Teffi, Other Worlds

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

Cover of Other Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Possession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Disenchantment of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things Falling Apart

So, to recap, we’ve seen:

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

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

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

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

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

Cover of Nightwings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1970

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

The stories nominated for both awards were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Story it’s Not True For

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1969

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

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

1969

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

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

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

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

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

Hawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting or Not Getting It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Hell, SFF?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh dear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1968

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

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

1968

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

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

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

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

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

Safe Visions

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

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

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

Cover of Dangerous Visions

Dangerous Visions

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

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

How this worked out in practice…

Secretions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

And Yet: Style!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Mention the War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye, and Gomorrah”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1967

In the first part of this series I described Harlan Ellison’s authorial persona as a guy who’d walk up to people who hadn’t even noticed him and shout “What are you looking at?” This also describes science fiction/fantasy fans who carry gigantic chips on their shoulders about SFF’s respectability, or lack of it. One time somebody suggested they read something besides The Lord of the Rings, and it scarred them for life. In one breath they dismiss “literary fiction” as nothing more than stories written by obsolete old men about professors sleeping with their students. In the next they insist fantasy is just as good as literary fiction, dammit. Nothing can satisfy them: SFF dominates pop culture. Science fiction is taught in college courses. Octavia Butler and Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin have been canonized by the Library of America. Still science fiction fandom lies awake worrying that, somewhere, a junior high English teacher is sneering at them.

Some years they deserve the sneers.

For instance:

1967

In 1967, three novels made both the Hugo and Nebula shortlists were Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, and Samuel R. Delany’s Babel–17. Babel–17 is a classic novel by one of SFF’s greatest authors. Flowers for Algernon is fondly remembered even by people who aren’t into science fiction. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is… um, a Heinlein novel.

But we’re concerned with short fiction. Here’s the list of double nominees, with executive summaries. You’ll notice it’s longer than the previous year’s. In 1967 almost the entire Nebula ballot also received Hugo nominations, the one exception being a story by Avram Davidson called “Clash of the Star-Kings.”

  • Brian Aldiss, “Man in His Time”: An astronaut returns from Mars shifted three minutes into everyone else’s future.
  • Gordon R. Dickson, “Call Him Lord” (Won the Nebula for Novelette): A bodyguard takes the crown prince of the galactic empire on a tour of Earth, which is maintained as an Amish-style low-tech cultural reserve.
  • Robert M. Green, Jr., “Apology to Inky”: A composer goes home to visit an old girlfriend and has visions of his younger self.
  • Charles L. Harness, “The Alchemist”: A chemical company discovers an alchemist on the payroll.
  • Charles L. Harness, “An Ornament to His Profession”: A chemical company discovers a demonologist on the payroll.
  • Hayden Howard, “The Eskimo Invasion”: You really don’t want to know.
  • Richard McKenna, “The Secret Place” (Won the Nebula for Short Story): A geologist looking for a uranium mine in the desert during World War 2 meets Helen, an eccentric young woman with a connection to the land that seems to reach back to prehistory.
  • Bob Shaw, “Light of Other Days”: “Slow glass” delays light that passes through it, allowing windows that show scenes from years past. A couple buying a pane discovers the seller has a secret.
  • Jack Vance, “The Last Castle” (Won the Hugo for Novelette and the Nebula for Novella.): In the far future, decadent humans who’ve enslaved four alien species face consequences.
  • Roger Zelazny, “This Moment of the Storm”: A cop lives through a hundred-year flood on an alien planet and gets to shoot some looters.

The science fiction world in 1967 agreed with remarkable unanimity that these were the finest science fiction stories of 1966.

They’re mostly shit.

Okay, One I Liked

I’m being a bit unfair. “Apology to Inky,” “The Secret Place,” and “Light of Other Days” are very good and not out of place on an award shortlist, although my personal reaction to them was amiable indifference. “An Ornament to His Profession” is great and memorably weird. It opens with patent lawyer Conrad Patrick contemplating the problems waiting at work. He has a dubious contract to write. Also, an employee applied for a patent on an invention he cribbed from a student thesis he now can’t find or identify, which the company wants to co-opt or bury. Patrick recently lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and work is all that’s keeping him grounded. The scene is a genuinely good and sensitive treatment of depression and eroded self-esteem.

So he meets with the people involved in the patent and the contract. The contract guy abruptly starts explaining how he summoned the devil.

Wait, what?

If you think back you remember when Patrick was thinking of the contract he thought about selling someone’s soul. In context, it sounded like a figure of speech. But no: this chemist wants to sell his soul to get a new production process working. After all, in some sense isn’t everyone in the company selling some essential part of themselves? Patrick thinks the chemist needs to see the company psychiatrist, but he also needs to keep the guy happy because the new process is worth a lot of money. Also the chemist knows hypnosis, so, hey, maybe he can help the patent guy remember the name on that thesis. And both plots come together in this strange and ambiguous image, and questions about what it means and what Patrick really values. “An Ornament to His Profession” is uncanny and ambivalent and the best discovery I made reading these stories.

Those others, though…

Decadent Castles and Virtuous Villages

Well, last time I had praise for “The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth,” but “The Moment of the Storm” shows the limits of Roger Zelazny’s ability to punch up a banal story with great prose. It’s overlong and has little to say beyond clichés about disasters unleashing people’s worst selves. “The Alchemist” is about nothing. Like a lot of bad SF, it takes a premise and plays out the consequences but manages to avoid saying anything thematically beyond “Look at this premise!” It doesn’t even have any interesting accidental subtext. (It’s weird that two similarly-premised stories in the same series, starring the same characters, by the same writer are at opposite ends of the quality spectrum.) “Man in His Time” has interesting ideas and goes in unexpected directions but is let down by basic conceptual flaws.

I suppose I should deal with the winners. “The Secret Place” is a perfectly fine story that feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone with a happier-than-normal ending. I find I don’t have a lot to say about it in isolation.

Cover of magazine featuring The Last Castle

“The Last Castle” is Jack Vance, so if nothing else it has style. Here are all Vance’s hallmarks—entertainingly amoral characters, surface-polite verbal fencing, baroque vocabulary—and he deploys them as wittily as always. But the sweet spot for Vance is a battle of wits between charming con artists. Here he’s trying to write about fatuous aristocrats realizing, or failing to realize, their civilization is built on a great crime. As good as he is at his usual business, Vance doesn’t have the specific chops he needs to develop this situation convincingly. So he stumbles into a rushed and far too neat ending. The humans repatriate the aliens and leave their castle to live in simple villages, and this is somehow all the redemption necessary. This is juvenile. “The Last Castle” doesn’t have the tools to deal honestly with its theme, and the story doesn’t bear up under its moral weight.

Vance is always at least readable, though I find if I read too much of his stuff at once it gets repetitive. Gordon R. Dickson… well, the words are spelled correctly, and he doesn’t make obvious grammatical errors, and there’s nothing to stop you from reading his stuff very fast so at least it’s over quick.

I wasn’t even born yet in 1967 and as I write I’m actually kind of angry that “Call Him Lord” won a Nebula. In 1967, a room full of professional SFF writers and alleged adults agreed “Call Him Lord” was the best SFF novella anyone had written in the last year. And it’s a bad story. And I’m not saying it’s immoral here, which is what SFF fans usually mean when they call a story bad—though I’ll be saying it in a few paragraphs, because its politics are in fact lousy. What I mean is that, judged merely on its technical merits as fiction, “Call Him Lord” is incompetent.

The hero is a plastic He-Man, simple, honest, and tough. The prince is a sneering, whining wastrel impossibly devoid of common sense and self-preservation. They’re both exactly who they appear to be the first time we see them and do not at any point reveal new depths. The hero’s briefly-glimpsed wife Just Doesn’t Understand, begging him not to go before falling into his arms crying:

Ever since the sun had first risen on men and women together, wives had clung to their husbands at times like this, begging for what could not be. And always the men had held them, as Kyle was holding her now—as if understanding could somehow be pressed from one body into the other—and saying nothing, because there was nothing that could be said.

Have they, though? Because there’s nothing convincing about this scene. (It doesn’t even make sense in context: as it turns out, Kyle’s job isn’t that dangerous.) Gordon R. Dickson writes like he’s never met a human but is trying to understand them by cobbling together pulp clichés. There is not one honest insight or accurate observation of human behavior anywhere in the story.

