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.
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.