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.
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.
I recently discovered Clifford D. Simak and it has been nothing short of a revelation.
To say that Isaac Asimov is my favorite author would be inaccurate. I have a short list of top authors but I don’t put Asimov on that list because he is on a much more selective list and I generally don’t believe in redundancy. Or duplication. No, Asimov is not on my list of favorite authors because he’s on my list of favorite humans. I have somehow, slowly over the last twenty years, fallen in love with Isaac Asimov. I have read more of his works than most, devouring not only his science fiction but his nonfiction essays and books, which are written with as much clarity and charm as his fiction. I don’t deny that a good deal of my nonfiction style comes from his, and Asimov himself said that he was puzzled by the trend of most authors to not acknowledge their influences. It was in that very spirit that Asimov cited Clifford Simak as his greatest literary inspiration alongside P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Of course I’d heard of the latter two, but who was Clifford Simak? I had never heard that name in all my dealings with science fiction. At first I thought he was a 1950s author that had since fallen into obscurity. Even now I’m not entirely sure I’m incorrect.
Clifford D. Simak, who lived from 1904 to 1988, was an active science fiction writer for most of his life while making a living as a newspaper reporter and editor. He won three Hugo awards, one Nebula, and was the third recipient of the Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master award. (Isaac Asimov was the eighth recipient, in case you were wondering.) What really caught my eye about Simak was that although he had many accomplishments as a science fiction writer he also was one of the three winners of the inaugural Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement for his influence on the horror genre along with Fritz Leiber and Frank Belknap Long. It intrigued me that a science fiction writer who Asimov absolutely adored would be associated with horror since Asimov never wrote with even a whiff of horror. Still, I did nothing with that information beyond filing it away in the dusty storeroom that is my brain before heading to my favorite book store to see what they had of Simak.
I found Special Deliverance, which apart from having an enviously great title had a front and back cover that got me excited for some wacky old school science fiction adventure.
“It all started when Professor Edward Lansing wanted to know who really wrote that great term paper on Shakespeare and learned that his student had bought it from a slot machine. Going to investigate, the good professor found the machine, which gave him two keys and sent him in search of other slot machines. The third machine he tried took his money and transported him to a strange new world.”
When I reached this point of the back cover blurb I was already sold. Normally I wouldn’t have read any further, but I just couldn’t stop. It only got more zany.
“Here Lansing meets up with an odd assortment of fellow travelers – including a take-charge Brigadier, a pompous Parson, a female engineer, a lady poet, and Jurgens, a caretaker robot – all of whom are as mystified as he. Plucked from their own timelines, they were players in a game without rules and, seemingly, without a goal.
“Thus begins an extraordinary quest by these unwilling adventurers, one that leads them to an immense, featureless blue cube and into an ancient and mysterious city, tempts them with even stranger worlds, and, finally, provides them with a life-or-death challenge…”
How could I not immediately start reading that?
So I got home and started reading… and I was reading Isaac Asimov. When he mentioned the influence Simak had on him, Asimov said that he tried to copy Simak’s clear descriptive style. He succeeded. I not only immediately enjoyed reading Special Deliverance, I was ecstatic because I’d found an author who read like Asimov but would have his own take on the world and on the science fiction genre. I saw that in action half way through the book, when, without warning, this science fiction/fantasy tale of a band of unlikely adventurers began to incorporate some very chilling Lovecraftian horror elements. I don’t want to give anything away, so I will just say that this book – and Simak in general – are forgotten gems of both science fiction and horror.
If you like your science fiction with a bit of horror, or your horror with a lot of science fiction, then do yourself a favor and get a copy of Special Deliverance. Personally, I have a lot more Simak to track down.
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.