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The Color of Paradox | Tor.com

The Color of Paradox  by A.M. Dellamonica

Source: The Color of Paradox | Tor.com

“The Color of Paradox,” by A.M. Dellamonica, is a science fiction story about one of a series of time travelers sent back to the past in order to buy more time for the human race, which in the future is on the verge of extinction.

Like some other stories published on Tor.com, “The Color of Paradox” contains scenes and situations some readers will find upsetting and/or repellent. [—The Editors]

 

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.

The last thing they did, before sending me into the past, was shove me to the end of the world.

The Project Mayfly nurse waited as I raised myself onto a wicker table with a surface made of tightly-strung hide, a grid that put me in mind of a tennis racket. The squares of string pressed against the thin fabric of my hospital gown.

As I climbed on, I couldn’t help noticing the drain in the floor. It was a hand’s width away from the letters scratched into the concrete: “16—Hungry.”

There were marks on the wall, too, across from the metal staircase. A timeline, in yellow chalk, running from floor to ceiling, hashed at one-inch intervals. The year 1900 was scrawled at the bottom, the numbers mashed short by the floor. A foot and change upward from that, 1914 and 1916. The nines had a familiar, slightly twisted look to them. They were at once readable and yet not quite perfectly formed. So were the nines in the other chalk digits that followed: 1937 and the current year, 1946.

The nurse dodged the hand I’d put out, just for a last friendly pat, you know. She covered me, toes to chin, with a lead blanket.

“When do you tell me my mission?”

“Willie will send word when you’ve gotten there safe and sound.” The Major’s words came from a speaker in the ceiling. “Good luck, son.”

“Eyes wide, now.” The nurse slid a hand into the seven tons of steel bolted to the ceiling above me, drawing out a pair of rubber cups on a long, noodle-pallid cord. I complied, distorting my view of the chalk timeline on the wall across from me; she popped the cups on my eyes, like contact lenses except they were so thick they braced my eyelids open.

“Bit of discomfort coming,” she said, patting the lead blanket.

Blinded, I felt the vibration of the machine as it lowered from the ceiling, Dr. Frankenstein’s version of an optician’s examining rig. It settled on my body like an automobile laid atop the blanket. I heard clips. The flesh of my rump pressed the rawhide grid below.

“It’s wrong on my nose,” I protested: cold steel was pressing down on my face with bruising force.

“Try to breathe.”

“My nose,” I said again.

All their warnings ran through my mind: If you lied about ever being to Seattle you will die. If there is any metal in your body, you will die.

Who would lie about visiting Seattle?

This is a one-way mission.

Knowing I would survive the press was hardly a comfort.

Seven tons of steel were clamped around me and my nose was going to break, and after telling me to breathe, just breathe, that nurse—she smelled of rosewater, I’ll never forget it—was sliding some kind of leather bit into my mouth. It was enough to make me wish I was at the front, face-to-barrel with one of the new Russo-German repeating rifles.

I heard her retreat to the staircase, locking the lead door. I counted to thirty. What felt like a year passed.

Then I saw the death of the world.

It was hot, but there was no fire. My crushed nose picked up a smell straight out of Dante’s Inferno: charnel and brimstone. I rose above the great American city, above Lake Washington and Puget Sound. Higher, higher.

But something was wrong with the color of the future, seven weeks out. Seattle, below, the sky above, even the air around me . . . it was all splashed with color I’d never seen before. Everything was off the accepted painter’s wheel of red, blue, yellow.

The cries of thousands of living things, dying in agony, merged with my own.

My mind, confronted with the impossible, revolted. Pinned, gagged, and clamped in place, unable to look away, I screamed as the timepress thrust me against the end of everything, as I bounced off that imminent stained future and ricocheted into the past.

A sproing, a sense of strings beneath me popping. I dropped—but struck something soft before I realized I was falling.

It was dark, everything hurt, and I was still screaming.

I fought the howls, eventually compressing them to whimpers, then a voiceless suctioning of air. The cups over my eyes were gone, but I seriously doubted whether I would ever open my eyes again.

. . . color that color that sound that smell . . .

When I did, I saw a square of light above, the doorway at the top of the staircase.

Was I still in the project basement? All the equipment was gone. I lay on a mattress in the middle of the floor, placed where the gurney had been. A bare light bulb hung overhead; the staircase that led up and out was wood, rather than steel, and my chalk timeline, naturally, was gone.

Just within reach was a milk jug full of water. A bucket waited in the corner.

A woman—not the nurse from before—waited at the top of the staircase. She had a blanket in one hand and a pistol in the other.

“How do you feel?” She sounded wary.

I covered my groin with one hand and felt for the bit in my mouth. The handful of leather was almost too much to lift; I was that weak.

I prodded my nose: not quite broken.

She waited.

What I managed was a thready: “Skinned. I feel skinned.”

She nodded, pocketed the weapon, and brought the sheet, restoring my modesty with a brisk snap of linen. Everything it touched ached, as if bruised.

Vanishing upstairs, she returned with a pillow, a proper blanket, and a tray containing broth, aspirin, and a tiny soda biscuit.

“Keep your hands under the bedclothes,” she ordered, feeding me extremely small sips of the soup.

“Who are you?”

“Constance Wills. Willie.”

“You’re Agent Sixteen?”

“Thought I was a chap?” she said. “The Major loves his little joke.”

The Major had told me they’d pressed Willie in 1937, seven weeks before the first time the world ended. Somehow she’d made it back to 1916 and pushed the devastation off nine years. If not for her, I’d have died at age nine.

She was the first of us to survive the timepress.

“Do whatever Willie says,” they told me. “You’ll be fine.”

It was a bit of a dirty trick to be expecting some war-ragged captain and to find, instead, a girl with cornflower eyes, hair the color of a strawberry roan, and delicate, freckled hands. Her face was stronger than I liked, her gaze more direct. No lipstick, either. Pity. I like a girl who tries.

“I’m—” I began, and she dumped lukewarm soup in my mouth.

“I don’t want to know your name unless you make it.”

With the spoon caught between my teeth, I could hardly tell her how I knew I would survive.

 

It was days before my body agreed, and conceded to feeling as though I might not, as Willie expected, simply die.

I took what she gave me—pills, pale suggestions of food—and shivered on the mattress. The thing I’d seen raked at my dreams, even though I couldn’t properly recall that awful color, or the exact timbre of that chorus of screams.

I dreamed incomprehensible, awful things: men suckling the intestines of disembowelled soldiers, window glass turning to liquid and forcing itself into the ear canals of soft, white-fleeced sheep, a robed worker running a girl’s body through an industrial steam press.

The dark and quiet of the basement were soothing. The walls were close and plain, offering tight, restful concrete horizons. The crawl to the bucket in the corner was as much as I could manage physically, and as far as I wanted to go.

Willie nursed but otherwise ignored me until I finally got bored enough to ask for a newspaper. She brought me the Post-Intelligencer and there was almost more information in it than I could bear: I threw it aside after two pages of Volstead Act enforcement and reminisces of a snowstorm the previous year.

