Book Review: The New Atlantis and Other Novellas of Science Fiction, ed. Robert Silverberg (1975) (Le Guin + Wolfe + Tiptree, Jr.)

thnwtlntsn1975

(Jorge Hernandez’s cover for the 1975 edition)

4.75/5 (collated rating: Very Good)

Utopian dreams. Demonic spaceship cults. Grotesque cosmic pollination. Robert Silverberg’s edited original collections of novellas and novelettes strike gold again! See reviews of Triax (1979) (Keith Roberts, Jack Vance, James E. Gunn) and to a lesser degree The Crystal Ship (1976) (Marta Randall, Joan D. Vinge, Vondra McIntyre).

A few weeks ago I promised to read more of James Tiptree, Jr.’s fiction. With this in mind I rooted around my unread collections and found one of her stories in The New Atlantis and Other Novellas of Science Fiction, ed. Robert Silverberg (1975). This review pushed many others to the back burner…. It is that good. Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, and James Tiptree, Jr. do not disappoint. A holy trifecta?

Highly recommended for fans of intelligent 70s SF.

Brief Analysis/Plot Summary (*as always, spoilers*)

“Silhouette” (1975), novella by Gene Wolfe, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Nominated for the 1976 Locus. My exploration of Wolfe’s 60s/70s short fiction continues with this unsettling and ambiguous take on the “sleeper starship approaches unusual planet ripe for colonization” trope. As with George Alec Effinger’s hallucinatory futuristic cult blended with pulp Hollywood film mash-up “Biting Down Hard on Truth” (1974), the growing panic, demonic undertones, currents of uncertain forces wrapped in ritual and hermetic knowledge in “Silhouette” come to head in a breathless ending.

A spaceship approaches the verdant planet Neuerddraht after years of “traveling at near-light speeds” (25), the last gasp of an overpopulated and famine-stricken Earth… If they find a suitable planet, they must return home to their dying world with the news, setting the stage for future colonization.

The story follows Lieutenant Johann who spends his off time trying to convince maintenance to fix the lights in his room (“our monitor report indicates that the lights in seven seventy-three are satisfactory,” 12) and gambling for books (“There’s hours of entertainment in a Dore New Testament,” 17). Woken years before from the spaceship’s deep sleep cycle, the aimless crew find meaning in cults and/or engage in lengthy paranoid conversations with the ship’s “overmonitor” (30). Ensconced in his room’s somnolent half-light Johann flickers in and out of unusual dreams where he wanders the forested surface of the planet. His waking moments grow more and more paranoid as he realizes the captain refuses to tell him about the cults and their seditious activities. Adding to Johann’s disorientation, something akin to a shadow begins to speak to him… a denizen of the forested planet below?

Wolfe’s attention to detail creates a visual and even auditory element to the paranoia as the narrative strands and plots multiple: for example, the Captain describes a piece of music to Johann:

“It’s the Forest of Toys suite from Pleasureworld. It was the first leisure satellite, and because they didn’t know what to do with that kind of thing then, they made soil of the guests’ excretions and garbage, and planted trees. Without gravity they grew like a tangle of yarn, of course, like ours in the hydroponic module, and the management hung them with stuffed animals and laid out puzzle-routes through them” (36).

Wolfe adeptly paints Kafka-esque aimlessness across the broad strokes of a space adventure narrative. Throbbing with knots and patterns we seek to find “puzzle-routes through them” (36) but Johann’s perspective often dissociates: “sounds and syllables seemed to slip from his lips like sand, as though his mouth held many and many and myriad words, words that were cotton wool on his tongue, but poured out like old and broken coins, defaced and bent” (37). Psychologically taught and well crafted, “Silhouette” is not to be missed.

Note: Along with Effinger’s story mentioned above, I recommend Barry N. Malzberg’s take on demonology and space travel in the “I, Making Titan, 2500” portion of Universe Day (1971). Ballard’s “The Voices of Time” (1960) shows a similar obsession with esoteric ritual and processes in a world where all will soon fall asleep.

