2021 was the best year in the history of my site for visits and unique viewers! I suspect this increasingly has to do with my twitter account where I actively promote my site vs. a growing interest in vintage SF. I also hit my 1000th post–on Melisa Michaels’ first three published SF short stories–in December.
As I mention year after year, I find reading and writing for the site—and participating in all the SF discussions it’s generated over the year—a necessary and greatly appreciated salve. Thank you everyone!
I read very few novels this year. Instead, I devoted my attention to various science short story reviews series and anthologies. Without further ado, here are my favorite novels and short stories I read in 2021 (with bonus categories).
Tempted to track any of them down?
And feel free to list your favorite vintage (or non-vintage) SF reads of the year. I look forward to reading your comments.
My Top 7 Science Fiction Novels of 2021 (click titles for my review)
1. Where Time Winds Blow (1981), Robert Holdstock, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Holdstock’s vision is a well-wrought cavalcade of my favorite SF themes–the shifting sands of time, the pernicious maw of trauma that threatens to bite down, unreliable narrators trying to trek their own paths, a profoundly alien planet that compels humanity to construct an entirely distinct society… It’s a slow novel that initially masquerades as something entirely different. Just like the planet itself.
2. Twilight Country (1974, trans. 1993), Knut Faldbakken, 4.75/5 (Very Good): I read this novel in 2020 but didn’t review it until 2021–hence why it’s on this year’s list!
I am fascinated by densely metaphoric SF “survival” stories within the urban expanse. And Twilight Country‘s decaying metropolis of Sweetwater is one of the best. The masterstroke of Faldbakken’s novel is the portrayal of the Dump, a border zone containing the cast off fragments of human existence, as a generative locus. Our characters run to the Dump to escape, to make their lives anew. There’s a tangible sense of organic transformation within the characters who inhabit this liminal zone. Sweetwater and The Dump act as a closed system. One decays into the other. One creates the other.
3. In Watermelon Sugar (1968), Richard Brautigan, 4.5/5 (Very Good): Desperate for something unlike any other New Wave SF experiment, I came across Richard Brautigan’s surreal post-catastrophe novel In Watermelon Sugar (1968). Brautigan, best known as a Counterculture poet and the author of Trout Fishing in America (1967), spins a poetic thread simultaneously elegiac and nightmarish. More a sequence of short linked scenes, In Watermelon Sugar charts the memories of a nameless narrator (N) attempting to write a book about the community and inhabitants of iDEATH.
In Watermelon Sugar is a successful experiment. Brautigan’s deceptively simple prose creates a surreal landscape redolent with haunting imagery and emotion. N’s narration reaffirms the importance of making meaningful connections in the present and the dangerous pull of nostalgia that ties us forever in the past. There’s horror in these pages. There’s love in these pages.
4. Dawn (1987), Octavia E. Butler, 4/5 (Good): The premise: Lilith Iyapo awakes on aboard a huge alien spaceship. The Oankali saved the human survivors from Earth. They repair the earth and healed many human ailments. In return they expect to collect humanity’s genetic material–and to take their humanity.
The background themes Butler’s novel explores–the disturbing alien view that the value of humanity is tied entirely up in the genetics and the ability to reproduce–resonate. I found myself deeply invested in the travails and agonies of the survivors trying to chart their paths in the bizarre new world they find themselves in. I enjoyed the novel enough to pick up a copy of the sequel–Adulthood Rites (1988)
5. Captain Blackman (1972), John A. Williams, 4/5 (Good): John A. Williams spins a fever dream of an injured black Vietnam War soldier hurled via hallucinatory time-travel into all of America’s conflicts. While hospitalized, Abraham Blackman, who teaches a military seminar to his troops, plays the archetypal role of black soldier from the Revolutionary War to a near-future Cold War conflict. In each conflict, white men preach the promise of freedom. And when black soldiers join up, they are subjected to racism, violence, and the promises are forgotten in the battlefields—from skirmishes in the Buffalo War to The Battle of the Crater–along with their countless shattered bodies.
6. Only Lovers Left Alive (1964), Dave Wallis, 4/5 (Good): The scene: Early 60s London. Conjure displays of cool style at local discothèques. Youthful insolence and wit. Frivolous consumerism. Into this swirling myth/reality of the “Swinging” city in the early 60s, Dave Wallis’ Only Lovers Left Alive (1964) weaves its own petulant “image making.” The youth attempt to create a world in the ashes of their forefathers who commit suicide in droves.
