Tag Archives: Harlan Ellison

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!

Advice to would-be sf writers, from sf writers

The sf writer cannot avoid man’s problems; by the very nature of his craft, he must meet them head on. That is sf’s challenge, and it is as big as the future of mankind.

Title: The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy
Editor: Reginald Bretnor
Year: 1976
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Here’s one of those “advice on how to write from the writers themselves” books, which I picked up not because I have any goals of writing myself but simply because I like reading what sf writers have to say about their field. This is one of several such volumes helmed by the same editor back in the 1970′s, and is a fairly interesting collection of essays for any sf fan who also likes reading works about sf. Strange fellow though, this Bretnor. His introduction provides some insightful thoughts on sf, but things get a little weird when he starts professing his belief that clairvoyance, dowsing, and other assorted woo is “proven.” Uhhh, yeah, whatever. Anyway, who cares what the editor has to say? What’s important is what the writers themselves have to share. Here’s a rundown of their contributions and a few comments on each:

Poul Anderson, “Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come.” This one’s rather dry, with not much of importance to say.

Hal Clement, “Hard Sciences and Tough Technologies.” A decent article on the use of science in sf and the importance of internal consistency.

Norman Spinrad, “Rubber Sciences.” One of the best essays in the book; it covers some of the same ground as Clement, but from a different perspective. Spinrad says what’s important in sf is plausibility, and not necessarily a rigid deference to scientific fact. He sums up by saying science fiction writers are….

… the poets of the future, the seers of human destiny. Hard science, soft science, or rubber are tools of the trade, means to the end of visionary insight and artistic creation. They should never be mistaken for the end itself.

Alan E. Nourse, “Extrapolations and Quantum Jumps.” Focuses largely on that all-important fictional element, the premise, as well as other fiction basics. Solid article.

Theodore Sturgeon, “Future Writers in a Future World.” This was a pure joy to read. Sturgeon does a better job than anyone else in this volume of getting across the sheer sense of wonder of science fiction, and his essay is full of enthusiastic inspiration for future writers and valuable advice on where to find story ideas. He also stresses the importance of connecting your ideas to real human concerns:

And whatever your idea or statement, gimmick, gadget or message, you will (to be read) encase it in love, and pain, and greed, and laughter, and hope, and above all loneliness.

Jerry Pournelle, “The Construction of Believable Societies.” A good look at the need for social depth — what we often call “world building” — in sf.

Frank Herbert, “Men on Other Planets.” Herbert makes some great points about sf’s ability to escape our society’s unexamined assumptions and play around with them. He also quite correctly warns the potential writer that there’s more to writing sf than thinking up an idea — the development of that idea is the crucial thing.

Katherine MacLean, “Alien Minds and Nonhuman Intelligences.” MacLean chose an intriguing topic, but her thoughts on the matter were scattered and unfocused and, to be honest, boring.

James Gunn, “Heroes, Heroines, Villains: the Characters in Science Fiction.” Pretty self-explanatory. Solid article on the importance of characterization.

Larry Niven, “The Words in Science Fiction.” On how to add some linguistic depth to your fiction. Interesting.

Jack Williamson, “Short Stories and Novelettes.” A few words on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the shorter fictional forms.

John Brunner, “The Science Fiction Novel.” And here’s Brunner on the other end of the spectrum.

Harlan Ellison, “With the Eyes of a Demon: Seeing the Fantastic as a Video Image.” A long and involved article on writing screenplays for television and film. I didn’t find it that interesting myself, but I’m sure it would be helpful to anyone looking to do that kind of work.

Frederik Pohl, “The Science Fiction Professional.” A rather tedious essay on the business aspects of being a writer — all about agents, publicity, contracts, and such.

Basically it’s a few boring articles, mixed with a few really pleasurable ones, with a lot more falling somewhere in between. I’d recommend this book to would-be writers; for anyone else, it just depends on how much interest you have in this sort of thing.

