses and present a united front. Anyway, that would lead to all-out war, and Viv doesn’t want to pull her old sword down from the wall. The point of opening a shop was to stop being a person who waves swords around. Viv’s got her self-image to think of. Fighting Madrigal would eliminate a threat, but also eliminate Viv’s ability to regard herself as flawlessly moral.

So Viv cuts a deal with Madrigal, who turns out to be a nice old lady who will leave Viv alone in return for regular deliveries of cinnamon rolls. (I told you, this mob is really G-rated.) Just like that, Madrigal is part of the family and Viv is defending her: “some people might consider any of her crew to be assholes, just because of the nature of the business. But I don’t think that way… I’ve got respect for people who have to get their hands dirty to get things done. That’s just work.”

The only moral distinction Legends and Lattes makes is between nice people and “assholes.” You can run a protection racket and not be an asshole. You can smash up some hapless merchant’s shop or beat up his employees and not be an asshole. That’s just another job, like running a coffee shop. An asshole is someone who creates problems specifically for Viv or her friends, and can’t be bought off with cinnamon rolls. Madrigal is still soaking the other small business owners in town, or destroying their livelihoods, but Viv is okay and I guess that’s all we’re supposed to care about. Solidarity? Viv doesn’t know those people and doesn’t owe them anything.

What makes Legends and Lattes cozy, the reason it’s low-stress, is that the world does not make demands on its heroine. Viv has no obligations to anyone outside her chosen family. A found family is a refuge with both the power and the right to close the door on humanity and pull the ladder up after it.

Legends and Lattes has nothing to say. Unfortunately, that’s not the same thing as saying nothing. What it’s saying is a bit like something Margaret Thatcher once said: “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” As long as that includes found families, I think Legends and Lattes would agree with Margaret.

Olga Ravn, The Employees

There’s an obvious visual difference between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Where Kirk’s Enterprise looked like a sterile battleship, Picard’s looks like an office. Soothingly beige, carpeted, with comfy chairs and the occasional potted plant. (Most of the waiting rooms I’ve known in my life have felt very Enterprise D-ish, which is fine by me; who’d want to wait for their dental appointment in a battleship?).

It’s not just an office, of course. The Federation is meant to be a utopia, so the Enterprise is also a home and community. Everybody hangs out in the lounge, attends concerts and amateur drama, gets plenty of free time for hobbies. Everybody on Star Trek: The Next Generation has a great work-life balance.

Cover of The Employees

The Six Thousand Ship, the setting of Olga Ravn’s The Employees, is something else. Among the themes of The Employees is an approach to space travel I haven’t often seen: if a starship is a workplace, its crew has nothing but their workplace, floating in an empty void. It’s implied the Six Thousand Ship’s crew signed up for a one-way journey—it won’t return to Earth in the crew’s lifetimes. Much of the novel is an exploration of the psychological effects, the damage done when there’s literally nothing outside of “productivity.”

Space is the corporate dream: the one place your employees can’t walk off the job. Not if they want to keep breathing.

The Employees is structured as a series of statements to managers holding listening sessions to “gain knowledge of the local workflows.” The statements are anonymous. We rarely hear a name. The protagonist is the whole crew. Given SFF’s emphasis on worldbuilding, it’s weird it doesn’t do fictional mass observation more often. Adventure stories or bildungsromans starring singular heroes are the default, to the point the average SFF fan might think The Employees is more experimental than it really is. SFF tells stories about different worlds, but defaults to focusing on how those differences affect a singular, special, hero as they chase self-actualization. Even SFF novels with multiple POV characters (i.e., A Game of Thrones) often feel less like social novels than like multiple hero stories broken up and braided together. The Employees is instead a portrait of a society.

Toiling alongside the human employees are “humanoids,” artificial workers indistinguishable from humans. (We often don’t know whether a statement is made by a human or a humanoid.) Humanoids were built to work. They don’t know Earth, they have no experience of anything but employment. One is baffled to hear a human colleague say there’s more to a person than their work: “what else could a person be?”

The human employees find themselves nostalgic for everything they had on Earth—family, nature, shopping. They sound surprised. These weren’t feelings they’d expected to have. Some employees keep simulated holographic children as substitute family. Eggs are a recurring image. One employee dreams about tiny spheres like fish eggs breaking out of their skin. In the real world human employees come down with cases of warts, like the dream is trying incompetently to come true. The humans disappear into their roles, becoming interchangeable parts: “As long as you’re in the suit and pass through the corridor to be cleansed, you’re the first officer.” Later there’s a mutiny and the ship’s funeral director doesn’t know how to respond as anything but a funeral director: “I haven’t always felt that my capabilities were being utilized to the full.”

