The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories: Humane science fiction

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The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories by Tom Shippey (Editor)The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories edited by Tom Shippey

I read Tom Shippey‘s other excellent collection, The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories some time ago, so it was only a matter of time before I sought out this one. Like its stablemate, The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories consists of a chronological collection of stories from a variety of authors with an introduction by the editor. I was struck by the idea of “fabril” literature, which is discussed in the introduction: a form of literature in which the “smith” is central. Certainly, a great deal of early science fiction in particular involves a clever engineer solving some sort of problem, and I’m sure many careers in engineering and the sciences have been launched in this way. I’d say that there is some tendency, though, as the genre matures, for technology to become the problem and human factors the solution, rather than vice versa. It’s not strongly marked in this collection, but the theme is there to see if you know to look for it. Also, technology tends to recede into the background sometimes, and the problems can become simply social ones, as in Gene Wolfe‘s “How the Whip Came Back” (1970). (The editor does note that any single account of what sci-fi is doing is going to be inadequate and have its counter-examples, even within this collection.)

Still, there’s an assumption throughout science fiction that people are clever at making things, and this will change how they live, and this is worth telling stories about; and these stories convey that sense well.

There are a few notable names missing from the table of contents. The editor mentions Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and Murray Leinster in the introduction, for example; all four men wrote short fiction, and could worthily have been included, but presumably space was limited. Most of the stories selected are at the shorter end of the short-fiction spectrum (at a rough estimate, between 2,000 and 5,000 words), even though this limits how much the ideas, characters and settings can be developed, and I assume that this was in order to include more examples.

There are two and a half women among the 30 authors (“Lewis Padgett” being one of the collective pseudonyms of C.L. Moore and her husband, Henry Kuttner), which is, unfortunately, representative of the field in general, particularly in its earlier years. (The other two apart from Moore — Ursula K. LeGuin and “Raccoona Sheldon”, a pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, AKA James Tiptree, Jr. — are from the 1960s and 1970s.) To the best of my knowledge, all of the authors are white, and most are American. In other words, the collection doesn’t set out to be inclusive of diverse voices, but of widely recognised ones.

To the individual stories, now.

H.G. Wells, “The Land Ironclads” (1903): Wells predicts tank warfare, and is widely ignored, certainly by the military establishment. However, this story is primarily about the clash between the human values of bravery, toughness and physical fitness and the developing technological civilisation, in which clerks with machines could beat brave, tough, fit men every time. It’s (as so often with Wells) a depressing reflection.

Frank L. Pollack, “Finis” (1906): Using some highly dubious astronomy, Pollack postulates a huge sun around which everything, including the galaxies, is rotating, and shows us the end of the world as its light and heat finally reach Earth. There’s not a great deal more to it than an extended “rocks fall, everybody dies”, though it does show the human reactions as well as the crashes and explosions.

Rudyard Kipling, “As Easy as ABC” (1912): Look here, clearly democracy, in which stupid people get a voice, is inferior to autocratic rule by jolly good chaps with superior technology, don’t you know? That’s basically the point of this story in the world of the author’s With the Night Mail: A Story Of 2000 AD. To rub it in more thoroughly, it’s set in the USA.

Jack Williamson, “The Metal Man” (1928): This is as much in the Weird Tales mold as it is sci-fi, with a manuscript account (a staple of the Weird Tale) of the transformation of a man into metal by a mysterious radioactive gas.

Stanley G. Weinbaum, “A Martian Odyssey” (1934): A succession of wonders on a Mars with many strange races: some of them intelligent, some friendly, others not. An explorer’s ship crashes; he apparently has no radio, and must walk back to his base, encountering adventure along the way. As the collection’s introduction points out, the cancer cure in the story has extra resonance because the author was himself dying of cancer when he wrote it.

John W. Campbell Jr., “Night” (1935): An “end of time” story. An engineer testing an antigravity device is projected through time to a period when the earth has died, humanity is extinct, and only machines remain, underlining the futility of all human endeavour.

Clifford D. Simak, “Desertion” (1944): This could be regarded as a very, very early story of posthumanism, and as a predecessor of the film Avatar. An administrator on Jupiter has seen three men be transformed (by handwavium) into a form of life suited for Jupiter’s conditions, disappear into the storms, and not return. Deciding that he can’t, in good conscience, send anyone else, he goes himself, and discovers why they didn’t want to come back.

