“Beyond Lies the Wub” by Philip K. Dick

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #20 of 107: “Beyond Lies the Wub” by Philip K. Dick

“Beyond Lies the Wub” is Philip K. Dick’s first publish story and we can already see hints of what’s to come in his future writing. It’s a fun little story with a cheeky horror twist. The wub is a gentle creature who loves to enjoy itself, indulging in food, conversation, and philosophy. I wonder if PKD saw himself as the wub? In the end Captain Franco kills the wub and eats it — and we’re shocked to learn that the wub takes over his mind. I wonder if PKD saw himself in this too, because we read his stories, putting them inside us, and we write and talk about them becoming a little bit like PKD.

Yesterday I wrote about my lifelong addiction to science fiction at my personal blog. I was lamenting that I wasn’t challenging myself much by reading science fiction short stories which I felt were only a couple steps up from comic books. Comments were left defending comic books, but I wasn’t attacking them. What I was implying is art represents different levels of complexity to create and takes different levels of effort to consume. Art is anti-entropic. I was saying science fiction short stories on average require more complexity to create and consume than comic book stories. (I wasn’t considering the comic art in the comparison.) The average science fiction novel takes more work to create and read than the average science fiction short story. But I also believe the best literary novels and short stories are more complex on average than most of the best science fiction novels and short stories.

Take for example the Jorge Luis Borges story we read. Borges was far more ambitious in that story than any of the other stories we read so far. It took more cognitive effort to write, and it takes us far more cognitive effort to read. I was criticizing myself for indulging in mostly consuming science fiction in my lifetime rather than pursuing more active activities, or even consuming more complex art.

But the thing is I enjoyed “Beyond Lies the Wub” more than I did “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” even though the PKD is much closer to comic book writing, and the Borges is far more complex than average science fiction short story writing. I shouldn’t though. “Beyond Lies the Wub” is junk food, and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is haute cuisine, relatively speaking. But who’s to say which is superior?

In past years, I believe the average level of complexity of the short stories of The Best American Short Stories annuals were greater than the complexity of science fiction short stories in their annual best of the year volumes for the same years. I would say that if we compared the 2021 annuals from this year, science fiction is approaching the complexity of literary writing, but hasn’t quite caught up.

I also feel that the complexity of the science fiction stories we’re reading in The Big Book of Science Fiction from each period doesn’t always match the highest level of complexity from other stories that could have been chosen. “Surface Tension” is definitely far more complex than “Beyond Lies the Wub” for a 1952 science fiction story, but it is far less sophisticated than “Baby Is Three” by Theodore Sturgeon.

“Beyond Lies the Wub” is a fun story, but it’s far from PKD’s best. Why is it here when there is much better SF from that era? Why did the VanderMeers skip over “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber and “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith both from 1950? These were dazzling stories that began the decade for science fiction and showed a quantum leap over the what was being written in the 1940s. If we had to have a PKD story from the 1950s, why not “Second Variety?” And is the 1950s the right decade for using our one PKD story?

I can think of a lot of science fiction stories from the 1950s that are far more complex and challenging than the ones we’re getting in this anthology. But was that the goal of the book? “Beyond Lies the Wub” is fun, and quite often I prefer reading just for fun, so I can’t blame the VanderMeers for their choice if that’s the case.

In my essay yesterday I was basically lamenting I could have done more with my life than read all that science fiction. But it is the art form I chose to admire and become part of my life. And in my retirement years I’ve been focusing on science fiction short stories. And I’m learning that some science fiction stories are way better than others – in my subjective view. However, if we use complexity to measure them, isn’t that less subjective and more objective?

“Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester and “The Moon Moth” by Jack Vance are far more complex than the stories we’re getting in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Why weren’t they chosen? Bester and Vance were dazzling in their writing. If we’re given a collection of stories that claim to be the ultimate science fiction short stories of the 20th century, shouldn’t they be the most ambitious, challenging, and complex examples? I don’t know. I’m just wondering?

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James Wallace Harris, 9/27/21

“Surface Tension” by James Blish

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #19 of 107: “Surface Tension” by James Blish

“Surface Tension” by James Blish first appeared in the August 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. In 1957 it was published by Gnome Press as The Seedling Stars along with three other pantropy stories by Blish to make a fix-up novel. When the Nebula Awards were being created in the 1960s, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted for their favorite science fiction short stories published before the advent of the awards and “Surface Tension” was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One in 1970. It has been anthologized many times. The version of “Surface Tension” in The Big Book of Science Fiction is different from the one that appeared in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. It has “Sunken Universe” (Super Science Stories, May 1942) inserted into it after the introduction, which is the way it is in The Seedling Stars. However, the introduction had additional paragraphs not in the Hall of Fame version, and I expect a careful reading of the later sections should show changes too. H. L. Gold was known for editing stories and Blish was known for rewriting his stories, so we don’t know which happened. My guess is Blish came up with additional ideas to add to the story for the book version. I’ve read the slightly shorter version three times before over my lifetime, and a few paragraphs in this version stood out to me as new. Mainly they were about the original crew theorizing about their future pantropic existence.

Lately I’ve been writing about why I disliked a story, but for “Surface Tension” I need to explain why I love a story, and that might be even harder to do. Every once in a while, a science fiction writer will come up with an idea that’s so different that it lights up our brains. Wells did it with “The Time Machine.” Heinlein did it with his story “Universe.” Brian Aldiss did it with his fix-up novel Hothouse. Robert Charles Wilson did it with his novel Spin. “Surface Tension” is one of those stories. It has tremendous sense of wonder.

I’m torn between explaining everything that happens and not saying anything. These posts are all about making comments to our short story club where everyone is supposed to have read the story and we don’t worry about spoilers. I recently read Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn and it was so delicious learning every plot element as it unfolded that I didn’t want to spoil anything for first time readers. I tried to explain why in my spoiler-free review. But I need to talk about “Surface Tension,” so if you haven’t read it, please go away and do so.

As I’ve said before about great short stories, they have a setup that allows the author to say something interesting – not a message, but an insight. The setup for “Surface Tension” is five men and two women have crashed on the planet Hydrot that orbits Tau Ceti. Their spaceship can’t be repaired, their communication system was destroyed, and they don’t have enough food to survive. However, their ship is one of a swarm of seed ships spreading across the galaxy that colonizes each planet with customized humans adapted for each unique environment. This is called pantropy, also representing a kind of panspermia, and anticipates the idea of transhumanism. In other words, Blish has a lot to say with this story.

Because no large organisms can survive in the current stage of Hydrot’s development, the crew decide to seed it with intelligent microorganisms. The seven will die, but each of their genes will be used to fashion a new species of roughly humanoid shape creatures that can coexist with the existing microorganisms of the freshwater puddles on Hydrot. They won’t have their memories, but they will have ancestral abilities. The crew creates these creatures and inscribe their history on tiny metal tablets they hope will be discovered one day by their tiny replacements.

From here the story jumps to the underwater world of the microorganisms and we see several periods of their history unfold. Blish used his education in biology to recreate several concentric analogies of discoveries that parallel our history in his puddle world of tiny microorganisms. The wee humanoids form alliances with other intelligent microorganisms in wars to conquer their new environment. Then they begin an age of exploration that eventually parallels our era of early space exploration. But you can also think of it paralleling when life first emerged from the sea to conquer the land.

One reason this story means so much to me is Blish makes characters out of various types of eukaryotic microorganisms and that reminds me of when I was in the fourth grade and our teacher asked us to bring a bottle of lake water to class. That day we saw another world through the eyepiece of a microscope. Blish made that world on a microscope slide into a fantasy world where paramecium becomes a character named Para who is intelligent and part of a hive mind that works with the transhumans. Their enemies are various kinds of rotifers. However, I know little of biology and don’t know what the Proto, Dicran, Noc, Didin, Flosc characters are based on.

The main transhuman characters are Lavon and Shar who’s personalities are preserved over generations. I wondered if the seven original human explorers (Dr. Chatvieux, Paul la Ventura, Philip Strasvogel, Saltonstall, Eleftherios Venezuelos, Eunice Wagner, and Joan Heath) were archetypes for the microscopic transhuman characters? Blish suggests that in the opening scene:

They take human germ-cells—in this case, our own, since our bank was wiped out in the crash—and modify them genetically toward those of creatures who can live in any reasonable environment. The result will be manlike, and intelligent. It usually shows the donors’ personality patterns, too, since the modifications are usually made mostly in the morphology, not so much in the mind, of the resulting individual.

...

“That’s right. In the present situation we’ll probably make our colonists haploid, so that some of them, perhaps many, will have a heredity traceable to you alone. There may be just the faintest of residuums of identity—pantropy’s given us some data to support the old Jungian notion of ancestral memory. But we’re all going to die on Hydrot, Paul, as self-conscious persons. There’s no avoiding that. Somewhere we’ll leave behind people who behave as we would, think and feel as we would, but who won’t remember la Ventura, or Dr. Chatvieux, or Joan Heath, or the Earth.”

However, I never could decipher who Lavon and Shar were. Each time I reread this story I notice more details, and more analogies. “Surface Tension” is both simple and complex. At a simple level its just a space adventure tale about exploration and survival. But in creating a fantasy ecology, Blish hints at the deeper complexity of a writer becoming a worldbuilder. And Blish is also philosophical about the future of mankind, reminding me of Olaf Stapledon. This is the kind of story that can blow adolescent minds.

“Surface Tension” would make a wonderful video game, or a beautiful animated film.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/25/21

“Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #18 of 107: “Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola

“Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola is a short piece of satire on household products, but it’s not really a short story. Arreola imagines a device for children to wear that converts their kinetic energy into stored electricity for later household use. I’m terribly sorry that the VanderMeers have included all these historical curiosities at the beginning of their anthology because I worry it will turn off readers from finishing the book. I swear, there are really good stories to come. I’ve talked a lot of people into buying this book, and I fear many of them are thinking, “Harris, you owe me $25 plus tax.”

“Baby HP” was mildly interesting filler but only for a lesser literary magazine that couldn’t acquire better content. “Baby HP” represents a science fictional idea without a story. It’s like the kind of thing writers hate when they meet fans who tell them, “I’ve got a great idea for a story, you write it and we’ll split the money 50-50.” An idea for a story is not a story. Let me illustrate what I mean:

The Algernon Corporation offers a unique product to American consumers. Have you ever wanted to do something significant with your life but lacked the intelligence and talent? Here’s your chance to write that bestselling sci-fi novel, invent that new gadget everyone thinks they need but don't, or maybe finally discover a cure for overactive bladders, or even compose the last great rock album, or work on any other dream ambition that takes the intense concentration and vast intelligence you don't have.

We offer a series of treatments that will triple your IQ within one year. You’ll have three years to burn bright, before returning to your normal self in the fifth year. We feel so confident that you'll succeed that the only cost for this treatment is the promise of sharing the proceeds of your success 50-50 with us.

If you compare the above to Daniel Keyes brilliant novelette, “Flowers for Algernon,” you’ll know what I mean when I say “Baby HP” isn’t a real short story. Clever ideas and philosophical insights don’t make good short fiction. Readers want short stories to have the impact of a novel in a quick read. Not a summary. Short stories run in size from flash fiction to novellas, but for each length there is an appropriate amount of dramatic action required. Stories need to evoke emotions, from the silliest comedy to gut wrenching tragedy. It’s possible to do without human characters, but readers really love characters to care about. All the best short stories capture a moment when someone evolves and the reader shares that insight. You can’t just tell the reader. The short story is a trigger that causes readers to resonate emotionally. The very best stories will fill you eyes with tears, either from laughing or crying.

What Makes a Great Science Fiction Retrospective Anthology?

The membership in our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction, has been getting a bit restless with The Big Book of Science Fiction. Participation has fallen off. I don’t know if that’s because people don’t like the stories, or because the relentless pace of reading a short story every other day is wearing them out. Also, I sense many of our members might not enjoy older SF. I hope enthusiasm picks back up as we get further into the anthology, and into modern times. I know there are some truly great short stories to come.

This makes me ask: What makes a great science fiction retrospective anthology?

The group has read many anthologies together in the past year, and some books have succeeded better than others. A few have even stood out, and I’d say that’s because they had a higher concentration of popular stories. We vote on stories when we finish a book. If only a handful of stories get a majority of votes, we usually see more complaints about the number of disappointing stories. But if the votes are scattered over half the table of contents, the generally feeling is the anthology was a good one.

How readers rate an anthology is very subjective. For me, a handful of great stories can leave an overall positive reaction to the anthology. On the other hand, too many bad stories can taint my whole impression.

I tend to think the group is partial to newer SF, and prefer longer stories, since novelettes and sometimes novellas are the stories that get the most votes. However, a long story that doesn’t work well generates lots of negative comments. My guess is the novelette length is optimal if the content is good or better. It seems it takes exceptional content to make a short story or novella work. Often a short story doesn’t have the length of runway to take off, to catch the readers minds on fire. And frequently a novella stretches an idea too thin, thus provoking boredom.

My hunch is our membership prefers stories from the 1980s on because that’s what they’ve grown up with, and stylistically, stories within the past 40-50 years feel modern. Anything older is often tainted with quaintness, too much simplicity, or sometimes dated by changes in social consciousness.

This puts an anthology like The Big Book of Science Fiction at a disadvantage because it’s mostly filled with shorter works, and a lot of the content is older. It is a challenge for any editor to cover short science fiction over the entire 20th century.

Another factor that makes readers love an anthology is when it contains stories they’ve previously read and loved. There is a feeling of affinity with the editor for sharing an admiration for a favorite story. An editor put themselves at risk if they go out of their way to find obscure, rare, and unknown stories, unless those stories convince the reader they’ve found undiscovered gems. Anthology readers love finding buried treasure. But that’s getting exceedingly hard to do. The territory has been covered countless times, and time is eroding older stories faster and faster.

Not many science fiction fans love short stories, it’s a specialized reading audience that’s fading away. Our SF short story club on Facebook has 566 members, whereas the SF book club has 8,800 members. And only a tiny fraction of our membership actively participate in any particular group reading.

At one time, SF anthologies were very popular, but their popularity has waned along with the SF magazine reader. Original anthologies are still somewhat popular, and annual best-of-the-year anthologies remain somewhat popular. I think this is true because they publish current work. But theme and retrospective anthologies aren’t very common anymore. I wonder if that’s because readers have been burned by too many anthologies that had too many duds? I’ve had friends that told me they tried the SF magazines but didn’t renew because they seldom found enough good stories in each issue. That might be true of theme/retrospective anthologies.

Thus a great retrospective SF anthology is one with a high percentage of impressive stories. But what is that percentage? For me, 25% has to be 5-star stories, and another 25% of 4-star stories. The rest can be 3-stars. But reading too many stories that felt like a waste of time can ruin the whole vibe of an anthology. Of course, this is just me, but from the comments we see, I don’t think I’m alone. By the way, I rate stories I believe worthy of several readings over lifetime as 5-star stories. And any story I read and immediately feel I’m looking forward to rereading it is a 4-star story. 3-star stories are good solid stories I feel no need to reread.

I require less for an annual anthology or original anthology to like them. I’d say only one to four 5-star SF stories come out each year. Thus I only expect to see one or maybe two in any annual anthology. The odds are against even one to appear in an original anthology.

By my reckoning, I felt there are three 5-star stories in the first 20 stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction: “A Martian Odyssey,” “Desertion,” and “Surface Tension.” That’s low for a retrospective anthology claiming to be the ultimate collection. We’ll be voting on the first 20 stories soon, so I’ll see how the others feel. I’ve already seen reviews by some of the younger readers who only gave “A Martian Odyssey” and “Desertion” three stars. That’s another piece of evidence that members prefer newer stories.

I really enjoy older SF, and I was hoping the VanderMeers would have found more older gems I hadn’t read. My guess, as time goes buy, it’s going to get harder and harder to assemble retrospective SF anthologies that cover the entire 20th century because there are fewer old farts like myself that enjoy SF from the entire century.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/21/21

“September 2005: The Martian” by Ray Bradbury

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #17 of 107: “September 2005: The Martian” by Ray Bradbury

The quick take on this story is I wonder why an average work by Ray Bradbury who is famous for many other exceptional stories is included in this anthology. By now, if you’ve been following this series of reviews on the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, you’ll know it’s going to be another self-psychoanalysis session of why I’ve been reading science fiction for sixty years.

I have a love-hate relationship with Ray Bradbury. Mostly love, but after churning out tons of science fiction stories in the 1940s and early 1950s, he seem to abandon the genre. I hated that. And the fact he never quite wrote real science fiction, I also hated that. I love The Martian Chronicles even though Bradbury never took Mars seriously, which I did, so I hated that too. “September 2005: The Martian” was originally published as “Impossible” in the November 1949 issue of Super Science Stories. It was retitled and embedded into a chronology for The Martian Chronicles. Later editions changed the title to “September 2036: The Martian.” I assume once we get to the 2030s it will be retitled again, then maybe not, if Elon Musk colonizes the planet before then.

“The Martian” is an emotional story about an elderly couple living on Mars who painfully miss their dead son. Tom died as a teen back on Earth before they immigrated. Then one morning Tom shows up at their house on Mars. We know from previous stories in The Martian Chronicles that Mars was once inhabited, and the Martians have shapeshifting capabilities. This shapeshifting theme was used to perfection in the 1948 story “Mars is Heaven!” I found it less effective in this story, “The Martian.” The lone Martian gets trapped into a human shape whenever it gets near a human because of their need to see a lost loved one. I always considered shapeshifting a fantasy theme, but John W. Campbell used it for his SF famous story, “Who Goes There?” and it was used in the first episode of Star Trek when it premiered in 1966, “The Man Trap.”

Shapeshifting is a very ancient theme in storytelling and fiction. I’m not sure Bradbury’s use of it in this story is very original. Bradbury plays up the emotion by having the Martian appear as dead children to two different couples. Although Bradbury keeps telling us how old and elderly LaFarge and Anna are, but they are just fifty-five and sixty, and that seems funny now. Probably when I read this story the first time in my teens, 55 and 60 were ancient.

Even though I enjoyed “The Martian,” I was also annoyed at it. You get the feeling the Martian colony is clone of some small midwestern town from Bradbury’s youth of the 1930s. Bradbury even admits inspiration from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, another fixup novel of short stories. My theory was Bradbury wanted to be a literary writer all along, but started out in science fiction because of fan friends, and because the genre was easier to break into. Once he achieved fame he moved on to the larger literary world. And who can blame him for not staying bottled up in one small genre? Because Bradbury had a thing for fantasy and horror, his science fiction never quite felt futuristic. He was never a Campbell writer, and “The Martian” feels more inspired by Poe or Collier, than the science fiction of his day.

Don’t get me wrong, “The Martian” is a solid story that is sentimental and moving, with a touch of horror and grotesque, just set on Mars. My situation in reviewing it is compounded by three concerns. First, why is this story in The Big Book of Science Fiction? I still can’t figure out if this anthology is the VanderMeers’ view of the best of 20th century science fiction, or the best of 20th century science fiction after a 21st century reevaluation, or the best stories that aren’t already in in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame which has stayed in print since 1970? This anthology only has three stories from the 1940s, and only one from Astounding (“Desertion”). The 1940s was considered the Golden Age of Science Fiction. I guess its not now. The Bradbury is from a minor magazine, and the other story is by Jorge Louis Borges, who was never part of the science fiction world. Is this a snub of John W. Campbell?

My second conflict is with Ray Bradbury, but I’ve already covered that love-hate relationship. “The Martian” is average-good Bradbury, but far from great. Why not pick one of his standout stories? To me, the obvious choice is “There Will Come Soft Rains.” Maybe I’m putting too much importance on The Big Book of Science Fiction. Maybe it’s just a collection of stories that the VanderMeers liked, and not the important short SF from the 20th century anthology that I expected it to be. I guess I lament that large SF anthologies just don’t come around very often anymore, and the ones that do I put all my hope for preserving the great SF short stories of the past that I love and want to be remembered.

My third conflict is between the fantasy of space travel in fiction and the reality of space travel in real life. This gets especially complicated because my expectations when young are so much different from my beliefs in old age. Let’s say when I was young science fiction was my Bible and I had unwavering faith of the final frontier. Now that I’m old, I’m skeptical about the final frontier, and science fiction is my fantasy escape from an ever harsher reality. When I was young I look down on Bradbury for writing fantasy flavored science fiction, but now that I’m old I admire Bradbury for his quaint sentimental space fantasies, and just ignore their unrealistic and unscientific aspects. In fact, I ache to read The Martian Chronicles: The Complete Edition (2009) that includes all of Bradbury’s Martian stories. Unfortunately, that limited $300/900 edition is out of print and costs thousands of dollars to acquire used.

Maybe I can explain my problem in another way, although I’m afraid my analogy might offend some people. I recently followed SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission to orbit with four ordinary people getting to play astronaut for three days. Don’t get what I’m about to say wrong. I admire what the private space companies are achieving, and that three day mission was very impressive. But I’m against space tourism. Space is very costly on so many levels, including to the environment. To see the colonization of space has been my lifelong dream, but I’ve changed my mind. If space travel is going to be yet one more way we’re destroying the Earth then any mission should be vital. Turning space into a playground for the rich is obscene. On the days the news followed the Inspiration4 mission, it also showed scenes of 15,000 desperate Haitians huddling under a Texas bridge. The contrast was philosophically heavy.

At first I was very excited about this space mission. When I was young I dreamed of going into space and I envied those two men and two women. But my mind was completed changed when I saw them being interviewed in orbit. This is probably just me, but ordinary people just don’t look like they belong in space, which is the exact opposite of what SpaceX wants us to think. The people from Earth in “The Martian” never looked like they belonged on Mars.

Now that I’m old, I’m not sure if humans are meant for space. Space is perfect for robots, which seem right at home in the extreme environments of outer space and on other planets. I can accept highly trained astronauts who travel into space with a purpose machines can’t yet solve, like repairing the Hubble telescope. But watching ordinary folk goofing off in zero-g and gawking at Earth seem way too frivolous. It trivializes what some humans train for years to do.

There are some Ray Bradbury science fiction stories I love dearly, but there are others I feel took science fiction too lightly, like he was never a true believer in the final frontier. This really shouldn’t bother me now that I’m no longer a true believer myself, but I guess I’m still holding onto earlier resentments.

Reading science fiction at this time in my life and this moment in history feels like playing the fiddle while Rome burns. But it’s my way of reevaluating my life, my 1960s expectations for the future that we’re now living in, the contrast between what science fiction was and what it will become, and the relationship between science fiction and reality.

The collective desire for the space program to get to Mars today was partly inspired by Ray Bradbury and other science fiction writers. It’s the ultimate goal for many people and nations. I think we seriously need to psychoanalyze that desire.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/21/21

“Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #16 of 107: “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak

“Desertion” and its sequel “Paradise” are from the 1940s, the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction. They are also the middle stories from the classic science fiction fix-up novel City. “Desertion” was published in the November 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and “Paradise” in the June 1946 issue. If you haven’t read the stories please go read them now because I need to write about the details of each to make my point and that will give away major spoilers.

“Desertion” is the perfect story to make my case that 1940s science fiction was often about the next evolutionary step for our species. In a way, John W. Campbell, Jr. could be considered the Ralph Waldo Emerson of a 20th century transcendentalism, but we call it science fiction. I say that because many science fiction stories from the 1940s and 1950s were about breaking on through to the next stage of human existence. Maybe this desire was inspired by the actual horrors of WWII or the dreaded fears of Doomsday felt during the Cold War. Was science fiction our collective unconscious merely telling us we need to change before we destroyed ourselves and the planet? Or was it just another theme the science fiction muse has always entertained?

The VanderMeers did say in their introduction, “City was written out of disillusion…seeking after a fantasy world that would serve as a counterbalance to the brutality through which the world was passing.” That might be the realistic take on science fiction, that it offers fictional escape from reality, but growing up I believed science fiction’s purpose was to inspire us to create the futures we wanted to build, and divert us away from the futures we feared. In my old age science fiction has become my escape, my comfort food, but when I was young I believed in the potentials it promised. I have to wonder if young readers today find the genre a fiction of escape or hope? But even the one utopian Star Trek is now is about endless conflicts.

In “Desertion,” Kent Fowler has sent many men to their apparent death trying to colonize Jupiter by downloading their brains into genetically engineered creatures modeled on Jovian lifeforms that can survive the harsh conditions of Jupiter. The idea of adapting the human form to an alien environment is called pantropy, and “Desertion” is one of the early examples of the idea being used in science fiction. However, Simak takes the idea even further when Kent Fowler and his dog Towser are converted into the Jovian Lopers. Fowler just couldn’t ask another man to volunteer, so he underwent the process himself and taking his old dog with him. As Lopers, Fowler discovers that Towser is more intelligent than he ever imagined when they begin telepathic communication. The reasons his men never returned to the dome after being converted to Lopers was their minds expanded into a new stage of awareness and they couldn’t stand downgrading into human form again.

Five years later, Fowler does return to the dome in the story “Paradise.” He feels its essential that he let his fellow humans know about this greater stage of consciousness. In this story though, we also learn humanity is facing another crisis point in their development. Superior humans called mutants also exist, as do uplifted dogs, and intelligent robots. When Fowler tries to spread the word that paradise can be found on Jupiter, his message is suppressed by Tyler Webster who wants humans to stay human. Webster pleads with Fowler to withhold knowledge of the heaven on Jupiter because he fears all humans will rush to attain instant resurrection (my words).

“But I want you to think this over: A million years ago man first came into being—just an animal. Since that time he had inched his way up a cultural ladder. Bit by painful bit he has developed a way of life, a philosophy, a way of doing things. His progress has been geometrical. Today he does much more than he did yesterday. Tomorrow he’ll do even more than he did today. For the first time in human history, Man is really beginning to hit the ball. He’s just got a good start, the first stride, you might say. He’s going a lot farther in a lot less time than he’s come already. 

“Maybe it isn’t as pleasant as Jupiter, maybe not the same at all. Maybe humankind is drab compared with the life forms of Jupiter. But it’s man’s life. It’s the thing he’s fought for. It’s the thing he’s made himself. It’s a destiny he has shaped. 

“I hate to think, Fowler, that just when we’re going good we’ll swap our destiny for one we don’t know about, for one we can’t be sure about.” 

“I’ll wait,” said Fowler. “Just a day or two. But I’m warning you. You can’t put me off. You can’t change my mind.” 

“That’s all I ask,” said Webster. He rose and held out his hand. “Shake on it?” he asked.

Simak, Clifford D.. The Shipshape Miracle: And Other Stories (The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak Book 10) (pp. 83-84). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. 

“Desertion” is also an early example of mind uploading, a very popular theme in science fiction today. “Desertion” and “Paradise” also assume there would be life, even intelligent life on every planet of the solar system. The City stories are extremely positive about human potential. The collected motif of the City stories is humans have left the solar system and only intelligent dogs and robots remain to remember them, to tell their story. Childhood’s End used that theme too, about humanity leaving Earth for a new stage of evolution.

“Paradise” is also an early story about mutants. After Hiroshima, people feared radiation would create mutations that were either monsters or an evolutionary superior species. In “Paradise,” the mutants are that superior species, ones who are waiting for normal humans to get their act together. Mutants arrange for Tyler Webster to get a kaleidoscope that will trick his brain into opening its higher functionality. The kaleidoscope is like the toys from the future in “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” that trigger evolution in normal human children. Also within the same story is the idea that Martians had developed a philosophy that could trigger evolutionary uplift. Heinlein also worked this theme in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Sturgeon’s classic fix-up novel, More Than Human (1953) deals with mutants with wild talents, and the evolution of a gestalt mind. But this theme was repeated countless times in 1940s and 1950s science fiction.

In other words, “Desertion” is one of the bellwether stories our genre.

There used to be a common pseudo-science belief that humans only used 10% of their brains and we have the potential to unlock the mysterious 90%. This was a common myth in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and probably went back decades and decades. I just checked Wikipedia and found they had an entry on “The Ten Percent Brain Myth” that even mentions John W. Campbell.

A likely origin for the "ten percent myth" is the reserve energy theories of Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis who, in the 1890s, tested the theory in the accelerated raising of child prodigy William Sidis. Thereafter, James told lecture audiences that people only meet a fraction of their full mental potential, which is considered a plausible claim.[5] The concept gained currency by circulating within the self-help movement of the 1920s; for example, the book Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain includes a chapter on the ten percent myth that shows a self-help advertisement from the 1929 World Almanac with the line "There is NO LIMIT to what the human brain can accomplish. Scientists and psychologists tell us we use only about TEN PERCENT of our brain power."[6] This became a particular "pet idea"[7] of science fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell, who wrote in a 1932 short story that "no man in all history ever used even half of the thinking part of his brain".[8] In 1936, American writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas popularized the idea—in a foreword to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People—by including the falsely precise percentage: "Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability".[9]

The belief was based on the logic that feats of human endurance and mental powers have been displayed by Indian fakirs, hypnotists, yogis, mystics, tantric masters, psychics, shamans and other outliers with esoteric knowledge, and that proves we had all untapped potential. Science has since shown that we use 100% of our brains, and disproved all those pseudo-scientific claims.

Yet, back in the 1940s science fiction writers and readers, and especially John W. Campbell, Jr. believed humanity was on the verge to metamorphizing into Human 2.0 beings. That’s what “Desertion” and “Paradise” is about, and you see that same hope in so many other stories from the 1940s and 1950s. It’s also why John W. Campbell, Jr. and A. E. van Vogt went gaga over Dianetics in 1950. Please read Campbell’s editorial and L. Ron Hubbard’s article on the subject in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. We look down on Campbell today for believing in this malarkey, but Dianetics reflected the promise of all the stories he had been publishing. Campbell was desperate to quit promoting fairytales for adults and find an actual portal into the future then and now.

Sure, science fiction is fun stories set in the future, often about space travel, aliens, robots, and posthumans, but it also connects to real hopes and fears. The belief humans could transcend their present nature is a fundamental hope within the genre. A modern example is The Force in Star Wars, or the discipline of Vulcans in Star Trek. Clifford Simak spent his entire career writing stories about people who transcend our ordinary consciousness. And is this so weird and far out? We Baby Boomers dropped acid in the 1960s chasing higher states on consciousness, then in the 1970s we pursued all kinds of New Age therapies and ancient spiritual practices. Of course, since the Reagan years of the 1980s we’ve come down to Earth accepting human nature for what it is. We’ve stopped looking for transcendence and scientific utopias, accepting our normal Human 1.0 selves that pursue wealth, power, conquest, war, and commercialization of space and the future.

Reading the best science fiction stories of the 20th is a kind of psychoanalysis of our expectations about the future, both good and bad.

The anthology which up till now has been the gold standard for identifying the best science fiction of the 1895-1964 era is The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One which contains short stories, and the supplemental volumes Two A and Two B which contain novelettes and novellas. Volume One holds the top spot at “Best Science Fiction Anthologies” at Listopia/Goodreads. The stories were selected by members of Science Fiction Writers of America in the 1960s to recognize science fiction published before the Nebula Awards began in 1965.

In recent decades I’ve encountered many a science fiction fan who wondered what the table of contents would be to an updated Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume for 20th century science fiction if SF writers voted today. Any retrospective SF anthology that covers the 20th century is essentially competing with that wish. “Huddling Place” another story from Simak’s City was chosen for The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, but I’ve known many fans who thought they should have picked “Desertion.” Events in “Huddling Place” are referenced in “Paradise.” But if you look at the table of contents for the volumes One, Two A, and Two B, you’ll see several stories about next stage humans.

  • “Mimsy Were The Borogoves” (1944) – Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
  • “Huddling Place” (1944) – Clifford D. Simak
  • “That Only A Mother” (1948) – Judith Merril
  • “In Hiding” (1948) – Wilmar H. Shiras
  • “The Witches of Karres” (1949) – James H. Schmitz
  • “The Little Black Bag” (1950) – C. M. Kornbltuh
  • “Surface Tension” (1952) – James Blish
  • “Baby is Three” (1953) – Theodore Sturgeon
  • “Call Me Joe” (1957) – Poul Anderson
  • “Flowers for Algernon” (1959) – Daniel Keyes
  • “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (1962) – Cordwainer Smith

The Big Book of Science Fiction covers the same territory as The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volumes, and there is some overlap of contents, but I think it features less of the transcendental science fiction I’m talking about here. Maybe it’s stories are more realistic, but we have many stories to read before we know. But the acceptance of our existing human nature is understandable, because we don’t believe in those kinds of hidden talents anymore. Well, at least most scientifically minded adults. Wild talents and mutants have become the staple of comic book fiction. We have demoted those hopes to the level of children’s power fantasies.

I’ve often said science fiction beliefs replaced religious beliefs in the mid-20th century, and maybe now we’ve become atheists to science fiction too. If you doubt my assertion the SF replaced religion just think of Fowler as Jesus. He had died and was resurrected into a new life in heaven, and his soul has been expanded with great spirituality.

I even wonder if the VanderMeers included “Desertion” and “Surface Tension” for their use of the pantropy theme rather than psychic potential theme? Science fiction has given up on quickly evolved humans, and instead promotes technical transhumanism and genetically engineered Human 2.0 beings.

“Desertion” was probably a Top Ten story when I was young, and it’s still a 5-star favorite in my old age. But I now know there is no life on Jupiter and Mars, and I will never find the kind of transcendence that Fowler and Towser found. NASA probes have shown the solar system is sterile rocks, and nothing like what Simak imagined. Oh, we still hold out for life on Titan or some other moon’s deep ocean, but I doubt we’ll find it when we get there. Thus “Desertion” has become a fond fantasy from my youth, sort of like Santa Claus.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/18/21

Update: I remember people saying we only use 5% of our brains, but research shows the figure used was 10%, so I made that change. I also found the quote from Wikipedia attributing Campbell to promoting the idea.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #15 of 107: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges is not science fiction. Some might call it fantasy, but I don’t think it belongs to that genre either. Oh, it’s a story F&SF could publish, but I doubt it’s eerie enough that Rod Sterling would have used it for The Twilight Zone. By accident, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” speculates about what science fiction does, as if Borges’s story is about a man who stumbles upon the possibility of science fiction and science fiction writers in a world where they never existed.

I don’t think our genre can claim all forms of speculation, even when it speculates about other worlds, other realities, and weird possibilities that are the territory that science fiction has long claimed. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is not genre, but a literary work. Literary writers sometimes accidently wander into our territory, and some even intentionally write a science fiction story, such Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood. But in the case of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” I don’t believe Borges has trespassed on our property.

Sure, maybe I’m splitting hairs, but it points to a distinction I’d like to make. Literary works are aimed at everyone, science fiction is aimed at science fiction fans. That’s why it’s a genre. Ishiguro and Attwood expect everyone to read their books, not just science fiction fans. And although science fiction writers wished that everyone read their books, they got to know they’re writing for a specific audience. Science fiction is a term used to shelve books separately in libraries and bookstores, to make it easier for its readers to find them. Science fiction is the term printed on books to assure science fiction readers they’ll be buying what they want to read. Branding something science fiction that’s not meant to be science fiction is unfair to both the writer and reader.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a story science fiction readers should like because it’s about playing around with reality, which is what science fiction does, but I’m pretty sure Borges never intended it to be science fiction. It’s almost as if he separately co-invented the concept, but his story is still not quite the same.

By the way, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” reminds me of a charming episode of Nova I saw decades ago about physicist Richard Feynman and friends making an expedition to an obscure unknown country, Tannu Tuva.

Borges is playing on the idea of obscure knowledge and hidden wisdom. His story also reminds me of Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East. We all want reality to be more than the mundane reality that bores us. We all want to find a hidden clue to esoteric possibilities. If anything, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is another kind of SF – spiritual fiction because it alludes to the magic of the mystical.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/16/21

“The Microscopic Giants” by Paul Ernst

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #14 of 107: “The Microscopic Giants” by Paul Ernst

The VanderMeers didn’t have to go far to find “The Microscopic Giants.” It was in the same October 1936 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories that the last story we just read had been reprinted (“The Last Poet and the Robots” retitled as “Rhythm of the Spheres”) . I’ve often wondered why anthologists focused so much on Astounding Science Fiction, but these two stories suggest that there was a good reason – science fiction stories in the other pulp magazines just wasn’t as good. The whole time I was reading “The Last Poet and the Robots” I wondered why the VanderMeers hadn’t picked Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” instead. It featured the same kind of monomaniacal megalomaniac mad scientist acting like a god, but in a much better developed tale.

However, “The Microscopic Giants” is a somewhat better story than Merritt’s. It’s still a crappy story by modern storytelling conventions, but it has several good SF speculations in it. I’ve always liked the idea of humans existing in the far past where geological changes hides any evidence of them. Unfortunately, that theory isn’t the solution to the mystery within this story. The introduction sets us up for a hollow Earth story, but it’s not that either. “The Microscopic Giants” is about lifeforms that are much denser than rock, existing deep within the Earth, who can move through ordinary matter. That’s a keen idea, but it was handled in the most basic way. First contact is simplistic and xenophobic, and the humans are left hoping never to encounter this new superior species again. Rather a chickenshit resolution.

Finding better undiscovered stories is the challenge to assembling any retrospective anthology that covers science fiction in the 20th century, especially if you have reasons not to reprint the fan favorites. All the old pulps have been mined time and time again. I’m sure new editors want to discover previously unrecognized stories whose enlightened qualities could only be recognized by contemporary readers. These two stories were duds in that regards. Like I said, the current champ for a SF story about a monomaniacal megalomaniac mad scientist acting like a god is Kidder in “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon.

If I was going to offer a substitute for “Microscopic Giants” using the hollow Earth theme it would be “DP!” by Jack Vance from the April 1953 issue of Avon Science Fiction and Fantasy Reader. It’s about the world being overrun with refugees from the hollow Earth and how countries of the surface world try to deal with the crisis. I read it during the Syrian refugee crisis which gave “DP!” depth. “Microscopic Giants” offer no insights to modern readers and it’s really not worth saving.

However, I can’t think of any short stories that deal with super-dense beings living and moving around inside the Earth. The Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark” featured a creature called the Horta that could move through rock. And I also thought of the classic comedy-horror film Tremors (1990). I do vaguely remember stories that used the emptiness of matter to allow characters to move through solids, but my old brain can’t dredge any titles up right now.

Reading The Big Book of Science Fiction has been interesting, but so far few of the fourteen stories we’ve read have been quality stories by modern reading standards. Too many have been intellectual/historical curiosities. I keep hoping the VanderMeers will find gems I haven’t read before. So far, their best find new to me is “The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois. I thought his story was well-told for 1920, and Du Bois nicely finessed the point he wanted to get across. So far the other stories have done little finessing.

Paul Ernst had several ideas he wanted to explore, but he didn’t know how to put them into a story. His solution was a minimalist frame with cliché conflict. That’s common for our genre. I’m also listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. and with every story I’m amazed by how Miller sets up his story with an excellent dramatic conflict. Well, at least the later stories. I’m hoping to see more of that skill as we progress through this anthology.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/13/21

“The Last Poet and the Robots” by A. Merritt

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #13: “The Last Poet and the Robots” by A. Merritt

The Last Poet and the Robots” by Abraham Merritt has a rather interesting publication history. It was part of a round-robin novel first published in the April 1934 issue of Fantasy Magazine, a fanzine. The website The Cosmos Project gives the history of the story and reprints the novel written chapter-by-chapter by 18 famous SF writers from the early 1930s. Besides Merritt, John W. Campbell, E. E. “Doc” Smith, and Edmond Hamilton contributed, as well as many authors whose names aren’t familiar today. “The Last Poet and the Robots” was chapter 11, and many consider it the best chapter. It was the only chapter to be reprinted as a story in a professional magazine (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1934). In 1949 it was published in book form in the collection The Fox Woman.

What’s notable about “The Last Poet and the Robots” is it’s a very early story about robots, especially mechanical robots with conscious minds. We get the word “robot” from the 1921 Czech play, R.U.R., that was first translated into English in 1923. It’s amazing how fast this word was embraced around the world. Mechanical men and other android like beings had existed before. In the play, the robots are slave workers that have a biological basis, closer to the replicants in Blade Runner. In the 1920s and 1930s the idea of mechanical robots came into being but they weren’t sentient at first. And the term “artificial intelligence” emerged from computer science in the 1950s. So Merritt might get some credit here with this 1934 story. It would be interesting to trace the history of sentient machines in science fiction.

The story also presents a number of common science fiction themes from that era such as the mad scientist, evolved humans, immortality, robot overlords, a subterranean world, and super-science technology. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the story particularly interesting or memorable. It was somewhat forward thinking that the super-beings are multiracial, but aren’t they really monsters? Narodny, the Russian mad scientist and poet, and ruler of the renegade super-humans, feels no qualms at killing normal humans when needed, even when trying to save humanity from the robots. That was a common aspect to superior beings in SF back then, they had god-like attitude regarding life and death. Merritt describes him like van Vogt’s evolved beings in his novel Slan.

Narodny did not hate mechanization. He was indifferent to it. Being truly intelligent he hated nothing, Also he was indifferent to the whole civilization man had developed and into which he had been born. He had no feeling of kinship to humanity. Outwardly, in body, he belonged to the species. Not so in mind. Like Loeb, a thousand years before, he considered mankind a race of crazy half-monkeys, intent upon suicide. Now and then, out of the sea of lunatic mediocrity, a wave uplifted that held for a moment a light from the sun of truth—but soon it sank back and the light was gone. Quenched in the sea of stupidity. He knew that he was one of those waves.

Later on Merritt continues his characterization of Narodny as a superman.

All were one with Narodny in indifference to the world; each with him in his viewpoint on life; and each and all lived in his or her own Eden among the hundred caverns except when it interested them to work with each other. Time meant nothing to them. Their researches and discoveries were solely for their own uses and enjoyments. If they had given them to the outer world they would have only been ammunition for warfare either between men upon Earth or men against some other planet. Why hasten humanity's suicide? Not that they would have felt regret at the eclipse of humanity. But why trouble to expedite it? Time meant nothing to them because they could live as long as they desired—barring accident. And while there was rock in the world, Narodny could convert it into energy to maintain his Paradise—or to create others.

This kind of evolved human is something science fiction presented time and again in roughly the same way. After van Vogt’s book came out, some science fiction fans called themselves slans. And L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950) promised to be a kind a pseudo-science guide to creating such a being. John W. Campbell, Jr. and A. E. van Vogt went nuts over it. These superior being characters are especially repugnant when we remember the 1920s and 1930s was the time of eugenics, KKK, and National Socialists. Robert A. Heinlein used a similar superior being in his novella “Gulf” in 1949, which was a test flight for Stranger in a Strange Land.

I’m kind of surprised that the VanderMeers used this story, since their selection process attempts to show science fiction’s past in a better light than its current reputation for sexism and racism. Merritt does present Narodny as a poet/artist/creator though, so I’m sure he didn’t think of his character as being repugnant like I do. This description of Narodny’s creations and interests makes him epic and god-like, but his portrayal as a monomaniacal megalomaniac worries me.

But deep down in earth, within the caverns, were music and song and mirth and beauty. Gossamer nymphs circled under the little moons. Pan piped. There was revelry of antique harvesters under the small suns. Grapes grew and ripened, were pressed, and red and purple wine was drunk by Bacchantes who fell at last asleep in the arms of fauns and satyrs. Oreads danced under the pale moon-bows and sometimes Centaurs wheeled and trod archaic measures beneath them to the drums of their hoofs upon the mossy floor. The old Earth lived again.

Narodny listened to drunken Alexander raving to Thais among the splendors of conquered Persepolis; and he heard the crackling of the flames that at the whim of the courtesan destroyed it. He watched the siege of Troy and counted with Homer the Achaean ships drawn up on the strand before Troy's walls; or saw with Herodotus the tribes that marched behind Xerxes—the Caspians in their cloaks of skin with their bows of cane; the Ethiopians in the skins of leopards with spears of antelope horns; the Libyans in their dress of leather with javelins made hard by fire; the Thracians with the heads of foxes upon their heads; the Moschians who wore helmets made of wood and the Cabalians who wore the skulls of men. For him the Eleusinian and the Osirian mysteries were re-enacted, and he watched the women of Thrace tear to fragments Orpheus, the first great musician. At his will, he could see the rise and fall of the Empire of the Aztecs, the Empire of the Incas; or beloved Caesar slain in Rome's Senate; or the archers at Agincourt; or the Americans in Belleau Wood. Whatever man had written—whether poets, historians, philosophers or scientists—his strangely shaped mechanisms could bring before him, changing the words into phantoms real as though living.

He was the last and greatest of the poets—but also he was the last and greatest of the musicians. He could bring back the songs of ancient Egypt, or the chants of more ancient Ur. The songs that came from Moussorgsky's soul of Mother-earth, the harmonies of Beethoven's deaf ear, or the chants and rhapsodies from the heart of Chopin. He could do more than restore the music of the past. He was master of sound. To him, the music of the spheres was real. He could take the rays of the stars and planets and weave them into symphonies. Or convert the sun's rays into golden tones no earthly orchestras had ever expressed. And the silver music of the moon —the sweet music of the moon of spring, the full-throated music of the harvest moon, the brittle crystalling music of the winter moon with its arpeggios of meteors—he could weave into strains such as no human ears had ever heard.

So Narodny, the last and greatest of poets, the last and greatest of musicians, the last and greatest of artists—and in his inhuman way, the greatest of scientists—lived with the ten of his choosing in his caverns. And, with them, he consigned the surface of earth and all who dwelt upon it to a negative Hell—Unless something happening there might imperil his Paradise!

I’m not really familiar with Merritt’s work. I’ve read quite a bit about his popularity, but not his famous novels, which are now mostly forgotten. From what the VanderMeers say in their introduction, he was a lot more successful than I knew. Merritt’s biography at Wikipedia is quite fascination. It says he was a major influence on H. P. Lovecraft and Richard Shaver. That combination right there makes me wonder though. He even influenced the creators of the game Dungeons and Dragons.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/13/21

“A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #12: “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum

This is the fifth time I’ve read “A Martian Odyssey” and the third time reading “The Valley of Dreams,” the lesser known second part of the story. It’s a shame the Mars of that story isn’t the Mars that NASA’s rovers explore. Humans have been piddling around in LEO since 1972 when all along we’ve known that Mars is our real destination. Maybe we haven’t gone because we know the Mars out there isn’t the Mars of Stanley Weinbaum or Ray Bradbury.

I’m watching For All Mankind on Apple TV+. It’s an alternate history story that begins in 1969 when the Russians become the first nation to land men on the Moon. Our failure spurs us to build a permanent base on the Moon, and from then on, history keeps changing. I call this kind of story a “I could of been a contender” tale after the Marlon Brando character in On the Waterfront. Ever since Apollo 17 space enthusiasts have wondered what could have been if we’d kept going. This show soothes those regrets. I’m seeing more science fiction that retells recent history but with better results. Mary Robinette Kowal is doing the same thing with her Lady Astronaut series.

The alternate history I’d want to relive would be where “A Martian Odyssey” was incorporated into our reality, and not fiction. My favorite era of science fiction is from “A Martian Odyssey” from 1934 to “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny in 1963. Those two stories are the alpha and omega in the table of contents for The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg. That’s where I first read “A Martian Odyssey” over fifty years ago.

What can I say about “A Martian Odyssey” that hasn’t been said before? If you haven’t read it and its sequel “Valley of Dreams” from the November 1934 issue of Wonder Stories, then go read them here and here. And if you don’t want to do that, here’s an excellent summary of “A Martian Odyssey” at Wikipedia.

What I want to write about is the legacy of the story. “A Martian Odyssey” was first published in Wonder Stories, July 1934, and then reprinted just five years later in Startling Stories, in the November 1939 issue. Then in 1943, Donald Wollheim reprinted it in The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, a book some consider the first real SF anthology. But the next jump is a big one, when members of SFWA voted it into The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One in 1970. Why hadn’t Groff Conklin, or any of the other classic anthology editors of the 1950s and 1960s reprinted it? Did they feel that everyone had a copy of Wollheim’s 1943 paperback, or bought the 1949 hardback, A Martian Odyssey and Others from Fantasy Press (or its Lancer paperback reprint in the 1960s)? After that big gap from 1943-1970, “A Martian Odyssey” has been regularly reprinted almost every year or two since.

“A Martian Odyssey” is now considered a classic. This novelette epitomizes science fiction about Mars. But is it really about Mars? Well, not the Mars NASA explores. Martians aren’t quite as well known in literature as ghosts, goblins, fairies, elves, wee folk, and other imagined creatures of fantasy, but almost. Mars has always been our best hope for another planet for humanity, one where our sense of wonder runs rampant. Once all of Earth had been explored in the early 20th century, Mars became the location for lost civilizations and exotic lands.

“A Martian Odyssey” is a first contact story and all it involves. Tweel is everybody’s favorite alien. “A Martian Odyssey” anticipates both ET and Arrival. And I think that’s the heart of what I’m trying to get at in these essays. The best science fiction stories are those that come closest to the ideal forms of science fiction. And, like I said before, I believe the ideal forms of our genre are not very many. Mars has become the ideal planet, but the ideal doesn’t have to be Mars. Like Tweel is the ideal first contact with an alien, but the ideal doesn’t have to be Tweel.

Then why isn’t “The Conquest of Gola” remembered as well? Why don’t we remember Venus and the first contact with Golans from that story like we do Mars and Tweel from “A Martian Odyssey?” Even though the females from Gola are described as being very interesting beings, they weren’t likable. And their world, Venus wasn’t appealing either.

Dick Jarvis, the human that befriends Tweel has a great adventure on Mars, seeing many wonderous things and beings. Mars is as magical as Oz. “The Conquest of Gola” reminds us of the battle of the sexes on Earth. It reminds us that humans exploit other lands and peoples for profit. It reminds us we’re violent, intolerant, and can’t communicate.

If you want to write an enduring science fiction classic be positive. Make the humans, aliens, and planet appealing. We want enchantment more than scolding. I first fell in love with Mars when I read The Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein in 1964. I was twelve. It had Willis and the Old Ones, mysterious Martians, and Mars was full of exciting adventures for Jim and Frank. However, Heinlein’s bad guys, the bureaucrats from Earth contrasted the bad old ways of Earth against the good life of pioneers on the red planet. That worked. Leslie F. Stone just didn’t inspire us to colonize Venus.

Finally, I don’t know why “Valley of Dreams” isn’t nearly as popular as “A Martian Odyssey since it continues the same story.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/11/21

“The Conquest of Gola” by Leslie F. Stone

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #11: “The Conquest of Gola” by Leslie F. Stone

“The Conquest of Gola” first appeared in the April, 1931 issue of Wonder Stories, but more importantly, it was reprinted in The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin, one of two giant retrospective anthologies published in 1946, the other being Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy & McComas. Those two volumes were widely acquired for library collections. Over the next three decades, baby boomers would discover those anthologies and others, learning about the history of the science fiction magazines, and expand the growing population of science fiction fans. Conklin was the John the Baptist of the genre, editing over forty anthologies from 1946-1968. I loved his anthologies growing up, always searching for them when I went to a library. (See “Why Anthologies are Important to Science Fiction.”)

In recent years “The Conquest of Gola” has been reprinted many times in both genre retrospectives and anthologies showcasing women science fiction writers. Beside being written by a woman in the early days of pulp science fiction, it’s also about a matriarchal society on Venus. Story #11 is the second tale featuring a female dominated utopia. However, in both stories, it was a dystopia for the males.

In “The Conquest of Gola,” Gola is the planet Venus, which is ruled by female super-beings. Males are considered gentle consorts, kept for pleasurable companionship. When two ships from Earth arrive, crewed only by men who want to exploit Venus by promoting trade and tourism, the female rulers of Venus are annoyed. They see males from our planet as vastly inferior. They assume the females of Earth have allowed their males extra freedom and gave them spaceships as playthings. When the rulers of Gola discover the Earthmen are the dominant gender from our planet, that blows their minds. After repeatedly being told to leave, the Earthmen turn to violence, destroying the capital, and conquering the other cities. Earthmen then start convincing the males of Gola to join them. Finally, the females of Gola have enough, kill all the humans, and put their males back in their old roles, and live happily ever after.

“The Conquest of Gola” is a pretty good yarn, a bit clunky sounding today because of the typical writing quality common to SF pulps back then. Yet, it has many interesting bits of speculation. First, and this was common for the time, was the idea that superior beings possessed telepathy and other extrasensory powers. “The Man Who Evolved” was in the same issue of Wonder Stories. That’s another SF theme I’d like to trace over time. Second, is the focus on gender. Like in “Sultana’s Dream,” males are considered stupid and violent, whereas females are peaceful and intelligent, the obvious gender to be lead society. But I don’t think that originated in science fiction. People have long speculated what it would be like if women ruled the world. Another idea in the story I’ve seen in other SF stories, is the belief that once a species reaches a certain level of maturity, it will become less materialistic. The inhabitants of Gola had spaceships long ago but gave them up.

Reading this story has me thinking about building a subject database for the science fiction stories I read. I struggle with memory. First, I’m getting old, and my recall is flaky, but second, I’ve read thousand of science fiction stories. Often, I only vaguely remember a story by a particular topic, and can’t remember the title or author. I’d love to have a database that would allow me to retrieve stories by themes, topics, or subjects. For example, list all stories about societies ruled by women. That query should help me remember “Sultana’s Dream” and “The Conquest of Gola.”

I showed a spreadsheet sample for remembering subjects when I reviewed “The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois. That was a quick and dirty solution, but to really get the job done would require a relational database because I’d want each story to be able to have unlimited subjects attached to it.

And is subject the right word? Should it be theme? Or concept, or idea? What is the right word for describing what a science fiction story is about? For “The Conquest of Gola” there are several keywords I’d like to link with the story so when I want a list of stories that deal with a specific subject, it would add “The Conquest of Gola” to the listing. For this story I’d link it to these subjects:

  • Aliens
  • Venus
  • Gender
  • Superior Being
  • Utopia
  • Female
  • Feminism
  • Telepathy
  • ESP
  • Conquest

You can probably see how this gets tricky fast. Why do I need Gender and Female? Or even Feminism? What if I wanted to list all SF stories that deal with gender roles in society? (Think The Left Hand of Darkness.) But another time, wanted a list of all stories where females are the dominate gender? Will all such stories be about feminism? What if I wanted just a list of stories that promoted feminism? Is “The Conquest of Gola” really about feminism? I’m not sure. It’s often used as an example for women writing science fiction, but does that fact make it about feminism? The Handmaid’s Tale is obvious a work I’d tag with feminism in the subject field. I’d put feminism in “Sultana’s Dream” subject field for sure, but I don’t think I would for “The Conquest of Gola.”

See why creating a subject database for science fiction stories is tricky? It’s probably why we don’t see any. ISFDB started the “Tag” field, and if you search for “Feminism” it brings up only 13 entries. My guess is they gave up on that project, suggesting it I might be waste my time.

However, as I review the 107 stories of The Big Book of Science Fiction I might build a test database. It sure would help me to remember SF stories if I had a database with a carefully designed subject field. Each title could have any number of subjects tagged to it, but does that mean the number of subjects would be unlimited? Would it help manage complexity if I used two fields: Theme and Subject? We’ll see.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/9/21

“The Star Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton

Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #10: “The Star Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton

It only took us to the tenth story in this giant retrospective science fiction anthology to get to the galactic civilization, probably the the most cherished of all science fiction concepts, and the destination fantasy of true fans. “The Star Stealers” anticipates both Star Trek and Star Wars. The galactic civilization is to science fiction what Middle-Earth is to fantasy.

“The Star Stealers” is the second of seven stories (1928-1930) in Hamilton’s early space opera series, Interstellar Patrol. Those stories are among the earliest science fiction about interstellar travel, and among the few to leave the galaxy. This story could have been the inspiration for Star Trek since it involved a Federation governing the galaxy, a captain commanding from a bridge of a Federation ship, and even a second officer who is a woman. Edmond Hamilton and E. E. “Doc” Smith were the pioneers of space opera.

Five of the Interstellar Patrol stories were first published in book form in 1965 as Crashing Suns, the year before Star Trek premiered. All of them were republished in 2009 as The Star-Stealers: The Complete Adventures of The Interstellar Patrol, The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume Two, a collector’s edition from Haffner Press that’s now out of print and costs hundreds of dollars used, if you can find a copy. However, because it took decades for these stories to be reprinted suggests they weren’t fan favorites. Most of Hamilton’s early magazine work wasn’t published in book form until the late 1960s or 1970s. Edmond Hamilton is most famous for his Captain Future series, but even those fan favorite stories from the 1940s weren’t reprinted as books until 1969, and then as cheap Ace paperbacks. Hamilton’s appeal seems rather limited. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark and Lensman series vastly overshadowed Hamilton’s space operas.

I’m still trying to discern the VanderMeers’s methodology for the stories they collect in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Anthologies usually have a design behind them. The simplest approach is to bundle a bunch of stories you expect readers will enjoy. Because this anthology is a retrospective of 20th century science fiction I assume the stories showcase the genre. In the introduction the VanderMeers tell us they want to broadening the history of the genre by including women writers and foreign-language stories in translation. I thought that was an excellent ambition. But I assumed when they did include traditional SF stories, those stories would be the classics, and maybe the best example of each writer’s work.

This has happened some, but not to the degree I assumed. For example, “The Star Stealers” is not Edmond Hamilton’s best. Hamilton was never a good writer, and it shows in “The Star Stealers,” which is little better than a comic book without pictures. Hamilton wrote two stories, “The Man Who Evolved” and “What’s It Like Out There?” I believe belong in retrospective SF anthologies. The original use of the term space opera was as a put down for the kind of writing “The Star Stealers” epitomizes. I even wonder if Hugo Gernsback, who had no ear for prose, had turned down “The Star Stealers.” Weird Tales is a legendary magazine today, but it’s content was often amateurish. But Hamilton was practically a house writer for them, so he probably didn’t submit it to Amazing. This story was no more sophisticated than the illustration that went with “The Star Stealers” at the top of the page.

Still, there’s plenty to like about “The Star Stealers,” and it makes an interesting entry for the anthology. The plot parallels the story by Wells, “The Star,” which was about a rogue astronomical body flying through the solar system, swinging too close to Earth. In “The Star Stealers” a giant sun is detected coming from outside the galaxy that will swing too close to Earth. For this story, the object is traveling many multiple speeds of light and will reach the solar system in four months. This is ridiculous, but Hamilton’s Federation space cruisers can travel a thousand times the speed of light, so its no problem. (By the way, how do astronomers detect objects approaching Earth traveling faster than light in their telescopes?)

“The Star Stealers” was published the year before Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, and just five years after Edwin Hubble proved the existence of galaxies outside of the Milky Way, and less than two decades since Einstein explained that nothing could travel faster than light. Hamilton has his space cruiser traveling from Alpha Centauri to our system in twelve hours. This is almost as fast as they travel in Star Wars, but a good deal slower than what they can do in Star Trek. We might forgive Hamilton for breaking Einstein’s speed law in 1929, but even modern writers can’t let go of FTL.

In recent decades we’ve been seeing more stories following Einstein’s laws for interstellar travel, but for the most part writers keep coming up with theoretical gimmicks to go faster. Readers want science fiction where humans roam the galaxy at will, and we see this in “The Star Stealers.” However, the super-science of that story and other early space operas has been deemed excessive by modern fans. “The Star Stealers” feels as archaic today as a silent movie. At one time, “Doc” Smith had his characters hurling galaxies at each other, but nowadays, science fiction readers are happy with space opera that span just a few hundred light years. Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought series is the last science fiction I’ve read that covers the entire galaxy. The only other SF story I know that has characters traveling between galaxies is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. I should forgive Hamilton because “The Star Pit” is not ridiculous to me at all, in fact, it’s my all-time favorite SF novella.

But as I said, “The Star Stealers” is a fascinating choice for this anthology. It anticipates the ultimate setting of science fiction fans who want to dwell in a galactic civilization, with countless exotic worlds to visit, and plenty of exotic races of intelligent aliens to be friends and foes. Edmond Hamilton grasped the final frontier early, and the idea of a federation of star systems. “Doc” Smith’s first space opera, The Skylark of Space has a lone Elon Musk like inventor competing with a mad scientist, Blackie DuQuesne to explore the galaxy. Hamilton jumps ahead of Smith by imagining a civilized galaxy. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s prose was painful, and he never achieved the popularity of Smith. “Doc” Smith’s second space opera series, The Lensman series actually popularized the galactic civilization which eventually led to Star Trek. It was Asimov, with the Foundation series, that popularized the galactic empire, which led to Star Wars. I keep mentioning those two franchises because they represent the most loved examples of science fiction today, and these earlier stories represented how thousands of fans eventually turned into hundreds of millions of fans.

So, in that sense, the VanderMeers have made an exceptional pick. Unfortunately, “The Star Stealers” is also a perfect example of bad writing, even for old timey science fiction. First, the bad characterization.

The hero of this tale is Ran Rarak. We expect him to be dashing, but there is no supporting description, even though he’s the admiral of a mighty space fleet. We expect Ran to be heroic, but in the big fight he gets knocked out and is unconscious for ten weeks. We eventually see Ran duking it out with one alien, but it’s an ordinary non-superhero punch out. And the one problem he solves is by ramming the enemy’s pivotal machine with his space cruiser.

Hamilton should get credit for introducing a female character in early SF. Dal Nara, pilot, second officer, is a woman who gets to be part of the story action but her only insight is to yell, “Hey, look!” warnings on a few occasions. Her only action is to use her long legs to grab a means of escape. And finally, her chosen reward for help saving the solar system is to visit a beauty parlor. But she’s not the love interest. Hamilton, we give you a gold star, but it doesn’t stick and falls off.

And like in Star Trek, characters are comically tossed around the bridge to show conflict in space. Only one named character in the story is killed, Nal Jak, but he does nothing, and we don’t even know the color of his shirt. Hurus Hol we’re told is the brilliant scientist, but we’re never shown him being brilliant. However, he does commit one of the cardinal sins of bad science fiction, he infodumps on Ran Rarak in a completely condescending way:

He was silent again for a moment, his eyes on mine, and then went on. “You know, Ran Rarak, that the universe itself is composed of infinite depths of space in which float great clusters of suns, star-clusters which are separated from each other by billions of light-years of space. You know, too, that our own cluster of suns, which we call the galaxy, is roughly disklike in shape, and that our own particular sun is situated at the very edge of this disk. Beyond lie only those inconceivable leagues of space which separate us from the neighboring star clusters, or island universes, depths of space never yet crossed by our own cruisers or by anything else of which we have record. 

“But now, at last, something has crossed those abysses, is crossing them; since over three weeks ago our astronomers discovered that a gigantic dark star is approaching our galaxy from the depths of infinite space—a titanic, dead sun which their instruments showed to be of a size incredible, since, dark and dead as it is, it is larger than the mightiest blazing suns in our own galaxy, larger than Canopus or Antares or Betelgeuse—a dark, dead star millions of times larger than our own fiery sun—a gigantic wanderer out of some far realm of infinite space, racing toward our galaxy at a velocity inconceivable! 

“The calculations of our scientists showed that this speeding dark star would not race into our galaxy but would speed past its edge, and out into infinite space again, passing no closer to our own sun, at the edge, than some fifteen billion miles. There was no possibility of collision or danger from it, therefore; and so though the approach of the dark star is known to all in the solar system, there is no idea of any peril connected with it. But there is something else which has been kept quite secret from the peoples of the solar system, something known only to a few astronomers and officials. And that is that during the last few weeks the path of this speeding dark star has changed from a straight path to a curving one, that it is curving inward toward the edge of our galaxy and will now pass our own sun, in less than twelve weeks, at a distance of less than three billion miles, instead of fifteen! And when this titanic dead sun passes that close to our own sun there can be but one result. Inevitably our own sun will be caught by the powerful gravitational grip of the giant dark star and carried out with all its planets into the depths of infinite space, never to return!” 

Hurus Hol paused, his face white and set, gazing past me with wide, unseeing eyes. My brain whirling beneath the stunning revelation, I sat rigid, silent, and in a moment he went on.
 

The plotting of the story is about at the level of old Buck Rogers serials, which were more primitive than the Flash Gordans. Humans detect a giant sun heading towards the Milky Way and calculate it will swing near enough to the Sun to capture Sol and pull it into intergalactic space. They quickly assemble a fleet of fifty Federation space cruisers and take off. When they reach the giant sun which turns out to be populated death star, their fleet is almost completely destroyed, and our heroes get immediately captured. Like so many episodes of Star Trek where Captain Kirk is confined by ropes, chains, jails, cells, dungeons, and sexy space-babes, the plot pivots on merely escaping confinement and performing one little act, thus saving the Earth, solar system, galaxy, or universe. It turns out not all the fleet was destroyed, and good old Federation cruiser Number Sixteen escaped to fetch back a fleet of 5,000 Federation ships in the nick of time. Hamilton couldn’t even be bothered to name his ships, even the one that saves the day.

Edmond Hamilton seems to know little about astronomy or physics. He keeps mentioning three billion miles like it’s a tremendous distance, yet that’s just a tiny fraction light travels in one year: 5,878,625,370,000 miles. His ships accelerate but never decelerate. And a Federation spaceship can suddenly stop or hover in relation to each other even though they’ve been traveling a thousand times the speed of light. Another foreshadowing of Star Trek and Star Wars.

Like I said, this story was written just a few years after Hubble made the measurements to calculate that other galaxies were outside the Milky Way. It appears that Hamilton thinks our galaxy and the universe is terribly tiny. Was that true for all people back in the 1920s? Maybe it was for teenage readers of SF.

Even though E. E. “Doc” Smith was far more famous than Edmond Hamilton, he wasn’t much better as a writer. “The Star Stealers” is typical for both storytelling and science back in the 1920s and 1930s. There’s a reason why John W. Campbell, Jr. is so famous, because he attracted both stories and writers that were a quantum leap in quality and talent. And it explains why it’s hard so hard to find good science fiction stories between H. G. Wells and Robert A. Heinlein. This brings us back to the anthology.

Should we remember the all the bad stories that helped evolve the genre? There is a kind of fun academic appeal to reading old clunkers like “The Star Stealers” but is that what most buyers of retrospective anthologies want? And I still wonder if there were truly good stories from back then that could be rescued.

Look at it this way. There was thousands and thousands of short stories published in the 19th century, but how many are still embraced by readers today? Is the number even greater than 25? Or 10? I’m talking by bookworms, not scholars.

When a century separates readers from the 20th century, how many of these SF stories will still be read? At what point should we let go? Just how big would The Big Book of Science Fiction be if it only reprinted four and five star stories? My definition of a four-star story is any story on reading the first time leaves you knowing you’ll want to reread it. My definition of a five-star story are stories which bookworms cherish and read many times over their lifetime.

