The average rating for Visions of Wonder: The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology based on 2 reviews is 2.5 stars.
|Review # 1 was written on 2008-08-04 00:00:00|
Some time ago I thought it would be interesting experiment to read a random sf story from every year 1950 to 2000 and see for myself what attitudes have changed. You could do this with mainstream stories, but I have a lot of old unread sf lying around. I ran out of space here so it's only up to 1990 but still very slightly interesting. 1950 Not With a Bang : Damon Knight Very typical fifties sketch about sexual frustration with the usual shot of misogyny on the side. It's a silly tale of the last man and the last woman, but she won't have sex with him unless they're married. But how? There's no one to marry them. He finally figures out that all this 40 year old dimwit woman really requires is a wedding dress and she'll consider herself married. "Afterwards, he could do with her as he liked - beat her when he pleased, submit her to any proof of his scorn and revulsion, use her. Then it would not be too bad, being the last man on earth - not bad at all. She might even have a daughter…" We're supposed to think he's a bad guy but the story is a comedy, and he gets his comical come-uppance when he freezes into catatonia (a result of radiation sickness) inside a Gents toilet, which we're supposed to guess that the woman won't ever go in, because she's prudish and stupid. An excellent example of the vileness of 50s popular culture, and this from an intelligent author who later wrote great stories. Also got to wonder about the brain of the anthologist who included this tale ten years later. 1951 The Little Black Bag : C M Kornbluth In the future idiots have outbred intelligent people. (Eugenics was a persistent early theme in sf.) A doctor's bag from the 25th century is accidentally sent back in time. An old alcoholic doctor stumbles on it and finds he can work medical miracles. His female assistant gets greedy and when he decides to turn the bag over to the College of Surgeons she kills him. She's just demonstrating the astonishing properties of the surgical knife to a suspicious rich patient when in the future some fool switches off the bag's support system. Its power off, the nurse cuts her own throat. I bet the author got the grisly final image for this one and worked backwards. 1952 Dumb Waiter : Walter M Miller, Jr Deliriously macho and sexist story in which our hero battles to gain control over the computer which runs an abandoned city. As in Terminator, the computer is still fighting a war although all the ammunition has long since run out, and this has made the city uninhabitable. A vigilante group intends to destroy the computer. But our hero knows that's defeatism. He's fighting robot policemen, the vigilantes and the traumatised woman he picks up, and of course, he wins. Some great 1952 moments : "Muttering angrily, Mitch stuffed a fifty-round drum of ammunition in his belt, took another between his teeth, and lifted the girl over one shoulder. He turned in time to fire a one-handed burst at another skater [robot:]." Later, Mitch administers six of the best to the girl. The moral of this action story is rammed home: "A nontechnologist has no right to take part in a technological civilisation. He's a bull in a china shop. That's what happened to our era." Includes some fine detail, such as this chilling image from the robot-administered city orphanage: "Those cribs! They're full of little bones. Little bones - all over the floor. Little bones…" 1953 Star Light, Star Bright : Alfred Bester Head Teacher stumbles on the possibility that one of his kids knows other kids who have invented teleportation, matter transubstantiation, and so on. In trying to track down the now disappeared kid he runs into two crooks running the Buchanan racket. He convinces them that his proposition is a whole lot more lucrative than theirs so together they try to find the kid in Brooklyn, but he's disappeared, and soon, so do they. Very neat little story - typical of the best kind of 50s sf with almost cartoon-like characters and brash ideas. In the 50s they were fascinated with the idea of kids having amazing powers. 1954 Gomez : C M Kornbluth A 17 year old Puerto Rican writes a letter to a newspaper which reveals him to be a maths genius. The US government take him into custody and wait for him to make the third great maths breakthrough - which he does, but hides his discovery because he knows the military will turn it into something terrible. A cold war story, very engagingly written but somewhat slight. 1955 The Star : Arthur C Clarke Perfect idea, perfect story. Everyone knows this one and if not everyone should read it. It's such a great statement of atheism. 1956 2066 : Election Day - Michael Shaara SAM is the Multivac of America, the supercomputer (huge of course, no one expected computers to be small. In the 50s, size matters) which for years now has been selecting the best qualified man for the Presidency. But now the job has become so complex, no single man IS qualified. So SAM refuses to select a new President. So those in charge of the election system co-opt a professor of politics to stand in as president. The story is not especially good, but the central idea, that the American presidency is too difficult a job for anyone and yet must be filled, is right now a very powerful and resonant one. 1957 The Other Celia : Theodore Sturgeon Brilliant story of how a shy voyeur living in a rooming house takes to spying on his neighbours and discovers that Celia, a puzzlingly anonymous woman, changes her skin every night. He steals her other skin and waits to see what happens - she dies and spontaneously combusts. 