Review: In Joy Still Felt by Isaac Asimov


In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954-1978 by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $19.95, 828pp, 1980
Paperback: Avon, $9.95, 828pp, 1981

The second volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, published a year after the first[1], is actually the second half of a single manuscript. As such, it has five sections like the first’s six, which are divided into forty-six chapters like the first’s fifty-five and each chapter is divided into a varying number of sections. However, the second volume generally has many more and shorter sections per chapter and, given that each section is really a story or anecdote or other atomic element of autobiography, it results in the second seeming much choppier and less cohesive. Also, for the general science fiction fan, it suffers in comparison to the first because it mostly focuses on the period in which Asimov wrote very little SF, turning instead to writing mostly non-fiction (and mysteries). However, for the Asimov fan, this may be as important and it’s still interesting and entertaining. Moreover, it’s difficult to imagine any such fan having the first volume and not wanting the second at least for the sake of completeness.

The first part describes his battle with higher-ups in the Boston University School of Medicine due to a genuine animosity toward him, ostensibly due to his writing somehow making him a bad teacher and reflecting badly on the school when, really, he was a popular lecturer, at least, and was esteemed for even his early writing, including his science writing, despite his vulgar involvement with science fiction. He was ultimately able to retain his title and a connection to the school while giving up the actual teaching duties he wasn’t especially fond of in the first place and the day would come when he would be given honorary degrees by multiple universities, be invited to do special things for Boston University, and have a library of his works collected there.

This part also describes the birth of his second child, Robyn, which is odd in at least a couple of ways. One, which he is aware of, is that he wasn’t contributing to his pet fear of overpopulation but he wasn’t contributing to its solution, either. The second, which he seems unaware of, is an apparent complete lack of interest in his first son, David, combined with an infatuation with Robyn which makes his word “doting” an understatement. He and Gertrude certainly seem to have taken care of David, who seems to have turned out well, but I can’t imagine there not being some sort of psychological issue there.

Most of the remaining sections cover his transformation into a science popularizer and a general polymath who wrote everything from books on the Bible and Shakespeare to original “lecherous” limericks. Along the way, the fascinating background is given to oddities like his writing a science fiction movie novelization (Fantastic Voyage, 1966), another intended story which became a novel which won him his first “regular” Hugo as well as a Nebula (The Gods Themselves, 1972), and his successful second effort in the 1970s at writing mysteries after something of a commercial failure in 1958. The ever increasing number of books written at an ever increasing pace is detailed. His rising fees and increasing schedule as a speaker is also described. His increasing celebrity and his increasing interactions with fellow celebrities, from the scientist Carl Sagan to the cartoonist Al Capp to the envy-inducing meetings with Racquel Welch and Julie Newmar, are also narrated.

Those sections also tell the story of his divorce from Gertrude, his first wife, after thirty-one years and his marriage to Janet, his second, which was to last the almost twenty remaining years of his life. The oddity here is that he met Janet years before and made a bad first impression, but met her again and they seem very fond of each other from that point on until, at his separation and return to New York from Boston, they immediately meet and move as quickly to marriage as the slowness of the divorce proceedings allow. Yet Asimov disclaims any romantic connection beforehand which leaves his complete failure to give any reasons for the divorce in an otherwise minutely detailed autobiography all the more puzzling.

Another interesting thread is the discussion of how a man who refused to fly in an airplane was able to travel to England and South America and more after he discovered his love of cruise ships and the generally pleasant times he spent on them, almost always with Janet but sometimes alone, and at his destinations.

Contrasting with the general successes and happy second marriage, he also discusses the deaths of his father and then his mother, coupled with his own health struggles with thyroid cancer and then a coronary in 1977 (which might have killed him if it had been a little more severe, especially with how he handled it, eating cheescake explicitly against doctor’s orders and stupidly walking to his appointment and running up the stairs as a self-test). But it ends with the happy note of his (temporary, as it turned out) recovery, the establishment of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and the celebration of his two hundredth published book (which was the co-published first volume of the autobiography (Doubleday) and Opus 200 (Houghton Mifflin)).

The main narrative ends on December 31, 1977 with the assumption of an eventual third volume if he lives long enough “except that” the section continues with what might have been better as an epilogue or something of the sort which updates his book count to include this, the 215th publication, through 1979 and his promotion to a full, rather than “associate” professor of biochemistry. (Both these cutoffs make the last date in the subtitle confusing.)

Unfortunately, while there was a third book of autobiography, I. Asimov was not a continuation of the first two using the same method, but mostly a recapitulation of the two volumes using a different method and partly an extension of it with the new method.

One of the things that surprised me is that, while I knew he never turned his back on the field of SF as some other writers did and continued to appear in SF magazines with his F&SF column and frequent stories and even the occasional novel, I wasn’t aware of how trivial these things were to his overall self-perception in that era. In other words, he really did mentally move on from SF and it was mere unimportant dabbling as far as he was concerned. Part of the reason for this was due to the ease and speed with which he wrote non-fiction which coupled with his increasing mania for counting his books. By the end of his life, he counted around five hundred books and, in this autobiography, sometimes laments his failure to count something he might have or justifies to himself and his readers the things he did count but, really, this is one area at least in which his integrity fails. If you exclude counting some books in multiple revisions, all the things for very small children of very few pages, all the pamphlets and even charts, all the things he put his name on for contributions he made, all the books Martin H. Greenberg primarily edited and which he wrote introductions for, I think a reasonable count of his true written books is less than two hundred, mostly for teenagers, and often reusing the same material in different guises. It’s still a prodigious number and isn’t in need of unseemly inflation but it did indeed become a mania for him. Most of his first one or two hundred books account for most of the “solid” books and the last three hundred include few and most of those come from his return to science fiction in the period just outside the bounds of this autobiography.

Other than the book counting mania, one of the things that makes Asimov’s recounting of his successes with “charming Asimovian immodesties” and “cheerful self-appreciation” appealing is that he recounts his many failures and failings with equal openness, making a special point to admit to all the stupidities the genius committed that his friends delighted in pointing out. Many “immodest” people have a sort of meanness which involves a smug air and/or the belittling of others but Asimov’s is generally indeed “cheerful” in that he’s simply happy about characteristics he has or things he’s done and it’s an infectious joy that few would begrudge him or themselves and it’s always coupled with the admissions of the many things he couldn’t do or the few things he has failed at. Without ever saying the words or making a special point of it, it is a sort of “American success story” in which the kid of immigrant parents becomes a rich, world-famous, successful author.

In sum, it’s an interesting story told with Asimov’s considerable enthusiasm and general clarity (barring an occasional opacity such as his divorce), with much humor and general insight (barring an occasional blind-spot) and, while not as strong (especially for the less specifically Asimovian and more general SF fan) in the latter part as the earlier, it’s part of a whole (to that point) which is indispensable.

[1] I reviewed the first volume (In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954, Doubleday, $15.95, 732pp, 1979) in 2020 as part of my “Asimov’s Centennial” reviews with a series of extremely detailed reviews in tandem with the SF he published in that period (and barely beyond) which make them quite inconsistent with the style of this one. Those reviews were

Review: Nine Tomorrows by Isaac Asimov


Nine Tomorrows by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $3.50, 236pp, 1959
Paperback: Fawcett Crest, $1.95, 224pp, c.1980 (Contents)

Nine Tomorrows is Isaac Asimov’s third and final collection of all-1950s stories[1] and his last “bare” collection (one without Asimov’s personal notes on the volume as a whole and/or its individual contents). After this collection, while never leaving the field of SF, he would focus primarily on writing non-fiction for almost the next quarter-century and it would be five years before his next SF book.

