Notes on Selected Stories from The Norton Book of Science Fiction

Notes on Selected Stories from The Norton Book of Science Fiction




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Cordwainer Smith: "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" , Theodore Sturgeon: "Tandy's Story", David R. Bunch: "2064, or Thereabouts", Clifford D. Simak: "Over the River and Through the Woods", James Blish: "How Beautiful with Banners", R. A. Lafferty: "Nine Hundred Grandmothers", Sonya Dorman Hess: "When I Was Miss Dow", Frederik Pohl: "Day Million", Samuel R. Delany: "High Weir", Suzette Haden Elgin: "For the Sake of Grace", Zenna Henderson: "As Simple As That", Robert Silverberg: "Good News from the Vatican", James Tiptree, Jr.: "The Women Men Don't See", Vonda N. McIntyre: "The Mountains of Sunset: The Mountains of Dawn", Joe Haldeman: "The Private War of Private Jacob ", Ursula K. Le Guin: "The New Atlantis", Joanna Russ: "A Few Things I Know About Whileaway", John Varley: "Lollipop and the Tar Baby", Philip K. Dick: "Frozen Journey", Phyllis Gotlieb: "Tauf Aleph" William Gibson: "The Gernsback Continuum", Carol Emshwiller: "The Start of the End of the World", Octavia Butler: "Speech Sounds", Kim Stanley Robinson: "The Lucky Strike", Lewis Shiner: "The War at Home", Karen Joy Fowler: "The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things", James Patrick Kelly: "Rat", Eileen Gunn: "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" Margaret Atwood: "Homelanding"


Some of the following notes require looking up passages in the Bible.

Cordwainer Smith: "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" p. 49

This story is one of a series with a similar setting and linked characters, the most famous of which is "The Ballad of Lost C'mell." What changes have recently been introduced into this society? How are people reacting? Paul et Virginie (1788) was an enormously popular romantic novel by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre dealing with interracial love. Why is the allusion to it here appropriate? What are homunculi? "Abba" is Hebrew for "Father" whereas a dingo is a sort of wild Australian dog-like creature (See http://coral.cs.jcu.edu.au/~marianne/img/dingoes.gif for a look at some dingoes.) What does the name "Abba-dingo" suggest to you? "Macht" is German for "might" or "power." What are the different kinds and functions of freedom treated in this story? How has Paul changed at the end of the story?

Theodore Sturgeon: "Tandy's Story" p. 74

Sturgeon often deals with childhood in his stories. It is fairly common for small children to have imaginary companions. Is the point of view of this story adult or childish? What effect does that fact have on the story? What qualities make this a sort of ironic horror story?

David R. Bunch: "2064, or Thereabouts" p. 93

Bunch wrote a number of short sketches, mostly published in little literary magazines rather than commercial SF magazines (later collected in a volume titled Moderan ). For that reason, his work has not become widely known, but he brought a special intensity to this series, all set in the same post-holocaust world dominated by automated war machines. Who is the narrator? What would you say is the principal theme of this story? Is this a humorous story? A horror story? Or something else?

Clifford D. Simak: "Over the River and Through the Woods" p. 125

This story is set in 1896. What makes it a science fiction story? What has caused the sudden appearance of these children? Do you know of any parallels in actual modern history? What doesn't Mrs. Forbes understand about the future? The title is taken from the first line of a familiar song; what is its second line?

James Blish: "How Beautiful with Banners" p. 132

This story features an encounter between a futuristic bit of technology the film wrap and an alien creature which is drawn to it, with the human caught in the middle. In trying to escape the situation she gets trapped in, to what degree is she successful, to what degree a failure? "Basta, per carita!" is roughly the Italian for "Enough, for goodness sake!" The myth of Nessus, the centaur, says that he took vengeance on Hercules for killing him (he had kidnapped Hercules' wife Deianeira), by advising his wife to soak a shirt in his blood and give it to Hercules, telling her that it would cause him to love her forever. It turned out instead to be fatally poisonous, killing Hercules. In what way does this story reflect this myth? "Nun denn, allein!" is German for "Now then, alone!" A "sabbat" is a witch's sabbath.The myth of Psyche and Cupid says that during this young woman's affair with the love-god, she was forbidden to look upon him, making love with him only in the dark. When she lit a lamp in the bedchamber, he left her. In what way is Ulla like that lamp?

R. A. Lafferty: "Nine Hundred Grandmothers" p. 142

There are many stories about the quest for immortality; most of them offering the sour-grapes consolation that eternal life would be hellish, and death desirable. This one evades that simple-minded approach without offering the conventional consolation of religious or scientific optimism. It can be seen as more about communication than life and death. What does this story have to say about the typical SF notion that we can learn the secrets of the universe from wise alien races?

Sonya Dorman Hess: "When I Was Miss Dow" p. 151

This story can be seen as a variation on one of those typical 50s alien-takeover films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or I Married a Monster from Outer Space (don't laugh, it's not all that bad a movie). But the situation here is more complex. In what ways does the narrator's relationship with the Doctor reflect certain patterns of human relationships?

Frederik Pohl: "Day Million" p. 166

Some SF writers like Isaac Asimov assume that "human nature" stays essentially the same. Pohl here makes an assault on that assumption by describing a future humanity that is almost incredible. What are the main features of the unusual narrative technique used here? What has not changed? What do you think Pohl's purpose was in writing this story? "Callipygean" comes from a classical Greek word meaning " beautiful-hipped." "Meet cute" is an expression used in film criticism to describe a charming but artificial way of having two characters meet who are destined to fall in love. Vincent d'Indy (1851-1931) composed several popular orchestral works. Thelonius Sphere Monk was a brilliantly original jazz pianist. A "sponson" is an air-filled capsule projecting from a ship. Tiglath-Pileser and Attila the Hun were ferocious conquerors.

Samuel R. Delany: "High Weir" p. 183

Delany (be careful about spelling his name; it is often misspelled "Delaney," even in print) is the most distinguished black SF author. In some ways this is a traditional puzzle story with a technical solution. It is not obviously about racism, but can you see any reflections of Delany's African-American heritage in it? Can you compare it to any story in Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles? Most people know about the Parthenon, the famous Temple in Athens dedicated to Athena; but Delany also refers to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, now in ruins, but at one time a very impressive building. The "Venus of Willendorf" is a prehistoric fertility sculpture with bulging thighs, belly, and breasts. The German quotation is the last sentence from German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Philosophicus. The complete sentence is "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darumber muss man schweigen": "Whatever we cannot speak about we must remain silent about." Wittgenstein argued not only that language is our only vehicle of knowledge, but that we are trapped within it, unable to reach absolute truth. "Phobos" means "fear," "Demos" means "terror." These names were chosen for the Martian moons because they are natural accompaniments of war, the Roman god of which is Mars. Note Hodges' casual use of the old racist term "jungle bunnies." Why do you think Delany, as a Black writer, has her use it? Slivowitz (more often spelled "slivovitz" is a dry Alsatian plum brandy.

Suzette Haden Elgin: "For the Sake of Grace" p. 211

What effect does it have on this story that it is set in such an extremely sexist future? Are the lessons conveyed by this story applicable in any way to our own culture, which is much less sexist? What ancient culture historically valued people primarily on the basis of their knowledge of poetry?

Zenna Henderson: "As Simple As That" p. 231

Henderson was a life-long schoolteacher, and the narrators of many of her stories are teachers too. Many of them concern The People, a supernormal alien race which tries to blend in with humans in Appalachia. This story is not a part of that series however. What effect does it have on our experience of the effects of the Torn Time to view it through the eyes of children? Do you find this an optimistic or pessimistic story? Explain.

Robert Silverberg: "Good News from the Vatican" p. 242

Silverberg likes to play with the topic of religion, often in highly irreligious ways. This story would seem to have been inspired by the "ecumenical movement," a drive to reunite various Christian churches. This story illustrates well a common genre in SF which might be called after a famous Heinlein title "If this goes on. . . ." A current trend is extrapolated to absurd lengths for satirical purposes. That this is a satire is announced early on in the names of the Italian cardinals: Asciuga ("towel") and Carciofi ("artichoke"), and made clear later by the silly name of the new pope. What has brought about the proposal to elect a robot pope? The Osservatore Romano is the official newspaper of the Vatican, and reflects official Church views. A "bar mitzvah" is the ceremony of manhood through which Jewish boys go. The International Herald Tribune is an international English-language newspaper published jointly by the New York Times and the Washington Post which is sold all over the world. The Liebestod (love-death) scene from Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde contains famously aching harmonies. Hieronymous Bosch's Temptation of Saint Anthony, based on the bizarre visions of an early Christian hermit, contains many strange creatures, including the frog referred to here. There have been popes named Sixtus ("six") in fact, but it is especially appropriate for a robot to have a purely numerical title.

