Jan 17, 2009

Out of this World

Carl is hosting the Out of This World mini-challenge this weekend as a part of the challenge in Dewey's memory. The goal is simple: to read science fiction short stories this weekend.

I checked this book out of the library for the mini-challenge. It's nearly 800 pages long, but I really want to read it all eventually. The selection of authors is very promising: Gene Wolfe, Orson Scott Card, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Margaret Atwood, John Crowley, Ursula Le Guin, Roger Zelazny and Robert Silverberg, just to name a few.

I started by reading the detailed and excellent introduction Ursula Le Guin wrote, and there are two passages I just have to share:
Science fiction is "a genre", we are told, briskly. But the validity of the concept of genre (not to mention the problem of how to pronounce it in English) is problematical.

The definition of a genre is often an act of offense, or of retaliation. The professors and critics who for most of the century have controlled the modernist literary canon define and dismiss science fiction--frequently in absolute ignorance of its texts--as "genre fiction", that is, not "literature", in order to restrict "literature" to the privileged mode, realism. In defiant and often ignorant resentment of the "highbrow establishment", some practitioners of science fiction define it defensively as "popular entertainment", not "literature". Some chic critics go slumming trendily with them. None of this posturing advances understanding.

Genre is a useful concept only when used not evaluatively but descriptively. Authors and readers of any genre form a community, with certain shared interests and expectations. Modern poetry is a good example of genre as community. So is science fiction.


Perhaps any closed, fixed definition of a genre tends not towards a broader critical understanding, but towards a mere limitation to formula. (Thus, while "the genres" are defined in order to reduce them to formula, "literature" is defined by its exemption from the requirement that it be defined: Le Guin's Conspiracy Theory of the Canon.)
Have I mentioned lately how much I love Ursula Le Guin?

I thought it would make sense to start with two stories by authors Dewey liked: Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler.

"High Weir" by Samuel R. Delany is about a group of scientists who discover a structure similar to the Greek Parthenon on Mars. This structure is the first evidence of intelligent life outside Earth to be uncovered. As they explore the ruins, they also discover that the technological advance of this apparently extinct civilization is even higher than they had suspected. This discovery, as well as the whole expedition, have a strong psychological impact on one of them in particular, and it's mostly on this that the story is focused.

Reading this story reminded me of one of the things I like the most about science fiction: the fact that it often explores other ways of being, other possibilities for how things work. I know that in a sense that could also be said of fantasy, or even of fiction in general, but science fiction seems to me to have a very specific way of doing it. Another strong point: the excellent charcterization. I really need to pick up one of Delany's novels.

"Speech Sounds" by Octavia Butler is set in a future where an unknown virus impaired humankind's ability to speak. Some people irretrievably lost spoken language, others literacy, and others both. The protagonist is Rye, a woman who lost her family to the virus. She also lost her ability to read and write, a fact that she very much regrets, but she can still speak. She's come to realize, however, that the safest thing to do is to hide this fact. I absolutely loved this story - it's my favourite so far. I loved the writing, the well-rounded characters, and the fact that it managed to be both heartbreaking and hopeful.

Finally, I read "Nine Hundred Grandmothers" by R.A. Lafferty. I've been curious about this author for a while because Neil Gaiman often cites him as a favourite (same with Delany, actually). This story is about an alien race, the Proavitoi, who are said to never die, only become smaller and sleep more and more as they age. The protagonist, Ceran Swicegood, becomes obsessed with finding the very first generation and asking them How It All Began.

Though all in all I preferred Butler's story, writing-wise this was my favourite. Just look at these passages:
He walked down the ramps through centuries and millennia. The atmosphere he had noticed on the upper levels was a clear odor now—sleepy, half-remembered, smiling, sad, and quite strong. That is the way Time smells.

