Tag Archives: Fantasy

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1971

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

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

1971

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

The stories nominated for both awards were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is No Alternative

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

Cover of Galaxy magazine for The Region Between

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time and Stones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. A term reportedly coined by Leiber himself.  ↩

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

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

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

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 Importance of Being Genre

Alix Harrow’s fantasy novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a very good book, and I enjoyed it. I’m a little conflicted about my enjoyment. The Ten Thousand Doors of January got me thinking about two kinds of subtext running beneath some types of speculative fiction to which it bears a distant family resemblance.

These themes aren’t related–at most, they sometimes intersect–so this essay will ramble, and I’m not sure how coherent it will ultimately be. Just bear in mind I’m not trying to tie everything together; I’m describing a Venn diagram where the circles ever-so-slightly overlap.

Subtext #1: You Flatter Us

There’s a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy written to flatter people who like science fiction and fantasy. Its heroes are smart, imaginative, and interested in strange ideas. In stories set in anything resembling the real world, they usually read actual SF or fantasy. People find them strange, dismiss them as impractical dreamers, or bully them.

All this is, if not like speculative fiction fans, at least like their self-images: Today geek culture is mainstream, but older fans still nurse grudges over lectures from teachers or bullying from peers about their then-weird obsessions. That’s why it’s a kick when a hero’s geek traits turn out to be superpowers. Science fiction geek heroes may be the only one who can solve a problem due to their ingenuity and special geeky knowledge. (Ernest Cline’s books are shameless examples.) Fantasy heroes either have honest-to-god magical powers connected to their imagination, intelligence, or love of reading, or are among the privileged few who can see magic or have access to portal or wainscot worlds.

At their smuggest, the lessons of flatter-the-fans stories are:

  1. Science fiction and fantasy are very special genres, and the fan culture surrounding them is also very special!
  2. Being, or at least resembling, a SF fan is a sign of intelligence and sensitivity!

I understand why sci-fi fans love this stuff–I can enjoy it, too, in the right mood. But I’m not sure stories telling fans they’re special are the stories they need right now. Again, these days stuff fans like is mainstream. Most pop culture caters to them already, and to the loudest, most aggrieved fans most of all.

Subtext #2: The Special People

Modern culture, geek culture especially, values people for what they are more than what they do. Sherlock Holmes has privilege but what makes him a hero are his skills, which theoretically anybody could learn with study. Contemporary pop culture heroes might be skilled, but they’re heroes because of powers or privileges nobody else can access. Our standard hero is the superhero. Superheroes are special because they’re aliens, or mutants, or just so rich they can build a batcave and train all day instead of getting a job. Even in a comic-book universe, any kid can’t grow up to be Superman.

It’s interesting watching existing characters evolve to fit the trend. The latest Star Wars protagonist, Rey, went from an impoverished nobody to the daughter of the emperor in two films (mostly because fans were loudly dissatisfied with the former option). The 1960s Captain Kirk was a man in his 30s who’d worked his way up through Starfleet; the new Captain Kirk is handed the Enterprise straight out of the academy. Doctor Who used to be a mediocre, underachieving Time Lord who fled Gallifrey out of boredom; now she’s an ex-super-spy whose superior alien genes are the original source of every Time Lord’s ability to regenerate. (And for a while now she’s been the last Time Lord in the universe, just to ensure no one has the authority to boss her around.)

The Part That’s Actually a Review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is about January Scaller, a young woman at the dawn of the 20th century. January voraciously reads pulp novels and tales of adventure. (SF isn’t really a genre at this point, but she comes as close to fandom as she can–she even voluntarily reads Tom Swift books.) She can see doorways to other worlds. And she has the magical power to make things she writes come true, which she uses to open more doorways. She’s not just a fan; she’s become a writer herself, opening doors to worlds of her own.

So, yeah, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is wish fulfillment for fantasy readers. That’s no problem. I am a fantasy reader. And, honestly, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is an excellent novel of its type. I’m not saying it’s deep–it’s unambiguous, easy to interpret, and unlikely to confound or challenge most readers. As with a lot of SF, I get the sense this book is pitched younger than the adult audience it’s marketed to. Unlike a lot of SF, it feels like a novel, not a pitch for the Netflix series many writers seem to want instead. It’s a book about learning, uncovering information, more than presenting breathless action.

Its metaphors don’t work only one way; they rhyme with each other. It’s a novel about doors, and traveling between worlds, but January is also liminal herself: as an upper class mixed-race woman in 1900s America she moves between social worlds. January alone is perceived differently from January in the company of her wealthy white guardian.

We see a couple of worlds in detail, one independent world and one pocket-universe refuge for people marginalized by 1900s America. They’re both vivid. The larger world, a place of islands, tattoos, and word-magic, feels more distinctive and complete than most epic fantasy settings in a fraction of the space.

Ten Thousand Doors’ prose has style, not an attempt at styleless transparency. It’s sensitive to narrative voice, even down to the niceties of capitalization. As the novel begins it’s already asking us to notice the difference between a door and a Door. Which comes in handy, since the book has two narrators: January herself, and a nonfiction book on Doors that becomes a biography of Adelaide Larson, a woman who travels through them.

(That second strand sold me on the novel. Fantasy and science fiction don’t spend enough time exploring the worldbuilding and storytelling possibilities of fictional nonfiction. If nothing else it saves time when you can just come out and tell the reader about the world instead of implying everything through plot, and it’s often the more interesting option.)

And then–here’s where I start revealing the things that ought to surprise you on first reading–that biography neatly transitions into an autobiography of Yule Ian, its otherworldly author, then connects back to January’s plot, which loops around to the very beginning of the novel as she sits down to write, and then past it.

One of my cranky literary opinions is that every story has a narrator. Yes, even when they stick to close third person, or “transparent” style, the whole way through. You’re getting the characters’ thoughts and feelings because someone is telling you them. Sometimes this narrator is a persona the author wants to present to the audience. Sometimes it’s a persona the author doesn’t realize they’re presenting. One interesting question to ask about any novel is who is telling this story, and why? Even stories in first person don’t always consider the second half of that question.

Here, it’s easy to answer. Ten Thousand Doors is a first person narrative wedded to a mostly third person narrative that gradually lets the first person take over. Each narrator is writing to a specific audience for a specific reason.

Meanwhile the real-life readers are in the position of those characters, being addressed by the narratives. The nonfiction strand, addressed to January, ultimately explains her background and powers: you are magic. January’s story turns out to be addressed to an amnesiac boyfriend: an unsuspected magical girlfriend is looking for you. Both reinforce the book’s wish-fulfillment aspects.

On a higher level, both narrators are metaphorical fantasy authors–dreamers, writers, fascinated by Doors–making their cases for the importance of fantasy. But they do a weirdly lousy job of selling what’s so awesome about it.

Everybody Wants Their Genre to Rule the World

Doors are a metaphor for books. Speculative fiction, mostly; books about other worlds and presumably other possibilities.

