Change the Sky and Other Stories, Margaret St Clair (1974)
Review by Ian Sales
Name a male science fiction writer of the 1950s. It’s not a difficult task: most of the big names were writing then – Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, EE Doc Smith… Not to mention a host of others. Now name a female science fiction writer of the 1950s. It’s much harder. Le Guin wasn’t published until the 1960s. There was Andre Norton, who was first published in the 1940s. Likewise for Leigh Brackett. And Joanna Russ, whose first story saw print in 1959. But what about a woman described as a “renowned author” with “a long and distinguished career in the science fiction field”? Renowned authors do not, as a general rule, get written out of genre history, but these days Margaret St Clair is virtually forgotten. None of her novels are acknowledged as “classics”, though some might know of her 1963 novel, Sign of the Labrys. She was neither nominated for, nor won, any awards. And it took over a decade for some of her stories from the 1950s to be collected.
Change the Sky and Other Stories contains eighteen stories originally published between 1951 and 1961. They appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy Magazine, Startling Stories, Future and The Science Fiction Quarterly – all major sf magazine titles. According to isfdb.com, she was hugely prolific – I count nearly 80 stories published during the 1950s alone. It seems astonishing that an author with that level of output, published in major magazines, should pretty much disappear from the history of the genre. Judging from the stories collected in Change the Sky, her obscurity is not due to the quality of her fiction. While few stand out especially, they are no better and no worse than what was published at the time – and, in some cases, are a good deal more interesting than was typical for the period.
The title story, ‘Change the Sky’ (1955), shows a frequent 1950s sf penchant for unsupported premises. A man who is told he can no longer travel between planets approaches an artist and asks him to build him his perfect virtual world. He will see out the rest of his days in it. Though the concept of virtual worlds is surprisingly prescient – here they appear to operate more by magical technology than computer science – the end of the story is somewhat predictable and banal.
‘Beaulieu’ (1957) is an old story, recast in the colours of Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse or Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief. A woman picks up a man in her green sports car and offers to take him to the eponymous place. It’s a fantasy locale of his, and St Clair drops a few leaden hints than the woman is a Valkyrie; but the atmosphere of the story is more interesting than its plot.
‘Marriage Manual’ (1954), on the other hand, is a piece of 1950s sf silliness. It’s not about a “marriage manual” of course; it’s about a sex manual. In this case, the manual belongs to the alien dorff, who apparently love to boast of their “erotic possibilities”. Somehow, their means of sex requires an energy source that human beings want in order to power their worlds. But the dorff won’t give up a copy of their marriage manual. At least, they won’t until Bill disappears, and George discovers he has undergone a transformation into a female dorff…
Surprisingly, ‘Age of Prophecy’ (1951) is quite a nasty piece. In a post-apocalyptic California, various prophets have formed religious groups, which operate like small independent states. Unlike the other prophets, however, Benjamin has real powers. He is manipulated by Torbit into founding his own religious group, and later into attacking a redoubt of hated scientists in Pasadena. But the attack goes wrong, and Benjamin learns who his true friends are. There’s a level of biting cynicism and anti-religious feeling to this story that is surprising given the time it was written.
‘Then Fly Our Greetings’ (1951) is another post-apocalypse story, but in this story a device which causes humans to hate the presence of others is co-opted by the military and used… but backfires. Global society crashes, but something new eventually forms in its place. It’s not an especially convincing premise, and made worse by the attempts to explain it.
The most recent collected story in the book is ‘An Old-Fashioned Bird Christmas’ (1961). A reverend begins a campaign to return to the old non-commercialised Christmases of yore, without all the neon lights and fancy illuminations. This draws the ire of PE&G, and their secret masters “on the far side of 3,000 A.D.”, so they send one of their agents to neutralise the reverend. But she falls in love with him, and the two of them end up battling the magic of PE&G for survival. A bizarre mix of sf and fantasy, it first appeared, unsurprisingly, in the December issue of Galaxy Magazine. It was later republished in 1994 in an anthology of Christmas genre stories edited by David G Hartwell, Christmas Magic.
One of the more unsettling stories in Change the Sky is ‘Stawdust’ (1956), and it’s unsettling because it makes little real sense. Aboard a starship – which is pretty much in all respects like an ocean liner – passengers and members of the crew have been transforming into stuffed dummies. Miss Abernathy is clearly responsible for it, but she does not how she is doing it or why. And neither does the reader. These days we’d likely describe ‘Stawdust’ as a mood-piece.
‘Thirsty God’ (1953) is a typical 1950s sf “little tailor” story. A human on Venus hides from some angry “plunp” in a shrine, knowing they will not violate it. But the god within the shrine is real, and the human is changed by the encounter.
There are many stories in science fiction like ‘The Altruists’ (1953). The “slurb” are so eager to please that their world is a paradise for human visitors. But one human has an entirely different experience and discovers the cause of their altruism. His paradise becomes a prison.
‘Shore Leave’ (1974) is another piece of sf silliness. A ship lands on a planet and its alien crew rush out to experience sex with the natives. The aliens are metamorphs and can adopt the shape of their sexual partners. When they return, they discover they each experienced something completely different – different types of partners, different types of sex; and this is anathema to them as they abhor diversity and worship Sameness. It’s not difficult to figure out that the aliens have landed on Earth, and that they are extremely small and their native sexual partners were insects. ‘Shore Leave’ is original to Change the Sky, which no doubt explains its topic – it’s unlikely such a story would have seen print during the 1950s.