Lewis Padgett, “The Piper’s Son” (1945): After a minor nuclear apocalypse, some people are telepaths, distrusted by those who aren’t. In a typically adept Moore/Kuttner story, years ahead of what other writers were doing, action and human values combine to create a satisfying narrative which makes the point that elites must serve for the sake of their own protection.

A.E. van Vogt, “The Monster” (1948): This is a “humans are inherently better than aliens and will beat them every time” story, with a good deal of sonic screwdriving (by which I mean, “I have whatever power I happen to need in the circumstances”). Triumphalist and not that satisci-fiying as a story, partly because the viewpoint characters, the aliens, are doomed to fail.

James H. Schmitz, “The Second Night of Summer” (1950): Reminded me a little of some of Harry Harrison‘s novellas, like “The Man from P.I.G.” and “The Man from R.O.B.O.T.,” in which unlikely undercover agents cleverly deal with alien threats. This one, refreshingly, is an older woman, a kind of person who seldom gets to be the protagonist in sci-fi. The little world building details are fun, too.

Arthur C. Clarke, “Second Dawn” (1951): A fairly typical Clarke story, more about revealing the clever world building and making a philosophical point than it is about things actually happening, let alone protagonists overcoming fit opposition. He manages to make it an enjoyable ride in any case.

Walter M. Miller Jr., “Crucifixus Etiam” (1953): Blue-collar sci-fi in which the hero discovers that the dignity of his labour is not in his working conditions (which are horrible) but in the fact that eventually the infrastructure he’s working on will benefit others, enabling them to live comfortable lives based on his pain. Which, in my view, is a pretty nasty conclusion.

Frederik Pohl, “The Tunnel Under the World” (1955): Some of the best 1950s sci-fi satirised the growing power of consumerism and advertising. Robert Sheckley was a master of the subgenre, but so was Pohl (in, for example, The Space Merchants), and this story is a classic in which an entrepreneur gains the means to perform the ultimate A-B test.

Brian Aldiss, “Who Can Replace a Man?” (1958): As humanity slowly dies out from non-nutritious crops, the machines try to take over. Their logical, cold-hearted arguments among themselves are simultaneously amusing and disturbing. The story ends with a memorable twist.

J.G. Ballard, “Billenium” (1961): By the 1960s, overpopulation was becoming a fear, and this is one of a couple of stories in the collection to address it. New York is becoming more and more crowded, as people pack tighter and tighter. But, given the opportunity to have more space, the characters in this story end up where they began, unable to break out of their society’s patterns.

Cordwainer Smith, “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” (1962): Part of the author’s epic Rediscovery of Man future history, told in his inimitable style complete with frequent word coinages, this story tells of a civil rights struggle and a romance and a heist.

Ursula K. LeGuin, “Semley’s Necklace” (1964): So, so clever. This story is, at one and the same time, a familiar fantasy story of a woman who seeks an ancestral treasure among the Little People and returns to find her world altered, and also sci-fi in LeGuin’s Ekumen setting. It works perfectly on both levels at the same time.

James Blish, “How Beautiful with Banners” (1966): A space-explorer story, but by the 1960s a space-explorer story also had a lot going on about the explorer’s unhappy romantic history, and the explorer could be a woman, and in general there was a lot more depth than there had been even a decade before.

Harry Harrison, “A Criminal Act” (1967): This is the other overpopulation story in the collection. Harrison famously addressed the issue in his novel Make Room! Make Room!, published a year earlier, which was later used as the basis for the film Soylent Green. This one adds in the sci-fi trope of legalised gladiatorial murder that was also going round at the time: if you have an unlicensed baby, someone gets a license to try to kill you, though you can also kill him, since the net effect is still that the population is stabilised. Harrison manages to wedge in a philosophical rant in the midst of the action, characteristically.

Thomas M. Disch, “Problems of Creativeness” (1967): Personally, I find the alienated loser as a main character difficult to enjoy, not only because I don’t share his worldview (a character whose worldview I don’t share can be interesting if well-written), but because it inevitably means that he’s not a true protagonist. He doesn’t know what he wants, and if he does desire something, he’s not competent to get it. Sadly, the main character in this story is all too realistic, and there are millions of him alive today.

