This anthology contains the 4th post in a loose series on SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them. I decided to review the entire anthology!
Today: Katherine MacLean’s “Echo” (1970), 3.75/5 (Good). The entire anthology is available online here.
3/5 (Collated rating: Average)
Robert Hoskins “resurrected” Infinity Science Fiction magazine (1955-1958) as a five volume anthologies series between 1970-1973. The first volume, Infinity One (1970), contains sixteen original stories and one reprint from the original magazine–Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” (1955). SF Encyclopedia describes the anthology series as “a competent but not outstanding series.”
Eight of the seventeen stories fall into the “good” category. While none are masterpieces, Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke, Barry N. Malzberg co-writing with Kris Neville, Katherine MacLean, Gene Wolfe, and Poul Anderson put in the solid shifts.
Somewhat recommended–especially for fans of SF that tackles religious themes (Clarke’s “The Star,” Malzberg and Neville’s “Pacem Est,” and Anderson’s “The Communicators”).
Brief Analysis/Plot Discussion
“The Pleasure of Our Company” (variant title: “The Pleasure of Their Company” (1970), Robert Silverberg, 4.25/5 (Good) is tied with Gene Wolfe’s (below) as the best in the collection. Fleeing a military junta that deposed him, Thomas Voightland, Former President of the Citizens’ Council on Bradley’s World, contemplates exile. Without his family and long-time political allies, he sets off alone with only the programmed cubes of famous people and his family members to keep him company–their speaking visages projected on the screens of the spacecraft. Of course, these simulacra parrot what Voightland wants to hear—and slowly reveal his true nature. Voightland is a coward who planned his escape long in advance. But will he turn back as as all his programmed companions have turned against him? Or have they?
The man in exile is fascinating perspective for a narrator—and a narrator who only tells half the truth. Silverberg’s best exile reflecting on one’s past stories remain The Man in the Maze (1969) and A Time of Changes (1971).
“The Absolute Ultimate Invention” (1970), Stephen Barr, 1/5 (bad): A one-page “fable” that postulates our desperation for eternal youth will lead to humorous (not really) and impulsive mistakes when we do finally figure out how to conquer the tides of time. Barr published 18 other short stories in Galaxy and F&SF—hopefully they are more memorable.
“The Star” (1955), Arthur C. Clarke, 4/5 (Good): Won the 1956 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. The only reprint in the collection appeared in the original Infinity Science Fiction (November 1955) magazine. One of Arthur C. Clarke’s best-known short stories, places a Jesuit astrophysicist on a mission to explore the remnants of a supernova and “reconstruct the events that led up to it” and “its cause” (51). In the cosmic wreckage in the Phenix Nebula, the crew discover a massive alien pylon containing a Vault filled with alien knowledge. Clarke manages to evoke the cosmic immensity of it all–he macro: an advanced civilization blotted out; the micro: the personal struggles of a man who fights to establish an aim and purpose to creation in the bleak emptiness of space, an emptiness that seeps into his heart and challenges his faith.
I enjoyed Clarke’s deliberate emphasis on the academic role of Counter-Reformation religious orders such as the Jesuits. The crew doesn’t seem to understand the narrator’s scientific chops: “three papers in the Astrophysical Journal” among others (50). Also appealing, like the Jesuits, Clarke does not adhere to an essentialist division between science and religion. While our narrator’s faith is shaken, it is not shattered. “The Star” as an important progenitor of an esteemed lineage of “priest in space” SF stories.
“Echo” (1970), Katherine MacLean, 3.75/5 (Good): MacLean’s vision was the reason I tracked down this anthology as I thought it might fit into my sequence on “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.” “Echo” falls into the camp of stories about the utter alienness of what we might encounter in our explorations of the cosmos. Like a Werner Herzog monologue on the hatred of nature, “Echo” features an alien ecology pitted against human interlopers like the jungle threatening to entomb Don Lope de Aguirre. And in MacLean’s vision, nature worms through the mind spreading lesions that never heal. An effective piece of unrelenting SF horror—a spaceman unable to come to terms with the world beyond Earth.
If you haven’t read any of MacLean’s SF yet, I recommend starting with her Nebula-nominated masterpiece of a novel Missing Man (1975). I plan on exploring more of her 70s short fiction at a later point.
“The Great Canine Chorus” (1970), Anne McCaffrey, 2.5/5 (Bad): A lesser McCaffrey story about a police office and his canine who discover a telepathic homeless girl and her abusive father. I found the emotional thrust of the story (and its ending) more interested with the unusual effects of her telepathy on dogs than on the girl itself–who is abused by just about everyone in the world. As with some of the stories in The Ship Who Sang (1969), I’m not always convinced that McCaffrey emphasizes or considers the moral implications of her worlds. The poor adolescent homeless girl is used (by the mob) and abused (by her father) and trampled (by dogs). Why is the story’s takeaway the end of the “unearthly canine choruses that had been plaguing Wilmington” (84)? Regardless of the choices she had made, Maria and her abilities are not to blame! McCaffrey far from her best.
