Friday, November 7, 2014

Ten Short Short SF Stories: Niven, Malzberg, Pronzini, Knight & Busby

From the public library this week I borrowed 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander and published in 1978.  The volume contains a mere 271 pages of text, and as all you math people out there have already figured out, this means that the average story is less than 3 pages long.  Or maybe that the average length of the stories is fewer than three pages each.  Over the last few days I read ten of these stories, and I will now assign them grades.  Seeing as I am covering ten pieces in this single blog post, I'll try to keep things snappy!

"Plaything" by Larry Niven (1974)

In The Hugo Winners Volume 3 (1977) Isaac Asimov tells us that hard science fiction, the science fiction about science, is what he likes to read, and that he is relieved that young Larry Niven has taken up this vein while he (Asimov) and Arthur C. Clarke and Hal Clement approach retirement.  Niven has three stories in this collection of short shorts; will they be about science?

In "Plaything," which is over four pages long (lengthy for this book), a robotic Earth probe lands on Mars and Martian children treat it like a piece of playground equipment, climbing all over it, vandalizing it, etc.  Niven includes interesting biological details about the Martians (their senses are finely tuned to detect slight changes in levels of heat, and this is reflected in their means of "talking") and interesting speculations about the robotic probe's means of gathering data about Mars. A good story.

Grade: B           Sciencey?:  Yes.

"Safe at Any Speed" by Larry Niven (1967)

The title is a nod to Ralph Nader, but the plot is a nod to Jonah of "and the Whale" fame.  A thousand years in the future a guy is "driving" in an air car over an alien planet.  The car is swallowed whole by a huge bird.  They crash, and the guy lives in the car (it has a toilet and a food-creating machine) for six months while he waits for the monster to decay sufficiently, lest he be dissolved by its stomach juices. Cleverly, the story is an advertisement written by the driver, explaining how safe the car is. Again Niven includes some biological and some technological details.  Not bad.

Grade: B-           Sciencey?: Yes.

"Mistake" by Larry Niven (1976)

In the near future, astronauts on long boring solo trips use drugs to get high and thus entertain themselves.  (The guy in "Safe at Any Speed" plays solitaire for six months.) The astronaut in this story hallucinates an alien who interrogates him about Earth defenses. The astronaut takes a pill that sobers him up, and the alien vanishes.

The main joke of the story is that the reader is not supposed to know that the alien is a hallucination until the end.  Besides being a weak joke, in his one-line introduction to the story (what the copy on the jacket calls "a sly and witty remark"), Asimov, in his infinite wisdom, tells you that the alien is an hallucination.  The other big joke of the story is the pun "bad trip."

The best part of the story is Niven's little inside joke that pays homage to his big supporter Asimov, and three other notable SF writers, adventure scribe Edgar Rice Burroughs, hard-SF exemplar Hal Clement, and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis.

Grade: D-  (AKA, "The Peppermint Patty")         Sciencey?: No.


"Inaugural" by Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Pronzini (1976)

I like Malzberg, as I hope I have made clear on this blog.  However, I am sick to death of the irrational obsession so many people have with John F. Kennedy.  (In fact I experience a childish glee when people like the scribblers at Reason magazine or the gang at Red Letter Media try to poke a hole in the apparently undeflatable Camelot myth.)  Malzberg seems to be one of the many victims of this obsession, writing many stories that revolve around Kennedy or presidents getting murdered.  So when I saw the title of this story I groaned in anticipation of more Kennedy nonsense.

"Inaugural" is the text of the inauguration speech given by the first woman president ("Carole").  During the speech she quotes JFK's own inaugural speech.  It is a little difficult to puzzle out what we are supposed to take away from the story.  The new president returned six months earlier from the first manned interstellar flight, of which she was commander.  Her second in command ("George"), is now her husband. George appears to be the emotional one, and Carole has to scold him to keep him in line.  The vote (of billions of people) to elect them is said to be unanimous.  The words "unity" and "union" appear again and again in the text.

Did the new president win election by threatening to bomb the Earth from outer space (such things happen in Malzberg stories)?  Is this just a woman's hallucination (people are always hallucinating in Malzberg stories)?  Is the swapping of gender roles a joke or some kind of feminist commentary?  Are the references to union a sign that, like in so many utopian SF stories, in this one an alien element has transformed the human race into some kind of unified entity with a collective consciousness?  Are the references to a unanimous election a suggestion that the USA or the entire world now has bogus elections like in some dictatorship?

This story earns a passing grade, a wrinkled brow, and a shrug.

