Birthday Reviews: Dozois, Kornbluth

This week we have two versatile birthday boys who were born on the same day, both of whom could write and appreciate very different sorts of stories. One is a slow and sad examination of a post-apocalypse and the other is a fast and energetic adventure in a growing culture.

Gardner Dozois (1947-07-23–2018-05-27)

“Morning Child” (Omni, January 1984)

One morning after an apocalyptic war of a surreal nature, a man and a boy go about their routine by the old destroyed homestead. What had seemed strangely normal soon becomes normally strange when we learn something odd about the boy and the war.

This tale feels a bit like the New Wave with its partly off-screen surrealism but, since it is partly off-screen, it feels even more like a belated Labor Day Group story (which it is) with its almost cozy catastrophe conveyed by wonderfully crafted prose. Still, even though it isn’t entirely my kind of thing, I can only admire the artistry and continue to miss the artist.

C. M. Kornbluth (1923-07-23–1958-03-21)

“That Share of Glory” (Astounding, January 1952)

While Kornbluth is better known for such classics as “The Little Black Bag” and “The Marching Morons” which, for all their virtues, can be a bit dyspeptic and leave one with alloyed joy, he could also write something like this.

Alen is a young member of a pseudo-religious pacifist mercantile order bent on uniting and enhancing a fragmented galaxy. For his first mission, he accompanies a trader and puts his massive knowledge of languages and cultures in the service of moving the trader’s goods and keeping him and his safe. Naturally, things initially go well as Alen breaks the social ice and makes decent deals for gems on a planet where metals are forbidden by its vested ceramic commercial interests. And, naturally, things go awry when a crewmember gets in a fight with the police, sending them down the rabbit-hole of the planet’s justice system with an unfavorable judge. Young Alen learns that things aren’t all as they seem and learns that he has within himself capacities he never knew.

This story is just a blast from start to finish, perfectly structured and paced, well-written, clever, funny, and wise. I first read and loved this in Kornbluth’s The Explorers but, speaking of the other birthday boy, I read it this time in Dozois’ The Good Stuff (an omnibus of The Good [Old|New] Stuff) and Dozois has an interesting theory in his introduction about how Kornbluth may have outsmarted himself or unwittingly revealed something:

…Kornbluth rarely wrote straightforward adventure stories, under the Kornbluth byline, anyway, especially Space Adventure stories of [this] swashbuckling, hard-nosed, rapacious, fast-paced sort […], where sharp-eyed cool-headed entrepreneurs haggle and brawl and wheel-and-deal their way across the Universe, out-thinking their adversaries and out-tricking them when backed into a corner. “That Share of Glory,” in fact, is such a perfect Astounding story, so much the Platonic ideal of what a story for John Campbell’s Astounding of that period should be like, that I can’t help but wonder if Kornbluth’s tongue wasn’t in his cheek when he wrote it, or if he wasn’t deliberately (with the cool-eyed calculation of the characters in the story) writing stuff that he knew would “push Campbell’s buttons,” a popular game among writers of the day. Even if one or both of those things are true, though, it hardly matters–Kornbluth may have told his friends or even himself that that’s what he was doing, but there’s too much conviction in his voice here, and he does too good a job, for me to believe that he didn’t like the stuff himself, whatever he may have claimed that he’d rather drink instead. For all of the cynical, jaded facade that he was famous for projecting, nobody but a True Believer at heart, one who somewhere down deep still thrilled to the dream of venturing out among the wonders and terrors of deep space, out to the unknown stars, could possibly have written [this] adventure…

I agree with Dozois that one or both may be true or that it may not and that it doesn’t really matter but I think Dozois’ observation matters, because it sheds light on both Kornbluth, Astounding, and some writers’ relationships with them. [1] Either way, Dozois is right about the conviction and the heart. It’s a great story.

