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Worlds Without End Blog

Review: The Time Traveler’s Handbook, by Wyllie, Acton, and Goldblatt Posted at 8:30 AM by

Deven Science

The Time Traveler's HandbookThe Time Traveler’s Handbook (Harper Design 2016), researched and written by James Wyllie, Johnny Acton, and David Goldblatt, bills itself as a guide book for a tourism company that sends people back in time to any of 18 different moments in history, so that one may witness the moment for themselves. Why travel to see the ruins of Pompeii, when you can travel to 79 AD in order to watch the very event that has made that city famous in history?

The concept is a good one, but when I started the novel, which begins with a historic meeting of King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France, I soon learned the true purpose of the book. The three authors have taken 18 moments in time, meticulously researched them to near infinite detail, and presented them here, in the guise of fiction. At first, I was almost insulted. Why not just write this as a history book, and show us these wonderfully crafted and well-researched moments? Why use time travel as a kid’s spoon shaped like an airplane, making landing noises as you have us eat carrots by pretending our mouths are the hanger? The descriptions of the tent cities and ceremonies of the two kings was very well done, but I was annoyed that the authors thought I needed this device, even as I realized that I did indeed only pick up the book because of the time travel angle.

And then the next chapter came, the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and I was hooked. I grudgingly admitted that I needed to occasionally be spoon fed things like this, and I ate it up! The description of the World’s Fair really captured me. One of the most fascinating to me was the Boer War Exhibit, which had 600 actors to reenact battles from the Anglo-South African War, many of whom were veterans of that war from both sides! Anthropological areas like the Philippines Village, which had the U.S. Department of War assemble 1,200 Filipinos to mimic their everyday life in a sort of reservation. Replicas of sections of several foreign cities or monuments, such as the Wailing Wall, or the Dome of the Rock, with each one populated by real Muslims, Jews, etc. The exhibits and displays went on and on, all incredible in different ways. Imagine how an exhibit featuring a working slaughterhouse would go over now, as children file through to watch animals killed and butchered. I found myself marveling at what the sheer size of the fair must have been, and how I’d never seen anything quite like it in my lifetime.

From then on, they had me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Some chapters were naturally more interesting than others, more a sign of being parallel with my interests, and not a reflection that the other sections were in any way weak or inferior. I found myself not as involved with Opening Night at Shakespeare’s Globe, and then they would have me eating up every written detail the next chapter for the Golden Age of Hollywood.

One small issue with the entire concept is that since it is billed as a tour guide of sorts, there is no narrative. The book merely ends, with no sort of wrap up, conclusion, or summary. There is no hero to celebrate, no enemy to see vanquished. It finishes its description of your journey to see the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, and then it ends. That’s fine really, it had no plot to wrap up. It just felt a bit… abrupt.

Still, it is an incredibly thorough book, with plenty of details to immerse in the selected time periods, always being sure to address clothes, food and drink, methods of travel, lingo or slang of the time, and then throwing in things like where and when you will arrive and depart to these locations. They helpfully include dos and don’ts at each step, so as to give you the best bang for your buck (and also, so as to avoid accidentally altering the past).

I highly recommend the book.

The Classics of Science Fiction in 12 Lists Posted at 1:21 PM by James Wallace Harris


If every science fiction fan voted for their favorite science fiction books, would the most popular books become the classics of science fiction? Is an academic stamp-of-approval required to validate a classic? Are classics simply the books that society fails to forget? Here are twelve sites that identify the best science fiction books. Six focus on science fiction, and I use their top ten books. Six focus on general literature, and I pull out all the science fiction they recognized.

The consistency of these results are amazing, but they also reflect a complete lack of diversity. Only eight women writers appear on these lists. If you follow the links to the full lists, you will see more women writers, and somewhat greater diversity. Worlds Without End appears to be the only site that actively seeks to discern the better newer books, which reveals that women and people of color are writing a great deal of good science fiction. But we have to recognize that the slow process of books gaining wide recognition means those books are often behind current liberal thinking. I expect in another 25-50 years, future lists using the same methods will reflect the best books being published today.

I also expect the most progressive readers in the future will consider some of our currently accepted beliefs shameful. One goal of science fiction is speculating on how future people will think, and those books written today that guess right will be declared classic and visionary. And those that guess wrong will be used as examples of how the past was politically incorrect.

