The Covid-19 pandemic has caused marked shifts in Western thought that just a few years ago would have been inconceivable. The sudden appearance of the phrase “essential workers” came with an almost universally agreed upon definition and the quick realization that half the people that fit that definition are chronically underpaid. This understandably led to questioning of the free market capitalist worldview dominant in the West; if “essential workers” aren’t paid a living wage then surely the “free market” has failed to appropriately value their work. Some are even questioning what has long been held to be the only natural way of structuring a society: meritocracy.
If you’re not familiar with the term meritocracy, that’s okay, because I can assure you that you almost certainly live by it. Meritocracy is the idea that goods (money, resources, etc.) and political power are given to people on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement, rather than on the basis of heredity, wealth, or social class. To most, this seems like the most natural thing in the world. Work hard and you will live a more comfortable life. Good things come to those who lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Meritocracy, put quite simply, is the realization of The American Dream. Because it is so deeply routed in our culture it has permeated science fiction which aims to portray an ideal future. As a result, when Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 he turned that shit to eleven.
There is much debate among fans as to whether the Federation from the period of Next Gen on is socialist. (Just Google “is Star Trek socialist” to see what I mean.) That debate is largely irrelevant here, as I’ll show. Whether and how Federation citizens get paid is immaterial to the concept of meritocracy, as the latter only demands that goods be distributed based on merit. As evidence I submit to you the Star Trek: The Next Generation season two episode “The Schizoid Man,” which for me is one of the most baffling episodes of the entire series.
Our episode starts with the Enterprise en-route to answer a distress call from Ira Graves, who is described as “arguably the greatest human mind in the Universe.” Graves and his nurse are the only inhabitants of an entire planet – called Graves’ World – which affords him the opportunity to conduct his research in self imposed isolation. Captain Picard clarifies for the crew that Starfleet considers Graves’ work to be so important that responding to the distress call is a “priority one action.” This command is quickly put to the test as the Enterprise receives another distress call, this time from a transport ship ferrying over two thousand colonists. After a brief debate as to which emergency is more critical, it is decided they will quickly beam down a small away party to assist Graves while the ship continues on to rescue the transport vessel.
Seven minutes into the episode and everything is crazy. We have established that the Federation is a meritocratic nightmare. One man is seemingly so valuable that he is given an entire planet to himself, and is implicitly considered to be more important than two thousand men, women, and children, not to mention an entire starship capable of transporting that many people. “But wait,” I can hear you thinking, “that doesn’t sound like a nightmare.” The nightmare comes twice in the episode, later as the main plot point, but first in the form of the nurse and second inhabitant of Graves’ World. When the away team beams down they are met by Graves’ beautiful young nurse, who is also his assistant. When I say the assistant is young, I mean young. She looks to be maybe twenty years old. Upon seeing Worf (a klingon) she asks him if he is a romulan, which greatly insults him. Graves reveals that his assistant has lived on his planet since her father died when she was very young, and essentially everything she knows she learned from Graves, a dirty old man that doesn’t wait two minutes before hitting on both the vulcan doctor and Counselor Troi. Graves’ work is evidently so valuable that he is not only given an entire planet to himself, but also a young female slave nurse! Not a slave? This woman is terrified of Graves, and knows nothing outside of this old man for companionship. As with any true meritocracy, being a good person is no indication of merit, and Graves in an unapologetic asshole that everyone is all too willing to accommodate because he’s… really smart, I guess.
This characterization is actually critical to the plot (and second nightmare), as Graves is dying and takes the opportunity of meeting the android Data to upload his consciousness into Data’s body. The crew slowly begin to realize what has happened, and Picard tries to convince Graves to exit Data’s body after Graves’ temper and Data’s superior strength has resulted in the injury of several crew members. As is typical of Star Trek, a speech is made as persuasion.
Picard tells Graves, “You have extended your life at the expense of another… No being is so important that he can usurp the rights of another.”
Except… that Graves is that important.