James Tiptree, Jr.: "The Women Men Don't See" p. 255

James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, who disguised her sex for several years while becoming one of the most distinguished short- story writers in SF. Does it change how you read this story to know that it was written by a woman? Characterize the narrator: what sort of person is he? What sort of thoughts does he concentrate on in regards to the women? Compare his attitude toward the Mayas with Mrs. Parson's. What is his reaction to her feminism? What does Mrs. Parson's last speech mean? Noli me tangere is a quotation from John 20:17, in which the newly-resurrected Jesus tells Mary Magdalene "Touch me not." The phrase has often been sarcastically used of women who are not interested in sex (at least not in sex with the speaker). "Quién estás? A socorro!" is Spanish for "Who are you? Help!" "Chingarse" is Spanish for "F*** you!"

Vonda N. McIntyre: "The Mountains of Sunset: The Mountains of Dawn" p. 287

This is an unusual story in that it contains no human beings. The early part of the story uses the concept of artificial gravity induced through centrifugal force created by rotating a space vehicle. You can experience this phenomenon yourself by swinging a bucket full of water around your head on a rope, noting that the centrifugal force presses the water against the bottom of the bucket and prevents it from spilling. However, if one imagines a large space vehicle in rotation, there would be no "gravity" at the hub and the highest "gravity" at the rim. Therefore in the "higher," more central portions of the vehicle, flying would be considerably easier. What is the nature of the relationship depicted in this story? Why is it important that the young man participates in the old woman's death ritual?

Joe Haldeman: "The Private War of Private Jacob " p. 300

Haldeman is a Vietnam veteran, and many of his stories reflect his war experiences. In what ways might this story be read as a metaphor for the Vietnam War?

Ursula K. Le Guin: "The New Atlantis" p. 317

The title echoes the title of a utopian work by Francis Bacon. Why is it ironic here? What was the fate of the original mythical Atlantis? What has happened to the environment? What effects have this events had on social organization? Why are such drastic efforts being made to reduce the population? The passages in small type portray poetically the thoughts of the original Atlanteans, now reclaiming the world after centuries of being drowned beneath the sea. How do they interact with the main narrative? Can you tell who has written them? (Hint: look for the manuscript to be deposited safely on a mountain top at the end of the story.) Alfred Nobel hoped that his invention of dynamite would terrify the world into peace, and used some of his wealth to set up the Nobel Peace Prize. Many "ultimate weapons" have been proposed since with the same goal. "Sammy's Dot" is a phonetic spelling of the Russian term Samizdat ("for the drawer"), used to designate works written illegally, outside the regular state publishing system during the Soviet era. On p. 332 there are a number of historical allusions. "Mr. Watson, will you come here a minute," was the first message delivered over the experimental telephone of Alexander Graham Bell. Wilbur Wright was one of the two brothers who built the first successful airplane. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in bread mold. The pre-Mousterian era is when our ancestors discovered the use of fire. What do all these references have in common? "Brighter than a thousand suns" and "The physicists have known sin" are both famous quotations from Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the project to develop the atomic bomb during World War II. What two very different technical approaches are being taken to dealing with the crisis in this story?

Joanna Russ: "A Few Things I Know About Whileaway" p. 337

When Seattle author Russ' The Female Man, which incorporates this story, was published, it was fiercely attacked as the product of a radical feminist lesbian separatist--all of which was true, but neglected the fact that it was also brilliantly written and a wonderfully satirical. Since an all-female society is not probable in the near future, what functions can this sort of story serve? Compare Whileaway as a utopia with Anarres. Why does JE say that the women of Whileaway hack off their hair with clam shells? "Nicht wahr?" is German for "Right?" What messages does the bear myth (deliberately different from " Goldilocks and the Three Bears") convey? In some forms of Zen Buddhism the master tries to shock the novice into enlightenment by striking him abruptly. What criticisms of traditional romance/fairy tale values does section 13 make? Who are the gnats that block the way to Whileaway?

John Varley: "Lollipop and the Tar Baby" p. 357

Varley is well known for his interest in women and in challenging sexual taboos. Could this story pass for the product of a woman? Is this a feminist story? Compare it with James Tiptree, Jr.'s story in its values, point of view, and main concerns.

