The story of four women - named only by their professions: biologist, psychologist, anthropologist, and surveyor - sent into a region known only as Ar...moreThe story of four women - named only by their professions: biologist, psychologist, anthropologist, and surveyor - sent into a region known only as Area X, walled off from the rest of the world and in some sense corrupted by a government experiment gone wrong (supposedly). This is the 12th expedition sent in by the Southern Reach (supposedly), the mysterious governmental agency in charge of the area (supposedly), with the other 11 all having met disastrous ends of one sort or another (supposedly).
This book has been, from what I can tell, a runaway success - publishing rights bought at auction, optioned for a movie well before its release, selling well and reviewed in a huge variety of places that usually have nothing to do with this kind of book. This leaves us with an EW reviewer saying that this is “is one of the weirdest books I've ever read.” Annihilation is not, as books of the weird go, outlandishly weird. It’s not even the weirdest of VanderMeer’s books. Even more egregious is Lydia Millett’s claim in the Los Angeles Times that VanderMeer “after numerous works of genre fiction has suddenly transcended genre with a compelling, elegant and existential story of far broader appeal."
I am usually not one to wade into the (tiresome) genre vs. mainstream debate, but it has to be said: far from being a work so good that it transcends one of those embarrassing genres, Annihilation is a masterful addition to and updating of the weird tradition, that slippery venn diagram of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.
To some degree this success and intersection with the mainstream is understandable: for all its weirdness, Area X is part of our own world, not the secondary-world fantasy of VanderMeer’s Ambergris novels. Lost and Roadside Picnic/Stalker seem to be the most common reference points I’ve seen (in addition to the slightly less convincing Heart of Darkness, which I suppose is just a common signifier for “journey into a menacing landscape”), which work well enough as quick and easy pointers. Where Lost was a show ostensibly about the weird that became (or always was) a character-driven melodrama, Annihilation almost aggressively moves in the opposite direction - none of the characters are given names (a rule imposed by the Southern Reach), only the biologist/narrator is given any back story to speak of, and she spends most of the novel alone. Again like Lost, the back story we do get is presented through flashbacks interspersed with the main narrative. The biologist, we learn, has been on her own throughout most of her life, mostly voluntarily. Never having felt entirely at home within human society, she has prefered to spend her time observing liminal microcosms - a tidal pool, a swimming pool being reclaimed by nature, and now Area X, which is situated at both the intersection of the land and the sea and, in a larger sense, the known and the unknown, or the normal and the abnormal.
Liminality seems to be the thematic heart of this novel - both in its larger sense of a threshold, and its more esoteric/academic sense: the middle stage of a ritual, after the previous relationship with the world has been dissolved but before the new one has been put into place. Area X itself is clearly both a spatial threshold and also the catalyst for a variety of transformations in its visitors, both physical and mental, although Annihilation closes before the endpoint of many of these shifts becomes apparent. The focus on this sort of apocalyptic unveiling puts the book squarely within the weird tradition in a way that Lost never was: most infamously the horrifying revelation of Lovecraft’s Old Ones, but think also of L. A. Lewis’s “The Tower of Moab,” Francis Stevens’s “Unseen Unfeared,” Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” or any of a host of others where a hapless protagonist gets a glimpse into a deeper layer of reality. I might go so far as to say it is the central conceit of the whole genre, although it seems to be used less explicitly in most modern entries - except for VanderMeer's work. Both Veniss Underground, based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the Ambergris novels revolved around the relationship between a more normalized, aboveground society and an otherworldly, shadowy underground. The insight granted to a denizen of the former is even reified into a pair of glasses in the Ambergris works, if I recall correctly. VanderMeer also dwells upon the Kafkaesque irrationality of bureaucracy both here and in The Situation - more on that after I read Authority, I’m sure.
This book owes its existence to VanderMeer’s experiences hiking in Florida’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, and his evocation of place anchors the book beautifully, tying it to two more mainstays of the genre: the weird place and the hypnotic draw of the weird. Place is a mainstay of the New Weird; think not only of Ambergris but of New Crobuzon, Viriconium, the Well-Built City, Ashamoil, and so on. VanderMeer’s shift from the built environment to the weird beauty of nature is another aspect of this book that draws more on Weird tradition of the early 20th century (as does the exclusion of modern technology from Area X). Again, “The Willows” is probably the most direct forebear here, also being inspired by a particular, and clearly beloved, area of our own natural world. This is a novel where our point-of-view character finds human society to be as inexplicable as most would find Area X. This is reinforced by the fact that the two major mysterious entities of the novel - the Southern Reach and Area X itself-are similarly mysterious and alienated from the reader, but the Southern Reach is never sketched as beautifully as is Area X. VanderMeer’s weird constructs tend toward the beautiful and ineffable rather than grotesque or horrifying, and a character’s almost-hypnotic fixation on a menacing, beautiful mystery is a specialty of his. Its purest expression so far is in his short story “The Cage,” the invisible being of which prefigures Annihilation’s Crawler, the otherworldly being at the heart of the heart of Area X, which is obsessively writing its own weird tale on the walls of a structure described either as a tower or a tunnel, depending on the character. The actual script of this weird writing has a distinctly fungal character, including revelatory spores, another mainstay of VanderMeer’s weird work.
So, following in the footsteps of all the stupid and outlandish theories that proliferated on the internet while Lost was airing, I’ll float one of my own about the Southern Reach trilogy: Area X was created by X, the metatextual authorial intrusion into Ambergris, who has infected our world with spores from the graycaps. (less)
100 stories, one from each year of the century, and one per author. This rule means that these volumes contain a truly wide-ranging assortment of stor...more100 stories, one from each year of the century, and one per author. This rule means that these volumes contain a truly wide-ranging assortment of stories, but it also means that some odd (and unfortunate) choices had to be made. I’m no expert on the field, and even I was taken aback pretty quickly: in 1906, we get Edward Lucas White’s “The House of the Nightmare.” White’s “Lukundu,” published the following year, is a vastly superior story… and yet 1907 is also the year “The Willows” was published, and it quite frankly doesn’t get any better than “The Willows.” So, through no fault of its own, “Lukundu” is excluded, and White is short-changed with a lesser story. Then again, without the author rule we would presumably have a collection that proceeds from a handful of Blackwood and James stories to a cluster of Lovecraft all the way through an endless number of Campbells and Ligottis (with, god forbid, an unhealthy smattering of King’s work too).
A quick perusal of the table of contents also tells me that this collection also suffers from the sadly-typical faults of unrelenting whiteness (100%) and maleness (88% or so), although a few of the authors I’m not familiar with might prove to be people of color - I’ll update as I go along. I have a copy of Nalo Hopkinson’s “Mojo: Conjure Stories” that I plan on reading some time soon to try and balance that out, and I need to get the second volume of “Dark Matter.” Any other suggestions are welcome.
On to the stories. I have it in my head that I’ll update these in decade-long chunks, but we’ll see how well I stick to that.
1901 - The Undying Thing - Barry Pain - 3/5 What better way to start than with the story of a horrific birth that goes on to haunt successive generations? In true Gothic fashion, we open in a dark castle, wherein a lord receives word that his second wife has died in childbirth, but that the monstrous infant (never described, which was a wise choice) has lived. Lord Vanquerest and the doctor dispose of the child in some nearby caves, and then we jump forward several generations, by which point the undying thing has become a legend of local folklore and the focus of a prophecy that expects him to wipe the last Vanquerest out. The construction isn’t great, as the time jumps in the narrative don’t really work, and some elements are introduced that never come to bear on anything else in the story (particularly the old Lord’s fixation on wolves), but the story is otherwise well-written, and has a particularly wry tone in the conversations between the final Vanquerest and the friend who serves as the narrative focal point in his time.
1902 - The Monkey's Paw - W. W. Jacobs - 5/5 A story about which there is little that needs to be said, although I read this for the first time relatively recently (in The Book of Fantasy, I believe) and it greatly exceeded my expectations. The general narrative has entered the popular consciousness in a big way (“I wish for a turkey sandwich, on rye bread, with lettuce and mustard…”), but what makes the story so effective is the quickly-sketched intimacy of the family, which of course gives way to an equally believable sense of tragedy. Like “The Undying Thing,” this is a story in which a younger generation pays for the mistakes of the old.
1903 - The Valley of Spiders- H. G. Wells - 2/5 In which we follow three men who pursue a woman and her accomplices into a heretofore-unexplored valley and are promptly assailed by hang-gliding spiders. In his introduction, Pelan notes that this is perhaps more of an adventure story than horror, but that given his arachnophobia, it definitely strikes him as horrific. It’s interesting that we follow the villains of the piece (the woman is escaping the unsavory attention of the leader of the pursuers), but this still isn’t a very compelling story, whatever genre it’s lumped into.
1904 - The White People - Arthur Machen - 3/5 Well - a foundational story of the weird tradition, and one which was not at all what I was expecting, leading me to read it in entirely the wrong frame of mind. This is a very subtle and complicated work, a frame story of two men discussing the nature of evil, surrounding a found text: the diary of a girl initiated into the world of witches and fairies by her nurse, who eventually stumbles into a weird area of forest near her father’s house and finds any number of eerie things. The writing in this section verges on stream-of-consciousness, and this is the first story in the volume to toss in references to constructed worlds and traditions, which would be a great inspiration to Lovecraft and all of his followers. There is little in the way of climax or exposition, and I need to re-read this in a more methodical and attentive way some time soon.
1905 - The Lover's Ordeal - R. Murray Gilchrist - 1/5 Even more than the Wells, a story that strikes me as inconsequential and unworthy of inclusion here. Another rote Gothic setup - a man asks his fiance to think of a way for him to prove his worth, and she tells him to stay overnight at her family’s old, dilapidated mansion (Chris Baldick pithily summed up Gothic fiction as “characteristically obsessed with old buildings as sites of human decay”) where no one has set foot for decades. Taking her up on it, he finds the site still inhabited by her great-grandfather’s second wife, a Spanish-ish woman (again, villainous Southern Europeans from the Catholic countries being a Gothic trope) who feeds on the blood of the living - the word “vampire” is never used, though. Realizing what she has done, the wife-to-be goes and brings her partner home, and then burns the mansion down for good measure. The non-vampire, apparently, does not put up a fight against either of those actions.
1906 - The House of the Nightmare - Edward Lucas White - 3/5 I made clear above that I wasn’t particularly impressed with this one, although perhaps I should have put more effort into appreciating it the way a reader in 1906 would have - from the vantage point of 2013, White’s tricks here are painfully old hat. It is, though, our first haunted house story, in which a man on a road trip is distracted by a stone that seems to move back and forth across the road, crashes his car, and has to spend the night in the titular house. I waited in vain for the stone to tie in to the other events of the story, but if it did, I missed it.
1907 - The Willows - Algernon Blackwood - 5/5 One of my all-time favorites. Not coincidentally, also the first example of cosmic horror we get. First read in The Weird, at which point I said:
An intensely atmospheric story about two men on a camping trip in a swamp on the Danube who stumble onto some sort of nexus of interdimensional horrors. The focus is on the intersection of the natural world and supernatural forces and the inexplicable awe-inspiring weirdness of each, with a narrator who spends a lot of time ruminating on the effect of such on the human mind. Slow and longer than it needed to be, but the mood is pitch perfect and the build to the climax is truly creepy. 5/5
I stand by that for the most part, although I would no longer say it’s longer than it needs to be. In terms of this collection, it also marks a turning point with the narrator attempting strenuously (and vainly) to rationalize away the on-going horror surrounding him. In addition to the doubling of the weird natural and the weird supernatural that I noted earlier, it also bears mentioning that the reader is alienated even from the two characters in the story, neither of whom are ever named.
The only disappointment I can voice here is that I would have loved to read something else of Blackwood’s. Apparently Centipede Press is reissuing a surprisingly affordable collection in the coming months, though?
