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Strange Alchemy

Alchemy and Academe

Edited by Anne McCaffrey 

26 May, 2024

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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Anne McCaffrey’s 1970 Alchemy and Academe is (to quote an inside page) A Collection of Original Stories Concerning Themselves with Transmutations, Mental and Elemental, Alchemical and Academic.”

Or rather, it’s an anthology etc. Ah, well, still less misleading than the cover, which claims that Alchemy and Academe is Enchanting tales of some sorcerers and their apprentices,” which it isn’t, not really. As far as I can tell, Alchemy and Academe is one of two anthologies edited by McCaffrey.

Of all the editors I would have expected to compare McCaffrey to, it would not have been…

Judith Merril. McCaffrey is also willing to cast her net outside traditional speculative fiction, at least to the extent of snagging John Updike. As well, if some of these stories aren’t New Wave, they could hit New Wave with a well-thrown brick. Did Anne McCaffrey have her own answer to England Swings SF?” seems an unlikely question to answer in the affirmative, but that’s the work that comes to mind while reading Alchemy and Academe.

It’s too bad the result isn’t more interesting. In Alchemy and Academes defense, I wasn’t that crazy about England Swings SF either, for similar reasons. Many of the stories are kind of pointless. Often, I was more interested in the authors’ backstories than their stories, Betsy Curtis being one example. However, most of the stories are also very short, which I find nicely limits how much any given story can meander without anything like a plot.

Alchemy and Academe is out of print. Used copies of the Rowena-cover-adorned mass market paperback1 appear to be very affordable, which, uh, may be a commentary on the anthology as a whole. Nevertheless, I don’t regret having reread it. Alchemy and Academe might not have been great but it was interesting.

Foreword (Alchemy and Academe) • (1970) • essay by Anne McCaffrey

Having with Sonya Dorman arrived at the conceit for this anthology, Anne McCaffrey presented the concept and their choice of anthologist to McCaffrey’s editor. To McCaffrey’s surprise, the editor2 proposed that McCaffrey herself edit the work, thus this volume.

This sequence of events is (oddly enough) a mirror image of the story of a different anthology I recently encountered, so I guess I am compelled to review that other anthology as well. Foreshadowing, the mark of quality literature.

The Dance of the Solids • (1969) • poem by John Updike

Poetic musings on material science.

A Mess of Porridge”” • (1970) • short story by Sonya Dorman

An all-male community of academics have their cloistered lives upended by a determined little girl.

One gets the impression that the academics avoid women of any age because they are utterly incapable of resisting feminine governance.

The Institute” • (1970) • short story by Carol Emshwiller

An old lady embraces the important task of shaping the next generation of women.

OK, so another thing I didn’t expect to encounter in this volume was a passing reference to artistic lesbian pornography. Stupendously illegal artistic lesbian pornography, judging by the life sentence its creator was given (in the story, although I suspect real-life analogs could be found3).

Condillac’s Statue, or Wrens in His Head” • (1970) • short story by R. A. Lafferty

An endearing artificial being has the misfortune to live amongst humans.

It’s an odd thing when the Lafferty story is among the most coherent tales in the book.

The Sorcerers • (1970) • poem by L. Sprague de Camp

Musing on occult luminaries.

The moral of this poem is L. Ron Hubbard is a giant fraud.”

As Mrs. Eddy, Hubbard, and their kind

Turn doctrines full of gibberish refined

To fortunes from the dupes that they impress?”

The Weed of Time” • (1970) • short story by Norman Spinrad

Irreversibly transformed by an alien weed, a human embraces its subtle benefits.

I wonder if this story influenced Alan Moore’s portrayal of Dr. Manhattan?

Night and the Loves of Joe Dicostanzo” • (1970) • short story by Samuel R. Delany

Struggles with the creative process.

Come Up and See Me” • (1970) • short story by Daphne Castell

An old man has his fill of a quiet neighborhood.

Shut the Last Door” • (1970) • short story by Joe L. Hensley

Catastrophic injury imbues an angry slum-dwelling teen with stupendous mental powers, but not the ability to use them responsibly.

In his defense, I don’t know how incinerate people with concentrated hate” can be used responsibly.

Big Sam” • (1970) • short story by Avram Davidson

A newlywed discovers certain interesting details about her husband’s lifestyle.

This isn’t a variation on Bluebeard. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason for Big Sam to keep his unusual tendencies secret, save to generate something like a plot.

More Light • [The King in Yellow] • (1970) • novelette by James Blish

The unlikable critic William Atheling provides James Blish with a copy of the infamous The King in Yellow, which is not Robert W. Chambers’ fictional invention after all. Dare even Blish read the work?

Rather ominously, Blish has the impression that Atheling is dying. Notorious critic Atheling was none other than James Blish, hiding behind a penname4. In story, the implication is that this is due to exposure to The King in Yellow. In real life Blish’s health was poor and he would die of lung cancer in 1975.

The Man Who Could Not See Devils” • (1970) • short story by Joanna Russ

A man’s inability to see the supernatural makes him a pariah, but it is a disability with considerable potential.

More accurately, the fellow’s antisocial and criminal behavior makes him a pariah, but the supernatural deficit is what kicks things off.

I will be rereading this again once I dig down through Mt Tsundoku to find Russ’s The Zanzibar Cat. That could be as early as next week… or as long as next decade.

The Key to Out” • (1970) • short story by Betsy Curtis

It’s possible to travel between universes. In fact, it is trivial. The trick is doing it deliberately.

This story reminded me of Larry Niven’s 1968 For a Foggy Night.”

Ringing the Changes” • (1970) • short story by Robert Silverberg

This is a story by Robert Silverberg.

In a Quart of Water” • (1970) • short story by David Telfair

Two would-be adventurous bachelor scholars have their plans for debauchery upended by a misbehaving house.

Morning-Glory” • (1970) • short story by Gene Wolfe

Explorations of vegetative intelligence.

Ascension: A Workday Arabesque • (1970) • poem by Virginia Kidd

A poem to linesmen.

The Devil You Don’t” • (1970) • novelette by Keith Laumer

A professor, his clothing-averse girlfriend, and the devil team up to save Earth.

This goes on for a bit. I note, however, that it was included in The Best of Keith Laumer.

It may seem odd to see Laumer in something I described as bordering on New Wave, but in fact this wasn’t unusual for Laumer. He was also featured in Knight’s Orbit.

The Triumphant Head” • (1970) • short story by Josephine Saxton

A woman embraces artifice in order to be socially acceptable.

Mainchance” • (1970) • novelette by Peter Tate

Can even an all-powerful computer prevail against piety?

This also goes on for a bit. On and on.

1: The cover of the Doubleday hardcover was by Anita Siegel, whose work was generally not to my taste.

2: The encouraging editor was possibly Betty Ballantine herself, who recently died all too young at age ninety-nine.

3: For a mild example of olden timey American pornography laws in action, Earl Kemp received a one-year sentence for his edition of the Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. It wasn’t the text the authorities objected to so much as the fact that Kemp’s version was illustrated.

4: Did Atheling comment on Blish’s work? Yes. Positively? Not as such. As Blish observes: “[Atheling] once tore a story of mine to shreds in a review; that’s what critics are for.” The story in question was almost certainly Get Out of My Sky, unless Atheling had a run at a second Blish story.