Book Review: The Alien Condition, ed. Stephen Goldin (1973)

3/5 (collated rating: Average)

Stephen Goldin gathers together twelve original short stories–including six by women authors and two co-written with women–on the theme of the alien condition [1]. Despite the “Average” overall rating, The Alien Condition gathers a fascinating range of science fiction with three spectacular visions by Vonda N. McIntyre, Kathleen Sky, and James Tiptree, Jr. I was also pleasantly surprised by Alan Dean Foster’s take on the theme considering my previous exposure to his fiction.

Unfortunately, Stephen Goldin’s mini-introductions to each story contain awkward attempts at philosophizing on the alien and human condition with zero information about the authors. As a result, I know little to nothing about C. F. Hensel or Thomas Pickens and would like to know more about Alice Laurance and S. Kyle Boult (William E. Cochrane) and the other lesser known authors in the anthology.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“Lament of the Keeku Bird” (1973), Kathleen Sky, 4.5/5 (Very Good): The surprise of anthology contains a brilliant opening line that sets the tone and intensity: “My throbbing womb is stuffed with bloody sand instead of the new cub I should have had this year” (1). A visceral account of a female alien dragging herself, at the instigation of the Old Ones, across a sandy expanse towards a place that might not even exist–Long Rock. The reason? Her previous pregnancy resulted in twins–twins impaled on stakes that lined the entrance to her village: “they were so small, dark with my blood, and the Old Ones had not broken their womb skins, nor opened their eyes” (10). As her “womb screams” and her “hide is ripped off in strips by the sand” the alien remembers her lovers and children and erotic desires and the societal forces that dictated her existence (3).

This is a deeply affective (and effective) story of the ties that control an alien society. Of course, Sky also spins a terrifying commentary on contemporary views of women whose value is judged entirely on their status as mothers–mothers of the “correct” children.

“Wings” (1973), Vonda N. McIntyre, 4.75/5 (Near Masterpiece): Nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Award for Best Short Story. Earlier this year I reviewed McIntyre’s “The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn” (1974). Her unique take on the generation ship story followed meat-eating winged aliens setting off for the stars. “Wings” tells the story of those left behind on their dying planet. Clearly set in the same timeline with the same aliens (androgenous youth become a particular gender after ritualized intergenerational “eldermating”), “Wings” follows the arrival of a injured youth at a temple overseen by an aged keeper. The keeper remembers his own traumatic past and cannot help but become attached to the youth. The youth, filled with despair at the abandonment of the planet, cannot escape the cycles of devastation that transfix them: “if we continued our people, the world would kill our children, or the children would kill the world again” (35).

A tender, powerful, and gorgeously wrought vision. Check out my review of McIntyre’s Hugo and Nebula-winning Dreamsnake (1978) if you haven’t already.

“The Empire of T’ang Lang” (1973), Alan Dean Foster, 4/5 (Good): I surprisingly enjoyed this one! The best by Foster I’ve read so far. Imagine a standard fantasy plot–warrior hero undergoes trek across a landscape encountering enemies of all shapes and forms. He encounters “city-dwellers” with “their super-efficient towns and cities” (39). He conducts rituals (“The Ride of Clean Knives”) to prepare his blades (40). In another instance, he encounters a Moving Mountain (45). And in-between his voyages, he ruminates on the inability of his people to band together, to face the forces that challenge them.

The strange details keep piling up–the main character isn’t a man but a praying mantis and the enemies he encounters are ants and caterpillars… I am reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts From the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics” (1974) which presents the natural world as a science fictional landscape of hidden languages and mysteries beneath the surface. “The Empire of T’ang Lang” reenacts one of these mysteries in a language we can understand–the mechanism of genre.

