Category Archives: science fiction

Relevant Reads: “The Screwfly Solution”

Call me a Gilead-loving Martha, but I couldn’t get into The Handmaid’s Tale. Compared to books like Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia, the Persepolis duology, Infidel, I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced and Not Without My Daughter, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian story about a theocratic U.S. that oppresses women feels more like a Disney movie than a cautionary tale.

Which is why I’m glad I discovered James Tiptree’s (note: Alice Sheldon wrote this story under the name Racoona Sheldon but it’s always recognized as a Tiptree story) 1977 Nebula-award winning short story “The Screwfly Solution”, a spine-tingling yarn that’s one-part alien invasion, two-parts femicide, with a heaping helping of religious fervor.

Now why am I comparing “The Screwfly Solution” to The Handmaid’s Tale? Well, one speculates on a future that may or may not happen. The other can happen anywhere and anytime to any woman regardless of her age, size, class, color or beliefs. It can happen in the home, the office, the school and even on the street. Not all women can relate to The Handmaid’s Tale but every woman can relate to “The Screwfly Solution”.

It’s unknown what inspired Tiptree to write “The Screwfly Solution”. Was it the many serial killer cases (of whom the majority of victims were women) that occured in the ’60s and ’70s – among them the 1977 Hillside Strangler case? We may never know because Tiptree died in 1987.

The story is framed in the form of letters between a husband and wife named Alan and Anne. Alan is in Columbia studying insects and Anne is telling him about some disturbing news reports back home:

The Red Cross has set up a refugee camp in Ashton, Georgia. Imagine, refugees in the U.S.A. I heard two little girls were carried out all slashed up.

All I could see about the clippings was that they were fairly horrible accounts of murders or massacres of women. The worst was the New Delhi one, about ‘rafts of female corpses’ in the river. The funniest (!) was the Texas Army officer who shot his wife, three daughters, and his aunt, because God told him to clean the place up.

In case you haven’t guessed, men are spontaneously murdering women in droves. From New Delhi to Cape Hatteras, bodies of slain women have been piling up in rivers and gulfs and everywhere else. It’s gotten so bad that an advertisement catches Alan’s eye:

THE FORSETTE FUNERAL HOME REGRETFULLY ANNOUNCES IT WILL NO LONGER ACCEPT FEMALE CADAVERS

Go ahead, shudder. Then pause for a moment because it’s all too familiar. Just look at these current events in our world:

A man in Turku, Finland attacks six women with a knife, resulting in two deaths.

In Marseille, France two cousins are stabbed to death while waiting at a train station.

Journalist Kim Wall’s body was found floating in a bag decapitated, dismembered, full of stab wounds and stitches sown into her torso. 

A man who identifies as a woman, murders a lesbian couple and their son in Oakland, CA.

A female torso is found floating in the Oshawa Harbor.

Here’s an in-depth article about violence against women.

WomenCountUSA is a website devoted to the number of girls and women murdered by men.

And let’s not forget India’s “missing girls”.

Yet what do all these cases have in common? They’ve gotten minimal news coverage or have been dismissed out of hand. Just as the murder of women is taken for granted in the story, misogynistic violence in real life isn’t taken as seriously as, say, racial violence or homophobic violence (the murder of the Oakland lesbian couple was barely mentioned in LGBT news media).

But systematic femicide isn’t the only problem affecting society in “The Screwfly Solution”Anne reveals another disturbing trend: a new religion has been gaining acceptance in society:

They’re calling it the Sons of Adam cult now.

What does this cult believe? Alan pulls out a flimsy sent by his friend Barney who explains via a book titled Man Listens to God:

Man must purify himself and show God a clean world…as long as man depends on the old, filthy animal way, God won’t help him. When man gets rid of his animal part which is woman, this is the signal God is awaiting. Then God will reveal the new true clean way, maybe angels will come bringing new souls, or maybe we will live forever, but it is not our place to speculate, only to obey.

And when they say “man gets rid of his animal part which is woman”, Barney means it in a literal way. In the same flimsy he relates a meeting with the Mayor (a devoted member of the new religion) of Peedsville to investigate this new cult – which ends in the casual murder of a female colleague:

Mayor Blount drove up in a police cruiser, and our chief…explained our mission from the Surgeon General. Dr. Premack was very careful not to make any remarks insulting to the mayor’s religion. Mayor Blount agreed to let the party go on into Peedsville to take samples of the soil and water and so on and talk to the doctor who lives there.