1908 - Thurnley Abbey - Perceval Landon - 4/5 A frame story: the narrator meets a man (Arthur Colvin) on a ship, who wishes to share a room so as not to be alone. His reason for this is given in the main story, another rote gothic setup with a young person inheriting a decrepit family building and encountering something sinister within - this time, the ghost of a nun. Colvin, an old friend of the inheritor who had once insisted that were he to meet a ghost, he would simply talk to it, accepts an invitation to come and visit. What sets this story apart are Colvin’s two reactions to the ghost: first, convinced (rationally) that it must be a hoax on the part of his host, rage and violence, and later, cowering in a room with the host and his wife, terror and the turning of a blind eye. As is usually the case, the frame story contributes little.
1909 - The Coach - Violet Hunt - 4/5 The one story by a woman in this decade, which I think is the ratio we’ll maintain for the whole century, shamefully. Opens with a man waiting for the titular vehicle, which carries five broadly-sketched caricatures. Like the White story, this leads to what was probably a shocking twist at the time that perhaps has not aged particularly well, but even given that, this is a darkly humorous and well-written tale of death as a particularly banal extension of life. Moreso than anything else so far, it uses the tropes of the genre as a means to an end (comedic commentary on British class differences) rather than an end in-and-of itself.
1910 - The Whistling Room - William Hope Hodgson - 3/5 Exactly what the title suggests - a haunted room that whistles, via a pair of giant lips emerging from the floor. I find myself unable to take this seriously, although the backstory (involving the grisly end of an unfortunate jester) is suitably dark. Again, a frame story, and again, an excursion into an aging, haunted building, but with caveats for both. First, the frame/club story doesn’t just bookend the narrative, but also intrudes in the middle, with Carnacki the protagonist keeping his cronies up to date but also returning to them for advice. Second, Carnacki is not a helpless friend of the landowner, but a paranormal detective who makes his living investigating these sorts of things. Like Holmes, this means that there can be a lot of off-handed references to his old cases.
This subgenre is not one of my favorites (horror/weird being, to me, interesting because of the juxtaposition of normal human beings with supra-human forces - a necessarily pessimistic framework, of course, but isn’t that the point?), and the optimistic and rather effortless ending here echoes that of “The Lover's Ordeal.” More appealingly, this story does follow Machen’s in suggesting constructed histories/mythologies/bibliographies, further muddling and juxtaposing the rational and the surreal (“I gave him a little lecture on the False Re-Materialisation of the Animate-Force through the Inanimate-Inert”), which I love, even if Hodgson is quite inept when it comes to naming his constructs: “Aeiirii,” “Saiitii” and “Saaamaaa” are all offered with a straight face here.
So, there’s the first decade. Only two that I didn’t think were worth reading, but then the two best I had read previously. Because I love quantifying things:
One woman, nine men. Nine English authors, one American. Categorizing the stories, I’ll say two human monsters, one non-human monster, two tales of supernatural forces, one of cosmic horror, and four ghost stories.
1911 - Casting the Runes - M. R. James - 3/5 Also read in The Weird, at which point I was quite underwhelmed. I enjoyed it more this time, although it still leaves me mystified as to James’s exalted place in the canon. Hopefully one of these days I’ll encounter a different story of his in an anthology, although I have to wonder when I will have reached a saturation point with the commonly anthologized stories and will just be repeating my reading endlessly. This is the story of a curse placed on a reviewer by a disgruntled author, and the few times that said curse comes to the fore are quite effective, but mostly the threat just looms in the distance. Usually it is the subtler stories that most impress me, but for some reason it doesn’t work for me. Maybe it’s the happy ending? I did appreciate the excellent prose this time, and a very droll humor shines through at points.
1912 - Caterpillars - E. F. Benson - 5/5 Weird as a theory of cancer contagion. A boarder, curious about an empty bedroom in the Italian villa in which he is staying, opens it late one night to find a terrifying mass of luminous, clawed caterpillars writhing on the bed. He writes it off as a dream, of course, before another guest finds a tinier version outside the house the following day, and decides to name it “Cancer Inglisensis” after his own name and the latin for “crab,” after its pincer-esque feet. It turns out to be even more insidious than it appeared at first glance. Much back-and-forth between the narrator and Inglis about the rational v. the occult.
1913 - The Testament of Magdalen Blair - Aleister Crowley- 4/5 Speaking of rational v. occult, this one spends an inordinate amount of time setting up some sort of faux-rational explanation for mind-reading, in order to justify having a woman able to read her husband’s mind as he becomes increasingly ill, lapses into a coma, and then dies. This sets in motion the most unsettling and horrifying series of images yet presented in this volume. The proceedings are somewhat reminiscent of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” (wherein a man is hypnotized at the moment of death) and one wonders if the faint similarities between titles was intentional on Crowley’s part. In a sense, this is an early version of cosmic horror, with illness and death as the catalysts to unending, unknowable human misery in the face of an indifferent universe.
1914 - The Place of Pain - M. P. Shiel Well. I read this story and then, having it in my head for some reason that Shiel was a Creole of Color, looked him up to verify it. I found that he was actually a British man with some West Indian ancestry, although I’m not clear on how he personally identified. I also found out, though, that he was an incestuous pedophile. As such, I can’t claim to be much interested in commenting on the man’s art. I don’t listen to Stan Kenton, and now I don’t read M. P. Shiel.
As for the story itself: this falls squarely into the “horror-once-removed” tradition, wherein our point-of-view character is told, ever so vaguely, of the horrors another man saw, through a telescope of sorts, living on the moon. None of this can be verified, of course. The germ of a good idea with a poor execution.
1915 - The Spider - Hanns Heinz Ewers - 3/5 Also read in The Weird. A student comes to live in an apartment after several other men have, one after the other, killed themselves within the premises. There to help solve the mystery, the student falls under the spell of a mysterious neighbor. The protagonist bound by an unbreakable fixation on the horrific intrusion into his life is on full display here. I don’t have any patience for the Weird Woman trope, but I can admit that this story is at least well-constructed. Both “The White People” and “Magdalene Blair” were also epistolary narratives, but this one (the student’s diary) holds truest to the form. Some vexing plot holes remain unanswered (how did the student last so long?), but I guess that it could be argued that that just adds to the aura of mystery at hand.
