The Big Book of Science Fiction

Part Two of my real-time review continued from HERE.



Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Vintage Books 2016

When I real-time review this 1210 page anthology, my comments will appear in the thought stream below.


37 responses to “The Big Book of Science Fiction

  1. Part Two of my real-time review continued from HERE.

    imageTHE STAR (1955) by Arthur C. Clarke

    “The Rubens engraving of Loyola seems to mock me as it hangs there above the spectrophotometer tracings.”

    Seems significant where the engraving is placed bearing in mind the nature of spectrophotometry’s lack of time-resolution. And why the engraving and not the full colour version of the painting?
    This is a famous story, so no need to re-rehearse its plot. Somehow movingly spiritual as well as potentially empty of anything but entropy. How does that miracle work? Endlessly slow-motional and transferable like an Olympic torch, but also with its flame of eternity abruptly doused like a candle.

    “To have prevented one single sin is reward enough for the labours and efforts of a whole lifetime.” – Saint Ignatius of Loyola

    I wonder if, in the original language, there was also a typo?

    • This Big Book’s first story entitled THE STAR was a pure form of Impact SF – potential or actual as a direct force hitting the Earth – whilst this story entitled THE STAR shows a different Impact, the possibility of an astrological or religious impact from a distance. As Above, So Below.

  2. GRANDPA (1955) by James H. Schmitz

    “It was like dreaming a dream in which you yelled and yelled at people and couldn’t make them hear you!”

    The 15 year old human-like but not wholly human boy Cord (I have already noted the next story is by Cordwainer Smith) who works on this “soup of life” planet of Grandpa Gaia’s cone- and swashvine-buckling reaction to colonisation by humans, with Regulations and female authority over Cord in abundance, Grandpa being an amazing ‘raft’, a burn-steered craft that supposedly morphs and adapts with worms oozed out cones, and vines and bug-eaters and bug-fliers and “kinky sprouts” …. and human-entendrilling in its orifices, well, I can’t do justice to it here, it is a quite a ride for the reader, too, as this raft craft skirts this planets’ equivalent to the ocean, with Cord hanging on to his job as he improvises help towards the female humans and others locked, almost as he was or would have been, aboard this riotous raft. Locked instead of simply free-ranging on board it as he was.
    Yelled and yelled my quote from this text says. Well, that may be a clue of assonance as to the importance of the yellowhead creatures whose intelligence Cord once wondered why such things should need intelligence at all! We ride the craft, so do they…

  3. I have read quite a lot of modern SF (for example, the fiction in INTERZONE over the last few years, my real-time reviews being linked here: and I suggest that SF has not changed radically in quality, style and subject-matter since around 1900 when E.M. Forster first featured the Internet in ‘The Machine Stops’. This is a positive and unsurprising thing to say, I feel, bearing in mind the nature of SF. Modernism is ever with us in every age, and modernism can hardly change, especially speculative modernism, didactic trends of cultural or scientific campaigns notwithstanding.

  4. THE GAME OF RAT AND DRAGON (1955) by Cordwainer Smith

    “What seemed to be Dragons to the human mind appeared in the form of gigantic Rats in the minds of the Partners.”

    I remember reading a lot of fiction by this author in the 1970s and this brought back that pleasure with a rush. Cord’s antics in this book’s previous story, too.
    Cosmic telepathy in the planoform of cerebral Space Opera where humans are pinlighting cats as Partners to fight the Dragons whom the cats see as Rats. I wondered if it was significant that the word Rats (Star backwards) is embedded in the word Partners? Shakespeare or Colegrove? Who’s Colegrove? The ‘hot, clear goodness of the sun’, there is also something seedy about some of these types of interbred-composite or miscegenate-hybridrelationships, especially the implication of a ‘leering’ one with a girl at one point, but equally a brainwash-swashbuckling of souls that are genuinely and positively mind-unsettling and space-operatic, features that paradoxically keep you away from the “insane asylum”, something “underneath space itself”, including a soul, when come apart from its owner, being described as something that “looked wet and sort of sticky as if it were bleeding…”

  5. THE LAST QUESTION (1956) by Isaac Asimov

    “I admit it has its seamy side, this immortality.”