Grade: C        Kennedy?: Yes
"January 1975" by Barry N. Malzberg (1974)

This story is in the form of four letters from writer Barry to his editor, Ben.  Barry is suggesting that he write a series about an alternate universe in which Kennedy won the 1960 election and was later assassinated.  Barry promises that, while the series will be "in the dystopian mode," he will keep it "cheerful and amusing" and that the portrait of Kennedy as president will be "uplifting and noble."  (Ben is worried that "the Secretary" might sue for libel; I guess "the Secretary" is JFK himself.)    Ben rejects the idea, and in the final letter, in which Barry says he will sic "the union" on Ben, we learn how dystopian Barry and Ben's world really is: people in their universe attend "Slaughter Games" and "Public Tortures" for recreation!

The idea that people living in a world in which novelists are unionized and there are government-sponsored Roman-style blood sports and executions would consider our world a dystopia is faintly amusing and interesting.  So, a passing grade.

Grade: C         Kennedy?: Yes.


"I Wish I May, I Wish I Might" by Bill Pronzini (1973)

If we include his collaboration with Malzberg above, Pronzini has four stories in this book!  Wow!

I'm not sure I "get" this one.  Maybe there is a joke or a twist I am missing.

David Lannin is a 14-year-old boy on the beach.  Pronzini carefully describes the kid's appearance, clothes, all the sights and sounds of the beach.  There's a lot of "the sonorous lament of the chill October wind" and "the wind swirled loose sand against his body," and "there was nothing but the sound of the tide and the wind and the scavenger birds...." You know what I mean.  I thought it was odd to see all this detail in a story that is like three pages long.

Anyway, David finds a bottle, opens it up, and out comes an invisible genie. The genie tells David he can have three wishes.  Then he crows that he has achieved his revenge on the mortal sorcerer who put him in the bottle, and leaves.  David goes home to his mother. He tells mom that he's got three wishes, and he's going to wish for "a million-trillion ice cream cones," for the ocean to always be warm, and for every boy and girl in the world to "be just like me."  The final line of the story is David saying the magic words from the story title; in the short paragraph before that we learn that David is retarded.  (Pronzini provides no clue in the first two pages that David has any developmental or mental disorders; his dialogue is in normal English, for example.)

Is the joke that David has just destroyed modern society or even the entire world with his dumb wishes? Or is the joke that David hallucinated the genie?  Either way, lame.

Grade: F (student is also directed to attend sensitivity training)

"Dry Spell" by Bill Pronzini (1970)

Kensington, a professional writer on the edge of financial ruin, has had writer's block for weeks.  Suddenly he comes up with an idea for a SF story in which aliens are plotting to take over the world.  These aliens can read everybody's mind, and if any Earthling figures out what is going on, they erase that info from his mind.  In a twist we all saw coming, Kensington's scenario is the truth, and the aliens erase it from his mind before he can commit it to paper.  The aliens are the source of his writer's block!


Grade: D-

"How Now Purple Cow" by Bill Pronzini (1969)

Again, I think I may be missing the joke here; is it a feeble reference to cattle mutilations?

[UPDATE JUNE 2, 2018: Commenter Geoduck in the comments below directs us to likely source material for Pronzini's (to me) mysterious story!]

A farmer spots a purple cow on his land.  He calls the local newspaper to get a reporter to come see it.  The reporter, on the phone, mentions recent UFO sightings.  Before the reporter arrives, the farmer touches the purple cow, and is turned into a purple cow himself.  The end.

Grade: F (student is also directed to schedule appointment with guidance counselor to discuss possibility of repeating this semester)


"Shall the Dust Praise Thee?" by Damon Knight (1967)

This is another story I may not be quite grasping.  In this case there is a chance my limited knowledge of the Bible is hamstringing me.

(NOTA BENE: I am grading this story as it stands in 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories.  This story originally appeared in Dangerous Visions, where presumably it is supported by several pages of supplementary matter by the author himself and editor Harlan Ellison.)  

It is the Day of Wrath!  God, a moving pillar of smoke, accompanied by seven angels, comes to the Earth to find it desolate, apparently due to a nuclear war.  The Archangel Michael blames the English, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Americans.  God goes to England, where deep in a pit He finds a message, in all caps, "WE WERE HERE.  WHERE WERE YOU?", I guess some English person's lament that God had abandoned them, or maybe Knight's idea of a joke.  

I have to admit that these stories that suggest the people of the West were no better than Brezhnev, Mao, and their henchmen rub me the wrong way.  And as an atheist unfamiliar with the Bible maybe the power of the story's phrases and images are flying over my head.  So perhaps I am not equipped to judge this tale.  Still, I must judge, and this story seems melodramatic and bombastic, and not very successful at making its point clear, whether it be an atheist attack on religion, a leftist criticism of NATO policy, or a heartfelt lament that God had failed to intervene in the Cold War.

