Book Review: Alternities, ed. David Gerrold and Stephen Goldin (1974) (Malzberg, McIntyre, Bunch, Bear, Sallis, et al.)

2.5/5 (collated rating: Bad)

David Gerrold and his associate editor Stephen Goldin collect a bizarre range of SF oddities including an epistolary nightmare from Vonda N. McIntyre’s pen and a one-sentence “sign” by Duane Ackerman. Gerrold argues that he wants “science fiction to be fun again” without “literary inbreeding and incestuous navel-studying” (8). With a more than pungent hint of hypocrisy, he spouts “I’m tired of the kind of bullshitting that creates false images in the readers’ minds” (8). Alternities (1974) reads like the cast off stories from a New Wave (i.e. deliberately literary) Judith Merril or Harlan Ellison anthology with heavy dose of erotic comedy and shock value. A few–including E. Michael Blake’s “The Legend of Lonnie and the Seven-Ten Split,” Vonda N. McIntyre’s “Recourse, Inc.,” and Edward Bryant’s “Cowboys, Indians”–rise above the dross.

To be clear, I enjoy devouring anthologies like Alternities. The stories are originals and few are anthologized elsewhere. I adore reading authors I wouldn’t otherwise encounter (Robert Wissner, E. Michael Blake, et al.). Gerrold’s nonsense of an introduction aside, the anthology with its deliberate attempts at the “literary” (Greg Bear’s “Webster” and James Sallis’ “The First Few Kinds of Truth”) and “edgy” (Steven Utley’s “Womb, with a View”) firmly fit in the passing mid-70s foam of the New Wave movement.

Despite my rating, I recommend the collection for fans of the unusual and crass undercurrents of mid-70s SF. All others will be disappointed.

Brief Analysis/Plot Summary

“Sand Castles,” Jack C. Haldeman, II, 2/5 (Bad):  Two spacemen, Mark and Sam, crash land on an alien planet. For an unexplainable reason, both are able to conjure objects based on their memory and imagination. The second one’s memory becomes indistinct–for example during Sam’s attempt to build a radio–the object flickers out of existence. Mark believes aliens inhabit the world. Sam proclaims them phantoms of Mark’s imagination. Sam lusts after the simulacra of Mark’s sister which the aliens (if they exist or not) generated.

Haldeman’s story revolves around the the premise of a world without causation–and alien existence without causation. Humans cannot grasp the nature of such an existence. And the deluge of poorly-wrought image sequences does not elevate “Sand Castles” to anything other than failed experimental exercise.

This is the first of Jack C. Haldeman, II’s SF (Joe Haldeman’s older brother) I’ve read. Any recommendations? Perhaps the Nebula-nominated “High Steel” (1983) written with Jack Dann?

“Before the Great Space-War” (variant title: “After the Great Space-War”), Barry N. Malzberg, 3/5 (Average): An average tale of colonial nightmare from the master of the nihilistic black comedy… An epistolary story, “Before the Great Space-War” charts the correspondence between an interstellar scout named Wilson (“I love being an interstellar scout”) on a planet in the Rigelian system and his headquarters attempting to coordinate an invasion. The scout becomes increasingly worried about the “Ceremony on the Hinges” (31) that the seemingly peaceful natives want him to participate in. There’s a disturbed twist but this is minor Malzberg.

“The P.T.A. Meets Che Guervara,” Robert Wissner, 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average): Scene: a school PTA meeting. Main character: the narrator is the father of one of the students. The purpose of the meeting: bad student behavior! The twist: the narrator, who seems a bit off and supportive of the possibility that his daughter might be involved in creating havoc, imagines an armed revolt of the students dressed as Marxist revolutionaries. The story wreaks of lived details about teachers and school meetings and fantasies conjured to escape the inanity of it all. An odd story with a troubled narrator… I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

The Legend of Lonnie and the Seven-Ten Split,” E. Michael Blake, 4/5 (Good) is one of the best of the collection. Las Vegas (now known as LaVe), surrounded by the only open country in a vast urban complex that is America, remains a place of allure and legend. Blake’s story revolves around the idea that in an era of constant media overload (in this instance via TV transmissions) “legends aren’t data” but percolate “just under the data” about to “break loose” (45). Even with all the data and facts at our fingertips, the desire for legends that resonate with our less data-driven emotions continues to propel even the most scientific. In this instance Lonnie, a bowling maestro able to chart the spin of the ball and calculate the imprecisions of the alley, dreams of creating becoming a legend by beat the Ash Man (the Devil) at bowling in the hallowed streets of LaVe.

