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Future Treasures: The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020, edited by Rich Horton

Future Treasures: The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020, edited by Rich Horton

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020,
edited by Rich Horton (Prime Books, June 2021). Cover by Argus

The print version of Rich Horton’s 12th Year’s Best volume was delayed roughly six months by the pandemic, and it finally arrives next week. The delay was a little frustrating for those of us who look forward to this book every year, but considering how deeply the pandemic impacted the publishing world overall, I figure it could have been a lot worse. (The digital version has been available since December, but I remain stubbornly a print guy.)

Rich’s introductions to the early volumes belonged to the get-out-of-the-way-and let-the-fiction-do-the-talking school, but over the years they’ve loosened up a bit, and this year’s is one of his best, a lively and thoughtful look at the impact of this very eventful year on science fiction, and some thoughts on famous genre pandemic fiction. Here’s part of his comments on the tales within.

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Deadly Archeology on Alien Planets: “It Opens the Sky” by Theodore Sturgeon

Deadly Archeology on Alien Planets: “It Opens the Sky” by Theodore Sturgeon

Venture Science Fiction, November 1957. Cover by Emsh

In this series of essays I have been taking a close look at stories I find interesting, trying to figure out how they work. So far the stories (and one poem) I have discussed are pieces I find particularly good – and this is hardly surprising, as surely it’s better to know how and what good stories do than weak stories. But this time I’m taking a look at a story I enjoy, but that I also think deeply flawed. Why? Partly because it’s by Theodore Sturgeon, one of my very favorite writers. But also this story seems very Sturgeonesque – so I hope that I can understand better what Sturgeon tries to do in his most characteristic stories, and why sometimes even while he does what he wants to do the story qua story doesn’t wholly work.

My favorite Sturgeon stories are “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” “A Saucer of Loneliness,” and “And Now the News …”. There are other very good and very well-known stories by him: “Baby is Three,” “Mr. Costello, Hero,” “Bulkhead,” “Affair with a Green Monkey,” “And My Fear is Great …”. And there are early stories that seem less truly characteristic of the mature writer, though they are still well-regarded: the SF Hall of Fame story “Microcosmic God,” horror stories like “It” and “Bianca’s Hands,” the possessed bulldozer piece “Killdozer.” I love a late ‘40s sense of wonder thing, “The Sky Was Full of Ships,” but that too is not core Sturgeon. But there are a few stories from his peak period, the 1950s, that have the emotional punch, and the moments of utter beauty, of the best of his work, but that for one reason or another don’t stick the landing. “The Golden Helix” is one. “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff” is another – a novella that for half its length bids fair to be as good as anything he ever wrote, but which can’t quite find its way to a satisfactory resolution. And there is “It Opens the Sky,” the story I mean to treat here, which has pages of sheer loveliness, passages of great power, and a message that is Sturgeon at his most tender and optimistic. It is a story that brings me to tears, and yet frustrates me.

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A Delightful Discovery Inside an Old Book

A Delightful Discovery Inside an Old Book

You never know what you might find inside an old used book. I just made a wonderful discovery inside my copy of Witches Three. This is a “Twayne Triplet,” featuring three long stories (two novels and a novella) on the same subject — witchcraft. The novels are Conjure Wife, by Fritz Leiber; and The Blue Star, by Fletcher Pratt. The novella is “There Shall Be No Darkness” by James Blish. It’s a strong book – Conjure Wife, Leiber’s first novel, is an established classic of horror-tinged contemporary fantasy, and The Blue Star, which became the first entry in the classic Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, is widely regarded as Pratt’s best novel.

I have an ongoing interest in Twayne Triplets*, even though only two were ever published, so I grabbed my used copy of Witches Three eagerly many years ago. But while I’ve leafed through it before, I haven’t read it, partly because I already had copies of the other stories. (That said, I haven’t read my separate copy of The Blue Star, nor, I suspect, this version of “There Shall Be No Darkness.” (It was collected in The Best of James Blish but I believe that’s an earlier, shorter, version of the story.)