Doors, The Ten Thousand Doors tells us, are also change. They’re the source of wonder and innovation, where revolutionary ideas slip into our world from fundamentally different ones: “revolution, resistance, empowerment, upheaval, invention, collapse, reformation—all the most vital components of human history, in short.”

The European rebellions of 1848 hung like gun smoke in the air; the sepoys of India could still taste mutiny on their tongues; women whispered and conspired, sewing banners and authoring pamphlets; freedmen stood unshackled in the bloodied light of their new nation. All the symptoms, in short, of a world still riddled with open doors.

Are they, though? There’s a step missing here: The Ten Thousand Doors never tells us what these changes have to do with Doors. It’s like the cartoon about the scientist who solves a complicated equation by writing “then a miracle occurs.” The book insists Doors are change but can’t come up with a concrete example of the world changing because of a Door.[1]

You’ll notice these revolutionary movements happened in the real, Doorless, world. This is one of those fantasy stories set in the real world, which puts it in a bind. The novel can’t introduce changes that never happened or the world won’t look like ours anymore. It also can’t give Doors credit for real-world changes without denying credit to the real people who worked for them. True, a lot of social movements were in part inspired by books… but most of them weren’t the kind of books January reads. They were books like Das Kapital, or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, or occasionally realist novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle.

Mostly Doors aren’t about changing this world, but escaping into other ones. Adelaide finds Yule Ian’s world and her true love. January’s African governess slips into a world free from European colonialism. A community of outsiders and marginalized people take refuge on an uninhabited Earth. And there’s nothing wrong with this. Sometimes people need an escape, a refuge. Weird, bullied people, or those who’ve been genuinely marginalized: The Ten Thousand Doors makes sure to provide portals for the non-white, non-male readers who rarely got to star in the fantasies of decades past. This is all good!

It’s just that there’s a gap between what Ten Thousand Doors wants to make of fantasy and what it actually provides. It tells us stories can change the world, but only ever shows them leading people inwards to their own private worlds. In a way, Doors are change–but only for the select group of people who get to travel through them.

A Bad Witch

I might not have given The Ten Thousand Doors of January a shot if I’d remembered Harrow had also written “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,”. “A Witch’s Guide” has a similar central metaphor but isn’t as smart, or as kind. It’s one of the most obnoxiously smug flatter-the-fans stories I’ve ever come across. It still won a Hugo Award. That might be why it won a Hugo Award.

“A Witch’s Guide to Escape” is about a librarian/witch who sees her job as connecting people with The Right Book, or, as she puts it, “divining the unfilled spaces in their souls and filling them with stories and starshine.” I must emphasize here that at no point in this story is there any hint of irony.

You get a sense of the narrator’s personality when she says “There have only ever been two kinds of librarians in the history of the world: the prudish, bitter ones with lipstick running into the cracks around their lips who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches.” She’s the kind of person who thinks there are two kinds of people. And, like a Josephine Tey character, she thinks she can know a person by looking at them. The patrons she’s concerned about are kids. She barely speaks to any of them, but brief glimpses as they pass through her library “kind of [tell] you all you need to know” about their lives. She knows what they need, and what they need is always the same thing. Fantasy, king of literature and the literature of kings!

“And you really can’t do anything for the people who only read Award-Winning Literature,” she says, “who wear elbow patches and equate the popularity of Twilight with the death of the American intellect; their hearts are too closed-up for the new or secret or undiscovered.” Which is amazing. I mean, if the internet has taught me one thing it’s that sci-fi/fantasy fandom includes some of the most incurious and unimaginative people on earth. And a lot of people they’d dismiss as “mundane” are smart, thoughtful readers. The narrator can’t imagine anyone might read “Award-Winning Literature” and find things in it that are new, or secret, or undiscovered. I read fantasy and Award-Winning Literature and off the top of my head I could come up with a half-dozen “literary” novels with more of the new and undiscovered in them than in Brandon Sanderson’s entire oeuvre.

A social worker brings one boy in and suggests he read some nonfiction about his depression instead of another fantasy novel. She’s not as diplomatic as I’d be, but she’s not wrong. I read fantasy, and I’ve dealt with depression. I need some escape sometimes but I can confirm nonfiction is better long-term help in this area than fiction of any genre. The witch is incensed: “Anyone could see that kid needed to run and keep running until he shed his own skin, until he clawed out of the choking darkness and unfurled his wings, precious and prisming in the light of some other world.” And, I mean… does she not realize it’s possible to read more than one thing? No, fantasy solves all problems! Fantasy is the most important literature.

So the witch steers kids to the books she thinks they need. It doesn’t work–one kid, pregnant and desperate, kills herself. So the witch swears she’ll give the boy one of the really magic books, the ones witches keep from the public. And she does, and it’s a literal portal, and the boy vanishes into it. The story says this is a happy ending. Maybe from the boy’s point of view it is. We don’t know. The witch is telling this story, and she’s so disengaged from the kids they barely have any dialogue; we never get his point of view. From everyone else’s POV, both he and the pregnant girl are equally gone from the world. What’s the difference?

But everyone else’s point of view doesn’t matter. The witch is a fantasy fan, “A Witch’s Guide” is here to tell us fantasy fans are wiser and more sensitive than the common herd.

Guarding the Doors

January’s guardian belongs to the New England Archaeological Society. The NEAS collects powerful artifacts from beyond the Doors. Then they close the Doors behind them so just anyone can’t do the same. The NEAS are special, better than the mundanes. They know what’s best.

The NEAS are SF fans. They’re the fans who police the boundaries, set pop quizzes to sort “real” fans from poseurs, and whine when their comic books start to look less white and male. They memorize canons and amass Funko pops while blockading the doors to divide themselves from the herd, keep the club exclusive. What kind of world would this be if January could get in?

But even a lot of fans on the right side of these fights, who want to open the doors, are more like the NEAS than they’d care to admit. January’s magical powers, remember, mark her as sensitive and creative. She’s a character the Witch from “A Witch’s Guide” might like to see herself in. The Witch is a speculative fiction fan, and she doesn’t want to keep anybody out–quite the opposite. But, well, some people are just too dead inside to get with the program, am I right? If they had any imagination they’d gladly be assimilated into her Borg. She won’t accept that people who love literature beyond fantasy could feel the same love for it or get the same rewards. Fantasy is her refuge. She can’t stand the suggestion that anything outside her fandom could be as important.

I’ve seen aggrieved SF fans set up psychological barricades to protect themselves from ideas that might pop their SF-is-special bubbles. They don’t consciously police boundaries, but they have the same combative grudge about other kinds of art that they imagine litfic readers have about SF. They get defensive over even mild criticism of the things they love. They question the imaginations of the non-genre readers, performatively sneer at the books they were assigned in high school, or dismiss litfic as books about professors having affairs with their students.

The result is that SF is so frustratingly small. From the golden age onwards, most popular writers have come out of the same fan culture and read the same books. Most SF draws from a limited range of styles, themes, and subjects. During the “golden age” we got pulp potboilers starring white, male soldiers and engineers. Today, the standard is a low-subtext Hollywood-style thriller. At all times, the style hasn’t strayed far from the contemporary understanding of “transparent prose.”

