The Future is Female! Volume Two: The 1970s

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!

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.

The Best of World SF, Volume 2

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.

Tomorrow’s Parties: Life in the Anthropocene

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.

Weird Science Volume 1

The EC Archives: Weird Science Volume 1
Ed. William Gaines

I don’t think Weird Science was the most popular EC Comics title, though it shares the same sense of schlocky fun and pulp formula as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror and in many ways holds up better than either of those series. The editors also insisted on at least some degree of genre purity: “Our policy will always be to give you REAL science-fiction! No ‘cops and robbers’ or ‘cowboys and Indians’ in spaceships!” Those exclamation marks were very much the house style.

The remit here was for weird science fiction, and many of the stories foreshadow what audiences were soon to see on Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, with experiments gone awry and endings that come with an ironic snap. One man shrinks away into ever more microscopic worlds mise en abyme style, while another grows into a colossus. The artwork is bubblegum, but above that of many comics of the day, while the writing, along with the aforementioned exclamation marks, goes well with the action. An early version of the omnivorous Blob, for example, “slither[s] forward . . . crashing . . . gurgling . . . sucking . . . gulping . . . a mass of nauseous, ugly, ill-smelling filth . . .”

Dark Horse has done a great job reproducing these classic EC series from the early 1950s in handsome Archive volumes done up in a large format with eye-popping colour. It’s great looking stuff that was ahead of its time in 1950 and still belies its age today.

Store of the Worlds

Store of the Worlds
By Robert Sheckley

The introduction to this collection of pieces by Robert Sheckley calls them “perfect stories of their type.” The type in this case being SF, mainly published in Galaxy Magazine in the 1950s. In other words, pure pulp. But they are indeed perfect examples of that type. They’re great pulp fiction.

What this means is that they showcase clever ideas, often playing with odd points of view or tricks of narrative perspective, along with tidy dramatic plots resolved by way of artful, not-quite-surprising twists. A satiric note is sounded throughout, which only gets darker and more prophetic in the later efforts (with Galaxy left behind for Playboy), a pessimistic turn that says a lot about where faith in American culture was heading).

The 1950s can be seen as a transition period in SF, moving from the Golden Age to the New Wave, and Sheckley has a foot in both worlds. He turns seamlessly from stories about first contact to imagining the perversities of the entertainment-industrial complex and the trippiness of Philip K. Dick. And as with the best speculative fiction of any age, the results still speak directly to us today.

The Truth and Other Stories

The Truth and Other Stories
By Stanislaw Lem (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

I was unfamiliar with the stories of Stanislaw Lem, so this selection of new translations helped fill quite a hole in my reading. I came away feeling that Lem needed more room (though some of these stories almost qualify as novellas), but even so there’s much here to chew on.

As you’d expect, a lot of attention is given to what I’ve called Lem’s favourite theme: the difficulty if not impossibility of communicating individual experience. This can be represented most clearly when dealing with humans making contact with new or alien life forms but is something that I think underlies a deeper and more universal problem dealt with by the philosophy of language, which makes a lot of his work a sort of allegory.

As one researcher puts it, “Even if they [aliens] possessed language, which isn’t at all certain, we wouldn’t be able to make ourselves understood.” The differences in “structures of life in general” might be too vast. Or, as a scientist in another story about the unlocking of a dangerous solar power source muses: “I wonder what we could talk to the Sun about? What are the common issues, concepts, and problems that we share with it?”

If you like pondering questions like these, then Lem’s your man. But he’s also very good at spinning the everyday out into matters with cosmic implications, like the dust bunnies in a bachelor’s house becoming viral spores of entropy or a young radio enthusiast being upgraded into a god when he plugs into the singularity. After nearly every story you’re left with a lot to think about, which makes this a book you won’t want to burn through but stretch out and enjoy. The stories are difficult – more so even than the novels, but almost equally rewarding. And I mean that as high praise for an author of this caliber.

The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles
By Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles was published in 1950, the same year as that other great “fix-up” of short stories “pretending to be a novel,” Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. I don’t think it’s as coherent as Asimov’s book, but that may have just as much to do with how odd a talent Bradbury was.

Is it even science fiction? Bradbury thought the label a “misfit,” but I would say yes, if only for the picturesque “old Mars” setting (inspired by Burroughs) and the presence of rocket ships. But it has many other genre influences, in particular horror (one story has a Martian colonist a little too taken with the works of Poe) and the Western. With regard to the latter, the populating of Mars is an accelerated version of the mythic settling of the West, as the stories describe the displacement of the indigenous Martians by freedom-loving capitalists (one wants to set up a hotdog stand, and all are passionately against government red-tape). Finally, the last immigrants/refugees from an exploded Earth take on the role of the next generation of American Adams, ready to (re)build a classic mid-Western small-town on a hill.

It’s a book still much beloved of young people today, despite having dated quite badly. But even in 1950 I think it was more nostalgic than speculative. One wonders how much of the myth is left. Of course we haven’t been able to believe in this vision of Mars since Mariner 4 took the first close-up pictures of the red planet in 1964. But perhaps more to the point, can we still believe in this vision of America?

I, Robot

I, Robot
By Isaac Asimov

While acknowledging the contributions of Karel Čapek, whose R.U.R. introduced us to the word “robot,” and Earl and Otto (Eando) Binder whose 1939 short story “I, Robot” provided inspiration as well as a title (chosen by Asimov’s publisher, much to Asimov’s chagrin), I, Robot is the seminal work on robotics in science fiction.

A collection of linked short stories (or “fix-up”) first published throughout the 1940s, I, Robot spins a remarkably rich and coherent story of the evolution of robots from speechless domestic pets to world-governing AIs all out of the now famous Three Laws of Robotics. With the recurring characters of robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin and the Charters and Caldicott team of troubleshooters Powell and Donovan to provide a human baseline, we can chart the progression of the positronic brain from infancy to adulthood, just as humans regress into self-important helplessness.

The Machines of the final story are best able to understand the various psychohistorical forces (to use the language of Hari Seldon) that shape the rise and fall of civilizations. This isn’t the same as saying they’re in the driver’s seat, but humankind has clearly been surpassed. While early stories play with the notion of individual robots becoming aware of their manifest superiority, it isn’t until the finale that they achieve class consciousness.

I, Robot is one of the four or five most influential works of science fiction ever, and it’s still a great read. But, a bit sadly, it leaves one feeling nostalgia for a time when we could still believe in AI being so benign, and before the window for the Machines saving us had closed.