Story #27 of 107: “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith
At first, I was disappointed to see “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was the next story in The Big Book of Science Fiction. I was hoping for a story new to me, instead of another reread. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” seemed too fresh in my mind and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it. But I have this thing about rereading stories. I’ve disciplined myself to always reread a work when encountering it again in another anthology. Experience has taught me it’s well worth the time and effort, and that was the case this time too.
Each time I forget why I love this story, but whenever I start rereading all the details I admired comes back to me. Cordwainer Smith has created a delicious tale for people who love cats and space travel, and I’m his perfect target audience.
I have to wonder why Smith wrote this story? It came out in the October 1955 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, just before the dawn of the Space Age. The story speculates we’ll eventually discover dangers in interstellar space that we can’t fathom consciously. Unknown threats that will drive us mad. Eventually in Smith’s fictional universe, we’ll discover that people with telepathic powers partnered with cats with telepathic powers can overcome those dangers. Humans perceive those unknowable attackers as dragons, and cats see them as rats.
In the 1950s there were countless stories about telepathy, ESP, psionics, and other psychic superpowers. There were a fair number of stories about humans having psychic bonds with cats, with other Earthly animals, as well as all kinds of alien space creatures. Did people in the 1950s really believe the space was going to be full of psychological barriers, that humans were going to develop psi-powers in the future, and we’d communicate with animals and aliens with our minds? Or were those the futures we wanted?
As a kid I thought science fiction was speculation about possibilities just around the corner, maybe within my lifetime, but now as an old person, I wonder if I ever really believed that? I think I did. Or at least, I think I hoped. Was I just a gullible kid who wanted to believe in science fictional theories. Had I put my own hopes for the future into the hands of writers who were only making shit up to tell a neat story? Or is there an inbetween position, where writers were making stuff up, but they also kind of believed their own bullshit?
Paul Linebarger, the real person behind the byline “Cordwainer Smith” was quite a serious and well-educated dude, even writing a textbook Psychological Warfare. Since “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was written in the middle of Cold War, when psychological warfare and brainwashing were topical topics, it’s easy to see the inspiration of the story. But why blend that heavy subject with sentimental fluff about cats? Imagine The Manchurian Candidate with several cute cat scenes.
Do stories need to make sense? Do stories about serious topics need to be serious and logical? “The Game of Rat and Dragon” has been reprinted extensively, including four of the giant doorstop SF retrospective anthologies of this century. Why is that?
Why do science fiction readers keep reading this story? Is it just our love of cats? Do we still hope people will become psychic? Or fear space might have psychological barriers? Or is it merely a story, well told, that entertains us for a few minutes?
The obvious answer is yes, it’s just a little story. But time and time again, I have to wonder why science fiction resonates with us. Science fiction has become immensely popular. As a society we have a vast appetite for fiction and an unquenchable thirst for novelty. Are we bored with reality and need all the books, movies, television shows, and video games we can consume which features interesting fictional realities? Why am I spending so much of my remaining life reading science fiction?
And what about the ending? Isn’t it questioning another normalcy? Doesn’t Underhill love the cat, Lady May, just a little too much? A nurse shows interest in him, and then feels rebuffed because Underhill can only ask about a cat. Should we wonder about Underhill rejecting human company for feline? Or does that line up with our own preference for pet companions? Or is it symbolic for our preference for fiction over life?
“The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke appeared in the very first issue of Infinity Science Fiction in November 1955 and got top billing on the cover. Was Clarke famous in 1955? “The Star” won a Hugo for him in 1956, so did that make him famous? Clarke was quite prolific at writing short stories and getting them published in a wide variety of science fiction magazines since 1946. So when did Arthur C. Clarke become famous as a top science fiction writer? By 1955 he was known for “Nine Billion Names of God,” Against the Fall of Night, Childhood’s End, and for the nonfiction book, The Exploration of Space, which Wikipedia claims Wernher von Braun gave to John F. Kennedy to promote the idea of space exploration. I ponder all this because I recently read a query on Facebook asking when Clarke became famous enough to be considered integral to the Big Three of science fiction writers. (Although, a more interesting question might be: Who are the top three writers of science fiction in 2021? I could not even begin to answer that.)
I discovered Clarke in 1963 when I read Dolphin Island, first published that year. I then discovered Islands in the Sky (1953) around 1965. In March of 1967 I argued with my best friend over who was the greatest science fiction writer, me claiming Heinlein, but Connell claiming Clarke. So by the mid-1960s I knew who he was, but only vaguely. I believe I had also read The Exploration of Space by then. Still, I was only slightly familiar with Clarke, but Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov were already the Big Three of science fiction. I accepted that because it seemed so.
But when did Clarke become famous? When 2001: A Space Odyssey came out that seem to make him well known. In July 1969 he was interviewed on live television during the Apollo 11 moon launch and landing as if everyone knew him, not just SF fans. But when did he become a legendary science fiction writer to science fiction fans? Clarke was the Guest of Honor at the Worldcon in 1956, the year after Asimov. Heinlein was Guest of Honor in 1941, just two years after he began publishing, and again in 1961, 1976.
I bring all this up because I wonder if the success of stories is related to the success of their authors? How long does it take for a great story to be recognized as a classic? Members of the Worldcon voted “The Star” the best short story the year after it came out, but T. E. Dikty didn’t select it for his best of the year annual. Dikty did pick “The Game of Rat and Dragon” that competed with “The Star” for the Hugo.
Looking at the story’s ISFDB entry, we can see it’s been reprinted quite often. However, that ball didn’t start rolling until 1962 when “The Star” was included in The Hugo Winners edited by Isaac Asimov and A Century of Science Fiction edited by Damon Knight. Those two anthologies were often reprinted, and were selections for the SFBC. That spread the word far and wide. Plus “The Star” was included in Clarke’s third collection, The Other Side of the Sky that went through many editions. The list of reprints at ISFDB is quite long, and so is the list of languages its been translated into.
I’m surprised that the VanderMeers included “The Star” in The Big Book of Science Fiction, since they often seem to avoid the widely reprinted classics. I would have expected them to find a less famous Clarke to promote. They didn’t include a story by Heinlein because they couldn’t get the rights — and that omission really sticks out. The Asimov they picked was Asimov’s favorite I believe, but not mine. Both “The Star” and “The Last Question” are excellent stories, but not evidence that Clarke and Asimov were once part of a Big Three. Are there three stories that would stand as evidence?
When I go to bookstores I often check to see how many books are available by Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov. Where once each of their titles would fill a shelf or two, they now take up inches with a few titles. Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov are hardly the big three today. Will “The Star” survive if Clarke’s reputation doesn’t?
The story is rather slight, and can be read in 5-15 minutes, and I believe most people remember it because of its trick ending. Just to remind folks, I’m not reviewing stories, but discussing them, so I will spoil that surprise ending.
It’s rather interesting that Clarke’s two most famous short stories confirm the existence of God, and his two most famous novels, suggest that mankind will be resurrected into a higher state of being. That’s rather interesting since I believe Clarke was an atheist. Was he just going for a surprise ending, or was he making a philosophical statement. Maybe we should look closer at those two short stories.
In “Nine Billion Names of God,” the almighty dissolves the universe after Buddhist monks compile a list of all his possible names. In “The Star” God destroys a planet of advanced beings just to signal to our planet that his son had arrived. Was Clarke wanting his readers to consider that God is not nice? Or the ways of God are not fathomable by us? James Blish in A Case of Conscience and Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow also use science fiction to question the nature of God.
In my opinion, Clarke was going for the cheap gasp. In both stories, he setup the story nicely. In “The Star” he does some astronomical infodumping, and covers a couple classic science fiction themes, one of which is a favorite of mine. I love stories about exploring the remains of extinct alien civilizations. Clarke even throws in a nice Jesuit character that I was getting to like. Then WHAM – the surprise.
When I reread these stories, and I do reread them because I have a personal rule to reread stories when I encounter them again in another anthology, I know what’s coming so I try to look for interesting bits along the way to the ending. This time I liked the Jesuit, and that he has a copy of Ruben’s engraving of Loyola in his cabin.
On the other hand, is this enough to keep reprinting “The Star?” If science fiction is mostly neat ideas and surprise endings is that enough for us to keep reading it. Shouldn’t we want more? What did Clarke give the science fiction world to make him famous?
I fear most science fiction has little lasting value. That’s why we see all its themes recycled for each new generation reclothed in current fashions. I wonder if “The Star” survives because no later generation has come up with this same trick ending?
If I was anthologizing SF stories from the 20th century and wanted to include an Arthur C. Clarke story, I’d use “Rescue Party.” I’ve read that Clarke was annoyed by the number of people who told him their favorite story of his was “Rescue Party” because it meant his career had been going down since his first professional sale. “The Star” is much better written, but if we’re going for unique ideas, “Rescue Party” has more. A race of aliens come upon the Earth but there’s no sign of humanity. The aliens poke about our remains wondering who we were. This is the inverse of the theme I like so much. A very nice twist. We have abandoned the solar system like the beings of “The Star” should have. Near the end of the story, the aliens discover we’d left monitoring equipment to record the end of our world, and followed the direction in which it was beaming data. The story ends with them going off to find us.
The science fiction theme that humanity must leave the Earth and solar system to survive is a strong one. It’s part of the drive behind Elon Musk’s effort to colonize Mars. It promotes the belief that no matter what God or Nature throws at us, we will hang on. That’s a much more powerful message for Clarke to leave his readers.
To answer my original query I’m guessing Clarke became famous when a certain percentage of science fiction readers thought his ideas and stories were among the best. I’m guessing that happened between Childhood’s End (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956), maybe as late as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and definitely by Rendezvous with Rama (1973).