[1] Coincidentally, I was thinking the same thing about button-pushing with the story of Julian May’s I covered a couple of weeks ago where I referenced its connection to Campbell’s “The Thing.” (And, incidentally, I said that “I can’t believe [it] wasn’t turned into a successful 1950s sci-fi-horror movie.” It’s true that it wasn’t, but it turns out it was turned into an episode of a 50s TV show and 1972 movie.)

Birthday Reviews: Gunn, Sheckley, Smith

One of this week’s stories takes us into one of the most unusually imaginative space battles ever and even sneakily connects to the other two, which are related stories that ask what it would be like if women really were from “Venus” and how a man could get a perfect woman. I’m going to discuss those together because they make a nice pair.

James Gunn (1923-07-12)

“The Misogynist” (Galaxy, November 1952)

Robert Sheckley (1928-07-16–2005-12-09)

“The Perfect Woman” (Amazing, December 1953-January 1954)

In “The Misogynist,” a naive narrator introduces us to Harry, the “wit” who can tell jokes like no one else. He then repeats a story of Harry’s which conveys his ideas about women and which the narrator thinks tops all his previous jokes.

In “The Perfect Woman,” the year 3000 has arrived. Through the viewpoint of a hungover Mr. Morchek, we learn about the conversation he had the night before with a man who has married a Primitive Woman and learn what a Modern Woman is like as we observe Morchek’s relationship with his own wife.

There are nice twists in both these tales. The naive narrator is utilized well to get to the one in “The Misogynist” while the reader’s initial naivete about the society of the year 3000 is utilized well to get to the one in “The Perfect Woman.” Both are very economical (though “The Misogynist” could have been tightened still more). And they both have several interesting angles. Both would probably be taken as literally misogynistic today and that’s a reasonable interpretation from the internal realities of the stories. However, they can also be taken in the reverse sense, as mocking some men’s desires, expectations, or worldviews. It’s also interesting that, even if interpreted simplistically, it would only serve to show that all sorts of sensibilities could be represented in the “conformist” 1950s while today’s “diversity” has narrowed the conceptual possibilities of the genre. In a way, this would (aptly if taken seriously, and ironically if taken ironically) prove some of the Misogynist’s theorizing correct. But, heavy topical stuff aside, these are well-written and entertaining short stories.

Cordwainer Smith (1913-07-11–1966-08-06)

“The Game of Rat and Dragon” (Galaxy, October 1955)


In the far future of the Instrumentality of Mankind, people have progressed to the point of traveling through space via planoforming, but have encountered malevolent underspace beings who would make this impossible, if not for the telepathic battle teams of human and cat who perceive the enemy as dragons or rats, respectively, and, together, are capable of fighting and usually destroying the beings with light bombs. We learn of this amazing milieu and witness one such battle, as well as the effects of one mind upon another.

It’s hard to grasp that the first section or two-fifths of this story is essentially just an infodump because it’s so bizarre, fascinating, and enlivened with points of emotional connection. Then it moves step-by-step into the assignment of “partners,” the preparations, the combat, and the aftermath, showing excellent structure and control. But the greatest power of this story is its uninhibited imagination.

Asimov’s Centennial: David Starr, Space Ranger


David Starr, Space Ranger by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 186pp, 1952 [1]

In 1951, the usually self-represented Asimov was allowing his friend, Frederik Pohl, to be his agent. On March 21, they had lunch with Walter Bradbury of Doubleday. While Asimov isn’t clear who was the instigator (my guess is that Pohl had the idea and had already gotten together with Brad and they planned to tag-team Asimov), the topic of television came up along with the idea that a book which formed the basis of a kids’ series in the relatively new-fangled medium of television might make all three of them rich. This led to a commitment for Asimov to write such a book. Asimov had one qualm, though: he thought everything he’d seen on TV except Your Show of Shows was awful and was worried about being connected to an awful TV show. Brad told him to use a pseudonym and the usually pseudonym-averse Asimov agreed. Modeling it on Cornell Woolrich’s “William Irish,” Asimov became “Paul French” to write David Starr, Space Ranger. [2]