Philip K. Dick: "Frozen Journey" p. 386

What kind of mind does Kemmings have? What is the end result of exploring his memories nonstop for ten years? Note how Dick has found here yet another way to explore his favorite theme of interpenetrating realities. Dick was closely associated for a time with psychedelic hippie subculture. This story contains an affectionate tribute to the brilliant comic art of Gilbert Shelton, one of the most important contributors to the classic underground comics of the sixties and early seventies. His main characters were the "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers," a sort of stoned Marx Brothers. Fat Freddy was the least intelligent and most lovable of the three. A collection of the Freak Brothers comics is in the underground and alternative comics collection in Holland Library's Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections room (PN6728.45.R5F74x). What do you think the ending of the story is intended to convey?

Phyllis Gotlieb: "Tauf Aleph" p. 427

Many SF writers are Jews, but few of them are religious, or depict Jews in their works. Gotlieb's affectionate portrait of the last living Jew is an exception. How does this story treat religion differently from the Silverberg story? Compare it to A Canticle for Leibowitz. If tauf is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and "aleph" is the first, what does the title of the story mean? The title may also involve a pun on the name of the planet where Begelman lives: Tau Ceti IV (the fourth planet of the prominent star called "Tau Ceti"). "Sol" means "sun," so "Solthree" is the third planet from the sun: Earth. The Talmud is a vast, many-volumed commentary on the Jewish scriptures. How long does O/G5/842 study Judaism, and why is this significant? O/G discovers that illegal drugs are being smuggled out in the guise of powdered drink mix. "Pardes" means "orchard," but also "paradise." It is often used to refer to the Garden of Eden in the Bible. To some extent naming this forlorn place "Pardes" was a cynical promotional gesture, like the naming of a frozen island "Greenland;" but what other significance might the name have in this story? The Zohar is a Medieval mystical Jewish work, part of the Kabbalah. "Shalom" is "peace," often used as a greeting in Hebrew. The medieval legend of the golem tells how a brilliant rabbi created this monster to take vengeance on the Christians for the sufferings they had caused the Jews. It ran amuck, however, and had to be destroyed by its creator, like Frankenstein' s monster. Compare the Golem in this story to the legendary one. Kaddish is the ritual prayer said for the dead. Baal was a Middle Eastern god, according to the Bible, to whom were sometimes offered children as ritual sacrifices. This practice is identified as among the worst of all sins in some passages. "Clean" foods allowed to Jews are kosher, "unclean," forbidden foods are tref. A tallith katan is a fringed prayer shawl. A convert can be called "ben Avraham" ("son of Abraham") or "bat Avraham" ("daughter of Abraham") to indicate adoption as a child of Abraham, the ultimate father of all Jews. Begelman uses the neuter "b'nei" instead. The reference to the victory over Og uses Hebrew spellings; non-Jewish Bibles spell "Moshe" as "Moses" and "Kana'an" as "Canaan." In what way is Zohar like Moses? Look at the psalm that Og recites as Zohar is dying. In what ways are its images appropriate to a story of interplanetary travel and of renewal? The Shema is the central statement of the Jewish faith. It occurs at Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and begins, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone." Mishna is commentary on the Jewish law. In what respect do the Cnidori replicate the experience of Earth's Jews at the end of the story?

William Gibson: "The Gernsback Continuum" p. 457

Gibson originated cyberpunk in Neuromancer, but he cannot be pigeonholed in any one genre. However, this story displays one fairly constant aspect of his style: a dense allusiveness which demands a good deal of general knowledge, particularly of popular culture. Hugo Gernsback was the founder of the first science fiction magazines and in some ways the inventor of the modern concept of SF. The annual award for the year's best writing is called the "Hugo" in his honor. His main era of activity was the 20s and 30s, and this story is an affectionate look at the "alternate future" described in the pages of and depicted on the covers of his magazines. A common concept in SF is the notion of parallel worlds. For various reasons it is argued that an infinite number of variations on our universe may exist side by side, so that every sort of world that could exist, does exist. None of the scientific speculations about this theory involve being able to pass from one parallel universe to another, but that is of course the main point of interest in SF treatments of the theme. Gibson takes for granted that his audience is familiar with the concept, and then begins to play with it. The version of the world dominated by " American Streamlined Moderne" will be more entertaining if you are familiar with the style, which was especially prominent in the thirties and forties, promoted as futuristic, but now looking hopelessly though charmingly dated. If you' ve ever seen the old black and white movie serials of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon you'll have some idea, but better sources are the two films mentioned in the story: Fritz Lang's silent Metropolis and Things to Come, based on a book and introduced by H. G. Wells. Ming the Merciless was, of course, the cruel ruler of the Planet Mongo and Flash Gordon's greatest enemy. How have modern times prevented the young girl from Virginia from being identified as a witch? What does the narrator's last speech mean?

