I’m starting this review with 2 quotes I like about the American writer Alice Sheldon (1915–1987) who wrote speculative fiction under the pen name James Tiptree, Jr.:
“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” — Robert Silverberg
“What her work brought to the genre was a blend of lyricism and inventiveness, as if some lyric poet had rewritten a number of clever SF standards and then passed them on to a psychoanalyst for final polish.” — Brian Aldiss
Art by Chris Foss
When I was looking for recommendations of quality sci-fi books written by women, Admiral Ironbombs suggested any of Tiptree’s short-story collections. This was the first published collection of her short stories. It was published in 1973, the year of my birth and the reason why I chose to read this collection first. There are fifteen stories collected here, all of which are worth reading. Even the weaker tales have something special that separates them from similar fare of the same period.
With most of these intriguing tales the reader is dropped into a fully-formed world without any explanation. Tiptree excels at showing rather than telling, which could put some readers off. That would be a shame because these short stories are brimming with imagination, ideas and some unforgettable imagery. Here are some brief thoughts on the stories that really stood out for me.
“A bug crawled up on to his right shoe, paused there, and then extended a miniature television camera. The lens of the camera swung so that it pointed directly at his face.” (p.30)
Bored with his mundane life, Ben Tallchief prays for something “more creative and stimulating”. A transfer to the planet “Delmak-O” seems to be the change he is looking for. He joins a group of recent arrivals who are unsure of what their “mission” is, aside from colonizing the planet. They are awaiting communication of their orders but the communication system fails. Then one of the colonists is found dead. Was it a sudden allergic reaction to the new surroundings of the planet or something more sinister?
As the group begins to explore Delmak-O, they discover they are not alone on the planet. Tiny artificial bugs with cameras are seen creeping around the colony. A large “Building” is sighted by some of the colonists, although its location cannot be agreed upon. And there is an organic life form called a “tench” that sounds like a big, sentient jelly but is capable of giving oracular advice.
“The great globular mass of protoplasmic slush undulated slightly, as if aware of him. Then, as the question was placed before it, the tench began to shudder …” (p.172)
“What an undercover narcotics agent fears most is not that he will be shot or beaten up but that he will be slipped a great hit of some psychedelic that will roll an endless horror feature film in his head for the remainder of his life, …” (p.67)
I can’t seem to focus on writing this review because of the tiny bugs crawling all over the keyboard. Each time I brush them off, they return in greater numbers. Jerry says he can’t see them but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, right in front of me, blocking out the screen now. Jesus, they’re all over my hands Jerry, help me get them off. Whaddya mean there’s nothing there? Wait a minute, are you recording this? What?.. No, I know you don’t have a camera but I swear I can hear something that sounds just like a video camera’s lens adjusting its focus. No, I’m not being paranoid. I can feel it zooming in on me right now. I’m what?.. You think I’m talking too much? Talking or thinking? Shit, I need a couple of tabs to calm me down. Do you have any, Jerry? Please man, I’ll spot you a couple back when I get some. When?.. Friday. I promise, man. Yeah, I know what I said last time but…
A Scanner Darkly won the BSFA Best Novel Award in 1978. It is a story set in a (then) future 1994 which focuses on surveillance, recreational drug use, addiction and withdrawal. The main character is Bob Arctor, an undercover narcotics agent who is sharing a house with a couple of users. The drug of choice is “Substance D” or “Death”. Arctor is searching for a lead to the supplier(s) of the drug. Continue reading
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” -Octavia E. Butler
Growing up in England, I wasn’t familiar with Octavia Butler’s gripping tale of slavery and time travel, Kindred. I’ve since learned that it is a text often taught in American high schools and colleges. (I envy the lucky students who get to read this book as part of their studies!) It was recommended to me by some fellow bloggers when I was making a list of essential speculative-fiction books written by female authors.
Kindred tells the story of Dana, a young African-American writer living in California in 1976. She is married to Kevin, an older Caucasian man who is also a writer. Doing my best to keep this spoiler-free, I will only mention that the plot involves time travel, a pre-Civil War plantation in the southern part of the United States, slavery, the bonds of love and family, and what people are capable of to ensure their survival. Continue reading
“I sat on the harbour wall with a girl one night: in the confusion and collapse of the ordered sub-colony existence there were many such chance relationships until people found their niches again. She said, ‘They’ve known for fifty years that this was going to happen, and yet there were no preparations.’”
Winner of the 1976 BSFA Best Novel award, Michael G. Coney’s Brontomek! is a story about the effects of a huge corporation on a small community of colonists living on a planet called ‘Arcadia’. It’s also about love, sailing, small-town community life, farming and giant mek machines. There isn’t much to be found about Brontomek! on the net. I’d only heard of Coney’s 1973 novel Friends Come in Boxes before this, and that was thanks to Science Fiction Ruminations’ excellent review of it over here.
After a bizarre natural disaster hits the planet, the “Hetherington Organisation” offers the remaining colonists a “five-year-plan” that they promise will rejuvenate Arcadia. This offer includes the deployment of the titular “brontomeks”, huge, mechanised, farming machines armed with lasers, as well as an army of shapeshifting worker-aliens called “amorphs”. What could possibly go wrong?
“She was sitting against the wall on the porch, tears trickling from her eyes. Had pain broken the hallucination? She did not care. She hated them, the bland bottleborn monsters of the future, born without pain, multicolored like a litter of puppies without the stigmata of race and sex.” (page 98)
Woman on the Edge of Time is a 1976 science fiction novel by the American poet and writer Marge Piercy. I discovered it via David Pringle’s book Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, An English-Language Selection, 1949-1984. I was surprised to find only seven books by women on that list. Marge Piercy’s novel is listed at number 81. It’s my first experience of her work.
According to wikipedia this novel is ‘considered a classic of utopian “speculative” fiction as well as a feminist classic.’ It tells the story of Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a thirty-seven-year-old Mexican-American woman with a troubled past involving drugs, abuse and time spent in a psychiatric hospital. We are introduced to her in a violent opening scene involving Connie’s niece and her niece’s pimp.
‘As his eyes adjusted to the gloom he saw the floating patches of colour, but they were receding from him faster and faster as his thoughts – manic, the psychiatrist had said – matched their velocity. They’re escaping, he thought, and so is my head; my mind is going along with them.’
Cover art by Tony Roberts
Radio Free Albemuth was written in 1976 and published posthumously in 1985. It has been suggested that this was only a first draft which Dick abandoned before going on to write VALIS (published in 1981). He wrote it between A Scanner Darkly and VALIS during what is referred to as his ‘mature period’. It’s a short novel, one which I found easy to read. I enjoyed its simple, autobiographical style and fairly simple plot, especially after the bizarre reading experience of Ubik, which I loved.