“Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein

The contrast is striking to read “Life-Line” right after reading and reviewing For Us, The Living. Did Heinlein hitchhike over to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for the 1939 Spring semester? “Life-Line” is a well-structured short story told dramatically, attributes sorely lacking in his trunk novel. How did he make such a quantum leap in writing?

“Life-Line” has a simple plot. Dr. Hugo Pinero invents a device that can give the date of a person’s birth and death. It’s based on the idea that every being exists in time as one long 4th-dimensional organism. Scientists think Pinero is a crackpot. When his machine works and causes havoc with the insurance industry they take him to court to get an injunction from using it. Pinero proposes to the court a scientific test which the judge accepts. One insurance CEO ordered a contract killing on Pinero. But before he dies we see one tear-jerking scene where Pinero tests a young married couple. The wife is pregnant. He refuses to tell the couple their results claiming his machine has become misaligned. He tried to keep them from leaving, but they eventually do and are killed outside his office by a speeding car. The scientists finally admit that Pinero’s technique was real when they find he accurately predicted his own death, and they destroy all the test predictions based on their own lives.

Farah Mendlesohn in her book, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein suggests Heinlein modeled his writing on the movies. I can believe that. The dialog in “Life-Line” feels like MGM films from the mid-1930s. It’s easy to picture Hugo Pinero played by Edward G. Robinson. Robinson sometimes played ethnic characters with accents, and Dr. Pinero has the same bellicose pugnacity that Robinson did in his movies. The gangster Mr. Bidwell of Amalgamated Insurance hired to kill Pinero comes across just like Humphrey Bogart in Kid Gallahad, even though Heinlein gives the gangster character just a couple of lines and a few words of description.

“Life-Line” also has several scenes that also remind me of 1930s movies, and they might be a clue to where Heinlein got his Public Argument writing technique I keep seeing in his stories. The story begins with Pinero arguing with a committee from the Science Academy. Next, he banters around with a group of news reporters. This reminds me of more than one Frank Capra film. Next, we see Pinero argue his case with a judge and lawyer for the insurance companies in court. I can see why he uses the Public Argument technique, it provides drama because it’s often used in movies, especially old movies from the 1930s, ones Heinlein should have seen — and studied.

I know when I first read “Life-Line” because in 1966 I bought a little Ace paperback for 40 cents, The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. I got the story again in The Past Through Tomorrow in 1967. It was first collected in Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon in 1950, but that was the year before I was born. By the way, my Baen Kindle edition of The Man Who Sold the Moon / Orphans of the Sky copy has an important missing section, the one where Bidwell hires the gangster. This time I listened to the Brilliance Audio edition of The Man Who Sold the Moon narrated by Buck Schirner — he did a fantastic job with 1930s-style voicing and accents.

To check the August 1939 Astounding edition to the current edition, I listened to the audio version while eye-reading a digital scan of the magazine. For the most part, the story was the same. Heinlein tweaked a few paragraphs to read better, and he changed one date from 1939 to 1951. I’ll try to use this comparison technique whenever I can. I wished I had used it on the few stories I’ve already reviewed.

The first time I read “Life-Line” I didn’t like the story. In fact, I remember being disappointed. I was used to Heinlein juveniles from Scribners and Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land from Putnam. And I just didn’t like the idea of a machine that predicts when people would die — it didn’t seem scientific. However, over the years, whenever I’ve reread “Life-Line” the story has gotten better and better. And when I listened to the audio version, with the dramatic reading, I’ve been very impressed with how well-written the story is, and how dramatic Heinlein made the scenes. I also thought the dialog was impressive too because it reminded me of MGM movie dialog. “Life-Line” isn’t James Joyce or even Ernest Hemingway, but it’s pretty damn good 1939 pulp fiction.

I just discovered there’s a student film version of “Life-Line.” It’s just now being released. This suggests the story still has impact and validity. That’s great.

“Life-Line” shows Heinlein could write. And write better than the average writer for science fiction magazines at the time. I have to wonder how much editing John W. Campbell did on the story. It seems whenever Heinlein isn’t reigned in, he pontificates. “Life-Line” does have a few short infodumps, but they are legit, fitting within the story’s logic.