Carol Emshwiller: "The Start of the End of the World" p. 466

In the 50s there were many stories published that depicted sweet little old ladies, hopelessly naive and uninformed, encountering invading aliens, and usually saving the Earth. This is a witty variation on that theme. "Woman of a certain age" is the translation of a French euphemism for a middle-aged woman. Compare this story with War of the Worlds. How is this invasion different? Since this story makes fun of an old woman, is it anti-feminist; or can you detect feminist themes in it?

Octavia Butler: "Speech Sounds" p. 513

After Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler is the other most distinguished African-American SF author. Like him, she does not usually concentrate on racial issues; she is particularly interested in the healing of damaged societies. What have been the main effects of the loss of language on society? What hope for the future is presented at the end?

Kim Stanley Robinson: "The Lucky Strike" p. 538

The title is a pun alluding to the name of the most popular brand of cigarettes during World War II. What is its literal meaning in this story? This is an alternate-history story, somewhat related to the parallel world story. The author takes a well-known period of history and imagines how things might have gone differently. This is a detailed, well-researched variation on the events surrounding the first use of the atomic bomb. Nuclear scientist Leo Szilard, the physicist who had first conceived of the bomb and urged Roosevelt (through Einstein) to build it proposed to demonstrate the bomb to the Japa nese leaders at sea or on an uninhabited island to convince them to surrender. He was joined by many of the other scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project under him in Chicago. Debate continues on whether this would have worked. The actual names of the bombs used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki were "Fat Man" and "Little Boy." What does January's dream suggest? What leads January to believe that there will be more wars? How did January's act alter history? Why is he so interested in the fact that one of the guns aimed at him will be unloaded? The novel referred to toward the end of the story is a minor work by William Faulkner: The Wild Palms.

Lewis Shiner: "The War at Home" p. 577

A popular slogan among the more radical Vietnam War protestors was "Bring the War Home." In what way is this slogan ironically realized in this story? No scientific rationale is offered for this transformation, so the story is more strictly speaking fantasy than SF. A Huey is an Army combat helicopter of the kind that was used extensively in Vietnam. Clare's costume is an imitation of traditional Vietnamese peasant wear. "Fragging" was the deliberate assassination of commanding officers by their troops, using fragmentation grenades. Does this story have a message? What is it?

Karen Joy Fowler: "The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things" p. 580

How has the Vietnam War affected the people in this story? How does cable television function differently in this time than in ours? How is this a particularly woman's experience of the war? What is resolved at the end of the story? What is left unresolved?

James Patrick Kelly: "Rat" p. 654

In this cyberpunk story the protagonist is literally a rat, though clearly not an ordinary one. What affect does it have on the story to make this drug dealer not only figuratively but literally a rat? To "nova" is to become suddenly much brighter, like an exploding star, called a nova because ancient astronomers considered them "new" stars when they suddenly appeared. The Checker Cab Company built taxis for many years. The French on the first page means "Don't pretend to study, my little one. What are you doing?" What is a Bahamian laundry loop? Why does the cabbie dare to defy Rat? Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass is an epic celebration of American life. Why is its use significant here? What rat-like use does he make of the profits from his drug dealings? Where has Rat hidden the drugs, and what happens to him at the end of the story?

Eileen Gunn: "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" p. 705

This story is a variation on the famous Franz Kafka story "The Metamorphosis," in which a meek bank clerk named Gregor Samsa is transformed overnight into a giant insect, usually presumed to be a cockroach. Samsa is rendered unable to continue his ordinary occupation as a bank clerk as he takes on more and more of the characteristics of an insect, and deteriorates slowly to a wretched end. How does Gunn reverse this pattern? What are the targets of her satire? What insects is the protagonist transformed into during the course of the day? How does her character change? What qualities make her good executive material?

Margaret Atwood: "Homelanding" p. 794

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood sometimes uses SF language in her philosophical sketches like this one. What effect does it have on how we view ourselves to be granted the perspective of an outsider? What is her attitude toward death?


Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020. Copyright Paul Brians 1995

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