Time Warp: 1979

Welcome to 1979. In these Time Warp blog entries, I explore some of the best short fiction of yesteryear using key anthologies of the time (kind of like short fiction time capsules) to highlight what were perceived back then to be some of the best stories of the year. Our time capsule for this exploration will be Donald Wollheim’s The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF (which collected stories that first appeared in 1979).

But first, what was 1979 like? Jimmy Carter’s presidency becomes embroiled in The Iran Hostage Crisis. Margaret Thatcher becomes the first female prime minister of Britain. Philips demonstrates the CD publicly for the first time. Among genre films, Star Trek: The Motion Picture premieres to mixed reviews but strong box office, while Alien, a much better film, is released by director Ridley Scott. Meanwhile, Kramer vs. Kramer dominates at the box office and the Oscars, becoming both the top-grossing film of the year in the US and winning Best Picture. Michael Jackson and the BeeGees dominate the music scene, the first with his Off the Wall album and the second with their smash hit “Tragedy.” McDonald’s introduces the Happy Meal. And iconic Hollywood actor John Wayne dies.

Here’s some of the finest science fiction available in 1979, compliments of The 1980 Annual Worlds’s Best SF, edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Arthur W. Saha.

The Way of Cross and Dragon — by George R.R. Martin:  Damien Har Veris is an Inquisitor of the Order Militant of the Knights of Jesus Christ. He works for an alien archbishop and his job is to root out and eliminate heresy within an interstellar empire. His work has left him disillusioned, so that he craves time off to help him restore his faith. Instead, he is sent to the planet Arion, to disprove a new religious variant from an unexpected source. The story mixes questions of faith with humor and pathos to excellent effect. It also won the 1980 Short Story Hugo Award.

The Thirteenth Utopia — by Somtow Sucharitkul:  Inquestor Davaryush Ton has been sent to the planet Shtoma to investigate the claim that it is a utopia. Davaryush has previously disproved twelve other planets claiming utopian status. He finds much more than he expects on Shtoma. An excellent story.

Options — by John Varley:  What if you could just casually change your sex? What impact would that have on society? On relationships, marriages and families? These are the questions that Varley explores in this story, as Cleo, a wife and mother, decides to explore her options. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, sincere and sweet. It was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novelette in 1980.

Unaccompanied Sonata — by Orson Scott Card:  Christian Haroldsen is a musical prodigy in a highly regimented future society that strictly controls people’s lives based on their aptitudes. As a child prodigy, Christian is isolated so that he can pursue his genuis without any contamination from other influences. When he learns that there is an outside world, and that there are other types of music, his life journey takes a turn that is horrifying and heart-breaking in equal measures. A very moving story, which was also nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Short Story in 1980.

The Story Writer — by Richard Wilson:  William Wylie Ross is an old-school pulp writer. He sits at a table at a flea market with a typewriter and a ream of paper, offering to write a story about you for $1 a page. A cloaked stranger takes him up on his offer, stating that Ross has been chosen, and that anything he writes will come true. A strange story ensues, involving a semi-parallel world and a possible invasion of Earth. At first, it’s all amusing, but then it goes on and on and on. The story simply did not work for me.

Daisy, In the Sun — by Connie Willis:  Daisy is a young girl living in a house with her family. Something is wrong, though. Nobody wants to talk about what’s outside the house. In fact, there seem to be some subjects that it’s very difficult to even think about. Daisy is determined to remember things so she can figure out what’s going on. Horrifying and thought-provoking. The story was nominated for the 1980 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

The Locusts — by Larry Niven and Steve Barnes:  There’s a colony on Tau Ceti IV, but something seems to be going wrong with the colony’s newborn children. The colonists desperately try to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late. It’s a good story, both fascinating and horrifying. It was nominated for the 1980 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

The Thaw — by Tanith Lee:  For years, critically ill people have had themselves frozen in the hope that they could be revived and cured in the future. Humanitarians in the future, having developed the necessary technologies, decide to begin reviving these people, beginning with the radiant Carla Brice. We experience this revival through the eyes of Tacey Brice, a distant descendant selected to help the long-frozen Carla adjust to the future. Let’s just say that the revival and adjustment doesn’t quite go as planned. A good, yet horrifying, story, undermined slightly because the two main characters are both so unsympathetic.