I can’t tell what kind of impact Heinlein made with Astounding readers with his first story. He came in second in the AnLab poll, to a Lester del Rey story. Campbell did not single Heinlein out for any special praise in the editorial content, although in the AnLab (Oct. 1939) he did say there were three first-published writers in the August issue. I found two readers in the letter columns that mention the story. One wished for more stories like “Life-Line,” and the other said the story was well-written and dramatic and wished it had been novel length.

Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg picked “Life-Line” to include in their The Great SF Stories 1 (1939), but that was decades later. Alexei Panshin was rather hard on the story in Heinlein in Dimension. Of Heinlein’s first two stories, he thought “Misfit” the better of the two, and “Life-Line” wasn’t particularly good. I just read “Misfit,” and disagree. It’s a good story, but I think “Life-Line” is much better. It’s more unified. “Misfit” is a bit episodic.

“Life-Line” is not a favorite in the retrospective anthologies, most editors and readers prefer other Heinlein stories. I’m curious if it holds up with young readers today. It has an average of 3.91 stars out of 5 on Goodreads, with 906 readers rating it. 268 gave it 5 stars, and 338 gave it 4 stars. Not bad.

James Wallace Harris, 9/30/22

For Us, The Living by Robert A. Heinlein

After reading this quote in Farah Mendlesohn’s book, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, I jumped back to reading Heinlein’s first work of fiction, For Us, The Living:

During 1938, Heinlein started casting around for work and, cushioned by that military pension, decided to try fiction. His first attempt, For Us, the Living, was an Edward Bellamyesque utopia, loosely plotted and heavy on the lectures, which never reached the public during his lifetime. However, for the rest of his life he would mine this unpublished manuscript for ideas, so that we can see the working and reworking of the thoughts of the young Heinlein using the skill and critical eye (and sometimes mature cynicism) of the older Heinlein. While it did the rounds of publishers Heinlein embarked on his first venture into the pulp magazines.

She was right. I could see where Heinlein pulled “The Roads Must Roll,” “Coventry,” and Beyond This Horizon from this trunk novel, as well as a good portion of his Future History timeline. Not only that, but Heinlein’s first novel sounds very much like his last novels. I always thought Heinlein’s later novels, which I dislike, were badly written because Heinlein was old and in decline. Of course, Heinlein could be like me now that I’m old when I spend a lot of time thinking about ideas I had when I was young.

At seventy I have this urge to go back and reread Heinlein to see why he made such an impact on me when I was a teen. It’s obvious from For Us, The Living, that Heinlein was preoccupied with the same ideas his whole life. But I also believe the writing techniques he used also revealed aspects of his personality. I don’t know if we males are allowed to call another male this, but Heinlein was one helluva of a mansplainer. Heinlein should have been a preacher because he loved to give sermons. I get the feeling that Heinlein was more than a little annoyed with our society and political system and was dying to redesign it.

I’ve been making fun of how often Heinlein brings up nudity and getting naked, and in For Us, The Living, nudism is a way of life. The book is like many of the utopian novels of the 19th century where a writer finds a way to put a character from their time into the future. The story becomes a travelogue through a utopia where the reader must listen to various people lecture about how the future society works.

The opening scene has Perry Nelson dying in a car crash and waking up in 2086. He’s rescued by a young woman, Diana, living alone in the mountains. When he wakes up Perry finds himself in bed, naked under the sheets, with Diana bustling around the house naked too. At first, Perry is embarrassed to get up when she asks him to join her for breakfast. Perry can’t understand why she’s not embarrassed too. Eventually, Perry assumes, when in Rome do as the Romans.

