Tag Archives: Connie Willis

And now for something on the kinky side….

He sat for a moment, stunned at what he’d done, stunned at what had happened, wondering what he would do the rest of his life with the memory of it. Then he zipped up his pants.

Title: Alien Sex
Editor: Ellen Datlow
Year: 1990
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Science fiction, obviously, has an interest in aliens. And let’s face it, everyone has an interest in sex. So it’s not surprising to occasionally find both interests coinciding in the same place. In this volume you’ll find nineteen tales of sex seen through the lens of science fiction (with a bit of fantasy and horror mixed in as well). These stories run the gamut, from thought-provoking to dull to incomprehensible; there is enough of substance here, however, to make this a worthy contender for the reader’s attention. The stories also vary in their approach to the anthology’s theme; while some are straightforward speculations on human-alien relations, whether serious or humorous, others take the metaphorical route, using the guise of alien sex to say something about human sex, relationships, or gender differences. Each story is preceded by a short introduction by Datlow, and followed by a few words from the author explaining their inspirations or intentions in writing it. That last is a plus for me, since I like getting into the heads of authors to see where they’re coming from.

On the lighter side of things we have Larry Niven’s “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” a speculative look at Superman’s sex life. Also among the more humorous stories is Harlan Ellison’s “How’s the Night Life on Cissalda?”, about a trans-dimensional explorer who brings back an addicting orgasm-producing creature — “the most perfect fuck in the universe.” It’s typical Ellison irreverent weirdness, but fun. Also in this category is “The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod” from Philip Jose Farmer, a self-proclaimed “parody-pastiche” that asks the question, “What if William Burroughs, instead of Edgar Rice Burroughs, had written the Tarzan stories?” Interesting concept, but since I can’t stand William Burroughs’ style I found this one unreadable.

On a more serious note there is “Her Furry Face” by Leigh Kennedy; it explores what happens when a primate researcher becomes attracted to an engineered super-inelligent orangatun. Lisa Tuttle uses “Husbands” to ask about the meaning of separate genders, and about what happens when one of them goes extinct. Bruce McAllister’s “When the Fathers Go” uses the alien sex idea to look at the lies people tell each other in order to keep relationships going. Michaela Roessner’s entry is “Picture Planes,” a poem portraying a destructive, imprisoning relationship between an alien and a human that mirrors too many real-life couples. “Roadside Rescue,” by Pat Cadigan, poses an intriguing problem: what if you engaged in sex with an alien and didn’t even know it — simply by performing some innocent everyday action?

Then we come to my two favorite stories of the lot. “War Bride,” by Rick Wilber, is a depressing picture of a man who, in order to escape impending destruction, becomes the sexual pet of brutal alien invaders. This one, too, is a reflection of a scenario surely played out many times in human history, and is a stark reminder of the conditions people will subject themselves to in the name of survival. “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” by James Tiptree, Jr., is possibly the most thought-provoking piece of work in the book. It takes the position that our deep-seated biological imperative to spread our genes far and wide might become maladaptive when we encounter aliens, with whom mating is sure to be sterile. Tiptree deftly gets across the tragedy of this uncontrollable, misdirected drive, of eagerly striving toward a hopeless and unobtainable goal, to the diminishment of the species.

There are other stories — by Scott Baker, K. W. Jeter, Edward Bryant, Geoff Ryman, Connie Willis, Richard Christian Matheson, Lewis Shiner, Roberta Lannes, and Pat Murphy — that I didn’t mention for one of several reasons. Some are fantasy or horror and thus not really my cup-o-tea. Some were simply of no interest to me. And a few inspired me to ask that oh-so-frequent question, “what the hell was the editor thinking by including that?”

There are some winners and losers here, like most anthologies. But hey, how can you pass up a book about SEX? And ALIENS!? You know you cant!

The secret history of science fiction; or, trying to please mainstream readers

What we hope to present in this anthology is an alternative vision of sf from the 1970′s to the present, one in which it becomes evident that the literary potential of sf was not squandered.

Title: The Secret History of Science Fiction
Editors: James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel
Year: 2009
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

secrethistoryI wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from an anthology promising to reveal the “secret history” of science fiction. This volume finds its roots in the never-ending debate on the worthiness of sf as literature, and aims to present a variety of sf that is somehow more critically respectable. And so the editors have put together nineteen stories which are not your typical science fiction, stories which (at least most of them) intentionally try to blur the lines between sf and mainstream literature. Well hey, any well-read science fiction fan knows there is plenty of high-quality sf out there (as well as low-quality too, of course). But as to literary chic, I go with the Goldilocks standard: you shouldn’t have too little or too much, but juuuuuust the right amount. Unfortunately, the majority of these stories fall into the “too much” category, trying so hard to succeed at being “real” literature that they fail at being good sf. There are a few good stories here, but the majority are quite boring, artificial, or pretentious. I can’t say I’d be disappointed if most of them had remained a secret.

One of the things I do like about this anthology is that in between the stories are short passages from all the participating authors in which they discuss their views on different types of fiction, their strengths and weaknesses, and the relations between them. Often these short discussions are more interesting than the actual stories. Ironically, one of these passages, written by T. C. Boyle, gives a good explanation of what I found lacking in many of the included stories:

I’ve thought about the domination of the literary arts by theory over the past twenty-five years — which I detest — and it’s as if you have to be a critic to mediate between the author and the reader and that’s utter crap. Literature can be great in all ways, but it’s just entertainment like rock’n’roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn’t capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn’t work. Nothing will come out of it.

And that pretty much sums up the problem with most of these stories (including Boyle’s, unfortunately). For me, they definitely do not work on the level of entertainment, as movement of plot, as presentation of events or characters or ideas I can bring myself to care about. There seems to be more style than substance here. Also, several stories have only the most tenuous link to science fiction, as if “literary sf” necessarily means “watered-down sf.”

There are a few diamonds among all this coal, however, and they mostly come from the ladies. By far the best of the bunch is “Standing Room Only” by Karen Joy Fowler, which the editors call “a time travel story turned inside out.” It’s a subtle and creative approach to a well-worn subject. Le Guin’s contribution is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a nice little allegory about how the happiness of the many is often built on the sacrifices of the few. “Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis,” by Kate Wilhelm, is an eerily accurate prediction of the phenomenon of “reality tv” (written in 1976), and also recalls Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the way people are addicted to their wall-size tv screens. “Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis is also a very decent story, although I’m not sure I’d label it sf at all. The one other story I liked is by Carter Scholz, “The Nine Billion Names of God” — and if that title rings a bell, there’s a good reason for that. This is a very clever piece poking fun at literary theory and the ridiculous and abstruse lengths it can go to in search of interpretation and “deep meaning.”

That leaves fourteen more stories for which I can’t drum up enough interest to even mention by name. See the post tags for the rest of the authors included. Two of those are Kelly and Kessel themselves, and I must say I always find it rather narcissistic on the part of editors who include their own stories in the anthologies they put together.

I have to include one final quote from the author views, since I like this so much. This is from Gene Wolfe (and no, I didn’t like his story either):

What we normally consider the mainstream — so called realistic fiction — is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. It’s a matter of whether you’re content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you’ll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist.