Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Space Opera: Then and Now

The following is the introduction to my 2014 anthology Space Opera, which collected outstanding 21st Century short fiction in the Space Opera subgenre.

Space Opera: Then and Now

by Rich Horton


The term space opera was coined by the late great writer/fan Wilson (Bob) Tucker in 1941, and at first was strictly pejorative. Tucker used the term, analogous to radio soap operas, for “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn[s].” The term remained largely pejorative until at least the 1970s. Even so, much work that would now be called space opera was written and widely admired in that period . . . most obviously, perhaps, the work of writers like Edmond Hamilton and, of course, E. E. “Doc” Smith. To be sure, even as people admired Hamilton and Smith, they tended to do so with a bit of disparagement: these were perhaps fun, but they weren’t “serious.” They were classic examples of guilty pleasures. That said, stories by the likes of Poul Anderson, James Schmitz, James Blish, Jack Vance, Andre Norton, and Cordwainer Smith, among others, also fit the parameters of space opera and yet received wide praise.

It may have been Brian Aldiss who began the rehabilitation of the term with a series of anthologies in the mid 1970s: Space Opera (1974), Space Odysseys (1974), and Galactic Empires (two volumes, 1976). Aldiss, whose literary credentials were beyond reproach, celebrated pure quill space opera as “the good old stuff,” even resurrecting all but forgotten stories like Alfred Coppel’s “The Rebel of Valkyr,” complete with barbarians transporting horses in spaceship holds. Before long writers and critics were defending space opera as a valid and vibrant form of SF. (Coppel, by the way, reimagined “The Rebel of Valkyr” much later as a series of very enjoyable young adult books, undeniably Space Opera, beginning with The Rebel of Rhada (1968), under the pseudonym Robert Cham Gilman.)

By the early 1990s there was talk of “the new space opera” at first largely a British phenomenon, exemplified by the work of Colin Greenland (such as Take Back Plenty) and Iain M. Banks (such as Use of Weapons) - both of those novels were first published in 1990. “The new space opera,” it seems to me, was essentially the old space opera, updated as much science fiction had been by 1990, with a greater attention to writing quality, and a greater likelihood of featuring women or people of color as major characters, and perhaps a greater likelihood of left-wing political viewpoints. Once one noted the existence of “the new space opera” it was easy to look back and see earlier examples, such as Melissa Scott’s Silence Leigh books (beginning with Five-Twelfths of Heaven (1985)), M. John Harrison’s cynical The Centauri Device (1974), and Samuel R. Delany’s Nova (1968). One might also adduce Earthblood (1966), by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown, which takes a somewhat more cynical view of its hero than most Space Opera up to that point.

[I need to acknowledge here an observation that Cora Buhlert made, and I thank her for it. I completely dropped the ball by failing to mention the important (and very popular) work in this "pre-New Space Opera" time frame of two essential writers, both Grand Masters: C. J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold. Much of Cherryh's work is certainly Space Opera, and an exceptional example of it. Lots of people will cite the Foreigner books, or the Union/Alliance books, but I confess an abiding fondness for some very early novels: Brothers of Earth (1976), Hunter of Worlds (1977), and the Faded Sun trilogy (1978-1979). About a decade after Cherryh began publishing, Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar books started appearing, beginning with Shards of Honor (1986). These are often called Military SF, and certain cross all sorts of subgenre boundaries (as books should!) but books about a space-based empire involving wars between planets certainly fit the Space Opera mold. I feel sure that in addition to Delany, Scott, and Harrison the books of Cherryh and Bujold were part of the brew that "New Space Opera" writers were either extending or reacting to.]

Nova is my personal choice as the progenitor of space opera as a revitalized genre, but that’s probably a largely personal choice. (Nova is one of my favorite novels). Others could certainly point to something different: perhaps Barrington Bayley’s The Star Virus (1970 in book form, but a shorter version appeared in 1964). Even more sensibly one could say that space opera never went away—what about Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956), to name just one seminal earlier work?

Perhaps, then, The Centauri Device is in retrospect the key work. Harrison conceived it explicitly as “antispace opera,” and it was a reaction not just to the likes of Doc Smith, but to Nova, which  Harrison had called “a waste of time and talent.” To quote Harrison himself, from his blog: “I never liked that book [The Centauri Device] much but at least it took the piss out of sf’s three main tenets: (1) The reader identification character always drives the action; (2) The universe is knowable; (3) the universe is anthropocentrically structured & its riches are an appropriate prize for people like us.”

