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Science Fiction Update June 2019

James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of a woman named Alice Sheldon who wrote science fiction in the mid-20th century. She entered the field at a critical time in the development of the genre. Starting in the 19th century, the public school systems in the English speaking world greatly increased literacy, especially in the United States, and with that increase a demand for entertaining fiction. Publishers and writers took advantage of the popularity of exciting, sometimes lurid, stories for the sake of entertainment to produce cheaply made (in more ways than one) fiction, leading to a large output of "pulp fiction," dime novels and penny dreadfuls. What we now call science fiction started in the 19th century as a part of this effort to satisfy the demand for popular entertainment and it's early writers seldom aspired to creating great literature. For a long time many people, including librarians, dismissed science fiction as "kids stuff," and "not really literature." 

In the 1930s a group of science fiction writers, under the guidance of an editor named John Campbell, started to publish stories that departed from stock, two-dimensional characters, nonsensical "science" and simplistic "aliens bad, humans good" plotlines. They succeeded, and their names such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein remain well-known today. The next wave of highly intelligent and creative writers to come along included Harlan Ellison, Urusula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr. in the 1960s. These writers used future or distant worlds to examine the social, political and economic changes taking place in the present. Tiptree's and others' writings greatly contributed to breaking science fiction out of the "mold" of its pulp fiction origins, turning it into a genre filled with highly imaginative and intelligent ideas, stories and characters. 

Sheldon worked in Army Intelligence during World War II then joined the CIA for 3 years in the late 1940s. After leaving the CIA she returned to college, completing her education with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, then set about writing. For 10 years no one suspected that James Tiptree, Jr. was not a man. Once her true identity became known, rumors explaining why she used a pseudonym proliferated, one wilder than the next, most having to do with her work for the CIA. In her letters to friends she explained that she only wished to keep her fiction writing separate from her academic work. She selected a male name purposely given her lifelong struggle to work in male-dominated fields. With a male name people would read her words, writers and editors would evaluate her work on its merits.  She was also closeted-bisexual, something she told only a small circle of close friends, including Le Guin. Tiptree and Le Guin may be the first writers to introduce feminist themes into the science fiction genre. (If anyone knows of earlier contributions, please leave a comment on this post -- I would like to know). Sheldon/Tiptree died in 1987. 

In 1991 two women science fiction writers formed The Tiptree Award Foundation, which

... appoints a panel of five jurors to read and discuss among themselves the merits of gender-bending fiction published in the previous year.

At the end of a year of reading and deliberation, the jurors choose the winner(s). The jury’s only charge is to look for science fiction and fantasy that “explores and expands gender.” Each set of jurors refines and re-examines their own definitions of that phrase.

 In the Mechanics Institute Library's efforts to provide our readers with a book collection as diverse as possible, I reviewed the nominees, honorable mentions and winners of the James Tiptree Jr. Awards then ordered the following titles, many of which have already arrived. To find out more about a title listed below (and/or place a hold on it), click on the link to read the summary in the Mechanics Institute's online catalog. 

Honorable mentions of 2017 and 2018

The black tides of Heaven and The red threads of fortune by JY Yang. (The first two books in the author's Tensorate series).

Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff. (The first in the author's The Red Abbey chronicles series)

An excess male, in which author Maggie Shen King examines the effects of China's two-child policy from the perspective of 2030. 

Sodom Road exit by Amber Dawn features a protagonist haunted by a queer ghost. 

Sovereign by April Daniels, the second in the "Nemisis" series, a young adult novel about a trans superhero. You may want to wait for the first book, Dreadnought, presently on order.

In The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai, women in a dystopian future battle a plague that kills more men than women. 

Chercher La Femme by L. Timmel Duchamp has virtual reality, friendly aliens and an all female planet. 