    Dear Mum, I beg you tell me it isn’t possible to know.
    This cottony mouth, wet grove tree, powdered stars of an intellect-seasoning episodic story — enduring over more time and human existence than it takes to transcend the Zeno’s Paradox of a composite of infinity, eternity and immortality in face of entropy’s dying universe — has at its spine an evolving computer system that passes through exponential stages of our concept of the early Internet to some later Cloud computing and then a state of cybernetic existence beyond any human brain’s encompassing. Is that spine equivalent to that earlier Olympic torch metaphor I used about Clarke’s THE STAR, where the religious end of the Asimov story is, in turn, equivalent to the end of the Clarke one? My mind is not big enough to know.

  6. STRANGER STATION (1956) by Damon Knight

    “He glanced up at the painting over the console — heavy crustacean limbs that swayed gracefully in the sea . . .”

    A painting of Rubens’ Loyola having turned into an alien? Word textures gives us glimpses of a true alien that you can only imagine as imagination’s imagination, glimpsed by the man Wesson stationed stranger to meet strangest, to milk the exudate of immortality; these glimpses are a moment of sheer alien art and conjuring of forces (almost sexual?) that meet each other both to synergise with each other and to battle each other, too, the hybrid way, the only way to produce the optimum for both, like a cosmic chess game of Russian-doll Pyrrhic victories, and we wonder if this rite of passage and its frightening outcome for Wesson (jiggered into being by his childhood traumas) were the same as it was for his serial forerunners in this task, a role-play Theatre of the Absurd, accompanied as all these forerunners were by a conniving (?) Aunt Nettie (whom Wesson calls Jane) as a mobile relative of Asimov’s exponential cybernetic Cloud?
    Those floating pages.

  7. SECTOR GENERAL (1957) by James White

    I – III

    “It wasn’t that they were insane to begin with, but their job forced a form of insanity onto them.”

    This is the first third of a novelette, depicting a multi-environmental hospital, dealing with all manner of alien or ET illnesses. Conway is the one we follow through the various wards, all with hyper-imaginative effects on the modern reading mind, I sense, with empathy and gestalt treatments. The main treatment of the day for our hero is a gestalt group where injury to one is injury to all, with many repercussions following. Conway is a beginner in operating such a treatment where he can actually become part of the alien gestalt himself with various tweaks to that concept that the text gives you. The character of Conway is a satisfying complex one with his hatred of Monitors and other nuances we are given. Some of the described ‘environments’ of care are quite astonishing.

    Being a gestalt real-time book reviewer with the various spin-offs that have developed within me since I started this activity in 2008 as a sort of Conway beginner, perhaps the first such in literary history, then I can empathise with him and the danger of the above ‘insanity’ involved. I could mean this quite seriously. But I keep my powder dry.
    I would tentatively say, in media res, that this novelette is also ESSENTIAL reading for those who are students of the SOUTHERN REACH trilogy, as much else in this anthology so far, to a greater or lesser degree, is RECOMMENDED reading for this purpose.

    (To be continued)

    • IV – VII

      “‘Of course you didn’t know,’ said Williamson gently. Conway wondered why it was that such a young man could talk down to him without giving offence; he seemed to possess AUTHORITY somehow.”

      The imaginative pace continues, and I am not disappointed at the continuation of both the visionary spectacle and the subtle complexity of character. As an aside, the ‘junior interns’ here grown tired like our own junior doctors and need pep-shots to carry on working, with corridors later being used as overflowing wards. Meanwhile, Conway’s prejudice against Monitors is tested when he befriends and is befriended by one of them called Williamson, someone who later lambasts emergency casualties from some ‘insane’ war and refers also to “stinking crawlers.” And there is later a stunning scene that must outdo much other SF I have read, when a rogue ship crashes into the hospital itself, creating more problems for the hospital staff, and contortional negotiations of structure to get in or out of dire situations (for the characters we have grown to know), events that are thrilling. As I have said in earlier real-time gestalt-contact with books, books with whatever rare sickness or skill, that a few of them at least not only change what is within the reading brain but can alter its physical shape, too!

      (to be continued)

      • VIII – XI

        “Get this, I’m not going to kill an intelligent being!”