I should note in this context that my suggestions that books like Nova and The Centauri Device were important to the development of "The New Space Opera", especially the British version of same, have been plausibly challenged by Ian Sales -- who certainly knows whereof he speaks. Sales suggest that both Nova and The Centauri Device were not widely available in the UK by the early 1990s, when books like Use of Weapons appeared, and suggests a closer link to "Radical Hard SF", as exemplified by British writers like Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter (both of whom certainly have written Space Opera.) 

Even if The Centauri Device verges on parody, and explicitly disapproves of its subgenre, those three principles do suggest an alternate path for space opera, perhaps a truer definition of the “new” space opera: less likely to be anthropocentric in approach, less likely to accept that the universe is knowable, less likely to have the main character succeed (if he or she still does drive the action). And, anyway, Harrison returned to space opera with his remarkable recent trilogy, Light (2002), Nova Swing (2006) and Empty Space (2012). Those books certainly read like space opera to me, but they also certainly tick the boxes Harrison lists above (Harrison also, less importantly perhaps, started a trend for clever ship names in The Centauri Device, using phrases from the Bible and Kipling for spaceships named Let Us Go Hence and The Melancholia that Transcends All Wit.  That led, it would seem, to Iain M. Banks’ famous names for his Culture ships, and to similarly cute names in the work of many other writers.)

At any rate, once established as an essentially respectable branch of SF, space opera has continued to flourish. Some of it shows aspects of Harrison’s model, at least in parts, other stories are as triumphalist as anything that came before, more often we see a mix. A good recent example might be Tobias Buckell’s Xenowealth series, beginning with Crystal Rain (2006) - featuring heroes and heroines from nontraditional cultures, and somewhat ambiguous about the place of humans in a hostile universe, but also most assuredly featuring main characters with tons of agency and ability to drive the plot, and a general sense of cautious and perhaps conditional optimism.

The list of enjoyable space opera novels in recent years is long - notable practitioners include Alastair Reynolds, Karl Schroeder, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Nancy Kress, John Barnes, Elizabeth Moon, and James S. A. Corey; and I could go on for some time.

This book collects short fiction, however. One of the near defining characteristics of space opera is a wide screen, and this seems to drive longer works. It’s not nearly as easy to evoke the feeling of vastness, of extended action, that we love in space opera over a shorter length. But it can of course be done. Two of the best books of the past few years are original anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan: The New Space Opera, and The New Space Opera 2. These are packed with delicious stories, undeniable space opera of a variety of modes and moods, and they show that you don’t need five hundred pages for a good space opera. I’ve chosen a piece or two from each of these books for this volume.

I also must mention one newer writer in particular: the remarkable Yoon Ha Lee. He has yet to publish a novel [he has since, of course, with the outstanding Machineries of Empire books, certainly themselves very much space opera], but an array of striking stories has already established an impressive reputation. He has written work in multiple subgenres, but one of his continuing themes is war, and often war in space, between planets . . . which means, more or less, space opera. And in the briefest of spaces (see what I did there?) he can evoke a war extending across centuries and light years.

So, this book, which collects twenty-two outstanding stories, some traditional space opera in flavor, others which look at those themes from different directions; some set across interstellar spaces, others confined to the Solar System; some intimate character stories, other action packed; some (perhaps most) concerned with war and the effects of war, but others more interested in the grand spaces of the universe. But all, above all, fun.

[From the perspective of 2021, I will add, it's easy to see that just as I was writing (in mid-2013) we were beginning to witness a spectular explosion of wonderful new Space Opera. Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice appeared that year, and in 2016 came Yoon Ha Lee's Revenant Gun. Leckie won a Hugo for Ancillary Justice, and another excellent Space Opera, Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire (2019) also took that award. Add excellent recent work by Kameron Hurley, K. B. Wagers, Gareth Powell, Karen Lord, Aliette de Bodard, Tim Pratt, Elizabeth Bear, and many others, and it's clear we are in a great time for Space Opera.]


Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Old Bestseller Review: Harlequin House, by Margery Sharp

Harlequin House, by Margery Sharp

a review by Rich Horton


I recently read Margery Sharp's first novel, Rhododendron Pie, in its 2021 reprint from the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press. And I reviewed it here, so I will dispatch with  my quick summaries of my past experience with Sharp as both a children's author (The Rescuers) and an adult author (Cluny Brown et. al.), and also with the potted mini bio. All I will say is, having read Rhododendron Pie, I quickly proceeded to another of the Furrowed Middlebrow Sharp reprints, her 1939 novel Harlequin House.