The core, non-small-press part of the speculative fiction genres don’t learn from anything outside themselves. If SF is so special and powerful, and its readers so especially imaginative and sensitive, what could the outside world have to teach?

Super Genres and Supermen

Alec Nevala-Lee’s brilliant book Astounding is part biography of Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell (along with Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard), part cultural history of his disproportionate impact on science fiction. Campbell was a man of strong opinions, most of them bad. He was convinced science fiction was not ordinary literature–it might even be the most important literature. He once told Barry Malzburg “There’s going to be a moon landing because of science fiction. There’s no argument.” By that point he’d spent his entire career trying to prove science fiction could change the world.

Campbell spent World War II looking for ways sci-fi might contribute to the war effort, imaging Astounding as a laboratory where smart people could brainstorm new ideas. He sometimes pitched schemes at actual government employee Robert Heinlein. Campbell was so desperate to prove his genre could lead to a world-changing breakthrough that after the war Hubbard suckered him into using Astounding to introduce Scientology.

Nevala-Lee writes Campbell saw Astounding as “an evolutionary collaboration between authors and fans to develop ideas at blinding speed… his ultimate goal was to create a new kind of person in both the magazine and its audience—a competent man who might pave the way for the superman to come.” Campbell wanted to be one of those competent men. He was a reasonably smart man who thought he was brilliant–the Dunning-Kruger Effect in human form. He’d grown up precocious, and bullied.[2] The lesson Campbell took was that ordinary people can’t handle genius.

Science fiction of Campbell’s era was stocked with superhumans–people who were naturally smarter than the common folk. A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and Zenna Henderson’s People stories are famous examples. Campbell published Wilmar H. Shiras’s “In Hiding,”[3] about a child psychologist who discovers a boy is hiding his true intelligence because the people around him Just Don’t Understand. The story consists of the kid explaining seriously and at length how smart he is–running selective breeding experiments with kittens, publishing stories in magazines whose editors don’t know he’s twelve. The boy isn’t just bright–normal people can’t educate themselves up to his level through hard work. He’s an atomic mutant, genetically superior. Brains are in his blood.

January, meanwhile, is special because she’s literally magic, and she’s magic because her father is from another world. January’s a better person than the NEAS, she’s not interested in excluding anyone, but she can’t help being special. The abilities that metaphorically mark her as a fan and a creator are hereditary powers no mundane human could learn. January masters them instinctively. They’re in her blood. She’s a superhero.

(Magic powers are often hereditary in fantasy. If you don’t want magic to be absolutely ubiquitous, restricting it to a small part of the population is an obvious solution. But it’s weird that it’s usually genetic. Why does it need to follow the rules of heredity? It’s magic.)

The significant, plot-moving characters in The Ten Thousand Doors are people who know about Doors. Few non-door-aware people get names. The novel cares about how they support or hinder January, or her parents or governess, or her enemies. It rarely hints at what goals they might have of their own. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a struggle for control of fantasy fandom. Here, it’s the only world that matters.

One of the best small moments in The Ten Thousand Doors of January involves Adelaide’s journey to the island world. She needs a ship, and her Door is on top of a mountain, and she hires two Hispanic men to lug it up, and they’re the last people to see her before she disappears. And the book acknowledges the trouble this causes them! They’re not disregarded as extras–Adelaide’s biographer names and quotes one of them. We may not learn what January plans to do for the world outside her charmed Door-savvy circle, but this book knows January and her friends and family have responsibilities to others. The novel is calling Adelaide on her privilege–not just her white privilege, but her hero privilege.

The NEAS aren’t special–but neither are January and her parents. It’s easy to reject a villains’ assumption of specialness. Remembering to question a story’s assumptions about the hero’s specialness is harder. They usually aren’t conscious on the protagonist’s or the author’s part, so they’re more hidden.

Stories of special, magical people that lose this sense of perspective can be toxic. Heroes who are more special than everyone else aren’t held accountable for the collateral damage incurred by their adventures. Superhero movies often center the hero’s self-actualization while disregarding the background extras’ health and safety. They divide people into the special ones and the mundanes, and encourage the audience to identify with the special ones.

I know this post has rambled. I’m not sure it’s entirely cohered. But I do see points of connection between the gatekeeping fans; and the defensive, incurious fans; and stories about special people; and stories where those people are fans. The Ten Thousand Doors of January has the perspective and self-awareness they lack. On top of that, it’s genuinely well-written. Still, this book feels like a candy bar: I loved it, but I know if I consume too much of this stuff I’ll make myself sick.


  1. In reality, the biggest changes SF and fantasy made to the world are Scientology and the Disney corporation’s monopoly on the American imagination, neither of which were a win.  ↩

  2. Which, though it doesn’t justify anything, was probably partly in reaction to Campbell’s own obnoxiousness–for instance, he recalled “solving” games like hide-and-seek.  ↩

  3. Recently reprinted in the Library of America anthology The Future is Female.  ↩

Short Complaints About Several Books

This summer hasn’t been great for reading or writing. My concentration and attention span are low; I read the first chapters of a book only to get distracted by another. Still, I have a few longer posts in the works about books I liked enough (or in one case disliked enough) to inspire substantial thoughts. Meanwhile, here are shorter notes on some books that inspired insubstantial thoughts. Most of them I wasn’t impressed with.

Steve Aylett, Lint

I can’t decide how I feel about Lint. It took me weeks to read. Not that it’s bad–far from it. But it only works in small doses.

Lint is a biography of Jeff Lint, a 20th century science fiction writer distantly based on Philip K. Dick. It’s comedy in a style that mostly doesn’t depend on obvious punch lines, which I like. (Only a few pieces of this novel feel like conventional jokes and they’re the bits least likely to work well.) Lint has some genuinely incisive lines: “Truth is unpopular because it doesn’t have a dependent need to be liked or believed–its independence seems like unfriendliness.”) Occasionally descriptions of Lint’s novels aspire to the satire found in Stanislaw Lem’s fake book reviews: “In the novel Jelly Result, half of Eterani city is exactly the same as the other half, because the authorities don’t have enough ideas to cover the whole area.”

But the dominant style of humor here is randomness: “On one occasion Lint fired forty pounds of chili from a turn-of-the-century baseball gun mounted on the roof of a 23rd Street apartment block, and eagerly told a baffled Kerouac about it.” Most of the text is a succession of sentences like this. Parts of the book seem written with a text-processing program like JanusNode: “They behave like rain upon travelers,’ he thought, seeing those spirits. ‘We are a circus of ourselves. We make the sleeve. We the alteration.’” This is amusing more often than not, but after a while the rhythm feels overwhelmingly samey, like a stuck nozzle relentlessly pumping out infinite quantities of cake frosting. After every chapter I had to put it down and read something else for a while.

One chapter, though, stood out: the account of Lint’s short-lived animated TV series, Catty and the Major, is genuinely disturbing. It reads like a half-remembered urban legend, suggesting this nightmarish cartoon show hides some deeper mystery we don’t have enough clues to solve. Should you give Lint a try and find the style hard going, it might be worth pushing on to the Catty and the Major chapter. It’s nothing like the rest of the book.

