(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
(Lou Feck’s cover for the 1978 edition)