Book Review: New Dimensions 3, ed. Robert Silverberg (1973) (Le Guin + Tiptree, Jr. + Lafferty + Malzberg + Effinger + et al.)


(Dennis Anderson’s cover for the 1973 edition)

4/5 (Collated rating: Good)

For an anthology, bound to contain a filler story or two, this one is spectacular. Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions 3 (1973) lives up to his claim to contain “stories that demonstrate vigorous and original ways [often experimental] of approaching the body of ideas, images, and concepts that is science fiction” yet do not sacrifice “emotional vitality, or clarity of insight.” Ursula K. Le Guin, with her rumination on utopias, and James T. Tipree, Jr.’s proto-cyberpunk tale of commercialism and performing gender, deliver some of their best work.

The New Dimensions series of original SF is now on my must read radar (at least the nine 70s volumes).

Highly recommended for fans of 70s SF.

Brief Analysis/Summary 

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, 4.75/5 (Near Masterpiece): Won the 1974 Hugo for Best Short Story. A haunting Italo Calvino-esque (i.e. Invisible Cities) parable on the nature and moral landscape of utopia. An unreliable narrator describes the city of Omelas, queue what appears to be, at first glance, a utopian scene with processions and streamers, music and happiness… The narrator themselves sees the possibility of Omelas sounding too trite: “I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody” (3). But Omelas has a secret, in a dungeon below the city….

I loved the simplicity of the premise: a narrator describing a city that might not exist, and introducing, via the city, a serious discussion of morality.

Highly recommended.

“Down There,” short story by Damon Knight, 4.5/5 (Very Good): Stories about crafting stories in the future have always resonated with me—the best example I’ve read recently is D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (variant title: The Unsleeping Eye) (1974). Knight’s “twist” is a simple one — he takes a single day in the life of R. A. Norbert, who writes romance fiction at extraordinary speeds by means of a computer program and follows his process of writing, the daily acts of checking his account, skimming newspapers for his credits, the way he walks home, the small interactions with people he encounters, and the life he lives at night…. The effect is a distillation of future work, the procedure of living in the future, and how we will still try to escape.

I’ve not encountered a Damon Knight story that has this powerful of an effect on me. Sounds like I should read more of his 70s (vs. 50s) short fiction.

“How Shall We Conquer?” short story by W. Macfarlane, 2.5/5 (Bad): Aliens descend in front of the UN building and select Jorge Quijada, an older and disabled Costa Rican translator with a well-traveled past, as their sole human contact. Their orders, pick one earth family to go live with the aliens for “assessment of compatibility” (20). Quijada, catapulted into virtual stardom due to his unexpected role in first contact, selects an African-American family to head off with the aliens…. When they return, unharmed, and with an alien woman as part of the exchange, Quijada identifies that the aliens pose a larger, more existential threat to humankind.

W. Macfarlane published only the occasional story, seldom anthologized beyond initial magazine publication, from the late 40s to the late 70s. This one is functional and somewhat polished. I feel like Macfarlane wants to say something profound about race–but doesn’t know exactly what to say and if he should say it at all….

“They Live on Levels,” short story by Terry Carr, 4/5 (Good): A fascinating story despite a stodgy premise—sometime in the future, due to a nebulous technological breakthrough, humanity has morphed into a variety of specters, phantasms, apparitions, haunts, and wraiths. Various groups of these post-human beings live on various “levels” (which appear to exist at the same time in the same place?)…. communication is possible, although the reasons why communication would exist or why communication is not possible between certain groups (end plot point), isn’t clear. Many elements of the world, despite sections Carr devotes to exposition, remain as shrouded in mystery as the characters. The plot transpires via telepathic (?) “letters” between two inhabitants of different “levels”–Cass (Rose Level) and Ram (Level Chandra). Each letter hints at distinct characteristics of the world: for example, Cass’ revolves around sound, “a droning from the west comes each morning chitterings and cymbals flit about our heads all day, and gay whoops fall periodically from the sky” (41).

Carr’s ability to evoke the different levels transforms the “ghost narrative” by adding an otherworldly way to describe interactions, perspectives, senses. Intriguing.

“The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” novelette by James Tiptree, Jr., 5/5 (Masterpiece): Won the 1974 Hugo for Best Novella. Nominated for the 1974 Nebula. A Hugo-award winner I can get behind! In the future, advertising is outlawed, i.e. “A display other than the legitimate use of the product, intended to promote its sale” (68). Instead, the media companies get around the law by promoting the cult of the human god, the trendsetter (think, the modern Instagram influencer), who uses items, or goes shopping (of course, audiences know what their idol uses must be the best!).

