“Burning Sky” by Rachel Pollack

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #92 of 107: “Burning Sky” by Rachel Pollack

My initial reaction to “Burning Sky” was indifference. I have no background with comics, so I find stories inspired by superhero themes unappealing. But the coda to the story intrigued me.

I remember seeing a short documentary about William Moulton Marston who wrote as Charles Moulton and was the creator of Wonder Woman. I also remember reading reviews of The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lapore in 2014. So I know just enough of Wonder Woman’s literary origin story to know it had kinky aspects. Then I wondered if Rachel Pollack knew of that history in 1989? That meant I had to reread the story and do some research.

I then wished I had a copy of Burning Sky, the Pollack collection in which the title story is gathered with 26 other stories. That’s because I read that each story has an autobiographical afterward which would probably help me. As luck would have it, that collection is available at Amazon for $1.99 for the Kindle edition. However, you don’t need to buy a copy to read the afterward to “Burning Sky.” Just use the Look Inside feature. You can also read Samuel R. Delany’s introduction to the collection where he praises Pollack highly. Here are three key paragraphs from the afterward:

This isn’t very illuminating since I already got that much from the story. I was hoping Pollack would explain the Wonder Woman connection. Delany also explained that Pollack was an authority on Tarot cards. I can see why Delany admired Pollack because his stories often deal with sexuality, and Tarot cards were part of his novel Nova.

“Burning Sky” is told by Maggie in the first person, and tells us about two other women, Julia and Louise, and about a strange group of vigilante women called The Free Women. These women wear skintight blue plastic outfits that cover everything but their faces. They attack men who attack women. “Burning Sky,” tells two stories, Julia’s run-ins with The Free Women, and Louise helping Maggie find an orgasm. Neither story really interested me. Most of the imagery deals with S&M and fetishes.

“Burning Sky” is really feminist fiction and not science fiction. For the reread I had hoped it would provide allusions to the early days of Wonder Woman comics, but I didn’t find any that I understood. I just don’t have any real knowledge of comic book history. I assumed the ceremonial hall and Free Women connected with the comic’s past. And certainly, WW was full of S&M/fetish imagery. The story had a tiny bit of the Dangerous Visions vibe, but not really, especially for 1989. Maybe the story had a bite when it was first published, but it’s rather quaint now compared to feminist fiction today.

I believe this is just a case of me being the wrong reader. I’m curious what women who enjoy S&M and loved old Wonder Women comics got out of it?

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James Wallace Harris, 2/18/22

“Two Small Birds” by Han Song

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #91 of 107: “Two Small Birds” by Han Song

“Two Small Birds” by Han Song is a beautiful story that I admired for the writing and imagery, with many sentences that I twanged my heartstrings, especially, “I’m shocked to smell the flavor of olden days.” There’s not a moment that crawls by that I don’t feel that.

But here I go again being a little pissant. I don’t believe “Two Small Birds” is science fiction, or at least I don’t want to believe it. I’m not sure what label to give this story, but somehow I feel it’s unfair to shanghai every beautiful work of the fantastic and force it to sail upon our great clipper ship the Science Fiction. This is another case where I believe like their mentor Judith Merril, the VanderMeers want to uplift the genre by claim jumping other folks’ goldmines.

Now I will have to defend my position by going all verbose on you. Sorry about that. Let’s start with the simplest way to make my case. We make generalizations and classifications to find an agreement on what we’re pointing at with our words. Even though they are very similar, we like distinguishing between dogs and cats.

Nowadays anything that mentions anything that has the slightest whiff of science fiction gets slapped with the label science fiction. We need more labels. More precise labels. I saw an interview with David Brin the other day, and he came up with a lovely label, “speculative history.” Science fiction has become too trendy, too broad. It’s a monopoly that needs to be broken up.

I don’t have a label for “Two Small Birds,” but I don’t want to use science fiction for the job. I already have a lifetime of reading that uses that label, and this story is not really like those stories.

This reminds me of a book I recently read, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W. Anthony about determining the location of the culture that produced the Proto-Indo-European language. Somewhere in pre-history, there exists a proto-fantastic-storytelling form that is the mother of all the genres. And like English, German, Spanish, etc. share elemental sounds from the Proto-Indo-European, science fiction, and whatever we should label “Two Small Birds” share common story elements that are similar, but they are as different as English and Italian.