Gene Wolfe, “How the Whip Came Back” (1970): I’m afraid I’ve never once understood a Gene Wolfe story, and this one is no exception. It’s clearer than most — there’s a push to reintroduce slavery and the main character is being pressured to support it, while the Pope of a much-reduced Catholic Church is the sole holdout — but there’s a flip at the end which I didn’t follow, given what had gone before.

Larry Niven, “Cloak of Anarchy” (1972): This is a good premise. In the Free Parks, anarchy is permitted; you can do whatever you like, as long as you don’t offer violence to anyone else, because if you do, floating “copseye” drones will stun you. Some impractical dreamer/artist/inventor wonders what would happen if he knocked out all the copseyes. Exactly what he should have expected happens, making a good point about the limitations of anarchy.

Norman Spinrad, “A Thing of Beauty” (1973): An amusing story about salesmanship and East-West cultural differences; something that, in 1973, was becoming increasingly salient as the Japanese economy boomed.

Raccoona Sheldon, “The Screwfly Solution” (1977): A disturbing sci-fi horror story about violence towards women. While I don’t share the author’s dark view of human (particularly male human) nature, it makes some important points nevertheless.

George R.R. Martin, “The Way of Cross and Dragon” (1978): Martin’s trademark beautifully-written nihilism.

Bruce Sterling, “Swarm” (1982): By the 1980s, the idea that “humans will inevitably beat aliens” that van Vogt was using in 1948 was up for question. This claustrophobic story asks whether intelligence is even the best strategy for survival. It’s part of the author’s Shapers and Mechanists universe, and also has some interesting things to say about bioengineering.

William Gibson, “Burning Chrome” (1982): While Gibson’s beautifully-written, even poetic, nihilism is completely different from Martin’s, it’s still beautifully-written nihilism. I read him for the beauty, and stopped reading him for the nihilism.

Hilbert Schenck, “Silicon Muse” (1984): I’m not familiar with Schenck’s other work, but this AI story is amusing. As usual with AI, it makes the mistake of making the machine too human too quickly. It also reveals a certain cynicism about human nature, and the main character — who’s not really a protagonist — is whiny and pathetic, but the central literary conceit is well-executed.

Paul J. McAuley, “Karl and the Ogre” (1988): This starts out reading as fantasy, but is arguably sci-fi because it’s a post-apocalyptic setting which people with mental and bioengineering powers are transforming into a fairy-tale world (with all the monsters and conflict that implies). The sense of helplessness of the main character doesn’t make for a particularly satisfying story, to my mind.

David Brin, “Piecework” (1990): Another bioengineering story. Industrial products are being grown in wombs. For reasons that are skated past with a rapid handwave, human wombs can produce more valuable products than non-human wombs, so there’s a whole industry of young women who make their living incubating these products, and young men who don’t exactly impregnate them. On top of that premise is built a well-written story of a woman whose ambition is to get out of poverty and her friend who resents her for it.

As a collection, this represents the humane side of sci-fi, the sci-fi that focuses more on characters and their response to their circumstances than on the circumstances and technologies themselves. Despite the discussion of “fabril”, there’s not a simple, linear “clever engineer solves a problem” story in the lot, even in the works drawn from earlier times, where that kind of story was a staple. Nor is there a simple, linear pulp adventure among them. If the editor was setting out to show that sci-fi can address important human questions, and has been doing so for a long time, then mission accomplished.


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MIKE REEVES-MCMILLAN, one of our guest reviewers, has eight bookcases which are taller than he is in his basement, and 200 samples on his Kindle. He's trying to cut down. A lifelong lover of the written word, he's especially a fan of Jim Butcher, Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett and Roger Zelazny. He reads a lot of indie fiction these days, and can report that the quality and originality are both improving rapidly. He himself writes the Gryphon Clerks fantasy series, and numerous short stories. Mike lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and also in his head, where the weather is more predictable and there are a lot more dragons. He rants about writing and genre at The Gryphon Clerks and about books he's read at The Review Curmudgeon.

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One comment

  1. I’ve been meaning to pick this anthology up from a library for ages, but haven’t been able to find it anywhere. I may have to just break down and buy it.

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