Fables of Reason, Time and Its Discontents, and a Nonlinear Journey: More From "The Big Book of Science Fiction"

Welcome to Part 2 of Fiction Unbound’s review of The Big Book of Science Fiction, a new sci-fi anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Last week in Part 1, Lisa Mahoney and Jon Horwitz-White reviewed stories by writers from Latin America and China. This week, Theodore McCombs surveys fables of reason (contes philosophiques), Mark Springer contemplates time and its discontents, and CS Peterson embarks upon a nonlinear journey of discovery. 

Fables of Reason — Theodore McCombs

Bengali writer and social activist Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain, popularly “Begum Rokeya” (1931).

Bengali writer and social activist Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain, popularly “Begum Rokeya” (1931).

The VanderMeers make a compelling case to place the conte philosophique, or “fable of reason,” in the genealogy of the science fiction short story. Originally, the conte philosophique was a rhetorical device for scientists like Kepler or philosophers like Voltaire to deliver their arguments in the frame of a fantastical adventure or extremely discursive dream; and some of the early stories in the anthology fall right in step with this tradition. In “Sultana’s Dream” (1905), the Bengali writer Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain uses a dream journey to depict Ladyland, a feminist utopia where the benevolent women rulers use solar power and respect purdah by segregating the men in the zenanas: “how unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men,” whom, as the root of all the trouble, it makes no more sense to let free than it does “to keep sane people in an asylum and let loose the insane!” The story is polemical first, narrative second, and not at all psychological or character-driven. Science fiction is rightly celebrated as a literature of ideas, and the VanderMeers challenge the notion that one “delivery system”—say, a plot driven by round characters’ responses to a speculative setting—is inherently superior than another.

Two of my all-time favorite speculative writers, Jorge Luis Borges and Stanisław Lem, are known for their dazzling intellectual play (the anthology includes stories from both authors which resemble contes philosophiques), but their fables’ emotional complexities are frequently underestimated. On its zany, satirical surface, Lem’s “Let Us Save the Universe” (1971) is pure exposition, a field guide to the ways that alien flora and fauna on distant planets have evolved to repel an insufferable flood of interstellar tourists: predatory ants that group together to mimic wicker furniture, a “foul-tailed fetido” that sprays noxious smells when photographed. But there is a deep, misanthropic despair underneath all the humor, driven in no small part, surely, by Lem’s experiences writing in Soviet-bloc Poland. Here is the “sentient gentian” from “Let Us Save the Universe”:

As a result of mutation, the gentian will sometimes form tiny brains instead of the usual bulbs. This mutant variety, the crazy gentian (Gentiana mentecapta), becomes restless as it grows. It digs itself out, goes into the forest, and gives itself to solitary meditation. It invariably reaches the conclusion that life is not worth living, and commits suicide.
— Stanisław Lem, "Let Us Save the Universe", translated by Joel Stern and Maria Swiecicka-Ziemianek

The story is anything but psychological, but more poignant than many novels. Borges too wrote in tension with a dictatorship, and it shows—so does Cixin Liu, in a way, and I’ve already written on the emotional and aesthetic dimension to his ideas. In Communist Poland and China, in Perón’s Argentina, in colonial Bengal, where ideas could be dangerous, treasonous, and blasphemous in themselves, is it any wonder they could be moving and beautiful too, even without the assistance of a round character?

Reading these stories, though, I can’t help but admire the beautiful balances that some of these sci-fi greats have achieved, between expositing inventive ideas or arguments and character-driven emotion. In particular, Samuel R. Delaney’s groundbreaking “Aye, and Gomorrah” put queer sci-fi on the map with a brilliant, beautiful, and poignant fable of astronauts as a sexual subculture. De-sexed before puberty to avoid the harmful effects of radiation beyond the atmosphere, “spacers” are wild, furious children in genderless adult bodies, and “frelks” the perverts who go for that sort of thing. Delaney explores fetish, cruising, and the profound loneliness of sexual deviance—all in 1967. When I finished it, even in today’s wake of progress, I was floored by the human grace of such an odd little idea.

Time & Its Discontents: Ballard, Vonnegut & Ellison — Mark Springer

Dystopian stories have been trending up since the new millennium, not least in Young Adult fiction and contemporary world events. As we watch the headlines stream into our algorithmically generated filter bubbles, it’s tempting to think this trend is because the modern age is unique in its capacity for sheer awfulness. And when the news gets particularly bad, we might even wonder if reality has finally eclipsed the human imagination and put aspiring dystopian writers out of work once and for all. Surely there has never been a time so violent, so fraught, so fearful, so consumed by the threat of annihilation ... 

But let’s pause for some historical perspective before we get too worked up. The dystopian stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction span the entirety of the 20th century—more than enough perspective to distract from present discontents. I sampled contributions from J. G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, and Harlan Ellison, all published during the bloody, fraught, fearful, finger-on-the-button 1960s. (Perhaps our age of violence and existential angst isn’t as unprecedented as we have led ourselves to believe?)