So yesterday the subject of Witches Three came up. I grabbed my copy, and opened it, and to my surprise I found, on the page facing the inside front cover, a pasted in label signed by Fritz Leiber! The label reads: “Conjure Wife came out of my year at Occidental College — Fritz Leiber.” It’s always a delight to come across something so unexpected!

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Underneath the Oversea by Marc Laidlaw

Underneath the Oversea by Marc Laidlaw

Cover art by Sylvia Ritter

Underneath the Oversea
by Marc Laidlaw
Freestyle Press (197 pages, $6.99 in digital formats, October 30, 2020)
Cover art by Sylvia Ritter

Marc Laidlaw has been publishing SF and Fantasy for over 40 years (his first story appeared when he was only 17!) His first novel appeared in 1985 (Dad’s Nuke), and by 1996 he had published a half-dozen. Then he turned to game design, especially with Half-Life, but his short fiction has continued to appear since then. Most notable, perhaps, have been two series of stories: a rather mathematically gonzo set of novelettes about two surfers named Delbert and Zeb (co-written with Rudy Rucker), and a set of fantasies concerning the bard Gorlen and a living gargoyle named Spar, who are linked in a quest to find the magician who switched their hands, so that Gorlen has a stone hand and Spar a living hand.

These last stories, all published in F&SF, were great fun, template stories of a sort but with a through plot. By the end both characters were married … or perhaps its better to say that they made a conjoined family: Gorlen wedded to another bard, Plenth; and Spar to Sprit, a singing tree, or Songwood, but all composing one family.

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A Great Fantasy Poem: “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station” by John M. Ford

A Great Fantasy Poem: “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station” by John M. Ford

Invitation to Camelot, edited by Parke Godwin (Ace Books, 1988). Cover by Jill Karla Schwartz

This is the latest of a series of essays I’m doing to give an extended look at SF stories I consider particularly good, or particularly interesting, with some intent to try to tease out how they work, why they work. And this time I’ve decided to look not at a story, but a poem! But never fear – it’s an exceptional poem, and it’s also a no doubt work of Fantasy, traditional Fantasy, one of the most familiar Fantasy subjects – with also a descriptive veneer of Science, of Industry, of Engineering.

I am a devoted reader of poetry… favorite poets include Wallace Stevens, Philip Larkin, and W. B. Yeats; more recently, A. E. Stallings. But I have to confess general disappointment with most of the poetry published within the SF/Fantasy genres these days. There are exceptions, though: I’ll name Sonya Taaffe as a particular favorite just now (and I’ll recommend the small ‘zine Not One of Us, where Taaffe is a regular, as a particularly good source of contemporary SF/Fantasy poetry.) In a slightly earlier time, there was another master: John M. Ford. His-best known poem is probably “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station”, and it’s perhaps my favorite poem to have been published in a genre source.

I once understood that it originated as a Christmas card Ford sent to friends in 1988. But actually it was first widely published earlier in 1988, in the anthology Invitation to Camelot, edited by Parke Godwin. (I’ve asked for confirmation of the date of the Christmas cards, with the notion that perhaps they came out in 1987, but Chuck Rothman, who received one, is quite sure it was in 1988.)

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Alien Eggs, a Diligent Salesman, and a Robot Psychiatrist: Three Stories by Idris Seabright

Alien Eggs, a Diligent Salesman, and a Robot Psychiatrist: Three Stories by Idris Seabright

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1952. Cover art by Chesley Bonestell

For my next look at older stories which I think are both good, and worth looking at closely, I’m covering three stories by one “Idris Seabright.” “Who she?” you might ask, or even “Who he?,” as the currently most famous Idris in the world is a man. “Idris Seabright” was a pseudonym used by the SF writer Margaret St. Clair for about 20 stories, all in the ‘50s. The “Seabright” name was used almost exclusively for stories published in F&SF – the single exception is one of her most famous stories, “Short in the Chest,” which appeared in Fantastic Universe. (The ISFDB credits a curious Seabright outlier, a story published in Spanish only, very late in St. Clair’s life, in 1991. I feel this must be a translation of an earlier Seabright story though I’m not sure which one. The story is called “La Estrana Tienda,” which means “The Strange Store” or perhaps “The Mysterious Shop.”)