The next day she brought the paper again and the world was easier to face. That afternoon, I was allowed a little more solid food: two bites of chicken and a mash of turnips.

“The paper,” I said. “It’s current?”

She nodded.

“I’ve just had my appendix out—at home, I mean.”

“They press us down into the precise moment when our younger selves are under anesthetic. Doctor Stefoff’s theory is it’s easier to make the transition that way.”

I ran a finger over a week’s worth of beard. “I’d like to shave.”

“You’re not ready.”

“I wish to be presentable.”

“Nobody cares what you look like.”

I tried to summon a shred of charm. “You should be nicer to me, Willie. I’m here to save the world, remember?”

“You can have a mirror and a razor when you come up to your room.” With that, she vanished upstairs.

That gave me pause. The prospect of climbing that staircase filled me with dread, like a child mandated to visit to a malevolent old relative. Some dying grandfather, furious as his body failed, refusing to know his time was coming. Clawlike hands and the smell of dying . . .

Up in the house was sunshine and fresh air and the inevitability of the end.

It took me another day to muster the nerve. I was rubber-legged and sweating before I was halfway up the staircase.

“See here, old man. This isn’t physical.” To prove it to myself, I marched down to the bottom again, one two, one two, setting a slow but steady pace and swearing I wouldn’t break it. When my feet hit the concrete floor I turned on my heel—about face, good soldier!—and maintained my march to the top.

I was trembling with nausea when I reached the door, but I nevertheless forced myself through.

The door led into a closet, filled with men’s clothes. Beyond it was a plain, old-fashioned and distinctly masculine bedroom, with blue bed covers and uninspired wooden furniture. Even that, for a moment, was almost too much color.

A shaving kit taunted me. The water was fresh, steaming; Willie must have heard me dithering on the stair.

“You can do this,” I told myself.

The face in the mirror was thinner, and the bruising on the bridge of my nose was smeared, on one side, into a black eye. I’ve always been on the pale side; now I looked positively bloodless. My hair had turned a brittle white-blond, except at the roots.

I had been convinced I’d see it—the end, that horrible color—brimming from the sockets of my eyes.

I shaved, slowly, taking care not to cut myself. The sight of blood would have sent me quailing back to my sickbed. Putting on a suit from the closet that just about fit, I listened at the door.

Women’s voices and a mutter of teacups: Willie had company. No matter. She couldn’t keep me from my mission forever.

I found her in the kitchen with an older woman and a sickly looking Negro man, the three of them sharing a breakfast of eggs and bacon. The smell was so rich my stomach turned.

The older woman looked at me, eyebrows raised. “Who’s this fellow?”

“My brother.” Willie swallowed a slimy, soft-boiled egg. “Jules Wills the Third.”

The woman turned out to be a housekeeper and cook. Her name was Mrs. Farmer and she seemed a gem: motherly, warm, efficient, everything a matron should be. The old man, Rufus, was nominally a servant. This polite bit of fiction allowed him to live, despite his race, with three other gents Willie was keeping upstairs. I was given to understand she ran a boarding house for convalescent bachelors.

I endured an interminable stretch of pointless chitchat about the stock market and a recent State of the Union address and whether the carrots at market had been overpriced that day. Finally Rufus caned his way out into the hall and Mrs. Farmer took away the dishes, with their intermingling, overstrong smells.

“I could just about do a cup of tea,” I said. “Be a love, will you?”

Willie affected not to have heard, opening a small journal and paging through the opening leaves.

“Why am I appointed your brother?”

“Because you’re a flirt, and I wish to avoid trouble.”

“You said you’d be nicer to me if I survived.”

“Who says you have?”

That took the wind out of my sails. “My strength is—I am recovering.”

“You might yet run mad and cut your throat,” she said, with no apparent interest. “Or need to be shot.”

“You’re not as cold as all that, are you?”

“Would you like to test me?”

I was too irked to tell her that I’d seen proof I was going to make it. “When do I receive my orders?”

She took up a pen, turned to a blank page in her journal, and spoke as she wrote: “February 7th, 1920. My brother Jules has arrived from England and met with a mishap: he’s been robbed of his luggage and caught a fever. I have been nursing him ’round the clock—”

“Ha!” said I.

“—and it begins to look as though he may pull through. Since I saw him last, six years ago, Julie has grown into a reasonably handsome fellow—”

“Faint praise.”

“He has blue eyes, like mine, and hair so dark it might be taken for black.”

“It’s not dark now.”

“It’ll grow in.” Willie continued to narrate: “He has had his appendix removed in childhood and—” She paused. “Other scars?”

“If you’d nursed me as attentively as you claim, you’d know.”

“The project must know which one you are if they’re to send proper identification.”

Which one you are. It raised the hairs on my arms.

“Shall I be forced to describe your personality?” Withering tone there: whatever she said would be unflattering.

“It’s the bottom of my foot. I stepped on a fishing lure.”

She finished the sentence in silence and then added, “Though dear Julie isn’t out of danger yet—”

“I’m not wild about this pet name you’ve given me.”

“—he is restless and eager to be of use.” She looked across the table. “They’ll send something along presently.”

“Just like that?”

We could press things back, never forward. Willie would complete her girlish diary and shelve it somewhere safe: her notes would wait until they reached the project, twenty-six years on, for the Major to read about my arrival.

“What is it?” Willie said.

“I won’t see 1946 again until I’m in my forties.” The thought was staggering.

She frowned. “Your package will arrive downstairs. When you go, bring up the sheets.”

“Would you have me dust while I’m at it? Arrange some flowers?”

“I’m sure, Julie, that I don’t care what you do.” She jotted one last sentence, snapped the journal shut when I tried to see it, and left me tealess and suddenly chilled in the kitchen.

She told them I was insubordinate. My stomach cramped and I was, all at once, brimming with fury. I had an urge to chase her out of the room, to smash her head against the banister until her blood ran between my knuckles. To lick, drink . . . I touched my tongue to the notch between my clenched index and middle fingers, imagining salt, and saw a flash of color . . .

It passed, leaving me dry-mouthed and appalled at myself.

You may yet run mad.

“Maybe Julie isn’t out of the woods yet,” I conceded, and escaped downstairs.

The basement had a sour smell I associated with an animal’s den—my smell, I realized, from days of sickness—overlaid by lubricated machinery. I gathered the bedding, wadding everything into the top sheet, and walked it up to the room with the wardrobe. The stairs were easier the second time.

Between the sheets and the mattress was a stiff black tarpaulin. I folded that, too, finding the mattress beneath pristine, and carried it up.

Returning once more, I strained to tilt the mattress off the floor. There was no drain there yet. The message scratched into the floor, “16—Hungry,” seemed fainter than it had been, a week ago in the future, when I was climbing aboard the gurney.

I let the mattress fall back into position and paced the room. There was nothing down here but cool air, bare walls, soothing quiet. By my time, there would be a trapdoor under the staircase, access to a lower basement. For now, though, the floor was intact: this was the bottom of the hole.

I had never been monstrous. The flash of bloodlust was tied to what I’d seen, seven weeks into my future, at the end of the world. I’d been infected. Some rot was blooming within my mind or soul.