“The Star Stealers” fits neither definition for me. My definition for three-star stories are solid well-written stories that deserve to be published in a professional periodical, and might even deserve to be reprinted in an annual best-of-the-year anthology. It’s hard to judge the quality of “The Star Stealers” today by whether it deserved a magazine editor’s acceptance. But I’m guessing Farnsworth Wright was excited about the ideas in “The Star Stealer” and knew Hamilton wasn’t much of a writer. Wright and Gernsback knew their readers weren’t mature or educated, just enthusiastic. Even in 1929 I probably would have considered it a 2-star story, but I probably would have bought it if I was a magazine editor. It was different.

I enjoyed reading and writing about “The Star Stealers” because I’m an autodidactic scholar of science fiction, but I have to wonder what the average science fiction fan today will think of it.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/5/21

“The Fate of the Poseidonia” by Clare Winger Harris

With the ninth story of The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, we’ve finally reached the land of science fiction. In our group discussions many have questioned whether the earlier stories were truly science fiction. With “The Fate of the Poseidonia” by Clare Winger Harris from the June 1927 issue of Amazing Stories we’ve finally reached the era of pulp science fiction magazines. If anything defined the concept, it was the science fiction magazines.

Clare Winger Harris images a much different winter of 1994-95. George Gregory discovers his girlfriend Margaret has taken up with another guy, a Mr. Martell. Martell looks odd, and acts suspicious. George tells Margaret of his worries, but she defends Martell and dumps Gregory. Mr. Gregory starts spying on Mr. Martell out of jealousy, and learns that Martell is a Martian spy. Unfortunately, no one will believe him, and he’s committed to a mental hospital.

Is “The Fate of the Poseidonia” the earliest example of Martians living amongst us stories? My two favorites of that theme are A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis. Both of these novels have a quiet beauty you don’t often find in science fiction. This theme was also used on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. The idea of Martians passing for humans is very entertaining to me which caused me to like “The Fate of the Poseidonia” more than it probably deserves. It’s a decent story, mainly suffering from an unskilled writer, but Harris did win third prize for it at Amazing Stories.

What makes this story so distinctive among those we’ve read so far is how the reader in thrown into the future. This isn’t a dream, or an experiment in storytelling, a political allegory, or philosophical musing. This story contains the real essence of science fiction. The setting is science fictional, and the intent of the story is science fictional. Clare Winger Harris asks us to believe that there are intelligent beings on Mars who come to Earth to steal our water. Their planet has dried up and they have the technology to lower ocean levels by many feet. Harris has created an entertaining example of “What if …?”

In 1927 it was widely assumed there could be life elsewhere in the solar system, especially Mars and Venus. Until Mariner 4 flew by Mars in July of 1965, hope was held out for life on Mars, even intelligent life. I’m not sure people growing today can understand how it was almost a common assumption that Mars and Venus could actually be inhabited. Sure, most scientists held little hope, but the public did, and it was reflected in Pre-NASA science fiction. From H. G. Wells to Roger Zelazny there were endless science fictional speculations about Martians. I loved the idea of Martians as a kid, and even wrote an essay, “I Miss Martians.”

I also grew up with NASA, so I quickly gave up all hope for finding any kind of life within our solar system. The more I read popular science, the more skeptical I became about science fiction. Eventually, I doubted most of what science fiction hoped. But in my old age I realized I still love the old unscientific science fiction. (I’m really digging listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr.)

I’ve mentioned this before, but I grew up reading Oz books before I discovered science fiction. At the beginning of the 20th century L. Frank Baum produced a series of children’s books about a fictional location that existed somewhere on Earth, but in a geography that had eluded all explorers. Over the series, the Land of Oz became richly complex. As a gullible nine-year-old in 1962 I wanted Oz to actually exist. I knew it didn’t, but I wanted it to be a real place. Hell, it was crushing to lose Santa Claus at 6, then Oz at 9, and Christianity at 12. So I turned to science fiction. My 69-year-old self realizes that for most of my lifetime, science fiction was my replacement for Oz and religion. I always rationalized that reading science fiction prepared me for the future, and inspired me to learn about science, but in reality, it was my way to escape the mundane.

This is very different from my middle-age self who wanted science fiction to be scientific. Now I see very little difference between science fiction and fantasy. Both are fairytales for readers who have left childhood. Both are about world building fictional universes. There seems to be some differences because some readers show preferences for one over the other. Maybe science fiction are those tales that seem more realistic. However, in 2021 how realistic is “The Fate of the Poseidonia” then? It’s far from scientific. In 1927 it was thought to be more realistic, but not if you were properly educated.

I’m using these essays reviewing the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction to understand the evolution of the genre, but also to psychoanalyze myself. Why do I love science fiction so much? I want to define the term science fiction because it seems to point to exactly something that pushes my buttons. A good deal of pop culture is now science fiction, so I’m not alone in my attraction. Maybe we should all analyze this fixation?

We could say science fiction is fiction set is the future. That might be the one telling trait that defines science fiction for me, but maybe not everyone. Fantasies are set in the past, present, or never-never land. When they are set in the future, like Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, I want to call them science fiction. This lets us file steampunk and alternate history in the fantasy bin. I like that, because neither of those types of stories feel like science fiction to me. We could split the difference on time travel stories. If characters head to the past, it’s fantasy, but if they go forward, it’s science fiction. But there’s a problem. All those stories about visiting dinosaurs are definitely science fiction to me.

What if someone today wrote a story set in the future where we discover an ancient dying civilization on Mars, something that’s been proven to be impossible? I can amend my definition by saying even fantasies set in the future belong in the science fiction bin too. In fact, older unscientific SF has become my favorite kind of science fiction in recent years. And I’ve notice a trend for writers to produce alternate history science fiction, like the novel The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, or the Apple TV+ series For All Mankind. I might not be the only person nostalgic for what science fiction used to be.

As I read and review the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, and our Facebook group discusses them, I’m trying to find a reason to keep the term science fiction. I swing back and forth from wanting to throw out all genre labels, to finding a practical meaning for the term science fiction that most people can agree on.

Right now my working definition is “Science fiction is fiction set in the future.” That leaves a lot of holes, but then we have almost a hundred stories yet to consider.

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James W. Harris, 9/4/21

“The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois

The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois is the first story we’ve read in The Big Book of Science Fiction that reads like a modern short story, and feels like modern science fiction. Is there a name for the form of fiction we now consider the standard model? All the stories we’ve read so far felt quaint, experimental, philosophical, pretentious, or unnatural. “The Star” by H. G. Wells was the closest to normal, but it did feel old fashioned, like other stories from the 19th century. Du Bois story is from 1920, yet felt more polished and modern than most science fiction from the 1920s, 1930s, and into the 1940s.

I know I’m not being very precise here when trying to talk about writing styles or forms. I just don’t have the terminology. I’m trying to describe something I’ve observed from personal experience that might have precise labels among academics. The prose of Charles Dickens, Henry James, or Edith Wharton has a quality that makes them feel old to me, but they are still very readable. Then in the 1920s, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and other writers made their prose more streamlined, and thus created what I think of as the modern form of fiction. Modern fiction has a greater percentage of dialog, and that dialog rings more natural. In the 19th century, the narrative part of fiction was quite wordy, especially with writers like Henry James. H. G. Wells was long on narrative and short on dialog, and his characters sounded Victorian.

The prose in 1920s Amazing Stories and early 1930s Astounding feels oldy too, and has a clunky quality of bad writing. Science fiction has always had the extra burden of explaining the science fictional aspects. This is called info-dumping, and is comparable to 19th descriptive narration that would spend paragraphs describing a mantelpiece.

“The Comet” feels more like Fitzgerald in its storytelling techniques, which are more advanced than the first decades of science fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. A large part of Heinlein’s success when he made a splash in the early 1940s was his use of modern streamline writing. The focus was on dramatic dialog, while minimizing the infodumping and narrative descriptions. Heinlein’s prose sounds snappy, even breezy compared to his predecessors. Heinlein’s style immerses the reader into the fantastic with the minimum of fuss and notice.

In other words, I’m quite impressed with W. E. B. Du Bois writing in “The Comet.” It’s a shame he didn’t become a genre writer during the pulp era. “The Comet” is pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic, as was “The Star” by Wells. The difference was Wells was narrating a ponderous worldwide overview, while Du Bois used the POV of one person.

Both are good stories, but “The Comet” points the way to the future. As we progress through the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we’re seeing both science fiction themes evolve, as well as the techniques of fiction writing.

I would love if I could quantify these two progressions. I have no idea how to track changes in fiction writing. For science fiction themes I picture myself building a database of theme examples. Designing the structure of such a database will take considerable thought. Most science fiction stories have multiple themes. For example:

Notice that Earth Abides and The World, The Flesh, and The Devil do away with Pre-Apocalyptic and Apocalyptic phases of the story, jumping immediately into the Post-Apocalyptic phase. The direction of storytelling is towards getting into a tale quicker, and when there, conveying the action in prose that is speedier to read. Modern bestsellers are very easy to read, dominated by near realistic dialog. Older fiction have archaic dialog, sometimes sounding like lectures, that slow the story.

Written fiction, novels and short stories, can convey the inner world of thoughts and opinions, that media fiction, movies and television shows, seldom attempt to express. But written fiction seems to be moving away from this unique attribute in favor of speed. But it would be a shame to abandon it entirely. (As an aside, some modern written fiction comes across like the young writers were inspired by movies rather than books.)

All stories have a setup and something to say. In “The Comet” Du Bois wants to say things about race, using the setup of a science fiction theme to express himself. The collapse of civilization allows Jim Davis, a black man from 1910s New York City to connect with Julia, a white woman. This connection was impossible before the apocalypse. Like Rod Sterling talking about a character entering the twilight zone, science fiction allowed Du Bois to put Jim Davis in a setting to show how race is an artificial construct of society.

Because Du Bois’ goal was to change readers’ minds about race, can “The Comet” still be science fiction? In an earlier essay, I said science fiction are those stories set within specific themes, like the future, traveling in space, or after the collapse of civilization. Racism is a universal theme that SF can’t claim. Science fiction is the setup of “The Comet,” but the story was written to say things about racism.

This brings us to an interesting question: Do both the setup and the intent of the story have to be science fictional to make the story science fiction? Eventually, in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we’ll reach such stories. I expect that will be soon, maybe with “The Star Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton. Both Earth Abides by George R. Stewart and The World, the Flesh, and The Devil use both science fiction as a setup, and to say things about living in a post-apocalyptic world. Sure, they also say things about us and our society, but the purpose of these stories is to speculate about life after the apocalypse, in that territory of the future belonging to science fiction.

Because W. E. B. Du Bois brings back civilization at the end of “The Comet,” we’re not really in the future. “The Comet” feels like science fiction, even great science fiction, until the end, that is. We’re jerked back to the present like in the earlier story “Sultana’s Dream.” Du Bois ventured into the shadows of the twilight zone, but didn’t stay.

On one hand, does the label science fiction really matter? “The Comet” is an excellent short story. The literary world has had several major writers rejecting the science fiction label on their work. They have good reason to reject the label. On the other hand, if a literary writer strays into science fiction’s territory, using science fictional techniques for their story’s setup, and especially when what they have to say is science fictional, shouldn’t the work be called science fiction? On our third hand, if the term science fiction isn’t precise, isn’t it unfair to use the label on those who don’t want it? And if science fiction is just a marketing term, shouldn’t it be restricted to genre fiction? “The Comet” is literary fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four are literary fiction and science fiction by my definition. But I can understand why literary writers wouldn’t want the science fiction label if its also equated with genre writing.

I believe we’re still on the road to science fiction, but we haven’t gotten there yet. But I’m starting to wonder whether or not I’m painting myself into a corner. I do not know our ultimate destination, but my intuition tells me I’m going to define science fiction in way that only I use. Most people will gladly accept “The Comet” as a perfectly good example of science fiction. I’m sure old Hugo Gernsback would have reprinted this story in Amazing Stories if he had known about it.

What would W. E. B. Du Bois think? 1920 was well before the term science fiction existed, but Du Bois lived until 1963. Did anyone ever ask him, “Were you writing science fiction when you wrote ‘The Comet?'” I believe he had a very clever idea for a story setup to express significant insights about racism. I’m not familiar with his work, but did he ever write a story about the future where racism didn’t exist? “The Comet” almost goes there. Such a story would be fully within my definition of science fiction.

Didn’t Du Bois pull back at the last moment because he knew most of his readers couldn’t go all the way? My point is science fiction is about going places we haven’t thought about going before. Du Bois got so very close. I’d like to even imagine he wanted to write that story.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/3/21

“The Doom of Principal City” by Yefim Zozulya

Reading The Big Book of Science Fiction is causing me to reevaluate my relationship with science fiction. For most of my life I wanted science fiction to be serious speculation about the future. I considered ideas the pinnacle of science fiction’s virtues. But after reading a couple thousand science fiction short stories over the last decade, I realize storytelling is the primary consideration. Insights and ideas are secondary. Anyone can have a cool idea, it’s how they’re presented that determines the success of a story.

“The Doom of Principal City” by Yefim Zozulya reeks of Western Union. It might be an interesting example of an early dystopia, but that’s all it has, academic appeal. The reason why Nineteen Eighty-Four is still read and why its still so damn readable, is because we care about Winston Smith. The next reason we read Nineteen Eighty-Four is the marvelously crafted world building. We don’t have a character to care about in “The Doom of Principal City” and the setting only feels didactic. I’ve come to really dislike satire. Too often satire is buckshot broadsides, whereas beautiful storytelling uses precisely placed bullets. Of course, when I was young, satire was easy to love because it made us feel grown up and superior, but now that I’m old satire feels childish and snooty. “The Doom of Principal City” came across as vague cleverness, but then the writer might have feared political reprisals.

I should give Zozulya credit for the context in which was written, but I can’t. There was a certain level of cleverness in having the city conquered by peaceful means that turn oppressive, but the solution is the same old violence and destruction. I should give Zozulya credit because the story is still topical. Principal City could be Kabul. Think about it. Reread the story. But like I said, real art is about specifics. Its easy to be vaguely clever, but much harder to be vividly detailed.

Which gets me back to my new realization of what I love about science fiction. Storytelling is becoming everything. Science fiction only grabs me now with how the story is told. It can be simplistic or sophisticated, but its got to suck me in. Philosophical fiction, satire, social protest, experimental fiction just doesn’t dance anymore. I can admire writers for what they’re trying to do intellectually, but not as science fiction that moves me emotionally.

And I think this is due to aging. When I was young, I was easily amused, and easily impressed. “The Doom of Principal City” might have struct me as clever, or meaningful. Now, not so much. And partly that’s due to its narrative style. It feels like a parable, or allegory, rather than modern fiction. It’s setup reminds me of “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory about a small country under attack by a powerful country with a superhero military force. I’m not fond of superhero stories, but Gregory’s storytelling was vivid and rich. That’s what’s missing from “The Doom of Principal City.” I have to wonder if writers back in 1910s didn’t have such abilities, or we’re just getting the weak examples of what they could do. I don’t think its the translation. “The Dead” by James Joyce was from that decade, so we do know what’s possible, although it might be fairer to use Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Rice Burroughs to compare, since they were genre writers.

I worry that the poor storytelling examples we’ve had at the beginning of The Big Book of Science Fiction is because the genre lacked for better ones. Or, are the VanderMeers more impressed with ideas?

Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker is a recent example of what I consider captivating storytelling. It does have plenty of sparkly ideas, but what really sparkles is how they’re presented.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/1/21

“Mechanopolis” by Miguel de Unamuno

In his very first sentence in “Mechanoplis,” Miguel de Unamuno, lets us know his story was inspired by reading Erewhon by Samuel Butler. That 1872 novel is considered one of the first books to imagine artificial intelligence. Butler extended Charles Darwin’s recent ideas on natural selection to apply to the machines of the industrial revolution. Could machines develop consciousness and become self-replicating? This makes it hard not to consider Erewhon a major science fiction novel of the 19th century. However, I’m still on the fence about whether or not genre science fiction can claim utopian literature. My current thought is those old utopian novels inspired the birth of genre science fiction by getting people to think about the future. But along the way there was a fork in the road. Some science fiction has continued to worry about the future, like the recent novel The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. But most genre SF has made the future into a Disneyland of thrills, adventures, and fun. The future becomes a place we want to visit.

It’s hard to trace the evolution of ideas in utopian novels and proto-SF stories of the 19th century to mid-20th century genre science fiction. Butler used the future to comment on Victorian society with satire closer to Jonathan Swift’s 18th century work than how Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov used the future in the 20th century science fiction. But I do see stepping stones, from story to story.

Reading “Mechanopolis” by Miguel de Unamuno in The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer provided an immediate sense of déjà vu. I can’t remember if I read this 1913 story from the Spanish writer Unamuno in another anthology, or because it feels so much like other science fiction stories I’ve read, especially, “Twilight” by John W. Campbell, Jr. from 1934.

“Mechanopolis” begins with an unnamed narrator lost in a desert, nearly dead, who happens upon an oasis where he finds an automated railway system that takes him into a deserted city where machines maintain an automated society long after humanity has left. The forgotten cafeterias allow our narrator to eat. That was true in the Campbell story too. However, in this story the narrator goes mad as he realizes the machines have souls, and even write about his activities in their daily newspaper, spooking the hell out of him. The abandoned cities in “Twilight” still functioning by self-repairing machines, but they inspire a great sense of wonder, not fear.

In the end of “Mechanopolis,” the narrator escapes the city and returns to the desert. He encounters Bedouins who save him. When the narrator returns home he works to stay as far away from machinery as possible. Of course, this reminds me of the ending to the 1984 classic SF story “Press Enter ▮” by John Varley. I’ve written about it before. Victor Apfel, in the Varley story becomes so afraid of machines he rips the wiring out of his house.

“Mechanopolis” is a rather brief expression of a theme that shows up time and again in science fiction. We are definitely on the road to science fiction with this story. Unamuno completely ignores how his narrator finds his way to the mechanical city. In “Twilight,” Campbell has his story told to a man of our times by a wayward time traveler he picks up hitchhiking.

This reveals an interesting aspect to the evolution of science fiction. Writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries had a difficult time setting their story in the future. Often, those early tales about the future have people from the present stumble into some kind of suspended animation. In 1819 Washington Irving has his title character in “Rip van Wrinkle” fall asleep for twenty years. In 1888 Edward Bellamy has his character, Julian West, go under a hypnotic sleep for 113 years to get to the future described in Looking Backward. Of course, the most famous solution was by H. G. Wells in 1895, when he sent his character into the future via a time machine. But then in 1928 Buck Rogers returns to the old method getting to 2419 by being trapped in a cave in where radioactive gas puts him into suspended animation.

All these writers evidently felt there must be some connection between the present day and the future. Maybe they thought we needed a POV like ourselves to react to the future. However, Ray Bradbury did away with the human viewer altogether in “There Will Come Soft Rains” where he describes an automated house working after the humans are gone, and we assume extinct because of WWIII. It’s a beautiful story. However, the machines aren’t sentient, and we don’t fear them. We’re just wistful to see them working without us.

Unamuno has his character take a strange train ride. Does his narrator ever realize he’s in the future? Or is it possible that this mechanical city is somewhere on Earth like the land of Oz, in current time but having a quite divergent development from the rest of the world? Or is Mechanopolis in another dimension? I’m not sure we know. The train is a portal, but not much else is explained. I’m assuming Mechanopolis is in the future. Art the narrator sees in the machine’s museums he feels are the originals might imply the narrator was in the future. But he also wondered if our museums held perfect forgeries. That could imply Mechanoplis was not in the future.

One of the surprising aspects to the 1909 story, “The Machine Stops,” is E. M. Forster just puts his readers into the future. That approach eventually becomes the standard for science fiction. We read science fiction so we can jump into the future. Any comparison to the present is at an unconscious level.

“Mechanopolis” anticipates automated cities in future stories like The Dying Earth by Jack Vance or The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. In those two the humans aren’t quite gone but our species is fading away. I just remembered, The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson from 1912. He took his readers to the far future too, where the remaining humans survive in the remnants of a technological civilization. Hodgson got his readers there with a reincarnated character from our times. Some editions of that book lop off that introductory section, and jump immediately to the future. Evidently, those editors felts modern readers didn’t need the connection with the present day.

Another story where the humans are gone but the machines remain is the connecting filler to the fix-up novel City by Clifford Simak. We are told humans have left and only intelligent machines and uplifted dogs remain. The gimmick of the fix-up is the robots and dogs are telling tales about humans, which are just reprints of Simak short stories. With Simak, we love the machines.

“Moxon’s Master” the 1899 story by Ambrose Bierce features a chess playing machine killing a human. We have a long history of anthropomorphizing animals and objects, so when did the idea of sentient machines first develop in science fiction? Unamuno’s 1913 story is way before computers, or even the concept of robots were developed. That was even more true of Erewhon. Why does Butler or Unamuno imagine machines will become aware? It’s one thing to assume automated machinery will keep running, or could even be made self-servicing. It’s a whole other concept to imagine that machines could observe people, and in this story, feel concern for the narrator’s state of mind. Evolving machines was quite a leap for Butler, but Darwin inspired all kinds of fears about evolution. A great case could be made that Darwin is really the father of science fiction.

In this very short story, Unamuno comes up with automated cities, the extinction of humans, cities that keep functioning without humans, self-aware machines, and even machine inheriting the Earth. He also comes up with the fear or paranoia of intelligent machines. It’s doubtful many English writers and readers knew about Unamuno’s story. Could there have been any chance of Campbell reading it? I wonder what Spanish writers Unamuno influenced with science fictional ideas?

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James Wallace Harris, 8/30/21

“Elements of Pataphysics” by Alfred Jarry

If fiction could be classified like a biological taxonomy then labels like science fiction could have a fairly exact use in categorizing literature. We could point to an infographic of a circle on a page, and say everything inside the circle is science fiction, and everything outside of it is not.

The VanderMeers want to call “Elements of Pataphysics” by Alfred Jarry science fiction. I don’t. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, the editors of The Big Book of Science Fiction, the anthology our short story club is reading, are disciples of Judith Merril. Merril wrote science fiction, but is mostly remembered for her annual anthologies from 1956-1968 that collected what she considered the best science fiction of the year. Merril was notorious for including stories that she called science fiction but which her readers disagreed. Nor would I think the world-at-large would call “Elements of Pataphysics” science fiction. See this Wikipedia entry, which considers it a spoof or satire on science. I’d call it experimental fiction that plays with language, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, and communication.

As a collector and reader of best-of-the-year science fiction anthologies I have a hard time reading Merril’s annual anthologies because I felt some stories just aren’t science fiction – and I wanted them all to be science fiction. I keep reading similar complaints about The Big Book of Science Fiction. I’m trying very hard to be open minded and stretch my sense of science fiction to meet the VanderMeers half-way, but I’m afraid “Elements of Pataphysics” is outside of that circle I call science fiction.

As much as I admired Merril, I also believe by trying to expand the genre she neglected some solid middle-of-the-road SF stories that deserved to be remembered. Instead of claiming the experimental and avant-garde for the genre, she could have used the anthology space to boost a few mid-level SF writer’s careers, but that’s parsecs in the past.

Not that “Elements of Pataphysics” isn’t a wonderful story. Not that it isn’t brilliant. Not that it doesn’t deal with science and fiction. And this was also true for the stories Merril wanted to call science fiction but her readers didn’t. Merril wanted to expand the domain of science fiction and often claimed the hard-to-define experimental work as sci-fi. But in many cases, and with Jarry’s story here, I believe its literary poaching. Just because you Shanghai a story and call it science fiction doesn’t mean its is.

And just because science fiction is hard to classify doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We just can’t cull anything we like with our SF branding iron. I know I’m trying to bail the ocean with a sieve when I argue to define science fiction, but when I eat a dessert I expect it to be sweet, and when I read science fiction I expect it to be science fictional.

The trouble is the reading public and publishers have often classified anything weirdly like science fiction as science fiction. It’s a classification kitchen sink. To begin with, I don’t believe all books need a classification label other than fiction. If a story doesn’t fit a clear classification, just call it a story or novel. We need to only use the label science fiction when a story has the exact traits of science fiction.

If we copy the structure used to classify life forms then fiction could be a very high level domain, and genre could be one level down. Science fiction could be in a domain below that. Any domain or order within it should be clearly definable. We should be able to list characteristics that readers universally respect as belonging to science fiction. And if you think about them, there really isn’t that many that science fiction has a right to claim. Science fiction has homesteaded certain lands for decades and I believe has a legitimate right to claim them now. Some of the obvious ones include:

  • Stories set in the future
  • Stories set in space
  • Stories about time travel
  • Stories about aliens from space
  • Stories about robots and any human created intelligence
  • Stories about new inventions and new technology that hasn’t been invented or discovered
  • Stories about humans that aren’t Homo sapiens sapiens.
  • Stories about artificial life possible within our physical reality
  • Stories about artificial realities, but possible within this physical reality
  • Stories about other dimensions, but part of this physical reality
  • Stories about metafiction related to science fiction
  • Utopias and dystopias if set in the future or in space
  • Alternate history (this could be contested and established as its own domain)

“Elements of Pataphysics” defined pataphysics as territory outside the circle of metaphysics, and metaphysics as the territory that surrounds the physical. I believe that puts pataphysics into the realm of the abstract theoretical. It intentionally defined its territory as not existing. I could use the definitions of pataphysics to classify Flatland and Alice in Wonderland, and maybe works of fantasy in general. Especially if we reserve the metaphysical as territory that could exist even if it’s outside our physical reality. (The hopes and ambitions of religion and spiritualism’s dwell there.)

Science fiction belongs in that circle defining physical reality because science is confined to that territory. Science fiction does not extended into metaphysical territory, so it can’t extend into the pataphysical. Fantasy belongs to the pataphysical, and maybe the metaphysical, but not the physical. Jarry’s fiction creates pataphysics by alluding to the science, mathematics, linguistics, logic, and rhetoric of the physical. In other words, he describes the impossible and ineffable by analogy to the tools we use to understand the physical. For me, its essential that science fiction stay out of the metaphysical, and thus the pataphysical. The metaphysical belongs to the woo-woo and things that go bump in the night. Reality’s only portal to the metaphysical is through leaving our bodies and imagination is our only portal to the pataphysical. Science fiction holds out hope that we can get there from here.

“Elements of Pataphysics” is a 5-star story that belongs in The Big Book of Experimental Fiction. It’s a marvelous piece of writing, and the translation feels very well done. What Jarry describes as pataphysics could apply to metafiction, and other experimental forms of fiction. I’ve always thought that Merril and the Harrison/Aldiss anthologies tried to latch onto works of experimental fiction and relabel them science fiction to give prestige to our genre. We need to accept who we are without such pretensions.

I suppose some will claim I’m limiting science fiction. If the word “science” is part of the label, then that label must limit itself to the territory of theoretically scientific. But more importantly, I believe we should recognize what science fiction is and embrace those aspects. The literary world has always criticized science fiction as appealing to adolescents. I agree with them. We shouldn’t take offense. There is a certain excitement during that stage of life from ages 12 to 22 that science fiction targets. Certain kinds of music, movies, and television shows resonate with that stage too. Most of us look back on what we fell in love with in adolescence for the rest of our lives. It’s a peak time of life. Sure, we might have been stupid, but we were passionate.

I believe religion originates in the pre-adolescent mind, and embracing science fiction is a rejection of religion. Instead of heaven, we claims the heavens, instead of gods, we look for aliens, instead of everlasting life, we seek immortality. In our teen years we are told about reality, and we ask, “Isn’t there more?” The difference between science fiction and fantasy, is the difference between accepting pipe dreams and holding out hope.

“Elements of Pataphysics” targets the next stage in life, our twenties, one that inspires people to be artists. Although there are exceptions, science fiction has never been particularly arty, or even seriously intellectual. At its best its visionary, can even be a bit literary, but it stands between the fairytales that appealed to us in the previous stage of life, and the hard reality of adulthood. It has the sense of wonder of discovering reality, but the childlike desire to reshape reality into exciting possibilities of what if. Science fiction considers all the possibilities of growing up, all the portals of what might be possible. Those possibilities are a comfort to the stress of metamorphizing from child to adult. The odds are long, but in adolescence we have tremendous hope.

Many of us keep consuming science fiction for the rest of our lives because of that Zoloft-like quality it confers. It helps us to remember what we wanted to be. I think it’s existentially vital we recognize science fiction for exactly what it is. In classifying science fiction, there is an essential trait to be observe. It’s a unique strain of hubris that says, “We can create anything that’s possible in this reality.” Anything not possible need not apply.

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James Wallace Harris, 8/28/21

“The New Overworld” by Paul Scheerbart

These early stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction represent fiction on the road to science fiction. I already know where we’re heading because I’m well versed in 1930s and 1940s science fiction. What I classify as science fiction is down the road a piece further, into the 1950s and 1960s. Science fiction evolved and mutated in every decade of the 20th century. 21st century science fiction is already rejecting this past, those stories and authors I love. The ones I use to define my sense of the genre. It’s becoming something else again. But the road goes on, and I don’t.

I believe as we read the stories in the VanderMeers’ anthology, we’ll learn to sense the essence of science fiction, which is to use certain techniques of storytelling to speculate about the edges of science. In “The New Overworld” Paul Scheerbart creates a fairytale about two lifeforms on Venus that I mentally pictured as illustrations from Dr. Seuss books. We can call this story science fiction because its set on Venus and it speculates about alien lifeforms, but it’s closer in tone to a children’s picture book. It’s all too obvious that the story is about solving social problems with cooperation and technology. But we never believe Scheerbart believes he is speculating about Venus or alien lifeforms. It’s all allegorical in intent. The story obviously has a philosophical lesson.

On the road to science fiction, our destination is fiction that convinces us we are there, in the future, out in space, on other planets. Wells was there in “The Star” because we could picture the worldwide catastrophes. In “Sultana’s Dream” we were almost there but then had it snatched away from us when we learned it was all a dream. In “The Triumph of Mechanics” we got there again because we were meant to believe mechanical rabbits were possible. However, the story was a tall tale and we knew Strobl didn’t mean it.

Science fiction writers know they can’t predict the future, but real science fiction feels like they have. It has to be convincing. It doesn’t matter if their future can’t possibly become real, it’s got to feel real when we read it. We’ve got to believe while we read. It has to be a fully realized fictional reality.

Back in 1911 when “The New Overworld” came out, what we think of as science fiction was an oddity. The following year, in 1912, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs will be serialized in All-Story Magazine as “Under the Moons of Mars” by Norman Bean. Probably most readers wouldn’t buy astral projection, but they wanted to believe in Barsoom. Burroughs triggers a certain kind of desire in readers, and that’s the heart of science fiction. Readers still want to believe in Barsoom, long after NASA put a stake in that dream.

I have not read Paul Scheerbart’s other works, or novels, which this article in Science Fiction Studies describe. The VanderMeers regrets Scheerbart isn’t remembered, but from the description of his stories I can see why he is. But Erik Morse in The Paris Review has read some of the recent English translations of Scheerbart and he found them interesting, even captivating, but strange.

Authors and their books are forgotten over time for many reasons. Usually, it’s because the work just doesn’t hold up. Sure, academic publishers will come out with expensive editions that are historical curiosities, but they just aren’t readable by the public at large. Wells was not forgotten because his SF novels are still page-turners.

I will give one other reason why Paul Scheerbart is forgotten, he was German. I wouldn’t have considered this reason until I read The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Alexander von Humboldt was probably one of the most amazing men to ever live. In the 19th century, he was probably the most famous of the century, maybe even more famous than Napoleon or Lincoln in their times. I had no idea who he was before I read the book, and neither do most English speaking people, even though in the 1800s most Americans loved him very much.

At the end of the biography, Wulf gives an interesting reason why von Humboldt was forgotten in America and Great Britain. During WWI Americans actually burned German books, and anti-German sentiment became ever greater during WWII. So if we can collective erase Alexander von Humboldt who inspired Thomas Jefferson, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and many other influential Americans, then it’s easy to imagine not remembering Paul Scheerbart.

The 19th century was full of brilliant eccentric writers who wrote far out books with wild ideas, many of which could be considered science fiction. And we’ve forgotten most of them. Actually, we’ve forgotten probably 99.99% of them. If we don’t remember Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky for his great science fictional predictions, why should we remember Paul Scheerbart?

It’s a shame that pop culture has such a short attention span. Books like The Big Book of Science Fiction try to correct that. Sure, our group argues over what the VanderMeers collect for us to read, but shouldn’t we judge them not by whether or not we enjoy the stories, but by what they are helping us to recall from a pop culture ancestry? There was a great deal of proto-SF published before Amazing Stories came out in 1926, but we remember damn little of it today. What I want to remember is what popular literature was like from 1900-1925, in all its forms. Their anthology helps. The VanderMeers’ introductions hint at so much more I want to know.

I do have one quibble. Why did they leave out “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster? Was it already too famous? Or too long? That 1909 story was the best single science fiction story from 1900-1925.

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James Wallace Harris, 8/26/21

“The Triumph of Mechanics” by Karl Hans Strobl

Because “The Triumph of Mechanics” by Karl Hans Strobl is included in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we have to assume Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had a good reason other than it just being a fun story. It is the first English appearance of this 1907 Austrian story translated by Gio Clairval, so they must have had it translated for a special reason. Wouldn’t they? However, I am at a loss to see its historical significance to science fiction. Although, in retrospect, we’d call it science fiction today for several reasons. “Sultana’s Dream” also came out in 1907. England, India, and Austria. It’s still a long way to April, 1926 America.

