In my ever growing collection of vintage science fiction books I hold a high regard for anthologies. Ever since I was a kid, short stories have been my preferred sci-fi format. Anthologies are a great way to read a wide selection of authors and find favorites you never knew about. As such, my library boasts a respectable (and ever growing) collection of anthologies from the 1950s to today. Many of them are filled with repeat authors that I’ve never read before.
So it occurred to me, why not pick one of these authors and – almost at random – pick a trifecta of stories from different anthologies to get a pseudo-random sampling of the author’s work? Then I thought, why not blog all of these trifectas? Then I thought, what life choices have brought me to such a weird decision? Then I got to reading.
First up on the list of authors-I’ve-never-read-before: James Tiptree, Jr.
Our first story comes from Harlan Ellison’s venerable original sci-fi anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions volume 2. Tiptree ends the anthology, which means that this story was the last published in this iconic anthology series (though there are claims that the final volume is on the way). Ellison felt that the last story in an anthology had to be the best, and positively glows when writing about the story he nabbed from Tiptree.
I had been reading Tiptree for some time. He’s a fairly recent addition to the corps of sf writers, and he hadn’t had all that much published – not even a novel as of this writing – but what I’d seen had impressed me considerably, and so I wrote asking for a submission.
Ellison’s fantastic chauvinism is rendered even more ridiculous because James Tiptree, Jr. was a woman. Of course, it wasn’t known at the time, and wouldn’t be known until 1977, which really makes me wonder what Ellison thought when he found out. Alice Bradley Sheldon published under the name, and male moniker, of James Tiptree, Jr. from 1967 until her death in 1987. From 1974 to 1977 she also published under the name Raccoona Sheldon, but even in anthologies today she is still listed at “James Tiptree, Jr.”, there’s just too much history I guess.
I’m not going to explain probable reasons why she wrote science fiction under the moniker of a man, or passed herself off as a man in all contracts and correspondence. I think there’s enough explanation in Ellison’s introduction that I’ve quoted above. Though how Ellison continues can only be considered comical today.
All of this ferocity of flack is offered not merely because I am so high on his story, but… because, ironically, James Tiptree refuses to provide any personal data on himself.
Now, on to the stories.
The Milk of Paradise
Originally published in Again, Dangerous Visions volume 2
Read in same
It’s easy to tell why Harlan Ellison liked this story so much. Having received a solicitation to write a story for Ellison, Tiptree wrote what I can only describe as a knockoff Ellison story. The story follows a human spaceship-hand that was apparently raised by an unknown race of incredibly beautiful aliens that make humans look like C.H.U.D.s. He is confident that these aliens all died out from some pathogen that was inadvertently brought to their world by his human rescuers, but is tricked by a trader into going back to the world of Paradise, where the aliens lived. The story starts with the protagonist having sex with a random human woman and vomiting because he finds her human body so hideous, and that was my introduction to Tiptree. This is a weird one, and I think Ellison fans will like it. I have to take Ellison in small doses, and I like my science fiction prose a bit less enigmatic, so this one was not for me.
The Man Who Walked Home
Originally published in Amazing Science Fiction, May 1972
Read in The 1973 Annual World’s Best SF
I picked this one because after reading the title I had to know what it was about. This tale was super clever, and has to be one of the best and most original time travel stories ever told. Written in the omniscient, with a hint of A Canticle for Leibowitz , it begins with an apocalypse at a particle accelerator and follows the slow rebuilding of society at the devastated site. On the same day every year a man appears for a split second accompanied by a thunderclap, and local superstitions, myths, cults, and scientific curiosity surround his appearance. I don’t want to give too much away as its a fun trip, but this was a much more straight story than my first introduction, and turned me on to Tiptree’s creativity.
Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
Originally published in Aurora: Beyond Equality (a feminist anthology published in 1976)
Read in The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF
This one was proceeded in Annual World’s Best SF with a disclaimer that it wasn’t for prudes, and it definitely has a lot of eyebrow raising bits. This novella length story starts on a spaceship with our narrator, a “beta” male astronaut often felt emasculated by his two alpha male colleagues, on a spaceship full of female astronauts. You are given the impression that the men are surprised to find themselves on a ship of women, and as the story develops our narrator is convinced that he’s been drugged. Tiptree uses a clever device here where the drug induces a near stream-of-consciousness which allows the story to be told in shifting time frame. The narrative is linear, sprinkled with moments of clarity that brings the narrator to the “present.” It’s remarkably well executed and the transitions are not jarring or confusing in any way, giving us a really nice mystery to unravel. I really enjoyed this one, and it has a great punch for a climax. This one will stay with me a long time, and I highly recommend it for a commentary on gender equality that is as relevant now as it was in 1977 – maybe more so.
All in all, Tiptree came across in these three stories as one hell of a writer with an amazing creative mind. Her ability to write an Ellison story to sell to Ellison is impressive in its own right, but the fact that it landed so perfectly with him just adds to the comedy of the effort. I’ll definitely seek out more of her stories.
As a parting note, depending on which version you believe, Tiptree either murdered her husband then killed herself, or she and her husband had a suicide pact that she enacted. She openly struggled with suicidal thoughts for years, and it is evident that she finally lost the battle.
I finally signed up for Shudder, the niche streaming horror service, when they ran a crazy promotion on Halloween. The platform has quickly become one of my favorite streamers, with a wide selection of films broadly classed as horror that range from the mainstream, to the iconic, to the rare. I thought I’d round up a few of the favorites I’ve found on the service in the last few weeks. All together these are definitely worth a one month subscription and binge.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
This was actually a rewatch for me, but in the decade-plus since its release it has not lost a bit of brilliance. Behind the Mask is a smart deconstruction/subversion of the slasher genre with lots of subtle comedy. Set in a world where classic movie slashers actually exist, a documentary film crew follows Leslie Vernon on his quest to become the next Jason. What preparation must someone go through to achieve this goal? According to Leslie its lots of reading Gray’s Anatomy, studying psychology, and doing a lot of cardio. So much cardio. Highly recommended if you’re in the mood for a fun and smart horror flick. There are plenty of smarts to outweigh the violence and diffuse the tension, so the squeamish can have fun with this one.
Blood Vessel (Shudder Exclusive)
Shudder was pushing this one hard around Halloween as it was a new exclusive film to the service. A Nazi battleship infested with vampires? Yes, please! The addition of an international cast of Allies helps heat up the interpersonal tension to a nice temperature before throwing us head first into a family of Nosferatu-style vampires. Fun and just creepy enough to qualify as a solid B-Movie. Recommended if you like good-bad movies. Also, mad props to the double meaning of the title.
A Tale of Two Sisters
I admit I didn’t actually watch this one on Shudder, but I was pleased to discover it was on there. I watched this on DVD in early October at a friend’s mad insistence after I showed him Crimson Peak (which he loved). A Tale of Two Sisters is a slow burn Korean gem that leaves you confused until the climax, then leaves you with a few satisfying questions. Highly recommended if you’re interested in a cerebral WTF-fest.
The Monster Club
I’ve been trying to get ahold of a copy of this film for over a year, so I was overjoyed when I found it on Shudder. Released in 1981 but with the definite feel of a late 1970s horror comedy, this surreal beauty tells three short stories tied together by a framing sequence staring the incomparable Vincent Price. Between each vignette a different band performs a different – but very 1970s – rock song about monsters. This one has to be seen to be believed. Recommended if you love non-sequitur comedy and 1970s horror (that’s a double yes for me).
Host (Shudder Exclusive)
I’ve got to close out this list with Host, which was one of the main reasons I wanted Shudder in the first place. This film exploded in the press in August, and the accolades are well deserved. Filmed over 12 weeks and entirely on Zoom, this 60 minute film follows a group of friends on a seance conducted over Zoom. Based on reviews I was expecting a good ride, but holy shit is this a masterwork! Everything is on point from the dialog, to the interpersonal dynamics, to the perfect foreshadowing, to Easter eggs for horror aficionados. One high point was when the wife and I were staring at the screen looking for classic paranormal stuff and she exclaimed, “I can’t tell if that’s a ghost or Zoom pixelation!” I’m convinced that was 100% intended; that’s how well this film mastered its medium. A film that could not have existed a year ago, Host is a horror story for our time, based on our shared trauma. For an added freakout effect, watch it on a laptop. Be warned though, this one goes to eleven really fast.
That’s it for now, but I expect I’ll return with more niche movie recs as unending quarantine stretches into the dark winter.
The Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region is one of the greatest ongoing atrocities in the world. Over one million ethnic Uyghurs have been imprisoned, relocated, and sent to forced labor camps where they make, among other things, Covid-19 masks. The treatment of Uyghurs is an unironic talking point for many Republican senators under the “China Bad” banner. So desperate are they to point at the liberal entertainment industry (under the unending “Liberals Bad” banner), that now Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem is a Republican talking point.
The conflict centers around comments Liu made in an expansive and outstanding New Yorker interview from 2019 authored by Jiayang Fan. Normally careful to avoid politics, a few beers (mixed with Southern Comfort) were enough to get him to comment when asked about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. Fan reports that
he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” The answer duplicated government propaganda so exactly that I couldn’t help asking Liu if he ever thought he might have been brainwashed. “I know what you are thinking,” he told me with weary clarity. “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” He sighed, as if exhausted by a debate going on in his head. “But that’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of health care, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy.”