I’m also reminded of the book I’m reading now, The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow who argue against singular generalizations about human societies in pre-history because they certainly took a myriad of forms. And every shaman, guru, seer, witch-doctor, medicine man, mystic, astrologer, came up with a different creation story to explain reality. Out of thousands of years and countless refined perspectives we created science. It’s a very precise label. That makes it useful. I believe science fiction has a similar distillation from all the proto-fantastic storytelling forms, and we could make it precise too. We could if we tried.

“Two Small Birds” reminds me of Carlos Castaneda, Bob Dylan, Walt Whitman, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and a certain work of Thomas De Quincey, among many others. You wouldn’t call any of those dudes science fiction writers, would you? And I will admit there are lines in “Two Small Birds” that sound science fictional. I just don’t think it fits into the taxonomy of how we should classify science fiction.

Now, I will admit things are evolving, and language is never static, and it appears that younger generations want to slap the Sci-Fi label onto any kind of strange story they love because they feel the genre should be all-encompassing. But I say it’s valuable to have a word other than calling every creature an animal because sometimes it’s important to distinguish a giraffe from an elephant.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/15/22

“Vacuum States” by Geoffrey A. Landis

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #90 of 107: “Vacuum States” by Geoffrey A. Landis

“Vacuum States” by Geoffrey A. Landis is a clever second-person tale that draws the reader into the story.

I suppose I should say more.

“Vucuum States” is full of concepts about physics and cosmology. The only trouble is I can’t tell the real physics from the mumbo-jumbo that Landis made up.

Like many of the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, I didn’t consider it a real short story, although it was. There are no constraints on what writers can call fiction. The VanderMeers like stories that feel intellectual, and this one feels like a fun lecture in physics. But as I read “Vacuum States” I was mildly annoyed that I was reading something so contrived, however, the ending put a smile on my face and redeemed my reading effort.

But why didn’t they use “Ripples in the Dirac Sea” which is also from 1988, and Asimov’s? It came in 2nd place instead of 10th in the readers’ awards that year. And it won the Nebula Award and came in 3rd in the Hugos. Maybe because the VanderMeers had already included Dirac in their giant anthology, The Time Traveler’s Almanac. I need to consider that all my whining about story choice in this volume is because the VanderMeers used the stories I would have chosen in other anthologies.

Then what about “A Walk in the Sun” from three years later? It won the Hugo and the Asimov’s Readers’ Award. It was a real story, even more so than Dirac. Of course, I have that story in three other anthologies, but could they have known that?

I doubt either of the VanderMeers are reading these reviews but if they did, they’re probably annoyed at my constant questioning of their story selection choices. But I keep wanting to know about the process and the issues to consider. Do the authors ever get a say? I see The Big Book of Science Fiction as the main anthology that young readers will know 20th science fiction short stories. Part of my grumpiness is they seldom picked the stories I remember as the best SF from the 20th century. I worry my favorites will be forgotten. But I also think about the authors. Is “Vacuum States” how we should judge Landis if we only have one story? It’s not a bad story, but there’s just not much to it.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/14/22

“All the Hues of Hell” by Gene Wolfe

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #89 of 107: “All the Hues of Hell” by Gene Wolfe

I’ve only read a handful of stories by Gene Wolfe, but the ones I have read impressed me immensely, and I’m afraid “All the Hues of Hell” paled in comparison. One problem is Wolfe’s most famous stories are rather long, so maybe the VanderMeers didn’t want to include any of those because of length. But there are many to choose from, and like the Willis story, I wonder why “All the Hues of Hell” got the nod.

I hate to keep nagging about the selections in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Partly, it’s because I wonder how anthologies are put together. I assume some anthologists love to promote underdog stories hoping they will become more famous. However, I find it very hard to imagine not picking the very best stories from each author, especially for a retrospective volume that covers a whole century. I’m afraid I would never buy a Gene Wolfe book after reading “All the Hues of Hell,” but I have after reading some of his other stories. My running assumption with this volume is the VanderMeers’ taste in science fiction is just different from mine. And “All the Hues of Hell” is on the horror side of things, and they seem to like horror science fiction.

In the VanderMeers’ introduction, they quote Wolfe: “My definition of a great story has nothing to do with ‘a varied and interesting background.’ It is: One that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure.” I don’t know if I’m a cultivated reader, but I have learned that rereading often brings increased pleasure. This is my first reading of “All the Hues of Hell,” so it might improve when I read it again in the future. But for this first reading, I found it confusing.