Like the previous collection, Earth Is Room Enough, this collection includes poems but, in this case, both are placed at the beginning. According to his autobiography, he wrote “I Just Make Them Up, See!” when he was feeling down. It has someone asking him the ubiquitous “Where do you get your ideas?” question in a very colorful way. “Rejection Slips” is a three-part poem which parodies the styles of Campbell’s, Gold’s, and Boucher’s rejection letters. The first is unusual and good enough and the second is quite funny but both are more fannish in their appeal and won’t register with every fiction or poetry reader.

The fiction itself is also arranged like Earth Is Room Enough, with the longest stories on each end and the shorter stories between (though the third is middle-length). The pattern is repeated so precisely that the first story in this book, “Profession,” is the longest in the book and fills a quarter of it, just like “The Dead Past.” And, like that story from the prior collection, “Profession” features a sort of intellectual anarchist in a bureaucratic milieu with those two elements combining to illustrate a theme which is complex and controversial. George lives in a society so technologically advanced that the necessary education can’t be stuffed into people’s heads the old-fashioned way, but requires direct implantation via education tapes. Children experience a Reading Day where, one day, they can’t read, and the next, they can. At this time, they are also analyzed and tend on their ways to their generally foreordained professions: whatever task their brain structure specially fits them for. However, something’s a bit odd about George and, much to his surprise, rather than being recruited by a prestigious planet to immigrate there as a computer programmer, he finds himself stuck on Earth and, worse, in a sort of “special ed” facility. Just how special is up to him to find out.

While it’s clear that much of humanity tends to fall into rote roles through inertia and that a few are different, this story has an odd biologically determined elitism that comes closer to most of the things Asimov would stand against than for but, however one takes the thematic content, it is provocative. Even if it didn’t have that, the dynamics of George’s plight and the quietly elaborate and creative future society[2] make this a worthwhile read.

At the other end is “The Ugly Little Boy” which also features an interestingly complex background involving a scientist/entrepreneur inventing a way to bring elements from the past into stasis rooms (neither there nor entirely here) where people in the present can interact with them. Initially restricted to fairly long ranges, the invention becomes capable of bringing in historical figures. The story focuses on a nurse who is brought in to care for a young neanderthal child and her reaction when, after having grown deeply attached to “the ugly little boy,” the bringing in of historical figures results in the boy’s maintenance in the stasis room being considered too costly for an older, less popular product. In a way, this story is like Lester del Rey’s more sentimental stories but it has a fascinating conceptual background and excellent and complicatedly interacting characters from the boss and his child to the nurse and “her” child in all their combinations. This is yet another story that leaves one wondering where the idea that Asimov doesn’t have characters, especially not female, comes from.

Of the shorter stories in between, “The Feeling of Power[3] amusingly turns the notion of technological advance on its head when humans are fighting Deneb with self-programming computers and are at a stalemate until they discover that they can do math themselves with only their brains and paper. This may give them a bizarre edge in the conflict.

It’s an odd story unlike most other stories of the time (including Asimov’s own) in being aware of mechanical miniaturization and is a hair from anticipating Vernor Vinge’s Singularity (but misses it completely) and one has to wonder how we lost all records of the principles of multiplication but not all other history (however confused what has been retained may be) and why the technician who rediscovered them by analyzing the working of computers uses base ten instead of two but it’s just always stuck in my head as a remarkable concept.

The Dying Night” is a murder mystery set at an astronomers’ convention and involves three old college buddies who have each gone off to the moon, Ceres, and Mercury while an embittered fourth developed a heart defect and had to remain on Earth where he turned his superior intellect to developing a matter-transmission device which would enable him to travel to other worlds without rockets. When he ends up dead, the peculiar detective (and recurring character) Wendell Urth is called in to investigate. It’s a clever and interesting tale in most ways but seems to have three flaws: even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t figure it out the first time, the solution seems too obvious at one point in retrospect; I have to wonder why astronomers would be such whizzes at developing matter-transmission devices; and I have to wonder why the perpetrator could fail to overcome one mental block at the same time he succeeds in overcoming a much stronger mental block.

I’m in Marsport Without Hilda” is another sort of mystery in which an agent must determine which of three powerful men are importing illegal drugs without angering the two who are not guilty of this crime, all while the agent tries to secure a date with an impatient woman. Some may not be amused by the married man’s strenuous efforts at infidelity but it’s a reasonably clever tale which should amuse most. (Note, about a half-page is cut and some “hard-boiled” words are changed from the original and subsequent printings (such as in Asimov’s Mysteries) because Asimov’s book editor felt librarians might no longer trust Asimov to be squeaky clean but, really, this actually removes much of the rationale for the word association gimmick and otherwise makes virtually no difference.)

The “Gentle Vultures” are aliens who are named such by the human they’ve abducted in order to ascertain why humans are not following the usual pattern and having a nuclear war. Their usual practice is to wait for the event and then to rehabilitate the survivors. Deciding that we may never have a nuclear war, they decide to try to start it for us, though their principles (more biologically ingrained than ethically acquired) present quite an obstacle. The presentation of the aliens as being horrific to the human (and to humans generally) while just acting according to their natures and even being virtuous from their point of view is done well and sets this story a little above similar tales.

All the Troubles of the World” is one of several stories (and the first of two in this collection) dealing with the giant ultracomputer, Multivac, in which the practically omniscient artificial intelligence has humanity place on it all their troubles with the directive to solve them. When a man seems to be impossibly falsely arrested, the humans in charge of administering Multivac learn something shocking. Usually super-AIs are shown as great boons or great dangers but this story has a unique perspective. The ending could be seen as melodramatic or as effectively surprising and powerful.

Spell My Name with an S” deals with a “numerologist” helping a physicist who wants more independent work and recognition. The numerologist’s admission that he’s more of a statistician, the change he suggests, and its effects are fun to trace out and, while the ending might strike some as a bridge too far (and reminiscent of another story in the book), that’s also an entertaining loop in its way, following on a generally entertaining and clever story.

Asimov’s “Nightfall” was ranked as the all-time best story by the SFWA when The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I was published in 1970 but, despite that, I think this book saves an even better story for last (of the shorter stories, at least). “The Last Question” opens in the (still) near future of 2061 with Multivac being casually asked something which, despite its vast knowledge, it can’t answer. The question is occasionally asked again and again over the course of eons which Asimov traverses with his translucent prose conveying transcendent conceptual poetry until its perfect finale. If I could make an anthology of SF, even if limited to a single short one, this would be in it for being definitive SF and giving me great joy simply as a story but also for either resonating with or perhaps even shaping my attitude to, well, everything.[4]

In sum, there’s really nothing in this collection that’s not enjoyable and several stories that would reasonably be in any “best of” collection or anthology, plus at least a couple of outright classics. Asimov considered it his best collection in 1980 and, while he should have at least had some recency bias for The Bicentennial Man which, as I remember it, gives this one a run for its money, I may agree with him: great stuff; strongly recommended.


  • 7 “I Just Make Them Up, See!” (F&SF, February 1958)
  • 9 “Rejection Slips” (Nine Tomorrows, 1959)
  • 11 “Profession” (Astounding, July 1957)
  • 69 “The Feeling of Power” (If, February 1958)
  • 79 “The Dying Night” (F&SF, July 1956)
  • 106 “I’m in Marsport Without Hilda” (Venture, November 1957)
  • 120 “The Gentle Vultures” (Super-Science Fiction, December 1957)
  • 137 “All the Troubles of the World” (Super-Science Fiction, April 1958)
  • 154 “Spell My Name with an S” (Star Science Fiction, January 1958)
  • 170 “The Last Question” (Science Fiction Quarterly, November 1956 )
  • 184 “The Ugly Little Boy” (Galaxy Science Fiction, September 1958)

[1] As can be seen from the content listing, it is actually entirely late 1950s (1956-59). It was also his nineteenth and final SF book of the 1950s as well as the twenty-ninth of the thirty-two total books he published in that decade.