A “best of” worthy of the name

bestofsilverbergI have been a fan of Silverberg for some time, but up until now I had never read any of his numerous story collections (although I had read an isolated story or two in various anthologies). And what can I say about The Best of Robert Silverberg except “damn, the man can write“? I very much enjoyed seven out of the ten stories included here, and 70% approval is an unprecedented situation for me and short stories. Of course, out of the hundreds of stories the man wrote, I’m sure there are quite a few I wouldn’t care for; but not many of them found their way into this volume. I guess there’s a reason it’s called “the best of…,” rather than “the mediocre of…” or some such.

This collection was published in 1976 and contains stories from the late 50′s through the early 70′s, presented in chronological order to show some of the evolution of the author’s style. Each story is also prefaced with Silverberg’s comments on the circumstances of the story’s creation or inspiration, containing numerous tidbits of fascinating information.

“Road to Nightfall” is a chilling look at the horrifying temptation of cannibalism in a nearly post-apocalyptic future world suffering from starvation.

“Warm Man” is a nicely structured tale about two people with different telepathic gifts, one a “sender” and the other a “receiver,” and the tragic results of them not recognizing each other’s powers until it’s too late.

The idea behind “To See the Invisible Man” came from a line in Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Babylon Lottery”:

“Like all men in Babylon I have been a proconsul; like all, a slave . . . . During one lunar year, I have been declared invisible; I shrieked and was not heard, I stole my bread and was not decapitated.”

For Borges this was simply a bit of colorful background, but Silverberg took up this concept of social invisibility as a punishment and ran with it, resulting in what is easily my favorite story in this collection, and destined to be one of my favorites, period. It’s the tale of a man who is sentenced to invisibility for a year, and a keen exploration of the psychological effects that result: both the early sense of freedom from consequences (under penalty of law you must ignore an Invisible, even if he steals from you), and then later the piercing and maddening effects of total isolation (as, again, the Invisible is completely ignored by friends, family, strangers, everyone). Interestingly enough, the crime for which he merits this punishment is exactly the opposite of the main character’s crime in my favorite Silverberg novel, A Time of Changes (in the latter the “crime” is baring one’s soul to others; in the former it’s not doing so). The story was a joy to read because I felt so tuned in to this Invisible character. I would think to myself, hey, if I were in this situation, I’d try this….. and several paragraphs later, the character would do exactly this. Or I’d see a possible consequence of his actions that might not be obvious, and hope it wouldn’t be overlooked, and again, paragraphs later, that consequence would be acknowledged. It was almost as if the author was reading my mind. A fantastic story about an unusual punishment for a bizarre crime, and the relationship between society and the individual.

“The Sixth Palace” is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but one that is extremely well-told, and with a bit of Zen philosophy thrown in. There’s also a moral here: even when you think you’ve won, you can still lose by being too cocky.

“Flies” was Silverberg’s entry in Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology; and I did not know this, but it was Silverberg who first suggested the idea for that anthology — if not the title — to Ellison. This is a rather shocking and disturbing story about a man who is altered by aliens who want to study humanity — except they make a slight error in their operation and erase his conscience.

“Hawksbill Station” again addresses crime and punishment and the psychological effects thereof, as political prisoners of a corrupt government are sent to a unique prison existing a billion years in the past.

“Passengers” is, on the surface, a story about incorporeal alien beings who invade our planet and frequently take over our bodies for their own use and amusement. A little deeper, it’s about not being afraid to connect with other people and seek happiness, even in a chaotic and unpredictable world, and about living life during the time you have available.

For whatever reason, these last three stories were the three I didn’t care for: “Nightwings” (alien invasion of a strange far-future Earth with a rigid class society), “Sundance” (a story about genocide, the despair of the victims, the guilt of the perpetrators, all set on an alien world), and “Good News from the Vatican” (about the first robot to become Pope; far too whimsical for my taste).

Bottom line: these are some of the BEST stories by one of science fiction’s BEST writers. Recommended? Definitely.