The mayor was about 6’2″, weight maybe 230 or 240, tanned, with grayish hair. He was smiling and chuckling in a friendly manner.

Then he looked in the car and saw Dr. Elaine Fay and he blew up. He started yelling we had to all get the hell back. But Dr. Premack talked to him and cooled him down, and finally the mayor said Dr. Fay should go into the warehouse office and stay there with the door closed.

Then Mayor Blount…came in…he smiled at me sort of fatherly, but he looked tense. He asked me where Dr. Fay was, and I told him she was lying down in back. Then he kind of sighed and went back down the hall, closing the door behind him.

After a while the door opened and Mayor Blount came back in. He looked terrible, his clothes were messed up, and he had bloody scrape marks on his face. He didn’t say anything, he just looked at me hard and fierce, like he might have been disoriented. I saw his zipper was open and there was blood on his clothing and also on his (private parts).

I didn’t feel frightened, I felt something important had happened. I tried to get him to sit down. But he motioned me to follow him back down the hall to where Dr. Fay was. “You must see”, he said. He went into the toilet and I went into a kind of little room there, where the cot was. I saw Dr. Fay lying on the cot in a peaceful appearance. She was lying straight, her clothing was to some extent different but her legs were together… Her blouse was pulled up, and I saw there was a cut or incision on her abdomen. The blood was coming out of there…Also her throat was cut open.

I returned to the office. Mayor Blount was sitting down, looking very tired. He had cleaned himself off. He said, “I did it for you. Do you understand?”

He went on to explain how Dr. Fay was very dangerous, she was what they call a cripto-female (crypto?) the most dangerous kind. He had exposed her and purified the situation.

Judging from what I’ve highlighted in bold you can guess why the mayor got away with murder. That’s right, “religious tolerance”. Early on in the story Anne raises the question:

Why can’t they do something, even if it is a religion?

Sound familiar? Here’s some more examples from our world:

At the Women’s March this year a woman holding an “Islam is Misogynistic” sign was attacked by protesters for “spreading hate”.

The Southern Poverty Law Center labeled feminist, FGM survivor and Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an “extremist”.

I myself was subjected to this. When I was a high school junior, I told my class about the way women were treated in Saudi Arabia (thanks to the previously mentioned book Princess) in the name of religion and a Muslim boy (who was a real thorn in my side) interrupted me and accused me of Islamophobia. Guess who the teacher (who hoped that one day the US would have a woman president) sided with?

∞∞∞

As the story reaches its conclusion, Alan kills himself after murdering his and Anne’s teenage daughter, and Anne – possibly the only woman left alive on Earth – is living in seclusion in the woods of Canada (at this rate the men are now murdering little boys in rapid numbers). Disguised as a man, she only comes to the local general store in her area for whatever she needs and hears talk from the men about angel sightings (proof to the men that they’re doing God’s Will). Then one day Anne sees the “angel” for herself and she realizes that it’s not an angel but an alien:

Let me repeat – it was there. And I think they’ve done whatever it is to us. Made us kill ourselves off.

Why?

Well, it’s a nice place, if it wasn’t for the people.

So it turns out that the aliens are spreading a mental delusion/disease among men, influencing them to murder the female half of the population, then boys and eventually each other. Once humanity goes extinct, the earth is ripe for the taking.

Are you interested in reading “The Screwfly Solution”? It’s available as a selection  of the only Tiptree anthology in print (bummer) Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. If you have read “The Screwfly Solution” or seen the Masters of Horror adaptation, what impressed you most about the story? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under classic sf horror, feminism, James Tiptree Jr., science fiction, speculative fiction

Vietnam War Fantastic

I got the idea to write this post from watching Ken Burn’s latest documentary The Vietnam War. In the past, for reasons unknown, I never had any interest in the Vietnam War even though I have some vague memories of its aftereffects (the war ended in 1975, I was born in 1984) thanks to the pop culture of the ’80s and early ’90s. I also remember as a child seeing legless Vietnamese/Cambodian men in wheelchairs due to left over land mines from that war.