1916 - Thirteen at Table - Lord Dunsany - 2/5 Opens with a seemingly endless foxhunt that leaves its protagonist stranded at an estate haunted by a dozen women wronged by the local lord. An uncomfortable dinner ensues, with the protagonist initially and it’s clear that the hunt interested Dunsany much more than the supernatural goings-on, and, even though this is a ghost story, it’s all so staid and optimistically-resolved that I’m not even sure that I would classify it as “horror.” It is, in some ways, kind of an inversion of the Weird Woman story - instead of an alluring female monster inviting a man to his own destruction, we have ghostly women haunting him after encountering some unspecified wronging/destruction of their own.
1917 - The Black Pool - Frederick Stuart Greene - 1/5 Our first decidedly non-supernatural story (which is, for my tastes, bad news). Pelan notes in his introduction (which tend, unfortunately, to a kind of formulaic list of also-rans followed by “But this story was simply the best of the year”) that this story was too shocking for conventional publishing in its day, and had to be self-published, and it does contain the most unflinching depiction of violence and murder so far. We have a pair of identical twin men, and we’re following the happy engagement of one, and so jealousy drives the other to… well, you know. This sets in motion a series of events that lead to madness (when don’t they, in non-supernatural horror stories?), relying on the reflective pool of the title to really drive it home. I did not care for anything about this.
1918 - The Middle Bedroom - H. de Vere Stacpoole - 3/5 A brief haunted house tale, most noteworthy for large chunks being written in Irish dialect (on account of the fact that it is a large Irish family who have rented the haunted estate). This one doesn’t take itself too seriously, although the haunter (not quite a ghost, and uniquely voluntary haunting figure, at that) was quite creepy, in his unfortunately short appearances.
1919 - The Sumach - Ulric Daubeny - 4/5 I could have sworn I had read this before but it appears not - just an excellent example of straight generic conventions, I guess. And one that passes the Bechdel test, at that. A woman, having inherited her cousin’s estate, finds herself drawn to an unhealthy-looking sumach in the garden. The ex-cousin’s journal is found, in pieces, and has to be decoded. I do love these sorts of embedded texts. This is, one might say, a vampire-once-removed story, and particularly interesting to read as a story of the vampiric effect of the home on women.
1920 - In the Light of the Red Lamp - Maurice Level - 2/5 Very Poe, as was “The Black Pool,” and another non-supernatural tale. Level, Pelan tells us, was one of the central playwrights of the Grand Guignol, and this reads very much like a short play, with two men conversing in a darkroom (what a naturally creep setting that is!). Upon developing a photo of his greatly-lamented wife’s body at her funeral, one man makes an unsettling discovery. Given the Poe similarities, you can guess what it was.
A dip in quality this decade - I don’t know how much of this to attribute to the (seemingly) sudden rise in Poe’s influence, which is a strand that has never really spoken to me - I will take mysterious texts and monsters and cosmic horror over human insanity and confusions between life and death any day.
Zero women, ten men. Three stories of the supernatural, two as close to the realist mode as horror gets, one ghost story, two non-human monsters, one human monster, and one vampire-ish tale. (less)
No time travel stories this year - which is odd, but fine. No stories by women authors, which is neither odd nor fine.
“Jungle Doctor,” by Robert F. Yo...moreNo time travel stories this year - which is odd, but fine. No stories by women authors, which is neither odd nor fine.
“Jungle Doctor,” by Robert F. Young Opens promisingly - Sarith has mistakenly teleported not to Chalce, but to some mysterious other planet currently experiencing a snowstorm. Knowing from the climate that it must support intelligent life (habitable planets always do, apparently), she sets out in search of civilization, before being overcome by the snow. A native approaches… it’s Graham Lindsey, of Anytown, USA. Yes, the alien planet is Earth, and yes, just to twist the knife, Sarith is also a human alien, only apparently space humans look like children. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed child, at that, which reminds me that all of the space humans encountered so far (and there have been so, so many of them) have presumably been white. Lindsey is a drunk who spends his days washing cars, which he hallucinates as being covered in blood. Sarith, as fate would have it, was on her way to Chalce to be a psi-therapist, and she uses her telepathic powers to figure out that Lindsey accidentally ran over and killed his wife some years ago, hence the hallucinations and drunkenness. Inspired by a book she reads about Albert Schweitzer (and the fact that her transporter belt is rapidly running out of juice), she decides to stay on this primitive planet helping to psychically heal Earthlings. Half-heartedly gestures toward a critique of Western medical practices abound (Sarith is aghast that patients have to come to doctors rather than the other way), and she is explicitly compared to Christ.
"Judgment Day", by L. Sprague de Camp Dr. Wade Ormont, an angry, aging nerd, decides to let the world burn because he was picked on as a child. A nuclear physicist, he’s discovered a way to blow up all the iron in the Earth’s crust, and the story takes the form of his inner monologue as he decides whether or not to report his findings to his superiors in the nuclear weapons program. Having reflected on all the times he was mistreated by others for being too bookish and smart, the story ends with his house vandalized by the local teenagers, and his declaration that “I hate them. I hate them. I hate everybody. I want to kill mankind. I’d kill them by slow torture if I could. If I can’t, blowing up the earth will do. I shall write my report.”
"The Game of Rat and Dragon", by Cordwainer Smith In the distant future, Earth has been destroyed by internecine warfare, and interstellar travel can only be kept safe by pinlighters, humans who communicate telepathically with “the Partners” who help them spot and destroy the monstrous creatures that live in the vacuum. The identity of the partners is kind of kept secret through the beginning of the story, but it’s clear that it’s cats. The monsters appear as dragons to the humans, but as rats to the partners. It sounds kind of goofy, and there isn’t much of a plot here (it’s mostly an idea/future history piece), but it’s written competently and is one of the most imaginative and enjoyable stories in the bunch. I need to read more Smith.
"The Man Who Always Knew", by Algis Budrys A very short one about a wealthy, world-famous “inventor” who, it turns out,actually produces nothing of his own - just knows how to buy low and sell high. Capitalism! The science-fictional aspect is his ability to know when and where someone is going to invent something - as in the bar where the scene takes place, as the bartender accidentally invents a new drink that Mr. McMahon buys from him.