Her first novel was quite nice, but by this one, her 8th, she had fully hit her stride. Indeed, I've read the novel preceding it (The Nutmeg Tree) and the two following it (The Stone of Chastity and Cluny Brown), and clearly by this period she had fully found her voice and her subject matter -- the latter being eccentrics, people just a step outside conventional British mores, just enough to titillate, but fundamentally attractive to any sympathetic reader. 

Harlequin House concerns, at the "romantic" heart of the story, a pair of siblings, Lisbeth and Ronny Campion. But Sharp chooses to tell the story primarily via another, unrelated, character, an older man named Mr. Partridge. Mr. Partridge runs a lending libary in the seaside town of Dortmouth. He appears an entirely respectably widower, but he has a streak of "lawlessness", represented among other things by his habit of interpreting the word "soon" in the "back soon" sign he posts on the door of his library whenever he takes a break rather liberally. While wondering his town, and particularly the resort hotel, he takes pleasure in watching people, such as beautiful Lisbeth Campion, whom he notes "resisting the attentions" of a great many hopeless young men. 

We soon learn that Lisbeth and Ronny were raised by a couple of maiden aunts, and their married sister. Lisbeth is engaged, to a man who is now in India, in the Army. But she still seems to take an interest in other men, such as the somewhat older Charles Lambert. Her aunts, the Miss Pickerings, are quite respectable, and her other aunt, Mrs. Maule of Australia, even more so. But her brother Ronny is prone to getting in trouble. And when Mr. Partridge sees Lisbeth getting in a car with Mr. Lambert, he decides to jump, fancying himself, perhaps, an impromptu chaperon. The car, however, is going to London, and Mr. Lambert shows no special interest in Miss Campion's virtue. Instead he drops her off ... and Mr. Partridge reveals himself. And quickly learns Lisbeth's story -- she's been visiting her brother, who has been doing time for dealing cocaine (by accident, he swears.) 

The upshot is that Mr. Partridge finally loses his job, and Lisbeth and Ronny, after a temporary stay with her strictest Aunt, Mrs. Maule, who is visiting from Australia, end up in a menage with him, called "Harlequin House" after Lisbeth lets her decorating insterests go. The idea is that Lisbeth is supposed to reform Ronny by getting him a good job; and the reality is that while Lisbeth is a good worker when she needs to me, and while Mr. Partridge (who finds an amusing job of his own) is glad to pitch in, the feckless Ronny never does a lick of work. The clock is ticking until Lisbeth's fiance returns from India to get married ...

The reader knows what's going to happen. There is no way that Hugh Brocard and Lisbeth are a reasonable match ... and the only hope for Ronny is a woman that will keep him in line ... and Mr. Partridge? Well, he's a survivor, that's for sure. The book proceeds forward to the inevitable conclusion, and that's not what matters. What matters is the sheer comic fun (light comic, not slapstick nor, really, satire) of it all. Lisbeth's rackety but goodhearted ways. Ronny's rackety but frankly wholly irresponsible and not in a good way ways. And Mr. Partridge, never quite understanding the Campions, indeed often wholly on the wrong foot, but always willing to go along with things; while effortlessly making friends with the other people in their house, such as the Walkers, genius level bakers; or T. Cubitt the grocer; and with the folks at the pub he quickly gravitates to. Mr. Partridge, of course, valiantly tries to prevent Lisbeth from doing wrong with the American man who seems much taken with her -- but even in that case he proves no match for Lisbeth's aunt Miss Pickering, who between visits to the Anti-Vivisection society is able to understand who is best for Lisbeth's future.

So what of the book. It is really lovely stuff -- one of those books that not only makes you laugh, but makes you smile throughout. It's the lightest of confections, sure -- and not all of Sharp's books are quite so light (though they are never "heavy", nor "dark",) but the lightness is in service of the reader's delight. I continue to be convinced that Margery Sharp is a writer wholly worthy of wide rediscovery.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Birthday Review: The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

 The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

a brief look by Rich Horton


The Master and Margarita is a famous 20th Century Russian novel. It's also a fantasy novel, and a comic novel, and one of the great novels of the 20th Century. This is a slightly polished version of a fairly brief review I wrote back in 2000, reproduced here for the 130th anniversary of Bulgakov's birth on May 15, 1891.

