The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy – Various Authors

The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy was published by Souvenir Press in 1966, and as the name suggests it is a short story anthology containing stories of both the Science Fiction and Fantasy varieties.

No, there aren’t any pictures of naked women in this book. My guess is that Playboy sought the best stories they could, to make up for the whole pornography thing. The introduction is sexist, there’s a lot of male gaze, and there are a few stories about explicitly heterosexual relationships. Sex is a more prominent theme here than in any comparable sci-fi anthologies I’ve read. (Although I guess there was some weird sex going on in the Dangerous Visions.) Give a literate teenager access to the Internet, and in rattle of a keyboard they’ll find something less safe for work.

It seems that in 1966 the word fantasy didn’t mean ‘a genre which empowers authors to write any surreal nonsense they please, yet contains a disproportionately large number of tales which focus on Medieval cultures and other cliche set pieces.’ (This, admittedly, is an extremely uncharitable view of modern fantasy.) For 1966 Playboy editors it meant ‘a weird genre where inexplicable things happen.’ Playboy’s 1966 idea of fantasy resembles our modern notions of Magical Realism. Think of things like Round the Twist, Twilight Zone or even the wackier Borges stories.

A key way to promote an anthology is to list all the contributors, in the hope that audience members will recognise an author they like. They are: George Langelaan, Charles Beaumont, Robert Sheckley, Bruce Jay Friedman, Ray Bradbury, Bernard Wolf, William Tenn, Leland Webb, Ken Purdy, Arthur Clarke, Robert Bloch, Walt Grove, Frederik Pohl, Alan Nourse, Theodore Sturgeon, Henry Slesar, H. C. Neal, Hugh Nissenson, John Atherton, Bernard Wolfe, Avram Davidson, J. G. Ballard and Ray Russell. Yes, part of the reason I wrote that last sentence was to copy it into the tag box.

There aren’t any female names among the authors. I’m chalking this up to sexism on Playboy’s part.

One of my favourite stories was Bernie the Faust, by William Tenn. It involves the protagonist inadvertently selling the Earth.

Remember when Bart Simpson switched heads with a fly? (I do, the Treehouse of Horror episodes tend to leave a mark.) That was likely inspired by George Langelaan’s The Fly.

Sci-fi humourist Robert Sheckley combines surveillance with romance in Spy Games.

The most interesting story is Charles Beaumont’s The Crooked Man. Set in a dystopia where homosexuality is normative and heterosexuals are persecuted, a man and a woman meet up in a bar. The Playboy editors take a hedgy stance in their introduction, saying that Beaumont neither condemns nor condones homosexuality. Someone ought to make this story into a film.

The best story was J. G. Ballard’s Souvenir. I’d describe it as Gulliver’s Travels from the Liliputian’s perspective, if Gulliver was dead.

I paid two dollars for this book at a Benalla Op-shop in 2012, and I think that it was worth it. If you find yourself in a comparable situation facing a similar decision, and you like Fifties and Sixties science fiction, I say get it.

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