I found this quote in I, Asimov: A Memoir where Isaac Asimov claims Clarke was famous by 1949. But I find that hard to believe, because that was before any of his famous stories.
There was no question that by 1949 I was widely recognized as a major science fiction writer. Some felt I had joined Robert Heinlein and A. E. van Vogt as the three-legged stool on which science fiction now rested.
As it happened, A. E. van Vogt virtually ceased writing in 1950, perhaps because he grew increasingly interested in Hubbard’s dianetics. In 1946, however, a British writer, Arthur C. Clarke, began to write for ASF, and he, like Heinlein and van Vogt (but unlike me), was an instant hit.
By 1949, the first whisper of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov as “the Big Three” began to be heard. This kept up for some forty years, for we all stayed alive for decades and all remained in the science fiction field. In the end, we all three commanded large advances and found our books on the best-seller lists. (Who would have thought it in the 1940s?)
I, Asimov (pp. 140-141). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Story #22 of 107: “The Prott” by Margarett St. Clair
“Prott” by Margaret St. Clair was first published in the January 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, and later anthologized by Groff Conklin in Science Fiction Terror Tales in the U.S. and by Edmund Crispin in Best SF in Great Britain. I don’t remember reading anything before by Margaret St. Clair, or by her pen name Iris Seabright, but I have seen both names enough over the years to know she was around. Wikipedia says she published over 130 stories. St. Clair only has one book in print at Amazon, a 2019 collection of 17 stories, The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales, but “Prott” isn’t included. James Nicolls reviewsThe Best of Margaret St. Clair edited by Martin H. Greenberg that came out in 1985. That collection did include “Prott.”
“Prott” is a first contact story, and St. Clair worked hard to make her aliens alien, which is something I admire. She also focused on the problem of communication, which is another theme I like. The story is told in a frame of two men having drinks and one of them gives the other a diary to read which is the story. It’s from an unnamed academic who had gone out beyond the asteroid belt to study the sex life of the Prott, an alien race who lives in space that looks roughly shaped like poached eggs. We learn of his frustrating effort to communicate with the aliens via telepathy and a threat to humanity. The story is slightly humorous in tone, and the threat is a distant cousin to what Fredric Brown described in Martians, Go Home. It even shares a bit of the puzzle we saw in Murray Leinster’s “First Contact.”
The problem with “Prott” is it suffers the fate of all first contact stories. Writers can describe their aliens in various ways so that they look very alien, and make them very difficult to talk to, but once any kind of communication is establish, it’s hard to wrap up the story without resorting to a gimmick to distract us from the fact we can’t ever know the alien. One of the best first contact stories is “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang filmed as Arrival. That story wraps ups with a time paradox gimmick that is very satisfying. In the Leinster story, the gimmick involves trading spaceships. In The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell we’re left with an spiritual conundrum of why would God do something so horrible to a Catholic priest. “Prott” leaves us with a bit of comic horror. Unfortunately, for me, it was an unsatisfying payoff.
St. Clair builds up a nice mystery about the Prott but leaves the ardent researcher with a frustrating problem he can’t solve. Readers are just as frustrated because we don’t know what —– the —- is either. The release of this up-to-now mostly serious story is to wrap things up with an O. Henry ending. That concluding gimmick wasn’t satisfying for me.
That’s the problem with first contact stories, it’s almost impossible to conclude them in a satisfying way. In the novel Contact by Carl Sagan there is a tremendously long build-up to create the mystery of the aliens until we’re finally dazzled by a show of their powers. In the end Ellie is returned to Earth at the same time she left with no evidence of the aliens’ existence. She’s like Dorothy waking up in the film version of The Wizard of Oz, or any Christian that must claim they know God exists because of their faith. In the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind we finally get to meet aliens, but before we learn anything real, Roy takes off with the aliens in their flying saucers. The gimmick is a sleight-of-hand bait and switch. We’re happy for Roy, but we’re left with nothing.
In fiction where we do get to know aliens they often become like us. In the novels Children of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky the spider-like alien characters discovered in the first volume become more human in the second volume. Tchaikovsky retries to introduce alienness with uplifted octopi, and a new alien race and ends the second book before we get too chummy with those alien characters. Tchaikovsky does a good job of creating a sense of alienness but the more time we spend with these new creatures the more we have to relate to them in human terms. I believe these novels are popular because his gimmick is to end the story at the right moment.
In “Prott” the less we know about the Prott the more alien they seem. Yet, we never learn what they are, how they evolved, what kind of environment and ecology they live in, how they find meaning, or anything about their social structure. The conclusion is they become pests to us, which is relatable to the reader, and the gimmick. What I wanted was our Margaret Meade like protagonist to observe more customs. We were promised sex. You have to give Philip Jose Farmer credit for being explicit for his stories of alien encounters..
We have always wondered if we’re alone in the multiverse, and if we’re not, what strange beings could exist that we can’t comprehend? It’s an impossible task for the science fiction writer to describe the indescribable. Just look at all the versions of Star Trek and all the aliens we’ve encountered in countless episodes over the decades. In the end, most of the stories are about Klingons and Vulcans who are all too much like us. One reason I believe H. P. Lovecraft was so popular is he invented so many horrible alien monstrosities that we only know from awe and horror. But doesn’t religion use the same gimmick?
“Prott” is another nice try at creating an alien, but really just a minor effort. The reason why “The Martian Odyssey” was so successful, and so well anthologized is Tweel was such a great alien character. Stanley G. Weinbaum hit that one out of the park. The Prott aren’t that interesting. Neither was the structure of how St. Clair told her story, which was closer in style to the 19th century than what was innovative in the 1950s. I know I keep harping on this, but the competition at that time was “Coming Attraction” and “Fondly Fahrenheit.” St. Clair is doing a pale imitation of Poe.
Story #19 of 107: “Surface Tension” by James Blish
“Surface Tension” by James Blish first appeared in the August 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. In 1957 it was published by Gnome Press as The Seedling Starsalong with three other pantropy stories by Blish to make a fix-up novel. When the Nebula Awards were being created in the 1960s, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted for their favorite science fiction short stories published before the advent of the awards and “Surface Tension” was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One in 1970. It has been anthologized many times. The version of “Surface Tension” in The Big Book of Science Fiction is different from the one that appeared in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. It has “Sunken Universe” (Super Science Stories, May 1942) inserted into it after the introduction, which is the way it is in The Seedling Stars. However, the introduction had additional paragraphs not in the Hall of Fame version, and I expect a careful reading of the later sections should show changes too. H. L. Gold was known for editing stories and Blish was known for rewriting his stories, so we don’t know which happened. My guess is Blish came up with additional ideas to add to the story for the book version. I’ve read the slightly shorter version three times before over my lifetime, and a few paragraphs in this version stood out to me as new. Mainly they were about the original crew theorizing about their future pantropic existence.
Lately I’ve been writing about why I disliked a story, but for “Surface Tension” I need to explain why I love a story, and that might be even harder to do. Every once in a while, a science fiction writer will come up with an idea that’s so different that it lights up our brains. Wells did it with “The Time Machine.” Heinlein did it with his story “Universe.” Brian Aldiss did it with his fix-up novel Hothouse. Robert Charles Wilson did it with his novel Spin. “Surface Tension” is one of those stories. It has tremendous sense of wonder.
I’m torn between explaining everything that happens and not saying anything. These posts are all about making comments to our short story club where everyone is supposed to have read the story and we don’t worry about spoilers. I recently read Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn and it was so delicious learning every plot element as it unfolded that I didn’t want to spoil anything for first time readers. I tried to explain why in my spoiler-free review. But I need to talk about “Surface Tension,” so if you haven’t read it, please go away and do so.
As I’ve said before about great short stories, they have a setup that allows the author to say something interesting – not a message, but an insight. The setup for “Surface Tension” is five men and two women have crashed on the planet Hydrot that orbits Tau Ceti. Their spaceship can’t be repaired, their communication system was destroyed, and they don’t have enough food to survive. However, their ship is one of a swarm of seed ships spreading across the galaxy that colonizes each planet with customized humans adapted for each unique environment. This is called pantropy, also representing a kind of panspermia, and anticipates the idea of transhumanism. In other words, Blish has a lot to say with this story.
Because no large organisms can survive in the current stage of Hydrot’s development, the crew decide to seed it with intelligent microorganisms. The seven will die, but each of their genes will be used to fashion a new species of roughly humanoid shape creatures that can coexist with the existing microorganisms of the freshwater puddles on Hydrot. They won’t have their memories, but they will have ancestral abilities. The crew creates these creatures and inscribe their history on tiny metal tablets they hope will be discovered one day by their tiny replacements.
From here the story jumps to the underwater world of the microorganisms and we see several periods of their history unfold. Blish used his education in biology to recreate several concentric analogies of discoveries that parallel our history in his puddle world of tiny microorganisms. The wee humanoids form alliances with other intelligent microorganisms in wars to conquer their new environment. Then they begin an age of exploration that eventually parallels our era of early space exploration. But you can also think of it paralleling when life first emerged from the sea to conquer the land.
One reason this story means so much to me is Blish makes characters out of various types of eukaryotic microorganisms and that reminds me of when I was in the fourth grade and our teacher asked us to bring a bottle of lake water to class. That day we saw another world through the eyepiece of a microscope. Blish made that world on a microscope slide into a fantasy world where paramecium becomes a character named Para who is intelligent and part of a hive mind that works with the transhumans. Their enemies are various kinds of rotifers. However, I know little of biology and don’t know what the Proto, Dicran, Noc, Didin, Flosc characters are based on.
