Universe 3 – A Book Review

Universe 3 has a very good story. Unfortunately, this is an anthology, so there are six others that are also present.

One of the nice things about owning this blog is that I can write about whatever I want. Obviously, the intention is to usually cover games and things related to them, but there is no rule saying I have to stick to that. Today we’re going to be reviewing Universe 3.

Why? Well, because when I went out kayaking this weekend, I found it in one of those miniature libraries near the dock, and pulled it out.

Universe 3’s tag line is “Seven Great Original Science Fiction Stories.” I would personally rewrite it to “One Great Original Science Fiction Story, and 6 Stories That Are Technically Science Fiction And Also In This Book.” This should give you a good sense of my feelings on the whole of this collection.

The Death of Doctor Island

The Death of Doctor Island by Gene Wolfe is the first story in the collection. It’s also the one I hate the most.

This is interesting because it’s rare that I actually “hate” any piece of art. I may dislike a game, get salty, be frustrated, or be disgusted by the content of something, but actual hate is rare.

In many ways, the Death of Doctor Island is perhaps a perfect example of the issues with science fiction. You can set your story in the far future, a distant planet, or mighty spaceship. But if your characters are the same sort of person as exists today, you might as well just set your story in a small town in Ohio, because it doesn’t matter.

In this vein, The Death of Doctor Island takes place in what is, for all intents and purposes, an insane asylum. It concerns three patients, and a super intelligent AI of some sort. By the end, one patient has killed two of the others. In one case, literally, in the other case, metaphorically. This is done somewhat at the behest/lead of the AI running the place. Frankly, it doesn’t matter, because understanding the sci-fi in this story isn’t necessary to explain my problem with it.

I used to read a lot more. One thing I read years ago that stuck with me was a book about how to write mystery/detective novels. It contained a warning. “Don’t write what you don’t know” it said. “Readers will smell a rat, and it will tear down the rest of your story.”

About half a decade ago, I took myself to an emergency room at a hospital because at the time I wanted to die. My intention was to get myself hospitalized, so that I couldn’t hurt myself. The doctor convinced me to attend a day program for the next several weeks instead of the full hospitalization I was expecting.

Those weeks were by no means easy or pleasant, but at no point during that time did I ever feel like the social workers and doctors I talked to were doing anything other than their best to help me and my fellow patients. The idea of someone creating an AI doctor to “help” patients, that actively allows them to harm and murder each other as part of the “treatment” is laughable.

As such, Wolfe’s portrayal of “Doctor Island” is so alien to my experience of mental health that it is a great big fat rat, sitting atop the other problems in the story. The story that is resolved when a male patient murders a suicidal female patient, thus teaching him that he doesn’t have to be scared of women, while the super intelligent AI goes “Yeah, seems good, she wanted to die anyway. Cool, now you’re cured and can leave.”

Also, apparently this shit won a Nebula award? Go fuck yourself Gene Wolfe, please stick to improving the Pringles machine.

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer by Geo. Alec Effinger is fairly… meh. Frankly, I don’t have many complaints. It is somewhat up its own ass, but in terms of interesting sci-fi ideas, it’s passable. Would I recommend reading it? Not really, but at least it’s not sexist. And doesn’t have weird racist undertones. You know, in retrospect, compared to a lot of the rest of these, it’s pretty good!

Many Mansions

Many Mansions by Robert Silverburg is a time travel story. It’s one of those artsy short stories where everything is done in disconnected paragraphs, and you have to try to sort things back together.

Ultimately though, this is a short story about a wife and husband from the far off year of… 2006. They’re unhappy in their marriage, and the wife decides to go back in time and kill/fuck her husband’s father so that they never end up together. Or something. The story is a bit difficult to follow, but I don’t really care. Most of this story seems to be an excuse to talk about an 83 year old groping his son’s wife, and fantasizing about fucking her.

You know what I really appreciate about porn or fetish art? At least it never tries to pretend it’s something else. Some sci-fi could learn from that. You never see an artist drawing massive perfect feet right in the frame, and then pretend “Oh no, it’s critical to the character, see it’s a statement about walking.” Okay, Tarantino does that, but no one else.