I think I got the gist of it. A scout ship, the Egg, leaves the mothership, Shadow Show, with a crew of a husband and wife team, L. Skinner “Skip” and Marilyn Jansen (Jansen 1, Jansen 2), along with an android/robot/cyborg named Kyle, and his pet macaw, Polyaris. Marilyn is pregnant. They are under the command control they call the Director. I don’t know if this is a person or a computer? Their mission is to capture a being from a mostly invisible world they call the shadow world. While Skip is on an EVA to capture the creature he goes insane and claims he’s dead and the world he’s visiting is Hades. Kyle and Marilyn go through various activities to rescue Skip and he is restrained when he is brought back with the captured being. [On second reading I realized that Skip never left the Egg, but was jacked into some kind of virtual reality that let them see the shadow world.]

All of the action takes place inside the Egg, and all the characters float in microgravity. There is a black sphere, maybe a magnet torus, in the room, to hold the alien when it’s captured. Much of the conversations deal with Skip’s insanity and descriptions of what he’s seeing. I never knew why he went insane, other than the exposure to the shadow world, or the fact, that’s what Wolfe wanted. Like a Philip K. Dick story, there is a fair discussion of mental illness and insanity.

At one point Kyle tells Polyaris that it’s raining frogs and fish and asks the bird if it remembered Charles Fort. Few people today know who Charles Fort was, so why would someone in the far future know about him? He collected odd stories that people claimed were evidence for the occult, but his popularity was decades before I was born, and I’m seventy. The reference amused me but thought it was jarring. I also considered it a writer-ly thing to throw out. I assume Wolfe wanted to connect the odd goings-on in this story with the occult, but it didn’t need a reference to Fort.

All the descriptions of the actions within the Egg, and the events of the virtual EVA were very confusing to me. I assume Wolfe saw clearly what he created in his mind’s eye, but I never saw the scene clearly. That hurt the story for me.

I guess the ending is supposed to be significant. The alien, the shadow creature, evidently possesses Marilyn’s fetus. Oooh, all scary, but not! In retrospect, that means Skip’s insanity was due to possession. I just didn’t see that at the time.

For the sake of this story, and this review, I just reread “All the Hues of Hell.” This time I pictured the setting much better. I was wrong about Skip, he never left the Egg. He went insane while inside the scout ship with Kyle and Marilyn. They all were observing the shadow planet with some kind of AR, or some kind of computer sensing device. None of them ever left the Egg. Marilyn took control of a tractor beam, or force field, or magnetic waldoes, and grabbed up the shadow creature.

On the second reading, I don’t think Skip’s insanity had anything to do with the shadow being. I think the stress of the mission drove him nuts, and he characterized everything with his own fears.

Even though the story was clearer on the second reading, I didn’t like it any better. Actually, I was horrified they grab a possible sentient being for scientific study. Made me think of little green men in UFOs abducting Whitley Strieber.

I now wonder if this 1987 story was inspired by the 1986 film Alien? Kyle is an awful lot like Bishop, especially since he might be an unreliable narrator and was intentionally putting the mission at risk to capture the creature. And in the end, Marilyn has an alien inside of her.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/12/22

“Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #88 of 107: “Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis

Normally, everything I’ve read by Connie Willis is enchanting, but it was a bit of a slog for me to read “Schwarzschild Radius.” The story is quite clever. Modeling the physics of a black hole against events by Germans at the Russian front in WWI. Karl Schwarzschild was a German physicist who first mathematically worked out the ideas of black holes from Einstein’s equations. The title of the story, “Schwarzschild Radius” is the actual name given by scientists to the size of an event horizon in a rotating black hole.

Schwarzschild died at the front from an autoimmune skin disease. Willis took this fact and made it into a science fiction story. She has a first-person narrator, a soldier who had served at the front, being interviewed by a biographer of Schwarzschild. The story switches from the present to flashback memories. Willis makes the conflict of the story about the soldiers’ failure to communicate outside of the front as if they were trapped inside an event horizon of a black hole. This is a neat idea intellectually, but I found it contrived and strained in the storytelling. Using a series of frustrating incidents to show the parallels to physics was just too obvious.

The details of these episodes were on the surreal side, which might have been Willis’ intention, but I found that annoying. I prefer stories that feel like realistic paintings, and this story felt like modern art.

