What SF Wished It Was: a review of “Transit of Earth”, a Playboy Science Fiction collection (1971)

Overall: 3 out of 5 stars, with individual stories rated differently below. All male authors; anthology published in 1971, with stories originally appearing in Playboy Magazine from 1958 to 1971.

This is an excellent read for anyone wondering about this “classic” SF that certain members of SFWA and the genre community so desperately want to hold on to. It is, much like you’d expect, filled with reasonably well-off white males of middle age and up, who fancy themselves smart, well-read, charming, and wise in the ways of liquor, business, and women. There are a few gems — both in speculative literature and hard science — and a few that fall flat, with most in between. There are a couple of stories (including two by Ray Bradbury) which are decently written but not SF in any way, at all.

Of women, there are only a couple of stories which include them. Two with the “typical” flawed wife, causing her husband’s downfall; one prostitute, one burlesque dancer who refuses to be bought, one stewardess (with a mention of a couple others); one judge; one teen girl. All are mentioned briefly, all are devices around which the story maneuvers but never centers on. One is — implied — eaten by aliens, one causes her husband’s death, one inspires her husband to murder (her, he hopes, but not her, as it turns out). Two are murdered. The man with the prostitute is relieved when she asks for money so he won’t have to worry about the stress of either wooing or leaving her. The burlesque dancer is murdered because she doesn’t agree to become a prostitute. The two married women and the judge get full names; the prostitute, dancer, and teen girl don’t get named at all — though the men are fully named in every story.

Aside from the mutant human “toys” in “Cephalotron” and the undescribed maybe ethnicity of “Dr. Ramos” in “Speed Trap”, everyone in the entire book is white — though variations of Irish, California Irish, Italian, Canadian Italian, and Jewish are made clear, as if that’s just enough diversity, thank you, but no more.

For the most part, the tales are sprinkled with words big enough to ensure the readers had a college education, or at least the kind of respectable book learning that comes from being poor but a constant in the library, or having associated yourself with academics as part of your business. Lots of first person narration; emphasis here on “I am a man’s man, a smart, science/business savvy man that you wish you could buy a drink for, let me tell you my story ” with a few “let me tell you the story of how some other man failed to be as awesome as me as suffered for it” types thrown in.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything to love in this collection! A couple of these stories serve as master classes in how to do that sort of story right, and are worth the price of admission for them alone. Even if you’re not interested in learning to be a better writer, read this collection for the history lesson, and increased awareness in what women/PoC/QUILTBAG/international authors/anyone different have to overcome when trying to write — or find themselves in — American science fiction.

5/5* “Transit of Earth” – title story. 1st person narrative. Starts with statement of inevitable death, comparison to historical figures. Placement in time and space. Excuse for narrative (final thoughts before death). Story begins by contemplating 3 options for death (1 inevitable, 2 choosing earlier deaths) and explains why none suit hit. Also reveals he wasn’t quite right for the mission because he’s afraid of underwater suffocation. Via narrative, it’s revealed he started training in his 20s. It’s May 11, 1984 now. He’s on Mars, awaiting the transit of Earth. 4 other crewmen stranded with him but they’re dead now; 10 others took off for Earth already. End hints at possible rescue he’s ignoring, also strange deaths of his comrades. Did he kill them so he could live long enough to see the transit? Grand finale, exit stage left.

2/5* “Button, Button” Average punchline horror story and mid 20th century misogyny. Typical grasping wife feels she deserves more. Noble but distant husband refuses to trade a stranger’s life for $50k but the wife takes the deal behind his back. “For us,” she says, but really, for her. Husband killed, wife gets $50k insurance and a message (when she protests it was supposed to be someone she didn’t know): “You didn’t really know your husband, did you?” *yawn* Credit given for the fact this is an early example in SF, but isn’t even the 1st. Continue reading

What I’ve Been Reading: Rickert, Burstein, Sharma, Tobler

This week’s reading was a collection of stories I randomly discovered online, either because someone recommended it, or because I stumbled it across it while looking for something else.