It's set in Moscow, apparently in the '20s or '30s. One day a couple of literati are talking when they meet a strange man.  Before long the man is laughing at their confident assertion that the Jesus and the Devil don't exist, and telling a story about Pontius Pilate and his encounter with Jesus, or Yeshua, and also predicting the death of one of the two men.  When the death occurs, the other man goes mad. The strange man, who is, of course, the devil, and his associates, including most memorably a talking, gun-toting, very large, black cat, are spreading havoc throughout Moscow. Most spectacular is a catastrophic magic show. Those Muscovites who encounter the devilish group are mostly humiliated, sometimes killed or driven mad. One notable, perhaps ambiguous, exception, is the case of the Master, who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate which has been excoriated by the figures in power in the Moscow literary world, and his lover Margarita. Margarita encounters the devil, and goes through hell itself in an attempt to free the Master.

That's a very brief and perhaps not very persuasive description. But it really is a remarkable book. In some part it is a satire of the Soviet system, and perhaps for people in the present day not all of that lands. But that doesn't really matter. The book also satirizes the Russian literary scene -- and, again, we may not recognize the specific targets but it remains incisive and funny. Indeed it is a very funny book, and a very strange book. It presents an odd combination of very sharp and funny satire, striking descriptive passages, and some very moving events. It also has the power of staying in your head after you read it. And I found the several long passages about Pilate and Yeshua and Matthias the Levite very affecting as well. The fate of the title pair is powerful and perhaps confusing. 

I read the Michael Glenny translation.  There are at least three others: a truncated version by Mirra Ginsburg (which dates, with the Glenny, to about 1967, when the book was first allowed to be published by the Soviet authorities), a more recent, quite highly regarded version, by Diana Burgin and Kathryn Tiernan O'Connor and an even new translation by the famous team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  The novel itself was written between about 1928 and Bulgakov's death in 1940.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Review: The Merman and the Book of Power, by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

The Merman and the Book of Power, by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

a review by Rich Horton


This is labeled "a quissa", which is "a fabulist storytelling form common to the oral and written literatures of Urdu, Persian, and Arabic". Wikipedia also suggests it's a particularly important literary form in the Punjab, a region common to both India and Pakistan. In this book the form involves a central plot interweaved with a great many shorter accounts which illuminate elements of the main narrative. The author is a scholar as well as a writer of fiction, and his story is based, the author's note says, on the "parallel histories, myths and multiple personas for Apollonius of Tyana, Hermes Trismegistus, Alexander the Great in the Western and Eastern literary canon, and the various religious, occult, and apocalyptic traditions associated with them." As such, many of the short tales are adaptations and translations of older texts. But this should not give you the impression that the book is at all dry -- instead, it is continually readable and interesting, telling a fine tale along with a host of fascinating older stories and descriptions of marvelous things.

The book opens with the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, but the real action starts a year later, when a strange creature -- a merman -- is brought to Baghdad. The Governor, intrigued, arranges for him -- the merman's name is Gujastak -- to be housed away from the palace, under the care of Qazwini, an astronomer and also a religious authority. Qazwini becomes the central character of this book. It is his scholarly knowledge that (as a literary convention) allows us access to the numerous vignettes about historical events, magical creatures, old tales, and philosophical ideas that are interlaced with the primary story.

This central story concerns the captive merman and his lust for another captive, a slave girl called Aydan. Qazwini himself is attracted to Aydan, and much is made of her animalistic nature, and that of Gujastak, which is implicitly contrasted with Qazwini's less impressive vigor. Another major thread concerns an historical (to Qazwini) mission to Central Asia to investigate a "rampart" constructed to contain Gog and Magog, who may bring about the end of the world. 

The result is an always fascinating amalgam of philosophical speculation, historical narrative, folklore and folk tales, and many stories of fantastical beasts. It never fails to entertain, and at the same time intrigue, with truly profound inquisition into the nature of the creatures described, the historical context, the religious context. And most of all, the book never bores -- it is frankly fun reading, no matter the depth of its imagination.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Answers: Quiz about SF Aliens

Here are the answers, with a bit of commentary, to the quiz I posted the other day.

Thanks again to Steven Silver and John O'Neill (as well as several members of the trivia league) for helping me improve the question set, including some excellent proposed questions.