But until Burns’ series, I never had any interest in the Vietnam War. Maybe because it was too long (it lasted from 1955-1975, 20 years total), too bloody and too divisive, so divisive in the US (and Vietnam of course) that you could say the ’60s was the second Civil War. To this very day, the war still is still a sensitive subject – just ask any baby boomer.

And maybe its controversial nature is why authors tend to shy away from the Vietnam War as a setting for works of SF, fantasy and horror. But there are exceptions. Eleven of them to be exact, and they range from short stories to an award-winning classic novel. So pop in your favorite ’60s/’70s rock album (I suggest The Best of the Guess Who because of course I do) and peruse this list of fantastical works set during a war that changed America (and Vietnam) forever.

Short Stories

“Fellow Americans” by Eileen Gunn (From the anthology Alternate Presidents)

Lyndon B. Johnson – commonly known as LBJ – loses the 1964 election to Barry Goldwater, who, as president, drops nuclear weapons on Vietnam, thus winning the war. Goldwater wins a second term in 1968 and serves as POTUS until 1973. Oh and Richard Nixon quit politics and became a talk show host.

“Suppose They Gave a Peace” by Susan Shwartz (also from Alternate Presidents and The Way It Wasn’t)

George McGovern is elected in 1972 and attempts an immediate withdrawal from the war, but that doesn’t stop the North Vietnamese from advancing towards Saigon.

“Murdering Uncle Ho” by Chris Bunch (from the anthology Alternate Generals III)

JFK survived his assassination, and draws the US deeper into the Vietnam conflict after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident which leads to a North Vietnamese invasion in 1965.

Comics

Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-87)

This graphic novel needs no introduction. Ask any comic book nerd about it and they’ll speak in reverential tones about how this series changed the comic book industry for better and for worse. Thanks to the intervention of superheroes – the living weapon Dr. Manhattan in particular (and the Comedian – though he was more of a combatant) – the US won the Vietnam War. But for every action, there’s a reaction…

Spider-‘Nam

This is more of a case of What Could Have Been. James Stokoe wrote and drew a couple of (unpublished) pages imagining Spider-Man as a combatant in the Vietnam War. He learns that the catch-phrase “with great power, comes great responsibility” takes on a whole new meaning during wartime. It appears that this comic wont be published any time soon but if it is, it’ll be the first Spider-Man comic I’d be interested in reading. You can look at the pages here.

Video Games

Shellshock 2: Blood Trails

A 2009 first-person shooter that tells the story of G.I. Private Nate Walker, who is sent to Vietnam in 1969 and learns, to his horror, that a scientist has unleashed a contagion that turns humans into zombie creatures (because zombies and war go together like peanut butter and jelly) which includes his older brother Cal. Your mission is to find Cal in the jungles of Southeast Asia, fight zombies and the Viet Cong, who’d like to get their hands on that virus.

(you will not love the smell of naplam in the morning)

Role-Playing Games

Weird Wars: Tour of Darkness

I’m not good at describing RPGs because I’ve never played them, but I think TV Tropes does a better job summarizing the Weird Wars franchise:

Pinnacle Games published a Weird Wars line of d20 games taking place in Real Life past and future wars with supernatural additions. For example, Weird War II had the PCs playing Allied soldiers during World War II, but the Nazis had mutant soldiers, characters could use haunted vehicles and cast spells, and there were monsters. Lots of monsters. The updated re-release of the game line for Savage Worlds so far includes World War I (“Weird War I”), World War II (“Weird War II”), The Vietnam War (“Tour Of Darkness”), and the Roman Empire and its campaigns of conquest (“Weird Wars Rome”).

And Amazon provides more details:

Our first follow-up to our smash hit Weird Wars in the new Savage Worlds system takes us to the jungles of Vietnam. Your grunt has 365 days and a wake-up to learn what really lurks in the jungle. Surviving is tough enough, but if your GI is really on the ball, he just might get drafted into the super-secret Phoenix Program and discover far more than he ever wanted about the Plain of Jars and the secret cults of the high mountains. Tour of Darkness features new Sanity rules and how to deal with mind-numbing horror, a ton of Edges & Hindrances, new horrors, and an awesome Adventure Generator and Plot Points to tell the most savage of tales!