More dream makers (addendum to a previous review)

dreammakerspb1A while back I did a review of Charles Platt’s Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers at Work, a collection of interviews he conducted with numerous famous authors. The particular item I was reviewing was a 1987 hardcover edition that was, I stated at the time, a merger of two previous paperback volumes by the same title. It turns out that description was not quite accurate, because I just picked up the first of those paperbacks — Dream Makers: the Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction, published in 1980 — and found out that not all of the profiles made it into the later hardcover. It seems the hardcover edition took only about half of the profiles from each of the paperbacks, so anyone looking to get the maximum benefit would be well advised to seek out the original two volumes, rather than the later hardcover.

The 15 profiles that appear both here and in the hardcover are: Isaac Asimov, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, Philip Jose Farmer, A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradybury, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Brian Aldiss.

The 14 profiles appearing only in this first paperback edition are: Robert Sheckley, Hank Stine, Norman Spinrad, Samuel R. Delany, Barry Malzberg, Edward Bryant, C.M. Kornbluth (the interview was actually with his wife, since he died in 1958), Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, E.C. Tubb, Ian Watson, John Brunner, Gregory Benford, and Robert Silverberg.

I’m not going to delve into this and do any specific quoting; I’ll just say that everything in my previous review applies here as well. There’s a lot of good material here giving a glimpse into the lives and writing of some of the field’s top authors — lots of intriguing little tidbits of information here. I especially enjoyed the interviews with Norman Spinrad, Samuel Delany, and Robert Silverberg. On the other hand, there are some real downers in this bunch. Particularly depressing is Malzberg, who says he gets nothing from seeing his work in print and that he hates his career.

It’s also interesting to read what sf authors have to say about other sf authors. In some cases, the various authors included in this book have criticisms to level at each other, as well as at others. Two of these authors, for instance, state their belief that Heinlein is totally unreadable. And E.C. Tubb offers a strongly negative opinion of ANY new wave or “literary” writer, such as Delany (he calls Dhalgren a “monument of unreadability”). Some of these authors also share their criticism of the genre as a whole, or its fans.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of stuff fascinating, and I quickly zipped through the profiles here that were new to me. I can’t wait to find the second paperback volume to finish off Platt’s wonderful interview project.

The makers of our science fiction dreams

I just finished a fascinating book called Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers At Work, by Charles Platt. It’s a book of author profiles based on interviews Platt (an editor and writer himself) conducted in the late 1970′s. The work was originally published in two paperbacks in the early 80′s; this 1987 hardcover volume is a “new and revised” merger of those two earlier editions. The authors covered are: Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), L. Ron Hubbard, Algis Budrys, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, Thomas Disch, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Stephen King.

Platt’s introduction tells us something about his goals:

I started doing profiles of science-fiction authors (and other writers of imaginative literature) because I knew from personal experience that they could be just as interesting — sometimes, just as bizarre — as their own books. Also, I believed that the personality of the writer was relevant to his work. Most critics focus exclusively on the text itself, as if it might be “improper” to make deductions or inquiries about a writer’s life. To me, this is snobbish and arbitrary. We can appreciate their work more if we know more about them as people.

And I do know more about these authors as people, after reading these profiles. I learned a lot about these authors, about the way they live, the way they write, the things they’re passionate about, that made me appreciate many of them more (and a few of them less). Most of the material presented is direct quotation from the authors, with a minimum of Platt’s commentary. Which is fine, because Platt’s comments and questions are rather dull most of the time (with a few insightful opinions now and then). It’s the words of the writers themselves that really make this book shine. I’d like to share some of the more interesting quotes and tidbits of information I picked up from this book.

Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) and her husband both worked for the CIA in its early days, in relatively important positions (cool — a spy and a science fiction writer). Alice had a degree in psychology, and one of her comments was:

“Man does not change his behavior, he adapts to the results of it. That is, to me, the most grisly truth I learned from psychology.”