The Mothers of Voorhisvill”  by Mary Rickert, Tor.com (novella)

5 out of 5 stars

There is a grandeur to Rickert’s work which is almost immediately obvious but not overwhelming. You begin to read the tale she’s written, sentences unfolding simply, with hints of strangeness, until a few paragraphs in you start to see the edges of the world she’s created — and it hits you. It’s never “let me tell you about every aspect of this setting for three pages before anything happens”. It’s not “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”. She understands her characters, where they live and how they move about in that place, so well that when she writes the story, it’s just you (the reader) and them (the fictional characters), having a dialogue.

Reading Rickert is like listening to the chatty neighbors you’d never noticed until they happened to be the most fascinating people you’ve ever met. You’ll find everything you’re looking for by the time it’s done.

The shape of this story is as a series of interviews conducted with various women who’ve, they admit at the beginning, done something terrible, or wonderful, and now they’re explaining why. There’s contrast between the things they’re admitting, the events they’re saying didn’t happen quite that way, and and the moments of “well, sure, it did happen, but she’s completely wrong about the way she describes it”. We read how the women see not only the events of the story but their own worlds so differently from one another. All the pieces of “Mothers”, not disparate but simply not the same, weave together until what you finally have is so large, so monstrous and beautiful and greater than you’d imagined, that “grandeur” is the best word to describe it.

There are definite hints of Witches of Eastwick, and Nightvale, but there are sensual details — the hundred scents, the beauty of light, of women, of creative arts — which swell as the women do, breaking free from other influences. Those details carry on as the story changes, gets darker and more desperate, breathing life into individual moments with the names of board games, the color of jam. It’s real without being weighted down; terrible in the way that it makes perfect sense. I continue to be in awe of Rickert’s ability to tell a complete story, full without going on for too long, like a ripe peach on the last day before it’s plucked and eaten.

Kaddish for the Last Survivor” by Michael A. Burstein, Apex Magazine.

2 out of 5 stars

A SF tale about Holocaust deniers? You might think it would be preachy, pointed, too invested in its message, and Burstein’s story is all of those things. It was also nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2001, and it’s worth figuring out why. Continue reading

What I’ve Been Reading: Essays

So far in January, I have read:

Am I Black Enough For You? Rumpus, Retha Powers, January 2014:

“I was black. I wasn’t black enough. I was too black. Sometimes I was so upset there was nothing to do but sit down and eat a pack of Oreos—alone, of course. But for years I wouldn’t feel comfortable eating the crème-filled sandwich cooking without pausing for the fleeting impulse to turn and see if anyone was looking. Oh look, an Oreo eating an Oreo! (It’s still not my cookie of choice). I was being pigeonholed; and as Jessye Norman said, pigeonholing is interesting only for pigeons.

Not-Knowing, by Donald Barthelme.  Not Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme. Ed. Kim Herzinger. New York: Random House, 1997. Barthelme says, “Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing; a forcing of what and how.” It is, at least in part, definitely that.

Ethnography and Speculative FictionEthnography Matters, Claire Anzoleaga – explores speculative fiction from a communications studies and ethnography angle:

“For those of us who write ethnography, it is widely known that the truths we encounter and write about will never have a capital “t” in its purest, most-reducible sense. Ethnography written as speculative fiction fits smoothly into this understanding of interpreted truth-painting. It is an analytic approach which interprets data collected from the field and reimagines that data through narratives of fantasy, horror, and utopian/dystopian adventures with academic theory.”

Read it as part of the discussion on inclusion, diversity, and how/whether to write the “Other”. The rest of the site has a lot more to say about ethnography, which I studied as part of my History of Art degree, and keep in mind when I write fiction myself.

Biotechnology and Speculative Fiction, Brian Stableford – argues that writers have a moral obligation to write optimistic futures. Well, I disagree, but I think this essay gives a nice overview of biotech in SF pre-2000.

Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, Esquire, Gay Talese, April 1966 – this classic profile of a hostile subject is considered one of the best pieces of creative non-fiction ever published. Recommended because of the way Talese uses language, bringing color back into journalism to liven up a field of writing that had gone from sensationalist gossip to “just the facts” and was now edging into something reminiscent of literature:

“He wore an oxford-grey suit with a vest, a suit conservatively cut on the outside but trimmed with flamboyant silk within; his shoes, British, seemed to be shined even on the bottom of the soles. He also wore, as everybody seemed to know, a remarkably convincing black hairpiece, one of sixty that he owns, most of them under the care of an inconspicuous little grey-haired lady who, holding his hair in a tiny satchel, follows him around whenever he performs. She earns $400 a week.”

