Since 2021, I’ve put together a series on the first three published short fictions by female authors who are new(ish) to me and/or whose most famous SF novels fall mostly outside the post-WWII to mid-1980s focus of my reading adventures. So far I’ve featured Josephine Saxton (1935-), Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019), Wilmar H. Shiras (1908-1990), Nancy Kress (1948-), Melisa Michaels (1946-2019), Lee Killough (1942-), Betsy Curtis (1917-2002), and Eleanor Arnason (1942-).
I do not expect transformative or brilliant things from first stories. Rather, it’s a way to get a sense of subject matter and concerns that first motivated authors to put pen to paper and to further map the territories that fascinate me.
Phyllis Gotlieb (1926-2009) was one of a legion of authors who received a debut under the influential editorship of Cele Goldsmith (1933-2002). Goldsmith fostered the early careers of Ursula K. Le Guin, Keith Laumer, Thomas M. Disch, David R. Bunch, Roger Zelazny, among many others. For a fascinating look at her years at Amazing Stories, check this later reflection article. Goldsmith writes: “My greatest pleasure was developing and publishing new, talented writers. I was not a writer and never aspired to be. But I was an editor who loved to help writers adapt their ideas and copy for the audience. My requirements: credible (or incredible), well-plotted, care- fully developed stories. My criteria for acceptance: ‘goose flesh’ while reading a submission.” For more on her contribution to the field, check out “Friend of the Site” John Boston and Cora Buhlert’s article over on Galactic Journey. Barry N. Malzberg also interviewed her in 2003.
Gotlieb, also known for her poetry, was born in Canada and received an M. A. in English from the University of Toronto. Her first novel–which I acquired recently—Sunburst appeared in 1964. Her novella “Son of the Morning” (1972) received a Nebula Award nomination. Here’s her complete bibliography. I have read none of her work until now!
Phyllis Gotlieb’s “A Grain of Manhood” first appeared in Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, ed. Cele Goldsmith (September 1959). You can read it online here.
Lela, pregnant, lies in a hospital bed on the planet Axtu (a frontier world that needed married couples for settlement?) with her husband James at her side. But there’s a problem. Her husband is infertile. She struggles with “what she had done to him!” (77). Her labored breath whispers: “Why couldn’t you have had children like any other man?” (77). He responds: “Damn it, why couldn’t you have gotten rid of it, like any other woman?” (77). But there’s so much more at foot behind the domestic strife.
Frustrated with her life, Lela had attempted to return to Earth before her strange pregnancy. But life on Earth “was what she had married to get away from” (78) and she had attempted to return to Axtu and James. But on the way a shipwreck completely changed her life. On a planet that appears empty of life at first glance, she encounters the telepathic Kolanddro and his strange fellow aliens, none of which look like and who spend their days in “gaudy paper pavilions of pure color” (79). While wondrous and fascinating, life on the planet does not appeal to Lela and she desire to return home.
This story plays with the idea of escape from the humdrum domestic life and pressures. Lela’s first impulse is to flee. She had escaped Earth for Axtu. She had fled Axtu due to James’ sterility and their inability to have a family. But she had decided to return. Her experiences after the crash on the alien world with Kolanddro also does not lead to happiness but serves to center her desires and needs. She yearns to return to her home. At first glance little sense of love peers through her fraught interactions with her husband. He claims to love her. And perhaps she does to in her own way. Even in her periodic unhappiness, life with James and the opportunity to bear a child she doesn’t completely understand is enough.
I found “A Grain of Manhood” a rather rocky and murky start to Gotlieb’s SF writing career.
3.25/5 (Above Average)
Phyllis Gotlieb’s “Phantom Foot” first appeared in Amazing Science Fiction Stories, ed. Cele Goldsmith (December 1959). You can read it online here. Gotlieb’s second story shows marked improvement over the first.
