Thoughts from the SF Gateway

Guest Review: Two That Came True by Judith Moffett

25 July 2017

Kev McVeigh is a name that should be familiar to regular readers of this blog. He’s an astute critic and read who has written a number of themed guest posts on the subject of women SF writers: search ‘From the Attic’ to find them all.  Kev recently let us know that he had reviewed on our our eBooks – Judith Moffett‘s Two That Came True – and gave us his blessing to re-publish it here.

We did not need a second invitation . . .

 

Ignore the odd, misleading, title. This slim collection, originally part of the Pulphouse Author’s Choice series and now available from Gollancz SF Gateway as an ebook, consists of two novelettes from the early stages of Judith Moffett’s SF writing career. ‘Surviving’ (1986) won the inaugural Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, whilst ‘Not Without Honor’ from 1989 made various Best of the Year lists and anthologies. Although quite different stories they sit well together and anyone familiar with Moffett’s novels will recognise much here. ‘Surviving’ was Moffett’s first published SF but she was already an established poet with two acclaimed collections on her cv.

‘Surviving’ is a contemporary take on Tarzan. A young woman, Sally, raised by apes after a plane crash is rehabilitated into society. The narrator, Janet, is a psychologist fascinated by the “chimp child, and author of a book about Sally. They finally meet when Sally is appointed at Janet’s university, but Sally repeatedly rebuffs Janet’s overtures, not just because of ‘that book’, but because of her refusal ultimately to truly integrate socially.

By chance, Janet discovers Sally’s secret escape from the university, roaming ape-like, naked, at high level in the trees. After some fighting, to gain the younger woman’s trust Janet joins in and a rapprochement of sorts develops into a stronger (and later, sexual) relationship. Stronger at least in Janet’s perspective, that is.

As Janet narrates ‘Surviving’ from eighteen years later, and after Sally disappears again, she reluctantly acknowledges her own agenda but fails to see where she went wrong. She pursues Sally with intent to be the one who truly socialises the returnee. Even as she submits to Sally in training and relationship rules, Janet has a strong vision of herself as saviour.

Attempting to avoid spoilers, any reader familiar with Moffett’s Holy Ground trilogy will see the same internal moral debates here. The ongoing battle between selfish human urges and our need to engage with the natural world works in a way Kim Stanley Robinson fans might find interesting. Moffett shares with Robinson a passion for the environment, and a willingness to debate issues through her characters (mostly) without preaching.

The other significant aspect to Moffett’s oeuvre is the consistent, open and diverse range of sexuality she covers. (See the controversial ‘Tiny Tango’ for instance, possibly the earliest heterosexual HIV+ protagonist in SFF.) The other is rarely judged as other in her work. The relationship between Sally and Janet develops quite naturally, out of Sally’s comfort masturbation. Janet is hesitant and awkward, but this is her discomfort not the author or reader’s. Sally reached puberty with the apes, and Moffett explores this unflinchingly.

The ending of ‘Surviving’ may be slightly too contrived in terms of personal redemption, but the passage there is a fascinating, provocative look at ego, social structure and discomfort.

‘Not Without Honor’ is a superficially very different story. I glibly described it on first reading as a ‘First Contact collaboration between Kim Stanley Robinson and Howard Waldrop.’ Spoiler alert: it also predates Galaxy Quest by a decade, though it isn’t as funny.

A small, near self-sufficient Martian colony is approaching the finishing stage of a biosphere project when a peculiar signal is received from space. Only one person recognises it. 68 year old Pat identifies ‘The Mousketeers Hymn’ from Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club TV show.

It seems that the aliens have come to find Mickey Mouse Club host Jimmie Dodd for help with their own troubled youngsters, only to be dismayed to learn that he’s long dead.

The colonists, whilst bemused by the scenario, are united in wanting a peaceful resolution. NASA meanwhile sends a provocative ‘rescue’ mission. (The driver of Moffett’s debut novel Pennterra is similar.) Pat’s deep familiarity with Jimmie and the show foregrounds her in the alien contacts and discussion..

This is where ‘Not Without Honor’ fits alongside ‘Surviving’ in its discussion of human power relationships, parenting, and parental needs. For Pat and many others, Jimmie Dodd was a proxy parent providing moral guidance, developing independence, and support. Pat questions her memory, wonders if this is a nostalgia-tinted view, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The colonists get to see old episodes of Mickey Mouse Club but only Pat sees it childlike, and sees its depths. She explains and encourages with mixed results, and a resolution is achieved, for the colony and personally for Pat.

