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The Wonder Spyglass 4: Nuclear “Free-for-All” and The Battle of the Sexes – SF from the Seventies

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This issue of The Wonder Spyglass – Retrospective Reviews of Science Fiction and Fantasy will cover the stories published three decades ago: in October 1976.

The idea of these time trips is to highlight the particular stories throughout SF&F history (all 100 years of it). Each Spyglass issue will give selective reviews to stories, collections, original anthologies and novels, with the emphasis on the short fiction. We will be taking jumps of 10 years in SF history, making it a fun perspective on the development of the genre. Please keep in mind that these notes reflect only my personal reading experience and do not necessarily correspond with the impact a story had on SF field in general, or with the generally accepted verdict from the critics



John Varley
"Bagatelle"

(Anna-Louise Bach series)
© Galaxy, October 1976
The Barbie Murders, 1980
–novelette : 1977 Locus award /9th place

"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 nine balls) with a nuclear terrorism threat. Nothing funny about that, except a lot of black, chocolaty-dark humour, which recedes 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 throughout the world."

You cannot even trust the world with candy, not to mention sentient bombs that boast about their megaton 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.



Barrington J. Bayley
"The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor"

© New Worlds # 10, 1976
The Knights of the Limits, 1979

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 traveling with unthinkable 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."



James Tiptree, Jr.
"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"

© Aurora: Beyond Equality, ed. by Vonda McIntyre, 1976
Star Songs Of An Old Primate, 1978
–novella : 1977 Hugo Winner (tie)
–novella : 1977 Nebula Winner
–novella : 1977 Locus award /3rd place
–novella : 1977 Jupiter Award Winner
–novella : 1999 Locus All-Time Poll /6th place (tie)

"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 tongue-in-cheek feminist tale.

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 – English as Sexmission), shown in some countries as The New Amazons. It was quite an engrossing movie – recommended). The female space-travelers 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 either bliss or a curse for them, depending on how you look at it.



Harlan Ellison
"From A to Z, In the Chocolate Alphabet"

© F&SF, October 1976
Strange Wine, 1978
–short story : 1977 Locus award /11th place

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 since. 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…



Robert Bloch
"A Case Of The Stubborns"
© F&SF, October 1976
Such Stuff As Screams Are Made Of, 1979

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.



Richard Cowper
"The Hertford Manuscript"

© F&SF, October 1976
The Custodians and Other Stories, 1976
–short story : 1977 Locus award /7th place

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 the time of the Black Plague.



Ian Watson
"The Girl Who Was Art"

© Ambit # 65, 1976
The Very Slow Time Machine, 1979

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, which marks it as a "poetry in prose" (prosetry?). True, many passages read like some kind of a song, or a chant. It is by no means a masterpiece, but a refreshing occasion in SF genre. An avantgarde take on one photo model's uber-stylish experiences.



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… be ready to take out your daddy's flowery beetle for a spin.

 

 

 Artwork copyright by Alan Gutierrez

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