How is it possible that I can rate a short story five stars out of five when it took 52 years to be anthologized for the first time? If countless editors passed it over for decades while looking for good SF stories to reprint, how can it possibly be any good? The story I’m talking about is “Thy Rocks and Rills” by Robert Ernest Gilbert. Ever heard of it? Ever heard of Gilbert? I haven’t on both counts.
“Thy Rocks and Rills” was originally published in the September 1953 issue of If. The first time it was reprinted was in 2005 in The World Turned Upside Down edited by Jim Baen, David Drake, and Eric Flint. You can also read the story on Project Gutenberg.
The goal of that anthology was to collect the stories that got the three editors excited about science fiction when they were teens. David Drake gave “Thy Rocks and Rills” this introduction:
I can understand why Drake responded to “Thy Rocks and Rills” that way, but it wasn’t how I reacted.
I’ve owned The World Turned Upside Down for years but I’m just now getting around to reading it because the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction is discussing its stories every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
When I read “Thy Rocks and Rills” yesterday I just thought, “Wow, oh wow!” However, others in the group have not been so enthusiastic. And I can understand that.
I don’t believe fiction can be rated on absolute terms. In fact, my subjective ratings will change every time I reread a story. There are elements in “Thy Rocks and Rills” that would have made me dislike this story on other days, especially the talking bull and calves. Yeah, it has talking farm animals and mules with Appaloosa coloring. If you read the descriptions closely, the male fashions in this future are as gaudy as any Elton John or Prince wore on stage.
“Thy Rocks and Rills” is over-the-top. And it’s from 1953. But it’s also weirdly prophetic. Gilbert predicts a painfully hot future. One where toxic masculinity dominates and everyone is gun crazy. In Gilbert’s future, people are quick-tempered and ready to duel. And most women are condemned to conform to male expectations, making their bodies tiny and slender, staying in their place, and sticking to chirpy women’s talk. Although, some women are different and get into duels with men. The hero of this story is Stonecypher, and this is how Gilbert describes his wife Catriona:
The villain of the story is Dan who makes a legal proposition to Catriona that enrages Stoncypher:
Oh, but the way, the story has ornithopters. I did say it was colorful. The reason we have talking farm animals is because of mutations from radiation. Gilbert is protesting bomb testing. He’s also protesting bullfighting or any kind of arranged animal fights. “Thy Rocks and Rills” is quite woke for 1953. The world-building in this novelette is quite impressive. The basic plot involves Stonecypher getting in a dual and not knowing how to use a gun, and his talking bull wanting to go into the bullfighting ring.
The results were not what I anticipated but they were very satisfying. However, the ending is brutal, but David Drake has already warned us about that. I’m afraid most readers won’t like the ending, but I think it’s realistic. I overcame my dislike of talking animals because this story is gritty and dark, and we’re living in a gritty and dark age, but then so was 1953.
I’m quite fond of science fiction short stories from 1953, especially the grim ones:
- “Lot” by Ward Moore
- “Deadly City” by Paul W. Fairman
- “The Last Day” by Richard Matheson
- “One in Three Hundred” by J. T. McIntosh
- “A Saucer of Loneliness” by Theodore Sturgeon
- “A Case of Consciousness” by James Blish
- “Four in One” by Damon Knight
- “DP!” by Jack Vance
- “Imposter” by Philip K. Dick
- “The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn
- “The Model of a Judge” by William Morrison
If you know these stories, you’ll understand why I now list “Thy Rocks and Rills” among my favorites of 1953. I linked to the two that are available on Project Gutenberg. Six of them are in The Great SF Stories 15 (1953).
After reading science fiction for sixty years I’m having trouble finding new science fiction that wows me. Reading “Thy Rocks and Rills” Saturday morning gave me the kind of surprises I keep hoping to find in science fiction but seldom do anymore. “Thy Rocks and Rills” is perfect for an anthology called The World Turned Upside Down.
However, I can completely understand if it doesn’t work for you. The success of a story depends largely on what the reader brings to the story. I believe I’m just as cynical now as Gilbert was in 1953 and that made the story work for me. I was tuned into where Gilbert was coming from when he wrote it.
James Wallace Harris, 10/30/22