David Starr was orphaned by pirates as a small boy and was raised by Hector Conway and Augustus Henree, two friends of David’s father and significant people in the powerful Council of Science. Now an adult and still a bit of a wunderkind, he has himself become a member of the Council of Science and is sent out on his first mission. On Earth, a heavily populated planet dependent on its food supply from other worlds such as Mars, a relatively few people have been seemingly randomly poisoned by Martian food and dying painfully within moments, as David himself witnesses in the opening scene. It seems to be, as Henree says, “a clever and brutal attempt at seizing control of Earth’s economic life and government” which turns out to be clarified as a scheme of blackmail with the leverage being the threat of anything from panic over the food supply to actual starvation.

David travels undercover to Mars as “Dick Williams” and strikes up a friendship with the diminutive but fearless and aggressive John Bigman Jones [3] and becomes enemies with a trio who rule under a farm boss named Makian. Nevertheless, he works his way into that domed farm by pretending to be a man trying to find out how his sister was poisoned and being willing to do any work to support his search. After the story describes his experiences as a “farmboy,” his various conflicts with the trio, and his help from Bigman, it really takes off when Starr learns something about the structure of Mars’ great underground caverns, the deep fissures crisscrossing the surface, and how they are related to each other. He makes the arduous descent down one of these fissures and what happens there is almost van Vogtian. David Starr emerges as “the Space Ranger” and the new superhero is ready to piece together the last details to get the big picture and attempt to deal with it.

One of the things that makes this somewhat atypical Asimov is its aim of becoming a TV series. It was partly inspired by The Lone Ranger (which began as a radio series in 1933 and had already become a TV show in 1949) and most obviously turns the Lone Ranger’s mask into a high-tech multi-purpose gizmo but the story also has similarities to Superman (which began as a 1938 comic book Asimov may or may not have been familiar with and which wasn’t to become a TV series until seven months after this book was published), including somewhat-mild-mannered David Starr never being in the same room with the Space Ranger.

Coupled with this, it was also intended for a young audience like those series. The most obvious signs of this are a less credible and more melodramatic plot than usual, more explicit promotion of the value of science both via the power and importance of the Council of Science and via a few more educational passages (which might be called infodumps) and, of course, the “coming of age” motif (and, perhaps, the complete absence – other than a voice – of female characters). The vocabulary and ideas are not especially “dumbed down,” though or written in a “gee whillikers” sort of way.

Another thing is its superficial isolation from the Asimov books that had been published to this point. There’s nothing overt to tie Paul French to Isaac Asimov (no robots yet, or psychohistory, neuronic whips, and so on). Also, it’s not necessarily written like “center-core” Asimov but neither is it un-Asimovian. Interestingly, The Stars, Like Dust (the science fiction novel Asimov wrote just before this one) is also somewhat atypical despite being an Empire novel. These two books are probably more similar to each other than Stars is to the other Empire books. Rather than pudgy old Schwartz or brain-damaged Rik, Biron Farril and David Starr are both strapping young lads, at least six feet tall and two-fisted, sometimes traveling incognito amidst melodrama.

The plot and some characterization is probably the biggest weakness. Starr and Bigman strike up their friendship when Starr takes Bigman’s side in a conflict with the villainous trio but it might seem more suited to Bigman’s character to take offense at this rather than appreciating it. (I may not be as big as some fellers, but I can fight my own fights!) How Starr is taken right into this important farm is convenient and there is confusion about being offered a job by a scientist on the farm, yet still working at a mess hall job until finally going to work for the scientist. And then there are further conveniences and oddities as the situation is resolved, especially regarding the unheroic way a confession is obtained. Another problem is that Starr often seems to be arrogant and, relative to his unfamiliar environment, ignorant. In a juvenile, it seems like you might want to have a humble protagonist who is willing to learn or have your proud protagonist knocked around a bit until he does what is necessary to learn but Starr comes out on top with his innate superiority and a little help from some friends. The last problem I’ll mention is that this is set near 7,000 A. D. (!) and the Earth is dependent on other worlds like Mars (!) to feed its population of five (!) billion. None of this makes the most sense possible.