‘Not Without Honor’ isn’t as good a story as ‘Surviving’ perhaps because it romanticises a little of a past that the characters don’t quite relate to. There’s a hard edge to ‘Surviving’ despite the redemptive ending, that ‘Not Without Honor’ almost makes twee. There’s a curious non-sex scene, for instance, that doesn’t go against the author’s sexual worldview, but is quickly passed over where other stories apply challenging emphasis and rigor. That’s not to dismiss it as a poor story, Moffett set very high standards in ‘Surviving’ so ‘Not Without Honor’ inevitably suffers in comparison. As always Judith Moffett asks tricky questions without easy answers.

Reading Letters To Tiptree (the critical volume exited by Alexandra Pierce & Alisa Krasnostein last year) I learned that one of the last tasks Alice Sheldon completed was a reader’s report on Judith Moffett’s manuscript for Pennterra . There’s certainly elements in both these stories I suspect she’d have been interested in, issues of sexuality, and power role playing in particular. Tiptree, of course, never shied from awkward questions either.

Both stories in Two That Came True come with lengthy, informative afterwords, including selections of Moffett’s poetry. She was a poet long before turning to fiction. These pieces cast light on much of Moffett’s oeuvre. The afterword to ‘Surviving’ is perhaps a perfect, precise explanation of several key elements of all her work. It is as though her first SF story defines everything that followed. Certainly themes in both stories match moments of poetry and autobiographical elements from Moffett’s lifestyle, her life and philosophy and the clues here are explicitly delivered.

It is no secret that I believe Judith Moffett to be deeply underrated as an SF writer. ‘Surviving’ should convince you on its own, whilst ‘Not Without Honor’ is also an enjoyable, thoughtful and thought provoking story. Together they make Two That Came True a notable short collection, and a good thematic introduction to the SF of Judith Moffett.

 

You can find more of Judith Moffett’s work via her Author page on the Gateway website, and read about her in her entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

And, of course, you should proceed immediately to Kev McVeigh’s Performative Utterance blog, to read more fascinating reviews.

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Gateway Essentials: L. Sprague De Camp

24 July 2017

Lyon Sprague de Camp was born in 1907 and died in 2000. During a writing career that spanned seven decades, he wrote over a hundred books in the areas of science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, non-fiction and biography. Although arguably best known for his continuation of Robert E. Howard‘s Conan stories, de Camp was an important figure in the formative period of modern SF, alongside the likes of Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, and was a winner of the Hugo, World Fantasy Life Achievement and SFWA Grand Master awards. Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956) was an American SF and fantasy author.

He worked in collaboration with Fletcher Pratt on many books, most famously the whimsical Harold Shea series, and it’s these that we recommend as a starting point for exploring his work:

Of course, if whimsical fantasy isn’t your preference, you should move right along to de Camp’s more serious work, starting with Lest Darkness Fall, a time-travel novel featuring a 20th century man trying to prevent the fall of the Roman Empire.

You can find these and more of L. Sprague de Camp’s work via his Author page on the Gateway website, and read about him in his  entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

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Masterworks Spotlight: Grendel by John Gardner

21 July 2017

Our latest Masterworks spotlight is a brilliantly-executed retelling of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster, Grendel, with a new introduction by Adam Roberts.

 

When Grendel is drawn up from the caves under the mere, where he lives with his bloated, inarticulate hag of a mother, into the fresh night air, it is to lay waste Hrothgar’s meadhall and heap destruction on the humans he finds there. What else can he do? For he is not like the men who busy themselves with God and love and beauty. He sees the infuriating human rage for order and recognises the meaninglessness of his own existence.

 

Grendel is John Gardner‘s masterpiece; it vividly reinvents the world of Beowulf. In Grendel himself, a creature of grotesque comedy, pain and disillusioned intelligence, Gardner has created the most unforgettable monster in fantasy.

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Gateway Essentials: Donald Moffitt

20 July 2017

Donald Moffitt was born in Boston on this day in 1931. A former public relations executive, industrial filmmaker, and ghostwriter, he wrote fiction on and off for more than twenty years under his own name and an assortment of pen names. His first full-length science fiction novel and the first book of any genre to be published under his own name was The Jupiter Theft, which is our recommended starting point.