Margaret St. Clair (1911-1995) was one of the more noticeable early women writers of SF, but somehow her profile was a bit lower than those of C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Andre Norton. I guess I’d say that those writers did just a bit more, and were just a bit better (taken as a whole) than her, but it does seem that she’s not quite as well remembered as perhaps she deserves. One contributing factor is probably, however, that many of her best and most interesting stories were as by “Idris Seabright.” In addition, those of her novels I’ve read were less successful than her short fiction. Her career in SF stretched from 1946 to 1981. Her husband, Eric St. Clair, was also a writer (of children’s books), and the two became Wiccans more or less when the Wiccan movement started.

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Recent Treasure: The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

Recent Treasure: The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

The Gentleman (The Penguin Press, hardcover, 2016). Artist unknown

The Gentleman appeared in 2016, and I completely failed to notice it. But recently my friend Hyson Concepcion recommended it to me in the context of SF or Fantasy set in Victorian (or Victorian-derived) times. She called it a “Neo-Victorian romp with the same commitment to historical accuracy as Black Adder.” Seems irresistible!

And it was! But in what ways will it appeal to Black Gate’s readers? I mean, from one angle this is a romance novel set in Victorian England. Which, mind you, is perfectly fine with me! But how about those readers who want some skiffy or fanty in their books? Well, then, what about a novel in which the literal Devil is a significant character? And one in which the protagonist spends much of the novel trying to find an entrance to Hell, in order to find the Devil and reclaim his wife? Surely that’s fantasy?

Oh, you say, I’d rather have some SF. Well, then, as long as steampunk works for you, how about a novel concerning a semi-secret society of British inventors, often suppressed by their government on the grounds that technological advances shouldn’t progress too quickly? (Plus – a flying machine!)

Well, sure! So it is Fantasy, right? With a smidgen of SF? Yes, but it’s also a true-blue love story. And it’s a madcap comedy featuring a Jeeves-like butler! And it contains an extended debate about the merits of free verse versus iambic pentameter!

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An Evocation of the Science Fiction Dream of Exploration: “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany

An Evocation of the Science Fiction Dream of Exploration: “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany

Worlds of Tomorrow, February 1967, containing “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. Cover by Morrow

This is the first of what I hope will be an extended series of essays taking a closer look at some stories I either consider to be particularly good, or interesting for other reasons. Of necessity, each of these essays will go into some detail as to the plot of the stories – in most case, in my opinion, this will not “spoil” the stories, but I know that I am less spoiler-phobic than many, so tread carefully.

I remember reading “The Star Pit” as a teen, probably in Robert Silverberg’s exceptional reprint anthology Alpha 5. It was a story I liked then, and loved on a reread a few years later. I remember as one of the great underappreciated novellas in SF. But it’s been quite a few years since my last read.

In fact this is a story with a decent history of anthologization and recognition over the years, so my term “underappreciated” is off base. It first appeared in Worlds of Tomorrow for February of 1967 – and as Worlds of Tomorrow was widely considered the “third-string” magazine in Fred Pohl’s editorship, behind sister magazines Galaxy and If, that could be regarded as “underappreciation,” though more likely it reflected the difficulty of fitting novellas into magazines. (Interestingly, the magazine ceased publication after the next issue (May 1967) before a brief (three issue) revival in 1970 and 1971.)