Fran Wilde, The Jewel and Her Lapidary

I got interested in this one because I’d heard it was written at least partly as a travel guide (the blurb begins “Buried beneath the layers of a traveler’s guide is a hidden history”), and then it got a Hugo nomination. It turns out the travel guide entries are just chapter-heading epigraphs. The bulk of the book is a decent but not unusual epic fantasy, with maybe slightly better than average prose.

Unusually in a genre inclined to bloat, this fantasy may not be long enough. It’s plot, plot, plot all the way, with little room to pry into the oddities and philosophical underpinnings of its world. (And there is some odd stuff here, which might have been interesting if unpacked; the power relationships inherent in most feudal fantasy are heightened, with the constant presence of literal physical chains as a metaphor.)

Someday, someone needs to write that epic fantasy in the form of a travel guide. (Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland isn’t quite the same thing.)

Marie Brennan, Cold-Forged Flame

For me, the single interesting aspect of Cold-Forged Flame is how stripped-down it is, almost experimentally so. It’s pure action, lacking any of the context that makes action meaningful–character, setting, philosophy. The protagonist is an amnesiac born at the moment the novel begins. Most of the story is set in a mutable otherworld, the magic-island equivalent of Star Trek’s holodeck–the kind of setting SF series use when they want to be Symbolic. The novel’s only serious engagement with ideas is a brief conversation about ethics.

As a blank slate, the protagonist knows only as much as the reader, and in experiencing the story she initially works as a proxy for the reader. Like, at first what little we see of this world looks like Celtic Britain, but then the protagonist sees a gun and instantly understands guns are a thing in her world: “I’m just wondering how I recognize that thing… How can I know all that, when I don’t remember anything from before I opened my eyes on that slab?” She knows about guns because the readers of Cold-Forged Flame know about guns, and they deduced what the gun meant in the same moment she did. The protagonist learns her world like a typical fantasy reader, with the same background knowledge and skill in deducing the nature of the world from the cues her author gave her. She is in effect a fantasy fan dumped into a random fantasy story.

Like I said, we don’t learn much about this world before the protagonist reaches Holodeck Island. SF stories don’t usually resort to holodecks (or Lands of Fiction, or insanity pepper hallucinations, or other mutable surrealist dreamscapes) until we’ve gotten to know the characters in their normal context; watching them navigate symbolic landscapes is less revealing when, as in Cold-Forged Flame, we don’t understand who they are or how their world works in the first place. As the protagonist of Cold-Forged Flame learns about herself, it’s less and less apparent what the facts she learns mean. At the climax we learn she’s something called an “Archon,” and we’re given some idea of what an Archon is, but having spent so little time in her world we don’t know what being an Archon means: how should she feel about being an Archon? What do other people think of them? What’s their place in the world? It’s not clear, so the scene meant to deliver the novels’ biggest emotional punch falls flat.

Brian Evanson, The Warren

The Warren is the story of X, an artificial being living in an underground bunker. He’s the latest in a long line of constructs, but the first to be alone instead of part of a pair; his past selves live within himself, perceived as a collection of eyes that open when the personality wakes.

X’s selves trade off the first-person narration as they trade off his body, unaware of any of the others’ actions beyond what they might have written. The prose is perfectly controlled, always clear except where it’s intentionally not, with a strong personality. It’s one of those stories that manage to imply far more about its world than they explain, a landscape packed into a small space. It’s apocalyptic, but it’s apocalyptic surrealism. For me, literary surrealism is one of the main attractions of SF.

So it’s odd I didn’t like The Warren more than I did. Like the last two books, the problem is that it feels insubstantial. There are fewer layers here than there ought to be. Expectations are the problem: SF has literary status anxiety, and fans and marketing copy both have a habit of selling SF books as deeper than they are. (It’s telling how often fan-written reviews say a novel is about certain issues but don’t dig into how it’s about those issues, or what it’s actually saying about them.) The marketing surrounding The Warren is best summed up by Charles Yu’s blurb: “What is a human? What is a person? The Warren is a truly original exploration of these questions―the kind of work that causes one to re-examine long-held certainties. Profound and deeply unsettling, in the best way possible.” And, yeah, the questions What is a human? and What is a person? come up in The Warren. But I honestly don’t think it has much to say about them except that, in a science fictional world, maybe our definition of “person” ought to be as expansive as possible. Which is true, but not any more profound than your average quarter-century old episode of Star Trek.

Two Blake’s 7 Tie-Ins

On the other hand, sometimes my expectations are modest but still aren’t met. The Forgotten and Archangel are tie-in novels based on the TV series Blake’s 7, published by Big Finish, a company that mostly produces audio dramas. There’s one in this series I haven’t yet read that I expect I’ll enjoy–it’s by Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum, who have a good track record with Doctor Who novels.

These first two, though… they’re competent, but I can’t call them good even by tie-in standards. They read like bald descriptions of a couple of hypothetical TV stories. They don’t feel like real novels and I get the impression the possibility they could have been real novels wasn’t even on the authors’ sensors. The one memorable incident in either is a strange moment in Archangel when we learn Jenna hates going down to the Liberator’s power section because it “always seemed to have the same effect on her. It affected her fingers first, making them ache until it was difficult for her to grip things, then it would slowly seep down her body until her stomach felt bloated and she needed to use the bathroom.” This is more than I wanted to know about the Liberator’s power section.

Agatha Christie, Towards Zero

Towards Zero is a perfectly cromulent Agatha Christie novel. If you’re into Agatha Christie it will pass the time adequately; if not, then not. The only noteworthy moment is when Superintendent Battle notices a clue because it’s something Hercule Poirot would have noticed. This unfortunately just emphasizes that the entirely charisma-free Battle is the detective instead of Poirot.

D. M. Devine, The Sleeping Tiger

D. M. Devine’s The Sleeping Tiger is one of a half-dozen paperback “Crime Classics” I bought off a remainder table. How it’s a “Classic” I have no idea. This is a stupid book.

Some of the problem is values dissonance; a lot of old mysteries have moments that didn’t age well, but The Sleeping Tiger is way out of touch. When protagonist John Prescott declines to cover for a doctor who had an accident driving drunk, we’re meant to think he’s a stick-in-the-mud. When he slaps his unfaithful wife, we’re meant to think he’s standing up for himself. His love interest by the end of the book is a woman he meets in the first chapters, five years earlier, when he’s in his twenties and she’s fifteen. Oh, and John takes antibiotics for flu. I hate this guy.

This is the 1960s, by the way: circa 1962–1967. The novel was published in 1961. One thing that’s not at all interesting about The Sleeping Tiger, but could have been, is that it could have qualified as near-future science fiction if it had occurred to Devine to wonder how the world might change over the next five years. As it is, the novel takes place in the indeterminate 20th century England of your average Agatha Christie adaptation.

