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 . 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…
“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.
 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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