The main transhuman characters are Lavon and Shar who’s personalities are preserved over generations. I wondered if the seven original human explorers (Dr. Chatvieux, Paul la Ventura, Philip Strasvogel, Saltonstall, Eleftherios Venezuelos, Eunice Wagner, and Joan Heath) were archetypes for the microscopic transhuman characters? Blish suggests that in the opening scene:
They take human germ-cells—in this case, our own, since our bank was wiped out in the crash—and modify them genetically toward those of creatures who can live in any reasonable environment. The result will be manlike, and intelligent. It usually shows the donors’ personality patterns, too, since the modifications are usually made mostly in the morphology, not so much in the mind, of the resulting individual.
“That’s right. In the present situation we’ll probably make our colonists haploid, so that some of them, perhaps many, will have a heredity traceable to you alone. There may be just the faintest of residuums of identity—pantropy’s given us some data to support the old Jungian notion of ancestral memory. But we’re all going to die on Hydrot, Paul, as self-conscious persons. There’s no avoiding that. Somewhere we’ll leave behind people who behave as we would, think and feel as we would, but who won’t remember la Ventura, or Dr. Chatvieux, or Joan Heath, or the Earth.”
However, I never could decipher who Lavon and Shar were. Each time I reread this story I notice more details, and more analogies. “Surface Tension” is both simple and complex. At a simple level its just a space adventure tale about exploration and survival. But in creating a fantasy ecology, Blish hints at the deeper complexity of a writer becoming a worldbuilder. And Blish is also philosophical about the future of mankind, reminding me of Olaf Stapledon. This is the kind of story that can blow adolescent minds.
“Surface Tension” would make a wonderful video game, or a beautiful animated film.
Story #11: “The Conquest of Gola” by Leslie F. Stone
“The Conquest of Gola” first appeared in the April, 1931 issue of Wonder Stories, but more importantly, it was reprinted in The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin, one of two giant retrospective anthologies published in 1946, the other being Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy & McComas. Those two volumes were widely acquired for library collections. Over the next three decades, baby boomers would discover those anthologies and others, learning about the history of the science fiction magazines, and expand the growing population of science fiction fans. Conklin was the John the Baptist of the genre, editing over forty anthologies from 1946-1968. I loved his anthologies growing up, always searching for them when I went to a library. (See “Why Anthologies are Important to Science Fiction.”)
In recent years “The Conquest of Gola” has been reprinted many times in both genre retrospectives and anthologies showcasing women science fiction writers. Beside being written by a woman in the early days of pulp science fiction, it’s also about a matriarchal society on Venus. Story #11 is the second tale featuring a female dominated utopia. However, in both stories, it was a dystopia for the males.
In “The Conquest of Gola,” Gola is the planet Venus, which is ruled by female super-beings. Males are considered gentle consorts, kept for pleasurable companionship. When two ships from Earth arrive, crewed only by men who want to exploit Venus by promoting trade and tourism, the female rulers of Venus are annoyed. They see males from our planet as vastly inferior. They assume the females of Earth have allowed their males extra freedom and gave them spaceships as playthings. When the rulers of Gola discover the Earthmen are the dominant gender from our planet, that blows their minds. After repeatedly being told to leave, the Earthmen turn to violence, destroying the capital, and conquering the other cities. Earthmen then start convincing the males of Gola to join them. Finally, the females of Gola have enough, kill all the humans, and put their males back in their old roles, and live happily ever after.
“The Conquest of Gola” is a pretty good yarn, a bit clunky sounding today because of the typical writing quality common to SF pulps back then. Yet, it has many interesting bits of speculation. First, and this was common for the time, was the idea that superior beings possessed telepathy and other extrasensory powers. “The Man Who Evolved” was in the same issue of Wonder Stories. That’s another SF theme I’d like to trace over time. Second, is the focus on gender. Like in “Sultana’s Dream,” males are considered stupid and violent, whereas females are peaceful and intelligent, the obvious gender to be lead society. But I don’t think that originated in science fiction. People have long speculated what it would be like if women ruled the world. Another idea in the story I’ve seen in other SF stories, is the belief that once a species reaches a certain level of maturity, it will become less materialistic. The inhabitants of Gola had spaceships long ago but gave them up.
Reading this story has me thinking about building a subject database for the science fiction stories I read. I struggle with memory. First, I’m getting old, and my recall is flaky, but second, I’ve read thousand of science fiction stories. Often, I only vaguely remember a story by a particular topic, and can’t remember the title or author. I’d love to have a database that would allow me to retrieve stories by themes, topics, or subjects. For example, list all stories about societies ruled by women. That query should help me remember “Sultana’s Dream” and “The Conquest of Gola.”
I showed a spreadsheet sample for remembering subjects when I reviewed “The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois. That was a quick and dirty solution, but to really get the job done would require a relational database because I’d want each story to be able to have unlimited subjects attached to it.
And is subject the right word? Should it be theme? Or concept, or idea? What is the right word for describing what a science fiction story is about? For “The Conquest of Gola” there are several keywords I’d like to link with the story so when I want a list of stories that deal with a specific subject, it would add “The Conquest of Gola” to the listing. For this story I’d link it to these subjects:
You can probably see how this gets tricky fast. Why do I need Gender and Female? Or even Feminism? What if I wanted to list all SF stories that deal with gender roles in society? (Think The Left Hand of Darkness.) But another time, wanted a list of all stories where females are the dominate gender? Will all such stories be about feminism? What if I wanted just a list of stories that promoted feminism? Is “The Conquest of Gola” really about feminism? I’m not sure. It’s often used as an example for women writing science fiction, but does that fact make it about feminism? The Handmaid’s Tale is obvious a work I’d tag with feminism in the subject field. I’d put feminism in “Sultana’s Dream” subject field for sure, but I don’t think I would for “The Conquest of Gola.”
See why creating a subject database for science fiction stories is tricky? It’s probably why we don’t see any. ISFDB started the “Tag” field, and if you search for “Feminism” it brings up only 13 entries. My guess is they gave up on that project, suggesting it I might be waste my time.
However, as I review the 107 stories of The Big Book of Science Fiction I might build a test database. It sure would help me to remember SF stories if I had a database with a carefully designed subject field. Each title could have any number of subjects tagged to it, but does that mean the number of subjects would be unlimited? Would it help manage complexity if I used two fields: Theme and Subject? We’ll see.
It only took us to the tenth story in this giant retrospective science fiction anthology to get to the galactic civilization, probably the the most cherished of all science fiction concepts, and the destination fantasy of true fans. “The Star Stealers” anticipates both Star Trek and Star Wars. The galactic civilization is to science fiction what Middle-Earth is to fantasy.
“The Star Stealers” is the second of seven stories (1928-1930) in Hamilton’s early space opera series, Interstellar Patrol. Those stories are among the earliest science fiction about interstellar travel, and among the few to leave the galaxy. This story could have been the inspiration for Star Trek since it involved a Federation governing the galaxy, a captain commanding from a bridge of a Federation ship, and even a second officer who is a woman. Edmond Hamilton and E. E. “Doc” Smith were the pioneers of space opera.
Five of the Interstellar Patrol stories were first published in book form in 1965 as Crashing Suns, the year before Star Trek premiered. All of them were republished in 2009 as The Star-Stealers: The Complete Adventures of The Interstellar Patrol, The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume Two, a collector’s edition from Haffner Press that’s now out of print and costs hundreds of dollars used, if you can find a copy. However, because it took decades for these stories to be reprinted suggests they weren’t fan favorites. Most of Hamilton’s early magazine work wasn’t published in book form until the late 1960s or 1970s. Edmond Hamilton is most famous for his Captain Future series, but even those fan favorite stories from the 1940s weren’t reprinted as books until 1969, and then as cheap Ace paperbacks. Hamilton’s appeal seems rather limited. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark and Lensman series vastly overshadowed Hamilton’s space operas.
I’m still trying to discern the VanderMeers’s methodology for the stories they collect in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Anthologies usually have a design behind them. The simplest approach is to bundle a bunch of stories you expect readers will enjoy. Because this anthology is a retrospective of 20th century science fiction I assume the stories showcase the genre. In the introduction the VanderMeers tell us they want to broadening the history of the genre by including women writers and foreign-language stories in translation. I thought that was an excellent ambition. But I assumed when they did include traditional SF stories, those stories would be the classics, and maybe the best example of each writer’s work.
This has happened some, but not to the degree I assumed. For example, “The Star Stealers” is not Edmond Hamilton’s best. Hamilton was never a good writer, and it shows in “The Star Stealers,” which is little better than a comic book without pictures. Hamilton wrote two stories, “The Man Who Evolved” and “What’s It Like Out There?” I believe belong in retrospective SF anthologies. The original use of the term space opera was as a put down for the kind of writing “The Star Stealers” epitomizes. I even wonder if Hugo Gernsback, who had no ear for prose, had turned down “The Star Stealers.” Weird Tales is a legendary magazine today, but it’s content was often amateurish. But Hamilton was practically a house writer for them, so he probably didn’t submit it to Amazing. This story was no more sophisticated than the illustration that went with “The Star Stealers” at the top of the page.
Still, there’s plenty to like about “The Star Stealers,” and it makes an interesting entry for the anthology. The plot parallels the story by Wells, “The Star,” which was about a rogue astronomical body flying through the solar system, swinging too close to Earth. In “The Star Stealers” a giant sun is detected coming from outside the galaxy that will swing too close to Earth. For this story, the object is traveling many multiple speeds of light and will reach the solar system in four months. This is ridiculous, but Hamilton’s Federation space cruisers can travel a thousand times the speed of light, so its no problem. (By the way, how do astronomers detect objects approaching Earth traveling faster than light in their telescopes?)