[2] Despite this collection’s subtitle, “Tales of the Near Future” (even leaving aside “The Last Question,” which starts there but manifestly doesn’t end there), this story is set in the seventh millennium for no apparent reason and it’s not unique in Asimov’s works in that regard. It reads like it might be 2200 or so, and that might qualify as “near future.”

[3] I reviewed this story in the Birthday Reviews: Asimov, Breuer, Russell post and have repeated most of it here.

[4] If you don’t believe me, believe the author himself, who also thought it was his (and everyone’s) best. Although, actually, the story does arguably have one single flaw which, ironically, is the last line–but only because the next-to-last is so good and sufficiently establishes the concept.

Birthday Reviews: Complete Linked Index to Authors and Stories

Since I finally completed something on this site, I felt like celebrating and thought it might be useful to gather up all the information about the project in this post. I started the Birthday Reviews on January 24, 2020 and, after a break from October 13, 2020 to October 20, 2022, I picked it up again, finally finishing on January 17, 2023. The 52 posts ended up covering 157 authors and 172 of their stories (I generally reviewed one story each, but did a double shot of Cadigan and del Rey plus a batch of Brown short-shorts). While the Site Map lists all these weekly posts with authors’ last names, the following lists the full name of each author individually (which links to their posts), vital dates, the story reviewed, and its place and date of publication.

(There’s also a plain text file to play with in a spreadsheet or with text processing tools if anyone is so inclined, though I strongly doubt anyone is. This is stored at what used to be my old site since WordPress doesn’t seem to want to let me store anything here besides images. Any spreadsheet just needs to be told it’s pipe-delimited with unquoted text (the story titles are incidentally quoted but not in spreadsheet terms).)


