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Elizabeth Bear on 8 Forgotten SFF Classics of the ’70s and ’80s

Saturday, March 9th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Diadem from the Stars Jo Clayton-small Sorcerer’s Son Phyllis Eisenstein-small Dreamsnake Vonda McIntyre-small The Idylls of the Queen Phyllis Ann Karr-small

Elizabeth Bear speak my language.

Over at Tor.com last month, she holds forth on my favorite topic — vintage science fiction and fantasy paperbacks. In a survey of 8 Forgotten SFF Classics of the ’70s and ’80s, she tells tales of a handful of forgotten (and a few even more forgotten) genre classics, including Jo Clayton’s Diadem from the Stars (DAW, 1977), which she compares to Jack Vance.

There’s a girl in a profoundly misogynous society, whose mother was an offworlder. She gets her hands on a powerful alien artifact that she doesn’t know how to use, and makes her escape. This is a feminist revisioning of the planetary romance, and it shows the influence of Jack Vance and similar authors — the lone wanderer in a post-technology barbaric world that hovers somewhere between magic and superscience.

Definitely on the grimdark side, this might appeal to fans of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy.

When I posted this on Facebook last month, I got a number of enthusiastic comments from Black Gate readers. Charlene Brusso wrote:

Yes! Jo Clayton’s Moongather series and the Diadem series are both worth revisiting. One of the few writers I can go back and reread and not be disappointed.

[Click the images for 80s-sized versions.]

And ILM layout artist  Greg Bossert said:

I’ve read almost all of those, but I am particularly happy to see Jo Clayton mentioned; I think her work was brilliant and seems woefully overlooked.  I *think* I’ve got everything she published. I’d love to see some of it back in print, e.g. the Skeen novels.

Glad to see so much love for Jo Clayton, who’s rapidly being forgotten since her death in 1998.

Also on Bear’s list is my friend Phyllis Eisenstein’s Sorcerer’s Son (Del Rey, 1979), the opening novel in her Book of Elementals trilogy.

This is a delightful little book about two sorcerers, a demon, and their child. (Yes, it’s complicated.) One of the sorcerers has extremely powerful nature magic; she’s a woman with a gift for working with woven things, and she spends her time nerding out about botany, mostly. The demon is a decent-hearted sort who is bound by the second sorcerer. Because that other sorcerer is a nasty piece of work who gets his power from enslaving unwilling demons, and who assumes that everybody else is a nasty piece of work too, he lays a lot of complicated plots in order to defend himself from enemies that don’t exist until he creates them. This works out poorly for him in the long run, because his kid takes after his mother and the demon.

Here’s the back cover for all four books (click for more readable versions.)

Diadem from the Stars Jo Clayton-back-small Sorcerer’s Son Phyllis Eisenstein-back-small Dreamsnake Vonda McIntyre-back-small The Idylls of the Queen Phyllis Ann Karr-back-small

One of my favorite SF novels of the 80s was Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (Dell, 1978).

Another postapocalyptic SF novel about a young wanderer from the era when the only future so many of us could see was a nuclear one. The journeyman Healer Snake is out and about in the world when tragedy strikes, sending her on a quest that takes her through a number of remnant societies. This book is a solid adventure novel, fast-paced and full of incident, but it also deals strongly with thematic issues of class and education and personal responsibility and ethics. Includes a nonbinary character and nontraditional relationship structures.

And she’s piqued my curiosity about Phyllis Ann Karr’s The Idylls of the Queen (Berkley, 1982), which I haven’t read. But now I want to.

Sir Patrise has been murdered, and it’s up to Sir Kay and Sir Mordred to find Sir Lancelot so he can prove Queen Guenevere’s innocence, or she’ll be burned at the stake.

Neither of them much likes Sir Lancelot, unfortunately. And nobody has any idea where he’s wandered off to this time, as he’s not exactly the most reliable dude around…

I love this book so much, you guys.

Bear also looks at titles by Diane Duane, Joy Chant, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, and Suzy McKee Charnas. Read the complete list here.

Elizabeth Bear’s space opera Ancestral Night was published by Saga Press this week. Our previous coverage of her work includes:

Range of Ghosts
Shattered Pillars
The Stone in the Skull
Ancestral Night

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

12 Comments »

  1. So many wonderful titles and authors to be read, remembered, and cherished. Alas, I recently read on Dave Langford’s Ansible that Ms. Vonda McIntyre has been diagnosed with inoperable, Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. (Details here)

    Comment by Eugene R. - March 9, 2019 11:42 pm

  2. I’m always happy to see Jo Clayton mentioned (although I admit I didn’t actually start reading her stuff until sometime in the 1990s).

    As I said on the Tor.com article, my own list would almost certainly include Louise Cooper.

    Comment by Joe H. - March 10, 2019 1:26 am

  3. Louise Cooper is an excellent choice.

    My own list would have included Katharine Kerr (the Deverry series), Katherine Kurtz (the Chronicles of The Deryni), and Ellen Kushner (Swordspoint). But I have no complaints with Bear’s list.

    Comment by John ONeill - March 10, 2019 9:26 am

  4. Not forgotten if you were there – Clayton was definitely my go to out of this list.

    Comment by Barsoomia - March 10, 2019 10:11 am

  5. Idylls of the Queen is, in my opinion, one of the best Arthurian novels ever. Also, a great whodunnit. Sorcerer’s Son is also right up there.

    Comment by Brian Kunde - March 10, 2019 3:48 pm

  6. […] Today’s link is to an article on forgotten fantasy and science fiction books from the 70s and 80s: https://www.blackgate.com/2019/03/09/elizabeth-bear-on-8-forgotten-sff-classics-of-the-70s-and-80s/ […]

    Pingback by Fantasy Link 3/10/19 | Fantasy Worlds - March 10, 2019 4:02 pm

  7. Sorcerer’s Son is one of the best high fantasies of its era, in my opinion, certainly deserving of a better cover. Boo, Darrell Sweet, boo!

    Comment by Thomas Parker - March 10, 2019 4:36 pm

  8. Darrell Sweet was always pedestrian at best. I don’t think I ever saw a cover of his that excited me.

    Comment by Barsoomia - March 11, 2019 8:36 am

  9. Mr ONeill, you should ask your friend Phyllis Eisenstein to see about getting some of her works out on kindle!

    Comment by silentdante - March 11, 2019 10:05 am

  10. > Idylls of the Queen is, in my opinion, one of the best Arthurian novels ever. Also, a great whodunnit. Sorcerer’s Son is also right up there.

    Brian,

    I’ve kept Idylls of the Queen on the table beside my reading chair because of your comment. I hope to get the chance to read it soon!

    Comment by John ONeill - March 17, 2019 6:18 pm

  11. > Sorcerer’s Son is one of the best high fantasies of its era, in my opinion, certainly deserving of a better cover. Boo, Darrell Sweet, boo!

    Thomas — yeah, I know what you mean. Sweet had a very distinctive style, that in many ways came to define 80s mainstream fantasy. But I was never a big fan, and this definitely isn’t one of his best pieces.

    Comment by John ONeill - March 17, 2019 6:20 pm

  12. > Mr ONeill, you should ask your friend Phyllis Eisenstein to see about getting some of her works out on kindle!

    silentdante – I will bring it up at Windy City.

    Comment by John ONeill - March 17, 2019 6:21 pm


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