I started the major reading for the women in science fiction project I’m editing for Baen Books this month. Most of what I’m reading is stuff I should have read in the past. I’m also rereading stories that I remember from twenty years ago. Some hold up. Others don’t.
I’m stunned at what I’m finding and what’s been lost. I find it overwhelming at times. But it’s such a worthwhile project and so much fun. Some of the material here duplicates what’s on the site, because I’m enjoying what I’m reading so much.
I’m also making sure I still do leisure reading. Maybe not as much as I would like, but I’m getting it in.
Still, most of the good stuff I’m reading is old sf. And boy, am I having fun.
Brackett, Leigh, “Mars Minus Bisha,” The Coming of the Terrans, Ace Books, 1967. Tonight, I read Leigh Brackett’s “Mars Minus Bisha,” and even though I knew I couldn’t use the story in the anthology, I also couldn’t put this story down.
Why can’t I use it? Well, some of the things said and the corollaries drawn to desert peoples made it clear that they were based on her perception of Middle Eastern cultures. And her perception was very 1950s American which is to say, not all that flattering. Although by the end of the story, that perception does get turned on its head a little.
A doctor stationed alone on Mars—this Mars the Mars of Bradbury and Burroughs, not the dead red planet—has a seven-year-old Martian child dumped on his doorstep by her mother, because the child is causing the villagers to get sick. They want to kill the child. Her mother wants her to live. The doctor wants her to live, but he gets sick…and this heartbreaking story goes from there. It’s a page-turner. And memorable. Wow.
Brackett, Leigh, “The Last Days of Shandakor,” The Coming of the Terrans, Ace Books, 1967.
I’m not sure what to think of this story. The imagery is memorable and profound, the sensawunder powerful, and that guilt which underlies much of sf—that we saw something lovely and ruined it—is present here as well.
The story isn’t as touching or as emotional as “Mars Minus Bisha.” And yet, the story is lyrical and delicate.
John Ross, our protagonist, is cataloging the Martians, looking for lost races, when an elf-like man stumbles into the bar where JonRoss (as he’s known) is drinking. Ross convinces this man to return to his home city, Shandakor, which is dying. The race is dying, according to the elf-man. John Ross accompanies him on a perilous journey, and things go horribly wrong. They continue to go horribly wrong to the very dark ending.
Memorable. Just not as emotional as the fiction that usually attracts me. And yet powerful in its own right.
Brackett, Leigh, The Coming of the Terrans, Ace Books, 1967. I devoured this book. Not all the stories are worth reprinting and some are a bit dated, but Brackett held me all the way through. As I mentioned elsewhere, I’m falling in love with her short work in a serious, serious way.
Brown, Rosel George, “Car Pool,” Earthblood And Other Stories, edited by Eric Flint, Baen Books, [copyright]. Rosel George Brown was considered one of the best writers of her day, and turns out to be one of the most powerful young writers I’ve never heard of. She died when I was seven, after a career that spanned only about ten years.
The story is set in the future, with aliens. A woman carpools (air pools, really), trading off with her neighbors, the way that my mother did with all of us kids (and their mothers) back in the 1960s. The children are interesting and charming and little hellions. The protagonist gets roped into including an alien child in the car pool and the clash of cultures is exceedingly disturbing. There’s a lot of humor here, but a lot of very nasty things under the surface.
I almost didn’t recommend this story because it is so disturbing, but I also can’t get it out of my head. “Car Pool” is very powerful. It’s one of the stories by Rosel George Brown worth reading and discussing.
Cooper, Matt, “Holy Scholarship!” Cascade, Winter 2015. Apparently, the University of Oregon is the first university in nation to offer an undergraduate minor in comics and cartoon studies. The minor has only existed for three years, and this short article is how that minor came to be.
It’s an outline of an evolution. That a university would take comics seriously is an idea whose time has come. It makes me feel quite good. Read this. I found it fascinating.
Locke, Attica, Pleasantville, Harper, 2015. Pleasantville is the second book to feature Attica Locke’s hero Jay Porter. This book fast-forwards years, and shows Porter fifteen years after the events of Black Water Rising. His life isn’t going as well as expected, and he’s now involved in another mystery, one that is as dangerous if not more dangerous than the first one. Lots of treachery, lots to think about. Excellent book. I can’t wait for her next.
MacLean, Katherine, “Contagion,” Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent, Vintage, 1974. This may be the first story I’ve ever read by McLean. Published in 1950, the story feels remarkably current. I’m not sure how accurate the science is for our time, but it feels right. There are one or two dated things; I didn’t mind. I thought I had this story figured out, but I did not. I knew what was actually happening exactly when McLean wanted me to.
In short, this is a story about colonists who want to settle on a planet. They arrive only to discover that other colonists already live there. Human colonists, of which there is no record.
The caution that these new settlers use before they settle on this planet is something I value in science fiction but have rarely seen. Just like I don’t recall ever reading this particular twist in a science fiction story; no one built on it, and no one changed it.
I have two more MacLean collections and some anthologized stories ahead. I’m looking forward to them now.
McCaffrey, Anne, “The Ship Who Sang,” Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent, Vintage, 1974. I always feel at a disadvantage when I read a story I’d heard about forever. Especially a story that I’ve been told I’ll love, a story that someone felt I had to read right now. I’m such a contrary cuss that I generally don’t read those stories at all.
My husband tried to get me to read this story years ago with just those arguments, so I dug my feet in hard and refused to read it. I have no idea why I hadn’t read it on my own before that, but I hadn’t.
When I read the story tonight, I felt that initial resistance, the I’m not going to like this feeling I get whenever I’m told what to love. Then I sank into the story, and fell in love. Helva, the ship who does sing, is a fascinating character and believably young, and the life lesson she learns brought me to tears. I had to abandon my reading for a while to let the story sink in, one of the highest compliments I can pay to a piece of fiction.
McIntyre, Vonda N., “Of Mist and Grass and Sand,” Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent, Vintage, 1974. I suspect the first time I tried to read this story, I abandoned it because of the setting and the set-up. I’m not fond of post-tech cultures, if indeed that’s what this is. It has the sense of a certain kind of made-up world fantasy to me.
No matter. The story’s a classic for a reason. I fell so deeply into the story that when I hit the emotional heart of the piece, I gasped out loud and scared the cat on my lap. Heartbreaking, real, beautifully done.
Vinge, Joan, “Tin Soldier,” More Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent, Vintage, 1976. Somehow I have missed out on reading Joan Vinge’s short work. Tonight, I read “Tin Soldier.” The story wowed me. Pam’s introduction mentions that the story is based on the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” and it clearly is. Joan makes reference to the fairy tale in the story.
But “Tin Soldier” first appeared in Orbit (edited by Damon Knight) in 1974. In 1972, about the time the story would have been written, a song called “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass spent 12 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. I remember hearing that song endlessly that summer. Brandy tells the story of a girl who works in a bar in a seaside town who fell in love with a sailor, who sees her only when he comes to port. She loves a man who is “not around.” To someone, like me, who heard that song continually, the connections are impossible to miss. (Upon Googling the story, I see that Joan mentions the song as an influence as well.)
Joan reverses the genders, adds some wonderful sf twists, and makes Brandy—the woman—someone who travels on a ship that moves at nearly the speed of light. She’s gone three years, but Maris, the Tin Soldier, experiences the same time as 25 years.
Warm and resonant, this story is one that I love.