1. There are many aliens depicted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This alien race may be hard to depict definitively, as they are shapeshifters, but they do have a typical form. They appeared in Captain Marvel in the MCU, and in the comics as early as an issue of Fantastic Four in 1962. What is the name of this alien raceClick here

Answer: SKRULL 

The most common wrong answer, as I expected, was Kree. This was a latish addition to my question set -- I wanted a question about the MCU with a fairly gettable alien. I expected it to play moderately easy, and 60% is about what I'd have predicted. I will confess I'm not a huge fan of Marvel movies, but I did watch many of them. (Logan is the best recent superhero movie, though. Fight me! :) )

2. What's the common name for this cowardly species featured in many of Larry Niven's Known Space stories? The name is perhaps ironic as this species doesn't seem to have the appendages normally used by the human performers known by that name. Click here

Answer: (PIERSON'S) PUPPETEERS 

The most common wrong answer was "Jugglers" at almost 12%. A logical guess, for sure. I read Larry Niven's Known Space stories with immense enjoyment back in the '70s. Niven is a Grand Master now, something I think many readers might have predicted as early as 1975. The Puppeteers were a interesting species, and quietly perhaps the most powerful in Known Space. There were lots of aliens in Niven's books, but the Puppeteers were one of the more interesting looking ones. By the way, the illustration of the Puppeteer shown here is by Wayne Barlowe, from his wonderful book Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, which I bought way back in 1979 when it first came out. Barlowe also provided the illustration of the Overlord used in Q9.

3. The aliens portrayed here are examples of the Tenctonese, or Newcomers, who were introduced in which 1988 movie that spawned a TV series along with several TV movies, and which played on the idea of aliens from another planet who are treated not-dissimilarly to "illegal aliens" once they end up on Earth. Click here

Answer: ALIEN NATION

The most common wrong answer was Coneheads. Alien Nation, the movie, came out in 1988, and the TV series followed a year later, lasting only one season. Five TV movies appeared throughout the '90s. The concept was that aliens fleeing slavery on a distant planet crash on Earth, and seek sanctuary as refugees. The franchise drew praise for its fairly serious treatment of the issues of immigration and racism, which were as charged then as they are now. A remake, currently planned as a ten episode series, is rumored for later in 2021.

4. Many aliens in SF strongly resemble non-human Earth species. One example, illustrated here by Michael Whelan, is the species at the center of one of C. J. Cherryh's most popular book series. Though these lion-like creatures are called hani, the books in the series all feature the family (or "pride") name of the hani ship captain who is the protagonist. What name is that? Click here

Answer: CHANUR

The most common wrong answer was Leo. This played the hardest of the set, as I had expected. (Alas, books always seem to come in behind movies and TV!) But I was definitely going to have several book-related questions, and I felt that C. J. Cherryh, another SF Grand Master, deserved the notice. (Also, she was born in my town, St. Louis, though she's best known as an Oklahoman.) Cherryh has published exceptional work since her first novels, Gate of Ivrel and Brothers of Earth, appeared in 1976. Her novels feature any number of truly fascinating aliens, with noticeably different social and political structures than humans and each other. I chose the Hani because the Chanur trilogy is one of her most popular sets of books -- not popular enough, I guess!

5. This lovely alien, played by Jane Badler, looks much different when you peel the skin off -- indeed, her baby might look much like the alien child pictured here. She and her fellows invaded Earth in this 1980s miniseries. Click here

Answer: V 

The most common wrong answer was Invasion of the Body Snatchers. V was quite a sensation when it first showed up, and I well remember the shocking moment when one of the Visitors peeled off their skin to reveal the lizardlike creature beneath. I have to admit I lost interest not too far into the series, though. There were eventually a number of TV movies, a number of novels, and a reboot in 2008. A feature movie was rumored to be in the works a couple of years ago, but nothing seems to have come of that.

6. Humanoid aliens are common, but depictions of aliens who look much different are rarer, and of those who think completely differently rarer still. One of the best attempts at the latter is depicted in this scene, as humans try to decode a language that indicates the aliens have a non-linear experience of time. The images are from which 2017 film, which was based on Ted Chiang's Nebula-winning novella "Story of Your Life"? Click here

Answer: ARRIVAL

The most common wrong answers were Contact and Interstellar. I was going to have an Arrival question all along, because I think "Story of Your Life" possibly the best novella of the past quarter century, and one of the most truly mind-blowing SF stories I've ever read (and some of the other candidates are also by Chiang!), and also a very moving tale. The movie version, directed by Dennis Villeneuve (who gets mentioned later in these questions!) was a very worthy adaptation, though, perhaps inevitably, not quite as good as the novella. 

