Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCLXXXVI (Vonda N. McIntyre, Thomas Burnett Swann, William Melvin Kelley, and a World’s Best Science Fiction Anthology)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

1. Where is the Bird of Fire?, Thomas Burnett Swann (1970)

From the back cover: “Were the mythical monsters our ancestors spoke of so often more than fantasy? Is it not probable that these semi-human races existed–and that only human vanity has blurred their memory?

Come with Thomas Burnett Swann to explore the fabled past and meet in the flesh:

Sylvan, the Bird of Fire, friend of Remus, enemy of Romulus, who witnessed the founding of Rome…

Deirdre, the Druid enchantress, whose magic melted against the onslaught of unbelievers…

Vashti, first wife of Xerces the Great, who may have been the Jinn she was accused of being…”

Contents: “Where Is the Bird of Fire” (1962), “Vashti” (1965), “Bear” (1970)

Initial Thoughts: Thomas Burnett Swann’s work transpires within a “sustained Alternate-History version of Earth’s history” with an “abiding tenor” of fantasy (SF Encyclopedia). While normally not something that would intrigue me, Swann’s substantial output suggests that he had his fans! I might as well give him a chance.

2. Superluminal, Vonda N. McIntyre (1983)

From the back cover: “FROM THE OCEAN’S EMERALD DEPTHS, WHERE WHALES AND ADAPTING HUMANS LIVE IN HARMONY… to the rigors of inter-dimensional travel, the universe is order, and laws; the universe is hierarchies, evolution and space…

Now a young pilot with a new bionic heart, a man from a plague-ravaged world, and a beautiful fiver from the sea are about to discover that their destinies—and their souls—are entwined. A voyage to a distant planet, a message in a crystal, an accident and a love affair have suddenly cracked open the known order of the Universe. Two women and a man are caught up in a mystery, and now they are changing every world they travel in, and every life they touch!”

Initial Thoughts: For whatever reason, I’ve avoided McIntyre’s SF novels. However, my recent review of her wonderful “The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn” (1974) might change things… Although I’ll probably start with

3. World’s Best Science Fiction 1970, ed. Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr (1970)

From the back cover: “This acclaim was typical of the many fine reviews of last year’s compilation of the World’s Best Science Fiction, and it is equally applicable to the current volume, in which nearly half of the stories will be new even to regular readers of the American science fiction magazines.

Here are stories of space exploration, strange human societies of tomorrow, adventures in the far future and compelling visions of world apocalypse. There are the finest stories of modern science fiction, a rich treasury of wonder to stay in your memory while the future continues to become the present.”

Contents: Richard Wilson’s “A Man Spekith” (1969), Robert Silverberg’s “After the Myths Went Home” (1969), Larry Niven’s “Death by Ecstasy” (1969), Alexei Panshin’s “One Sunday in Neptune” (1969), Suzette Haden Elgin’s “For the Sake of Grace” (1969), James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Your Haploid Heart” (1969), Keith Roberts’ “Therapy 2000” (1969), Michael G. Coney’s “Sixth Sense” (1969), Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog” (1969), Bruce McAllister’s “And So Say All of Us” (1969), Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Nine Lives” (1969), and Norman Spinrad’s “The Big Flash” (1969).

Initial Thoughts: I purchased this anthology due to Norman Spinrad’s “The Big Flash” (1969) and Keith Roberts’ “Therapy 2000” (1969). I’ve previously enjoyed the Le Guin and Elgin stories.

4. A Different Drummer, William Melvin Kelley (1962)

From the back cover: “BLACK EXODUS! Today the last one departed. Now, there is not a single Negro left in this Southern state. Man, woman, and child; they are all gone now. Everything they could move, they took with them; everything else they left behind.


Initial Thoughts: According to SF Encyclopedia, Kelley’s novel is a “sf fable telling of Black history in an imaginary town in an imagined southern state of the USA.” Count me intrigued! (and a bit confused as I can’t detect a speculative element from the premise. Is it alternate history?).

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17 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCLXXXVI (Vonda N. McIntyre, Thomas Burnett Swann, William Melvin Kelley, and a World’s Best Science Fiction Anthology)

  1. It just so happens that I’ve almost finished Wollheim and Carr’s 1969 volume, so I am ready for 1970!
    My partner tells me that “A Different Drummer” is a great if harrowing read. She doesn’t describe it as SF though.

    • I was a bit confused by the description of the novel as SF. Is it near future or the present? Does it contain any speculative (or magical?) component? Is it actually an alternate history or set entirely within the present but in an imaginary location? Lots of literature doesn’t firmly place the reader within a “real” place so I don’t exactly understand the designation… Regardless, it looks fascinating!

  2. A Different Drummer is not SF per se, it’s a thought experiment about what happens when people just…aren’t there…one day. Where, why, huh? And reading it left me feeling rather dazed and brutalized.

    The Swann is a good read…I had that edition around here once upon a time…but I liked How Are the Mighty Fallen more. His alt-hist is more an alt-universe where the Bronze Age collapse spread surviving majgicqkual beings among the mundanes thus losing them their potency through bloodline attenuation.

    I remember “Your Haploid Heart” with astringent fondness but don’t recall why too well.

