Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, May 2, 2016

1985: The Best of Margaret St. Clair (St. Clair, Margaret)

Mostly wit and whim than depth and density (3/5)

I first read St. Clair’s work in Groff Conklin’s most excellent collection Worlds of When (1962). In the five-story collection, three earned five stars, one of which was St. Clair’s novelette “Rations of Tantalus” (1954). I was so wowed after reading it that I immediately read through it once again, thereby earning a place for itself in my all-time top 10 for short stories. Needless to say, that one story whet my appetite for the previously unknown author’s work and where better to read more of it than the author’s own “The Best of Margaret St. Clair”?

This collection was published by Academy Chicago Publishers as part of a series highlighting women science fiction writers. Other books in the series include Marion Zimmer Bradley (1985) and Pamela Sargent (1987). The book’s rear-cover blurb states that this collection mainly of stories that had never been available in book form; therefore, it’s not comprehensive nor does it actually cover the spectrum of her best work. Her short fiction began in 1946 (“The Perfectionist”) which started the nearly twenty-year reign of her heavy short fiction publications. After 1962, she sporadically published some short stories and novel. Her latter years took a noticeable shift from science fiction to Wicca-themed stories, a pagan religious movement into which she and her husband were initiated in 1966.

Only five of the twenty stories held either great depth, levels of analogy, or parallelisms to the shared state of what it is to be human. None of the stories reach the greatness of “Rations of Tantalus”, but two come close:

  1. “The Invested Libido” is both a bizarre, witty story but it also speaks volumes about using pharmaceuticals as a crutch, a similar theme, actually, to “Rations of Tantalus”. There’s an established, standard way that people should view themselves: in the first-person. When a patient is made to undergo a drug routine to reinforce this first-person perspective rather than his usual third-person perspective, his mood sinks. When he introduces an unknown drug into his regiment, his first-person perspective swings into focus with unexpected results, yet he’s happy nonetheless.
  2. “Wryneck, Draw Me” is, again, a bizarre story with so much depth. Rather than the pharmaceutical element being in focus, psychology takes the main stage here, or more specifically, the psychosis of extreme egotism and narcissism on an extreme scale. It looks at love on the human level and if it can be applicable to a non-human, or more specifically, again, to a human-engineered machine infected with human emotional non-sense.

“Idris’ Pig” (1949, novella) – 2/5
Aboard a flight to Mars, George is suckered into delivering a package for his cousin who has become ill. He’s enticed by the handsome reward upon delivery with which he can impress a girl named Darleen into marriage. The package: a blue pig; the reason: no idea; regardless, George lands on Mars and finds the secretive man with whom he exchanges a secret codeword. Knocked down by the man then rescued by the fair Blixa, the two attempt to track down, the pig, via logic and séance, to the Plutonian embassy. 39 pages

“The Gardener” (1949, shortstory) – 3.5/5
Corrupted by power, the chief of the Bureau of Extra-Systemic Plant Conservation carries out an unthinkable act of malice for a man in his position: he cuts down a tree. That tree, however, is only one of exactly fifty in the universe and each is revered by locals and visitors alike. Without care, Tiglath Hobbs makes off with the tree to whittle a walking stick. Once in space, a mysterious figure knocks on his port window. When it’s disposed of, ill fortune follows the ship. 13 pages

“Child of Void” (1949, shortstory) – 3.5/5
For want of peace and quiet, Eddie’s mother decides to take them—along with his little brother—on a retreat to Hidden Valley, which used to be his uncle’s until he dynamited himself on purpose. The atmosphere is sullen among the three until, all at once, they all lighten up. When Eddie’s brother becomes stranded in a cave, Eddie rescues him and discovers a glowing egg that tries to entice them by promising them their dreams. After they resist, the air goes from sullen to stressed to violent. Bullets and fire won’t destroy the egg, and the egg won’t destroy their resolve. 17 pages

“Hathor’s Pets” (1950, shortstory) – 3/5
Henry and familial retinue have seemingly been transported across time—forward or backward, none know—to become under the watchful eye of the beautiful, fifteen-foot Hathor; however, she’s as remote as she is beautiful, Henry being unable to understand her direction of thinking. As they consider themselves pets to the master of Hathor, they contemplate ways other people would get rid of pets. They settle on causing such a disruption that, through annoyance, Hathor would throw them out; thus, they devise and create the very disruptive matter canker. 14 pages