What could I do but fight it?

I should go out, take in a little air, feel the rain on my face. Or eat—Mrs. Farmer would fix me tea, I’d wager, even if Willie had no idea of proper female behavior. I could go upstairs and meet the convalescents.

Instead I sat on the steps in the blessed dim and quiet, trying to still my thoughts.

After about an hour a satchel appeared in mid-air, at waist-height—the height of the gurney. It was scorched. A scrap of strung hide was burning into its bottom.

It flopped onto the mattress, just as I had, and lay there, smoking. I thought of horse droppings, suddenly, steaming on frosty lawns.

Inside the satchel I found bundles of letters and a paper-wrapped package, tied in string and all neatly labelled, like an odd Christmas parcel. Names: mine, hers, someone named Robert Chambers and Kenneth Smith.

I opened a package with “Jules Wills III” on it, and found a wallet containing thirty dollars in American bills. A small fortune.

The brown paper the wallet came in had been inked with facts and figures I was meant to memorize: my birthday in 1898, Willie’s in 1895, our parents’ names. There were notes outlining a sketchy little cover story about growing up on an estate in the West Dorset countryside, and the circumstances that had brought us to America.

The tale was Willie had married a man who’d brought her here. He’d died in the Great War and so she’d set up the convalescent home. Our parents had sent me out to check on her.

“Is the post in?” Her voice at the top of the stair made me jump. “I smell smoke.”

I coughed, stood, passed it up. Her eyes travelled over the basement—she saw the soot-mark from the bag on her virginal mattress and I realized I wasn’t meant to have brought up the tarpaulin.

“You put the mattress there?” I asked suddenly. “You’d have fallen onto—”

I gestured at the floor and wondered if she’d broken anything when she hit the concrete.

She extracted the bundle with her name on it and passed me a bunch of letters. “From Father,” she said. I could sense she was debating her answer.

“Please, Willie. I don’t mean to be beastly. None of this is what I expected.”

She shook her head. “There was no mattress. How could there be?”

“It’s only a yard, I suppose. Were you hurt?”

“Grady and Biggs broke my fall.”

“Who?”

“Agents fourteen and fifteen. What remained of them, anyway.”

I’d have expected her to leave after that grisly revelation—Willie seemed to love a good exit line—but instead she gave my shoulder an absent pat and started opening her letters. “The brown sheets speak plainly—they’re meant to be burned. The letters we can keep. They don’t say anything revealing.”

“Aren’t they afraid we’ll miss one of the brown sheets—fail to burn it?”

“They don’t last. The ink fades and the paper tatters within a month or two.”

The letters from my false parents ordered me to mind my sister, mind my health, and remember the considerable spiritual benefits of prayer and clean living. In other words: obey my C.O., stay physically fit, and try to avoid going mad.

The note from ‘Father’ was written in the Major’s hand. He wanted me to set up a bank account and asked me to make some modest but specific investments. Cash would be provided for further deposits. There was also an allowance: this much for clothes and kit, that much for expenses as I ‘made myself useful.’

Useful. The letter hinted that I might indulge a bit of a carousing and gambling habit, by way of ingratiating myself with local gossips and crooks. This would be funded as long as I wrote home about whatever they told me.

A license to drink and gamble. There were worse things.

“Mother,” whose handwriting I didn’t recognize, said I should see Willie’s doctor and take iodine pills—these they’d enclosed. I was to refrain from smoking while I recovered.

The final wrapped lump with my name on it felt like a book.

I untied the string and then, in the process of extracting the biography of a reporter I’d long admired, I tore the brown paper in half.

My eyes drifted to the mattress in the middle of the floor and I pictured Willie suddenly: young, sick . . .

(helpless, bleeding, delicious)

. . . and dropped on concrete, onto the corpses of two previous agents. Using something—who knew what?—to scratch those words into the floor.

“16—Hungry.” Begging the future for food, because she was too weak to fetch any for herself.

I shook the image away and held two sides of the page together to see what it was I’d been sent back to do.

“Bloody hell!”

Willie looked down, offering an especially masterful performance of her incurious stare. I passed her the torn pages.

She held them up and scanned. “Paperboy with the Seattle Union Record. Name of Peter Rupert, lives near Jackson Street. Ruin, spoil, or if necessary kill.”

“Bloody Peter Rupert.” I waved the biography at her.

“You know him?”

“Don’t you?”

She shook her head. “He wasn’t—in my 1937, he must not have had any significance.”

“Well in my 1937 he’s a bloody hero. Cottoned onto an attack Japan was planning on Hawaii, on the U.S. Fleet. He broke the story and stopped the whole—”

“You have to forget about that,” she said. “It’s going to change. Whatever you remember is already gone. It will all unfold differently after you—”

“Ruin a nine-year-old boy?”

“Or kill him.”

“What kind of a monster are you?”

“If you are so certain that ruining someone is better than killing them outright, you’ve had something of a soft go at life.”

“I’m not killing a child.”

“All right.” She ignored my distress, looking over the book but far off, deep in thought. “If he were disfigured, people mightn’t talk to him. Or if his voice were damaged—did he file dispatches by telephone?”

“Disfigure or cripple a nine-year-old,” I said. “A hero. He reported on the Russian counter-revolution. I dreamed about being like him.”

“No doubt that’s why you were sent. Know thy—”

“Enemy?”

“Target.”

“I have no intention of doing my target the slightest harm,” I said.

She shrugged, passed the book back, and left me in the basement to fume.

Anger drove me out of the house. I went and set up the bank account and investments, paying lip service to the idea of military obedience. I bought myself a new suit and an umbrella. Everyone looked young and hopeful. They were dressed in clothes that reminded me of my childhood. There were almost no automobiles on the streets: trolleys, carts, and pedestrians were everywhere.

In the basement, at Willie’s, I might still have been in 1946. Now it sank in: I was living in my own past.

Up ahead, just decades away, the world was turning to something far worse than ash. Peter Rupert would do something to bring that day closer.

But it was probably one action of his, wasn’t it? Probably the Japan scoop. One single story of the hundreds he filed.

I found myself a street corner that smelled of washed earth—not of horse, not of smoke or fuel. I stood there, snug under my umbrella, and watched the rain pour down as I formulated a plan.

 

“What if I got close to him?” I said to Willie that night. “The Project must know more about whatever Peter does to . . .”

“To bring on the Souring?” She sat in a rocking chair in the parlor, knitting in front of the fire, playing at being an ordinary woman.

My mouth went dry. “The—”

“Sorry—that’s what I call it. What we saw.”

I swallowed. “It’s apt.”

“It’s useful,” she said. “I use it in the journals. I’ve cultivated a conceit that losing my husband made me a bit odd.”

“Ramblings of a daft young widow?”

She nodded. “Just in case someone unauthorized gets a look.”

“Whatever Peter does to bring on your Souring,” I said, “it’s bound to be one story. They chose him because he’s key, am I right? Because he’s a simple target?”

“So?”

