Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #43 of 107: “The Hands” by John Baxter

“The Hands” by John Baxter is a unique alien invasion story. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Not that’s it’s experimental or strange, quite the contrary, it’s very readable and vivid. It is a horror story and kind of gross, but it’s also true blue science fiction.

The VanderMeers tag the story as New Wave, but I’m not sure why. Maybe because it originally appeared in New Writings in S-F 6 edited by Ted Carnell which came out in 1965. That’s two years before Judith Merril came up with The New Thing in a 1967 issue of F&SF, during the era when she anthologized a lot of British science fiction, but really before the term New Wave was popular with fans.

Back then I thought I knew what New Wave stories were on sight, but not anymore. The Tempest in Teapot fan wars over the New Wave was more real than any literary movement in our genre. There is nothing experimental or cutting edge about “The Hands” at all. It’s beautifully written for what it does, but what it does isn’t that much other than its trick idea for an alien invasion. Baxter’s prose and story idea remind me a lot of what Theodore Sturgeon wrote years earlier. I admired the prose and the way Baxter presented the story the whole time I was reading it. Good job. Not great. Rating: ***+

I’ll quote the first two paragraphs just to give y’all a taste of what the story was like.

They let Vitti go first because he was the one with two heads, and it seemed to the rest that if there was to be anything of sympathy or honour or love for them, then Vitti should have the first and best of it. After he had walked down the ramp, they followed him. Sloane with his third and fourth legs folded like the furled wings of a butterfly on his back; Tanizaki, still quiet, unreadable, Asiatic, despite the bulge inside his belly that made him look like a woman eight months gone with child; and the rest of them. Seven earth men who had been tortured by the Outsiders. 

When the crowd saw Vitti, they shouted, because that was what they had gathered there to do. Ten thousand sets of lungs emptied themselves in one automatic, unthinking cry. The sound was a wave breaking over them, a torrent of sound that made them want to fall on the ground and wait for its passing. But there was only one shout. By the time the cry was half over, the people had seen Vitti and the rest of them, and when their lungs were empty they had neither the will nor the ability to draw them full for another shout. There were some who did; a few standing at the back. But their shouts were like the cries of seabirds along the edge of the ocean. From the others, there was no sound but the susurrus of whispers like the melting of sea foam after a wave has receded. Nobody had anything to say. At that moment, Alfred Binns realized for the first time that he was a monster.

The Big Book of Science Fiction (p. 479). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 11/13/21 (Happy Birthday Becky)

One thought on ““The Hands” by John Baxter

  1. I enjoyed this one as well when I read it back in 2017. I wrote the following: “A SF story tinged with horror and a very memorable first line: “They let Vitti go first because he was the one with two heads, and it seemed that if there was anything of sympathy or honor or love for them, then Vitti should have the first and best of it” (97). A group of astronauts return from an alien planet with mysterious extra limbs and body parts. At first glance it appears that the alien species on the planet attempted to communicate with the human visitors by triggering particular growths. A fascinating idea!


    I found the ending something of a cop-out. I’d prefer the intent of the aliens to have remained a mystery à la Robert Silverberg’s riveting The Man in the Maze (1969). Regardless, the barebones stylings and odd dialogue make this a keeper. Recommended.”

    That said, I don’t remember exactly why I thought the end was a “co-out” as I read it a while back.


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