What was that sound—too slight, too scattered to be a noise? It was like a billion microbes laughing. It was the hilarity of the little things waking up to a high time
That's it so far. I decided that as I read more stories I'll come back and edit this post rather than create another one, so if you're interested in sci-fi short stories, stay tuned! And it's still not too late to join the mini-challenge.


"Homelanding" by Margaret Atwood is a very short story where a speaker addresses a being from another planet and describes what life on their home world is like in a series of short points. This home world is Earth, and although the narrator is describing life on our planet accurately it takes the reader a while to recognized what is being described. For example:
Sometimes we lie still and do not move. If air is still going in and out of our breathing holes, this is called sleep. If not, it is called death. When a person has achieved death, a kind of picnic is held, with music, flowers and food. The person so honored, if in one piece, and not, for instance, in shreds or falling apart, as they do if exploded or a long-time drowned, is dressed in becoming clothes and lowered into a hole in the ground, or else burned up.

These customs are among the most difficult to explain to strangers. Some of our visitors, especially the young ones, have never heard of death and are bewildered. They think that death is simply one more of our illusions, our mirror tricks; they cannot understand why, with so much food and music, the people are so sad.
Again, I am in awe of Atwood's writing. Excellent story.

"Strange Wine" by Harlan Ellison is one of those stories that cannot be properly described without giving away the ending. Unfortunately it doesn't look like it's available online, or I'd urge you all to go read it and then come discuss it with me. It's about a man who vaguely remembers the green skies of what he believes is his native world. His life isn't a very happy one: his daughter was killed in a car accident, his son became paraplegic when diving into a swimming pool and hitting the bottom, and his marriage isn't doing very well. He believes that he comes from another planet, and that life on Earth is his punishment for some unspeakable crime he must have commited in his home world. And more than this I cannot say. It's a good story, and a great reminder than I need to read the Ellison book that has been waiting on my shelf for over a year now.


I read "The Home Team" by Greg Wickenhofer on Debi's recommendation. It's a very short and fun story about kitchen appliances developing a mind of their own. It reminded me a little of that Terry Pratchett did with the imp inside Vimes' Disorganizer. I have to say Terry Pratchett does it a little better, but no surprise there, right? And this was still lots of fun!

Lynda recommended "The Day the Martians Came" by Frederik Pohl. It's about life being found on Mars, obviously, but more than that it's about the neverchanging face of prejudice. If you have 15 minutes to spare, read it!

Bart brought "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke to my attention. I'd heard a lot about this story and I'd always wanted to read it. Well, it didn't disappoint. It was interesting how the presence of a few words in the ending - "without any fuss" - made me like it so much more. The story is about a group of Tibetian monks trying to find all the possible names of god, and more than this I cannot say.

My favourite of this batch was "Snow" by John Crowley. I love Crowley's writing so much. It's about a man who lost his wife, but who, thanks to an expensive service provided by a company called The Park, can have access to 8000 hours of footage from their life together. The rationale here was that this would help with the mourning process, but as you can guess things don't exactly go like that. I'll leave you with a passage:
I think there are two different kinds of memory, and only one kind gets worse as I get older: the kind where by an effort of will you can reconstruct your first car or your serial number or the name and figure of your high school physics teacher: a Mr. Holm, in a grey suit, a bearded guy, skinny, about thirty. The other kind doesn't worsen, if anything it grows more intense: the sleepwalking kind, the kind you stumble into as into rooms with secret doors to suddenly find yourself sitting not on your front porch but in a classroom, you can't at first think where or when, and a bearded and smiling man is turning in his hand a glass paperweight inside which a little cottage sands in a swirl of snow.
"All Summer in One Day" by Ray Bradbury is a story about a group of children living on Venus, where it rains every day. It's a very short story, but Bradbudy brilliantly develops themes like childhood, cruelty and the magic of summertime. And the writing is just wonderful:

Sometimes, at night, she heard them stir, in remembrance, and she knew they were dreaming and remembering and old or a yellow crayon or a coin large enough to buy the world with. She knew they thought they remembered a warmness, like a blushing in the face, in the body, in the arms and legs and trembling hands. But then they always awoke to the tatting drum, the endless shaking down of clear bead necklaces upon the roof, the walk, the gardens, the forests, and their dreams were gone.
I love Bradbury's writing about as much as Crowley's.