Filled with unusual imagery, strange speculations on the nature of storytelling in an increasingly calculated world, odd bureaucratic moments, and disquieting moments of perversity, Blake’s story feels like an science fictional story legend with all the archetypal pieces.

E. Michael Blake was the long-time editor of Nuclear News, the publication of the American Nuclear Society. The story hints at his scientific expertise but also the daydreams of the worker saddled to an administrative day job. Worth tracking down.

Webster” (1973), Greg Bear, 3/5 (Average): My first Greg Bear story strikes me as quite different from his later work. It’s an overtly literary (on the overbearing side) allegory about loveless older woman named Abbie who conjures a man from a dictionary. While the man appears to be flesh, he has his peculiarities (as any being conjured from mere words would be). He doesn’t eat or go outside. And, despite being made of words, has nothing to talk about with Abbie. Webster acquires his own book to conjure his own woman. And Abbie must make a choice! The story ends on an uncertain note. It’s a sad rumination on the emptiness of our desperate conjurations and desires. While this one is a bit unwieldy and uncertain, I look forward to exploring more of his early work.

“The First Few Kinds of Truth,” James Sallis, 3.5/5 (Good): A woman walking–a liminal moment of transitory thoughts, movements, and the uncertainty of destination. Sallis deploys this image (and layers of observation and personal connection to the woman) as the crux of his story. One one level the narrator watches the woman, his wife, and on another, the men watching his wife walk down the street. He speculates about personal connection between the men and his wife (“she thinks of last night, the theater and afterwards, how gentle he was; the book he gave her”). In typical Sallis fashion there are further levels of distance. The narrator observes her movements and actions as if he observes a play. The way we try to distance ourselves from fraught emotional moments? I found this one far more alluring and mysterious than Sallis’ second in the anthology (below).

“A Gross Love Story,” Arthur Byron Cover, 1/5 (Bad): Cover, best known for the 1976 Nebula-nominated Autumn Angels (and various novelizations of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Flash Gordon), attempts to shock with a sordid gothic tableaux about necrophilia, pedophiliac desires, and homosexuality. A and B, in the employ of vampire, banter in a cemetery with a castle in the background. B calls himself a “retard” due to childhood abuse. A ruminates about his missing genitalia. They decide to dig up a girl in the cemetery. B falls in love. They wonder if she’s a virgin. It’s inane. It lacks powerful imagery or phrase. It’s offensive. Like the Utley dalliances below, I can’t identify any redeeming quality.

Recourse, Inc.,” Vonda N. McIntyre, 4/5 (Good). Another epistolary short (via letters and other documents) that imagines a future where credit card companies exert immense power over a fragmented United States with weak to non-existent regulatory powers. Recourse, Inc., “funded by a private foundation” (97), assists individuals harassed by the credit card companies. Hedley Satsop, a man with psychological baggage, appeals to Recourse, Inc. And in the letter exchange that follows, Recourse, Inc.’s agents must appeal to yet another power to correct the bureaucratic nightmare that unfolds. Like Blake’s “The Legend of Lonnie and the Seven-Ten Split,” something akin to a science fictional legend emerges from the mundane material ephemera of a nightmarish future.


“Sign at the End of the Universe,” Duane Ackerman, 1/5 (Bad): The title is longer than the “story” itself. I’ve included it below. I debated withholding a rating. It was anthologized for some reason in Asimov’s 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories (1978). Yet another author unknown to me. He appeared to write far more speculative poetry than fiction.

“No Room for the Wanderer,” Lee Saye, 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average): I can find little about Lee Saye online. They published four short stories between 1971-1997. “No Room for the Wanderer” tells the story of Edgar, a poet with advanced degrees in literature, who travels on foot hundreds of miles to a spaceport where the colonizing ships head for the stars. “WHATEVER YOUR SKILL IS, YOU ARE NEEDED OUT IN THE BIG SIX” (121). But the authorities do not want Edgar’s skills. They want “practical” skills rather than the ability to spin dream and vision and human experience into words. And so Edgar resumes his earthly wanderings. As Saye doesn’t use the story to suggest or demonstrate what that value might actually be, it’s hard to conclude that he supports this argument. Is he poking fun at the poet/wanderer who thinks that he can be a colonist on an alien world without any technical skills? Is the “correct” path a blend of both?

“Hung Like an Elephant,” Joseph F. Pumilia and Steven Utley, 1/5 (Bad): A poor story that riffs off of the innuendo in the title about a man whose genitalia detach (and limp about the floor) and are replaced by a small mobile elephant head, ears, tusks, and trunk. And his belly button starts to sing. And his lover runs away. Black comedy sequences transpire as he becomes the object of media obsession and must traverse the town to the doctor’s office while the tusks attempt to destroy his clothes. I suspect Utley and Pumilia perceive their silly joke as a metaphor about uncontrollable male virility. Yes, I will not forget the image but I wish I would.

