Twenty-Eight Offbeat Science Fiction Books

Inspired by Catherynne M. Valente’s “10 Essential Offbeat Science Fiction Novels,” I thought I’d add some (eighteen) of my favorite weirder books (aiming for novels but ending up with a couple of omnibi and a couple of novella-duos).

Alternate Realities (2000) by C. J. Cherryh. Cherryh is known for gritty realism more than being offbeat but this omnibus contains her oddest, most experimental novels. Wave Without a Shore (1981) is a personal favorite, about art, philosophy, and invisible people, but the Arthurian spaceship of Port Eternity (1982) and the alien mentalities conveyed by odd typography in Voyager in Night (1984) are also interesting.

Carmen Dog (1988) by Carol Emshwiller. Feminist trapeze dogs only start the surrealist meltdown which is nevertheless quite pointed.

The City Not Long After (1989) by Pat Murphy. Like her Californian compatriot, Lisa Goldstein (see below), Murphy writes a somewhat hopeful tale of surrealist revolution.

The Dead Trilogy (1998) by Richard Calder. This set of novels from 1992, 1994, and 1996 are somewhat like Spinrad’s The Void Captain’s Tale in that I ordinarily have little patience for ultra-dense “style” books and this isn’t even about orgasmic starships but, rather, about sorts of sex dolls. A truly bizarre set but one which drew me in and kept me involved—an honest lunacy rather than just outre for outre‘s sake.

Divide and Rule (1948) by L. Sprague de Camp. I’m cheating here (and not for the only time) with a book composed of two novellas (“Divide and Rule” (1939), “The Stolen Dormouse” (1941)) but when people joust in the future and “kangaroos” ride motorcycles, category is a secondary consideration.

Dracula in Love (1979) by John Shirley. Almost every book Shirley’s written could be on this list, especially those around this time: Transmaniacon, Three-Ring Psychus, City Come A-Walkin’, etc. I don’t even remember this one that well but I’m listing it because I just remember thinking this danced on a sharper razor’s edge of “terrible” and “brilliant” than any of his other works. I can’t even remember if this is accurate but it’s the kind of thing that sounds right—from a two-star review from Goodreads: “The adventures of a vampire in love and his living, prehensile penis with yellow glowing eyes.

The Dream Years (1985) by Lisa Goldstein. “Everyone switch drinks!” Lisa Goldstein romps through time with surrealism and revolution always at the forefront. The evocation of the genuine surrealists of France in the 20s and the events of the 60s are particularly good but, unbound, she includes a futuristic component, as well.

The Green Millennium (1953) by Fritz Leiber. Fritz Leiber has done it all. Straight SF, fantasy (ranging from sword & sorcery to practically inventing urban), horror, humor, non-fiction, etc. In this one, an almost Phildickian protagonist meets a green cat and things just get weirder from there. This is a particularly offbeat book because it’s not written in an avant-garde style and isn’t artsy-surreal but is a tough, gritty noir sort of book – with fluffy kitties and farcical humor.

Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) by Jonathan Lethem. Speaking of noir: gun-toting, cigarette-smoking kangaroos.

Knight of Delusions (1982, revised from Night of Delusions (1972)) by Keith Laumer. Yet another book with noir traces. I hesitated to include this because I re-read it not too many eons ago and it seemed much more repetitive and less mind-blowing than I recalled but it was still plenty weird and I include it just for that first mind-blowing experience. The cover with the fish and the alien lighting the protagonist’s cigarette convey a lot but not the twists and turns and funhouse mirrors and inversions and…

Norstrilia (1975) by Cordwainer Smith. Everything in Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind universe is offbeat, with uplifted animals suffering Kierkegaardian spiritual angst in a Sino-Romanesque future. This is the only novel set in that universe, originally published in two halves as The Planet Buyer (1964) and The Underpeople (1968). Stroon!

The Paradox Men (1953, aka Flight into Yesterday) by Charles L. Harness. I suppose this isn’t especially offbeat but is just a good old-fashioned van Vogtian adventure in time and space but, again, that’s plenty weird enough. This is another book which I enjoyed very much on a re-read but not as much as the first time. The first time, this probably came closer to making my head explode than any other book.