Beyond that, John is one of the dumbest mystery-novel heroes I have ever come across. Never mind that he’s willing to get into a car with a drunk. This is a person who upon finding a dead body moves it, gets himself covered in blood, pulls the freaking knife out of its back, and tells the police an easily-disproved lie about when he arrived. Worst of all for a detective novel, John doesn’t clear his name through brilliant deduction–the villain finally just outright tries to kill him. Give this one a pass.

Verity Holloway, Pseudotooth

I bought Pseudotooth not so much because I was interested in this specific book as because I was curious about its publisher. I might look into their other books because this was a good buy; Pseudotooth is one of the better books I’ve read this year. It’s a portal fantasy of a sort, but weird fiction, not epic fantasy–if I had to play the game of comparisons to more famous novels, I’d say there’s some Shirley Jackson and China Miéville here.

Cover of Pseudotooth

Pseudotooth had me from its first sentence. It’s one of those that in a few words tell a lot about the novel to follow: “And of course, the weather turned Dickensian.” That immediate “and of course” tells us we’re in the middle of something, and it’s gone on long enough to grow tiresome, and now on top of it we have this weather and it is the last straw. The word “Dickensian” evokes Dickens’s association (fair or not) with pathetic-fallacy weather, of the Bleak House variety. Longer-term, it prepares us for a story filled with characters who’ve lost or been rejected by parents, and an other-world Dickensian in its technological level and general aesthetic. The novel that follows is gorgeously written. Take the second sentence, with its Dickensian weather: “The East Anglian horizon was crowded with low, goitrous clouds, ballooning out like new bruises,” which at once freshly visualizes a particular type of cloud and resonates with a specific emotional feel.

The real literary influence here isn’t Dickens but William Blake, who’s quoted throughout the novel. Blake is the favorite poet of Pseudotooth’s protagonist, Aisling Selkirk, who turns to his poems in times of stress, of which she’s having a lot. In the wake of a traumatic experience with her mother’s latest boyfriend, Aisling has been suffering from pseudoseizures–seizures with no neurological cause–alongside the occasional blackout or hallucination. Aisling is a few months away from legal adulthood but is treated like an inconvenient child; as an alternative to an institution her mother sends her into the countryside and the care of a sneering aunt. There Aisling spends her time writing fiction in her journal about Feodor, the delinquent son of a Russian immigrant, and exploring her aunt’s old vicarage. There’s little to read except Within Reason: Treatment and Protection of the Defective Classes, a mouldering eugenics manual made especially awful by the pathetic marginal notes (“Whitewash is extremely moral”) of someone who judged himself “defective” and was desperate to cast out, like a rotten tooth, whatever “degeneracy” caused his illness.

The other world reveals itself slowly; not so much magical as ghostly, or perhaps–appropriately for a novel so preoccupied with Blake–visionary. There’s a gradual bleeding-over of the other world instead of a crossing-into. It starts with apparitions: a young man in the garden, an older, balder one on the stairs. When Aisling eventually wakes up to a deserted house she assumes she’s broken with reality altogether; outside is a nameless place ruled by “Our Friend” according to the precepts in the manual–whitewash the walls, cultivate “inner cleanness,” disappear the “defectives.” Aisling is taken in by an ad-hoc family of outcasts, and meets Feodor in the flesh, and uncovers the connected histories of Feodor and Our Friend and her aunt’s vicarage.

What Aisling doesn’t do is what a by-the-numbers portal fantasy might expect her to do: get involved in a revolution. Portal fantasy heroes aren’t “chosen ones” as often as the subgenre’s stereotype might lead you to believe, but it’s true they are with numbing regularity caught up in Big Events. It’s the default template, which sometimes obscures the fact that it isn’t an essential characteristic. (I would read the hell out of a portal fantasy set in Dungeons & Dragons land that was simply about finding a job and an apartment in a world where Adventurer is a career option and your roommate could be a Beholder.) Feodor, once he learned about Our Friend, thought he could be a hero; instead he caused a disaster. He warns Aisling off: “Look, I know what it’s like to think you’re the molten centre of the universe, but there’s history here, and people moulded by it.” (Another example of good writing, typical of Pseudotooth: you’d expect just “center of the universe,” but Holloway sidesteps the cliché by adding molten, segueing into the “moulded by” image.) Aisling still isn’t sure the other world isn’t in her head. Feodor thinks that will lead to her repeating his mistakes. The other world doesn’t revolve around Aisling, it’s more than a backdrop for her story; that’s a sign of its reality. Although the status quo shifts, Aisling isn’t an instigator but a witness. Her story isn’t about changing the world, it’s about understanding her own life.

Given the subjects it deals with, Pseudotooth is in constant danger of becoming one of those stories valorizing mental illness, connecting it to creativity or suggesting it’s actually some sort of unique and valuable insight. (As someone who’s experienced depression, I hate those things; it’s like telling people with thyroid problems or fibromyalgia they ought to accept and appreciate them.) Ultimately, though, Pseudotooth comes down on the right side of the line, even if it teeters precariously and has to windmill its arms around the point Aisling flushes her meds. (Not recommended, even with the suggestion her doctors gave her a half-assed diagnosis.)

A book review feels incomplete without some kind of thematic summing-up, so I’ll say Pseudotooth is less about mental or psychosomatic illnesses than about how people define and categorize the people who have them. Aisling’s mother thinks she’s weak, or faking it. Aisling’s aunt thinks she’s morally deficient. The head of the family who adopt Aisling thinks she needs to be protected from the world; Our Friend would lock Aisling away to protect the world from her. Within Reason’s annotator suffered from psychosomatic illnesses and believed everything his book told him about himself. Aisling’s story is about coming to understand she doesn’t have to accept any definitions. Her pseudoseizures aren’t part of her identity; they may affect her but don’t define her, and whether or not she gets over them she can still move forward with her life.

The main reason to recommend Pseudotooth is the writing, which is, as I said, great. (It’s coming from distinctly literary direction, without the TV or Hollywood or Video Game influences I detect in a lot of modern SF; that’s something I look for and appreciate.) As a small press release with no unusually vast or unrelenting marketing push behind it, it’s a book I’m afraid might slip under the radar of fantasy fans. That would be too bad–it deserves some attention.

Ben Aaronovitch, The Hanging Tree

Among my least favorite trends in contemporary pop culture–I have several–is the serialization of everything. This thought was inspired by The Hanging Tree, the most recent of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, the better of the two novel series by former Doctor Who writers about London magic police.[1] Peter Grant is an officer and apprentice wizard in the Folly, a department dealing with magical crimes. At first Peter and his old-fashioned but open-minded wizardly mentor are the whole staff; the series hook is that Peter is almost by himself figuring out how modern fantasy police ought to work.

Sometimes all you need to make an adventure compelling is a strong voice. Peter is a distinct, likable first person narrator: he’s amused more than he’s disgusted and unlike most contemporary heroes he actually seems to like people. The narration doesn’t just report action as though novelizing a TV series–Peter’s point of view is apparent in every description, and he offers frequent asides on police procedure and magic to explain what he’s doing and why. I have a hard time finding light SF that’s both intelligent and genuinely good-natured; Aaronovitch’s books fit the bill.