"Dream Street", by Frank M. Robinson A narcissistic, sociopathic orphan runs away (from “The Home for the Children of Space”), kills a mugger, lies to and manipulates everyone he meets, all to achieve his dream of leaving Earth behind and going into space. Ideologically, of course, the ends justify the means, and this is presented as a quintessentially American success story of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Weird narrative tick of jumping forward in time with no indication that we’re doing so.
"You Created Us", by Tom Godwin A man encounters telepathic mini-godzillas in the Nevada desert. A by-product of nuclear testing, they plan on taking over the world, and are using their psychic abilities to ramp up the “hate and fear and suspicion” of the Cold War so that humanity will destroy itself, leaving them in charge as the next evolutionary masters of the world. The story closes with the protagonist, his memory wiped, driving out of the desert, musing “for some strange reason, of the mighty tyrannosaurus rex dying out because some little animals he did not notice were eating his eggs.” This is an odd non-sequitur that does not at all apply to the story.
"Swenson, Dispatcher", by R. DeWitt Miller Once again, drunken irrationality (this time in the form of a spaceship dispatcher), turns out to be the only way to deal with modern life. Swenson (, dispatcher) is hired on at the ragtag Acme Interplanetary Express in a pan-American solar system, and while at first he seems to be a drunken buffoon, it turns out that he’s a drunken miracle-worker, guiding Acme’s ships through a series of hijinks involving blustering Senators on the Moon and shipments of snuff and a rival mega-corporation. Like the Robinson, the narrative stumbles forward in oddly and ineffectually.
"Thing", by Ivan Janvier Opens with a man watching workers cut apart the radioactive remains of the Statue of Liberty in order to dispose of them at sea (“In the city of New York, even liberty was radioactive”). This man, and his subordinate, are government agents, and they soon meet with a journalist, who knows that they’re after one “Eugene Outlaw,” a survivor of the Providence nuke who is now some sort of superhuman. All three meet up with Outlaw independently (and unbeknowst to the others), who passes on to each of them in turn the alien symbiote that has been giving him his powers - “it likes to be comfortable. When the bomb fell, it was unhappy.” Each, pitying the other two for coming so close only to fail, plans on using their new powers to ensure world peace prevails.
"I Do Not Love Thee, Doctor Fell", by Robert Bloch Our protagonist, Bromely, finds himself at Dr. Fell’s office without quite remembering how he came to have an appointment there. Bromely also can’t recall having met Fell or told him his story before, but Fell knows it anyway - that Bromely is a failing public relations agent and never-was songwriter whose work never had any individuality. “I’m at the end of my rope. When you come to the end of your rope, you swing. I’m swinging, now. I’m swinging down the lane. Down Memory Lane. I wanted to be a songwriter, once. But my lyrics sounded as if they were stolen. That’s my problem. Association. I’ve got too much association. Everything I do or say sounds like it’s stolen from somebody else. Imitation. Mimicry. Until there’s nothing original, nothing basic beneath to which I can cling. I’m losing myself. There’s no real me left.” The fakery of modern life has left Bromely rudderless and unhinged, and Dr. Fell, a figment of his imagination, ends up as the dominant personality. This is a critique of mechanistic modernity, sure, and not a subtle one at that, but I’m not sure that it could be considered science fiction. Bloch was more of a weird/horror writer anyway, which shines through in the tone of this piece and, dare I say it, its quality, which outshines most others here by a wide margin - and Bloch isn’t even one of my favorite weird writers.
"Clerical Error", by Mark Clifton Another story about modernity’s fracturing of young white men, although this time the target is mostly inhumane bureaucracy. The protagonist, K. Heidrich Kingston, is the psychiatrist in charge of “the government workers’ mental hospital” seeking to prevent the lobotomy of David Storm, a patient. Because of the patient’s higher Security (proper noun “Security” is an odd commonplace in these stories; “you can’t ignore the Security program, because that’s a sacred cow which no one dares question”) clearance, though, Kingston can’t be allowed near him. To start things off, without ever having met the patient, Kingston uses his “true empathy” ability to figure out the man’s life history - he became a scientist only because it was expected of him, exemplifying the societal problem with “science allied to big government, and controlled by individuals who have neither the instincts nor the knowledge of what science really is. This has given birth to a Security program which places more value upon a stainless past and an innocuous mind than upon real talent and ability.” The ideological divide between Cold War paranoia over the free market of ideas is, it turns out, responsible for the “sharply rising incident of disturbance among these young scientists in government work.” Kingston, not as rigid in his thinking as these young men, thinks outside the bureaucracy and fills out the necessary paperwork to have himself committed as Storm’s roommate and talks him back to sanity. Not science fiction to speak of.
"A Canticle for Leibowitz", by Walter M. Miller, Jr. When I read the novel a few years ago I thought it was really poorly written, but in context I can say that it is, in fact, a masterpiece. 600 years after the Deluge of Flame destroyed the world as we know it, Brother Francis Girard of Utah, Catholic monk, meets a stranger in the desert who steers him toward a rusted iron box. Said box turns out to contain tools and documents owned by Isaac Leibowitz, founder of his order - a Jewish engineer at the time of the fall, who converted to Catholicism and started the order to try to preserve the knowledge of the past. He was eventually martyred during the Age of Simplification, when angry mobs had destroyed both scientists and books whenever they were found. Brother Francis, assumed to have lied about the stranger, spends seven years in the novitiate for refusing to denounce his own story, before the blueprints he found are verified and he is sent to the New Vatican to witness the canonization of Leibowitz. Kind of the ur-example of post-apocalyptic mythologizing of modernity, while the connection with actual Catholicism anchors the cyclical history a bit more firmly than usual.