Rogue Ship (1965) by A. E. van Vogt. Like Shirley, most everything this wildman wrote could go on this list, especially The World of Null-A), but something about folded-up paper-thin spacemen frozen in time sort of sticks out. (This is fixed up from the 1950 title story (aka “The Twisted Men”—arguably all that’s required), 1947’s “Centaurus II,” and 1963’s “The Expendables.”)

The Solarians (1966) by Norman Spinrad. Like Shirley and van Vogt, most of Spinrad’s works qualify. He’s written a science fiction novel as though it were written by Hitler and others about hippies after an apocalypse, starships powered by orgasms, the power of the media in politics, mind-control cults, and mass-movement networked electronic voting… wait. Something about those last three… Anyway, I pick this one just because it’s like somebody gave John W. Campbell, Jr. a giant bag of Acapulco Gold. One of the most bizarre collisions of the Golden Age and New Wave I’ve witnessed. Harlan Ellison, in an otherwise complimentary piece about Spinrad, described this book as “so bad it cannot be read.” Spinrad’s first professional publication appeared in Campbell’s Analog but, if Campbell read the novel, I don’t doubt that he agreed. But, to me, it’s bad in a good way.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick. Y’know… PKD. Nuff said. Tough to pick the most offbeat but, damn…

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen (1951) by Henry Kuttner (as by Lewis Padgett). Kuttner wrote plenty of offbeat stuff from drunken amnesiac inventors to hyper-accelerated evolved cats but when “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” (1947) opens with “He knew it was a dream when he shot Carolyn through the head. But not until then,” it’s a sign of the Cold War paranoia to come and “The Fairy Chessmen” (1946) immediately tops it with “The doorknob opened a blue eye and looked at him.” The latter is not just the weirder, but also the better, story of the two.

What Mad Universe (1949) by Fredric Brown. SF is real. Oh, the comedy! Oh, the horror! Dark, sharp-edged satire.

Wolfbane (1959) by Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth. Speaking of satire, few of Pohl and Kornbluth’s works are ordinary and everyone should read The Space Merchants. In terms of this list, a case could be made for Gladiator-at-Law but I feel like the wider scope and sense of mystery (Pyramids have carted the Earth out of the solar system) of the basically non-satirical Wolfbane make it offbeat even compared to their other works.


Note: I’m not going to redo this to include a nineteenth title but between writing and posting, I’ve realized I failed to include any one  of White Light (1980), Spacetime Donuts (1981), Master of Space and Time (1984), or most anything else Rudy Rucker’s written. If I left those off, there’s no telling what else I left off. And, of course, there are authors I haven’t even read (books of) who presumably have very offbeat volumes such as R. A. Lafferty. So I hope this list has lots of good and weird stuff but, in terms of comprehensiveness, it ain’t very. Feel free to add more in the comments or write your own blog posts to help fill it out.

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Review: The Golem of Deneb Seven by Alex Shvartsman

The Golem of Deneb Seven and Other Stories
by Alex Shvartsman

Golem_Cover

Date: 2018-03-16 (Amazon)/2018-04-03 (ISFDB)
Format: Trade paperback
ISBN: 978-1986220613
Pages: 266
Price: $15.99 (Amazon)
Publisher: UFO Publishing

Contents:

  • “The Golem of Deneb Seven”
  • “A Perfect Medium for Unrequited Love”
  • “Burying Treasure”
  • “Nouns of Nouns: A Mini Epic”
  • “Whom He May Devour”
  • “Letting Go”
  • “The Fiddle Game”
  • “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Monsters”
  • “Islands in the Sargasso”
  • “Catalogue of Items in the Chess Exhibition at the Humanities Museum, Pre-Enlightenment Wing”
  • “Fifteen Minutes”
  • “Masquerade Night”
  • “The Poet-Kings and the Word Plague”
  • “Golf to the Death”
  • “Staff Meeting, as Seen by the Spam Filter”
  • “Invasive Species”
  • “One in a Million”
  • “Grains of Wheat”
  • “The Ganthu Eggs”
  • “The Practical Guide to Punching Nazis”
  • “Dante’s Unfinished Business”
  • “Forty-Seven Dictums of Warfare”
  • “How Gaia and the Guardian Saved the World”
  • “He Who Watches”
  • “Recall Notice”
  • “Dreidel of Dread: The Very Cthulhu Chanukah”
  • “Die, Miles Cornbloom”
  • “A Man in an Angel Costume”
  • “Future Fragments, Six Seconds Long”
  • “Parametrization of Complex Weather Patterns for Two Variables”
  • “The Race for Arcadia”