This quote was enough to make some Republican senators – specifically Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee), Rick Scott (Florida), Kevin Cramer (North Dakota), Thom Tillis (North Carolina), and Martha McSally (Arizona) – foam at the mouth. Hence an angry letter to Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos was written to demand that the CCO explain how Netflix could possibly produce a series adaptation of the international Hugo award winning bestseller. “Does Netflix agree that the Chinese Communist Party’s interment of 1.8 to 3 million Uyghurs in internment or labor camps based on their ethnicity is unacceptable?” the letter asks. I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Netflix if they think the thousands of children held at the US-Mexico border under appalling conditions by the US Republican Party is unacceptable?
Fortunately, I’m not the CCO of Netflix, who responded by saying “We do not agree with his comments, which are entirely unrelated to his book or this Netflix show.”
The thing is, Liu’s comments aren’t entirely unrelated to his book. It’s hard to understate Liu’s notoriety in China. The New Yorker interview was conducted while Liu was in Washington D.C. to receive the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation’s Award for Imagination in Service to Society, which could not have been more fitting as Liu is very much China’s Arthur C. Clarke. Liu has received countless honors both in China and abroad, and his international reputation is a source of pride for the Chinese government. He is credited with bringing science fiction into the mainstream in China, with his novella The Wondering Earth adapted into China’s first science fiction blockbuster, becoming the third highest grossing Chinese film in history. In the western world, Clarke was one of the writers that brought science fiction into the mainstream. He was a scientist, inventor, and television host. His most well known books include 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Rendezvous with Rama. The latter contains this gem:
Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take. He was quite sure that at least one serious space accident had been caused by acute crew distraction, after the transit of a well-upholstered lady officer through the control cabin.
Now you might dismiss that by saying that it was written in the 1950s. Except it wasn’t written in the 1950s, it was written in 1973 in the middle of Second-wave Feminism, two years after Helen Reddy released “I Am Woman.” I can not, and will not, defend the above quote, but that does not say anything about the quality of the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is a phenomenally trippy ride. Despite what Star Trek fans will tell you, science fiction is not the best source of material to build a moral belief system. Science fiction authors hold a funhouse mirror to their society and show us glory or absurdity. Having a black woman on the bridge of the starship Enterprise was a strong vision of equality in 1966, but it is equally interesting to me that the vision the studio was comfortable with was one where that bridge officer’s sole job was to answer the telephone. Notably, the original Star Trek pilot had a white woman (Gene Roddenberry’s future wife) as first officer, but the studio nixed that idea in part because test audiences found her to be “too bossy.”
If you only accept art from people you agree with morally then you will rapidly find yourself robbed of some great art. Lovecraft was a racist. Asimov was a sexual predator. J.K. Rowling is a transphobe. These facts stand next to their literary careers, but don’t – and shouldn’t – overshadow them. Nor should their accomplishments hide these deplorable opinions. Art that you love was created by imperfect human beings. Since nobody is perfect that should not come as a shock to anyone. Art speaks to us each on an individual level, which the authors have little control over. The magic of fiction is that authors place something before us, but what we take away can be much greater than the material given. Words on a page can turn into self realizations of life changing magnitude. The simple existence of a black lady on a spaceship three hundred years in the future became a sign of hope to African American children living through segregation, inspiring them to pursue careers in science. As a young girl, Whoopi Goldberg famously ran to her mother after seeing an episode of Star Trek and exclaimed “Momma! There's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!” Whoopi has since been a lifelong fan of all things Trek, which led her to request – and receive – a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Liu’s stories are fascinating, and he is undeniably a great writer. I’ve read The Three-Body Problem and one of his short stories titled Taking Care of God. In the latter, white bearded aliens come to Earth, having created all life as a means to establish an old-folks home for themselves. We are told that this is the normal course of societal evolution, and the “God” civilization is in its twilight. I interpreted the story as a metaphor for the difficulty and sacrifice in having to care for elderly family members, something that is a major aspect of Chinese culture. This cultural need is a great financial burden, as discussed in the story, but it also offers a great opportunity for knowledge and growth – if it is not squandered. Like all great science fiction, Liu’s work is full of cultural metaphor and reflection, but any reflection must come through the eyes of the author. Just as we see Clarke’s opinion of women in the above passage, we see Liu’s interpretation of his own society throughout his works. Fan describes a scene from Liu’s writing which is often marked by unconscionable moral choices.
An episode in the trilogy depicts Earth on the verge of destruction. A scientist named Cheng Xin encounters a gaggle of schoolchildren as she and an assistant prepare to flee the planet. The spaceship can accommodate the weight of only three of the children, and Cheng, who is the trilogy’s closest embodiment of Western liberal values, is paralyzed by the choice before her. Her assistant leaps into action, however, and poses three math problems. The three children who are quickest to answer correctly are ushered on board. Cheng stares at her assistant in horror, but the young woman says, “Don’t look at me like that. I gave them a chance. Competition is necessary for survival.”