“Delta Flight 281,” James Sallis, 2/5 (Bad): I found the volume’s second Sallis far less comprehensible than the first. A two-page trifle that takes the form of a dream or another liminal daydream moment. Strange scenes on an airplane transpire as fist class cabin delicacies runout–humans replace crabmeat on the menu, the cannibalistic narrator thinks about writing a novel before speeding away from the airplane…. the destination: his lover’s apartment? An oblique allegory about the destructive love drive?

“Message of Joy,” Arthur Byron Cover, 3/5 (Average): A small step up from “A Gross Love Story,” Cover’s “Message of Joy” follows a deranged narrator in a totalitarian future kept passive by drugs. The narrator imagines that he knows the truth behind it all and sets out to enlighten the world. His method? Random acts of violence and murder. Cover pairs the cruel events that transpire with the narrator’s pulsing/motivating/encouraging internal soundtrack (“dum-de-ladum”) to unnerving effect. In this world only the insane attempt to rebel against the world. And their rebellion isn’t an act of revelation or knowledge but the delusions of a deranged mind. I’m not exactly sure what Cover wants to say about revolt and revolution.

“Womb, with a View,” Steven Utley, 1/5 (Bad): Like “Hung Like an Elephant,” this trifle designed to shock does leave an indelible image in my mind! Gynecologist Dr. Felton conducts a routine exam with his nurse in attendance on the pregnant Mrs. Bolton. After much indecision about how to broach his discovery, he takes a deep breath and states “You have got… stars here in your vagina” (153). And behold, a universe exists within her rather than a child… Edgy (that adjective makes me cringe) for the sake of being edgy. Yes, there’s a certain surreal quality to it all but I struggle based on the two in this anthology to identify why, according to John Clute, “Utley came to be perceived as a writer of weight” (SF Encyclopedia).

“How Xmas Ghosts Are Made,” David R. Bunch, 3.5/5 (Good): Bunch’s Moderan (1971), a collection of 46 short fictions sent in a post-apocalyptical fortress surrounded by plastic ground inhabited by cyborgs, remains one of my top imaginative SF landscapes. The cyborgs conjure fragments of past memories and re-imagine familiar rituals in a world so distinct from our own. While I never managed to review the collection, the culminative satirical and surreal effect of the micro-fictions transcend. Bunch published countless short stories in every venue he could between 1957-1997. Individually Bunch’s stories, such as this non-Moderan tale “How Xmas Ghosts Are Made”, can feel a bit fleeting despite their intriguing premises.

This disturbing satire of American commercialism posits a crowded urban environment in which an “accidental” murder will not even pause the constant movement of the masses. Mom, in front of her kids with Xmas purchases weighing her down, is run over by Public Service buses. The Public Service expediter, “seeming almost to keep a kind of comic beat time with the jingling Xmas bells and Santas ho-ho-hoing in the windows” (158), frets about interrupted service and shouts “No loiterin’. Not on Xmas!” to Mom’s horrified family (159). A bleak terror set against Christmas cheer, permeates the proceedings. Bunch deftly pairs the imagery of the crush body with commercial Christmas advertisements and decorations. And the family, on every Christmas, rewrite the past to push away the trauma. But the shudders creep in anyway.

“Cowboys, Indians,” Edward Bryant, 4/5 (Good): By 1974, the Vietnam War was in its final stages. The United States suspended military activities in January 1973 at the Paris Peace Accords. While the US continued to provide financial aid to the south, the aid diminished even further during Ford’s presidency in 1974. Saigon would fall in 1975. It is in this moment, as the war neared its end and the anti-War movement could taste the fruits of its protest, that Bryant tells an unusual tale of the end of revolutionary idealism — from the “other” side.

Bryant’s “Cowboys, Indians,” like J. G. Ballard’s “The Killing Ground” (1969), transposes the Vietnam War to more immediate landscapes: Canada supports Marxist Revolutionaries in the United States. The American countryside, in this instance Wyoming, is an arena of the struggle against oppressive governments and sinister experiments. The narrator, radicalized in college (apparently all you need to do is smoke some weed and read a bit of Marx!), goes on a raid of a laboratory where the United States is testing a terrible drug to prevent African Americans from bearing children. As the raid spins out of control, the narrator ponders his revolutionary path.