I think this story is meant to say something about accepting death, that death comes for us all regardless of our accomplishments and capabilities. But the very meritocratic nature of the story world makes it a mess. If anything, Graves is the true victim here. For most of his life, Graves has been a man of unequaled skill, considered “the greatest human mind in the Universe.” So great, in fact, that he is given his own planet and live-in young attractive nurse. Along comes this humanoid machine that can let him live forever and continue his Great Works. Sure, the machine is sentient, but so is the girl. Sure, Data is unique, but the Federation saw fit to give him a whole planet that could have supported colonists – like those two thousand that were almost sacrificed just so a starship could find out what Graves’ distress call was about. Graves took Data, because society had told him he was entitled to. In reality this is not a story about morality or mortality, this is a story about what absolute hells meritocracy can create. A starship captain having to choose between one man who is a number one priority, and a ship of two thousand colonists. The hell experienced by a young woman with a dirty old man her only company, who is trapped with him because her government says he needs an assistant. The hell of immense resources devoted to sustain one man on a remote planet while countless others starve. The hell of an entitled man stealing the body of someone who has less right to it than him, Get Out style. Is it any wonder Graves did what he did? Everything about his life and his society told him it was okay. Picard’s righteous indication rings hypocritical because not long before he himself subscribed to the same ideology that trained Graves to take this final action. “The Schizoid Man” is such a baffling episode of Star Trek because it inadvertently decimates one of the core tenets of the franchise: that meritocracy is a natural, and good, thing.
Ironically, the term meritocracy was coined by author Michael Young in his 1958 dystopian satirical novel The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young meant for meritocracy to be a negative thing, and was dismayed when contemporaries began to extol its virtues. Young was trying to warn us of a system of education that stratifies people. One that takes skills that were once “distributed between the classes more or less at random” but now have “become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.” Take for example Ivy League schools. Attendance at such schools is considered a key to success, simply because people that attend those schools have been successful in the past. Ivy League schools often employ the most prestigious and accomplished professors from across all fields of study, meaning an Ivy League education has the potential to be among the best educations in the world. In a capitalist meritocracy, those with success have money, and those with money can buy success. This leads to a system where success can have the appearance of being earned, when in actuality it was purchased by the previous generation for their children. Those with success look down upon those who struggle, and those that struggle view those who have success as being more worthy than themselves. In our everyday lives, meritocracy tells us that if we don’t accumulate accomplishments then we are failures. This is one of the many ways that meritocracy makes all of us miserable. We can’t simply be happy with what we have achieved, because if we’re not constantly moving up then we may as well be moving down. Meritocracy can be dangerous, and a supposed utopia that hands out planets and young women to old men who are really good at chemistry sounds like an absolute hell.
In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never read before in order to get a feel for their style. When it turns out I’ve already experienced a writer, I call upon friends to lend a hand. This month writer and podcaster PJ Montgomery shares his first experiences with the legendary Alfred Bester.
Alfred Bester is a name I’m more than familiar with. As a comic fan, I know Bester as the man who created the character of Solomon Grundy, and the most well known version of the Green Lantern oath (you know, “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight,” etc…). I know he was married to the woman that originated the role of Lois Lane in the original Superman radio serials, Rolly Bester. I know that in TV, Walter Koenig’s character on Babylon 5 was named after Bester, and that Babylon 5’s treatment of telepaths took a lot of inspiration from Bester’s most celebrated work, The Demolished Man. Bester’s other famous novel, The Stars My Destination, itself takes inspiration from the classic Alexandre Dumas novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.
I’ve read The Count of Monte Cristo, but I’ve never read The Stars My Destination. In fact, while I’m very aware of his work and how he’s influenced a lot of the science fiction I enjoy, I’ve never actually read anything by Alfred Bester. Until now…
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1954
Read in Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (1976)
I didn’t really know what to expect from this story. The title initially put me in mind of another science-fiction classic, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I think that slightly lowered my defenses, so when the story opened with the discovery of a young girl’s body, the victim of a brutal murder, I was taken aback. “Okay, this is a murder mystery.” I told myself, and settled in, only for the very next scene to tell me who did it.
Fondly Fahrenheit, it turns out, is a lot more complex than that. It’s a musing on madness, projection, free will, slavery and artificial intelligence. Even if, by the end, it’s a musing with a fairly hefty body count. James Vandaleur and his multiple aptitude android skip from planet to planet, running from the murders the android is supposedly committing. I say supposedly, because while Bester flat out tells you that the android is responsible early on, later events and the very way the story is told somewhat muddy the waters. The story is largely narrated by a third person, omniscient narrator, but will often slip into first person narration from either Vandaleur, or the android. Sometimes this happens within the space of a single paragraph, so you get all three points of view in quick succession. It leads you to question where the divide is between the characters, and wonder how reliable the narration truly is. It deals with big themes in a relatively slender page count, and made me feel incredibly tense as I read it. I loved it. As my first encounter with Bester, it definitely led me wanting to read more. Good thing I’ve got two more stories to cover.