One of the biggest virtues of the book is a (for the time) harshly and realistically portrayed Mars [4] which is vividly brought to life through Starr’s experiences on first exiting the dome and then in his compelling descent down the fissure (where Asimov does something he’d only done in very few stories and not yet in books). However obligatory they are, the buddy and superhero elements are also reasonably effective. I feel that Heinlein took his juveniles very seriously and put as much or more effort into them as anything else he did. With this Asimov, I feel like he was trying to do a good job and respect and entertain his audience but it doesn’t feel quite like 100%. The fact that this was written in seven weeks in the middle of two other books with the possible detachment a pseudonym might have given (though he used a pseudonym in fear of what TV would do to his work, not because of the work itself) would tend to corroborate that. I think it’s obviously second-class Asimov but, generally, it’s a pretty good juvenile.

[1] A couple of bibliographical notes:

1. The main U. S. editions of this series were Doubleday (hardcovers), Signet, Fawcett Crest, and Ballantine/Del Rey (all paperbacks). Even though the Doubledays were first and I own the Signets (and an SFBC omnibus), I’m using the Del Reys to illustrate these reviews because, while a bit textually busy, their cover art is by far the best. In fact, the order of editions is also the order of cover quality.

2. Asimov published four books in 1952. One was a collection of Foundation stories from the 1940s but the other three were new. The Currents of Space was begun in December 1950 and not finished until March 30, 1952 before being published near the end of that year. The reason it took as long as it did was because Asimov was also working on a textbook. Meanwhile, he also wrote David Starr, Space Ranger from June 10, 1951 to July 29. It was then published near the beginning of the next year (originally with a colon in the title instead of a comma or dash). So David Starr is Asimov’s fifth published book and Currents is listed as his seventh but David Starr was conceived and begun after Currents.

(I felt like footnoting the footnote at “textbook” and this does get deep into the weeds but I’ll just add that there is an oddity regarding that book (Biochemistry and Human Metabolism). Asimov says he received his copies May 24 and placed a copy “immediately behind my juvenile” (meaning David Starr) on his chronological shelf yet the textbook is listed as #8 as though it came out after not just David Starr but Foundation and Empire and The Currents of Space, as well. There was a second edition after 1954, but that doesn’t explain this. Asimov may mean he shelved his books in the order he received them (which would include advance copies) and perhaps there was a delay in the textbook’s actual publication which is reflected in the numbered list.)

[2] It seems that David Starr was intended to be a one-shot but, when the TV series didn’t happen, Brad encouraged Asimov to write more Starr books. In 1971-72, when the books came out in paperback under Asimov’s own name, it seems like he could have renamed it to Lucky Starr and the Fissures of Mars or Lucky Starr and the Criminals of Mars to better fit the rest of the books, though it would have entailed revising it to include the “Lucky” nickname in the story, as well.

[3] There may be some odd precognition here. This was written in 1951 and, while far from being exactly like Harlan Ellison, Bigman has some similarities with him, both psychologically and physically, even down to Ellison claiming a height of 5’5″ when Asimov insisted he couldn’t be more than 5’2″ which is exactly Bigman’s height. Yet Asimov didn’t meet Ellison until 1953.

[4] The book includes a one-page introduction in which Asimov warns the reader that subsequent science has invalidated this portrayal by proving Mars far harsher still.

Edit (2020-06-15): Corrected the opening sentence to say “1951” instead of “1952.” (Dunno how I did that.)

Edit (2020-06-17): Fixed the error in which I was thinking for a moment that he wrote Starr while also working on Stars when he was in fact working on Currents. Substituted “was writing when he switched to” to “wrote just before” and removed the “1952” from “These two 1952 books” (since Stars was 1951). I stand by the conceptual comparison (which I think is interesting), but got the chronology wrong (and it’s not as precise, thus less interesting).