You can skip this one unless you have a generational fucking kink. In which case, hey I’m not judging. I’m just judging Terry Carr for putting it into a book of what I thought was supposed to be science fiction.

Randy-Tandy Man

The Randy-Tandy Man by Ross Rocklynne in unique from every other story in this collection in that I actually like it. It is, in some ways, the least sci-fi of the stories in the book.

Yet if the role of science fiction is to uplift, to remind us what tomorrow can bring, to show the bright spots of the human spirit, and perhaps most importantly, remind us that there WILL be a future, it is the most sci-fi of any of the stories in this collection.

I re-read it while writing this paragraph, and it still brought a smile to my face. These 11 pages made the 180-page book worth it.

The World is a Sphere

On one hand, The World is a Sphere by Edgar Pangborn doesn’t quite piss me off as much as The Death of Doctor Island. On the other hand, one of the core ideas in play with this story is slavery based on what I think amounts to race.

Look. I’m a white, straight-ish Christian-raised dude who grew up in a very rich area. You want my opinions on slavery? Here they are: “It’s awful, and you should probably find someone else smarter than I am for more info.” You want my opinions on race? “I am the embodiment of every in-power social group that has controlled society for the last several thousand years. No amount of exposure, or reading memoirs, is ever going to have me truly understand what it means to be ‘not a white dude.’ I understand shit is unfair, but I am the worst equipped person to try to evaluate or explain that unfairness.”

To give credit where it’s due, the story briefly touches on one interesting idea: old “Cursed” (read: ancient tech which is now heretical) sorcerous objects are purified and then allowed for use. The rest of it is weird/creepy redone version of post-apocalyptic not-Rome.

Also, a women gets abused in it, again, for no reason.

The Legend of Cougar Lou Landis

The Legend of Cougar Lou Landis by Edward Bryant feels like it has the same problem as Many Mansion and Doctor Island. It’s a story that is told in the future, but might as well be set in present. Or maybe the problem is sexism. I’m not sure. Since I’m lazy, here’s a synopsis.

A young women gets a birthday present: “A smoking hot bod, and an apartment in the trendy part of town.” She goes on to live what I think would be described as a bohemian lifestyle. Then her parents are like “You should come home and be a good girl.” She doesn’t want to, so they get one of her husbands to sell her out, and capture her so they can subject her to 1000 years of awful memories, which they have collected for some reason.

Is there more to it? Yes. Do I care? No.

I want to re-iterate my earlier point: if you just want to write [Mindbreak][Reversal] doujins, you should just do that instead.

Free City Blues

Free City Blues by Gordon Eklund was the last story in the book. It’s about a psychic girl wandering around some future city, and making people she doesn’t like quack like ducks, or slither around like snakes.

Also there’s a bit where she sort of works as a prostitute, but not really, because she just hypnotizes people instead. Also a bit where the author feels it’s important to tell us that when she was 14, she had sex with the 33 year old dude who had raised her most of her life. And then he apologized and didn’t do it again, so it was fine, and also she could have stopped him if she wanted, so again it’s fine.

Y’know, it feels like there’s some sort of theme in these stories, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

In Conclusion

Perhaps I am being too harsh on Universe 3. It was published in 1973, just shy of 50 years ago, and over 20 years before I would even be born. Honestly, it’s a little weird to think that this heavily worn hardback I picked up on a whim is older than I am.

What has it seen in its 50 years of life? How many others have read its pages? Did it sit forgotten on a shelf, only to be donated to mini-library I plucked it from, or has it passed from hand to hand only to end in mine? Now there’s a story I’m curious about.

On the other hand, perhaps I am not too harsh. Most of these men are dead (none of these stories were written by women). Two remain, but they are in their late 80’s. These stories are almost all 50 years old. Only one remains any good. Of the remaining six, one is decent, one I hate, and the remaining 4 feel like they should have been published in a different collection.

You know, the sort of collection you read with a hand in your pants.

Because they’re porn.