“A Way Out” (1973), Miriam Allen deFord, 2/5 (Bad): I’ve thoroughly enjoyed many of deFord’s short fictions in her collection Xenogenesis (1969). I wrote that her stories, inspired by her feminist activism, “range from deceptively simple allegories to future histories vast in scope and complexity (for short stories).” Unfortunately, “A Way Out” (1973) is a lesser attempt at a comedy of alien errors. The warlike aliens of Kyria locked in an “honorable system of Perpetual Warfare” (50). Regardless, they continue to send a representative to the United Planets. Refusing to participate in the bureaucratic rituals and determined to return home, Marpelm comes up with a disturbing plan to abduct the President of the United Planets. The tentacled Marpelm attempts to have sex with a human call girl (she doesn’t have a “mounting plate”) (52) and his misguided abduction plan makes an earthling fall in love… No thanks. I’ll stick with the stories in Xenogenesis (1969).

“Gee, Isn’t He the Cutest Little Thing?” (1973), Arthur Byron Cover, 1/5 (Bad): After three short stories I’ve come to the conclusion that Cover’s brand of science fiction is not for me. The word “edgy” is often used to describe authors who want to be seen as pushing the envelope in a bold and radical manner. But there’s nothing behind the shock value. Cover wants to be witty and “edgy” but it comes off as trite and stupid. A little green alien watches humans in all of their egregiousness–and participates. He observes a human fuck a pumpkin (64), visits a scientist who’s simultaneously a “Commie, a Nazi, and a Jew” (65), recounts his own experiences with heroin (includes calling women “whores”) (66), ad nauseum…

See also: “A Gross Love Story” (1974) and “Message of Joy” (1974)

“Deaf Listener” (1973), Rachel Cosgrove Payes, 3/5 (Average) is an evocative piece with an interesting premise. A survey spaceship arrives over a planet without organic life–“the oceans were sterile, the rocks barren” (71)–to collect the gasses for profit. In order to make sure no life exists before the extraction, all ships employ an expensive Listener (telepath) from a guild “dedicated to Awareness in the universe” bred to “detect even the most primitive of intelligences” (72). The Captain must make sure they’re not accidentally conducting a genocide.

But this planet seems to be different. And the Recycler has a hunch that there’s a distinct form of sentience the Listener won’t be able to detect. The Captain ignores the Recycler and hides behind immense “penalty if the courts find for the Guild” of Listeners if the Recycler’s hunch is wrong (73).

I found the idea of immense ships that strip the gasses off a lifeless planet fascinating. However, the cataclysmic results just don’t have the punch (or make much sense) it could. However, I will keep a look out for more of Rachel Cosgrove Payes’ short fiction.

“Nor Iron Bars a Cage” (1973), Stephen Goldin and C. F. Hensel, 3/5 (Average): Shape-shifting (and partially immaterial?) alien entities fight off ennui and tedium by merging and melding with each other. Each has a theory about the world before the Great Purge, a moment before which no memories remain in the collective consciousness. The minds detect the arrival of alien visitors. And new theories proliferate… Told with an attempt at New Wave prose in which a number indicates which mind is doing the “talking”–“2 drive move 2 metal investigate 2 look Others 2 ears deprived 2 war find 2 look pain 2 worlds conquest 2 Purge Purge 2 (81)–attempts to represent alien consciousnesses.

I enjoyed the hints at a past that yielded this unusual state. The reader is tossed into the greater morass of an alien world.

“Routine Patrol Activity” (1973), Thomas Pickens, 3/5 (Average) is Pickens’ only published science fiction story. Aliens Tag and Trill flit on light waves (?) with gaiety and spontaneity and dance across a brutal planet. Stupidteeth (sharks?) slash across the waters. A vague narrative of a misguided attempt by the “Teachers” (humans?) to teach the aliens emerges (94). There’s reference to past cataclysmic event but its cause isn’t clear (97). “Yellow-eyed intelligences” attempt to corner the two aliens who reveal how the maneuvers of the evil other matters little if at all to their way of life (98). Like many stories in the collection, the depiction of the alien condition means the details of thee world remain unsubstantial in the background.