When I was a kid, and read Stranger in a Strange Land and The Puppet Masters, I was titillated at all the nudity in those stories, but I had not noticed how often Heinlein’s other characters in other stories went around in the raw. When I reread Methuselah’s Children recently I kept seeing scenes as Heinlein wrote them and I’d go “Eeeewwww” in my head. In For Us, The Living, the characters wear clothes sometimes, especially if it’s cold, but clothing is optional. Perry sometimes wears a kilt (evidently only a kilt), which was what Lazarus Long wore in Methuselah’s Children. Heinlein also had a thing about redheads – they are everywhere in his stories. In all the scenes where the characters are naked in For Us, The Living, I keep picturing how ugly that world would look. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few unclad females walking around a little more often than I do now, but a world full of visible scrotums would just be wrong. (I don’t know why all women aren’t lesbians.)

But maybe that’s Heinlein’s point. He wanted to spread the gospel of nudity, the glory of the human body. I’m afraid I’m an atheist of that religion too.

For Us, The Living is a clunky novel. There are a couple dramatic scenes, like when Perry dies, or when he goes into a jealous rage and punches Diana’s old boyfriend. But those are few and far between. The punch in the face is a setup to explain how the U.S. of 2086 is a libertarian utopia, where Perry is taken to be evaluated for mental illness. In this future society, any kind of violence is considered a mental illness, and violators are given a choice. They can get treatment or go to Coventry. Coventry is a reservation for people who do not want to follow the rules. In Heinlein’s later story, “Coventry” the main character punches someone out and selects Coventry. But he eventually learns he doesn’t like a totally free society. Perry chooses treatment.

As part of his treatment, Perry must study the ways of the future society. There’s a long painful section where Perry is lectured on economics that even includes a long algebraic formula. In this fictional future, everyone has a guaranteed income. It’s enough to live comfortably, but if you want more out of life, you earn extra money. Perry can’t understand why this society supports so many layabouts. This gives Heinlein a chance to lecture on how he believes our society should work.

At one point Perry meets Master Cathcart, a “Master of History.” Cathcart quizzes Perry on what he’s learned about American history from when he died in 1938, until 2086. I get the feeling from this section that Heinlein wanted to predict the future, or at least extrapolate it and show off how smart he was regarding world events. Heinlein fails but fails in an interesting way. Most of his projections sound a whole lot like his Future History chart. Here’s a sample.

“I am to assume, I take it, that you are for all practical purposes an inhabitant of 1939 A.D., well educated in your period, transported by some witchcraft to this period. Very well. You have been studying some records today? Which ones?” Perry ran through the list. “Good enough. Now suppose you summarize briefly what you have learned today and I will explain and amplify and answer questions as best I can.” 

“Well,” replied Perry, “that’s a large order but I’ll give it a try. At the time of my accident, July 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his second term. Congress had adjourned after wrecking most of the President’s program. The war in Spain had been won by the fascists. Japan was fighting China and was apparently about to fight Russia. Unemployment and an unbalanced budget were still the main troubles in the United States. 1940 was a presidential year. President Roosevelt was forced to run for a third term through lack of an electable successor to carry on his policies. His nomination by the Democratic convention resulted in the defection of the conservative wing of the party to Republican Party. In the meantime the National Progressives had organized on a nationwide scale and put young Bob LaFollette in the field. The Republicans nominated Senator Vandenburgh. Vandenburgh was elected but polled considerably less than half of the popular vote and failed to get a majority in either house. His administration was doomed from the start. 

Very little was done for four years except for a half-hearted attempt to balance the budget by eliminating relief, but riots and hunger marches soon scared Congress into providing more and more for the dole. In the spring of 1944 the death in a plane crash of Mr. Roosevelt demoralized the remnants of the Democratic Party and most of them joined the Republicans or the Progressives. The Democrats adjourned their convention without naming a candidate. The Progressives named LaGuardia, the fiery little Mayor of New York, while the Republicans after many ballots picked Senator Malone. President Vandenburgh was as thoroughly discredited by circumstances he did not understand and could not control as President Hoover before him. Senator Malone was a midwestern politician, a typical demagogue of my period, if I’m any judge. The recordings show him red-faced and raucous, a man of the people. Malone ran on a platform of blaming everything on Europe and the radicals. He demanded instant payment of the war debts, which were pretty silly since the second European war was already on. He called for the outlawing of the Communist Party, protection of the American home, and a return to rationalism in education which he defined as readin’, ’ritin’, and ’rithmetic and a particularly offensive jingoistic patriotism. He advocated deportation of all aliens, laws to prevent women from holding men’s jobs, and protection of the morals of the young. He promised to restore prosperity and promised everyone the ‘American’ standard of living. And he won, by a narrow vote in the electoral college. LaGuardia said afterwards that since Malone had promised them the moon, all he could offer was the moon with whipped cream, which didn’t seem practical to LaGuardia. 

