Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
December 2018

Title: The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin
Editor: Lisa Yaszek
Publisher: Library of America

Lisa Yaszek, who along with Patrick B. Sharp previously co-edited the notable Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction, here brings us a very special and even more useful reprint anthology, whose impressive and wide-ranging contents--the first story was published in 1928, the last in 1969--more than amply prove Yaszek's introductory contention that "women who dream about new and better futures . . . have always been with us." Yes they have, and The Future is Female! offers eloquent proof that their visions were intriguing, thoughtful, ambitious, complex, stylistically-encompassing and, for all the futurism avowed by a genre inevitably rooted in the present, steeped in contemporary preoccupations and literary sensibilities, which now cause the texts to dually serve as historical documents. In fact, along with the redoubtable The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, this is as good a one-volume anthology survey of the history and development of our field as any I know.

The twenty-five stories by twenty-six writers--one is a collaboration--are arranged chronologically, and to best appreciate the evolution of the field's tropes, thematic axes, and how later works parallax earlier concepts, I recommend reading them in that order. My two greatest pleasures while working my way through this five-hundred-page volume were discovering writers I'd never heard of before, whose included works have opened up my appetite for further explorations, and encountering new pieces by writers with whom I was familiar. Rather than attempting to discuss every story, then, I'm going to proceed in line with these two considerations.

Before The Future is Female!, I hadn't heard of Clare Winger Harris, Leslie F. Stone, Leslie Perri, Alice Eleanor Jones, Rosel George Brown, Elizabeth Mann Borgese, Doris Pitkin Buck, Alice Glaser or Sonya Dorman, and on those grounds alone I'm thankful to Yaszek for her historical acumen and discerning editorial eye. Her inclusion of extensive biographical notes, arranged by author name, at the end of the volume is also extremely helpful.

Now to the work. Winger Harris opens the book with "The Miracle of the Lily," which effectively evokes a vast sense of time and evolution, depicting the chilling spiritual coldness that would set in with the destruction of all vegetation on Earth in the face of an endless quest to maximize efficiency (an early narrative foreshadowing of climate change fiction?). The story accomplishes this by lensing in on man's relationship with insects, and as was common in the late 20s and early 30s, ends with a twist. (In its original publication in Amazing Stories, April 1928, this surprise is completely spoiled by the illustration on the story's cover page!). Despite the fact that this story is now ninety years old (!), it remains one of my favorites from this selection.

Leslie F. Stone's "The Conquest of Gola", from 1931, might be described as a yarn woven from the entangled threads of exploration and exploitation, and contains the beautiful line: "Their bodies were like a patch work of misguided nature." Leslie Perri's generically-titled "Space Episode," from a decade later, generates a few moments of genuine tension, and ends on a memorable note of gender inversion, but its pulpy aesthetic has dated it. Alice Eleanor Jones's "Created He Them," from 1955, atmospherically conjures a fatalistic, post-nuclear world of forced breeding; its psychological realism makes the doom palpable, and it remains another standout.

I wished I liked Rosel George Brown's "Car Pool," from 1959, which features alien refugee children, better--this was the book's only complete misfire for me, but folks and strokes are thankfully myriad. From the same year, "For Sale, Reasonable" by Elizabeth Mann Borgese--daughter of Thomas Mann--takes the form of an ad attempting to refute inevitable technological and existential obsolescence. Though its premise is simple, and was perhaps already shopworn at the time of the story's publication, it's brilliantly executed: a kind of icy, mock-reportage shell trapping a plaintive plea far below the depths.

Doris Pitkin Buck's "Birth of a Gardener," from 1961, is a sensitive and sophisticated comeuppance fantasy grounded in hard-sf jargon that also lingers long after reading. If Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" (1953; famously adapted by The Twilight Zone in 1961) tickles your fancy, you'll dig this one too. I found Alice Glaser's "The Tunnel Ahead," from 1961, outstanding, an utterly masterful extrapolation of desperation, repressed angst, and mechanized heartlessness as a result of severe overpopulation. It has for me instantly joined the ranks of J. G. Ballard's similarly-themed "Billennium" (1962) as a classic on the topic.