“The Pillows” (1950, shortstory) – 2.5/5
The Neptunian moon of Triton has very little to offer other than he now common novelty item called “pillows”. These black, sand-dollar-sized pillows have the unique property to heat themselves to 44 degrees Celsius before stabilizing at room temperature, yet their use is limited to novelty-sake. To literally and figuratively dig up more on the pillows, McTeague visits Triton onlyto discover a dead body still in its suit, a find which the sniffer creature from Venus—named Toots—greatly dislikes. Toots only wants to find the warmth of the pillows. 14 pages

“The Listening Child” (1950, shortstory) – 4/5
Though his heart sputters from an illness, Edwin Hoppler’s heart still ticks for the young deaf/mute boy named Timmy. As the boy waits on him during his convalescence, Edwin takes it upon himself to treat the boy well and, as a result, understands some of his mannerisms—all except his curious head-tilting. Prior to a dog being hit by a car and another of his own heart attacks, Edwin sees that the boy somehow predicts the misfortune. While on a beach holiday, the boy again tilts his head as Edwin feels another pressure upon his chest. 11 pages

“Brightness Falls from the Air” (1951, shortstory) – 3/5
Disadvantaged and regressed, the bird people are shunted to their ghetto and the only time the occupying humans see them is when they perform their aerial fights, which used to be ritual but are now put on for display and entertainment. Kerr is one who begins to see the beauty behind the beast and so befriends the beautifully plumed Rhyshe. Her gift of acceptance is met by Kerr’s gift of jewelry and of song, yet Kerr’s own acceptance isn’t universal among his people, nor is Rhyshe’s reciprocal interest and admiration. 8 pages

“The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” (1951, shortstory) – 3.5/5
As long as Mortensen could profit, he didn’t care exactly for what the isolated gnoles used the rope he intended to sell them. He brushes up on his salesmanship and visits the secluded home of one of the gnoles. There, he’s immediately met by difficulty as the wizened gnole indicates he can’t hear or speak; unperturbed, Mortensen pushes forward with his demonstrations and pricing. When the gnole agrees to purchase a large quantity and offers payment by a jewel; Mortensen, however, eyes a bigger prize that the gnole may or may not be willing to part with. 5 pages

“The Causes” (1952, shortstory) – 2.5/5
In a bar, George overhears a man damning the gods for the state of the world after WWII. He listens to the man’s theory about the Greek gods and their exodus to New Zealand in 1913 due to an incident with Aphrodite’s girdle. Another man explains the world’s troubles by something he has in his possession: an angel’s trumpet, the same one that should have been blown to cause the apocalypse in Revelations. Laughed out of the bar, a third man details a forlorn monk and his ensuring string of swearing that brings bad karma to the world. 13 pages

“An Egg a Month from All Over” (1952, shortstory) – 4/5
With his mother dead, George Lidders has very little to live for: no friends, no girl, only his hobby of watching eggs hatch. His most recent delivery was from the planet Morx and was said to be a chu lizard egg. Placed in its incubator, the egg is watched by George as he’s spellbound by the growth and progress along its eight days of incubation. His emotions stir—he hits highs and lows before the rapture of watching its hatching, only to reveal emptiness. He leaves the home in frustration and returns to a big surprise. 8 pages

“Prott” (1953, shortstory) – 3/5
A man takes it upon himself to embark upon a journey into space in order to understand the reproductive habits of the elusive and almost mythical Prott. They are thought to be non-protoplasmic life-forms that communicate via telepathy, so the man comes equipped for his research: he can look out the viewport, photograph from different spectra, and even communication telepathically. Eventually, he establishes dialogue but it’s too muddled to comprehend. Even their favorite topic seems to differ in opinion, of which still eludes him to the brink of insanity. 16 pages

“New Ritual” (1953, shortstory) – 2.5/5
Marie and Henry have been married for some time, but there’s very little happiness in their marriage: Henry has his farming and now Marie has her deep-freezer. They sit and eat in silence and exchange very few words otherwise, a situation which agonizes Marie. With her freezer, however, she finds a ray of hope. Having bought it from an odd inventor’s estate sale, she discovers that if she wishes for blueberries when she places in to the machine, out come blueberries. With her mind ticking away, she find other ways that the machine can make her happy. 9 pages