Cover of The Hanging Tree

The Hanging Tree’s voice is as likable as the earlier volumes… but what struck me was its weird structure. Here’s the plot promised by the blurb: at a party of wealthy and privileged teenagers one kid drops dead of a drug overdose. A guest’s mother asks Peter to keep her daughter out of trouble. Inasmuch as the mother is not only Peter’s girlfriend’s aunt but also a powerful river goddess, he has some incentive to cooperate. This is not a bad premise. Magic is privilege; wizards are powerful and, lacking oversight, often aren’t held to account for their actions, much as in reality the very wealthy often aren’t. At the intersection of money, privilege, impulsive teenage recklessness, and literally reality-warping power is a novel’s worth of theme to dig into. On top of that, the choice between bending the rules or pissing off a goddess is an interesting dilemma.

The Hanging Tree, though, gradually becomes a different story. As you reach the last quarter of the book you realize the drug overdose was a red herring, Peter’s professional ethics won’t have consequences in his personal life, and the imperiled god-offspring has dropped out of the novel. Her mother sticks around, but doesn’t seem to belong anymore: she’s just visiting from the first unfinished story. The new The Hanging Tree is about small-time crooks stealing magical artifacts and, in a lovely bit of bathos, selling them on eBay.

Now, this is also a potentially great story, the urban fantasy equivalent of a Donald Westlake caper or a Coen brothers comedy. But The Hanging Tree doesn’t finish this story either! The eBay plot becomes instantly irrelevant as soon as it leads Peter to the artifacts’ owner: the Faceless Man. Which will mean nothing to you unless you’ve read other books in the series.

The Faceless Man is a wizardly crime lord who’s been lurking far in the background of Peter’s investigations without being actually immediately relevant to the resolution of any of them. The climax of The Hanging Tree is the moment we discover, after seven volumes of buildup, the Faceless Man is… a character just introduced in this book! And not even one of the important ones! To be fair, using the climax of a novel to unmask your mysterious multi-book villain is a no-win situation. If the villain is a character we thought we’d gotten to know, it’s a cheap O. Henry twist. If the villain is some guy we never saw before, it’s meaningless. And, honestly, these books never convinced me I should care whether Peter identified or caught the Faceless Man at all: see again, lurking far in the background and not actually immediately relevant.

Which makes me wonder why this big reveal didn’t come at the beginning of a book: get the underwhelming part out of the way first and you have an entire novel to explore the consequences. (It’s surprising how often the most interesting parts of a story happen after it ends.) And there would have been plenty to explore–behind the Faceless Man are hints of personality and theme. He has a library full of J. R. R. Tolkien and Alan Garner and other writers at the intersection of epic fantasy and British folk horror, and in a previous book he left a magic booby-trap inscribed with Elven runes. He’s a toxic nerd. From what little we see of him, he’s also a rich xenophobe, an England-for-the-English type. I know Aaronovitch probably came up with this character years ago, but this all feels very relevant.

Series were not always like this. My shelves are full of series in which books build on each other and characters evolve over time, but individual volumes work by themselves–Steven Brust’s Taltos series[2] and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are examples, as are any mystery series in which the characters develop. The exceptions are often single stories split for convenience, like The Lord of the Rings. One reason for the difference might be availability: maybe pre-Amazon, authors were more likely to assume some readers wouldn’t be able to get their hands on the whole series? I would guess that another may be the influence of other media on contemporary written SF–especially television.

Over the last couple of decades TV storytelling has shifted. The overarching story dominates to the point that individual TV episodes often work more like chapters in a novel than stories in themselves. (Streaming services now release entire seasons at once in the assumption the audience will watch 12 hours in one go!) As these series go on it gets harder for any one episode to get a complete story out from under the ever-accumulating baggage.

TV series can be renewed for years if they make money, or cancelled on short notice. This encourages arc plots busy enough to drag out interminably with twists, counter-twists, unexpected betrayals, and the revelation of increasingly convoluted background mythology… but simple enough to wrap up on short notice in a jury-rigged series finale. Basically, stories with more room than actual content; lots of ostensible action but little real movement in the underlying plot, character, or thematic arcs. The fantasy genre is still home to an improbable number of three-volume novels; now genre television is reinventing the penny dreadful.

It’s this style of storytelling The Hanging Tree reminds me of. The Faceless Man story arc played out past its natural length. Now The Hanging Tree brings it to a climax so fast it interrupts itself.[3] Weirdly structured novels are not a problem for me. In fact, it’s often a selling point–I like novels that meander, take detours, eschew traditional plot, and just generally don’t go where I expect. It has to be a good weird structure, though, and this time it wasn’t: The Hanging Tree crams three stories together so tightly none have room to dig into their themes. This is the point where the gravitational pull of the arc so deforms the individual installment it’s no longer coherent or satisfying in and of itself.


  1. The other is a rather grumpier series by Paul Cornell.  ↩

  2. Still current, but it started in the 1980s.  ↩

  3. Twice. No, three times–I haven’t even mentioned the mother/daughter wizards looking for a Very Important Manuscript, who are major characters for a while but eventually, anticlimactically, just pick up the manuscript and walk offstage in what’s almost an aside. They’re not part of this novel; they’re being set up to be important in some other novel.  ↩

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Return of Munchausen

I’ve written before about the Russian fantasist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Due to Soviet censorship, he went unpublished in his lifetime only to be rediscovered and translated in the new century. He took his place among my favorite writers on the basis of Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club. Autobiography of a Corpse and the latest release, The Return of Munchausen, are slightly lesser works but still good.

Cover of The Return of Munchausen

Baron Munchausen is as perfect a hero for Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky as he was for Terry Gilliam. Krzhizhanovsky writes philosophical fiction with the tools of the tall tale: literalized metaphors, wordplay, and so much anthropomorphism that his inanimate objects and abstract ideas can be livelier than his people. (Typical of Krzhizhanovsky’s technique is one character’s descent of a staircase: “Stairs scurried under Unding’s feet and then, damply through his worn-out soles, sidewalk asphalt.”)

Munchausen, for the uninitiated, is a fictional character loosely based on an actual German aristocrat. He’s a serial exaggerator. He rides cannonballs, vacations on the moon, and pulls himself out of swamps by his own hair–or claims to.[1]

Krzhizhanovsky’s Munchausen isn’t just a teller of tall tales, but a defender of fiction, an advocate for fantasy: “I flatter myself with the hope that I have made better and wider use than other barons of my right to flights of fancy.” His motto is “truth in lies.” He has a “theory of improbability”: where probability theory studies things that happen many times, improbability theory studies things that have happened less than once. A scholar protests that Munchausen’s theory is all metaphor, but that’s the point: “People are fractions passing themselves off as ones… and the acts of a fraction are all fractional,” he argues. Probability alone isn’t a reliable guide to anything as unpredictably irrational as human beings.