“Pacem Est” (1970), Barry N. Malzberg and Kris Neville, 4/5 (Good): Like Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” (1955) and Poul Anderson’s “The Communicators” (1970) in this anthology, “Pacem Est” places religious issues into stark science fictional relief. On an alien world, a seemingly ritualized war occurs within designated “Killing Areas[s]” and soldier indoctrination that begins immediately on arrival with a “caged alien at the entry port” (89). The story only hints the nature of the enemy. In one Killing Area (my mind evoked WWI’s No Man’s Land between the trenches), a soldier named Hawkins discovers the body of Sister Alice Rosemarie. Hawkins, out of impulse, has the body brought to the nun’s superior, Mother Florence.
Fumbling through the signs of faith, Hawkins struggles to understand the role of sisters on such a bleak world who “give what comfort we are able” and to “hold out […] against the Apocalypse” (92). Initially, Hawkins seems resigned to the devastation around him. But something about their hopeless cause propels him forth, like the nun, into the Killing Zone.
There’s a brutal simplicity to the tale. And the final line, a blunt nail—“To combat his loneliness, God invented religion” (92).
“Keeping an Eye on Janey” (1970), Ron Goulart, 2/5 (Bad): In the normal Goulart mold, an occasionally humorous tale about a future paperback gothic novel publisher named Rhymer whose own life also starts to parallel narratives straight from noir crime pulp. There are some minor yet compelling observations about the nature of regurgitated plots and characters in pulp fiction—but it all comes off as glib as Goulart falls into the same pattern (conceivably a confession of his monetary schemes?). There’s a light fuzziness about Goulart’s satires that rarely resonate with me.
“The Packerhaus Method” (1970), Gene Wolfe, 4.25/5 (Good): Embalming technology. An increasingly unnerving narrative rhythm punctuated by “‘Meow,’ said the cat'” (113). And Old Woman gathering “friends” as she approaches her own death. Gene Wolf spins a sinister tale of “The Packerhaus Method” where the bodies of the dead are animated by electrical impulses. Are the embalmed sentient? There’s a repetition in their actions. “‘Meow,’ said the cat” (116). A terrifying cycle of identical characters approach the house and its occupants are are lured within. There’s a sadness to the Old Woman murderer—alone in her house, waiting for death, her victims performing the same movements, again, and again…. “‘Meow,’ said the cat” (117).
“The Walter Sculptor of Station 233” (variant title: “The Water Sculptor”), George Zebrowski, 3.5/5 (Good): After rereading the story, I realized that I’d previously written about it here. I enjoyed it far more than the first time around so I’ve updates the review slightly.
“The Water Sculptor” is chronologically the third (but first published) story in the sequence beginning with the “Assassins of Air” (1973) and “Parks of Rest and Culture” (1973). The one-time astronaut Chris Praeger watches the result of the advanced stages of ecological catastrophe unfolding on earth from orbit on “Station Six” (53). Storms sweep across the Pacific killing thousands. He feels nostalgic for Earth and its cities. Chris is friends with Julian—both are barred from future missions of exploration due to an accident. Julian thinks that humankind is unfit for “just about everything” and with his billions built a “bubble station” in space where he freezes water in patterns in the cold of space (57). Some random catastrophe occurs and Zebrowski attempts at ruminating on the fate and fragility of man and his planet.
The space observation stations and habitats around earth are presented occupy a liminal space between the decrepit earth wallowing in its own filth below and the promise of humanity’ exploration beyond. Both Praeger and Julian are caught in this zone–no longer actors in creating a future but observers mired in their own pasts.
“Operation P-Button” (1970), Gordon R. Dickson, 1/5 (Bad): One of three SF “fables” in the anthology, Dickson’s might be the worst. A top-secret communication between Field Agent Charles (Chick) N. Little and Henn E. Penny, OP:SEC:OFF (you know, the characters in the Chicken Little folk tale about the end of the world)…. “ALL OBSERVATION AND PERTINENT DATA THIS SECTOR OF OPERATIONS STRONGLY INDICATE THAT THE SKY IS FALLING” (134). I guess the gimmick is the professional language obfuscates the hysterical belief in the end of the world. No thanks.
“The Tiger” (1970), Miriam Allen deFord, 2/5 (Bad): In my review of Tom Reamy’s Blind Voices (1978), I wrote that “I hold the trope […] of a circus entering and disrupting a town’s rhythms close to my heart: the spectacle of pseudo-science, lost knowledge, wonder, oddity…” deFord’s “The Tiger” is a minor entry into a pantheon of fascinating small town America plunged into crises due to mysterious outsiders… Bart Holland comes to town with his farm’s produce and meets a mysterious woman who works for a traveling circus—a circus with tame tigers. He falls in love. And she does as well. Will her love save him from the true nature of the somnolent beasts?