“Schwarzschild Radius” was anthologized in The Norton Book of Science Fiction and The Big Book of Science Fiction, as well as being included in Nebula Awards 23 for being a finalist. So this story is admired. But there are stories that are admired for the clever writing that I just don’t enjoy.

First off, “Schwarzschild Radius” is overly complicated with its framing. It is another layer of modeling the event horizon, but was it really needed? Being in the German trenches on the Russian front in WWI is a perfect metaphor for being inside the Schwarzschild radius. And the idea of waiting for a letter from Einstein and understanding Schwarzschild’s disease are great elements to include in the story. But I never felt for any of the characters.

Willis seems to pattern the mood of the story from the mood in Catch-22, but I never cared for her characters like I cared for Heller’s characters. The repeated requests to get a message out reminded me of Yossarian constantly asking about Snowden. And the soldier building the motorcycle reminded me of Orr. Of course, Heller had a whole novel to develop his characters, and Willis just has a short story.

There were some vivid moments, like when the narrator feels revulsion at Schwarzschild’s skin disease, or when the explosion buries him in the trenches. But most of the action went by too quickly. We never got to settle into any scene to get into it. Personally, I believe the story would have been much more effective without the framing. The framing words could have been used to expand the heart of the story.

I wonder why the VanderMeers picked “Schwarzschild Radius” when there are so many other Willis stories to choose from? Maybe her top stories are over anthologized. I never thought a story could be over anthologized until I read a letter by Philip K. Dick asking Lee Harding editing Beyond Tomorrow to substitute “The Commuter” for “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” He did. I wonder how often this happens, and I wonder which story Connie Willis would have liked in this volume? “Schwarzschild Radius” could be her favorite, and I’m a dunderhead not to see it. I know Rich Horton loves this story.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/12/22

“Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #86 of 107: “Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy

“Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy is one of the great classics of science fiction. I’ve read it before, and it was a delight to read it again. Of course, I’m partial to science fiction stories about intelligent chimpanzees, and I’m not referring to The Planet of the Apes (but I enjoy those kinds of stories too).

One of the first intelligent chimp stories I can remember reading is “Jerry Was a Man” by Robert A. Heinlein. Then came “Rachel in Love.” Next was the novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. There is another novel, but I shouldn’t mention the title because it might spoil the story. And there are other stories which I’ve forgotten at the moment. Nor I’m not talking about stories like Brin’s Uplift novels. I’m only talking about stories that are set in the present with an intelligent chimp, one that you can identify with. One that makes you think we’ve been evil to chimpanzees.

And if you want to know just how evil, watch the documentary Project Nim from 2011. Trigger warning: Project Nim is going to rip out your heart, stomped the crap out of it, and if you’re a good person, make you thankful it did. If it doesn’t make you cry in empathy and outrage you might want to see a psychiatrist.

“Rachel in Love” should also make you cry. I did. It should also make you hate what we’re doing to chimpanzees. It made me hate it again. I was thankful to read in the VanderMeer introduction there has been a law passed against using chimpanzees in research. “Rachel in Love” should also make you happy, because of its wonderful storytelling skills. The structure and narrative of this tale are perfect. Sure, it takes some kinky turns sexually, but then, so do our hormones.

Rachel is a chimpanzee who has been imprinted with personality scans of Dr. Aaron Jacob’s deceased daughter Rachel. She has two sets of memories. Her own chimpanzee childhood, and Rachel’s. Dr. Jacob named the chimp after his daughter.

By Murphy inventing the personality overlay for this story, it provides a kind of Rosetta Stone that lets humans see into the world of the chimpanzee. Rachel is neither human nor chimp, but a bridge between the two. Nim Chimpsky, a real chimpanzee raised in a human family is a tragic animal figure that we can only imagine how he thinks. We want to believe he is as intelligent as Rachel when we look into his eyes but we never know for sure. Jerry, Heinlein’s chimp has been uplifted enough for the law to consider giving him legal status. And Bruno Littlemore is really a fantasy creature created for satire, but one we side with.

I’m old enough to remember a time when people considered animals completely lacking in consciousness. Humans were God’s chosen, and the animals were just for our use. Even nature lovers like Teddy Roosevelt would shoot them all day long and never consider what the animals might perceive. Now, I think we realize that consciousness is a spectrum, and awareness, even self-awareness is not unique to us. Back in 1987 Pat Murphy knew this and wrote “Rachel in Love.” I wonder when everyone will know it.