My reaction to an American inventor, Hopkins, coercing a town to give him a building permit by producing a billion mechanical rabbits was to instantly recall Flat Cats, those quickly reproducing Martian animals in Heinlein’s novel The Rolling Stones. The idea of overproducing pets was also used in the classic Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” When I saw tribbles in 1967 I instantly thought flat cats too. However, Heinlein admits getting the idea from the 1905 story “Pigs is Pigs” by Ellis Parker Butler, about Guinea pigs that reproduce at an exponential rate at a train station. Full text of the story is here. There have been several animated films based on that story, starting in the silent era, but here’s Walt Disney’s version from 1954. Any chance that Strobl reading “Pigs is Pigs” before writing his story? And could Ellis Parker Butler have snagged the idea from an earlier tale, maybe an old German fairytale?

The main reason “The Triumph of Mechanics” is science fiction is the little toy robotic rabbits can reproduce – self replicating machines. But I have a question. Why would Hopkins need a factory to manufacture toy rabbits when he can quickly produce a billion of them without a factory?

I wish I knew more about the original publication of “The Triumph of Mechanics.” Did it first appear in a magazine or newspaper? Did it have illustrations? 1907 was years before the word robot came into vogue. However, mechanical or clockwork creatures have been around in fiction for a long time. The story also mentions some other far out ideas for creating wonderful toys, including making a glass like material out of solidifying air. They marveled at how such an artificial substance could take over the toy industry. I thought of plastics. I imagined whispering into Benjamin Braddock’s ear, “Two words – solidified air!”

I wonder if there was any significance that the go-getting inventor was American? Had Europeans stereotyped us as marvelous inventors because of Thomas Edison? The overall tone of this story was amusing, just a tall tale, like something Mark Twain would have written. Since it was also written well before the term science fiction existed, I wondered if its readers thought it was some special kind of fiction, something out of the ordinary? As we read each story in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we need to remember we won’t reach stories published in a genre magazine until the 9th story, and even then, the term science fiction wasn’t coined right away by Hugo Gernsback. He tried to pass off scientifiction on us. The tag science fiction began to emerge in the 1930s but didn’t catch on with the public at large until the 1950s.

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James Wallace Harris, 8/24/21

“Sultana’s Dream” by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein

The second story in The Big Book of Science Fiction is “Sultana’s Dream” by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein. First published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine in 1905. By today’s standards, “Sultana’s Dream” is a rather simple narrative that imagines Ladyland, where gender roles are reversed. It doesn’t feel like a traditional short story in structure, and the VanderMeers called it a conte philosophique, which means philosophical fiction. In this case Hossain is writing utopian fiction, which is often science fictional. I assume the story was intended to be satirical, or even humorous, with it’s topsy-turvy gender role reversals. Now, it just feels quaintly sci-fi, but visionary feminist.

I wonder if Hossain was a proto-SF fiction fan, or had read utopian or science fiction fiction? Only when we use our imagination to put “Sultana’s Dream” into the context of when and where it was written does it become impressive. Hossain lived in British controlled India, and was Bengali, well educated and well-to-do. Wikipedia spells her name slightly different, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, and said she published under the byline Mrs. R. S. Hossain, but was commonly known as Begum Rokeya.

It’s in retrospect that we admire this story. For example, Chitra Ganesh created a graphic novel “Sultana’s Dream” in woodcuts, and the University of Michigan created an exhibit at their Museum of Art. Their website has a copy of the story to read online, and four different narrators reading an audio version of the story. They pick women of different ages to narrate the story. The same exhibit was at the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery with a different set of presentations and videos.

I assume the VanderMeers were inspired by the recent republication of the story in Sultana’s Dream: A Feminist Utopia and Selections from the Secluded Ones by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, edited and translated by Roushan Jahan. That volume appears to have come out in 2015, the year before The Big Book of Science Fiction. However, there was from 2005 Sultana’s Dream; and Padmarag: Two Feminist Utopias by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain; translated with an introduction by Barnita Bagchi. I’m curious, are feminists finding these stories first, or science fiction historians? How was my favorite early feminist utopia, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, discovered? I find these old SF stories through SF researchers, but did they find them first? And could Gilman have possibly read “Sultana’s Dream” from 1905 before she serialized her novel in 1915? Wikipedia says there was a novella version of Sultana’s Dream published as a book in 1908. Was it expanded from the 1905 story? Could a copy have gotten to America?

Although “Sultana’s Dream” is a simple story, its feminist ideas, as well as its speculation about futuristic technology and science, are as mind blowing for 1905 as time travel, space alien invasion, and space travel was in the 1890s when Wells was blowing minds. Especially, when we consider what India was like in 1905. Please read “Feminist Visions of Science and Utopia in Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s ‘Sultana’s Dream’” to learn more about Hossain and why her story really is more than what it seems. I also recommend, “Sultana’s Dream And Its Conception Of A Feminist Utopia” by Deeksha Sharma, especially for its link to “6 Indian Muslim Feminists In History” by Amna Nasir, that also profiles Hossain.

Do we rate the story by today’s standards of storytelling, or 1905’s standard of thinking? If you read “Sultana’s Dream” as just another science fiction story you might dismiss it. If you read it as the VanderMeers intend, to understand the evolution of science fiction, then its quite impressive.

The VanderMeer’s anthology is dedicated to Judith Merril who was famous for looking far and wide for stories to expand the reputation of science fiction in her anthologies. I think we have to accept the VanderMeer’s goal here. Although “Sultana’s Dream” is a quaint read, not famous in its time like “The Star” by H. G. Wells, their second story shows that science fictional thinking was happening all over the world.

But I have to wonder where Hossain got her ideas for solar power, and the other Jules Verne inventions? I wish I had more access to popular magazines of the time, because I believe they reveal popular thinking and culture better than history books. Far out gadgets and futurism was all the rage by some readers. Was it just a few geeks of the day, or were those ideas popular with everyone? Did the science fiction books that excited people in England get read in India as well?

Of course, I assume, science fictional speculation has always existed. My commonly used example is the Noah’s Ark, a catastrophe story that could have been the inspiration for “The Star.” This makes me ask, are there older, even much older, visions of feminist utopias? Could Hossain have been inspired by the ancient Greeks stories about the Amazons. Or are there feminist utopias in Hindu and Bengali literature? I don’t mean to suggest Hossain wasn’t creative, but my pet theory is all concepts have been around since pre-history, even science fictional ones.

When I discover old science fiction stories that I want to believe are the earliest examples of a science fictional idea, eventually if I keep reading, I find older examples. The Big Book of Science Fiction captures the examples from the 20th century. But if we had The Big Book of 19th Century Science Fiction, would we find earlier examples of all the ideas we thought first appeared in the 20th century? I believe there’s a kind of generational myopia that feels like everything cool was created for by some slightly older dudes and dudettes. For example, The Beatles and Bob Dylan are about ten years older than me. Us Baby Boomers thought they were revolutionary geniuses of our times. But actually, they were inspired by some slightly older musicians and songwriters, who The Beatles and Dylan were convinced were the revolutionary geniuses of their times.

I wish I had some kind of software where I could plot science-fiction ideas on a timeline that also positioned them on a map of the world. That way we could plot the progress of a concept as it evolved over time and space. When were flying cars first proposed? Hossain’s flying car was rather unique, but hardly the first. How far back do flying cars go as an idea, aren’t they really just a descendant of flying carpets and flying chariots?

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James Wallace Harris, 8/22/21

“The Star” by H. G. Wells

This my second review of “The Star” by H. G. Wells, because I attempted to read The Big Book of Science Fiction earlier this year. I didn’t get far. I’m hoping the group read will get me to the end this time. But we will see. Since this is a second review I’ll need to find new things to say.

One thing I noticed this time while poking around on Google to see how “The Star” is used in a number study sites for classroom discussion. Being taught in school is one indicator that a work of fiction has become a classic. Three cheers for science fiction then. The story came out in 1897, between the publication of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Hugo Gernsback liked it so much he reprinted it twice, in 1923 and 1926.

“The Star” had already been repackaged in several collections by Wells, including an edition put out by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1925, the prestigious publisher of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s. I’ve read that before pop culture used Albert Einstein’s name to imply the smartest man in the world, people used Mr. Wells. One of the more popular books in the early days of fandom was The Short Stories of H. G. Wells that ran over a thousand pages. Another giant collection of short stories by Wells was put out the The Literary Guild, for the high-brow crowd. This listing of reprints at ISFDB is one of the longest I know about, and I’m sure that database hasn’t indexed all the places “The Star” has been reprinted.

In other words, “The Star” was widely read outside of science fiction, especially in the 1920s and 1930s before the genre had established itself in the public’s consciousness. I can’t help but wonder what the average person thought of the story? Did Charlie Chaplin talk about it at Hollywood parties while he was working on The Gold Rush? What did the average British citizen think of the story when they read it in The Graphic, the Christmas Number for 1897? Here’s an ad from that issue to give you an idea of the times.

Why would they run an end-of-the-world story in their Christmas issue? I have to assume they really thought the story something special. So what did people say about it then? I wish I could find references to how average readers reacted to early science fiction. So far my best indication of what people read back then that we’d call science fiction is the anthology Science Fiction by The Rivals of H. G. Wells which presents thirty stories that came out around the same time as “The Star.” I wish I had a book of letters to the editors about those stories, or extracts from diaries and personal letters where people wrote about them.

In the introduction to The Big Book of Science Fiction the VanderMeers say this about science fiction:

This kind of eclectic stance also suggests a simple yet effective definition for science fiction: it depicts the future, whether in a stylized or realistic manner. There is no other definitional barrier to identifying science fiction unless you are intent on defending some particular territory. Science fiction lives in the future, whether that future exists ten seconds from the Now or whether in a story someone builds a time machine a century hence in order to travel back into the past. It is science fiction whether the future is phantasmagorical and surreal or nailed down using the rivets and technical jargon of “hard science fiction.” A story is also science fiction whether the story in question is, in fact, extrapolation about the future or using the future to comment on the past or present.

But “The Star” isn’t about the future, and neither are most of the stories in that rivals anthology. Back then, the fantastic happened in the present. When Wells was writing, science fiction hadn’t evolved into its future oriented self. The VanderMeers wants their anthology to show the evolution of science fiction and I think this is an important distinction about “The Star.” I believe as we read along in the volume, we’ll observe how science fiction moved into the future.

There is one weak area in “The Star.” I was never sure what kind of astronomical object the intruder was. At different times in the story it’s implied that the intruder is a comet, planet, or star. Wells was big on science, so why was he so sloppy here? If the visitor was another planet, wouldn’t it and Neptune have shattered when they collided? If it was a comet, Neptune would have absorbed it. I’m guessing it was some kind of dark or dwarf star that absorbed Neptune in the collision. We know Wells knew about stellar evolution because he has the Earth being destroyed when the sun expanded into a red giant in “The Time Machine.”

Rating: *****

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James Wallace Harris, 8/20/21

The Short Story Club

Most people have heard of book clubs, but we have a short story club devoted to science fiction. It’s a Facebook group. Anyone can join even though it’s a private group. Just answer the two questions. However, many people don’t like Facebook, and that’s cool. Because we’re about to read and discuss The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, I thought I’d post my thoughts on each story here so those people who don’t use Facebook can participate via the comment section.

The Big Book of Science Fiction has over one-hundred short stories. We’ll read and discuss a story every other day. This is a huge book and a major commitment to read. I’ve owned it for years and have been too intimidated by its size to try reading it. What I hope is the discipline of the short story club will push me to climb this Mt. Everest of anthologies. Because it’s a recent retrospective anthology it aims to give a contemporary overview of the history of science fiction by including more women writers and foreign stories, I expect reading its stories will be a graduate course in science fiction literature.

If you don’t already own this book and are tempted to join the group or buy it to read along with the discussion here, I should warn you about its size – it’s a monster. Like the size of a large city phone book back in the day, and also printed on thin paper. Reading the Kindle edition is the practical way to go. If you want the paper edition, you might check it out at Barnes & Noble first. I’d hate to recommend people to buy this dingus and not be able to read it because they don’t have weight-lifter arms.

Many of the stories will be in old anthologies, so you don’t have to buy the book if you want to read along from you own library. However, about two dozen stories are foreign translations commissioned for this anthology and won’t be available elsewhere.

I should also warn anyone who is thinking about buying this book that if you prefer the traditional classics of science fiction this book skips over many of them. No Heinlein, no Bester, etc. Some older fans have complained they didn’t like a lot of the stories. I’m reading it because I want to see a new view of old science fiction. I have read about a quarter of the stories before, and some of them are among my favorites.

We start discussion August 20th, beginning with “The Star” by H. G. Wells. The group will discuss a story every other day until March 20, 2022. The links below are to my reviews. Here are other group member’s online reviews:

Here is the table of contents:

The Star – H. G. Wells
Sultana’s Dream – Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein
The New Overworld – Paul Scheerbart
The Triumph of Mechanics – Karl Hans Strobl
Elements of Pataphysics – Alfred Jarry
Mechanopolis – Miguel de Unamuno
The Doom of Principal City – Yefim Zozulya
The Comet – W. E. B. Du Bois
The Fate of the Poseidonia – Clare Winger Harris
The Star Stealers – Edmond Hamilton
The Conquest of Gola – Leslie F. Stone
A Martian Odyssey – Stanley G. Weinbaum
The Last Poet and the Robots – A. Merritt
The Microscopic Giants – Paul Ernst
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius – Jorge Luis Borges
Desertion – Clifford D. Simak
September 2005: The Martian – Ray Bradbury
Baby HP – Juan José Arreola
Surface Tension – James Blish
Beyond Lies the Wub – Philip K. Dick
The Snowball Effect – Katherine MacLean
Prott – Margaret St. Clair
The Liberation of Earth – William Tenn
Let Me Live in a House – Chad Oliver
The Star – Arthur C. Clarke
Grandpa – James H. Schmitz
The Game of Rat and Dragon – Cordwainer Smith
The Last Question – Isaac Asimov
Stranger Station – Damon Knight
Sector General – James White
The Visitors – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Pelt – Carol Emshwiller
The Monster – Gérard Klein
The Man Who Lost the Sea – Theodore Sturgeon
The Waves – Silvina Ocampo
Plenitude – Will Worthington
The Voices of Time – J. G. Ballard
The Astronaut – Valentina Zhuravlyova
The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink – Adolfo Bioy Casares
2 B R 0 2 B – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
A Modest Genius – Vadim Shefner
Day of Wrath – Sever Gansovsky
The Hands – John Baxter
Darkness – André Carneiro
“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman – Harlan Ellison
Nine Hundred Grandmothers – R. A. Lafferty
Day Million – Frederik Pohl
Student Body – F. L. Wallace
Aye, and Gomorrah – Samuel R. Delany
The Hall of Machines – Langdon Jones
Soft Clocks – Yoshio Aramaki
Three from Moderan – David R. Bunch
Let Us Save the Universe – Stanisław Lem
Vaster Than Empires and More Slow – Ursula K. Le Guin
Good News from the Vatican – Robert Silverberg
When It Changed – Joanna Russ
And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side – James Tiptree Jr.
Where Two Paths Cross – Dmitri Bilenkin
Standing Woman – Yasutaka Tsutsui
The IWM 1000 – Alicia Yánez Cossío
The House of Compassionate Sharers – Michael Bishop
Sporting with the Chid – Barrington J. Bayley
Sandkings – George R. R. Martin
Wives – Lisa Tuttle
The Snake That Read Chomsky – Josephine Saxton
Reiko’s Universe Box – Kajio Shinji
Swarm – Bruce Sterling
Mondocane – Jacques Barbéri
Blood Music – Greg Bear
Bloodchild – Octavia E. Butler
Variation on a Man – Pat Cadigan
Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead – S. N. Dyer
New Rose Hotel – William Gibson
Pots – C. J. Cherryh
Snow – John Crowley
The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things – Karen Joy Fowler
The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets – Angélica Gorodischer
The Owl of Bear Island – Jon Bing
Readers of the Lost Art – Élisabeth Vonarburg
A Gift from the Culture – Iain M. Banks
Paranamanco – Jean-Claude Dunyach
Crying in the Rain – Tanith Lee
The Frozen Cardinal – Michael Moorcock
Rachel in Love – Pat Murphy
Sharing Air – Manjula Padmanabhan
Schwarzschild Radius – Connie Willis
All the Hues of Hell – Gene Wolfe
Vacuum States – Geoffrey A. Landis
Two Small Birds – Han Song
Burning Sky – Rachel Pollack
Before I Wake – Kim Stanley Robinson
Death Is Static Death Is Movement – Misha Nogha
The Brains of Rats – Michael Blumlein
Gorgonoids – Leena Krohn
Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ – Kojo Laing
The Universe of Things – Gwyneth Jones
The Remoras – Robert Reed
The Ghost Standard – William Tenn
Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System – Geoffrey Maloney
How Alex Became a Machine – Stepan Chapman
The Poetry Cloud – Cixin Liu
Story of Your Life – Ted Chiang
Craphound – Cory Doctorow
The Slynx – Tatyana Tolstaya
Baby Doll – Johanna Sinisalo

James Wallace Harris, 8/19/21

The Tools of Science Fiction

What writers create with the tools of science fiction varies as tremendously what carpenters build with their tools. However, the consumers of science fiction, the editors and readers, tend to prefer specific products often by specific tools. In our short story club on Facebook, one reader noted that The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collected edited by Gardner Dozois which we just finished reading only had one story about spaceships. (I don’t know if it was just a curious observation or lament.)

If you expect science fiction writers to always use their tools to build spaceship stories you’ll be disappointed by how diverse science fiction stories have become. In the old days writers had fewer tools, mainly extrapolation (If this goes on…) and speculation (What if?), so they produced similar products.

Extrapolation was a great tool for creating stories about the near future that dealt with social and political change. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley used that tool to great success. Many SF writers cranked out stories based on the speculation tool: “What if we could travel to the planets?” “What if we could travel to the stars?” “What if we could travel in time?” “What if aliens invade the Earth?” and “What if we could build machines that act like humans?”

Over time, writers invented new tools to craft new kinds of science fiction stories. Take for instance alternate history or time looping or digital reality. If you look at the twenty-four stories collected in the Dozois anthology no two are really that much alike.

I discovered science fiction in the 1960s, so my concept of science fiction was shaped by the tools writers were using then. Even as a kid, I could tell that stories produced in the 1930s were different from those created in the 1940s or the 1950s. Writers in the 1960s were using new tools to create new kinds of science fiction that riled some older readers. Those oldsters claimed New Wave stories weren’t even science fiction, but I was young and loved that stuff. Now I’m old, and new waves are washing over me.

On social media I often see comments from science fiction readers bitterly bitching about contemporary science fiction. Does that mean what N. K. Jemisin produces isn’t science fiction? It’s true, what she’s building with the tools of science fiction in the 2010s doesn’t look like what Lois McMaster Bujold built in the 1990s, or Ursula K. Le Guin crafted in the 1970s, or Robert A. Heinlein hammered together in the 1950s. But isn’t all that work crafted with the same tools out of the SF toolbox?

The opening story in the Dozois anthology was “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard. It’s about a central American guy escaping into an Aztec reality. That doesn’t sound very science fictional. But is it any different from Harold Shea escaping into various western mythologies by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Platt? Sure, we can claim both stories were built with fantasy writing tools, but isn’t that missing the point?

The next story was “Dogfight” by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick, a What If story. What if we had technology that allowed people to mentally projects images into the air and make games out of them? This was a product of adding cyberpunk tools to the science fiction toolbox. I’ll assume most of our short story club members felt it was science fiction. “Snow” by John Crowley uses a slight variation of this tool. What if we had a tiny machine that followed us around like a wasp and filmed our life?

“Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling imagines a dinner party hundreds of years ago in the Arab world when Europe was in decline. This story feels like it was completely constructed by tools for writing historical fiction. It wasn’t the only such story that Dozois picked for his anthology of the best science fiction short fiction of 1985. Many in the group rebelled at his decision, claiming those stories weren’t science fiction. And to be honest, even though I liked these historical stories I thought it odd they were in an anthology labeled the best science fiction. In other words, even when I try to be broadminded there are walls of the box that I can’t think outside of.

The group is about to start reading The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. There are already grumbles that their view of science fiction isn’t science fiction. Not only do readers prefer science fiction built with specific tools, so do editors, and unfortunately, there’s also generational preferences.

This has interesting implications for our group. We vote for the anthologies we read. We’ve learned that Judith Merril saw the genre much differently than Donald Wollheim or Gardner Dozois or Terry Carr. I’m expecting the VanderMeers to have a very unique view too. I still say the various stories are constructed with the same tools, but what writers make with them varies, and that’s reflected in editor choices, or fan’s personal preferences. I can easily see our group balkanize into Facebook groups devoted to Dozois SF or Carr SF or 1950s SF, or Military SF. John W. Campbell, Jr. really did define a certain kind of science fiction, and I think we’re learning anthology editors have distinct views too.

There is no requirement or pressure in our group for people to read the stories. We expect members to read whatever they want. But there is a certain pressure to find anthologies that people will like. It is somewhat disappointing to hear too many complaints about disappointing stories. Although I don’t want people to stop criticizing stories. I believe we all like learning about each other’s tastes, and some stories are actually better than others. Maybe what I want is for people who love collies to not judge pugs by collie standards.

One reason we only have about a dozen members who regular read most of the stories out of over five hundred members, is the lurkers probably choose to read only what they like. It’s probably why most SF fans prefer novels over short stories, and books over magazines. There are very few readers who have eclectic tastes suited for enjoying the diversity of short stories.

We’re a short story club, and like book clubs it’s very hard to find consensus, even more so because of the nature of anthologies. I’m looking forward to the VanderMeer anthology and I’m trying to be open to what they present, however I fear a backlash. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve complained myself about reading stories I didn’t like. On the other hand, I’m getting tired of younger generations complaining about older works and writers, and older generations complaining about newer works and writers. That’s driving me to expand my reading consciousness. It doesn’t mean I don’t prefer living in the past with 1950s and 1960s science fiction, but I’m trying not to be my dad who always screamed “Turn off that goddamn noise” when I played The Beatles.

I believe our Facebook group offers an interesting chance to try out a lot of different kinds of science fiction built with many different tools over many generations. It’s both rewarding and enlightening.

James Wallace Harris, 8/17/21

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

Even though I bought all 35 volumes of The Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois as they came out, I never read one from cover to cover until now. Their size was just too daunting. I finally overcame my fear of giant anthologies when I listened to The Very Best of the Best from beginning to end, and then again when the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction voted it in as a group read. For summer 2021 we read The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection. This is the first of the annuals I’ve finished. Reading and discussing a short story every other day is a great way to read an anthology, and I expect someday to read the other 34 volumes – with or without the group.

Since I’ve joined this Facebook group, I’ve been reading at least one short story a day. We keep two group reads going concurrently. Because I also read stories on my own I’ll read over four hundred short stories this year, maybe as many as five hundred. For the three years before joining the group, I read at least two to three hundred short stories each year. I’m slowly getting a feel for the form, since I’ve probably gotten my ten thousand hours in. However, it wasn’t dedicated study.

For this post I thought I’d reprint my Facebook comments on the twenty-four stories in this anthology. If I find time, I’ll write separate reviews of the stories I liked best. Here’s my rating system. One and two stars usually only show up in magazines.

*Writing level of a fiction workshop or amateur publication
**Writing level of semi-pro magazine, or lesser pro magazine story
***Solid story from a professional magazine, should be minimum level for an annual anthology
***+Solid story that I found particularly entertaining
****An exceptional story I know I’ll want to reread someday, or have already read many times
****+An exceptional story that’s almost a classic, something I’d anthologize
*****A classic that’s well anthologized and remembered
My Rating System

01 of 24 – “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard
F&SF (May 1985)

“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard is not science fiction, but magic realism that claims we can return to an past reality destroyed by modernity. The setting appears to be current day Honduras and the plot focuses on Esteban Caax, 44, a farmer, probably a descendent of the Azetecs. Esteban loves living in the country, and pursuing a simple life. However, his life is complicated when his wife Incarnación, 41, buys a battery powered TV on credit from Onofrio Esteves. Incarnación wants to move to town and take up modern ways.

Onofrio sold the TV to Incarnación to force Esteban into debt so he has to return to jaguar hunting. There is a rare black jaguar that’s keeping a tourist resort from being built, one that Onofrio and his son want to develop.

When Esteban goes hunting the jaguar he finds a beautiful woman, Miranda, in the jungle who suduces him. He eventually learns she is the black jaguar and she wants Esteban to return to an older, magical reality, part of his real heritage. At first Esteban refuses, but ultimately, he’s forced to follow Miranda into an ancient alternate existence.

Shepard’s writing is amazing and beautiful, and this story reminds me of “The Woman Who Rode Away” by D. H. Lawrence, another story about finding a way back to an older reality of the Aztecs, and one of my all-time favorite stories.

I’ve seen this theme enough times to wonder if people really do believe there are ancient ways to rediscover. I got to meet Shepard at Clarion West 2002. It’s a shame his work hasn’t stayed in print. The collection, THE BEST OF LUCIUS SHEPARD is available for the Kindle for $2.99. He has nothing on Audible. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucius_Shepard

Rating: ****+

02 of 24 – “Dogfight” by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick
Omni (July 1985)

You’ve heard of unreliable narrators, well, Deke is an unlikeable narrator. “Dogfight” by Michael Swanwick and William Gibson is now considered a Cyberpunk classic, and it brings back memories of all the excitement that literary movement generated in the 1980s. Many cyberpunk stories embraced a noirish quality of dark settings, involving criminal activities, and “Dogfight” fits the stereotype. Deke is a petty thief that finds his calling in a game of Spads & Fokkers. In a rundown bus stop, Tidewater Station, Deke discovers a crippled vet named Tiny playing out the role of Minnesota Fats with the game of Spads & Fokkers, and Deke decides to steal Tiny’s throne by becoming the Fast Eddie of the game.

Along the way Deke befriends a college girl with her own ambitions named Nance. Ultimately, Deke uses Nance, and brutually steals her dream and crushes Tiny’s purpose for being. Deke is elated to finally be good at something, ignoring the cost of his success the others paid.

The neat thing about “Dogfight” is the idea we’ll being able to jack into hardware and project 3D images that others can see. There is no explanation for how this works at all. We’re just told people can imagine tiny WWI planes and people will see them flying around the room fighting in aerial dogfights. That was the problem with most cyberpunk stories, they imagined computer technology doing things it will never do.

Rating: ****

03 of 24 – “Fermi and Frost” by Frederik Pohl
Asimov’s (January 1985)

This is the third reread for me, so I’m wonder if I didn’t read part or all of this anthology back when it came out. “Fermi and Frost” is barely a short story. It’s more of a meditation by Pohl on nuclear winter.

The story begins in the chaos of people trying to fly out of JFK knowing that the missiles are coming to hit New York. Harry Malibert lucks out and gets a flight to Iceland and rescues a nine-year-old boy named Timmy. Iceland barely survives the nuclear winter, and Harry becomes Timmy’s father. Pohl tells us they could have a happy ending or a bad one. I’m sure most readers picture the happy ending, where humanity survives.

I liked this story because I always liked stories about the last humans on Earth, but this one is barely a sketch on the subject.

Rating: ***

04 of 24 – “Green Days in Brunei” by Bruce Sterling
Asimov’s (October 1985)

“Green Days in Brunei” was a finalist for the novella Nebula, but it lost to the 800-pound gorilla “Sailing to Byzantium,” also in this anthology, as is “Green Mars” by KSM, another heavyweight.

The pacing of “Green Days in Brunei” felt like an condensed novel rather than a stretched short story. I believe it’s really hard to pull off a novella that feels perfect for its length. In this case, I was wanting more, not less. The plot of the story is rather sparse, a techie, Turner Choi, takes job in a country that’s fighting technology, Brunei, falls in love with a princess, and has to choose between East and West worlds. Sort of a reverse King and I.

Turner is an interesting creation set in the middle of a fascinating political/philosophical situation. Sterling has done a good job creating a computer geek trying to make it in a repressive society. Seria, the princess and love interest, is also interesting, but more contrived. I wished her character could have been fleshed out, and it would have been if this story had been a novel. Jimmy Brooke, the corrupt and aged rock star almost steals the story. He feels somewhat like a J. G. Ballard character. Moratuwa, the political prisoner, and Buddhist is another character needing more onpage time.

This 1985 near future cyberpunk story missed the internet but scored hits on the social changes. The reason this story is so interesting to read is all the details of the Brunai society, which tries to repress western technology but still wants to succeeed at finding work for its people. That’s a valid philosophical problem today.

Like most cyberpunk writers, Sterling vastly oversimplifies programming robots. In many ways, SF writers expected too much from computers, but often imagined too little.

Rating: ***+

05 of 24 – “Snow” by John Crowley
Omni (November 1985)

John Crowley was one of our teachers for the week at Clarion West 2002. I had not read anything by him at the time. I wish I had read “Snow” before I met him. What a beautiful story – but then I resonated with “Snow” because of my lifelong obsession with memory. I wanted wasp technology starting back in the 1950s. But I wouldn’t use it for remembering dead people. I’d want it for remembering my own life. I especially loved the randomness of the memories. “Snow” reminds me of one of my all-time favorite stories, “Appearance of Life” by Brian Aldiss.

Rating: *****

06 of 24 – “The Fringe” by Orson Scott Card
F&SF (October 1985)

Orson Scott Card continues the winning streak of great stories with “The Fringe.” Timothy Carpenter, is a wheelchair-bound teacher in a post-apocalyptic farming community who like Stephen Hawking speaks through a computer-generated voice. Because this 1985 story was probably before Hawking was famous I wonder if he was Card’s inspiration? And the use of the computer for speech synthesis and networks suggests Card could see into the future.

The plot of “The Fringe” is told in a straightforward narrative yet suggests complexity and layers. Carpenter, a hero of a rebuilding civilization because of his ideas on crop rotation, chooses to teach farm children on the fringe of that recovering civilization. The conflict of the story is between Carpenter and the students who hate him for turning in their fathers for their black market activities that undermine a community whose survival depends on interdependence. The story is surprisingly dramatic throughout, although Carpenter’s rescue is almost too good to believe possible.

Rating: ****+

07 of 24 – “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” by Karen Joy Fowler
Asimov’s (October 1985) 2nd story from this issue

Miranda suffers from lifelong guilt for dumping Daniel who then volunteered for the army during the Vietnam War and was killed. Decades later she encounters him again several times during lucid dream psychotherapy. At first, Daniel is a realistic mental projection, the same age as Miranda as if he had continued to live, but as the sessions progress, he becomes younger, and eventually Miranda witnesses Daniel kill a child, one Daniel shot thinking he has a grenade. Miranda becomes obsessed she’s learning details about Daniel’s real life that she couldn’t possibly know.

At the beginning of the story, the idea of lucid dreaming therapy sounds practical, but as the story progresses the encounters in the lucid dream world suggest that Miranda is somehow communicating with an afterlife Daniel, making the story into a supernatural fantasy. However, we are restrained by the title. Is Miranda just looking at a lake of artificial things?

This is another story I read back then that I couldn’t tell you anything about before rereading it, but as I read it came back to me, with the scene with Daniel killing the kid triggering a memory of horror I felt reading it the first time. I thought this story was quite effective and wonder how Paul can consider it mediocre.

Rating: ****

08 of 24 – “Sailing to Byzantium” by Robert Silverberg
Asimov’s SF (February 1985)

“Sailing to Byzantium” is not my all-time favorite SF story, but it should be. It’s an epic work of imagination that only a few science fiction stories surpass. I know it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “The Time Machine,” but it might equal the haunting mood of “The Vintage Season.” I still have a greater personal attachment to “The Star Pit.” Obviously, the Muse was with Silverberg when he wrote: “Sailing to Byzantium.”

Many science fiction writers have tried their hand at far-future stories, but “Sailing to Byzantium” comes closest at conveying what we can never know. What Silverberg works to do in this story is to explain to us what Phillips tries to convey to Willoughby.

Rating: *****

09 of 24 – “Solstice” by James Patrick Kelly
Asimov’s SF (June 1985)

“Solstice” is a horrifying examination of the sexual abuse of a clone. Tony Cage, who is a wealthy superstar drug designer has himself cloned, but in the cloning process had the clone made female. Cage raised the clone as Wynne who everyone thinks of as his daughter, but Cage sees as a version of himself. There are two other stories I know about that explore sex with the self theme, “All You Zombies—” by Heinlein, and David Gerrold’s THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF. Both of these stories used time travel to hook up a person with themselves, but Kelly uses cloning, so it’s not quite the same, but I think it’s meant to be.

Tony Cage is an egomaniac of the first order who doesn’t see Wynne as herself, but the perfect companion he is creating over time. Cage is educating Wynne to be him and is troubled when Wynne goes in her own direction. Cage even uses cold sleep to even out the years between them as Heinlein did in THE DOOR INTO SUMMER for his unrelated characters. As the story unfolds we see Cage’s obsession with Wynne grow and only get hints of what’s happening to Wynne, but in the climax of the story, we learn that Wynne suffered from deep psychological damage because she saw herself as a daughter of Cage.

The common belief is clones will be duplicates of a person, but they won’t be, and I believe Kelly’s insight is right, they will be our children.

This story is actually two stories, the one described above, and the story of Stonehenge. I was fascinated by all the infodumping about Stonehenge Kelly presented, and I assume it’s true, but I believe it diluted and damaged the main story. The dramatic conclusion of Tony and Wynne’s tale happens at a solstice event at Stonehenge and evidently, Kelly wanted to make that more impactful. For me, the blending of the two stories was clunky, and I would give this story a lower rating, but the other part is too powerful.

Rating: ****

10 of 24 – “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” by Avram Davidson
Amazing Stories (May 1985)

Cosimo Damiano, the King of the Single Sicily is aided by Dr. Engelbert Eszterhazy to ward off the attacks of Mr. Melanchthon Mudge who wants to steal Cosimo’s only possession of value, Duke Pasquale’s ring.

