3.5/5 (collated rating: Good)
My fifth sojourn to Terry Carr’s Universe series of original anthologies (17 volumes published between 1971-1987) embodies the reasons I gravitate towards the medium: I discover new authors, I reassess old opinions, and deepen my understanding of my favorites. Recommended for Nancy Kress’ rumination on a childhood wrecked by insanity; Kim Stanley Robinson’s character piece on Mars transforming; Howard Waldrop’s account of obsession in an apocalyptic past; and Bruce McAllister’s tale of an astronaut returning home and the lies we tell.
Recommended for fans of more introspective early 80s SF.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
“A Pursuit of Miracles” (1982), George Turner, 3/5 (Average): The Australian author and SF critic George Turner (1916-1997) published his first science fiction at 62! It’s never too late to start. A few years ago I read Turner’s first novel Beloved Son (1978) in the Ethical Culture trilogy. While the details have faded from memory as I never got around to writing a review, I remember how fascinated I was by the exploration of a post-Holocaust world by a returning expedition in the first half of the novel. The second half faded and grew increasingly ponderous and I’m not sure I finished….
“A Pursuit of Miracles,” the second of twelve published short stories between 1978-1998, is a disquieting satire of the scientific enterprise (and of the Australian treatment of Aboriginal people?) narrated by a disturbed instrument of a decadent age. In the Age of Miracles everything seems possible: the moons of gas-giants are mined by bacteria, Cancer is eradicated, and an anti-nuclear shield prevents war (2). Written in the structure (but not content!) of a scientific paper, “A Pursuit of Miracles” tells a bizarre story of paraphysics, lust, and genetically created humans that are legally “experimental animals” (3). Tommy, an “experimental animal” (3) who rolls around on “plates inset with ball bearings” attached to his feet (4), appears to hold a strange power over the real test animals in a laboratory. The scientists conduct experiments to determine the nature of his power — with increasingly sinister and repulsive results.
“Exploring Fossil Canyon” (1982), Kim Stanley Robinson, 4/5 (Good): In my late teens and early twenties I read two-and-a-half Robinson novels–Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), and half of Blue Mars (1996). I found the initial settlement and its struggles fascinating but grew weary of the endless political and social machinations that followed as the planet transformed.
“Exploring Fossil Canyon” takes place in the same future and appeared in the accompanying The Martians (1999) collection of short fictions and poems. A ruminative story of Martian colonists who take a tourist trip down the vast canyons that approach Nix Olympica. Eileen, an amateur scientists born on Mars, increasingly falls for their strange tour guide Roger, who, unlike the others, feels at home in the bleak desert expanse. The story takes place in the early stages of terraforming the Martian landscape. The tourists imagine the landscape covered with plants and wildlife. Roger, possessed by a sadness, sees the transformation as destruction.
I found “Exploring Fossil Canyon” a careful and well-conceived short story. There’s a deep power in its simplicity.
“God’s Hooks!” (1982), Howard Waldrop, 3.5/5 (Good): Nominated for the 1983 Nebula Award for Best Short Story. I have not had the best luck with Waldrop in the past on the site and was pleasantly surprised by this one. See reviews of “My Sweet Lady Jo” (1974) and “The Ugly Chickens” (1980) for counterpoint.
The patrons of the End of the World Tavern in 17th-century London convene as the city still burns and the plague ravishes. A crier walks by the window with news of Charles II’s plans to rebuild the city, foreign aid, felons, and a “Portent of Doom, monster fish seen in Bedford” (50). And off they go, “Brothers of the Angle” (53), to catch the monster fish! The apocalyptic historical setting is perfect for a rumination on the forces of obsession. A richly realized tapestry that had me hooked (no pun intended).
“Talp Hunt” (1982), Nancy Kress, 4.5/5 (Very Good): Recently I reviewed Nancy Kress’ first three published short stories–“The Earth Dwellers” (1976), “A Delicate Shape of Kipney” (1978), and “And Whether Pigs Have Wings” (1979). “Talp Hunt” might be her first story that demonstrates her mature voice and consummate craft.
A sister, a brother, and a mother (with a Colonizer machine) live in a hut on an alien island. The sister hunts for Talp, with its “boneless tail” and “green fur” (65), and if it’s not the right one she bashes the carcass against a tree until its bloody parts “stick to [her] arms and breasts” (65). At some points the mother is one woman, at other points another, and the sister attempts to avoid her schizophrenic shifts. The brother tries to care for the mother as she slips into her “bad times” huddled on the floor of the hut. Soon visitors arrive and tell a fantastic story and give the sister a name she does not believe is even hers…
There are childhoods and then there are childhoods–and this one creates a harrowing groundwork for the young souls who attempt to find their way in a world without basis for knowing. As with An Alien Light (1987), there’s a deeply vicious and violent streak (to quote Expendable Mudge) to the proceedings and no easy answers. I adored this one!
