Skip to main content

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.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Book of Minds - Philip Ball ****

It's fitting that this book on the nature of minds should be written by the most cerebral of the UK's professional science writers, Philip Ball. Like the uncertainty attached to the related concept of consciousness, exactly what a mind is , and what makes it a mind, is very difficult to pin down. Ball takes us effectively through some of the difficult definitions and unpacking involved to understand at least what researchers mean by 'mind', even if their work doesn't not necessarily enlighten us much. A lot of the book is taken up with animals and to what extent they can be said to have minds. Ball bases his picture of a mind on a phrase that is reminiscent of Nagel's famous paper on being a bat. According to Ball, an organism can be said to have a mind if there is something that is what it is like to be that organism. (You may need to read that a couple of times.) At one end of the spectrum - apes, cetaceans, dogs, for instance - it's hard to believe that t

Forget Me Not - Sophie Pavelle ***(*)

There was a lot to like in Sophie Pavelle's debut popular science title. In it, she visits ten locations in the UK (against the backdrop of the Covid lockdowns) where species that are in some way threatened by humans and/or climate change are found. The writing style is extremely light and personal, while the content on the different species was both interesting and informative. I particularly enjoyed chapters on sea grass and dung beetles, which are accompanied by coverage of a species each of butterfly, porpoise, bat, guillemot, salmon, hare, bird of prey and bumblebee. There's a nice mix of three threads - writing about the species itself, about the visit to the location (so something close to travel writing, as Pavelle attempts to avoid driving and flying as much as possible) and about the environmental side. I'm not sure the writing style is for everyone - I found it verged on arch at times, didn't endear me with several enthusiastic references to Love Island and

The Midwich Cuckoos (SF) - John Wyndham *****

The recent TV adaptation of John Wyndham's classic science fiction novel inspired me to dig out my copy (which has a much better cover than the current Penguin version) to read it again for the first time in decades - and it was a treat. Published in 1957, the book takes a cosy world that feels more typical of a 1930s novel - think, for example, of a village in Margery Allingham's or Agatha Christie's books - and applies to it a wonderfully innovative SF concept. Rather than give us the classic H. G. Wells alien invasion, which, as a character points out, is really just conventional warfare with a twist, Wyndham envisaged a far more insidious invasion where the aliens are implanted in every woman of childbearing age in the village (in a period of time known as the Dayout, when everyone is rendered unconscious).  Apparently like humans but for their bright golden eyes, a joined consciousness and the ability to influence human minds, the Children effectively take over the vil