Unlike John Christopher’s Pendulum (1968), that drips with sullen rants about England’s “traditions crumbling under the assault of the new Hedonism,” Only Lovers Left Alive (1964) uncovers a beating heart behind the experience-driven youth forced to confront a world without parents and other “squares” (14). Swinging London, despite all its youthful insolence and frivolous consumerism, will birth something new and lasting.
7. The Descent (1960), Gina Berriault, 3.75/5 (Good): The year is 1964. The Cold War rages. In a world terrified by massive retaliation, the American populace finds solace in dreams of the descent into the fallout shelter and nebulous concepts of rebirth. Written just before JFK’s push (1961) for personal family fallout shelters, Berriault envisages vast communal warrens. The president appoints Arnold T. Elkins, a history professor at DeVelbiss College Iowa, to the newly created Secretary for Humanity position. Supposedly the position will “assure humanity that the first missile may never be fired, that the bombs may never fall” and the benefits of a Nuclear Age will be reaped by all (6-7).
Berriault positions Cold War terror as self-generating and self-perpetuating. Disarmament cannot be an option when the nuclear bomb as necessity has infiltrated all elements of our existence. And of course, the fallout shelters proliferating like boils, become symbolic of America’s destructive tendencies and perverse desire to press the button.
My Top 15 Science Fiction Short Stories Reads of 2021
1. “Pelt” (1958), Carol Emshwiller, 5/5 (Masterpiece): “Pelt” is all about the inability to communicate. The dog can only interact with its unique honed faculties and knowledge–smells, the feel of the ground, the emotional signs of her master. As we are viewing all from the dog’s perspective, an icy distance intrudes. Oblique action and implication must be divined through a non-human eye. We hunt for clues and sounds. Do the aliens want the hunter to live with the full knowledge of his crime? But why does the hunter place the head among his trophies? Is it a way to forget? Or a way to remember? The dog, of course, does not understand freedom and follows the hunter to another world.
2. “Down Among the Dead Men” (1954), William Tenn, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Tenn’s narrators are entirely caught up in the propaganda of their moment. And of course, far deeper traumas and memories bubble beneath the surface. This is terrifying world that the narrator inhabits–children learn war strategy from birth, women are perpetually pregnant with new soldiers, waves and waves of men are sent out to the insectoid grinder, and simulacra of men do odd jobs oblivious to the terror of battle.
Tenn places the light-hearted triumphant pulp conflict with aliens into a wrecked landscape of reclaimed bodies and traumatized veterans that still spin the same “official” narratives of chauvinistic glory. Highly recommended.
3. “Hunter, Come Home” (1963), Richard McKenna, 5/5 (Near Masterpiece): creates richly realized world in which the men of Mordin must prove themselves by fighting a beast called the Great Russel. Each man who successfully defeats the creature receives a tattoo on their forehead indicating their status. I found “Hunter, Come Home” an incisive allegory of the corrosive nature of the homosocial world of the military where rank trumps everything else.
4. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” (1959), Theodore Sturgeon, 5/5 (Masterpiece) thrusts the reader into a seemingly delusional landscape, generated by extreme trauma, of narrative fragments. One thread follows a child as he presents increasingly complex toy spacecraft to a sick man trapped in the sand. In another instance, an accident at sea becomes a transformative realization that fear can be overcome. All the threads coalesce into a remarkable distillation of post-Sputnik (1957) triumph and clarity.
5. “The Liberation of Earth” (1953), William Tenn, 5/5 (Masterpiece): A Korean War parable, “The Liberation of Earth” tells of two alien powers (the Dendi and the Troxxt) engaged in an interstellar war. Earth, a cosmic backwater, is repeatedly “liberated” and simultaneously destroyed by repeated waves of occupation and the scars of alien weapons. The tale is told as if we, the readers, are learning an oral history from one of Earth’s few survivors–who spend their time munching succulent roots (57) and fighting giant rabbits in order to consume each other’s dead (75). Tenn’s best when his tales involve far future locals. A must read for fans of anti-war SF and the intersection of orality and collective memory….
6. “The Cage of Sand” (1962), J. G. Ballard, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Amidst the wreckage of Cape Canaveral, with its “old launch-gantries and landing ramps [..] like derelict pieces of giant sculpture” (140), three souls attempt to find meaning in the buried hotels and relics of a rapidly disappearing past. Ballard at his best.
7. “Casey Agonistes” (1958), Richard McKenna, 4.5/5 (Very Good): In a hospital tuberculous ward during an undefined military conflict (WWII?), a group of soldiers wait for the inevitable in a purgatorial landscape that most will not escape. A powerful and harrowing fable populated with characters that seem like army friends McKenna might have interacted with in his long military career. The tale also introduces themes that reappear in other stories in the collection: military companionship through trauma and despair and metaphysical/fantastical intrusions into hyper-realistic gritty worlds.
