Modern Classics of Science Fiction (1992)

Edited by Gardner Dozois, and originally published as The Legend Book of Science Fiction (1991), this weighty anthology reminded me why I stopped reading science fiction in the 1980s.

Gardner Dozois (pronounced doze-wah) was most famously the editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine between 1984 and 2004 (the publication was re-named Asimov’s Science Fiction in 1992).  He has also been editor of The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies since 1984.  As a writer he began in the late 1960s, sticking mainly to short-form pieces, and winning Nebula Awards in the early 1980s.

By contrast, if memory serves, around 1984 I was reading Albert Camus’ The Outsider (aka The Stranger), Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, an unknown James Ellroy’s Clandestine, Alfred Bester’s Golem100, Stephen King’s The Shining, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s All the President’s Men, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories.  My tastes were beginning to lean heavily towards non-fiction and journalism, probably because I was looking for something more immediately connected to life-as-it-was, which I found to be quite exciting enough without too much speculation.

My recent return to science fiction is largely a by-product of a slow, incremental rebuilding of a personal library destroyed in the Brisbane flood of 2010/11.  The Dozois anthology was not among my lost books, but came to me as part of a bundle.

Its contents were mostly unknown to me, so I made it a bedside companion recently.  The realisation that it would explain to me, at least in part, why I almost abandoned science fiction in the 1980s came only slowly as I made my way through the 26 stories.  It is the recognition that what I grew up with as science fiction developed into something I no longer understood as that genre.  The themes and plots seemed to move from exploring imaginary futures, pasts, and technologies to a more introspective exploration of neurosis and existential angst.

It’s not necessarily that the writing was bad, but it seemed increasingly intent on shrinking the content of a universe accessible by all to the deeply personal, psychosexual sorrows of moping, depressed, dysfunctional people.

Still, it was a journey.

 

Damon Knight’s ‘Country of the Kind’, (originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1956), was not a surprise; I read it several times years ago in other anthologies.  It retains its sharp edge as an insight into the mind of a psychopath, let loose on his futuristic world, but hamstrung by being surgically altered to emit a powerful stench, and to prevent his ability to commit murder.  So he destroys and mocks and tries to recruit others to his darkness.  In vain.  And that is his punishment.  Maybe more cruel than just executing him.  It is not a comfortable story, and yet its questions about how we deal with dissidence, abnormality, and sociopathy retain pertinence in the age of rendition, black sites, the surveillance state, and unapologetic sociopaths as leaders.

‘Aristotle and the Gun’ by L(yon) Sprague de Camp (Astounding Science Fiction, February 1958) is a quirky time travel piece in which a fanatical researcher sets out to alter history for the better, and achieves an outcome that suggests he should have left well enough alone.  It seems like one of those cautionary tales of the era, about leaving the genie of technology in the bottle until we have cultivated sound enough judgement to handle it.  What a shame, then, that we did not act on such cautionary tales.  I can’t say I found the story particularly entertaining or clever, though it did offer some humour along the way.

Dillon’s original illustration for The Other Celia.

Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘The Other Celia’ (Galaxy Science Fiction, March 1957) was a cautionary tale of a quite different sort, and chilling despite its slow and plodding unravelling.  I’m not sure whether he was talking about drug addiction, or just loss of individuality in an increasingly voyeuristic society.  It didn’t really matter.  There are some things that maybe all of us are better off not knowing about other people.  Because if we knew it all, would we still think of them as people?  Would it set us on the path to dehumanising others?  It is again a theme as relevant today, in the era of ‘illegal aliens’ as it was in its own time.

This opening to the anthology seemed very personal.  Dozois had warned that it would be in his preface: ‘… the stories would have to be the ones that had had the most impact on me as a reader.’

Since Dozois is a respected author and editor in the field, that’s not an unreasonable claim to stake for an anthology in a field drowned in anthologies.  And yet it made me wonder how a man who once described himself as a big fan of hard SF and space opera came up with these three pieces as exemplars of the later 1950s, when the genre was pulsing with much more operatic pieces.

I thought that maybe the value here lay in bringing to light stories and themes I missed during my years of voracious science fiction consumption in the 1960s and ‘70s.

 

Then I came to Richard McKenna’s ‘Casey Agonistes’.  I had never heard of McKenna.  In the brief introduction to the author, offered for each story, Dozois explained that McKenna had written The Sand Pebbles, a novel made into a big budget 1966 Robert Wise film with Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.  Said Dozois: ‘… during his short career, before his tragically early death in 1964, he also wrote a handful of powerful and elegant short science fiction stories that stand among the best work of the first half of the 1960s.’

The only thing that I can think of that makes ‘Casey Agonistes’ science fiction at all is that it was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (September 1958).  As a story about the possible delusions of a man dying of tuberculosis, it is soulful and engaging with its lowbrow patois.  The details easily resonated with my own hospital experiences.  But I would always have called this literary fiction.  It contains not a single element that I would have characterised as science fiction.  I knew that the genre always was less elitist than others in embracing a wide variety of styles and subject matters.  Nevertheless, this struck me as a story you might have expected in Esquire, or Playboy, or even Harper’s.  But not in an SF pulp magazine.

Virgil Finlay’s illustration for Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons.

Cordwainer Smith’s ‘Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons’ (Galaxy Magazine, June 1961) is exactly what I’m thinking about when someone says ‘science fiction classics’.  Smith was what I thought of in the 1970s as ‘an inspired lunatic’ with unconventionally surreal visions of a future made weird as much by psychology and social formation as by technology and turns of grand space opera.  I wrote about him in ‘Cloud Atlas in Clown Town’, and I won’t repeat what I said there.  Smith deserves to be the subject of a thesis, with each of his stories containing so much complexity and layered meaning they are quite difficult to summarise neatly.  Imagine a far future in which a planet of thieves backs a master thief in a plan to steal from the wealthiest planet in the known universe: Old North Australia, or Norstrilia.  Imagine Norstrilia practicing advanced psychological counter intelligence techniques to trap and kill any thief.  Imagine this technology includes the use of amplified, vicious animal psyches.  Imagine the ancient Greek myth of the Golden Fleece re-interpreted via detours into Chinese folk tales and military applications of psychological warfare.  That might get you close enough to the story, told in Cordwainer Smith’s characteristically lyrical prose.

I knew this story long before I knew Gardner Dozois exists, and I thought of it as quintessential science fiction, using language as much as themes to demand awe and wonder.  In this anthology, however, it continues Dozois’ focus on psychology rather than technology or operatic sweep.

That’s true, too, for Jack Vance’s ‘The Moon Moth’ (Galaxy Magazine, August 1961).  Using more conventional narrative prose than Smith, Vance tells the oddly oriental story of gaining or losing face by one’s deeds, in a locale in which everyone wears masks befitting their status, and status comes from deeds acknowledged socially as worthy.  The catch being that social worth isn’t always quite what it might seem to be.  Another story I have read elsewhere.  Another one I enjoyed finding again.

So far the anthology is still on familiar ground, bringing us to the early 1960s.  But from hereon-in, my notions of what is and is not science fiction came to be stretched.

 

I don’t recall ever having read any Edgar Pangborn before.  Certainly not the bittersweet post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story ‘The Golden Horn’ (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1962).  I know the 1960s were replete with nightmare visions of the surely imminent nuclear war to annihilate mankind.  But this tale painted a possibly worse outcome.  It is of the survivors, in a mediaevalist agrarian theocracy, beset with ignorance, slavery, and bloodlust for the mutant creatures that exist in the wild.  Told as an introspection about his childhood, it relates events that made a boy into a man by way of contemplating murder, theft, and getting laid.  It made me sad to read it, and to consider how close it comes to renewed American ambitions for mediaevalist theocracy.  In that sense it too is a story that works on a psychological level that remains relevant today.

Gardener Dozois says of Keith Roberts’s ‘The Lady Margaret’ that it is ‘probably the best of the stories that would later be melded into Pavane. In it, he takes us sideways in time to an alternate England where Queen Elizabeth was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, and England itself fell to the Spanish Armada – a twentieth-century England where the deep shadow of the Church Militant stretches across a still-medieval land of forests and castles and little huddled towns; an England where travelers alone by night on the desolate, windswept expanses of the heath fear the sudden lantern gleam ahead in the darkness that signals an attack by the remorseless brigands known as routiers’.  First published in the collection of stories that make up the novel Pavane (1966), named after a 16th century courtly dance, it is a coming-of-age story of another kind altogether, but still made melancholy for the benighting theocracy that creates Roberts’s dystopian vision.  I marvelled at his apparently deep knowledge of steam engines, woven into a dirge-like remembrance of a deceased father, and the soul-crushing rejection of overtures to a woman.  I was left with an insight into the kind of stark, windswept bitterness I observed in many Englishmen I knew in the 1970s.  A gloriously spun tale, sweeping me along, but also leaving me sad – again.

‘Sadness,’ I thought, ‘is Dozois’s theme for this collection.’

As if to provide proof, Roger Zelazny’s ‘This Moment of the Storm’ (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1966) gives us an insight into a man isolated not just in time, for the years stolen by suspended animation space travels, but also by events beyond his control that rob him of love and an anchor in some part of an estranged universe.  It was an evocative first person narrative about a storm that seems oddly fitting as, in my real world, East Texas lies devastated by Hurricane Harvey, and the Texas-sized Irma seems likely to devastate the Caribbean and Florida.  ‘This Moment of the Storm’ is undoubtedly science fiction in every way that I think of the genre, with space travel and interstellar colonisation as vehicles for the plot.  But it is also a melancholy reflection on the alienation of a man from his own life.  Psychological: check.  Sad: check.

 

The odd one out in the entire anthology is R(aphael) A(loysius) Lafferty’s ‘Narrow Valley’ (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 1966).  It reads almost like an ur-episode of Ren and Stimpy.  Without Ren or Stimpy.  Proposing that an Indian family held onto its land only by changing its space-time dimensional properties, via invocation of ancient medicine, the story chronicles the attempts of a white family – a bizarre white family – to steal the land.  And how this attempt fails when ‘eminent scientist Willy McGilly’ (yep, Willy McGilly!) teams up with Clarence Little-Saddle to concoct an even more profound interdimensional distortion.  There’s an allusion to serious science here, and to social inequity, but handled like Lafferty was on LSD and Tequila at the time.  Definitely worth the read.

Back to the psychology of melancholy with Samuel R Delaney’s ‘Driftglass’ (If, June 1967), recounting tragedy that befalls a genetically altered fish man, divorcing him from a community for which he gave up his humanity, and being only uneasily accepted by the humans near his sea-side retreat.  The shtick is science fiction enough, but the themes are about the trepidations of growing up, reaching for the stars (not literally, in this case), and suffering smashed illusions.

I wrote about Brian Aldiss’s ‘The Worm That Flies’ already (‘Brian Aldiss, 18 August 1925 – 19 August 2017’).  Published first in the 1968 anthology The Farthest Reaches, it surely could only have been an Englishman, from the dreary Isles of bittersweet melancholy, who could combine the depressing contemplation of the death by age of the universe, the terrifying recollection of childhood by immortals (doubly terrifying for an English audience, since British childhood is widely known to be among the most depressing experiences in the known universe), and their own sudden realisation that they might come to an end themselves.

Yet Aldiss writes in such rich prose that this story might repay careful re-reading.  Several times.  To catch all the nuances Aldiss might have sneaked past the first – and other – glances.

I find it hard to tell what Gene Wolfe might have had in mind when he wrote ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’ (Orbit 10, February 1972).  It seems awfully like a highly stylised way of talking about the sins of the fathers visited on their children, in a generational way.  Perhaps even in an inter-species way.  Wolfe’s skill is great in sustaining the introspective narrative of a child as a detached, mildly nightmarish voyage through amorality, lust, wilful sinfulness, filicide, patricide, slavery, punishment, and Stoic surrender to a fate already set in stone by the machinations of previous generations.  Wolfe gives us the ultimate surrender: that of being powerless to change our lives.  It’s hard to contemplate a more depressing thought.

From here forward, the anthology enters territory I consider weird even for science fiction.

Joanna Russ’s ‘Nobody’s Home’ is just too strange for me to get a handle on.  First published in the 1972 anthology New Dimensions II, it seems to be a personal reflection on living in a commune.  Or maybe on being an old and expendable woman.  Or maybe on something else.  Even less explicable is James Tiptree Jr’s ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’ (Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology, 1974).  I’m still not sure I understand any of the allusions, except to say that they were deeply sad.  Both these stories struck me more as self-indulgent than entertaining or insightful.  That’s fine.  It’s one of the reasons I write – to indulge my own creative urges.  But it’s not what I look for in science fiction.

Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘The Barrow’ brings the anthology back to more conventional ground.  There is a dark streak of irony in this unusual Christian conversion story, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1976.  I am personally tickled by the idea of practicing Christianity through the ritual sacrifice of its priests.  It actually makes a lot of sense in terms of the ideology of Jesus’s sacrifice.

Back to self-indulgence with Edward Bryant’s ‘Particle Theory’ (Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, February 1977), giving us the end of the universe by anal probe (you’ll just have to read it yourself!); Howard Waldrop’s ‘The Ugly Chickens’ (Universe 10, 1980), which is no-way no-how a science fiction story about Dodos; and Jack Dann’s thanatic ‘Going Under’ (Omni, September 1981) about some crazy famous-disaster-as-personal-experience vision in which you get to die on a quirky re-enactment of the Titanic disaster.  In some way this last story reminded me of the 1997 David Fincher film, The Game, with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, whose gimmick was fooling a man into believing his life had just been overrun by madness and conspiracy.  The film was honest about the driver for such a game: obscene wealth and the ennui that comes from not having to struggle for anything in life.  I wonder, though, whether Dann’s story might not now serve as an allusion to something else going on in the USA at the time.

It didn’t seem like it at the time, and even with hindsight it’s not immediately obvious, but during the later 1970s and early 1980s the long hangover of 1960s idealism and counter-culture, along with its outward and pluralist focus came to an end, and a long reactionary retreat began, rolling back civil rights, democracy, and progress in all manifestations of Western civilization.  It marked the pendulum swing back to an ascendancy of plutocracy, religionism, xenophobia, and bilateralism – ‘them’ and ‘us’.  It became an era of selfishness (most notably during the yuppie era), solipsistic introspection, and unashamed narcissism.  And that’s what seems to be reflected in the stories from the later 1970s to the 1980s.

 

Exactly how or why Lucius Shepard’s ‘Salvador’ came to be published in the April 1984 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is probably a story worth the telling in its own right.  It is a fine story.  Deeply black and pessimistic.  But it’s not what I think of as science fiction.  And it deserved to have been more widely disseminated as a Zeitgeist reflection on the character of the USA at that time.

When I came to ‘Pretty Boy Crossover’ by Pat Cadigan (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, January 1986)  I thought I began to understand a whole lot of things about the airhead Generation Y/Millenials rambling on about ‘the singularity’.  It is a studied kind of narcissism in which youth is more important than brains, and the not-quite-suicide of being subsumed by the ether replaces their parent’s more earthy, existential anguish.  Except the parental existential anguish was at least intellectual, and was suffered with heroic fortitude for decades by copious consumption of booze and cigarettes, which always led to more interesting interactions than suicide and solitary computer obsessions.  ‘Maybe,’ I thought, ‘I’m just too old for science fiction.’  But that wasn’t it.  I still enjoy some of the older stuff, and unlike the critics, even some 1980s work in the more traditional vein.  It was more that the once low-brow genre of science fiction was being colonised by a generation of fearful, whining dissidents without the courage to take their protest fiction to market more directly.

I didn’t really get much out of John Kessel’s ‘The Pure Product’ (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, March 1986).  Knight’s ‘The Country of the Kind’ seems to have already said all there needed to be said about the nihilism theme, and a story not contained in this anthology, Henry Kuttner and CL Moore’s ‘Vintage Season’, said everything else about sociopathic tourism.  Decades ago.  And more entertainingly.

