Tag Archives: Science Fiction Short Stories

Time Trips

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doctor Who: Time Trips [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] with stories by Stella Duffy, Trudi Canavan, Joanne Harris, A L Kennedy, Jake Arnott, Cecelia Ahern, Nick Harkaway, and Jenny T Colgan, with illos by Ben Morris.

Various Doctor Who Time Trips

Time Trips is an anthology of Doctor Who stories by accomplished authors All eight stories are novella length, previously published as separate ebooks. Each has a two-page title spread with an illustration by Ben Morris. Although a couple of the Doctors appear in two stories, and not all the Doctors are covered, the assortment does span six different versions of the hero from his sixty years of television adventures.

A.L. Kennedy’s “The Death Pit” is a delightful tale of the Fourth Doctor. It is 90% characterization, with an old-fashioned freak-of-interplanetary-nature monster. It takes place at a golf resort in the 1970s, and it has more than a whiff of Douglas Adams about it.

Jenny Colgan’s “Into the Nowhere” is entirely too much bickering between Clara and the Eleventh Doctor, with insular fannish features: demands that readers understand Clara’s ontological peculiarity, along with unexplained references to the Shadow Proclamation. The use of trappings from Christian myth reminded me unpleasantly of the episode “The Satan Pit” (first televised in 2006) where they likewise served to paper over weak plotting.

Nick Harkaway’s story “Keeping Up with the Joneses” has the Tenth Doctor managing a crisis inside the TARDIS, touched off by leftover ordnance from the Time War. The resulting instability creates an entire Welsh town within the hyper-architecture of the machine. This locale is called “Jonestown,” for reasons that make sense within the story, but the name still evokes the great 1978 massacre/suicide of the Peoples’ Temple in Guyana, which I find it hard to believe was Harkaway’s intention.

Trudi Caravan sends the Third Doctor and Jo to Australia for one of the shorter adventures in the book, “Salt of the Earth.” It might be the best tonal match for an actual representative television episode among all of them. It is set in the later 21st century and benefits from a closer view of that future than was available in the 1970s Pertwee era. Jo’s experiences with advanced technology are thus piquant for today’s readers who have already seen much of it developed.

“A Handful of Stardust” by Jake Arnott features the Sixth Doctor and Peri, allowing them to encounter both John Dee and the Master in Elizabethan England. It is cleverly written, and Arnott does seem to keep the protagonists irritating in the same ways they were in the 1980s show. The presentation of Dee isn’t very sympathetic, and in some ways he is eclipsed in the story by his junior contemporary Thomas Digges.

Cecelia Ahern’s “The Bog Warrior” is pretty bad. If it hadn’t been for the Ben Morris title illustration, I wouldn’t have been able to know that the protagonist was the Tenth Doctor. He is largely a bystander in a Cinderella-inflected exoplanetary drama involving zombie soldiers and a counterrevolution.

“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Time Traveller” by Joanne Harris has a little bit of Alice in Wonderland, a lot of Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life,” and a dose of McGoohan’s The Prisoner in a story supplementing the Third Doctor’s regeneration in “Planet of the Spiders.”

The last story is the earliest in the Doctor’s biography as well as Earth’s history. Stella Duffy sends Patrick Troughton’s Doctor with Jamie and Zoe to classical Alexandria in “The Anti-Hero.” Short chapters helped this one feel like an old television serial.

I borrowed this collection from my public library, and I foresee no itch to reread it, nor do I expect I will ever bother to own a copy. Still, most of the stories were clever and enjoyable, and I can easily recommend the book to Doctor Who fans.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Fifth Head of Cerberus [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Gene Wolfe.

Wolfe The Fifth Head of Cerberus

“Three novellas” says the cover, and that’s what this volume contains. Although the three share a science-fictional setting (the double-planetary system of St. Anne and St. Croix) and there is a single character (Dr. John V. Marsch) who appears in all three, they could be read in any sequence. They are mutually-illuminating, but not serial; while they form a greater whole, the end of each is only the end of one novella, and not the conclusion of a larger novel. In fact, Marsch only appears in the second novella “Story” by virtue of a fictional by-line. There is a strong metafictional element throughout, brought out most fully in the third novella “V.M.T.” where the principal content consists of documentary fragments being considered in largely “random” sequence by a reader within the frame of the tale. 

All three stories arouse musings about personal, cultural, and biological identity. Cerberus guards Hades, the realm of the shades of the dead, and various spectral ancestries are at play in these pieces as well. The first story is called “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” and it seems like Wolfe may have let that stand as the general title out of refusal to come up with a further name that would imply a greater unity to the multi-headed whole. The Cerberus in the book (a statue in the first story) is of the conventional three-headed sort, and the beyond-extra fifth head is a role that fits various characters based on their apparitional and fluctuating functions in the narratives. Indeed, for all of the links between the stories, they serve to raise questions about each other as much as to provide answers. 

One of the recurring questions is: Who–if anyone–is human in this story? Of course, that calls forth the necessary corollary: What is a human? To answer the second would require a crude didacticism far beneath this author. It is a signal of the artistry of this volume that the answer to the first is never entirely divulged.

Venus on the Half-Shell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Venus on the Half-Shell [Amazon, Amazon (1975), Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Kilgore Trout (Philip José Farmer).

Kilgore Farmer Venus on the Half Shell 1975

Farmer Venus on the Half Shell

This interstellar picaresque novel by Philip José Farmer was written under a pseudonym taken from a fictional author described by Kurt Vonnegut. To pile Pelion upon Ossa, “Trout” has his main character refer often to the life and works of an imaginary 20th-century American science fiction writer named Jonathan Swift Somers III.

Many 21st-century readers will compare this book to Douglas Adams’ later Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Both begin with the destruction of terrestrial humanity, aside from the protagonist who then becomes a wanderer in outer space. The book is full of allusions to The Wizard of Oz, but I think that The Phantom Tollbooth is also a likely influence. The prose style reminds me of no one so much as R. A. Lafferty, for the sake of qualities I find difficult to describe. The humor in “Trout’s” book is a little more broad that what I usually find in Lafferty, the atmosphere decidedly less mystical. 

The book recounts the adventures of the banjo-playing Simon Wagstaff, a character who was promptly animated in my mind by the ghost of Duane Adam Rostoker. Following the calamity that visits the Earth during Simon’s visit to the Sphinx at Giza, he quickly acquires animal companions after the manner of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, but Simon’s are a dog and an owl, perhaps figuring his “lower” and “higher” awarenesses. 

The proper names in the story are a raft of anagrams, from the randy cat planet Shaltoon that is a hot Salon, to the planet Longalor of nomadic wheel-creatures who roll aLong. The beautiful android Chwortkap is a patChwork of the optimized DNA of hundreds of donors. These and many others put me in mind of James Branch Cabell, whose Jurgen may also have been a model for Farmer here. 

Although replete with frank sexual content, Venus on the Half-Shell is not really erotic at all. It merely refuses to repress the importance of sex in the dilemma of life. It contains a variety of episodes with different intelligent species that demonstrate the illusions and falsehoods that enslave societies and individuals (“yet therein is the mystery of redemption” –Liber B). The whole thing reads quite quickly and can be written off as a farce, serve as a puzzle, or even inspire serious reflection.