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The Wonder Spyglass - Part 13

Part 13 - October 1986, 1976

Read other issues here

Retrospective Fiction Reviews
This month in the fantastic literature:
going back by 10-year jumps.

Only includes the stories I've read personally. Click on the thumbnails to enlarge cover images.

The idea of these "time trips" is to highlight the particular stories throughout SF&F history (all 100 years of it). Each month I will publish (time permitting) SPYGLASS issues, giving selective reviews to stories, collections, original anthologies and novels, choosing out of literally thousands of stories I've read - for example only stories which appeared in a particular month in SF magazines, and taking jumps of 10 years in SF history. This is a way for me to gradually go through stories and fill out the reviews, and a way to get a fun perspective on the genre.

This issue will highlight stories from October of 1986 and 1976.


TWENTY YEARS AGO: October 1986


Bob Shaw
"The Ragged Astronauts" (nv)
"The Wooden Spaceships"
"Fugitive Worlds"

(Ragged Astronauts trilogy)
© 1986, Gollancz
--novel : 1987 Hugo
--runner-up : 1987 Clarke /2
--sf novel : 1987 Locus /25
--novel : 1987 British SF W
--/ fourth place sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award

Two planets are so close to each other that they share an atmosphere, which makes space travel even easier than a cannon shot from Jules Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon". Wooden spaceships (and ornate baloons) ply the spaceways, loaded with the ragged astronauts (and also Victorian scientists, salon dames and other unlikely filibusters). They sweep majestically over the book's cover artwork and across the reader's minds. One of the truly original SF ideas in decades, it tends to haunt the imagination (just like Larry Niven's amazing "Integral Trees" or Barrington Bayley's splendid anachronisms) The plot could feel a bit cartoonish and too operatic - it's hard to focus on a single character among the great panorama of migration to the other planet - but the trilogy would make excellent graphic novels in the style of Moebius, "Heavy Metal" magazine, or Metabarons. However, if the first book was extraodrinary and terrific fun, the sequels are much slower and more clunky, albeit still enjoyable. The idea of sailing the interstellar void, powered by nothing except raw natural power (what the Good Lord provided) seems very popular with human imagination... Remember Tolkien's elfin ships, which sailed right off the edge of the Middle-Earth, or the recent cartoon "Treasure Planet" - something tells me we are going to see such amazing sights in the future, one way or the other...
review: 19-Oct-06 (read in 2003)

Artwork copyright by Alan Gutierrez (Click to enlarge)


Harry Harrison
"West of Eden" (nv)
(Eden #1)
© 1986, Bantam Books
--sf novel : 1985 Locus/7
--/ cool sf novel

Cute trilogy. Cute idea. Cute little dinosaurs (see the "avatar" icon above) Harry Harrison loves to write about monsters, reptile and otherwise (witness his "Deathworld" troligy). In this book dinosaurs evolved into a sentient beings together with humans, and then started to cause all kinds of cultural and military problems (no bigger problems than the West had with hardcore communists, I imagine. Nothing could be more irrational and wild than a communist in an ideological rut). The novel contains some pretty panoramas and epic quests, but it left me essentially cold. Maybe his dinosaurs were too cute, after all.
review: 19-Oct-06 (read in 1990)


Mary Brown
"The Unlikely Ones" (nv)
© 1986, Baen Books
--/ fourth place f novel
--/ wonder award
--/ style award

Like a colorful blur, a fluid bubble, a russian "lubok" folk craft, or a dark porous chocolate with all kinds of microscopic "Kinder Surprise" toys in every delectable cavity, like a triple-calorie pudding eaten in a kaleidoscope flurry of roadtrip landscapes, this one disorients and delights at once. A very powerful fantasy, it maintains a dreamlike state throughout the whole narrative; a stand-out original work of fiction, which has been woefully underrated and sadly lost among other Baen Fantasy "paper-pointless fantasy-less clone-produced barely-alive" opuses. (Not that I have anything against this publisher, you notice...) However, this one rocks, and lucky is the reader who dips into the marvellous murk and swirling passages of this many-faceted book. Amazon readers are also at a loss how classify it. Beauty goes along with Ugliness in the magical quest to face and overcome the tainted side of each protagonist's heart, with a bittersweet ending... I repeat, "ending". Note that it's NOT a series, or a trilogy. Correct me if I'm wrong. But on the other hand it's like "A Series of Unfortunate Events" for adults, with amplified magic and weirdness.
review: 19-Oct-06 (read in 1991)


