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.

Birthday Reviews: Bear, Egan, Forward, Lovecraft

This week, I wish a happy birthday to four authors, including two Gregs, who have moved into the forward ranks of writers with their love of their craft. Greg Bear takes us out to the galaxy and Greg Egan takes us into our heads in can’t-miss stories. Additionally, Robert L. Forward takes us down to an unusual money pit and H. P. Lovecraft takes us up to a strange high house.

Greg Bear (1951-08-20)

“Hardfought” (IAsfm, February 1983)

Several years before Stephen Baxter would begin to mine this sort of thing for at least nine novels and three fat collections, Greg Bear wrote this single remarkable fusion of space opera and cyberpunk about an infinite war between an old species that evolved from the Population II stars versus other species, especially humans, which evolved from Population I stars and its cost to humanity, even if they’re not losing in terms of combat. Most of the story occurs in a virtual reality computer interface aboard a dead Senexi starship inhabited by one Senexi (who is crazy in Senexi terms), two clones of an original human fighter from thousands of years ago (one modified by the Senexi), and a much more modified Senexi/Human hybrid. They learn about human history, hope, and passions, all of which have been lost but for the memory stores of the “Mandate” or the VR/computer. While chapters might have been welcome for breaks, the long, continuous novella speaks with inexhaustible detail which is still mind-blowing in 2020 and does so through a compressed, altered, future-slang-filled style which is conceptually accessible but creates a timeless remoteness (successfully timeless in that it still feels fresh in 2020) and which deals with subject matter which has only grown more relevant with time. This story, snapped up by the under-appreciated Shawna McCarthy, shows why Bear’s golden decade (approximately) of 1983-1993 (about) was one of the most remarkable in SF’s history.

Greg Egan (1961-08-20)

“Learning to Be Me” (Interzone #37, July 1990)

Some people think horror is madmen running around with axes. This story is true horror. Tomorrow or the next day, people have “jewels” implanted in their heads, or a device that is trained to “be them.” Every reaction, experience, event: all is mimicked by the jewel so that, when the time comes–say when you’re thirty and feel you’ve lost a mental step–you have the jewel hooked into your nervous system, your brain scraped out and replaced with something more like an artificial liver or kidney, and go about your business as the same person you always were, except immortal. Half the story follows the life of the protagonist at various ages with various reactions to the concept of the jewel and his attempts to get himself to undergo the operation. The second half of the story takes a sharp turn and, while somehow already having you on the edge of your seat from the freaky ideas and black humor, it turns into a calm, sedate, contented horror the like of which few if any stories have achieved. Or maybe that’s just me.

Robert L. Forward (1932-08-15–2002-09-21)

“Self-Limiting” (Analog, May 1992)

Forward’s best short fiction is probably the sequel to his second-best (“Acceleration Constant” and “The Singing Diamond,” respectively) but I wanted to review just one story. This one ran in the Probability Zero department and is thus a far-fetched (though sound) gimmick/joke that’s hard to describe without ruining it. Basically, this uses a bit of science and a bit of humor to explain why “there are no millionaires on Xanax,” and we might do worse than to adopt their standard.

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-08-20–1937-03-15)

“The Strange High House in the Mist” (Weird Tales, October 1931)

Minimally adapted from a 2019-10-30 review of Weird Tales, edited by Leo Margulies.

This is more of a fantasy than horror. Even leaving aside the magazine it was published in, it’s a very weird tale in which nothing much happens and it’s all told in a very mannered way but that achieves a sort of mesmeric effect conveying an awe-fulness symbolized by the unforgettable “strange high house in the mist” which the protagonist strives to reach.

Birthday Reviews: Butler, Cartmill, Sheffield

In one of these stories we lose speech and, in another, we gain the stars but, in both, we remain human. In the other story, that day’s science fiction really was the next day’s science fact.

