1970s, 1973, anthology/collection, Edgar Pangborn, Edward Bryant, Gene Wolfe, George Alec Effinger, Gordon Eklund, Hugo Award nominee, Locus Award nominee, Locus Award winner, Nebula Award winner, New Wave SF, Robert Silverberg, Ross Rocklynne, science fiction, short fiction, Terry Carr
The 1970s saw a major shift in how short fiction was published; the huge SF magazine market had eroded down to a handful of titles, but the number of good anthologies commissioning never-before-published stories was rising. Anthologies with brand-new stories weren’t new—Frederik Pohl started if off with Star Science Fiction in the 1950s—but as the New Wave came there was an explosion of them, including New Dimensions (1971-1981), Orbit (1966-1980), and the one I’m dealing with today, Universe (1971-1987). The editor was Terry Carr, who had already championed a good many books as part of the Ace Science Fiction Specials before he took charge of several new anthology series.
The contributors for Universe 3 form a great who’s-who list of the 1970s SF scene. Some represent the new talent rising to popularity through the Clarion workshops and the New Wave—Gene Wolfe, George Alec Effinger, Edward Bryant, and Gordon Eklund. Silverberg is timeless; while this was released around the time of his first renaissance, he’d been writing SF in bulk since the late 1950s. Ross Rocklynne and Edgar Pangborn were writing far longer, successfully transitioning from old pulp magazines to the New Wave. Rocklynne was first published in the ’30s, stopped in 1954, and returned with reinvigorated work in Dangerous Visions and elsewhere. Pangborn got his start writing self-proclaimed “literary hackwork” in the pulps under pseudonyms; he didn’t write under his own name until the 1950s, and while he was not terribly prolific and often underrated, he wrote some notable stories before his death in 1976.
Carr edited the Universe series’ yearly installments from 1970 until his death in 1987; the series includes a good number of award winners and nominees, and some of the best short fiction of its time. Like all the volumes, this one begins with an excellent introduction from Carr, about the Golden Age of science fiction:
When aficionados of this field get together, that’s a standard topic of discussion. When was science fiction’s golden age? Some say the early forties, when John W. Campbell and a host of new writers like Heinlein, Sturgeon and van Vogt were transforming the entire field; others point to the early fifties, to H.L. Gold and Anthony Boucher and to such writers as Damon Knight, Alfred Bester and Ray Bradbury. Some will lay claims for the late sixties, when the new wave passed and names like Ballard, Disch and Aldiss came forward. There are still people around, too, who’ll tell you about 1929 and David H. Keller, E.E. Smith and Ray Cummings.
The clue in most cases is when the person talking first began to read science fiction. When it was all new, all of it was exciting. Years ago a friend of mine, Pete Graham, tersely answered the question “When was the golden age of science fiction?” by saying “Twelve.” He didn’t have to explain further; we knew what he meant.
Carr argues that the Golden Age is now, pointing out the ongoing path of progress and that you simply couldn’t publish a Stand on Zanzibar or Camp Concentration in 1929. “Clifford Simak was active in science fiction in 1940, but he was writing Cosmic Engineers, not Why Call Them Back From Heaven?” I took Carr to mean “now” as in the relative present as opposed to “now” as in 1973, but I wouldn’t argue if he had meant the latter, as this volume makes a good case for it.
The stories are pure 1970s New Wave, an assortment of excellent tales from some of the decade’s best writers—poignant explorations of themes like power and control, heroism, perception and identity. Most of them end on sad, bitter notes, some with a seed of hope buried within, others warnings or allegories of what society can easily lose. The best, I think, are the award nominees and winners—the entries by Wolfe, Silverberg, and Pangborn—but if you have a preference towards ’70s SF rife with metaphor, literary allusion, and abstract style, all of them are worth reading. I don’t think there’s a bad one in the batch, though their effectiveness depends on the reader’s preferences. Carr was an excellent editor with a good eye for talented writing, and his guidance (and choices) made Universe the excellent series it was.