Michael Shea
"Fill It With Regular"
© F&SF, Oct 1986
Axolotl Special # 1, 1989
--novelette : 1987 Locus award /16
--/ third place sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ adventure award
--/ style award
--/ rare find

One of these stories that set you on fire, plunk you into the chair, grab you by the bollocks and swing you out of the window of boring and mundane, into the Arctic cold of an inbridled imagination. Stories that put up a billboard on your forehead with "I am GREATLY impressed" brightly lit up; stories that cause a hiccup of startled respect everytime somebody mentiones this writer; stories that swoon and croon you in the night, intermittedly producing a bad dream or a glorious vision... they do all that, and then - they fall through the publishing cracks, through critic's yellowed weary fingers, slip down Amazon's lazy behemoth's back into a total neglect and silence by editors and reviewers alike. If you want any more succinct endorsement for that story, you won't get any - go and find the old tattered issue of "Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction", read it, bring it to the editors' place and pound them over the head until they reprint it (apparently, somebody did just that in Seattle in 1989 - it got reprinted in "Axolotl Special #1, ed. by John Pelan, Pulphouse/Axolotl Press) What the story is about? An eclectic mix of urban (suburban and countryside) fantasy, Lovecraft's "read it and weep" horrors, ecologically unclean creatures (such as the living breathing cars, fuel-infused blobs, "hills with eyes" and other arboreal fauna). Add to it Spielberg quality thrills and storytelling, and you get pure unadulterated reading joy. It would've went up to the second place in my book if it'd be a bit longer (hint, hint: worthy to expand into a novel)
review: 21-Oct-06 (read in 2003)


Lucius Shepard
"The Arcevoalo"
(Kalimantan series)
© F&SF, Oct 1986
Kalimantan, Tor 1993
--novelette : 1987 Locus award /9
--/ fourth place sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ style award

This story did not stay in my memory other than as a "trippy" and exotic blur. However, I completely agree with this review (from Mike Prattle) "The Arcevoalo" still demonstrates one of the aspects about Shepard's writings I really appreciate, a blurring of the fantastic/occult aspects with reality so that there's always some sort of ambiguity to the experience. Like most of his great work, it's about the characters and their experiences, often how the interaction in a relationship changes because of a certain event. Oh, and the other thing: complex morality issues. Rarely is anything clear cut or black and white in Shepard's worlds." Some fantastic passages in this jungle Goddess tale will certainly enhance your afternoon tea ritual.
review: 21-Oct-06 (read in 2003)


Nancy Springer
"The Boy Who Plaited Manes"
© F&SF, Oct 1986
Chance & Oth. Gestures of the Hand of Fate, 1987
--short story : 1987 Hugo
--short story : 1987 Nebula
--short story : 1987 World Fantasy
--short story : 1987 Locus /5
--/ cool f story
--/ style award

Nancy Springer belongs to the same school of quiet, lyrical family-friendly fantasy as Jane Yolen, Ursula Le Guin, Esther Friesner and Tanith Lee (only when Tanith Lee is in a good mood, of course). This story is the modern literature's answer to a plethora of "horse/children interaction" movies, starting with Elizabeth Taylor's "National Velvet" and up to last year's "Dreamer". Something definitely magical attracts us to the belief some children put in their favourite animals. Perhaps it plays on our wish to trust our own friends with the same innocence and intensity. Nancy Springer has always been excellent in portraying horses and other animals, and in this enchanting story she does not disappoint.
review: 21-Oct-06 (read in 2003)


Robert Holdstock
© Birmingham SF Group, 1984
also in - F&SF, Oct 1986
The Bone Forest, 1991
--short story : 1987 Locus /8
--/ fourth place f story
--/ wonder award
--/ style award

