Clans of the Alphane Moon
By Philip K. Dick
Even if you didn’t know anything about Philip K. Dick’s rocky marital history you’d probably guess that there was some biographical basis for Chuck and Mary Rittersdorf’s near-fatal squabbling in this book. Domestic turbulence can be an inspiration for some artists, but it can also lead to a low kind of score-settling.
I think that’s part of where Clans of the Alphane Moon goes wrong. The novel takes an idea Dick had worked up in a story called “Shell Game” a decade earlier and makes it a whole lot less interesting by superimposing a chaotic spy story over the germ of a tale of psychological misfits who have formed their own little Pitcairn on Alpha III M2. As Chuck struggles to understand the logic of what’s happening on the Alphane moon, and concludes that there is none, it’s hard not to feel that this is a story that just got away from Dick. It probably reflects on the chaos of his own life at the time, which is something that, in this case, really didn’t help.
The Future is Female! Volume Two: The 1970s
Ed. by Lisa Yaszek
This book is a follow-up to a previous anthology published by the prestigious Library of America that showcased classic science fiction stories by women from SF’s pulp era through the golden age. You can now get both volumes together as an attractive boxed set, though they’re also great as standalones.
Chronologically, we pick up here where the first book left off, with some names like Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) carrying over. But much in the literary landscape has changed. In the first book SF was in the process of being fashioned into its modern form and the writers were pioneers breaking new genre ground. In this collection we’re deeper into SF’s New Wave and the stories have become more overtly political, drawing on the politics and cultural energy of second-wave feminism in its heyday.
In general, the longer pieces tend to be the best because they allow for more ambiguity in the messaging, while the shorter ones involve more obvious sloganeering. Overall, however, editor Lisa Yaszek has come up with a great mix and, as is the case with most such historical anthologies, the real treat is in discovering some terrific but less well-known works by authors now largely forgotten.
The Future is Female!
Ed. by Lisa Yaszek
With a title like that, complete with exclamation mark, you’d be forgiven for expecting nothing subtle in this terrific anthology of 25 SF stories written by women between 1928 and 1969. But this period – and most of the stories here come from the “Atomic age” of the 1950s and ‘60s – was just before the more explicit and political feminism of that movement’s second wave, and subtlety was still the order of the day. As Leigh Brackett remarked of what was happening at the time, “you can get away with practically anything [in SF] as long as it’s well and subtly done.”
So while there are gender-role reversals here, and at least one piece (“Created He Them” by Alice Eleanor Jones) clearly meant to be read as a diatribe, it’s a collection that’s far richer than the label “feminist SF” would suggest. A fiercely analytical eye might find something distinctive in the approach or point of view taken. Editor Lisa Yaszek gives as an example complex character development first and foremost, and it’s not a point I would argue with. A sympathy for the “other” (and racial identity is a theme that struck me as more pronounced than gender) might be another.
Most of all though these are just great stories that show the development of the genre during a time of great technological, literary, and political change. And while the future envisioned has evolved and in some cases been left behind, what’s still relevant is less the message than the skill, and subtlety, of the messaging. A second volume covering the ‘70s would be more “feminist,” but also less of our time.
By Keith Brooke and Eric Brown
Wormhole is a solid example of what has proven to be one of the most durable genre hybrids: the SF-detective story.
The year is 2189 and Gordon Kemp is an unprepossessing, middle-aged cop who has been banished to the cold cases squad of the London police. As unhappy as he is with his job it’s about to get a lot worse when he’s partnered up with a keen young detective named Danni Bellini and tasked with a very cold case indeed: a murder that took place 80 years earlier.
Normally this would make it a dead case, but a newly identified prime suspect has just come out of deep sleep after journeying to another solar system along with a shipload of passengers sent to colonize a planet named Carrasco. When a wormhole is opened between Carrasco and Earth, Kemp is sent out, reluctantly, to investigate.
There’s a formula being followed here, down to the odd-couple of buddy cops and the conspiracy of powerful interests working behind the scenes, but there’s a reason why SF mysteries have remained popular. The elements work so well together that it won’t be any surprise to see more of Kemp and Bellini coming soon.
Brave New World Revisited
By Aldous Huxley
Judging the SF of the past on what they managed to get “right,” as though its main function was prediction, is a mug’s game. All the more remarkable then to have this look back by Aldous Huxley himself on the classic novel he’d written over 25 years earlier with that judgment of history in mind.
Not surprisingly, he thinks he got things mostly right. Indeed, it seemed to him that his dystopian projections were actually being realized sooner than he anticipated, driven by the twin banes of overpopulation and over-organization (increased centralization of political control and bureaucracy). The end result was, in his estimation, going to be a new kind of “soft” tyranny or neofeudalism, presided over by a technocratic elite.