And which books will be forgotten? Because over time, books that are deemed unforgettable, are forgotten. The first list, Classics of Science Fiction, is the oldest list, and its top two books aren’t remembered on the other eleven lists. Most of these books from these lists are 25-60 years old, and even though young readers vote in the polls, they grow up reading books written a generation or two before their time.

Still, it’s amazing to see how many of the old usual suspects show up time and again. It really does suggest that a few books out of every generation acquire the “classic” designation – at least for a while. I expect in a century, most of these titles, and even authors, will spark no recognition. But for now, it’s rather fascinating why and how they are cherished in our memories.

The Demolished Man Dune Ender's Game The Dispossessed A Canticle for Leibowitz

Classics of Science Fiction (meta-list based on 28 lists)

  1. The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester (25)
  2. More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon (25)
  3. Dune – Frank Herbert (25)
  4. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov (24)
  5. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr. (24)
  6. Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner (24)
  7. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin (24)
  8. The Time Machine – H. G. Wells (23)
  9. The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells (23)
  10. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke (23)

Worlds Without End Top Listed Book of All-Time (53 lists producing 9 meta-lists)

  1. The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin (13)
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (13)
  3. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley (13)
  4. Dune – Frank Herbert (12)
  5. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin (12)
  6. The Doomsday Book – Connie Wills (12)
  7. The Forever War – Joe Haldeman (11)
  8. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card (11)
  9. Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes (11)
  10. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick (11)

Listopia Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books (ongoing poll at Goodreads, number of votes)

  1. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card (5,244)
  2. Dune – Frank Herbert (4,160)
  3. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (3,238)
  4. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (2,358)
  5. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1,937)
  6. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle (1,624)
  7. Foundation – Isaac Asimov (1,586)
  8. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins (1,454)
  9. The Giver – Lois Lowry (1,283)
  10. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut (1,283)

Listopia Best Science Fiction Books (ongoing poll at GoodReads, number of votes)

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert (804)
  2. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card (775)
  3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (654)
  4. 1984 – George Orwell (552)
  5. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (428)
  6. Foundation – Isaac Asimov (393)
  7. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (342)
  8. Hyperion – Dan Simmons (298)
  9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick (288)
  10. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein (257)

Top 100 Sci-Fi Books (ongoing poll at Sci-Fi Lists)

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert
  2. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  3. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  5. 1984 – George Orwell
  6. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  7. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  8. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke
  9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
  10. Neuromancer – William Gibson

NPR Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books (2011 fan poll, > 50,000 votes)

  1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  2. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  3. The Dune Chronicles – Frank Herbert
  4. 1984 – George Orwell
  5. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  6. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  7. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  8. Neuromancer – William Gibson
  9. I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
  10. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

These lists cover all literature. I’m not limiting myself to the top ten, but listing any science fiction books that got recognized.

Brave New World Nineteen Eighty-Four Slaughterhouse - Five A Clockwork Orange Fahrenheit 451

Modern Library List of 100 Best Novels (MLA)

  1. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (#3)
  2. 1984 – George Orwell (#13)
  3. Slaughterhouse-Five (#18)
  4. A Clockwork Orange (#65)

100 Best Novels of the 20th Century (Radcliffe Publishing Course)

  1. 1984 – George Orwell (#9)
  2. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (#16)
  3. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut (#29)
  4. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess (#49)
  5. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut (#66)
  6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (#72)
  7. The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells (#85)

The 150 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century (compiled by librarians)

  1. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (#28)
  2. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein (#31)
  3. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke (#66)
  4. Dune – Frank Herbert (#86)

The Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present (Time Magazine, alphabetical)

  • 1984 – George Orwell
  • A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  • Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  • Neuromancer – William Gibson
  • Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
  • Snowcrash – Neal Stephenson
  • Ubik – Philip K. Dick

1,001 Books to Read Before You Die (Popular book, editor’s choice)

  • Chocky – John Wyndham
  • Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
  • The Drowned World – J. G. Ballard
  • Foundation – Isaac Asimov
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  • I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
  • Neuromancer – William Gibson
  • Solaris – Stanislaw Lem
  • Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

The Greatest Books (meta-list, 107 lists, all literature, just 17 SF books out of top 500)

  1. 1984 – George Orwell (#23)
  2. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (#82)
  3. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut (#124)
  4. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne (#149)
  5. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess (#164)
  6. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (#189)
  7. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (#265)
  8. Dune – Frank Herbert (#270)
  9. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (#284)
  10. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle (#295)
  11. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (#307)
  12. The Time Machine – H. G. Wells (#327)
  13. The Road – Cormac McCarthy (#366)
  14. The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells (#378)
  15. Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand (#379)
  16. Neuromancer – William Gibson (#382)
  17. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke (#411)

