The Playboy Book of Science Fiction, edited by Alice K. Turner

New York: HarperPrism, 1998; $25.00 hc; 469 pages

reviewed by Arthur D. Hlavaty

It is a commonplace of sf criticism that the age of wonder is twelve, that the person reading sf for the first time, like the protagonists of many sf novels, is a boy in early adolescence: bright, imaginative, and energetic, but as yet unaware of what his rocket ship is shaped like. To be sure, there are many sf readers who started out that way. Some of these still long for that particular first rapture of innocence and complain that sf hasn't been the same since they let girls into the clubhouse—as real people, or even as sexual temptations.

Nevertheless, this sort of presexuality was always imposed from outside the field as much it was welcomed from within, and it was self-perpetuating: editors kept sex out of sf because it was children's literature, and critics treated it as children's literature because it didn't have sex in it.

In the 1950s writers in the sf field, not too far behind the rest of literature, began to let sex sneak in. Writers like Philip Jose Farmer and Fredric Brown began including sex when it was relevant to the plot (and of course exercising considerable ingenuity to make it relevant to the plot). In the 1960s major sf writers like Theodore Sturgeon and Robert A. Heinlein were saying that in the ideal sf future not only could we get to other parts of the universe and be spared tedious labor, but we also could get laid a lot more.

One area that welcomed this sort of sf was men's magazines, themselves moving toward more frankness and explicitness in sex. They were ahead of sf in those areas, but they too were under constraint. (Robert Anton Wilson remembers an incident from the industry in the early 60s, when his employer came back to the office with a newly published issue of their magazine, screaming in rage and terror, "You let pubic hair go in! We could all go to jail!") Some men's magazine editors were or became sf writers (Harlan Ellison, Frank M. Robinson, Robert Shea), others simply liked the sf sensibility, and a surprising number of the major sf stories of the time saw print not in magazines with rocket ships on the cover but in ones with names like Cavalier, Rogue, and Dude.

Playboy was, of course, the most prestigious and remunerative market for this sf (or any sort of fiction), and it published its share of the good stuff. In 1966, the magazine showed off a bit with The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, a selection of tales first published in its pages, including George Langelaan's "The Fly" (source of the movie), Charles Beaumont's "The Crooked Man," Arthur C. Clarke's "I Remember Babylon," and well-written stories by the likes of Sturgeon, Frederik Pohl, Robert Sheckley, and William Tenn.

More than three decades have passed since that book. Both Playboy and sf have become more respectable, if only by comparison with other contenders for the same entertainment niches. Playboy has in fact published important fiction by any number of the world's great writers, and this fact is being grudgingly recognized, while sf has attained the Grail of reviews in The New York Times Book Review (even an occasional front-page one). As token of this new status, we now have The Playboy Book of Science Fiction, titled as if there had never been another one and published under a hard cover that aims for quiet elegance: magazine's name and logo, editor's name, contributors' names, no pictures. The actual book lives up to that presentation; it is a collection of well-written sf tales, ones that can be appreciated by a "mainstream" reader with a bit of imagination.

There are the Big Names, like Doris Lessing, Ray Bradbury, J. G. Ballard, and Arthur C. Clarke, all represented with important and typical work. There is Ursula K. Le Guin's classic "Nine Lives." (Some might wish to recall that on publication, the story was attributed to "U. K. Le Guin" lest the audience be frightened or bewildered by a female name in the table of contents. That was in 1969, and it was probably the last time Playboy was that dumb.)

"Welcome to the Monkey House" is perhaps archetypal of Playboy, the 60s, and its author, Kurt Vonnegut. It is a story about how We are sexually enlightened and They are not, but it is also graceful and witty, and of course Vonnegut is by no means entirely mistaken in his view of Us and Them.

"The Schematic Man," by Frederik Pohl, is a tale I'm happy to see back in print, a 60s look at what computer consciousness might be like.

"Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?" by Robert Sheckley, has a great title and much of the author's usual wit. It also, thanks to its female character's cold treatment of her robot lover (and by implication, any other one), could be considered misogynistic. One such story out of 25 seems a reasonable representation, more so than none at all, or half a dozen or more.

Larry Niven's "Leviathan" is one of his tales of Svetz, the time-traveling bureaucrat who keeps bringing back legendary beings. A whole book of those (The Flight of the Horse) may have been a bit much, but one story is just right.

Walter Tevis's "The Apotheosis of Myra" may have been chosen in part for its author's success in films (The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth), but it's a good one--a bit telegraphed perhaps, but powerful.

"Frozen Journey," by Philip K. Dick, is Dick at his best, looking at the sort of questions that fascinated him. One of the things I love about science fiction is that it permits the creation of sentences that could exist nowhere else. "Frozen Journey" has two delightful examples of this: "'Shit,' the ship said to itself." and "I have spent more time in my own unconscious mind than any other human in history. Worse than early twentieth-century psychoanalysis."

I'd argue with the inclusion of Robert Silverberg's "Gianni" (his first Playboy story), but only because he's done better ones for the magazine, such as "The Pardoner's Tale," "Tourist Trade," and "A Sleep and a Forgetting." (This collection, unlike its predecessor, permits no more than one story per author.) A further insight into the editorial mind that created this anthology is found in Silverberg's story notes to his collection Secret Sharers, in which he praises the skill (and at times inspiration) with which Editor Alice K. Turner improved the stories of his she published.

Harlan Ellison's "All the Birds Come Home to Roost," Stephen King's "The Word Processor," and Howard Waldrop's "Heirs of the Perisphere" represent their authors at their best, which should be sufficient praise. Joe Haldeman's "More than the Sum of His Parts" and Chet Williamson's "Sun Yen Babbo and the Heavenly Host" were new to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed both. The latter, like the Vonnegut, panders to the beliefs of its publisher and audience (in this case about Fundamentalists), but does so with wit, intelligence, and style. (Besides, they're my beliefs, too.)

If the book has one weakness, it is that the attempted light humor falls flat, though it is done by authors one would expect better of. Donald E. Westlake's "Interstellar Pigeon" is somewhere between Cute and Jocular, and William Tenn's "The Ghost Standard" is a small gimmick story weighted down by devices like its characters' Jewish-pun names.

I suppose I am not surprised that the most erotic story in the book takes place inside a computer. Terry Bisson's "An Office Romance" makes its cybernetic characters likable and sexy, and it provides a fitting conclusion to this first-rate sample of good stories from a good source.