Depending on your inclination, the table of contents may not be so exciting or forbidding as it appears. Seventeen of the thirty-one stories are inarguably flash (less than one thousand words) and four more are less than two thousand. About a third of all lengths are clearly intended to be humorous, albeit sometimes darkly so, while the more serious nature of the other two thirds ranges from light to dark. Almost three-fifths are science fiction of one sort or another and the rest are fantasy except for one non-speculative story. Most of the stories were published in Galaxy’s Edge (those tending to be longer and better), IGMS (longer, lesser), Nature (shorter, better), and Daily SF (shorter, lesser).

The humorous fantasy flash or near-flash includes tales of metafictional satire (“Noun of Nouns,” “Seven Habits”) and Lovecraftian spoofs (“Cthulhu Chanukah.” “Recall Notice”), while the more serious ones include a magical con job (“Fiddle Game”), a non-magical con job crossed with a divinatory love story (“Future Fragments”), a biter-bit (“Forty-Seven Dictums”), a sort of demonic inverted “It’s a Terrible Life” (“Angel Costume”), and a surreal fantastic fable (“Poet-Kings”). I have problems with several of these, such as “Seven Habits” reading like a weak echo of “The Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord,” but most simply may or may not appeal to a given reader. My favorite was “Recall Notice,” in which letters from librarians of Miskatonic University tell the tale of Lovecraft the Third using Grandpa’s library card to check out things like “Preparing an Occult Ritual in Ten Easy Steps, Sports Illustrated: The Swimsuit Issue, Properly Pronouncing Your Invocations: Audio book on CD” and others to raise hell on earth.

Oddly, the shorter SF stories are more serious. They deal with alien invasions of varying sorts (“Catalogue of Items,” “Invasive Species”), nuclear apocalypse (“He Who Watches”), an omniverse quantum magic story (“One in a Million”), various sorts of love stories (mixed with weather control hacktivists in “Parametrization;” with time travel in “Letting Go”; with AIs in “Perfect Medium”). Three more AI pieces involve a couple of AIs in a depopulated solar system trying to figure out how to save Earth from a natural disaster (“Gaia and the Guardian”), a spam filter “becoming” sentient in a story which seems like it ought to be funny but unsuccessfully goes dark (“Staff Meeting”) and a person who feels tormented by an AI in a story which seems dark but very successfully goes for black comedy (“Fifteen Minutes”). The two science fictional revenge fantasies include another time travel listory (“Practical Guide”), while the much better one (“Grains of Wheat”) is a thoughtful look at business and medicine. The average quality of the SF may edge the fantasy though “Letting Go” is so contrived (and second person, present tense) and “Practical Guide” is so insufficiently transmuted by art that they don’t help the average. On the other hand, “Grains of Wheat” is transmuted by art and “Fifteen Minutes” is superb. Even some of the more middling pieces have some really nice elements such as the depictions of the Europans in “Gaia and the Guardian” and the clever methods of encoding messages in “Perfect Medium.”

Moving to the longer short stories, “Die, Miles Cornbloom” is an oddity in that it’s so weird it feels almost fantastic but isn’t. Miles and his pal are living their humdrum lives except that Miles has somehow acquired a stalker who has moved up to death threats. As the story progresses, so does the danger and then a twist occurs. It’s not a perfect story but it was effectively tense while managing a bit of lightness and worked for me.

The actual fantasies include another metafictional satire which takes issue with the economics of fantasy in “Burying Treasure” and the posthumous fantasy and unconvincing anti-pot diatribe, “Dante’s Unfinished Business.” Much more successful is “Masquerade Night” which uses the familiar motif of gods whose powers have waned along with their followers but creates a very powerful, creepy, and weird feel. It tells of a cat-god encountering a beautiful woman in the masquerades which allow the worlds of the humans and gods to barely, dangerously touch through the mediums of their disguises. The story is set in the 1920s and, indeed, feels like one of the good old-fashioned Weird Tales.