Asimov’s Centennial: The Currents of Space


The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.75, 217pp, 1952

A year after a prolog in which an unnamed person warns that Florina will be destroyed in a nova and another drugs him and uses a psychic probe on him to “remove his anxiety,” we join amnesiac Rik on his lunch break at the mill where he’s suddenly remembered that he “analyzed Nothing” and that the world is somehow in danger. Rik was found in a kyrt field as a drooling, mindless wreck and the Townman, Myrlyn Terens, made the unmarried Lona Rik’s caretaker. He’s since improved to the point of being able to work in the mill. This bit of recovered memory makes Lona fear that a change may come to their relationship, so she goes to the Townman for advice. He is a Florinian and a civil servant who helps Sark rule Florina. While a quintet of Great Squires rule both worlds, and lesser Squires live in the Upper City on Florina, it is the bright Florinians who are taken to Sark, trained, and forbidden to have children, as a way to govern for now and to reduce the abilities of Florinians to do anything but grow kyrt for ever. Kyrt is a crop which grows only on Florina and is used in the production of fabulous fabrics and other products and has made Sark second only to Trantor in wealth, when Trantor rules half the galaxy and Sark just the two worlds. Despite it being against the rules, Terens decides to take Rik to the library of the Upper City to see if accessing books there will jog Rik’s memory further. However, someone has set a trigger to report when books on spatio-analysis are requested. From this minor infraction, things spiral out of control when Lona, who has followed them, sees them threatened by one of the foreign mercenaries known as Patrollers and used by Sark as the fist to the civil servants’ glove, wrests the Patroller’s own neuronic whip from him, and uses it on him. The trio flee to the Lower City and from the angry hornet’s nest of Patrollers they’ve stirred up and are rescued by a baker whose shop has a false oven they can hide in. The baker turns out to be more than he seems and has a special interest in Rik, with no interest in the other two. Terens takes off on his own, while Lona stays with Rik.

Meanwhile, Dr. Selim Junz of the Interstellar Spatio-analytic Bureau visits with Ludigan Abel, the Trantorian ambassador. Junz has spent much of the last year looking for a missing spatio-analyst (those who study Nothing, or the currents within the near-vacuum of space). Through their conversations and reflections on the things which have formed their characters, we learn about, among other things, the tricky relationship Trantor and Sark have. At this point, Trantor rules half the galaxy and is far too powerful for Sark to fight, but Trantor is not yet strong enough to risk consolidating the other half of the galaxy against them, so must tread lightly when it comes to annexing other worlds, especially worlds as important as Sark, with its galaxy-spanning kyrt trade. So relations are handled officially by Abel and, unofficially, by a large spy network. This casts earlier events in a different and clearer light, as the baker is a spy for Trantor who is to bring Rik in. (We also learn that it was Junz who set the trigger on the books of spatio-analysis.) However, this fails to go according to plan, especially for Terens, who becomes a sort of serial killer.

The third component of the tale is introduced through the five-foot, ninety-pound Lady Samia of Fife. She is on Florina, working on her book on kyrt when her father, one of the Great Squires, orders her home due to the disturbances against the Patrollers. Rik and Lona have the strange luck to stow away on her ship and are quickly detected, and her romantic nature ignites with her fascination with the “mystery” the stowaways represent. Indeed, her father has a mystery of his own, which he describes to the other Great Squires, involving Trantorian machinations and his belief that one of the Squires is a traitor, which one of the accused dismisses as a “detective thriller.” The second half of the book involves the working out of these elements. Who did what was done to Rik? What specifically threatens Florina? Is there a traitor among the Squires and, if so, who? Can Trantor and Sark reach an accomodation or will their strains reach a breaking point?