Avram Davidson’s charming prose is due to his creative use of names and nouns, and a lot of knowledge about old literature and history. However, why is this fantasy story in an anthology devoted to science fiction?

And “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” doesn’t even contain fantastical fantasy, it’s really a very gentle fantasy about what feels like medieval times when people believed in magic. This story reminds me of the Thomas Burnett Swann story we read. Both Swann and Davidson are enchanted by the past, by arcane mysteries and myths.

Not sure how to rate this story. It’s beautiful writing, but the story is all cotton candy, it expresses very little emotion or philosophy, other than the kindness of Eszterhazy for the poor deluded Cosimo. For now, I’ll say ***+ because I have no desire to read it again, although I can imagine fans of Davidson frequently returning to his kind of storytelling. It’s a very delicate form of escapism.

11 of 24 – “More Than the Sum of His Parts” by Joe Haldeman
Playboy

Joe Haldeman seems to suggest in “More Than the Sum of His Parts” that becoming a cyborg will go to our heads and make us into monsters, like a variation of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or maybe the moral was better bodies don’t make for better minds. I thought this was the weakest story in the collection so far, but it’s still pretty good. I did wonder if Playboy would have bought this story without the cyborg penis and description of its use?

Rating: ***+

12 of 24 – “Out of All Them Bright Stars” by Nancy Kress
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (March 1985)

Sally Gourley, a waitress, waits on a blue alien named John who her boss Charles demands she not serve. This story won the Nebula and was included in two textbooks devoted to science fiction, so it’s bound to be an important story, however it’s short and somewhat mysterious. Sally doesn’t feel the prejudice and hatred towards the alien, but then in the end she thinks: “And all at once I’m furious at John, furiously mad, as furious as I’ve ever been in my life.”

Why. I’ve read this story before, and I read it twice in a row tonight trying to figure out why Sally is furious at John. My guess is Sally doesn’t want to know there are better beings in the universe because she had to live with humans. In the last lines she’s responding to something John said:

“I make so little difference,” he says. Yeah. Sure.

Not only do humans look bad in comparison, Sally knows we aren’t going to change, even when we encounter Christ-like figures. I wonder if Kress was saying this to herself regarding her efforts to write enlightening stories?

Rating: ****

13 of 24 – “Side Effects” by Walter Jon Williams
F&SF (June 1985)

“Side Effects” is something that could have run in THE NEW YORKER because it was so well-written, and whatever mild science fiction it contained was minimal and slipstream.

I was quite impressed with this story and tried to imagine all the intellectual work that Walter Jon Williams had to put into it. It’s also still very relevant. Even after 35 years, it works as a near-future tale. Since I’m old, I’m having to take a lot of drugs, some of which doctors give me as samples. I often wonder if I’m a guinea pig. And they frequently cause side effects.

Rating: ****+

14 of 24 – “The Only Neat Thing to Do” by James Tiptree, Jr.
F&SF (October 1985) (2nd story from this issue)

I didn’t know Tiptree wrote space opera, although “The Only Neat Thing to Do” feels slightly familiar. As does most of the stories we’ve read from this anthology. It’s weird to think what my brain might retain after thirty-five years.

While reading this story I wondered about how Tiptree wrote it. Was she a fan of space opera beforehand? Had she read “The Cold Equations?” To write space opera requires thinking about interstellar travel and other space travel fiction. Tiptree’s sense of space travel feels like it came from Star Wars or Edmond Hamilton (in other words, not hard SF). And Coati Cass reminds me a lot of Heinlein’s title character in PODKAYNE OF MARS. Not only is Triptree writing space opera, but it’s also YA.

Overall, I loved this story, but it had some problems. The communication pipes don’t make sense. What’s their propulsion system? How do they navigate? How long do they take to get where they are going? Even with cold sleep, how long has Coati been gone?

Dozois sure could pick them this year. Four of the six finalists for the Nebula award for the novella are in this anthology. We have one more to read, “Green Mars.”

Rating: ****

15 of 24 – “Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling
Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985)

“Dinner in Audoghast” is an odd story to appear in a science fiction magazine. I try to imagine why Bruce Sterling wrote it. Picturing a long-forgotten African-Arab city is an interesting choice. I assume because William Gibson had made Japanese culture famous Sterling thought he might try it with Arab culture. George Alec Effinger also used Arab culture in a cyberpunk novel two years later in WHEN GRAVITY FAILS.

Audoghast was the western terminus of a trans-Saharan caravan system during a time when Arab culture was waxing and European culture was waning. It’s a fascinating time period to set a historical novel. Maybe Sterling wanted to write such a historical piece and added the leprous fortune-teller into the story to give it some reason for an SF magazine to publish it. Sterling certainly had to do the work of a historical fiction writer to write this story, and he found a wealth of details to paint a colorful setting.

Rating: ****

I don’t know if cyberpunk writers started this or not, but in the coming decades coopting foreign and historical cultures became big in science fiction. It’s led up to today’s World SF stories.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aoudaghost

16 of 24 – “Under Siege” by George R. R. Martin
Omni (October 1985)

On one hand, “Under Siege” is not the kind of story I enjoy. I’m not fond of alternate history. On the other hand, this is an impressive story. It showcases the kind of writing skills George R. R. Martin had before writing The Song of Ice and Fire books.

Again, we’re treated to another bit of history. Was this a fad back then for SF writers? I looked up the Siege of Sveaborg to see what Martin was working with. It seems like a rather esoteric point in time to pivot the future of the U.S.S.R.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Sveaborg

I admired what Martin was doing in the 1808 scenes, but I felt nothing for those characters. However, the narrator, the killer geek mutant narrating the story did grab me. Was his name ever given? I felt for him.

Rating: ***+

17 of 24 – “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” by Howard Waldrop
Omni (January 1985)

Reading “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” made me order THINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME: SELECT SHORT FICTION 1980-2005 by Howard Waldrop. I’ve read this story before, and a few other Waldrop stories and always loved him. Don’t know why I haven’t tried to read more from the guy. I’m amazed that Waldrop comes from Houston, Mississippi, because my mother’s folks are from that part of the country, and I’ve briefly lived in two small northern Mississippi towns and know what kind of upbringing Waldrop would have had. It’s not the kind that would produce these stories. Houston is not far from Oxford, the stomping grounds of William Faulkner.

“Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” is another nostalgia-driven story about a time I fondly remember. I started listening to the radio in the 1958-1963 era when many of the songs in the story first appeared. I even lived in Philadelphia in 1959 for a few months. I loved that glorious Doo-Wop music before it was shut out by the British Invasion in 1964-1965, it’s like imprinted on my soul. I also remember AM radio having Oldie-Goldie weekends. All the songs mentioned in the story push my nostalgia buttons like crazy. Even the UFO book Leroy was reading was probably one I read, because for a short while I gorged on UFO books, however, I mainly remember the crazy George Adamski.

The battle of the bands between Leroy and Kool-Tones and Bobby and the Bombers on November 9, 1965, that knocked out the lights of the northeast USA was one cool story.

Rating: *****

18 of 24 – “A Spanish Lesson” by Lucius Shepard
F&SF (December 1985)

Lucius Shepard creates a fake Roman à clef about his 17-year-old self vagabonding in Europe in 1964 and meeting two escaped clones from an alternate reality spawned by the evil soul of Hitler. This story is rather schizoid, mixing an On The Road memory with Nazi occult horror, where Adolf is a Lovecraftian elder god. Fictionalizing Nazis is dangerous artistic territory because it generally makes any work trivial in comparison to reality. Shepard would have been better off stealing from Lovecraft. Yet, there is a lot to admire in “A Spanish Lesson.”

The trouble with being an SF/F writer is needing to add the fantastic to every story so it can be sold to an SF/F market. The start of this story and the ending is far better than its SF/F elements. It’s too bad Shepard didn’t stick with straight Kerouac, with maybe a dash of Ballard. I really liked the dynamics of Shepard being the youngest member of an ex-pat community trying to earn some respect from the older cats that he thought were cooler, but were just pretenders.

Rating: ***+

19 of 24 – “Roadside Rescue” by Pat Cadigan
Omni (July 1985) – 2nd story from this issue

“Roadside Rescue” was a wham, bam, thank you ma’am kind of story, for us and the protagonist.

Rating: ****

20 of 24 – “Paper Dragons” by James P. Blaylock
Imaginary Lands

“Paper Dragons” is a story about the intersection of reality, fantasy, and science fiction. The narrator exists sometimes in the real world of ordinariness, sometimes in a fantasyland, and sometimes in a steampunk-like continuum. There were glittering aspects to this story, but it was often murky to me. I did relate to it in a couple of weird ways though. When I lived in south Florida there would be invasions of crabs. Millions of them would suddenly travel through our neighborhood. And I once found a furry caterpillar and put it in a gallon jar with branches from the bush I found it on. It made a cacoon and eventually emerged as a moth. I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t a butterfly.

Sorry, but I thought this was another story not suited for this anthology because it wasn’t science fiction. A slight case could be made that since Filby could assemble a dragon from pieces of metal that it’s science fiction, but it never felt science-fictional. Its tone was always a lament that fantasy was fading from the world.

Rating: ***+

21 of 24 – “Magazine Section” by R. A. Lafferty
Amazing Stories (July 1985)

I admired Lafferty’s writing and wild imagination in this tall tale but it’s another story that doesn’t belong in this collection. Lafferty does use the word “clone” but the cloning in this story is not the least bit science fiction.

What’s interesting about Lafferty is trying to categorize his writing. I wonder what he was like in person? Was he always pulling people’s legs and telling his tall tales to other people? He’s a kind of literary leprechaun, a class clown with print. He was capable of writing science fiction, PAST MASTER is an example, but for the most part, his stories aren’t science fiction in intent. Nor do they have the flavor of fantasy. His stories are fantastic, but not genre fantastical. It’s a shame the literary world didn’t embrace him because stories like his do appear in literary magazines.

Rating: ***+

22 of 24 – “The War at Home” by Lewis Shiner
Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985) (2nd story from this issue)

“The War at Home” is a punch in the gut. The Vietnam war comes to haunt America’s reality like a bad dream we can’t escape. Although the Safeway bit made me think of our times. Shiner’s story suggests chickens do come home to roost. But I wonder why he wrote it in 1985? That was ten years after the war ended. If civilizations suffer Karmic retribution, then we’re in for some bad shit, much worse than what’s going on now.

My overactive bladder means I never sleep long, so I wake up dreaming many times a night. The intensity of the opening dream sequence resonated with me. Like I said, this very short story was a punch in the gut. Hope it doesn’t give me bad dreams tonight.

Rating: ****+

23 of 24 – “Rockabye Baby” by S. C. Sykes
Analog Science Fiction (Mid-December 1985)

“Rockabye Baby” feels like another one of those literary stories with an embedded fantastic element so it’s salable to a genre market. I thought the first part was excellent. The van crash, the hospital, the group home, the pursuit of drawing, all felt very realistic. Even the part of Sharkey chasing after an experimental treatment. But memories don’t equal a personality, so I don’t buy the fantastic element of the story.

I believe if the real focus of the story was the experimental treatment, the story should have started with Cody trying to rebuild his personality with cassette tapes. Now that would have been a great story too. This could have been a novel, but ISFDB doesn’t show that. Sykes has one other story and one novel listed in their database.

24 of 24 – “Green Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson
Asimov’s Science Fiction (September 1985)

“Green Mars” is a hard story to describe and rate. 70% of this long novella is about rock climbing, something I’m not particularly interested in. 20% is about terraforming Mars and the conflict between Red Mars and Green Mars philosophy, something I’m very interested in. And finally, 10% of the story is about Roger and Eileen, and issues with living 300 years, another aspect of the story I loved.

Even though I’m not interested in rock climbing, Robinson did some impressive writing in presenting this part of the story. I have read memoirs of mountain climbers with the details of rock climbing, and I think KSM gives more blow-by-blow details of climbing than those memoirs. Is KSM a rock climber himself?

I admire KSM’s books for their ideas. However, he seldom produces an emotional story for me, but by the end of “Green Mars” I was feeling this story emotionally.

Rating: ****+

James Wallace Harris, 4/16/21

“The Jaguar Hunter” Lucius Shepard

“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (May 1985)
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois
The Best of Lucius Shepard (2011)

In 1925 D. H. Lawrence wrote “The Woman Who Rode Away” while living in New Mexico. It was a story about a bored housewife who seeks to escape reality by riding into the mountains and offering herself to the shamans of the native people she found there. In 1968 Carlos Castaneda wrote The Teachings of Don Juan about revealing ancient knowledge from a modern day shaman of the Yaqui Indians. This book became a series that was embraced by the New Agers of the 1970s. In 1985 Lucius Shepard wrote from his experiences of living in Central America “The Jaguar Hunter” about a descendent of the Aztecs escaping the modern reality by similar shamanism.

Why does this theme keep showing up? What is the allure of the far past? The belief in ancient knowledge keeps showing up in both fiction and nonfiction. It’s the basis of religion, and a major tenet of fantasy fiction. Most modern works of fantasy are slowly moving towards make believe realities, but the classics of fantasy have always been built on aspects of the past. Haggard, Burroughs, Merritt, Lovecraft, Howard, Leiber, and other classic fantasy writers of the 19th and 20th centuries wanted their readers to believe magic and magical beings were once part of our reality. You might scoff at that, but don’t all the sacred books of religion claim it too? Is it so absurd to question fun fantasy when our society teaches our children ancient fantasies as facts? If you asked kids and teens where they’d really like to live, how many would say in fantasylands like they read about or see on TV?

“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard is not science fiction, but magic realism that suggests we can return to a past reality destroyed by modernity. The setting appears to be current day Honduras and the plot focuses on Esteban Caax, 44, a farmer. Esteban loves living in the country and pursuing a simple life. However, his life is complicated when his wife Incarnación, 41, buys a battery-powered TV on credit from Onofrio Esteves. Incarnación wants to move into town and take up modern ways.

Onofrio sold the TV to Incarnación to force Esteban into debt so he has to return to jaguar hunting. There is a rare black jaguar that’s keeping a tourist resort from being built, one that Onofrio and his son want to develop. When Esteban goes hunting the jaguar he finds a beautiful woman in the jungle who seduces him. He eventually learns she is the black jaguar and wants Esteban to return to an older, magical reality, part of his true heritage. At first, Esteban refuses, but ultimately, he’s forced to follow Miranda into an ancient reality that modern life and science was destroying.

Shepard’s writing is amazing and beautiful, yet I have to wonder about the intent of this story. The setup is realistic, probably inspired by experiences of living in Honduras. The conclusion of the story is fantasy, and like the intent of much fantasy, it’s a rejection of modern life.

I find it odd that Dozois included this and a few other fantasy stories in his anthology of the best science fiction of the year. But even back in 1985 science fiction was beginning to be overrun with fantasy. To readers who just enjoy a good story, making the distinction between the two genres isn’t important. But I find there’s a philosophical difference that matters. Fantasy longs for the past, while science fiction dreams about the future.

I enjoyed reading “The Jaguar Hunter” but I also find it offensive because it rejects both reality and science. When I was young I read most of the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. I loved them. When I was grown I read an article from the 1950s that said that some librarians stopped carrying the Oz books because it gave children unrealistic expectations toward life. I was horrified by the censorship, but I knew they were right. The Oz books had given me unrealistic expectations.

That Esteban can escape his petty mundane problems by running away into the past with a beautiful woman/jaguar is a fun conclusion to the story, but isn’t that an unhealthy message? You might think I’m being ridiculous laying such a heavy criticism on a slight bit of make-believe. But look at our world today. Half the population embraces a philosophy of denialism, rejecting science and reality. We live in a culture where people never grow up, and many never escape the brainwashing of religion or storytelling. Start paying attention to how off fantasy is embraced by the people around you.

I believe every good story, has a setup and an intent. I admire Shepard’s setup, but I don’t like his intent.

James Wallace Harris, 8/15/21

A Change of Ambitions

I’ve been dreaming to big for my age. I haven’t posted to this blog in over a month even though I’ve started many essays. I just never finish them. Today, realization finally came that the essays I dream of writing are too big for me to actually finish. For example, last night I began the third attempt to write a review an anthology with twenty-four stories in it, one I’ve been reading on all summer. This morning I realized to write the review I mentally picture writing would take days and days of work, even weeks, and it would be thousands of words long. Most readers browsing the internet are barely willing to consume a few dozen words. Well, I can’t write that short, but I’ve got to stop writing too long.

This reflects a change in my reading habits. I’ve practically stopped reading novels. I now read several hundred short stories a year. My mind is now too impatient for novels, and I realize it’s also too impatient to write long essays. So, I’ve decided my aim is to write succinct pieces about short stories. I wanted to write overviews of anthologies, or overviews of science fictional themes, but those ambitions are too grand for my current levels of energy and concentration.

My new goal for this blog is to create distilled insights into science fiction short stories. This site was created for version 4 of The Classics of Science Fiction, but we moved version 5 to a new site. We streamlined it so it’s mostly data, getting rid of all my wordy essays. Now it gets way more hits. I need to streamline this site too. Don’t expect a huge transformation quickly, I’m switching to old man steps.

James Wallace Harris, 8/14/21

“Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

“Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction (November 1952) and was retitled in 1965 to “Anybody Else Like Me?” for Miller’s second collection The View from The Stars. This was my third reading of the story. Previously read in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1953 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, and The Great Sf Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I just listened to the story in The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. that was released on audio two weeks ago (June 2021).

Imagine you’re a science fiction writer and want to tell a story about a person who feels they are different from other people and one day they discover they’re a telepath when they finally meet someone like themselves. How would you plot such a story? I wouldn’t have done it like Walter M. Miller, Jr. did in “Command Performance,” and neither would you, but I was quite impressed with how he envisioned such an encounter playing out. Miller had an interesting take on how telepathy might work, and like many science fiction stories from the 1950s, it’s very psychological.

Most writers picture telepathy as people talking to each other without speaking aloud. Miller takes the concept much further. He has his characters, Lisa Waverly and Kenneth Grearly sharing thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, fantasies, and inputs from all five senses. Much like that old saying about walking in someone else’s shoes.

I wish “Command Performance”/”Anybody Else Like Me?” was a novel instead of a short story, and Miller had worked out Lisa’s and Kenneth’s relationship at length. However, it appears Miller never finished a fully completed published novel. Miller’s most famous book, A Canticle for Leibowitz was a fix-up novel based on three previously published stories. ISFDB only lists one story in the novel section, “The Reluctant Traitor,” probably a novella, that appeared in the January 1952 issue of Amazing Stories. Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was a novel he almost completed before committing suicide, was finished by Terry Bisson, and published after his death.

According to ISFDB, Walter M. Miller, Jr. published 41 works of short fiction in the 1950s, and one in 1997, so evidently writing novels wasn’t his thing. I found this essay by Terry Bisson, “A CANTICLE FOR MILLER; or, How I Met Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman but not Walter M. Miller, Jr.” to be quite interesting, revealing a few more tidbits about Miller. And now that I’m listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. that just came out in audio, I’m finding each story makes me want to know more about Miller as a person. As Bisson points out, Miller did not want to meet people, and never even met his agent. That makes me even more curious about him.

I believe stories reveals details about their writers, even when writers desperately try to stay hidden. I’m only on the fourth story in this audiobook, and I’m guessing there will only be fourteen total if it’s based on the 1980 edition of the book of the same name. (Why hasn’t his other stories been collected?)

I can’t find much on Miller except his entries in Wikipedia and SF Encyclopedia. But at the beginning of his career he wrote this profile about himself for the September 1951 issue of Fantastic Adventures:

I believe this provides us with a few additional clues. Miller became a recluse making himself enigmatic. I don’t think Miller was telepathic, but he might have felt himself different from other people. But as I listen to his stories I can’t help but wonder about the man who wrote them. They are a strange take on science fiction, focusing on humans, and less about aliens and spaceships. Miller seemed more interested in psychology, philosophy, religion and aspects about mundane life. One reason why I’m so fond of science fiction of the 1950s is because the characters were often ordinary, just ones who encountered the fantastic in strange little ways.

I’m really enjoying this collection and looking forward to hearing all 22 hours. I then hope to reread A Canticle for Leibowitz before trying Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.

James Wallace Harris, 7/8/21

Update:

A friend sent me a chapter from Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl Weary where Merril recounts her affair with Walter M. Miller, Jr. while married to Frederik Pohl. It added many more puzzle pieces to my growing mental picture of Miller. I went to buy the book on Amazon and Amazon informed me I already had a copy. Now I need to read it.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a table of contents for the audiobook version of The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. but I’m hoping it’s the same as the 1980 hardback edition. That book seemed to combine the two previous paperback collections, Conditionally Human (1962) (3 novellas) and The View from the Future (1965) (9 stories and novelettes) and added two other stories for a total of 14. That leaves 27 stories uncollected. There were other collections of Miller’s stories, but they all seem to reprint from that same list of 14. Maybe they were all dogs, and not worth reprinting, but sometime I hope to read them too.

How The 21st Century Remembers Old Science Fiction Short Stories

I know the short story is an obscure art form on the wane, and the minority of readers who still enjoy reading short stories mostly read new ones as they come out in online periodicals, but I’m concerned with remembering the best science fiction short stories from the past. Old novels, movies, and television shows have massive support systems for being remembered and introduced to new potential fans. Have you ever seen a book 1,001 Short Stories to Read Before You Die? YouTube is overrun with YouTubers devoted to their favorite books, movies, albums, and television shows, but has YouTube every offered to show you one devoted to short stories? And how often do you see a Top 100 list of all-time best short stories on the web where they live and die by Top 100 lists? Or even the equivalent of the Billboard Hot 100 for current short fiction releases?

About the best a short story can hope for is getting anthologized, and even then, damn few anthologies stay in print. Anthologies that reprinted science fiction short stories were common on twirling book racks in the drugstores of the 1950s through the 1970s, but they’ve about disappeared today. Of course, the science fiction magazines that published the stories originally, have faded into obscurity only loved by the last 10,000 subscribers. The internet has brought about a renaissance of online publication of short stories, and that’s reflected in the annual awards which pretty much ignore the printed magazines nowadays.

Science fiction short stories published in periodicals go back at least two hundred years, and there are fans who still read them too, just not that many. And those fans are dying off. There’s barely enough storyworms to keep the memory of classic short SF alive. (Which probably explains why so few anthologies are for sale.)

Last night I read “The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight for the fourth time this century. And it wasn’t because the mood struck me to read it again. I’m reading The Great SF Stories 18 (1956) (1988) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg and it’s included in that anthology. It was also included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (1970) edited by Robert Silverberg which I listened to when it came out on audio in 2017, and then listened to again when the book club I’m in read it last year. I first read The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology back in the 1970s when it came out. I also read “The Country of the Kind” recently in Science Fiction of the Fifties (1979) edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph Orlander.

I have this self-imposed rule that I don’t skip short stories I’ve read before when reading anthologies. I’ve discovered it takes multiple readings to fully appreciate a short story. “The Country of the Kind” has gotten better on every rereading.

This got me to thinking. How do average science fiction fans stumbleupon old science fiction short stories to read? I figure it’s the same way I discover older SF short stories, by reading anthologies. But like I said, anthologies aren’t as common as they once were. How often do young science fiction fans buy a SF anthology? Or a collection? Do they even know the difference between an anthology and collection? Many people selling them on eBay don’t. The collection is a book of short stories by a single author, and I believe this is the most common way that bookworms still read short stories today. It’s when they decide to consume everything by their favorite author that they finally turn to the short story.

An anthology is a book of short stories by multiple authors. Most readers today see them as annual best-of-the-year volumes that collect the top short stories from the previous year. About every five years a large retrospective anthology comes out that presents the best of the genre’s past. I hardly ever see them anymore, but some theme anthologies reprint short stories with similar subjects are still being published. Baen used to do this, but I haven’t seen any in a while. One exciting new anthology that just came out is The Best of World SF: Volume 1 edited by Lavie Tidhar.

Yesterday I went looking for 21st-century anthologies that look back on science fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries. Here’s what I found currently in print. A few of these titles are aimed at the textbook market, reminding me that school reading is another way young readers encounter old SF stories.

Hyperlinks in the titles below are to the CSF database were you can see their table of contents by story in order by year published. That page also has additional links for more information about all the stories. If you don’t want to lose your place here, do a right-click and select Open in New Window, and then close that window after you’ve poked around.

Here’s how these anthologies remember short stories by decades. Like I said, science fiction short stories have been around a very long time. But looking at the numbers below makes it look like something happened in the 1930s. Amazing Stories began in 1926, which some claim was the start of the genre, but others think it really began when John W. Campbell, Jr. became editor of Astounding Science-Fiction in the late 1930s. (See my essay “19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories” for an overview of a baker’s dozen of anthologies that remember that century.)

It’s interesting to see the distribution of stories by decades. Both The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and The Big Book of Science Fiction have something from every decade. In terms of totals, the 1950s win, with the 1980s coming in second. The so-called Golden Age of the 1940s seems to be fading.

If you want to read some of the classics of SF anthologies, check out Mark R. Kelly’s Anthology page.

The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list, which is set to a minimum of 8 citations produces a list of 97 stories. It remembers stories from 1934-2010, which is a kind of a moving memory bubble. The entire database contains 4,554 stories from 1809-2010 with at least 1 citation. We currently believe that 7-8 citations represent a certain level of popularity or remembrance.

“The Country of the Kind” is reprinted in the Sense of Wonder (2011) anthology, so it’s still being remembered. Here’s the history of where it’s been anthologized since its original publication in 1956. The last major anthology it was in was The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 (2014) edited by Gordon Van Gelder.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note “The Country of the Kind” gets reprinted every few years in an anthology. That’s how Damon Knight’s little classic stays alive. I doubt many young readers today read anthologies, so it’s probably just barely hanging on in our collective memory.

When I researched this story on Google, I did notice that several sites devoted to writing school papers offered an analysis of the story for a fee. Being taught in school is another way for a short story to survive. There are other ways. Getting made into a movie or TV show sometimes happens, but that mostly seems to happen to stories by Philip K. Dick. Several episodes of Love, Death & Robots were based on recently published SF stories. I’m also in a Facebook group that helps.

Speaking of reading science fiction short stories in school, I can tell from my stat pages that some are probably popular with teachers. I doubt that many Googlers would be searching on these stories unless they were forced to by a school assignment. Another indicator they are assigned reading is they get hits only during the school year.

It’s rather telling that “The Country of the Kind,” “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin seem to be very popular in the classroom. And each of those stories deal with a particular incidence of violence. It’s almost as if controversial nastiness makes for teachability.

Finally, I’ve thought of one other new way that short stories are presented to help them be remembered: audiobooks. Both audiobook publishers and podcasters present audio productions short stories. For example, here’s one for “The Country of the Kind.” I noticed yesterday that Audible came out with The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. in June with over 20 hours of readings of Miller’s short stories. That made me very happy. Audible has some SF anthologies, but not many. The best way to find audio productions of short stories is to look for collections by your favorite author. For example, they have The Complete Short Stories by J. G. Ballard that runs over 63 hours, or five volumes of The Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick.

James Wallace Harris, 7/6/21

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

Has any science fiction writer from the 20th or 21st centuries ever done a better job exploring the science fictional themes than H. G. Wells covered in the 19th century? Has any novel or film ever gone any deeper into the idea of invaders from outer space than The War of the Worlds? Haven’t we been recycling the same speculations that H. G. Wells began way back then?

This is the third time I’ve read The War of the Worlds by H. G. wells since 1963. The first time I was in the seventh grade. I was too young to understand the novel and read too fast to really appreciate anything other than the basic plot. Back in 2005 I listened to an audiobook edition. I realized then that The War of the Worlds was far better than what I remembered, or any film or TV version I had seen over my lifetime. Reading it again this week, after rewatching the 1953 film, and seeing the 2019 British TV miniseries, I understand why we’re still reading this 1898 novel, and why people keep making filmed versions of it. There were three in 2005 and two in 2019. The War of the Worlds is truly a five-star classic.

I’m not sure young readers know how much credit we should be giving H. G. Wells for his contributions to science fiction. In one sense, the novels he published from 1895 to 1900 can almost be considered the foundation of the genre. Wells covered many of the main science fictional themes that writers are still tilling today. The trouble is, I haven’t read widely enough in earlier literature to know how much Wells borrowed and how much he created.

I do feel Wells brought new speculations and what ifs to the genre. We credit Wells for starting the space alien invasion theme, but Wells only took invasion literature that began in 1871 with The Battle of Dorking in a new direction. Instead of worrying about invaders from Germany or France, Wells asked, “What if invaders didn’t come from Earth?”

Once he proposed that one question, it generated all kinds of possible SF speculation. What if beings from other worlds were more advanced than us? Science fiction has explored that question over and other, but I’m not sure we’ve ever psychologically accepted any being could be superior to ourselves. Reading The War of the Worlds this time made me noticed just how much Wells thought about it. I would love to find reviews of his book published at the end of the 19th century to see if his readers significantly pondered Wells’ ideas. Here are some quotes:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

...

Yet so vain is man, and so blinded by his vanity, that no writer, up to the very end of the nineteenth century, expressed any idea that intelligent life might have developed there far, or indeed at all, beyond its earthly level. Nor was it generally understood that since Mars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of the superficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time’s beginning but nearer its end.

...

And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us.

...

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

...

In three other points their physiology differed strangely from ours. Their organisms did not sleep, any more than the heart of man sleeps. Since they had no extensive muscular mechanism to recuperate, that periodical extinction was unknown to them. They had little or no sense of fatigue, it would seem. On earth they could never have moved without effort, yet even to the last they kept in action. In twenty-four hours they did twenty-four hours of work, as even on earth is perhaps the case with the ants.

...

“This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.”

...

I learned nothing fresh except that already in one week the examination of the Martian mechanisms had yielded astonishing results. Among other things, the article assured me what I did not believe at the time, that the “ Secret of Flying,” was discovered.

...

It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human science it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonweal of mankind.

...

If the Martians can reach Venus, there is no reason to suppose that the thing is impossible for men, and when the slow cooling of the sun makes this earth uninhabitable, as at last it must do, it may be that the thread of life that has begun here will have streamed out and caught our sister planet within its toils.

...

Dim and wonderful is the vision I have conjured up in my mind of life spreading slowly from this little seedbed of the solar system throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space. But that is a remote dream. It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.

Can we really imagine meeting a being that is as far above us as we’re above a dog? What if the gap is as large as between people and ants, another comparison Wells makes in the book. Actually, in several places, we’re no more important to the Martians than bacteria are to us under the microscope. Wells can imagine this possibility and he tries to illustrate it in the story, but I don’t think he really succeeds because it’s something impossible to imagine. But Wells, and science fiction written since have tried. Consider Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

We have to remember how Wells portrays the Martians and how readers of Pearson’s Magazine in 1897 imagined them. The Martians had weapons that used heat, light, gas, and biological agents that quickly dispatched the greatest military in the world. London, the most advanced city on the planet was quickly overrun, and millions had to flee. This is impressive, but does it really mean the Martians are intellectually superior to us? They are more advanced technologically. And that’s been the most common thread in alien invasion stories since, even though we keep gaining in our own technological prowess.

Martians treated us like animals. In fact, they treated us like cows or pigs, and used humans for food. Does this mean they’re superior? We assume we’re superior to farm animals, but we’ve never been a cow and can’t imagine what cows think of us.

The Martians invaded Earth like England invaded other countries, and the English felt superior because they could get away with it. But does it make them superior? Over and over again science fiction has tried to portray superior aliens. Usually, writers give them advance technology like Wells did in his novel. Writers often give aliens telepathy or other psychic powers to suggest a higher state of being, and at one point Wells speculated about this. Often, advanced aliens are described like gods in old religious texts. But just how realistic is that? Isn’t it really a lack of imagination? I’m not faulting Wells, because he did try, but I think he hit a wall, and so has every other SF writer since.

Notice that Wells gave the Martians the same power that Nancy Kress did in her story Beggars in Spain. Not needing sleep would indeed be a plus, but does it make a being superior? It is a very nice specific attribute. What other attributes make a superior being?

Are we incapable of imagining a realistic being more developed than humans? We consider ourselves superior to animals because we have language. In recent years, many science fiction stories have explored the idea of communication with beings from other stellar systems. The film Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” does suggest a possibility. What if a language isn’t based on linear time, and the structure of the sentence isn’t depended on word order? That’s a wonderful theory, but is it even possible? Imagining the impossible is impressive, but not as impressive as imagining the possible that hasn’t been discovered yet.

Can we imagine a process of communication that goes beyond language? We always fall back on telepathy. Would that be instantaneously sharing of words, or sharing sense organ input? If the Martians of Wells’ novel could read human minds, would they still kill and eat people, and destroy their civilization? Wouldn’t a superior alien have empathy and compassion for other beings? If we were really superior to animals would we eat them and kill them the way we do? Aren’t we just acting like animals that eat each other?

If you look at in the right light, Christianity was an effort to create a superior human. Unfortunately, few humans have ever achieved what Christian theory hoped to have achieved. Religions have routinely rediscovered compassion throughout history, but they’ve never been able to make humans compassionate. We see in Star Trek, at least in some episodes about the Prime Directive, how the Federation tried to codify a compassionate treatment of other beings, but often the plots don’t allow for it. Still, it’s a concrete example.

Science fiction writers keep trying to imagine a superior being and keep failing. I believe Heinlein tried with Stranger in a Strange Land, by giving his Martian named Smith superpowers. But Smith shows no compassion for lesser beings, and frequently vanishes them out of existence. Clarke tried with Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but again he falls back on godlike powers, and a lack of compassion for lesser beings. Remember, Earth and humans were destroyed when a new species of humans emerged. Why do we continually believe superior beings have the right to destroy lesser beings?