7. This 1980s TV alien lived with the Tanner family after his spaceship crashed. His name may remind you of Bruce Wayne's butler, but it was derived as an initialism for which three word phrase. (Full phrase, please.) Click here

Answer: ALIEN LIFE FORM

I knew this would play quite easy, but it played a bit easier than I had hoped. And, yes, it's yet another '80s TV series! Sorry about that. In retrospect, I probably should have replaced one of the three '80s TV questions. For me, there was less Science Fictional meat to this show than any of the others mentioned -- the point was the jokes, of course. As with the other '80s shows discussed, there were recent whispers of a potential remake, but nothing has come of that. And, of course, rumors that the Tanners of ALF and the Tanners of Full House were related have never gone away!

8. This picture depicts an "oankali" with a human. The oankali are "alien", but their mission can be said to bridge gaps so that no species is alien to the others, by combining genetic material from many species. They feature in a a trilogy by MacArthur prize-winning writer Octavia Butler. The trilogy is widely known by two different names -- one a Greek-derived word roughly describing the oankali mission, the other derived from a Hebrew tradition about a demon that mated with humans. Give either collective name for this trilogy. Click here

Answers: LILITH'S BROOD, XENOGENESIS 

Octavia Butler was a tremendous writer, always thought-provoking and challenging, and still very fun to read. As with Cherryh, her first novel appeared in 1976. Also like Cherryh, she was a novelist first, short fiction writer only occasionally, though her short fiction is spectacular. The only reason she's not a Grand Master is her tragically early death at age 58, after a stroke and a fall. All of her work is well worth exploring. The oankali, who travel the Galaxy combining their genes with other species, come to a nearly ruined Earth and save humanity by breeding with some of the survivors and causing the children to have less agressive and hierarchical tendencies than those that lead to Earth's destruction. As such, they are the most interesting aliens (to me) in Butler's oeuvre.

9. Speaking of demons, this is one depiction of the Overlords, aliens whose (eventually) benevolent takeover of Earth is initially resisted partly because their appearance resembles traditional pictures of devils. They appeared in which 1953 Arthur C. Clarke novelClick here

Answer: CHILDHOOD'S END 

The most common wrong answer was another Clarke novel, Rendezvous with Rama. When I was first reading adult SF, in 1972 or so, Clarke, Asimov, and Clifford Simak were the authors I first imprinted on. At that time Childhood's End was regarded as the peak of Clarke's SF writing, though its reputation seems to have diminished a bit. But it's an intriguing and philosophical novel, if a bit bittersweet.

10. Here's a depiction, from a movie poster, of another type of alien invader: a carnivorous and mobile plant. It was featured in a John Wyndham novel that is one of the earliest examples of the "cozy catastrophe" subgenre, and also in a movie released in 1962. What is this alien called, supposedly in part as a vague nod to H. G. Wells' name for the invading war machines in War of the Worlds. Click here

Answer: TRIFFID 

The most common wrong answerwas Tripod, I suppose because of the hint -- I tried to help people avoid that mistake by saying "in part" and "vague". "Cozy Catastrophe" is a term the great Brian W. Aldiss (another Grand Master!) coined specifically in reference to John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, though it applies to other novels by Wyndham, and by other (usually British) novelists such as John Christopher (The Death of Grass) and even (much more ambiguously) J. G. Ballard (The Drowning World) and Anna Kavan (Ice). It refers to an apocalyptic event that leaves a small group of people in fairly comfortable circumstances (though that really isn't true of the Ballard and Kavan novels I mentioned.) Wyndham (real name John Beynon Harris) had considerable success with novels such as The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos, but The Day of the Triffids, perhaps because of the movie, remains the most famous. I enjoy Wyndham's work, but of the novels mentioned above I most recommand Anna Kavan's astonishing Ice.

11. The attached image is of a Krayt Dragon as depicted in The Mandalorian, Chapter 9. However, many viewers thought it greatly resembled a huge creature from the desert world Arrakis in the 1965 Hugo- and Nebula-winning novel Dune (and its raft of sequels.) The animal in these books (and a forthcoming movie directed by Denis Villeneuve) was commonly called what? Click here

Answer: (SAND)WORM (also accepted: MAKER and SHAI-HULUD

Another question that played very easily. Certainly when I first saw the Krayt Dragon in The Mandalorian I said "That's a Sandworm!". (Though it turns out it has legs!) I really enjoyed Dune when I read it long ago, though I gave up on the series after three books. (It continued forever, it seems, even after Frank Herbert's death, when his son Brian along with Kevin J. Anderson kept adding on.) I will say that I am very much looking forward to the Villeneuve film, which will be in two parts, the first one scheduled for this coming October.