In this environment employees’ full potential as people goes unused and unusable—humans and humanoids both.

As I write this internet junkies have gathered to morbidly gawk at the train wreck that is Elon Musk’s Twitter, which he is running like the world’s drunkest railway signalman. Paid verifications let pranksters pose as his advertisers! People can’t log in because he turned off the two-factor authentication server! He’s getting dangerously close to violating the GDPR!

Most relevantly, as soon as Musk bought Twitter he laid off half the work force, on the theory that anybody left could just work harder. Many have. One proudly posted a photo of herself sleeping at the office, which provoked horror but also some cheering from Musk fans, one declaring “This is how great new things are built.” Which… they’re built badly, but, yeah, this is how a lot of the tech industry works. It’s a standard part of the stereotype: clownish startups filling their headquarters with cereal bars and foosball tables in a vainly half-assed effort to take the edge off long days in the office. Video games are built on “crunch.” Musk demanded his ever-shrinking pool of workers sign a loyalty oath declaring their willingness to be “extremely hardcore” which means working “long hours at high intensity.” The workplace comes first. (Nothing outside of productivity.) In a development that surprised Musk and absolutely no one else, most of the remaining employees took severance instead. That’s where space comes in!

The humanoids suspect something is missing. The humans who identify with their jobs are suffering cognitive dissonance over a bad and irrevocable career choice. Having no past to look back on gives the humanoids time to look at their present, and they’re not sure they want to be tools. At the same time they’re growing their curiosity and optimism as fast as the humans lose it. The company can upload and redownload the humanoids’ minds; they’re likely to survive after the humans are gone. Maybe they’ll someday see Earth. Maybe they can survive on the alien planet the Six Thousand Ship has been studying. “I may have been made,” says one, “but now I’m making myself.”

The statements keep circling back to “the objects,” artifacts from the planet, which hold a strange fascination for the crew. They’re called “the objects” because nobody knows what else they could be. They look like eggs, or tubes, or stones. Sometimes they feel alive. “It’s a dangerous thing for an organization not to be sure which of the objects in its custody may be considered to be living,” says one person. They could be talking about the objects, or the humanoids, or the whole crew.

The objects are the reason The Employees was written in the first place—if you want to get metafictional, you might say they were there at the creation of the crew’s universe. The objects are based on the work of a sculptor named Lea Guldditte Hestelund who asked Olga Ravn to write a text for an exhibition, which became The Employees. The novel mentions the Six Thousand Ship has white walls and orange and gray floors. So does the museum space in the photos at the site I just linked. We’re probably meant to visualize the ship as resembling the real-world museum.

The crew doesn’t understand their own feelings towards the objects; they’re both attracted and disquieted. (A quietly throbbing egg is not as straightforward as a foosball table.) Maybe the objects, in their sheer inscrutability, are envoys from outside the bounds of the crew’s imagination. If these objects are beyond understanding or conception, what other possibilities are they missing? The crew who’ve experienced life outside of work, who know what they’ve lost in moving to a world of pure productivity, are making their imaginations smaller to adjust. It’s that or stop breathing.

“I think you need to imagine a future and then live in it,” says one crew member.

Have I mentioned Elon Musk is the guy who wants to run a Mars colony? I think he’d get takers. Americans are carving away at their imaginations as you read this.

Microworlds and All Systems Red

Recent Reading 2022–01


Cover of Microworlds

In 1973, the Science Fiction Writers of America gave Stanislaw Lem an honorary membership. In 1976, they found an excuse to take it away. They’d found out what Lem thought of science fiction, and SFF culture is deeply petty. Lem was one of the genre’s harshest critics and Microworlds is 280 pages of what the SFWA was reacting to.

What’s striking about Microworlds is how relevant it feels, though it was published forty years ago and collects essays that are even older. A running theme is Lem’s belief that science fiction’s pulp roots—in his view, its status as a commercial genre—holds it back. One point he keeps coming back to is that science fiction is intensely conformist in the kinds of stories it tells; most defaults to adventure stories or detective stories, and the resulting novels lack the tools to grapple with the bigger themes they gesture towards. And, yeah… this is a phenomenon I’m familiar with even from current SFF.

And Lem calls fans out on that two-step maneuver where they insist science fiction is important literature—maybe the most important literature of all—but when it’s subjected to serious criticism they pull back and insist it’s just entertainment and the critics are being pretentious. SFF fans pull this one out on a regular basis to this day. Fandom likes to congratulate themselves on how much SFF has evolved, but the truth is today’s SFF has a lot of the same problems it had back in the “golden age.”