"The Cyber and Justice Holmes", by Frank Riley Not only another courtroom story, but another story about the robots in the court of law. Who knew? The District Attorney has promised, if re-elected, to “do all in my power to help replace human inefficiency with Cyber justice in the courts of this County!” Our point of view character, Judge Wahlfred Anderson, is displeased with this aspersion, but that is to be expected - he is 86 years old, and is so enamored with tradition that he keeps a portrait of Oliver Wendell Holmes in his courtroom. The case du jour is People vs. Professor Neustadt, prosecuted by none other than the District Attorney, and Anderson quickly realizes this is a shame meant to bolster the campaign when we find out that Neustadt is charged with fraud for giving performances at which he claimed to “take over Cyber functions and perform them more efficiently.” Neustadt, acting as his own counsel, tells the DA to bring a Cyber of his choice into the courtroom, which the defendant will outperform. Anderson tries to quash this idea, both men object, and the three find themselves in front of the Cyber Appellate Division (CAD!), which takes only 8 minutes to cite three cases to establish precedent. Back in the courtroom, the showdown between man and machine is neck-and-neck with questions about mathematics and science, but Neustadt of course triumphs when he is allowed to present his own question: “What are the magnitudes of a dream?” (“Problem unsolved.”) Neustadt launches into a monologue about humanity benefiting from technology without being suborned by it, and has the judge dismiss the case.
"The Shores of Night", by Thomas N. Scortia An odd one - a not-entirely-successful move away from the uninspired, straightahead narrative/formal qualities of the others (I’m not convinced that Robinson or Miller were consciously trying to play around with narrative), but at least Scortia is trying. This is the one novel(ette) included this year, although if I am reading the bibliographies right a portion was published as a short story in 1956 and this was the first appearance of the full piece. Opens with a vaguely stream-of-consciousness-ish prologue with a telepathic conversation between “two great spheres of blazing metal” orbiting Centaurus. Then cuts back to the bulk of the story, some time before, when the team on Pluto building the first interstellar ship receives a message from Earth saying that their funding has been cut - the people of Earth are sick of subsidizing the few colonies and scientific teams scattered throughout the solar system.
Our principles here are General Freck, driven leader and deadbeat dad, physicist Beth Bechtoldt, inventor of the Bechtoldt drive that would propel the ship (but also possessor of “a woman’s weakness”), and Art Sommers, idealistic young pilot. The ending of their program rapidly approaching, Freck blackmails Sommers into trying the ship before it’s ready - the drive malfunctions and the younger man is blinded (this section titled “Bellerophon” after the Greek myth). This is just one more collateral casualty in Freck’s relentless drive for the stars (beginning with the schism with his wife and son), but this is presented as being at least mostly problematic, unlike the protagonist in “Dream Street.” When the ship from Earth comes to take them home, they’re surprised to find out it’s almost entirely automated - progress has marched on without them. Freck forces the base’s doctor to transplant his eyes to Sommers, hijacks the new ship, retrofits the drive to it, and sens Sommers out of the solar system. Then we get an “Interlude” with disjointed telepathy. Back to the main narrative, Freck appears to be back on Earth, in some sort of robot body, and then remembers that he, Sommers, and Bechtoldt, left behind on Pluto, froze themselves to wait for the next ship to arrive. Something went wrong in the interval, and Freck is now a cybernetic brain - his ability to transfer his mind from machine to machine propels the narrative fractures. Also it turns out that “Sung of the Asian Combine” is out to be the next World Executor and is pulling strings, along with some crooked Earth-land-owning industrialists, to kill the space program. Long story short - Freck uses a robot body to try and find his wife and son (both are already dead, although he gets to meet his granddaughter, a child whom the narrative describes in some creepy/unsettling ways), forestalls the coup, and becomes one of the first “haunted spaceships” to explore the further reaches of the galaxy. Art and Beth do the same, and there’s some confusion as to who is thinking what, and humanity seems to be headed toward some sort of telepathic gestalt.
Streets like the one she lived on were no accident. They were the North's lynch mobs, she thought bitterly; the method the big cities used to keep Neg...moreStreets like the one she lived on were no accident. They were the North's lynch mobs, she thought bitterly; the method the big cities used to keep Negroes in their place. And she began to think of Pop unable to get a job; of Jim slowly disintegrating because he, too, couldn't get a job, and of the subsequent wreck of their marriage; of Bub left to his own devices after school. From the time she was born, she had been hemmed into an ever-narrowing space, until now she was very nearly walled in and the wall had been built up brick by brick by eager white hands.(less)
It is also very, very funny. Kelly's monstrous mother is "Jabba the Hut with a womb, chronic asthma and a council flat". Ke...moreFrom the Guardian's review:
It is also very, very funny. Kelly's monstrous mother is "Jabba the Hut with a womb, chronic asthma and a council flat". Kelly herself protests to Gaffar that she's never done drugs, "apart from the odd bit of puff an' speed an' E, obviously". And Kane informs us, quite casually, "one irreducible fact is that people who climb mountains are invariably cunts".
Year 7. Only seven books in, and I’ve been at this for almost two years - at my current rate of 3.5 books a year, I’ll be caught up in about two decad...moreYear 7. Only seven books in, and I’ve been at this for almost two years - at my current rate of 3.5 books a year, I’ll be caught up in about two decades. You gotta do what you gotta do, I guess. Then again, my reviewing has fallen off in general (2013 has been one of those years), but maybe things have stabilized enough for me to be productive again? We’ll see.
At any rate, this is another one where I’ve let a stupid amount of time lapse between reading and reviewing, and even starting the review and finishing it, so I don’t have much to say about the volume overall at this point. It’s a slight improvement overall, although we’re down to a single woman-authored story this year (Norton). If I’m ever going to do anything with all this data I’ll need to quantify it a bit more rigorously, so I’m holding off on that for now. For the most part, it’s more of the same (mostly set on Earth, mostly contemporary or near future, etc).
Bleiler bailed on Dikty this year, and the latter chose to combine the year’s best short stories series with his concurrent year’s best novels series, so the last two entries this year are longer, although they are probably more either novellas or novelettes. Whatever you call them, they are just padded out short stories - they bring nothing more substantial to the table than anything else here.