The Death of Dr. Island – Gene Wolfe
A boy named Nicholas is thrust onto Doctor Island, an automated, artificial satellite orbiting Jupiter, some type of A.I. psychologist meant to treat te disturbed. Nicholas underwent a surgery to prevent epileptic seizures, but it doesn’t sound like it was successful, splitting his cerebrum to separate the two halves of his brain, each half becoming its own pseudo-personality, and causing him to sway his head like a reptile. Nicholas talks about past outbursts, combined with flashbacks and “visions” hinting at the psychiatric wards of his past—a strange and disturbed child, though still a sympathetic one. There are two other patients Nicholas can interact with: Ignacio, prone to outbursts of homicidal mania, and Diane, not quite disturbed though beset by catatonia. The crux of the story is Doctor Island’s computerized logic acting in good intention despite its lack of human empathy: it performs triage on its patients, prioritizing the treatment of one over the others, acting without care for their well-being. While it has the appearance of a tranquil tropical island, an Eden for the patients’ rehabilitation, it becomes a prison that breaks the mind of the already fractured Nicholas.
This story is the longest in the collection, so I’ll give it more analysis than the others. It’s the second in Wolfe’s “Archipelago” sequence of stories, all with the words Death, Doctor, and Island in the title. All of them are rich and layered tales, though I tend to prefer this one; Wolfe crafts a thought-provoking brew by layering literary and mythological allusion with religious symbolism, and the result is a readable work with deep undertones. Wolfe toys with perception and perspective, with a running theme of mirror images thanks to reflections and bending of light within the satellite. At one point, Nicholas is lead to “the Point” which is where reality meets its mirror; pursuing an image of himself, Doctor Island cries out for him to stop—an allusion to eating from the tree of knowledge, mayhap, or pure symbolism of Nicholas’ twin minds. The novella is full of this kind of depth: the plot is easy to comprehend, but the meaning of it all asks for serious contemplation.
Won both the Nebula and Locus; nominated for the Hugo. Reprinted quite often, including: Best SF of the Year #3, Nebula Award Stories 9, The Island of Doctor Death And Other Stories and Other Stories, and SF Hall of Fame Vol. 4.
The Ghost Writer – George Alec Effinger
When the world has lost the great writers of the past, it constructs technology that allows a person to try and join with the spirit of a past writer—if they don’t become different in the process, which leads to the end of many would-be writers. Despite feeling queasy about the possibility of someone being different, the world is enthralled by these jostled fragments parroted from the past by writers in a grand stadium. Anabben is one such writer, having plucked the ghost of a third-rate action writer (judging from his fragments) and bitter that another man, Phioth, has lucked out and pulled in the ghost of William Shakespeare, overshadowing all other writers. When he meets a young man wishing to become a writer, Anabben goads him into action. I’m surprised this story was never reprinted, since it’s a solid allegory that touches on a culture’s loss of creativity, something that extends beyond just its loss of fiction.
Many Mansions – Robert Silverberg
Three interwoven narratives combine in the ultimate “grandfather paradox” tale. Ted is an unfaithful husband who fantasizes about losing his wife, Alice. Alice is a frustrated housewife who fantasizes about killing her husband, Ted, or at least having an extramarital affair. Martin is a dirty old man who fantasizes about screwing his grandson Ted’s wife Alice. (Well then, I see what kind of story you’re going to be.) Ted, being a coward, can’t bring himself to ask for divorce, kill Alice, or kill himself, though he fantasizes about all three. Enter time-travel, the perfect way for each to get what they want. A cascade of fantasies and paradoxes criss-cross and merge to construct every possible future; duplicates emerge, are arrested by “Time Police,” kill or are killed, screw or are screwed, have second thoughts or chicken out.