All Systems Red

Speaking of not grappling with themes…

Cover of All Systems Red

Martha Wells’ Murderbot series has snagged a couple of Hugo awards. In early 2022 I decided I should finally get around to reading the first book, All Systems Red. (Yes, it’s been that long since I took notes for this review.) It’s fine, I guess. It’s entertaining on the same level as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche or one of the better Star Trek novels. I’d have been more impressed if that were what I’d expected going in. SFF grade inflation strikes again.

This is one of the many SFF novels that don’t recognize their own best ideas, or push them far enough. Murderbot is a “SecUnit,” ostensibly a security robot, though in fact it’s (it goes by “it”) a human being with cyborg parts. Murderbot loves television. All it wants to do is watch television and it’s constantly telling us how it spends every spare moment on its shows. But it doesn’t tell us what its favorite shows are like. This is a large and weird narrative hole. First, a chance for fun metafictional commentary on science fiction is left on the table. More importantly, this is a missed opportunity to characterize both the narrator and its world. What stories does Murderbot gravitate to? What kind of stories get told? (Or what kind of propaganda? Because corporations are in charge here and, as in our world, TV is corporate IP.) How are this world’s stories different from our stories, in broad outline or in detail? How does Murderbot’s life differ from the clichés? We don’t find out.

Which means they effectively aren’t different. All Systems Red leans on the reader’s knowledge of what television looks like to fill in the gap. This is admirably baldfaced pandering—Murderbot’s a media fan, just like you! (It reminds me of how so many musicals are about musicals, because the one topic the entire audience is certain to care about is musicals.) But the whole book feels sketched in. We don’t get a sense of what the protagonists’ spaceship or habitat module is like because we’re assumed to already have usable mental models for “spaceship” and “sci-fi base.” We don’t know what Murderbot’s armor looks like because we have a mental model for “space armor.” No good novel catalogs every detail of every environment, but they will offer surprising or thematically relevant details to pull readers away from our mental defaults. Here we’re working with our defaults.

The human characters are an indistinguishable mass. There’s a sympathetic one, a paranoid one, and some other ones. The book could be doing this on purpose to signal Murderbot’s disinterest, but it’s hard to tell.

All Systems Red is one of those books that start in media res with an action scene. These openings make it hard to care what’s happening. We don’t know yet who anyone is, or what world they live in, and can’t put the action in context. It feels like All Systems Red never gives enough context. The narration is a bald and mechanically paced description of events in a generic first person that could easily be converted to third person (a popular default style in contemporary SFF). This happened, then this, then this. Murderbot only narrates what’s happening right now; the structure of the novel doesn’t let it think back or stop to contemplate.

This could be clever, because the book works like a recap of a TV episode where events play out at a steady pace and what isn’t “on screen” isn’t important. But I’m not sure the book is doing this thoughtfully. One important event in Murderbot’s past needed more exploration. This event would have been a traumatic turning point in its life. It would be the first thing to affect how anyone who knew of it thought of Murderbot. But after a brief initial allusion the book mentions this event only a couple of times, briefly, when it comes up in dialogue. The book’s straight-ahead moment-to-moment style doesn’t allow exploration of Murderbot’s past, and doesn’t allow introspection. Murderbot thinks about one of the most significant moments of its life slightly more often than it thinks about rutabagas, and with similar emotional weight.

The end reveals the entire novel was a letter from Murderbot to another character explaining its decision to strike out on its own, rejecting both the security corporation and the second-class citizenship experienced by free cyborgs. But until the reveal the novel doesn’t read like a letter, and at no point does it read like a letter meant to explain anything. Murderbot describes events but rarely has opinions on them beyond mild annoyance at anything that isn’t television. Until the decisive moment all it seems to want is to slide through life with minimal awkwardness or responsibility. The novel never feels like an argument for why Murderbot would make this risky and uncertain decision now, as opposed to any other point in its life. Murderbot has an epiphany just because there’s one scheduled for the end of the novel.

All Systems Red doesn’t explain what it claims to be explaining. It’s more like… well, we can see it’s wrong for SecUnits to be second-class citizens, and we’re meant to identify with Murderbot, so it should be able to see what we do. So we fill in the book’s argument like we filled in the nature of the spaceships and the armor and the planet this all happened on. This book is not about what it wants to be about in any meaningful way.

I’m normally happy when a book hands me implications and asks me to fill in the gaps, but it doesn’t feel like All Systems Red is implying anything. What’s explicit is meant to be enough.

This is not exactly a review of All Systems Red. I mean, it is, but I wouldn’t have bothered to write it if I didn’t have these exact frustrations with so much other science fiction and fantasy. So much popular SFF is so thin. (And by no means am I only talking about current SFF here—but the older thin books are no longer popular.)