You can find more of Donald Moffitt’s work via his Author page on the Gateway website, and read about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

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Gateway Essentials: Marta Randall

19 July 2017

Marta Randall was born in 1948 in Mexico City, and moved to the USA as an infant. She  is the author of seven novels and numerous shorter works. She also edited New Dimensions 11 and 12 and Nebula Stories 19. She has taught writing in a number of venues, including the Clarion workshops and through the University of California at the Berkeley extension. Currently she teaches private workshops and lives in Sonoma County, California.

Her first published SF was the story ‘Smack Run’ under the name Marta Bergstresser, published in Michael Moorcock‘s New Worlds 5, in 1973. Her debut novel, Islands, was shortlisted for the 1977 Nebula Award, and it’s here that we recommend you start:

You can find more of Marta Randall’s work via her Author page on the Gateway website and read about her in her entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

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Happy Birthday to Paul Cornell!

18 July 2017

Some of you might know him from his comics, including Saucer Country and Demon Knights, and arcs on Wolverine and Captain Britain.

Others might know him from his books, such as British Summertime, London Falling and Chalk.

Many of you will know him from his long-standing association with a certain Time Lord; he’s written quite a number of Dr Who books, comics and audio adventures – creating the intrepid Bernice Summerfield along the way – and the screenplays ‘Father’s Day‘ (for Christopher Eccleston’s ninth Doctor) and the two-part ‘Human Nature‘/’The Family of Blood‘ (for David Tennant’s tenth Doctor).

He is, of course, the absurdly talented Paul Cornell, and today is his birthday! And to celebrate, let us unveil our brand new cover to The Doctor Who Discontinuity Guide, which Paul wrote with Martin Day and Keith Topping:

The classic guide to the original Doctor Who series returns! One of the most influential and fondly-remembered guides to the longest running SF series in the world.

When it was originally published, the Discontinuity Guide was the first attempt to bring together all of the various fictional information seen in BBC TV’s DOCTOR WHO, and then present it in a coherent narrative. Often copied but never matched, this is the perfect guide to the ‘classic’ Doctors.

Fulffs, goofs, double entendres, fashion victims, technobabble, dialogue disasters: these are just some of the headings under which every story in the Doctor’s first twenty-seven years of his career is analysed.

Despite its humorous tone, the book has a serious purpose. Apart from drawing attention to the errors and absurdities that are among the most loveable features of Doctor Who, this reference book provides a complete analysis of the story-by-story creation of the Doctor Who Universe.

One sample story, Pyramids of Mars, yields the following gems:

TECHNOBABBLE: a crytonic particle accelerator, a relative continuum stabiliser, and triobiphysics.

DIALOGUE TRIUMPHS: ‘I’m a Time Lord… You don’t understand the implications. I’m not a human being. I walk in eternity.’

CONTINUITY: the doctor is about 750 years old at this point, and has apparently aged 300 years since Tomb of the Cybermen. He ages about another 300 years between this story and the seventh’ Doctor’s Time and the Rani.

An absolute must for every Doctor Who fan, this new edition of the classic reference guide has not been updated at all for the 50th anniversary.

And to celebrate Paul Cornell‘s birthday, every copy of The Doctor Who Discontinuity Guide sold today comes with a free TARDIS and sonic screwdriver.**

 

** Offer open only to residents of Gallifrey, Skaro or Metabelis III.

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Happy Birthday, Christopher Priest!

14 July 2017

Can it really be just a year ago that we were wishing a happy birthday to one of Britain’s great post-war novelists – in any genre – the one and only Christopher Priest? Er . . . actually, yes. That’s how these birthday things work, isn’t it?  *ahem* Moving right along . . .

You don’t need us to tell you that Christopher Priest is a multi-award-winning author, with a World Fantasy Award, an Arthur C. Clarke Award, 5 BSFA Awards, a John W. Campbell Award and a James Tait Black Memorial Prize to his name (among many others).

You don’t need us to tell you that he was named as one of the twenty best young British writers by Granta magazine in 1983, alongside such luminaries as Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Pat Barker, Ian McEwan and Graham Swift.

You don’t need us to tell you that his World Fantasy Award-winning novel, The Prestige, was turned into a hugely successful film by Christopher Nolan.

And you don’t need us to tell you that he is an extraordinary writer who effortlessly straddles the worlds of SF and literary fiction, placing him in the excellent company of writers such as Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Iain Banks, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock and Kurt Vonnegut.

You know all that.

Just like you know that you can find Christopher Priest’s work via his Author pages on the SF Gateway and Orion websites, and read about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Happy Birthday, Chris!


