1974’s Change the Sky and Other Stories is a collection by the prolific Margaret St. Clair.
“Change the Sky” • (1955) • short story
A starfarer has been searching the Milky Way for the perfect planet … but no longer. His health is failing. He decides to create his perfect planet in artificial reality. This reveals the true impediment to his quest: he has never exactly specified the nature of perfection. Even if he did know, how could he communicate his vision to the artist who designs the new reality?
By finding someone who is very, very good at their job, as it turns out. In retrospect, this is an obvious solution.
A comparatively minor St. Clair, although it’s interesting that most people seem to be able to resist the lure of fantasy worlds made to order.
“Beaulieu” • (1957) • short story
The beautiful madwoman is determined to give the sick man the heaven she thinks he deserves. Who is he to say no?
It’s pretty clear the illness with which the man is struggling is probably cancer, but that word is not mentioned anywhere in the story. Is this a reflection of 1950s taboos? In any case, the prognosis for the disease seems worse than a ride in a car with a suicidal lunatic.
“Marriage Manual” • (1954) • short story (variant of “The Marriage Manual”)
The energy crisis can only be solved by mastering an alien sex technique!
This is less erotic than you might expect. It was the 1950s, after all. There’s what could have been an interesting gender-flip, but we learn of it by allusion rather explicit description. I suppose St. Clair was limited to material she could get past the editor (who was, in this case, Samuel Mines).
Age of Prophecy • (1951) • novelette
Raised from infancy to lead his people into darkness, can the prophet’s genuine gifts protect the masses from the menace of applied science?
The explanation of how the protagonist’s mutant powers worked made me sad, as did the telegraphed ending.
In the ignorant mob’s defense, not only are they victims of a manipulative, mean old man (just like the prophet), but they have a justified resentment of the atomic war that took place a generation or so ago. The war that had lingering effects …
“Then Fly Our Greetings” • (1951) • short story
What could be a more humane weapon than a largely untested, poorly understood method for inducing mutual revulsion between individuals? A method that, it is hoped, will lead to the disintegration of the opposition’s armed forces? Of any organized resistance?
I was impressed by the sheer number of idiotic decision made by the military:
- a rush to use the effect without sufficient testing;
- a seeming decision to unleash it on a global scale (possibly due an inability to limit its scope);
- a wilful blindness to the fact that they do not know how to turn off or reverse the effect.
This could very easily be an effective play (radio, televised, or live) — with the caveat that it would be difficult to convey the horror of the story’s ending.
An Old-Fashioned Bird Christmas • (1961) • novelette
Pacific Electric & Gas has come up with a cunning plan to maximize consumption. Nothing could possibly foil it … nothing except twu wuv!
How odd to encounter a story in which the villain is a manipulative, dishonest energy company. Surely, by definition, large and powerful corporations (responsible as they are to the public at large) must be paragons of virtue?
“Stawdust” • (1956) • short sto
In a world where all meaningful labour is carried out by machines, one woman’s quest for a real man is doomed to failure. Her newfound superpowers prove of little use; one cannot find what does not exist.
SF loves metaphors turned into reality, in this case men who become actual straw-stuffed dummies (or statues) once they are revealed as posers.Their post-robopocalyptic context makes it impossible to be otherwise.
“Thirsty God” • (1953) • short story
Rape is tolerable but refusing to marry one’s victim can never be forgiven. A transgressing human flees an angry mob to what he assumes is the safety of a local temple, one whose god will prove all too real.
Remember when rape could be used as a comedic element in stories without the audience side-eying the author? In this case, it foreshadows the grotesque appropriation of his body the protagonist will experience.
“The Altruists” • (1953) • short story
The marooned astronaut was too delighted by the submissive obedience of the natives to ask why they behaved as they did. No worries. He would soon learn the truth.
Readers will be delighted to know the astronaut deserves everything he gets.
“Shore Leave” • (1974) • short story
Earth seemed so inviting to the aliens but it was a deadly world filled with loathsome diversity. Thank goodness for weapons of mass destruction
The aliens in this are reminiscent of the Sadly Rabid Puppies recently famous for their war on everyone who isn’t them. But that is now. This was then. St. Clair was probably reacting to the heavy handed conformity of 1950s America.
St. Clair managed to get a graphic discussion of sex past her editors, Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas. Granted, it is a discussion of spider sex but still, pretty racy for 1950s science fiction.
“The Wines of Earth” • (1957) • short story
An elderly man finds common ground with visitors from a very, very distant land.
This was an unexpectedly Clifford D. Simakian story. Alien and human bond over a shared interest and nothing terrible happens as a result of what the old man learns.
“Asking” • (1955) • short story
The robot-repair robot has serviced other robots for centuries, but even it cannot help its latest client.
The story is about an ailing servitor who discovers [rot13 for spoiler, unless I forget]gung fur vf abg n ebobg ohg n uhzna jub unf orra gbyq ure jubyr yvsr ol gur bayl zna va ure yvsr gung fur vf n znpuvar qrfvtarq gb freir uhznaf [/rot13]. The astounding thing to me is that once the protagonist understands their plight, their reaction is existential angst rather than fury at their former master.
“Graveyard Shift” • (1959) • short story
What motivates a man to work the night shift in a particularly spooky store?
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
“Fort Iron” • (1955) • short story
The commander of the desolate fortress kept a watchful eye out for the enemy … in every direction save the correct one.
“The Goddess on the Street Corner” • (1953) • short story
What can a mortal man offer a dying goddess except everything he has?
Except in the end his worship turns out not to be selfless at all.….
“An Egg a Month from All Over” • (1952) • short story
To quote what I said the last time I read this story:
An unhappy man comes into possession of an egg of strange and wondrous abilities. His dreams are realized in a way he never would have envisioned.
“He had had, if not all he wanted, then all he was ever going to get.” That’s like a happy ending, right?
More and more, I think the moral of one strain of SF is “be very sure you know what you are doing.”
“The Death of Each Day” • (1958) • short story
It seems like only yesterday that the Limited War began. At least it does to soldiers who get their daily therapy. The handful of civilians who have survived a decade of nuclear war know differently. But why would a soldier listen to one?
This manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of an “everything you think you know is wrong!” story. The ending is about as happy as the ending could be under the circumstances. True love probably won’t find a way, but at least the protagonists will have tried.
“Lazarus” • (1955) • short story
The only thing worse than reporters ignoring a product launch is reporters gaining too informed an opinion on the product in question.
Aside from one or two weak stories at the beginning, this stands up pretty well for a collection of (mostly) sexagenarian science fiction stories. For reasons I don’t understand, although St. Clair was prolific and although she was well-regarded in her day, there seem to have been only three collections of her work . Even in the anthology-mad 1970s, she was inexplicably overlooked. Even today, a golden age of ebooks, nobody is visibly interested in providing for St Clair the kind of comprehensive epublishing project that authors like Vance and Simak are enjoying . Perhaps it’s time for a motivated editor at NESFA or Open Road Media to consider St. Clair.
Change the Sky and Other Stories is available here (Amazon UK). Otherwise, used bookstores are your friend.
Please send corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com
1: I do appreciate SF Gateway’s reprints of some St. Clair novels and the three existing St. Clair collections.