Unlike the Robot and Foundation stories, Asimov never returned to the Empire milieu, so this third novel was the last of the group. The initial version of Pebble in the Sky was written for Startling Stories but never appeared in magazine form until after it was revised and published as a book. The Stars, Like Dust was serialized in Galaxy under the name “Tyrann” and with a subplot of Gold’s worked in. This one was serialized in John W. Cambpell’s Astounding without interference. All three include brief afterwords from Asimov in their early 1980s paperback editions explaining that a key science fictional premise within the novel is no longer considered scientifically viable and asking the writer to forgive that. While Rik is known in this one to be a foreigner, with one of his earlier recovered memories about his specific home world, all three novels are tied to Earth, despite their interstellar scope. While this is clearly the second book in internal chronology, pinning down a date to even the nearest millennium seems difficult. Trantor is described as having risen from a Republic of five worlds, to a Confederation, to a Trantorian Empire of half the galaxy, all within five hundred years so it seems reasonable that this novel is nearer to Pebble in the Sky than The Stars, Like Dust. On the other hand, while Rik’s Earth is the same radioactive blue of the Earth of the other books, there are no particular signs of animosity towards Earthers [1] but the preponderance of evidence points to a fairly late date. The fact of Earth being the homeworld of humanity has been forgotten and is now a disputed theory and the notion of convergent evolution has some strength.

And that brings us to a core theme of the book which revisits one of Pebble from a different angle. Sark’s domination of Florina is clearly driven by economics but, in a galaxy in which everyone, with few exceptions, is now of a more or less intermixed brown complexion, Florinians are white. This adds a racial component to Sark’s “sick social system.” The rebellious spirit has been almost utterly extinguished through a system of divide-and-conquer, surveillance, psychic probes (which are naively underutilized in the future of the essentially good-hearted Asimov), and of economic and classist disparity between the browns/whites represented at various scales by Sark/Florina and Upper/Lower City but which can have a strong basis in skin color and stereotyping. For example, when the noble brown girl, Samia, is caught (unwillingly) in a compromising position with a low-class white man it is used for powerful political and economic purposes when its only leverage comes from the twisted psychology of the Sarkites. Asimov wisely doesn’t limit this to a pure one-to-one metaphor, as aspects of it are reminiscent of Britain’s rule of India and many other aspects throughout human history, but American history is clearly the main inspiration, with one Sarkite even talking about “King Kyrt” (which has cellulose as one of its degenerate forms but which is even referred to once as cotton). While Pebble put its racial theme in the foreground, Currents handles it more cleverly by having it be structural and backgrounded for the most part but I suspect the social focus causes at least one aesthetic blemish in the moral calculus because multiple wrongs from and against this system in the person of one character are allowed to make a right by the conclusion of the book, a failing which anticipates much contemporary fiction. On the other hand, one especially unusual thing I liked in this was Selim Junz being from Libair, which is as atypical as Florina, in that Libairians are much darker than most and have dim recollections of a prehistory of racial strife. This causes Junz to feel a brotherhood with his fellow whites as both are minorities in a galaxy that is primarily intermediate. While this is probably largely a game of musical pigments in which Asimov, as a person of a Jewish minority, is expressing solidarity with African-Americans [2], it is also the actual state of things here on Earth. Blacks and whites are both (possibly temporary) minorities within all of humanity.

Heavy thematic stuff aside, as a simple reading experience, this novel of interstellar intrigue introduces us to a sympathetic but necessarily somewhat undefined character in the mostly erased Rik and his initially interesting relationship with Lona but the main drama begins with Terens joining the story and the three getting embroiled in increasingly out-of-control events. When Terens detaches from the pair, his mortally panicked flights from the coercive powers of his society are exciting and powerful. The amplification of the mystery elements with first Samia and then the Squire of Fife, himself, adds another layer and type of interest. Asimov’s skill in moving from scene to scene, with chapters moving forward and backward in time compared to their predecessors, sometimes redefining what we’ve just witnessed, is also put to good use. This is much improved over the handling in Stars, though there are a couple of overly long gaps between scenes and at least one use of a convenient memory loss and gain. More seriously, there are two chapters in a row (12 and 13) which involve long speeches (the first being the least successful part, dramatically, of the Squire’s involvement and the second being excess from a minor character) which slow the action. Most importantly, the ending isn’t completely satisfying. As I mentioned, the books don’t seem balanced regarding one character, the conclusion for two others doesn’t ring true, and much is resolved too easily. This and Pebble are very comparable and this surpasses it in some ways but, overall, I think I prefer the latter. Either way, I’ve always felt the Empire novels, though they are admittedly lesser works compared to the main Robot and Foundation books, were unfairly underestimated and this re-read of the trio makes me think that even more firmly.