A male narrator (gender is important in this instance), recounts–with almost stunted emotional disgust–the sad story of P. Burke, a “rotten girl” (60) with a “fungus place in her armpit” (64) afflicted by disease, who attempts to commit suicide. Instead, she is rescued and pulled into the shadowy world of god making…. She, resting in a cubicle underground, animates a female 15 year-old laboratory-made human vegetable named Delphi with perfect human form. Of course, the company wants to make Delphi a star!

This is a gut-wrenching story about performing gender and its intersections with commercialism. James Triptree, Jr., a woman writing as a man, writes a story about how men view the female body (via her narrator). And of course, made all more disturbing by the fact that P. Purke, via her human waldo, can finally interact with the world.

Find this one ASAP.

“Days of Grass, Days of Straw,” short story by R. A. Lafferty, 4.5/5 (Very Good): Lafferty is an author whom I’ve struggled with in the past. Like Doris Piserchia, he always seems to operate “outside” what is expected of “SF.” I immediately found “Days of Grass, Days of Straw” my cup of tea….

“There are intervals, days, hours, minutes that are not remembered directly by anyone. They do not count in the totality of passing time” (107).

And within one of these liminal “spacial and temporal underlays to the integrated world” (108), Christopher Foxx wanders down a road where “there was just a little bit of something wrong about things” (98) and into a western town like no other. Here the coins depict buffalos and badgers, men teach buffalos to fight with spears tied to their horns, and walls can be rolled up so “folks in every shop could see into every other shop” (103). Lafferty’s brand of surrealism is redolent with Kiowa and Cahooche imagery…

Otherworldly, witty, lyrical. Lafferty at his best.

“Notes Leading Down to the Conquest,” short story by Barry N. Malzberg, 3.5/5 (Good): Malzberg’s template astronaut story–Man 1, researcher, might be insane. Man 1 claims, as he has “pored over documents public and private” (119), that man Man 2, astronaut, is insane. Man 2, astronaut (Antonio Smith), journeys to Jupiter, yet another voyage in a string of empty masculine technological gesticulations into the empty expanses of space…. While on the journey, Smith is possessed by “dim obsessions, fragments of scatology, somewhat larger, more metaphysical speculations of his future and the purpose of the voyage” (120). A disaster occurs.

I found Malzberg’s obsessive layers (notes, transmissions, delusions) on the half-hearted and muted side. They take far more poignant and harrowing form in Beyond Apollo (1972), The Falling Astronauts (1971), and the short stories forming the underrated fix-up novel Universe Day (1971). Read those three first.

For Malzberg completists only (i.e. me, MPorcius, and anyone else?).

“At the Bran Foundry,” short story by George Alec Effinger, 3.5/5 (Good): Originally reviewed here.

The oddest and most distant story in the collection [Irrational Numbers] At first glance it feels as if the explanation eludes below the surface of the whimsy and madcap events. “At the Bran Foundry” feels like an advertisement told as adventure tale or some manifestation of industry through the lens of “Bugs Bunny cartoons that were made during the war” (100). The Key Club heads to the Bran factory.  But the Bran factory doesn’t seem to make cereal, or, it does make cereal if cereal “was recently dug out of the rich fields of ore located in the Laurentian highlands of Quebec” (103).  A strange, but memorable, concoction…

“Tell Me All About Yourself,” short story by F. M. Busby, 2.5/5 (Bad): The second F. M. Busby story I’ve read was a disappointing experience–I had previously enjoyed “First Person Plural” (1980). I have yet to read any of his novels.

Dale, Charlie, and Vance go on a bender in Hong Kong after a cross-Pacific hydrofoil freighter route and end up, against Dale’s wishes, high and at a Necro. You probably don’t want to know what a Necro is, but, for the sake of summary, it’s a brothel where dead women (accidents, suicide, bodies handed over by husbands, etc.) are kept warm by sophisticated machines…. Post-“coitus” Dale feels “sorry” for the “mysterious” dead woman he has sex with….

It’s a shock story plain and simple–set in an exotic Asian local. Silverberg claims that Busby handles the theme with “restraint and precision” but I’m not convinced that Busby has much to say. No thanks.

“Three Comedians,” novelette by Gordon Eklund, 4.25/5 (Good): Eklund is never found on “best SF” lists, nor did he win any solo major awards (he won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 1976 for “If the Stars Are Gods” which he wrote with Gregory Benford). However, his short fictions were reliable and often engaging–“Three Comedians” is one of his better efforts.

A religious parable that sets a range of disreputable characters pretending to be Christian missionaries–“a psychotic killer, a child molester and a runaway android” (151)–on an unusual planet with a single small island landmass. Sentient sea lion-like aliens live on the island, however, due to the arrival on humankind on their world have experienced a crisis of faith (man fishes for their gods). The story balances discussions of the microcosm (the single landmass on the planet, the three missionaries, the two government officers who watch them) and the macrocosm (the universe, God, powerful alien beings) in an engaging and meaningful manner. Eklund shies away from a blatantly anti-religious stance held by a lot of 70s authors for a more sophisticated debate….