The longer science fiction pieces include the collection’s only novelette, “Islands in the Sargasso,” which is an installment in the shared-world series of “The Sargasso Containment” that Galaxy’s Edge ran from 2014-2016. Readers might benefit from being familiar with some of the other stories but I think this stands alone fairly well and is a pretty solid space opera which handles its drugs (a science fictional “Rust”) more convincingly and ambiguously than “Unfinished Business.” A recovering addict is fleeing from pursuers and must enter the barrier which surrounds the solar system and has previously meant certain death. He awakens on the other side two hundred years later and the scale of the tale broadens significantly. The other short stories include the title story about courage in invasions which isn’t provided by mechanized armor and “Whom He May Devour,” about a young woman dealing with technologically advanced humans encroaching on her religious and backwards world whose sole technology is devoted to preserving their uploaded ancestors. The worst of the short SF is “The Ganthu Eggs” which uses the poor device of a letter from a “mass-murderer” to a warden on behalf of another “mass-murderer” prisoner which depends on an anti-abortion viewpoint and trivializes the issue either way with the letter’s main concern. Along with “Sargasso,” two other tales compensate for that. “The Race for Arcadia” is a pretty good tale about a terminally ill man trying to win a second space race as a Russian competing against Americans and Indians to get to an earth-like world first, with a twist. “Golf to the Death” uses the “champion of the species” framework. In it, a man witnesses a human fight an alien in the aliens’ chosen sport and then must compete in the humans’ chosen sport, but with alien stakes, as they “golf to the death.” Just saying that makes me laugh and the story handles the premise reasonably well.

This is a collection with directly written stories full of familiar elements which for some readers will be a feature and for some a bug. Similarly, some may appreciate the mix of SF & F and of humor and seriousness while some might prefer just peanut butter or just chocolate. However it shakes out for the given reader, I do recommend several (the science fiction of “Fifteen Minutes,” the fantasy of “Masquerade Night,” and the mild suspense of “Die, Miles Cornbloom”) and think several more are notable (“Islands in the Sargasso,” “Golf to the Death,” “Grains of Wheat,” “Recall Notice,” and “The Race for Arcadia”).

Review of Trope-ing the Light Fantastic for Tangent

Trope-ing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction is a collection of sixteen articles by science and science fiction writer Edward M. Lerner. They were originally published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact from 2011 to 2016 and have been “integrated, expanded…, and updated” for this book….

Full review at Tangent: Trope-ing the Light Fantastic.

(I reviewed this a month and a half ago but it’s just being published now.)

Review: Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities

Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures
edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich

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Date: 2017(-12)
Format: PDF, available in other formats including Print-on-Demand
ISBN: 978-0-9995902-2-5
Pages: 347
Price: $0.00
Publisher: Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University

Original Fiction:

  • “Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz
  • “Mozart on the Kalahari” by Steven Barnes
  • “The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder
  • “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby
  • “The Use of Things ” by Ramez Naam
  • “Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn
  • “Shikasta” by Vandana Singh

(Apologies for the odd style and lateness of this review—I didn’t originally intend to cover this at all and then the coverage took place in several confused and expanding chunks of reading and writing over a long period of time.)

This book includes seven stories, with pairs set in low earth orbit, Mars, and the asteroids, ending with a single indirectly interstellar story. Each story has a beautifully done illustration and is followed by one or two essays by other authors (nine essays, plus an opening pair and closing trio) which I’m not going to get into much beyond saying that, unlike the art and unusually for me and science non-fiction, I didn’t feel they added much value. None really address the quality of the fiction as fiction, simply taking the stories as given unless some implausibility is pointed out. They aren’t intended to be literary critiques, but it undercuts the connection of the essay to the story and sometimes brings to mind people insisting the emperor, in fact, has clothes, undercutting a sense of credibility. Further, few even address the science (physics, chemistry, etc.) of the stories, which I would think was to the point, but are more interested in the social aspects. Perhaps most strikingly, while not speaking with one voice and being ostensibly created through the efforts of Arizona State University with a grant from NASA (that is, you, the taxpayer), they mostly promulgate a pro-corporate “higher education as vo-tech,” “NASA as free corporate R&D” view to the point that I wondered if this was sponsored by a university or by corporations through a university as a form of “idea-laundering,” though hopefully that’s an unjustified suspicion.

“Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz

The protagonist is sent out by his corporate overlord to steal a small, old satellite, which the plutocrat really does want, but the job is primarily a way to clear witnesses away from his weaponizing of space. How the protagonist reacts is supposed to be the crux of the drama but, as written, there is no drama in this essentially plotless, albeit idea-filled, story. Despite being chosen for a “year’s best,” I wasn’t particularly impressed by this, aside from its researched, thought-out, hard SF nature.

“Mozart on the Kalahari” by Steven Barnes

Michael “Meek” Prouder is a smart kid with an interest in gene modding plants but lacks the resources and social infrastructure to maximize his talents. This has left him with a shady past, a bizarre condition, and difficulty trying to realize his dream of going to space. He hopes things may start going better for him when he learns of a contest with a prize that would get him to space but things become complicated when he actually enters it.

This seems to be partly a homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky and is mostly very effective at portraying the main character and addressing his plight in a way that will resonate for some readers (including this one, in ways). My only real problems with the story are that the character seems too smart to be so dense or vice versa and the plot seems a little too coincidental (both issues making the fiction as strange as truth), and that the big reveal may be too telegraphed and involves an element that has been done before, though I can’t recall the story (or stories) that did it. That was mostly outweighed by how engaged I was with the character and the story and how rewarding they were.

“The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder

A woman who is feeding a bunch of time-displaced “Martians” comes up with an idea to transform the human race’s economy, method of governing itself, and its expansion into space, so heads off to the U.N. to explain it to the Powers That Be. The setup for this is that some humans who are among the legions of unemployed have begun “prospecting” on Mars, creating the infrastructure of a colony remotely by VR (we’re assured the time-lag isn’t a problem). But this is only due to the “no claims” space treaty and the corporate sponsors are really just waiting for all this to fail so the treaty can be torn up and the real gold rush can begin.

The colonization-by-VR feels fairly novel but it probably hasn’t been used much because it isn’t very workable. The “Martian Timeslip” or “Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World” isn’t so fresh, nor is the way it makes interplanetary colonization dull and mundane and mires it all in a socio-politico-economic treatise thinly wrapped in fiction. Schroeder’s fiction is generally very wonky but in a very cool way and is much better than this particular example.

“Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby

Part of the rationale for an all-female crew on a proto-colonization mission to Mars includes a social-bonding experiment and that bonding is stressed when it is revealed that one of the women has known she’s dying and lied about it. It is further tested when a man is shipped in (alone) on an emergency flight to help with some problems.

This story is very nearly crippled by a serious early flaw and a milder later flaw, but manages to barely survive both. The first is that almost any human will be sympathetic to almost any depiction of death but the specific agonies of the dying woman and her distraught crew are not things we can actually share because, for example, this paragraph—

Donna was dying. Donna, who had calmly helped her slide the rods into the sleeves as they pitched tents in Alberta one dark night while the wolves howled and the thermometer dropped to 30 below. Donna, who had said, “Of course you can do it. That’s not the question,” when Khalidah reached between the cots during isolation week and asked Donna if the older woman thought she was really tough enough to do the job. Donna, without whom Khalidah might have quit at any time.

—comes in the middle of the story, rather than at the beginning. We don’t know Donna or Khalidah or the others when Donna’s imminent death is revealed and the emoting begins. The second problem is that, once we are up to speed and emotionally involved in the tale, it has many valid insights and feelings (such as how one death seems to raise all previous deaths a person has experienced right back to the present) and seems genuine but then pushes it a hair too far, giving a taste of saccharine sentimentality. (A third minor problem is that I don’t feel the sub-story of Khalidah and dad and the baseball is ever really “finished.”) All that said, this is another researched, hard SF tale whose character interactions eventually ring mostly true and which conveys some truths, such as how badly some things can be wanted and how badly they need to be wanted and what costs this can have. This has also been selected (twice) as a “Year’s Best” and, while I doubt it would have actually made that cut for me, I still recommend it.

