Penguin Classics Science Fiction has launched with ten titles in a stunning new series design, featuring essential works of space opera, dystopia, slipstream and satire from the great science fiction writers of the US, Russia, Argentina, Germany and beyond. Masters of the genre James Tiptree, Jr., Andreas Eschbach and Angélica Gorodischer are published alongside favourite classics from the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Yevgeny Zamyatin; and New Wave masterworks by Stanislaw Lem and Kurt Vonnegut. The series aims to challenge stereotypes about the genre and celebrate science fiction as the essential genre of modern times. The covers feature work from Picasso, le Corbusier, Herbert Bayer – as well as contemporary artists – “who, like the authors, have developed alternative and often visionary ways of presenting reality,” says Art Director Jim Stoddart. “As real life increasingly comes to resemble a science fiction novel, these are the books we need now more than ever,” adds Penguin Classics Editorial Director Jessica Harrison.Science fiction helps us make sense of the world as it is – and dream about the worlds that might lie ahead.”

Here’s a taster from each of the three lead titles:

 

First contact
by James Tiptree, Jr.

What exactly is our shop? Basically, an unimportant bit of CIA that got left out in the big move to Langley. (I warned you this would be the inside story from the pick-and-shovel level; I couldn’t know less about what the President said to the Premier.) We’re officially listed as a communications and special support facility. Just a small crew of oddball linguists and blown operators put out to pasture. It was a nice restful life until we accidentally got into the first great alien contact flap three years back. The Capellans, you’ll recall.

George came out of that as our official Extra-terrestrial Language Specialist, which hasn’t done his small-man’s ego any good. I am optimistically regarded as having a flare for alien psychology – shows you what can happen to a fair photo-interpreter. And Tillie is an ace polyglot. Did you know you get clobbered for calling a polyglot a linguist? Anyway, she’s George ’s deputy. And my wife. Harry is our captive physicist-of-all-work since they decided we rated an R&D. Mrs Peabody got upgraded to Chief of Archives, but she still helps me with my income-tax forms.

After the Girls from Capella left hurriedly we all expected to coast into distinguished retirement with no further calls on our peculiar talents, if any. Now suddenly here was Another Alien merrily orbiting Terra, and our little shop was being pelted with data and demands for answers.

‘They appear to be sending some sort of standard contact broadcast,’ George reported. ‘Three or four phrases repeated, and switch to a different language. At least twenty-eight so far. One of them resembles Capellan, but not enough to read.’

‘I think it’s like a high Capellan,’ said Tillie. ‘You know, like Mandarin to Cantonese. The Capellans who came here must have spoken a dialect. I’m sure I heard a formal I and You and something about speak.’

‘Could it be Do you speak our language? Or Will you speak?

The nations were now in hot debate as to whether and what to reply to the alien. George could scarcely be prevented from trying to pull something through his friends at NSA; he was sweating for fear the Swedes or Japs would beat us to it. But we couldn’t get an OK. That was the time our Joint Chiefs were so cozy with the President – remember ? – and I think there was a struggle to keep them from testing their new anti-orbital-missile missile on the aliens. It may have been the same elsewhere; the big nations had all been working up some space defense since the Capellan visit.

With that flare overhead, the world media roared out of control. ‘ALIENS BLAST EARTH!’ ‘BLUE LIZARDS HURL BOMB FROM SKY!’ The military was already loose, of course…”

The upshot was that nobody did anything before the alien abruptly stopped transmitting speech and went into repeated da-dits. That lasted an hour. Then two things happened right together.

First, Harry got a signal from Defense R&D that one of their boys had identified a digital equation having to do with fissionable elements in the da-dits. Right after that came the word from a Soviet tracker that the alien had ejected an object which was now trailing their ship.

We all ducked and held our breaths.

The blip stayed in orbit.

Just as we started breathing again, the alien poked out a laser finger and the trailing blip went up in the prettiest fusion flare you ever saw – a complex burst, like three shorts and a long.

This is probably where you came in. With that flare overhead, the world media roared out of control. ‘ALIENS BLAST EARTH!’ ‘BLUE LIZARDS HURL BOMB FROM SKY!’ The military was already loose, of course, and an assortment of mega-squibs were blasting up towards the alien ship.

They never connected. The alien deftly distributed three more blips in a pattern around Earth, about 150,000 miles out, and took off in the direction of the Coal Sack. They had been in our system exactly thirteen hours, during which the united brains of Earth had demonstrated all the initiative of a shocked opossum.

from 10,000 Light-Years From Home

Written under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr., the pioneering and outlandish tales of Alice B. Sheldon are some of the greatest science fiction short stories of the twentieth century, telling of dystopian chases, alien sex and the loneliness of the universe.
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A close encounter
by 
Angélica Gorodischer

Trafalgar came over to me at the table right away. He recognized me, because I still have the appearance – all fine cheviot and Yardley – of a prosperous lawyer, which is exactly what I am. We greeted each other as if we had seen each other a few days before, but I calculated something like six months had passed. I made a sign to Marcos that meant, let’s see that double coffee, and I went on with my sherry.

‘I haven’t seen you in a long time,’ I said.

‘Well, yes,’ he answered. ‘Business trips.’

Marcos brought him his double coffee and a glass of cold water on a little silver plate. That’s what I like about the Burgundy.

‘Also, I got into a mess.’

‘One of these days, you’re going to end up in the slammer,’ I told him, ‘and don’t call me to get you out. I don ’t deal with that kind of thing.’

He tried the coffee and lit a black cigarette. He smokes short ones, unfiltered. He has his little ways, like anyone.

‘A mess with a woman,’ he clarified without looking at me. ‘I think it was a woman.’

