(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1966 edition)
3.25/5 (collated rating: Good)
Damon Knight’s Orbit anthology series ran from 1966-1976. A while back I reviewed Orbit 8 (1970)–which contained the brilliant Gardner Dozois “Horse of Air” (1970 and a selection of intriguing Wolfe and Lafferty short stories—and was impressed enough to snatch up a copy of Orbit 1 (1966). And it is graced with a Richard Powers cover I had not seen…
Orbit 1 contains nine short works (with four by women authors) and maintains solid quality throughout. None of the stories—other than Sonya Dorman’s dark and terrifying “Slice of Life”—are masterpieces but Keith Roberts, Kate Wilhelm, Richard McKenna, James Blish, and Thomas M. Disch put in solid shifts.
A solid start to the Orbit anthology series.
Somewhat recommended for fans of 60s SF but the best short stories can probably be found in other collections.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
“Staras Flonderans” (1966) short story by Kate Wilhelm, 3/5 (Average): Early in Wilhelm’s career she wrote unremarkable pulp—for example, the collection The Mile-Long Spaceship (1963)—with some underlying psychological concerns. As with many authors whose work matured in the late 60s (Silverberg comes to mind), Wilhelm’s career followed a similar trajectory. “Staras Flonderans” illustrates this juncture. The pulp/space opera plot about humans and aliens investigating the wrecked remains of human spaceship floating in space combines with a ruminative (from the perspective of the alien main character) lament about humankind’s inability to confront the truly alien. The end product is not altogether successful although there are nice touches throughout. The group of stories that form the best of her 60s production would start the following year with “Baby, You Were Great!” (1967).
“The Secret Place” (1966), short story by Richard McKenna, 3.5/5 (Good) won the second ever Nebula Award for Best Short Story. I was not familiar with McKenna’s SF—he made it big with the mainstream novel The Sand Pebbles (1962) which was turned into a famous movie by the same name. “The Secret Place” is an understated story about an unusual wartime (WWII) military expedition—searching for the origin of one “thumb-sized crystal of uranium oxide” (31) in a desert near Barker, Oregon. The narrator soon realizes that a young woman’s imaginative world in which she interacts with her dead brother might hold the key to the origin of the substance. And the narrator will go to rather sinister lengths perpetuating and interacting with her imaginative world in order to acquire it. This might be one of the least-known Nebula award winners.
“How Beautiful With Banners” (1966), short story by James Blish, 3.5/5 (Good): Dr. Ulla Hillstrøm explores the surface of Titan in a nearly transparent living “virus space-bubble” suit that maintains pressure and monitors radiation. Unnecessary sexualization of Ulla and her suit aside, the story follows her strange experience as a native creature merges with the “living” suit. Blish is adept at painting the environment of Titan’s surface: “the cause of the thermal, when she finally reached it, was almost bathetic—a pool of liquid. Placid and deep blue, it lay inside a fissure in a low, heart-shaped hummock, rimmed with feathery snow” (59). Solid.
“The Disinherited” (variant title “Home”) (1966), shortstory by Poul Anderson, 3.5/5 (Good): Mithrans and a handful of human colonists live in relative harmony on an alien planet. Unfortunately, Earth is cutting their space program and sends out a final mission to retrieve the colonists. A moral dilemma unfolds—do the colonists stay on the planet with no future backup and a lack of professionals needed for a healthy populace? Or, do they risk the hard life on an alien planet. Likewise, what will happen to the natives when the humans left on the planet feel the pressures to survive? Anderson’s story is solid throughout and I thought the dilemma was convincing.
Initially I did not care for the story due to shallow utopian presentation of the relationship between the colonists and the Mithrans. However, this “utopianism” is presented as life at that particular moment which is bound to change as the humans left on the planet experience how difficult it is to survive. And, how they might turn on their onetime allies….
“The Loolies Are Here” (1966), short story by Ruth Allison and Jane Rice (as Allison Rice), 2/5 (Bad): As with many of Pamela Zoline’s (for example her 1967 masterpiece “The Heat Death of the Universe”) or Kate Wilhelm’s SF short stories, “The Loolies Are Here” is a satirical look at the life of a housewife swamped with the mundane tasks of taking care of children, laundry, etc. Instead of blaming the Brownies of folklore, she blames the Loolies… Our main character, in the numbing repetitiveness of her daily tasks, starts to speculate wildly about their existence. Unremarkable.
“Kangaroo Court” (1966), novelette by Virginia Kidd, 2.5/5 (Bad): The longest story in the collection is also one of the least engaging. “Kangaroo Court” places strange kangaroo-like aliens who communicate in part via excreted smells. Wystan Godwin, who works for the Communications Complex, is recalled from his sojourn in Tibet to further communications with the aliens. Of course, his efforts come up against the “KILL THE ALIENS” mentality of the military. There is little here that elevates this tale above the horde of similar narratives.
“Splice of Life” (1966), short story by Sonya Dorman, 4.75/5 (Very Good) is easily the best story in the collection. Over the course of her SF career Dorman published only a handful of short stories between 1961 and 1980. The one the most SF readers may have encountered is “Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird” (1967) which appeared in Dangerous Visions (1967). “Splice of Life” is an intense and terrifying experience. Imagine a hospital ward where accident victims without money or relatives are kept with wounds untreated and re-inflicted… Read and find out the reason! The pain and terror fills the pages as the mind seeks footing in a drugged state, amongst memory fragments, propped up by small desires and minor consoling thoughts…. And in a cycle that will not cease.
“5 Eggs” (1966), short story by Thomas M. Disch, 3/5 (Average): A whimsical and witty work by Disch with an unsatisfying and entirely predictable “twist” ending. A month or so ago I read and adored Camp Concentration (serialized: 1967)—so I suspect his other short works are altogether more engaging. A human and a female egg-laying alien break off their relationship—and she has an exquisite revenge. Peppered with allusions from the classics, “5 Eggs” does not elevate itself above “silly fun.”
“The Deeps” (1966), short story by Keith Roberts, 4/5 (Good): In a world swamped by “the great universal cry” of “give us room” the suburbs have spread into the oceans (173). Roberts’ moody story tracks a single family in an underwater community. The wife worries about the changes occurring among the children raised under the surface… The husband, obsessed with his work, proclaims the freedom from the oppressive hordes on the new frontier. And the children are intrigued by the next frontier, the dark maw of the deeps past the continental shelf. I found the rather triumphalist ending at odds with the mood and tone of the story. But on the whole it is an evocative work.
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(Uncredited cover for the 1967 edition)