        From a “cosmic ark” to an “unidentifiable something” to a rogue as yet unknown survivor causing mayhem among the “gravity fluctuations”, Conway’s deep dilemma of kill-one-to-save-others (or not) eventually arrives at the merged polarities of “his maturity, or moral degeneration”…
        I sense there are big things going on here, big things in Conway’s motivations, his loyalties to self and others, big things that are paralleled by big entities and multi-tentacularly bred life-forms and structural aberrations and an ‘insanity’ with which this text infects the reader, even at the end, where the psychological subtleties and complexities prevail, and outcomes remain open-ended beyond the ending, even though the immediate dangers are over for now, and Conway’s relationship with Monitor Williamson intact. “Williamson won’t dare die . . .”
        The character of Conway is a literary masterstroke, a SF one, too.
        External dichotomies he needs to face. Affinity with alienage, or “a xenophobic neurosis”. Compromise or automatic accident? Intelligent being or tantamount to a pet dog? And questions of mental health.
        The four letter classifications of all the creatures are fascinating, too,
        The rogue survivor itself is an interesting premonition of the repercussions of today’s serial killing, or suicide terrorists. “Wouldn’t you WANT to die rather than go on killing . . . .?”
        Thanks, anthology book, for the experience of this novelette that reaches toward all points of the moral compass.

  8. THE VISITORS by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
    Translated by James Womack

    “more straightforward and at the same time more complex”

    …like all good literature.
    A delightfully deadpan account — during an archaeological investigation of Apida Castle near Pendzhikent — of Visitors looking like huge spiders, aliens thus christened as Visitors by the one whom they capture, a tale complete with “loessal dust”, “cheap cigarettes”, black helicopters, and the pride of humans against mere machines – or machines against mere humans?

    “Hedgehogs have appeared at the top of the ship again. [This makes no sense. Lozovsky mentions hedgehogs nowhere else in his account.] They spin round, give off sparks, and vanish. A strong smell of ozone . . .”

  9. PELT by Carol Emshwiller

    “…for what was one more strange thing in one more strange world?”

    This is the genre of what will become known, following this review, as dog-didacticism. Perhaps, rather unlikely though. Disregarding that, this is, taken objectively without any human-didactic slant on it, a strange vision of alien animals on a distant planet called Jaxa, and the interaction between a human man’s pet dog helper and the man’s hunting of the native animals, all seen from the naive viewpoint of the dog. But where does naivety stop and didacticism start. They say the pet-owner and the pet often grow alike. The deadpan descriptions of the aliens are thought-creatures that will stay with me, as participants in a dream. And the dog’s name is Queen something or other. Mustn’t forget I am an animal, too, on an even stranger but jaxaposed world. King’s wind in the keyholes hoping to unlock the doors without the proper keys…

  10. THE MONSTER by Gérard Klein
    Translated by Damon Knight

    “And these shadows leaning on the sills disappeared one by one, while men’s footsteps echoed in the street, keys slipped into oiled locks,…”

    This is quite a find, starting with a radio commentary of our world’s very first alien from outer space, landed in the park, no danger they say, but a woman is worried about her husband who was returning home through that park…
    A tale that eventually leads to the most horrific and poignant subsumption, with a disarming naivety of narration and incantation of a woman’s name that are absolutely perfect for it. It reminds me of Jean Ray’s short fiction (I reviewed here) and excels it, at least at this one critical cusp between SF and horror, seasoned with a Munch-like angst.

  11. THE MAN WHO LOST THE SEA by Theodore Sturgeon

    “…for they were all one and the same thing . . . the thing called unreachable.”

    A stream of consciousness like Joyce and Beckett, but one that makes exquisite sense, the boy with the beta model in his hand, a model gradually becoming more sophisticated down or up the Greek alphabet of prototypes, the sick man when he was a boy or the man is the boy himself: the extension model used to fit the sick man’s footprints in the sand, reconciling the seeming madness of some reality of what has happened, the mathematical conundrums of the satellite that brought him here. A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play. Rest in sand, play with model, work at summoning the sheathing swaddling sea…
    A masterpiece. cf Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss.
    Like real-time reviewing towards a gestalt. Not only this story on its own but this whole big book of stories. So Far.