For science fiction “Call Him Lord” is weirdly regressive. “Call Him Lord” is about how rough, simple people are superior to decadent civilized folk. Earth sticks to 19th-century technology with just a few carefully selected modern devices. The worldbuilding is vague but you get the sense this is an agrarian society. Dickson is looking to the past for his ideals, not the future. And there’s a parallel in “The Last Castle”—Vance’s good humans reject not only slavery but also technology like radios and solar power. They live in rural villages and have a gendered division of labor, men chopping wood and women gathering berries. And the society they walked away from was already archaic, having reinvented feudalism. These stories are examples of a strand of back-to-the-land science fiction more interested in resurrecting old technologies and social structures than inventing new ones. The people who’ve adopted those old ways are often depicted as stronger, more honest and more rugged.

There’s an uncomfortable eugenic subtext here which in “Call Him Lord” becomes text. Earth is kept in technological and social stasis to maintain healthy human genetic stock in case human colonists—who are said to have wiped out at least one alien species—lose something “essential” living on other planets. Whatever that essential something is, the prince doesn’t have it. At the end of the story Kyle kills him for being a “coward.”

And I haven’t even gotten to the real turd in the punchbowl.

This Is It, Folks, the Worst Hugo and Nebula Nominee Ever

I said you don’t want to know, but I guess we’d better deal with it. In “The Eskimo Invasion” an anthropologist visits a previously unnoticed Inuit tribe who have a lot of children and say things like “Good dream protect us from bad ice. Good dream help you like us better tomorrow.” They really want to be liked. The anthropologist sleeps with a woman, because he’s a cad. (There’s a very weird paragraph where he thinks about how his “only” sexual experiences were with a long run-on sentence full of women.) In less than a month, the woman has had his baby. And this tribe worships a bear spirit who will come “when we have covered the world for him!”

“The Eskimo Invasion” may be the single most racist science fiction story ever to get a major award nomination. It is literally nothing more than fascist, white supremacist paranoia about being outbred. And the SFF community of 1967 nominated it for a Hugo and a Nebula. And the next year Hayden Howard expanded it and some sequels into a fixup novel, and they nominated it for a Nebula again.

You may have noticed the writers listed at the top of the post are all male. Apart from Samuel Delany, they’re also all white. One of the biggest factors keeping science fiction and fantasy from becoming fully adult genres—and I don’t think we’re there yet—is that their core is organized around a small, insular fandom culture. Science fiction writers, editors, and fans read the same magazines and attend the same conventions and writing workshops; writers usually start as fans. Editors rarely make an effort to look past fandom for new voices and other points of view.

This has consequences. The relevant one here is that in 1967 the genre was very hostile to women and to anyone who wasn’t white. Organized fandom grew out of clubs that were mostly white and male. Ideas like “don’t sexually harass people” were not on their radar. Meanwhile the SFF world’s insularity meant a single editor could gain an outsized influence and set much of the tone for the science fiction genre. As bad luck would have it that editor was the notoriously racist John W. Campbell. So there was hardly anyone to push back when writers and fans nominated Howard’s story.

Reading “The Last Castle” in this light I can’t help noticing the ending suggests fixing a monstrously racist society is easy. Jack Vance’s privileged humans wash themselves clean just by walking away. No further reparations are due. I’m not condemning Vance here, because amoral characters were his thing and it normally works for him. But you have to wonder what about that story might have appealed to the same people who liked “The Eskimo Invasion.”

So, Moving On

Besides racism, what other themes appealed to SFF fans in 1967?

Seeing through time. Slow glass slows the light that passes through it, showing images from years past. In “The Secret Place” Helen’s personal fairyland incorporates visions of other geologic eras. The hero of “Apology to Inky” sees himself as a small boy and a young man. Jack Westermark in “Man in His Time” exists three minutes into the future; from his perspective everyone else is three minutes slow.

What’s interesting is that this is all nostalgia—no one is looking into the future. “Apology to Inky” ends in a meeting with the hero’s older self, but otherwise everyone sees only the past. Meanwhile the people in “The Last Castle” and “Call Him Lord” have returned to older technologies and social structures. The colony in “This Moment of the Storm” resembles “the mid-nineteenth century in the American southwest.” The chemists in “The Alchemist” and “An Ornament to His Profession” revive prescientific ideas, reinventing alchemy and magic.

In 2001 Judith Berman wrote an essay called “Science Fiction Without the Future” arguing that science fiction had turned away from trying to imagine the future, instead indulging in nostalgia for the past. In 2012 Paul Kincaid made a similar argument in an essay called “The Widening Gyre”, calling science fiction “exhausted” because it had “lost confidence in the future.” It turns out this was nothing new: science fiction fans in 1967 were looking backwards.

Dead wives. If the people in these stories are nostalgic, it might be because their wives are all dead. Mr. Hagan the slow glass salesman lost his wife and son in a car accident and spends his days watching their images through his slow glass windows. Conrad Patrick, the protagonist of “An Ornament to His Profession,” also lost his wife and child in a car accident. The narrator of “This Moment of the Storm” lost a wife back on Earth and loses his fiancé at the end of the story. If you find yourself in 1967 don’t marry a science fiction man!

Alienated astronauts. Space travel is a fundamental science fiction trope, usually one fans get excited about. But “This Moment of the Storm” and “Man in His Time” are ambivalent about space travel; it’s not exciting but alienating. “This Moment” doesn’t have faster-than-light travel. Space travelers are put in suspended animation and wake up at their new planet centuries later. It’s a one-way trip into the future and once you leave your planet you’re forever out of sync with everyone else. The narrator has moved planets several times. He’s always looking for the perfect place that might exist the next solar system over, and failing to connect with where he is.

In “Man in His Time” every planet has its own local time. When Jack comes back to Earth he’s stuck in Mars time, three minutes into the future. One of the conceptual flaws I mentioned earlier is that it’s never clear how this works. Other people can bump into the place he was standing three minutes ago, and when he reads a magazine he needs help turning pages, but he seems to have no trouble eating or wearing clothes. He answers questions three minutes before anyone asks them. From his perspective, when he asks a question he has to wait three minutes for the answer.

What happens next is unexpected: Jack starts thinking of himself as a superman—everyone else is so slow. Soon he’s a megalomaniac. He plans more expeditions and thinks of himself as the first of a new breed. Meanwhile his condition baffles his wife, and his mother keeps thinking of her husband who killed himself driving too fast. (“This progress thing. Bob so crazy to get round the next bend first, and now Jack…”) Interestingly, the story ends here in unresolved mutual incomprehension. As humans move into space they’ll move into their own time-streams, getting further and further apart until they can’t understand or interact with each other at all.

But here we also come to the bigger conceptual problem. Jack’s mother says, “Jack is so strange, I wonder at nights if men and women aren’t getting more and more apart in thought and in their ways with every generation—you know, almost like separate species. My generation made a great attempt to bring the two sexes together in equality and all the rest, but it seems to have come to nothing.” A scientist studying Jack tells his wife, “You could not think what you suggest because that is not in your nature; just as it is not in your nature to consult your watch intelligently, just as you always ‘leave aside the figures,’ as you say. No, I’m not being personal; it’s all very feminine and appealing in a way.” “Man in His Time” mixes its alienation with gratuitous gender essentialism, suggesting an unbridgeable gap between men and women. Men are egotistical but forward-looking and scientific, women are down-to-earth but imprecise. Obviously this is problematic, but the sexism is as much as anything an aesthetic problem. This theme isn’t based on accurate insight into how people work, but on received ideas about men and women. Like “The Last Castle,” “Man in His Time” lacks emotional truth. It’s possible for a story to reflect a writer’s bad ideas while still being on the whole good, but in this case the gender essentialism is lodged too deep in the story’s core and it sinks the whole thing.

Quiet Stories. The one thing I like about the 1967 shortlists is that they have room for stories about ordinary people dealing with ordinary human problems that just happen to be tied up with fantastic concepts: grief, loneliness, how people find meaning in their lives. There’s not enough of this in SFF. The genre loves superhuman characters and dangerous, high-risk problems. It often pays only desultory attention to the kind of ordinary human concerns that make stories relatable and relevant. “Light of Other Days” is a perfect example: where other SF stories take a new invention and build an absurd conspiracy or an adventure around it, Bob Shaw asked how slow glass might actually be used by real people. His answer was logical, inevitable, and devastatingly sad.

Sort of fantasy, but not really. Some of these stories, like “The Alchemist” or “The Last Castle,” have what look like fantasy premises under a science fiction veneer. Other fantastic stories, like “Apology to Inky” or “An Ornament to His Profession,” leave it ambiguous whether the fantasy elements are happening in reality or in the characters’ heads. In the sixties Lord of the Rings was only just out in paperback and fantasy barely existed as a marketing category. Writers who wanted their work to sell tended to slap a sci-fi façade over their fantasy stories.

