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.
I imagine that the process behind how I pick a particular author any particular month can be very nebulous for you. I generally assume that you don’t actually care how I come to these decisions. This month’s pick came from very clear inspiration that you might relate to, so I’ll share it. Netflix finally released the second season of Love, Death & Robots after what felt like an eternity, and I dare say that this season is even better than the first. I was particularly taken by the episode titled “The Drowned Giant”, so much so that I looked up the writer. It turns out that a few of the episodes of season two are based on vintage science fiction stories, and this one is by J. G. Ballard. Turns out I had a copy of The Drowned Giant amongst all my anthologies. I also had at least two other Ballard stories. So here we are.
James Graham Ballard was a prolific writer and yet another of the “New Wave” science fiction authors. Ballard’s numerous apocalyptic or satirical novels and short stories are finding new audiences today, but interestingly he seems to have had his biggest recognition outside of science fiction circles, despite having written lots of science fiction. Ballard appears to have been that rare form of science fiction author that appealed to a mainstream audience more than to genre fans. As “The Drowned Giant” implies, his writing is very poetic, bordering on pretentious. Bordering, but not crossing over. Who couldn’t use a bit more poetic sci-fi in their life?
The Drowned Giant
Originally published in The Terminal Beach (1964)
Read in Nebula Award Stories 1965
What really struck me about the Love, Death & Robots episode was the poetic nature of the narrative, which one would imagine comes directly from the short story. Indeed it does, and the prose possesses a macabre beauty reminiscent of Poe. If you’ve not familiar, The Drowned Giant tells the story of the body of a hundred foot tall dead man washing ashore in England. There is wonder and beauty in that realized fantasy, which quickly degrades because there can be no real wonder and mystery in our world. Quickly everything becomes mundane by the very nature of its solid existence.
The crowds that gather to watch the giant begin to climb on him, desecrating the wonder with the mundane. Our narrator doesn’t join them, instead choosing to watch from a distance until finally, when the giant has begun to decompose, he is able to climb up.
The giant’s supine right hand was covered with broken shells and sand, in which a score of footprints were visible. The rounded bulk of the hip towered above me, cutting off all sight of the sea. The sweetly acrid odor I had noticed before was now more pungent, and through the opaque skin I could see the serpentine coils of congealed blood vessels. However repellent it seemed, this ceaseless metamorphosis, a macabre life-in-death, alone permitted me to set foot on the corpse.
I include a direct quote because the poetic narrative is a big part of the appeal. It’d be like reviewing Lovecraft without quoting his narrative style; you can do it but it misses a big part of the point. The Drowned Giant really is an incredible story, with many interpretations for the reader to find, but to me it really felt like a knot formed in the pit of my stomach. I want to believe in wonder, and this story strips wonder away one layer at a time.
Originally published in New World’s Science Fiction #95 (June 1960)
Read in The Vintage Anthology of Science Fantasy
This story follows a man living in a world where clocks are outlawed. There is an obvious element of absurdity for sure, but unraveling the mystery of why clocks are banned provides a good motivation for the reader. This is an odd one, but like our first story it landed well with me quite a few times. A particularly good exchange comes between our protagonist and his teacher.
“It’s against the law to have a gun because you might shoot someone. But how can you hurt anybody with a clock?”
That last line hit me like a ton of bricks. I think the core message has relevance for most of us, but this story lands true in a time when Amazon clocks its factory workers like robots. If Ballard was warning us of a future world – as a lot of science fiction authors try to do – then we may be closer to that world than ever before.
The Voices of Time
Originally published in New World’s Science Fiction #99 (October 1960)
Read in The Big Book of Science Fiction
I’ve been doing these Vintage Sci-Fi Trifectas long enough to know what to expect from a New Wave science fiction writer, namely a lot of confusion. “Experimental” often means you’re not sure even the author knew what the hell was going on. In the two stories above I didn’t feel like that represented Ballard, who leaned heavily on the literary bend of New Wave writers. The Voices of Time though… I’m not really sure what it’s supposed to be about. It’s definitely an apocalyptic tale, which Ballard is known for, but I can’t say I left this one any wiser. I can’t say I left it any more entertained either. It’s a moderately long story, but even at that I found it look me far more sittings than necessary to get through it, with a lot of mind wandering along the way. The story of what appears to be the end of all life on Earth, The Voices of Time was a little too confusing for me to actually feel sad or to care about the characters. Though the idea of sleeping more and more each day until you just never wake up is certainly terrifying, the story didn’t come across to me as horror. Overall there were a lot of ideas here with little payoff. There were also some very odd narrative techniques, like having a section of dialog written as a transcript, and randomly lapsing into diary mode, which did nothing but annoy me by clearly leaning into the “experimental” part of the New Wave. Still, one disappointing story out of three is a good run.
Overall I’m not sure I’d seek out J. G. Ballard’s work, but I’m likely to give it a read if I come across it. In researching him I discovered that another item in my Netflix queue (“High Rise”) is an adaptation of one of his novels, which I admit I’m now even more curious to watch.
In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never experienced before in order to get a feel for their style.
This month’s selection was voted on by subscribers to my monthly email newsletter from a short list I provided. Wolfe was first published in 1965, and quickly established himself as a regular in Damon Knight’s Orbit anthologies. (A quick word on Knight. Although I was not terribly impressed by his fiction, the man had impeccable taste when putting together original anthologies. If you ever come across an issue of Orbit do yourself a favor and give it a read.) Orbit stories tended to be avant-garde, which made them somewhat controversial among science fiction fans. (It didn’t take the advent of Star Trek, Star Wars, or the internet to make science fiction fans argumentative.) Through the 1970s, Wolfe’s style got more sophisticated and weird. His most famous work, The Book of the New Sun series, is a four book extended science fantasy novel, and is considered a stand-out of the genre.
But I’ve never read any of that.
For my first Gene Wolfe readings I picked two stories with neat sounding titles, concluded by one of Wolfe’s award winning novellas.
Originally published in Orbit 3 (1968)
Read in same
In Damon Knight’s introduction to this story in Orbit 3 he writes, “In my book of critical essays… I made a distinction between stories that make sense and those that mean something. I am unable to “make sense” out of this one – to make it add up neatly and come out even – but I strongly feel that it means something, just as Kafka’s The Trial or Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery does.” I got a kick out of that because I’ve often been confused by stories in Orbit, which was at the forefront of New Wave science fiction characterized by more “literary” stories that experimented with form and style, often focused on “soft” as opposed to “hard” science fiction elements, and overall guided by a rejection of the pulp establishment. You might think that as a scientist I prefer hard science fiction, but honestly I love them both. My favorite kind of science fiction is heavy on metaphor and social commentary (which tends to occur more in “soft” science fiction), but I also love Asimov, who was one of the “hard” science fiction adherents (and often a dick about it).
The Changeling is absolutely great. We get a nice setup of a disgraced soldier returning to his home town for lack of any better options. His parents have long since passed away, but he runs across the family of a childhood friend who insist on housing him for a while, and that’s where things get weird. I don’t want to give anything else away, because the complete unpredictability of the story was part of what I really liked, but suffice it to say that – like Damon Knight – at the end I don’t think I really understand what happened, but whatever it was I dig it.
How the Whip Came Back
Originally published in Orbit 6 (1970)
Read in same
I picked this one because I was intrigued as to what the title could mean, and was surprised at how dark it turned. Like in the first story, Wolfe drops you into a world with little introduction, and you spend a good percentage of the story just finding your footing. Even in this, his most straightforward science fiction tale of the three I read, his writing has an unsettling quality where you are always left questioning the very nature of the world. Sadly, the world he described in 1970 is shockingly similar to the one in which we all now live. The story centers around only two characters, both “observers” with ceremonial rolls at the United Nations. The main character is a woman that represents the largest international charity organization in existence. The supporting character is the Pope of the Catholic church, which is essentially the last of the dying religions. The short narrative describes a single scene with our two characters discussing a proposed global law that will turn all prisoners into slaves, available for lease until their prison sentences are up. All nations are in agreement and support of the idea, but they would like the ceremonial support of these two individuals that, quite frankly, form the moral wing of the organization. To put it bluntly, “how the whip came back” refers to how the slave trade, long since abolished, returns with enthusiasm.
It is worth noting that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the nation, reads in part, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” That legal loophole has been exploited to great success to this day as prisoners are routinely forced to perform work for the profit of the state and private business, receiving a paltry wage of pennies an hour for their efforts. Despite what you might have been told, slavery is still big business in the United States, and its existence is adamantly justified by those that believe that punishment is the sole purpose of incarceration.
In all fairness, it didn’t take a great prescient mind to look at forced prison labor and extrapolate it to its logical end. What it did take was someone who gave a shit about it in 1970, and for that simple fact I’m really starting to like Gene Wolfe.
The Death of Doctor Island
Originally published in Universe 3 (1973)
Read in Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction
Chronologically, this is where I suspect Wolfe had fully come into his weird (some would say “literary”) style. This story won both the Nebula and Lotus awards for Best Novella in 1974, so you’d be right to suspect that it is good. Though it does feel a bit 1970s sci-fi, I’d go so far as to say it holds up to modern standards. (As a counterpoint, How the Whip Came Back felt outdated to modern standards in that it lacked any metaphor in its oral argument, and The Changeling would read as cliché if it was published today.) Once again Wolfe throws us into a confusing world, this time one where up is literally down, and leaves us to find our own way for a good chunk of the story. Since this is a novella, that chunk is a lot of pages, and it is only through Wolfe’s skill to intrigue me that I was interested in continuing to read until more was revealed. This is a story of what lengths a society will go to in order to fix those with potential, at the ultimate expense of those with none. In that respect it is similar to How the Whip Came Back in that there is an element of society working to exploit those on the bottom to benefit those at the top, something that I suspect Wolfe touched on throughout his stories given its presence in these two (and to a small extent in the first one as well, contained in the reason for the soldier’s disgrace). The Death of Doctor Island is an outstanding novella, and definitely one of the best I’ve ever read, classic or modern.
Gene Wolfe flew under my radar for a long time, despite being well known even until his death in 2019 at the age of 87. Wolfe’s last book, published posthumously in 2020, was submitted to his publisher shortly before his death and is a sequel to his 2015 novel The Borrowed Man, and both seem to have been well received. It’s always nice to hear of a “vintage” author still finding a modern audience through new work that they are able to keep fresh.
A number of vintage science fiction writers well worthy of renown are undergoing a period of rediscovery, and Cyril M. Kornbluth is yet another example. Frequently writing with his childhood friend and fellow science fiction author Frederik Pohl, Kornbluth’s solo publications were mostly short stories. Pohl and Kornbluth had been friends since they were teenagers, when Pohl lived in Brooklyn just down the street from Isaac Asimov’s parent’s candy store; the same store where Asimov himself first read a science fiction magazine off the rack. (New York City in the 1920 was a major nexus point of science fiction, but even knowing that it’s a bit of a shock to learn that Asimov, Pohl, and Kornbluth knew each other as teens.)
Kornbluth is another example of an author I knew before I knew him, because one of my absolute favorite Night Gallery episodes was based on one of his short stories. The ability to convert a 1950 story into an early-1970s TV show gives you some idea how forward thinking Kornbluth was. The tone and quality of his stories would easily fit into the 1960s-1970s, and one has to keep in mind that he mostly wrote from 1940-1958 to appreciate his skill. Kornbluth passed away suddenly at the age of 34 of a heart attack when racing to catch a train that was to take him to a job interview for potentially taking over editorial duties for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I wonder what direction Kornbluth could have taken such a venerable publication, and it’s a shame we’ll never know what he could have accomplished, as he was clearly just getting started.
It’s hard to not assign at least partial blame for Kornbluth’s death to his personal habits. Even his friends (Pohl and Asimov among them) testify that he was a very odd man. Supposedly he never brushed his teeth, to the point that they were actually green. This fact struck me as there has long been a connection between oral hygiene and heart health. At a time of strange characters writing science fiction, Kornbluth was clearly one of the strangest.
The Rocket of 1955
Originally published in the fanzine Escape, August 1939
Read in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
This was Kornbluth’s first solo story publication, and appeared in a fanzine. Any time I have an author’s first story I like to add it to the Trifecta along with a later story to see any evolution. I might not have picked this story if I’d known how short it was – about a page and a half – but it did give me an indication of what seems to be a hallmark for Kornbluth, which is a vague hinting at what is happening rather than hitting the reader upside the head. Kornbluth wants the reader to think their way through the evidence he provides in the story to figure out what is happening, rather than putting it in plain black-and-white. This is something a lot of modern science fiction writers still don’t do (but I find is common in horror); there is always that drive to provide for the lowest common denominator of reader. Kornbluth seemed perfectly happy to swing above a reader’s head, which was definitely an uncommon approach in 1939 sci-fi. I have to admit that I was a little confused by this story and gave it a reread to pick up on it, and I think I got it the second time. Quite simply, this story tells the sordid tale of the world’s first rocket launch to space, which doesn’t go exactly as the passenger expects. Definitely worth a read, and you can do so online.
The Little Black Bag
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, July 1950
Read in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
This one probably has to be Kornbluth’s best based on its accolades. It won the 2001 Retro-Hugo Award for Best Novelette (of 1951), and has been adapted into at least three television episodes, including one of my favorite episodes of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. This is the story of a drunk, disgraced doctor and a medical bag from the future so advanced that it is almost magical. The story is fairly similar to the Night Gallery episode, except that the sidekick character is a woman in the original story, which I think actually plays a lot better. Both the story and the episode are worth your time, especially since the episode stars the incomparable Burgess Meredith as the protagonist. It looks like Escape Pod has the story available online, as well as an audio version, if you’re into that kind of thing.
The Marching Morons
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1951
Read in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
I came across several mentions of this story when researching Kornbluth, and it is cited as a sequel to The Little Black Bag, so I had to give it a read. This story is notable because Kornbluth not only revisits the future world that created the titular “black bag” of the previous story, but he also utilizes the same vague hinting around that he did in The Rocket of 1955, though he makes it a bit clearer at the last moment here. I don’t know if Kornbluth originated the idea at the core of the film Idiocracy (I suspect he didn’t), but it is too similar to not have been an inspiration for the film. Kornbluth latches onto the idea that idiots have more kids than well educated people do, to the point that evolution basically splits the human species. The vast majority of the world is populated by barely functioning morons who are fooled by the super-intelligent, but numerically inferior, super-humans, into thinking that they run the world. Meanwhile the super-humans are at the mercy of the idiot masses, working themselves to death just to try to keep the world from going boom. In walks a cryogenically preserved “average man” of our time (yeah, it’s almost verbatim the same setup as Idiocracy) who the super-humans hope can find a solution to The Problem. Mild spoiler here, but The Problem they struggle to solve is essentially “How the fuck do we get rid of all these morons?!” Our man-from-the-present has a way, and it’s something none of the super-humans would ever think of. It’s an interesting read, and is considered by some to be one of the best science fiction novellas published before 1965. Since it first appeared in Galaxy this is yet another story you can read for free online. (See, I take good care of you, fine reader. All three stories this month are available just a click away.)
I think Pohl described his friend best when he wrote “Cyril was a wise as well as a talented man. He was also a sardonic soul. The comedy present in almost everything he wrote relates to the essential hypocrisies and foolishness of mankind. His target was not always Man in the abstract and general. Sometimes it was one particular man, or woman, thinly disguised as a character in a story – and thinly sliced, into quivering bits. Once or twice it was me.”*
I have a feeling I would have got along really well with Kornbluth. Except maybe for his epically bad breath.
*From Pohl’s introduction to The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, published 1976.
There are so many writers that I can do Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta articles on that it usually doesn’t take much to tip me toward a specific author. The impetus for this article was too good to pass up. Jason Kehe has a recent article on Wired that is making the rounds about how R. A. Lafferty is the best science fiction short story writer that you’ve never heard of. Fun fact: I had heard of him. As Kehe argues, if you come across the name R. A. Lafferty it tends to stick with you, and indeed it did, as I recalled the name from browsing my vintage sci-fi anthologies. But even then I only knew him as one name among many, so after reading Kehe’s article I dug through my collection, using Kehe as a guide, and selected three stories. Each is mentioned at least in passing in Kehe’s article, and each was originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine and is available for free on the Internet Archive! Which means you can join me in the fun this time, if you were so inclined.
Let’s dig in!
Primary Education of the Camiroi
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1966
Read in same
Kehe describes Lafferty’s writing as kind of punch-drunk satirical. I have to say that reading these stories I didn’t get the sense of his writing not making sense, as Kehe implied. I’ve read some 1970s sci-fi that is more about syllable beat than good sentence structure (I’m not a fan, for the most part), but I didn’t get that impression from Lafferty. In fact, I really liked his writing and found it had a nice poetic cadence. I absolutely did experience Lafferty’s timeless satire, especially in this story. I don’t often burst out laughing when reading, but I did during this story. The basic premise if that a group of humans travel to the Camiroi homeworld to observe their system of education at work. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you’ve ever talked with any parents stuck up about how their kids go to the best schools… well, there’s a pretty clear indictment of cultural superiority complexes here. It felt as accurate and timely now as I’m sure it did in 1966. My only real criticism is that about a third of its ten page length is dedicated to a Camiori syllabus, which is little more than a bullet list. It got a bit tedious for me, but I did find some laughs throughout. I chalk that more up to the evolved taste of modern science fiction, as I’m pretty sure it was jabbingly clever in 1966.
Slow Tuesday Night
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1965
Read in same
This is oddity on full display. The sci-fi premise is dispensed with very quickly and in a sentence or two; some achievement blocker in the human brain has been removed in everyone, so now our full brain power is unlocked. Not the most original premise, but read enough science fiction and original premises are extremely rare; the trick is what an author does with it. Lafferty uses “unleashed human intellect” to describe a world where every night is an opportunity to live a lifetime. Fortunes are made and lost in minutes. A homeless man becomes the richest man on Earth seven times in a single night. The storytelling is factual and unemotional, which heightens the satire to an expert level. I consider satire the highest form of comedy, and science fiction the highest form of fiction (it’s my blog and I’m entitled to my opinions), so this story was stand out for me.
Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1967
Read in same
Kehe calls this one of Lafferty’s best, so of course I ended the trifecta with it. Again a satire, here I did start to see a bit of the confusing side of Lafferty’s writing, particularly in the climax. Essentially a protracted joke about the “smartest people on Earth” trying to alter history and watch it change before their eyes, only failing to realize that changing history changes their history as well. Kind of a “time travel for dummies” idiot plot, but rendered in a satirical way so as to be fun, not frustrating. (For more on idiot plots see my article on Damon Knight, which I admit is not a flattering statement.)
One thing that struck me about all three of these R. A. Lafferty stories is just how short they were – around ten pages each. He clearly realized his own talent at the short story form, and by my accounts he was a master at it. Kehe is right, it really is a tragedy that more science fiction readers aren’t familiar with Lafferty, and I’ll definitely be reading every one of his short stories that I can get my hands on. Kehe’s article seems timed to coincide with the release last month of Tor’s The Best of R. A. Lafferty which features a list of introductions that reads as a who’s who of not only sci-fi but Western culture: Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, Harlan Ellison, and Patton Oswalt, to name a few. (I can see Patton Oswalt totally loving Lafferty, the style fits.) So here’s my plug. Read the above stories for free, and if you liked them, consider picking up that new Tor book. Despite having quite a few Lafferty stories randomly sprinkled through my collection I’m strongly considering ordering it at my local book store. There’s something nice about a curated collection.