“The Project must tell me which story. If he sees me as a friend, an older brother, or even a father figure—his own father died in the flu epidemic—”

She flinched, for some reason.

“It’s why he’s working as a paperboy, to support his mother. In any case, I’ll keep him off that one story.”

“You’re proposing to chum around with him for years?”

“Why not? I’ll make myself useful meanwhile: keep investing money, reporting gossip, maybe help dig out the next basement . . .”

“Jules.”

“. . . I’d need someone to explain the engineering to me, obviously. How does one secretly dig a second basement in a house that already exists?”

“Jules.”

“I needn’t live here in the house if you don’t want me underfoot.”

She pulled herself upright in her chair, sitting as prim and proper as a schoolteacher. I imagined I heard her sleeve tearing, and thought about running my tongue over the freckles on her arm: how far did they go? She folded her hands, seemed to fight an urge to wring them, and waited for me to run down.

“What is it?”

She said. “The timepress uses a radiant form of energy. It’s what makes us so sick. They told you that, didn’t they?”

“I’m not going to relapse on you. I live, I know it.”

She didn’t smile. “Chances are you will die of cancer within the year.”

“Chances?”

“Rufus has survived almost fifteen months, but…”

She meant the sickly Negro man.

“You have no great span of time in which to befriend Peter Rupert. You can’t jolly him along for a decade and hope to break his leg before he leaves for Japan. You—”

I was across the room before I knew it, grabbing at her, tipping the rocking chair. We ended on the floor, my hand wrapped around her jaw, and again that red desire swam up. To smash, to smash, to taste of her blood on my knuckles.

“You’re. Not. Dead,” I snarled. “It’s been years and you’re not dead.”

A little flicker. Fear? I am ashamed to admit I hoped so. I needed to see something beyond pity or contempt in her.

“Go ahead, then,” she said, and I realized my other hand was resting atop—was squeezing—one of her strangely firm breasts.

Trying to buy her life? Well, she’d all but opened her legs now: I gave her blouse a swift tear as my defeated sanity—the despairing, quashed part of me that knew better—protested.

I found: a padded bodice, formed like a woman’s body.

I pushed it aside, exposing her belly…

…and found nothing but scars.

The slices had been pulled up and then stitched tight. Everything below her collarbones was purple and red, twisting lines of hashed-together tissue.

“About a week after I finished my mission.” Her words were distorted by the grip I had on her—she couldn’t really move her jaw. “I woke up with a terrible feeling. It wasn’t physical—I’d never felt so well.”

“Feeling?” I was staring at her torn-up body; I couldn’t look away.

“Panic, pure and simple. I went to a surgeon and paid him to cut away everything that made me a woman.”

I gagged, released her, and pushed myself back, back, until I was almost in the fireplace. I got entangled with her knitting bag and it came with me, my slippers trailing a half-knit Christmas stocking and strands of red and green wool.

Willie sat up. “This city is full of sweet, bright, talented boys, Jules.”

“But the future won’t have anyone, bright or otherwise, unless I fulfill my mission. Is that what you’re saying?”

She struggled to anchor her bodice over the ruin of flesh under her throat. Those empty scoops. Then she hunted on the carpet for the buttons I’d torn off her dress. She got to her feet, righted the chair, and peered out before creeping off into the house, holding her blouse shut.

I disentangled my feet from the red and green yarn, spilling Willie’s journal in the process. Snatching it up, I fled the house.

 

The Major had recommended a particular neighborhood speakeasy to me and it was there, with a whiskey in front of me, that I opened up the journal.

I suppose I expected to find an account, cleverly couched, of Willie’s earliest days. Or that first mission of hers.

Who did you ruin, spoil, or kill, Willie?

But that first journal was long since filled, I’m sure, filled and locked away, waiting for the project to discover its secrets. This one had only been on the go for a month or so.

It began with a brief account of the death of one of the gents upstairs, and a note to the effect that she was glad he’d got to see the Great Pyramid on ‘his recent business trip to Egypt.’

They had briefed me on that mission: Smitty had interfered with the mail in the Middle East, stealing correspondence and replacing it with false letters to a number of gentlemen in Jerusalem. This had eased tensions there and thereby delayed the onset of the second Great War until 1936.

All the sick men upstairs in the bedrooms. They’re not tenants, they’re time agents. They’ve served their purpose and now . . .

“What’re you doing, Mac?” A drunk nudged me, apparently hoping I’d stand him a round.

“Reading my sister’s diary,” I said, which got a general laugh.

Ruin, spoil, or kill. The thought crept in, despite my resolve to refuse the mission. Peter Rupert, the reporter, had terrible problems with drink.

I paged ahead, past an account of some Boeing engineer and his odd friendship with Rufus. Beyond that was the account of my arrival Willie had written, just days before. I checked that last line, the one I’d believed was her tale-telling about my intransigence.

She had written: “What’s best about him, so far, is that he’s stubborn.”

There was more about the engineer, and an entry saying someone named Valois had written with an address in France and a request that she forward his mail. He was settling down with a girl in Paris, for ‘however long he had.’

She’d got back to me in her final entry: “Julie has survived his first week in America. His spirits are in turmoil. Homesickness, I expect. Nothing out of the ordinary. He’s wonderfully strong. Father expects rather a lot from him, and he is mulling over how to make the family proud.”

I had one more shot of the bathtub whiskey, then paid for a flask to take away.

On the way back, I passed a school. It was late in the day; the children were gone.

On a whim, I went in and wandered the halls, waiting for someone to challenge me. Nobody did; nobody took notice of me at all.

I stepped into a classroom and found myself contemplating a long ruler and a piece of chalk. The smell of the chalk was like the bare cement walls of the project basement: dust and bone, calm, a scent of earth and eternity.

“Are you here to fill in for our art teacher?”

I turned. The man who’d addressed me was cut from the same pattern as my father: round, pink, affable. He had green eyes, emerald chips, bright and long of lash. His wedding ring was plain and a little too tight for his finger; the valise he clutched was well-worn.

“Veteran?” he said, and I nodded.

“There aren’t enough thanks in all the world, sir, for what you’ve done.”

“I accept pound notes,” I said.

His laugh was like Dad’s, too, a boom that came from the soles of his feet. “Principal’s at the end of the hall, on the left.”

 

I found Willie tucking her heavy tarpaulin back into place on the mattress in the basement. There was an ugly bruise around her mouth, but when she saw me, her lips twitched. Trying not to laugh?

“Sorry.” What else could I say?

“It’s nothing.”

I lifted the edge of the mattress so she could smooth the tarpaulin under. “What are you doing?”

“Preparing for the next one.” She handed me the sheet.

That should have been my cue to tell her it wouldn’t be necessary to send another man, that I’d take on the mission. But there would be someone else, wouldn’t there?

“Have you got my book, Julie?”

I passed the journal to her. “Lots about Boeing.”

“The airfield’s one reason we’re in Washington. A hint to an engineer here, a line on a blueprint there . . . the planes make an immense difference to how it all plays out.”

“Is that what you did—help make planes?”

“Rufus is the engineer,” she said. “Who would take plane-building notes from a dotty old widow?”