William Gibson’s ‘Winter Market’ is probably a modern ‘classic’, if that term still actually means anything.  A ‘cyberpunk’ cause célèbre.  First published in the Gibson anthology Burning Chrome (1986), I completely missed it for decades.  I knew Gibson only by way of the 1998 Abel Ferrara film New Rose Hotel, with Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe, which I liked for its unpretentious weirdness, even if no one else did.

Cyberpunk strikes me as an inevitable ‘slacker’ trend, appealing to a rising multi-generation of ill-educated video gamers, garage band suicidal wasters, Silicon Valley reductionist determinists, and other delicate little petals with no imagination.  But this Gibson story was nicely told; he is a writer of skill and insight, even if the subject matter nauseated me with its fabricated despair of kids who just lack the brains and guts to seize the world and make it theirs.  Needless to say, the story features boy meets girl, with at least one of them pursuing a death wish that involves the singularity of transforming human consciousness into disposable digital entertainment.  I think Gibson is a talented writer, but this subject matter was handled better by David Cronenberg in Videodrome (1983).

Cyperpunk, as a sub-genre, may have started out by looking at wasters as wasters, but it has become the vehicle for a faux respectability for the juvenile preoccupation with using electronic gadgets to create entirely disposable digital distractions from a commitment to improving the world – a commitment that was once a driving engine in Western culture.  It is in effect a vehicle for legitimising a retreat from civil society and its surrender to the baleful agenda of mediaevalist reactionaries, epitomised now by the character and psychology of Donald Trump.

Worse, the idiot focus on a singularity, or merging between human and machine consciousness, is in fact merely a secular equivalent of the Christian ‘rapture’ death cult.  There is no machine consciousness, and likely never will be.  Technology obsessed non-thinkers are instead confusing purely computational algorithms with intelligence because they, themselves, lack the critical faculty that comes from qualitative logics no algorithm has yet come close to emulating.  In that sense, singularity-focused cyberpunk is actually concerned with genocide – the elimination of what is human from the human race by straining it all through the dumbing-down filter of AI.  Is fiction like this closer to the horror genre than science fiction, or is it a snuff fetish genre?

 

Connie Willis’s ‘Chance’ (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, May 1986) is a nicely written but again excessively melancholy story.  The material is the Butterfly Effect running alongside the desperately heart-breaking erasure of a passive wife’s existence in the corrosively domineering shadow of her careerist husband.  Again, I couldn’t quite see the connection to science fiction.

The same is true for Michael Swanwick’s vertiginous ‘The Edge of the World’ (Full Spectrum II, 1989), which is another angst-ridden, waster, navel gazing exercise.

Bruce Sterling’s ‘Dori Bangs’ (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, September 1989) imagines what might have happened in the lives of two people who died too early, and then to show the banality of what might have been as almost a justification for withdrawing from a ‘cruel’ world.  If anything, the story made me sneer at the celebration of ineffectiveness in people who expected the world to be delivered to them like a pizza instead of going after it like masters of the universe.

That’s what happened in science fiction during the 1970s and ‘80s that turned me off the genre: a turning away from an outward-looking, adventurist spirit, affirming human vitality and the possibility of pluralism in life.  Instead authors began to infuse the genre with an inward-focused, self-pitying neuroticism that comes across as insular, futile, and whining.

It seems to be too replete with literary fiction posing uneasily as science fiction because its authors lack confidence, and when they lack confidence, what sort of regard should readers have for their work?  The same as my regard for it?

It makes of science fiction the locus of abandoning any sense of wonder and exploration, turning away from the universe and its challenges to grovel in the dirty, shallow puddles of human insecurities.  That’s a kind of fiction in which I have no interest.

Instead of leading an intellectual resistance to the 1980s reclamation of society by reactionaries, the writers praised within the genre have grovelled like frightened, sickly children.  I find that neither entertaining nor edifying.

I cannot really recommend this anthology, or Gardner Dozois’s judgement.  Even if I have learnt from it by clarifying my own thinking on the subject.  And with the exception that a well-stocked home library probably should have a selection of books which define what is undesirable, and whose inculcation is necessary to permit critique of it in the first place.

 

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