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On This Day: Doctor John Dee

13 July 2017

We find ourselves in conflicted times – Manichean days, where battle lines are routinely drawn and in all walks of life, it seems, we must choose: are you with us, or agin us? Are you Left or Right? Capitalist or communist? Leave or Remain? And nowhere is this seen more starkly than in the relationship between science and religion.

How strange to think that there was a time – not so very long ago, really – when the callings of science and alchemy were seen very much as two sides of the same coin. The corridors of power echoed to the feet of those who were both astronomer and astrologer, scientist and occultist, mathematician and thaumaturge. And the greatest of these was Dr John Dee, mathematician, astrologer, cartographer, Hermetic philosopher and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, who was born on this day, in 1527.

 

As noted in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

Along with figures like Roger Bacon, he is an underlying model for later generations of the magus: half-Scientist, half-sorcerer. Because Dee stands on the cusp of worlds, and because of the passion with which he attempted to arrive at the truth behind the sleep of matter, he has attracted some attention over the centuries, though his reputation was put into eclipse for a century after the publication of William Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers (1834), which vilified him.

A figure like that, of course, is going to prove irresistible to more than a few writers. John Dee appears in Michael Moorcock‘s Gloriana; or, The Unfulfill’d Queen; John Crowley‘s Aegypt sequence, comprising Aegypt, Love and Sleep, Daemonomania and Endless Things; Lisa Goldstein‘s The Alchemist’s Door; and Liz WilliamsThe Poison Master, to name but a few.

A contemporary of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Walsingham, Francis Bacon and Robert Dudley, who’s also an alchemist, a cartographer, navigator and astronomer? Sounds like an HBO television series just waiting to be made . . .

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Gateway Essentials: Brian Lumley

12 July 2017

Born in County Durham in 1937, Brian Lumley joined the British Army’s Royal Military Police where he served in many of the Cold War hotspots, including Berlin and Cyprus in partition days. After reaching the rank of Sergeant Major, he retired to Devon to pursue his writing career full time, and was first published in 1970. Specialising in horror fiction, his works include the well-known Necroscope series of novels and spin-offs such as the Vampire World Trilogy and the E-Branch trilogy.

Brian Lumley served as the president of the Horror Writers Association from 1966 to 1997. He was decorated with both the World Fantasy and Stoker Awards for lifetime achievement in 2010.

As for where to start if you’ve never read Brian Lumley’s work?  We think can help . . .

Dead men tell no tales . . . except to Harry Keogh, Necroscope. And what they tell him is horrifying . . .

In the Balkan mountains of Rumania, a terrible evil is growing. Long buried in hallowed ground, bound by earth and silver, the master vampire schemes and plots. Trapped in unlife, neither dead nor living, Thibor Ferenczy hungers for freedom and revenge.

The vampire’s human tool is Boris Dragosani, part of a super-secret Soviet spy agency. Dragosani is an avid pupil, eager to plumb the depthless evil of the vampire’s mind. Ferenczy teaches Dragosani the awful skills of the necromancer, gives him the ability to rip secrets from the mind and bodies of the dead.

Dragosani works not for Ferenczy’s freedom but world domination. he will rule the world with knowledge raped from the dead.

His only opponent: Harry Koegh, champion of the dead and the living.

And to protect Harry, the dead will do anything – even rise from their graves!

 
And there’s plenty more where that came from!

 

You can find more of Brian Lumley’s work – including more Essentials! – via his Author page on the SF Gateway website and read about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy.

 

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Gateway Essentials: Henry Kuttner

11 July 2017

Henry Kuttner was born in Los Angeles, in 1915. As a young man he worked for the literary agency of his uncle, Laurence D’Orsay, before selling his first story, ‘The Graveyard Rats’, to Weird Tales in early 1936. In 1940, Kuttner married fellow writer C. L. Moore, whom he met through the ‘Lovecraft Circle’, a group of writers and fans who corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft. During the Second World War, Kuttner and Moore were regular contributors to John W. Campbell‘s Astounding Science-Fiction, and collaborated for most of the 40’s and 50’s, publishing primarily under the pseudonyms Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O’Donnell. In 1950 Kuttner began studying at the University of Southern California, graduating in 1954. He was working towards his masters degree but died of a heart attack in 1958, before it was completed.

If you’d like to see the sort of work that made Kuttner an influential figure to no less a writer than Ray Bradbury, we recommend starting with his Gateway Essentials:

You can find more of Henry Kuttner’s work via his Author page on the SF Gateway website and read about him in his entry in The Encylopedia of Science Fiction.

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