Is this a criticism or an endorsement of the cold logic of survival? It’s unclear, but it doesn’t have to be clearly one way or another. Put another way, do you read it as a criticism? Maybe you read it as a reflection of the idea that in the face of complete destruction our compassion will evaporate, leaving only cold logic. Liu’s original intention is irrelevant outside of an academic discussion.
Liu has stated that his work is not political. “The whole point is to escape the real world!” he says. Many authors have used that refrain when they face criticism or censorship for their work. I can’t blame Liu for echoing that claim. Maybe he doesn’t think his work is political, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t. His writing has elevated him through a system where elevation is fraught with challenges of being born in the right place and to the right people (not unlike the USA). He is living a good life – a dream life – and he wants to keep it that way. Maybe he believes what he said and maybe he doesn’t, but we don’t have to live in the system he lives in.
In a way, maybe he’s right. Like I mentioned, we have camps in the USA that house people our society identifies as Others. Maybe “ordinary folks” don’t really care about that type of thing. Maybe, in the end, neither do Republican senators.
As I write this the power is out. I’m more prepared for this situation than most. I use a UPS backup battery to supply power to my modem and router, so I can have internet if my power goes out for up to about an hour. The UPS died about three hours ago. A cold front is moving down from Canada, and Denver, Colorado – about six hours drive north of us – experienced 100 degree temperatures just two days ago but is under a winter weather advisory for the rest of the week. This same cold front has brought sixty mile per hour winds to my city, resulting in local power outages caused by isolated line falls, meaning there isn’t just one problem to fix. Of course, any repair has to happen thirty feet up in these winds, so I’m not hopeful it will actually be back on by nightfall, as presently estimated.
Normally, we’d go out to eat somewhere that still has power. Of course it would have to be takeout because of the global pandemic. We’re going to stay in though, because apart from driving in these high winds it’s been kind of hard to breathe outside what with the thousands of wildfires burning from here to California. I’ve found myself wishing that my cloth Covid mask would also filter out the smoke. I guess what I really need is an N95 mask, but those are in short supply and I haven’t seen any around.
I think that covers pestilence, ecological devastation, climate upset, collapse of modern infrastructure, and scarcity of resources. I guess I should be really angry, but I can’t muster it. We’re basically living in a classic science fiction dystopia, and I don’t mean that in the “I like science fiction so this is neat!” sort of way, but in the “This is horrible, but we knew it was coming” way.
Mostly, I’m just tired. For decades now scientists have been saying that this kind of shit would start happening. More frequent wildfires, global pandemics (most recently this comically timed report from September 2019), climate upset, and a level of human suffering that we’ve not seen in modern times. Of course, we didn’t do anything about it. I guess we brought reusable bags to the grocery store. Maybe that helped?
Don’t get me wrong, my present off-the-grid state is not worthy of a claim of “human suffering.” My power will come back on, probably by dawn. The wildfires will burn themselves out or be put out (so far that second one has not been very successful). One day this pandemic disease will be contained (but I’m not optimistic about how soon that will be). The problem is that although these present difficulties will pass, there is no honest expectation that the overall trend will get any better. The present state of our planet is already worse than the “worst case” climate models, and many climate scientists are saying that we’ve crossed the point of stopping some level of substantial climate shift. It wasn’t a question of not listening. I think we listened, we just decided that we didn’t really care.
As I think about what the future will look like, I find myself picturing a trip to the grocery store while wearing a respirator to keep out the pollutants and viruses. I walk past white supremacists screaming that everything would be fine if we just didn’t let women be in charge of anything. It’s a future that I’m familiar with given a lifetime of reading science fiction. Lots of people misunderstand what speculative science fiction is about. People fixate on how science fiction never predicted the rise of computers, or the power of feminism. Science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, it’s about holding a fun house mirror to the society of today in order to call attention to some aspect of ourselves. Science fiction futures are about an extrapolation of today to the world of tomorrow. In that respect, decades ago when science fiction writers looked at pollution and uncontrolled population growth they knew what was up (see Make Room! Make Room! and Caves of Steel). They tried to warn us, and we definitely listened since those books have sold millions of copies, but we took the wrong message from the writing. Too many people took the entertainment and not the warning. Too many people read those books and thought “Wow, what a wacky future!” and not “Oh damn, that’s the path we’re on.”
The wind outside is blowing large detritus around. My son just said he’s scared. His mom told him that “You don’t have to be scared, you just have to be alert to what might happen.” She’s a smart lady, my wife. At this point I guess all we can do is be alert.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.