“The Use of Things ” by Ramez Naam

A lone man working on an asteroid finds himself in a life and death situation when an inexplicable explosion breaks his tether and hurls him away.

This tries to be a good old-fashioned problem story but its “manned or unmanned” theme is too blatant, the idea that an unmanned mission would be retrofitted as a manned one at the last minute (for “PR”—to have a “face of the mission”) is virtually impossible and this is the second story I’ve read recently of a panicking astronaut, not to mention one who entertains for an instant the idea that a thrown roll of tape could counteract the force of an explosion that ripped a tether and his suit apart. Finally, the astronaut’s fate has nothing to do with his character. I did find this bit funny (in a sense), though:

The data center of the future would have just one man in it, Jimmy said, and one dog.

The man’s job was to feed the dog.

The dog’s job was to make sure the man didn’t touch anything.

“Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn

A woman is working the “Night Shift,” monitoring an AI as it deploys the nanobots that will transform an asteroid into its valuable components. She reminds me of Ghostbusters‘ Egon (who “collects spores, molds, and fungus”) except that her thing is just slime molds which, with her hacking skills, she parlays into nanobots. Things get a little complicated when, due to her anthropomorphizing of “Seth,” she is initially unaware that “he” has disabled the killswitch which prevents uncontrolled replication.

This is a winning first-person narration and touches on “remote colonization” like “The Baker of Mars,” but more convincingly and handles the “is it human or Memorex?” quandary of “Shikasta” in a far superior way… at first. But then the story reaches a very mild and trivially solved crisis point, makes a little speech, and just stops. “That’s it?” is never a good reaction on turning the page and not finding any more story.

“Shikasta” by Vandana Singh

A handful of good people (one of whom has been killed by bad people) did or do work on a crowd-funded starship mission to send an AI to the eponymous system where it interacts with a variation on the Horta of Star Trek‘s “The Devil in the Dark”—this one is a sort of magnetic wind creature.

This radically over-long, dull, and implausible story is inelegantly exposed and is the worst sort of clumsy combo of “the Two Cultures” with a lot of subjective navel-gazing combined with hard SF infodumps. Also, speaking of two cultures, if this were written in the same way by a Westerner about Eastern cultures, it would be roundly condemned. All that said, it’s in a “year’s best” so I may well be in the minority here.

Edit (2018-05-26): rearranged and added to the bibliographical information.

Review of Infinity Wars for Tangent

Review of Infinity Wars, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Recommended:

  • “In Everlasting Wisdom” by Aliette de Bodard (SF short story *)
  • “Command and Control” by David D. Levine (SF short story *)
  • “Heavies” by Rich Larson (SF short story)
  • “Weather Girl” by E. J. Swift (SF novelette *)
  • “ZeroS” by Peter Watts (SF novelette)

Review: The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean

The Trouble with You Earth People
by Katherine MacLean

Date: 1980
Format: Trade paperback
ISBN: 0-915442-95-7
Pages: 237
Price: $4.95
Publisher: Donning (Starblaze Editions)

Contents:

  • “The Trouble with You Earth People” (Amazing, 1968-02, novelette)
  • “Unhuman Sacrifice” (Astounding, 1958-11, novelette)
  • “The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl” (Analog, 1975-01, short story)
  • “Syndrome Johnny” (Galaxy, 1951-07, short story)
  • “Trouble with Treaties” (Star SF #5, 1959-05, novelette, with Tom Condit)
  • “The Origin of the Species” (Children of Wonder, 1953-03, short story)
  • “Collision Orbit” (SF Adventures, 1954-05, short story)
  • “The Fittest” (Worlds Beyond, 1951-01, short story)
  • “These Truths” (Royal Publications, 1958, short story)
  • “Contagion” (Galaxy, 1950-10, novelette)
  • “Brain Wipe” (Frontiers 2, 1973, short story)
  • “The Missing Man” (Analog, 1971-03, novella)
  • “The Carnivore” (Galaxy, 1953-10, short story)

