Nineteen 1950’s SF Movies To Help Get You Through the Next Few Weeks

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020 | Posted by John Miller

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Caltiki, The Immortal Monster

Let’s face it, most of us are going to be stuck at home for the next couple of months and although we all probably have a lot of reading to catch up on, ennui is inevitably going to set in sooner or later. Fortunately, we are living in the golden ago of home video and there’s a lot out there to explore. Here’s a list of what I (generally) consider the best science films of the 1950s, not limited to those made in America, but  also those shown in America. The ratings are on a 10+ to 1 scale (no “1’s” on this list) and all are readily available, with eBay being a great source of affordable entertainment you can own and not just rent, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see that many of these are also on streaming services for those who eschew physical ownership.

19. Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959: 8+): An Italian production filmed in Mexico. Accounts vary, but it is the first film at least partially directed by Mario Bava, who also did the moodily atmospheric cinematography. The story opens with archaeologists investigating Mayan ruins where they comes across a blob-like monster which they ultimately destroy, but save a bit in a small, glass-topped aquarium (never a good idea) and bring back to Mexico City. Also, something about a comet. Sub-genre: Blob movies.

18. Fly, The (1958: 8+): A decent effort, even it does devolve into “there are things that man is not meant to know” territory. Two weak spots are the cat’s audible meows after being sent off somewhere (and I didn’t like the family pet being used as an experimental animal) and the fact that the guy who gets the fly head retains human intelligence. Vincent Price does a nice turn as the scientist’s brother. Way less grotty than the remake. Sub-genre: science gone wrong.

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Vintage Treasures: Talking Man by Terry Bisson

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Talking Man (Avon, 1987). Cover by Jill Bauman

Terry Bisson is a brilliant short story writer. He’s published five collections, including Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories (1993), which contains one of my all-time favorite SF tales, “They’re Made out of Meat.” You can read the whole thing online here. Go ahead, it’s short. I’ll wait. Wasn’t that amazing? That killer last line!

Bisson has also written over a dozen SF novels. A fair number, but not so many that you can, you know, lose track of them. Presumably. So imagine my surprise last month when I’m minding my own business, surfing paperback collections on eBay (as one does), when I glimpse the slender spine of something that looks like “Talking Man” by Terry Bisson.

What the heck was Talking Man? I’d never heard of it. To add insult to injury, a simple internet search revealed that this was a highly regarded novel — and a major oversight for a self-described Bisson fan such as myself. It was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, and Publishers Weekly gave it a warm review back in 1986, saying  (in part):

Having dreamt this world into being, the wizard called “Talking Man” falls in love with what he has made and retires there. He lives in a house trailer on a Kentucky hillside close by his junkyard, and he only uses magic on the rare occasions he can’t fix a car the other way. He’d be there still if his jealous codreamer Dgene hadn’t decided to undo his creation and return this world to nothingness. Talking Man lights out to stop her… The geography shimmers and melts, catfish big as boats are pulled from the Mississippi, the moon crumbles into luminous rings and refugees from burning cities choke the highways… fantastic and gothic… very entertaining.

Even Jo Walton raved about this book, at some length, over at Tor.com. Damn it, does the whole world know about this novel but me? Apparently.

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An Admiration for the Novels of Tim Powers

Sunday, April 5th, 2020 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

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Alternate Routes (2018) and Forced Perspectives (2020). Baen Books; covers by Todd Lockwood and Adam Burn

Tim Powers is my most favorite living novelist.

He has a strange sort of fame. The most obvious cause for his celebrity is that twice he has won the World Fantasy Award for best novel (Last Call, 1992, and Declare, 2000). He also has been credited with inventing, with The Anubis Gates (1983), the steampunk genre — though Powers’s friend James Blaylock shares some of this regard, for his The Digging Leviathan (1984). Finally, for whatever reasons, Disney Studios optioned his 1987 novel On Stranger Tides for its Pirates of the Caribbean movie of the same name — I guess the studio simply wanted the title, for, though I have not seen it myself, the rumor is that it (predictably) has nothing to do with the book.

My own introduction to Powers’s work was in 2000, with Declare, and that novel shook my sensibilities and attitudes regarding the fantasy genre down to their foundations. Years ago I explained how this came to be in a (fairly embarrassing — I had just begun to practice the form) sonnet to Powers in an email fan group. To my pleasure, Powers responded in kind, and then many members of the group likewise wrote sonnets.

Since I have thankfully lost that sonnet, I must explain again what Powers showed me, and I think it’s best to get my readers into my mindset at the time wherein I creased the spine of Declare. In those years, Nick Ozment and I were publishing Mooreeffoc Magazine, we were looking for a certain fiction for it, and we had entered into correspondence with Sherwood Smith, who (no better exemplified than in “Mom and Dad at the Home Front,” first published in Realms of Fantasy, Aug, 2000, and reprinted in many Best Ofs since) did exactly that.

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Vintage Treasures: Imaginary Lands edited by Robin McKinley

Friday, April 3rd, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Imaginary Lands (Ace Books, 1985). Cover by Thomas Canty

By 1985 Robin McKinley was already a star. Her breakout novel The Blue Sword (1982) was a nominee for both the Mythopoeic Award and the Newbery Medal, and two years later The Hero and the Crown (1984) won the Newbery Medal, one of the most coveted accolades in children’s literature. If there was a hotter new writer in the field at the time, I can’t think of her.

In 1982 Ace Books had published her successful collection The Door in the Hedge, and in 1985 McKinley approached them with a different idea: an original anthology of secondary world fantasy tales, with contributions primarily from newer writers. Patricia A. McKillip, whose Riddle-Master trilogy had been a significant hit in the 70s; Joan D. Vinge, whose 1980 novel The Snow Queen had won a Hugo; P. C. Hodgell, whose 1982 debut novel God Stalk became a cult classic; modern master James P. Blaylock, whose career was just getting started with The Elfin Ship (1982) and The Disappearing Dwarf (1983); popular YA author Robert Westall; and McKinley’s husband Peter Dickinson, author of The Changes Trilogy, among others.

Imaginary Lands was a doozy, winning the World Fantasy Award and helping cement McKinley’s reputation. It contained some of the year’s best fantasy, including Blaylock’s famous story “Paper Dragons” (a Nebula nominee and winner of the World Fantasy Award), and “Flight,” by Peter Dickinson, a World Fantasy Award nominee for Best Novella. Imaginary Lands was a paperback original, and was successful enough to be re-released in hardcover in 1986 for the library market by Greenwillow. It had a UK release from Orbit in 1987, but that was the end of its short literary life. It’s a classic volume of fantasy that’s been out of print for over three decades, and never had a digital release.

I think that’s a shame. There are a lot of things I like about modern publishing, but the slow death of the mass market anthology isn’t one of them. It’s just not economical to bring books like this back into print, and certainly not as cheap paperbacks, and that means modern readers will probably never learn about this book. Unless folks like me champion it, and point out that you find buy copies online at criminally low prices — like the one above, a virtually new copy which I bought on eBay for less than two bucks back in January.

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Stories That Work: Short Story Collections

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020 | Posted by James Van Pelt

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Normally I look at a couple short stories that have caught my eye since my last article, and then dive into them for a closer look. But in these stay-at-home times I realized how important short stories are in my reading life, and how short story collections are often my favorite pastime.

Like many of you, I became a recreational reader early on. My school desk always had science fiction tucked inside that I would sneak peeks at every chance I could. Some teachers just let me read. They must have decided that a book kept me still and quiet. It’s illuminating to consider my introductions to Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Madeleine L’Engle happened during math or social studies lessons at East Elementary.

As much as I loved books, though, the idea of writing stories didn’t come to me until I read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. There was no way I could write a book! A two-page essay on Abraham Lincoln took an entire weekend (and I didn’t choose the topic), but those short stories that Bradbury wrote, the ones that made me cry and laugh and tied my heart with emotions I didn’t even knew existed, might just be possible to finish. Heck, “Rocket Summer” was only 228 words long. I could write a story that short.

More than that, Bradbury turned me onto enjoying short stories. From The Martian Chronicles, I went to The Illustrated Man, R is for Rocket, S is for Space,  and I Sing the Body Electric. I’m glad I didn’t discover The Small Assassin at that time. The trajectory of my writing career might have careened differently.

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Vintage Treasures: The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley

Thursday, March 26th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Bantam Books, 1979. Cover by the great Paul Lehr

Back in the 90s, when I was reading a lot of Gardner Dozois’ science fiction anthologies, I got used to his complaints about the short memory of science fiction fans. What he meant was that after a popular and important SF writer died or retired, it wasn’t long — 2-5 years, sometimes less — before their entire catalog was out of print, and shortly after that they were virtually forgotten.

He made a compelling case at the time. But to be honest, these days the science fiction heroes of my formative years don’t seem very forgotten. Roger Zelazny, Poul Anderson, Clifford D. Simak, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, James Tiptree, Jr, John Brunner… maybe it’s just because I hang out at places like Black Gate, but their work seems to be discussed, celebrated, and enjoyed nearly as much as ever. Some — like Philip K. Dick, Lovecraft, Tolkien, and Robert E. Howard — are even enjoying a renaissance on a scale none of us could have imagined while they were alive.

There are exceptions, of course. Wonderful writers whose works are forgotten, or very nearly so. Robert Sheckley is a good example. In 2001 Sheckley was named Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; he produced nearly two dozen novels in a career spanning five decades, including Dimension of Miracles (1968), The Status Civilization (1960), and The 10th Victim (1965). His most enduring work was his short fiction, collected in Citizen in Space (1955), Pilgrimage to Earth (1957), Shards of Space (1962), and over a dozen more — including the NESFA Press tribute volume The Masque of Mañana, and five volumes of The Collected Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley from Pulphouse (1991). Sheckley died in 2005, and his work — the most popular of which was kept in print continuously for decades — is nearly completely forgotten today.