Update 6/29/16:

Just found a 13th list. The Library of Congress opened its 2016 version of “America Reads” exhibit June 16th, where the public voted for the books. See this explanation, “The books that have shaped American life.” Here are the SF books it includes – (order from the list):

  • Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
  • A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
  • Dune – Frank Herbert
  • Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
  • Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Interestingly, the 2012 exhibit, where the books were chosen by the curators, only three science fiction titles were selected, Atlas Shrugged, Fahrenheit 451 and Stranger in a Strange Land.


Sticky: Greetings, Carbon Based Gases (updated) Posted at 3:34 AM by Rico Simpkins


One of the reasons we read science fiction is to find out what happens next. My favorite science fiction sub-genre is near future, precisely because I want someone to tell me what to expect a decade from now, a year from now, a month from now.  Half the fun is discovering the future through speculative fiction. The other half is watching it come true.

We may not have our bubble cities or flying cars, but one science fiction milestone, the decline of coal from the winner’s circle, may have finally arrived.  According to the US Energy Information Administration, 2016 is the year coal stopped being America’s leading energy source. King Coal’s replacement: Natural gas, which (as steampunk fans know) burns more cleanly and has long been predicted to be the “transition fuel” that will eventually give way to totally clean energy, like wind and solar.  As of this year, that milestone has been reached. And it didn’t take long for coal to lag far behind. April saw natural gas producing 39% more energy than coal.  No doubt that gap will fluctuate in the coming months, but coal is unlikely to regain the lead.

The next energy generation method to surpass coal?  Nuclear. But, despite how it looks on the chart, that’s probably not going to happen this summer.  Nuclear power hasn’t grown in over a decade and coal always recovers during the summer months (all that air conditioning creates demand). But at its current rate, coal could plummet into third place as soon as this fall, certainly by spring (2017).

On the other side of the spectrum, we have our newest forms of energy, wind and solar. It may not look it, but wind as been growing by leaps and bounds.  Deselect the heavy-hitters on the above chart (coal, natural gas, and nuclear) and you’ll notice that wind is close to surpassing hydroelectric power on its way to the top.  I expect that to happen by 2017 or 2018 at the latest.

And don’t be fooled by the modest squiggle representing solar energy.  Ray Kurzweil says it will be the dominant form of energy generation within a dozen years.  Make sure to work that into your short stories, budding sci-fi writers.

UPDATE: The 2016 data is in, and that means we can take a peek at the annualized data. As you can see, below, natural gas has surpassed coal as the #1 source of energy in America, on balance, year round:

It is unclear whether the Trump administration will be successful in reversing this trend, but I’m guessing not, for one very important reason: the EPA is likely to relax regulations on fracking. Even with the recent gift the administration has given to coal, the industry will have a hard time competing with even cheaper and more abundant gas reserves.

2016 Locus Awards Winners Posted at 6:47 PM by Dave Post

Dave Post

The Locus Science Fiction Foundation has announced the winners for the 2016 Locus Awards on Saturday, June 25, 2016 during the Locus Awards Weekend in Seattle WA.  The winners are:

Ancillary Mercy

Locus Science Fiction Novel:


Locus Fantasy Novel:

The Grace of Kings

Locus First Novel:

The Shepherd's Crown

Locus Young Adult Book:

For the complete list of winners in all categories check out the official press release from Locus.  Our congratulations to all the winners and nominees!

What do you think of these picks? Did your favorites win?

The Girl With All The Gifts – Official Trailer Posted at 11:28 PM by Dave Post

Dave Post

I read the start of The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey and quite liked it but for some reason I set it down and never got back to it. After seeing this trailer I think I’ll have to pick it up again. This looks really intense.

Westworld: Teaser Trailer (HBO) Posted at 3:31 PM by Dave Post

Dave Post

Yeah, this looks wicked cool to me. The Michael Crichton book has not gotten a lot of love here but I remember the 1973 Yul Brynner movie with some fondness and this HBO mini-series is obviously going to have better production values. And you can’t complain about the cast with the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris in the mix.  I’m not usually one for re-makes but HBO does good work and this isn’t a movie that I care a great deal about so I’m OK with this one.  What do you think?

