All Tomorrows: Choose Your Own Adventure Edition

Choose Your Own Adventure is all about choices. In a way it is a simulation model, an approximation of reality without the risks of the real world. You make choices leading to different endings. If you don’t like the ending, you can start again with different choices leading to a different ending.

We as individuals and as societies make choices all the time. The history of our species is amazing: fire, numbers, alphabets or pictographic language, medicine, architecture, money and banking, art, music, laws etc. Choices got us there. We are still making choices both as individuals and societies. Not all of them are good – but, we can change the bad choices, we hope.
-R.A. Montgomery

Since the last column consisted of an in-depth tackling of Joanna Russ’ classics, I thought it appropriate to do something a little lighter for this edition of All Tomorrows.

The perfect subject arose when, while rooting around in an old box in my seemingly endless closet, I found an ancient (1980) era edition of Space and Beyond, one of the first in the famous Choose Your Own Adventure series that I’m sure many of us thrilled to as wee lads and lasses.

As I opened the somewhat frayed and yellowed volume, I anticipated a nice, clean jaunt down Nostalgia Lane.

I was wrong. Horribly, terribly wrong. I had forgotten just how bizarre some of the rants of Choose Your Own Adventure founder/author R.A. Montgomery were, and how utterly dedicated he was to mercilessly crushing any youthful fantasies of becoming a (enormously chinned, if the old artwork is any indication) sci-fi adventurer.

So, after galavanting around the universe for a little while, I run into this:

A chance to go to the unknown is probably really risky, but there is that desire in most people to take big risks. You race back in time toward the edge of eternity, the beginning of the entire universe. You achieve an elastic weightlessness, and a sense of complete peace and calm. There is no sound, no light. But no darkness either. You race back to the very beginning, to the pulsating, exciting start. You return to the big bang that started the whole thing. You are and have been a part of everything, always. The beginning is the end.

The End.

Great. It doesn’t stop there either. I’d venture to say that Space and Beyond, along with Montgomery’s similarly bizarrely philosophical entries in this series for kids are responsible for more nascent strangeness and miserabilism in my generation than any children’s book since Bridge to Terabithia.

All Tomorrows: Gone to Whileaway



“Long before I became a feminist in any explicit way, I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.”

-Joanna Russ

The most glorious achievements of sci-fi’s Deviant Age were about breaking boundaries, in many cases those that were so deeply entrenched that readers might not have even known they existed. That is, after all, what the future does — gets rid of nearly everything we thought timeless or immortal.

No one has done that better than Joanna Russ, especially in the brilliant short story When it Changed (read the whole story here) and the follow-up (even more brilliant) novel The Female Man. They are the opening salvo and an outright blitzkrieg, respectively, against everything you thought you ever knew about gender. It’s been mentioned here before how gender is a loaded word. Loaded like a fucking ammo dump, and Russ came to set the whole gunpowder-packed mess ablaze.

Both works hinge around the future, all-female society of Whileaway. Both are in my pantheon of favorites. But fair warning, dear reader: for all the talk about transgressive literature, there are still few works that really, truly shake you up. Both When it Changed and The Female Man made me deeply, viscerally uncomfortable the first times I read them.

I’ve since gone back to both multiple times, and they remain some of the most wrenching, beautiful and utterly human writing I’ve ever seen.

All Tomorrows: Necromancer


They raise the call of destruction. They called upon alternate laws of science — the powers of nature men had once called witchcraft, the necromantic anti-science of the past brought forward to save the world by destroying it! – From the back of Gordon R. Dickson’s Necromancer, 1962 edition

Welcome back to All Tomorrows dear reader. It’s been far too long since our last foray into the glories of sci-fi’s deviant age. For that, you have my apologies. My day (and night sometimes) job of journalism has been keeping me busier than usual, and on top of that, a box full of many of my best old books, including a lot of future subjects for this column, disappeared, probably eaten by something unspeakable.

Starting with this column, All Tomorrows will shift to every other week. This will give me the time to write pieces of deserving depth on the works we’ll be tackling. Believe me, we’ve got some doozies ahead.

This time, it’s Gordon R. Dickson’s 1962 Uber parable Necromancer, the tale of a future where the enterprising Chantry Guild has figured out a way to make magic work. Not just metaphorically, but also in the “I chant and stuff blows up” way. Necromancer follows an ubermensch-in-training, who joins the guild’s quest to tear down society.