Out There Where the Big Ships Go — by Richard Cowper:  Roger Herzheim is a 12-year-old boy at loose ends. He and his mother are in town because she’s participating in the Thirty-Third World Kalire Championship, featuring a deeply complicated game created by aliens. Coincidentally, Roger has chance encounters with the two leading players, the Master, a man named Peter Henderson who first learned the game from the aliens, introduced it to Earth, and has never been beaten; and the leading contender, Guilio Romano Amato. It’s a hard story to describe, being part coming-of-age story, part philosophical discussion, with maybe even a little touch of mysticism. It’s an excellent story; highly recommended.

Can These Bones Live? — by Ted Reynolds:  A woman wakes up alone in the wilderness, having been resurrected by aliens known as the Roanei. She is the only human in existence; humanity has long been extinct. She is provided with a limited means of communication with the Roanei, though dreams. The aliens want her to convince them that humanity should be resurrected as a species, although they have never, ever been convinced to do so by a representative of any other extinct species. The story is simplistic, maybe a little didactic, but strangely powerful and uplifting.

The Extraordinary Voyages of Amelie Bertrand — by Joanna Russ:  A French writer encounters some sort of mysterious gateway to parallel worlds within a tunnel in a train station. It was written as an homage to Jules Verne, in honor of what would have been his one hundred and fiftieth birthday, but it didn’t particularly resonate with me.

This was a pretty awesome Best Of collection. Standouts for me included “The Way of Cross and Dragon,” “Options,” and “Out There Where the Big Ships Go.” Other recommended stories include “The Thirteenth Utopia,” “Unaccompanied Sonata,” “Daisy, In the Sun,” “The Locusts,” and “Can These Bones Live?” This is the most recommendations I’ve yet listed for one of these Best Of collections. I think 1979 was a good year for short fiction.

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Santa Clause Traditions

Santa ClauseMy wife, Sally, is Scottish. I mentioned to her in passing one day that, when I was a kid, my parents would leave milk and cookies out on the kitchen table so Santa could have a snack when he showed up.

She looked at me with a horrified expression, then exclaimed, “Milk and cookies! That’s terrible!” She shuddered. “Santa’s a man, not a boy! In Scotland, we leave whiskey out for the poor fellow ’cause he needs something to warm him up on his journey.”

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Movie Experience

My friend and co-creator on numerous projects, Don Anderson, is both a crazy guy and a devoted father. When he took his older son to see Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” he decided to go in character. He announced this to me by sending me an IM, accompanied by a picture of him in his costume. Here’s the IM:

By the tomb of Thurin and Arkenstone! I’m chaperoning Jimmy’s 3rd-grade class to the opening of “The Hobbit” on Friday. He doesn’t know I’ve got…the Beard. This should be fun.

And here’s couple of his photographs from the…experience.

Here’s a picture of Don with his son, Jimmy:

An Unexpected Outing, featuring Don Anderson

And here’s a close-up of Don himself (the picture he sent me ahead of time):

Don Anderson, with attitude

Clearly, Don is having way too much fun. But do you wanna be the one to tell him that?

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Group Speech Exercise

I was running a Toastmasters meeting recently for which we weren’t going to have as many prepared speeches as we had expected. Knowing in advance that this was going to happen, I developed a speech exercise to engage the audience (and fill out the meeting time). That Group Speech Exercise is now online in PDF and Microsoft Word formats.

I started off by handing out the one-page speech exercise. I then had the attendees count off, “1,” “2,” “3,” and then repeat until everybody had been assigned a number. I told everybody that the 1’s were one group, the 2’s were the second group, etc. Team members moved so that each group could work together on the exercise.

Essentially, each group of three people (well, one group had four members) had to accomplish three tasks:

  1. Select a topic from a defined list of six possible topics.

  2. Discuss the topic, outline an approach, and prepare a 2-3 minute speech.

  3. Select one team member to deliver the speech.

The chosen team members then went to the podium and actually gave their team’s speech. These speeches were subsequently evaluated just like normal prepared speeches.

The goal of the exercise was to engage the audience, expose everybody to the techniques used to prepare speeches, and to demonstrate that members were capable of delivering an effective speech even with only ten minutes of preparation time. The audience really enjoyed the exercise. Even better, some of our less practiced speakers were the ones that were put forward by their teams to deliver the speeches.

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Hollywood and Science Fiction

Most science fiction produced by Hollywood sucks. The reasons are simple.

  1. Producers don’t understand the implicit rules of SF.
  2. Producers like to make stories as immediate or as far-reaching as possible.
  3. Producers like stories that can be conveyed in simple sound bites.

Okay these are generalizations. There are some people in Hollywood who get science fiction. They are, I think, vastly outnumbered, and certainly not usually the ones generally in charge of the cash that funds film production. So let’s talk about these points in more detail.

