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10,000 Light Years from Home (SF) - James Tiptree Jr. *****

Compared with literary fiction, the science fiction back catalogue has suffered badly over the years, with many classics from the field out of print. Gollancz has thankfully made inroads into these missing titles with their excellent (if mostly ebook) Gateway series. Now, Penguin has decided to bring back some of the greats too, in a handsome new series (if rather oddly formatted - they're unusually small books, perhaps to make them fatter, as we're less used now to the sensible length that books were in the past).

It was brave of Penguin to include a collection of short stories as one of their launch titles for this new set of reprints. Short stories are arguably the definitive format for SF - one where it beats most other genres hands down (it's really difficult, for example, to make a detective short story work) - and I'm yet to speak to anyone who doesn't enjoy short stories. Yet in the publishing world, collections of short stories are often considered to be a waste of paper. Certainly this collection ought to be republished, because it's a cracker.

In reality Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Junior (who started writing when the prejudices of the time meant you sold more copies with a male author), packs in a real mix of stories. Some have a 60s/70s feel - dark, dystopian and with more explicit sexual content than earlier work - others feel more at home in the 50s - wisecracking, fast moving and with a humorous undertone even if the topic is deadly serious.

Amongst those with the 50s vibe are a couple of excellent stories (Mama Come Home and Help) where Earth is effectively on the receiving end of the kind of alien incursions that historical human empires made on what became their colonies - in this case, defeated by the cleverness of the central character. Another, Faithful to Thee, Terra, In Our Fashion - one of the most memorable - starts off as the humorous attempt of the human race marshall to keep the peace on Raceworld, but takes an unexpected twist when we discover why he and his colleagues are there. The more modern feeling stories range from a sweet short story that's probably more fantasy than SF (The Man Doors Said Hello To) to a moving post apocalyptic tale in The Snows are Melted, The Snows are Gone.

Although some of the 70s-feeling stories had a more balanced approach, it's fair to say that the 50s-feeling content was surprisingly sexist given a female writer (presumably because it was felt necessary to write this way to fit in). This is at its gentlest with a clever time travel story, but in a couple of other examples feels a little out of place to a present-day reader (for example when we get a line where the protagonist describes a female character entering as 'A kitten in an aqua lab coat tottled through the door' - okay for P. G. Wodehouse, but not here).

They didn't all come together for me. There's one, for example (I'm Too Big but I Love to Play) featuring a vast alien creature that is learning through sort of becoming humans that felt too much like hard work. However, the vast majority are instantly great, and there's a good range available.

Overall, this is a truly classic SF short story collection and a strong opening for the series.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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