Oddly, the story’s inspiration seems to be Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” using similar themes of sexual fantasies and the fragmented, non-linear style. The sexual politics are problematic, the story still edgy and risque four decades later. Martin is most problematic of all, a lecherous creep in the present and an unassuming shmoe in the past; Ted and Alice are deeply flawed, their “stay together for the kids” marriage failing, I guess, because they’re oversexed. Despite that, the story’s one of the most proficient and imaginative in this collection, and its execution is a marvel to behold. Locus Award nominee: 11th place. Later reprinted in the Silverberg collections Unfamiliar Territory and Beyond the Safe Zone.
Randy-Tandy Man – Ross Rocklynne
An average joe named Kerbisher gets a call from the Randy-Tandy man—that name stems from the abbreviations R&D (randy) and T&D (tandy), which stand for Revile & Despise and Taper Off & Deny respectively. This overpopulated society needs someone to direct hatred, and the Randy-Tandy men are there to instruct people on what or who to hate for a certain length of time. After that they taper off their hatred and deny it, leading to a joyous free period when you don’t have to hate anyone (unless you want to). Here the Randy-Tandy man instructs Kerbisher to hate people with big ears for the next few days—which includes his wife. The setting is evocative, the writing has an experimental/lyrical flourish, and the themes are heavy on control and bigotry, though some may find more style than substance here.
The World Is a Sphere – Edgar Pangborn
Pangborn excelled at visions of a post-apocalyptic future—see Davy, 1964—and this story returns to that detailed, darkening world. Ian Moltas is a Deliberator, part of the political Assembly retained as little more than a figurehead, a memory of pre-apocalypse days fading under the Emperor’s pressure. Ian is one of those aged rabble-rousers fighting the system, arguing against the institutionalized slavery of mutants descended from human strain. Ian is also a collector of antiquities, and one well-traveled merchant charges a fortune for a map—more of a globe, since it depicts the world as a sphere. Politics come to a head, leading towards the inevitable confrontation comes between the Emperor’s quests for conquest and the Assembly’s ideals. One of those ideals—as evident by the sphere, and the Empire’s belief in the flat-earth theory—is progress through science, drawing allegorical parallels between Ian Moltas and Galileo.
Locus Award nominee: 16th place. Later reprinted in Galileo’s Children: Tales Of Science vs. Superstition.
The Legend of Cougar Lou Landis – Edward Bryant
A number of Bryant’s early stories centered around “Cinnabar, the city at the center of time” and the wonders it holds; this is one of them. Yakov the gardener is dying, beaten to a pulp by his master, but before he does he’s offered comfort and the promise of vengeance by a woman just passing by. Mary Elouise Landis spent most of her life trying to be someone else—growing up on adventure stories, she didn’t want to be “clumsy and fat,” she wanted to be striking and heroic. She becomes Cougar Lou Landis, thanks to the surgeries and modifications her parents bought her. She questions herself—who she was, and if she’ll always be stuck as that dull and cautious person. Vengeance for Yakov may bring out the hero she’s always wanted to become. Bryant experiments with structure and prose, weaving flashbacks and stolen memories into his fine prose; the plot is uncertain at points, but the ending draws it all together.
Later reprinted in Cinnabar, collecting all of Bryant’s Cinnabar stories, and an odd Fawcett-Crest collection titled Against Tomorrow.
Free City Blues – novelette by Gordon Eklund
Rodalphia is young and psi-capable, heading into the Free City in search of mischief after the death of her adopted mentor. In this picaresque tale, she uses her powers to make first-class citizens think they’re farm animals, joins a Dickensian group of urchain-thieves, has several boys fall in love with her, and is almost captured by another psi-capable mutant, all while in search of something to eat. An early Eklund story, the author pens a fast-paced tale with a intricate setting—it’s another far-future, post-apocalyptic world rife with mutants, where society is organized in a caste-system—but as a picaresque, its lack of focus and incoherency left me wanting. This is the only story in the collection that I couldn’t really appreciate on any level, but just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for anyone: one old fanzine considered “Free City Blues” and Wolfe the best in the volume…