Penguin have been publishing science fiction since the company’s birth in 1935. When I started reading science fiction as a child in the 1960s I borrowed my father’s copies of John Wyndham’s novels from the 1950s, which were in the classic plain orange covers. ( I have to confess taht it was quite a lengthy borrow, I still have some of them.)
In 1963 Penguin launched a dedicated science fiction series, edited by Brian Aldiss, whose covers were eye-catching and surreal, easily picked out in a bookshop. The authors included Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Pohl, Harry Harrison , J G Ballard, Theodore Sturgeon and Philip K Dick. Women writers were scarce you will have noticed. In 1978 Penguin published Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sergeant.
You can find a display of these classic Penguin covers here.
On 10th August 2020 Penguin published 10 science fiction titles in their Penguin Classics series with more to follow in 2021. You can find full details here.
These are my reviews of three of the novels in the series.
The Hair Carpet Weavers by Andreas Eschbach, translated by Doryl Jensen (2020) £8.99
This is an extraordinary novel by a writer I had never read, which, I suppose, is the whole point of this series.
It opens on a small nondescript planet , Planet G-101/2, a planet so insignificant that it does not even seem to have even bothered with a name. The main industry (if you can call it that, it is more like a religion) is the weaving of carpets out of human hair. The weavers spend their entire lives creating a single carpet (yes, just one) made from the hair of their wives. (for this is a polygamous society).
Knot after knot, day in, day out, for an entire lifetime. Always the same hand movements, always looping the same knots in the fine hair, and so tiny, that with time, the fingers trembled and the eyes became weak from strain – and still the progress was hardly noticeable
The carpets are sold to the caravans of the Imperial Traders who pass through each town in turn every few years, and then shipped off in vast spaceships to the Emperor‘s Palace , an Emperor who has ruled over a vast galactic Empire from time immemorial, and is regarded as a god by the planet dwellers. At least that is where the weavers believe they are going…
This is a rigidly hierarchical society, endlessly repeating the traditions down the generations: Only men weave. A son inherits the craft from his father. Only one son is permitted to each family, other male infants are killed at birth.
In the first chapter we meet Abro, who chafes at the life already rigidly laid out for him: he cherishes books, the possibility of another kind of life. But his father, Ostvan, angrily rounds on him.
I want to hear nothing of it. For you there is only one way to live. You have learned from me everything a hair carpet makes must know: that is enough. You can tie all the knots, you have been instructed in soaking and dyeing techniques, and you know the traditional patterns. When you have designed your carpet, you will take a wife and have many daughters with different colored hair. And for your wedding,, I will cut my carpet from the frame, bind it, and present it to you, and you will sell it in the city to the Imperial Trader. That’s what I did with the carpet of my father, and he did the same before me with the carpet of his father, and he did the same with the carpet of his father, my great grand-father: that is the way it has been for generation to generation for thousands of years. And just as iI pay off my debt to you, you will pay off your debt to your son, and he to his son, and so on.It was always this way, and it will always be so.?
But will it be so? There are rumours that the Emperor may have been overthrown in a rebellion, rumours dismissed as heresy. Can this possibly so?
Like one of the hair carpets the novel weaves together numerous plot threads and an intricate pattern of characters: Dirilja, the imperial trader’s daughter, ready for love; Pargan, the sceptical teacher; Brakart, the itinerant preacher; Borlon, the weaver, whose life changes in a moment; Ubhika, the pedler woman; Nillian, the off-worlder; Kremman, the Imperial Tax Collector; Opur, the flutemaster; Piwano, his pupil; Emparak, the Imperial archivist; Jubad, the rebel leader; Lamita, the rebel archivist; Cheun, the tribesman and finally, and most enigmatically of all, the Emperor Aleksander the Tenth himself.
For there is a awful secret at the heart of the Empire and, loop by loop, thread by thread, we are drawn to its dreadful revealing .
Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer, transalted by Amalia Gladhart (2020) £8.99
You must know Trafalgar Medrano. No? Well, when he’s not trading between the planets you may find him in one of his favourite haunts: the Burgundy in Rosario. You don’t know it? That’s understandable, it’s one of the those bars of which there are few left.