Do You Want To Go To Mars? Posted at 6:30 AM by James Wallace Harris


Back in 1964, when I first read Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein, I decided my goal in life was to get to Mars. I was 12. When Mariner 4 whizzed by Mars taking crude images in July 1965, showing the red planet was more like the Moon than science fiction, I was disappointed, but I still wanted to go. I grew up with Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Sputnik flew the month after I started first grade, and Apollo 11 landed the month after I finished the twelfth grade. I assumed Americans would be on Mars before 1980, and colonization would start before I was too old to go. I don’t think I was alone having this dream. It was impossible for me to imagine in 1972 that humans would never leave Earth orbit for decades.

A warm day on Mars is what we’d call cold here on Earth, and a cold day on Mars is what we’d call hell. We’re now all afraid of getting too many X-rays, but living on Mars would cook our gonads in constant radiation. And only a geologist could admire the scenery of the fourth planet. So why do so many dream of going to Mars?

NASA just announced a series of posters advertising for jobs on Mars. There seems to be more excitement in the 2010s about Mars than anytime since the 1960s. Elon Musk has become the D. D. Harriman of Heinlein’s imagination, the man who is selling Mars. The Martian by Andy Weir and its movie version has inspired millions to daydream about adventures on Mars even though Mark Watney had one wretched experience after another. Like Dorothy in Oz, he just wanted to go home. Thousands of people applied to join Mars One, a proposed Martian colonization scheme that involves one-way trips. What is so alluring about Mars that some people are willing to give up everything?

For those of us who dream of moving to Mars, have you ever analyzed why you want to go? Looking back to my twelve-year-old self, I have to say reading Heinlein was my first motivation, but is fiction really a good justification? And if I had known about the details of how the astronauts of Project Gemini ate and shat in space for two-weeks, I would have given up my ambition back then. If I’m honest with myself, I know I never had the Right Stuff.

I think all adolescents want to escape their situations, and mine included alcoholic parents who dragged my sister and I around the country in their own restless search for greener pastures. It’s no wonder I would have gladly gone all the way to Mars to find a life of my own. Science fiction was my escape, my positive therapy for what should have been a psychologically damaged childhood. Science fiction and rock & roll were my trip to Mars, converting an adolescence I should have suppressed to a time I nostalgically cherish.

When Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson came out in 1993, my Mars mania reignited. Then when The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin showed up a few years later, with a very practical plan for getting to Mars, I got even more excited. By then I had given up any naïve dream of going to Mars myself, but I finally had hope again that humans would go. That was twenty years ago, and we’re still doing endless 90-minute laps around the home world.

P04-Surveyors-Wanted-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600xI believe Elon Musk is an unrealistic optimistic about how to get to Mars, but I hope I’m wrong. I know the Mars One people are clueless, but I wish them well. There’s a practicality that comes with getting old. I’m glad the young aren’t infected. We need foolish people to do impossible things. But I’ve reached an age where I now question the value of going to Mars. I’m not sure space is suited for humans, but it is perfect for machines.

And, if we do want to adapt humans to space, I think our starting place should be the Moon, not Mars. The Moon is three days away, and a perfect place to construct the self-sufficient industrial city to launch human space exploration of the solar system and beyond. If Homo sapiens can’t adapt to living on the Moon, going to Mars will be pointless. But if we can thrive on the Moon, Mars will be easy.

There’s one very important factor about those posters from NASA – they’re promoting jobs that involve long term stays. Going to Mars, or the Moon, can’t be about planting the flag. I didn’t understand the value of work as a kid. Space travel was a thrill. Living in space really means working in space. I just wanted to hop a rocket and escape into fictional fantasies. The people who truly want to live in space need twenty years of relentless preparation, and then will work 15-hour days on the final frontier. Pioneers don’t waste much time reading science fiction, playing video games, or enjoying VR.

Of course, such gritty self-evaluation makes me wonder about why I read science fiction. It’s still escapism. It’s now nostalgia. But it’s also a kind of hoping that humans will adapt to living in space. Where does that desire come from? Why is it important that our species go to Mars? Species have habitats. Why should we create new habitats for ourselves? Especially ones so tremendously ill-suited for our biology? What if fish wanted to live on land? Wait, some did.

2016 John W. Campbell Memorial Award Finalists Posted at 5:36 PM by Dave Post

Dave Post

The Water Knife Europe At Midnight Radiomen Luna: New Moon Galápagos Regained Going Dark The Book of Phoenix Where The Thing Itself Aurora Seveneves

The finalists for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science-fiction novel have been announced by the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. The awards will be presented on Thursday, August 18, as part of the Campbell Conference held annually at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

The finalists are:

Our congrats to all the finalists! What do you think of this lineup?