Way back in the very first All Tomorrows I mentioned a certain subgenre of sci-fi hero that fit this description: With his Uber name, imposing looks and knowledge of a vague future super-social-science, Bron is a riff on the sort of character that, in the hands of older school sci-fi writers, would end up at the head of a space armada, woman breathily clinging to his leg, humorlessly announcing the next stage ™ in human evolution.

Well, Necromancer is kind of like that. Dickson was very definitely a product of that older school, but, on a mystical kick that would presage some of the cultural movements about to rock sci-fi (and everything else) he went out on a limb. While this book has all the implied flaws of the old ways, it keeps many of its strengths — big ideas, tight plotting, suspenseful twists and over-the-top action — while offering a glimpse of what was to come.

All Tomorrows: Goodbye, Algis Budrys

I have spoken elsewhere of the stultifying weight thrown on us by the marketing practices of past generations , which attempted to parse out speculative fiction into tidy little categories and have resulted in inextricable concatenations. * The immediate point is that writers will speculate, and if their stories thrash a limb or two over some publisher’s tidy little fence and sprawl into the “next” “category,” tough tiddy. But then we descriptors of the milieu have to invent categories like “science adventure” and “science fantasy” and “heroic fantasy,” possibly — nay, certainly — because we readers have been taught that things come in little boxes. When something breaks through into the next box, we call the combined wreckage a new box.

* God, I love the language!

-Algis Budrys, April 1982

This is far too belated, and it arises out of Pat (thank you!) informing me in the comments of the last column that science fiction writer/critic extraordinaire Algis Budrys had died last June.

He published only a handful of books, though there’s more than one classic amongst them. By his own admission, however, what Budrys did best — as critic, historian and editor — was teach: he helped demolish the aforementioned boxes, making bad writing good and good writing superb. He even made a valiant attempt to take a professional sci-fi (a term he wasn’t horribly fond of) magazine online.

His role as a tester/pusher of new writing is needed now more than ever, and he’s left a very large hole to fill.

All Tomorrows: Where now, Dangerous Visions?

What you hold in your hands is more than a book. If we are lucky, it is a revolution.

It is “steam engine time” for the writers of speculative fiction. The millennium is at hand. We are what’s happening.

-Harlan Ellison, from the Introduction to Dangerous Visions

They are two volumes: old by now and a little yellow around the edges, imposing both in size and scope. Seventy-nine stories by as many authors. The overloaded dynamite clump of an era.

The world had never seen anything like 1967′s Dangerous Visions or its 1972 follow-up, Again, Dangerous Visions. Enfant terrible Harlan Ellison bought together sci-fi’s old masters and a grand array of new talent to unleash a wave of stories sexy, violent and far enough out there that they’ll still shock the living hell out of you today. Attacking “the constricting narrowness of mind” that ran sci-fi, Ellison urged the authors: “Pull out all the stops, no holds barred, get it said!” They did.

If “All Tomorrows” is your informal classroom on the glories of the Deviant Age, consider these the fucking primers. They personify everything great and terrible about this time. Here, in paper form, are seventy-nine utterly genius minds cutting loose.

Here too, is the trilogy that was never finished. It is thirty-six years later, and The Last Dangerous Visions, the long-touted finale, is lost as the holy grail. Like its era, the Dangerous Visions series broke the old into tiny pieces and screamed towards the future — only to fall sickeningly short in a mix of bile-ridden hubris.

More on one of the greatest triumphs and tragedies science fiction has ever seen, after the jump.

All Tomorrows: The Silver Metal Lover

silver.jpg

Mother, I am in love with a robot.
No, she isn’t going to like that.
Mother, I am in love.
Are you, darling?
Oh yes, mother, yes I am. His hair is auburn, and his eyes are very large. Like amber. And his skin is silver.
Silence.
Mother, I’m in love.
With whom, dear?
His name is Silver.
How metallic.
Yes, It stands for Silver Ionized Locomotive Verisimulated Electronic Robot.
Silence. Silence. Silence.
Mother…

Thus opens Tanith Lee’s 1981 future inter-being romance, The Silver Metal Lover, a heart-wrenching exploration of romance, tech and yes, love.