We seem stuck in a Groundhog Day loop regarding invading aliens. Did anything new really show up in Independence Day (1996) a century after The War of the Worlds, or will show up in The Tomorrow War that’s coming out on Amazon Prime? Isn’t it logical to assume any alien that’s invading us can’t be superior because they’re invading us? Superior beings don’t go around exterminating other beings? Conversely, we can’t be all that superior to the other species on this planet. Unless the only definition of superior is the ability to destroy. And how often in science fiction are we the alien invader? Just recall the film Avatar for an easy example. Or think of how we treated the aliens in District 9.

There are two stories I’ve read this year that dealt with this issue, but sadly, I can’t remember the title and author of either one. The first suggested there were two types of beings in the galaxy. One type wants to conquer the galaxy because they are spreaders. The other type wanted to explore the galaxy because they are seekers, seekers of knowledge. We like to think humanity is a seeker species, but we’re really spreaders.

The other story was about species genocide. A character had the military power to destroy a whole species of alien invaders, but worried about using it. The justification given to her claimed the galaxy was full of violent species that acted no better than murderers or thieves, so it was either kill or be killed, so she killed the invading aliens. As long as we’re a product of evolution do we always assume we have to keep playing its game.

My idea of a superior alien is one that can step outside of their evolutionary upbringing and can act with compassion and empathy towards their fellow species. But I also imagine, this superior species would also develop the ability to communicate precisely, way beyond the power of words, and understand reality. We only perceive reality indirectly, with very limited senses, and usually interpret what we perceive with a lot of bullshit desires. I’m guessing a real superior space alien would avoid us like a dangerous pathogen or generator of gamma ray bursts.

In the end, I wondered if Wells didn’t model his Martians on the English in Africa and India. That implies any science fiction about aliens is really about looking at ourselves in a mirror. Shouldn’t science fiction writer ask how we could become superior beings?

JWH

Let’s Build a Spaceship

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction group on Facebook has been reading through the Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction reader award short fiction finalists. “Minerva Girls” by James Van Pelt is about three teenage girls who build their own spaceship and go to the moon. I thought the story was a lot of fun, but one of our members said he couldn’t get into it because it was too unbelievable. Well, that’s true, believing children can invented anti-gravity and build their own spaceship out of a gas tank unearth from a service station is beyond farfetched, but it’s still a fun idea for a SF story. Coincidently, that plot is how I got into science fiction in the fifth grade by reading Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint.

Of course, it’s one thing to be a child and fantasize about of being a child space explorer, and being an old man believing a story about children inventing a spaceship. Obviously, realism didn’t get in my way of enjoying “Minerva Girls.” I started thinking about why and realized I’ve read a number of stories over my lifetime where kids build their own spaceship. It’s a neat little SF theme that doesn’t seem to ever go away.

Like I said in my last essay, cherished ideas acquired in childhood often have a habit of sticking with us for the rest of our lives, even if they have no possible reality. Most people learn the truth about Santa Claus at an early age yet keep the myth alive for the rest of their life. Who doesn’t love watching Miracle of on 34th Street every year?

Right after I read the Danny Dunn series I started in on the Tom Swift, Jr. books. These only reinforced the idea that kids could build anything that adults could.

Then a few years later in 1964 I discovered the Heinlein juveniles. In each book a teenager had adventures in space. I was now twelve, about to turn thirteen, and I still wanted to believe it was possible for a kid to build a rocket, yet I was old enough to realize that Heinlein’s book Rocket Ship Galileo was unbelievable. I knew what it took to build a rocket because I had faithfully followed every launch of Project Mercury and was reading about Project Gemini that would begin the following year. Rockets required a big hunk of a national budget and tens of thousands of grownups to build.

Then in the summer of 1966 I read a serial in If Magazine called “The Hour Before Earthrise” by James Blish where a kid builds a spaceship out of wood, powers it with anti-gravity, and goes to Mars. It was later published in book form as Welcome to Mars. By then I knew this was an idea too ridiculous to contemplate, yet I still enjoyed reading the story. I wanted to believe still, but I felt like a kid feeling too old for Santa.

There wasn’t a lot of YA science fiction when I was growing up – actually, there wasn’t a lot of science fiction period. But the genre had a reputation for being targeted at pre-adults. Many SF writers resented this, but I think it was mostly true. Today YA science fiction and fantasy is big business, and it’s not just consumed by teenagers. Evidently, adults want to vicariously be teenagers again and fantasize about having great adventures.

Part of me wants to reject my love of juvenile SF literature. That part of me wants science fiction to grow up too, and deal with reality. In particular, science fiction should explore realistic futures where going to the stars is impractical, and humanity accepts its destiny on Earth before we destroy it. But what kid wants to read that kind of science fiction? And it’s pretty obvious few adults want to read it either.

Yes, “Minerva Girls” is an unbelievable fantasy, but it’s also one we want to keep believing. I don’t mean to offend anyone by this comparison, but I wonder if the desire to believe in the science fiction we discovered in childhood isn’t akin to people who maintain their childhood religious beliefs in adulthood? What percentage of our society can’t put away childish things? I’m guessing a large percentage. Maybe the reality is we hold onto things we want to be real in the face of a reality we reject?

And reality does intrude into “Minerva Girls.” Selena and her friends have to contend with mean girls, studying things in school they didn’t want to learn, and the heartache of losing each other. They did have to come down to Earth after visiting the moon. They accepted the painful reality that their lifelong friendship was going to be broken up by two of their families moving to new cities.

There was another new bit of reality in this fantasy, instead of a trio of boys building a spaceship on their own, it was a trio of girls. In fact, in all these stories, the characters had to face plot pitfalls based on realistic everyday life hurdles. Fiction, even fantasy fiction, doesn’t work without a certain amount of realism.

I guess these stories are still appealing because wouldn’t it be fun to live in a reality where building a jalopy spaceship in the backyard could happen? Or converting an old Camry into a time machine?

James Wallace Harris, 6/20/21

Why Did I Like This Story?

Have you ever spent time thinking about why you like a particular story, movie, television show, song, photograph, painting, etc.? I believe most of us assume the critical ingredient is in the artwork itself. What if that’s not altogether true? What if our admiration also depends on what’s inside ourselves too?

I just read “Minla’s Flowers” by Alastair Reynolds in The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. It was the eleventh story in the anthology and the first one that grabbed me. The other ten were well-told tales, but they just didn’t resonate with my Sci-Fi soul. And that’s a hint at what I’m talking about. “Minla’s Flowers” pushed my buttons, but which buttons, and where did they come from?

People turn to genealogy when they want to know how their body got here, but it doesn’t explain the programming that went into creating their personality. What if we use the Butterfly Effect to explain the lineage of our personality and show where all beliefs, opinions, likes, dislikes, prejudices, loves, hates, fears, etc. that went into making who we think we are. What if the Big Bang origin of all our traits can be traced back to specific triggers, whether huge emotional explosions or tiny seeds of inspiration? Can we ever trace specific emotions back to the first flutter of butterfly wings?

This theory started taking form a few years ago when I realized I didn’t enjoy modern science fiction short stories as much as I loved older SF stories. Had I changed, or science fiction? It’s been sixty years since I started reading SF. It seems obvious that both myself and the genre have changed, but have we? The macro aspects of my personality and the genre haven’t I don’t think. But how many micro details reveal any real change? Both are complex system not easily understood, so my Freudian-like analysis will only be guesswork.

One hypothesis I’ve considered deals with information density. I know a lot more in 2021 than I did in 1962, and so does science fiction. My mind reads with a greater density of relatable knowledge, and modern SF prose is often written with a greater density of information and science fictional speculation. Yet science fiction themes don’t seem to change over time. About the only new themes to emerge during my lifetime is digital worlds and brain downloading/uploading, and both probably had precursors if I researched it enough. Last night I watched the 2019 British miniseries of The War of the World, and then started rereading the novel. It only reminds me of how I’ve been seeing shadows of Wells my whole life.

When I grew up SF stories had basic plots that exposed ordinary humans to usually one far-out bit of speculation. Now SF stories are written with a Phil Spector-like Wall of Speculation approach, embedding the plot and far-from-ordinary-humans into narratives of greater information density, especially the New Space Opera stories about the far future.

First off, I didn’t feel “Minla’s Flowers” was a five-star story, but I did feel it deserved a solid four-stars, mainly because I knew I’d want to reread it someday. In fact, I’ve already reread parts of it to compose my comment for our reading group at Facebook. That’s when I realized something. I liked “Minla’s Flowers” because it reminded me of so many other science fiction stories. Here’s my comment to the group:

Alastair Reynolds begins "Minla's Flowers" with a lone adventurer, Merlin, and his AI spaceship, Tyrant, falling out of subspace, Waynet, to make repairs on a planet, Lecythus, only to discover it inhabited by humans who had colonized it thousands of years ago and are currently at war, where he befriends an old scientist, Malkoha, and his daughter Minla.

I have to say all this triggered memories of Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers, Dr. Zarkov/Dr. Huer, and Dale Arden/Wilma Deering. "Minla's Flowers" is the first story in this collection that feels like Old Space Opera, and it was a lot of fun.

I thought for sure Reynolds was going to arrange for Merlin and Minla to become lovers ala cold sleep (think THE DOOR INTO SUMMER), but that didn't happen. Minla became his rival, even the antagonist of the story. Eventually, the plot of "Minla's Flowers" turns into the plot of WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, escaping a doomed planet by building a spacefaring nation in seventy years.

Since Merlin is needed for a future adventure by Reynolds, he undergoes a series of cold sleep timeouts, and only ages a few months during this story, while Minla reaches 80. That should remind me of several SF stories, but I can't recall any at the moment. (INTERSTELLAR?)

Reynolds extends this story time and again through philosophical and ethical issues of helping a civilization speed up its development. In this regard, Merlin's and Tyrant's roles remind me of Klaatu and Gort from the film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.

Because Reynolds embeds so much of the science fiction mythos into his story it caused the science fiction region of my soul to resonate with it. I know I will reread this story in the future, and it might even resonate more, but for now...

Rating: ****

Science fiction speculates on a limited number of subjects. One of the reasons I didn’t enjoy many of the ten stories before this one in The New Space Opera is because they speculated about topics I either discount, or I believe are too overused. Many of the stories in this anthology assume in the far future humans will have colonized the galaxy, and we’ll share it with aliens, intelligent robots, androids that look like us, cyborgs, humans that have achieve immortality, posthumans, transhumans, and downloaded humans. Decades ago it was common to see one of these elements as the basis of a science fiction story, but now it seems science fiction writers assume they will all coexist in the future, and somehow they must all be mentioned whenever writing a story about the far future. Actually, I’d find it a reading thrill for a writer to challenge these assumptions. It’s why I loved Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

New science fiction writers have to recycle old themes because developing new ones are next to impossible. And as a reader, at least for me, if I encounter too many stories using the same concepts, I get bored with them. I should probably avoid theme anthologies like The New Space Opera. Yet, I responded positively to “Minla’s Flowers” because it caused me to resonate with old SF I loved in adolescence. Freud was a big explorer of our subconscious mind, but did he ever suggest early sense of wonder experiences would create chimes in our personality that would ring in later years if we encounter similar wonders on the same wavelength?

Of course, I might need to be careful with line of self-analysis, or I might find out that everything I love and believe originated in old science fiction stories I first encountered in youth. I’ve often thought science fiction was my substitute for religion when it didn’t take when I was a kid.

“Minla’s Flowers” has one human, one AI spaceship, and an alien world populated by humans that colonized the planet so long ago they’ve forgotten how they got there. This simplicity of story elements reminds me of Old Space Opera. (Although Reynolds does keep trying to cram in even more science fictional elements I felt diluted the story.)

At the plot’s core, “Minla’s Flowers” is about a civilization that needs to flee its home planet to find a new world because their sun will be destroyed in seventy years. One of the first SF books I read with this theme was the omnibus When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide by by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. Has that story I read at age twelve shaped my response to future fiction? All my life I’ve thought humanity should colonize space to protect itself from extinction. Did that too come from Balmer and Wylie? Thinking about it now, I’m not sure it’s a practical or realistic idea. We were evolved for living on Earth, and all our space exploring fantasies may just be that.

Merlin fits the archetype for the science fiction hero, as does his sidekick. Where Reynolds took his story in an anti-tradition was with Minla, and that also thrilled me too. Is the right mixture for entertaining new science fiction a good bit of the tried and true, with a touch of the contrary?

Fiction is still magical. I don’t know how it works its spells. But now that I’m much older, and have consumed vast quantities of the genre, I sense patterns that my unconscious mind likes. It’s almost as if my unconscious mind learns and evolves, and maybe even has its own logic. I’m old and tired, and have a difficult time finding stories I still love, but every once in a while, something clicks. It’s a weird unexplainable experience.

James Wallace Harris, 6/19/21

The Difference Between 5-star and 4-star Stories

At our SF short story reading group on Facebook we’ve been discussing story rating systems. Everyone has a slightly different way to review and rate stories but a 5-star system is common. However, several people expand that basic 5 levels into 10 levels with half-stars or pluses, or to 100 levels with tenths of a point refinements. Personally, I can’t distinguish that finely between stories to organize them into ten levels, much less one hundred. However, I can say subjectively I like one story better than another, and compare them relative to each other.

After reading 1,000-2,000 stories over the last four years I’m starting to get an intuition about their quality. Some stories just stand out above all the others, and the group essentially agrees that 5-stars should be reserved for those very best stories, the stories that have become recognized classics or feel will become classic in the future. And I say essentially because we never agree on anything precisely in our group. And this relative system of rating doesn’t mean one reader’s 5-star classic can’t be some other member’s 3-star it’s okay story.

We discuss one story a day, and maybe a handful of members out of a near 500 membership will read and comment on the story. Those comments are enlightening about how we each read stories, and what reading pleasures and displeasures trigger their responses. A few of us have started leaving star ratings and that’s beginning to become illuminating too.

I’m slowly getting a feel for the short story form, at least regarding science fiction stories. If you haven’t read that many SF short stories, even an average story can trigger a “far out” or “great” response. But once you’ve logged your ten thousand hours of reading time, you realize truly great stories are few and far between. My guess is less than six 5-star level stories are published each year, and probably less than two dozen 4-star level stories. Most stories are good solid stories but they must be classed as 3-stars if you consider them relative to the 5-star and 4-star stories.

In other words, a 4-star story is a story that breaks out from the crowd by a significant measure. It’s like the Magnitude scale for earthquakes, logarithmic. It just feels like a big jump from 3-stars to 4-stars, and that’s why so many in the group want to rate stories ***+ or 3.5-stars, or even 3.2 or 3.7, because they feel the story is better than average but not quite up to that 4-star level. When you’ve read a lot of stories it intuitively feels like a 4-star stories is a quantum leap above a 3-star story but few people can explain why in details. And there’s another another tremendous leap from 4-stars to 5-stars. When you think of stories like “Flowers for Algernon” or “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas” you know very few stories come close to their magnitude in power.

I think many people want to rate fiction (or movies, or albums) like people rate their purchases on Amazon where 5-stars means you have no complaints. Which is why for some products on Amazon you see 80% 5-star ratings. When it comes to the artistic, 5-stars has to be for artwork that is 1 in 100 to 1 in 1,000 in quality.

But how can we understand this at a gut-reaction level? An idea came to me today that I think might help, so I’m trying it out here. Take any author you’ve read many of their short stories. How many stand out as your very favorites? How many are almost as good? And if you count the rest, how large is that number in relation to the first two groups?

Take for example Ray Bradbury. I consider these his obvious 5-star stories:

  • “There Will Come Soft Rains”
  • “Mars is Heaven!”

I consider his 4-star stories to be:

  • “The Million-Year Picnic”
  • “The Veldt”
  • “A Sound of Thunder”
  • “The Pedestrian”

And the first two I’d probably rate ****+ or 4.5-stars.

There might be other stories that I haven’t read by Bradbury that I would rate with a 5-star or 4-star, but for the most part I’ve read dozens of his hundreds of stories and they go into a vague 3-star pile. If I studied his work thoroughly, I’d probably find several more stories I love, but for now, this is how I remember Ray Bradbury.

For all my favorite authors I can remember stories that stand out as classic, and some that I don’t feel are quite as good. For example, with Clifford Simak, as much as I love “The Big Front Yard,” it’s not on the the save level as “Huddling Place” or “Desertion.” As much as I love “The Year of the Jackpot” by Heinlein, it’s not on the same level as “The Menace From Earth,” or “Requiem,” or “Universe.”

Another difference between 4-star and 5-star stories is how many times I will reread them. I can enjoy a 3-star story quite a lot, but I know I’ll never want to reread them. Whereas, when I read a story for the first time and know I want to reread again someday, that tells me the story is a 4-star story. Stories that I have read many times are the ones I think of as 5-star stories. In fact, I might not know a story is a 5-star story until I’ve read it two or three times.

There is no way to objectively and quantitatively rate a work of art, but using a system based on relative impact is somewhat helpful, don’t you think?

Using this relative system to read new stories, especially by authors I don’t know, can be troublesome. I have to rate the story against all the other stories I know by other writers. So if I’m reading a new story from the latest issue of Lightspeed Magazine it has to complete with all the 5-star and 4-star stories I’ve discovered over my lifetime.

Is that fair? Would it be fair to do otherwise?

SF Short Story Rating Systems I Admire

James Wallace Harris 6/10/21

Is Science Fiction Just Fairy Tales?

When I first started reading science fiction, I thought it superior to ordinary fantasy because science fiction prepared readers for the future. I never believed science fiction predicted the future, but I did believe science fiction could seriously ponder future possibilities. To me, the best science fiction was philosophical, speculative, and extrapolated on current trends. Both the fixup novel The Dying Earth by Jack Vance and the anthology The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan ponders the far future. But do their stories say anything serious about the future? Do any of their stories speak specifically to the adult mind? Or are they just fairy tales for grown up readers?

The Dying Earth is a collection of six related short works of fantasy that imagines life on Earth after the sun grows old, which is a wonderful science fictional concept. The stories are a cross between fantasies about magicians and science fiction about dying civilizations that barely remembers technology. In a vague way, its stories remind me of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights, but that’s because I just read “Ask Yourself Which Books You Truly Love” by Salman Rushdie in The New York Times. Rushdie was writing about our love of stories, especially the ones we first encounter as children. But I thought the Arabian Nights stories imagined when humanity and history were young, and the Jack Vance stories imagine humanity and history when old.

The Dying Earth contain these six stories:

  • “Turjan of Miir”
  • “Mazirian the Magician”
  • “T’sais”
  • “Liane the Wayfarer”
  • “Ulan Dhor”
  • “Guyal of Sfere”

The first three stories feel like Aesop, Homer or Grimm, simple fable or fairy tale in tone, while the later ones grow in sophistication feeling more like Dante or Chaucer. “Ulan Dhor” comes across the most like science fiction, but science fiction from the 1930s out of Weird Tales.

After “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells, and The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, other writers began expanding the end of time theme, but Vance got to name it with this book. Normally, I don’t like fantasy stories, but I did like The Dying Earth. This book was so successful that Vance wrote more stories about living under the dark red sun that were collected in three different volumes. I haven’t read them yet, but I bought Tales of the Dying Earth for the Kindle which puts all four into one book.

Normally, I avoid fantasy, preferring science fiction, but I started life as a bookworm with the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. If you only know Oz from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, then you don’t know Oz. Not that the film isn’t wonderful, but it doesn’t convey the vastness of Baum’s fantasy worldbuilding. I’m not a scholar on children’s fantasy books, but is there any fictional world building before the 20th century that can compete with the Oz books?

I know pop culture has pretty much forgotten Baum’s fantasyland, but for children growing up in the early decades of the 1900s, the Oz books were as popular as the Harry Potter books are today. Many classic science fiction writers grew up reading Oz books, including Robert A. Heinlein, who referenced them in his later World as Myth novels.

I bring up the Oz books here because Baum’s basic plotting device is often used by fantasy and science fiction writers. It works like this. Introduce one or more normal characters, and maybe some exotic or magical characters. Give them a quest. Take the group from one strange location to the next, where they meet wonders and far out beings. Keep it up until you’ve filled a book’s worth of pages. Tie things up with a satisfying insight. Ringworld by Larry Niven is a great example of this, and so is some of the stories in The Dying Earth, especially “Ulan Dhor” and “Guyal of Sfere.” The later story even has an Oz like wizard that explains things at the end.

The Dying Earth theme is powerful because writers usually explore two visions: the end of man, and the end of Earth. Just to meditate on that idea generates a powerful sense of wonder. However, I don’t think Vance’s stories say any more about the future than One Thousand and One Nights says about the past. They are just fairy tales for grownups. Modern fantasy has vastly evolved past these stories in sophistication. I will keep reading in this series because I’ve been told Vance eventually gets more sophisticated too, but I wonder if he ever gets more adult.

I wonder if the 20th century trend of writing stories set in an ever-growing fantasyland might have begun with Baum? That kind of never-ending world building appeals to both children and adolescents, and has apparently seduced many an adult reader too, because it seems like all genre writers are churning out countless books in series. And doesn’t our hunger for story series and complex world building comes from our childhood love of fantasy series?

The Dying Earth as a theme keeps expanding with new writers and new readers. Science fiction writers and readers also love the Far Future as a similar setting for a theme, although the name for that theme seems to have become The New Space Opera. Fans of this theme don’t worry about the end of the Earth or humankind, because they believe humanity has plenty of places to go. And like Baum inventing endless fantasy beings for Oz, the New Space Opera writers have invented endless far out aliens, robots, AI, transhuman, and posthumans to populate stories using this theme.

But to be honest, I’m not that fond of the New Space Opera theme. Oh, the ideas they come up with have a wonderful sense of wonder, but these stories are often presented as hard science fiction, which imply their science fictional inventions could be possible, and I don’t believe that. The opening of “Glory” by Greg Egan is dazzling. It sounds so scientific yet I can’t believe it’s no more realistic than magic. It begins:

An ingot of metallic hydrogen gleamed in the starlight, a narrow cylinder half a meter long with a mass of about a kilogram. To the naked eye it was a dense, solid object, but its lattice of tiny nuclei immersed in an insubstantial fog of electrons was one part matter to two hundred trillion parts empty space. A short distance away was a second ingot, apparently identical to the first, but composed of antihydrogen.

A sequence of finely tuned gamma rays flooded into both cylinders. The protons that absorbed them in the first ingot spat out positrons and were transformed into neutrons, breaking their bonds to the electron cloud that glued them in place. In the second ingot, antiprotons became antineutrons.

A further sequence of pulses herded the neutrons together and forged them into clusters; the antineutrons were similarly rearranged. Both kinds of cluster were unstable, but in order to fall apart they first had to pass through a quantum state that would have strongly absorbed a component of the gamma rays constantly raining down on them.

Left to themselves, the probability of them being in this state would have increased rapidly, but each time they measurably failed to absorb the gamma rays, the probability fell back to zero. The quantum Zeno effect endlessly reset the clock, holding the decay in check.

The next series of pulses began shifting the clusters into the space that had separated the original ingots. First neutrons, then antineutrons, were sculpted together in alternating layers. Though the clusters were ultimately unstable, while they persisted they were inert, sequestering their constituents and preventing them from annihilating their counterparts. The end point of this process of nuclear sculpting was a sliver of compressed matter and antimatter, sandwiched together into a needle one micron wide.

The gamma ray lasers shut down, the Zeno effect withdrew its prohibitions. For the time it took a beam of light to cross a neutron, the needle sat motionless in space. Then it began to burn, and it began to move.

You can finish the whole story here.

The stories in The New Space Opera are exactly what I wanted to believe in growing up. I desperately wanted humanity to have all this potential. I knew I’d never live to see such successes in space, but I wanted to die confident that humanity would go on to achieve these wonders. Now that I’m approaching seventy, I realize my childhood dreams were wishful fantasies, no more realistic than the far-out promises of religion. Sure, we will explore space, but not like the epic super-science visions produced by the New Space Opera stories. We’re not going to transfer our minds into other bodies, whether biological or digital. We’re not going to build spaceships the size of Jupiter. We’re not going to have galaxy spanning civilizations. All those ideas are just fairy tales for adults.

However my problem with the New Space Opera stories is not that they imagine impossible futures, but how the stories are often told. Many of the stories in this anthology cram too many ideas into one plot. Their authors love to jam in so many speculative concepts that basic story gets crushed. Characterization and plotting take a back seat to worldbuilding. And it’s not that these writers are constantly infodumping ideas, but instead they throw out endless hints assuming readers can fill in the details mentally. Often those hints require cognitive decryption which for me distracts from the story. Sometimes stories combine a dozen science fictional concepts into one futuristic setting as if every science fictional speculation to date will come true. The cumulative effect is a goulash of cliché science fiction. That’s why when I got to Kage Baker’s “Maelstrom” it felt refreshingly different. Her speculation about colonizing Mars took a backseat to plot and character. That’s why I prefer Robert Reed’s “Good Mountain” to “Hatch,” his entry in the anthology.

I’m afraid too many of the stories in The New Space Opera depend too much on the big standard theories of current SF. I love science fiction for its ideas, but I also need a good story. Dense worldbuilding isn’t good enough for me. But hey, that might just be me. Maybe my aging brain can’t handle modern science fiction. Maybe that’s why I preferred Vance’s fantasy stories, even though I prefer science fiction over fantasy. Evidently, there’s something in how storytellers need to tell adult fairy tales that count.

Paul Fraser in our science fiction short story discussion group on Facebook makes a distinction between dense stories and story stories in modern SF fiction. I agree. I think the editor Gardner Dozois liked to promote dense stories, and we see that in The New Space Opera. Our group has seen dense stories popular in Asimov’s Science Fiction too. See their list of finalists for their 35th annual reader awards. One example of an overly dense story is Ray Nayler’s “Return to the Red Castle,” where he takes a simple plot of a woman wanting to help her old teacher, an android, recover her memory, by throwing in enough ideas for a half-dozen science fiction stories. I wanted the story to be more about Irem and Umut’s issues with memory, and less about the world building for the Istanbul Protectorate. But obviously, plenty of readers loved it just the way it is.

But whatever you prefer, dense or story, aren’t these stories still adult fairy tales? Isn’t the problem how the story is told rather than issues with the content? Is Little Red Riding Hood and her problems with the wolf any different in true age appeal than Irem’s problem with her android? I’m sure James Joyce and Proust’s novels are aimed at adult minds. But how much science fiction is truly adult in nature? And I’m not talking about X-rated content. If young children and young adults had the readings skills, wouldn’t they find most science fiction and fantasy fiction appealing? Can you name any science fiction novel that only appeals to a mature mind?

I wonder now if The Dying Earth and The New Space Opera stories aren’t aimed at the child in me. That I still read such stories because I never grew up. Or maybe, the wonders we imagined in childhood never leave us. As a ten year-old I wanted to live in Baum’s Oz. As a thirteen year-old I wanted to live on Heinlein’s Mars. It’s taking me sixty-nine years to accept the only place for humans is Earth, but I’m not sure if I will ever grow up and accept that. I have to wonder if I’ve never outgrown fairy tales.

James Wallace Harris, 6/3/21

Lords of the Psychon by Daniel F. Galouye

Daniel F. Galouye (1920-1976) was never a famous science fiction writer, but back in the 1950s and 1960s his shorter work appeared regularly in many of the SF magazines with the notable exception of Astounding/Analog. Galouye published five novels, three of which made it to my list of SF novels of the 1960s (Dark Universe, Lords of the Psychon, and Simulacron-3). Over the years, I’ve seen several mentions of his work and have meant to read them, but it hasn’t been until I got Lords of the Psychon in a batch of old paperbacks from eBay that I’ve had a chance. Galouye’s books aren’t rare, but they aren’t widely known either. Dark Universe and Simulacron-3 are currently in print, and Dark Universe is even available on Audible.com. Simulacron-3 inspired both a TV miniseries (World on a Wire) and a movie (The Thirteenth Floor), and some have called it an early cyberpunk novel. Not a bad legacy for a writer who is mostly forgotten.

Lords of the Psychon was a lot of fun to read, but not as much fun as I had with Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn, the SF book I read before it. Both of these 1960s novels deal with alien invasion. Both novels are set years after the aliens have conquered Earth. Both novels deal with a small group of humans hoping to overthrow the aliens. Both novels have a unique take on showing the alienness of the invaders.

Don’t read beyond this point if you hate any kind of spoilers.

In this section I’ll give you a bit more of the details but still try to avoid all plot spoilers. The 1950s was a time when many science fiction stories, especially in Astounding Science Fiction, explored psychic powers, ESP, or sometimes called psionics. I’ve always thought Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) was the pinnacle of that trend which quickly faded from popularity. I now see that Daniel F. Galouye had something more to add in 1963 with Lords of the Psychon. Actually, I feel the novel was inspired by Heinlein, and even feels somewhat like a 1950s Heinlein novel in tone. Galouye was a test pilot during WWII, so he also has a military background like Heinlein.

The setup for Lords of the Psychon is the speculation that the fundamental subatomic building blocks of reality can be controlled by thought, and this 1963 novel predates such woo-woo physics books as The Tao of Physics (1975) by Fritjof Capra and The Dancing Wu Li Masters (1979) by Gary Zukav. Basically, Galouye tortunes quantum mechanics to come up with a fun science fictional idea. Instead of swinging East like Capra and Zukav, Galouye keeps a western view of psychic powers.

Today, we think of such psionic themes as malarky, but I believe Galouye worked hard to pull off his speculative fiction. Eventually, the story moves towards Theodore Sturgeon and gestalt minds. In other words, I give Galouye credit for producing an evolutionary science fictional work.

I won’t go into plot details because I really don’t like any such spoilers myself, but I will reprint two reviews from 1963 that do, so read them at your own risk. The first is from Analog, November 1963 by P. Schuyler Miller.

I love reading reviews of books from when they first came out to see how my reaction is different. Miller praises Lords of the Psychon but claims Galouye’s first novel, Dark Universe, is the real standout. That means I need to read it soon.

S. E. Cotts reviews the novel in the August 1963 issue of Amazing Stories. I know nothing about Cotts, but I like her review. If you know anything about S. E. Cotts, leave a comment.

Cotts also gives away way too much of the plot for my taste. I’m still figuring out how to review fiction. I like the details of a story to unfold as the author intended. Both Miller and Cotts reveal things I prefer to learn for myself. However, I suppose they believe that a certain amount of plot details need to be given to hook the reader into buying the novel.

Rosemary Benton writing for Galactic Journey gives this novel 4.5 stars. Her 2018 review pretends to have been written in 1963. She also gives away quite a few plot points. Unlike Miller and Cotts, Benton seems to prefer Psychon over Dark Universe.

I believe Lords of the Psychon is a 4-star out of 5-star novel for those readers who delight in reading science fiction novels from the 1960s. I admire Galouye’s speculation even though I don’t think it’s scientific. I feel the novel is plotted tighter than modern SF novels, and is told with far fewer words, which is one of the reasons why I prefer older science fiction. Hopefully, that’s enough information for people who don’t like spoilers, but if it’s not, just read the three reviews above.

James Wallace Harris, 5/31/21

Monologues of Remembrances

Everyone remembers Roy Batty’s monologue from the end of Blade Runner, sometimes called “Tears in the Rain.” Wikipedia even has an entry for it. It’s very short but when you hear Rutger Hauer speak it in the film, it feels timeless.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Well, today I was listening to The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, and in particular, to the short story “Ulan Dhor Ends a Dream,” and it reminded me of Roy’s monologue. It evoked the same emotion. Aren’t these monologues so much more impressive when performed/spoken?

I have known the Ampridatvir of old; I have seen the towers glowing with marvellous light, thrusting beams through the night to challenge the sun itself. Then Ampridatvir was beautiful — ah! My heart pains when I think of the olden city. Semir vines cascaded from a thousand hanging gardens, water ran blue as vaul-stone in the three canals. Metal cars rolled the streets, metal hulls swarmed the air as thick as bees around a hive — for marvel of marvels, we had devised wefts of spitting fire to spurn the weighty power of Earth … But even in my life I saw the leaching of spirit. A surfeit of honey cloys the tongue; a surfeit of wine addles the brain; so a surfeit of ease guts a man of strength. Light, warmth, food, water, were free to all men, and gained by a minimum of effort. So the people of Ampridatvir, released from toil, gave increasing attention to faddishness, perversity, and the occult.

This made me wonder how many stories have a monologue of remembrance in them? It’s a very powerful trick of fiction, don’t you think? Charles Dickens used it very effectively as the opening to A Tale of Two Cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

I believe Heinlein must have been inspired by Dickens when he wrote the opening to Glory Road.

I know a place where there is no smog and no parking problem and no population explosion...no Cold War and no H-bombs and no television commercials...no Summit Conferences, no Foreign Aid, no hidden taxes—no income tax. The climate is the sort that Florida and California claim (and neither has), the land is lovely, the people are friendly and hospitable to strangers, the women are beautiful and amazingly anxious to please—

I could go back. I could—

I can’t recall any others at the moment. Can you? If you can, post them in the comments.

James Wallace Harris, 5/29/21

Ever Been Chased by Giants in Your Dreams?

The most read essay on my personal blog is “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” Evidently, I’m not the only person who runs from dinosaurs in their dreams, because 25-50 people daily find my essay on Google. I recently realized that I sometimes run from both human giants as well as giant space aliens in my dreams too. This obviously reveals my personal philosophy about the big dangers of life – keep a low profile. In my dreams the solution to avoiding being killed is to be quiet and hide from all the big monsters.