Review: Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip Posted at 4:02 PM by Allie McCarn


Every time I have read one of Patricia A. McKillip‘s novels, I have been struck by her poetic language and the vibrancy of her fantastical worlds. Therefore, I was delighted to have a chance to read and review an advance review copy of her latest collection of short fiction, Dreams of Distant Shores (to be published June 14, 2016). The book collects seven works of short fiction, one essay by McKillip, and a warm and insightful afterword by Peter S. Beagle.  McKillip’s essay is about her style of writing high fantasy, which involves simultaneously following and breaking the rules of the genre.  I enjoyed the glimpse into her writing process, and I think the balance between tradition and originality that she describes is one of the things that has kept drawing me back to her fiction.

The short fiction in Dreams of Distant Shores, though, is far from traditional high fantasy. There are no queens, courts and heroes, and the stories take place in worlds not unlike our own.  I thought the title itself was a remarkably accurate description of the contents within, since each tale felt like a dream permeated by a different style of magic.  The vein of strangeness that runs through every work ties the collection of stories together.

The book opens with the confusing and surreal “Weird”.  A man and a woman are locked in a bathroom with a gourmet food basket, while someone or something attempts to break in.  The two of them seem oddly calm, and the woman recounts the weirdest things that have happened in her life.  It’s a strange slice of a story, and reading it feels like falling into a fragment of someone else’s nightmare.  The story “Edith and Henry Go Motoring” (original to the collection) also feels like a peek into someone else’s dream, though a more peaceful one.  Edith and Henry go on an aimless journey in the English countryside, crossing a bridge with an unusual toll to an unexpected destination. I felt that these two stories were the most subtle and elusive of the collection, and I ended up reading them multiple times to try to gain a better understanding.

“Alien” (original to this collection) is another calm tale, and one that feels more grounded in a mundane reality. It features an elderly woman who claims to be visited by aliens, though her family fears she’s losing her mind.  It’s a lovely and quiet story about growing old, familial relationships, loneliness, and wonder.  Also, I think it must be the most positive alien abduction experience I have ever read.

Moving to the lighter side of the collection, “Mer” (original to the collection) and “Which Witch” are humorous stories with very different takes on the subject of witchcraft. “Mer” follows an immortal, form-changing witch who just wants to settle down into something comfortable and rest.  In the process, she spends some time as a goddess and a wooden mermaid, and gets involved in an unusual local religion.  The story is much less about the witch herself, who just wants a long nap, than it is about the ordinary people with whom she winds up getting entangled.  The vagueness of the magic system works well within the story, since a lot of the humor comes from the characters’ exasperation with the confusing events happening around them.

Patricia A. McKillip

Patricia A. McKillip

Rather than the ancient, formless, sleepy witch in “Mer”, “Which Witch” follows a fashionable young woman in a witchy rock band. She’s proud to have recently acquired a crow familiar, but the two of them are having issues with communication.  Unfortunately, what the crow is failing to communicate at the beginning of the story is, “You are in terrible danger!” The magic in this story is tied up in music, something that I think is pretty hard to pull off in a written story.  I thought the music as magic sections were pretty fun in this case, though I’m not convinced the musicians would have put on a decent performance!

Moving into the longer fiction, “Gorgon in the Cupboard” was my favorite of the collection. The story involves a community of Victorian painters and models, and the kinds of relationships that exist between them. A middling painter searching for inspiration finds his muse in Medusa, whose spirit manifests in his unfinished painting of Persephone.  Medusa directs him to search for a model, and he looks for someone who will stop him in his tracks and elevate his work.  However, that model is more than a symbol or a mythological figure, but a human woman with her own griefs, thoughts, and dreams.  What follows is an emotional story about how people are shaped by their experiences, and the value of seeing others as they truly are.

The final novella in the collection, “Something Rich and Strange” is a lyrical and imaginative story that carries an overt environmental message. A couple that lives by the coast have a stable life together, until supernatural forces slowly begin to tear it apart.  The man is drawn inexorably to the water by a siren’s call, while the woman begins to see strange things in the familiar coastline. It is not long before the situation begins to get really out of hand. The story is beautifully written, and it had some pretty funny moments without losing its fundamental sincerity and gravity.  I’m usually not a fan of including blatant messages in fiction, but the ocean really is in a sad state (though there are some signs of hope).  Altogether, it is a haunting story of a relationship stretched to the breaking point, as well as a call to take responsibility for environmental damage.

