Short Story Reviews: Lee Killough’s “Caveat Emptor” (1970), “Caravan” (1972), and “Sentience” (1973)

While travelling to visit my family in Texas, I stopped at the original Half Price Books location in Dallas. I procured a giant pile of vintage SF that I’ll feature in the upcoming year in my acquisition posts, including a signed copy (for $3) of Lee Killough’s A Voice Out of Ramah (1979). I realized that I’ve only read Killough’s “Bête et Noir” (1980) and, as is my wont, decided to start with her first three published pieces of short fiction before diving into a novel. As these are her first published works, I suspect she has not found her best form.

“Caveat Emptor” (1970), 2.5/5 (Bad): First appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, ed. John Campbell, Jr. (May 1970). You can read it online here. Equine Andvarian aliens pilot a trading vessel across the Commonwealth. Soon after first contact, a young human woman named Danae learns their language and customs on board their vessel. Danae sets up a trade meeting with the business conglomerate Galiol, a member of the Federation, whom she represents (109). Killough posits that megacompanies, driven by profit, will drive humanity’s expansion outward. The climax of the story features economic gamesmanship as the head of Galiol attempts to take advantage of the newly contacted alien species. But both get what they want in the end. Business is business for humans and aliens…

I found “Caveat Emptor” (1970) most interesting as a speculation into the nature of future space travel and exploration. If the current figures of Bezos and Musk spawn legions of billionaire wannabe SPACE EXPLORERS, purely capitalist dictates will guide and exploit our voyages outward. Danae, while a highly educated scout who genuinely cares for the Andvarians, must suppress her own sense of morality to that of her employer. It’s hard to escape the feeling that Killough’s extrapolation of futuristic capitalism is far less sinister than the contemporary world we live in yet alone a future permutation of now.

A solid but unremarkable first step.

“Caravan” (1972), 2.5/5 (Bad): First appeared in Worlds of If, ed. Ejler Jakobsson (May-June 1972). You can read it online here.

On an Arrakis-esque planet replete with Tarrays who slither below the sands, Reptilian caravan drivers bring delicate brooding female cargoes (“shes”) across the dangerous expanse. The perilous crossing braves sink sand, raiders, and all manner of terrifying crises. Adventure transpires. And little else…

Unfortunately, “Caravan” felt derivative of Frank Herbert’s iconic world (albeit with reptilian narrators) and unable to maintain the tension it so desperately wants to generate. I admire Killough’s attempt to convey alien narrators within profoundly alien worlds with alien concerns. But everything is subsumed to the adventure… and a by-the-numbers one at that. Unless there’s something below the adventure-driven exterior, than science fiction falls profoundly flat.

“Sentience” (1973), 3.5/5 (Good): First appeared in Worlds of If, ed. Ejler Jakobsson (September-October 1973). You can read it online here.

Lee Killough’s third published short story demonstrates improved craft. Within a similar future as “Caveat Emptor” (megacompanies spearhead space travel), Dr. Buurn Cian files a claim against the Megeyn Corporation. Cian argues that the Jebbijy bird is actually sentient and the Corporation must cease and desist killing the predatory animal. The Corporation argues that the previous survey that declared the planet safe to exploit as the bird wasn’t sentient. They denounce the hearing as little more than Cian’s personal crusade due to his “Preservationist leanings” (104). Lives are at stake as the bird attacks the colonists with thorns as weapons. The story follows the cases presented by both sides and the testimony of the original survey crew. As the proceedings transpire, Cia realizes that the original survey conclusions aren’t wrong. Instead, something has happened to the Jebbijy birds since others have arrived on the planet. No longer are they the top predators. And just like the first apes on Earth fleeing from sabretooth tigers, the ecology of the planet has profoundly changed.

As with “Caveat Emptor,” Killough’s futuristic extrapolations of a capitalist system that allows itself to be regulated when needed and responds to external attempts to transform policy rings on the hollow side of things. She does suggest that the case will be bogged down with litigation.

A readable and intriguing ecological/sociological SF story that ruminates on the spark that generates sentience.

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13 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Lee Killough’s “Caveat Emptor” (1970), “Caravan” (1972), and “Sentience” (1973)

  1. The Aventine stories were the lamest kind of plagiarism. Then, later on in the 1980s Killough had a series put out by Del Rey that were a ‘Lethal Weapon’ salt-n-pepper buddy team of futuristic detectives. Yeah, you read that right.

    And what’s Killough doing today? Straight to kindle ebooks, featuring the likes of —
    “Homicide detective Allison Goodnight (who) has a big problem. A rogue werewolf killed the victim in her latest case. She knows the signs; she is a werewolf, too. Her whole family is ….”

    As an addendum: much of what was published in GALAXY and IF (as two of the Killough stories here were) after Fred Pohl left at 1968’s end and the reins were then taken over by Ejler Jacobbson and, subsequently, James Baen (in 1974) tended to be on a far lower level than hitherto simply because word-rates increasingly sucked and authors got paid late or outright stiffed. Budrys dropped his book column in GALAXY in 1970 by saying as much as literally as he could and still get published.

    There would still be some good novels serialized prior to their book publication in these magazines — most notably, Clarke’s RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA — but though GALAXY straggled on till 1979 (and IF till ’74) it was an increasingly tawdry end for the magazine that in the 1950s had been Barry Malzberg’s heart’s desire, and which under Fred Pohl during the 1960s had remained arguably the best real SF magazine in the US .

    And I mention this because what happened to GALAXY and IF was an indicator of the general falling away from the high-water mark of the New Wave and 1960s SF that would occur as the 1970s proceeded.