The Cold Equations, by Tom Godwin Where to even start with this story, surely one of the most-discussed short stories in the genre (and, at least at one point, tied for 5th-most-reprinted)? To begin, a quick summary: the male pilot of a small “Emergency Dispatch Ship” discovers he has a stowaway, prepares himself to shoot a crazy (male) interloper, and then finds himself at a loss when it turns out to be an “innocent girl” who was hoping to visit her brother. After explaining to her that her additional weight dooms his mission to deliver a vaccine to a small colony, she willingly walks out of the airlock into space.
Apparently, (apocryphally?) Godwin intended to have the protagonist figure out some ingenious way to save her, but editor John Campbell decided this story was not going to fall prey to such sentimentality, and forced Godwin to bow to the so-called inexorable logic of physics. This becomes the relentlessly over-emphasized message of the story: “It was a law not of men’s choosing but made imperative by the circumstances of the space frontier... It has to be that way and no human in the universe can change it.”
It is, of course, very telling that the sacrificial victim in this tale of humanity’s abasement before the universe is a “girl” who is both “innocent” and “small” whose only fault was ignorance. The execution takes place through no fault of the man, either - the math simply doesn’t allow her to live. The idea that this was an unprecedented development pushed by Campbell doesn’t stand up to the fact that 1951’s “Balance” also featured a male protagonist forced to kill a woman for the greater good.
The cold equations themselves, meanwhile, are not the product of physics, as the text would have us believe, but of economic/social conditions and illogical bureaucracy- and if Godwin was conscious of that fact then this could have been an excellent story. The story acknowledges early on that the hyperspace drives that allow interstellar travel are _expensive_ and therefore outside the means of most colonies. Hence the “Emergency Dispatch Ship” - a bare-bones, one-way, one-man vehicle that is launched from an interstellar ship when a problem arises. In order to make sure that his point about gravity stands, these ships are built and equipped with no safety margin whatsoever, and are further unguarded and unsearched before their launch. This stacking of the deck aside, though, readers still insist that this is the ur-text of “hard science fiction,” as when John Clute at the SF encyclopedia says:
The story itself is precisely told in accordance with the constraints described above, which are described as absolutely binding (no miracle solution, like jettisoning ship innards, or slingshotting around the target planet as a braking manoeuvre, is permitted); "toughminded" readings of the story, which have been frequent, tend not to reflect upon these minutely worked-out constraints… It is this double-edged "hardness" – minute obedience to minutely circumscribed premises – that may have inspired David G Hartwell to suggest that the tale is a metaphor for reading Hard SF in general.
"Of Course", by Chad Oliver Humans from space arrive on Earth in an invincible space ship and send a message to every governing body in the world: they have come in peace to determine which is the best culture on the planet, from which they will take a representative back to their world and pay back the nation with whatever it desires most. Every country assumes it will be them, although there is a lot of hand-wringing on the American part about what the outcome will be if the Soviets are chosen.
While everyone is waiting for the aliens to make their decision, it’s noted that people accept the spaceship as just a new manifestation of modernity. “People had been more or less expecting a spaceship, and they tended to accept it philosophically, as they had accepted electricity and airplanes and telephones and atom bombs. Fine stuff, naturally. What’s next?” I couldn’t have made a wittier ironic comment about the strikingly non-alien aliens of these stories if I’d tried.
Eventually, an Eskimo is chosen, and his people are repaid with all the seals they can eat. In the closing scene, the aliens reveal to the reader that this was a trick to get the planet to work on self-improvement, as it had been “getting to be the eyesore of our sector.” By not revealing the (fake) criteria on which they had made their decision, they had duped all of the other peoples of the world into blindly improving everything.
”Dominions Beyond", by Ward Moore In which the supposed first expedition to Mars, in 2002, turns out actually to be the second, following the accidental firing of a magnetic rocket that transported Humphrey Beachy-Cumberland there in 1887. Finding that the (human) Martians had reverted to barbarism a thousand generations earlier, Beachy-Cumberland undertakes a successful British colonization of the planet. The international expedition of 2002, who, en route, just so happened to be making fun of the declining fortunes of the English (who declined to participate), therefore finds Martians who greet them with ““From Earth, what? Good show,” fly Union Jacks, and decline to join the UN as they are not a sovereign nation but rather “Her Majesty’s Dominion of Mars.”
Like Moore’s “Lot” last year, I think this is supposed to be somewhat satirical in its approach, but like “Lot” it fails in that regard, with the barbarian Martians (who call Beachy-Cumberland “Mister”) fulfilling every colonialist stereotype you could think of. Even if the stuffy, post-imperial British were supposed to be the butt of the joke, it just shows that their indigenous subjects weren’t even worth taking seriously enough to pick on.
"Guilty as Charged", by Arthur Porges Two men use a future-viewing gadget to look 225 years into the future, finding a Massachusetts courtroom in 2181. The protagonist is disappointed in this, reasoning that “two centuries and a quarter could not have seen any vast changes in English common law, already hallowed by time... new crimes, sure, but not changes the same way transportation, communication, or recreation would have.” Unable to hear anything in the courtroom, he learns from a placard that he is witnessing the prosecution of Frances Wills, an elderly woman who seems to be provoking an undue amount of hostility from the witnesses.
The prosecution then moves on to a series of tests mostly measuring things he doesn’t understand, but he does glean that her body temperature is 115 degrees and her pulse is only 40. These findings, combined with the earlier, hostile testimony, is enough for the court to sentence Wills to death, and she is quickly incinerated.
This provokes an understandably horrified reflection on progress (or the lack thereof) on the part of our narrator. The death penalty, he thought, was “hardly acceptable even today,”and he cannot believe that this could be “the humanitarian climax of over two hundred years more of civilization?” It is only then that the bulletin board outside the courtroom comes into focus:
STATE vs. FRANCES WILLS CHARGE: WITCHCRAFT VERDICT: GUILTY AS CHARGED PENALTY: DEATH BY FIRE
The question of whether this is an example of cyclical history featuring the return of unwarranted witch hunts, or a future where witchcraft (or some approximation thereof) has inexplicably come into being is wisely left unresolved.