1958 Casey Agonistes : Richard McKenna Ex-soldiers and sailors in a TB ward collectively hallucinate a comedy big ape, Casey, into existence to help them. Casey can't prevent Slop Chute dying however. Casey is some kind of metaphor for the struggle against death, er, I think. 1959 The Pi Man : Alfred Bester Peter Marko is a compensator, feeling patterns everywhere, which compels him to do strange things, sometimes good, often bad, in what appears to be a random manner. It gets him in trouble and he doesn't want to get involved with any woman, but of course does. Contains quite a few startling references for 1959 - Black Power is mentioned (possibly this means something different), Marko visits Greenwich Village and encounters protest songs and youths with pubic beards and 007. 1960 An Honourable Death : Gordon R Dickson One of the main interests/obsessions of sf is space exploration, planet colonisation and alien contact, and all that often seems to turn sf into a series of parables about the British and American past and present. Are all aliens only potential or realised Commanches with tentacles? Are all star wars Vietnam in space? Nothing wrong with that, but I want my sf to be about something Sam Peckinpah couldn't have made into a Western movie. This pleasantly bitter story is set on a remote colonised planet. Carter is throwing a party for some of this chirpy chattery friends who teleport themselves there from throughout the inhabited galaxy. As they arrive carter is annoyed by a local native chief who turns up and insists wordlessly that he be allowed to perform a native dance. The alien waits patiently outside while the guests gossip. One guy wonders why in 400 years of planet hopping "we've found no other race comparable to our own". He believes that "any contact between races of differing intelligences must inevitably result in the death of the inferior race". Finally the native is allowed to do his dance which Carter interprets as a dance of despair. It shockingly culminates in the native's suicide. Carter realises the house is surrounded by local spear-wielding aliens. He steps towards the teleporter to summon the intergalactic cops and finds during his last dance paroxysm the native had dexterously disabled the machine. 1961 A_W_F, Unlimited : Frank Herbert Yes, the guy who wrote Dune came up with this offensive skit which is all about how women are not signing up for the military space service because the uniforms are unflattering and as we know, this is a big deal to women, just ask Ripley. So here's something I'm learning through this anthropological science fiction dig - casual sexism was not only condoned but expected in the 50s and 60s, but casual racism was not allowed. Gordon Dickson's previous story, in which the smug racists get massacred just after the story ends, is typical for the time, as this gruesome Frank Herbert nonsense is also. 1962 The Weather Man : Theodore L. Thomas In the time when the Weather Bureau is able to control weather for all of earth, one politician decides to promote a dying man's request to be allowed to see a snowfall again - this guy lives in California, so the request is fairly difficult and nearly ends in disaster under the surface of the Sun where the boats which control the Sun's radiation move around. The science was sketchy and unbelievable, the story could have had a neat political point (disaster caused by a politician attempting to use a feel-good vote to boost his career, scientists too eager to prove they can crack any problem) but it petered out in actual feel-good smugness. 1963 The Terminal Beach : J G Ballard Ballard brought a whole new language and a set of landscapes into sf, beginning with this one. He had a whole new attitude - inner space, not outer space, was the terrifying unknown. Here, Traven, a man still grieving for his dead wife and son, has smuggled himself on to an abandoned island once used for the testing of nuclear weapons. He makes his home in the decaying observation towers, explores the maze-like space between the uncountable concrete blockhouses, sees visions of his wife and son, and gradually begins to lose his mind. All very symbolic and plotless, and strange, and hypnotic. 