So when Munchausen is asked to tour and report on the new Soviet Union, he returns with a lecture full of the usual impossible adventures. Here we see why Krzhizhanovsky had no luck getting published. The Russian sequence is a long, caustic vent about Krzhizhanovsky’s every frustration with his country. Secret police and famines get a look in, but Krzhizhanovsky aims most of his satire at the government’s control of ideas and its treatment of artists and intellectuals–understandably, maybe, in Krzhizhanovsky’s circumstances. Trains are fueled by burning books; Munchausen’s train crawls by inches because the engineer is an ex-professor who keeps stopping to read. Munchausen can see Soviet science is advancing because the scientists, lacking blackboards, are running after the trucks on which they’ve scrawled their equations. For modern readers some of Krzhizhanovsky’s less broad and more specific jokes are obscure enough to warrant endnotes: at one point Munchausen is sentenced to a “conditional execution,” which the notes tell us was a real punishment handed down on one occasion to an engineer whose skills the government couldn’t actually afford to lose. But even without the context there’s still plenty of wit here.

Krzhizhanovsky knows this is satire but Munchausen doesn’t share his latest author’s awareness: he thinks he’s created a flight of fancy, unmoored from reality. When he learns his lecture was nothing more than a comic exaggeration of the truth, Munchausen is stricken.

While this review was half-finished, I came across a weirdly appropriate line in one of the blogs I follow. Adam Roberts, in a review of a different book, quoted this bit from Martin Amis’s book Koba the Dread: “Amis says ‘it was a symmetrical convenience—for Stalin—that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.’”

Munchausen is an intellectual anarchist. For him, tall tales represent freedom; absurdity opens up new imaginative possibilities. So it’s important to Munchausen that his tall tales actually are absurd–that they put some distance between themselves and the reality they depart from. If the world isn’t reasonable, Munchausen’s refusal to conform to reason is nothing special. Now reality itself is absurd enough to overtake Munchausen’s ability to reimagine it, and the jokes don’t seem so Pythonesquely anarchic anymore. Just bitter.


  1. The Baron is often misremembered as pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Next time you hear that figure of speech, remember that it describes an impossibility.  ↩

The Clomping Foot of Orbis Tertius

(Edited to add: oddly, my RSS feed seems to be having trouble with the o-with-an-umlaut character that should go in Tlon. Please excuse the misspelling.)

So… as I said in my last post (oh so long ago now), recently I reread Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” after it turned up on the shortlist for the Retro Hugo awards, juxtaposed with pulpy stories by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Leigh Brackett. Which, I grant, seems incongruous.

It’s possible to argue–I’ve seen arguments made, anyway–that salting a SF shortlist with classic literature is a dubious move. That such a list might simply be grabbing at cultural respectability, poaching a work that came from outside the SF tradition and therefore doesn’t really belong with it. What’s interesting about this argument is that it could just as easily come from people skeptical of genre fiction, or from genre fans who resent “literary” fiction and insist the beloved pulp of their childhoods is just as good as–no, better than–the books their ninth grade English teacher forced them to read. I would refuse to belong to these groups even if they were willing to have me as a member.

Genre is just a tool for describing what fiction is doing. Any interesting fiction does more than one thing, and might be grouped with any number of genres. The people of Tlon assume all books are the work of one all-encompassing author, whose mind they reconstruct by juxtaposing such wildly dissimilar volumes as the Tao Te Ching and the Arabian Nights; we probably shouldn’t go that far. But no laboratory test in existence can establish definitively how much of which genres any book contains. I’d argue that anyone who can come up with an argument (reasonable or not) for putting a particular work in a particular genre should feel free to do so. The only excuses you need are “Does this make for an enjoyable argument?” and “Could putting this story next to these others lead to interesting ideas?”[1]

For those who haven’t read “Tlon,” a summary: the narrator, a fictionalized Borges, hears of an imaginary world, Tlon, referenced only in an article on a nonexistent country appearing in a single bootleg copy of an encyclopedia. Later he discovers a volume from the Encyclopedia of Tlon which gives a more complete picture of Tlon’s radically different worldview.

SF still has a lot to learn for Borges. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” like much of his work, is a story in the form of an essay. You don’t see this much in science fiction or fantasy. I mean, yeah, there aren’t massive quantities of fictional nonfiction in general. But it’s odd that essay-stories don’t turn up much more often in SF, because the format suits SF so well. Some strains of SF just want to build worlds, or speculate about new technologies’ effects on society, and these are too often the ones with clichéd plots and flat characters. Maybe these stories authors’ only cared about (and, incidentally, had the right sort of talents to deal with) the ideas that weren’t related to plot or character… but, not realizing that fiction didn’t have to be conventionally plotted and narrated, they bolted on perfunctory plots and characters about which they felt no real enthusiasm. A lot of golden-age-style engineering problem stories would benefit from being written as fake journal articles. A lot of epic fantasies would be better off as fictional travel writing in the vein of Leena Krohn’s Tainaron or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes. Still, not many essay-stories turn up in Best SF collections; in genre the only writer I can think of who embraced the form enthusiastically was Stanislaw Lem, whose A Perfect Vacuum (which includes a nod to Borges) and Imaginary Magnitude collected reviews of, and prefaces to, nonexistent books.

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” uses its essay format to build a world in a small space. Worldbuilding is core to science fiction and fantasy, but it’s often seen as a distraction, an invitation for geeks to vanish down their own navels; M. John Harrison famously called it “the great clomping foot of nerdism”. (For the opposing view, see China Miéville.) “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” leans toward Harrison’s vision of worldbuilding as toxic labyrinth–but more on that later.

I sometimes agree with M. John Harrison, but I think there are different kinds of worldbuilding. One kind, the kind that can seduce a writer into compiling a thousand-page wannabe-Silmarillion recording the undistinguished deeds of indistinguishable gods and heroes, is boring. But I think other kinds are relevant to creating worlds with a sense of life, and characters who seem to live as citizens of those worlds instead of using them as sketchy backdrops for narcissistic protagonisting. One concerns itself with the material conditions of people’s lives–their food, their jobs and pastimes, their plumbing. Another, the kind of worldbuilding Borges is doing here, is concerned with how people in this imagined world think–not so much their surface opinions as the underlying philosophies and fundamental beliefs. What makes them tick.

The Tlonites tick differently. Their worldview resembles the “subjective idealism” proposed by the 18th century philosopher George Berkely: Tlon denies that material reality exists. Instead there are actions and perceptions. Tlon’s languages have no nouns; one is composed entirely of verbs, another of adjectives, which they use to describe objects, which exist only when perceived. Tlon’s geometry insists that a moving person modifies the forms that surround them, its mathematics claims that counting changes an indefinite number into a definite one. In Tlon, ideas make things: the desire to find a lost object, or even the hope to find something previously unknown, can create new objects called hronir. In Tlon science and philosophy are more games than searches for truth. The point is to construct arguments that come to interesting conclusions.

In the final section of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, ostensibly written seven years later, we learn about the secret society that invented Tlon at the behest of a rich American who wanted to prove God wasn’t the only entity who could create worlds, dagnabbit. The Encyclopedia of Tlon, it turns out, exists in its entirety.

Which brings us back to M. John Harrison’s suspicion of worldbuilding. When I looked up that famous “clomping foot of nerdism” quotation I was struck by a passage that seemed to resonate with Borges’s story:

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

The Orbis Tertius group releases the entire Encyclopedia of Tlon into the wild, along with a handful of artifacts apparently from Tlon. Now Tlon is everywhere, more inescapable than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The public devours Tlon’s history, adopts Tlon’s culture. Schools teach Tlon’s languages. It’s what everyone on the internet is writing inane thinkpieces about. Everybody loves Tlon because Tlon is simple. Bizarre, yes. But Tlon is the product of human minds, so can be completely contained in and comprehended by human minds–unlike the infinite, complex, accidental, ultimately unknowable real universe that produced the minds that produced Tlon. In a few years, Borges speculates, the world will be Tlon.

So, worldbuilding. What’s it for? Potentially lots of things. I think a lot of them are good. Worldbuilding can create just the right environment to make a story work. Stories of other worlds can show readers other possibilities, good and bad; other ways of thinking or arranging societies. I’m even sympathetic to worldbuilding as consolation, providing imaginary places to daydream about. If occasional escapism helps someone exist in the world, I’m not one to sneer. (There’s a Lynda Barry quotation that turns up a lot on the internet: “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.”)

But in these worlds some people find consolation of another, stupider kind. Science fiction and fantasy, the genres most concerned with worldbuilding, are beloved of geek culture, which in the 21st century is mainstream culture. (See: Marvel Cinematic Universe, inescapableness of.) See, geek culture has this pathology–well, geek culture has several pathologies, but this essay is concerned with just one. Geek culture has a habit of relating to its favorite fictions, especially franchises and expanded universes, through a kind of obsessive collector mentality. Not collecting things, collecting facts–fictional facts, at least. Memorizing every detail of the history of Middle Earth, knowing exactly which issue of X-Men each character was introduced in, remembering the name and personal history of every alien in the Star Wars cantina.

Which sounds harmless, but leads to so many annoyances. Like, any discussion involving a pop culture phenomenon, something like Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes, stands a nonzero chance of getting derailed by obsessives arguing over canon: which fictional facts fit with all the other fictional facts, and which have to be thrown out? I’m usually the first to argue that any critical approach can lead to an interesting conversation regardless of how generous you have to be to describe it as a “critical approach,” but even I must admit this stuff is tedious.

What’s worse are the geeks who form in-groups based on obsessive cataloguing, and resentfully police their boundaries with trivia. You’re not a proper fan unless you’ve read all the right science fiction novels,[2] or agree that the animated Star Trek series isn’t canon, or like the right version of Doctor Who. Women in particular seemingly can’t show interest in geek culture things without being quizzed on trivialities by tedious nerds hoping to expose “fake geek girls.”

And then there’s the way any remake, addition, or slight change to any media franchise brings man-children crawling out from under their rocks crying that their childhoods are being ruined.[3] And we have to put up with this nonsense constantly, because the studios that control 90% of American pop culture have run out of ideas and produce nothing but remakes, additions, and slight changes to franchises. As I write this the internet is up in arms because what appears to be a perfectly inoffensive remake of Ghostbusters happens to star women. It’s exactly as tiresome as turning on the radio and hearing the overplayed single you’re most sick of.

So why does this subset of geekdom treat exhaustive surveys of places that aren’t there with a seriousness normally reserved for nuclear nonproliferation treaties? Why the pathetic overreactions?

You might as well ask why everybody in Borges’s world is obsessed with Tlon. Exhaustively surveying a place that isn’t there is exactly the kind of worldbuilding Orbis Tertius does. As M. John Harrison notes, a literally exhaustive survey of the world would be too big for anyone to comprehend in its entirety. Reality contradicts itself, and it keeps changing–tripping people up with new facts. And, let’s face it, reality has terrible continuity. Like, the characters in the “United States” spinoff are supposed to be incredibly afraid of terrorism, but nobody does anything about the mass shootings happening every other day. What sense does that make? Something here isn’t canon! And then there’s that “quantum mechanics” business, which the writers are obviously making up as they go along. And don’t get me started on the way they keep randomly killing off major characters!

Tlon is orderly. Tlon can be catalogued, managed. Tlon can be mastered. The real world is confusing, but with Tlon the fans can feel like they’re in control… At least until Orbis Tertius decides to rewrite Tlon. Or add some new characters. Or remake it with a non-nerd-approved cast. That’s when the panic sets in.[4] The fans, tripped up by new facts, this formerly managable system out of their control, have to face the fact that they’re not masters of anything at all.

Borges identifies the impulse that drives people to Tlon–the desire to simplify and tame the universe–with the impulse that drove people to fascism and totalitarianism. When I look at the grimier edges of nerd culture I’m not sure he’s wrong. Note, again, how much of the behavior I’m describing is bound up with defining and expelling out-groups, and with sexism in particular–whining when the SF canon lets in authors from marginalized groups, refusing to accept the new, diverse characters added to their treasured franchises. There’s some irony in the fact that science fiction, a genre full of stories about opening minds, discovering new things, and accepting the alien, has fans terrified of the new and different in real life… but fictional difference and novelty are under control, and that’s how they like it. Imagine a nerd foot clomping on a human face–forever.

I have no solution for any of this. Neither does Borges in his story; he just does his best to take no notice. Maybe he has the right idea. There are styles of worldbuilding that don’t pander to obsessives and can handle glitches with grace; there are fictional worlds where two planets can have the same name and Atlantis can sink three times without falling apart.[5] Let the Tlonist geeks freak out whenever their authority over trivialities is challenged; I’ll be over here, actually enjoying myself. Only… maybe they could freak out where I don’t have to listen to them?


  1. Incidentally, the first place I read “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was in an anthology called The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which I read when I was young and just recently interested in SF. Like many older anthologies it had a serious gender imbalance–there were more women it could have included, if the editors had worked harder to find them–but within its limits it was a great anthology. It had lots of translated stories, some by writers I’ve never read elsewhere, and brought writers like Sheckly, Le Guin, and Bradbury together with writers like Borges and Boris Vian.  ↩

  2. Some SF fans will tell you proper SF fans should be conversant with the works of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, which is like insisting that anyone interested in English literature absolutely must read Samuel Richardson.  ↩

  3. Invariably followed by a flood of superfluous online thinkpieces noting that, hey, man-children are crying, what’s up with that?  ↩

  4. Although continuity can be rewritten in the service of Tlonism, too. The last thirty years of DC Comics constitute an endless series of increasingly baroque and preposterous attempts to force their entire line into internal consistency.  ↩

  5. My favorite media franchise, Doctor Who, has over the years has gone off in any number of mutually contradictory directions. I might get annoyed when one particular strand of Doctor Who seems to be playing narrative Calvinball, but I don’t lose sleep over the fact that different strands of the series have featured two different versions of Human Nature with two different Doctors and two different political slants. This is a show that had an episode where the Doctor had to defeat somebody wanting to set Earth’s canon in stone to better catalogue it. And yet Doctor Who fans still have arguments about canon!  ↩