“Song for Three Soldiers”, Stephen Vincent Benét

Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, gaunt soldier,
With weapons beyond any reach of my mind,
With weapons so deadly the world must grow older
And die in its tracks, if it does not turn kind?

Stephen Vincent Benét isn’t very well-known for his science fiction, as far as I can tell; he wrote “By the Waters of Babylon“, and the story is known, but since he was better known for other work and came to science fiction late in a relatively short life, his name doesn’t bubble to the top very easily in genre discussions.

I ran across the poem while looking up The War Game (1965, BBC, an “and you though Threads was upsetting” kind of mockumentary), which uses it as an epigram. About once every eight months I run across it again, and then I spend three days humming it to a tune that’s something like “The Streets of Laredo”.

This time, I thought I’d share; the text in its entirety is here.

“The Screwfly Solution”, James Tiptree, Jr.

AP/Nassau: The excursion liner Carib Swallow reached port under tow today after striking an obstruction in the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras. The obstruction was identified as part of a commercial trawler’s seine floated by female corpses. This confirms reports from Florida and the Gulf of the use of such seines, some of them over a mile in length. Similar reports coming from the Pacific coast and as far away as Japan indicate a growing hazard to coastwise shipping.

That cheery fragment is actually one of the less upsetting pieces of text in Tiptree’s “The Screwfly Solution”. It’s a fairly hard-hitting story, especially when you (for example) go in thinking that while it’ll probably be a good story, it’ll be a little dated and there’s no reason to think it’d make more of an impression than others you’ve read.

(I was corrected. To borrow a phrase from another work, I was corrected harshly.)

That short story’s remarkable to me at least in part because I honestly feel like the last few lines weaken the horror of it. Partly that’s surprising because I find most of Tiptree’s work is remarkably consistent and builds well on itself; partly that’s interesting because I’ve got a class on beginnings and endings tomorrow, and I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately.

Tiptree wrote a great many stories, and it’s hard to choose what to recommend first, but after “The Screwfly Solution” you could do worse than go with “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!”, “The Man Who Walked Home”, and “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”.

The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner

Latro, California: “Terrible diarrhea, Doctor, and I feel so weak!”/“Take these pills and come back in three days if you’re not better.”
Parkington, Texas: “Terrible diarrhea. . . .”/“Take these pills . . .”
Hainesport, Louisiana: “Terrible . . .” “Take . . .”
Baker Bay, Florida . . .
Washington, DC. . . .
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania . . .
New York, New York . . .
Boston, Massachusetts . . .
Chicago, Illinois: “Doctor, I know it’s Sunday, but the kid’s in such a terrible state—you’ve got to help me!”/“Give him some junior aspirin and bring him to my office tomorrow. Goodbye.”

EVERYWHERE, USA: a sudden upswing in orders for very small coffins, the right size to take a baby dead from acute infantile enteritis.

I skimmed my first John Brunner novel somewhere in my early 20s and thought it was creepy but neat.

I read my second John Brunner novel in 2007. It was Stand on Zanzibar. To the best of my recollection, I spent a weekend feeling very stunned by the influx of information and the intensity of the plot. The last SF novel I’d read about overpopulation was Make Room! Make Room! and while I liked it, it did not quite have the impact of Brunner’s mosaic of plot, sorrow, and horror.

This quote is from The Sheep Look Up, which is about pollution in the same way Stand On Zanzibar is about overpopulation. I don’t find it quite as affecting as Stand on Zanzibar, but it is most definitely worth reading.

Image is found here, by Witch Kiki, used under the CC0 1.0 license