‘Traf,’ I said, getting very serious, ‘I hope you haven’t contracted an exquisite inclination for fragile youths with smooth skin and green eyes.’

‘It was like being with a woman when we were in bed.’

‘And what did you do with him or with her in bed?’ I asked, trying to prod him a bit.

‘What do you think one does with a woman in bed? Sing Schumann’s Lieder as duets?’

‘Okay, okay, but tell me: what was there between the legs? A thing that stuck out or a hole?

‘A hole. Better put, two, each one in the place where it belonged.’

‘And you took advantage of both.’

‘Well, no.’

‘It was a woman,’ I concluded.

‘Hmmm,’ he said. ‘That ’s what I thought.’

I have never known if it is true or not that Trafalgar travels to the stars but I have no reason not to believe him.”

And he went back to his black coffee and unfiltered cigarette. Trafalgar won’t be hurried. If you meet him sometime, at the Burgundy or the Jockey Club or anywhere else, and he starts to tell you what happened to him on one of his trips, by God and the whole heavenly host, don’t rush him; you’ll see he has to stretch things out in his own lazy and ironic fashion. So I ordered another sherry and a few savories and Marcos came over and made some remark about the weather and Trafalgar concluded that changes of weather are like kids, if you give them the time of day, it’s all over. Marcos agreed and went back to the bar.

‘It was on Veroboar,’ he went on. ‘It was the second time I’d gone there, but the first time I don’t count because I was there just in passing and I didn’t even have time to get out. It’s on the edge of the galaxy.’

I have never known if it is true or not that Trafalgar travels to the stars but I have no reason not to believe him. Stranger things happen. What I do know is that he is fabulously rich. And that it doesn’t seem to matter a bit to him.

from Trafalgar, translated by Amalia Gladhart

Part pulp adventure, part otherworldly meditation, this is the story of Trafalgar Medrano: intergalactic trader and lover of bitter coffee and black cigarettes. In the bars and cafés of Rosario, Argentina, he recounts tall tales of his space escapades – involving, among other things, time travel and dancing troglodytes.
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Breaking the rules
by Andreas Eschbach

‘I am a carpet maker, and therefore you will also be a carpet maker.’ With an agitated gesture, Ostvan pointed to the uncompleted carpet in the knotting frame. ‘For my whole life, I’ve worked on tying this carpet – my whole life – and from the profit, you will one day eat for your entire life. You have a debt to me, Abron, and I require that you pay off that debt to your own son. And God grant that he will not cause you as much sorrow as you have caused me!’

Abron did not dare look at his father as he replied, ‘There are rumors in the city about a rebellion, and rumors that the Emperor must abdicate… Who will be able to pay for the hair carpets if the Emperor is gone?’

‘The glory of the Emperor will outlast the light of the stars!’ Ostvan said threateningly. ‘Didn’t I teach you that phrase when you could barely sit up next to me at the carpet frame? Do you imagine that just anybody can come along and change the order of things, which was set by God?’

‘No, Father,’ mumbled Abron, ‘of course not.’

Ostvan watched him. ‘Now go to work on your carpet design.’

‘Yes, Father.’

Late in the evening, Garliad’s birth pangs began. The women accompanied her into the prepared birth room; Ostvan and Abron stayed in the kitchen.

Ostvan got two cups and a bottle of wine, and they drank silently. Sometimes they heard Garliad crying out or moaning in the birth room; then again there was nothing for a while. It was going to be long night.

When his father fetched a second bottle of wine, Abron asked, ‘And if it’s a boy?’

‘You know as well as I do,’ Ostvan responded dully.

‘Then what will you do?’

‘The law has always said that a carpet maker may have only one son, because a carpet can support only one family.’ Ostvan pointed to an old, rust-flecked sword hanging on the wall. ‘With that, my grandfather killed my two brothers on the day of their birth.’

Abron was silent. ‘You said that this is God’s law,’ he finally erupted. ‘That must be a cruel God, don’t you think?’

‘Abron!’ Ostvan thundered.

‘I want to have nothing to do with your God!’ screamed Abron, and flung himself out of the kitchen.

‘Abron! Stay here!’

But Abron tore up the stairs to the bedchambers and did not return.

He stood up heavily as though every movement were painful; he took the sword from the wall and laid it on the table. Then he stood there and waited with somber patience.”

So Ostvan waited alone, but he did not drink any more. The hours passed, and his thoughts became more gloomy. Finally the first cries of a child were mixed among the cries of the mother, and Ostvan heard the women lamenting and sobbing. He stood up heavily as though every movement were painful; he took the sword from the wall and laid it on the table. Then he stood there and waited with somber patience until the Wise Woman came from the birth room with the newborn in her arms.

‘It’s a boy,’ she said calmly. ‘Will you kill him, sir?’

Ostvan looked at the rosy, wrinkled face of the child.

‘No,’ he said. ‘He will live. I want him to be named Ostvan after me. I will teach him the craft of a hair-carpet maker, and should I not live long enough, someone else will complete his training. Take him back to his mother, and tell her what I’ve said.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said the Wise Woman, and bore the child out. Ostvan, however, took the sword from the table, went with it up to the bedchambers, and killed his son Abron.

from The Hair-Carpet Weavers, translated by Doryl Jensen

In a distant universe, since the beginning of time, workers have spent their lives weaving intricate carpets from the hair of women and girls. But why? Andreas Eschbach’s mysterious, poignant space opera explores the absurdity of work and of life itself.
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All the launch titles are available in paperback and eBook, and four in audio too. For more about the series, including the next five books out in January 2021, see the Penguin Science Fiction page.

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