  12. THE WAVES by Silvina Ocampo
    Translated by Marian Womack

    “I find it obscene that countries have fallen apart and people are now organized on the basis of the order of their molecules and the waves they emit.”

    A densely packed short short in 1959 where I interpret it being a predictive dystopia of categorising people via social media today, resonating the keys one strikes, the waves one ignites, with those of others, linking those who want to sell with those who want to buy, to the bottom bone of forbidden personal knowledge.
    The checking out of Womack and Womack’s album titles, notwithstanding.

    (I have previously real-time reviewed over forty of Silvina Ocampo’s short stories HERE.)

  13. PLENITUDE by Will Worthington

    “Make no mistake about it; there is a kind of connectedness between the seemingly random questions of very small kids.”

    Unlike between the heavy deliberations of us grown-ups?
    This is a very satisfying child-growing-up story of a father taking his son to the city from the basic hand-to-mouth life in the country, a story worthy of Flannery O’Connor at her best, equally full of seemingly complex connections and tentacular clauses of prose ratiocination. The only (only?) difference here is that the city, with its inhabitants living in shelters called ‘grapes’ with a frightening insectoid security, is far more unconnected to those human beings still living in the countryside like the protagonist, his hard-working wife in pre-politically correct times, and his two sons. But the power and meaning are the same between such an interface of social mores, as it was in Flannery’s stories wherein words for people were never scrutinised for what they said about the people using such words.

  14. As a prelude to my review of THE VOICES OF TIME by JG Ballard (a new work for me today, turning out seminal to my interests), here are two relevant quotes from THE GLASTONBURY ROMANCE By John Cowper Powys –

    “His mind seemed at that second absolutely balanced on a taut and twanging wire between two terrible eternities, an eternity of wilful horror, and an eternity of bleached, arid futility, devoid of all life-sap. He could feel the path to the horror, shivering with deadly phosphorescent sweetness. He could feel the path to the renunciation filling his nostrils with acrid dust, parching his naked feet, withering every human sensation till it was hollow as the shard of a dead beetle! The nature of his temptation was such that it had nothing to redeem it. Such abominable wickedness came straight out of the evil in the heart of the First Cause, travelled through the interlunar spaces, and entered the particular nerve in the erotic organism of Mr. Evans which was predestined to respond to it.”

    “He was killed instantaneously, the front of his skull being bashed in so completely, that bits of bone covered with bloody hair surrounded the deep dent which the iron made. His consciousness, the ‘I am I’ of Tom Barter, shot up into the ether above them like a released fountain-jet and quivering there pulsed forth a spasm of feeling, in which outrage, ecstasy, indignation, recognition, pride, touched a dimension of Being more quick with cosmic life than Tom had ever reached before in his thirty-seven years of conscious existence. This heightened — nay! this quadrupled — awareness dissolved in a few seconds, after its escape from the broken cranium, but whether it passed, with its personal identity intact, into that invisible envelope of rarefied matter which surrounds our astronomic sphere or whether it perished irrecoverably, the present chronicler knows not.”

    There are many other relevant quotes I once made from this book here:

    • THE VOICES OF TIME (1960) by JG Ballard

      An opening to die for…

      “Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool.”

      This is a mighty scientific-spiritual portrait of characters involved in Toynbeean ‘challenge and response’ against and with the cosmos, the existential cries of number-coded eschatology, amidst close-encounters-type building of obsessive concrete walls instead of mountains in situations of what can now since be called ‘Ballard-like’ abandoned places on earth, experimental sleep deprivation extrapolations, an Area X in proto-utero. Silent genes in latent literary suspension. We SEE time itself. Alarm clocks slept through, and ‘alarms’ in organisms themselves. All in a felt ambiance couched by optimum prose for such pessimums. Synaesthesia born from mere human words expressing the inexpressible. Astonishing.