Glittership. Year 2, a science fiction anthology that contains 30 short stories and poems. According to the jury "these all have queer themes and characters. “The Little Dream” by Robin M. Eames (in which a character wears a t-shirt that reads “IN SPACE NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU INSIST THERE ARE ONLY TWO GENDERS”) and “Graveyard Girls on Paper Phoenix Wings” by Andrea Tang are particularly recommended. A wonderful variety of stories and a great way to find authors you want to read more of."


The winner of the 2018 Tiptree Foundation Award is

A short-story you can read for free online: They will dream in the garden.

The website of the Tiptree Foundation lists the winners and honorable mentions from 1991 to the present.

(The photograph in this post shows Tiptree with her husband, Huntington Sheldon, circa 1945). 

Posted on Jun. 1, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

The Mueller Report

The library has purchased a print copy of The Mueller Report : the final report of the Special Counsel into Donald Trump, Russia, and collusion; as issued by the Department of Justice. We realize that the political situation regarding the report and its findings is changing rapidly. Some redacted portions of the report in our print copy may be unredacted later. To help our members keep up, we also have added two electronic versions (both accessible via This link to the online version of the Mueller Report in our online catalog). We will add links to "less redacted" versions as they become available.

Posted on May. 30, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

Science Fiction Update

Science fiction has plenty of book series. The Mechanics Institute Library has recently acquired a few new ones and added to some popular ones.

Fire Logic, the first book of Laurie J. Marks's tetrology "Elemental Logic," has proven so popular with members that we have acquired the next 2 books: Earth Logic (book 2) and Water Logic (book 3). The fourth book, Air Logic, is due this June. 

We've also purchased the next 2 titles of the "Themis files" series by Sylvain Neuvel, continuing Sleeping Giants with Waking Gods then Only Human

John Scalzi continues his "Interdependency" series that started with The Collapsing Empire. The next installment, The Consuming Fire, is already on the new books shelf. 

Rebecca Roanhorse published the very popular Trail of Lightning last year. Her following installment in "The Sixth World" series, Storm of Locusts, just arrived at the library in April. 

Pierce Brown's latest addition to his "Red Rising" novels converts what was a "trilogy" into a "saga" with a fourth novel: Iron Gold. This one received very high ratings from over 28 thousand people on GoodReads. 

We have started a couple of new series as well: 

Holly Black's "Folk of the Air" fantasy series has enjoyed rave reviews. We have acquired both the first title, The Cruel Prince, as well as the follow up, The Wicked King.

Those who are fans of Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" series will love the new Mike Resnick book The Master of Dreams, the first of his planned dreamscape trilogy

Elizabeth Bear, author of the popular Range of Ghosts, has started a new series called "White Space" with the debut title: Ancestral Night.

Posted on Apr. 30, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

Iconography: an irreverent introduction

I have always had an amateur's interest in fine art. I never took a course in art appreciation but I have learned as much as I can from books and from a friend with an M.F.A. who acts as my personal docent when we visit museums together. I always wondered about paintings, from medieval times to the present, that included numerous objects for no apparent reason or people making unusual (to me, anyway) gestures. What do they mean? Why did this artist include a broken wheel in this painting? How do we know that baby is Jesus? What's the funny-looking "thing" that looks like a feather duster that you see people holding in old paintings all the time? You can find answers to these and lots more questions in the Colons' book, newly arrived at the Library. The objects in paintings that mystify many of us in the 21st century had symbolic meanings very commonly known centuries ago, in other words: iconography. The authors include helpful lists in the appendices. But the real fun comes in the picture by picture descriptions and explanations that make sense out of scores of paintings included in this book (and by extension, hundreds or thousands of others not inlcuded in the book that contain the same iconography). They limited their selection of the art works to those that have big, high definition graphics on the World Wide Web easily found with a DuckDuckGo or Google image search of the artist's name and title of the painting. This way they kept the size (and cost) of the book small and inexpensive. 

The whimsical writing makes this far from the usual dry academic tome. For example, to explain a painting that includes a man incongruously standing with a hatchet sticking out of his head they write: 

The painting of St. Peter the martyr is a stunner. In fact, he looks quite stunned as well. A 13th century Dominican priest from Verona, he was assassinated -- you guessed it -- with a hatchet through the skull. He was fast tracked to sainthood in only 11 months -- an ecclesiastical record.