[I’m sorry I’m behind in reviewing these stories. I had to skip #83-85. I hope to get back to them someday.]

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James Wallace Harris, 2/7/22

“A Gift from the Culture” by Iain M. Banks

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #82 of 107: “A Gift from the Culture” by Iain M. Banks

I strongly disliked “A Gift from the Culture” by Iain M. Banks. Not because it’s badly written, but because the main character kills an untold number of people, and because he doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing. I also hate this story because its plot engine is so uninspiringly cliché that I picture Banks stealing it from an ancient film Noir B-movie.

Wrobik is coerced by mobsters into committing mass murder to pay off his gambling debts. The gambling debt plot motivation is as hoary as tying damsels in distress to the train tracks. But to make matters worse, this story is set within the Culture series, a fictional universe of the far future, where humans are now posthuman, and society is post-scarcity. I’ve read about Culture novels for years and thought it was a great theme. But when I tried one of the novels in the past, I was immediately put off because the plot was about assassins. I quit the novel in disgust. I hate stories about assassins.

If I read a novel about a utopia, I want to read about citizens of that utopia. I want a superior character to follow. In both tries at a Culture story, I get amoral characters. That’s why I hated this story. If you’re a science fiction writer creating a utopian future, I want stories that inspire hope, not make me think human failure is endless.

I assumed while reading “A Gift From the Culture” that Banks would find a clever way to allow Wrobik to escape his role as a mass murderer. But no, evidently Banks felt he promised his readers a spaceship shot down with a handgun and he had to deliver.

I also wondered why Wrobik just didn’t shoot the driver when Kaddus and Cruizell forced the gun on him, and then shoot Kaddus and Cruizell. If the gun can blow up a spaceship, it could blow up a mobster’s limo.

I don’t mind stories with amoral protagonists, but those stories have to justify our observations of evil in some way. There was nothing in Wrobik’s situation or personality to care about. He was weak and despicable. Nor was there anything interesting about the criminals in this story. They were so cardboard and cliché that they made the story cartoonish. Kaddus and Cruizell were no better than Snidely Whiplash. Wrobik is no Walter White.

I’ll have to keep trying to find a Culture novel I will like. I just hope they aren’t all about criminals at the edge of utopia.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/1/22

“Readers of the Lost Art” by Élisabeth Vonarburg

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #81 of 107: “Readers of the Lost Art” by Élisabeth Vonarburg

On the surface, “Readers of the Lost Art” by Élisabeth Vonarburg feels like something written for the Marquis de Sade but he would have been bored by this pretty presentation of two people being flayed alive for art. Again, the VanderMeers have selected another science fiction horror tale. I have to assume there is more to the story than what we’re told in words.

The introduction claims it’s transgressive and transformative and about ritual and creativity. But I’m sure the Incas could have said the same thing about their human sacrifices. However, the story seemed straightforward to me, and I missed any symbolism or satire. I sensed each action in the story before it was revealed but evidently missed all the intended literary implications. My bad.

“Readers of the Lost Art” feels like the kind of story we read in Dangerous Visions so long ago. That anthology edited by Harlan Ellison from the 1960s was intended to shock. The trouble with stories written to shock is they often don’t. They just seem silly and absurd. They feel like kids playing a game of gross-out. I’m sure the VanderMeers and other readers do find intellectual insights in this story, but I didn’t.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a good story with shocking elements. The same night I read “Readers of the Lost Art” I also reread “Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read that story and it has grosser elements than the Élisabeth Vonarburg tale. And it’s even experimental fiction. The reason why “Fondly Fahrenheit” is a masterpiece is in its storytelling style. “Fondly Fahrenheit” sparkles, whereas “Readers of the Lost Art” was merely good writing. I wonder if it sparkled in the original French?

One major difference between the two stories is pacing. “Fondly Fahrenheit” relentlessly races, while “Readers of the Lost Art” trods at a casual nonchalant. That’s an arty way of being aristocratically indifferent, which I think the story intended, but I also think it hurt its presentation. The story is one long, evenly paced, description of a performance piece, with side glances to events in the audience. I was actually more intrigued by those glimpses at the watchers of the performance.

Notice the even paragraphs, the careful, but the plodding pace of the descriptions.

Now, look at a similar page from “Fondly Fahrenheit.” This is actually one of the slower sections of the story, yet murder and a change of planets happen on this Kindle page. But also, Bester tells more about the characters and moves the story along better with each sentence.