Star Light, Star Bright
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1953
Read in Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (1976)
In an introduction to the edition of the story I read, Bester describes it as a search story, told with the pace of a chase story. You can really feel that as you read it, with Bester using all the tools at his disposal to make the story rattle along at breakneck pace, even during the quieter moments. Very occasionally, this is to the story’s detriment, as one or two smaller beats become a little confusing, but overall, it’s an effective way of telling a story.
The story itself concerns a hunt for genius children, each one gifted with a different type of genius, or superpower. Naturally, the protagonist, who goes by several aliases during the course of the story, is in it for the money, and his young quarry don’t even know they’re being hunted. In a touch I particularly enjoyed, Bester starts referring to his main character as “the doomed man” fairly early on in the story. It adds to the tension and pace, as you know something is going to happen to him, but not the when or how of it. When his ultimate fate does come, it’s in two paragraphs that Bester’s introduction tells you he hates. He was made to put these in by his editor at the time, who wanted a more clear-cut ending. Bester would have preferred to leave things a bit more ambiguous, and asks the reader to read these two paragraphs with their eyes closed.
I understand Bester’s point of view. I think a more ambiguous ending would have fitted the story better. But, that said, I also found the extra paragraphs incredibly evocative and atmospheric, and feel that Bester was slightly overreacting to their quality in his introduction. But then, aren’t all writers their own worst critics?
They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1963
Read in Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (1976)
What if the last man and woman on Earth were assholes? That’s the basic premise of this story, and Bester mines it for all it’s worth. I hated both the characters, but I’ll give them a little leeway, as who knows how any of us would react to being the only people left on the planet? I also admit that the story grabbed me, and I wanted to find out what happened to them, even as I was hoping they’d get some kind of comeuppance. Luckily, the story’s just the right length so that they don’t outstay their welcome. There’s some dark comedy in there, and while the ending may initially seem to come out of nowhere, Bester is careful to seed it through the story, so it’s not a total surprise when it does arrive. That said, the ending is somewhat abrupt, and there’s definitely some sixties sexism sprinkled throughout the story.
Bester’s writing is superb, with his descriptions of an apocalyptic New York creating some amazing imagery in my mind, and the characters felt real to me. It’s also the longest of the three stories I read, but the fast pacing meant it really didn’t feel like it. But I think, for me, it was the weakest of the trifecta of stories I read. I was enjoying it while I read it, but once it was done, I found myself struggling to really care about it. I think a big part of that is just the characters, and my dislike for them, but even then, this story had a lot to recommend. I probably won’t revisit it (I could re-read Fondly Fahrenheit over and over), but it’s definitely worth reading once.
This little experiment has been a fun experience. Overall, I enjoyed my time with Bester, and I loved the first two stories. Even the one I didn’t love so much has elements I liked. I’ve been very much left with a desire to read more Bester. Anyone got a copy of The Stars My Destination I can borrow?
I had no idea that Bester wrote comic books and created the Green Lantern oath! Now I may have to go track down some of Bester’s “Green Lantern” books because I loved both of the novels PJ mentioned. Don’t forget to check out PJ Montgomery’s Twitter and Instagram to find his various podcast and writing projects, which are all excellent.
I’m one of those science fiction fans that believes that 1990s sci-fi television (and to some extent literature) was a mostly barren wasteland. That didn’t stop me from watching a ton of it as a teenage fan – after all, what did I know? We all have shows we watch knowing that they’re bad, but we still enjoy them nonetheless. For me, Seven Days (or 7 Days) was one of those shows.
And let me tell you, has it not aged well. Like, not in a single way.
Seven Days premiered on 7 October 1998 on UPN. (Are you – like me – old and lame enough to remember UPN?) The premise was wonderfully simple: a secret US government project, based on alien technology recovered from the Roswell crash, is tasked with allowing a single person to travel back in time up to seven days. Why seven days? It has something to do with the size of the reactor we can use that runs of alien fuel, but really it’s because seven days is a week and that’s snappy. So called “Project Backstep” operates out of Area 51 (yup) with the sole purpose of preventing terrorist attacks and safeguarding American interests. Check that air date again, late 1998, but more on that later.