Finally, Sonya Dorman's "When I Was Miss Dow," from 1966, whose single-gender/mode alien protagonist undertakes an exploration of humanity by becoming a female assistant to a male scientist, is a fantastically-rendered extrapolation of the concept of malleability--physical and psychological--vis-à-vis human gender norms and experiences. I'll say, too, that Dorman's narrative hits my stylistic New Wave sweet-spot more strongly than any other in the book. It also suggests one of the anthology's possible limitations: its contents are drawn, almost exclusively, from traditional SF sources and periodicals, which may have somewhat restricted the project's ambit. On the other hand, I'm sympathetic to editorial decisions that impose ultimately necessary constraints, particularly with undertakings of this magnitude.

Of the remaining stories, Carol Emshwiller's "Pelt," published in 1958, strikes me as a wonderfully adept portrayal of communication among non-human intelligences, as well as a poignant exploration of how freedom and loyalty can abut or collide. James Tiptree, Jr.'s "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain," from 1969, like Elizabeth Mann's story, deploys a detached voice to intimate the profound despair underlying the actions of a man who travels across the globe spreading a deadly contagion. Margaret St. Clair's 1951 story "The Inhabited Men" is appealingly acerbic and almost fairy-tale like in its tripartite examination of tragically-fated space explorers; its deft, wry touches remind me of C. M. Kornbluth at his best. Judith Merril's oft-reprinted "That Only a Mother," from 1948, taps into common zeitgeist anxieties around families and nuclear mutation; I'd forgotten its clever inclusion of epistolary exchanges, and was glad to be reminded of it. Joanna Russ's "The Barbarian," from 1968, the third in her fantastic Alyx series, chronicles Alyx's temporary employ by a mysterious magician; its seamless blend of science and magic, torqued by its cunning protagonist and sinewy plot, brings to mind Babylon 5's Technomages. Kate Wilhelm's 1967 "Baby, You Were Great," in which actors' emotions can be directly neurally accessed by viewers, posits a convincing manipulation of the human experience in the service of addictive mass entertainment; a prescient look at psychic voyeurism as manifested by something, say, like reality TV. Ursula K. Le Guin's "Nine Lives," from 1969, is another canonical entry, dazzlingly exploring the notion of cloning and what light it may shed on matters of otherness vs. self, in the process suggesting new questions we haven't yet formulated.

In addition to the writers I've mentioned, the anthology contains strong work by C. L. Moore, Katherine MacLean, Zenna Henderson, Leigh Brackett, Kit Reed and John Jay Wells [Juanita Coulson] and Marion Zimmer Bradley (whose inclusion will surely raise some eyebrows). Of these I want to single out Brackett's "All the Colors of the Rainbow" as a particularly affecting and sadly more-than-ever-relevant take on racism; this story, with a few tweaks, could easily sit alongside, say, Debbie Urbanski's "When They Came to Us" in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017. Less gripping but still worthwhile are entries by Andrew North [Andre Norton] and Mildred Clingerman.

"It is hard to meet a stranger," writes Le Guin in the anthology's last story, "Nine Lives":

"Even the greatest extravert meeting even the meekest stranger knows a certain dread, though he may not know he knows it. Will he make a fool of me wreck my image of myself invade me destroy me change me? Will he be different from me? Yes, that he will. There's the terrible thing: the strangeness of the stranger."

In The Future is Female! Yaszek's expert touch guides our transformational meetings with such strangeness, while simultaneously reminding us of the preciousness and vitality of these encounters.

Title: Star Trek: The Art of John Eaves
Author: Joe Nazzaro
Publisher: Titan Books

I tend not to buy art books related to television or film franchises, because my initial sampling of this relatively recent subgenre revealed to me large, expensive tomes that were essentially glorified collections of stills--static "best of" reels, as it were, with little explanatory context or behind-the-scenes information. I'm delighted I took a chance on Joe Nazzaro's latest opus, which happily bucks the trend.

As soon as I started reading it, I warmed to John Eaves's conversational tone and easygoing manner. Kudos to Nazzaro, a veteran interviewer, for eliciting from Eaves illuminating anecdotes and technical observations in equal measure. The approach is largely chronological, which I think works well in this case. It simultaneously illustrates Eaves's growth as a professional artist in a highly competitive field, and the way his chosen industry has changed in terms of its sought-after skillsets and favored techniques. The trajectory of Eaves's career, from a notable start--his first work was under Grant McCune at Apogee, on films like Invaders from Mars, Top Gun and Spaceballs--to his most recent mega-bucks ventures, such as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, parallels a notable shift in Hollywood away from practical effects and model-building and towards animation and CG design. And yet Eaves's unique talents have seen him not only remain relevant in this transforming landscape, but continue to thrive and push the boundaries of his chosen forms of expression.