[1] There are some other inconsistencies such as human males still being physically capable of growing facial hair when they aren’t in Pebble, but this may be an oversight. (And, of course, there are inconsistencies going the other direction which are due to the hazards of writing prequels, in that stowaway Arkady should have been detected as easily as Rik and Lona were and there seems to be no kyrt in the Galactic Empire.)

[2] As every sympathetic reader of Heinlein knows, just because a writer has characters advocate certain things doesn’t mean the writer does but, in Asimov’s non-fiction, he comes across as being liberal on race, especially for someone who made his mark in the 1940s and ’50s. In addition, Asimov was economically liberal and this comes across when he has a character advocate a respect for human rights over “mere property rights” and this, again, shows that Campbell’s Astounding, and science fiction in general, was not as monolithic as some like to believe or would have others believe.

Birthday Reviews: Benford, Deutsch, Farmer

This may be the first installment of a new regular feature of Featured Futures in which I post some of the upcoming week’s birthdays and review at least a story by one or more of the birthday boys or girls. This covers January 25-31, so please join me in wishing a happy birthday (whether they can hear us or not) to Gregory Benford, A. J. Deutsch, and Philip Jose Farmer.

Gregory Benford (1941-01-30)

“And the Sea Like Mirrors” (Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972)

Some stories open with a confusing scenario which either is–or, just as bad, seems like–a sign of incompetence but some open with a confusing scenario which is skillfully presented and some of the enjoyment of the story comes from its gradual clarification. With such stories, reviewing them is hard because you have to give away some of that in order to say anything at all. So I apologize for that and assure you that Benford skillfully presents a strange situation in which a man and a woman are on a raft in an ocean and who then deal with alien critters before revealing that we’re not on an alien world, but on an Earth which has been invaded by aliens who have sown our seas with a variety of life, some of which swarms and attacks like piranhas. Our two characters are the only survivors of a ship that was sunk by these beings. This is, indeed, a dangerous vision not to be read lightly and which succeeds wonderfully on the purely dramatic level of “survival at sea (plus alien invaders)” but which also has thematic depths such as contemplating the extent to which changes without may change us within.

A. J. Deutsch (1918-01-25–1969-11-11)

“A Subway Named Mobius” (Astounding, December 1950)

Deutsch was a respected scientist, but in science fiction terms, he was something of a one-hit wonder, writing only “A Subway Named Mobius.” In it, an elaborate subway network in Boston receives one more element that pushes it into infinite topological complexity and train 86 disappears. Most of the story deals with the station manager and a mathematician trying to understand what has happened and to determine what, if anything, can be done about it. It’s one of those simultaneously funny and freaky stories because the disappearance of 350 people is no laughing matter but lines about a very confused and frustrated manager (“Whyte gripped the edge of his desk and prowled silently through his vocabulary until he had located some civil words”) are. The story is hard to take as actual science fiction and it doesn’t really do much but it’s something like the spatial version (with some temporal aspects, too) of del Rey’s “And It Comes Out Here.” Regardless, it maintains interest.

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-01-26–2009-02-25)

“Sail On! Sail On!” (Startling Stories, December 1952)

I first read of Friar Sparks many moons ago and have read it several times since but it never ceases to amaze. In just a few pages, Farmer puts us on the Santa Maria in what appears to be an alternate world in which Roger Bacon has become a saint and his order has created marvelous things. Things like the “realizer” our good Friar with the large nose and large thirst operates which causes millions of cherubim to line up to convey messages over vast distances (a sort of telegraph interpreted through a different lens). But this is shown to be the least of the changes in what is actually an instance of the omniverse which carries on to a gigantic conclusion. Strongly recommended.