  1. I'm doing this challenge too - thanks for the review of High Weir - off to read it now ;0)

  2. Ooh - good challenge! Don't have time to join this time, but I do like sci fi short stories.

  3. Gread quote. I know people, lovers of books and "literature" who when they read a sci-fi book they really like, tend to say "oh but this is not *really* science fiction, it's too good".It makes me mad!! why can't science fiction books be as good as any literary work? such a prejudiced attitude...

  4. "Genre is a useful concept only when used not evaluatively but descriptively."...Amen! Can we just start shouting this from the rooftops or something?!!

    Sounds like you've read three winners so far! I've never read anything by Octavia Butler, but I got one of her books for Christmas. From the sounds of that story, I'm going to love her!

  5. I don't really like science fiction too much. I prefer urban fantasy or paranormals. I think I've read one or two that I liked but quite a few others that I didn't :(

  6. Oh ... I can't do this challenge _ of all the books I own (and there are many) somehow I have no science fiction short story collections. And I forgot to go to the library.
    Your choices sound wonderful though :)

  7. Lynda: I'm glad I encouraged you to read it! The Day the Martians Came will be my first read tomorrow.

    Lenore: Maybe we can talk Carl into doing it again sometime.

    Valentina: I know... it's also the reason why nobody will admit that books like The Road or The Handmaid's Tale are science fiction, oh no. And that's also why I dislike the term "literary fiction"...as if realistic fiction had more literary merit than other kinds. I could go on about this forever, as you can see :P

    Debi: lol! Let's! I think I'll love Butler's novels too. The fact that Dewey liked her so much is also a good indicator. She never steered us wrong.

    Ladytink: It's much much easier for me to get into fantasy than sci-fi, but over the past few years I discovered quite a few authors that I really like!

  8. Maree: You can always read a story or two online if you want to! Lookie lookie.

  9. Ooooh, both the Atwood and the Ellison sound great! You know, I knew this mini-challenge was going to be fun, but I had no idea just how fun!

  10. I'm hoping to read a couple of short stories this weekend now. Thanks for all of the recommendations!

  11. Wow, you've read some amazing stories by some amazing authors so far! You want to hear something really embarassing? I haven't read anything by any of the authors you've listed aside from LeGuin! Isn't that awful? And I call myself a fan of sci-fi.....That Norton anthology sounds great!

  12. They all sound good! And I agree with Chris -- I'm going to have to get that Norton anthology! Also, I'm enjoying some LeGuin stories this evening, and will post about then tomorrow. I've also been listening to The Wizard of Earthsea this week, so I have to mimic you in asking "Have I mentioned lately how much I love Ursula Le Guin?"

  13. Octavia Butler is one of my favorite sf writers - I think you would enjoy her books very much. Kindred is time travel/historical, and she has others that are more hard sf - all good!

  14. great challenge, I didnt have time to grab a sci fi book for it, but I am doing his sci-fi experience challenge.
    enjoy your reading :)

  15. Haha! That's great! Sounds like you are having fun with this mini-challenge. :] I am probably going to parrot everyone when I say, "I am definitely adding this to my TBR list!" :D And, yes, Le Guin is admirable!

  16. Debi: It's being more fun than I thought too :D

    Kim, have fun! I look forward to hearing all about what you read.

    Chris, it's not embarrassing! It was my first time reading a lot of them too. And yes, the anthology is great! I really want to get myself a copy.

    Robin: We should mention it more often :D

    Darla, you're making me want to read one of her novels before the end of the Sci-Fi Experience!