One useful substitute for magic was “psionics.” For a modern reader “The Alchemist” has a weird tone; everybody throws the word “psi” around like it’s an unproven but familiar idea. This makes more sense when you realize John W. Campbell published the story in Analog. Campbell really believed in psychic powers; building a story around them was a good way to get his attention.

A Small World

I said earlier the SFF world in 1967 was insular. I’m not letting modern SFF off the hook, here. It’s no longer actively exclusionary—Award nominees these days are as likely to be all women as all men. The fandom that nominated “The Eskimo Invasion” is dying, though maybe not dead. But SFF is still a small world that rarely looks beyond itself. SFF writers and editors still attend all the same workshops and conventions, still mostly read each other’s stuff, and still generally come up from fandom. The main effect is that the genre is still aesthetically conservative—SFF tends to stick to a limited range of styles and subjects.

And it still has, to put it gently, variable standards. The quality of modern awards shortlists still swing wildly, mixing brilliant, worthy nominees with baffling mediocrities. Both in 1967 and today, I get the sense people nominate stories based on whether they feel good, but make no distinction between work that feels good because it’s moving or mind-expanding, and work that feels good because it flatters their preconceptions, presses their buttons, and doesn’t challenge them to grow. The fandom that nominated stories as ordinary as “The Alchemist” and “This Moment of the Storm” is alive and well.

So I love SFF, but unlike the fans I described way back at the top of the post I don’t blame people who think it’s not Literature. After all, when they look at the genre and find that, year after year, major awards have gone to stories on the level of “Call Him Lord” and “The Last Castle”—work that is flat out not up to the maturity and complexity of the stuff in the Literary Fiction aisles—what the hell else are they supposed to think?

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1966

The science fiction and fantasy genres love awards. They have two big ones, the Hugos and the Nebulas, and both hand out trophies for short stories, novels, novellas, and novelettes, the last two being stories longer than short stories but shorter than novels. You might ask, “Science Fiction, why do you need two words for stories bigger than short stories but shorter than novels? Why can’t you get by with one?” Listen, these people love trophies, okay?

It’s surprising how often these award winners drop out of sight. Not so much the novels, although there are definitely Hugo and Nebula winning novels whose stars have fallen. But pretty much all short SFF feels immediately irrelevant. A story wins a Hugo, or a Nebula, and next year it’s just… not part of the conversation anymore. Well, okay, short stories in any genre haven’t been popular for decades. And the extent to which there’s a cultural conversation around written SFF at all isn’t great. But when people do talk about short SFF they’re usually talking about short SFF still new enough to nominate for something. As soon as award season is over it drops off the radar.

So I’ve been looking for some direction for my reading, and I thought it might be interesting to read some older SFF award winners, most of which I haven’t read in many years if at all. Specifically, stories that made the shortlists for both the Hugos and the Nebulas. These are popular awards, but popular within a subculture. The Hugos are voted on by the few hundred or thousand SFF fans who attend science fiction conventions, and the Nebulas are voted by members of a professional group, the Science Fiction Writers of America. So these awards don’t quite represent the tastes of the much larger group of readers who will pick up some fantasy novels at the library but aren’t interested in arranging their social lives around them. Still, the overlap between the two shortlists is probably a decent guide to what made an impression on readers at the time. Do they hold up, or are they deservedly forgotten? We’ll see.

A few notes on this series:

  1. This project will cover novellas, novelettes, and short stories, and few if any novels. Including novels would involve a lot of reading. More to the point, it would involve reading a lot of books life is too short to read again, or at all.
  2. I’ll only write in detail about joint winners, or other stories I find interesting. Otherwise future posts will be broad summaries of whatever themes I noticed in that year’s stories.
  3. The series will be written slowly and posted irregularly, and will continue until I get bored or distracted. I’ve got to be honest, I may not get out of the 1960s here. I’ll stop before I reach the 2010s in any case, since it’s harder to have critical perspective on writing from the last decade.
  4. I can’t promise it will be comprehensive. I’m an amateur critic writing for my own amusement, and if I have trouble finding a story I’m only willing to go to so much trouble and expense to track it down.

That said, let’s start with:

1966

1966, the first year Nebulas were awarded, makes for an easy start: only two stories were both Hugo and Nebula nominees (along with Frank Herbert’s Dune in the novel category; it won the Nebula and tied with Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal for the Hugo). That might seem hard to believe given the Nebulas’ overstuffed first-year shortlists—27 stories in the short story list alone—but that year the Hugos had only one category for short fiction. By the time they expanded, the Nebulas had figured out how to trim their shortlists to a sensible half dozen entries. Nevertheless, future years will feature longer lists of shared nominees.


So the obvious place to start is Harlan Ellison’s “’Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” which won both the Hugo and Nebula for best short story in 1966. (For stories published in 1965. This series is going by the dates of the awards; the stories in each post will have been published in the previous year.) And having asserted old short SFF isn’t part of the cultural conversation I must admit we have an exception here, at least to the extent that “Repent, Harlequin” is obviously being taught in literature classes: Google it and you get pages of prefab essays for incompetently lazy students to plagiarize.

Which is weird, because you’d think students wouldn’t need the help. Ellison starts “Repent, Harlequin” by flat out telling you what it’s going to be about. “For those who need to ask, for those who need points sharply made, who need to know ‘where it’s at,’” he pastes in a long paragraph from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Which also tells you about its tone. It is, first, looking for a fight. A narrator immediately certain his readers are demanding to know “where it’s at” feels like the kind of guy who’d shout “What are you looking at?” at people who hadn’t even noticed he was there. (Harlan Ellison has a distinctive voice, and this would be a big part of it going forward.) At the same time there’s something playful about a story that provides its own Cliffs Notes.

“Repent, Harlequin” is set in the capital-S System, a society so monomaniacally efficient its systems have no give at all. So it notes whenever anyone is late for anything and deducts the time from their projected lifespan; rack up enough lost minutes and the Ticktockman shuts your heart off by remote control. The Harlequin dresses up as a jester to prank the System by, for instance, gumming up the moving sidewalks with $150,000 worth of jelly beans. The story asks where he got $150,000 worth of jelly beans, then admits it doesn’t care. Jelly beans are the thematically right tool for the job and their origin is thematically irrelevant, so the Harlequin just has them. It’s fiction. Deal with it.

It’s not hard to see why Ellison felt like writing about civil disobedience in 1965. The civil rights movement was winning real victories (Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in August) and opposition to the Vietnam War was picking up. What’s more surprising is a synchronicity with something that hadn’t happened yet, though it would be part of the cultural context for the Hugo and Nebula voters. Namely, the premiere of the Adam West Batman in January 1966. “Repent, Harlequin” is a superhero story about a costumed crusader facing off against a masked villain, and like Batman it’s self-aware and self-parodying. The jelly bean incident is followed by a deflating domestic scene in which the Harlequin’s relatively normal girlfriend takes the piss out of his overdramatic dialogue and (accurately) points out how ridiculous he is. This wouldn’t happen to the square-jawed engineers and space marines who were the stereotypical SF heroes ten years earlier.

Speaking of differences from earlier SF, maybe it’s time to talk about the prose. This is a vast oversimplification, but fans and critics tend to divide mid–20th-century SF into two distinct periods, the “Golden Age” (the 1940s through the 1950s) and the “New Wave” (the sixties through the early seventies). One difference between these eras was stylistic. Most Golden Age SF writers wrote slapdash pulpy prose meant to deliver a plot reasonably clearly, without much attention given to the work the prose was doing beyond simple description. (Advocates call this “transparent prose.” The idea is the prose is a “window” through which you watch the story without noticing the glass.) The New Wave writers’ tastes were more literary and they paid more attention to how language communicates feelings and images beyond its surface meaning.[1]

Ellison was a New Wave writer with a distinct voice, and knew how to make words work for him. When writing about the Ticktockman the prose keeps a regular rhythm, short sentences, or short phrases separated by commas: “You don’t call a man a hated name, not when that man, behind his mask, is capable of revoking the minutes, the hours, the days and nights, the years of your life.” The confrontation between the Harlequin and the Ticktockman is a metronomic tennis-match back-and-forth dialogue. During the jelly bean assault the narrative begins straightforwardly, speeds up to a run-on sentence as the Harlequin looses his beans, switches to short choppy single-sentence paragraphs when the System notices its schedule is off, and goes openly exasperated, all italics and question marks, as it asks what is going on? Every line of “Repent, Harlequin” is crafted to not only describe what happens but express how what is happening feels.