In closing, this was an excellent collection of short fiction by Patricia A. McKillip.  Each of the stories takes place in a different world, with a different tone and approach to the supernatural.  With such a range, from the surreality of “Weird” to the Victorian painters of “Gorgon in the Cupboard”, I expect it will please fantasy fans with a variety of tastes.  As for me, I have enjoyed visiting each of McKillip’s Dreams of Distant Shores.

Judith Merril’s Take On Classic Science Fiction Posted at 3:47 PM by James Wallace Harris


The Merril Theory of Lit'ry CriticismI have to thank Aqueduct Press (“Bringing Challenging Feminist Science Fiction to the Demanding Reader”) for publishing The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism by Judith Merril. If you have sufficient years reading science fiction you’ll remember the annual SF collections of best short stories Judith Merril edited back in the 1950s and 1960s. What Ritch Calvin has done is collect all her introductions and summaries from those 1956-1969 annual anthologies, 38 book review columns from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1965-1969), and a few additional essays from Extrapolation, a journal devoted to studying science fiction. For ebook readers, he also includes the introductions to all the short stories from all the anthologies. That’s 622 pages (ebook) or 360 pages (paperback) of commentary on science fiction, a goldmine of insight into old science fiction. Both editions are available from Amazon or the publisher, and hopefully your local bookstore.

Judith Merril was an exceptionally well-read reviewer, not only referencing a detailed knowledge science fiction and its history, but literary works and science books. She was also pithy, funny and to the point. Here’s her 1965 review of PKD’s latest, where at the end of a previous book review had stated, “Philip Dick did it better three years ago, in The Man in the High Castle.” She then continues…

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Philip K. Dick, Doubleday, $4.95, 278 pp.

I don’t mean, this time, that his new book is similar in theme or treatment. Rather, that I wish it were more so, at least in characterizations and structure. Phil Dick is, one might say, the best writer s-f has produced, on every third Tuesday. In between times, he ranges wildly from unforgivable carelessness to craftsman-like high competence. In the case of Palmer Eldritch, I would guess he did his thinking on those odd Tuesdays, or rather on one of them, and the actual writing in every possible minute before another Good Tuesday came on him. Here is a riotous profusion of ideas, enough for a dozen novels, or one really good one; but the stuff is unsorted, frequently incompleted, seldom even clearly stated. The style is alternately dream-slow-surreal and fast-action-pulp. Thematically, he at least approaches, and sometimes stops to consider, virtually every current crucial issue: drug addiction, sexual mores, over-population, the economic structure of society, the nature of the religious experience, parapsychology, the evolution of man — you name it, you’ll find it. The book, with all this, is inevitably colorful, provocative, and (frustratingly) readable. I wish I thought it possible that Dick might some time go back to this one, publication notwithstanding, and finish writing it.

Judith Merril

Judith Merril

One reason why I immediately hit the buy button for The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism is because I bought her anthologies a half-century ago, and started reading F&SF around that time too. For years now I’ve been meaning to order those anthologies used from ABEBooks, just so I could read the commentaries. To have Calvin throw in all the book reviews was too good to be true, but it is.

I’ve been hung up on my science fictional past, and this book is perfect for retracing steps I first took in 1965. Anyone who collects old SF from that era will find this volume to be a treasure chest of clues.

Merril, on occasion, had a lot to say about a book. She often read a book more than once to write a review. She was determined to understand science fiction at a level beyond what most readers ever try. Look at this review of Nova by Samuel R. Delany, one the more memorably SF books from the 1960s. I probably read this review at the time too. This is a great example of what Merril does when she goes long:

Leave your preconceptions behind, again, when you open Samuel Delany’s new Nova (Doubleday, $4.95). My own problem was the opposite of my friend’s with 2001: I came to this book with an anticipation keener than any I have brought to anything since — well, probably Vonnegut’s Rosewater — looking for (at least an approach to) the Great Novel I (still) expect from the author of Empire Star, Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, “The Star-Pit,” “Aye and Gomorrah,” and (now) Nova: and what I got instead was a first-rate jim-dandy solid provocative science-fiction novel.

It took me a while to realize I had no honest cause for complaint — a while longer to discover I damn well did have cause — longer yet to understand (first) why I was so irritated, and (eventually) the real reasons to be annoyed with the book.