  15. THE ASTRONAUT by Valentina Zhuraviyova
    Translated by James Womack

    “: chess, a new variant, with two queens of each color and an eighty-one-square board. . . . ”

    This is a seriously inspiring story journey – in those days in our future where journeys took astronauts ages and ages to get from one star or planet to another – and it was important what their CVs showed about their hobbies to while away the time, and this group have some interesting hobbies, the Captain, for an example, being an oil painter… This journey seems to become a blend of the previous ‘Snowball Effect’ and ‘Last Question’ stories in this book, as the crew need to optimise the journey after a major setback, a scenario involving Zeno’s Paradox considerations, an inverse tontine, preserving fuel, jettisoning other things, either to reach their destination and not return to Earth, or go back to Earth before reaching their destination. The result is a tribute to the nature of mankind, amidst haunting resonances regarding the Captain’s sacrifice and legacy, a stunning journey as a parallel to another to-and- from journey through the nature of his paintings.
    Without detracting from that serious inspiration, this story also suggested to me these slow-motion real-time reviews of mine and my earlier contention that reading this very big book is a device to defy death!

  16. I have not yet started reading the next story in the book…
    THE SQUID CHOOSES ITS OWN INK by Adolfo Bioy Casares
    Translated by Marian Womack

    …but I just finished a few minutes ago the first story in a new real-time review here: and it’s a writerly Squid story of which the above title would have been a fine alternative title. I find this to be an amazing coincidence!
    My review of the Casares will appear below as soon as I have read it.

    • “Godfather said that the visitor was shocked to discover that the government of the world was not in the hands of the best people, but rather in those of people who were decidedly mediocre.”

      This Argentinian community has its own “Iron Lady”; they did not need to go to war with one! Meanwhile, in an engaging comedy, there is a lot of walking on eggshells here as the townsfolk read the runes of why a pivot sprinkler is moved to a warehouse, and why text books are needed there in such rapid amounts of consumption. I sense there is a book-learning and waterspray-addicted catfish, squid-baited by printer’s ink — or an alien looking LIKE that — come here to save its own race’s collateral damage from our weapons of mass destruction, to wrest them from the Trumps of our world….
      A ‘ dying fall’ ending gave me a wry smile. Soon to be wiped from my face, I guess.

      “Whenever there are elections, […] then your beautiful humanity stands revealed naked, just as it really is. It’s always the worst ones who win.”

  17. 2BR02B by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

    “The painter gestured at a foul drop cloth. ‘There’s a good picture of it,’ he said. ‘Frame that,…'”

    This painter in his conflict between representation-as-repression and abstract art as the true message is a telling complement of the painter in ‘The Astronaut’ reviewed above. This story of population control by a jettisoning and replacement process is also akin to that Astronautic journey’s tontine Snowball Effect. This now believable Vonnegut utopia as dystopia is the Drupelets Effect in literature, words crowding the page, then jettisoning some to make spaces for words and paragraphs or reading between the lines.

  18. A MODEST GENIUS by Vadim Shefner
    Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell

    “I can only love a really extraordinary man, but to tell you the truth, you’re just a good average fellow.”

    This reminded me of some of the lighter ‘pelican’ miracle interfaces and reversed Swiftian modest proposals of Leena Krohn, both of these writers modest geniuses, I suspect. As is this story’s main protagonist, inventing, inter alia, skates for skating on water, as he courts and woos the pretty girls, but most of them are girls who seem to prefer inventors of, say, soap that turns black on the face when used – so as to deter soap thieves! The finale, taking the modest genius’s inventions to cosmic proportions, is still light and airy. A story that has SF’s good feeling side.

  19. DAY OF WRATH by Sever Gansovsky
    Translated by James Womack

    “Now we will all know that to be a man it is not enough to be able to count and to study geometry.”

    With the Beckettian feel of Evenson’s Collapse of Horses, the journalist accompanies the forester across the mesa. A world where scientific humankind has inadvertently – or by a strange set of coincidences regarding bifurcated life-paths explained towards the end – created animals called Otarks, that are more human than humans, with maths skills coupled with cannibalism. It is a direct template for today’s Daesh State, where animals use electronic social media. A story where, for one rare time, didacticism actually works. Memorable perpetuo moto as inverse tontine…

    “Even the children didn’t laugh.”

  20. imageTHE HANDS by John Baxter
    “Six people, to be exact.”
    A story of some men under surveillance having arrived from staying on another planet, each growing extra body parts. Grossly envisaged growths, and by my ability to Dreamcatch gestalts paying off here, this seemed a better story than it actually would otherwise have been. And also by the fact that it coincided this same afternoon with these two simultaneous real-time reviews here and here, one mentioning another story entitled HANDS and the other a trudge on a beach followed by spotting six entities….