"Careless Love", by Albert C. Friborg In which nuclear war with Russia has left most of the United States living in huge underground bunkers, and the war effort is led by the Harvard Mark Fifty-Four, a supercomputer named for a college that only a few people could remember having seen, “in a corner of the continent where nothing had lived since the first rockets came over the pole.” We’re given glimpses of the hellish new world, but only through dialogue taking place in New Washington: as all production is focused on war materials, the population is undernourished, undereducated, and unfulfilled; bacteria and radioactivity have destroyed the country’s fresh air and green fields; Russia has taken to strewing around packets of heroin via rocket; births are down while illegal abortions are up; and so on. Our protagonist is the supercomputer’s handler, who refers to it lovingly as “Dinah” (shades of Leiber’s “Maisie”), and who oversees her reallocation from war to figuring out how to solve the mass neuroses of the population. In introducing her to the human spirit, though, she is also introduced to “love” and decides that the cure for her loneliness lies with her closest counterpart in the world: the Russian supercomputer. The two of them shoot all their rockets into space, blow up all the gunpowder in the world, drive all their tanks into the ocean, and elope together into orbit around Saturn. Aside from the usual over-reliance on dialogue, one of the stronger entries this year.
"Memento Homo", by Walter M. Miller, Jr. An underwhelming follow-up to Miller’s “Crucifixus Etiam” of last year, this story also looks at work and class in a near-future idiom, this time through the lens of a dying spaceman, too old and decrepit at the age of 63 to be able to make the moon run any more. He reminisces about the good old days and the not-so-good old days to himself, the memory of his partner, and his wife, endures a visit from his disappointing non-spaceman grandson (a student with aspirations to move up in the world, if I recall correctly - the lower-working-class status of his profession is one of the main themes of the piece). Along those lines, space travel is presented not as a romanticized frontier, but as a workaday profession in which your time is spent in a cramped, hot, metal box. He is holding on to hear the liftoff of the moon run one last time, and the conflict of the piece is provided by a rich neighbor’s party - the “brassy blare of modern ‘slide’” from next door” threatens to drown out the shuttle’s engines. At the last minute, the neighbor has the band play “Taps” in his honor, and his dying wishes to hear the shuttle and have his wife put his space boots on are fulfilled. With just a few words changed this could just as easily have been a sub-Raymond-Carver story of realist working-class fiction, and was apparently based on the life of a railroad laborer Miller knew.
"Mousetrap", by Andre Norton Mars is an Old West frontier kind of place, full of men prospecting around Terraport for “Star Stones, Gormel Ore, and like knickknacks,” and hoping someday to be able to claim the cash reward for figuring out how to move the “sand monsters” - mysterious statues of a huge variety of horrific aliens (“Spider Man,” “Armed Frog,” “Ant King” and so on) that litter the landscape, but which disintegrate at the slightest touch. “Mousetrap” follows Sam, a down-on-his-luck, drunken prospector who comes into a saloon one night boasting of having discovered a new statue of a beautiful winged woman. Sam is then talked into revealing its location by a local con-man who wants to try out a new goop he’s invented to solidify the statues. This doesn’t go well, and Sam later perfects the goop and tricks the con-man into kicking a native plant, which turns out to be the means by which all of the sand monsters were created. Sam safely transports this newly-created statue out of the wilderness and then, cash award in hand, jets off into the universe to find the planet of angels. This, the only story by a woman this year, features no women characters, only a beautiful statue of one that is inadvertently destroyed by men. Make of that what you will.
"Christmas Trombone", by Raymond E. Banks In which music is now produced for the most part not by humans, but by cones made up of “wafer-thin discs of Venusian heavy water” which sift together music from a quarter million musicians, “all dissonance matched out by the peculiar properties” of the discs. One intrepid soul refuses to give up the old ways before this march of progress, though - Shorty “had always made his own music, always would,” and that means he is constantly in trouble for “peace-disturbing” for playing his trombone and bothering people, who wish that he would just stick to his day job of repairing aircars. The singing cones have pervaded seemingly all public and private spaces, and the most impressive around is the one in the Church of All-Comers - not a “factory job stuffed with water discs,” but a real cone from Venus, eight feet high - “This cone was a foot-high mound on Venus the night Christ was born in Bethlehem, Shorty. It’s been on Earth now for twenty years, adding only the purest and best church music to its being.”
Shorty knows that his music is what has always set him apart and made him special (instead of “merely” a mechanic), and he has refused to record it for a cone for that reason - until, inspired on Christmas day and having alienated everyone around him, he goes up a nearby mountain and blows his “perfect uniqueness” out on his trombone - “It had been inside and he knew it, but nobody else did-now they did. There was no need to play anymore.” It then becomes a Christmas tradition for everyone with the means to get there to come here the Christmas Trombone recording, and Shorty is the happiest air mechanic around.
A weirder take on the impact of modernity and the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, to be sure, but it’s easy to forget that the transition to musical recordings was a tough one for some musicians - there were at least two strikes in the 1940s by the American Federation of Musicians seeking more favorable treatment from the record companies that were replacing live musicians with “canned music.”
"One Thousand Miles Up", by Frank M. Robinson Two years ago, the UN launched a space station equipped with nuclear warheads, manned by five nationalities: American, English, Italian, Russian, and Chinese - “a safety margin for West of one man.” The Cold War has been steadily heating up, and the story opens with an American secret agent being sent up to replace the American scientist whose term has ended, which is the first such replacement. The agent tries to sway the Italian to the side of democracy, but the latter is unmoved: he points out that the communists are just as sincere in their own beliefs as the liberals are in theirs. The Russian, motivated like the American by the fear of seeing his home cities reduced to radioactive rubble, beats him to the punch and demands at gunpoint that everyone surrender their nuclear keys to him - he does not care about the Communist Party and is not even a Party member, but he loves his country.
In the nick of time, a teletype arrives - the American scientist who had left the space station had died upon reentry, and the same fate awaits all of them (the heart, being weakened by zero gravity, cannot last). Facing banishment together, all five resolve to police the Earth and promise to nuke the next country that exhibits aggression toward any other, in the belief that peace would eventually “become a habit.”
Teamwork aside, just so that we know the American is the real hero it is revealed that because he had been there such a short time that he could have safely returned home, but he has chosen to sacrifice himself for the greater good.