“The Star Stealers” was published the year before Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, and just five years after Edwin Hubble proved the existence of galaxies outside of the Milky Way, and less than two decades since Einstein explained that nothing could travel faster than light. Hamilton has his space cruiser traveling from Alpha Centauri to our system in twelve hours. This is almost as fast as they travel in Star Wars, but a good deal slower than what they can do in Star Trek. We might forgive Hamilton for breaking Einstein’s speed law in 1929, but even modern writers can’t let go of FTL.
In recent decades we’ve been seeing more stories following Einstein’s laws for interstellar travel, but for the most part writers keep coming up with theoretical gimmicks to go faster. Readers want science fiction where humans roam the galaxy at will, and we see this in “The Star Stealers.” However, the super-science of that story and other early space operas has been deemed excessive by modern fans. “The Star Stealers” feels as archaic today as a silent movie. At one time, “Doc” Smith had his characters hurling galaxies at each other, but nowadays, science fiction readers are happy with space opera that span just a few hundred light years. Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought series is the last science fiction I’ve read that covers the entire galaxy. The only other SF story I know that has characters traveling between galaxies is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. I should forgive Hamilton because “The Star Pit” is not ridiculous to me at all, in fact, it’s my all-time favorite SF novella.
But as I said, “The Star Stealers” is a fascinating choice for this anthology. It anticipates the ultimate setting of science fiction fans who want to dwell in a galactic civilization, with countless exotic worlds to visit, and plenty of exotic races of intelligent aliens to be friends and foes. Edmond Hamilton grasped the final frontier early, and the idea of a federation of star systems. “Doc” Smith’s first space opera, The Skylark of Space has a lone Elon Musk like inventor competing with a mad scientist, Blackie DuQuesne to explore the galaxy. Hamilton jumps ahead of Smith by imagining a civilized galaxy. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s prose was painful, and he never achieved the popularity of Smith. “Doc” Smith’s second space opera series, The Lensman series actually popularized the galactic civilization which eventually led to Star Trek. It was Asimov, with the Foundation series, that popularized the galactic empire, which led to Star Wars. I keep mentioning those two franchises because they represent the most loved examples of science fiction today, and these earlier stories represented how thousands of fans eventually turned into hundreds of millions of fans.
So, in that sense, the VanderMeers have made an exceptional pick. Unfortunately, “The Star Stealers” is also a perfect example of bad writing, even for old timey science fiction. First, the bad characterization.
The hero of this tale is Ran Rarak. We expect him to be dashing, but there is no supporting description, even though he’s the admiral of a mighty space fleet. We expect Ran to be heroic, but in the big fight he gets knocked out and is unconscious for ten weeks. We eventually see Ran duking it out with one alien, but it’s an ordinary non-superhero punch out. And the one problem he solves is by ramming the enemy’s pivotal machine with his space cruiser.
Hamilton should get credit for introducing a female character in early SF. Dal Nara, pilot, second officer, is a woman who gets to be part of the story action but her only insight is to yell, “Hey, look!” warnings on a few occasions. Her only action is to use her long legs to grab a means of escape. And finally, her chosen reward for help saving the solar system is to visit a beauty parlor. But she’s not the love interest. Hamilton, we give you a gold star, but it doesn’t stick and falls off.
And like in Star Trek, characters are comically tossed around the bridge to show conflict in space. Only one named character in the story is killed, Nal Jak, but he does nothing, and we don’t even know the color of his shirt. Hurus Hol we’re told is the brilliant scientist, but we’re never shown him being brilliant. However, he does commit one of the cardinal sins of bad science fiction, he infodumps on Ran Rarak in a completely condescending way:
He was silent again for a moment, his eyes on mine, and then went on. “You know, Ran Rarak, that the universe itself is composed of infinite depths of space in which float great clusters of suns, star-clusters which are separated from each other by billions of light-years of space. You know, too, that our own cluster of suns, which we call the galaxy, is roughly disklike in shape, and that our own particular sun is situated at the very edge of this disk. Beyond lie only those inconceivable leagues of space which separate us from the neighboring star clusters, or island universes, depths of space never yet crossed by our own cruisers or by anything else of which we have record.
“But now, at last, something has crossed those abysses, is crossing them; since over three weeks ago our astronomers discovered that a gigantic dark star is approaching our galaxy from the depths of infinite space—a titanic, dead sun which their instruments showed to be of a size incredible, since, dark and dead as it is, it is larger than the mightiest blazing suns in our own galaxy, larger than Canopus or Antares or Betelgeuse—a dark, dead star millions of times larger than our own fiery sun—a gigantic wanderer out of some far realm of infinite space, racing toward our galaxy at a velocity inconceivable!
“The calculations of our scientists showed that this speeding dark star would not race into our galaxy but would speed past its edge, and out into infinite space again, passing no closer to our own sun, at the edge, than some fifteen billion miles. There was no possibility of collision or danger from it, therefore; and so though the approach of the dark star is known to all in the solar system, there is no idea of any peril connected with it. But there is something else which has been kept quite secret from the peoples of the solar system, something known only to a few astronomers and officials. And that is that during the last few weeks the path of this speeding dark star has changed from a straight path to a curving one, that it is curving inward toward the edge of our galaxy and will now pass our own sun, in less than twelve weeks, at a distance of less than three billion miles, instead of fifteen! And when this titanic dead sun passes that close to our own sun there can be but one result. Inevitably our own sun will be caught by the powerful gravitational grip of the giant dark star and carried out with all its planets into the depths of infinite space, never to return!”
Hurus Hol paused, his face white and set, gazing past me with wide, unseeing eyes. My brain whirling beneath the stunning revelation, I sat rigid, silent, and in a moment he went on.
The plotting of the story is about at the level of old Buck Rogers serials, which were more primitive than the Flash Gordans. Humans detect a giant sun heading towards the Milky Way and calculate it will swing near enough to the Sun to capture Sol and pull it into intergalactic space. They quickly assemble a fleet of fifty Federation space cruisers and take off. When they reach the giant sun which turns out to be populated death star, their fleet is almost completely destroyed, and our heroes get immediately captured. Like so many episodes of Star Trek where Captain Kirk is confined by ropes, chains, jails, cells, dungeons, and sexy space-babes, the plot pivots on merely escaping confinement and performing one little act, thus saving the Earth, solar system, galaxy, or universe. It turns out not all the fleet was destroyed, and good old Federation cruiser Number Sixteen escaped to fetch back a fleet of 5,000 Federation ships in the nick of time. Hamilton couldn’t even be bothered to name his ships, even the one that saves the day.
Edmond Hamilton seems to know little about astronomy or physics. He keeps mentioning three billion miles like it’s a tremendous distance, yet that’s just a tiny fraction light travels in one year: 5,878,625,370,000 miles. His ships accelerate but never decelerate. And a Federation spaceship can suddenly stop or hover in relation to each other even though they’ve been traveling a thousand times the speed of light. Another foreshadowing of Star Trek and Star Wars.
Like I said, this story was written just a few years after Hubble made the measurements to calculate that other galaxies were outside the Milky Way. It appears that Hamilton thinks our galaxy and the universe is terribly tiny. Was that true for all people back in the 1920s? Maybe it was for teenage readers of SF.
Even though E. E. “Doc” Smith was far more famous than Edmond Hamilton, he wasn’t much better as a writer. “The Star Stealers” is typical for both storytelling and science back in the 1920s and 1930s. There’s a reason why John W. Campbell, Jr. is so famous, because he attracted both stories and writers that were a quantum leap in quality and talent. And it explains why it’s hard so hard to find good science fiction stories between H. G. Wells and Robert A. Heinlein. This brings us back to the anthology.
Should we remember the all the bad stories that helped evolve the genre? There is a kind of fun academic appeal to reading old clunkers like “The Star Stealers” but is that what most buyers of retrospective anthologies want? And I still wonder if there were truly good stories from back then that could be rescued.
Look at it this way. There was thousands and thousands of short stories published in the 19th century, but how many are still embraced by readers today? Is the number even greater than 25? Or 10? I’m talking by bookworms, not scholars.
When a century separates readers from the 20th century, how many of these SF stories will still be read? At what point should we let go? Just how big would The Big Book of Science Fiction be if it only reprinted four and five star stories? My definition of a four-star story is any story on reading the first time leaves you knowing you’ll want to reread it. My definition of a five-star story are stories which bookworms cherish and read many times over their lifetime.
“The Star Stealers” fits neither definition for me. My definition for three-star stories are solid well-written stories that deserve to be published in a professional periodical, and might even deserve to be reprinted in an annual best-of-the-year anthology. It’s hard to judge the quality of “The Star Stealers” today by whether it deserved a magazine editor’s acceptance. But I’m guessing Farnsworth Wright was excited about the ideas in “The Star Stealer” and knew Hamilton wasn’t much of a writer. Wright and Gernsback knew their readers weren’t mature or educated, just enthusiastic. Even in 1929 I probably would have considered it a 2-star story, but I probably would have bought it if I was a magazine editor. It was different.
I enjoyed reading and writing about “The Star Stealers” because I’m an autodidactic scholar of science fiction, but I have to wonder what the average science fiction fan today will think of it.
With the ninth story of The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, we’ve finally reached the land of science fiction. In our group discussions many have questioned whether the earlier stories were truly science fiction. With “The Fate of the Poseidonia” by Clare Winger Harris from the June 1927 issue of Amazing Stories we’ve finally reached the era of pulp science fiction magazines. If anything defined the concept, it was the science fiction magazines.