    • So, as SF as The Leftovers (I adored the show I must confess)?

      I recently learned that Swann was one of the supporters of the Vietnam War (that list I tweeted a while back). Regardless, I snagged this one as it was a short collection.

      Bloodline attenuation… goodness… I hate that trope. So much fantasy (or in this case, alt-universe as you put it) pains me.

          • I hear that « A Different Drummer » doesn’t have even the minimal SFy explanation that The Leftovers has. And yeah i liked the show too. Ah, the tortured, fucked up love of Nora and Kevin!

            • I suspect an entire paper could be written about the “medievalism” of the small Texas town in The Leftovers with its “miracles” and various attractions… in the later seasons.

  3. “Where is the Bird of Fire?” is very good. It is probaby Swann’s second best story, after “The Manor of Roses”, which is a masterwork.

    The rest of Swann … you have to be in the right mood. He was always trembling on the border of terminal tweeness, and often crossed it.

    That SUPERLUMINAL cover is dreadful! I do remember enjoying the story, though.

    The truly great story in the Wollheim/Carr anthology is “Nine Lives”. I think “Death by Ecstasy” is one of Niven’s best stories. I do think Roberts and Coney are always worth a look. And kudos to Wollheim and/or Carr for recognizing Tiptree’s genius in an early, relatively minor story.

    • I’m glad I came across the collection then — it was a used bookstore find in Dallas, TX rather than an internet purchase. I thought I should read at least one of his before I move to other things…

      Yeah, the Superluminal cover has prevented me from buying the book in the past.

      I’m with you on “Nine Lives.” It’s top-notch. I also really enjoyed the Elgin story — I linked my review. It was transformed into the prologue of her novel At the Seventh Level. The novel was average at best but the prologue pulled me in!

  4. Happy New Year!

    I’ll just deal with the SF, which means the Wollheim/Carr. (I never forgave McIntyre for ‘Dreamsnake’ in either its short story or novel manifestations, and that cover to SUPERLUMINAL doesn’t inspire any more tolerant feelings or confidence in me. Blech!)

    Yeah, LeGuin’s ‘Nine Lives’ is the big standout in the anthology, while Niven’s ‘Death By Ecstacy’ was the kind of thing people used to like Niven for before he sank into the bottle (or whatever happened to him).

    I’ve a soft spot for Tiptree/Sheldon’s ‘Your Haploid Heart’ as I do for all the early Tiptree, because I was reading then and it was apparent that this was a new writer who definitely had something. The amazing thing about ‘Heart’ isn’t that Wollheim/Carr put it in their Year’s Best, but that John Campbell even in his Late Senile Period was capable of buying it for ANALOG and giving Tiptree her first cover (art by Kelly Freas). But the early Tiptree story from this same year, IIRC, that really needs more reprinting is ‘Mother in the Sky with Diamonds,’ which arguably prefigures both cyberpunk and the New Space Opera. Gardner Dozois reprinted it once twenty-years or so ago is all that I know of

    Silverberg ‘Myths’ I have a sort of fondness for too, because Silverberg is building in this period towards an increasing biliousness towards SF which will climax a couple of years later in two short stories, ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ and ‘Breckenridge and the Continuum,’ which are actively anti-SF stories (and quite good). Terry Carr contracted for the first of those for an original anthology of his, and apparently came back to Silverberg once he got it and said, “Bob, I can’t print this. My anthology is supposed to be for people who like SF.”

    • Mark … I don’t know what happened to Niven! But something must have, because after the mid-’70s he suddenly couldn’t write.

      By the ’90s his prose also had fallen to pieces. (At least the non-collaborations — when he worked with Pournelle or Barnes or Cooper, presumably his collaborators cleaned it up.) I remember in RAINBOW MARS at times not even being able to decode certain sentences and paragraphs.

      But for the first decade or so of his career, he produced a lot of really fun SF.

      • All my desire to read Niven went out the window after I suffered through The Ringworld Throne (1996) in my late teens. What an atrocious experience. I’ve read a few short stories here and there since then….

        • Yes, RINGWORLD THRONE was definitely after the brain eater (or whatever it was) got to him. I basically gave up on him after the first Ringworld sequel. But the stories in TALES OF KNOWN SPACE are quite fun, as are the stories in THE FLIGHT OF THE HORSE (but not the terrible RAINBOW MARS) and I also like “Not Long Before the End”. And I read his pre-RINGWORLD novels with some enjoyment.

  5. Indeed, the first RINGWORLD was basically when the first mild indicators of Stage 1 brain-rot showed (Leela’s psionic gift for luck, the poorly constructed pacing, the Ringworld’s bad physics). Of course, the fans loved it and it won the Hugo in 1970.

    • Yeah, I practically threw RINGWORLD across the room when that luck gene showed up. As you point out, it’s also wonkily paced. (I wasn’t smart enough to realize how bad the physics was.)

      Niven was never much of a novelist, but RINGWORLD, to me, was a clear step down from his earlier, fairly enjoyable, novels. He still wrote some pretty nice short stories for a few years after that, though.

      • I was too young to hate the luck bits that much… although I remember being awed by the superstructure of the novel (metaphorical and physical) and disliking what he populated it with.

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