It’s not that the All Systems Reds of SFF are bad books. They’re skilled, professional novels. But it feels like that skill and professionalism is focused on streamlining books down to nothing more than a plot and a moral, precision-engineering away any accidental subtext or ambiguity. The resulting novels have skins, and skeletons, but not much of a heart.

Adolfo Bioy Casares, Asleep in the Sun

For the last few months I’ve let my blog lay silent, as happens from time to time. I had covid in December of last year and the time I spent resting put the brakes on my momentum. My attention span also hasn’t been great, so it’s taken me this long to return to blogging.

To get started again I plan to finish a few reviews I took notes towards months ago. This is one of them.

Cover of Asleep in the Sun

Asleep in the Sun is the last Adolfo Bioy Casares book readily available in English I’d yet to read. (There are more, but they’re out of print. Someday I’ll hunt down secondhand copies.) Bioy Casares was a friend and colleague of Jorge Luis Borges, the husband of Silvina Ocampo, and the author of The Invention of Morel, which I’m convinced is one of the most significant yet undervalued science fiction novels of the 1940s. Asleep in the Sun doesn’t reach those heights, but it’s good.

Bioy Casares benefitted from a publishing environment that didn’t categorize books too rigidly. The novel starts as a domestic comedy only to turn into a science fiction story about a mad scientist in what feels like an abrupt swerve. But the SF plot is there from the beginning, unrecognized by the narrator. Bioy Casares has a talent for laying unnoticed threads, then pulling them together into an unexpected plot.

(Spoilers follow. As with Morel, this is a book where you might want your first reading to surprise you.)

Our narrator is Lucio Bordenave. It’s way too easy to talk Lucio into things against his better judgement. He works at a bank but repairs clocks as a side hustle. If the foreman of the Lorenzutti factory wants Lucio to repair the factory clock he may say “I wouldn’t take it for a hundred dollars,” but he’ll wind up working on it.

And when his wife Diana’s friend, a dog trainer, insists she’s unstable and needs a stay in the local mental hospital Lucio senses this is a bad idea, but Diana’s gone before he knows it. And he goes along when her physically identical (but temperamentally different) sister moves in, and when the trainer presents him with a dog coincidentally named Diana. Two Diana-substitutes. Despite their good qualities neither is adequate.

Diana is the one thing Lucio is firm on: he loves her unreservedly, though she treats Lucio with contempt and causes no end of trouble—recently her attempts to “help” Lucio got him fired from his job at the bank. This relationship doesn’t seem good for Lucio, but that’s his call. The thing is, Diana isn’t mentally ill—just touchy and temperamental and unhappy. She is, in short, difficult. That’s what bothers Dr. Samaniego at the institute.

Late in the book, we learn Dr. Samaniego isn’t really a psychiatrist, or at least not a good one—he doesn’t have the empathy to do the job. It’s possible none of his patients are actually ill. Dr. Samaniego doesn’t treat disturbed people. He treats people who disturb everybody else. The patient’s experience and everyone else’s experience of the patient are all the same to him. He wants people to be peaceful, tranquil, like a dog sleeping in the sun. Which turned out to be a good metaphor to have on hand when he discovered the physical location of the human soul, and figured out how to transplant it into other bodies. Like dogs. Dr. Samaniego’s rest cure involves literally “plunging into animality.”

And once you have the soul out of its body that opens up other solutions for “disturbance.” See, people are fungible. Interchangeable parts in a big machine. Dr. Samaniego can take people who doesn’t fit and move them to new bodies and new lives where they’ll fit better. He can’t make people well, but he can make people convenient. He’ll return Diana’s body to Lucio with a different, more compatible soul.

Everyone but Lucio is delighted with the new Diana. He notices she doesn’t remember things she should remember; he catches her going through photos and family trees to get up to speed on her own life. More importantly, she’s not herself. Only Lucio cares enough to notice, which means Lucio is beginning to present Dr. Samaniego with difficulties.

As James Sallis’ introduction to the NYRB Classics edition points out, all this feels like a gently comedic take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And as with Jack Finney’s novel you can read this as a political metaphor. Bioy Casares was an Argentine writer and published Asleep in the Sun in 1973, right before the beginning of the “Dirty War” in which the government disappeared thousands of people. At this point Argentina had been ruled by a military junta since 1966. It’s not hard to imagine why Bioy Casares might have chosen this moment to write a novel setting love for unique and irreplaceable, if troublesome, individuals up against an authority that sees them as machine parts to be swapped out if they throw the gears out of alignment. Or why it’s dangerous to be the person who notices, or cares.

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:


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.