    Naida, I hope you enjoy the experience. I'm having a lot of fun so far :)

    Orchidus: I knew you'd agree :D

  17. what le guin says sounds interesting. i'd like to read the rest of it. whats her conclusion?

  18. That's really wonderful what Ursula said. I heard her on NPR one time and she was also talking about how putting science fiction (or other kinds) into genres sometimes serves to diminish their validity as "real" literature. I've heard some mystery writers also talk about this and I can certainly understand.

    Anyway, I don't typically read science fiction but some of these stories sound really good and I love Margaret Atwood so I should really read this!

    Enjoy your book!

  19. I see you managed to squeeze some more in, Nymeth. I know my list of to read short stories has now gotten longer!

    I'm glad you enjoyed The Home Team. I thought it was a real fun example of flash fiction..and entertaining and quick read.

    Thanks so much for participating this weekend, I appreciate it and, as always, enjoy reading your reviews.

  20. G,day I thought Greg Bears short story Blood Music was really interesting. I loved how the virus at the end evolved past our own evolutionary progress and vipped off into another dimension saying "see ya later."
    I write sci-fi thrillers myself and have a novel called Doom Of The Shem published.
    Doom Of The Shem is a science fiction novel that incorporates the horror of military action with the unavoidable hostilities that occur when an alien species invade a planet in search of food. The barbarity of war is brought to light by the work achieved by the nurses and medical personnel of the planets inhabitants. While a full blown military action story emerges from an ensuing war that involves the whole planet. It is especially centered on a squad of the planets army forces, who fight the alien invaders.

  21. I didn't read any of those stories, except maybe Ray Bradbury's long ago when I was a teenager. Oops, that sounds awful! It was long ago, though. I've always enjoyed science fiction, and this challenge has made me realize I need to read more of it. And I did have Harlan Ellison and his was one of the books I let go of (several of his) when I moved to England that I haven't replaced yet....brilliant reviews, Nymeth, and now i really want to go read Octavia Butlers and John Crowley, who is on my MUST be read list, this year! I haven't read anything by him yet.
    Oh - I'm going to be reading le Guin's The Language of the NIght, her first collection of essays about writing science fiction and fantasy, for Carl's reading experience. Do you have it, or have you read it? The essays are along the lines of the one you quoted in your blog. I'll have to see if the essay is in my book.
    Great post, and wasn't this mini-challenge fun?

  22. JP: I was seriously tempted to just type the whole essay, and I would have done if it wasn't 42 pages long :P It's very detailed, and very much worth reading. In a simplified manner, what she says is that while it's true that genres like mystery, fantasy, science fiction, etc follow certain conventions, these conventions are in no way as limiting as mainstream critics seem to believe they are. Furthermore, it's really not accurate to say that realistic fiction is exempt from conventions itself. Interestingly enough the other day I was reading an essay by Michael Chabon where he pretty much makes the same points. Great minds think alike :P

    Iliana: She really says it as it is. And I can imagine how mystery writers are treated the same way. The Atwood story was wonderful - you'd enjoy it for sure!

    Carl: Thank you so much for hosting! I had so much fun. I saw you say in a comment somewhere you were thinking of doing something similar for Once Upon a Time...please do! I'm looking forward to it already.

    L. Clarke: thanks, I'll look into the book.

    Susan: Sadly no, but I've been after that book for so long! It's out of print in Europe, so it's hard to get a hold on. I have it on my Bookmooch wishlist, but no luck so far. One day I'll cave and order it from Amazon.com, though. I just KNOW I'll love it! And I really need to read more science fiction too. More and more I'm realizing how much I actually enjoy it.

  23. Some good links here Nymeth, thanks, I am currently searching for short stories to read and this will come in handy :)

  24. This is an informative post. I especially like reading about Ursula's point about genre.

    I'm going to start on her Earthsea books soon. :)

  25. Violet, I'm glad to have helped!

    Alice: oh, I can't wait to hear your thoughts on them!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.