“So your mission: was it ‘ruin, spoil, or kill’ too?”

“Well.” Her voice was dry. “We are siblings.”

I took that as a yes.

She said: “You’ve thought it out, haven’t you?”

I showed her the flask. “Peter Rupert has a compulsion. If I start him drinking early, especially given the poisons they’re putting in alcohol right now . . .”

Willie nodded. “Might be kinder to shoot him.”

“Kinder for him? Or me?”

“You, of course.”

If he became a drunk as a youth, he might yet pull a less illustrious life together later. “It shouldn’t be easy.”

“That’s simply masochism.”

“You’re afraid it won’t work? That I’ll die before he’s—”

She gestured at the mattress. Meaning: if I failed, someone else would come and finish the job.

I took up my ruler and walked to the wall, drawing the line I’d seen there. Working slowly, I made notches at one-inch intervals, and wrote 1900, 1914, and 1916 at the appropriate heights. They looked just as I’d remembered. There’s an odd curl to my nines I never managed, quite, to amend.

I counted forward to 1937, the year they pressed Willie, and wrote an encircled “1” beside it.

“The first Souring?” she said.

“Yes.” I counted forward through the nine years she’d bought us, to my own time, and noted the second.

“They’re learning more with every press,” she said. “Rufus has been doing quite well.”

I nodded, but I wasn’t paying attention. The scent of the chalk had caught me again, along with the odd little miracle of the bright yellow line it made, here on the rough grey wall, and the residue left on my hand. It was the same feeling I’d had when talking to the old teacher, an almost painful awareness of . . . was it beauty?

“Sorry, what?” I said.

She wore, to my shock, a smile. “One of the effects of having been—what was your word? —skinned,” she said. “Little things shine out like that. It’s never the things that are meant to be attractive, I find, but—”

I gave in to the urge to put the chalk under my nose, like a cigar, and inhale. “It’s just that it’s so different. Different from the end.”

“Yes. Solid, somehow. Real. Food’s better too, once you can handle it.”

“Tonight, maybe,” I said, pocketing the chalk and leaving the ruler leaned up against the short stretch of the twentieth century, the scratched out record of the precious years we’d bought so far. “So, Willie, do you want to know my name yet?”

“When you’ve lived, Julie,” she said, and she meant something different by it this time. And what did it matter? I bent to help her with the sheet, smoothing out the mattress to catch the next wretched one of us, whenever he or she might land.

 

“The Color of Paradox” copyright © 2014 by A.M. Dellamonica

Art copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey Alan Love

Source: http://www.tor.com/2014/06/25/the-color-of-paradox-am-dellamonica/

 

 

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Free Fiction Monday: Forest for the Trees – Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Centuries ago, a tsunami hit the Oregon Coast, destroying miles of coastline. When beach erosion reveals the stumps of a dead forest from that disaster, Anne and Louisa cut school to see the trees.…

Source: Free Fiction Monday: Forest for the Trees – Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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The Three Lives of Sonata James | Tor.com

In a cyber-enhanced, futuristic Chicago, Sonata knows near-immortality is achievable through downloading her mind into a cyborg body after death. But this young artist wants to prove that living fo…

Source: The Three Lives of Sonata James | Tor.com

Click on the link to read the rest of the novella.

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The Past, Present And Future Of Sci Fi With N.K. Jemisin | WBEZ

Hugo Award-winning author N.K. Jemisin tells us how she builds fantastical worlds and why science fiction is evolving for the better.

Source: The Past, Present And Future Of Sci Fi With N.K. Jemisin | WBEZ

N.K. Jemisin is the author of a number of books, including The Broken Earth trilogy, the first of which won the Hugo Award for best novel in 2016. She spoke with Nerdette’s Greta Johnsen about being the first black person to win a Hugo, how she comes up with her book ideas, and why diversity is essential to the future of science fiction. Here are some highlights from their conversation.

Greta Johnsen: You say you write speculative fiction, not science fiction. For people who don’t know the difference, can you explain what that means?

N.K. Jemisin: Well, there’s a lot of different definitions of speculative fiction. I used it as a catchall for science fiction, fantasy, horror, interstitial and the occasional comic book. A lot of people use “speculative fiction” to specifically delineate that branch of the literary field that’s willing to toss in some unreal or secondary worldish elements in order to test characters in interesting ways. It’s not science fiction; it’s literative stuff that goes “what if?” It speculates.

Johnsen: So what you’re saying is, it’s not necessarily aliens, but things that could potentially, theoretically happen in a world like ours.

Jemisin: In my case, it simply means that I’m not just a fantasy writer. With other people, it can mean different things, too. It’s a term that everyone adapts in their own particular way.

Johnsen: Recently, friends have asked me for recommendations of things to read or watch. They’re like, “I’ll check out anything, except sci fi.” And that drives me crazy. Because to me, that’s like saying, “Oh, I like anything except imagination.” Can you help me make the sell to the haters? Because that’s ridiculous.

Jemisin: It is ridiculous. It’s because science fiction is terrible at marketing, I think. Science fiction has, for years, allowed a fairly vocal subset of its readership to declare that the only true science fiction is stuff that was written 50 or 60 years ago, that the pulps of the ’40s is what the genre is all about. The plain fact of the matter is that it’s an art form like any other. It has evolved. It has grown. It has expanded in ways that I think it hasn’t done the best job of revealing to the mainstream.

So I would test anybody who says they don’t read science fiction or fantasy. I’d say, “OK, what was the last science fiction or fantasy that you read? Where is this coming from? Did you just watch an episode of old school Star Trek and call it a day, or are you doing this with some real information here?”

And then, there’s multiple places that I would direct them. I would take them to the Nebula list and have them look at a few years’ worth of Nebula nominees and novels. I would show them some current science fiction on television, quite a bit of which is getting critical acclaim. I’m very excited that Stranger Things season two is coming. I just watched the first season of Westworld. I had some questions and thoughts, but it’s an example of something that you can shoot to people to say, “Hey, we’ve moved on a little from Star Trek.”

And even in something like Stranger Things, which is recursively looking at the science fiction of the ’80s, you will see some fascinating ways in which it’s playing with the idea of what science fiction has evolved from and is becoming. In the ’80s, you didn’t usually see a girl as the focus of a story about boys. If you did, she was a prize to be won. She wasn’t the protagonist and the person doing the most awesome things in it.

Johnsen: What makes sci fi so remarkable — and what I love about your books as well — is there’s the actual consumption of the thing, which is satisfying in and of itself, but then the conversation that arises around that, and the interaction with people who are also engaging with the same material, is just … it’s just so much more rewarding than, “Wasn’t that book fun?”

Jemisin: I mean, I’m not doing anything that science fiction and fantasy haven’t done in their own ways for decades. It’s simply that because I’m coming from a different perspective and different things interest me, I’m engaging with politics that are not easily camouflaged by the mainstream.

When you’ve got a slew of stories that are set in a version of medieval England that’s curiously devoid of people of color, and poor people, and queer people, and women, you’ve got this strange secondary world where it’s a bunch of white guys running around poking things at each other and having empowerment fantasies, that’s political. That’s communicating a political message. That’s just communicating a political message that’s fairly commonly seen in our society, and which we don’t necessarily think is weird.