    • I’ve heard some good things about Killough’s early novels. But yes, two of the three stories here I’d label as magazine filler — stretched beyond their ideas to fill space. I am willing, until I explore further, to chalk that up to her first published work. As for the Aventine stories, yes, it’s hard to escape the similarities to Ballard. I’ve only read one within the sequence (linked above) and thought it was average.

      • Re. your fave reads from last year: as far as the novels go, you’ve motivated me to check out the Holdstock, WHERE TIME WINDS BLOW, since I read MYTHAGO WOOD decades ago and thought favorably of that (despite the fact that I heartily dislike much ‘high’ or ‘traditional fantasy’). And should I happen to see LAST LOVERS LEFT ALIVE in a second-hand store–and I’ve just flown from the SF Bay Area and moved to the UK for (at least) the next six months while I qualify for NHS services–I might pick it up.

        As far as your short fiction choices, I’ve read most of them, though often decades ago. Nothing to argue with you about your high ratings for the likes of the Tenn, Ballard, Sturgeon, and LeGuin stories. Those are the Good Old Stuff that justifies the genre.

        I wouldn’t rate the McKenna stories as highly as you do. McKenna was a talented writer from when he first got published (though he struggled to do that; you might read his essay about this, ‘Journey with a Little Man’, if you can find it). However, fiction-writing is hard. To be brief (right!), fiction writers who impress out the gate usually are like one-legged sprinters–over the long haul, deficient and often unable to develop in other respects. (Forex, look no further than L. Niven.) On this score, Cyril Kornbluth is the only exception I can think of. In McKenna’s case, he never really learned to plot, IMO, in that his SF short stories usually defaulted to his protagonists wandering into some miraculous/magical/other-dimensional experience which enabled logic to be cast aside so anything could happen to present a simulacrum of a story progressing. (See his ‘Fiddler’s Green.) In McKenna’s case, that didn’t matter because he took his talent and his Navy experience and wrote a mainstream novel, THE SAND PEBBLES, with them. And then shortly later he was dead.

        Your Silverberg pick is minor Silverberg in the context of an era when he wrote a lot of better stories, IMO. I think that’s true of the Wolfe, too, but I might be wrong because, checking my memory, I’m not actually sure if I read this one; I might check it out and be glad to discover I’m wrong about its quality.

        As for the Emshwiller stories, I’ll read them all when you’ve finished your series. I gave you a hard time about ‘Baby,’ which I think is bad in a way many 1950-era SF writers were, because many SF writers then thought Sturgeon was an example of a good writer to emulate in terms of how to handle emotion–and he absolutely wasn’t, mostly. Since Emshwiller began by hearing the SF writers her husband was illustrating talk shop and thinking ‘well I can try that’, it’s not surprising that she might write a story like ‘Baby’. On the other hand ,’Pelt’ is okay and comes at things from a different angle than other SF then. Most to the point, I know Emshwiller developed and grew as a writer throughout her long life.

        Thus ends my ridiculously long epistle.

        • As for Mark’s comments about the Silverberg and Wolfe stories from your year in review — he’s quite right. Those are both minor stories within their authors’ oeuvre — and their authors both had remarkable careers and at that time were producing their best short work. I’d be quite interested in what you thought of on of Wolfe’s collections as a whole — THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR DEATH AND OTHER STORIES is probably the best of them; but GENE WOLFE’S BOOK OF DAYS (now more easily found as part of CASTLE OF DAYS) is shorter and includes one of his greatest and less widely appreciated novellas, “Forlesen”, plus the very funny “How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion” (perhaps Wolfe’s only appearance in Analog?) plus two neat Christmas stories …

          • I understand. I’ve read and reviewed some of Wolfe’s hard-hitting short fiction masterpieces. And literal TONS of Silverberg was reviewed in the first few years of my site. But… this year was dominated by my various reading series and love for anthologies which meant I read a lot of average stuff… And Silverberg and Wolfe’s general high quality meant they rose to the top.

  2. I liked Killough more than Mark did, though her later works are as said as he says. But, say, THE MONITOR, THE MINERS, AND THE SHREE was fun. And the Aventine stories may be second rate Vermilion Sands knockoffs — but a) that’s a high bar from which one can descend and still be good; and b) they’re not very Ballardian, really, so the vibe is different. I think them more like Michael G. Coney’s Peninsula stories.

    I also think more of Baen era Galaxy (and IF, though Baen only edited IF for a very short time) as well. I think it was a step up from the dreary Jakobsson years. It was a more — juvenile, I guess is the word — magazine, sure, but there’s a place for that (especially when you’re 14 like I was.) They published lots of Varley’s best work, and some very good Michael Bishop. They were the main venue for Craig Strete. Some very significant Joanna Russ work. Le Guin. Brennert. Kevin O’Donnell, Jr. Niven, when he could still kind of write. Raccoona Sheldon. Early Steven Utley. Christopher Priest.

    I think if you look at the best work of the Baen years (mid 1974 to mid 1977 I suppose) it was a pretty darn good magazine. The worst work may have been sometimes downright embarrassing, but I feel one should always, in later years, focus on the best stuff.

    • Varley, Bishop, Russ, Strete, Priest, Le Guin, etc. are all good in my book! Utley… not so much. Yet.

      Yeah, I’m going to keep my thoughts open to enjoying a Killough novel when I get to them. I often feel a bit weird showcasing first published works because I do not mean to sour someone to a particular author. I’m simply exploring and not always the most interested in tracking down the “best” works of an author. Just because I disliked these three does not mean I plan on avoiding her work.

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