My selection of Kate Wilhelm for this column is something of a companion piece, as I’d just recently read my first three stories by her husband, Damon Knight. After not liking Knight’s work I wasn’t sure how his wife would fair (in my experience husband and wife writers tend to converge to the same style) but I was pleasantly surprised by Wilhelm’s offerings.
Kate Wilhelm, apart from having a fifty year writing career, is perhaps best known to science fiction writers as the co-founder (along with Damon Knight) of the Clarion Writers Workshop which has produced many of the world’s leading science fiction writers of the last few decades. Something you might notice about our three stories is that they all appeared in the original science fiction anthology series Orbit. This made me a little weary at first, as Orbit was edited by Damon Knight, so there’s clearly some back patting going on. That fear was not justified as these are all top quality, even by today’s standards.
Baby, You Were Great
Originally published in Orbit 2
Read in The Future is Female
This story was reprinted in several anthologies I own, and that’s generally an indicator that it is among the author’s best, so what better place to start?
One of the many definitions of science fiction floating around is that the genre explores mankind’s relationship to technology. This story takes that view quite literally, exploring man’s – and through what is done to them, women’s – relationship to technology to a logical peak. The story opens with an audition where two men are trying to find a woman who will react in a suitably emotional manner to being raped. (Suitably emotional because some women simply shut down, not feeling what was going on, which is not what they are after.) Believe it or not, from there the story gets even darker. Predicated on a technology that allows for the recording and broadcasting of emotional responses, the most successful television show in the world is a Truman Show like experience where a particular woman is subjected to various emotional highs and lows. I don’t want to give more away, as I went into this one cold and was deeply shaken by it, but if you have the chance to read this one definitely do so. It’s not an entirely comfortable or enjoyable ride, but it’s an exemplary story.
It’s no surprise that this story was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1968, which led me to wonder what it lost to. The culprit was Samuel R. Delany’s Aye, and Gomorrah… which sounds like a perfect candidate for a future edition of this column.
Originally published in Orbit 3
Read in same
Having been robbed of the Nebula the year before, Wilhelm took the prize home in 1969 for this short story. I have to admit with substantial embarrassment that I didn’t really understand this story. As a testament to her writing, I don’t think it was bad, and I did enjoy reading it, but I wasn’t able to pull all the strings together in my head. It does give off a heavy Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Flowers for Algernon vibe, which I enjoyed a lot and I suspect are part of why it got the Nebula. This story did succeed in cementing in my mind a perception of Wilhelm’s fiction as visceral. Her writing bleeds emotion that touched raw nerves within me.
April Fool’s Day Forever
Originally published in Orbit 7
Read in same
This one was a random selection based on the title, and though I’m not sure what I was expecting it definitely wasn’t this. A long and meandering story (definitely novella length), April Fool’s Day Forever takes its time to get where it’s going, but the journey is enjoyable. Once revealed, the plot is intriguing, and the slow roll of the story makes it all the more natural it the way it comes out. For that reason I’m not even going to tell you what the plot is, just that in the end I was left shaken once again by Wilhelm’s raw emotional undercurrents.
There’s lots of reasons to read science fiction, but my love of sci-fi comes from its ability to hold a funhouse mirror to society and show us the best and worst parts of ourselves. Often when that is done the writing lacks emotion. Kate Wilhelm succeeds in showing us the absolute worst parts of ourselves in stories steeped in science fiction tradition, while still managing to make us feel something. As a closing, I found this delightful short clip of an interview where she talks about selling her first short story. I have to say that the technical skill of her writing is definitely high craft, so her statement that “I can do that” rings true across time.
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.