1964 Now is Forever : Thomas M. Disch Another "Invention that Ends Life as we Know It" tale - see Damon Knight's "I See You" for a better one - but this is still strong enough. This time the invention is the Reprostat, which can duplicate anything, including itself, and people. The bank manager who returns to his useless bank (now that money is obsolete) has repeated the same day many times but doesn't know it (the janitor keeps killing him but replicating him). There's a teenage suicide party which is right out of Roger Corman too. 1966 Behold the Man : Michael Moorcock Mystical Jewish time traveller from Camden returns to AD 28 and becomes Christ, since Christ did not actually exist. A lot of the story recounts the nasty antagonistic relationship between the severely disbelieving girlfriend and the hero. As he stumbles into his role as Jesus he becomes ever more unhinged. Moorcock seems to miss an essential scene, however - in this retelling, there seems to be a need for a Gethsemane. This one would have shown the hero wrestling with the enormity of what he is about to do - an inadequate spiritualist bookseller from Camden to become the Christ and cause history to change. A seminal story from the swinging sixties though. 1967 Problems of Creativeness : Thomas M Disch Young man in love has failed his REGENTS test (Revised Genetic Testing Act, 2011) and can't get married as he can't have children. Strong eugenic idea frittered away in a lightweight tale which does not engage. 1968 High Weir : Samuel R Delaney A team of scientists with a Martian expedition discovers statues which have holographic recordings embedded in their eyes. These recordings appear to show a former complex Martian society. However, there is no evidence whatsoever of a Martian language. The linguist in the team has a mental breakdown. A sad story, and curiously undramatic. Note following use of language (p 193) : "I'm the one who can make friends with all sorts of Eskimos and jungle bunnies." (spoken by the anthropologist character. 1969 A Boy and his Dog : Harlan Ellison Ellison is the most overpraised of sf writers. Mostly he's hysterical, juvenile and virtually unreadable. But not here. This is a controlled exercise in unpleasantness - on the surface this post-holocaust world seethes with rape and ultraviolence. Under the ground, replicas of small town America circa 1950 tick out a sterile existence. Love conquers all, of course, but this love is between the boy and his telepathic dog. This story adds to and cranks up the Wild One/Lord of the Flies/Clockwork Orange sequence of visions. 1970 Waterclap : Isaac Asimov Talkfest in which a guy from Lunar City visits the other giant experimental city which is located on the ocean floor. He wishes to convince them to decline further grants because their experiment is a dead end and the Moon is the future. Man, this was boring. That Isaac Asimov, he can't write! 1971 A Meeting with Medusa : Arthur C Clarke Classic timeless sf - discovering strange and (of course) enormous (because big things are impressive) forms of life in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Could have been written any time in the preceding 30 years. Clarke goes for the sense of wonder and awe, and gets it too. 1972 The Meeting : Frederick Pohl and C M Kornbluth Parents of a hopelessly educationally subnormal 9 year old boy are given a choice. A doctor wants to attempt the first brain transplant and has found a match - an 8 year old boy being kept alive after an auto accident. The deal is that the parents of the esn boy will continue to look after him after the operation. Like Damon Knight's "I See You" this short story has so many implications your head swims. It has to end where it does - at the point where the father of the esn boy is calling the doctor with his decision. Taking the situation any further would demand a novel. There are too many questions - what about the assumed medical ethics? What will be the effect on the rescued-but-transplanted boy - a whole new life and new parents? And so on. 1973 Death and Designation among the Asadi : Michael Bishop Long and fairly tiring account of field work among the Asadi. Rather obvious - other peoples are not like us. I may be missing something. 1974 The Hole Man : Larry Niven A mission to explore Mars unexpectedly finds a still-functioning alien artefact, which one of the scientists believes contains a quantum black hole. After an accident the tiny black hole escapes and falls into the centre of Mars, where it will slowly eat away the entire planet. Good example of average sf (although this story won a Hugo) - the central idea is taken from the further edge of theoretical science (mid-70s) and dramatised. Niven's writing style is wooden and all he wants to do is illustrate his weird idea. By the mid-80s style would become as important as concept. 1975 Catch That Zeppelin! : Fritz Leiber Timeslips reveal to a German American some nasty alternatives. In one parallel world, there are no Zeppelins for instance. 1976 Meathouse Man : George R R Martin A young corpse-handler's unhappy love affairs. Features necrophilia, since in this future dead people have their brains removed and are then used for all the jobs humans will no longer do, such as mining on dangerous planets and working as prostitutes. Fairly extreme story which serves to mark how far and fast sf had travelled in 10 years. 1977 The Screwfly Solution : James Tiptree, Jr Ultimate feminist fable, as chilling as it's way way way over the top. Men begin killing all women. "The obstruction was identified as part of a commercial trawler's seine floated by female corpses. This confirms reports from Florida and the gulf of the use of such seines, some of them over a mile in length." 