“The Tiger” relies far too much on a gimmick ending and doesn’t effectively establish the ambiance of small town life and the allure of exotic entertainment. And of course, the love saves the day ending feels tacked on.
Despite the poor quality of this particular tale, I recommend deFord’s collection Xenogenesis (1969) which better demonstrates her feminist SF take on overpopulation, racism, colonialism, gender issues, sexism, and alienation.
“Hands of the Man” (1970), R. A. Lafferty, 3/5 (Average): A skyman named Hodl Oskanian engages in a scam involving a diamond at a bar first by telling the lines of his hands: “it is the saying of palmist that we form the lines of our right hand by the tide of our lives” (154). Hold’s the typical Lafferty character, a larger-than-life hero that commands the room with his tales—and the topography of his hand.
This tall tale did not command my imagination or insert me into a trademark Lafferty thoughtscape like so many of his stories… “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” (1966), “All Pieces of a River Shore” (1970), and “Interurban Queen” (1970) are better places to explore.
“Nightmare Gang” (1970), Dean R. Koontz, 2/5 (Bad): A motorcycle gang leader holds sway with his mind over his minions: “only Louis knew who we were; none of the gang members could remember any past, beyond joining the gang” (167). The joyrides up-and-down the Florida coast aren’t a manifestation of freedom, but of a new form of prison. As the crimes grow in intensity, the narrator gives up trying to escape — and starts to enjoy the wild/sinister/violent ride.
Contains some truly awful lines: “Jimmy-Joe had his hands full of knives. The one in his right was dripping something red” (172). For a better subversion of the freedom of the road and its mythologies, check out John Jakes’ On Wheels (1973).
“These Our Actors” (1970), Edward Wellen, 3.5/5 (Good): A brilliant premise that deserved a better delivery! Two “tired telecast beams crossed at a point in space” (179). A sentient plasmoid (perhaps?) in a sub-dreaming state, picks up on the crossed beams and projects the commercial and sportscast on its “brainscreen” (186). We follow the two fragments—a man hiding from an unseen sniper on an alien world and a “Revirginate commercial” with its terrified actor–as they intersect. As if one were to turn on a radio in a foreign country and two radio programs blurred over each other… oblique windows into a distant foreign world.
It’s an effective mood piece that lacks a clarity of image to showcase the premise. That said, I’m intrigued enough to track down more of Wellen’s short fiction.
“Inside Mother” (1970), Pat de Graw, 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good): Hoskins’ brief introduction blurb indicates that the gender and any specific details of the author are unknown. They published one further story, “Polimander’s Man-Thing,” in the April 1973 issue of Analog and a poem, “Memo to Secretary” in the June 1966 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
A promising story about a group of children (on an alien planet?) who refer to a building as their Mother and each other by their numbers. Inside the maternal construct, Four hears fragments of Mother’s automated speech: “All I can do is watch the controls, make the necessary adjustments against the day they will be on their own” (193). A sinister scenario unfolds—the children, disgorged without sufficient programming from Mother after an unknown disaster, have not been taught by the machine knowledge about the external world. In addition, if they are siblings (the might all be different from different parents), they soon engage in adolescent sexual exploration. Despite the limited knowledge about their world, and the context-less vocabulary of their Mother repeating her lines, the ending suggests a possibility of survival.
“The Communicators” (1970), Poul Anderson, 3.5/5 (Good): Sent by Earth’s new superpower The Domination of Baikal (think Mongols), Brother Roban of The Order of Communicators arrives on the Moon–ten years after humanity roused itself from another “Dark Age” and returned to the stars. With his Primary, Luizo, he must decipher signals sent by the Kappa Cetians.
Like Clarke’s “The Star” and Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). Anderson speculates that religious orders will be responsible for preserving knowledge. Anderson’s future appears to have gone through multiple cataclysms: humanity’s great technological accomplishments will not prevent disaster. Pseudo-medievalism aside, Anderson’s focus on dialogue and confrontation between Roban–who, despite the supranational status of the Order, still holds the views (some racist, others nationalist) of the Pacific Northwest–and Duna, the Domination of Baikal emissary, add complexity to the narrative. Communication resolves the conflict in “The Communicators,” as the title suggests.
“The Man on the Hill” (1970), Michael Fayette, 3/5 (Average): The best of the three SF fables in the anthology. Unlike with Dickson and Barr’s attempt, Fayette manages to convey in a single page a last rite of man. A lone figure emerges from a shelter in a barren landscape. Having waited for his companions to pass away, he interrupts the boredom of his existence with a final defiant act. A colonizing mission abandoned? The last survivors of a doomed Earth?
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