Delany is in an almost unique position in s-f today: everybody loves him. The “solid core,” the casual readers, the literary dippers-in, the “new thing” crowd — Delany is all things to all readers. It is an untenable position — unless, of course, he gets as good as I think he will eventually be. Swift, Melville, Carroll, Twain, Conrad are all read by children as well as litterateurs, their plots are reducible to comic book format, while their themes are subtle and complex enough to sustain reading after delighted analytical reading.

Well, Delany is not Swift or Conrad — yet; but his seven previous novels and scattered shorter works have already placed him out of the judging in the transient-writer class; and as the work of an apprentice-great, Nova must be regarded as more of a fascinating exercise than a satisfactory achievement. But —

What is wrong with the book is simply that the author tried to do — not too much, but enough: he tried to write a modern novel on all the levels required (by the same standards I am applying) of a contemporary work: if he did not quite succeed, it is well to remember that neither has anyone else — yet; and few other attempts have managed to stand up meanwhile as, at least, solid entertainment.

Here is what I wrote after my first reading of the book:

Nova is a deceptive book in several ways. Don’t let the first page stop you; the book is not — except superficially — a Planet Stories superficiality. And don’t rush in to identify with anyone too soon; it may take a while to decide whose viewpoint you are using.

The protagonist, the hero, and the viewpoint character are (in order of appearance, not necessarily identity) a 19-year-old gypsy-born spacehand-and-minstrel named the Mouse; a cosmically wealthy and powerful space captain named Lorq Von Ray; and a wandering scholar and spacehand called Katin.

The book is intriguingly, but unnecessarily, complex — mostly written underwater, as it were; that is, under the surface of a (too) familiar space adventure plot, as warm and sparkling with the strange and rich biota of Delany’s inner world.

There is, for instance, the Mouse’s “sensory-syrynx,” an instrument which can produce a complete multi-media show — visual, musical, and olfactory display; a recurrent theme involving Tarot lore; a carefully constructed cultural context in which the 20th century serves as the classical period of a culture 1000 years older, whose technological and philosophic beginnings are rooted in the transitions of today. There are the Illyrion furnaces which have made whole planets habitable and space traversable, great glowing pits called Hell here, and Gold there — and tiny battery power packs primed by micrograms of the same stuff, which run the wondrous syrynx and Katin’s tiny recorder. There is a gorgeous physiological/astrophysical/political philosophic construct in parallels; and a sweep of action from Athens to the Pleiades, with fiery fights, drinking bouts, mosques and museums, diver-hunters and cyborg-spacemen — and with all this, the book is somehow lacking. I do not know what it lacks; perhaps if it had come after Empire Star and Babel-17, and before The Einstein Intersection, I should have found no lack, at all. But, just as I went on from the first banal page, simply because it was Delany, and I could be sure of finding the richness and excitement I did find, so I went on from history lesson to battle scene to gorgeous syrynx session to Tarot lore, hoping I could be equally sure of learning why they were all there together. I think an explanation was given to me in the last pages — and I do not think it satisfied me. But never mind: the fans will love it.

That was the first time around; I have now read the book — to be precise — two and a half times (the third time, only those passages marked the second time for re-examination), and when I started to retype that earlier comment, I thought the word unnecessarily must have been a typographical error. Alas, not so: the error was not mechanical, but (doubly) human — the reader’s and writer’s both.

There is nothing in this book that did not have to be there — from the blind drunk of the spacebars to the wicked gorgeous Princess, Ruby Red; from the syntax-inversion of the Pleiades speech-pattern to Katin’s erudite lectures; from the cool halls of the Alkane Institute to the hole in the stellar doughnut. The problem is rather that some elements are so compressed as to be almost invisible, and I question whether any reader who lacks the responsibility of recording his opinion will work as hard as I did to find, and put together, all the pieces in a book so readily readable and pleasingly paced on the surface that there is no real cause to wonder how deep the channels underneath may flow — and small sign of their turbulence.

These are (at least some of) the ways you can read Nova: as a fast-action far-flung interstellar adventure; as archetypal mystical/mythical allegory (in which the Tarot and the Grail both figure prominently); as modern-myth told in the s-f idiom with powerful symbols built on solid science fiction clichés; as a futuristic vehicle for a philosophic complex of political/historical/economic/sociological ideas; as an experimental approach to literary criticism.

Among other things, the book examines: the nature and value of scholarship, mysticism, “progress,” and the varieties of the creative experience; the significance of the “instinct for workmanship” (the quote is from Veblen, not Delany) and the alienation phenomena of the industrial and (current) electronic revolutions; the relationships between the psychophysiology of the individual and the ecology of the body politic. Each of the three central characters (or the three aspects of the character?) suffers a variant form of alienation, rooted in different combinations of social, economic, geophysical, cultural, intellectual, and physiological factors. Through one or another of these viewpoints, the reader observes, recollects, or participates in a range of personal human experience including violent pain and disfigurement, sensory deprivation and overload, man-machine communion, the drug experience, the creative experience — and interpersonal relationships which include incest and assassination, father-son, leader-follower, human-pet, and lots more.

The economy of Delany’s writing is both maddening and delightful — and almost accomplishes what he seems to have been trying to do. (For instance, the culture-vista opened up when the Lunar scholar, Katin, says to the gypsy Mouse: “If somebody had told me I’d be working in the same crew, today in the 31st century, with somebody who could honestly be skeptical about the Tarot, I don’t think I would have believed it. You’re really from Earth?”) But even 279 closely written, richly embroidered, tautly thought pages are not enough: it is too much of too many, and too little of each: and — add odd complaints — it is too easy to read, on the easiest level.

If you let yourself go, it will run away with you; since the author failed to set up stop signs, the reader must either make his own (put the book down and pace the room once between chapters?) or plan on a second, slower reading after the fun of the first. Or settle, of course, for a good read, and never mind mining out the gold.

For two writers so disparately individual in concept, mood, style, background, and viewpoint Delany and R. A. Lafferty have certain startling distinctions in common. There are other notable stylists and fine prose writers in s-f today; but — in very different modes — Lafferty and Delany are currently the two outstanding poetic writers (language both lyrical and precise; images exact and evocative). There are other evolving new concepts and working out appropriate new techniques for contemporary multiplexities; and there are many others writing action-adventure yarns in the s-f idiom; but I can think of no others who so frequently manage to combine these apparently contradictory efforts.

But their greatest similarity also contains their most symptomatic difference. Among the characters in both men’s stories, a strange breed of children appear repeatedly: hardheaded/mystical creatures with electric personalities and powerful capacities. In Delany’s stories they are most often young teenagers whose essentially heroic proportions and proclivities (like almost all Delany characters) are dramatically flawed, or defective, or incurably disadvantaged, in some one area. Lafferty’s children are mostly prepubescent, and perfectly normal — except for a total lack of (parental or personal) inhibition; and a sort of amplification — of reality which permits them to act out archetypal childish fantasies on a grand-opera heroic scale.

Shadow on the HearthBy the way, Nova, as well as Babel-17 and Dhalgren have been recently produced for audio, and are available at I waited over a decade for Delany to come to audio, and the wait was well worth it, because hearing Delany read by a professional makes his rich narrative come alive in myriads of ways my own inner voice fails to find. I beg the audiobook producer gods to please come out with Distant Stars and Aye, and Gomorrah: And Other Stories next. They contain the short novel and novella, Empire Star and “The Star Pit” which are my absolute favorite science fiction stories form the 1960s.

If you’re the kind of science fiction fan I am, old and looking backwards, analyzing a lifetime of reading, The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism is a book you won’t want to miss. The ebook is a real convenience, letting us read a few reviews on our phones whenever a free moment pops up.

HomecallingJudith Merril also wrote science fiction, not much, but enough to make her one of the pioneer women writers of science fiction starting in 1948 with her classic short story, “That Only a Mother” appearing in Astounding. She wrote two novels on her own, Shadow on the Hearth (1950) and The Tomorrow People (1960), and two novels with C. M. Kornbluth as Cyril Judd, Gunner Cade (1952) and Outpost Mars (1952). Shadow on the Hearth and the two Cyril Judd novels have been collected by NESFA Press as Space Out: Three Novels of Tomorrow by Judith Merril and C. M. Kornbluth. The Tomorrow People is currently in print from Armchair Fiction, a company that reprints a great deal of forgotten science fiction.

Merril produced several short story collections: Out of Bounds (1960), Daughters of Earth (1968), and Survival Ship and Other Stories (1974), each of which has been repackaged a number of times, but all her stories are currently available as Homecalling and Other Stories: The Compete Solo Short SF of Judith Merril (2005), again from NESFA Press.

I hope both the NESFA books come to audio.