Warning: Don’t read this review. Just go read the book below to have the maximum fun. Don’t even read the blurbs on the cover. However, if you need more convincing, keep reading, I’ve kept the spoilers to the bare minimum.

Keeping a low profile is exactly what Eric the Only doesn’t do in Of Men and Monsters, a classic science fiction novel by William Tenn. It’s an expansion of Tenn’s October 1963 story for Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, “The Men in the Walls.” I vaguely remember reading the novel back in the early 1970s, but decided to reread it yesterday because of reviews by Joachim Boaz and MarzAat. Luckily, I didn’t read their entire reviews ahead of time because they both have spoilers. I just got caught up with MarzAat’s enthusiasm responding to Joachim’s review, and grabbed my copy of book and started reading. In fact, it’s the first novel in decades that I’ve read in less than a day. Just fun, good old fashion science fiction. Joachim gives it four stars out of five, and that’s what my initial assessment was too, however…

Of Men and Monsters has a simple backstory. Giant aliens from space have conquered Earth and humans are thrown into a kind of dark age, living in the walls of alien buildings. The story is well told, and surprisingly engaging for such a simple premise. Eric the Only, is a member of one of many tribes trying to survive by stealing food from the aliens they call monsters. Each tribe has a competing philosophy about existence, and Eric the Only is a bright young man trying to figure out reality from many contradictory beliefs.

Think about giants in the Bible, or “Jack and the Beanstalk,” or the big and little episodes in Gulliver’s Travels, or “Giant Killer” by A. Bertram Chandler, or J. G. Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” (now animated for season 2 of Love, Death & Robots). And if you remember, the 1968 TV show Land of the Giants. I wonder if Willian Tenn was given any credit or money for his idea? He probably wasn’t as pugnacious and litigatious as Harlan Ellison. Well, the Land of the Giants is somewhat different, with castaway humans on the planet of giant aliens. Anyway, giants make up a tiny sub-sub-sub-genre that I believe triggers a certain psychological appeal. For some reason, pop culture returns to it fairly often.

Of Men and Monsters also reeks of another minor motif I’ve seen in science fiction, and that’s about life in the corridors. I remember reading the “Tumithak of the Corridors” stories in Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov, an anthology of his favorite science fiction stories he loved reading growing up in the 1930s. But life in the corridors was also the setting in Heinlein’s Orphans in the Sky (1963), a fixup novel based on “Universe” and “Common Sense” first published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1941, and in Brian Aldiss’ 1958 novel Non-Stop (called Starship in the U.S.). This motif often connects to the theme of forgotten civilization which we find in many science fiction and fantasy stories about the far future. Not only do we love stories about running from big beings like dinosaurs, King Kong, 50-foot high women, and giant space aliens, but we also love stories about forgetting who we were as a society.

The corridor motif also runs parallel with the back to the primitive theme in post apocalyptic stories of the 1950s. Science fiction writers have suggested in both books and movies that after a nuclear war civilization could be reduced to living like hunters and gathers again. Writers imagine our descendents forgetting the past, and picture these future humans like cavemen or 19th century native Americans. I vaguely remember some Andre Norton novels like this. Eric the Only wears just a leather jock strap, and the women of his tribe only wear their hair, but very long. His tribe use spears for weapons and live by rigid customs created by superstitions. Some readers might consider this aspect of the story satire on humanity, but I didn’t. It just felt logical to the plot.

I’ve tried very hard not to give the details here to Of Men and Monsters because I thoroughly enjoyed how the story unfolded. I wouldn’t have told you about the monsters being aliens but that tends to be in all reviews and on the cover blurbs. I will give one tiny spoiler that I found fascinating. The tunnels the humans live in are the air spaces of the insulation used by aliens in their buildings. That should give you an idea of relative size. All the cover art on the many book editions gets this wrong drawing the aliens only three or four times the size of humans. The aliens are immensely larger.

Probably reading Of Men and Monsters was so entertaining for me because I need some escapism. I had a CT scan Friday and I’m waiting the results. In other words I’m hiding from a big monster. But I also loved this book because it is so 1950s science fictional. It’s a retreat into my childhood and contained so many themes, ideas, motifs, and speculations that I loved when first discovering science fiction. Because of that I’ll give it 5-stars when I rate it for Goodreads. I’m sure a reader less prejudiced by nostalgia wouldn’t be so generous.

One last thing. Towards the end of the story William Tenn intrudes in the novel by allowing one of the characters to philosophize about humanity. That character says we’re kin to rats and roaches and we’ve not been kind to each other or to the other species we share the planet. I agree with what Tenn is preaching, but I felt this bit of philosophy dumping marred the story. The story itself had already inspired me to think of these things without being told. If this novel has a flaw it’s how modern knowledge that should have been forgotten was worked into the story. Either that, or Tenn should have developed the backstory of the Aaron tribe to explain how they could have retained that knowledge.

James Wallace Harris, 5/23/21

All Is Ineffable, But Some Writers Try Anyway

I divide fiction into two types: stories about reality, and stories that are make believe. Words are not cameras, but some writers use words to paint what they see. Most writers use words to trigger artificial realities in our mind’s eye. Their stories might feel reality based, but they are not. Some writers use such fantasies as analogies to comment on real world, which can be confusing. We never can distinguish the unreal from any slight implications about reality.

What do you do when you encounter an absurd story that feels like it has something to say about life but is impossible to decipher? Do you stick with it, hoping understanding will come? Do you study critical works hoping for insight? Do you take notes and ponder the possibilities? Or do you get disgusted and throw the book against the wall? One Goodreads reviewer claimed that’s what he did with Past Master by R. A. Lafferty. I thought about it.

The title, Past Master, can be interpreted in a number of ways. One approach is to accept how it’s used in the story. Thomas More is retrieved from the past to become the president of a colony planet in the future, a decaying utopia. The characters in the story call More the past master and hope he will save their society. Throughout the novel, we get many allusions to literary past masters because their words encrust Lafferty’s prose like barnacles. Third, and maybe finally, or maybe not, we sense that Lafferty himself is the past master. His soul is swollen with past experiences he recasts onto clean typewritten pages like Jackson Pollard throwing paint at a canvas.

As a reader I ache to make sense of Lafferty’s first novel. I hope it has a point, because swimming across a lake of his Baroque prose I can’t tell if Past Master is a shallow tall-tale, or The Divine Comedy. I find Lafferty’s voice not much fun to read, but I do perceive his work as creative and unique. I keep reading because I’ve been pushing myself to read more science fiction by admired writers I ignored because I didn’t like them.

Past Master was selected by the Library of America as one of the significant science fiction novels of the 1960s. It was a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards. And over the years Lafferty has had many champions promoting his work, including: Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Michael Dirda, Nancy Kress, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, etc.

It would be helpful if I knew more about R. A. Lafferty. He’s sometimes referred to as an engineer, but he never finished college. After serving in the South Pacific in WWII, he worked as a salesperson in an engineering supply house until 1980 when his writing could support him instead. He never married, supposedly lived with his sister, and was a Catholic who went to daily communion. Lafferty was very prolific, publishing many novels, hundreds of short stories, and leaving a tall stack of unpublished novels and stories at his death. He probably leaned towards the conservative politically, but not completely.

Because of Lafferty’s prose, especially his word choices, I assume he was widely read, probably from old books. The narrative voice in many of his stories often feels like some translations of Homer or even writers from Elizabethan England. His characters lack an inner landscape like those in classical literature, and are often presented as archetypes. Yet, Lafferty writes science fiction, even though it sometimes feels as it was written by Virgil, Apuleius, or Petronius.

Past Master is a story about a utopia, but one set five hundred years from now on the planet Astrobe. Lafferty claims civilization is recreated every five hundred years, and Astrobe is the third great attempt at creating a utopia after the failures in the Old World in Europe, and the New World in the Americas. Near the beginning of Past Master we learn:

The three men gathered in the building were large physically, they were important and powerful, they were intelligent and interesting. There was a peculiar linkage between them: each believed that he controlled the other two, that he was the puppeteer and they were the puppets. And each was partly right in this belief. It made them an interlocking nexus, taut and resilient, the most intricate on Astrobe. 

Cosmos Kingmaker, who was too rich. The Heraldic Lion. 

Peter Proctor, who was too lucky. The Sleek Fox. 

Fabian Foreman, who was too smart. The Worried Hawk. 

“This is Mankind’s third chance,” said Kingmaker. “Ah, they’re breaking the doors down again. How can we talk with it all going on?” 

He took the speaking tube. “Colonel,” he called out. “You have sufficient human guards. It is imperative that you disperse the riot. It is absolutely forbidden that they murder this man at this time and place. He is with us and is one of us as he has always been.” 

“The colonel is dead,” a voice came back. “I am Captain John Chezem the Third, next in command.” 

“You be Colonel Chezem now,” Kingmaker said. “Call out what reinforcements you need and prevent this thing.” 

“Foreman,” said Peter Proctor softly within the room. “Whatever you are thinking this day, do not think it so strongly. I’ve never seen the things so avid for your life.” 

“It is Mankind’s third chance we have been throwing away here,” Kingmaker intoned to the other two in the room, speaking with great serenity considering the siege they were under. Even when he spoke quietly, Kingmaker was imposing. He had the head that should be on gold coins or on Great Seals. They called him the lion, but there were no lions on Astrobe except as statuary. He was a carven lion, cut out of the Golden Travertine, the fine yellow marble of Astrobe. He had a voice of such depth that it set up echoes even when he whispered. It was part of the aura of power that he set up about himself.

Lafferty, R. A.. Past Master (pp. 14-15). Library of America. Kindle Edition. 

These three decide to send someone back in time to fetch Thomas More. They want to run him for president of Astrobe as the only solution to save themselves and their utopian society. To get a bit more of the flavor of this story, let me quote the beginning of chapter two.

THE PILOT chosen by Fabian Foreman to bring Thomas More from Earth to Astrobe was named Paul. Paul was two meters of walking irony, a long, strong, swift man, and short of speech. His voice was much softer than would be expected from his appearance, and had only a slight rough edge to it. What seemed to be a perpetual crooked grin was partly the scar of an old fight. He was a compassionate man with a cruel and crooked face. From his height, his rough red hair and ruddy face, and his glittering eyes he was sometimes called The Beacon. 

For a record of irregular doings, classified as criminal, Paul had had his surname and his citizenship taken away from him. Such a person loses all protection and sanction. He is at the mercy of the Programmed Persons and their Killers, and mercy was never programmed into them. 

The Programmed Killers are inhibited from killing a human citizen of Astrobe, though often they do so by contrived accident. But an offender who has had his citizenship withdrawn is prey to them. He has to be very smart to survive, and Paul had survived for a year. For that long he had evaded the remorseless stiff-gaited Killers who follow their game relentlessly with their peculiar stride. Paul had lived as a poor man in the Barrio, and in the ten thousand kilometers of alleys in Cathead. He had been running and hiding for a year, and quite a bit of money had been bet on him. There is always interest in seeing how long these condemned can find a way to live under their peculiar sentence, and Paul had lived with it longer than any of them could remember. And he was ahead of those stiff killers. He had killed a dozen of them in their brushes, and not one of them had ever killed him. 

An ansel named Rimrock, an acquaintance of both of them, had got in touch with Paul for Fabian Foreman. And Paul arrived now, remarkably uncowed by his term as fugitive. He arrived quite early in the morning, and he already had an idea from the ansel of what the mission was. 

“You sent for me, Hawk-Face?” he asked Foreman. “I’m an irregular man. Why should you send me on a mission? Send a qualified citizen pilot, and keep yourself clean.” 

“We want a man capable of irregular doings, Paul,” Foreman said. “You’ve been hunted, and you’ve become smart. There will be danger. There shouldn’t be, since this was decided on by the Inner Circle of the Masters, but there will be.” 

“What’s in it for me?” 

“Nothing. Nothing at all. You’ve been living in the meanest circumstances on the planet. You are intelligent. You must have seen what is wrong with Astrobe.” 

“No, I don’t know what is wrong with our world, Inner Circle Foreman, nor how to set it right. I know that things are very wrong; and that those who use words to mean their opposites are delighted about the whole thing. You yourself are a great deal in the company of the subverters. I don’t trust you a lot. But you are hunted by the killers. You slipped them yesterday by a fox trick that nobody understands, so you enter the legendary of the high hunted. There must be something right about a man they hate so much.” 

“We are trying to find a new sort of leader who can slow, even reverse, the break-up, Paul. We’ve selected a man from the Earth Past, Thomas More. We will present him to the people only as the Thomas, or perhaps, to be more fanciful, as the Past Master. You know of him?” 

“Yes, I know him as to time and place and reputation.”

Lafferty, R. A.. Past Master (pp. 23-24). Library of America. Kindle Edition. 

The program killers are robots, maybe androids. In Lafferty everything is mythical, so people can be a product of human and machine, or animal and human, etc. You get the feeling that Lafferty dreads the coming technological changes, and the social transformations he’s experiencing in the mid-1960s. Lafferty’s science fiction might even be anti-SF.

Astrobe is only partly utopian, where its citizens can have anything. Yet, many people are leaving the utopian cities, choosing to live instead in outlaw territories, even when forced to work as slaves or worst. In the chapters where Thomas More is studying Astrobe, we encounter many strange places and people. These picaresque parts of the novel feels like something out of Lewis Carroll or L. Frank Baum. In the later chapters, where More is running for president and then ruling, the story becomes more metaphysical and surreal. It’s about fate and who really rules reality. In the last chapters, Lafferty becomes philosophical, but in a religious/spiritual way.

What is Lafferty saying about reality? We know Lafferty was devoutly Catholic, and the story strongly mirrors Christ and the crucifixion. At one point Thomas More asks to attend Mass on Astrobe, but he’s shown a horrible mechanical freak show. Another time he gets to meet the Pope, who is barely alive. Lafferty began Past Master around 1964 or earlier, during the changes of the Vatican II Council. Lafferty hated the new direction the church was taking. I’m guessing that Lafferty didn’t like the way the world at large was going either, and Past Master is his commentary on those upheavals. The novel essentially predicts a reboot of society, something some crazy people desire today.

On one level, Past Master feels like the humor of Robert Sheckley or Avram Davidson. Lafferty is just writing weird shit to amuse science fiction readers who are mostly adolescents. On the other hand, Lafferty is a mature man writing what will become his first novel published when he’s in his early fifties. I’m not sure, but he may be an old white guy with something to say.

Just how sophisticated is Lafferty’s novel? Is he no better than a Qanon reposter or something closer to Gore Vidal? If we’re to believe the Library of America, Neil Gaiman, or Andrew Ferguson, Lafferty is a literary wonder. Go to Amazon and read Gaiman’s introduction to The Best of R. A. Lafferty or Ferguson’s introduction to Past Master in the “Look inside” feature. On the other hand, just reexamine the quotes above.

I can’t decide. Since the 1960s I’ve read three of Lafferty’s novels, and maybe a couple dozen short stories. Sometimes I’m amused, sometimes I’m annoyed. If Past Master is commentary on the mid-20th century by a grumpy old Catholic guy from Tulsa, then I’m kind of impressed. But if it’s just an absurd play for the theater of our minds, I’m mostly unimpressed.

There’s another way to judge this story. We learn next to nothing about Thomas More or his Utopia, or utopias in general. Nor do we learn anything significant about Catholicism or Christianity. Past Master is satire, but not very sophisticated, closer to SNL. Sometimes it’s amusing like “More Cowbell” but other times it’s moronic like the Bassomatic. All too often science fiction takes a half-ass approach to its philosophizing. The level of humor in Past Master is closer to Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, two comic SF novels I enjoyed. However, Lafferty uses an archaic voice for his humor which I didn’t enjoy. Because Lafferty is riffing on many serious subjects, we get the whiff of serious literature. But is it? To tell the truth, I don’t know. I think not, but Lafferty’s out of print books are now rare, expensive, and hard to find because of his faithful fans.

I do believe R. A. Lafferty was protesting reality by writing Past Master back in the 1960s, but his fiction is ineffable, giving us only hints at what he really thought. And you know what’s funny? Reading Past Master makes me want to read a memoir by Lafferty, or a good biography. Lafferty fiction can be entertaining, but I actually wish I knew what he actually thought and experienced, and that’s easier to come by in nonfiction. Satire sometimes feels like its from a superior intellect, but just as often, I get the feeling it hides a lack of knowledge, or is just anger and snideness.

James Wallace Harris, 5/22/21

Will Climate Change Crush Our Science Fictional Dreams?

Science fiction true believers have such big hopes for the future but I have to wonder if climate change is going to derail their cherished extrapolations. Science fiction is mostly fantasy but it’s byproduct has been certain faiths in the future. At minimum, we believe humanity will colonize the Moon and Mars, and spread out to the asteroids and outer moons. At maximum, we hoped to explore the galaxy. We also assumed we’d transform the Earth into a sustainable technological civilization with many wonders, including life extension, sentient machines, genetically improved humans, uplifted animals, clones, cyborgs, and even posthumans. Sure, science fiction has produced many fears about tomorrow, but for the most part people expect Star Trek as our destiny.

Can we reach the promised land if we don’t reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back to 350ppm? Because we show no real signs of slowing the increase of CO2 should science fiction writers start rewriting the future? Was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future the last great hope of the genre saving its cherished futurisms?

If we had all jumped in and worked together starting in the 1980s and 1990s when we first learned about the problems of CO2 pollution we might have saved ourselves. But greedy people who preferred wealth for themselves over a sustainable future for everyone convinced enough people not to try. Some people still have hope we can divert the worst scenarios from coming true. However, the momentum of adding all that CO2 beyond 350ppm is too great to stop now. Those delays have doomed us.

The only way to avert the countless looming disasters would be to ban air travel, immediately replace all fossil fuel engines with electric motors powered by clean electricity, and probably get rid of the meat industry and maybe the pet industry, and pursue the the kind of austerity that terrifies the capitalists. That won’t happen, will it? We’re on a runaway train with such tremendous momentum that nothing can stop us but the crash. People still talk of changing things by 2030 and 2050, but I fear that’s delusional dreaming. We could still avert the worse disasters, but I doubt we will, and even the minor effects of climate change we’ll see in the next couple of decades will be enough to transform society in ways we’re regret bitterly.

Elon Musk might get people to Mars but we’ll discover two things. Living on Mars will not be the romantic fantasy that science fiction fans have always dreamed, and leaving Earth won’t save us. We’ll probably also return to the Moon, but we’ll discover trying to colonize it will be nearly impossible and we’ll learn the true value of the Earth and its biosystem that was so perfect for us.

As the years progress and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increases and the percentage of habitable land decreases I believe our desire for space travel will wane. We won’t have to wait for dramatic sea level rise for everyone to be convinced, heat waves will start to kill millions. Just read the first chapter of The Ministry for the Future to understand. I expect events like it will come true sometime this decade. We won’t need to see drowned cities to know the disciples of Ayn Rand have doomed us. Increasing weather catastrophes, declining food production, and mass migrations of refuges will make it plain enough we made the wrong decisions and believed the wrong people.

But I’m not forecasting complete gloom and doom. Science fiction will just have to create new futures that we’ll want. It will require a new faith in big government. We need to consciously design society so that it’s sustainable and egalitarian. Of course, that might be just as much a fantasy as interstellar travel. But do we really want a minimal government when everything is falling apart? We’re in this mess because we chose to ignore the problem. The only way to solve it will be to manage the hell out of it.

Science fiction writers can work towards two futures. One, where everyone is out for themselves, winners take all. Or, they can imagine futures created by cooperation, where we design creative and enjoyable societies, ones that control the invisible hand of the marketplace. No matter how bad it gets, we still have unlimited possibilities.

When you read new science fiction think about what the story implies. Is it based on old fantasies or new possibilities? Or is it just the same old mental escapes? We don’t need science fiction to be virtual realities to hide out from a reality we’ve ignored for too long already.

James Wallace Harris, Earth Day 2021

What Was The Big Bang Beginning to Science Fiction?

The feeling I get when I contemplate the origins of science fiction is similar to what I felt as a kid when I asked, “Then, who created God?” And whenever I read a very old science fiction story I wonder if its science fictional ideas were original to that story, or had an even earlier writer originated those concepts? So far, it’s been like the famous Carl Sagan story, it’s turtles all the way down. Was there ever a Big Bang beginning to the science fiction universe? Go read The Book of Genesis. Isn’t the story of Noah a post-apocalyptic tale of science fiction? Don’t the stories of the Garden of Eden feel like science fictional speculations?

People and writers have always pondered the past and future in ideas that are now considered the domain of science fiction. I used to believe that science fiction couldn’t have existed before science, but then when did science begin? I’m sure flint chipping took a lot of experiments, statistics, and testing to perfect, which makes me wonder about our cave dwelling ancestors and what they imagined.

When I read an older science fiction novel now I like to imagine how the readers of its time thought about the ideas used within the story. For example, I just finished The Clockwork Man by E. V. Odle, first published in 1923. The story is about a creature that appears suddenly at a cricket match. It looks human but acts strange. During the course of the story we learn its from eight thousand years in the future and it’s something we’d call an android or cyborg today.

From my Scribd subscription I listened to the HiloBrow audiobook edition of The Clockwork Man, part of their original Radium Age of Science Fiction Series. A Summer 2020 note to the site promised to new series from MIT Press beginning in 2022, but there are several editions on Amazon now.

The intro to 2013 edition by Annalee Newitz is here. However, the novel is in the public domain and can be read at Project Gutenberg. Below is a reproduction of the original dust jacket from the 1923 American edition from Doubleday.

At first, when we are introduced to the clockwork man, I believe most modern readers will wonder if he is a robot. But as the story goes on, we realize the people of the period see him as human looking, with an odd bulge on the back of his head, which he hides with a hat and wig. Readers eventually learn that bulge is a clockwork mechanism that controls his biological processes. Not only does it give him superhuman senses, but great physical power, and even the ability to transport itself in time, space, and other dimensions.

E. V. Odle evidently believed in 8,000 years a lot can happen to the human race. The story feels like a comedy of errors at the beginning when this strange creature interrupts the cricket match, but gets more serious and philosophical as the story progresses. By the end of the tale, we have two twentieth century men arguing over whether evolution and technological progress has gone too far.

The essence of science fiction is exploring certain types philosophical questions. However, in every age the current scientific knowledge limits that exploration because the analogies and metaphors to describe the future depend on current technology. In 1923 Odle’s future man is imagined with clockwork technology. This is long before computers. L. Frank Baum imagined a similar mechanical man in Tik-Tok of Oz in 1914. The concept of robots emerged in 1921 with R.U.R., a Czech play about androids, but the idea of a mechanical being soon followed in science fiction in the 1930s. The idea of human created beings goes way back, each using the best technology of the day to imagine its creation.

Today we would consider it silly to build an AI being with clockwork technology. In the 1950s Philip K. Dick imagined robots made with vacuum tubes and tape loops, which we now groan at. Nowadays, we imagine AI beings constructed with computer silicon circuits. Fifty years from now, readers might consider using silicon circuits just as silly as clockwork or vacuum tubes. Remember, God made man with dust, and Mary Shelley had Frankenstein assembled his creature from stolen body parts. Our speculation about the future is always tied to what we know at the time. Reading The Clockwork Man made me think about what E. V. Odle had to work with in 1923.

We’re all quite familiar with all the philosophical issues surrounding robots, AI, cyborgs, and androids since science fiction has dwelled on them our entire lifetime in books, television, movies, and other art forms. But can you imagine how someone in 1923 could have contemplated the concept? Odle imagines new beings emerging from human machine combinations, which we since defined as the territory of cyborgs.

Yet, The Clockwork Man goes well beyond that. This visitor from the future finds 20th century humans rather limited, stuck in one three-dimensional dimension, whereas it can travel in time, space, and through multiple dimensions at will. It sees reality as a multiplicity of states. This is hard for us to imagine, but science fiction has often considered such possibilities.

Reading The Clockwork Man I can feel E. V. Odle struggling to imagine the potential of humanity. The story itself ranges from quaint to quixotic. During the course of the story the visitor from the future is both admired, feared, and pitied. It’s only towards the end does Odle give us a larger vision of the future, one that’s even more science fictional, closer to Stapledon than Wells.

"But must you always be like this?" he began, with a suppressed crying note in his voice. "Is there no hope for you?"

"None," said the Clockwork man, and the word was boomed out on a hollow, brassy note. "We are made, you see. For us creation is finished. We can only improve ourselves very slowly, but we shall never quite escape the body of this death. We've only ourselves to blame. The makers gave us our chance. They are beings of infinite patience and forbearance. But they saw that we were determined to go on as we were, and so they devised this means of giving us our wish. You see, Life was a Vale of Tears, and men grew tired of the long journey. The makers said that if we persevered we should come to the end and know joys earth has not seen. But we could not wait, and we lost faith. It seemed to us that if we could do away with death and disease, with change and decay, then all our troubles would be over. So they did that for us, and we've stopped the same as we were, except that time and space no longer hinder us."

I wanted to know more about the Makers. For most of the novel we thought the clockwork man was the epitome of humanity from eight thousands years in the future, but now we learn there are other beings, even greater. I must assume Odle is warning us against taking the cybernetic path, and hints that a greater spiritual one is possible.

I’m not sure 21st century humans have such fears, because we’re racing as fast as we can to invent both creatures of silicon and to evolve ourselves into posthumans. This reminds me of the ending of the film Things to Come (1936) inspired by H. G. Wells:

PASSWORTHY: “My God! Is there never to be an age of happiness? Is there never to be rest?”

CABAL: “Rest enough for the individual man. Too much of it and too soon, and we call it death. But for MAN no rest and no ending. He must go on–conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time–still he will be beginning.”

PASSWORTHY: “But we are such little creatures. Poor humanity. So fragile–so weak.”

CABAL: “Little animals, eh?”

PASSWORTHY: “Little animals.”

CABAL: “If we are no more than animals–we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more–than all the other animals do–or have done.” (He points out at the stars.) “It is that–or this? All the universe–or nothingness…. Which shall it be, Passworthy?”

The two men fade out against the starry background until only the stars remain.

The musical finale becomes dominant.

CABAL’S voice is heard repeating through the music: “Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?”

I read The Clockwork Man because of reading Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books by Mike Ashley. British science fiction feels like it’s always been more philosophical than American science fiction, which has usually focused on the adventure and action side of Sci-Fi implications. Many of the books Ashley describes from the late 19th and early 20th century are ones I haven’t read. But Ashley shows those books explored science fictional concepts I thought originated in American science fiction during the 1940s and 1950s. I was wrong. I have to wonder, were those ideas original to the British in this earlier era of science fiction? I have another book that I haven’t read by Brian Stableford, The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds: The Evolution of French Roman Scientifique that explores French science fiction in the 1800s. Was France the Big Bang beginning of science fiction? Or will I find another turtle beneath the French?

James Wallace Harris, 4/20/21

When Does a Bad Movie Become Great? Well, Maybe Pretty-Good. Okay, Weirdly Compelling

I’ve seen a lot of science fiction movies since I began watching them back in the 1950s, so I seldom catch an old movie that I haven’t seen or at least read about. Well, last night I caught The Creation of the Humanoids on Amazon Prime. The film supposedly came out in 1962, but maybe 1961, and maybe made in 1960. The poster for it on Amazon made it look dreadful. I can’t believe I even tried watching it. However, The Humanoids by Jack Williamson is one of my favorite old SF novels, meaning that one keyword got me to give the flick a view. And since then, the more I think about it, the more I think about it.

My initial reaction made me think the screenplay cribbed ideas from Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, and Philip K. Dick. The story and acting is very talking, but then a lot of classic science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s is overburdened with infodumps and preach dialog, so this movie has both the feel and philosophy of old pulp science fiction. And the cinematography reminded me of old science fiction magazine covers. The sets look like three different backdrops from an avant-garde theater play, but this cheapass movie was filmed in Technicolor. And the costumes and makeup are really good for the time. So there are levels of quality weaved into it’s low-budget production. I think they did the maximum they could with their budget.

Now don’t get me wrong, if you try watching this film, you’ll probably think, WTF??!! at the beginning. The acting is very wooden. If you stick with it, it might start growing on you until you’re thinking: “Okay, this is weirdly interesting” And if you stay until the end, you might even wonder “Is this some forgotten gem.” Or maybe not.

If you don’t have Amazon Prime, a 360p print is available on YouTube, watchable, but far from sharp.

What makes you forgive the weaknesses of The Creation of the Humanoids is the ideas it presents. I recently read and reviewed Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, a just out 2021 novel that covers some of the same themes dealing with androids. Android related speculations have been popular in movies and television shows for several years now, so it’s impressive that this 1960 B-movie is so ahead of its time.

The setup for this story is about a future after a nuclear war. Human population is dwindling, while robot population is increasing. Robots are slowly taking over all human jobs and some humans resent that. Even the anti-robot crowd accept robots at a certain intelligence level because society needs them, but don’t want robots produced with anything like human level intelligence. The main character is this story is Capt. Kenneth Cragis who is a leader in the racist organization called The Order of Flesh and Blood. He and his buddies wear Confederate uniforms and calls robots “clickers,” so it’s pretty obvious that this early 1960s movie is not just about robots. At one point in the plot, Cragis learns his sister has married a robot, and is furious.

But don’t think this film is just a thinly disguised story about civil rights. It covers all the idea of modern science fiction on artificial intelligence and more. Don’t want to say too much that will reveal plot twists in the second half of the movie, which is far better than the first half. But those extra themes are frequently used in SF today.

Wikipedia has positive write-up about The Creation of the Humanoids. They even let us know this was Andy Warhol’s favorite film. The Projection Booth has a ninety-minute podcast where three film buffs admit they’ve been converted to fans too. And over at Galactic Journey, a site that pretends to exist 55-years ago reviews the film with quite a bit of love and detail.

Don’t get me wrong. Probably, 99 people out of 100 who stream this movie is going to click the back button rather quickly. My initial reaction was “Yuck!” but I’m glad I stuck with it.

Finally, I think I got into The Creation of the Humanoids because the movie felt like reading a story out of Astounding or Galaxy. That says a lot about my nostalgia, but it also says something about the writing quality in 1940s and 1950s science fiction magazines. I hate to think of it, but if I gave some of my old SF magazines to my friends to read, they’d probably react to my favorite stories just the way most audiences react today to The Creation of the Humanoids.

James Wallace Harris

Checklists for Reading Science Fiction Short Stories

We often see lists of best novels to read on the internet, but how many lists are there for reading short stories? Regarding science fiction, here are some of the major lists.

However, if you use our List Builder feature and click on Show Citations you can see which stories are on multiple lists. We haven’t added the sfadb list yet, but will. By using the year ranges, checking short story, and finding the right number of citations, you can easily see how these lists overlap. Unfortunately, you’ll also see the citations from other sources. Maybe we’ll program a way to limit by citation source type in the future. On the other hand, you’ll see how some stories are remembered by different kinds of citations: polls, awards, anthologies, scholars, etc.

Here is the List Builder set to 1939-2021 with 5 citations. That generates 863 stories. You can up the citation count to make the list shorter. Our v. 2 list uses 8 citations which reveals just 98 stories.

Reviewers of Short Science Fiction:

James Wallace Harris 3/21/21

“The Star” by H. G. Wells

When I was young, reading science fiction thrilled me by giving me new ideas to ponder, ones I wasn’t getting from school. For example, when I was twelve, I read the When Worlds Collide/After Worlds Collide double decker by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. It provided three new wonders to inflame my mind. First, planets from outside the solar system could fly through our interplanetary space and even collide with the Earth. Imagining the end of the world provides no end of chilling speculation. People have been entertaining that vision since the Great Flood. Second, I was introduced to the idea that people could escape the end of the world. Wow, what a concept! And third, what if we found a dead city that was once occupied by aliens? What would it be like to walk among their ruins and imagine their lives from the clues they left?

What’s remarkable about “The Star” by H. G. Wells, published in 1897, is its science fictional setup would work just as well today in 2021. The story describes people’s reactions from from around the world at that time, but the astronomical events and effects upon the Earth would be the same today. And I’m not sure people now would react much differently than they did then. What has changed is how the news is spread.

Nowadays I am fascinated by how science fiction short stories gain popularity and then fade from pop culture memory. They are usually remembered by anthologies. An editor of a good retrospective anthology knows the genre and tries to keep older stories alive. Every few years a new large retrospective anthology of short science fiction appears. Over time, the weakest older stories are left out of the latest anthology, and the best newer stories are added, revealing a kind of evolution.

Readers who buy genre retrospective anthologies are shown a kind of photograph of the history of short science fiction, with each new anthology trying capture the genre in a pose by how the editors want their readers to see its history. I’ve been dipping into The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer since it came out in 2016. Its oldest story is “The Star.” The Big Book of Science Fiction has nearly a hundred stories and I’ve read maybe a quarter of them. The VanderMeers worked to diversify the history of the genre by including more stories by women writers and translated stories by non-English speaking writers.

Their family portrait of science fiction looks somewhat different than Leigh Ronald Grossman’s group photo, Sense of Wonder, taken in 2011. Grossman’s oldest pick was “Mellonta Tauta” by Edgar Allan Poe from 1849. Grossman’s anthology is even larger than the VanderMeers’, but it includes a novel, novel extracts, and introductory essays. It’s meant to be a textbook for teaching the history of science fiction, but Grossman’s photo of the genre revealed a more traditional pose for the genre.