The prose carries you along like a carnival ride. It’s not until the ride is over that you might start to poke at it. “Repent, Harlequin” has, arguably, failings matching the weak points of left-wing culture in the late 1960s.[2] You might wonder whether scheduling, that tool of The Man, is pernicious enough to invite parody; if you asked me to list the problems with a regimented, unequal, surveillance society, things happening at predictable times would be far down the list. In Paingod and Other Delusions Ellison admitted to being chronically late and pointed out the similarity between Harlequin and Harlan; he’s not protesting injustice here so much as something that’s just harshing his mellow.

You might discern an uncomfortable, reflexive disdain for squares. (See again that opening line, presuming a fight the reader wasn’t actually picking.) When the Harlequin buzzes a crowd they faint and wet themselves, and there’s that bit of Thoreau: “In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.”

And maybe “Repent, Harlequin” has a slightly too naïve faith in the power of protest: those Vietnam protests went on for years, involved tens of thousands of people, and did nothing to stop the war. Civil disobedience isn’t a virtue in itself but a tactic, which can be deployed effectively (as the Civil Rights movement did) or ineffectively (all those Vietnam protests). And it’s not clear the Harlequin was effective. As his costume suggests his pranks are in the spirit of carnivalesque protest—balloons and giant puppets, billboard détournement, attempts to levitate the Pentagon, the kind of street protests that shade into street parties—which was popular with a large chunk of the activist left who opposed the war. Say, the Youth International Party (Yippies), who would get their start in a couple of years. But the point of medieval carnivals, with their reversals and tweaking of authority, was that they didn’t challenge the system, just acted as a release valve. After Carnival was over everything went back to normal. “Repent, Harlequin” says “if you make only a little change, then it seems to be worthwhile,” but the little change is that the Ticktockman is three minutes late… which he just denies. “Check your watch.” Who’s going to argue? This is still the guy who can revoke the minutes of your life. Your watch says what the Ticktockman says it says, because the Harlequin did not at any point tip the balance of power and the moral of the story doesn’t account for that.

That said, the prose does carry you. It’s a good ride.


The cover of the magazine that first published Doors of His Face

“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth”, by Roger Zelazny, is an evocative title for what is basically just a fishing trip. But it earns the title. Zelazny was having a good year. In addition to tying for the best novel Hugo, his “He Who Shapes” tied with Brian Aldiss’ “The Saliva Tree” for Best Novella at the Nebulas.

The title comes from the book of Job, in which God brags about this awesome fish he made:

10 None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?

14 Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth are terrible round about.

19 Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.

You can find leviathans on Venus. They haven’t yet been caught. Carl Davits tried, and was so awed by the Godzilla-sized fish he froze and couldn’t press the Fish Catching Button. Now he’s been hired as a bait man by Jean Luharich, his ex-wife, who’d like a big fish herself.

“Doors” is an old-fashioned adventure story with lots of technical detail about how a 300-foot fish is caught. (It’s not quite as simple as pressing a button. But there is a button. It’s very Jetsons.) But as with “Repent, Harlequin” it’s the style that matters. Carl has a poetic soul and his descriptions of Venus—how the sky looks at sunrise, what it’s like to approach from orbit—are vivid. Sometimes he slips into self-parody; the story’s last words are “the rings of Saturn sing epithalamium the sea-beast’s dower,” and I defy anyone to read this story without having to look up the word epithalamium. But I think this is more characterization than clumsiness on Zelazny’s part. What makes Carl memorable is the contrast between his inner monologue and his outer presentation as a rough port bum, as when he’s asked what it’s like diving at night:

I puffed, thinking of my light cutting through the insides of a black diamond, shaken slightly. The meteor-dart of a suddenly illuminated fish, the swaying of grotesque ferns, like nebulae-shadow, then green, then gone—swam in a moment through my mind. I guess it’s like a spaceship would feel, if a spaceship could feel, crossing between worlds—and quiet, uncannily, preternaturally quiet; and peaceful as sleep.

“Dark,” I said, “and not real choppy below a few fathoms.”

There’s a The Old Man and the Sea vibe to this story. It’s about humans pitting themselves against nature to prove their courage. But unlike Hemingway it’s not exclusively masculine; the gender politics are not modern but for a mid-sixties SF story (and that’s a big caveat) they aren’t bad. Jean organized this expedition as a publicity stunt for her cosmetics company, but her marketing is about adventure and heroics more than beauty. And she’s a competent adventurer. Their marriage failed because she and Carl were too alike.

If “The Doors of His Face” feels old-fashioned it might be because it feels like a screwball comedy. A critic named Stanley Cavell once identified a subgenre popular in the 1930s–40s called the “comedy of remarriage.” Examples are The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday (Cary Grant turns up in them a lot). They’re about couples who split up at (or before) the beginning of the movie but realize they belong together at the end; they were a way to create an exciting but Hayes-code-friendly simulation of infidelity as the couple dally with potential new partners. Structurally that’s what we have here. Jean also freezes at the vital moment, but because Carl is there to give her some “you can do it” encouragement she unfreezes and presses the Fish Catching Button that defeated him. (If landing the fish seems absurdly simple, it’s probably to keep a hundred percent of the reader’s attention on the drama.) And, well, that’s where the epithalamiums come in. Once you notice this it’s hard not to imagine “The Doors of His Face” as a black-and-white movie, with Katherine Hepburn as Jean and Robert Mitchum as Carl, with leviathans by Ray Harryhausen.

The one thing “The Doors of His Face” doesn’t resemble in the slightest is the book most critics claim as an influence: Moby-Dick. It’s not Moby-Dick, people. I assume you’re all saying this because you’ve never read Moby-Dick but it’s the only book you can think of about a giant sea creature. Moby Dick is unconquerable Nature. The leviathan is a big Filet-O-Fish. Who can open the doors of his face? Apparently these people. “The Doors of His Face” is New Wave in style but its heart is still in the Golden Age; it doesn’t doubt humans can conquer anything.


So I found the politics of “Repent Harlequin” a touch naïve, and called “Doors of His Face” old fashioned. Am I saying these stories aren’t worthy award-winners after all?

Oh, hell, no. These are great. “Doors” is less likely to reveal new facets on rereading—“Repent, Harlequin” is literature, “Doors” is an adventure yarn that just happens to be really, really well done. But they’re both classics. It is, again, all about style. Roger Ebert had a maxim he called Ebert’s Law—I think he might have codified it in a review of a movie called Freeway—that states “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” The same is true for stories. This lesson is, unfortunately, still lost on a lot of SFF, especially at novel length. Scores of novels are published every year that bury a few interesting ideas within but are written like plates of limp noodles with no sauce at all. You can’t say that about these stories; as unimpressed as I am with Dune, I’d say the award voters did pretty well in 1966. On to 1967 in… maybe a couple of weeks? We’ll see.


  1. You can probably tell from this description where my sympathies lie. It’s criticism! I don’t have to be fair!  ↩

  2. To be clear, my own politics are to the left; that’s why the failings of the 1960s counterculture disappoint me so.  ↩

Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

Science fiction has a grade inflation problem. I’ll pick up a popular, award winning book surrounded by piles of excited reviews, and half the time I discover it’s… well, okay. A fun read. Good if you’re tired and need something entertaining but not challenging. These books are hard to enjoy for what they are. After the hype I expected, y’know, more.

Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire is one of those books. Technically it’s about coexisting with empire, and cultural hegemony, and how it feels to identify with a culture you don’t belong to and that threatens to absorb your own. It detours into issues of identity and algorithmic bias. But it never manages to be about those things more than superficially. As I’ve grown older I’ve gotten used to books that dive into their themes, come at them from all the angles. A Memory Called Empire stands back from its themes, points, takes a photo, and gets on with the plot.

A Memory Called Empire is a space opera. The protagonist, Mahit Dzmare, is the ambassador from Lsel, an independent space station, to the vast Teixcalaan empire. It’s a cool job; her favorite books are Teixcalaanli—but she doesn’t quite fit in. Stories about an outsider trying to understand and exist in a fictional society are my kind of thing, or one of my kinds of things, so I enjoyed it. It’s not a book I’d recommend to anyone whose thing this isn’t. If this book doesn’t hit one of your “my thing” buttons, there won’t be enough here to keep you going through 470 pages.

A Memory Called Empire is written in close third person, almost all in Mahit’s head, narrating her experiences with journalistic objectivity and effacing the narrator as much as possible. It’s mostly flatly descriptive, sometimes rising to real eloquence (“Empire was empire—the part that seduced and the part that clamped down, jaws like a vise, and shook a planet until its neck was broken and it died.”) sometimes weighed down by awkward lumps (Mahit sees someone eating meat and is “horribly tempted by the smell of it, and a little horrified at the same time”).