Well, if we’re going to pay attention to someone, it might as well be someone forgotten. So today’s Vintage Treasure is a wonderful little collection from 1979, very nearly the peak of Sheckley’s popularity, The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley.

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A Masterclass in Dystopian Science Fiction: The Worlds Trilogy by Joe Haldeman

Friday, March 20th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Joe Haldeman’s Worlds trilogy, paperback editions from Avon/ AvoNova. Covers by Vincent Di Fate

Are you working from home? Quarantined? Hanging out with a doomsday cult and wondering if the end times have actually arrived? You’re not alone. (Especially if you’re in a doomsday cult — those guys are surprisingly chummy.) But here at Black Gate, our work continues. Classic SF and fantasy isn’t going to promote itself to an increasingly chaotic world. That’s our job.

Today I’m looking at a forgotten trilogy from an author who is very definitely not forgotten. Joe Haldeman became an SFWA Grand Master in 2010, the highest honor one can attain in our field. In 2012 he was inducted as a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and he’s won virtually every major science fiction award. His most famous novels include The Forever War (1974), The Hemingway Hoax (1991) and Forever Peace (1997).

In 1981 he wrote the opening novel in a trilogy about life in an orbital habitat, Worlds. It was followed by Worlds Apart (1983) and Worlds Enough and Time nearly a decade later (1992). All three were shortlisted for the Locus Award. The Portalist calls the trilogy “an epic sci-fi saga… a masterclass in dystopian science fiction,” and last July they published an excerpt from the first novel to help promote the release of digital versions of all three books from Open Road Media. Here’s an excerpt from Xavier Piedra’s helpful recap of the whole series.

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Stories the Dogs Tell: Clifford D. Simak’s City

Thursday, March 19th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

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City by Clifford D. Simak. First Edition: Gnome Books, 1952.
Cover by Frank Kelly Freas (click to enlarge)

City
by Clifford D. Simak
Gnome Press (224 pages, $2.75 in hardcover, May 1952)

Clifford D. Simak was a Midwestern US newspaperman who wrote science fiction on the side, and published stories beginning in the 1930s in magazines like Wonder Stories until finding a home in John W. Campbell’s Astounding in the 1940s (and later Galaxy in the 1950s). City was his earliest significant work, published in 1952 but composed of stories published mostly in Astounding from 1944 onward. An enduring work, it won one of the very earliest awards for SF or fantasy, the International Fantasy Award, in 1953 (two years after Stewart’s Earth Abides, which I reviewed here in January, won the same award). It’s Simak’s most popular book along with his Way Station, published a decade later.

Gist

The book tells the future of humanity as it abandons cities for country estates and then moves off Earth to settle other planets, and in parallel the rise of an artificially created Dog civilization. By the end, humans have largely propagated outward to other planets, and Earth is left to the intelligent dog civilization, to whom these stories are myths.

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Sword-and-Sorcery and the Problem of Genre

Sunday, March 15th, 2020 | Posted by Brian Murphy

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Cover by Tom Barber

Among the many challenges I had when I sat down to write Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery was the problem of genre itself.

Many of the genres we know, and love, and live in — mystery, horror, historical fiction — are old, in a relative sense, culturally ubiquitous, and therefore intensely familiar. We’ve enjoyed them for so long that we typically don’t bother to question who set them down, or when, or why. Their conventions are widely accepted. Everyone knows what fantasy is for example, and can conjure up a reasonably accurate description without expending too much effort — elves, dragons, heroes, princesses, magic, set in other worlds beyond our own. Boom, done.

But if you start poking under the hood you will find that genres are full of contradictions, exceptions, uncertain beginnings, and open-ended futures. They don’t coalesce until after art has been created, often decades later. They’re birthed through a weird alchemical process that includes inspired initial breakthroughs, the production of further works by successive artists, derivative and pastiche work, fan/reader discussion, and eventually, critical consensus. Or something close.

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Space Renegades, Leviathan Ships, and Planet-Eating Monsters: The Honors Trilogy by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre

Friday, March 13th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

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Covers by Jeff Huang

I think a lot of the classic SF I read in the 70s and 80s would be characterized as YA today. Certainly the novels of Clifford D. Simak, Roger Zelazny and Anne McCaffrey still speak to a modern audience, and would probably do well in the YA section of the bookstore.

Or maybe not. Every new generation finds writers who speak its language, and sets aside the treasured writers of older generations. And that’s the way it should be. It’s good to pass along our love of Simak, Zelazny, McCaffrey and others to young readers… but it’s a good idea to take the time to see what the heck they’re reading as well.

What are they reading? Lots of stuff. The YA section of my local Barnes & Noble is crammed full of new releases every week, and a great many of them are science fiction. And more than a few look pretty interesting, too. The Honors trilogy by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre piqued my interest recently… probably because I saw the one-sentence summary for Honor Lost (“Quick-thinking Leviathan pilot Zara Cole must stop a planet-eating monster or lose everyone she loves in the finale of this acclaimed trilogy”), and let’s face it, planet-eating monsters are my weakness.

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