On a mission to make contact with the planet Qumedon, the spaceship crew spends their days wrestling and playing chess. A terror at the approaching moment looms behind all their interactions as three earlier ships “were lost trying” to make contact (10). As the captain of an earlier mission and the only survivor of contact with the alien race, Phelps doesn’t appear to mesh with the rest of the crew–“at home he might well have been at ease as a stalker of errors in a roomful of IBM machines”–as he had sunk into apathy and self-pity after the disaster (9). The rest of the crew speak with him to fill “the emptiness with the sense of familiar” (10). He scratches the stump of his leg and his aluminum foot compulsively.
No one has ever seen the Qumedoni. In the earlier missions when the ship approached, they sent out telepathic feelers and play tricks to put the crew off off guard and figure out how they tick—“nobody ever lasted past that” (12) as it inevitably leads to the crew killing themselves. The same pattern threatens to repeat itself. Spurred by the alien telepathic connection, each crew member relieves traumatic memories, defining life moments, and small interactions with momentous import. But this time Phelps’ previous experience and phantom foot allow him to see through the charade.
As with “A Grain of Manhood,” Gotlieb gravitates towards main characters down on their luck, struggling against the tide. In both instances, they figure out a new way forward. This one successfully conveys the unease of a telepathic interaction. I’m not sure its has the lasting power or punch to reside long in my memory.
2.75/5 (Below Average)
Phyllis Gotlieb’s “No End of Time” first appeared in Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, ed. Cele Goldsmith (June 1960). You can read it online here.
In a technologically advanced post-scarcity future starved for stimulus (think Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat or Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite the Sun), humans (or some version of them) pull through time Old-Civ people for entertainment. And into the box appears the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates–pulled from his prison cell before his suicide. The story follows Ashael, who does not seem as fascinated as everyone else by this someone cruel activity: “What had they expected in the way of an entertainment, perhaps for him to gibber and squeak?” (110). Her and the dekad she is part of fear that these time-travel experiments will lead to a punishment that will prevent them from receiving children from the Great Dekad. And Ashael’s own interactions with Socrates lead her to question her way of life. Their conversations plant in her mind a “fearful curiosity and budding flowers of love and hate” (117). She fears that her new emotions will create an imperfect group of children if they are selected. And what will the Great Dekad’s punishment be if they are unable to return Socrates to his time?
I struggled with this story. The Ancient Greek content is forced and bland and reaches unsuccessfully for some philosophical insight. As with the other two, Gotlieb gravitates towards characters who attempt to find themselves by means of extricating themselves from unusual situations. Lela finds her way back to a home she fled after an unusual pregnancy. Phelps uses his own traumatic experiences to save his crewmates. And here, Ashael interacts with a man whose appearance is purely for entertainment — and begins to see through her empty existence controlled by cruel forces that threaten to destroy what little pleasure she still experiences.
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7 thoughts on “Short Fiction Reviews: Phyllis Gotlieb’s “A Grain of Manhood” (1959), “Phantom Foot” (1959), and “No End of Time” (1960)”
God, that cover for the September 1959 Fantastic is so ugly.
Yeah, it’s quite egregious. Have you read any of Gotlieb’s fiction?
I went ahead and looked up the artist. There’s probably a reason he only illustrated two SF covers.
Here’s his other gem. And yes, I think that’s a gun shooting a bullet that narrowly missed the creature’s head… Everyone loves gunpowder burn to the back of the head!
Fantastic’s design, and cover art, were dreadful in the late 1950s. They improved somewhat under Goldsmith in the early 1960s.
One of the things a good editor can do is find weak stories by new writers that she believes will learn — will become better — and thus help nurture them. She took Gottlieb from an, as you have shown, fairly indifferent writer to the writer of a pretty strong novel in SUNBURST (which was serialized by Goldsmith.)
Despite John Boston’s dislike of Sunburst, I read a bit of it and thought it was quite moody and broody. I should finish. My interest shifted elsewhere. The novel to be on the tail-end of the juvenile delinquent mainstream fiction trend… the trend that saw Ellison make some of his earliest sales — Web of the City (1958), etc.
Do any memorable short fictions come to mind?
The Sunburst Award is named in Gotleib’s honour:
(I was on the 2017 Jury.)
Cool! I’ve heard about the award although I have not looked at what’s won.
Have you read any of her fiction? Do you have any favorites?