In ‘The Wines of Earth’ (1957), a Californian vintner is approached by a quartet of strange visitors, who readily admit to being tourists from another world. They are interested in Earth’s wine, but the best he can offer them in no way compares to the best they make themselves. There’s a nicely elegiac tone to the story.
‘Asking’ (1955) is one of the collection’s odder pieces. A female robot – and one of only two female protagonists in the entire collection – approaches a robot mechanic for repair. But the mechanic quickly discovers she is human – which she had not known herself. Later, she returns – and she has adopted all the arrogance of the humans over their robot servants. She has been looking for answers to the questions posed by the human who had told her she was a robot. So the mechanic offers her some moonshine… This is one of two stories in Change the Sky in which the answer to the human question is found in a bottle of grain alcohol.
Perhaps the most successful story in the collection is ‘Graveyard Shift’ (1959). Bloom’s Sportsman’s Emporium remains open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is because there is a creature of darkness hiding in the cellar, and whoever takes the graveyard shift must be eternally vigilant in order to prevent its escape. The story first introduces a few typical customers of the Emporium, and suggests there is something slightly magical about the goods they buy – even going so far as to present a customer who confuses the word “wyvern” for “werewolf”. Another customer is described as “Under the coat, he surmised, she would be spindle-shanked, heavy-breasted and knobby-kneed, with her shoulder gnawed and eroded by the constant tug of shoulder straps”. I’m pretty sure no male writer would ever use the latter half of that description.
A number of the stories in Change the Sky are almost ahead of their time in the way they cross genres. Though presented as science fiction, they happily mix outright fantasy, or present a more slipstream aspect. ‘Fort Iron’ (1955) is the latter. In a desert somewhere, a young officer is assigned as adjutant to the eponymous fort. Everything is slack and lackadaisical, and when he tries to inject some discipline and effect some repairs to the crumbling fort, it has unforeseen consequences. The fort is under attack, slow attack, but by what, and how, is never explained. In many respects, ‘Iron Fort’ would not feel wholly out-of-place in a twenty-first century anthology.
‘The Goddess on the Street Corner’ (1953) is about precisely that. A down-and-out finds Aphrodite living rough on the street and takes her home to look after and worship her. The brandy she needs, however, costs much more than the cheap sherry he normally drinks, and eventually he has to pretend Aphrodite’s faded powers are returning and affecting his life. Few genre stories deal with poverty, and while this one feels in parts a little Capra-esque, it treats its subjects with sensitivity.
Another piece of 1950s sf silliness is ‘An Egg a Month from All Over’ (1952). A man collects eggs and hatches them. They’re delivered to him by post by the Egg-A-Month Club from all over the inhabited galaxy. An egg belonging to a mnxx bird is sent to him, the club mistakenly believing it to belong to a chu lizard. It hatches with fatal consequences. The ending is done well, but the central premise is so daft it robs it of any impact.
‘The Death of Each Day’ (1958) is a science fiction staple: the war is over but everyone continues to fight because they’ve forgotten how to stop. In this particular case, that’s because they’re tranquilised every night and wake up believing the decade-long war has only been running for a day. And that the now-vanquished enemy is still out there to be attacked. But Miriam was wounded, and she’s no longer on the drugs, and when Dick goes to visit her in the hospital – which is suspiciously deserted – she persuades him of the truth.
The final story, ‘Lazarus’ (1955), has a group of journalists being given a guided tour of the JuiciMeat factory, which manufactures cultured beef, pork and veal. They grow each product in rotation in a single giant vat, which starts making strange burbling and thumping noises as the journalists are shown around. Then something strange, and not especially plausible, happens…
It seems strange that an author as prolific as St Clair should now be so obscure. Perhaps she never wrote a novel which captured readers’ fancy to the same extent as some of her contemporaries, but her frequent presence in the magazines of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s should at least have given her name some longevity. Admittedly, she did not hide behind a male or gender-neutral pseudonym, but neither did she write genre fiction that might perhaps have made male readers of the time uncomfortable. Of the eighteen stories in Change the Sky, only two have a female protagonists, though most feature women – well-drawn women, usually with agency – in secondary roles. The female customer in ‘Graveyard Shift’ may be subjected to the night clerk’s male gaze, but the details are not typically those a male writer would think to use. Miriam in ‘The Death of Each Day’ is dying of radiation poisoning but she pushes Dick to break free of the drug-induced lie in which he is living. Mazda, the PE&G agent who marries the reverend in ‘An Old Fashioned Bird Christmas’, is the one with the knowledge and the power that drives the story.
Change the Sky is very much a collection of 1950s science fiction stories. Most of them are based on outdated premises, or use a style of storytelling no longer in vogue. They are historical documents for the most part, but they’re more interesting than many other historical documents of the same period. St Clair may have been hugely prolific, but she had a good eye for detail. While many of the stories are somewhat forgettable, one or two do deserve a longer shelf-life than they seem to have been given.