It’s not that “Readers of the Lost Art” is badly written, but it’s overly descriptive. It’s Henry James to Bester’s Ernest Hemingway. And that is an artistic choice. But was it the right choice for a story about humans being skinned alive? If you’re writing about shocking scenes, shouldn’t the sentence structure shock too?

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James Wallace Harris, 1/29/22

“The Owl of Bear Island” by Jon Bing

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #80 of 107: “The Owl of Bear Island” by Jon Bing

This 1986 tale by Norwegian writer Jon Bing makes me wonder if he intended it to be cyberpunk. Computers play a significant role in “The Owl of Bear Island,” a story about alien possession. To be honest, I thought the VanderMeers’ introduction to the story more interesting than the story itself. And within the story, I got distracted by wondering what kind of computers they might have had in 1986. I assume the scientists were using minicomputers. I began wondering about DEC, Data General, HP, and others from that era, and thinking of one of my favorite books, The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Bing also brings up programming (FORTRAN and SIMULA), AI, and Expert Systems. In fact, the narrator’s escape plans involve computers.

This plain story about two scientists at a research station on an island in the Arctic being taken over by an alien presence could have been much better. The unnamed first-person narrator thinks of the alien as an owl. He assumes it killed his partner, and he knows enough to struggle to free his mind. “The Owl of Bear Island” has neither suspense, atmosphere, or dread, but is its matter-of-fact style due to the style being lost in the translation, or was the original writing just that straightforward? I don’t know.

Also, I began to think of the problem of remotely operating another being over the distances of light-years. Is telepathy instantaneous? Or was Bing suggesting the alien was on the island with them? Either way, we might call this story horror cyberpunk. It would have been a creepier story if we learned about the possession as it unfolded. Think of the drama of slowly realizing that your choices aren’t your own, especially while living alone far from civilization, during the dark days of the arctic.

Bing’s narrator just comes out and tells us what happened, and then later, just tells us his plans for escape. Good storytelling involves leading us along as events unfold. This story should have been a chess game between a human and an alien. Instead, it’s a quick journal report.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/27/22

“The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets” by Angélica Gorodischer

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #79 of 107: “The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets” by Angélica Gorodischer

I’ve been getting behind in my reviews of the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction. The discussion group is now on story 81. I don’t want to flame out on this project, now that I’m getting so close to the end. But I’ve also been worrying about publishing too much and not having enough worthy things to say about these stories. Once this project is over I’m not going to commit to reviewing large anthologies story by story. I think reporting on reading stories of quality will be more important than reporting on reading in quantity.

“The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets” by Angélica Gorodischer, which was first published in 1985, is a well-written, and quite charming story about a global civilization that has grown up after the fall of our global civilization. For example, the 79 Independent States of North America have only become recently reunited, under an aged bit-part video actor named Jack Jackson-Franklin. The U.S.A. is now a third-world country.

The story setup follows worldwide gossip about a transsexual woman astronaut living in Rosario, a former territory of Argentina, who will fly an ancient preserved spaceship to the edge of the universe.

We are told in this new civilization gun-powder no longer exists but magic does work. That Rosario is so poor that its citizens had to go in together to buy a clock, one of two in the country. The spaceship launched at 5:45am and returned at 6:11am the same day.

The person who is most interested in this news is Her Gracious and Most Illustrious Virgin Majesty Ekaterina V, Empress of Holy Russia. Most of the charm of this story comes from describing the new political orders around the world.

Gorodischer’s prose reminds me of a Bob Dylan song, “Desolation Row” and vaguely remembered hippie novels from the 1960s.

This story is told almost like a fable, a fantasy. I encounter that voice often in translated stories. I wonder if it’s a popular narrative style in South America? Here is the astronaut’s report of what the edge of the universe was like.

For some reason, time dilation worked backward in this story, and the astronaut aged on her 26-minute voyage, rather than the people on Earth. The unnamed astronaut marries and has a son, and when he’s born a green shoot grew out of the ground. I’m not sure what this signifies, other than it’s a sign of renewal in nature.

Angélica Gorodischer gives us another perspective on science fiction. I can see why the VanderMeers liked this story. However, I wonder if it’s not anti-SciFi? It feels like a naturalist or humanist take on the absurdity of the hubris of science fiction.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/27/22