  21. DARKNESS by André Carneiro
    Translated by Leo L. Barrow

    “More important than rational speculations was the mysterious miracle of blood running through one’s veins,…”

    This is a story of a world suddenly subsumed by Byron’s darkness. At first the protagonist helps a family in his apartment block. A microcosm of negotiated obstacles within darkness. Then outside, while scavenging food, he is helped by a blind man already in his own lifelong microcosm of practised darkness. As the sun seeps back, these Chinese Boxes or Russian Dolls of microcosm and macrocosm, one within the other, and one within the other again, take on a telling and added force. As Voltaire once said, cultivate your own microcosm in case it is the macrocosm.

  22. “REPENT, HARLEQUIN!” SAID THE TICKTOCKMAN (1965) by Harlan Ellison®

    “…and he stared down at the neat Mondrian arrangements of the buildings.
    Somewhere nearby, he could hear the metronomic left-right-left of the 2:47 p.m. shift, entering the Timkin roller-bearing plant in their sneakers.”

    “The shift was delayed seven minutes.”

    It seems highly preternatural that I happen to re-read this classic story after many decades on the very day when the UK news is full of the SportsDirect® HARLEQUIN comeuppance by the TICKTOCKMAN (or vice versa?) both of whom survived this story by all accounts.
    And also re-reading it during the news of the UK junior doctors and their seven day week, by cancelling their next strike on the assumption that weekends no longer exist except as a glitch in the precise timing of eternity?
    No wonder, in 1965, HE® referred in this story to the “communications web” as well as Thoreau.


    “…it would be wise not to seek to be too wise.”

    This is magnificent. A sort of Lobster Effect as an example of Zeno’s Paradox. No point in trying to describe such a famous story, other than the fact that facemasks as burqas or real faces take on a new topicality. Hands “everywhere-digited” as faces, too. Names as their own motivational characters, and retrocausal Creation’s First Causes as teleological or ontological jokes… The mind never stops boggling at this work.
    I genuinely recall standing beside RA Lafferty at the outlet troughs of the World SF Convention in 1979 Brighton. We did not speak.

    “Nokoma was likely feminine. There was a certain softness about both the sexes of the Proavitoi,…”

  24. DAY MILLION by Frederik Pohl

    image“They met cute.”

    And that three word sentence seems to sum up a whole wishful far-future and its iconic love story. This witty-chatty monologue to YOU the reader NOW, about that far-future age of bodily and mentally expressive freedom when ‘queers’ were not called ‘queers’ and trans just a way of life, and babies predictable as to their nature still inside the womb. Except that, as this text says, progress doesn’t go in a straight line, and gender of humanity has many new appendages and oubliettes to be proud of or be sickened by, plus new perfectibilities, straight or bent images that develop from good to bad and back again, depending on your standpoint in retrocausal time. Babies and wombs in a different interface, too, I guess.
    And now what else do we foresee via this monologue? Love-making at a distance!? By analogue! Will never catch on. Sexting by text? Or Skype?
    I’m off to listen to d’Indy. A bit less jazzy than Monk for my taste.

  25. STUDENT BODY (1953) by F.L. Wallace

    “He could learn a lot about the animal from trying to kill it.”

    This story seems to have been printed out of chronological order of publication and, having now read it, I can infer why. As this work’s own digger — or, as it calls it, a “Crawler” — finds out, there is something about slow-motion reviewing of real-time that can spot the leapfrogs of evolution, even if one tries to disrupt that pattern with the equivalent of a non sequitur, here a robot cat.
    The story concerns Earth’s colonisation on a planet where the discredited Biologist had predicted no pests, and also where the net effect of equipment towed there means more expected of the colony and the equipment needed in a sort of inverse tontine or snowball effect that parallels the fast-motion evolution of the pests, that in turn parallels the naked Creation myth that neatly brackets, as student-bodies, this work at its beginning and at its end. Perhaps the speediest evolution conceivable is that of the Ouroboros represented by the plot itself?

  26. This real-time review will now continue HERE.

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