The opening and title story, “The Trouble with You Earth People,” is a first contact tale involving aliens who appear somewhat dog-like (possibly illustrated on the back cover). It tackles human taboos which manifest in suppressed language and suppressed thought which, in the story, result in an inability to fully make contact with the aliens or to understand their science (drawing on Whorf). It’s a delightfully oddball tale which simultaneously feels like a classic Silver Age tale of first contact and a thoroughly New Wave “dangerous vision” with its alien expressing its joy of meeting and desire for understanding by taking off its clothes and telling the thoroughly flustered elderly anthropologist, “You are beautiful. I would fertilize you if I could.”

Themes of repression and the use of animal-like aliens to help construct what are almost beast fables abound. There are bear-like aliens (or teddy-bear-like aliens) on Venus in “The Fittest,” which questions what defines the “fittest” to survive and the lion-like aristocats of “These Truths” which demonstrates that all cats might be brothers and shows how they might be encouraged to be more democratic, not to mention a menagerie of various herbivores whose fears of humanity’s aggression result in a tragically high cost in “The Carnivore.” Among the many stories which feature some element of repression, “Brain Wipe” is one of the more direct, dealing with an abusive father and his son who faces the titular punishment. “Origin of the Species” is more of a superman story and considers what it was like for the Promethean monkeys who were more human than their counterparts and what it would be like for a post-human among today’s humans, including the various kinds of repression it would face.

For one reason or another, while none are bad, these aren’t the strongest stories. “These Truths” has an odd tripartite structure which initially feels like it’s going to be time travel or alternate history (something MacLean rarely or never does), “Brain Wipe” lacks any sort of catharsis or conceptual breakthrough, “Carnivore” is somewhat similar in that regard and suffers from problems such as humans not actually being “carnivores,” and so on. Another of the less successful tales is “The Trouble with Treaties” which, perhaps due to being co-written, feels less like MacLean and aims at humor but doesn’t always hit the mark (though mileage may vary). It involves an aggressive multi-species empire running into a ship full of pacifist psionic humans and their goldfish, parakeets, and cat.

On the other hand, one of the strongest, if not the strongest tale is the second, “Unhuman Sacrifice,” which deals with the two crewmen of a small starship, the missionary they’ve had to convey to an alien world, and the natives who have a bizarre coming-of-age ritual which involves tying the youths upside down to trees and is sometimes fatal. From religious motives, the preacher wants to intervene with words and, from compassion, the initially resistant crewmen get involved with action. If you don’t see it coming, the result should be shocking and, even if you do see it coming, the result is well-constructed and still thoroughly effective. A couple of my favorite parts involve the main native’s very strange yet completely plausible perception of what the humans must be and the extremely exciting “fighting the flood” scene that basically forms the climax. In terms of combining dramatic action and thoughtful concepts, this is SF at its best.

(As “Unhuman Sacrifice” is a classic first contact tale, “Contagion” is an example of the classic “lost colony” tale and enjoyable, if less successful. The biology of the drastic effects of the first colonists on the second wave seems far-fetched, to say the least, and there are other issues but it’s a dramatic tale with interesting psychosexual dynamics, replete with irony, and with an interesting Catch-22.)

The third tale, “The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl,” is part of MacLean’s four-story “Hills of Space” set. Another example in this collection is “Collision Orbit.” I’m not sure of the precise political philosophy term but both stories depict a sort of anarchist or libertarian frontier society of tin cans (or “barrels”) in the Asteroid Belt in which people are supposed to be quite self-sufficient and non-aggressive but can defend themselves to an extent and depend on their neighbors for even more defense, all done in a sort of ad hoc communal way. The first tale is a very peculiar and funny tale of a Christian mother and her passel of children. When one goes out to make his way in the world and comes back with a sinful girl from a gambling hell as his fiance (fancifully illustrated on the front), relations are strained but, when the thugs from the gambling hell arrive to force her back to work, the family members again band together and demonstrate their resourcefulness. Similarly, when the protagonist of “Collision Orbit” is faced with a gang of robbers on the run who try to take over his establishment, he also shows he’s not to be trifled with.