One reason that Eaves's journey is so interesting is that he has doubled as an art direction powerhouse--working as a brilliant illustrator and concept artist--and as a model shop and practical prop design guru. Eaves is generous in his praise of the early teachers who encouraged him, and candid about the challenges of overcoming his red-green color blindness. Growing up in Phoenix, AZ, his affinity for science fiction made him an outlier (i.e. "nerd"), but with the support of family and mentors, who spotted his talent, he persevered. Early sources of wonder were Franz Joseph's Star Fleet Technical Manual and Joe Johnston's The Star Wars Sketchbook; influential artists included Nilo Rodis-Jamero, Ralph McQuarrie and Syd Mead. Eaves describes Ron Cobb as a "hero," revealing how Cobbs's sketches for the Dark Star spaceship inspired Eaves to adopt a similar style. Working on Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, thanks to an opportunity provided by Greg Jein (who contributes a glowing Foreword), led to meeting Herman Zimmerman (who pens a second, equally laudatory Foreword), who in turn helped Eaves realize that critical move from the model shop to the art department. Eaves's first real art department gig was on SeaQuest, and he was then hired to work on Star Trek: Generations: on this film he designed the Enterprise-B, generated many prop blueprints, such as that of Soran's handgun, and drew up the Amargosa Observatory, his preferred piece of the film. My own favorite contribution by Eaves to this movie, bar none, is the Stellar Cartography lab.

Complementing the autobiographical dimension, the book is indisputably a triumph on the art front, which will be the main appeal for many readers. And its survey of the Star Trek universe is truly panoramic--how many artists have crossed over from the various Berman-era television series and movies to the Kelvin timeline features and then to its latest TV incarnation on CBS Access? This book is chock full of gorgeous prints and sketches charting this decades-spanning journey, many of which illustrate not just finished products, but the key stages of an idea's visual evolution. Case in point: how the Enterprise-B grew out of pre-existing Excelsior designs, or how the Discovery incorporates elements from Star Trek: Phase II sketches.

It's refreshing, in all this, to see Eaves express his worries on certain projects, or how budget limitations severely hampered the realization of specific visions. During his work on Star Trek: First Contact, for example, Eaves expressed concern about the Borg sphere being too reminiscent of the Death Star. His early stunning designs for the Ba'ku village of Star Trek: Insurrection, which included extensive cliff-side architecture and complex bridges (p. 61) went unrealized. Time and again we see how for a receptive artist inspiration can strike from anywhere. The ribs of the wings of Rua'afo's ship, for example, were conceived after seeing an open grand piano when visiting a Jerry Goldsmith scoring session (p. 72) and a book on predatory birds informed the final design of the Romulan ship Valdore in Star Trek: Nemesis (p. 88-89). The upright swords seen in Conan the Barbarian were a source for the architecture of Vulcan cities in Star Trek: Enterprise (p. 136), and the cover art of Julia Ecklar's novel The Kobayashi Maru prompted certain choices in the rendering of the Kobayashi Maru cargo ship (p. 148) in J. J. Abrams's Star Trek.

Eaves has been an incredibly prolific artist, so it's difficult to single out just one or two pieces for praise. That said, I love his design of the iconic Enterprise-E in Star Trek: First Contact (p. 42-47), his mock science fiction magazine covers in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Far Beyond the Stars" (p. 106), and the Vulcan memento box (p. 176) in Star Trek: Beyond. Though generally satisfyingly thorough, there are a few places where I'd like more detail. We see an intriguing design, for example, for a mixed shuttle combining Federation, Borg and Klingon technology (p. 119), but we're not told if or where it was used. More recently, in the finale of Star Trek: Discovery's first season, we see the original Enterprise (p. 202), but changes were made to its configuration and surface detail (designer Todd Cherniawsky provided notes on these alterations)--what parameters were considered, and to what end were these changes implemented? And so on.

Make no mistake about it, if you're into Star Trek, or enjoy art books related to television and film prop and art design, or are simply curious about the visual evolution of science fiction media, this book is a must-purchase. And even if these subjects don't speak to you personally, consider the needs of your friends, the one or the many--Star Trek: The Art of John Eaves would make for a handsome holiday gift indeed.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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