None of that formica or any fluorescent lights or Coca-Cola. Gray carpet – a little worn – real wood tables and real wood, a few mirrors against the old panelling, small windows, a single door and a facade that says nothing…It’s downtown, between a shop and a galeria and you’ll surely pass it every day when you go to the bank and you won’t even see it. The barman is Marcos.
Sit with Trafalgar and he’ll sip his black coffee (a double, always), smoke his unfiltered cigarettes and, like a Latin Baron Munchausen, tell you his fantastical tales of intergalactic travel; his close encounter with the aristomatriarchy of Verobora; the horrible world of Ananadah-A where the inhabitants live on worms and dance; his visit to the Court of the Catholic Monarchs in Spain in 1492; his trip to Uunu where each day everything – time, society, city, people – changes because of a “chrono-synclastic indundibulum”; Edessbuss, where they party every night; Aleiçarga, where it’s boring and orderly, apart from one man whom he calls “Mr Chaos” ; and so on.
Of course you might get a little bored with his stories. Even his Boswell in this book complains:
… your stories are always the same, a bunch of strange things happen to you, you throw yourself, generally successfully, at the prettiest one around there, you earn piles of dough, and what do you spend it on? On bitter coffee and black cigarettes and Pugliese records.
Still, his stories do make the time fly… and the coffee at the Burgundy is very good…
10,000 Light -Years From Home by James Tiptree Jr (2020) £8.99
Peter Christmas was having a busy day at the office. The Xemosan’s entry in the Non- Flying Avian was in fact flying while at the same time they were trying to sneak in several hundred female of the species for free as auxiliary animals. He saves a eight foot tall naked sacred virgin warrior from Myria from killing herself after losing her race. An unauthorised alien spaceship landing sends mini-rodents scurrying off without their riders. The giant ice-slugs are due to finish their race after covering 50 feet in the extraordinary fast time of six months. The Magellans – “with dead-white triangular heads like bleached horse skulls” – insist on observing his work close up. The Ankru team appear to have been assigned too light a gravity handicap.
Christmas runs Raceworld:
His nose wrinkled in the spicy breeze from a thousand racetracks on which ran, hopped, flopped, swam, slithered, humped, darted and thundered the racing beasts of a million planets. Raceworld the prefect planet, turning stately, through equal hours of flawless day and balmy floodlit nights.
Directly in front of his office lies the track for the most spectacular race of all: “the giant armoured reptiles – general galaxy favourites. “
Christmas is the main character in “Faithful to Thee Terra , In Our Fashion,” one of the short stories in this excellent collection by Alice Bradley Sheldon (1915 –1987) who wrote under a pseudonym because of the prejudice against women science fiction writers when she first put pen to paper.
Her work often takes a twist on familiar science fiction memes. “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” (she has great titles) deals with humans who find aliens sexually alluring, irresistible in fact , even when actual sex is either dangerous or impossible.
In “Mama Come Home” “three magnificent earth-type females in space-opera uniforms ” land on earth as though they are in a 1950s UFO movie. They claim to be Capellans from a tramp freighter: the world loves them and flocks to meet them. But Max from the CIA is suspicious. What do they really want? Where are the men? And are they re-enacting the first encounters between Europe and Polynesia. (note, it didn’t go well for the Polynesians)?
Alice brings Max back for another encounter with aliens in “Help.” Firstly an alien ship zooms in to orbit, leaves some satellites, and then zooms back out. This is followed by another alien ship which lands near Quebec:
Everyone remembers what marched out into that empty plain – a band of little figures about four feet high and the color of the More Expensive Spread. They seemed to be wearing jointed yellow armour with funny little half-opened helmets on their head. They were carrying what looked like cereal-box death-ray guns. Each one held his up and then gravely trooped over and dropped his weapon on a pile. Then they joined hands and began to sing.
The aliens are from Cygnus 61 and seem to be harmless. That is, until they start blowing up religious buildings around the world. It turns out the Cygnians are missionaries, intent on imposing the worship of their martyred god – the Great Pupa – on the whole world. Then a rival sect – this time dressed in red – lands, and all hell breaks loose, so to speak, as a religious war ignites. Can Max come up with a solution before the earth becomes collateral damage ?
Alice’s short stories are never less than entertaining, sometimes amusing, and sometimes disturbing, as in “The Man Who Walked Home, ” in which a man time travels but in terrible way. Recommended.