“The New Atlantis” (1975), novelette by Ursula K. Le Guin, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Won the 1976 Locus. Nominated for the Hugo. The the first time in years I’ve returned to Le Guin and I am giddy with a similar excitement her SF created in my youth. As with Wolfe, Le Guin is the consummate wordsmith and image weaver.

The images in “The New Atlantis” revolve around a moment of transformation, a passenger tries to engage in conversation with the narrator about how “the old continents are sinking, to make room for the new” (68). The narrator, in a sequence of images telling of contact with “lantern-creatures” (78), imagines utopian possibility: “Our eyes were certainly open, ‘then,’ for we saw it. We saw the moment” (71). This uplifting potentiality clashes with the future the narrator inhabits. It’s a dystopic west coast wrecked by natural disasters and authoritarian governments.

The musician narrator returns home to find her husband Simon in her bed after a stint in a Rehabilitation Camp. Simon tells of scientific breakthrough, the potential for unlimited energy and thus a power redistribution to the people. But these are all utopian dreams… Necessary dreams if we are to pull ourselves out of the mire and create better worlds.

Filled with witty moments, “The New Atlantis” whispers great beauty.  Highly recommended

“A Momentary Taste of Being” (1975), novella by James Tiptree, Jr., 4.5/5 (Very Good): Nominated for the 1976 Locus and Nebula Awards. Forbidden Freudian passions. Alien couplings. Paranoid interrogations. Alcoholic captains. Tiptree sets the novella’s tone and themes with the opening dream image–space exploration as masculine thrust into the unknown:

“…It floats there visibly engorged, blue-green against the blackness. He stares: It swells, pulsing to a terrifying dim beat, slowly extrudes a great ghostly bulge which extends, solidifies… it is a planet-testicle pushing a monster penis toward the stars. Its blood-beat reverberates through weeping immensities; cold, cold. The parsecs-long phallus throbs, probes blindly under intolerable pressure from within; its tip is a huge cloudy glans lit by a spark: Centaur. In grief it bulges, lengthens, seeking release—stars toll unbearable crescendo…” (97)

Aaron Kaye’s dream. Aaron is the doctor on board of the Centaur, a deep space exploration vessel with a scout ship complement, sent from Earth to identify and settle habitable planets. If the Centaur sends a green signal colony ships will be despatched en masse, a red signal indicates an inhabitable or dangerous planet, and yellow indicates the need to confirm planet status. The Centaur, designed to keep its inhabitants sane on the long voyage, stretches around its central spinning core in a veritable warren of passages to encourage the crew to create their own routes an encounter different people on their journeys to and fro. The crew of the vessel, screened and analyzed, selected from many countries of a fractured Earth, supposedly exhibit low sex drives. However Aaron and his fellow crewmen exhibit other forbidden Freudian desires and destructive vices.

Aaron’s sister, Lory, returns from scouting a potentially habitable planet bringing back an unknown life-form on her scout ship. Interrogation follows: “Were you afraid to have a means of unsealing the alien on board?” (119). Cleared by the interrogators, Aaron detects that his sister obfuscates her experience on the planet. And before the nature of the life-form can be assessed, someone sends the green signal to Earth!

As with Barry N. Malzberg in Beyond Apollo (1972) and Falling Astronauts (1971), Tiptree presents space travel as masculine desire to conquer and propagate space. Adam’s visions of the Centaur as a priapic extension from Earth, presage a cosmic coupling. Ultimately a grotesque pastiche that takes the premise to outrageous and horrifying conclusions, Adam’s hilariously dour observations  of humanity’s final transformation caps off the extravagant blackness of it all.

“A Momentary Taste of Being” clocks in at almost half the length of the entire collection. Unlike Le Guin and Wolfe, the novella lacks the same precision of vision. Regardless, despite the similarities of premise with Wolfe’s “Silhouette” each authors core interests are on display. If you enjoy the Freudian visions of Philip José Farmer in Strange Relations (1960) or Barry N. Malzberg, track her story down…

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

thnwtlntsj1978

(Lou Feck’s cover for the 1978 edition)

10 Replies to “Book Review: The New Atlantis and Other Novellas of Science Fiction, ed. Robert Silverberg (1975) (Le Guin + Wolfe + Tiptree, Jr.)”