Holdstock's blend of a wondrous walk in the forest with the wild fantasy soars to the new high in this enchanting novelette. When you think he can not possibly be more visual and fantastically intense, he does it again. His stuff is highly recommended, but it's not for the faint of heart. If you are looking for the modern fantasy equivalent of Tolkien's Fangorn Forest, then you picked the right book. Just be aware that it is an upgraded monster edition, with the darker and more psychologically disturbing elements.
review: 21-Oct-06 (read in 2003)

A medieval art depicting "Venus and the Thorn"


THIRTY YEARS AGO: October 1976


John Varley
(Anna-Louise Bach series)
© Galaxy, Oct 1976
The Barbie Murders, 1980
--novelette : 1977 Locus /9
--/ third place sf story
--/ idea award
--/ adventure award
--/ emotion award
--/ shock value

"I am rated at fifty kilotons,-the bomb said with a trace of pride" This is how this story starts - not with a whimper, but with a bang. Not just one thrilling bang, but many (you are going to get a lot of bang for your buck, said the cheesy metaphor expert). You also are going to get vintage Varley at the top of his form, which is a lean mean concept car form, not your average soccer wagon blob. When Varley's good, he is very, very good (and maddeningly controversial). When he is bad, you get such rambling and conceited stuff as the "Steel Beach", for example. Here, he has a ball... a bagatelle (a game akin to billiards, with 9 balls) with a nuclear terrorism threat. Nothing funny about that, except a lot of black, chocolaty-dark humour, which receds into an ultraviolet "mad scientist" laugh, resonating over a classic terrorist thriller plot - prepare thyself, for this is going to happen sooner or later. Almost as mad as doctrine of "assured mutual destruction" is the story's concept of "getting rid of conventional armaments and replacing them with reasonably priced hydrogen bombs that would be distributed equally thoughtout the world." You can not even trust the world with candy, not to mention sentient bombs who boast about their megatonne load. "Luckily there are enough humans that losing a few hundred thousand of them to little nukes now and then had no net effect and apparently about the same social effect as the annual tobacco related death rate" or - on other words - "it doesn't bother the anthill much, no matter how many ants get killed..." You have to agree, it's "a conversation starter" story, even today, 30 years later.
review: 25-Oct-06 (read in 2003)


Barrington J. Bayley
"The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor"
© New Worlds # 10, 1976
The Knights of the Limits, 1979
--/ third place space sf story
--/ idea award
--/ wonder award
--/ style award
--/ awesome scale

This story is a sudden revelation among the average contents of the "New Worlds" collection (this was already a book, not a magazine). Barrington Bayley is not only better, he is lethally good. After reading his stories, the joy of reading any other writer's honest effort pales in comparison and does not hook you any more. He will spoil you and show you what really inventive and cool writing is. In this off-beat (and seriously GRAND) tale we have Victorian design and culture, spaceships travelling with untinkable speeds and the metaphysical ramifications worthy of the late PKD theories. Witness these words from the "Cheap Truth": "His best work has an eerie sense of dark complexity. To read a work like "The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor" is to be simultaneously enlightened and bewildered, to receive a Zen knock on the head; it is the literary equivalent of psilocybin. It is, in fact, why science fiction was invented."
review: 25-Oct-06 (read in 2001)


James Tiptree, Jr.
"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"
© Aurora: Beyond Equality, ed. V. McIntyre, 1976
Star Songs Of An Old Primate, 1978
--novella : 1977 Hugo W (tie)
--novella : 1977 Nebula W
--novella : 1977 Locus /3
--novella : 1977 Jupiter W
--novella : 1999 Locus All-Time Poll /6 (tie)
--/ fourth place sf novella
--/ wonder award
--/ style award
--/ emotion award

"The Battle of the Sexes" has a predictable winner in this brilliant novella (predictable, because we know that James Tiptree is the male pseudonym of a woman writer). Surprisingly, the science fiction community did not guess the author's true identity even after this tounge-in-cheek feminist tale. (You can read a great summary on Wikipedia here) The story initially deals with the fate of a crew of three male astronauts falling toward the Sun. Then it develops a familiar feminine domination sub-plot ("I woke up in the future, the only male left in a society of women") I seem to remember there was a popular Polish movie along these lines (IMDB lists is as "Seksmisja" (engl. as "Sexmission"), shown in some countries as "The New Amazons". It was quite an engrossing movie - recommended) The female space-travellers in this story turn out to be wacky clones of a remnant human population from the freshly nuked Earth. They decide to keep astronauts as male specimens, which could spell a bliss or a curse for them, depending on how you look at it.
review: 26-Oct-06 (read in 1998)