Right now, I’m less concerned the overall image of the genre’s legacy than I am with understanding the evolution of science fictional ideas. I’d love to create a taxonomy of science fictional ideas and themes. When Groff Conklin assembled his first retrospective anthology back in 1946, The Best of Science Fiction, he divided the stories into six theme sections. Over the decades many anthologists have created theme anthologies. But it’s impossible to grasp all the far-out ideas of science fiction in just one anthology, or even a shelf of them. So, I’m going to work my way through several large retrospective anthologies, take notes, and plot my findings. Maybe I can come up with some way of showing an evolutionary tree of science fictional ideas.

I’ve decided “The Star” was inspired by astronomy, so the first theme I’m going to work on is Astronomical Science Fiction. However, did H. G. Wells think up his idea? Had Wells read Omega: The Last Days of the World by French astronomer Camille Flammarion which came out in 1894? When did the English edition first appear? Wells could also have read Olga Romanoff or, The Syren of the Skies by George Griffith serialized in Pearson’s Weekly (12/30/1893 – 8/4/1894). Both these stories are impact event stories. And then we must ask where did Flammarion get his idea? Jules Verne wrote Off on a Comet in 1877 about a comet that gives the Earth a glancing blow. Wells was savvy enough to know his planet didn’t need to impact the Earth, but it’s gravitation influence coming near us could wreak havoc on our planet.

I want to develop a classification scheme, a taxonomy, or even a mind map of how science fiction ideas evolve. Earlier writers imagined a comet hitting the Earth. Wells imagined a planet from outside the solar system, which is a much newer idea if you think about it. People were aware of comets, but how many Earthlings imagined a planet visiting the solar system? Then in the 1930s Balmer and Wylie imagined two visiting planets. By the way, Wells interstellar visitor is called a star in the title, but referred to as a planet in the story. People see it as a star in the sky.

Once you start considering the theme, thinking about astronomy can inspire all kinds of science fictional ideas. Wells used astronomy again at the end of The Time Machine when he used the Sun expanding into a red giant, and the Earth slowing its rotation.

I wish I had a better memory than I do so I could recall all the science fiction stories that used astronomy as the inspiration of its science fiction. Fred Hoyle used it for The Black Cloud a story about a dust cloud blocking the sun. But sometimes its fanciful astronomy. Poul Anderson imagined the solar system orbiting the Milky Way in Brain Wave and wondered what if the solar system passes through different kinds of radiation fields. Now this is unbelievable but fun, but what if the solar system had been in a radiation field that retarded intelligence and it moved out of that field? In Brain Wave humans and all living things become a bit smarter. Even more fanciful is Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, where he imagines the Earth encased in a spin membrane that slows time down. Of course, this moves outside the realm of Astronomical Science Fiction because the membrane was artificially created.

Getting back to real astronomy, consider the short story “Inconstant Moon” by Larry Niven from 1971. People notice the Moon is glowing strangely one night. Our narrator theorizes the Sun has gone nova and the world is about to be destroyed, but then figures a massive solar flare has occurred, which might be survivable. Notice how these Astronomical Science Fiction stories usually involve the destruction of the Earth.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle returned to the comet impact in 1977 with Lucifer’s Hammer. Comet and asteroid strikes seem to be the most common inspiration on Astronomical Science Fiction. But here is a list created by Andrew Fraknoi in 2019 that lists more recent science fiction based on astronomy and physics. Wells or “The Star” wasn’t mentioned. That’s the problem with creating a SF theme taxonomy, it’s like the biological world there are millions of examples to be classified.

One interesting aspect of “The Star” (and When Worlds Collide) is it depends on astronomers to let the people of Earth know that something is about to happen. How often are astronomers the heroes of science fiction stories?

It was on the first day of the New Year that the announcement was made, almost simultaneously from three observatories, that the motion of the planet Neptune, the outermost of all the planets that wheel about the sun, had become very erratic. Ogilvy had already called attention to a suspected retardation in its velocity in December. Such a piece of news was scarcely calculated to interest a world the greater portion of whose inhabitants were unaware of the existence of the planet Neptune, nor outside the astronomical profession did the subsequent discovery of a faint remote speck of light in the region of the perturbed planet cause any very great excitement. Scientific people, however, found the intelligence remarkable enough, even before it became known that the new body was rapidly growing larger and brighter, that its motion was quite different from the orderly progress of the planets, and that the deflection of Neptune and its satellite was becoming now of an unprecedented kind.

Few people without a training in science can realise the huge isolation of the solar system. The sun with its specks of planets, its dust of planetoids, and its impalpable comets, swims in a vacant immensity that almost defeats the imagination. Beyond the orbit of Neptune there is space, vacant so far as human observation has penetrated, without warmth or light or sound, blank emptiness, for twenty million times a million miles. That is the smallest estimate of the distance to be traversed before the very nearest of the stars is attained. And, saving a few comets more unsubstantial than the thinnest flame, no matter had ever to human knowledge crossed this gulf of space, until early in the twentieth century this strange wanderer appeared. A vast mass of matter it was, bulky, heavy, rushing without warning out of the black mystery of the sky into the radiance of the sun. By the second day it was clearly visible to any decent instrument, as a speck with a barely sensible diameter, in the constellation Leo near Regulus. In a little while an opera glass could attain it.

At the end of the 19th century the common person did not have access to television or the internet. This news would have been spread by telegraph and newspapers. Also, I doubt many citizens of the world understood much about astronomy back then. Since we know so much about astronomy now, and science fictional concepts, so I would think a science fiction writer would have a hard time coming up with a good new concept to set off people’s sense of wonder.

H. G. Wells worked imagine in his story the discovery of the event on different minds around the world. I think that’s why new writers get to retell old stories. Many science fictional concepts are quite old, so it’s the current culture that changes in new stories, not the science fiction.

And when next it rose over Europe everywhere were crowds of watchers on hilly slopes, on house-roofs, in open spaces, staring eastward for the rising of the great new star. It rose with a white glow in front of it, like the glare of a white fire, and those who had seen it come into existence the night before cried out at the sight of it. "It is larger," they cried. "It is brighter!" And, indeed the moon a quarter full and sinking in the west was in its apparent size beyond comparison, but scarcely in all its breadth had it as much brightness now as the little circle of the strange new star.

"It is brighter!" cried the people clustering in the streets. But in the dim observatories the watchers held their breath and peered at one another it is nearer," they said. "Nearer!"

And voice after voice repeated, "It is nearer," and the clicking telegraph took that up, and it trembled along telephone wires, and in a thousand cities grimy compositors fingered the type. "It is nearer." Men writing in offices, struck with a strange realisation, flung down their pens, men talking in a thousand places suddenly came upon a grotesque possibility in those words, "It is nearer." It hurried along wakening streets, it was shouted down the frost-stilled ways of quiet villages; men who had read these things from the throbbing tape stood in yellow-lit doorways shouting the news to the passersby. "It is nearer." Pretty women, flushed and glittering, heard the news told jestingly between the dances, and feigned an intelligent interest they did not feel. "Nearer! Indeed. How curious! How very, very clever people must be to find out things like that!"

Lonely tramps faring through the wintry night murmured those words to comfort themselves--looking skyward. "It has need to be nearer, for the night's as cold as charity. Don't seem much warmth from it if it is nearer, all the same."

"What is a new star to me?" cried the weeping woman kneeling beside her dead.

The schoolboy, rising early for his examination work, puzzled it out for himself--with the great white star shining broad and bright through the frost-flowers of his window. "Centrifugal, centripetal," he said, with his chin on his fist. "Stop a planet in its flight, rob it of its centrifugal force, what then? Centripetal has it, and down it falls into the sun! And this--!

"Do we come in the way? I wonder--"

The light of that day went the way of its brethren, and with the later watches of the frosty darkness rose the strange star again. And it was now so bright that the waxing moon seemed but a pale yellow ghost of itself, hanging huge in the sunset. In a South African City a great man had married, and the streets were alight to welcome his return with his bride. "Even the skies have illuminated," said the flatterer. Under Capricorn, two negro lovers, daring the wild beasts and evil spirits, for love of one another, crouched together in a cane brake where the fire-flies hovered. "That is our star," they whispered, and felt strangely comforted by the sweet brilliance of its light.

The master mathematician sat in his private room and pushed the papers from him. His calculations were already finished. In a small white phial there still remained a little of the drug that had kept him awake and active for four long nights. Each day, serene, explicit, patient as ever, he had given his lecture to his students, and then had come back at once to this momentous calculation. His face was grave, a little drawn and hectic from his drugged activity. For some time he seemed lost in thought. Then he went to the window, and the blind went up with a click. Half way up the sky, over the clustering roofs, chimneys and steeples of the city, hung the star.

I would think in my taxonomy of science fiction for this theme I’d have to also classify the state of the world that received the story. Yet, isn’t the possibility of a roving body visiting out system still possible? Isn’t that why new SF writers in every generation can retell the story? Just research all the speculation the first known real interstellar visitor named Oumuamua caused? It reminded me of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

James Wallace Harris, 3/19/21

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

My job is to get you to read stories if you haven't. I'll try to make it easy for you by linking to a copy on the web if the story is available. I'll also tell you about anthologies where you can find the story. Then I'll start talking about the story. At first I'll be vague so as not to spoil the story, but hopefully intriguing enough to get to you to go read the story before continuing. As I progress I'll give more and more away.

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” is a magnificent work of second person prose that is as confusing as a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces without the box. As you read the story the picture is revealed with the placement of the last piece. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” was first published in October 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was reprinted in Best American Short Stories 1960, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction (Ninth Series, 1960), and Judith Merril’s annual anthology,The Fifth Annual of the Year’s Best SF (1960) where I just read it. It was up for a Hugo in 1960 but lost to “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, but wouldn’t any story lose to that story? “The Man Who Lost the Sea” is currently available to read online at Strange Horizons. Or jump over to Escape Pod to listen to the story.

I’ll illustrate how admired this story is by showing you some of the retrospective anthologies it’s been reprinted in over the years:

  • 1968 – Towards Infinity edited by Damon Knight
  • 1969 – First Step Outward edited by Robert Hoskins
  • 1977 – Alpha 8 edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 1983 – The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg
  • 1989 – The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell
  • 1990 – The Great SF Stories 21 (1959) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
  • 1997 – A Century of Science Fiction (1950-1959) edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 2005 – My Favorite Science Fiction Story edited by Martin H. Greenberg
  • 2016 – The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

I’m feeling guilty about not having read “The Men Who Lost the Sea” before now. How could I have missed it? To be honest, I’m not sure my younger self could have appreciated the story. The second person prose involving nonlinear events would have been difficult for my speed-reading younger self to comprehend. Just read the first paragraph:

Say you're a kid, and one dark night you're running along the cold sand with this helicopter in your hand, saying very fast witchy-witchy-witchy. You pass the sick man and he wants you to shove off with that thing. Maybe he thinks you're too old to play with toys. So you squat next to him in the sand and tell him it isn't a toy, it's a model. You tell him look here, here's something most people don't know about helicopters. You take a blade of the rotor in your fingers and show him how it can move in the hub, up and down a little, back and forth a little, and twist a little, to change pitch. You start to tell him how this flexibility does away with the gyroscopic effect, but he won't listen. He doesn't want to think about flying, about helicopters, or about you, and he most especially does not want explanations about anything by anybody. Not now. Now, he wants to think about the sea. So you go away.

What the hell is going on? Where are we? Who is the narrator? Sturgeon gives us the first clues in the second paragraph:

The sick man is buried in the cold sand with only his head and his left arm showing. He is dressed in a pressure suit and looks like a man from Mars. Built into his left sleeve is a combination time-piece and pressure gauge, the gauge with a luminous blue indicator which makes no sense, the clock hands luminous red. He can hear the pounding of surf and the soft swift pulse of his pumps. One time long ago when he was swimming he went too deep and stayed down too long and came up too fast, and when he came to it was like this: they said, "Don't move, boy. You've got the bends. Don't even try to move." He had tried anyway. It hurt. So now, this time, he lies in the sand without moving, without trying.

What can you say about this story so far? Later on when Sturgeon tries to give us more concrete clues can we really put them together yet?

Out and out the sick man forces his view, etching all he sees with a meticulous intensity, as if it might be his charge, one day, to duplicate all this. To his left is only starlit sea, windless. In front of him across the valley, rounded hills with dim white epaulettes of light. To his right, the jutting corner of the black wall against which his helmet rests. (He thinks the distant moundings of nausea becalmed, but he will not look yet.) So he scans the sky, black and bright, calling Sirius, calling Pleiades, Polaris, Ursa Minor, calling that . . . that . . . Why, it moves. Watch it: yes, it moves! It is a fleck of light, seeming to be wrinkled, fissured, rather like a chip of boiled cauliflower in the sky. (Of course, he knows better than to trust his own eyes just now.) But that movement . . .

Maybe it helps when Sturgeon lets us know the man is thinking about the past:

As a child he had stood on cold sand in a frosty Cape Cod evening, watching Sputnik's steady spark rise out of the haze (madly, dawning a little north of west); and after that he had sleeplessly wound special coils for his receiver, risked his life restringing high antennas, all for the brief capture of an unreadable tweetle-eep-tweetle in his earphones from Vanguard, Explorer, Lunik, Discoverer, Mercury. He knew them all (well, some people collect match-covers, stamps) and he knew especially that unmistakable steady sliding in the sky.

By now you should realize this story takes place in the guy’s head, but you still aren’t sure where the guy is or the identity of the annoying boy.

Have I gotten you interested? Have you gone back to the top of the page and followed the link to read the story? If not, let me give you a few more tantalizing clue. Have you read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce – another often reprinted short story? “The Man Who Lost the Sea” belongs to very special tiny subgenre of fiction, one that has deeply personal significance to me, see my essay “Did The First Movie You Ever See Haunt You For The Rest Of Your Life?” about the novel High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. You probably don’t know these guys but they wrote The Mutiny on the Bounty. Or, have you ever seen the ending to the 1966 movie Seconds with Rock Hudson?

Jeez, if I haven’t hooked you by now I give up. I’ve always been fascinated about the nature of memory and consciousness. I love this Theodore Sturgeon because he explores those concepts in one impactful story.

James Wallace Harris, 3/16/21

Surviving Childhood By Reading Science Fiction

I love when I discover a short story that pushes all my buttons. I regret that I didn’t discover such wonderful tales when they were first published, but I do have the consolation as an old jaded reader of finding a story that still thrills me. “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” by Gene Wolfe is one such story that I just read. It’s about a boy, Tackman Babcock, who survives a troubled “family life” by reading science fiction. Since I survived my bumpy upbringing by reading science fiction, I immediately bonded with Tackie.

I know, it has a confusing title. I’ve seen it collected in anthologies for years, and it always sounds like a collection of short stories by the author. When Gene Wolfe created his first short story collection the title became The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, as you can see above in the first edition, a 1980 paperback from Pocket Books. The 1997 edition is still available from Amazon. The original story, “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” was first published in Orbit 7 (1970) edited by Damon Knight has been reprinted many times, so you might already own a copy. However, if you just want to quickly enjoy the story right now, it’s available online for free as an audio podcast from PodCastle, episode 171. Just click and take forty-five minutes to hear the story, it has wonderful narration.

Maybe now you’ll understand the confusing title, but you’re probably wondering what book Tackie was reading? If you’d like to read speculation about possible books read the entry for this story at a wiki devoted to Gene Wolfe. I tend to think Wolfe was trying to capture the feel of many novels, stories, and famous characters so readers would imagine the ones they have read. I definitely thought of The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells, but I also thought of famous pulp stories, horror films, and cliff-hanging serials.

Wait, you didn’t go listen to the story? Or read it? Or remember reading it, and now you’re confused?

Tackie Babcock lives with his drug addicted mother in an old resort hotel. He isn’t supervised or well cared for, but his mother’s predatory boyfriend Jason, and a couple of aunts (May and Julie) keep an indifferent eye on him. We learn about Tackie’s inner life when Jason steals a paperback book that Tackie asked him to buy. The book has a lurid cover of a muscle bound man in rags battling a horrible half ape-half human creature. For the rest of the story, reality is interrupted by flashes from this novel. Captain Phillip Ransom adrift at sea for nine days arrives at a mysterious island and his captured by the mad Dr. Death, and his experimental creations. Eventually, we learn about other characters from Tackie’s real and imaginary world, including a beautiful native girl, Talar of the Long Eyes that Cpt. Ransom rescues from a fate worse than death. As the story progresses fiction and reality mix, so do who is good and who is bad.

If that doesn’t get you hooked, I don’t know what will. My parents were alcoholics, and we moved around a lot. From the time I started reading science fiction in the 5th grade until graduating, I attended nine different schools in three states. I forgot how many houses I lived in during that period, and I forgot how many times my parents split up. I’ve also forgotten how many drunken parental brawls I had to watch and hear, or how many times I was chauffeured around by drunk drivers. I survived all of that, and remember them as good times because I read science fiction. Without science fiction I’m not sure I would have had a happy childhood. I felt like Robert A. Heinlein was my father figure, Samuel R. Delany was my big brother, and Robert Sheckley was my crazy uncle.

I completely identified with Tackie Babcock. I wish I had read his story in 1970, but I’m thankful I finally found it in 2021.

James Wallace Harris, 3/5/21

p.s. Many of Gene Wolfe’s books including this one are available through Scribd.com, a subscription library. I mention it because I hope Scribd gets enough subscribers to survive. Think of it as Netflix for ebooks and audiobooks.

“The Colonists” by Raymond F. Jones

Raymond F. Jones has now hit two homers for me this week, with “The Colonists” flying out of the park. I was quite impressed with “The Memory of Mars” which I wrote about recently but I can’t decide if it’s a 4-star or 5-star story. I’d definitely give “The Colonists” a full 5-stars. The story is sophisticated in plot and science fictional speculation and is quite dramatic. I can’t understand why it isn’t a more famous science fiction story. Why didn’t Bleiler and Dikty or Asimov and Greenberg anthologize these stories in their best of the year annuals? Why haven’t they been anthologized is some of the big retrospective anthologies?

“The Colonists” was first published in the June 1954 issue of If. Follow the link to read it in a scan of the original magazine. Or you can read it various formats from Project Gutenberg. However, I highly recommend the excellent audio narrated version at YouTube.

I don’t want to say much about the story because I don’t want to spoil its surprises. The story examines the psychology of colonists immigrating to another world. Why would anyone give up everything on Earth to go live so far away? For a 1954 science fiction story, it considers the reality of space travel far more realistically than most of its peers.

Maybe this story impressed me because as a teenager I would have given anything to become a colonist on Mars. The idea of building a completely new society on the red planet was the most creative endeavor I could imagine for mankind. However, Jones suggests that most colonists in history were running away from something, and I have to admit that would have been true of my adolescent self.

I was also impressed with the complicated plotting in “The Colonists.” Jones does a great job, and I think this story would make an excellent film. It’s a novelette, and one hour and thirty-five minutes on audio, making it film length.

I wonder why Raymond F. Jones never made it big in the genre, or why he’s a mostly a forgotten SF writer? He gets a small write-up in Wikipedia that shows he was a prolific short story writer, but he did produce at least a dozen novels. I’m now anxious to read more of his work. I bought RAYMOND F. JONES RESURRECTED: SELECTED SCIENCE FICTION STORIES OF RAYMOND F. JONES after reading “The Memory of Mars.” (Kindle for $3.99 or paperback for $15.99)

ISFDB reveals I also need to track down two of his out-of-print collections, The Toymaker (1951), that collects stories from the 1940s, and The Non-Statistical Man (1964), that gathers stories from the 1950s. I have no idea if I’ll like those stories as much as the two I read this week.

I do remember discovering Raymond F. Jones before, back in the 1960s when I was a young teenager reading all the Heinlein and Winston Science Fiction novels marketed for juveniles. Heinlein was tops, but Jones made a very good impression. I reread Son of the Stars and The Year When Stardust Fell last year. They were both fun, but not great. They didn’t jump out at me like “The Memory of Mars” and “The Colonists” did this week. I have no understanding of my critical judgement. Did I get excited about these stories because they’re actually good, the kind of good that other readers would recognize too, or was I just in the right mood for them at this moment in my life?

James Wallace Harris, 2/6/21

The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition edited by Judith Merril

Our Facebook group is scheduled to read The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition edited by Judith Merril in February and March. This presents a kind of scavenger hunt to find the stories because most of the members do not have a copy of this 1960 book. Probably out of the 400 members only a handful have a copy. Luckily we have ISFDB.org to tell us where these stories from 1959 and 1960 were originally published and reprinted (click on title).

It annoys me that Merril didn’t stay within the 1959 boundary and included four stories from 1960. That makes it hard to compare this best-of-the-year anthology against others – although in 1959-1960 Merril was the sole contemporary annual anthologist. But in 1990 Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg revisited 1959 in their anthology The Great SF Stories 21 (1959), which included these stories (I’ve bolded stories that Merril also picked):

I can’t believe Asimov and Greenberg left out “Flowers for Algernon.” In the 1960 volume Asimov and Green also chose Merril’s picks “Mariana” by Fritz Leiber and “The Handler” by Damon Knight. That means nine Merril stories overlap with Asimov/Greenberg out of nineteen in her 5th annual edition.

Our Classics of Science Fiction database showed these stories for 1959-1960 with three or more citations:

Both anthologies missed “All You Zombies—” but then Heinlein is notoriously absent in a lot of anthologies. I assume it was too expensive to reprint his stories.

The 1960 Hugo Award nominations for short fiction from 1959 were:

  • “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes [F&SF Apr 1959] – winner
  • “The Alley Man” by Philip José Farmer [F&SF Jun 1959]
  • “The Pi Man” by Alfred Bester [F&SF Oct 1959]
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon [F&SF Oct 1959]
  • “Cat and Mouse” by Ralph Williams [Astounding Jun 1959]

None of Merril’s 1960 stories were nominated for the Hugo, but Poul Anderson’s “The Longest Voyage” from 1960 was the winner in 1961. “Flowers for Algernon,” “All You Zombies—,” “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” and “The Pi Man” were in the The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Ninth Series for 1959 stories, and it should be considered another good source of 1959 SF short stories.

James Wallace Harris, 2/6/21

“The Memory of Mars” by Raymond F. Jones

I love a gripping story that makes me anxious to find out what happens next. As soon as I started listening to “The Memory of Mars” by Raymond F. Jones I knew I was hooked. Mel Hastings, a reporter, is waiting to hear about his wife’s operation. But what was troubling him was what his wife Alice said before going into surgery: “As soon as I’m well again we’ll go to Mars for a vacation again, and then you’ll remember. It’s so beautiful there. We had so much fun—”

Mel Hastings knew they had never been to Mars. Mel’s mystery became my mystery, and I knew this story was going to be a ripping good yarn. But I also thought the story sounded like the beginning of “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick, a much more famous science fiction story from 1966, and known today by the title of the two movies that were based on it, Total Recall.

Before we go any further you might like to stop and read “The Memory of Mars.” It’s available in a scan of the original issue of Amazing Stories from December 1961. Or you can read it online at Project Gutenberg. But I recommend listening to this excellent audio production at YouTube. Or you can buy Raymond F. Jones Resurrected: Selected Science Fiction Stories of Raymond F. Jones for the Kindle for $3.99 or paperback for $15.99 which I did because I wanted to read more of his stories.

The mystery deepens when the surgeon tells Mel his wife has died and that she wasn’t human. Her internal organs were all different. Because Mel is a reporter he starts investigating his wife and was able to prove she was human until very recently with other medical records. Then he finds photos of Alice on Mars and souvenirs from a Martian vacation. Now, doesn’t that remind you of the PKD story? But it gets even more like “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”

Mel decides he must go to Mars to find out what happens but he has a deep phobia against space travel. He then goes to a medical specialist to erase that phobia and they discover Mel had gone on vacation to Mars with Alice. Now this is getting eerily like the PKD story. Could Dick have been inspired by “The Memory of Mars” to write his tale?

Mel Hastings has quite an adventure solving these mysteries with even more similarities to the PKD story. But I hope you’ll read “The Memory of Mars” to find out what happens.

I love finding old SF stories that are forgotten but still deserve to be read. “The Memory of Mars” was never reprinted in an anthology, and in only in one collection of stories by Raymond F. Jones mention above. You can see its reprint history here.

Raymond F. Jones had marginal success as a SF writer back in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. His biggest claim to fame was the film This Island Earth based off his fix-up novel of the same title. I became acquainted with his work as a kid reading his young adult novels for the Winston Science Fiction series (Son of the Stars, Planet of Light, The Year When Stardust Fell). I definitely need to read more of his work.

James Wallace Harris, 2/6/21

Deadly Serious Science Fiction

What if we had a special streaming service that showed us television from the year 2050 so we could watch the future unfold on our HDTVs at night. Would we change the way we live in this present? Would we steer towards the news and shows we wanted to come true and away from those that frightened? And what if over time we could see the future change as we changed ourselves little by little. Wouldn’t that validate the reality of those 2050 TV shows from the future?

Hasn’t that been what we thought science fiction has been doing all along?

We avoid committing ourselves because half of us doubt any speculations about the future. What if there was no doubt? What if we knew the future for certain? Would we act decisively? I’m not sure we would. Then what’s the value of serious science fiction?

Science fiction has always encouraged us to rush towards sense-of-wonder tomorrows and run away from scary dystopias. However, most people don’t take science fiction all that seriously, and for that matter, most science fiction never tries to be serious. On the other hand, sometimes a science fiction writer cries wolf. Should we listen?

Back in 1968 John Brunner offered us the deadly serious science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar. I read it in 1969 when I was 17 and I loathed the future Brunner envisioned for 2010. I did not want to grow up to live in John Brunner’s extrapolated timeline. What he foresaw horrified me with its relentless political unrest, ecological catastrophes, but worst of all were the portrayals of constant worldwide terrorism. Brunner’s scenes of senseless violence repulsed me bitterly. I wanted exciting stories about colonizing Mars, so his future wasn’t one I wanted. By the time 2010 rolled around forty-two years later, we all realized just how brilliant John Brunner’s novel had been at speculating about things to come.

No science fiction writer claims to predict the future. No science fiction book has predicted the future. But rereading Stand on Zanzibar in 2010 was goddamn eerie.

The Ministry for the Future is Kim Stanley Robinson’s deadly serious 2020 science novel about our near future, and it reminds me so much of Zanzibar.

Both novels are hard to read on many levels even if you ignore their doom and gloom. Neither are traditionally structured fiction. Stand on Zanzibar offered a continuing narrative every fourth chapter, but between that narrative were imagined news programs, journals, bulletins, press releases, short stories, book quotes, and readings from a pop culture philosophy called The Hipcrime Vocab by one Chad C. Mulligan. Brunner coined a lot of slang to give his future a realistic flare, which required the reader to pick up the lingo as they read along. Stand on Zanzibar is 582 pages of dense reading. All this puts a strain on its page turning appeal. Nevertheless, this novel has always been the epitome of serious science fiction (at least to me). Now it has competition.

The Ministry for the Future is also hard to read because it does not read like a normal novel. I’d say about twenty percent is the ongoing storyline, while most of the 106 chapters are lessons/lectures in either monologues/soliloquies or Socratic dialogues. Robinson doesn’t try to create the barrage of future pop culture sources that Brunner did. Instead, he writes to educate his reader about the many dimensions of solving problems associated with climate change. It’s not thrilling action, but it is thought provoking. And Robinson works so hard to be optimistic. He wants us to believe we still have a chance.

Science fiction has always convinced its fans that it’s about the future, but it’s not. Science fiction is nearly always about escapism from the today, and sometimes, it gives the illusion that it’s saying something insightful about tomorrow. Every so often we get a SF writer who attempts to extrapolate today’s trends into tomorrow’s catastrophes or marvels. Brunner and Robinson are such writers. In both 1968 and 2020, Brunner and Robinson play Cassandra, warning us we’d better get our shit together because hell is on the horizon.

I want to recommend The Ministry for the Future to everyone, but I must be honest and admit it’s not a fun read. Science fiction has always had a problem with infodumping, and this book is mostly infodumps. I find them fascinating, but most readers won’t. There’s practically no story to this novel other than pondering how to change the world to avoid a climate apocalypse.

But here’s the thing. The first chapter, which is told in regular fiction style, was more effective at scaring me about climate change than anything I’ve ever read. You can read it here. I highly recommend you take the time to do so. If the entire novel had this emotional intensity maybe it would scare readers into changing their lives. Unfortunately, most of the chapters are like this one. Like in Zanzibar, we leave the plot narrative frequently. And when it does return, half the time, it’s more infodumping. The story does get more attention over time, just don’t expect it to entertain like The Expanse books or The Murderbot Diaries.

I am not trying to turn you off from buying and reading The Ministry of the Future, but I am trying to do an honest sales job. Stand on Zanzibar is extremely hard to read too, but I’ve read it twice and want to read it again. I believe both books are easier to listen to then read. Robinson’s book is read by multiple narrators. This helps make the infodumps more dramatic. And since many parts of Zanzibar is supposed to come from radio and TV audio, it’s more natural to hear them than to read them. See if your inner voice can handle this:

Don’t worry, Robinson’s prose isn’t like this, and neither is most of Brunner’s. But Brunner does make a valiant effort to simulate future dazzle. Robinson doesn’t. His work might be called a philosophical novel with lectures, maybe like Hermann Hesse. Thinking about both books I realize I have some questions about science fiction that challenge my lifelong assumptions about the genre.

First, should science fiction attempt to shape the future? Is it hubris to try? Back in the 1940s and 1950s true believers like Robert A. Heinlein wrote stories about the glories of space travel hoping they would inspire young people to grow up and build rockets that went to the Moon and Mars. Just because that happened doesn’t mean science fiction can claim it as a feather in its cap, but maybe it helped. I don’t know. But if you read memoirs by most rocket scientists you’ll find passages about growing up reading science fiction.

If in the future we do avoid climate change, will we look back and say science fiction had a hand in getting us to act sooner? There is a sub-genre emerging out of science fiction called Cli-Fi, and once you study its nature you’ll see it has a long history. But is it effective? Is Kim Stanley Robinson succeeding at inspiring his readers to aim at a different future? By the way, he’s written other Cli-Fi novels, so he’s been working at this task for a long time.

One area where Robinson does succeed is defining the problem, but you have to read The Ministry of the Future to see how he does that. Then we need to reconvene in 2050 and discuss whether or not The Ministry for the Future got us to take different paths to get to that future.

But one last confession. I’ve read thousands of science fiction stories and novels, and it has changed how I think, but I’m not sure it ever changed how I act.

James Wallace Harris, 1/23/21

Judging a Book by its Cover

The old advice is to never judge a book by its cover but I often ignore that advice. Especially when it comes to reading science fiction. Oh, I don’t assume a book’s contents or quality has any relation to the cover, but cover art does influence my book buying decisions.

The other day on Facebook I saw the first cover above for Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Hunt Collins and immediately wanted to track down a copy. I had never heard of the book or the author, but I love finding old forgotten SF from the 1950s. I did a significant amount of research on ISFDB looking at the covers to all the editions, and ended up ordering the 3rd cover above. That Jack Gaughan cover from 1965 had just a little bit more appeal, although the first one, from 1956 captures the feel of 1950s SF wonderfully. The middle cover, which also has it visual allure, is from 1961. To be honest now, I wish I had ordered the 1956 edition. I haven’t read the story yet, but here are my thoughts on the covers.

Overall, I prefer the realistic look from the 1956 cover, but the 1965 cover screams 1960s science fiction, reminding me of Samuel R. Delany books I read as a teen. Jack Gaughan did covers to many of Delany’s paperbacks in the mid-1960s. Here’s the larger version from a 300dpi scan I made of the copy I bought. Because I started buying paperbacks back in 1965, the nostalgia triggered by this one ultimately decided my purchase.

However, back in 1965 I was pawing through used bookstores and loved those covers from the 1950s paperbacks too. I really want a copy of the 1956 edition too but can’t convince myself to spend another $10 for a book I already have. But here’s the best scan I found from eBay. The artist is Bob Lavin and it’s his only work listed on ISFDB. But I did find a collection of his work here, including the art from this cover.

And I found this on Pinterest. I wonder why its reversed from the paperback cover?

There’s a lot going on in this painting. Some people are wearing skin tight clothing, while others dress like folks from the 1920s. The book is about two subcultures that vie for control of society. 1956 was the year before On the Road by Jack Kerouac came out, and America was introduced to the Beats (who the country started calling beatniks after Sputnik went up in October of 1957). Could Ed McBain/Evan Hunter/Hunt Collins known about the Beats before they were famous? The Vikes (Vicarions) in the story are hedonists and drug users, so could they have been inspired by the marijuana smoking Beats? Of course, the 1950s was well known for stories about juvenile delinquents and the evils of pots smoking. John Chellon Holmes had written about the beats in his 1952 novel Go, maybe Ed McBain read it.

The Jack Gaughan cover suggests a far future, a more psychedelic era. Although, this 1965 book cover predates psychedelic art I would think.

The middle book from 1961 whose cover is by James Mitchell. It’s his only cover art listed at ISFDB. Like the 1956 and 1965 covers it suggests a far future city, but unlike the 1956 cover, it doesn’t suggest the two subcultures in conflict.

There is another cover, from 1979 by Peter Elson that I didn’t like as well, but seems to capture some of the elements of the 1961 cover above.

All four covers have sweeping curves of a future city skyway. Looking at the covers from the 1961 and 1979 editions I’d imagine a much different story within than looking at the 1956 or 1965 covers, which imply other kinds of science fiction within. I’m hoping when I finally read Tomorrow and Tomorrow it will be like the 1956 cover. Mainly because I like stories about people and society.

I want to imagine a 1950s person imagining a science fiction future while reading it.

By the way, the original hardback, which had a different title, Tomorrow’s World, had the worst Emsh cover I’ve ever seen.

JWH