Clare Winger Harris images a much different winter of 1994-95. George Gregory discovers his girlfriend Margaret has taken up with another guy, a Mr. Martell. Martell looks odd, and acts suspicious. George tells Margaret of his worries, but she defends Martell and dumps Gregory. Mr. Gregory starts spying on Mr. Martell out of jealousy, and learns that Martell is a Martian spy. Unfortunately, no one will believe him, and he’s committed to a mental hospital.
Is “The Fate of the Poseidonia” the earliest example of Martians living amongst us stories? My two favorites of that theme are A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis. Both of these novels have a quiet beauty you don’t often find in science fiction. This theme was also used on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. The idea of Martians passing for humans is very entertaining to me which caused me to like “The Fate of the Poseidonia” more than it probably deserves. It’s a decent story, mainly suffering from an unskilled writer, but Harris did win third prize for it at Amazing Stories.
What makes this story so distinctive among those we’ve read so far is how the reader in thrown into the future. This isn’t a dream, or an experiment in storytelling, a political allegory, or philosophical musing. This story contains the real essence of science fiction. The setting is science fictional, and the intent of the story is science fictional. Clare Winger Harris asks us to believe that there are intelligent beings on Mars who come to Earth to steal our water. Their planet has dried up and they have the technology to lower ocean levels by many feet. Harris has created an entertaining example of “What if …?”
In 1927 it was widely assumed there could be life elsewhere in the solar system, especially Mars and Venus. Until Mariner 4 flew by Mars in July of 1965, hope was held out for life on Mars, even intelligent life. I’m not sure people growing today can understand how it was almost a common assumption that Mars and Venus could actually be inhabited. Sure, most scientists held little hope, but the public did, and it was reflected in Pre-NASA science fiction. From H. G. Wells to Roger Zelazny there were endless science fictional speculations about Martians. I loved the idea of Martians as a kid, and even wrote an essay, “I Miss Martians.”
I also grew up with NASA, so I quickly gave up all hope for finding any kind of life within our solar system. The more I read popular science, the more skeptical I became about science fiction. Eventually, I doubted most of what science fiction hoped. But in my old age I realized I still love the old unscientific science fiction. (I’m really digging listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr.)
I’ve mentioned this before, but I grew up reading Oz books before I discovered science fiction. At the beginning of the 20th century L. Frank Baum produced a series of children’s books about a fictional location that existed somewhere on Earth, but in a geography that had eluded all explorers. Over the series, the Land of Oz became richly complex. As a gullible nine-year-old in 1962 I wanted Oz to actually exist. I knew it didn’t, but I wanted it to be a real place. Hell, it was crushing to lose Santa Claus at 6, then Oz at 9, and Christianity at 12. So I turned to science fiction. My 69-year-old self realizes that for most of my lifetime, science fiction was my replacement for Oz and religion. I always rationalized that reading science fiction prepared me for the future, and inspired me to learn about science, but in reality, it was my way to escape the mundane.
This is very different from my middle-age self who wanted science fiction to be scientific. Now I see very little difference between science fiction and fantasy. Both are fairytales for readers who have left childhood. Both are about world building fictional universes. There seems to be some differences because some readers show preferences for one over the other. Maybe science fiction are those tales that seem more realistic. However, in 2021 how realistic is “The Fate of the Poseidonia” then? It’s far from scientific. In 1927 it was thought to be more realistic, but not if you were properly educated.
I’m using these essays reviewing the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction to understand the evolution of the genre, but also to psychoanalyze myself. Why do I love science fiction so much? I want to define the term science fiction because it seems to point to exactly something that pushes my buttons. A good deal of pop culture is now science fiction, so I’m not alone in my attraction. Maybe we should all analyze this fixation?
We could say science fiction is fiction set is the future. That might be the one telling trait that defines science fiction for me, but maybe not everyone. Fantasies are set in the past, present, or never-never land. When they are set in the future, like Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, I want to call them science fiction. This lets us file steampunk and alternate history in the fantasy bin. I like that, because neither of those types of stories feel like science fiction to me. We could split the difference on time travel stories. If characters head to the past, it’s fantasy, but if they go forward, it’s science fiction. But there’s a problem. All those stories about visiting dinosaurs are definitely science fiction to me.
What if someone today wrote a story set in the future where we discover an ancient dying civilization on Mars, something that’s been proven to be impossible? I can amend my definition by saying even fantasies set in the future belong in the science fiction bin too. In fact, older unscientific SF has become my favorite kind of science fiction in recent years. And I’ve notice a trend for writers to produce alternate history science fiction, like the novel The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, or the Apple TV+ series For All Mankind. I might not be the only person nostalgic for what science fiction used to be.
As I read and review the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, and our Facebook group discusses them, I’m trying to find a reason to keep the term science fiction. I swing back and forth from wanting to throw out all genre labels, to finding a practical meaning for the term science fiction that most people can agree on.
Right now my working definition is “Science fiction is fiction set in the future.” That leaves a lot of holes, but then we have almost a hundred stories yet to consider.
In his very first sentence in “Mechanoplis,” Miguel de Unamuno, lets us know his story was inspired by reading Erewhon by Samuel Butler. That 1872 novel is considered one of the first books to imagine artificial intelligence. Butler extended Charles Darwin’s recent ideas on natural selection to apply to the machines of the industrial revolution. Could machines develop consciousness and become self-replicating? This makes it hard not to consider Erewhon a major science fiction novel of the 19th century. However, I’m still on the fence about whether or not genre science fiction can claim utopian literature. My current thought is those old utopian novels inspired the birth of genre science fiction by getting people to think about the future. But along the way there was a fork in the road. Some science fiction has continued to worry about the future, like the recent novel The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. But most genre SF has made the future into a Disneyland of thrills, adventures, and fun. The future becomes a place we want to visit.
It’s hard to trace the evolution of ideas in utopian novels and proto-SF stories of the 19th century to mid-20th century genre science fiction. Butler used the future to comment on Victorian society with satire closer to Jonathan Swift’s 18th century work than how Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov used the future in the 20th century science fiction. But I do see stepping stones, from story to story.
Reading “Mechanopolis” by Miguel de Unamuno in The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer provided an immediate sense of déjà vu. I can’t remember if I read this 1913 story from the Spanish writer Unamuno in another anthology, or because it feels so much like other science fiction stories I’ve read, especially, “Twilight” by John W. Campbell, Jr. from 1934.
“Mechanopolis” begins with an unnamed narrator lost in a desert, nearly dead, who happens upon an oasis where he finds an automated railway system that takes him into a deserted city where machines maintain an automated society long after humanity has left. The forgotten cafeterias allow our narrator to eat. That was true in the Campbell story too. However, in this story the narrator goes mad as he realizes the machines have souls, and even write about his activities in their daily newspaper, spooking the hell out of him. The abandoned cities in “Twilight” still functioning by self-repairing machines, but they inspire a great sense of wonder, not fear.
In the end of “Mechanopolis,” the narrator escapes the city and returns to the desert. He encounters Bedouins who save him. When the narrator returns home he works to stay as far away from machinery as possible. Of course, this reminds me of the ending to the 1984 classic SF story “Press Enter ▮” by John Varley. I’ve written about it before. Victor Apfel, in the Varley story becomes so afraid of machines he rips the wiring out of his house.
“Mechanopolis” is a rather brief expression of a theme that shows up time and again in science fiction. We are definitely on the road to science fiction with this story. Unamuno completely ignores how his narrator finds his way to the mechanical city. In “Twilight,” Campbell has his story told to a man of our times by a wayward time traveler he picks up hitchhiking.
This reveals an interesting aspect to the evolution of science fiction. Writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries had a difficult time setting their story in the future. Often, those early tales about the future have people from the present stumble into some kind of suspended animation. In 1819 Washington Irving has his title character in “Rip van Wrinkle” fall asleep for twenty years. In 1888 Edward Bellamy has his character, Julian West, go under a hypnotic sleep for 113 years to get to the future described in Looking Backward. Of course, the most famous solution was by H. G. Wells in 1895, when he sent his character into the future via a time machine. But then in 1928 Buck Rogers returns to the old method getting to 2419 by being trapped in a cave in where radioactive gas puts him into suspended animation.
All these writers evidently felt there must be some connection between the present day and the future. Maybe they thought we needed a POV like ourselves to react to the future. However, Ray Bradbury did away with the human viewer altogether in “There Will Come Soft Rains” where he describes an automated house working after the humans are gone, and we assume extinct because of WWIII. It’s a beautiful story. However, the machines aren’t sentient, and we don’t fear them. We’re just wistful to see them working without us.
Unamuno has his character take a strange train ride. Does his narrator ever realize he’s in the future? Or is it possible that this mechanical city is somewhere on Earth like the land of Oz, in current time but having a quite divergent development from the rest of the world? Or is Mechanopolis in another dimension? I’m not sure we know. The train is a portal, but not much else is explained. I’m assuming Mechanopolis is in the future. Art the narrator sees in the machine’s museums he feels are the originals might imply the narrator was in the future. But he also wondered if our museums held perfect forgeries. That could imply Mechanoplis was not in the future.
One of the surprising aspects to the 1909 story, “The Machine Stops,” is E. M. Forster just puts his readers into the future. That approach eventually becomes the standard for science fiction. We read science fiction so we can jump into the future. Any comparison to the present is at an unconscious level.
“Mechanopolis” anticipates automated cities in future stories like The Dying Earth by Jack Vance or The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. In those two the humans aren’t quite gone but our species is fading away. I just remembered, The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson from 1912. He took his readers to the far future too, where the remaining humans survive in the remnants of a technological civilization. Hodgson got his readers there with a reincarnated character from our times. Some editions of that book lop off that introductory section, and jump immediately to the future. Evidently, those editors felts modern readers didn’t need the connection with the present day.