Harlan Ellison
"From A to Z, In the Chocolate Alphabet"
© F&SF, Oct 1976
Strange Wine, 1978
--short story : 1977 Locus /11
--/ cool sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ style award

One of the stories Harlan Ellison wrote in a bookstore's window, sitting with a typewriter under the obligation to write a story an hour, or something like that. It is definitely a quick fix, light entertainment - but the idea of using short alphabetized entries is cool, and has been used many times after that. Michael Swanwick used a similar approach in his "Periodic Table of SF Elements". By the way, successful bloggers use the same technique to maximize the profit from their blogs: they split long entries into short "bursts" and keep you coming back for more, all the time counting the AdSense revenue. Ellison did not have a blog in the Seventies, but this story shows he could've made a fortune having one...
review: 26-Oct-06 (read in 1989)


Robert Bloch
"A Case Of The Stubborns"
© F&SF, Oct 1976
Such Stuff As Screams Are Made Of, 1979
--/ cool f story
--/ humour award

"Cantankerous grandpa won't believe he is dead, but gets up the following morning, as if it never happened - causing consternation (to say the least!) for the family. He keeps coming to meals and demands service. Even the Reverend can't convince him and finally his family resorts to voodoo." Fun and whimsical story, it was made into a TV Episode in "Tales from the Dark Side".
review: 26-Oct-06 (read in 2001)


Richard Cowper
"The Hertford Manuscript"
© F&SF, Oct 1976
The Custodians and Other Stories, 1976
--short story : 1977 Locus /7

Some readers call it a loose sequel to "The Time Machine" by H. G. Wells. That's probably a long stretch, but it's still an excellent time-travel story, written in a smooth respectable British style. It deals with the Dark Ages and Black Plague period in history.
review: 26-Oct-06 (read in 1994)


Ian Watson
"The Girl Who Was Art"
© Ambit # 65, 1976
The Very Slow Time Machine, 1979
--/ cool sf story
--/ style award

This is a highly unusual story, both in subject matter and in masterful narrative technique. A testimony to Ian Watson's skill as a stylist, it has been posted recently in a "Poetry Magazine" online (link here), which marks it as a "poetry in prose" perhaps (at least some passages read like this). It is by no means a masterpiece, but a refreshing occasion in SF genre. An avangardistic take on one photo model's uber-stylish experiences.
review: 26-Oct-06 (read in 1994)


This is only a short sample of October 1976 stories, many more have been published in the original anthologies (1974-1977 were the prime years for themed anthologies). Next Spyglass issue will cover October 1966 and 1956...

Read other issues here

Artwork copyright by Alan Gutierrez (Click to enlarge)

Click to go to "Dark Roasted Blend" site



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another splendid entry and a good education, to boot. Thanks again.

2:02 PM  

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"SF&F Reading Experience" is part of "Dark Roasted Blend / Thrilling Wonder" family of sites. We try to highlight the most entertaining and rewarding science fiction and fantasy, with emphasis on memorable reader experience, not necessarily general acceptance by the critics. Have fun, and delve into our extensive ratings and reviews!

Most reviews are written by Avi Abrams, unless otherwise noted. Reviews also appear on our unique historical retrospective page Wonder Timeline of Science Fiction. Feel free to submit your own review, if a particular story is not listed here.

All major OFFICIAL AWARDS are highlighted in BLUE
("winner" has a letter "W" by it, otherwise it is a runner-up only)

Our PERSONAL AWARDS (ratings) are highlighted in RED and PURPLE:
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--/ cool : (equal to fifth place)

These awards are given in the following categories:
- novel :
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Also, there are our personal STYLE / GENRE SPECIFIC AWARDS. These reflect the story's content and the lasting impression on the reader:

--/ wonder award
sense-of-wonder, "visual intensity" and inventiveness

--/ idea award
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Again, please feel free to leave your own review or comment under every writer's entry; also recommend us other stories you liked.