There’s nothing wrong with it — the catch is that some of the rest of us like to get out there and have our empowerment fantasies too. We want to poke stuff with sticks. This is really the thing. When you change something as simple as who it is who pokes a stick at things, people get their backs up. I don’t know why, but they do.

Johnsen: I love that that in and of itself is subversive.

Jemisin: It shouldn’t be. And should our society ever become a place where everybody gets to poke a stick at stuff, then it’ll stop being so subversive. If enough people, and enough of a breadth of people, get to explore the speculative what-ifs, then the stuff that I do will stop being novel. At least in the sense of identity.

I sure hope the stories stand the test of time, but I guess we’ll see.

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Ted Chiang’s Soulful Science Fiction – The New Yorker

With just fourteen short stories and a novella, the author behind the recent film “Arrival” has gained a rapturous following within the genre and beyond.

Source: Ted Chiang’s Soulful Science Fiction – The New Yorker

by Joshua Rothman

In the early nineteen-nineties, a few occurrences sparked something in Ted Chiang’s mind. He attended a one-man show in Seattle, where he lives, about a woman’s death from cancer. A little later, a friend had a baby and told Chiang about recognizing her son from his movements in the womb. Chiang thought back to certain physical principles he had learned about in high school, in Port Jefferson, New York, having to do with the nature of time. The idea for a story emerged, about accepting the arrival of the inevitable. A linguist, Chiang thought, might learn such acceptance by deciphering the language of an alien race with a different conception of time. For five years, when he wasn’t working as a technical writer in the software industry, Chiang read books about linguistics. In 1998, he published “Story of Your Life,” in a science-fiction anthology series called Starlight. It was around sixty pages long and won three major science-fiction prizes: the Nebula, the Theodore Sturgeon, and the Seiun, which is bestowed by the Federation of Science Fiction Fan Groups of Japan. Last year, “Arrival” was released, an adaptation of “Story of Your Life,” in which Amy Adams plays a linguist who learns, decades in advance, that her daughter will die, as a young woman, of a terminal illness, but goes ahead with the pregnancy anyway.

Chiang is now forty-nine, with streaks of gray in his ponytail. He started writing science fiction in high school. Since then, he has published fourteen short stories and a novella. By this means, he has become one of the most influential science-fiction writers of his generation. He has won twenty-seven major sci-fi awards; he might have won a twenty-eighth if, a few years ago, he hadn’t declined a nomination because he felt that the nominated story, “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” was unfinished. (It imagines using neuroscience to eliminate “lookism,” or the preference for beautiful faces.) Many of Chiang’s stories take place in the past, not the future. His first published story, “Tower of Babylon,” which appeared in 1990 and won a Nebula Award, follows Hillalum, a Babylonian stonecutter tasked with climbing to the top of the world and carving a doorway into its granite ceiling. It has the structure of a parable and an uncanny and uncompromising material concreteness. At the top of the tower, Hillalum finds that the roof of the world is cold and smooth to the touch. The stonecutters are eager to find out what lies on the other side of the sky, but they are also afraid, and, in a prayer service, Chiang writes, “they gave thanks that they were permitted to see so much, and begged forgiveness for their desire to see more.” Chiang goes to great lengths to show how ancient stonecutting techniques might actually be used to breach the floor of Heaven. He writes the science fiction that would have existed in an earlier era, had science existed then.

Chiang’s stories conjure a celestial feeling of atemporality. “Hell Is the Absence of God” is set in a version of the present in which Old Testament religion is tangible, rather than imaginary: Hell is visible through cracks in the ground, angels appear amid lightning storms, and the souls of the good are plainly visible as they ascend to Heaven. Neil, the protagonist, had a wife who was killed during an angelic visitation—a curtain of flame surrounding the angel Nathanael shattered a café window, showering her with glass. (Other, luckier bystanders were cured of cancer or inspired by God’s love.) Attending a support group for people who have lost loved ones in similar circumstances, he finds that, although they are all angry at God, some still yearn to love him so that they can join their dead spouses and children in Heaven. To write this retelling of the Book of Job, in which one might predict an angel’s movements using a kind of meteorology, Chiang immersed himself in the literature of angels and the problem of innocent suffering; he read C. S. Lewis and the evangelical author Joni Eareckson Tada. Since the story was published, in 2001, readers have argued about the meaning of Chiang’s vision of a world without faith, in which the certain and proven existence of God is troubling, rather than reassuring.

Earlier this winter, I began talking with Chiang about his work, first through Skype, then over the phone and via e-mail. He still works as a technical writer—he creates reference materials for programmers—and lives in Bellevue, near Seattle. “I’m curious about what you might call discredited world views,” he told me, during a phone conversation. “It can be tempting to dismiss people from the past—to say, ‘Weren’t they foolish for thinking things worked that way?’ But they weren’t dummies. They came up with theories as to how the universe worked based on the observations available to them at the time. They thought about the implications of things in the ways that we do now. Sometimes I think, What if further observation had confirmed their initial theories instead of disproving them? What if the universe had really worked that way?”

Chiang has been described as a writer of “humanist” sci-fi; many readers feel that his stories are unusually moving and wonder, given their matter-of-fact tone, where their emotional power comes from. His story “The Great Silence” was included in last year’s edition of “The Best American Short Stories,” and Junot Díaz, who edited that volume, has said that Chiang’s “Stories of Your Life and Others” is “as perfect a collection of stories as I’ve ever read.” Chiang himself seems to find this kind of praise bewildering. When, after about a month of long-distance conversation—he is a slow, careful speaker, and so I had asked to interview him again and again—we met for lunch at a ramen restaurant in Bellevue, I asked Chiang why he thought his stories were beloved. He threw up his hands and laughed with genuine incredulity. He had “no idea” how to account for his own success, he said. He seems almost to regard his stories as research projects pursued for their own sake. When I asked him to speculate—surely all writers have some sense of why they are valued?—he blushed and declined.

Chiang was born on Long Island in 1967. He went to Brown and majored in computer science. In 1989, he attended the Clarion Workshop, a kind of Bread Loaf for sci-fi and fantasy writers. Around that time, he moved to Seattle, where he met Marcia Glover, his long-term partner, during a stint at Microsoft (“I was documenting class libraries or A.P.I.s,” he said); she’s an interface designer turned photographer. He admires the writing of Annie Dillard and enjoyed “The Last Samurai,” by Helen DeWitt.

Beyond this narrow Wikipedian territory, Chiang is reluctant to venture. Although he is amiable and warm, he is also reticent and does not riff. Over several conversations, I learned, in addition, that he owns four cats, goes to the gym three times a week, and regards a small cylindrical seal made of hematite sometime around 1200 B.C. as one of his most treasured possessions—it was a gift from his sister, a reference to “Tower of Babylon.” He told me that, when he was a child, his family celebrated Christmas but wasn’t religious. When I asked Chiang if he had hobbies, he said no, and then, after a long pause, admitted that he plays video games. He refused to say what he eats for breakfast. Eventually, I sent him an e-mail with twenty-four questions that, I hoped, might elicit more personal details:

Do you have a favorite novel?
There isn’t one that I would want to single out as a favorite. I’m wary of the idea of a favorite anything.

