This collection of short fiction of the science fiction genre consists of the winners of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Award in the categories of “Short Story,” “Novelet,” and “Novella” for the years 1965 to 1969.
I had pretty much the same mixed reaction to this anthology as to previous anthologies from this series that I’ve read. Occasionally a story stands out to me as particularly good, and occasionally a story is a clear dud that is a chore to read, but most of them are just OK. There are several tendencies typical of the genre that I hesitate to call weaknesses, but to put it more subjectively are things that don’t work for me.
“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman is a dystopian story about a futuristic, overmechanized, regimented, dehumanized society where opportunities for individuality, nonconformity, or rebellion are limited and quickly snuffed out.
It’s mildly interesting, but it manifests one of my pet peeves about science fiction stories, which is that they are often written in such a style that the reader is dropped into an unfamiliar world with no introduction, no overview, no explanation, and then expected to gradually infer what one can about the context as the story unfolds, which even by the end leaves one with a very, very incomplete picture at best.
I assume aficionados of the genre would say that having to infer and guess your way through these riddles is an enjoyable challenge, far better than having the information spoon fed to you. All I can say is that I mostly don’t experience it favorably like that. That’s not to say I hate every story that does this, but I’m enough of a simpleton that I typically would not be insulted by an author sketching out at the beginning some of the key facts worth knowing about this society in order to better understand the story.
The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth is another such story where you have to infer what you can about this fictitious world as you go along. It’s written from the first person standpoint, as if from a person in that world writing for other people in that world, so understandably he doesn’t explain all the background and context that he and they would already know.
It also manifests the common tendency in these stories to sound like B action movies, with troubled tough guy protagonists and the one-dimensional female characters who travel in their orbit.
The story is about hunting some sort of outer space creatures, but once you figure out roughly what’s going on it’s really just a story about whaling, with some of the details replaced with fanciful ones. It didn’t do much for me.
The Saliva Tree is solid. It’s one of those Lovecraft-like stories on the border of science fiction and horror. I tend to like the average Lovecraft story more than the average science fiction story, so not surprisingly I’d rank this one fairly high in this collection.
Often these stories greatly overestimate the rate of technological change, yet sociologically are stuck in the time period in which they were written. He Who Shapes is set in the late 20th century, yet the world it depicts is much closer to The Jetsons than reality. People travel to and from Mars, futuristic cars run largely automatically, surgically altered dogs can talk, there’s some new kind of mind meld psychotherapy where you and your therapist share consciousness. But smoking is prevalent and cool, as if it were the 1950s.
The ending went over my head. I get that the main character goes crazy due to losing control in a therapy session, but I don’t know if it was accidental or intentional on the part of the patient, her dog is somehow responsible, she’s converted him into the equivalent of another dog, some of it’s not really happening but is someone’s fantasy, or what.
The Secret Place is even more obscure and definitely more dull. It’s a fantasy story, and again I couldn’t make sense of the ending. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be supernatural or imagined or what.
Call Him Lord is mildly interesting, but implausible in its depiction of Earth as having retained some sort of 19th century lifestyle far, far into the future when it’s part of a massive intergalactic empire.
The Last Castle also depicts Earth as less advanced than you’d expect far into the future when long distance space travel is common, but the world is not as implausibly old fashioned as in Call Him Lord. There are sociologically interesting elements to the story in its descriptions of the different factions that have formed, slavery based on the inferiority of species (not races), etc. If anything the sexism is even more extreme than when the story was written.
Aye, and Gomorrah… is a mildly interesting take on futuristic unconventional sex using desexed astronauts.
I found Gonna Roll the Bones to be one of the stories that best held my interest. It’s implied that it takes place in the future, with references to space travel and metaphors involving things on other planets and such, but this is science fiction window dressing on what at its core is not a science fiction story but a gambling-with-the-devil-for-your-soul story.
I liked the way it turns craps into a game of skill. I didn’t like the implausibility of a bettor making a crazy bet for absurdly high stakes when he already should know the game’s fixed, nor the obscure ending where I guess he somehow escapes or something.
Behold the Man is a somewhat interesting take on going back in time to see who Jesus really was and what he was like. (The answer is a surprise, and kind of funny, though I’m sure not everyone would perceive it as such.) No effort at all is made to render the time travel plausible. The parts of the story that take place back in the time of Jesus are more engaging then the present day stuff, a lot of which is about Jungian psychology.
The Planners has some potential as a story about experiments to make chimps smarter, but almost nothing happens with that. It turns out it’s really more a psychological study of one of the scientists, just not an interesting one. Maybe that makes it “deeper”–we’re supposed to see that he treats people like the chimps, or the more intelligent chimps are taking on his unappealing human attributes or something–but it didn’t do much for me.
Mother to the World held my interest better than most of the stories in this book, probably due to its provocative subject matter (a post-apocalyptic world after virtually all humans are killed), but when you get right down to it, it’s inferior to many other stories with a similar setting that I’ve encountered. It can’t hold a candle to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance, a much more engaging and thought-provoking tale.
Dragonrider was the single hardest story to get through for me. It’s the longest story in the book, and it’s written in that almost Jabberwocky or Tolkien style with made up words left unexplained and chivalric tough guy values and such.
The story itself has a certain amount of promise, with an interesting enemy (“threads”), telepathy between people and dragons, and time travel (though I don’t think the time travel part adds up and resolves the paradox it’s intended to resolve). Were it written in a more conventional style I’d probably rank it around the middle of the stories in this book, but I just don’t like this fantasy style of writing.
Passengers I think is one of the better stories in this collection. Weird invisible parasites (“passengers”) take over people’s brains unpredictably. The story explores the nightmare of being out of control of one’s own mind, having that loss of control occur unpredictably, and indeed being unsure you’re really in control even when you feel like you are.
It provokes thoughts on free will and determinism and related philosophical issues, but doesn’t then go into them as much as I might have hoped. What came to mind for me is the loss of responsibility when you’re possessed by an alien like that, but also the havoc it would create for any moral code or system of criminal justice. Not only would you routinely be dealing with people who have no control over what they do, but it would also be incredibly easy to fake being possessed. You could run amuck and do anything you please, and then claim a passenger had made you do it, with no way it could be proven one way or the other.
Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones is another of those stories where you have to figure out what you can of the world as the story goes on. It is a futuristic crime story, written in the first-person in a whimsical self-consciously clever style. It’s another story where the science fiction technological elements–space travel, etc.–are mostly incidental.
It’s far from the easiest story in this collection to follow. There are some sociologically interesting elements, including the tradition that has developed in this culture of singers being valued for their ability to improvise songs about current events on the spot.
A Boy and His Dog, the final story in the book, was my clear favorite. Like Mother to the World, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world, but it’s better written with more interesting characters. Unlike many science fiction stories, it has a plot, a setting, and characters that I could readily comprehend rather than having to guess a lot. Yet it’s not as if it’s a simplistic story with no depth.
There are elements of black comedy to it, but I’d say it’s 95% brutal and disturbing, and 5% comedy. The matter-of-factness of rape is especially chilling. The ending works well.
I’ve never seen the movie version of this story, but it’s been mentioned to me as a funny (I think it’s more of a black comedy than the story) and fascinating cult film. Out of curiosity I did look up a clip of it online after reading the story, and I found the dog (one of the central characters in the story, played in the movie by Tramp from The Brady Bunch) disappointing.
Overall this anthology is a real mixed bag. On average the stories are weaker than in the other collections in this series that I’ve read so far, but there’s one I liked quite a bit, and a few others that are solid.