Check out this book for more of the same -- plus the answers to my questions above. 

Posted on Feb. 7, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

First Abraham Flexner revolutionized medical education in the U.S. Then he founded the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. His seminal essay about “useless” knowledge continues to stand as the most eloquent defense of primary research. The companion essay by the Institute’s current director, Robbert Dijkgraaf, provides fascinating historical background on Flexner and his views on the relationship between research and public policy.

Check to see if this book is checked out and reserve it via our catalog.


Posted on Sep. 3, 2018 by Steven Dunlap

The Hawkline Monster : a Gothic Western

Richard Brautigan spent his most productive years as a writer in San Francisco, although he was born in Tacoma Washington. He once admitted that all he could do at all well was hunt and write. His writing always reflected his life in the American West and its frontier character. With The Hawkline Monster : a Gothic Western he takes the western genre, scrambles it with horror, then adds his trademark dark humor and imagination, resulting in one the best 20th century novels most people have never heard of. The last 5 or so pages elevates this from just an amusing story to a great novel.

For a more expansive description and critique of Brautigan’s work, see The Poetry Foundation’s biography:

Check to see if this book is checked out and reserve it via our catalog.

Posted on Sep. 1, 2018 by Steven Dunlap

Great resource for writers!

Do you have an idea for a book or story that involves invisibility? Philip Ball wrote the book for you. Invisible : The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen covers nearly everything about the idea of making yourself or other objects invisible throughout history and different cultures: from magic to physics. Would you like to use a historically authentic spell? Perhaps you would like to incorporate "Crooke's dark space" into a novel taking place during the Victorian age? And how do you arrange mirrors to hide half of a person's body? You will find answers to these questions and more.

To be the first to read this book, reserve it via our catalog.


Posted on Aug. 31, 2018 by Steven Dunlap

Who hates whom

Bob Harris, writer of quirky television shows, decided to learn about all the conflicts in the world, why they started and “who hates whom.”. Although this book is a bit outdated (published in 2007, before ISIS, the fall of Gaddafi or the Syrian Civil War) many of the conflicts described in this book continue to this day. Harris applies a somewhat irreverent sense of humor to his description of many of the wars and long-simmering international feuds he discovered in his research. He shows an appreciation for the absurdity of many of the world’s conflicts, such as the dispute between India and Pakistan over which country rightfully includes inside its borders  a barren, resourceless, uninhabitable wasteland visited by only the most intrepid mountain climbers. A short and enjoyable read that will inform your understanding of current events.

To be the first to read this book, reserve it via our catalog. 

Posted on Aug. 29, 2018 by Steven Dunlap

Cambodia : a book for people who find television too slow

Canadian writer and cultural analyst Brian Fawcett uses an innovative format to combine fiction and non-fiction in order to convey his ideas on modernity and the changes we have experienced in the 20th century. A single essay shares each page with a series of short stories as one runs along the lower have of the page while the others take the upper half, making you think about the imaginary and the factual at the same time. 

Check to see if this book is checked out and reserve it via our catalog.

Posted on Aug. 28, 2018 by Steven Dunlap

Fool on the Hill

Matt Ruff’s strange and often hilarious book has so many unusual characters that telepathic dogs look relatively ordinary in the larger scheme of things. He writes a vividly strange story that includes rats poised for conquest fighting fairies you can only see when you’re drunk or crazy. This novel starts with a few oddball students at Cornell University, adds some unusual people who come to campus then grows progressively stranger.


Through the “man who tells lies for a living” you read a story that strongly evokes the time in everyone’s lives when desires, expectations, hopes and figuring out what to do with the rest of your life all come crashing together. And you will never see dogs the same way again.


To be the first to read this book, reserve it via our catalog.

Posted on Aug. 24, 2018 by Steven Dunlap