“Call from Kerlyana” (1973), William K. Carlson and Alice Laurance, 2.5/5 (Bad): Two alien species–the winged Lor and the earthbound (and anus obsessed) Kthroc–locked in endless war over a border territory are approached by a representative of the Authority. This representative wants to reach an agreement between a representative of each side who tires of the conflict (although does not dare to admit it). Anthology filler.

“The Safety Engineer” (1973), William E. Cochrane as S. Kye Boult, 3/5 (Average): This story has a fascinating concept–an alien Ecological Team attempting to maintain environmental balance on a very alien world–and a complete inability to tell the story in a compelling way. I gave the story some marks due to the concept but struggled through the dry and dusty way of telling… Imagine page after page of step-by-step descriptions: “[Jme] dipped the flexible end of her right hand into the bag that shared the tunnel with her and lifted out another glowing fungus light-globe. The dark band of sensors across her upper quarter modulated into the black. She could see much better. The job had to be done by visual sensors” (121).

I am willing to give Cochrane another chance. I purchased his second novel Class Six Climb (1980), told from the perspective of a massive sentient tree.

“Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death” (1973), James Tiptree, Jr., 5/5 (Masterpiece): Won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story, Nominated for the Hugo Award. This one is a reread and I’m glad I did. Moggadeet, imagine an alien spider-like creature, shifts between conscious and primal states depending on the time of year. The forces that shape his existence are heralded as “The Plan.” Moggadeet starts to horde food in an effort to avoid shifting back to a primal state where he is not conscious of his actions. Possessed by his deep love of Lilliloo, whom he keeps wrapped in silk (the reason soon becomes harrowingly clear), and scarring memories of his mother evicting her children from her fur and eating his brother, Moggadeet appears to have bested the natural forces that set his biological clock…. But… read and find out!

The prose is crisp and unlike so many stories in this collection, Tiptree manages to convey the alien condition in a way that’s still mysterious and otherworldly yet just comprehensible enough to wield immense force. Highly recommended.

“The Latest from Sigma Corvi” (1973), Edward Wellen, 3/5 (Average): Not an author I’d previous read although I’d heard of his ridiculous Mafia in space novel Hijack (1971). Bill runs a barebones radio station and accidentally reads off a strange series of news events that don’t appear to have an earthly origin. He later learns that there has been an “anomaly in the spectrum of Sigma Corvi” according to a Japanese astronomer (2005). But the alien news cast topics are eerily similar in content to the Earthly news… wars, scandals, religious conflict, etc. Wellen provides a conceptual bookend to the anthology in which the alien is profoundly human.


[1] Perhaps erroneously and impulsively, I assume C. F. Hensel is a woman. Here is her short bibliography on The Internet Speculative Fiction database. The name behind “James Tiptree, Jr.” (Alice Sheldon) wasn’t known until late 1977. Regardless, this is an admirable attempt to include a range of voices.

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15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Alien Condition, ed. Stephen Goldin (1973)

  1. When you posted this cover a while back, I had to hunt down a copy. This is exactly the kind of short stories I’m always looking for. I enjoyed most of it — especially, as you did, the stories by Kathleen Sky, McIntyre and Tiptree.

    At some point, I picked up the novel Witchdame by Kathleen Sky as part of a used-book bundle — I haven’t read it yet, though.

    • Hello Hestia, thanks for stopping by!

      I thoroughly enjoyed those three (and the Foster). I have no clue why the Sky wasn’t reprinted elsewhere (one later printing in France). And I suspect it’s better than quite a few on the Hugo and Nebula list for that year… I should go check.

      Have you read the other McIntyre story set in the same world as “Wings”? It’s great. The review I link in the post contains a link to an online copy if you don’t have it already. If you don’t, I recommend acquiring her collection Fireflood.

      Sky apparently wrote a bunch of very banal space operas for Laser Books (an infamous press). But I suspect there’s another short story in her back catalogue with some punch…

      I’m assuming you felt the same as I did about the Arthur Byron Cover story? He’s an author that I can’t wrap my head around — and do not want to if reading the stories creates such pain…. it’s not the content that bothers me, it’s what he does with it.