I’ve reviewed in tepid strokes The Eclipse of Dawn (1971), complained about “West Find Falling” (1971) in Universe 1, ed. Terry Carr, and praised “Stalking the Sun” (1972) in my brief review of Universe 2, ed. Terry Carr. I plan on seeking out more of his short fiction.

“The Last Days of July,” novelette by Gardner Dozois, 4.25/5 (Good): A writer named John, disturbed by apocalyptical visions of urban cataclysm, heads off to resurrect his career in a friend’s empty house in the countryside. A series of unusual occurrences transpire, and the his apocalyptical premonitions (?) of destruction infringes on the natural world around him.

In many ways this reminded me of a more restrained version of Christopher Priest’s masterpiece The Affirmation (1981). I’ve been pleased with the Dozois stories I’ve read so far–“The Last Days of July” is well told, restrained, and a powerful way to end the collection.

(Charles Moll’s cover for the 1974 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

12 thoughts on “Book Review: New Dimensions 3, ed. Robert Silverberg (1973) (Le Guin + Tiptree, Jr. + Lafferty + Malzberg + Effinger + et al.)”

  1. The only one of these I’ve read before is the Le Guin and we’re totally in agreement on that one.

    I need to find the Tiptree somewhere. I need to read more Tiptree in general. Do you have a recommended compilation?

    1. It was really fascinating — I’m a sucker for a “here’s a city I’ll use to ruminate on morality and the nature of humanity type” story.

      Anything with “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973)!

      On a more serious note, I enjoyed but never reviewed her first collection, Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home (1973) but it doesn’t contain “The Girl.”

      Warm Worlds and Otherwise (1975) does, and has a darn fascinating cover to boot (1979 ed.)!

  2. I’ve read the Knight and the Tiptree stories. I liked the Knight one in particular–I found it in his collection, The Best of Damon Knight (http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?35770). I wouldn’t right off his 50s work altogether. Some of my faves–Country of the Kind, What Rough Beast, Dio/The Dying Man, Ticket To Anywhere–are from the 1950s. I read the Tiptree only a year or so ago. I liked it at the time but it hasn’t stuck with me. Probably the aging brain cells are the problem here…? I’m keen to get hold of the rest though (stories, not cells, though maybe those too).

      1. It’s a good review, and I agree The Dying Man is by far the best thing about the collection. I’ve read a lot of Knight and he does manage to churn out the dross. But littered among it are some real gems. The problem is finding them.

  3. Its interesting that this anthology has four well-known editors as authors as contributors. It would be interesting to compare the writings of Knight, Malzeberg, Carr, and Dozois with some of their anthologies and see if there is any similarity between the two. All four were also magazine editors. Come to think of it, Silverberg was also a magazine editor, and his novels and anthologies were in constant rotation during my formative reading years during the sixties. I would suggest Carr’s “New Worlds of Fantasy” anthologies. They were reprint anthologies filled with stories that often verged on Magic Realism, and illustrated by Kelly Freas. They were in essence, the perfect issues of “F&SF” which Carr had edited for a couple of years.

    And that’s a particular racy cover for mainstream paperback consumption. Just goes to show that SF wasn’t taken very seriously as nobody really monitored the content of the books of this genre.

    1. I think the major difference is with Knight’s anthologies — Orbit in particular. They have the absolute highest percentage of women authors — see my reviews of Orbit is you’re curious. But, it would be intriguing to break down the numbers.

      Moll had a few covers that might be classified as “racy” for SF paperbacks. But yes, distinct from the UK for sure.

      (not a big “fantasy” fan–elves, orcs, and that sort– that said, I find magical realism and inventive fantasy appealing)

  4. Strangely, one of my favorites is http://www.isfdb.org/wiki/images/c/c7/DRRSNMRWNK1976.jpg
    which is his cover for Audrey Rose. Love that inscription: BORN. DIED. BORN.

    If you don’t like adventure/heroic fantasy (not a big fan either) then those Carr anthologies would be perfect for you.

    As far as women writers in sf, I’m currently reading Frankenstein’s Daughters by Jane Donawerth which looks at sf’s themes and tropes as they are explored by women authors in their fiction when the main character is a woman. I think that you would probably like this cover http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/511ENEYEMYL.jpg surreal and symbolic. How about a ten best Malzberg covers?

    1. My ten favorite Malzberg covers already appear, crystalline, in my mind… probably as I love their contents so much. Perhaps, perhaps. Again, whenever I feel the tug of a whim I put together an art post…. haha. I rarely plan things. Ever.

      Frankenstein’s Daughters sounds like an interesting read. I’ll put it on my wish list.

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