  1. Sounds brilliant, I’ll have to track down a copy. I think I’ve read the Wolfe before (I read a big collection of his stories a decade ago) but I don’t remember anything about it (which is the problem with having read it a decade ago). LeGuin and Tiptree too, sounds like a perfect trio!

    1. All recommended for rereads! The Tiptree has some issues (I mention them briefly in my response to Jesse, only look at it if you have read the story already).

      Wolfe’s measured and strategic way of telling — the obsession with patterns, with minor actions that cannot be resolved (fixing the lights in Johann’s room), indications of distant rituals being performed (demonic cults + cults related to the omniscreen computer), Johann’s inability to really gauge the world around him all creates a harrowing experience.

  2. Agree, sounds brilliant. I’ve read a lot of Silverberg and Le Guin, but never encountered those two novellas for some strange reason. Well, perhaps not so strange: the stories that survive at the forefront of science fiction history are often not its best efforts. Thanks Hugo… The Tiptree I’ve read, and agree it’s as thought-provoking as it is uneven.

    Question: do you think there is any connection between the Wolfe novella and his Fifth Head of Cerberus?

    1. “The New Atlantis” appears in Le Guin’s well known collection The Compass Rose (1982) (of which I have a copy). So, if you can’t find a copy of this anthology perhaps that’s the way to go…. But the Wolfe is so good, so you want that one as well!

      *spoilers*
      Regarding the Tiptree story: I did not adore the story until the end (the first half was solid, the middle dragged, the end was genius). The entire premise, Adam’s dreams become the disturbing reality. And as some form of semi-alien sperm, he can only wander around the spaceship observing the disintegration of his crewmen (performing semblances of normal actions as their consciousness wanes). It could have been more cohesive for sure, but at least the metaphors explored explicitly in the beginning tied everything together and organized the strands.

      (as for the connection of the Wolfe novella to The Fifth Head of Cerebrus, I can’t add anything as I haven’t read the novel)

    1. I’ve been enjoying my slow exploration of his short fiction in the various anthologies I excavate from the unread book mountains in my place… They are almost all uniformly amazing.

  3. Hi Joachim

    I am on a real Short Story binge so I have tracked down copies of all three stories in other collections. I will be reading them in the next day or so starting with the Wolfe. Then I am looking forward to reading your comments.

    Thanks Guy

  4. Hi

    I have read all three, but I am going to have to reread all of them they were good enough to merit it and two were convoluted enough to require it. I don’t think I will be posting on them in the immediate future, it will take me quite awhile to digest them, I may also want to read more stories from the authors from the same period as well as some of the other stories you mention. The Voices of Time is probably my favourite Ballard so I will enjoy looking at it again in more detail. I am also not sure what I can add, your post is very good I think you really captured the works. I read the Tiptree first then the Wolfe, then the Le Guin so initially I thought it might be a themed anthology. The Tiptree was interesting but I was surprised at how unrelentingly Freudian it was in it’s characterization, imagery and metaphors even though you mentioned it. I do think she may have overdone it and I also found it dragged a bit in spots. That said it was an interesting read and her vision for the story bizarre as it was is maintained through the entire work. The Le Guin was beautifully written, a thing of mood and atmosphere, dream and vision that really was an interesting take on presenting people living in a dystopia. I think I will take another look at The Lathe of Heaven to compare the visionary experiences. The ending of the Wolfe blew me away, everything changed so abruptly, or maybe I did not read carefully enough, but it really caught me by surprise. I read it in his collection Endangered Species so I will have to read more of the stories. All were really rewarding reads thanks for reviewing them.

    Regards
    Guy

    1. Guy, I’m sorry, for some reason I missed your wonderful comment!

      The stories in The Voices of Time are fantastic — “The Sound-Sweep” (1960) was my favorite if I remember correctly. I haven’t read The Lathe of Heaven yet actually…. I keep on meaning to, and I am happy I returned to her work. Her prose is so much better than most SF authors out there.

      I enjoy reading Tiptree’s fiction in dialogue with Malzberg’s (I have no idea how much of each others works they read, but, I know they wrote letters to each other frequently) — both seek to subvert genre tropes and are dripping with Freudian elements (although with various distinct thematic focuses).

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