What SF Wished It Was: a review of “Transit of Earth”, a Playboy Science Fiction collection (1971)

Overall: 3 out of 5 stars, with individual stories rated differently below. All male authors; anthology published in 1971, with stories originally appearing in Playboy Magazine from 1958 to 1971.

This is an excellent read for anyone wondering about this “classic” SF that certain members of SFWA and the genre community so desperately want to hold on to. It is, much like you’d expect, filled with reasonably well-off white males of middle age and up, who fancy themselves smart, well-read, charming, and wise in the ways of liquor, business, and women. There are a few gems — both in speculative literature and hard science — and a few that fall flat, with most in between. There are a couple of stories (including two by Ray Bradbury) which are decently written but not SF in any way, at all.

Of women, there are only a couple of stories which include them. Two with the “typical” flawed wife, causing her husband’s downfall; one prostitute, one burlesque dancer who refuses to be bought, one stewardess (with a mention of a couple others); one judge; one teen girl. All are mentioned briefly, all are devices around which the story maneuvers but never centers on. One is — implied — eaten by aliens, one causes her husband’s death, one inspires her husband to murder (her, he hopes, but not her, as it turns out). Two are murdered. The man with the prostitute is relieved when she asks for money so he won’t have to worry about the stress of either wooing or leaving her. The burlesque dancer is murdered because she doesn’t agree to become a prostitute. The two married women and the judge get full names; the prostitute, dancer, and teen girl don’t get named at all — though the men are fully named in every story.

Aside from the mutant human “toys” in “Cephalotron” and the undescribed maybe ethnicity of “Dr. Ramos” in “Speed Trap”, everyone in the entire book is white — though variations of Irish, California Irish, Italian, Canadian Italian, and Jewish are made clear, as if that’s just enough diversity, thank you, but no more.

For the most part, the tales are sprinkled with words big enough to ensure the readers had a college education, or at least the kind of respectable book learning that comes from being poor but a constant in the library, or having associated yourself with academics as part of your business. Lots of first person narration; emphasis here on “I am a man’s man, a smart, science/business savvy man that you wish you could buy a drink for, let me tell you my story ” with a few “let me tell you the story of how some other man failed to be as awesome as me as suffered for it” types thrown in.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything to love in this collection! A couple of these stories serve as master classes in how to do that sort of story right, and are worth the price of admission for them alone. Even if you’re not interested in learning to be a better writer, read this collection for the history lesson, and increased awareness in what women/PoC/QUILTBAG/international authors/anyone different have to overcome when trying to write — or find themselves in — American science fiction.

5/5* “Transit of Earth” – title story. 1st person narrative. Starts with statement of inevitable death, comparison to historical figures. Placement in time and space. Excuse for narrative (final thoughts before death). Story begins by contemplating 3 options for death (1 inevitable, 2 choosing earlier deaths) and explains why none suit hit. Also reveals he wasn’t quite right for the mission because he’s afraid of underwater suffocation. Via narrative, it’s revealed he started training in his 20s. It’s May 11, 1984 now. He’s on Mars, awaiting the transit of Earth. 4 other crewmen stranded with him but they’re dead now; 10 others took off for Earth already. End hints at possible rescue he’s ignoring, also strange deaths of his comrades. Did he kill them so he could live long enough to see the transit? Grand finale, exit stage left.

2/5* “Button, Button” Average punchline horror story and mid 20th century misogyny. Typical grasping wife feels she deserves more. Noble but distant husband refuses to trade a stranger’s life for $50k but the wife takes the deal behind his back. “For us,” she says, but really, for her. Husband killed, wife gets $50k insurance and a message (when she protests it was supposed to be someone she didn’t know): “You didn’t really know your husband, did you?” *yawn* Credit given for the fact this is an early example in SF, but isn’t even the 1st.

3/5* “The Machineries of Joy” Losing points because THIS IS NOT AN SFF STORY. It’s about a couple of monks arguing over whether it’s better to look toward the future – space flight – or focus on the past. “Joy” was published after the first American manned space flights took off from Canaveral, which is briefly mentioned in the story, and is the only remotely SF element. It’s still well written, for what it is – a non genre short exploring mankind’s various religious-tainted views on space exploration. Best part was this line: “Let’s face it, the Italians are the Rotary of the Church. You couldn’t have trusted any of them to stay sober during the Last Supper”. Also the reminder that “California Irish” is of great disappointment to “Dublin Irish”.