  • Poul Anderson (1926-11-25/2001-07-31) “Time Lag” F&SF, January 1961
  • Neal Asher (1961-02-04) “Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck” Asimov’s, August 2005
  • Isaac Asimov (1920-01-02/1992-04-06) “The Feeling of Power” If, February 1958
  • J. G. Ballard (1930-11-15/2009-04-19) “Prima Belladonna” Science Fantasy, December 1956
  • John Barnes (1957-02-28) “My Advice to the Civilized” IAsfm, April 1990
  • Neal Barrett, Jr. (1929-11-03/2014-01-12) “Perpetuity Blues” IAsfm, May 1987
  • Harry Bates (1900-10-09/1981-09-??) “Farewell to the Master” Astounding, October 1940
  • Stephen Baxter (1957-11-13) “Something for Nothing” Interzone #23, Spring 1988
  • Greg Bear (1951-08-20/2022-11-19) “Hardfought” IAsfm, February 1983
  • Gregory Benford (1941-01-30) “And the Sea Like Mirrors” Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972
  • Alfred Bester (1913-12-18/1987-09-30) “Of Time and Third Avenue” F&SF, October 1951
  • Eando Binder (1911-08-26/1974-10-14) “I, Robot” Amazing, January 1939
  • James Blish (1921-05-23/1975-07-30) “How Beautiful with Banners” Orbit 1, 1966
  • Ben Bova (1932-11-08/2020-11-29) “To Touch a Star” The Universe, 1987
  • Leigh Brackett (1915-12-07/1978-03-18) “The Last Days of Shandakor” Startling Stories, April 1952
  • Ray Bradbury (1920-08-22/2012-06-05) “The Anthem Sprinters” Playboy, June 1963
  • Reginald Bretnor (1911-07-30/1992-07-22) “The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out” F&SF, Winter-Spring 1950
  • Miles J. Breuer (1889-01-03/1945-10-14) “The Gostak and the Doshes” Amazing, March 1930
  • Fredric Brown (1906-10-29/1972-03-11) “Not Yet the End” Captain Future, Winter 1941
  • ——— “Answer” Angels and Spaceships, 1954
  • ——— “Pattern” Angels and Spaceships, 1954
  • ——— “Reconciliation” Angels and Spaceships, 1954
  • ——— “Experiment” Galaxy, February 1954
  • ——— “Imagine” F&SF, May 1955
  • ——— “Abominable” Dude, March 1960
  • ——— “Recessional” Dude, March 1960
  • ——— “Earthmen Bearing Gifts” Galaxy, June 1960
  • ——— “The End” Nightmares and Geezenstacks, 1961
  • ——— “Jaycee” Nightmares and Geezenstacks, 1961
  • ——— “Rebound” Nightmares and Geezenstacks, 1961
  • ——— “Nightmare in Yellow” Dude, May 1961
  • ——— “The Short Happy Lives of Eustace Weaver, I, II, and III” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1961
  • Algis Budrys (1931-01-09/2008-06-09) “The Man Who Always Knew” Astounding, April 1956
  • Octavia E. Butler (1947-06-22/2006-02-24) “Speech Sounds” IAsfm, Mid-December 1983
  • Pat Cadigan (1953-09-10) “Pretty Boy Crossover” IAsfm, January 1986
  • ——— “Angel” IAsfm, May 1987
  • Jack Cady (1932-03-20/2004-01-14) “The Night We Buried Road Dog” F&SF, January 1993
  • John W. Campbell (1910-06-08/1971-07-11) “Forgetfulness” Astounding, June 1937
  • Cleve Cartmill (1908-06-21/1964-02-11) “Deadline” Astounding, March 1944
  • A. Bertram Chandler (1912-03-28/1984-06-06) “Giant Killer” Astounding, October 1945
  • C. J. Cherryh (1942-09-01) “Cassandra” F&SF, October 1978
  • Arthur C. Clarke (1917-12-16/2008-03-19) “The Star” Infinity Science Fiction, November 1955
  • Hal Clement (1922-05-30/2003-10-29) “The Mechanic” Analog, September 1966
  • Mildred Clingerman (1918-03-14/1997-02-26) “Letters from Laura” F&SF, October 1954
  • John Collier (1901-05-03/1980-04-06) “The Chaser” The New Yorker, December 28, 1940
  • John Crowley (1942-12-01) “Snow” Omni, November 1985
  • Chan Davis (1926-08-12) “Adrift on the Policy Level” Star Science Fiction Stories No. 5, 1959
  • L. Sprague de Camp (1907-11-27/2000-11-06) “The Gnarly Man” Unknown, June 1939
  • Lester del Rey (1915-06-02/1993-05-10) “For I Am a Jealous People” Star Short Novels, 1954
  • ——— “The Seat of Judgment” Venture, July 1957
  • Joseph H. Delaney (1932-02-05/1999-12-21) & Marc Stiegler “Valentina” Analog, May 1984
  • Samuel R. Delany (1942-04-01) “Driftglass” If, June 1967
  • A. J. Deutsch (1918-01-25/1969-11-11) “A Subway Named Mobius” Astounding, December 1950
  • Philip K. Dick (1928-12-16/1982-03-02) “The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford” F&SF, January 1954
  • Gordon R. Dickson (1923-11-01/2001-01-31) “Dolphin’s Way” Analog, June 1964
  • Gardner Dozois (1947-07-23/2018-05-27) “Morning Child” Omni, January 1984
  • George Alec Effinger (1947-01-10/2002-04-27) “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, EverythingF&SF, October 1984
  • Greg Egan (1961-08-20) “Learning to Be Me” Interzone #37, July 1990
  • Harlan Ellison (1934-05-27/2018-06-28) “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” If, March 1967
  • Carol Emshwiller (1921-04-12/2019-02-02) “Moon Songs” The Start of the End of It All, 1990
  • Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871-11-03/1943-06-12) “The Spider” Die Besessenen, 1908
  • Philip Jose Farmer (1918-01-26/2009-02-25) “Sail On! Sail On!” Startling Stories, December 1952
  • Robert L. Forward (1932-08-15/2002-09-21) “Self-Limiting” Analog, May 1992
  • Alan Dean Foster (1946-11-18) “Ye Who Would Sing” Galileo, December 1976
  • Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-03-22/1994-04-02) “Derelict” Astounding, October 1935
  • William Gibson (1948-03-17) “Johnny Mnemonic” Omni, May 1981
  • Joseph Green (1931-01-14) “The Crier of Crystal” Analog, October 1971
  • James Gunn (1923-07-12) “The Misogynist” Galaxy, November 1952
  • J. B. S. Haldane (1892-11-05/1964-12-01) “The Gold-Makers” The Inequality of Man, 1932
  • Joe Haldeman (1943-06-09) “Anniversary Project” Analog, October 1975
  • Edmond Hamilton (1904-10-21/1977-02-01) “Exile” Super Science Stories, May 1943
  • Peter F. Hamilton (1960-03-02) “The Forever Kitten” Nature, July 28, 2005
  • Charles L. Harness (1915-12-29/2005-09-20) “The Chessplayers” F&SF, October 1953
  • Harry Harrison (1925-03-12/2012-08-15) “Not Me, Not Amos Cabot!” Science Fantasy, December 1964-January 1965
  • Alix E. Harrow (1989-11-09) “A Whisper in the Weld” Shimmer #22, November 2014
  • Robert A. Heinlein (1907-07-07/1988-05-08) “Columbus Was a Dope” Startling Stories, May 1947
  • Robert E. Howard (1906-01-22/1936-06-11) “Pigeons from Hell” Weird Tales, May 1938
  • Shirley Jackson (1916-12-14/1965-08-08) “The Lottery” The New Yorker, June 26, 1948
  • Neil R. Jones (1909-05-29/1988-02-15) “The Jameson Satellite” Amazing, July 1931
  • Raymond F. Jones (1915-11-17/1994-01-24) “A Stone and a Spear” Galaxy, December 1950
  • David H. Keller (1880-12-23/1966-07-13) “The Thing in the Cellar” Weird Tales, March 1932
  • James Patrick Kelly (1951-04-11) “Think Like a Dinosaur” Asimov’s, June 1995
  • Daniel Keyes (1927-08-09/2014-06-15) “Flowers for Algernon” F&SF, April 1959
  • C. M. Kornbluth (1923-07-23/1958-03-21) “That Share of Glory” Astounding, January 1952
  • Henry Kuttner (1915-04-07/1958-02-04) “The Proud Robot” Astounding, October 1943
  • Geoffrey A. Landis (1955-05-28) “Approaching Perimelasma” Asimov’s, January 1998
  • Keith Laumer (1925-06-09/1993-01-23) “The Last Command” Analog, January 1967
  • Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-10-21/2018-01-22) “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” New Dimensions 3, 1973
  • Tanith Lee (1947-09-19/2015-05-24) “Into Gold” IAsfm, March 1986
  • Fritz Leiber (1910-12-24/1992-09-05) “The Oldest Soldier” F&SF, May 1960
  • Murray Leinster (1896-06-16/1975-06-08) “The Power” Astounding, September 1945
  • Jack London (1876-01-12/1916-11-22) “A Thousand Deaths” The Black Cat, May 1899
  • H. P. Lovecraft (1890-08-20/1937-03-15) “The Strange High House in the Mist” Weird Tales, October 1931
  • Katherine MacLean (1925-01-22/2019-09-01) “Unhuman Sacrifice” Astounding, November 1958
  • Ian R. MacLeod (1956-08-06) “The Chop Girl” Asimov’s, December 1999
  • George R. R. Martin (1948-09-20) “A Song for Lya” Analog, June 1974
  • Julian May (1931-07-10/2017-10-17) “Dune Roller” Astounding, December 1951
  • James McConnell (1925-10-26/1990-04-09) “Learning Theory” If, December 1957
  • Jack McDevitt (1935-04-14) “Act of God” Microcosms, 2004
  • A. Merritt (1884-01-20/1943-08-21) “Through the Dragon Glass” All-Story Weekly, November 24, 1917
  • C. L. Moore (1911-01-24/1987-04-04) “Shambleau” Weird Tales, November 1933
  • William Morrison (1906-10-13/1980-06-02) “The Model of a Judge” Galaxy, October 1953
  • Pat Murphy (1955-03-09) & Paul Doherty “Cold Comfort” Bridging Infinity, 2016
  • Linda Nagata (1960-11-07) “Codename: Delphi” Lightspeed #47, April 2014
  • Larry Niven (1938-04-30) “The Hole Man” Analog, January 1974
  • Andre Norton (1912-02-17/2005-03-17) “All Cats Are Gray” Fantastic Universe, August/September 1953
  • Edgar Pangborn (1909-02-25/1976-02-01) “The Red Hills of Summer” F&SF, September 1959
  • Rog Phillips (1909-02-20/1966-03-02) “The Yellow Pill” Astounding, October 1958
  • H. Beam Piper (1904-03-23/1964-11-06) “Time and Time Again” Astounding, April 1947
  • Edgar Allan Poe (1809-01-19/1849-10-07) “The Cask of Amontillado” Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1846
  • Frederik Pohl (1919-11-26/2013-09-02) “Day Million” Rogue, February/March 1966
  • Steven Popkes (1952-10-09) “Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected” Asimov’s, December 2012
  • Tom Purdom (1936-04-19) “A Response from EST17” Asimov’s, April/May 2011
  • Robert Reed (1956-10-09) “Katabasis” F&SF, November/December 2012
  • Mike Resnick (1942-03-05/2020-01-09) “Death Is an Acquired Trait” Argos, Winter 1988
  • Alastair Reynolds (1966-03-13) “Merlin’s Gun” Asimov’s, May 2000
  • R. S. Richardson (1902-04-22/1981-11-12) “N Day” Astounding, January 1946 (as by Philip Latham)
  • Ross Rocklynne (1913-02-21/1988-10-29) “Into the Darkness” Astonishing, June 1939
  • Milton A. Rothman (1919-11-30/2001-10-06) “Heavy Planet” Astounding, August 1939
  • Rudy Rucker (1946-03-22) “Pac-Man” IAsfm, June 1982
  • Eric Frank Russell (1905-01-06/1978-02-28) “Jay Score” Astounding, May 1941
  • Fred Saberhagen (1930-05-18/2007-06-29) “Starsong” If, January 1968
  • Hilbert Schenck (1926-02-12/2013-12-02) “The Morphology of the Kirkham Wreck” F&SF, September 1978
  • James H. Schmitz (1911-10-15/1981-04-18) “An Incident on Route 12” If, January 1962
  • Karl Schroeder (1962-09-04) “The Pools of Air” Tesseracts 3, 1991
  • Bob Shaw (1931-12-31/1996-02-11) “Light of Other Days” Analog, August 1966
  • Robert Sheckley (1928-07-16/2005-12-09) “The Perfect Woman” Amazing, December 1953-January 1954
  • Charles Sheffield (1935-06-25/2002-11-02) “A Braver Thing” IAsfm, February 1990
  • Wilmar H. Shiras (1908-09-23/1990-12-23) “In Hiding” Astounding, November 1948
  • John Shirley (1953-02-10) “The Incorporated” IAsfm, July 1985
  • Robert Silverberg (1935-01-15) “To Be Continued” Astounding, May 1956
  • Clifford D. Simak (1904-08-03/1988-04-25) “The Creator” Marvel Tales, March-April 1935
  • Joan Slonczewski (1956-08-14) “Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN” Nature, June 29, 2000
  • Clark Ashton Smith (1893-01-13/1961-08-14) “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” Weird Tales, June 1932
  • Cordwainer Smith (1913-07-11/1966-08-06) “The Game of Rat and Dragon” Galaxy, October 1955
  • E. E. “Doc” Smith (1890-05-02/1965-08-31) “The Vortex Blaster” Comet, July 1941
  • George O. Smith (1911-04-09/1981-05-27) “QRM / Interplanetary” Astounding, October 1942
  • Norman Spinrad (1940-09-15) “A Thing of Beauty” Analog, January 1973
  • Brian Stableford (1948-07-25) “The Magic Bullet” Interzone #29, May-June 1989
  • Allen Steele (1958-01-19) “The War Memorial” Asimov’s, September 1995
  • Bruce Sterling (1954-04-14) & Lewis Shiner “Mozart in Mirrorshades” Omni, September 1985
  • Theodore Sturgeon (1918-02-26/1985-05-08) “The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast” F&SF, October 1949
  • Michael Swanwick (1950-11-18) “Radio Waves” Omni, Winter 1995
  • Leo Szilard (1898-02-11/1964-05-30) “The Mark Gable Foundation” The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories, 1961
  • Stephen Tall (1908-06-14/1981-01-15) “The Invaders” If, August 1973
  • Drew Hayden Taylor (1962-07-01) “Take Us To Your Chief” Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories, 2016
  • Lucy Taylor (1951-11-30) “The Family Underwater” Close to the Bone, 1993
  • William Tenn (1920-05-09/2010-02-07) “Betelgeuse Bridge” Galaxy, April 1951
  • James Tiptree, Jr. (1915-08-24/1987-05-19) “Milk of Paradise” Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972
  • A. E. van Vogt (1912-04-26/2000-01-26) “Concealment” Astounding, September 1943
  • Jack Vance (1916-08-28/2013-05-26) “Sulwen’s Planet” The Farthest Reaches, 1968
  • John Varley (1947-08-09) “Retrograde Summer” F&SF, February 1975
  • Joan D. Vinge (1948-04-02) “Fireship” Analog, December 1978
  • Vernor Vinge (1944-10-02) “Long Shot” Analog, August 1972
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-11-11/2007-04-11) “Harrison Bergeron” F&SF, October 1961
  • Howard Waldrop (1946-09-15) “Ugly Chickens” Universe 10, 1980
  • Bryce Walton (1918-05-31/1988-02-05) “Too Late for Eternity” Startling Stories, Spring 1955
  • Lawrence Watt-Evans (1954-07-26) “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” IAsfm, July 1987
  • Sharon Webb (1936-02-29/2010-04-29) “Variation on a Theme from Beethoven” IAsfm, February 1980
  • Stanley G. Weinbaum (1902-04-04/1935-12-14) “Parasite Planet” Astounding, February 1935
  • Manly Wade Wellman (1903-05-21/1986-04-05) “O Ugly Bird!” F&SF, December 1951
  • H. G. Wells (1866-09-21/1946-08-13) “The Star” The Graphic, Christmas Number 1897
  • Don Wilcox (1905-08-29/2000-03-09) “The Voyage That Lasted Six Hundred Years” Amazing, October 1940
  • Oscar Wilde (1854-10-16/1900-11-30) “The Nightingale and the Rose” The Happy Prince and Other Tales, 1888
  • Kate Wilhelm (1928-06-08/2018-03-08) “The Mile-Long Spaceship” Astounding, April 1957
  • Robert Moore Williams (1907-06-19/1977-05-12) “Flight of the Dawn Star” Astounding, March 1938
  • Jack Williamson (1908-04-29/2006-11-10) “Nonstop to Mars” Argosy, February 14, 1939
  • Connie Willis (1945-12-31) “At the Rialto” Omni, October 1989
  • P. G. Wodehouse (1881-10-15/1975-02-14) “Sir Agravaine” Collier’s, June 29, 1912
  • John Wyndham (1903-07-10/1969-03-11) “The Asteroids, 2194” New Worlds #100, November 1960
  • Timothy Zahn (1951-09-01) “The Cassandra” Analog, November 1983
  • Roger Zelazny (1937-05-13/1995-06-14) “The Man Who Loved the Faioli” Galaxy, June 1967