8. “Day at the Beach” (1959), Carol Emshwiller, 4.5/5 (Very Good): At first glance “Day at the Beach” reaffirms the power of family in the face of a cataclysmic event as a mother and father slowly accept changes brought on by atomic mutation. Or, there’s a more sinister reading where the family unit creates a delusional bubble that obfuscates the real horror outside (and inside) their home.
9. “The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts From the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics” (1974), Ursula K. Le Guin, 4.5/5 (Very Good): Oh yes, this one presses all my buttons! Le Guin’s delightful exploration of the nature of language vibrates with a overwhelming love of the natural world and all its wonders. At turns a light jest at the nature of academic writing and argument, Le Guin presents a series of fragments of unusual languages found in nature. Le Guin presents the natural world as a SFictional landscape of hidden languages and mysteries beneath the surface.
10. “The Shrine of Temptation” (1962), Judith Merril, 4.5/5 (Very Good): Academic anthropologists observe an island community on an alien planet. Lallalyall, aka Lucky, approaches the anthropologists and becomes their liaison to the community and its fascinating cyclical formulations. I found the world immersive and the mystery compelling. Perhaps a Cold War allegory of how the American people rationalized “security” and “conformity” in an era of oppression?
11. “Pigeon City” (1972), Jesse Miller, 4.5/5 (Very Good): In the 1950s and 1960s, white Americans propelled by racism and economic reasons fled the urban centers for the suburbs. Jesse Miller’s disquieting “Pigeon City” imagines a Harlem of the future where similar trends continue—racial enclaves become utterly isolated from the exterior world. The “city machine” (88), now controlled by computers, provides food, supplies, and retribution to the increasingly dilapidated and forlorn “ghettos” (94). There are no jobs as basic necessities are provided by the city. Curtiss and his fellow black denizens of Harlem while away their time absorbed in their hobbies.
“Pigeon City” puts a distinct twist on common SF themes of automation and urban decay. This is a surreal nightmare of segregation pushed to the extremes.
12. “The Pleasure of Our Company” (variant title: “The Pleasure of Their Company” (1970), Robert Silverberg, 4.25/5 (Good): 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. The man in exile is fascinating perspective for a narrator—and a narrator who only tells half the truth.
13. “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?
14. “The Last Crusade” (1955), George H. Smith, 4/5 (Good): Confused soldiers for the Peoples Federal Democratic Western Republics in mecho-armor suits ramble across the ruins of Paris speculating about the nature of their conflict with the Peoples Federal Democratic Eastern Republics. The seductive voices of the enemy interrupt their sad ruminations promising rewards if they cross enemy lines and turn over their armor. “The Last Crusade” narrows in on the emptiness of American commercial “freedom” as a reason for conflict and a representation of American superiority.
15. “Baby” (1958), Carol Emshwiller, 4/5 (Good): Raised by a robotic nurse, Baby, “six feet tall, lean, [with] the look of a hungry hunting animal,” encounters a slowly decaying world unable to provide his needs (115). Baby’s simulacra parent, and to a lesser degree Rob the repair robot, parrot the language, actions, and intentions of humans. He detects an emptiness to the space behind their words and increasing inability to explain the mechanical breakdowns that are never fixed.
I have continued, resurrected, and created new science fiction short story reading series. All the stories I’ve picked for the series are available in some fashion online. I’ve included posts from 2021 in each series below. Feel free to read along with us! Stay tuned for future installments and a new series in Jan. 22! And thanks for all the great conversation.