Octavia E. Butler (1947-06-22–2006-02-24)

“Speech Sounds” (IAsfm, Mid-December 1983)

Rye is riding the bus when trouble erupts. Two guys start fighting which results in the bus driver slamming on the brakes which results in additional fights. Many try to leave the bus at that point and, when a man wearing the uniform of a cop arrives and tosses in a gas cannister, the rest get off. Eventually, the man persuades Rye to accept a ride from him and, by this time, we understand that Rye is in world that’s been struck by a plague, or something like it, which has deprived almost everyone of the power of speech and/or reading and/or the comprehension of these things, as well as impairing some people’s minds generally. The bus is a rare and isolated thing and there is no police force as civilization has collapsed. Rye was trying to make the long journey from LA to Pasadena to see if she could connect with a suriving brother rather than kill herself. Her quick relationship with the “cop,” Obsidian, and the following multiple rapid reversals result in a change of plans.

This is a master class in science fictional exposition as a simple bus ride seems momentarily normal except for strange little dissonances which grow more persistent and troubling as the world is gradually revealed. The depiction of loss and the efforts to persist anyway rings true as does the desperation, randomness, and violence. A note at the end may ring slightly less true but is the sort of thing we sometimes need to tell ourselves. This is an effective contemplation of communication and the ties that bind.

Cleve Cartmill (1908-06-21–1964-02-11)

“Deadline” (Astounding, March 1944)

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I just wanted to acknowledge the author and his famous story which brought US intelligence agents down on him and John W. Campbell, demanding to know who was leaking top secret information about the atomic bomb. Turns out, no one was, but Cleve Cartmill was a very clever user of previously published information who described, with some detail, essential aspects of the bomb. Unfortunately, as a story, it’s not that great, as it simply translates WWII into “SF” by putting it on a world not named Earth and by spelling the Allies and the Axis backwards, not to mention having a woman go far beyond being a justifiably paranoid resistance fighter into being basically insane and/or stupid. Still, while many people wrongly assume SF is supposed to be predictive, it can be, and this is one of the more remarkably prescient tales of SF.

Charles Sheffield (1935-06-25–2002-11-02)

“A Braver Thing” (IAsfm, February 1990)

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On the eve of his Nobel laureate speech, a physicist who has made a breakthrough in interstellar flight reflects on his road to Stockholm. It’s not what you might expect, involving a lost satchel of books which leads to a teenaged infatuation with the mother of the boy who lost the books, as well as a strange friendship with that boy, which produces parallel lives, culminating in a sort of double-Jekyll-and-Hyde situation of dark obessesions, suicide, and more.

In a way this is a hard SF story and, in a way, it’s not science fiction at all. In a way it is “literary” and, in a way, it isn’t. To make that clearer, the author says in his afterword that it’s not science fiction but “fiction about science” and that’s partly true: the science fiction is that it does have a future Nobel winner with a future physical science breakthrough but that science fictional part is not the point, which is its focus on the scientific endeavor along with the good and bad within individuals and humanity as a whole. But with that focus on science and the complete absence of fantasy (allowing the elliptical “given us the stars”) it’s in a way the hardest of hard SF. And it treads perilously near to being overwritten in places but manages to be “literary” (styled and character-centric) without being enfeebled by it. There are many things to choose from in this excellent story but I think the strongest thing about it for me may be its interlocking, resonant plot structure. But if you’re more interested in style, characters, theme, or several other things, it’s here.

Short Story Month

For Featured Futures, obviously, every month is Short Story Month. Still, Charles May reminded me that this month is even more a Short Story Month than the others while taking  a look at a story for the occasion. As he says in “Wil Weitzel’s ‘Lion’–O. Henry Prize Stories—Short Story Month,” it’s “a celebration that has never really caught on with writers or readers, but one to which I feel bound to contribute.” That seems like a fair assessment and I feel much the same.

I found some history in “Making the Case for National Short Story Month” and, from one of the horse’s mouths, “The Origins of Short Story Month: a guest post by Dan Wickett.”

For some current approaches, a literary magazine offers “14 Writers You Love & Their Favorite Short Stories,” with links to those which are available online. I was pleased to see one short story writer I love and am extra-pleased that hers is one you can go read right this very minute to celebrate Short Story Month!: “Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler. (You can also read “Bloodchild,” the title novelette of a collection of wall-to-wall excellence.)