1978 The Persistence of Vision : John Varley Extraordinary fable about a rootless, lonely travelling man who finds a community of blind-deaf people and lives with them for a time. The people have had to discover ways of communicating expressed entirely through touch. Their disabilities have bound them together so that they are almost one organism. Their way of life is very alien, but the traveller falls in love with the whole community. Eventually he leaves, but finally can't stay away. He finds the adults have all disappeared, but the children, who were born with no disabilities, are still there. However, the children are now blind-deaf. I did not understand the end of the story. 1979 The Way of Cross and Dragon : George R R Martin A Catholic Grand Inquisitor of the future has his faith tested when he tries to suppress the heresy of St Judas, behind which is the secret society of Liars, who fabricate faiths to shield people from the horror of a meaningless universe. Not bad, but really fairly feeble. 1980 The Ugly Chickens : Howard Waldrop Essentially silly (but heavily anthologised) fable about finding out that the dodo did not in fact become extinct in the 18th century - but did become extinct when some ignorant American farmers ate the last ones for a Thanksgiving dinner. 1981 Blind Spot : Jayge Carr Badly written contorted fable about racism (I think trying to say yes - sometimes the Other really is different) all about a Great Artist from a despised race on a world who goes blind. Her doctor, having failed to cure her, accompanies her back to her home planet. 1982 The Pope of the Chimps : Robert Silverberg Very straightforward what if story about introducing a colony of intelligent chimps to the fact of the death of their human carers. The chimps then formulate their own religion and commence murdering themselves. The chimps believe that when humans die they become Gods, so when chimps die they become human. 1983 The Byrds : Michael G Coney Science fiction humour should be gathered together and put into a satellite and blasted into deep space where hopefully an intelligent race will never discover and decipher it or they'll be invading for sure. 1984 The Lucky Strike : Kim Stanley Robinson An alternative-history version of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in which the soldier who was to release the bomb rebels and makes sure the bomb misses the city. He's tried for treason and executed. Story's subject matter was extremely topical in 1984. 1985 The Gods of Mars : Gardner Dozois, Jack Dann and Michael Swanwick The first manned mission to Mars encounters a Philip Dick-style derangement. What they see on the surface of Mars fluctuates between the accepted desert topography and the Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy of canals and trees and distant cities. The commander (=ego) who stays on board sees his men (=libido) one by one pull of their helmets and die but on the surface we see them exultingly plunge into a new world. Surely Philip Dick wrote this story and better already? 1986 The Brains of Rats : Michael Blumlein Meditation on sympathetic masculinity in the age of feminism. Quite odd. 1987 America : Orson Scott Card Bold (ludicrous?) allegory in which, in a parallel world, a virgin white Nordamericano and a virgin South American Indian woman come together to create a hero who will rid all of America, north and south, of the scourge of the white man. Nicely written. 1990 The Tourist : Paul Park Gloomy humorous tale of time travel, turning the past into a tourist trap and a new Third World. Features a very strong woman telling her husband to stop pestering her. Proposes that "cosmological time" runs backwards towards the Big Bang.
|Review # 2 was written on 2007-10-21 00:00:00|
This is an anthology of classic sf stories - and classic pieces of sf criticism - assembled in the mid- 1990s on behalf of the Science Fiction Research Association. I found it somewhat frustrating and slightly incomprehensible. There is very little editorial apparatus to help the reader appreciate whatever point the editors are trying to make; some groupings of stories do have a clear linking theme, others less so. While the editors declare their intention to skip the classics of the 1940s-1960s, the collection does include five pieces from that era, which seems a bit inconsistent. The non-fiction pieces of sf criticism interspersed through the stories are of varying degrees of accessibility, and here I really felt the lack of an editorial voice explaining why another 30 pages of this vast tome had been dedicated to a particular commentator's meanderings. I found Algis Budrys' piece, 'Paradise Charted', incomprehensible. On the other hand I very much appreciated Sam Delany's 'Science Fiction and 'Literature' - or, the Conscience of the King'. On the fiction side, most of the stories that I liked were pieces I already knew - I bought the book in the first place because it had three joint Hugo/Nebula winners, 'Blood Music', 'Ender's Game' and 'Bears Discover Fire', none of which is a particular favourite of mine, and that should perhaps have warned me that few of the other stories would really blow me away. The one story that did grab the soppy romantic in me was Kate Wilhelm's 'Forever Yours, Anna'. But I was left rather wondering what the point of the anthology was.
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