Like a movie it keeps a steady pace, skipping the less plotty moments instead of standing back and summarizing. This means the novel can’t cover long stretches of time. So the plot takes mere days to play out, but the pacing is monotonous. The book overexplains things readers could pick up on themselves, mostly Mahit’s theories on what’s going on in other characters’ heads. In one of the novel’s rare flashes of humor Mahit comes across someone named “Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle.” A more confident book would have dropped the name onto the page, trusted the reader to understand why it’s funny, and moved on. Here, Mahit and her local aide/obligatory love interest Three Seagrass spend painfully earnest paragraphs explaining the joke.[1]

The novel doesn’t move back or forth in time—Mahit rarely thinks about anything not in front of her. As a result, though the novel is filtered through her POV she’s a bit of a cipher. She recalls the past fleetingly, and only when it relates to the present. All we learn of her family is that her parents are alive and she has a brother, and she seems about as emotionally attached to these people as to a toaster oven. The brother is mentioned twice, briefly, and we don’t even learn his name!

To be clear, vague characterization isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s what a story needs to accomplish its goals: a detective novel where most characters are types, an allegory where they’re stand-ins for ideas. But it doesn’t work with the story A Memory Called Empire is trying to be, about how Mahit feels navigating a culture she loves but isn’t part of. To really get those feelings, we need to get Mahit. In practice, Mahit feels like one of those old-fashioned space opera heroes written more as identification figures for the audience than characters in their own right—anyone in this book’s audience could imagine ourselves in her place. She doesn’t have weird foibles or rough edges; where she doesn’t need a definite characteristic, she’s nonspecific.

I also didn’t get a sense of Mahit’s class. I’m not sure whether Lsel is a classless society or whether it didn’t occur to the author to consider it. We don’t learn much about Lsel. (The narration has no opinions of its own, so if a POV character doesn’t think about something we don’t know it. Science fiction needs more omniscient narrators!) Lsel apartments are 3 by 3 by 9—but nine what? You have to read closely to confirm the book means feet. And for someone whose idea of private space is a sleeping pod, Mahit’s psychology feels awfully similar to an average 21st century American’s. She has a standard apartment on Teixcalaan and occasionally thinks about its size, but doesn’t feel weird about having multiple rooms to herself. Water is precious on Lsel and she’s boggled at decorative fountains, but surprisingly unsurprised by a shower. Mahit is inconsistently foreign.

She’s also 26. That’s young for an ambassador to an empire Lsel fears might annex it. The Lsel Stationers have devices called imagos that grant people the memories and skills of others, like Deep Space Nine‘s Trill. Mahit is carrying the imago of the previous ambassador; she was the only person available who could integrate it. Even so, it’s interesting no one thinks Mahit is young for such a sensitive position. Do young stationers with old memories often have important jobs? Or is this just another example of science fiction’s youth obsession? The Trill have customs and ceremonies centered around their symbionts but Mahit seems to think of imagos as tools, like iPhones. The ability to pass on their ancestors’ memories is a radical departure from human norms. Stationer culture seems hardly affected.

The same is true of Teixcalaan. We’re told Teixcalaanli poetry is central to its culture, but by the end of the novel we still don’t know much about it. We get only brief snatches and bare descriptions of poems. Quotations from in-world documents are mostly fenced off in the chapter headings.[2] It’s hard to get a sense of how Teixcalaanli literature works, what themes it returns to, what makes it unique and attractive. It’s a hole the rest of the novel circles around. One of Mahit’s formative experiences was reading Teixcalaanli poetry and seeing her world the way she saw it herself, but what did it give her that Stationer literature didn’t?

The distinctiveness of this poetry-obsessed culture isn’t even expressed in the prose. Teixcalaanli are so steeped in verse that at one point we’re told Three Seagrass is “falling automatically into polysyllabic couplets when she wasn’t paying enough attention not to,” but unless the effect was way too subtle for me it’s not demonstrated in her dialogue. Her voice sounds like Mahit’s voice, which sounds like everyone else’s.

Mahit attends a party where Three Seagrass’s friends hold an extemporaneous poetry slam, duelling in spontaneously spohisticated verse, and Mahit is stricken: no matter how long she studies Teixcalaanli literature she’ll never have this way with words. But does every native Teixcalannli? Because these are the local equivalent of ivy leaguers, the best and the brightest. Does everybody spend their childhood cramming for intensive poetry drills, or is it an upper-crust, private-school thing? Teixcalaan isn’t as classless as Lsel—we see the poorer parts of the capital. But the locals we meet are political dissidents or dropouts. Everyone in this book feels like part of the nebulous middle-to-upper class who populate many Hollywood movies.

Lsel and Teixcalaan have foreign elements, but both still feel like places where people put on a suit to go work in an office at a computer while drinking coffee. And, again, it’s not that this isn’t a valid approach. The alien world that’s really just America with a prosthetic forehead is often used to great effect, especially in satire. But, again, this isn’t the book A Memory Called Empire is trying to be; it’s more like it just hesitated to move too far from middle-class 21st century American assumptions about what’s normal.[3] Lsel could have felt like America to get us thinking about how it feels to be overshadowed by a foreign culture. Teixcalaan could have felt like America to get us thinking about the ways in which the United States is an empire. If they both feel like America, there’s not much conflict. Mahit’s journey feels as fraught as moving from the United States to the United Kingdom.

I said earlier I enjoyed A Memory Called Empire so it may seem weird this review is so negative. Like Doctor Who novelizations and Sherlock Holmes pastiches, it’s one of those books I enjoy while still admitting all the ways in which it’s mediocre—but these books don’t normally inspire me to review them. What’s frustrating about A Memory Called Empire, and tantalizing, is that it’s almost about so much.

There are themes of empire, cultural hegemony, and ambivalent attraction to the foreign. And Lsel’s imagoes raise unanswered questions about identity—how does it change you when you suddenly remember someone else’s life? There’s also a contrast between two kinds of cultural memory. Lsel passes memories directly from generation to generation technologically. Teixcalaan remembers itself through collective memory, and ensures the survival and spread of its self-image through cultural hegemony, increasing the numbers of people who learn and remember its literature. (The Teixcalaanli do a lot of memorization and extemporaneous poetry. Some canonical poems have thousands of variations. They have writing but they’re an oral culture. Lsel’s imagoes are, in the stability and immutability of their memories, closer to written culture.)

Another theme dropped into the novel and hardly touched is algorithms—how they’re not the objective mathematical structures they’re meant to be. They’re designed by people with subjective assumptions, and purposes, and points of view. (A set of rules built for a purpose is an argument about what’s relevant to that purpose, and what isn’t.) There’s a potential point here about how a poem is an encoded point of view, like an imago or an algorithm. Late in the book Mahit and Three Seagrass get themselves out of a jam by writing a poem that is, like an algorithm, written to produce a particular outcome. But although this would have made the perfect thematic climax it isn’t emphasized. We’re told the poem spreads like a virus, but we don’t get to see the reaction. A Memory Called Empire doesn’t quite connect the dots between its ideas. It gestures at themes, but doesn’t manage to dig in. And I think part of the problem is the plot.

A Memory Called Empire is a novel of political intrigue. Someone wants to overthrow the Emperor. The Emperor wants an imago machine. Mahit gets embroiled in the kerfuffle. Before I wrote this review I went looking for others. One of the most interesting observations—one that made me realize something about how the book worked, or didn’t quite work—came in a review by Nandini Ramachandran at Strange Horizons of the 2020 Clarke Award shortlist. She points out how friendly Teixcalaan is to Mahit, how quickly people let her in on their secrets and how readily she’s accepted into the halls of power.[4] And what else could the book do? The whole story is in Mahit’s POV. The intrigue plot won’t come off if she doesn’t have a front-row seat. But Teixcalaan feels welcoming, and Mahit rarely feels lost. And for a book about existing in a foreign and maybe hostile culture you love but don’t belong to, that’s backwards! And the novel’s structure tells us Mahit is our protagonist, not a Nick Carraway-style lens for someone else’s story. But it ends with Mahit witnessing a climax that has not much to do with her: the coup ends when a member of the supporting cast, who has hardly appeared in the novel, sacrifices himself to elevate another member of the supporting cast to power. The court intrigue plot actively works against A Memory Called Empire’s themes. It’s full of Exciting Events! but very little of what happens feels significant.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments where it comes to life—these are what kept me reading. These are moments where the book engages with its themes: when Mahit watches the bright young things’ poetry slam. When she marvels at the decorative water bowl on a restaurant table, or considers how Stationers have a single word for birds. When she realizes she understands Teixcalaanli poetry but doesn’t really, y’know, understand it. These are moments where the novel steps away from the plot and goes about its real business. By the end I was thinking of Leena Krohn’s novel Tainaron. Tainaron is about a woman who’s gone to live in a city of insects. Like most of Krohn’s novels its chapters are self-contained vignettes that build to something bigger. It follows her over seasons, each chapter revealing a new facet of the city—sometimes weirdly familiar, sometimes deeply strange. That’s the version of A Memory Called Empire I wish I could read—one structured like Krohn’s work. A year in the life of an ambassador, with the plot emerging from a series of human-scale incidents. A chapter for the poetry slam, another reflecting on the algorithms that run the capitol, others for long conversations about imagos and identity, or digging into Mahit’s favorite Teixcalaanli poems. Maybe even a narrator with enough ironic distance from Mahit to understand her better than she understands herself.