Birthday Reviews: Howard, MacLean, Merritt, Moore, Poe, Steele

This final installment of the weekly Birthday Reviews brings us another six-pack from a large birthday gang (of a large week[1]) and these fall in pairs: two reprints from earlier reviews, two reviews of colorful debuts, and two phobic tales from Allan and Allen, the birthday boys of the nineteenth.


Robert E. Howard (1906-01-22/1936-06-11)

“Pigeons from Hell” (Weird Tales, May 1938)

[Adapted from my 2019-10-30 review of Margulies’ anthology Weird Tales.]

While the anthology is good as a whole, Howard’s tremendous “Pigeons from Hell” wrecks the grade curve. The second-longest tale of the book opens with two New Englanders on a jaunt to the South ending up spending the night at a deserted mansion. One wakes up from what he tries to convince himself was a nightmare only for things to go from bad to worse, resulting in a mad dash from the house. I don’t want to spoil even the opening section but perhaps some flavor of what happened can be given by quoting a piece from when the surviving traveler, Griswell, returns to the house with Buckner, the local sheriff.

He swung the beam around, and Griswell had never dreamed that the sight of the gory body of a murdered man could bring such relief.

“He’s still there,” grunted Buckner.

In the second section, the two men meet with a voodoo man and fill in some details of what Buckner knew of the sordid family history of the mansion’s last inhabitants before moving to the final section and the nightmarish showdown with a “zuvembie” monster. My only complaint with this story is that the first section is so powerful that the remainder, while also powerful and maintaining suspense and interest, can’t quite match that opening. Still, that prosaic opening and initially very basic horror, straightforward narrative and stylistic approach, and skillfully joined antebellum relics and imported voodoo combine to make this effective for a likely majority of readers. Highly recommended.

Katherine MacLean (1925-01-22/2019-09-01)

“Unhuman Sacrifice” (Astounding, November 1958)

[Adapted from my 2017-08-29 review of her collection The Trouble with You Earth People.]

“Unhuman Sacrifice” 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.


A. Merritt (1884-01-20/1943-08-21)

“Through the Dragon Glass” (All-Story Weekly, November 24, 1917)

A. Merritt made his debut with this Sehnsucht story which involves one man telling his friend of his amazing experiences with a supernatural “dragon glass” which has a triple layer of the glass itself, the compelling world within (or through) it, and the sort of gnostic foundation interpenetrating and encompassing that. It actually lacks a truly satisfying dramatic arc but is filled with enticing glimmers of substance in its colorful description.

