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.
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.
Some very cool news on the writing front: one of my short stories was the inspiration for an album! Indy synth band Amae created a soundtrack for my Lovecraftian horror story 8-Cube.
“But wait,” you say. “I’ve never read that story before. Where can I get it?”
The story is now available exclusively as liner notes to the album. If you purchase 8-Cube (the album) on Bandcamp for a meager fee, you get a PDF of 8-Cube (the story) as part of your download. What a bargain!
Click the album art below to head over to Amae’s Bandcamp site where you can stream the album for free, or purchase it to play on whatever device you want and get an exclusive copy of my story. Good tunes and Lovecraftian horror, how are you going to beat that?
So you love science fiction stories but don’t have the cash to drop on a magazine. Or maybe you don’t want to commit out of the gate to purchasing an entire magazine issue. What if I told you that you could read award wining science fiction stories from today’s leading authors for free?
There are more science fiction outlets today than ever before. Although traditional print magazines like Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF lead the pack, there are non-traditional publishing models that are consistently putting out award winning original content from the same field of authors as the big three. The so-called “free to read” model has found a lot of success in the age of Patreon. Issues are published online in a blog format free to read by anyone with an internet connection. Ads help support the content, with most support coming from digital (or in some cases print on demand) sales in more convenient packages like epub, Weightless Books, Amazon Kindle, or DRM-free PDF. One highly successful publication is Clarkesworld, created and edited by Neil Clarke. Clarkesworld has been publishing monthly since October 2006, and has ranked up quite the awards list, including multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for both individual stories and the magazine as a whole. You can read all of these award winning stories for free, and Clarkesworld maintains a convenient awards list on their website. So why not give them a read? Below are a few stories I’ve personally enjoyed from Clarkesworld to get you started.
“The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer, September 2017. 2018 Hugo award winner for Best Novelette, and a classic science fiction story inside a classic science fiction story.
“Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick, April 2014. An alien is brought into the county morgue by the coroner’s ex-wife for an autopsy.
“Bits” by Naomi Kritzer, October 2013. A very fun story about alien sex toys. (I know, I know, but give it a try. It’s actually my favorite on this list, and it shows how Clarkesworld isn’t afraid of topics.)
“Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion” by Caroline M. Yoachim, August 2014. A beautiful story of grief and forgiveness after an accidental alien attack.
“The Oddish Gesture of Humans” by Gabriel Calácia, July 2020. A nice short story about that odd thing humans do. This is the author’s first published story.
All I’m saying is that I’m going to be reading a lot more short stories.
Earlier this year (Remember when we could still go out and see people without bathing in bleach afterwards? It was back then.) I started reading The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I highly recommend it if you are into either genre, or just like good fiction regardless of genre. Years ago I had a subscription to Analog, another of the world’s premier science fiction magazines. That was back in college and it was hard for me to keep up with it. You know how it goes.
In the last two years I’ve been reading a lot more and trying to do lots of other things less. Unhealthy things like using Twitter; that kind of stuff. About a week ago I took several days vacation before I physically inverted my work laptop. I turned my phone off for five days. Let me tell you, that was fantastic. I’m doing it a lot more. Again, highly recommended.
Brace yourself for a shocker: most of what I’m reading is science fiction. Mostly “classic” science fiction, partly out of a desire to better grasp the literary history of the genre, and partly because I do find it fun. Emphasis on “fun” and not on “intellectually stimulating,” which is why I like science fiction in general. I’m not shitting on the classics here. I’ve found some I’ve really loved, like Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, or John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Now, these are pretty universally considered science fiction classics, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they age well, and that’s my point. Frank Herbert’s The Heaven Makers, though visionary in that it predicted much of the reality television we are assailed by today, is also predicated on a plot that centers on bestiality. Like, a sexy form of bestiality, which makes it even worse.
Lots of science fiction, written by predominantly white conservative men in the 1950s-1970s, hasn’t aged well. There is sexism, obviously. Racism occasionally, just because usually everyone is white. Sometimes there’s that black side character that is there to make the point that racism isn’t a thing in the year fifty-seven billion. Usually there are more aliens than black people, and the aliens are still treated better than black people in the 1960s. Sometimes there are even racial slurs, even when there aren’t any non-whites in the stories!
Ah, reading old literature is so much fun, what with the occasionally wanting to vomit.
Science fiction is a very vibrant field these days, with women and people of color more and more prominent in the field. Many of the magazines and e-zines are making it a point to publish more underrepresented writers (and have been for years), and the stories coming out are much the better for it. A game I play is to count the total number of stories in a magazine, then count the number of authors with female sounding names and work out a percentage. I argue the split should be around 60/40 either way. (I know this isn’t the best way to do it because I’m gender biasing a name versus a gender or sexual identity, but I think it’s accurate enough for my purposes.) A desire to read more and more contemporary sci-fi, as well as to read more in general, led to me a decision that will result in reading a lot more short stories: I subscribed to all of the big three sci-fi magazines.
Analog, Asimov’s, and of course The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Now seemed like a good time as well because with major book stores like Barnes and Noble closed, their sole source of income is subscriptions. If you’re looking for some quality fiction, I really recommending picking up a subscription to one of them, or maybe just ordering some back issues from their sites.
Help a genre out.
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.