Novels

The Forever War Joe Haldeman (1975)

Joe Haldeman served in Vietnam as a combat engineer. He expressed his experiences (the terror of combat, the indifference of government bureaucracy, the futility of the war and the sense of coming back to an unrecognizable world) in the military sci-fi award-winning novel The Forever War which tells the story of William Mandella, a UNEF soldier who is drafted into the war between Earth and the Taurans. Fighting an endless war is tough enough but for Mandella and his fellow soldiers, the tougher part is going home…

Television

“In Praise of Pip” – The Twilight Zone, Season 5, Episode 1 (Broadcast date: 9/27/63)

This episode is noted for addressing the Vietnam War long before the anti-war movement came to prominence. A corrupt bookie (Jack Klugman) is shot by one of his clients. He learns before hand that his son was wounded in South Vietnam and prays that God would take his life in exchange for his son’s. But before he dies, he gets one last chance to be a good father…

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A later season 5 episode makes an eerie side reference to Vietnam. “I Am the Night – Color Me Black” tells the story of an innocent man who will be hanged for murder at sunrise. But the sun never rises and the sky stays dark. After the execution, a reverend tells the public that the sky will get blacker and blacker as long as hate persists. But the little town isn’t the only place covered in darkness. Just see for yourself:

Manga

Apocalypse Meow by Motofumi Kobayashi

In Japan this manga goes by a very different title that can’t be repeated here. So in the US its retitled Apocalypse Meow as a play on the famous film Apocalypse Now.

All soldiers are represented as animals – Americans are rabbits, Vietnamese are cats, etc. Three American soldiers – Bota, Perky and Rats – go about their daily activities as members of a reconnaissance group in Vietnam. Click here for more details.

So what do you think, readers? Did I miss something? Should there be more works set during the Vietnam War or should we let sleeping dogs lie? Say your thing, man.

 

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Great Cat Moments In SF & F History

October 29 was National Cat Day! I love cats. On Planet X, I celebrate National Cat Day by putting together a list of the furriest, most purrrfffect characters, stories and moments in my other love – science fiction! Because, believe it or not, cats and sci-fi go together like wet food and a ball of yarn. So, without further ado, in no particular order, here’re the best feline moments in sci-fi.

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Jonesy (Alien)

Ripley was the last survivor of the Nostromo right? Wrong! She had company. Jones (or Jonesy) the ship’s cat also successfully escaped the alien’s clutches. His most memorable moment was when Brett, the ship’s engineer, tries to call Jones to him but Jones is too distracted by the thing that’s slowly creeping down from the ceiling behind Brett. The camera switches from the alien snatching Brett to a closeup of Jonesy’s face. The 1979 film ends with Jonesy relaxing on Ripley’s lap as she gives her final report before going into stasis.

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Isis the Cat

Does it surprise you that Spock has an affinity for cats? Me neither. The last episode of Star Trek‘s second season, “Assignment: Earth”, has the Enterprise traveling to the past to research Earth’s history only to discover a mysterious man with a cat has energized aboard the ship. That man is agent Gary Seven, a human raised on another planet who’s mission is to travel through time to prevent other agents from altering Earth’s history. His constant companion is a cat named Isis who possessed the ability to take on a human form and to communicate telepathically. Originally “Assignment: Earth” was intended to be a backdoor pilot to a spinoff series about Gary Seven, his cat, Isis and his assistant Roberta Lincoln but it never got off the ground. However, their further adventures are told in the Gary Cox duology The Eugenics Wars.

ThunderCats

If your a child of the eighties like me, chances are you may remember watching this show at some point. Created by the ironically named Ted “Tobin” Wolf and airing from 1985 to 1989, ThunderCats revolved around a group of feline humanoid aliens – each resembling a species of wild cat – fleeing their doomed planet Thundera and. The group consisted of central protagonist Lion-O, Cheetara, Snarf, Tygra, Panthro, and the siblings WilyKit and WilyKat as they fight the Mutants of Plun-Darr and adjust to their new lives on Third Earth. As you may have guessed, there was a toy line.

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Cringer/Battle Cat

Lion-O and the gang weren’t the only cats to rule the airwaves. The wildly popular He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-1985) had Prince Adam/He-Man’s faithful pet/steed Cringer, a green and orange tiger who was a scaredy-cat (literally) and could turn into a fierce, bridled tiger with the help of He-Man’s sword. He also was immortalized in toy form.