C. L. Moore (1911-01-24/1987-04-04)

“Shambleau” (Weird Tales, November 1933)

C. L. Moore made her debut with a very different, but equally colorful story. Northwest Smith is a sort of anti-hero of the spaceways who rescues an alien girl from a multi-species Martian mob bent on destroying her. He finds himself simultaneously drawn to and repelled by her but, after a night of strange dreams, he experiences a night (and nights) of erotic pleasure and horrific revulsion and learns that old myths have their roots in reality. This story is crisply plotted until an overlong denouement throws things a little out of proportion and ends the powerful blending of disparate psychosexual elements with a sort of sputtering effect until recapturing some of the momentum at the very end and it’s odd in that Northwest Smith is introduced as a mover and shaker of a main character, yet he takes a backseat first to the girl and then to another character. Also, while not a structural problem, there’s a sort of puritan streak running through this one despite its amoral complacency about Smith’s extra-legal activities. All that aside, this is an extremely vividly imagined and memorable tale of great intensity and rightly made Moore immediately famous.


Edgar Allan Poe (1809-01-19/1849-10-07)

“The Cask of Amontillado” (Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1846)

This is a good example of Poe’s theory of the short story in which everything is directed toward producing a single effect. This doesn’t mean that everything is monotone but, rather, that a great variety of things can be deployed as long as they have the same vector and accumulate power. The premise is simply that a once rich and/or powerful man has been wronged by one who is still rich and/or powerful and, having received an insult of some kind on top of these injuries, has formulated his revenge and exacts it in the story. The plan is clever and insanely forceful. Examples of the variety of elements (mostly twistedly funny) are the way the narrator ensures he will not be bothered by servants, the victim saying he won’t die of a cough (which is more true than he realizes) coupled with the bit about masons and the trowel, the discussion of the coat of arms and, perhaps best of all, the screaming scene. This is a masterful piece of black humor and ironic art.

Allen Steele (1958-01-19)

“The War Memorial” (Asimov’s, September 1995)

Allen Steele shares a birthday and (almost) a name with Poe but doesn’t generally share much else, generally writing somewhat optimistic fiction which is often literally light years removed from the gothic, but this example of “anti-military SF” has some unusual similarities with the preceding one. The protagonist is fighting a battle on the moon, encounters some serious technical difficulties with his combat armor, and eventually contributes to an unusual “war memorial.” This is a much more sober tale but is also short, powerfully focused, dark, and effective.

[1] I started this in 2020, which was a 366-day year and 52 weeks only covers 364 days, so this last installment covers nine days (I should have posted it yesterday). Ironically, the birthdays only kick in on the nineteenth, so only cover the last six of those nine. In that sense, it’s a short week.

Birthday Reviews: Budrys, Effinger, Green, London, Silverberg, Smith

This week’s installment covers a record six birthdays which include stories of strange knowledge, strange intelligence, and sex and death. Three of the stories (those by Budrys, London, and Silverberg) are drawn from a single anthology, though that’s still less than three percent of its contents. The other three authors (Effinger, Green, and Smith) weren’t in that one and their tales are drawn from the other three books depicted.


Algis Budrys (1931-01-09/2008-06-09)

“The Man Who Always Knew” (Astounding, April 1956)

Algis Budrys is known, but not well known; he’s esteemed, but not greatly esteemed–and I don’t know why everyone doesn’t know him and think he’s among the greatest. In this, a sad, tired man has a great weight on him and finally unburdens himself to (who else?) his bartender and, after he’s taken the plunge, Budrys says, “He did look happy–happy all the way through, like a man with insomnia who suddenly feels himself drifting off to sleep.” There’s just something about that line that Budrys has written a million of and even better, but it’s just quintessentially him. Anyway, this is a bittersweet tale about a man with a very odd and special talent which results in fame, fortune, and unhappiness.

George Alec Effinger (1947-01-10/2002-04-27)

“The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything” (F&SF, October 1984)

For a very different tale about very different kind of knowledge, Effinger here gives us a very funny tale in which the President of the United States describes the day the aliens came and what happened after. These aliens, the nuhp, are very friendly and helpful (when they can be, as they are backwards in some amusing ways) but have never heard of the phrase “de gustibus non est disputandum” and their know-it-all ways result in expected transformations in human attitudes toward them and some unexpected transformations of humanity and the world beyond that. From the president asking them, “And how long do you plan to be with us?” and then lamenting to himself that he sounded like “a room clerk at a Holiday Inn” to his later conversations with the nuhp about the Joy of Bowling, this packs in many laughs and, despite being nuhp-like, I say this is a better story than hollyhocks.

Joseph Green (1931-01-14)

“The Crier of Crystal” (Analog, October 1971)

Among the last stories John W. Campbell bought before his death was an installment in Joseph Green’s series that would be fixed up into Conscience Interplanetary. The background for all the stories is that a component of international human space exploration is the Practical Philosopher Corps, which is made up of “Consciences” who try to determine if anything, no matter how bizarre, has any intelligence on the explored worlds and, if they do, those planets may be studied but not exploited. In this particular tale, the protagonist Conscience, Allan Odegaard, is on Crystal, a world of silicon-based life-forms, the strangeness and beauty of which is evoked well. He encounters a plant-like form which seems to make random noises mixed with random words on this very noisy world. Determining if it’s intelligent and trying to communicate with it may be difficult, but performing the same tasks with a human politician who wants to cancel the Consciences may be even more so!

Jack London (1876-01-12/1916-11-22)

“A Thousand Deaths” (The Black Cat, May 1899)

A man (something of a Byronic figure) is drowning (something of a Shelleyan fate) when the story opens. He quickly tells us his backstory and then loses consciousness. But we know he doesn’t die because it’s first person and, indeed, he is awakened to find himself being resuscitated by a strange mechanical contrivance. His savior happens to be his estranged father, who doesn’t recognize him. What follows is a strange bit of temporary double deception as the father imprisons and repeatedly kills the son as part of his researches into death and resuscitation until the son develops a machine of his own. This doesn’t have the strongest plot and narrating in the first person doesn’t exactly maximize any potential tension (to be fair, I think this was London’s first story or nearly so) but the echoes of the other Shelley and H. G. Wells’ island and, of course, the psychological, even mythical, elements of the story give it quite a bit of power.

Robert Silverberg (1935-01-15)

“To Be Continued” (Astounding, May 1956)

This story’s opening line (abridged) is “Gaius Titus Menenius sat in his apartment on Park Avenue” which is an excellent example of cognitive estrangement (or very mean parents) and it turns out to be the former, as he’s a two-thousand-year-old Roman who ages very, very slowly. But, oh happy day, he learns he’s aged enough to be able to reproduce and goes about trying to do so, with some surprising results which leads to another round of surprise and one more for the kicker. This is probably a pretty good example of Silverberg’s earlier work in that it has a great idea, a slick execution, and an effective ending, though it’s a little sloppy in the details of its premise and doesn’t explore it in the fullness the general concept might merit. Still, it’s a clever tale with some sense of wonder along with some ironic humor.

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-01-13/1961-08-14)

“The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” (Weird Tales, June 1932)

In this, one of Smith’s Hyperborean tales, we get the story of a money-lender who will spare nothing for a beggar and thus receives his weird from him for free: a doom which the money-lender scoffs at and forgets. Later, the time comes and quite a memorable night it is. The description of its start conveys how Smith’s 11 reverberated long enough for it to still be at least a six by the time it got to Jack Vance:

Avoosl Wuthoqquan sat in a lower chamber of his house, which was also his place of business. The room was obliquely shafted by the brief, aerial gold of the reddening sunset, which fell through a crystal window, lighting a serpentine line of irised sparks in the jewel-studded lamp that hung from copper chains and touching to fiery life the tortuous threads of silver and similor in the dark arrases. Avoosl Wuthoqquan, seated in an umber shadow beyond the aisle of light, peered with an austere and ironic mien at his client, whose swarthy face and somber mantle were gilded by the passing glory.