Harry Harrison shared his opinions about the corruption of sf awards, the lack of respect (and decent pay) for sf writers, and the dirty behavior of publishers and Hollywood. It all culminates in this recollection:

“Someone once sent me a clipping from some magazine, an interview with George Lucas, saying ‘I grew up reading science fiction, I really was a fan of science fiction, but I didn’t like things written by people like Heinlein or Bradbury, I thought Harry Harrison was my god, and I enjoyed everything he wrote.’ That kind of thing. I thought, ‘Well! Why the hell didn’t you write to me and have me do a god damned script for you, you know, if that’s what you feel, old son, I’d be very happy to come over and make some money from this rotten field.’ Oh there’s no justice in this field.”

Frederick Pohl is (or was back then) quite politically active; he also sometimes lectured/preached at churches (mostly Unitarian). But he was pessimistic about whether anyone really listened to him:

“I remember talking to a group in Chicago once and saying that the primary requisite for achieving a viable relationship between our society and the planet’s ecology was individual self-control. They stood up and cheered me. Then the next speaker said exactly the opposite and they stood up and cheered him too.”

A. E. van Vogt spent much of his interview babbling about Dianetics, est training, and other psycho-nonsense. He came across as a total crackpot, saying that psychology needed saving and he might be the one to save it. Mighty humble, that one.

Philip K. Dick talked about…. well, the kooky stuff PKD is so well known for. From much of what he said, his unfortunate mental problems are all too apparent. However, even with his problems, he came across as more modest, intelligent, and likable than van Vogt.

Frank Herbert was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He and an electronics engineer friend once tried to design their own new kind of computer. He also experimented with harnessing wind power and came up with some pretty cutting-edge designs.

Piers Anthony is a hyperactive tour-de-force. He talks fast, moves fast, works fast — fast and non-stop. And even though he has a very successful writing career, he lives humbly:

“I am not foolish about money at all. I don’t waste it, you don’t see me going off and buying Cadillacs, no you see me out there splitting wood, because we have a wood-burning stove, and solar-powered water heating, if the sun doesn’t shine we don’t bother with hot water, because I don’t like paying fuel bills. I’m a miser!”

Alfred Bester had one of the most fun profiles to read. Asked about his method of dealing with rejection letters, his answer was: “drink more!” Did you know Bester, while an editor for Holiday magazine, was responsible for talking Peter Benchley into turning what was then just a story into an entire novel — Jaws? When asked about retirement, he said:

“Retire? Yeah, I want to retire with my head in the typewriter. That’s my idea of retirement.”

One of the things I liked about Platt’s style was that he helped to give a feel for the authors by describing their homes (most of the interviews were in person), and particularly their work areas used for writing. There was quite a variety, from Ballard’s desk by a big window facing his back yard, to Anthony’s office barn, to Farmer’s windowless basement room with walls covered in erotic art.

There’s a lot more I could mention — this book is full of great stuff! And somehow, in some mysterious way, my “to read” list has grown longer. Funny how that happens all the time. :lol:

Classic authors speak on the value of science fiction

Here’s a short video clip of some of the big names in science fiction saying a few words about the genre. These are outtakes from a series of interviews recorded by James Gunn between 1968 and 1978 as part of his Literature of Science Fiction Lecture Series. You can actually purchase a 2-DVD set of all the interviews from The Center for the Study of Science Fiction (University of Kansas), although if you ask me it’s a bit pricey.

Anyway, this clip is only about 9 minutes long, and most of the comments are of the sort you’ve probably heard or read before. But sometimes it’s nice to get it from the horse’s mouth, and see the faces and hear the voices of some of these famous writers of a past age; it gives a sense of connection, I think. This clip includes: Poul Anderson, Jack Williamson, John Brunner, Harlan Ellison, Clifford Simak, Frederik Pohl, Gordon Dickson, Damon Knight, and Isaac Asimov. (Wow, what a distinctive voice Brunner has!)