Grade: F          

"Eripmav" by Damon Knight  (1958)

A page of embarrassing puns and kindergarten-level jokes.  The title is a bad joke, and things proceed downhill from there.

Grade: F

"Maid to Measure" by Damon Knight (1964)

A three-page story with one pun, a pun worthy of a seven-year-old who reads Playboy.

A man is trying to break up with his blonde girlfriend so he can date a brunette.  The blonde is experimenting with witchcraft, and by saying, "I'll change into a bikini," she is transformed into a bikini.  The brunette stops by, and dons the bikini.

And to think I defended Knight's Beyond the Barrier against Joachim Boaz's denunciations!

Grade: F  (student is expelled)


"I'm Going to Get You" by F. M. Busby

I liked Busby's Cage A Man, an adventure/horror novel with strong psychological and social elements about a guy who is kidnapped by solipsistic aliens who don't realize humans are intelligent beings and inflict excruciating experiments on him before he escapes.  So I picked him for my tenth short short.

"I'm Going to Get You" is a three page monologue from a crippled man, directed at God.  The cripple relates the many disasters of his life (family killed by drunk driver, being beaten up by criminals, etc.) and blames them on God's callousness and/or cruelty.  The cripple declares that he will achieve revenge on God by committing suicide.

In some ways this story is comparable to Knight's "Shall the Dust Praise Thee": God's existence and goodness are questioned.  But whereas Knight's story is loud and vague and ridiculous, Busby's story has a character and a story, some real emotion and some real thought behind it.

Grade: C+


I'm not the audience for sophomoric joke stories or stories with an obvious "twist," and so Knight and Pronzini have been graded harshly.  But a short short story can be a decent traditional SF story, as Niven shows with two of his offerings, or a story with real character and heart, as Busby demonstrates.

I will probably read ten more selections from 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories next week.  Until then, my merciless red grading pencil will rest.


  1. Your reviews of Damon Knight's stories are generally interesting. For whatever reason, he is considered one of the top critics of his day. (Wikipedia often has his quotes and I see his name pop up in various reviews.) Yet whenever I read these criticisms, I find them not opposite to mine, rather insular, as in: did he read the same story as me? His "critique" of Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow I'm still scratching my head about.

    I've read only two pieces of Knight's short fiction, the famous "Country of the Kind" and the second.. I forget the title, something about a super iPad that allowed the user to see any place at any point in time. "Country of the Kind" is an intriguing story, but it's not knock your socks off stuff, and the second story whose name I forget is an interestingly developed idea, but again, doesn't seem to achieve the heights Knights' criticisms would seem to demand of science fiction. Reading your reviews above only strengthens my belief that his name has more meaning in recorded history than actual history. I'm hoping the same does not become of Jo Walton...

    Am I missing something about Knight?

  2. "His name has more meaning in recorded history than actual history." I see where you're going with statement but I'm somewhat confused. Clearly Knight was an important figure, even if his criticisms come off as unusual or incorrect, as a critic of the time. His word was very important in selling a book etc. So, perhaps we need to struggle a bit to understand why at the time his criticisms were deemed so relevant, so poignant, so key in appraising a work. He was an important historical figure in both "actual" and "recorded" history. However, his legacy, or his continued importance as an author/critic now might have diminished. Reception is a strange beast as values and standards and conceptions of the world evolve.

    And yes, I am completely on the "Knight is an overrated SF author" train. Both his short stories and his novels have left me cold and unimpressed.

    1. I was referring to perception in Knight's time.

      For a little bit of comparison, Justin Landon is a prominent member of today's speculative fiction community. He has a popular blog, hosts Tor's podcast, attends conventions, etc. In short, he appears an important member of the field. Looking at the actual content of his future artifacts, however, one notes that his finger is not precisely on the pulse of genre. His essays are often half-baked and lack true critical rigor, he has trouble developing conversations on the podcast in ways that present the politically correct zeitgeist of our day, and his views are decidedly rooted in epic-fantasy, which, as popular as it is, does not begin to encompass speculative fiction as a whole. And yet, when future bloggers look on wikipedia for review material (i.e. what did people of the past think of writer X), there may be a Landon quote - and as uninformed as it may be.

      Therefore, you're right: I do not and can never have the same view of Knight in his prime. But my fears remain that Knight may be something like an older Landon. See the following points:

      Recorded history: Knight's reviews were published in book form for the commercial market. Actual history of the time: This was done because of the relevancy and biting profundity of Knight's views, i.e. the place in culture the editor thought to recognize? Or the fact Knight was so free in his opinion, i.e. willing to insult big genre names? Given the fact we know drama sells it is, of course, an unanswerable question. This leads to:

      Recorded history: Knight's name is used as back cover copy on genre novels. Actual history of the time: publishers used Knight's name in an attempt to sell more books. Did their ploy work? We can know if sales figures of the era are broken down into those with Knight copy and those without, and then make a comparison. Only after can we say his name was "very important in selling a book." Otherwise, we are drawing assumptions from facts we do not have. Speaking of facts:

      Recorded history: In a review Knight makes a statement about an element of book A. Actual history of the time (and toay): when the reader looks in book A, they cannot find the element. No comment needed except to say that when done repeatedly, it casts doubt on other statements.

      Knight a recognized member of the field, yesterday and today? Like Landon, yes. Actually a significant mover and shaker driving speculative fiction (i.e. a historically important member of the field)? We'll never be certain given the subjectivity of what is and is not recorded. This is why I question his value to his time - and ours.

  3. Knight's high reputation is a little puzzling if you only consider his fiction--his adventure thriller stuff is just OK, and when he tries to be funny or profound (I think) he falls flat.

    I think the enormous volume of valuable work he did on the editorial side endeared Knight to lots of people in the field. Gene Wolfe, for example, talks about how much help he got from Knight, and how critical that help was to him, in a great interview with Larry McCaffery from 1988:

    (In this interview we also get Wolfe's assessments of H. P. Lovecraft and the New Wave, a perhaps unflattering anecdote about Fred Pohl, a reference to the time Harlan Ellison physically assaulted Charles Platt, talk about Wolfe's war experiences, and lots of discussion of Wolfe's major 1970s and '80s works. It's a great interview.)

    As for his criticism, maybe the importance of Knight's work there is that he was taking SF seriously as literature and encouraging other people to take SF seriously at a time when few people did. Even if his criticism wasn't very good (from our perspectives), the fact that somebody was doing criticism may have pushed SF writers to greater efforts or increased conscientiousness.

    1. Firstly, thanks for the link to the interview. It's good stuff.

      I think I addressed your concerns in my reply to Joachim above, but in case not, my main concern is not that Knight's criticism is bad from our perspective, but may be overblown from the past's perspective as well. One telling moment for me is Knight's criticism of van Vogt's World of Null-A. Knight seems so interested in tearing van Vogt down that he failed to grasp van Vogt had actually written something that transcended the times, i.e. in some way "achieved heights of science fiction hitherto unknown". Null-A is a major precedent to the works of PKD and other writers for whom reality is not clearly reality. Moreover, Knight's willingness to be so harsh may have made a reputation for him as much as the "good" reviews he offered. In short, history can recognize people, but the reasons are not always clear, and in Knight's case I question how he fit into his times. (By the way, the Science Fiction Encyclopedia is often 'kind' to writers. As any good reference book, they maintain a neutral objectivity I have so much trouble finding in my own assessments...)

  4. I have to agree, his work as editor and critic are the elements that made Knight historically important... He's worth remembering for that even though his writing has not aged well, and was only "pretty good" to begin with. He was very popular in the '50s and well anthologized into the '60s; you can attribute some of it to changing tastes and the evolution of the genre, though I don't think he was quite capable of writing something that could withstand the test of time as a genre "classic." That or there's a mob of people waiting just over the next hill who think Knight's fiction was just swell and will convince me I'm wrong, but I've yet to find them.

    Knight was the first SF critic, full-stop. He savaged a number of books I enjoy, and let others I despise slip by unscathed, for reasons comprehensible only to himself. But there wasn't anyone else holding SF to the same standards... or any standards, really. SF was the pulp ghetto, all those bug-eyed monsters menacing women wearing chrome bikinis, and then there's Damon Knight holding the genre to rigorous high standards and trying to force it in what he felt was the Science Fiction direction. At times I feel like he's savaging decent novels to keep the others in line. Kill one of the good ones to make the bad ones shape up.

    Since Knight was both author and critic, and since most of the stories he wrote wouldn't have withstood his own criticism, his writing somewhat undermines his criticism. It's clear he's not a writer that resonates well with modern SF readers. But if he wasn't important to "actual" history, he wouldn't have been so well-anthologized, his critical opinion would have meant nothing, and we wouldn't see those occasional glowing reviews of his fiction (his SFE entry is pretty positive).

  5. Very belated reply, but for anyone who is curious, the Pronzini story is a riff on "Purple Cow", a once-famous short nonsense poem by Gelett Burgess:

    1. Very cool, thanks for pointing this out! I love seeing these kinds of connections. I'll update the post above!

  6. "I Wish I May, I Wish I Might" isn't meant to be funny. It's a horror story. (Do the math on 10^18 scoops of ice cream.)