The form of this baroque tale is similar to many fables of retribution such as the one of Midas but the imaginative content and deft execution set it apart.

Birthday Reviews: Asimov, Breuer, Russell

Exactly one week late with last week’s installment which brings us a feeling of power, a not-so-alternate world of political madness, and a ship which is out of control and set for the heart of the sun!


Isaac Asimov (1920-01-02/1992-04-06)

“The Feeling of Power” (If, February 1958)

While doing my Asimov Centennial reviews I fell one book short of covering all his pure science-fiction-era books from 1950-1959 when I didn’t get to Nine Tomorrows. This is from that collection, which I hope to review in its entirety soon. In the meantime, this one amusingly turns the notion of technological advance on its head when humans are fighting Deneb with self-programming computers and are at a stalemate until they discover that they can do math themselves with only their brains and paper. This may give them a bizarre edge in the conflict.

It’s an odd story unlike most other stories of the time (including Asimov’s own) in being aware of mechanical miniaturization and is a hair from anticipating Vinge’s Singularity (but misses it completely) and one has to wonder how we lost all records of the principles of multiplication but not all other history (however confused what has been retained may be) and why the technician who rediscovered them by analyzing the working of computers uses base ten instead of two but it’s just always stuck in my head as a remarkable concept and becomes ever more meaningful as I contemplate people someday relearning the concept of paper itself, including reading from it and writing on it (perhaps even in cursive!), and possibly using telephones that do only one thing but do it well: enable (voice!) communication.

Miles J. Breuer (1889-01-03/1945-10-14)

“The Gostak and the Doshes” (Amazing, March 1930)

When I reviewed Great Science Fiction by Scientists on February 13, 2017, I only said this “alternate world story” is “memorable” and “tells of a guy slipping into an earth in which people madly emote over senseless slogans rather than using reason. (These days, this earth feels like the alternate one.) It’s rather lazily plotted but makes up for it with its other excellences.” I think some of those excellences include a powerfully evoked mood of paranoia and the deft deployment of clever satire. Either way, it’s another of those Cassandra stories where, if Cassandra could ever have any effect, we’d be much better off.

Eric Frank Russell (1905-01-06/1978-02-28)

“Jay Score” (Astounding, May 1941)

Moving from Cassandra to Icarus, John W. Campbell’s May 1941 issue of Astounding brought us “Jay Score,” about a Star Trek-like spaceship crew composed of, among others, Martian techs (who would also like to have played chess with Harness’ club last week) and a black doctor. This yarn later became part of Eric Frank Russell’s Men, Martians, and Machines. I enjoyed that book so much that I went looking for more like it, encountering Joseph Green and Stephen Tall. In this episode, a meteor hits the Upsydaisy and ruins her trip to Venus, sending the ship on a crash course for the sun. The only way to survive is to veer slightly to achieve a cometary orbit which will require a pilot on the exposed, boiling bridge, but Jay Score is uniquely suited to trying to pull off the almost impossible feat. Fun stuff.

Birthday Reviews: Harness, Shaw, Willis

I haven’t posted in a while but it’s not because I’m done with the birthday reviews (I started doing them for the week beginning January 25 and won’t have finished the year until I’ve covered things to the end of January 24) but because I’m late. This one was supposed to have been posted around December 26 and have covered the week to January 1 but I didn’t get it done. I so didn’t get it done that I was supposed to have posted another one on Isaac Asimov’s birthday (January 2) that should have covered the week to January 8 but I haven’t done that yet, either. But that’s the holidays (and me) for you. Better late than never and all those other cliches. And happy belated birthday as well to Ellen Datlow (1949-12-31) who published the final story in this group.


Charles L. Harness (1915-12-29/2005-09-20)

“The Chessplayers” (F&SF, October 1953)

Harness wasn’t the most prolific author but managed quite a bit of variety within that compass. His van Vogtian The Paradox Men was one of the more explosive textual objects I put in my head as a teenager but he can write everything from that to legal dramas to this, which is a short, comical tale of a mere civilian chess club treasurer trying to convince his club of chess nuts to take on a chess-playing rat that has been trained by a professor when he and the rat were in a concentration camp. With perfect political correctness, the leading club members aren’t convinced the rat is skilled enough at chess to merit playing with them.

“But Jim,” I protested. “That isn’t the point at all. Can’t you see it? Think of the publicity…a chess playing rat…!”

“I wouldn’t know about his personal life,” said Jim curtly.

This one’s intrinsically entertaining and funny but also has something to say about different perspectives and perhaps the imminent space race.

Bob Shaw (1931-12-31/1996-02-11)

“Light of Other Days” (Analog, August 1966)

This story (which I can’t help but think of as “Slow Glass” despite its actual title, which is borrowed from Thomas Moore’s 1815 poem, “Oft in the Stilly Night”) is one of those stories like “Flowers for Algernon” which perfectly bridges the “two cultures” of the sciences and humanities with its poet narrator and wife in marital turmoil, a salesman suffering even more, and the brilliant idea of the technology of “slow glass” which can be “ten light years thick” and “in phase” but can also help and hurt the human heart. Just a masterpiece of a story which can’t be missed.

Connie Willis (1945-12-31)

“At the Rialto” (Omni, October 1989)

Not to be mean on what would have been her birthday but not everyone can appeal to everyone, at least not all the time, and I’m not the biggest fan of Connie Willis’ work, generally, but I jumped at the chance to re-read this because I remembered it as being one of the funniest stories I’d ever read. It’s actually not as funny as I remembered, but it’s still pretty funny. In addition to having the humor of this post’s first story, it has the humanity (undergirded with scientific elements) of the second. And while it references things like It Happened One Night, it makes me think more of Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story as it contemplates quantum physics from the perspective of a member of the International Congress of Quantum Physicists while she tries to check into her Hollywood hotel room despite the “help” of Tiffany, the model/actress who’s just working at a hotel to pay for her transcendental posture lessons (and should have been played by Lisa Kudrow), avoid the colleague she’s romantically bound to, and figure out life, the paradigm for understanding the comedy that is our quantum universe, and everything.

Birthday Reviews: Keller, Leiber

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone. —Rod Serling (1924-12-25/1975-06-28)


David H. Keller (1880-12-23/1966-07-13)

“The Thing in the Cellar” (Weird Tales, March 1932)

Ever since little Tommy was a baby, he’d reacted strangely to the kitchen of the house his parents had moved into, which was connected to an unusually large cellar, separated by an unusually massive door. Now a boy of six about to go to school, his parents have had enough of his strange and unmanly ways and consult a doctor for advice on what to do about it. Since the boy’s fears are irrational, the doctor decides, his parents should make him confront them so that he can learn that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

This story, though short, is a little long and labored in getting to the point we’re all expecting, but it is a more effective psychological horror story than anything else, as it touches on the horrible things parents and society can do to children… for their own good, of course.[1]

Fritz Leiber (1910-12-24/1992-09-05)

“The Oldest Soldier” (F&SF, May 1960)

Fred’s a liberal who used to be a pacifist but, being a liberal and thus able to see both sides of every issue, he’s become interested in military affairs. He’s become a regular at a liquor store bar where he’s tolerated as the token civilian and has become friends with Max who tells taller tales than even the rest of the ex-soldier regulars—claiming to have been in Napoleonic wars and even Martian ones. But when he and Fred both become aware of a large black shape with glowing red eyes spying on them, they find themselves in a night of terror and Fred develops a new perception of reality in a couple of ways.