4/5* “The Invasion” Story of a man who seems crazy but turns out to be more aware than the rest of us. Straight forward, simple, but bonus points for treating a prostitute like any other woman instead of the cause/punishment/sickness.

5/5* “Bernie the Faust” Written in the classic SF “are you smart enough?” style. A con man gets conned while trying to get one over on the other guy. Smart guys figure out – just in time – he’s sold the whole Earth! Except, maybe not… Quick witted character study, with an excellent example of the twists and turns in one man’s head. Bonus for the right amount of wishful vengeance and the idea that even alien grifters get what’s coming to them.

2/5* “Cephalotron” Epistolatory style, written as a press release and ad copy for a new toy which turns out to be miniaturized versions of mutant, post-atomic humans. Might have enjoyed it better if I hadn’t already seen this idea a hundred times. (I feel strongly that this is too new to have been the original; I might be wrong though.) Don’t miss the imbedded racism when the human skin tones are described: “smart pinkish-beige hue, a striking ebony, a suave yellow, or a mellow brown.”

5/5* “It Didn’t Happen” Excellent use of crime fiction techniques to explore popular (at the time) ideas of solipsism and ontology. A streetwise lawyer, with shades of “noir dectective”, has to build up a defense of a man who absolutely did the crime. Bonus for having a female judge without any comment about that being a rare/strange fact, and for having a burlesque dancer who wasn’t also a prostitute. Actually, the best use of female characters in the anthology, even considering that 2 out of 3 of them are murdered.

2/5* “The Man in the Rorshach Shirt” Another Bradbury NOT-SF story. Not much of a story, plot-wise – a man runs into an old friend, gone 10 years, who used to be a famous and respected psychiatrist, but now wanders around LA in a specially-made “Rorschach” patterned shirt, to amuse himself with 30 second therapy sessions on whoever passes by. Explanation of why he quit fills up the bulk of the text, and the moment ends without resolution, other than the narrator having found out why his friend quit the business.

2/5* “Waste Not, Want Not” Cute SF story with strands of solid extrapolation, but told in a straightforward, overly simple way. There is a problem, they solve it. 80,000 years later, there’s another problem, and a paragraph later, they’ve solved that, too. It all works out for the best! Yay! *yawn*

4/5* “Control Somnambule” Another epistolary tale: the “official report” of a hypnotist brought in to examine an astronaut who lost several hours of time during a spaceflight. Strong science, nice reveal, presented logically for the narrator’s character.

4/5* “Let There Be Light” Another story of a scheming woman bringing a good man low. Title refers to a murder plot gone wrong; writing is on the gothic side, which is a pleasant change, and the characters are more nuanced than most other pieces in this collection.

2/5* “Speed Trap” Points for decent use of science, but this is the worst kind of “look how smart we are” classic SF writing: a brilliant, well-heeled, white male, gets fame and more handed over to him because his ideas were just so wonderful, you know? Clearly ripping off Heinlein, Asimov, and that crowd – the kind of story you can tell came out of a “what if” conversation between a couple of good ol’ SFWA boy at some convention or bourbon-soaked dinner. Through in a character named after a friend of the author and a possible murder – gotten away with, of course, because the maybe-murderer was also a brilliant academic type – and you are only missing a scantily-dressed waitress or stewardess to make this an archetypal Playboy SF story. Oh, wait, we start with the narrator talking about all the stewardesses he knows in his (fictional, ’cause academic life is never like this) jet-set conference schedule. Yep, perfectly patriarchal, and dull as you’d expect.

5/5* “Souvenir” Ballard’s dialogue-free narrative about a beached creature, a giant carcass of a humanoid, decaying and then parted out by humans who subsequently forgot what they had dismantled, is more speculative literature than science fiction, but it’s masterfully written. Lingering impressions of American folktale mixed with Calvino or Borges. Definitely recommend.

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