Producers don’t understand the implicit rules of SF.

Most producers don’t understand SF, where the greatest challenge for SF writers is to make their story as plausible as possible. Oftentimes, producers don’t even read SF, or if they do, they only read ocassional works. I read an interview with one producer who was so enamored with special effects that he said: “If we can imagine it, we can put it on the screen.” I snorted with disbelief when I read that, because it’s not enough to just put something on the screen, any more than it’s enough to just put something on the page: things have to have a reason for being there, and a purpose within the overall plot.

When producers don’t understand the need for plausibility, you get movies (and TV series) like Alien Nation, where water burns the aliens like acid if they’re exposed to it. Water is one of the most common chemicals in the entire universe, and generally considered necessary for life. It’s hard to imagine a creature that breathes oxygen and can generally exist on our planet, but not be able to withstand something as simple as rain.

Producers like to make stories as immediate or as far-reaching as possible.

In SF films, we’re constantly saving the world or the universe or the human race. How many films set in the contemporary time are about saving the world (and please exclude super-hero films and James Bond films — that’s another whole discussion right there)? Right. Not many. According to Hollywood, the world of the future always needs to be saved. Our heroes can’t have lesser goals or aspirations. This makes so many SF films seem overblown, unlikely and downright pretentious.

In the movie, The Day After Tomorrow, the Earth undergoes some sort of mysteriously vague “cold snap” and enters a worldwide ice age in the span of a few minutes. It’s so implausible that any SF fan worth their salt couldn’t help but cringe. The cold snap also wasn’t necessary. Instead, if they’d shown a collage of volcanoes erupting around the world, with excerpts from newscasters commenting about the unprecedented number of eruptions, the blockage of the sun by volcanic dust, the ensuing long winters, and ice that continually builds up over a 30-year period…that might have seemed not only more plausible, but also much more horrifying.

Hollywood also loves artificial deadlines because they theoretically heighten suspense. With SF films, they go even further — we’re constantly bombarded by generally ridiculous time limits. You’ve probably seen numerous examples. We’ve got seventy-two hours to save the Earth before a black hole eats it. Or, oh no, time has been changed — we need to go into the past and change it back before the ripple effect destroys the universe. Or, we’ve got thirty minutes to “do something” before the nuclear bomb goes off.

It’s not that deadlines are inherently bad. Think about how effective it was in Star Wars; the rebel fighters had to destroy the Death Star before it rounded the planet and pulverized their base. But most such deadlines in SF films are just arbitrary.

Producers like stories that can be conveyed in simple sound bites.

This point is harder to pin down, so let me come at it from an angle. Non-SF stories can be about realistic events: a detective trying to track down a murderer, a shy man trying to win the love of a beautiful woman, a boxer trying to win the World Championship, etc. The audience already understands a great deal about these stories, e.g. – they know what detectives do and what rules they have to follow.

One of the burdens that SF stories carry is the need to introduce the audience to the world, whether it’s Middle-Earth or the far future. With die-hard SF fans, a sort of short-hand is available — mention that it’s a story set on a generation starship, and they already know a lot about your story. The amount of explanation, generally referred to as exposition, required goes up dramatically when the story is for a more mainstream audience, and the cost of even relatively low-budget films mandates reaching for that larger mainstream audience.

It’s no wonder that producers want to simplify any SF story into a simple sound bite. “In space, no one can hear you scream” (Alien). The world of the future has been ruined by pollution, so colonists have gone back in time to achieve a fresh, new start (Terra Nova). Or even, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” The problem is that this simplification also removes much of what can be remarkable in SF stories.

If you’d like a great example of an SF film done right, watch James Cameron’s Terminator. As much as possible, he integrates the exposition into the action sequences. Reese, the soldier from the future, has to explain to Sarah Connor in bits and pieces that: 1) she’s being hunted by a robot, 2) that he and the robot are from the future, 3) that he couldn’t bring any weapons from the future, and 4) that the robot wants to kill her because her son will win the future war against the machines.


I’d like to see better, more ambitious SF films. I fully understand the pressures that producers are under and how the constraints they’re facing often lead to bad SF films. The real disappointment for me is when I see an SF film from Hollywood that could have been a great film if they’d just paid attention to a few more SF-related details.

It’s not enough to just put computer-generated special effects on the screen. I need an SF story that’s plausible, a plot that makes sense, and characters that I can care about. Hollywood, is that too much to ask?

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