12. This is an image of an alien species, the Space Lubbers, from a comic book co-created by Nnedi Okorafor, the Hugo and Nebula-winning author of "Binti". The comics Okorafor created were a spinoff of what very popular movie that was also based on comic book material. Click here

Answer: BLACK PANTHER 

The MCWA was Guardians of the Galaxy. I thought it was pretty cool that Nnedi Okorafor got the chance to write Black Panther comics, and this seemed a good opportunity for an alien as depicted only in comic books. Admittedly, that particular alien isn't terribly familiar, but I thought the rest of the question might point to Black Panther as the likely answer. Perhaps I also should have cited the year the movie came out. The question originally asked "Which author of "Binti" wrote the Black Panther spinoff featuring these aliens?", but I switched it around, partly because it seemed that spelling variations of Okorafor might have been difficult for the scoring team to deal with.

These next five questions didn't appear in the original quiz for one reason or another, but they still seem pretty good to me.

13. This illustration, by Frank R. Paul, of a creature called Tweel comes from the original pulp magazine appearance, in Wonder Stories in 1934, of one of the earlier examples in SF of a sympathetically portrayed alien who nonetheless is very "alien" in behavior. The story ended up in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology. What was its title, implying a long journey on a different planet from Earth? Click here

Answer: A MARTIAN ODYSSEY 

This is the earliest story to appear in the classic anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I. Alas, the author, Stanley G. Weinbaum, died soon after it appeared, and his career never had a chance to truly flourish. In playtesting, it seemed to play quite hard, and I decided that stories I encountered in 1972 or so were not necessarily still remembered today.

14. This scary alien (or robot?) was a mysterious menace in the Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons, called by this avian name which was also the title of a novel Harlan Ellison long claimed to be writing, but never finished. Click here

Answer: SHRIKE

There were two issues with this question: does the Shrike count as an "alien" if it's a robot?; and, the alternate ways "in" to the question, the "avian" hint and, especially, the Ellison novel that never was, weren't as much help as I hoped. But, for all that, I still recommend at least the first two volumes in Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos.

15. Creatures of pure energy are a favorite device of science fiction, writers, and the attached image portrays the Monster from the Id from this movie, one of the most celebrated SF movies of the 1950s. Click here

Answer: FORBIDDEN PLANET 

This was the last question to be cut from the official quiz. There was some question as to whether the "Id Monster" really counted as an alien or as simply a projection of the mind. I'd have liked to have an energy creature, but in the end the "Id Monster" didn't necessarily qualify. Also, it seemed perhaps one old movie too many.

16. A different kind of alien invasion is described in the Wormwood Trilogy (Rosewater. Rosewater Insurrection, The Rosewater Redemption.) The aliens are unseen but they release fungal spores (like those pictured) that change humanity -- and ultimately aim to change all of Earth for the benefit of the aliens. The author is which writer, considered a leading light of the Afrofuturist movement. Click here

Answer: TADE THOMPSON 

I really wanted to make this question work, mostly to promote Tade Thompson, an exceptional writer. Wormwood Trilogy is a fascinating and original work. But the "alien" image (those "fungal spores") was, quite frankly, lame. So in the end this just didn't seem to fit the theme very well. But do check out Tade Thompson!

17. Sometimes aliens become popular enough to be used in toys, or candy promotions, or both at once! As in this alien, depicted as part of your smith's wife's Pez collection. What is the alliterative name given to this antagonist of Bugs Bunny in the Looney Tunes cartoon? Click here

Answer: MARVIN THE MARTIAN

I wish I had thought of using my wife's Pez as the image for this question before I put it in the Smith's note. If I had, I almost certainly would have replaced one of the '80s TV questions with this. I do wonder, however, how much Marvin the Martian is remembered by people younger than, er, me!

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Quiz: Images of Aliens in SF

Following is a quiz I wrote for an online trivia league I am in. The subject matter is aliens in SF books, movies, TV, or comic books. Each question is accompanied by an image of the alien. The quiz ran over the weekend. Some of you may know the winner, David Goldfarb, who was prominent on the great Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written back in its glory days. Tom Galloway, another prominent fan known for his trivia knowledge, also did very well.

I need to thank Steven Silver and John O'Neill (as well as several members of the trivia league) for helping me improve the question set, including some excellent proposed questions.

I will post the answers in a day or two. If you want, you can post your guesses in the comments.