Carol Emshwiller’s Short Fiction (1954-1980) (started in 2021)
- “This Thing Called Love” (1955), 3.5/5 (Good)
- “Love Me Again” (1956), 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)
- “Bingo and Bongo” (1956), 3.5/5 (Good)
- “The Piece Thing” (1956), 3.5/5 (Good)
- “Hunting Machine” (1957), 3/5 (Average)
- “You’ll Feel Better…” (1957), 3/5 (Average)
- “Two-Step for Six Legs” (1957), 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average)
- “Nightmare Call” (1957), 3.75/5 (Good)
- “The Coming” (1957), 3.5/5 (Good)
- “Pelt” (1958), 5/5 (Masterpiece)
- “Day at the Beach” (1959), 4.5/5 (Very Good)
- “Baby” (1958), 4/5 (Good)
- “Idol’s Eye” (1958), 2.5/5 (Bad)
- “Puritan Planet” (1960), 2/5 (Bad)
- “Adapted” (1961), 4/5 (Good)
The Search for the Depressed Astronaut (continued from 2020)
- “Down Among the Dead Men” (1954), William Tenn, 5/5 (Masterpiece)
- “Echo” (1970), Katherine MacLean, 3.75/5 (Good)
- “The Man Who Lost the Sea” (1959), Theodore Sturgeon, 5/5 (Masterpiece)
- “Broken Tool” (1959), Theodore L. Thomas, 3.5/5 (Good)
- “Cold War” (1949), Kris Neville, 3.5/5 (Good)
- “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” (1974), Philip K. Dick, 4/5 (Good)
- “The Hated” (1958), Frederik Pohl, 3.75/5 (Good)
- “Halfjack” (1979), Roger Zelazny, 3.5/5 (Good)
- “First Man in a Satellite” (1958), Charles Runyon, 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average)
- “The Cage of Sand” (1962), J. G. Ballard, 4.5/5 (Very Good)
- “Star Bride” (1951), Anthony Boucher, 2/5 (Bad)
- “Third Stage” (1962), Poul Anderson, 3.5/5 (Good)
Generation Ship Short Fiction (continued from 2019)
- “Stardust” (1952), Chard Oliver, 3.5/5 (Good)
- “Son of the Stars” (1940), Otto Binder, 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average)
- “The Ark of Mars” (1953), Leigh Brackett, 2.5/5 (Bad)
- “The Oceans Are Wide” (1954), Frank M. Robinson, 3.75/5 (Good)
- “A Start in Life” (1954), Arthur Sellings, 3/5 (Average)
- “The Mind Prison” (1971), Michael G. Coney, 3.5/5 (Good)
My Top 5 Academic History Reads of 2021
In a given year, I tend to read far more history than science fiction. Here are some gems worth tracking down. Note: I’m a PhD-wielding historian and have a high tolerance for academic texts. Dry writing, theory, constant references to other scholars, lots and lots of evidence, etc. do not bother me. Slipping into a dense monograph is like returning to a comforting home. I’m not judging them on lay “readability.”
1. Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization, Arthur Demarest (2004): Want to know more about the Ancient Maya from one of the foremost scholars on the topic? This is for you. That is for all.
2. Swinging City: A Cultural Geography of London 1950-1974, Simon Rycroft (2011): I blame Only Lovers Left Alive (1964) for this purchase! I realized I knew little historical context to understand the commentary in Wallis’ novel and procured this delightful monograph on Swinging London’s “radical and experimental cultural politics generated by the city’s counterculture” and conceptions of material excess and “comic vacuousness.” Highly recommended!
3. Every Home a Fortress: Cold War Fatherhood and The Family Fallout Shelter, Thomas Bishop (2021): The University of Massachusetts Press’ series “Culture and Politics in the Cold War and Beyond” puts out some of the most engaging analyses American society I’ve ever read. This one is no exception. Bishop analyzes the rhetoric used to sell the fallout shelter to Americans–of course, the marketing campaign was mostly a failure as few Americans procured them. Bishop argues that the “fallout shelter father” who, with “spade in hand and the canned goods he has amassed,” was pivotal in the social histories of “white middle class” Americans. Fallout shelters weren’t even marketed to those who lived in densely populated cities of non-white Americans… The suburban family was the target audience. I loved this one.
4. Alexander the Great: The Story of An Ancient Life, Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell (2012): How does one write an biography about an ancient figure with limited sources that traditionally would be used? Can one write a “biography” at all? This is a fascinating text that attempts to place Alexander the Great’s choices and drives firmly within the world in which he lived and the society which he knew. Perhaps worthwhile more as a brilliant methodological exercise…
5. Solar Flares: Science Fiction in the 1970s, Andrew M. Butler (2014): I have an ambivalent relationship with this monograph on 70s science fiction but understand its value. I recommend the book due to the fascinating divergences that occur between science fictional film and text in the era and for readers who might not know the major authors of the period and their primary themes (feminism, post-colonial fatigue, etc.). Authors that Butler has previously published on receive far more focus than others–this is not surprising. As a result, the monograph lurches between frustrating summary of texts that Butler doesn’t know what to say about and intriguing analysis. There’s far too much summary… Chapters end mid-analysis and rarely pull together the threads. As someone increasingly interested in science fiction scholarship, I now know where my site might be able to add to the larger quilt.
Goals for 2022
These similar to my 2021 goals.
1. Keep reading and writing.
2. Perhaps start a Patreon? I have made an account but haven’t set it up. (I am immobilized by conflicting thoughts).
For cover art posts consult the INDEX
For book reviews consult the INDEX
For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX