Birthday Reviews: Cherryh, Schroeder, Wilcox, Zahn

This week’s birthday authors take us to the clouds of Jupiter, to a world six hundred years’ voyage away, and present us with two variations on Cassandra.

C. J. Cherryh (1942-09-01)

“Cassandra” (F&SF, October 1978)

Cherryh is mostly known for her novels (I’ll be reading at least my thirty-fourth of hers soon, which is now less than half the total), which include some fantasies and many set in realistic future space milieus, but she’s written several stories collected in Sunfall, Visible Light and, ultimately, in the Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh. One of her earliest, and one which made one of the biggest impacts, was this updated myth of mad Alis, who staggers through life in and out of mental hospitals seeing a double vision of her current reality of people and places and her possible future of ghosts and destruction after the War. It’s a short and seemingly simple tale but Alis’ agony (and ours) is firmly, judiciously depicted, with depth.

Karl Schroeder (1962-09-04)

“The Pools of Air” (Tesseracts 3, 1991)

A filmmaker, her on-air talent, and a tech guy are trying to save their skins after the helium-3 refining ship they are filming on crashes into something while cruising the clouds of Jupiter, destroying its front-end and cutting them off from direct access to their shuttle. The protagonist has baggage, both figurative and literal, which is not helping her or her companions. In a way, that element is the whole story so it’s hard to say it should be minimized but, in ways, a lot of hard SF [1] is damaged by writers who have drunk the kool-aid and overtly bow to what Asimov called “the tin-god of characterization” in an effort to be accepted as literature. There’s a certain kind of SF where that usually works and sometimes hard SF can be fused with it but, generally, it’s a distraction and hard SF works better on a scientific and social level than a personal one. Be that as it may, this is a concise and energetic story that takes the reader to an impressive setting.

Don Wilcox (1905-08-29–2000-03-09)

“The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years” (Amazing, October, 1940)

This is an honorary happy birthday because parts of this story are painful to read but it is the first full treatment of the generation starship (a year before Heinlein) and it’s oddly clever in ways. Akin to how puns are contrived but still work, this is a pile of author fiats but is at least elaborately contrived. The first generation starship takes off from Earth with what turn out to be seventeen couples and one “Keeper of the Traditions” (our narrator) who goes into suspended animation [2] for a century at a time before coming out to see how things are going and to try to set anything wrong to right. However, he takes a couple of steps backward for every one he takes forward. The time lapse view of the society leads to a certain propulsive effect and the variety of this civilization’s discontents maintain some interest.

Timothy Zahn (1951-09-01)

“The Cassandra” (Analog, November 1983)

Going out through the in door, this Cassandra is quite different. Zahn portrays this as a generational mutation (with characteristic physical markers of white hair and green eyes) on a colony which then collapses due to group trances of apocalyptic visions and the ensuing dislocations and stress. Now a few Cassandras are back on Earth, suffering in a more isolated way and we follow the effort of one such highly educated man struggling to get and keep a job as a dishwasher. This is a story in which there is a problem to be solved (whether it is solved or not) and, despite the author’s afterword talking about how atypically tragic it is for him, there is actually a sense in which it is uplifting because it’s not an inexplicable and pointless affliction or a parable of human blindness but is a natural problem with a cause and actually has some gain come from the pain. This is yet another example of how you can give twelve authors one theme and get twelve unique stories back. If you only think of Zahn as a tie-guy or even just a novelist, check this and his other short fiction out.


[1] I call it hard SF because it seems like it generally, despite being insufficiently concerned with Jupiter’s radiation. The trio breathe a sort of liquid air which, among other things, helps them deal with gravity and I suppose it also wouldn’t hurt regarding radiation but, so far as I recall, radiation is never mentioned.

[2] If it was ever explained why there is suspended animation tech and the mission was designed to (a) have such a tiny population and (b) not provide them all with the tech so as to avoid having to endure such a difficult and uncertain voyage, I missed it.