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Catwoman

Next to Wonder Woman, DC’s Catwoman (Selena Kyle) is one of comics most recognizable and inspirational characters – even if her reputation is unsavory. She’s been around since 1940 and is still going strong. She’s been portrayed by Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether, Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfeiffer, Halle Berry, Anne Hathaway and Carmen Bicondova. She’s also been voiced by Adrienne Barbeau, Grey DeLisle, Eliza Dushku and others. IGN ranked her at number 11 on their “Top 100 Comic Book Villains of All Time” list.

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Catman

Not to be outdone is DC’s other “cat burglar” Catman, who was really Thomas Blake, a hunter turned criminal who often went cowl to cowl with Batman. Like his more famous female counterpart, he’s been retconned into an anti-hero involved with the Secret Six. Under the pen of Gail Simone, Catman has gained more recognition.

Cat People (1942)

Considered to be the definitive Val Lewton film, this horror classic tells the story of a young Serbian woman’s fear that she will turn into a deadly black panther if she’s ever sexually aroused or angered. Her fears come true when she falls in love with an American man… The film is famous for its low budget and its cinematography.

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The Cat Returns (2002)

From Studio Ghibli comes a coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl named Haru who finds herself in a “cat kingdom” as the unwilling bride-to-be for their prince. It up to the dashing Baron von Gikkingen, his aide Muta and a bird named Toto to infiltrate the palace of the Cat King and free Haru. The English dub of this Japanese film included the voices of Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Peter Boyle and Tim Curry.

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Dinah and the Cheshire Cat

How could I leave Alice in Wonderland off this list? It boasts two iconic cats: Alice’s cherished cat, Dinah (who acts as a beacon of hope to the lost, confused Alice) and of course, the Cheshire Cat, who has all the best lines in the book. Dinah was based on the Liddell’s family’s (who were close friends of Lewis Carroll) tabby cat while the Cheshire Cat is based on the expression “to grin like a Cheshire cat.” Cheshire was also Carroll’s birthplace.

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Aslan, Son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea

The creator and king of Narnia. He is a alternative version of Jesus Christ and is the only character to appear in all seven books of the Narnia series. He’s loved by all Narnians and feared by all his enemies. He is not a tame lion.

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Tailchaser’s Song

I haven’t read this 1985 book by Tad Williams but I remember an illustration of a Toothguard by Wayne Barlowe. Anyway Fritti Tailchaser is a sentient feral cat who sets out on a quest to find a missing friend. Rumor has it, there will be an animated adaptation in 2018 (CGI unfortunately).

To Visit the Queen

A 1998 steampunk  time traveling adventure by Diane Duane in which an evil entity travels to Victorian England to introduce nuclear weapons (ahead of schedule) to the British Empire and assassinate Queen Victoria along the way. It’s up to four cat “wizards”, their dinosaur ally, and a young Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to stop “The Lone Power” from destroying the world.

Muuurgh the Togorian

A character that appears in A.C. Crispin’s Han Solo Trilogy, Muuurgh was a feline humanoid that was assigned as Han Solo bodyguard on the planet Ylesia. In reality Muuurgh was looking for his mate-to-be Mrrov, who had gotten tangled up with a shady cult. Muuurgh and Han Solo become good friends (remember, this is before Han met Chewbacca) and help free Mrrov and other members from the clutches of the “cult”. Han later serves as Muuurgh’s best man at Muuurgh and Mrrov’s wedding and the happy couple become parents to three kits.

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Spot the cat

Data the android always wanted to learn what it was like to be human. One of those ways was to own a pet, which turned out to be his cat, Spot, who was an orange tabby. Spot appeared in many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Data loved her dearly.

 catfantastic4pic

The Catfantastic Series

Rowwrrr! How could I have forgotten this on my list. A collection of fantasy stories about Man’s Best Friend (admit it) edited by Andre Norton and Martin H. Greenberg. The first book was published in 1989 and it’s fourth and final sequel was published in 2009.

Meow! Agree with my list. What other cat related titles, characters and stories have I missed. Sound off in the comments and maybe I’ll add them.

For an added bonus, here’s some pictures of your favorite SF/F authors with their felines.

Ursula K. LeGuin

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Philip K. Dick

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Ray Bradbury

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Neil Gaiman

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Stephen King

Stephen King

 

 

 

 

 

 

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