In the pilot episode, Chechnyan Marxists launch an attack on a US-Russian summit, killing the Russian president, as well as the US president and vice president when a plane crashes into the White House where the meeting is taking place. A subsequent attack kills the US Speaker of the House, who is third in line to the presidency. The decision is made to attempt a “backstep,” only problem being that it has never worked before and there are no pilots, a.k.a. “chrononauts.” With only seven days to find, train, and launch the mission, a search for expendable people turns up our hero: Frank B. Parker. This guy has it all. He is extremely physically fit (and jacked) with a high pain threshold, which is necessary to pilot the time machine, as well as a photographic memory which is ideal for retaining all the intelligence acquired from the future. He is also a decorated Navy SEAL and ex-CIA operative. He also happens to be crazy, having been committed to a mental institution after being tortured in a “hot box” in Somalia. But our boy is a true American hero because he never cracked under torture. He also, conveniently, happens to have a best friend that is the military liaison to Project Backstep, which is the only reason he doesn’t think he’s hallucinating the whole thing when he’s told the government wants him to travel back in time to stop the terrorist attack. Jump to the end of the two hour pilot episode, and Frank B. Parker saves the nation’s leadership, and Project Backstep is somehow ready to do this every week for three years of non-network television.
This show is absolute patriotic porn. I didn’t totally realize it at the time, but holy hell is it clear now. The frequent foil of the show’s American heroes are the Russians/former Soviets; it is no coincidence that the terrorists of the pilot are Chechnyan. On the scientific team at Project Backstep is Dr. Olga Vukavitch, the only woman on the cast and thus the love interest of Frank B. Parker. As you can imagine, Olga is subject to frequent unwanted sexual advances by her coworker which are meant to be endearing, and she smiles lovingly through all the playful workplace harassment. (I mean no disrespect to actor Justina Vail Evans, who did an excellent job with the material given her to play Olga.) Dr. Vukavitch, if you couldn’t tell from the name, is a Russian defector that worked on the Soviet time travel program, and I’m pretty sure “Communists with time machines” was on many a Republican’s nightmare list in the late 20th century. Though terrorism features heavily in the show, the term “radical Islamic terrorism” is non-existent despite it being a household term just a few years later. Instead, the focus is on the classic American political myopia of nation-state terrorists. Of course, the concept of Russians with time machines comes up multiple times, in episodes that are honestly among the best of the series.
But it’s not just the use of former Soviets as the show’s primary foil that makes Seven Days a pre-9/11 Conservative wet dream, it’s the overall premise and tone of the series. The US Government can do no wrong, and is not only always on the side of righteousness, but is also on the side of God. American intelligence gathering is so tight, and the US Government’s power so great, that literal time travel is within their grasp. No tragedy is allowed to impact the American people, or interrupt their lives. Here is a small list of the incidents that Project Backstep prevents in various episodes: a terrorist attack on Washington D.C.; a second Korean War; the bombing of an NSA office (yup, that’s enough to necessitate time travel); a Jonestown-like massacre that ruins the press for the president’s human rights conference (I’m not kidding); a Russian Navy submarine accident contaminating the Alaskan coast with plutonium (actually, that’s a good reason to time travel); the death of the vice president’s illegitimate daughter which causes the vice president to commit suicide; an explosion at a Las Vegas casino that kills 1,000 people, including some attending a Defense convention (?!); and a global pandemic of airborne ebola (‘90’s deep cut) that was released by – you guessed it – a terrorist attack. That wild list is taken entirely from the show’s first season!
If it was just the tone and premise of “America can’t loose, baby!” it might be forgivable. But the creators leaned even further in and put America on the side of God Himself. Frank B. Parker is an orphan raised by nuns, and although he’s not a great Catholic, he definitely is one. It’s probably fortunate that Muslim terrorism doesn’t feature in the show because of this, and one of the few times Muslims are mentioned at all is in an episode where time travel is authorized to prevent the Catholic Pope’s assassination because he was negotiating a peace treaty between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia – you know, because that’s something that the Pope would do and that a reasonable person would expect he’d succeed at. (Fun fact, Frank ends up Quantum Leaping into the Pope’s body in that episode for no clear reason.) There are many episodes where being “on the side of the angels” is strongly alluded to, but this all comes to a head in the third season episode “Revelation”, in which a Project Backstep chrononaut from seven years in the future (played by Robert Picardo), arrives with a mission to assassinate a Nobel Peace Prize winning religious leader… who happens to be Muslim. The assassination goes forward with US Government approval but everything goes tits up after that. Frank backsteps seven days to prevent the assassination he carried out in the first place and confronts Robert Picardo’s character who turns out to be none other than Satan himself! No really. He even has a neat tattoo that says “666”. By defeating the Devil, Frank B. Parker is cemented as the right hand of God. That episode is either the low point or high point of season three, depending on your perspective.