So what’s the attraction of the intrigue plot? Here I should note that A Memory Called Empire is not the first SFF novel I’ve read where the plot felt like a distraction from the actually interesting parts. The core science fiction and fantasy genres have assumptions about the range of stories SFF can tell that they only occasionally think their way beyond. Acceptable plots for a novel include variations on the themes of wars, conspiracies, rebellions against dystopia, apocalypses, detective stories, and, yes, political intrigue. Stories where the protagonist is in deadly danger. Thrillers of the Hollywood summer blockbuster variety, stories that might have been produced by the vast entertainment empire beside which literary SF is a hopeful asteroid. Sometimes it feels like SFF can’t imagine an existence outside the gravitational pull of the blockbuster. SFF novels get squashed into this mold even when one of the many alternate plots and story-structures in the wider world of literature might suit them better. A Memory Called Empire is the kind of book you get from a genre whose imagination has been colonized by Hollywood.


  1. You might argue these paragraphs help readers understand Teixcalaanli naming conventions, but there again the book could have trusted readers to figure them out from the actual names.  ↩

  2. Of course, writing literal examples of a fictional culture’s greatest literature rarely comes off—but it’s possible to write about imaginary literature without literally writing it. Borges and Stanislaw Lem have done it, and though Martine isn’t Borges I think she could have pulled it off: in the novel’s glossary we’re told “current literary scholars of Teixcalaan refer to The Expansion History as being composed by ‘Pseudo-Thirteen River,’ an unknown person,” and it’s tantalizing.  ↩

  3. So it’s all the odder that the back matter contains an author’s note explaining “If one wishes to pronounce Stationer words one’s own self, and has only Earth languages to go by, a good guide would be the pronunciation of Modern Eastern Armenian,” for all the world as though most of the intended audience for this novel would be familiar with Modern Eastern Armenian.  ↩

  4. Mind you, someone also tries to assassinate her. But she recovers quick.  ↩

Margaret St. Clair, Sign of the Labrys

1.

In science fiction circles Margaret St. Clair’s Sign of the Labrys is not much more than the answer to a trivia question: what book had the worst back cover blurb of all time? This one shouts “WOMEN ARE WRITING SCIENCE-FICTION!” in breathless all-caps, like it’s news. “Women,” we learn, “are closer to the primitive than men. They are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They possess a buried memory of humankind’s obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel… Such a woman is Margaret St. Clair, author of this novel.” This copywriter seems either contemptuously sarcastic or very high.

Women in general and Margaret St. Clair in particular had been writing science fiction for a while by 1963, and St. Clair should be better remembered. I haven’t read her other novels—she’s maddeningly out of print—but her short stories feel like close Twilight Zone-ish cousins to Richard Matheson’s or Charles Beaumont’s, and at her best she’s just as good. (A couple of her stories were adapted for Night Gallery.) As for finding those stories… well, “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” turns up all over, and you can find another story in The Future is Female, but as far as I know the only collection in print in the U.S. is The Hole in the Moon. It’s all worth tracking down.

I wanted to start with that recommendation because Sign of the Labrys is… uh, not a lost classic. But it’s also not worse than some books SF fans think are classics, and if the premise strikes you as interesting it’s a fine way to pass a couple of hours. And its flaws are at least interesting flaws. We’ll get into that.

2.

Anyway, that premise. This is a book where a yeast-based pandemic has depopulated the world and the survivors are afraid to get too close to each other. Which feels not so much “painfully on the nose” as “grabbed the nose and slammed it in a door.” Most people work menial, meaningless jobs—Sam Sewell, our narrator, moves boxes from one side of a warehouse to the other and back again, and no one cares whether he shows up on any given day. The only people with productive jobs are mass gravediggers and the mysterious dudes from the Federal Bureau of Yeast. Sam lives rent-free in a vast underground fallout shelter built by people who were extremely prepared for the wrong disaster, feeding himself on purple fungus and stockpiles of preserved pre-apocalypse food that never seems to spoil. Aside from the fungus, there isn’t much fresh food; too many species went extinct during the plagues.

One day Sam has a visit from a FBY man looking for a woman named Despoina. Sam has no idea who this is but the agent insists he ought to because Sam, like Desponia, is a witch.

Margaret St. Clair was a Wiccan and Sign of the Labrys is practically an advertisement for Wicca, which in this book is not just a neopagan religion but actually grants magical powers. (In this light the blurb’s blather about moon-pulls, earth-tides, and humankind’s obscure and ancient past vaguely makes sense.) Labrys is packed with stereotypically pagan accoutrements like athames and people substituting “Blessed Be” for “Hello,” and St. Clair cribbed ceremonies and other details from an influential mid-century occult writer named Gerald Gardner.

Sam learns Despoina may be in his own fallout shelter and spends most of the novel exploring its deeper levels. Sam’s descending into the underworld to retrieve occult knowlege. He’s also acting out a kind of story modern geek-culture types might find familiar. When the original Dungeons & Dragons came out in 1979, the creators included an “Appendix N” listing books that inspired them and right there, between Fred Saberhagen and J. R. R. Tolkien, was Margaret St. Clair with The Shadow People and Sign of the Labrys. Sam’s fallout shelter is a dungeon.

Even if you’ve never read a D&D manual you might recognize the “dungeon” concept from video games. A dungeon isn’t a literal dungeon (the name, one suspects, was chosen solely for the alliteration). It’s an enclosed space for the players’ characters to explore, filled with traps to avoid, puzzles to solve, and monsters to fight. A dungeon might be a cave, a castle, a tomb, or even (as in Myst) an island—the crucial thing isn’t that it’s literally enclosed, but that it’s self-contained. If people live in the dungeon they’re usually weirdos and rarely leave. Dungeons are challenges first and narratives second. Often they’re arbitrarily constructed and run on weird internal logic. (Why does that white house have a troll and a Flood Control Dam in the basement?) Peculiar though they are, “dungeons” are useful frameworks for exploration-based stories comfortable with a certain amount of absurdity. Star Trek and Doctor Who visit them a lot, enclosed spaces being great budget savers.

And dungeons are great if you want to mash random stuff together and watch it juxtapose. Dungeons are eccentric subworlds, strange terrariums whose isolation and artificiality are license to be whimsical. The levels of Sam’s fallout shelter are incongruous subcultures, unaware of each other—a laboratory complex where floods of lab rats carpet the floor, an artificial garden full of wealthy Eloi, a machine shop attended by a cookie-obsessed miniature-builder with a teleporter. A lot of this is never explained. At one point Sam meets a dog with human intelligence who shows him the gate to the next level. (Through charades, which Sam has to interpret: in true dungeon-crawling spirit, he’s solving puzzles to get around.) Sam never sees the dog again or learn what its deal is. You could look at this as half-assed worldbuilding, or as leaving the world open to interpretation. If you want to send a character on a metaphorical, surreal, symbolic journey, this kind of thing has potential.

But if you want the reader to see the book as “open” and not “half-assed,” you have to live up to that potential. This is where Sign of the Labrys stumbles. On his journey Sam meets his long-lost half-sister Kyra who confirms that, yep, Sam’s a witch! Which means… well, mostly that he has X-Ray Vision, and can make people hallucinate. I read Sign of the Labrys soon after The Hearing Trumpet and, man, was that an unflattering comparison. Both books are surreal, symbolic spiritual journeys but The Hearing Trumpet ends in strange and numinous revelations. All Sam learns is that he’s a superhero. The spiritual journey got into a wrestling match with a pulp novel, and pulp won. This is in one sense banal but in another sense interesting enough to push me to review Sign of the Labrys. It’s a glaring example of a problem I’ve seen before—one of those glaring examples that brings a recurring pattern into clearer focus.