There’s a lot here that rings as true, or even truer, than ever. (Much the same can be said for Neil Postman, whose Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) leaned heavily on Huxley’s speculations.) What Huxley gets right, at least to my eyes, are operations of timeless social and political dilemmas, particularly as concerns democracy vs. oligarchy. His thoughts on technology have aged less well, as hypnopaedia and subliminal projection turned out to be fads. Instead, of speaker pillows we came up with social media, which does an even better job of doing the same sort of thing.
The Best of World SF, Volume 2
Ed. by Lavie Tidhar
You’d be forgiven for thinking that expanding the boundaries of science fiction away from a predominantly “white, male and American” point of view is all about going woke, for good or ill. But an alertness to prejudice and calls for social justice are not primarily what editor Lavie Tidhar is about in this second of his Best of World SF volumes.
In opening the genre up to new voices from around the world we get a rich blend of stories that mix traditional SF concerns within different cultural matrixes. To take just one example, there’s a fruitful intersection of contemporary political issues and the threat of machine takeover in the rebellion of human slaves against an elite made up of robot/cyborg overlords in China.
We’re also left with the feeling that in ranging further abroad SF has come closer to home in stories dealing with domestic and personally intimate concerns like medical science, food, and family. Global SF is a paradoxically local phenomenon, making the world’s future feel more universal in a human sense.
Brave New World
By Aldous Huxley
Brave New World is often contrasted with 1984 as an example of a “soft” dystopia. Indeed, Huxley himself was one of the first to do this in his retrospective essay Brave New World Revisited. And one can see the point being made: things seem so much happier in the World State than in Oceania. People aren’t compelled to give up their freedoms by jackbooted police but instead willingly choose their state of infantilized slavery.
But this isn’t right. People have no freedom to choose in the brave new world but are programmed before birth (in the “crimson darkness” of the hatchery’s basement) and then through brainwashing, drug regimens, and behavioral conditioning. Toddlers are even given electroshock therapy to help mold them into perfect citizens, and if things don’t work out there is always the threat of exile to gulags like Iceland and the Falkland Islands. Huxley’s future state is just as coercive as Orwell’s, and Mustapha Mond is as lovable a tyrant as Big Brother.
As with 1984, a lot of effort has been put into arguing how much Huxley “got right” in predicting where things were going. For those who see today’s society as presided over by pointy-headed elites and largely made up of over-medicated “sheeple” further sedated by ubiquitous porn (which is all the “feelies” really are) and the indulgence of Violent Passion Surrogates, it sure hits the mark. I was most struck on this re-reading by the silly sports whose sole point isn’t fitness or competition but the purchase of lots of expensive gear. This sounds like the yoga industry.
It’s a messy, uneven book that tracks Huxley’s own shifting conceptions of where he was going, but it remains a landmark work that hasn’t lost any relevance in nearly a century. In fact, Huxley’s paranoia being deeper than Orwell’s, it’s a book that’s more of our time than ever.
Tomorrow’s Parties: Life in the Anthropocene
Ed. by Jonathan Strahan
In recent years, perhaps feeling that established literary genres aren’t already vague enough, some people have adopted the term “speculative fiction” as an alternative to “science fiction.” Whatever the new label’s merits, it’s fair to say that some SF is more geared toward an imaginative sort of forecasting of what the future might actually have in store, which is the direction taken by the stories collected in the series of anthologies put out by MIT Press that started out as Twelve Tomorrows and of which Tomorrow’s Parties is the latest instalment.
Despite the subtitle here, Tomorrow’s Parties isn’t just what’s come to be called CliFi (climate-change SF). The effects of climate disaster are included, and an introductory interview with CliFi master Kim Stanley Robinson addresses the real challenge of the anthropocene, but otherwise what we get is just a great line-up of stories that survey the wide range of concerns that today’s SF writers have about the future. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but Dylan Gregory’s “Once Upon a Future in the West” is certainly one of the highlights. A possibly cannibal Tom Hanks giving a lift to a refugee from a California forest fire is a truly magical vision of the end of the world.
By Mur Lafferty
Mallory Viridian isn’t the kind of person you want to get too close to. She’s the carrier of a weird kind of “murder virus,” which means that wherever she goes someone nearby ends up being killed.
Such a fatal penumbra leads Mallory to become a mystery writer. She’s also the perfect host for a new series by Mur Lafferty (the Midsolar Murders), of which Station Eternity is the first volume.
Aware of her dangerous condition, Mallory takes a lonely, and lowly, job at the sentient space station Eternity, where she is one of only a few human on board. She figures this should keep the death rate manageable, but her plans for self-quarantine go out the window when a shuttle of visitors arrives at Eternity, with many of its passengers already dead. It seems murder has followed Mallory into space. Now, as the bodies start to pile up, she’s in charge of finding out what’s going on.
It’s a good mystery, presented in a light-hearted way and with a bit of a YA flavour, but the real treats here are the fascinating aliens, including a swarm of wasp-like creatures called the Sundry and a race of rock creatures known as Gneiss. Luckily for Mallory they seem to like her, as she’ll need all the help she can get.