While not an award winner and not usually on lists of great stories, so far as I know, this is one of my favorites. Whether Leiber is letting creative whimsy show through when talking about the “screwballistics” of the bar folk, or making the store in Chicago seem vividly real with talk of plate glass windows and Fred’s attempts to rationalize the glowing eyes as reflected tail lights or cigarette butts blown by the wind, or describing the mindless actions Fred takes to control his fear as he tries to wait out an only vaguely understood disaster, all of it works. The narrative which moves deftly from present to past and back more than once also keeps the story taut and moving while allowing room to create depth. The protagonist’s issues with war and peace, bravery and fear, and his night of crisis is compelling of itself even if it weren’t a powerful horror story at the same time.

[1] And I can’t help but think of “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement” by the Ramones.

Birthday Reviews: Bester, Clarke, Dick, Jackson

Like a wrapped box under the tree, this week’s offerings (or last week’s if you want to get technical) include a seasonal tale secreted among tales of time travel, interstellar exploration, shoes that really go places, and a lottery.


Alfred Bester (1913-12-18/1987-09-30)

“Of Time and Third Avenue” (F&SF, October 1951)

If you could have one book from the future, what would it be? This story presents one eminently sensible choice which may be surprising to some (I’m probably one of the few people who actually still gets them) and then presents another option which may be even more surprising.

Our very odd hero has to travel back to 1950 to try to convince a young couple to part with a 1990 book they’ve just purchased (without noticing its date) and provides an economical, almost Aesopian fable which is sure to instruct and amuse.

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-12-16/2008-03-19)

“The Star” (Infinity Science Fiction, November 1955)

A Jesuit astrophysicist is part of an exploration team which has come to a supernova remnant and discovered the time capsule an extinct race has left to posterity on what was once their outermost planet. In this concise and efficient but reflective tale, he makes another discovery of his own which tests him sorely. One of the all-time classics that deserves the cliche “I envy those of you who will read this for the first time” though I greatly enjoyed the umpteenth re-read as well.

Philip K. Dick (1928-12-16/1982-03-02)

“The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford” (F&SF, January 1954)

Adding to a colorful line of crackpot (or at least slightly squirrelly) scientists and inventors which includes Weinbaum’s Professor van Manderpootz, Kuttner’s Galloway Gallegher, and Leiber’s Dr. Dragonet, Philip K. Dick brings us Doc Labyrinth, developer of the Principle of Sufficient Irritation and inventor of the Animator (and you thought it was a Dutch oven!) which results in our bewildered narrator having one of his shoes baked and that’s only the beginning.

In a way, this fairly early tale has a feel of Dick trying on other people’s stories for size but, in another, it has PKD’s usual cockeyed view of things and his fascination with the animate and inanimate. Either way, this is much lighter than his average tale and is a lot of fun.

Shirley Jackson (1916-12-14/1965-08-08)

“The Lottery” (The New Yorker, June 26, 1948)

The townsfolk have gathered in the square for the annual lottery and all is right with the world on the fine day of June 27th. What is the lottery? Well, a clue is deftly placed early, lighting the fuse without our knowing it, which burns slowly and darkens on the way to its explosive end. This is excellently executed and is thematically akin to the passage I quoted from Brackett in the last birthday review about man, the reasoning being.

Birthday Reviews: Brackett

I only have one author to cover this week but the story is a great novelette in a series of tales by the mistress of Martian magic.


Leigh Brackett (1915-12-07/1978-03-18)

“The Last Days of Shandakor” (Startling Stories, April 1952)

John Ross, the anthropologist, is on Mars, in a wine shop in Barrakesh, when a stranger enters. Based on the odd reactions of others in the shop to the stranger and the odd appearance of the mostly shrouded man, JonRoss (as the Martians call him) goes to meet the stranger. He learns the stranger has fled from his dying city of Shandakor and now regrets it. With the prospect of discovering an unknown city and achieving fortune and fame, Ross convinces the stranger to return and take Ross with him. Even the feeling that the stranger intends to kill him before they reach Shandakor doesn’t deter him. Along the way, he is indeed forced to fight the stranger whom he has come to know as Corin and then discovers that Corin is not human. Now very afraid but compelled to head towards Shandakor due to a lack of water for a return, he goes forward, only to be waylaid by Martian humans[1] encamped outside the city. They take all his belongings and, when he begs for water, they mockingly tell him he can get water inside. Suspecting he will be killed by the natives of the city, but having no choice, he enters. Despite Corin telling him the city was nearly dead, he finds himself in a sort of “City of Dreadful Night” in which he sees a large population of splendor and power going about their business but can hear nothing except strange laughter and can feel nothing of these apparitions but only stones striking him from out of nowhere. Running wildly, having come to accept the ghosts as given, he’s shocked when he runs into solid beings and is first taken prisoner and then sentenced to death. However, his laughing, rock-throwing tormentor becomes his savior when she pleads for his life and saves her stray dog for the time being. For Ross learns that Shandakor is populated by an ancient race who once ruled Mars. However, they are dying and the barbarian humans outside have cut the city’s water supply. When that runs out, they will commit suicide rather than suffer death at the hands of others. Either way, Ross feels he is doomed. What he continues to learn and his relationship with Duani, the girl who “saved” him, takes up the remainder of the tale.

One of the best things about this tale is the style, which is vigorous and plain, with its abundance of conjunctions and paucity of contractions giving it a stateliness which dovetails with another of the best things about it, which is its powerful sense of time and place. The use of words like “serai” (a Turkish/Persian word) and expressions like “so be it” (a sort of secular “inshallah”) reinforce the Arabian and/or Egyptian feel of this Mars (which may have inspired Cherryh’s wonderful Faded Sun trilogy), though Shandakor is also described as being as beautiful as Athens. More good things include the almost fable-like theme of the delicately proud citizens with their technological fig leaf and the ambitious, avaricious, Pyrrhic protagonist. It might have been better if it had managed in some way to have a more implicit and less explicit conclusion but it’s still strong and the memory of the city, the flight through the silent visions, and the final actions last.

There is one final thing I want to quote in full from this story as a sort of postscript because, reading it, it seemed to have even more resonance than it did the first time I read it. I couldn’t help but think that the humans on Earth in 2016-22 have much in common with the humans on Mars in 2024. Ross is talking with the most prominent citizen of Shandakor and wonders how his people had developed such a powerful society that had lasted for so long. The non-human Martian replies:

“We developed the faculty of reason.”

For a moment I thought he was joking. “Come,” I said, “man is a reasoning being–on Earth the only reasoning being.”

“I do not know of Earth,” he answered courteously. “But on Mars man has always said, ‘I reason. I am above the beasts because I reason.’ And he has been very proud of himself because he could reason. It is the mark of his humanity. Being convinced that reason operates automatically within him he orders his life and his government upon emotion and superstition.

“He hates and fears and believes, not with reason but because he is told to by other men or by tradition. He does one thing and says another and his reason teaches him no difference between fact and falsehood. His bloodiest wars are fought for the merest whim–and that is why we did not give him weapons. His greatest follies appear to him the highest wisdom, his basest betrayals become noble acts–and that is why we could not teach him justice. We learned to reason. Man only learned to talk.”

[1] I can’t remember if these spring from panspermia, convergent evolution, varieties of secret history, or what, but there were or are both ancient races of humans and others on Mars and the younger human race on Earth.