1. There are many aliens depicted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This alien race may be hard to depict definitively, as they are shapeshifters, but they do have a typical form. They appeared in Captain Marvel in the MCU, and in the comics as early as an issue of Fantastic Four in 1962. What is the name of this alien raceClick here

2. What's the common name for this cowardly species featured in many of Larry Niven's Known Space stories? The name is perhaps ironic as this species doesn't seem to have the appendages normally used by the human performers known by that name. Click here

3. The aliens portrayed here are examples of the Tenctonese, or Newcomers, who were introduced in which 1988 movie that spawned a TV series along with several TV movies, and which played on the idea of aliens from another planet who are treated not-dissimilarly to "illegal aliens" once they end up on Earth. Click here

4. Many aliens in SF strongly resemble non-human Earth species. One example, illustrated here by Michael Whelan, is the species at the center of one of C. J. Cherryh's most popular book series. Though these lion-like creatures are called hani, the books in the series all feature the family (or "pride") name of the hani ship captain who is the protagonist. What name is that? Click here

5. This lovely alien, played by Jane Badler, looks much different when you peel the skin off -- indeed, her baby might look much like the alien child pictured here. She and her fellows invaded Earth in this 1980s miniseries. Click here

6. Humanoid aliens are common, but depictions of aliens who look much different are rarer, and of those who think completely differently rarer still. One of the best attempts at the latter is depicted in this scene, as humans try to decode a language that indicates the aliens have a non-linear experience of time. The images are from which 2017 film, which was based on Ted Chiang's Nebula-winning novella "Story of Your Life"? Click here

7. This 1980s TV alien lived with the Tanner family after his spaceship crashed. His name may remind you of Bruce Wayne's butler, but it was derived as an initialism for which three word phrase. (Full phrase, please.) Click here

8. This picture depicts an "oankali" with a human. The oankali are "alien", but their mission can be said to bridge gaps so that no species is alien to the others, by combining genetic material from many species. They feature in a a trilogy by MacArthur prize-winning writer Octavia Butler. The trilogy is widely known by two different names -- one a Greek-derived word roughly describing the oankali mission, the other derived from a Hebrew tradition about a demon that mated with humans. Give either collective name for this trilogy. Click here

9. Speaking of demons, this is one depiction of the Overlords, aliens whose (eventually) benevolent takeover of Earth is initially resisted partly because their appearance resembles traditional pictures of devils. They appeared in which 1953 Arthur C. Clarke novelClick here

10. Here's a depiction, from a movie poster, of another type of alien invader: a carnivorous and mobile plant. It was featured in a John Wyndham novel that is one of the earliest examples of the "cozy catastrophe" subgenre, and also in a movie released in 1962. What is this alien called, supposedly in part as a vague nod to H. G. Wells' name for the invading war machines in War of the Worlds. Click here

11. The attached image is of a Krayt Dragon as depicted in The Mandalorian, Chapter 9. However, many viewers thought it greatly resembled a huge creature from the desert world Arrakis in the 1965 Hugo- and Nebula-winning novel Dune (and its raft of sequels.) The animal in these books (and a forthcoming movie directed by Denis Villeneuve) was commonly called what? Click here

12. This is an image of an alien species, the Space Lubbers, from a comic book co-created by Nnedi Okorafor, the Hugo and Nebula-winning author of "Binti". The comics Okorafor created were a spinoff of what very popular movie that was also based on comic book material. Click here

13. This illustration, by Frank R. Paul, of a creature called Tweel comes from the original pulp magazine appearance, in Wonder Stories in 1934, of one of the earlier examples in SF of a sympathetically portrayed alien who nonetheless is very "alien" in behavior. The story ended up in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology. What was its title, implying a long journey on a different planet from Earth? Click here

14. This scary alien (or robot?) was a mysterious menace in the Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons, called by this avian name which was also the title of a novel Harlan Ellison long claimed to be writing, but never finished. Click here

15. Creatures of pure energy are a favorite device of science fiction, writers, and the attached image portrays the Monster from the Id from this movie, one of the most celebrated SF movies of the 1950s. Click here

16. A different kind of alien invasion is described in the Wormwood Trilogy (Rosewater. Rosewater Insurrection, The Rosewater Redemption.) The aliens are unseen but they release fungal spores (like those pictured) that change humanity -- and ultimately aim to change all of Earth for the benefit of the aliens. The author is which writer, considered a leading light of the Afrofuturist movement. Click here

17. Sometimes aliens become popular enough to be used in toys, or candy promotions, or both at once! As in this alien, depicted as part of your smith's wife's Pez collection. What is the alliterative name given to this antagonist of Bugs Bunny in the Looney Tunes cartoon? Click here