It also famously recalls an incident between Sinatra and Harlan Ellison; of note to SFF fans and historians. Continue reading

Book Review: “Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind”

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Pros: If you’re struggling with creating a organized routine for writing, and you haven’t heard these ideas before, there are a couple of good thoughts here.

Cons: The book is about as informational as a collection of motivational posters, full of corporate speak (talking about talking instead of imparting facts), and four page essays which only loosely support a single idea. Could have been reduced to a bullet list of ideas – which the book does include, at the end of each chapter – and would have been just as helpful but a lot faster to read.

I make it a point to only review books that I’m recommending, and in this case, I really am recommending it, but only to a small group of people. If you’re having a hard time balancing your writing, your dayjob, your family commitments, and the pressure to be brilliant at all of it, and you haven’t already read a bunch of these books – or you’re the sort of person who needs a lot of outside reinforcement to make changes in your life – this book might be what you need. The highlights:

  • Get plenty of sleep. If you can’t decide whether to go to bed or keep working, go to bed. Start going to bed a half hour earlier than you think you need to – if you need the sleep, you’ve got the time, and if you don’t, you’ll naturally wake up earlier and you can use that time for getting things done instead.
  • Get something done for yourself before replying to emails in the morning.
  • Make a master to do list that you don’t see every minute of the day, and instead write your daily to do list on a post it note. Nothing bigger than that – if you can’t fit it on a post it, you probably can’t get it done in one day. If you do all of those things, you can always make another list partway through the day, so don’t worry that you’re limiting yourself. You’re really freeing yourself to focus on just the things you really need to do first.
  • There will always be negative distractions. It’s impossible to get rid of them all (though certainly, if you can cut down on some of them without losing anything good, you should do that) but what you can and should do is bring in positive distractions to balance out the bad. Hold on to the bright, loving, happy, sexy, funny, relaxing, refreshing, and inspiring things/people in your life, and schedule little blocks of time to enjoy them. You’ll go back to your writing with more focus and more enthusiasm for your work.

The full review: Continue reading

What I’ve Been Reading: Short Fiction by Waldrop, Kritzer, and Murakami (free to read online)

Three short stories for a Saturday:

First, Howard Waldrop has a new short up over at Tor.com. “The Wolf-Man of Alcatraz” is excerpted from his forthcoming Horse of a Different Color, out on Nov. 12 from Small Beer Press, and I will be buying it. (Oh, yes, I will.) I wish I knew whether “Wolf-Man” is also an excerpt; it feels incomplete, like the beginning of a tale that isn’t fully told, and Waldrop tends to finish what he starts. I think it’s only half the story, but it’s an interesting one. Where do you put a werewolf who doesn’t want to keep killing but doesn’t know how to stop? Behind bars, for the safety of himself and others, sure. And if it’s 1933? You put him in Alcatraz, because that’s The Rock, the most maximum-security prison of the day. Waldrop starts his story there, rolls it out in that slow, Southern, way he has, and hooks you in with the simple truth of it all.

On second reading, I think it’s definitely only a fragment, but worth the read.

Second, “Bits” by Naomi Kritzer is up at Clarkesworld Magazine. It’s a delightful story about sex toys and aliens, with lines like this:

Because really, there are two immutable laws of nature at work here: number one, love will find a way; and number two, if a sexual act can be conceived of, someone will pay money to watch it.

But “Bits” ends on an absolutely sweet note which genuinely made me smile.

Finally, a story from the future. “Samsa in Love” by Haruki Murakami (translated by Ted Goossen) , is up at The New Yorker, dated 10-28-2013 but readable now. It makes sense that you can read forward into time, with this story, since Murakami takes up a tale from the past, and carries on with the Gregor Samsa that Franz Kafka left behind. I don’t know if it’s a great story, if it would be better if you read it in the original language, or if it’s just going to be a slightly odd tale that you wonder over for a few days and then forget until you realize one day that it’s affected you in a way you couldn’t imagine.

Let’s hope it’s one of those.

* Thanks for Micheal J. DeLuca and E. Lily Yu for recommending the first two to me.