Box Of Paperbacks: The Alien Condition
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 39.)
I've got no overarching plan for the order in which I tackle books in this series. I'm just trying to keep a balance between the obscure and the (relatively) well-known, while alternating books I'm excited to read with books that I know nothing about and books that I'm kind of dreading. (Are your ears burning, Cleopatra by H. Rider Haggard?) I'm also working through all the James Bond in the first half while saving the Lensman series for the second half. That said, I'm starting to see some patterns. I've written beforeabout Philip Jose Farmer opening up science fiction for sexual frankness in the 1960s. And, just last week I wrote about Cordwainer Smith as one author who, disappointingly to these eyes if not to others, tried to bring more literary qualities to the genre. I don't think this sentence could have been written without the efforts of those two and others like them:
No one had such beautiful warm love-teats as I; they were flames at the mating times, fires, beckoning the hands of my lovers–aah, warm and grasping, caressing his womb hands–warm and lovely pulsating as he rubbed his quickening seed deep into my womb! "Carter pointed his rapier at the foe," it's not. We're clearly on the other side of something.
That excerpt comes from "Lament Of The Keeku Bird" by Kathleen Sky, the first story in a collection called The Alien Condition edited by Stephen Goldin. The conceit of the collection, per Goldin's introduction is that the writers of the stories "step outside their human skins and, instead, get their minds inside the bodies of beings with different drives, different values, different motives." The goal of the collection–and it's worth noting that all the stories were written especially for The Alien Condition–is to examine the human condition from a different angle through contrasts. (Goldin also suggests that such exercises are useful for when we inevitably meet alien life, so there's a practical angle as well.) It's a neat collection, too, particularly the stories near its beginning and end. Sky, who was married to Goldin at the time, opens with a story that suggests disorientation will be part of the program. Her protagonist's swirling, sometimes rapturous, sometimes despairing, narration reveals her situation a detail at a time. Having aged past her reproductive years, she's forced to undergo a horrific rite of passage that may be nothing more than a hoax. By the end we don't know her fate, but we know her. Two strong entries follow: "Wings," by Vonda N. McIntyre continues the sexual frankness with a tale of love, or something close to it, on a planet virtually emptied out by a cataclysm. Alan Dean Foster's "The Empire of T'Ang Lang" is little more than a day-in-the-life landscape picture of life on a planet populated by bizarre, sometimes brutal creatures, but it's memorably vivid. Both Foster and McIntyre would later alternate between original work and novelizations. I used to read a lot of these as a kid, including Foster's Alien and McIntyre's Search For Spock, which introduced me to the grown-up use of the word "insatiable." They're the authors I've read the most from this book. Novelizations are probably a subject for another time. My colleague Tasha Robinson has told me repeatedly that Foster's original work is really good and he shouldn't just be known as the novelization guy. He most recently released a novelization of the Transformers movie followed by a prequel book to that movie. It's tempting look down one's nose at such things, but I will say that one of the nice things about writing is actually getting paid. It's also one of the hardest. From here The Alien Condition started to flag a bit for me. "A Way Out" features a tentacled alien who wants to escape his diplomatic duties on Earth. It's kind of silly and smutty; an attempt to get kicked off by kidnapping Earth's female president goes awry when the president gets off on the crime. ("She took his poor, sensitive tentacles and used them for purposes he could not fathom.") But it's worth noting that its author, Miriam Allen deFord, was an 85-year-old genre veteran who'd been writing mystery and science fiction for decades. The new freedoms being opened up weren't just for the young. The next few stories are fairly forgettable, particularly a novella-length tale called "The Safety Engineer," an eco-minded whodunit featuring a protagonist who has a rectangular body with arms and legs. I kept picturing spongebob. And then there's "Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death," a story by James Tiptree Jr. I've been wanting to read Tiptree since reading a review of Julie Phillips' biography James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon a couple of years ago. I picked up the biography and the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. I haven't gotten to either of them yet, but that's likely to change after reading this. There's not space enough to cover the long, unusual, troubled life of Tiptree/Sheldon here, let's focus on the story. It's a quiet, unsettling, simple tale of a few days in the life of a large, black spider-like creature named Moggadeet. Tiptree tell the story from Moggadeet's perspective and Moggadeet's perspective is full of affection for her mother, her brother, and a "red one" named Lililoo. Trouble is his affections and his instincts–or, more accurately, The Plan, the instincts of his species–don't always line up. Seeing his brother Frim after a long absence, he's surprised when Frim grows defensive, and further surprised when he responds in kind:
"Stop, Frim! stop!" I cry, dodging away bewildered. It's warm–how can Frim be wild, kill-wild? "Brother Frim!" I call gently, soothingly. But something is badly wrong! My voice is bellowing too! Yes, in the warm and I want only to calm him, I am full of love–but the kill-roar is rushing through me, I too am swelling, rattling, booming! Invincible! To crush–to rent– Oh I am shamed. I came to myself in the wreckage of Frim, Frim pieces everywhere, myself is sodden with Frim.
It's not the last time Moggadeet's biological drives will override his emotions. Nor is it the end of his understanding of how the two work together. The title sums up the story without giving away the plot and the story fulfills The Alien Condition's mission statement and then some. It's a mirror held up to Earth from a great distance. One final note: A lot of you pointed out that this book shares a cover with the Santana album Abraxas. It's a detail from the 1961 painting "Annunciation" by Mati Klarwein, who also did the cover to Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and many other albums. Good eye.
Next: The Blind Spot by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint
Then: Space Opera by Jack Vance