3.

There’s a common pattern in pop culture where a story is structured like a bildungsroman, but at the end of the story the protagonist isn’t a wiser or deeper or a more developed person, just more powerful. Or at least more assertive and confident. They haven’t grown as a person, just levelled up. Think Star Wars: Luke isn’t any more mature when he destroys the Death Star than he was at the beginning of the movie. Or superhero origin stories: often the point of these stories isn’t that their heroes develop. Instead, the heroes’ newfound powers let them express who they already were. (Captain America is brave and decent at the beginning of the movie; at the end he’s brave, decent, and strong.)

Now, in some cases this might be related to serialization. If you plan to keep using your protagonist, they can’t change too much too quickly. (Also, if they get really smart they might figure out how to stop getting themselves into adventures.) But Sign of the Labrys is a standalone novel. The problem here is that, for all that St. Clair is sharing her religion, Sign is a power fantasy and not a wisdom fantasy. (Again, the pulp narrative sucked everything into itself like a black hole.) Sam—and by extension anyone who identifies with him—doesn’t need to develop in any real way. He’s already great. He just needs to learn how to express his greatness.

Actually, Sam doesn’t learn so much as remember. Kyra spends some time preparing him to remember, but once he’s through his initiation Sam masters his Wiccan powers almost as soon as they’re introduced to him. It’s intuitive: he just knows how it all works. Sam has a buried secret identity, it turns out. Spoiler: he’s the Devil! Or “the person our persecutors called the devil,” according to Despoina. “They gave that name to the male counterpart of the high priestess, the other focus of power in the circle. You’re of the old blood, Sam.” Sam is one of those protagonists who are special because of what they are, not what they do.

Having learned this, it’s interesting to go back to the very beginning of the novel. Remember, this is first person narration: “There is a fungus that grows on the walls that they eat. It is a violet color, a dark reddish violet, and tastes fresh and sweet. People go into the clefts to pick it.” Notice the “they.” We soon learn Sam picks and eats this fungus, too—that’s how he knows how it tastes. But the fungus eaters are still “they.” From the first sentence, Sam’s narration is telling us he’s different from other people.

4.

At one point Sam (who’s been a witch for mere days but speaks with the confidence of an old hand) assures us “We Wicca are trained in scruple for life, if we do not possess it to begin with.” So it’s weird that when Sam thinks he’s accidentally killed someone[1] this is his reaction:

I sat down on the ground again by Cindy Ann’s body to think it over. Proximity to her didn’t bother me at all. It was like sitting down by an empty packing case, or a bundle of old clothes. I suppose it was because I didn’t have any feeling of moral responsibility for her death. And then, she hadn’t had much personality when she had been alive. Not much had been withdrawn.

Speaking as someone with not much personality, thanks, Sam. Of course there are such things as unreliable narrators, and unsympathetic protagonists, but Sam doesn’t appear to be either. There’s no sign we’re meant to find his thoughts troubling or absurd.

The real reason Sam isn’t bothered by Cindy Ann’s death is the same reason she doesn’t have much personality. Cindy Ann is a very minor character who only exists to deliver some exposition. Sam doesn’t care because the reader won’t.

Again, I’ve seen this before: stories that confuse characters’ importance to the story on a meta-level with their importance as people to the other characters. Sign of the Labrys doesn’t expect the readers to care about Cindy Ann’s death. We only knew her for a few pages. But Sam doesn’t care either. He only cares about people to the extent they’re structurally important as story-elements.

This problem gets really blatant when we learn Kyra’s history. Kyra, it turns out, released the plagues:

My face must have shown my shock, for Despoina said hurriedly, “Consider the situation, Sam. Have you forgotten? Nuclear war seemed absolutely inevitable. Nobody knew from day to day—from hour to hour—when it would begin. We lived in terror, terror which was sure to accomplish itself. Nobody even dared to hope for a quick death. “Kyra realized what had come into her hands. She acted. She took on her shoulders a terrible responsibility; she assumed a dreadful guilt. She knew that plagues are never universally fatal. She decided it was better that nine men out of ten should die, than that all men should.”

The only problem Despoina sees is that Kyra didn’t consult the boss witches first. Sam soon comes around to the idea that mass murder is okay, actually: “What a person Kyra was! Unhesitatingly she had taken on her young shoulders—she couldn’t have been over twenty at the time—the agony of a decision a god might have flinched from making. Mrs. Prometheus—I felt proud to be related to her.”

Now, to be scrupulously fair to Margaret St. Clair, who seems in all the others of her works I’ve read to be a normal empathetic writer, Sign of the Labrys came out the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Assuming a fast publication schedule parts of it might have been written during the Cuban Missile Crisis. If you wrote an SF novel during the gloomiest years of the Cold War you might be forgiven for building it around a giant half-joke of the “not ha-ha funny” kind. For decades people really believed humanity might be wiped out at any moment. We came close, more than once. I’m just old enough to remember the Reagan years and if you aren’t it can be a difficult headspace to get your own head around. Or maybe not. It wouldn’t surprise me if novels exist that toy with the idea of wiping out millions of people to avert the worst version of climate change.

Whatever. None of this, in any case, is compatible with sermons on “scruple for life.” You could look at this as a moral problem—that’s a popular critical lens these days, and not necessarily a bad one. But recently I read George Saunders’ new critical book and was struck by how he frames moral failures like sexism or racism as failures of craft—an authorial failture to fully and honestly imagine every character. And I think this is the best, most relevant way to look at Sign of the Labrys. It’s not just that the novel fails to empathize with the background characters. It fails to empathize with Sam. It doesn’t successfully imagine how someone with “scruple for life” would think, or depict him with emotional honesty.

Sign of the Labrys is trying to present Wicca as a positive, ethical system; presumably that was Margaret St. Clair’s experience with it. But the pulp narrative is divorced from any actual ethics and unlike those nameless extras it cannot be killed. Sam and Despoina defeat a fascist takeover by the FBY and find a strain of yeast that will heal humanity’s aversion to close contact. But they can’t fix the millions dead or the devastated ecosystem and the novel doesn’t grapple with that. Sam says, “We Wicca know how to be happy even in a bad world. But we are not content with a bad world.” But the world they’ve created isn’t good, just less crowded.


  1. He thinks he unknowingly infected her with a deadly plague. Later the witches tell him he’s mistaken, but the real cause of death is never adequately explained.  ↩

Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet

1. The Surreal

All this is a digression and I do not wish anyone to think my mind wanders far, it wanders but never further than I want.

—Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet

The Hearing Trumpet isn’t about the hearing trumpet. That is, the trumpet doesn’t have a role in the plot; it’s just mentioned every so often. This is not Chekhov’s hearing trumpet. Still, Leonora Carrington’s novel kicks off with 92-year-old Marian Leatherby receiving the thing from her friend Carmella, so it’s important. Marian’s been given a way to extend her senses—far enough, Carmella suggests, to hear what others say while she’s out of the room.

I love Leonora Carrington’s stories but you want to read them one at a time. Most are heavily into dream logic and too many at once are too rich. I wondered how her style would work at novel length. But of course she adapted to fit the form: The Hearing Trumpet is a novel of escalating boiled-frog weirdness. It’s also both funny—the narrator has a lot of cockeyed opinions and the confidence to state them as fact—and genuinely uncanny. Reading it is like wandering through a slapstick dream.

It starts as (just barely) a realist novel. Marian lives with her son Galahad in Mexico. She keeps to herself and keeps busy. She sweeps out her room, has hilarious conversations with Carmella, saves cat hair to knit into a sweater, and dreams of traveling through Lapland by dogsled. Her self-assurance is vast. Is she growing a beard? Marian thinks it looks gallant, so what the hell. With age she’s stopped minding other people’s eccentricities or caring what they think of her own. In the afterward to the New York Review Books Classics edition, Olga Tokarczuk argues that old age is Marian’s license to be eccentric, fully herself, and frames The Hearing Trumpet as an argument for the revolutionary power of eccentricity, which she defines as a point of view “both provincial and marginal—pushed aside, to the fringes—and at the same time revelatory and revolutionary.”[1]

Marian narrates The Hearing Trumpet in the first person. She’s practical, and calm—absolutely unshakable. Never frightened; always amused, open, and curious. She grants all these qualities to the novel. So much of the feel of a novel hinges on the narrator’s personality. (And every novel has a narrator, even if it’s pretending not to!) Look at The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s packed with events that would be grim in the straightforward, serious world of an Iain M. Banks novel. But Adams’ voice tells us not to panic. The Hearing Trumpet is a reassuring, optimistic book. But if Marian were anxious and unsettled, this would be an anxious, unsettling novel. It is, after all, a book about a woman committed to an institution where she’s subjected to a bizarre, overbearing treatment scheme.[2] The novel changes the emotional tenor of its plot by looking at it from an unexpected point of view.