The fourth tale, “Syndrome Johnny,” anticipates James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” with its biological tale of plague and comes right on the heels of de Camp’s Brazil-centered Viagens stories in depicting a Federated States of America which has more of a Spanish than English flavor. (Incidentally, “The Trouble with Treaties” and “Unhuman Sacrifice” and perhaps others feature “brown” characters who may be of South European, African or other ancestry.) This is also partly a superman tale or “next stage” story and can be interpreted as being extremely tough-minded and cynically realist. Like “Contagion,” it may be a little “super science” more than scientifically realistic, but is still quite interesting.

“The Missing Man” is the largest and most significant chunk of her other series of Rescue Squad tales, which were fixed up into the novel Missing Man (1975). I recall enjoying the novel but, very similarly to Silverberg’s Nightwings, the fixup sort of buries the special excellences of the core novella, regardless of its own merits or that of the other pieces. It tells the tale of the empathic George and the logical Ahmed who are searching for the missing man, Carl Hodges. Hodges is a computer and repair man of a futuristic New York in which there are, for example, underwater Brooklyn and Jersey domes. He has wandered into a “teener” gang’s area and been captured. His knowledge of the city’s weak points is being used by the gang’s clever terrorist leader as a method of extortion/political activism, beginning with the destruction of the Brooklyn Dome. With its overpopulated city and its gangs and activism, it is part of its “turn of the Sixties” era and kin to other stories such as Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room!, but when it describes commuters glued to their portable TVs akin to our “phones” and describes people literally living in “kingdoms” of similar people akin to our metaphorical internet bubbles (while “nonconformists who could not choose a suitable conformity” live in “mixed places”), it seems quite contemporary. Either way, her future city is a brilliant conception, the empathic and half-lost George is an interesting protagonist, the initial stages of the story are well-plotted, the action when George is desperately trying to escape the Jersey Dome is exciting, and the philosophical/technical moments of the later stages are provocative, even if the plot starts to decohere a bit at that point. (Since this is the story I first read in Nebula Award Stories Seven which led me to explore MacLean further, I obviously recommend it, even if it didn’t blow me away the way it did on a first reading.)

As mentioned, some of this collection’s recurring motifs are unconventional social structures (“The Trouble with Treaties,” the Hills of Space stories, “The Missing Man”) and aliens (usually of a familiar animal-sort) almost always in first contact scenarios. One thing that’s remarkable is that only one is a “the world watches as the aliens arrive” sort of tale and they’re all different in their ways, showing creativity in ringing the changes on the type. Another recurring motif is psi powers, which feature in several stories in some way or another (“Trouble with Treaties,” “The Fittest,” “The Missing Man”) but rarely in an especially magical or comic book way. Multiple stories are biologically-focused and deal with evolution and/or next-step supermen (again, not in a comic book way) and deal with the question of what is “fit” and how to survive. Some involve crime and punishment, which ranges from assimilation in “Collision Course” to brain wipes in “Brain Wipe,” along with the kindred subjects of taboo and religion. Perhaps the main impression this group of stories leaves the reader with is that of species struggling against limitations and trying to persist in an effort to become something greater.

I don’t know how her first collection, The Diploids (1962), would fare on re-reading, but I recall it being superb. Based on the recollection of that collection, I would say it was the more essential of the two but The Trouble with You Earth People is still recommended as a whole. Individually, I recommend “Unhuman Sacrifice” and “The Missing Man” and also appreciated the title story, the two “Hills of Space” stories, “Syndrome Johnny” and “Contagion,” while the rest are never less than readable.

(A caveat on the physical book: it is “edited and illustrated by Polly and Kelly Freas” but the interior illustrations are sparse, the book is filled with typos, and the prefaces to the stories are confusing and only one is attributed. I don’t know if the rest are by MacLean, the Freases, or Hank Stine (the one attribution). But it’s a nicely constructed book with durable covers and excellent front and back art and, depending on the story, is one of the few ways or the only way to have it in book form.)

Edit (2018-05-26): re-positioned cover image, rearranged the bibliographical information, added “ex libris” tag.