      • Pretty sure I have read the other McIntyre story…but it was a long time ago. I should reread it — I have a copy of Fireflood, I think. I’m slowly working through an Octavia Butler read/re-read, but maybe I’ll tackle the rest of McIntyre next. Dreamsnake is one of my all-time favorites and I find her works very readable.

        Yes, the Arthur Byron Cover story was just awful, and the DeFord was very silly. I also found Goldin’s story, along with his intros, to be fairly workmanlike…but he did find some real gems, here, so I hate to complain.

        I also just love the cover of this book. I did a little searching around to find out it’s part of an album cover. (You posted something about this, too, at some point?)

        • Re-the cover: Yes, it’s a piece of art by Mati Klarwein called Annunciation (1961) that was used by Santana for Abraxas (1970). His art was occasionally repurposed as well for science fiction covers. He was a fascinating character. I wrote a bit about him here (and include the original piece of art and Santana album cover:

          I’m glad I got around to reading Dreamsnake this year. I thoroughly enjoyed it as you know.

          I must confess, I DNF the Arthur Byron Cover story and quit trying to read the intros…

          Keep me appraised of your Butler read/re-read project. I have a few early stories of hers on the slate.

          • I bought this when it came out, based on the Abdul Mati Klarwein cover and the Tiptree story. At this point, I recall nothing beyond the Tiptree — well, that’s not entirely true. Seeing a Klarwein painting always brings back memories of listening to ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ repeatedly.

            Looking back now, Goldin’s anthology is a slightly bizarre mix of authors: Cochrane aka S. Kye Boult is a late John W. Campbell discovery I think — and, yes, in my recollection, as terminally boring as most of those late Campbell writers — and Edward Wellen is primarily a competent sub-Stanley Ellin-type crime writer of the kind who’d appear in ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S MAGAZINE (and hence the Mafia in space novel). Here, they’re butting up against the McIntyre and the Sky.

            • Yeah, Klarwein’s art definitely has an iconic quality. As you probably know, Santana saw Klarwein’s Annunciation (1961) (the name of the painting used on this cover) in a magazine and wanted it for Abraxas (1969)–and of course that led to later LP cover commissions.

              I’m unsure why the Sky story wasn’t reprinted elsewhere. While it is not told with the same level of craft as the Tiptree and McIntyre, it’s still a well-wrought nightmare.

              But yes, it’s a very strange range of authors. It’s whiplash between magazine filler works and those three (and the Foster as an honorary 4th).

              Terminally boring with some good ideas is a good way of describing the Cochrane story.

              I realized that I had read one previous Wellen short story — “These Our Actors” (1970) — in Infinity One ed. Robert Hoskins (1970)

              My review: “These Our Actors” (1970), Edward Wellen, 3.5/5 (Good): A brilliant premise that deserved a better delivery! Two “tired telecast beams crossed at a point in space” (179). A sentient plasmoid (perhaps?) in a sub-dreaming state, picks up on the crossed beams and projects the commercial and sportscast on its “brainscreen” (186). We follow the two fragments—a man hiding from an unseen sniper on an alien world and a “Revirginate commercial” with its terrified actor–as they intersect. As if one were to turn on a radio in a foreign country and two radio programs blurred over each other… oblique windows into a distant foreign world.

              It’s an effective mood piece that lacks a clarity of image to showcase the premise. That said, I’m intrigued enough to track down more of Wellen’s short fiction.”

              Sounds like it would have fit my media series.

            • Heh. Just a possible historical quibble re. the ‘iconic’ Mati Klarwein: Miles recorded BITCHES’ BREW August 19–21,1969, and it was released March 30, 1970. Santana’s ABRAXAS was recorded April 17–May 2 1970, and released September 23, 1970.