Due to low ratings and consistently poor critical reception, Seven Days was canceled and aired its final episode on 29 May 2001, just four months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks that the show’s protagonists would have been charged with preventing. In the days following 11 September 2001 I thought a lot about Seven Days, part of me wishing it were real to prevent the senseless deaths, and part of me in complete awe at our national hubris to conceive of such a show. Watching the pilot today is nothing short of a mind-fuck. The episode unfolds as patriotic disaster porn, and we are meant to feel that although everything shown is awful, we can watch comfortable knowing that in the end Navy SEAL and CIA agent Frank B. Parker will set all right with the world and God. September 11 changed American culture so much that it is sometimes hard to grasp how different fiction was before that day. Seven Days is an extreme window into a time when suspension of disbelief didn’t include the fact that the CIA was working for the good of the world and was protected by God, just that time travel was real.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could be considered controversial if it wasn’t so well loved. Star Trek is so universal in American culture that almost everyone as seen at least some of it, and I’ve found that if people have an opinion at all then they either love or hate DS9. The series can be divisive among Trek fans depending on what it is about Trek that appeals to them.
Set outside the domain of the United Federation of Planets, the space station Deep Space Nine resides in a hostile part of the galaxy. Central to the story is the recently ended conflict between the Bajorans (who own DS9) and the Cardassians. The brutal Cardassian occupation of Bajor lasted several decades and ended shortly before the series begins. Themes of slavery, exploitation, pillage of native resources, capitalism, authoritarianism, and war are central to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Unlike other Trek series, these themes are central to the show in that the characters are constantly surrounded by them, rather than passingly encountering them in “primitive” alien civilizations. At a time in the Trek universe when it is said that there is no poverty, hunger, or war, the Bajorans struggle to feed their own people, and mass hunger is the norm on their world. (Why the Federation doesn’t do more to help is perhaps the topic of another post.)
One particularly good scene comes in the second season episode “The Maquis, Part 2.” The multi-episode story introduces the Maquis, a group of human resistance fighters who oppose the Cardassian government. Due to events established prior in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a group of human colonies exist in Cardassian space. Years later, the human colonists claim they are being killed by the Cardassian government. With Starfleet and the Federation unwilling to intervene at the risk of starting another war with Cardassia, the colonists arm themselves and start the Maquis, named after the World War II French resistance fighters. The situation has direct comparison to the occupation of the West Bank, and parallels can be drawn to anyone that questions the “civilized nature” of those living in the territories.
The scene starts with a conversation between station commander Benjamin Sisko and a Starfleet Admiral. The Admiral doesn’t understand why Sisko can’t just talk to the Maquis. “Open a dialog,” she says. “They’re still Federation citizens, I’m sure they’ll listen to reason.” The Admiral leaves, and Sisko’s Bajoran first officer enters his office, interrupting him screaming to himself.
“Just because a group of people belong to the Federation it does not mean that they are saints!… The trouble is Earth. On Earth there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet headquarters and you see paradise. Well it’s easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise.”
I love this speech as it – and much of the later seasons of DS9 – casts a shadow on one of the core philosophic tenets of all Star Trek, namely that humans are amazing. Star Trek has always portrayed a human utopia, where all humans come together and live in an educated and well cared for world. All creature comforts are met, and as a result there is no crime because everyone has what they need, and are able to earn what they want.
But out here, on the frontier, where basic needs are difficult to meet, where humans go out into new lands to build a home as we have so often done, suffering is waiting for us. On the core worlds of the Federation – Earth, Vulcan, Andoria, etc. – everyone has what they need. Out on the colonies, there aren’t enough omnipotent replicators to provide food and clothing for everyone. Farming is evidently still the most efficient way to get food, and the colonists strive and struggle to work the soil of alien worlds into new Earths. Humans are known throughout the galaxy as they exist in paradise, but take a human out of paradise long enough and these “highly civilized” people of the future look a lot like you and me.
This sentiment is reflected in one of the greatest scenes in Deep Space Nine, from the seventh season episode “The Siege of AR-558,” when the Federation is fighting a grueling war with the Dominion, which is functionally an anti-Federation. The Ferengi Quark tries to open his nephew’s eyes that the human soldiers he idolizes as heroes are not fit to be looked up to.
“Let me tell you something about humans, nephew. They’re a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts – deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers – put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time, and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty, and as violent, as the most bloodthirsty Klingon.”
