Universe 4 / Terry Carr ed.

Cover of Universe 4

Back in my youth, I used to travel to the Shoreline Public Library on 175th St., north of Seattle. I worked through as much of the children’s section as I cared. The next section over was science fiction. I barely remember much of what I read, but I recall picking out Damon Knight’s Orbit and Terry Carr’s Universe anthologies. Sadly, my memory doesn’t include the actual stories. Back in the day, major publishers like Random House actually published science fiction anthologies under their own main imprint, rather than sidelining them to specialty imprints like Ace or independent S.F. publishers. These days, if you walk through the S.F./Fantasy aisles at your local Barnes & Noble, you’ll be unlikely to see anything published with the name Random House or Penguin or Farrar, Straus and Giroux on the spine. All of those publishers will publish science fiction, but it’s relegated to the imprints Dell or Tor or the like. Now it could be that the stuff just isn’t worthy of mainstream attention any more, or it could be that the mainstream isn’t appreciative of S.F. as literature.

But I digress before I even start. The Universe anthology ran annually until the mid-80s. Unlike the various year’s best series, Universe included original science fiction short stories, rather than reprints of what appeared in magazines. It isn’t a uniformly great set of stories, but it’s passable. And, like always, what I consider not so great is likely to be more my taste rather than any indication of quality.

Assault on a City, Jack Vance
Bodred Bo Histledine, a ne’er-do-well, meets Alice Tynnott, a child of wealth, when she visits the urban city Hant from her private residence floating in the sky. Bo is instilled with desire because of Alice’s supreme confidence, though he’s resentful of her arrogance as well. He stalks her, and contrives to meet her at a museum and later at a bar for lunch. Another of Alice’s suitors, Waldo, also appears and hijinks ensue. Turns out Alice has good reason to be arrogant.
A Sea of Faces, Robert Silverberg
I didn’t like the story much. A psychiatrist tries to help a patient by immersing his mind into hers. He travels around a seascape which represents her mind. It didn’t seem all that original to me, though it may have been at the time of publication. Even if it were, it’s just bad virtual reality in my estimation.
And Read the Flesh Between the Lines, R. A. Lafferty
Terry Carr’s introduction says, R. A. Lafferty’s contention here — whole millenia of history and breeds of men lost to us because we can no longer fit them in. But if they’re real, can they be lost forever?. My take? Bleah. It wasn’t a very interesting story to me. But it’s my bias against random unexplained weirdness that sours the story on me.
My Sweet Lady Jo, Howard Waldrop
Nice, but not amazing, story about a space official’s divorce and dalliance with a colonist returning from Alpha Centauri.
Stungun Slim, Ron Goulart
Ron Goulart’s short story is a fun extrapolation of where advertising and merchandising can take us. In the future, the government adds to it’s coffers by merchandising it’s killers and their executions. Josh Birely is the head of merchandising. He has some qualms about the ethics of the job, but his wife Glendora spends lots more money than they have, and so he can’t afford to indulge his reservations. He needs the job and the money. But his father, a true crime buff, has a plan to hijack the latest serial killer, Stungun Slim, and make some money that could bail Josh out of debt.
Desert Places, Pamela Sargent
This is an end of the world story but not an apocalypse story. I liked it. A small group of people moves periodically as the city they live in is slowly destroyed and replaced.
If the Stars Are Gods, Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford
This novelette won the Nebula and was expanded into a novel in 1977. Strange to me then the trajectory that each of the co-authors has taken. Eklund is a real estate agent in Tacoma (yay Pacific Northwest!) rather than a full time writer. Of course, Benford isn’t a full time writer either. His day job is that of a physics professor. His writing is a sideline, despite it being pretty damn popular. But I’m surprised that Eklund, while writing a number of works over the years, stayed in real estate. Then again, real estate can be pretty lucrative. Anyway… this first contact story tells us about when the aliens came to earth to talk to our sun, looking for a new home. In their universe, the sun is a sentient being. Reynolds, a washed-up former astronaut, views the sun as a giant ball of flaming gas. However, he’s much more sensitive to the alien’s view than the bureaucrats in N.A.S.A., who need the P.R. or weapons or technology for their careers and for the supremacy of the U.S. I also kind of liked the idea that the authors didn’t extrapolate radically how the geopolitical situation on earth would be 50+ years from then. The U.S. and Russia are still fighting proxy wars over Africa that threaten to bloom into full grown wards. It became so much the vogue in S.F. writing over the years to make radical predictions about where geopolitics would end up. Now, I’ll be the first to say that we likely won’t recognize the countries of the future, but long-shot views are no more likely than the status quo.
When the Vertical World Becomes Horizontal, Alexei Panshin
I quit reading in the middle of this story. Again with the random surreal unexplained happenings. Not my bag.

One thing I’m glad of, this anthology is fairly short. Which is nice for those of us who prefer to read from cover to cover rather than a story every once in a while.

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