Another story where the humans are gone but the machines remain is the connecting filler to the fix-up novel City by Clifford Simak. We are told humans have left and only intelligent machines and uplifted dogs remain. The gimmick of the fix-up is the robots and dogs are telling tales about humans, which are just reprints of Simak short stories. With Simak, we love the machines.
“Moxon’s Master” the 1899 story by Ambrose Bierce features a chess playing machine killing a human. We have a long history of anthropomorphizing animals and objects, so when did the idea of sentient machines first develop in science fiction? Unamuno’s 1913 story is way before computers, or even the concept of robots were developed. That was even more true of Erewhon. Why does Butler or Unamuno imagine machines will become aware? It’s one thing to assume automated machinery will keep running, or could even be made self-servicing. It’s a whole other concept to imagine that machines could observe people, and in this story, feel concern for the narrator’s state of mind. Evolving machines was quite a leap for Butler, but Darwin inspired all kinds of fears about evolution. A great case could be made that Darwin is really the father of science fiction.
In this very short story, Unamuno comes up with automated cities, the extinction of humans, cities that keep functioning without humans, self-aware machines, and even machine inheriting the Earth. He also comes up with the fear or paranoia of intelligent machines. It’s doubtful many English writers and readers knew about Unamuno’s story. Could there have been any chance of Campbell reading it? I wonder what Spanish writers Unamuno influenced with science fictional ideas?
Even though I bought all 35 volumes of The Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois as they came out, I never read one from cover to cover until now. Their size was just too daunting. I finally overcame my fear of giant anthologies when I listened to The Very Best of the Best from beginning to end, and then again when the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction voted it in as a group read. For summer 2021 we read The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection. This is the first of the annuals I’ve finished. Reading and discussing a short story every other day is a great way to read an anthology, and I expect someday to read the other 34 volumes – with or without the group.
Since I’ve joined this Facebook group, I’ve been reading at least one short story a day. We keep two group reads going concurrently. Because I also read stories on my own I’ll read over four hundred short stories this year, maybe as many as five hundred. For the three years before joining the group, I read at least two to three hundred short stories each year. I’m slowly getting a feel for the form, since I’ve probably gotten my ten thousand hours in. However, it wasn’t dedicated study.
For this post I thought I’d reprint my Facebook comments on the twenty-four stories in this anthology. If I find time, I’ll write separate reviews of the stories I liked best. Here’s my rating system. One and two stars usually only show up in magazines.
Writing level of a fiction workshop or amateur publication
Writing level of semi-pro magazine, or lesser pro magazine story
Solid story from a professional magazine, should be minimum level for an annual anthology
Solid story that I found particularly entertaining
An exceptional story I know I’ll want to reread someday, or have already read many times
An exceptional story that’s almost a classic, something I’d anthologize
A classic that’s well anthologized and remembered
My Rating System
01 of 24 – “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard F&SF (May 1985)
“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard is not science fiction, but magic realism that claims we can return to an past reality destroyed by modernity. The setting appears to be current day Honduras and the plot focuses on Esteban Caax, 44, a farmer, probably a descendent of the Azetecs. Esteban loves living in the country, and pursuing a simple life. However, his life is complicated when his wife Incarnación, 41, buys a battery powered TV on credit from Onofrio Esteves. Incarnación wants to move to town and take up modern ways.
Onofrio sold the TV to Incarnación to force Esteban into debt so he has to return to jaguar hunting. There is a rare black jaguar that’s keeping a tourist resort from being built, one that Onofrio and his son want to develop.
When Esteban goes hunting the jaguar he finds a beautiful woman, Miranda, in the jungle who suduces him. He eventually learns she is the black jaguar and she wants Esteban to return to an older, magical reality, part of his real heritage. At first Esteban refuses, but ultimately, he’s forced to follow Miranda into an ancient alternate existence.
Shepard’s writing is amazing and beautiful, and this story reminds me of “The Woman Who Rode Away” by D. H. Lawrence, another story about finding a way back to an older reality of the Aztecs, and one of my all-time favorite stories.
I’ve seen this theme enough times to wonder if people really do believe there are ancient ways to rediscover. I got to meet Shepard at Clarion West 2002. It’s a shame his work hasn’t stayed in print. The collection, THE BEST OF LUCIUS SHEPARD is available for the Kindle for $2.99. He has nothing on Audible. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucius_Shepard
02 of 24 – “Dogfight” by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick Omni (July 1985)
You’ve heard of unreliable narrators, well, Deke is an unlikeable narrator. “Dogfight” by Michael Swanwick and William Gibson is now considered a Cyberpunk classic, and it brings back memories of all the excitement that literary movement generated in the 1980s. Many cyberpunk stories embraced a noirish quality of dark settings, involving criminal activities, and “Dogfight” fits the stereotype. Deke is a petty thief that finds his calling in a game of Spads & Fokkers. In a rundown bus stop, Tidewater Station, Deke discovers a crippled vet named Tiny playing out the role of Minnesota Fats with the game of Spads & Fokkers, and Deke decides to steal Tiny’s throne by becoming the Fast Eddie of the game.
Along the way Deke befriends a college girl with her own ambitions named Nance. Ultimately, Deke uses Nance, and brutually steals her dream and crushes Tiny’s purpose for being. Deke is elated to finally be good at something, ignoring the cost of his success the others paid.
The neat thing about “Dogfight” is the idea we’ll being able to jack into hardware and project 3D images that others can see. There is no explanation for how this works at all. We’re just told people can imagine tiny WWI planes and people will see them flying around the room fighting in aerial dogfights. That was the problem with most cyberpunk stories, they imagined computer technology doing things it will never do.
03 of 24 – “Fermi and Frost” by Frederik Pohl Asimov’s (January 1985)
This is the third reread for me, so I’m wonder if I didn’t read part or all of this anthology back when it came out. “Fermi and Frost” is barely a short story. It’s more of a meditation by Pohl on nuclear winter.
The story begins in the chaos of people trying to fly out of JFK knowing that the missiles are coming to hit New York. Harry Malibert lucks out and gets a flight to Iceland and rescues a nine-year-old boy named Timmy. Iceland barely survives the nuclear winter, and Harry becomes Timmy’s father. Pohl tells us they could have a happy ending or a bad one. I’m sure most readers picture the happy ending, where humanity survives.
I liked this story because I always liked stories about the last humans on Earth, but this one is barely a sketch on the subject.
04 of 24 – “Green Days in Brunei” by Bruce Sterling Asimov’s (October 1985)
“Green Days in Brunei” was a finalist for the novella Nebula, but it lost to the 800-pound gorilla “Sailing to Byzantium,” also in this anthology, as is “Green Mars” by KSM, another heavyweight.
The pacing of “Green Days in Brunei” felt like an condensed novel rather than a stretched short story. I believe it’s really hard to pull off a novella that feels perfect for its length. In this case, I was wanting more, not less. The plot of the story is rather sparse, a techie, Turner Choi, takes job in a country that’s fighting technology, Brunei, falls in love with a princess, and has to choose between East and West worlds. Sort of a reverse King and I.
Turner is an interesting creation set in the middle of a fascinating political/philosophical situation. Sterling has done a good job creating a computer geek trying to make it in a repressive society. Seria, the princess and love interest, is also interesting, but more contrived. I wished her character could have been fleshed out, and it would have been if this story had been a novel. Jimmy Brooke, the corrupt and aged rock star almost steals the story. He feels somewhat like a J. G. Ballard character. Moratuwa, the political prisoner, and Buddhist is another character needing more onpage time.
This 1985 near future cyberpunk story missed the internet but scored hits on the social changes. The reason this story is so interesting to read is all the details of the Brunai society, which tries to repress western technology but still wants to succeeed at finding work for its people. That’s a valid philosophical problem today.
Like most cyberpunk writers, Sterling vastly oversimplifies programming robots. In many ways, SF writers expected too much from computers, but often imagined too little.
05 of 24 – “Snow” by John Crowley Omni (November 1985)
John Crowley was one of our teachers for the week at Clarion West 2002. I had not read anything by him at the time. I wish I had read “Snow” before I met him. What a beautiful story – but then I resonated with “Snow” because of my lifelong obsession with memory. I wanted wasp technology starting back in the 1950s. But I wouldn’t use it for remembering dead people. I’d want it for remembering my own life. I especially loved the randomness of the memories. “Snow” reminds me of one of my all-time favorite stories, “Appearance of Life” by Brian Aldiss.
06 of 24 – “The Fringe” by Orson Scott Card F&SF (October 1985)
Orson Scott Card continues the winning streak of great stories with “The Fringe.” Timothy Carpenter, is a wheelchair-bound teacher in a post-apocalyptic farming community who like Stephen Hawking speaks through a computer-generated voice. Because this 1985 story was probably before Hawking was famous I wonder if he was Card’s inspiration? And the use of the computer for speech synthesis and networks suggests Card could see into the future.
The plot of “The Fringe” is told in a straightforward narrative yet suggests complexity and layers. Carpenter, a hero of a rebuilding civilization because of his ideas on crop rotation, chooses to teach farm children on the fringe of that recovering civilization. The conflict of the story is between Carpenter and the students who hate him for turning in their fathers for their black market activities that undermine a community whose survival depends on interdependence. The story is surprisingly dramatic throughout, although Carpenter’s rescue is almost too good to believe possible.