You’ve spent many years living near the water. Do you like the sea?
Not particularly. I don’t actually spend much time on the coast; it’s just chance that I happened to move here.

What was the last work of art that made you cry?
Don’t know.

Do you consider yourself a sensitive person?
Yes.

What Chiang really wanted to talk about was science fiction. We spoke about free will (“I believe that the universe is deterministic, but that the most meaningful definition of free will is compatible with determinism”), the literary tradition of naturalism (“a fundamentally science-fictional approach of trying to work out the logical consequences of an idea”), time travel (he thinks of “A Christmas Carol” as the first time-travel story), and the metaphorical and political incoherence of Neill Blomkamp’s aliens-under-apartheid movie “District 9” (he believes that “Alien Nation,” in which the aliens are framed as immigrants, is more rigorously thought through). Chiang reframes questions before answering them, making fine philosophical distinctions. He talks more about concepts than he does about people. “I do want there to be a depth of human feeling in my work, but that’s not my primary goal as a writer,” he said, over lunch. “My primary goal has to do with engaging in philosophical questions and thought experiments, trying to work out the consequences of certain ideas.”

Chiang’s novella, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” grew, he said, out of his intellectual skepticism about how artificial intelligence is imagined in science fiction. Often, such computers are super-competent servants born in a lab and preprogrammed by engineers. “But what makes any human being a good, reliable worker?” he asked me. “A hundred thousand hours of good parenting, of unpaid emotional labor. That’s the kind of investment on which the business world places no value; it’s an investment made by people who do it out of love.” “Lifecycle” tells of Ana and Derek, two friends who, almost by accident, become the loving and protective parents of artificially intelligent computer programs. Ana and Derek spend decades raising their virtual children, and, by means of a “slow, difficult, and very fraught process”—playing, teaching, chiding, comforting—succeed in creating artificial beings with fully realized selves. Having done so, they are loath to sell their children, or copies of them, to the Silicon Valley startups that are eager to monetize them. They face, instead, the unexpected challenges of virtual parenthood: What do you do when the operating system on which your child runs becomes obsolete? How can you understand the needs and wants of a child so different from yourself?

In an e-mail, I asked Chiang to tell me about his own parents. (He has no children.) Did they inspire the ones in his novella? “I’m not going to try to describe their personalities,” he wrote, “but here are some basic facts”:

Both of my parents were born in mainland China. Their families fled to Taiwan during the Communist Revolution. They went to college in Taiwan and came to the U.S. for their graduate studies; they met here. They’re divorced. My father still works as a professor in the engineering department at SUNY Stony Brook. My mother is retired, but used to be a librarian. I didn’t have them in mind when writing “Lifecycle.”

Perhaps there’s something contrarian in Chiang’s refusal to acknowledge, or even describe, the role that his life plays in the construction of his fiction. Alternatively, he may be being accurate. Contemplating his e-mail, I found myself thinking, in a Chiangian way, about the nature of ethics. According to one theory, a system of ethics flows from the bottom up, emerging from the network of agreements we make in everyday life. According to another, it flows from the top down, and consists of absolute moral truths that are discoverable through rigorous analysis. The feelings in Chiang’s stories are discovered from the top down. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” isn’t a story about Chiang’s parents disguised as a thought experiment. It’s a thought experiment so thorough that it tells us something about the feeling of parenthood. That kind of thoroughness is unusual. It is, in itself, a labor of love.

“I don’t get that many ideas for stories,” Chiang said, around a decade ago, in an interview with the sci-fi magazine Interzone. “If I had more ideas, I would write them, but unfortunately they only come at long intervals. I’m probably best described as an occasional writer.” That is still more or less true. Chiang continues to make ends meet through technical writing; it’s unclear whether the success of “Arrival” could change that, or even whether he would desire such a change. A script based on another of his stories, “Understand,” is also in development. “I don’t want to try to force myself to write novels in order to make a living,” Chiang wrote, in an e-mail. “I’m perfectly happy writing short stories at my own pace.”

In the course of our conversations, he and I discussed various theories about his writing—about what, in general, his project might be. At lunch, he proffered one theory—that his stories were an attempt to resist “the identification of materialism with nihilism.” Over the phone, I suggested another, perhaps related theory—that Chiang’s stories are about the costs and uses of knowledge. I pointed out that some of his stories are about the pain of knowing too much, while others are about the long path to knowing, which permits of no shortcuts. In “Story of Your Life,” Chiang’s linguist, Louise, finds that knowing your life story in advance doesn’t make you want to change it; if anything, it makes you more determined to live it out in full. Knowledge alone is flat and lifeless; it becomes meaningful through the accumulation of experience over time.

Chiang, in his precise and affable way, questioned my idea that his stories were “about” knowledge. “Is that really a useful way to characterize my stories, as opposed to other people’s stories?” he asked. He laughed—and then suggested a different subject that, he’d noticed, was a “recurring concern” in his work. “There’s a book by Umberto Eco called ‘The Search for the Perfect Language,’ ” he said. “It’s a history of the idea that there could be a language which is perfectly unambiguous and can perfectly describe everything. At one point, it was believed that this was the language spoken by angels in Heaven, or the language spoken by Adam in Eden. Later on, there were attempts by philosophers to create a perfect language.” There’s no such thing, Chiang said, but the idea appealed to him in an abstract way. In “Understand,” he pointed out, the protagonist learns to reprogram his own mind. He knits together the vocabularies of science and art, memory and prediction, literature and math, physics and emotion. “He’s searching for the perfect language, a cognitive language in which he can think,” Chiang said. “A language that will let him think the kinds of thoughts he wants.”

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17 Science Fiction Books That Forever Changed The Genre | Lifehacker Australia

Source: 17 Science Fiction Books That Forever Changed The Genre | Lifehacker Australia

Speculative fiction is the literature of change and discovery. But every now and then, a book comes along that changes the rules of science fiction for everybody. Certain great books inspire scores of authors to create something new. Here are 21 of the most influential science fiction and fantasy books.

These are books which clearly inspired a generation of authors, and made a huge splash either in publishing success or critical acclaim. Or both. And these are in no particular order.

#1 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)

The first (maybe only) science-fiction-comedy-multimedia phenomenon, Hitchhiker’s was a radio drama before it was a book, and the book sold 250,000 copies in its first three months.The Guardian named it one of the 1000 novels everyone must read, and a BBC poll ranked it fourth, out of 200, in their Big Read poll.

Ted Gioia comments on Adams’ hilarious book about the trials and tribulations of Arthur Dent, the survivor of a destroyed Earth, across the universe:

“No book better epitomizes the post-heroic tone of sci-fi than Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As the name indicates, a certain louche bohemianism permeates its pages. This is star-hopping on the cheap, pursued by those aiming not to conquer the universe, but merely sample its richeson fewer than thirty Altairian dollars per day. You can trace the lineage of many later science fictions books, with their hip and irreverent tone, back to this influential and much beloved predecessor.”