              So the Santana was recorded and released well after BITCHES’ BREW. As both Miles and Santana recorded for Columbia, it’s perfectly possible that Santana picked out the Mati Klarwein painting, which dated back to ’61, before Miles’s album cover was decided on, and then Miles or whomever saw it in the Columbia art department and said, “Who’s responsible for that? I want a painting by that mother*** for my cover!”

              Anyway, the Miles dropped a whole half-year first, and both cover and sound were new and radical. Me and my crowd of kids were certainly struck by it. Whereas when ABRAXAS came out a half-year later, it was like, “Oh, more of that same cover artist again.” Them’s were the days.

            • Hmm… now I’m trying to figure out why I thought what I did. As for the date, that’s my mistake. Wikipedia provided my (apparently misguided) chronology: “The album cover features the 1961 painting Annunciation by German-French painter Mati Klarwein.[6] According to the artist, it was one of the first paintings he did after relocating to New York City. Carlos Santana reportedly noticed it in a magazine and asked that it be on the cover of the band’s upcoming album.[7] On the back of the record sleeve the cover art is just credited to ‘MATI’. It is now considered a classic of rock album covers.[6][8][9] Klarwein went on to design album artwork for many notable artists, including Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Gregg Allman.”

              I assumed that meant the Davis came later… and didn’t check the date of Bitches Brew. My mistake.

  2. I don’t remember the Sky story but I do remember the McIntyre and Tiptree stories, and they are indeed brilliant, especially the Tiptree. (Have you seen the piece I did for Black Gate on “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain”?

    I have found a lot of Alan Dean Foster’s stuff over the decades to be pretty enjoyable, really. Rarely if ever earthshaking, but fun.

    I reacted pretty much as you did to Cover’s work. Harlan Ellison loved it, though. (Cover does seem a decent enough guy in the (slight) encounters I’ve had with him online.)

    As for Utley, you really should read his best work, the Silurian Era stories (time travel) from the last couple of decades of his life. They are really lovely, and not at all “trite and stupid”. From your reading era, maybe try his collaboration with Howard Waldrop, “Custer’s Last Jump”.

    • The Kathleen Sky piece really surprised me. As I phrased it on Twitter, it hit like brass knuckIes. I’ve rarely encountered a story that never let up in its intensity and terror and deep deep pain. Powerful work (although not as well written as Tiptree and McIntyre).

      I did see your piece on Tiptree but it was during the school year (those months always blur together) so I should give it a reread.

      I don’t doubt that many a fine human wrote many a terrible story. Haha.

      As for the Utley aside, I think I’m going to remove mention of his name in the review as I haven’t read enough of his work to make a decision. I included it as his story “Hung Like an Elephant” (1974) immediately popped into my mind… as a similar and just as unsuccessful exercise in “edgy.”

    • Reading Tiptree (and Octavia Butler) in high school/early college radically changed my view of what science fiction is and can do. I vividly remembered Love is the Plan the Plan is Death after almost thirty years — it’s the main reason I hunted down this collection.

      • I wasn’t a SF short story reader until graduate school. For the first year or so (or more), my site had no short story reviews. Thus, I discovered authors like Tiptree much later than I should have!

        I read but never managed to reviewed the stories in Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home (1973) in 2011 (second year of my PhD program).

  3. “Gee, Isn’t He the Cutest Little Thing?” brought it all roaring back…what a crummy read that was!

    The Sky is a terrific story indeed, and I liked “Nor Iron Bars A Cage” more than you did. The others (including Alice Sheldon’s story) left no impression on me. But after close to fifty years I’m not all the way sure that’s a surprise.

    • It’s a terrible story. I DNF. And I normally if it’s in an anthology…

      I must confess, I had forgotten details of “Nor Iron Bars A Cage” only the day after I read it and was trying to write my review. I’m surprised it stuck in your memory over the Tiptree and McIntyre!

      As I mentioned to others, the Sky should included in later anthologies…. (not counting the French anthology it appeared in)

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