Granted, this is little more than a sci-fi technobabble’d up version of the saying “every society is just three meals away from revolution” (often attributed to Vladimir Lenin), but what is remarkable is its inclusion in Star Trek. The sentiment that humans of the 24th century are no farther from barbarism than humans of today is generally antithetical to Trek lore. DS9 takes the stance that humans aren’t better than other races, they’re just a bit better at wanting to care for each other. The people that the aliens of Star Trek picture when they think of humans are those humans that live in paradise, and it’s easy to be a saint in paradise.
In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never read before in order to get a feel for their style.
Tanith Lee is the kind of writer I’ve come across from time to time without ever having read anything by her. In retrospect, I think that’s probably because she mostly wrote fantasy, which is not often my cup of tea. Her career is outstanding though: she was the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel, nominated for two Nebulas, received 11 nominations – and two wins – for the World Fantasy Award, and was awarded the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Horror, to name just a few! The daughter of two professional dancers, Tanith moved around a lot as a child, but shared a large library with her parents; a library which contained much “weird fiction”, as it was still known in the 1950s. Sharing a love of stories with her parents, Tanith reportedly began writing fiction at the age of nine. After a single year of college she dropped out to hold a number of random jobs before trying her hand as a professional writer. She is credited with nearly 100 novels and over 300 short stories that span genres from fantasy to science fiction to horror. With such a wide span, it was an absolute crapshoot what I was going to get.
Crying in the Rain
Originally published in Other Edens (1987)
Read in The Big Book of Science Fiction
If an author is in The Big Book of Science Fiction (edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer) then I find I can’t go wrong picking the featured tale. (I honestly can’t recommend this collection enough.) Crying in the Rain is a quiet and sad tale that could have been set in the peasant lands of mythical times, but instead takes place in the radiated wasteland of a far future city and its surrounding ghettos. The tale centers on a mother selling her oldest and most attractive daughter to a young man in the city, and is told from the perspective of the daughter relating the story to a friend. There is no overt moral judgment here, which is the most upsetting aspect of the story. The world is harsh, life is short (a mere 30 years if you’re lucky and don’t get “canced” by the radiation), and selling your daughter to a good man is the best way to care for your remaining children. That prospect is no idle promise, as the man in question does care not only for the narrator’s siblings but for her dying mother as well. Her life is happy and she in contented as a result of being sold to this man, who showers her with gifts and affection for the first time in her life. This is a truly haunting story that will be with me for some time.
The Sombrus Tower
Originally published in Weird Tales #2 (1980)
Read in Weird Tales: The Magazine That Never Dies (1988)
This reads as a King Arthur style fantasy that I could easily imagine coming across in a contemporary issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. A number of noble knights are given ominous forecasts by a witch, and all go out to either confront, or avoid, their destiny. Our protagonist is one of the few who decide to confront his fate, seeking out the “Sombrus Tower” where he is to meet his doom. Excellent macabre creatures and tortured souls meet him along his journey to the tower, and these encounters carry the story from one scene to the next. In the end, the poetic nature of the tale is realized as our protagonist finds himself torn between his original “brave” quest to meet his destiny, and the sense that going in search of death maybe isn’t such a smart idea. The ending is worthy of any psychological horror story, and I won’t spoil it. This was a fun short piece of dark fantasy that I’d recommend to fans of the genre.
The Pandora Heart
Originally published in Don’t Open This Book! (1998)
Read in same
I was skeptical of this story as soon as I started reading it, as it was introduced with a comment that it was commissioned especially for the obscure anthology I was reading it in. That isn’t to say that I haven’t read lots of great stories in original anthologies, it’s just that I’ve not come across many outstanding stories commissioned for themed anthologies. I find that the best stories come from a writer pursuing their idea, rather than handing a writer an idea to pound a story around. This tale is a retelling of the Pandora myth with a few clever twists and turns, but largely it felt like an “unwanted princess in a castle” cookie cutter story meant to fit a theme. Combined with my ambivalence toward fantasy (especially fairy tale fantasy), this one was hard for me to get through.
If an author has published two or three dozen short stories, then you can grab a few and get an idea what they’re doing. When an author has written 300 short stories across multiple genres it is hard to get a handle on almost anything of their style by only reading three stories. I’ve probably read more Isaac Asimov than I have any other author, including stories he wrote across genres, and I can only imagine that for the one Tanith Lee story that I didn’t like there must be a dozen that I’d adore. For that reason I’ll hunt down more of her stories, and likely a few of her books, though I’ll probably focus on science fiction as a rule. That being said, I would recommend Tanith Lee’s works to fans of the fantasy and fairy tale genres.
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.