#2 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)

Verne’s whole career is full of works that have inspired generations of authors — but this tale of the underwater adventure of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus has also had a profound effect on science, and inspired real scientific advancement.

In the introduction to William Butcher’s book Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Self Ray Bradbury wrote that, “We are all, in one way, children of Jules Verne. His name never stops. At aerospace or NASA gatherings, Verne is the verb that moves us to space.”

Verne translator and scholar F.P. Walter added:

“For many, then, this book has been a source of fascination, surely one of the most influential novels ever written, an inspiration for such scientists and discoverers as engineer Simon Lake, oceanographer William Beebe, polar traveller Sir Ernest Shackleton. Likewise Dr. Robert D. Ballard, finder of the sunken Titanic, confesses that this was his favourite book as a teenager, and Cousteau himself, most renowned of marine explorers, called it his shipboard bible.”

#3 Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney (1975)

Sam Anderson prefaced his interview with Samuel R. Delany with this praise for Dhalgren’s impact:

“In the 35 years since its publication, Dhalgren has been adored and reviled with roughly equal vigour. It has been cited as the downfall of science fiction (Philip K. Dick once called it “the worst trash I’ve ever read”), turned into a rock opera, dropped by its publisher, and reissued by others. These days, it seems to have settled into the groove of a cult classic. In a foreword in the current edition, William Gibson describes the book as “a literary singularity” and Jonathan Lethem called it “the secret masterpiece, the city-book-labyrinth that has swallowed astonished readers alive.”

Dhalgren has remained popular through the years, being reprinted 7 times since 1975. It was also dropped by Bantam, the original publisher, because of its willingness to tackle LGBT themes despite the fact that the Bantam version sold over a million copies and went through 19 printings.

#4 War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)

In his book about The War of the Worlds, a seminal look at an invasion of Earth by Martians, author Brian Holmsten states:

“Since 1898 the War of the Worlds has been translated into countless languages, adapted by comic books, radio, film, stage, and even computer games, and has inspired a wide range of alien invasion tales in every medium. Few ideas have captured the imagination of so many people all over the world in the last century so well.

“It is a tribute to H.G. Wells that his story of alien conquest was not only the first of its kind, but remains one of the best.”

The 1927 American reprint, it can be argued, was one of the touching-off points for the Golden Age of science fiction. It inspired John W. Campbell to write and commission invasion stories — which also prompted authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Clifford Simak, Robert A. Heinlein and John Wyndham to do the same.

#5 Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)

Foundation is a sweeping tale of pyschohistory and the battle for the intellectual soul of a civilisation. and According to the BBC:

“The Foundation series helped to launch the careers of three notable science fiction authors of the succeeding generation. Janet Asimov sanctioned these novels, which were published in the late 1990s: Foundation’s Fear by Gregory Benford, Foundation and Chaos by Greg Bear, and Foundation’s Triumph by David Brin.” And without a doubt it launched the imaginations of countless other writers.”

It is also worth mentioning that the Foundation series won the 1966 Hugo for best all-time series. An award that has not been given out since.

And this book’s influence goes beyond science fiction: Artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky classified Asimov “among the finest of modern philosophers,” and Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman describesFoundation as his version of Atlas Shrugged, “I didn’t grow up wanting to be a square-jawed individualist or join a heroic quest; I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.”

#6 Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (1961)

The first science-fiction work to enter the New York Times Book Review’s bestseller list, Stranger sold 100,000 copies in hardcover and over five million in paperback. This book’s influence can’t be overstated. Arthur D. Hlavaty refers to Heinlein as a prototypical science-fiction author, saying:

“One of the ways human beings organise the world is by prototypes. We define a set as a typical example and a bunch of other things that are like it. For instance, when I was growing up, the prototype Writer was Shakespeare, the Artist was Rembrandt, and the Composer was Beethoven. In that way, Robert A. Heinlein has often been taken as the prototype Science Fiction Writer, and as changes and new paradigms shake the field, he still sometimes represents the science fiction of the past.”

Writer Ted Gioia looks at Stranger in a Strange Land’s main character as a prototype for other similar characters in SF, saying: “Smith is more than a character. He is prototype of an alternative personality structure. The question of whether we can remake the human personality from the ground up.”

#7 Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison (1967)

This series helped launch the careers of almost every major author of the New Wave. The first volume included Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, and J.G. Ballard. In his introduction to the 2002 reissue of Ellison’s anthology, contributor Michael Moorcock wrote of Ellison’s collections:

“He changed our world forever. And ironically, it is usually the mark of a world so fundamentally altered — be it by Stokely Carmichael or Martin Luther King Jr. or Lyndon Johnson, or Kate Millet — that nobody remembers what it was like before things got better. That’s the real measure of Ellison’s success.”

“Gonna Roll the Bones” by Fritz Leiber won a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award for Best novelette. “Riders of the Purple Wage” a novella by Philip José Farmer tied for the Hugo Award. Samuel R. Delany got the Nebula for Best Short Story for “Aye, and Gomorrah…” Ellison was given a commendation at the 26th World SF Convention for editing “the most significant and controversial SF book” published in 1967.

#8 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

Arthur C. Clarke himself had reservations about this novel, yet it sold out its first printing, 200,000 copies, in just two months after publication. Author Jo Walton writes about the first book to feature benevolent aliens who try to help the human race evolve:

“Science fiction is a very broad genre, with lots of room for lots of kinds of stories, stories that go all over the place and do all kinds of things. One of the reasons for that is that early on there got to be a lot of wiggle room.

“Childhood’s End was one of those things that expanded the genre early and helped make it more open-ended and open to possibility.

“Clarke was an engineer and he was a solidly scientific writer, but he wasn’t a Campbellian writer. He brought his different experiences to his work, and the field is better for it.”

Childhood’s End was nominated for a retro Hugo award in 2004.

#9 Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970)

Sam Jordison of the Guardian had this to say about Ringworld, the masterpiece that is centered around around a theoretical ring-shaped space-habitat:

“Larry Niven’s 1970 Hugo award winner, Ringworld, is arguably one of the most influential science fiction novels of the past 50 years. As well as having had a huge impact on nearly all subsequent space operas (Iain M Banks’ Culture series and Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns are just two), the book has helped generate a multi-billion-dollar industry.”

To add to this Jonathan Cowie, who wrote Essetial SF: A Concise Guide, called Ringworld “a landmark novel of planetary engineering (for want of a better term) that ranks alongside the late Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville.”

Niven later added four sequels and four prequels which tie into numerous other books set in Known Space; the fictional setting of about a dozen science fiction novels and several collections of short stories.

The other books are listed and discussed at: http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2016/09/17-science-fiction-books-that-forever-changed-the-genre/

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Sci-Fi & Fantasy Library Sweepstakes – Unbound Worlds

Source: Sci-Fi & Fantasy Library Sweepstakes – Unbound Worlds

A chance to build your science fiction and fantasy library.

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