07 of 24 – “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” by Karen Joy Fowler Asimov’s (October 1985) 2nd story from this issue
Miranda suffers from lifelong guilt for dumping Daniel who then volunteered for the army during the Vietnam War and was killed. Decades later she encounters him again several times during lucid dream psychotherapy. At first, Daniel is a realistic mental projection, the same age as Miranda as if he had continued to live, but as the sessions progress, he becomes younger, and eventually Miranda witnesses Daniel kill a child, one Daniel shot thinking he has a grenade. Miranda becomes obsessed she’s learning details about Daniel’s real life that she couldn’t possibly know.
At the beginning of the story, the idea of lucid dreaming therapy sounds practical, but as the story progresses the encounters in the lucid dream world suggest that Miranda is somehow communicating with an afterlife Daniel, making the story into a supernatural fantasy. However, we are restrained by the title. Is Miranda just looking at a lake of artificial things?
This is another story I read back then that I couldn’t tell you anything about before rereading it, but as I read it came back to me, with the scene with Daniel killing the kid triggering a memory of horror I felt reading it the first time. I thought this story was quite effective and wonder how Paul can consider it mediocre.
08 of 24 – “Sailing to Byzantium” by Robert Silverberg Asimov’s SF (February 1985)
“Sailing to Byzantium” is not my all-time favorite SF story, but it should be. It’s an epic work of imagination that only a few science fiction stories surpass. I know it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “The Time Machine,” but it might equal the haunting mood of “The Vintage Season.” I still have a greater personal attachment to “The Star Pit.” Obviously, the Muse was with Silverberg when he wrote: “Sailing to Byzantium.”
Many science fiction writers have tried their hand at far-future stories, but “Sailing to Byzantium” comes closest at conveying what we can never know. What Silverberg works to do in this story is to explain to us what Phillips tries to convey to Willoughby.
09 of 24 – “Solstice” by James Patrick Kelly Asimov’s SF (June 1985)
“Solstice” is a horrifying examination of the sexual abuse of a clone. Tony Cage, who is a wealthy superstar drug designer has himself cloned, but in the cloning process had the clone made female. Cage raised the clone as Wynne who everyone thinks of as his daughter, but Cage sees as a version of himself. There are two other stories I know about that explore sex with the self theme, “All You Zombies—” by Heinlein, and David Gerrold’s THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF. Both of these stories used time travel to hook up a person with themselves, but Kelly uses cloning, so it’s not quite the same, but I think it’s meant to be.
Tony Cage is an egomaniac of the first order who doesn’t see Wynne as herself, but the perfect companion he is creating over time. Cage is educating Wynne to be him and is troubled when Wynne goes in her own direction. Cage even uses cold sleep to even out the years between them as Heinlein did in THE DOOR INTO SUMMER for his unrelated characters. As the story unfolds we see Cage’s obsession with Wynne grow and only get hints of what’s happening to Wynne, but in the climax of the story, we learn that Wynne suffered from deep psychological damage because she saw herself as a daughter of Cage.
The common belief is clones will be duplicates of a person, but they won’t be, and I believe Kelly’s insight is right, they will be our children.
This story is actually two stories, the one described above, and the story of Stonehenge. I was fascinated by all the infodumping about Stonehenge Kelly presented, and I assume it’s true, but I believe it diluted and damaged the main story. The dramatic conclusion of Tony and Wynne’s tale happens at a solstice event at Stonehenge and evidently, Kelly wanted to make that more impactful. For me, the blending of the two stories was clunky, and I would give this story a lower rating, but the other part is too powerful.
10 of 24 – “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” by Avram Davidson Amazing Stories (May 1985)
Cosimo Damiano, the King of the Single Sicily is aided by Dr. Engelbert Eszterhazy to ward off the attacks of Mr. Melanchthon Mudge who wants to steal Cosimo’s only possession of value, Duke Pasquale’s ring.
Avram Davidson’s charming prose is due to his creative use of names and nouns, and a lot of knowledge about old literature and history. However, why is this fantasy story in an anthology devoted to science fiction?
And “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” doesn’t even contain fantastical fantasy, it’s really a very gentle fantasy about what feels like medieval times when people believed in magic. This story reminds me of the Thomas Burnett Swann story we read. Both Swann and Davidson are enchanted by the past, by arcane mysteries and myths.
Not sure how to rate this story. It’s beautiful writing, but the story is all cotton candy, it expresses very little emotion or philosophy, other than the kindness of Eszterhazy for the poor deluded Cosimo. For now, I’ll say ***+ because I have no desire to read it again, although I can imagine fans of Davidson frequently returning to his kind of storytelling. It’s a very delicate form of escapism.
11 of 24 – “More Than the Sum of His Parts” by Joe Haldeman Playboy
Joe Haldeman seems to suggest in “More Than the Sum of His Parts” that becoming a cyborg will go to our heads and make us into monsters, like a variation of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or maybe the moral was better bodies don’t make for better minds. I thought this was the weakest story in the collection so far, but it’s still pretty good. I did wonder if Playboy would have bought this story without the cyborg penis and description of its use?
12 of 24 – “Out of All Them Bright Stars” by Nancy Kress The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (March 1985)
Sally Gourley, a waitress, waits on a blue alien named John who her boss Charles demands she not serve. This story won the Nebula and was included in two textbooks devoted to science fiction, so it’s bound to be an important story, however it’s short and somewhat mysterious. Sally doesn’t feel the prejudice and hatred towards the alien, but then in the end she thinks: “And all at once I’m furious at John, furiously mad, as furious as I’ve ever been in my life.”
Why. I’ve read this story before, and I read it twice in a row tonight trying to figure out why Sally is furious at John. My guess is Sally doesn’t want to know there are better beings in the universe because she had to live with humans. In the last lines she’s responding to something John said:
“I make so little difference,” he says. Yeah. Sure.
Not only do humans look bad in comparison, Sally knows we aren’t going to change, even when we encounter Christ-like figures. I wonder if Kress was saying this to herself regarding her efforts to write enlightening stories?
13 of 24 – “Side Effects” by Walter Jon Williams F&SF (June 1985)
“Side Effects” is something that could have run in THE NEW YORKER because it was so well-written, and whatever mild science fiction it contained was minimal and slipstream.
I was quite impressed with this story and tried to imagine all the intellectual work that Walter Jon Williams had to put into it. It’s also still very relevant. Even after 35 years, it works as a near-future tale. Since I’m old, I’m having to take a lot of drugs, some of which doctors give me as samples. I often wonder if I’m a guinea pig. And they frequently cause side effects.
14 of 24 – “The Only Neat Thing to Do” by James Tiptree, Jr. F&SF (October 1985) (2nd story from this issue)
I didn’t know Tiptree wrote space opera, although “The Only Neat Thing to Do” feels slightly familiar. As does most of the stories we’ve read from this anthology. It’s weird to think what my brain might retain after thirty-five years.
While reading this story I wondered about how Tiptree wrote it. Was she a fan of space opera beforehand? Had she read “The Cold Equations?” To write space opera requires thinking about interstellar travel and other space travel fiction. Tiptree’s sense of space travel feels like it came from Star Wars or Edmond Hamilton (in other words, not hard SF). And Coati Cass reminds me a lot of Heinlein’s title character in PODKAYNE OF MARS. Not only is Triptree writing space opera, but it’s also YA.
Overall, I loved this story, but it had some problems. The communication pipes don’t make sense. What’s their propulsion system? How do they navigate? How long do they take to get where they are going? Even with cold sleep, how long has Coati been gone?
Dozois sure could pick them this year. Four of the six finalists for the Nebula award for the novella are in this anthology. We have one more to read, “Green Mars.”
15 of 24 – “Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985)
“Dinner in Audoghast” is an odd story to appear in a science fiction magazine. I try to imagine why Bruce Sterling wrote it. Picturing a long-forgotten African-Arab city is an interesting choice. I assume because William Gibson had made Japanese culture famous Sterling thought he might try it with Arab culture. George Alec Effinger also used Arab culture in a cyberpunk novel two years later in WHEN GRAVITY FAILS.
Audoghast was the western terminus of a trans-Saharan caravan system during a time when Arab culture was waxing and European culture was waning. It’s a fascinating time period to set a historical novel. Maybe Sterling wanted to write such a historical piece and added the leprous fortune-teller into the story to give it some reason for an SF magazine to publish it. Sterling certainly had to do the work of a historical fiction writer to write this story, and he found a wealth of details to paint a colorful setting.
I don’t know if cyberpunk writers started this or not, but in the coming decades coopting foreign and historical cultures became big in science fiction. It’s led up to today’s World SF stories.
16 of 24 – “Under Siege” by George R. R. Martin Omni (October 1985)
On one hand, “Under Siege” is not the kind of story I enjoy. I’m not fond of alternate history. On the other hand, this is an impressive story. It showcases the kind of writing skills George R. R. Martin had before writing The Song of Ice and Fire books.
Again, we’re treated to another bit of history. Was this a fad back then for SF writers? I looked up the Siege of Sveaborg to see what Martin was working with. It seems like a rather esoteric point in time to pivot the future of the U.S.S.R.
I admired what Martin was doing in the 1808 scenes, but I felt nothing for those characters. However, the narrator, the killer geek mutant narrating the story did grab me. Was his name ever given? I felt for him.
17 of 24 – “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” by Howard Waldrop Omni (January 1985)
Reading “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” made me order THINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME: SELECT SHORT FICTION 1980-2005 by Howard Waldrop. I’ve read this story before, and a few other Waldrop stories and always loved him. Don’t know why I haven’t tried to read more from the guy. I’m amazed that Waldrop comes from Houston, Mississippi, because my mother’s folks are from that part of the country, and I’ve briefly lived in two small northern Mississippi towns and know what kind of upbringing Waldrop would have had. It’s not the kind that would produce these stories. Houston is not far from Oxford, the stomping grounds of William Faulkner.
“Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” is another nostalgia-driven story about a time I fondly remember. I started listening to the radio in the 1958-1963 era when many of the songs in the story first appeared. I even lived in Philadelphia in 1959 for a few months. I loved that glorious Doo-Wop music before it was shut out by the British Invasion in 1964-1965, it’s like imprinted on my soul. I also remember AM radio having Oldie-Goldie weekends. All the songs mentioned in the story push my nostalgia buttons like crazy. Even the UFO book Leroy was reading was probably one I read, because for a short while I gorged on UFO books, however, I mainly remember the crazy George Adamski.
The battle of the bands between Leroy and Kool-Tones and Bobby and the Bombers on November 9, 1965, that knocked out the lights of the northeast USA was one cool story.
18 of 24 – “A Spanish Lesson” by Lucius Shepard F&SF (December 1985)
Lucius Shepard creates a fake Roman à clef about his 17-year-old self vagabonding in Europe in 1964 and meeting two escaped clones from an alternate reality spawned by the evil soul of Hitler. This story is rather schizoid, mixing an On The Road memory with Nazi occult horror, where Adolf is a Lovecraftian elder god. Fictionalizing Nazis is dangerous artistic territory because it generally makes any work trivial in comparison to reality. Shepard would have been better off stealing from Lovecraft. Yet, there is a lot to admire in “A Spanish Lesson.”
The trouble with being an SF/F writer is needing to add the fantastic to every story so it can be sold to an SF/F market. The start of this story and the ending is far better than its SF/F elements. It’s too bad Shepard didn’t stick with straight Kerouac, with maybe a dash of Ballard. I really liked the dynamics of Shepard being the youngest member of an ex-pat community trying to earn some respect from the older cats that he thought were cooler, but were just pretenders.
19 of 24 – “Roadside Rescue” by Pat Cadigan Omni (July 1985) – 2nd story from this issue
“Roadside Rescue” was a wham, bam, thank you ma’am kind of story, for us and the protagonist.
20 of 24 – “Paper Dragons” by James P. Blaylock Imaginary Lands
“Paper Dragons” is a story about the intersection of reality, fantasy, and science fiction. The narrator exists sometimes in the real world of ordinariness, sometimes in a fantasyland, and sometimes in a steampunk-like continuum. There were glittering aspects to this story, but it was often murky to me. I did relate to it in a couple of weird ways though. When I lived in south Florida there would be invasions of crabs. Millions of them would suddenly travel through our neighborhood. And I once found a furry caterpillar and put it in a gallon jar with branches from the bush I found it on. It made a cacoon and eventually emerged as a moth. I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t a butterfly.
Sorry, but I thought this was another story not suited for this anthology because it wasn’t science fiction. A slight case could be made that since Filby could assemble a dragon from pieces of metal that it’s science fiction, but it never felt science-fictional. Its tone was always a lament that fantasy was fading from the world.
21 of 24 – “Magazine Section” by R. A. Lafferty Amazing Stories (July 1985)
I admired Lafferty’s writing and wild imagination in this tall tale but it’s another story that doesn’t belong in this collection. Lafferty does use the word “clone” but the cloning in this story is not the least bit science fiction.
What’s interesting about Lafferty is trying to categorize his writing. I wonder what he was like in person? Was he always pulling people’s legs and telling his tall tales to other people? He’s a kind of literary leprechaun, a class clown with print. He was capable of writing science fiction, PAST MASTER is an example, but for the most part, his stories aren’t science fiction in intent. Nor do they have the flavor of fantasy. His stories are fantastic, but not genre fantastical. It’s a shame the literary world didn’t embrace him because stories like his do appear in literary magazines.
22 of 24 – “The War at Home” by Lewis Shiner Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985) (2nd story from this issue)
“The War at Home” is a punch in the gut. The Vietnam war comes to haunt America’s reality like a bad dream we can’t escape. Although the Safeway bit made me think of our times. Shiner’s story suggests chickens do come home to roost. But I wonder why he wrote it in 1985? That was ten years after the war ended. If civilizations suffer Karmic retribution, then we’re in for some bad shit, much worse than what’s going on now.
My overactive bladder means I never sleep long, so I wake up dreaming many times a night. The intensity of the opening dream sequence resonated with me. Like I said, this very short story was a punch in the gut. Hope it doesn’t give me bad dreams tonight.
23 of 24 – “Rockabye Baby” by S. C. Sykes Analog Science Fiction (Mid-December 1985)
“Rockabye Baby” feels like another one of those literary stories with an embedded fantastic element so it’s salable to a genre market. I thought the first part was excellent. The van crash, the hospital, the group home, the pursuit of drawing, all felt very realistic. Even the part of Sharkey chasing after an experimental treatment. But memories don’t equal a personality, so I don’t buy the fantastic element of the story.
I believe if the real focus of the story was the experimental treatment, the story should have started with Cody trying to rebuild his personality with cassette tapes. Now that would have been a great story too. This could have been a novel, but ISFDB doesn’t show that. Sykes has one other story and one novel listed in their database.
24 of 24 – “Green Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson Asimov’s Science Fiction (September 1985)
“Green Mars” is a hard story to describe and rate. 70% of this long novella is about rock climbing, something I’m not particularly interested in. 20% is about terraforming Mars and the conflict between Red Mars and Green Mars philosophy, something I’m very interested in. And finally, 10% of the story is about Roger and Eileen, and issues with living 300 years, another aspect of the story I loved.
Even though I’m not interested in rock climbing, Robinson did some impressive writing in presenting this part of the story. I have read memoirs of mountain climbers with the details of rock climbing, and I think KSM gives more blow-by-blow details of climbing than those memoirs. Is KSM a rock climber himself?
I admire KSM’s books for their ideas. However, he seldom produces an emotional story for me, but by the end of “Green Mars” I was feeling this story emotionally.
“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (May 1985) The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois The Best of Lucius Shepard (2011)
In 1925 D. H. Lawrence wrote “The Woman Who Rode Away” while living in New Mexico. It was a story about a bored housewife who seeks to escape reality by riding into the mountains and offering herself to the shamans of the native people she found there. In 1968 Carlos Castaneda wrote The Teachings of Don Juan about revealing ancient knowledge from a modern day shaman of the Yaqui Indians. This book became a series that was embraced by the New Agers of the 1970s. In 1985 Lucius Shepard wrote from his experiences of living in Central America “The Jaguar Hunter” about a descendent of the Aztecs escaping the modern reality by similar shamanism.
Why does this theme keep showing up? What is the allure of the far past? The belief in ancient knowledge keeps showing up in both fiction and nonfiction. It’s the basis of religion, and a major tenet of fantasy fiction. Most modern works of fantasy are slowly moving towards make believe realities, but the classics of fantasy have always been built on aspects of the past. Haggard, Burroughs, Merritt, Lovecraft, Howard, Leiber, and other classic fantasy writers of the 19th and 20th centuries wanted their readers to believe magic and magical beings were once part of our reality. You might scoff at that, but don’t all the sacred books of religion claim it too? Is it so absurd to question fun fantasy when our society teaches our children ancient fantasies as facts? If you asked kids and teens where they’d really like to live, how many would say in fantasylands like they read about or see on TV?
“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard is not science fiction, but magic realism that suggests we can return to a past reality destroyed by modernity. The setting appears to be current day Honduras and the plot focuses on Esteban Caax, 44, a farmer. Esteban loves living in the country and pursuing a simple life. However, his life is complicated when his wife Incarnación, 41, buys a battery-powered TV on credit from Onofrio Esteves. Incarnación wants to move into town and take up modern ways.
Onofrio sold the TV to Incarnación to force Esteban into debt so he has to return to jaguar hunting. There is a rare black jaguar that’s keeping a tourist resort from being built, one that Onofrio and his son want to develop. When Esteban goes hunting the jaguar he finds a beautiful woman in the jungle who seduces him. He eventually learns she is the black jaguar and wants Esteban to return to an older, magical reality, part of his true heritage. At first, Esteban refuses, but ultimately, he’s forced to follow Miranda into an ancient reality that modern life and science was destroying.
Shepard’s writing is amazing and beautiful, yet I have to wonder about the intent of this story. The setup is realistic, probably inspired by experiences of living in Honduras. The conclusion of the story is fantasy, and like the intent of much fantasy, it’s a rejection of modern life.
I find it odd that Dozois included this and a few other fantasy stories in his anthology of the best science fiction of the year. But even back in 1985 science fiction was beginning to be overrun with fantasy. To readers who just enjoy a good story, making the distinction between the two genres isn’t important. But I find there’s a philosophical difference that matters. Fantasy longs for the past, while science fiction dreams about the future.
I enjoyed reading “The Jaguar Hunter” but I also find it offensive because it rejects both reality and science. When I was young I read most of the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. I loved them. When I was grown I read an article from the 1950s that said that some librarians stopped carrying the Oz books because it gave children unrealistic expectations toward life. I was horrified by the censorship, but I knew they were right. The Oz books had given me unrealistic expectations.
That Esteban can escape his petty mundane problems by running away into the past with a beautiful woman/jaguar is a fun conclusion to the story, but isn’t that an unhealthy message? You might think I’m being ridiculous laying such a heavy criticism on a slight bit of make-believe. But look at our world today. Half the population embraces a philosophy of denialism, rejecting science and reality. We live in a culture where people never grow up, and many never escape the brainwashing of religion or storytelling. Start paying attention to how off fantasy is embraced by the people around you.
I believe every good story, has a setup and an intent. I admire Shepard’s setup, but I don’t like his intent.