In Ballard’s “The Voices of Time” (1960), human civilization is slowly collapsing as people around the world succumb to a terminal sleeping sickness called “narcoma.” The disease progresses gradually, causing its victims to sleep a few minutes longer each day, until they never wake again. Despite the best efforts of doctors and scientists at the Clinic, a specialized research and treatment facility in the American Southwest, the cause of the disease remains unknown. There is no vaccine, no treatment to slow the onset, no cure. When Dr. Robert Powers, one of the leading neurologists at the Clinic, is diagnosed with narcoma, he knows there is nothing left to do but put his affairs in order and wait for his time to run out. At first Powers is determined to forget everything he has ever known, a deliberate attempt to distance himself emotionally from the life he is losing minute by minute. But as he descends inevitably into dreamless oblivion, the doctor’s understanding of his relationship to the universe is transformed. Time—and by extension life—is not something we are given to possess; it is simply something we are part of, something that passes through us, or we through it, on a scale too grand for us to comprehend. 

“Like an endless river, so broad that its banks were below the horizons, it flowed steadily toward him, a vast course of time that spread outwards to fill the sky and the universe, enveloping everything within them.... He felt his body gradually dissolving, its physical dimensions melting into the vast continuum of the current, which bore him out into the center of the great channel, sweeping him onward, beyond hope but at last at rest, down the broadening reaches of the river of eternity.” — J. G. Ballard, “The Voices of Time.”

“Like an endless river, so broad that its banks were below the horizons, it flowed steadily toward him, a vast course of time that spread outwards to fill the sky and the universe, enveloping everything within them.... He felt his body gradually dissolving, its physical dimensions melting into the vast continuum of the current, which bore him out into the center of the great channel, sweeping him onward, beyond hope but at last at rest, down the broadening reaches of the river of eternity.” — J. G. Ballard, “The Voices of Time.”

At first glance, Vonnegut’s “2 B R 0 2 B” (1962) could be mistaken for a Ray Kurzweil utopia: science has solved all of society’s ills, including disease, aging, and death; everyone lives in peace and harmony. But the luster quickly fades when we learn that maintaining the global utopia requires zero population growth: for every live birth, someone must volunteer to die. This being a utopia, self-terminations are facilitated in an orderly fashion by a cheerful bureaucracy, the Service Division of the Federal Bureau of Termination. (The story’s title is revealed to be the telephone number of the bureau’s municipal gas chambers. The zero is pronounced “naught,” proving that Shakespeare will still be required reading in all possible futures, even for government ministers of death.) Vonnegut, ever the keen satirist, plays the scenario to an appropriately grim conclusion. Like most technological advancements, immortality comes at a steeper price than we expect.

After Ballard’s sublime meditation and Vonnegut’s incisive satire, Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965) screams across the page with all the subtlety of an intercontinental ballistic missile delivering its nuclear payload. Imagine an authoritarian consumerist-industrialist society in which everything and everyone runs on a precise schedule. To be late is a crime; punctuality is ruthlessly enforced:

What they had done was devise a method of curtailing the amount of life a person could have. If he was ten minutes late, he lost ten minutes of his life. An hour was proportionally worth more revocation. If someone was consistently tardy, he might find himself, on a Sunday night, receiving a communique from the Master Timekeeper that his time had run out, and he would be ‘turned off’ at high noon on Monday, please straighten out your affairs, sir, madame, or bisex.
— Harlan Ellison, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the TicktockMan"

Now imagine a man in a jester’s costume, a fool, a Harlequin, a man with no sense of time. Imagine how such a man would (or would not) function in such a society. Imagine the cascading fallout as the Harlequin disrupts the schedules of everyone he encounters, and by extension, the schedules of everyone. Imagine the lengths to which the Master Timekeeper (aka the Ticktockman) will go to bring such a deviant to justice. Imagine all that, throw in a hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of jelly beans, a shout-out to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and an excerpt from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and you’re in the vicinity of Ellison’s wild dystopia. Like the contes philosophiques, this isn’t a story you read for its well-rounded, psychologically complex characters (there aren’t any); this is a story you read because you must. The assignment is right there on your cardioplate timecard, so get to it already. The Ticktockman is watching. Don’t be late. 

A Nonlinear Journey Through the Big Book — CS Peterson


The Big Book of Science Fiction is a massive tome with an intimidating heft. I dipped in here and there, trying to wrap my head around the evolution of the science fiction genre over time. Nostalgia guided me first, and I re-read stories from Asimov (“The Last Question”) and Bradbury (“September 2005: The Martian”) that I had last seen in childhood. The dated assumptions of male Anglo-hegemony on display in these stories stunned me, though I hadn’t noticed anything amiss when I first encountered them.

I was a pre-teen when I saw Asimov’s “The Last Question” (1956) presented as a piece of theater at Fiske planetarium in Boulder. Afterwards I binged on Asimov, reading everything I could get my hands on in the library and spending all my babysitting money on new magazines and books. Reading the story as an adult, I marvel that I had missed the blatant sexism when I was younger. The big questions were what caught me once upon a time, because I identified with the characters who asked them. Gender didn’t come into it until later in life, when I found myself cast by directors in roles that fit the stereotype of my ingenue body but felt completely alien to my experience as a person. Now viewed through a different lens of experience, the fussing deferential mother and tousled little girls of Asimov's story grate against my ear.