I am a sucker for science fiction with overt Vietnam War parallels. Considering the historical context, Bryant’s unusual story imagines a future where the oppressive government “wins.” And the idealists are forced to reckon with the oppressive power of the state. The title, and narrator’s flashbacks to his youth, narrows in on the argument that revolutions are more than ideas and games.


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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Alternities, ed. David Gerrold and Stephen Goldin (1974) (Malzberg, McIntyre, Bunch, Bear, Sallis, et al.)

  1. “Womb, with a View,” Steven Utley, 1/5 (Bad):
    While young when I read this story, I made a lot of fun of it because it was so utterly puerile and so horribly amateurishly executed that it gave me hiccups from laughing.

  2. I bought this book pretty much when it came out (which was when I was first buying books.) I also bought the earlier Gerrold/Goldin anthology GENERATION, very similar in many ways though as it had two stories by Tiptree and one by Wolfe perhaps it was a tad better. (I never bought their other books, PROTOSTARS and ASCENTS OF WONDER, however.)

    But I remember essentially nothing from the book. Except — of course — the silly Duane Ackerson story. (For the longest time I confused Duane Ackerson with another poet, Diane Ackerman. More to come about the name Ackerman.) Note that GENERATION includes a story called “The Shortest Science Fiction Story Ever Told”, so I guess that was the short of thing Gerrold and Goldin liked. Also note that the worst example of that is by the execrable Forrest J. Ackerman, who published a “story” called “Cosmic Report Card: Earth”, which consists of a single easily guessed letter. Ackerman — beloved by some — is one of my bete noires of the field — he’s horrible for trivial reasons (he invented the term “Sci Fi”), for reasons of taste (his taste in SF, and also movies, was horrifyingly bad), and for moral reasons (he was, by all reports, a very dishonest “agent”, and also he has been accused of child molestation.) For promoting Perry Rhodan alone he ought to be condemned.

    But enough of that. I still have my copies of ALTERNITIES and GENERATION. I don’t plan to reread them.

    I will say, however, that bad as Steven Utley’s contributions to ALTERNITIES were, he got better, and his later long series of Silurian stories (about time travel to the Silurian Era) are quite wonderful, in a very quiet way.

    • I snagged Generation as well although I don’t think I’ve featured it in an acquisition post yet — the presence of Wolfe and Tiptree would definitely raise the overall quality!

      I have a big problem with “gimmick” stories. I sometimes like a manipulative twist or a weird gimmicky ending but if the gimmick is the ONLY thing in the story (like some ultra short “story”) I cringe a bit inside. hah.

      I’ve read about Ackerman. A very unsavory/horrid character….

      As for Utley, I’m not one to give up on authors after a few bad stories. Else I’d have quit so many of my favorite authors prematurely. I’ll see if I can track down any of his later fictions.

  3. Apropos of Malzberg, Alec Neva-Lee has just put up a long — two hours — interview he did with the man in 2019. Around the 55 minute mark, Malzberg starts discussing a meeting he had within a month of the Apollo Moon landing with John W. Campbell, which is possibly relevant to your ‘SF and the culture of spaceflight’ series.

    Interview here —
    Neva-Lee’s connecting home page here —

    I second Rich Horton on Steve Utley’s Silurian stories, though I wouldn’t go as far as ‘quite wonderful.’ They’re good, in a kind of Silverbergian HAWKSBILL STATION way.

    As for this Gerrold anthology, I bought the earlier one with the Tiptree and Wolfe stories, and everything else in them was such tripe that, IIRC, I didn’t buy this one.

    • Thanks for the heads-up. Nevala-Lee and I follow each other on twitter so I saw him post the interview but had not watched it yet!

      I’m a huge fan of Hawksbill Station (both the novella and the expanded novel — the latter of which is reviewed on my site).

    • I suppose as to the Utley stories it may be better to say that at their peak I found them quite wonderful. Utley wrote a LOT of them — it was a useful template setting for what tended to be highly character-centered stories, and while I enjoyed them throughout, obviously some were better. Definitely reminds one of HAWKSBILL STATION.

      • As they are 90s-2000s, I just don’t think I’ll be reading them any time soon. Is there anything you can remember written earlier of value? I find it hard to believe that from 1972 (first story)-1993 (first Silurian Tale) that there’s nothing worth reading.

        • The only early story that sticks with me is his collaboration with Howard Waldrop, “Custer’s Last Jump”. Famously led to some sort of dispute between Terry Carr and Robert Silverberg, as both wanted to buy it. (Resolved, if memory serves, by Carr giving Silverberg one of his own stories, but my memory may be failing me.)

          I seem to recall that “My Wife” — which is later anyway, 1989, was pretty good.

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