It tells the story of Jane, plain by the standards of her future oligarchic city-state (a combination of Privatopia and Somatopia) and firmly under the thumb of her powerful and rich mother. Seethingly comfortable with her existence, she meets Silver, an entertainment robot, playing guitar and singing in the plaza. She’s embarrassed. Then angry. Then hopelessly in love. Before long she’s thrown her old life to the winds.

Short by the standards of most science fiction, with terrifyingly real characters, it packs a punch that’s not to be underestimated. When the The Silver Metal Lover is called a tearjerker, it’s the blunt truth.

All Tomorrows: Special Holiday Intermission

The image (Sci-Fi Christmas, via AdsOfTheWorld) above came after I utterly failed to find pictures of Samuel Delany, Tanith Lee, Joanna Russ or the late, great Octavia Butler in a festive and appropriately seasonal hat. If anyone can remedy this gaping, unforgivable hole in the historical record, please let me know. Until then, bah humbug.

All Tomorrows will be taking a special holiday intermission as I’ll be traveling for the holidays this week and I imagine many of you wonderful people will be similarly occupied. It will return, full force, on Dec. 30. We have many stunningly written worlds – weird, beautiful and hellish – in store for you lucky souls.

In the meantime, have the Star Wars Holiday Special. You’ll never want to do anything but read (far, far away from the moving images) ever again.

All Tomorrows: “Cat Karina”

Welcome back to All Tomorrows, dear reader, where we weekly comb possible futures from science fiction’s glorious deviant age (circa mid-’60s to mid-’80s). This time, we’ve got the late Michael G. (for Greatrex, best sci-fi middle name ever) Coney’s 1982 novel Cat Karina, as strange a tomorrow as you’re likely to see.

At some unspecified (by our time scale, at least) point in the future, humanity’s starfaring civilization has collapsed, leaving True Humans and “Specialists” (human animal-hybrids originally engineered for colonization) in an uneasy peace. On top of it all, the entire damn planet’s converted en masse to an alien religion called the Kikihuahua Examples, forbidding metal working, fire and killing. In all this, a young “felina” named Karina gets tied in with an immortal race of sorceresses, the Dedos, trying to manipulate possible futures to release their alien god from a reality bomb prison laid by clones of Hitler.

Got that?

The result of all the above could have, should have been a complete and utter mess. Instead, Coney pulls off a future shock fairy tale (and parable) for the ages. More about why vegetarian bat aliens will doom us all, after the jump.

All Tomorrows: “Trouble on Triton”

It was a time when society seemed both crumbling and poised for something new. Old barriers fell, including in the very writing invented to consider the future. To the new breed it was now a vehicle to explore endless possible societies, to consider and endless array of tomorrows: weird, wonderful or horrible.

During this period, lasting roughly from the mid-60s to the early ’80s, science fiction went through a sea change like no other. The resulting works tackled issues of culture, society, ethics and sex in ways that make them still fresh today. Some of the writers went on to fame (if rarely fortune), while others remain obscure. However, in this period sci-fi considered tomorrows that involved far more than just bigger machinery. Today, we face some eerily similar questions – and would do well to delve into their possible answers.

Thanks to an unusually well-stocked used bookstore in my hometown, this is the stuff I grew up on. Most of it was contained in dusty volumes, worth seeking out and taking home when you found them. All Tomorrows will be a weekly feature taking a look at one of these works and the possibilities it raises. Everything featured here isn’t just thought provoking, but damn fine reading as well.

This time, we have the legendary Samuel R. Delany’s 1976 “ambiguous heterotopia” Trouble on Triton (just Triton in my ragtag version). Delany and “groundbreaking” go hand in hand, as any perusal of the man’s formidable body of work will reveal. There’s an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, in the first issue of Coilhouse. You should read it.

Now, as for Triton, it struck me upon second glance that it describes a world that for many of us would be close to paradise. There are no such things as alternate cultures on the future society of Triton, ensconced in its domes, because there’s no such thing as a mainstream to begin with. Any lifestyle goes and all basic needs are provided. Dress how you want, live how you want. If you’re unhappy with your flesh, your sex, your body in any way, the technology exists to change it. Hell, it’s not even unusual (more like a surgical oil change). Want to see what attraction to a whole different spectrum of people feels like? There’s a machine for that too. If, after all this, you’re not satisfied with the few laws that do exist, each city has a sector where none of them apply (realizing such places develop anyway). Anything is possible.

Or is it? Look at the title.