After Asimov and Bradbury, I paged through the collection at random, reading a paragraph here, a biography there, until the non-linearity of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (1998) caught me and held on. Stories do that when you meet them at just the right time.

It was serendipity: all summer I’ve been thinking about how culture shapes the transmission of knowledge and our perception of time. In Chiang’s story a linguist tries to learn the language of aliens recently arrived on Earth. The aliens are heptapods, seven limbed creatures with radial symmetry and no clear front or back. Their understanding of time is encoded in their writing. The heptapods communicate through a mirror and their perception of the world is a wonderland inversion of our own—one physics, two understandings. Sequential experience or simultaneous? If both are valid, what are the implications for free will? Louise, our protagonist, immerses herself so deeply into the alien logos that her perception of time shifts from sequential to simultaneous.

Knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will. What made it possible for me to exercise freedom of choice also made it impossible for me to know the future. Conversely, now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future including telling others what I know: those who know the future don’t talk about it. Those who’ve read the Book of Ages never admit to it.
— Ted Chiang, "Story of Your Life"


I found myself reading Chiang’s story in non-linear fashion. I started with a bit in the middle where Louise nurses her infant daughter. That struck the first chord. Chiang’s description of an infant’s apparent experience of time, the now and now of a singular present, rang true against my own memories of nursing children.

I went back and read the beginning of the story, then a chunk further on. I noticed that the flow of time was odd. Passages about her daughter were written in second person using the future perfect tense. They wove in and out of the first person present narrative, sometimes meshing with it out of sequence, a dramatization of how Louise’s experience of time has been transformed. My own experience of the story was similarly unconventional. From there, I skipped ahead and read the ending (no spoilers).

Eventually I did read the whole story, and I appreciate more than ever how my experience of time shifts when I have read a story. Now Chiang’s story exists complete and simultaneous in my mind, reflecting the physical marks on a piece of paper I hold in my hand.


I experienced the entire collection in the same way that I read Chiang’s story: unconstrained by the order the stories appeared in the sequential past. The anthology is a gestalt of the conversation science fiction has had with itself over time. I am biased as I read; I see every part through the filter of my own experience of past and present. I feel a little bit lost, like Dr. Louise Banks, trying to grasp the whole of a new language.


In 1970, Joanna Russ took science fiction to task for “accepting societal prejudices and stereotypes without thought or analysis” in its depiction of women, as the VanderMeers write in their introduction to the collection.

The evolution of female representation and women’s voices in science fiction is not a linear thing. In the sequence of time, the trajectory of female characters seems to be from foils and tropes to full fledged human beings. Yet, the idea of a female utopia appears in Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream” as early as 1905 (see Ted above). It is repeated with variations on the theme in 1972 with Russ’s “When It Changed,” and inverted in Lisa Tuttle’s “Wives” in 1976. Now it’s 2016 and Tuttle’s story seems sadly prescient in the U.S. presidential election cycle, as Tuttle herself has commented:

I fear [it] is still depressingly relevant today, rather than being a quaint artifact of the bad old sexist, violent, aggressively colonialist days as my younger self would have wished.
— Lisa Tuttle


Time and space blur in “Schwarzschild Radius” (1987) by Connie Willis. Schwarzschild, the mathematician who predicted black holes, was living in the nightmare of a WWI trench when he made the calculations. In the story, a time traveling Cambridge historian tries to interview an aged wireless operator about the relationship between Einstein and Schwarzschild. But the old man’s memories of Schwarzschild and the discovery of the event horizon manifest into the all consuming darkness of war. The wireless operator cannot send any information out. Bombs explode. The tunnels and trenches collapse. Though the historian interviews the wireless operator about a war long past, the old soldier remains trapped within its horror.

Leena Krohn, a Finnish author, explores questions of free will and fate in her 1993 novel, Mathematical Creatures or Shared Dreams. In the excerpt entitled “Gorgonoids,” she muses about the apparent life of a gorgonoid, which is the visualization of a mathematical model running on a computer. We can see it, but it is not alive. It appears to make choices, but we know what choices it will make. Yet things we cannot see, like dark matter, exist in a state of perfect freedom. Would one say, then, that dark matter is living? 

In the excerpt of the 1990 novel Red Spider White Web, by Nogah, the cyberpunk artist Kumo creates virtual worlds of body horror to take revenge on slumming skinheads. The skinheads are real, her vengeance an illusion that is ultimately unsatisfying.

With the exception of Willis, these are voices I had never heard before. The works of Nogah and Krohn have now become an obsession. Their books are not easy to find. Their voices make me hopeful. 


Reading the VanderMeers’ anthology sent me back in time to when I was twelve years old: now, as then, I’ve been staying up past my bedtime, caught by stories I can’t put down. My long-suffering spouse snores away next to me in our grown-up present. I try not to disturb him. Last night I found myself reading Ray Bradbury with a flashlight under the covers when I should’ve been asleep. 

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