2. The Surrealer

That’s the first thing Marian hears with her trumpet: Galahad and his family are putting her in a home. “People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats,” says Carmella. (Could Marian make Galahad into a sweater? I don’t think so.) The Institution of Dr. and Mrs. Gambit is a liminal place, the border between the real and the impossible. It could exist—within the laws of nature, I mean—but who’d build it? The elderly women warehoused there inhabit a bizarre jumble of novelty cottages: a shoe, a toadstool, a mummy case. Marian gets a miniature lighthouse she calls the Lookout. Again, she’s extending her senses. “Houses are really bodies,” says Marian, and during this out-of-body experience she’ll see and hear past the surface of the world.

The Gambits indoctrinate their charges in Inner Christianity, a vague regimen involving Movements, Self Remembering, and lots of Significant Capital Letters. Marian has free time to snoop, but can’t entirely escape the regimen—Dr. Gambit is intrusively audible even sans trumpet. Marian’s a vegetarian, used to directing her own diet. The Gambits let her stick to it but won’t give her a second helping of vegetables to make up for the lack of meat. The Institution isn’t adequately nourishing her. Still, she amuses herself by staring at a painting of a Winking Nun hanging opposite her chair. Somehow she intuits this person’s name was Doña Rosalinda Alvarez Cruz della Cueva. The painting has a hidden meaning. The castle housing the Institution holds secrets Dr. Gambit is unaware of, brought over from Spain by a refugee during their Civil War. Something lives in its tower.

Sometimes talking about the genre of a book in broad terms (like Science Fiction or Horror) is less interesting than treating a specific thing the work is doing as its own subgenre, and finding other, sometimes unexpected works that relate to it as a result. The Hearing Trumpet reminds me of Twin Peaks and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS that way, though in other ways they don’t resemble each other at all. They’re all metaphysical investigations: characters peel back layer after layer of their apparently ordinary world to discover unexpectedly idiosyncratic metaphysics. These stories often use existing mythology as a springboard. The Hearing Trumpet brings in the Holy Grail, as well as a lot of Gnostic ideas I’m not informed enough to comment on. But these are only starting points for more personal mythologies.

The mythology of The Hearing Trumpet centers around the Grail, really a pre-Christian artifact coopted by the Church: the cup of the goddess Venus, meant to hold Pneuma, or life-essence. It also takes in bees, werewolves, Taliesin, the Pole Star, soup, and the life of the Abbess Doña Rosalinda Alvarez Cruz della Cueva, who attempted to rescue the Grail from the Knights Templar. This is a book within a book—dozens of pages narrated by a medieval chronicler—provided by Christabel, a mysteriously busy resident who claims to be twice as old as Marian and guards the Abbess’ legacy.

If you’ve read Tim Powers this might sound like the kind of thing he gets up to—setting up a mythological shadow world behind ordinary reality. But there’s a difference that points to why The Hearing Trumpet, or VALIS, or David Lynch feel specifically surreal as opposed to fantastic. Powers’ novels are about specific worldbuilding. The fun is in watching the characters figure out exactly how their world works and how they can work within it. But surreal metaphysics are never completely known. They’re not logically worked out jigsaw-puzzle worldbuilding, but a line into another person’s subconscious. Some of the resonances of their symbols are only fully understood by the author, or the narrator—assuming they fully understand it themselves. Not all questions will be answered, no matter how deep the protagonist digs. The world never loses its mystery.[3] Its systems remain open—you can interpret and reinterpret them forever. These stories aren’t bothered about whether the audience understands everything they’re getting at. They’re not bothered if you understand something else—some meaning from the margins, personal to you.

3. The Surrealiest

Back in the present, two women who are really into Inner Christianity and aligned with the Gambits poison a fellow inmate.[4] This drives the other women to band together and declare a hunger strike until the poisoners are expelled. They feed themselves only from their own resources (for now, mostly a store of chocolate biscuits). As the Gambits lose control, the weather turns mysteriously cold. The world has turned on its side and the poles have migrated to the equator. The margins have replaced the center.

When the world tips over the cause-and-effect narrative (Marian embarrasses her family, therefore they put her in a home) tips over into full surrealism. Now things are happening just because it feels right for them to happen in that moment. The women’s revolution coincides with a revolution of the earth. Christabel emerges as a leader, challenging Marian with riddles and introducing the women to the local bee-goddess. Marian’s friends start turning up: Carmella digs a tunnel to the Institution to bust Marian out, hits uranium instead, and gets rich enough to supply the women with whatever they need. A European friend brings a tribe of werewolves in an atomic ark. The elderly women build an anarchic society of their own in the ruins of the Institution.

“It is impossible to understand how millions and millions of people all obey a sickly collection of gentlemen that call themselves ‘Government!’ The word, I expect, frightens people. It is a form of planetary hypnosis, and very unhealthy."

“It has been going on for years,” I said. “And it only occurred to relatively few to disobey and make what they call revolutions. If they won their revolutions, which they occasionally did, they made more governments, sometimes more cruel and stupid than the last.”

“Men are very difficult to understand,” said Carmella. “Let’s hope they all freeze to death.”

This is, I must admit, one of those stories where the protagonist is empowered by an apocalypse. This isn’t a plot I care for when handled realistically. But this is an openly metaphorical apocalypse. Marian’s inner journey is manifesting itself in the world; her inner world and outer world grow more numinous in tandem. Finally Marian descends beneath the tower and meets herself making soup in a cauldron. She jumps into the pot and the Marians converge, at once being the soup and eating it. Food in this novel is a stand-in for everything that feeds Marian’s mind and soul. She’s self-fueling, feeding her soul from her own resources.

At this point the women retrieve the grail in a full-scale assault on its captors—but it’s an epilogue. It happens very fast and, as it were, offstage. Which isn’t how a typical book would work: isn’t this the exciting part? But once Marian’s gone through her evolution, in a sense she has the Grail already; getting the literal plot-Grail is just confirmation. Again, by this point in the book plot logic has slipped out the back door and run halfway to Canada; things are happening because they feel right.

If too many books worked like this it might get old, but occasionally it makes a nice change. The culture of the 21st century is dominated by TV and film, which in the U.S. means mostly Hollywood. They account for most of what most people consume and their conventions filter out into other media. And our stories are so… let’s say, engineered. Our culture prefers a narrow range of structures and story-types. It’s not like there aren’t good reasons for that; three-act structures and heavily codified writing advice can serve as useful guard rails. It’s easy for weirdly structured or unstructured stories to just not work. But an artistic ecosystem needs mutants. Stories that are weird, baffling, ambiguous, mulishly stubborn, frustrating the audience’s expectations. Works that carve out new ecological niches, off to the sides, expand the range of possibilities for everyone else. This is where surrealism can come in handy.

Marian narrates the beginning of the novel, where she describes life with her son, and the end of the novel, where she describes life in the new world, in the present tense, but the story in between is in past tense. Marian starts out in a pleasant state of present-tense equilibrium and seems to enter into history as her problems begin. Now she’s emerged again into a new open-ended present. By the end of the novel she’s ready to ride through the newly snowy landscape on a sledge pulled by wooly dogs. She’s creating her dreams where she is.


  1. I recommend reading Tokarczuk’s afterword, reprinted at that link; honestly, it’s a better reading of the novel than mine could be. She talks about the value of “openness” and “wild metaphysics” in fiction, and when I read that I thought: yes, that’s what I’m looking for these days.  ↩

  2. For a more serious though still brave version of this story, see Carrington’s memoir Down Below.  ↩

  3. The Jamesian ghost story is a close relative, although its key emotion is fear instead of wonder. It has the investigation, the openness/incompleteness, the hints of more to the workings of the world.  ↩

  4. It might be relevant for some readers that The Hearing Trumpet features a depiction of a transgender woman that seems well intentioned for the mid–1970s but might feel dated. First, she’s also the only character who dies. Second, the characters don’t seem entirely clear on whether she’s trans or living in disguise to stay near a lover, or aware there’s a distinction. But the novel makes it clear she belongs with the other women—at one point she has a dream that indicates she’s being invited into the same mysteries as Marian.  ↩