“When the Fathers Go” (1982), Bruce McAllister, 4/5 (Good): I’ve accumulated multiple McAllister novels over the years but I’ve never read anything from his pen–and I’m glad I did! “When the Fathers Go” fits into an illustrious line of stories about the travails of returning spacemen who struggle back on Earth. Exemplars of this subgenre (a Boaz favorite) include Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “The Hoofer” (1955) and “Death of a Spaceman” (1954), Samuel R. Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah…” (1967), and Edmond Hamilton’s “What’s It Like Out There” (1952).
Dorothea narrates the return of her husband Jory from a voyage into the outer reaches–“they all come back lying” (81) she confesses and into a nightmarish account of abusive control and destroyed lives we descend. In a drug-induced daze as they attempt to rekindle their love and have a second child after abandoning their first (Dorothea in starlock sleep waiting for her husband to return from a new mission), Jory confesses that “he had fathered a child Out There” (81). But all the stories he tells of procreation with the three alien species that exist never connect with the facts. And a new impossible story appears on his lips the second the first finishes. And the lies he tells are lies Dorothea would rather hear than the jagged reality of the truth. And Jory’s lies become Dorothea’s lies that cover-up the scars that she bears.
Like Old Donegal in “Death of a Spaceman” (1954), Jory cycles through a series of delusions and perverse games with his long-suffering wife unwilling or unable to acknowledge what really happened. Dorothea, like countless army spouses, goes along with it all attempting to make sense of the changes her husband experienced. But deep inside she knows she made a mistake falling for him. I should have included this in my series on stories critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.
“Thieving Bear Planet” (1982), R. A. Lafferty, 3.25/5 (Above Average): As is to be expected in a Lafferty story, “Thieving Bear Planet” is a bizarre interplanetary exploration tale that takes a radical detour into the realm of the metaphysical. The Directory and Delineation of Planets contains a contradictory (and anomalous) account of earlier testimony about Thieving Bear Planet — including the sinister line “it forces them to write things that are untrue, as it is forcing me to do at this moment” (104). A new exploration vessel lands in a plain filled with massive schematics of old spaceships (the collection cover above). Large flying squirrel aliens start to steal innocuous items from the ship. But soon what they steal seems to be more than only objects but also food from within the stomach, alcohol from the “ileum and bloodstream” (108), and “insulin and glucogen” from the pancreas (109). As if some entropic manifestation, the aliens mass and much and steal and clump… and the story changes altogether. And the true nature of things (and of the crew) is revealed.
I enjoyed this one! I won’t reveal the ending but it was so Lafferty.
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (1982), Mary C. Pangborn, 2/5 (Bad): If you were to identify a story adverse to all my sensibilities, this one fits! An Arthurian fantasy replete with druids and Stonehenge, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” follows a young stableboy who runs away and encounters a rather eccentric and addled old wizard struggling to cast a spell. Unfortunately, Mary C. Pangborn’s competent but run-of-the-mill medieval fantasy does not intrigue me and comes off as anthology filler. See Pangborn’s “The Confession of Hamo” in Universe 10 (1980) as well.
“In Memory Of” (1982), James Patrick Kelly, 3/5 (Average): This is the first work by James Patrick Kelly I’ve read–and I plan on seeking out more. The new technology? Memorials broadcast after the death of a loved one. You can design your own, get a ghost writer to spruce it up, and a budget to record at any location. Through this medium you can poor your secrets and defeats and epic anti-family rants. The story is the memorial of Dulcie Evans Snow, the daughter of the husband-wife team that created the memorial service (and accumulated a veritable fortune). Even in an industry focused on death and dying, how to live and love and create good memories for your descendants is a foreign landscape. And Dulcie spills all… the aimlessness and medicated lives of those ignored by their parents.
While the story might be interpreted as an analysis of the ennui of the wealthy, “In Memory Of” is an effective rumination on the stories we tell ourselves about how we will be remembered and the fleeting nature of the present.
“Helen, Whose Face Launched Twenty-Eight Conestoga Hovercraft” (1982), Leigh Kennedy, 3/5 (Average): The orbital space habitats are supposed to be a New Land–a place to escape from the overpopulated Earth. The colonists, including large numbers of Pakistanis, abide by the Foederati Charter that stated that “there would be no unnecessary actions or laws against the persons and objects having no harmful effect on other persons or objects” (168). Ferrier spent most of his live saving money for the flight to Evergreen–built to evoke an old western town in Colorado. He runs a tourist ship, builds knick-knacks and creates art, and interacts with his friends in the local bar, and falls for the fifty-year-old Helen and her mechanical hand. But rivalries and other forces threaten the peace.
Kennedy explores the small dramas, love, and human foibles within an exotic locale. The story ultimately feels a bit banal and drab despite its interesting components. I am willing to explore more of her work in the coming months.
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