“Brenda” (1954, shortstory) – 2.5/5
Brenda’s parents can’t quite control her as she ignores their requests and demands. Her teachers watch her fail her classes and her only friend shrugs her off. In her own opinion, she’s better off alone, anyway; that is until one day she discovers a foul-smelling body clutching a dead bird. As she nears it, the body slowly gives chase. Brenda traps then release the animated body from the quarry, only to have it follow her back to the six-family community. Her father traps the body and sends it to the quarry where he piles it under rubble, next to which Brenda sits. 12 pages

“Short in the Chest” (1954, shortstory) – 4/5
Sonya has a host of problems, for one of which she visits a robot psychologist called a huxley. Aside from poor hearing and a problem with her marine unit’s piglets unwillingness to feed, she also finds herself without a libido when it’s time to “dight”.
As she adjusts her hearing aid, the mechanisms in the huxley’s chest begin to whir from the norm and the psychologist it is begins to analyze her situation. With the buzzing and whirring interfering, the huxley gives its recommendation to the woman for her ails her, and perhaps what ails all women. 10 pages

“Horrer Howce” (1956, shortstory) – 3/5
Freeman concocts horror house exhibits for a living, yet his honed skill has limited to one last customer. Dickson-Hawes is his last resort for some of his sales, but what Freeman has is a tad too morbid for the circus, so Dickson makes a number of dull suggestions, to which Freeman reluctantly complies. When Dickson asks to see something exceptionally horrid, Freeman takes him to an exhibit that he’s been working on: They experience a car chase scene in which a black car exudes black limbs that amputate other drivers. Dickson is scared witless by its vividness. 13 pages

“The Wines of Earth” (1957, shortstory) – 3.5/5
Alone with his glasses and bottles of wine, Joe is content yet lonely. He’s most proud of his vineyard even though its vintages pale in comparison to the greats of France, of which he owns a few. Out checking on his vines one afternoon, he sees four people standing and studying, who say that they’re also growers. He sits them down and pours the finest of wines for them, yet they offer mild praise. Joe’s miffed by their indifference until they offer him their own wine from their spaceship. 8 pages

“The Invested Libido” (1958, shortstory) – 4/5
Diagnosed with depersonalization, Wilmer is on a cocktail of drugs and therapy so that he can improve his self-awareness because, now, he always feels outside himself and see Wilmer as another object. For want of a better medicine, he tries some Martian senta bean syrup that has been mislabeled and actually contains Dentantasen, a randomly affecting drug. When he awakens the next morning, he takes a trip to the local aquarium to ease his angst only to become obsessed with one of the squid, whom he now identifies as the true Wilmer. 9 pages

“The Nuse Man” (1960, shortstory) – 3.5/5
Weary of the troublesome offerings from a future-situated company, one woman tolerates the presence of the oft visiting salesman. His two devices seem laden with flaws, so she has never intended to give in to his pitch, but she instead listens about his story of having sold the same awesome power source to a king in the year 3000 B.C. His deal went sour when the king died and as the king’s son began to dispose of his father’s cohorts, the salesman used his own devices to stay alive and further sweeten the deal. The peasants and slaves, however, wanted him dead. 12 pages

“An Old-fashioned Bird Christmas” (1961, novelette) – 2/5
Mazda is a mole sent from the electric company in order to debase or ridicule the popular Reverend Clem Adelbury, who has initiated a religious revival to take the lights out of Christmas festivities. As the electric company’s loss has been noticeable, they will go further and further to end Clem’s mission. Unfortunately for them, Mazda has ended up falling for the Reverend. Behind the electric company is the main player and pusher—Nous—who supplies the power and muscle from the year 3000. 23 pages

“Wryneck, Draw Me” (1980, novelette) – 4.5/5

There’s Jake. Jake is the world, it is itself multiplied by billions extending throughout the solar system in a concert of thought. Somewhere in its timeless history, Jake fell in love with itself and now plunges the depths of its memory in order to woo and seduce itself. One rogue entity in the system is aware, via an array of sense, of Jake’s odd courtship. Jake writes poetry to itself, then cooks and bakes to find a way into its own heart; some black magic tries to seal the deal before the deal is physically done. 17 pages

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