Book Review: So Close to Home, James Blish (1961)

3/5 (collated rating: Average)

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve read James Blish. I’ve long been a fan of his Hugo-winning novel A Case of Conscience (1958) and individual stories in collections like The Seedling Stars (1957) and Galactic Cluster (1959). Unfortunately, So Close to Home (1961) is an uneven collection with more duds than hits. The three worthwhile stories–“The Oath” (1960), “Testament of Andros” (1953), and “The Masks” (1959)–can be found online at the links below. Almost all the stories in the collection are set in the near future and chart humanity’s fear of the end and how one might navigate the strange new worlds that emerge.

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Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CCCXIII (John Wyndham, Keith Roberts, Fredric Brown, Naomi Mitchison)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

1. The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)

From the back cover: “WHAT WERE THEY–

THESE HIDEOUS TRIFFIDS ROAMING THE RUINS OF THE EARTH?

Until a few short hours ago–before the sky exploded into a shower of flaming green hell–triffids had been regarded as merely a curious and profitable form of plant life. Now these shadowy vegetable creatures became crawling, killing nightmare of pain and horror.

Madness hung in the air, fear lurked in every side street, death hovered in every doorway. Stripped of civilized veneer by terror and desperation, the handful of surviving humans began to turn on each other.

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Short Story Reviews: Harlan Ellison’s “Psycho at Mid-Point” (1956) and “The Discarded” (variant title: “The Abnormals”) (1959)

The following review is the 20th installment of my series searching for “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.” Some stories I’ll review in this series might not fit. Many are far from the best. And that is okay. I relish the act of literary archaeology.

I turn now to an author, Harlan Ellison (1934-2018), whom I’ve only marginally explored considering his prodigious output. I am completely ignorant of his 50s visions. I’d previously read and reviewed his collection Approaching Oblivion (1974) and a handful of other stories including “A Boy and His Dog” (1969). The first story in this post–“Psycho at Mid-Point” (1956)–exemplifies the theme at its most brutal and nihilistic. As a bonus, I’ve paired it with one of Ellison’s better known 50s tales of mutants and prison ships–“The Discarded” (variant title: “The Abnormals”) (1959). If you know of any other Ellison stories that might fit the theme, let me know.

As always, feel free to join the conversation and read along with me on the search for the depressed astronaut.

Previously: Three stories by Alfred Coppel

“The Hunters” in Fantastic Story Magazine, ed. Samuel Mines (Fall 1952). You can read it online here.

“The Dreamer” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher, Jr. and Francis McComas (April 1952). You can read it online here.

“Double Standard” in Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (February 1952). You can read it online here.

Up Next: TBD

3.25/5 (Above Average)

Harlan Ellison’s “Psycho at Mid-Point” first appeared in Super-Science Fiction, ed. W. W. Scott (December 1956). You can read it online here. It was not collected or anthologized.

Mike Ashley in Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970 (2005) does not have kind words for the three-year run of the magazine Super-Science Fiction (1956-1959). He describes the editor W. W. Scott as utterly out of his depth with a misguided reliance on “instant impact” without substance or cohesion or knowledge of the field. That said, Scott accidentally published a few solid short stories before the magazine’s demise in the market collapse in the late 50s even if the overall issues tended to be poor (168-169) and pandered to whatever craze filled the air (187). I’d classify Harlan Ellison’s “Psycho at Mid-Point” as a solid early work that fits the theme of this series perfectly!

“After fifteen months, Wallace went mad” (54).

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Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCCXI (Phyllis Gotlieb, John D. MacDonald, Robert Onopa, and Peter George)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

1. Sunburst, Phyllis Gotlieb (1964)

From the back cover: “In the hideous aftermath of the atomic sunburst. The people of Sorrel Park had been written off. Now they were nothing but a kind of human garbage, festering and hopeless.

In the center of town lived the worst of the human garbage–and by far the most dangerous. They were a breed of terrible children, possessed by terrifying supernormal powers. They were a new race of monster bred out of the sunburst, and if they ever broke loose they would destroy the world…”

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Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCCX (R. A. Lafferty, Jan Morris, Star anthology, and an August Derleth anthology)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

1. Strange Ports of Call, ed. August Derleth (1948)

From the back cover: “‘Begotten of Imagination, on the body of Technology, there springs forth the wild child Science Fiction.’ –Clifton Fadiman

The above is one of the many attempts that have been made to describe a department of fiction which, in spite of some sniping critics, continues to increase its followers. Recently Bertrand Russell observed that science fiction consists of ‘intelligent anticipation–much more intelligent than the expectations of statesmen.’

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Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCCIX (John Brunner, Lester del Rey, John Domatilla, anthology of Best SF 1965)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

1. Quicksand, John Brunner (1967)

From the back cover: “She had nearly killed a man who tried to assault her. She spoke a language no one could understand. Commonplace objects like clothing and cars were a mystery to her.

Paul was haunted and entranced by her. He licked at the secrecy that surrounded her until, inevitably, his fate became linked to hers. And she gave him a vision of a world more beautiful than any he had ever known.

THEY LIVED IN A PARADISES OF SENSUAL ECSTACY… UNTIL IT WAS TOO LATE. BECAUSE HER LOVE WAS LIKE QUICKSAND.”

Initial Thoughts: My Brunner obsession in my early 20s generated a packed few years of reading as many novels–the good and the bad–that I could get my hands on. This one escaped my grasp.

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Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCCVIII (Brian W. Aldiss, D. G. Compton, and Shirley Jackson)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

1. The Sundial, Shirley Jackson (1958)

From the back cover: “THE SUNDIAL is a chilling, suspenseful, bloodcurdlingly macabre novel of twelve strange people awaiting the end of the world in a fantastical house like no other on earth.” SF Encyclopedia describes The Sundial as “the closet to SF she came.”

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Short Story Reviews: Alice Eleanor Jones’ “Created He Them” (1955) and Katherine MacLean’s “Interbalance” (1960)

Today I’ve selected two post-apocalyptic visions by female authors. I needed an antidote to the creepy last man/woman stories I’ve been reading recently. Alice Eleanor Jones spins a masterpiece about a housewife attempting to keep the entropy of a crumbling world and an abusive husband at bay. Katherine MacLean imagines a moment where the last representative of the American Empire, after all the rhetoric of progress and exceptionalism came crashing down in a nuclear war, interacts with a persistent and well-meaning native girl.

The links to the stories can be found in the reviews. Both are recommended reads for fans of 50s and 60s science fiction.


5/5 (Masterpiece)

Alice Eleanor Jones’ “Created He Them” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher (June 1955). You can read it online here.

Sometimes there are stories that transcend their short length with lasting power. This story has resided within me as if freshly read for weeks. Like some corrosive lozenge of love and hate, “Created He Them” eats you up from the inside.

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Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCCVI (John Brunner, Phillip Mann, Shepherd Mead, and a Frederik Pohl anthology)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

I planned to have a review up today. Unfortunately, August is always my least productive month writing as it marks the return to work after a much needed summer break. It’s been a rough few weeks! Stay tuned.

1. The Squares of the City, John Brunner (1965)

From the back cover: CHECHMATE IN PARADISE. Ciudad de Vados was a Latin-American showplace, a paradise…a flourishing supercity designed and run nearly to perfection.

But not quite. They had a traffic problem.

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