“The Star Pit” was a finalist for the 1968 Hugo for Best Novella, which went in a tie to “Riders of the Purple Wage” by Philip Jose Farmer and “Weyr Search” by Anne McCaffrey. It was in Judith Merril’s SF 12, the very last outing for her seminal series. Robert Silverberg anthologized it twice – not just in Alpha 5 but in the Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels. Gardner Dozois put it in his anthology with a similar title (and ambition) to Silverberg’s: Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction. And Richard Lupoff chose it for What If? Volume 3, the third entry in his series of books highlighting the stories that he felt should have won the Hugo each year. (Unfortunately, the What If? series was cancelled after the first two books, and Volume 3 only appeared decades later from a small press.)

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Edith Wharton, Jean Cocteau, and an Ancient Mesopotamian Tale

Edith Wharton, Jean Cocteau, and an Ancient Mesopotamian Tale

A Backward Glance Wharton-smallI have been making my way through Edith Wharton’s autobiography, A Backward Glance. Along the way I found an interesting bit about a famous (even notorious) French poet and filmmaker, and especially an ancient story he told her.

Wharton describes her time in Paris, particularly pre-World War I. As usual she spends most of her time describing the interesting people she knew there. One of these is Jean Cocteau, and she recounts a tale Cocteau told her, that he claims “he read somewhere.” Here is the story, which many of you will recognize, in a slightly different form:

One day when the Sultan was in his palace at Damascus a beautiful youth who was his favourite rushed into his presence, crying out in great agitation that he must fly at once to Baghdad, and imploring leave to borrow his Majesty’s swiftest horse.

The Sultan asked why he was in such haste to go to Baghdad. ‘Because,’ the youth answered, ‘as I passed through the garden of the Palace just now, Death was standing there, and when he saw me he stretched out his arms as if to threaten me, and I must lose no time in escaping from him.’

The young man was given leave to take the Sultan’s horse and fly; and when he was gone the Sultan went down indignantly into the garden, and found Death still there. ‘How dare you make threatening gestures at my favourite?’ he cried; but Death, astonished, answered: ‘I assure your Majesty I did not threaten him. I only threw up my arms in surprise at seeing him here, because I have a tryst with him tonight in Baghdad.’

Wharton claims never to have been able to trace the story. Curiously, A Backward Glance was published in 1934, almost exactly simultaneously with John O’Hara’s novel Appointment in Samarra. I wonder if Wharton read the novel — or at least its epigraph – in which of course O’Hara gives another version of the story! (Or if she ever saw W. Somerset Maugham’s play, from which O’Hara got his version.)

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Voodoo, Sea Monsters, and Rebel Colonies: Rich Horton on Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster by Andre Norton

Voodoo, Sea Monsters, and Rebel Colonies: Rich Horton on Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster by Andre Norton

Sea Siege Andre Norton Ace Double-small Eye of the Monster Ace Double-small

Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster by Andre Norton. Ace Books F-147, 1962. 176+80 pages, $0.40. Covers by Ed Valigursky/Ed Emshwiller

During the months-long lockdown here in Illinois as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, I know I should be reading the massive TBR pile by my bedside. It’s filled with Nebula award winners, advance proofs of books coming out this fall, and all the new books my friends are talking about. But instead, I want to be reading Ace Doubles.

I blame Rich Horton. Like everyone else, I’m influenced by what I read, and what I’ve been reading recently is Rich Horton’s excellent blog Strange at Ecbatan. Like a superb DJ, Rich knows how to blend the old and the new, and in the past few weeks he’s reviewed The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe (from 2010), Avram Davidson’ acclaimed 2001 collection The Other Nineteenth Century,  the brilliant Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories by James Patrick Kelly (1997), the overlooked novel The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter (1996), and a Mack Reynolds/A. Bertram Chandler Ace Double from 1967.

That Ace Double piqued my interest, of course. Like Rich, I have an enduring fondness for these peculiarly collectible science from the 1950s and 60s, although I don’t have nearly the reading muscles he does. I’m mostly familiar with the earlier D-Series, and recently I’ve been re-reading some of Rich’s reviews of those older books, especially the ones I first collected. One of the very first was Sea Siege/Eye of the Monster, a pair of Andre Norton novels issued as an Ace Double in 1962, which Rich reviewed on his blog back in 2017.

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