“Once in office Malone ran things with a high hand. Congress was willing in the first session to pass almost any law he desired. One of the most important was the Public Safety bill which was in effect a gag for the press and other means of public information. Inasmuch as it was first used to suppress news of labor troubles which resulted from the discontinuance of the dole, the capital controlled press submitted to it without really knowing what they were in for. Then a law was passed which greatly increased the scope of the G-men or Federal enforcement agents and making them directly responsible to the chief executive. Malone staffed these expanded and greatly changed corps from his home state political machine. In the meantime, in spite of his controlled press, the people were getting restless. Even those who were still economically fairly comfortable had had swarms of the hungry, dispossessed, and unemployed turned loose on them. Malone was apparently afraid to chance another election, even a mid-term. Perhaps he never intended to. In any case he declared a state of emergency, using the mobs of unemployed as an excuse, and took over the internal civil government as an absolute dictator. He used the army and navy to quell any local difficulties. With his new secret service and control over the means of communication and propaganda this was feasible. By the way, the record states that he was able to use the army and navy to destroy the democratic form of government. I find that hard to believe, Master Cathcart. You see I was in the navy myself and I don’t believe that the American Services were fascist minded. How do you account for it?”

For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (pp. 63-66). Scribner. Kindle Edition. 

Later on. he gets one interesting fact right:

“What happened to the dictators?” 

“Adolf Hitler committed suicide by shooting himself in the roof of the mouth. Mussolini got out much more gracefully. He submitted his resignation to the king he had kept around during his entire tenure and the king appointed a new prime minister, a social democrat. But to my mind the most interesting thing about the peace was the peculiar terms of the peace treaty.” 

“Some sort of a league of nations, all over again wasn’t it?” 

“Yes, and no. A very brilliant young Frenchman, a descendant of LaFayette, argued that a continental government or federation was necessary if a lasting peace was to come, and argued further that a constitutional monarchy was the most stable form under which free men could live. And so the United Europe was created. But the romantic part is the man who was chosen to head this polyglot creation. The Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns were out for obvious reasons of bad blood and bad records. The English king was suggested but he aroused no enthusiasm, being rather negative in character and further handicapped by his shyness and speech impediments. None of the pretenders in exile had any real following. But one prince was available, who had long before captured the world’s imagination. Edward, Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated the British throne in 1936 rather than accept the complete domination of his prime minister, became the choice.” 

“Well, I’ll be damned!” muttered Perry. “I don’t believe that was in the record.”

For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (pp. 69-70). Scribner. Kindle Edition. 

But where is the Heinlein that’s going to write all the books about exploring space? That’s the Heinlein that I loved as a kid. Well, towards the end of For Us, The Living, while Perry is still in rehab, he and one of his therapists, Olga, go on a tour of a rocket testing facility. In 2086, rockets are standard for traveling around the world, much as we now use jetliners, but they don’t go into space. At the testing facility, they are working on rockets that can achieve escape velocity. Perry and Olga witness a rocket failure, and this lights up Perry’s ambition.

Eventually, Perry discovers he’s cured. He ends up with a three-way relationship with Diana and Olga and is released from his reeducation. Perry then goes off to train as a rocket pilot, and at the end of the story, three years later, is heading to the Moon. The ending, by the way, reminds me a whole lot of the ending of the 1936 film, Things to Come. But Perry Nelson’s speech is nowhere as elegant as Oswald Cabal’s speech. Thus the ending of For Us, The Living sets us up for “Requiem,” and “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” The ending of For Us, The Living also feels like the ending to Tunnel in the Sky, and other Heinlein stories, where the main character is heading for a bright future on the high frontier.

If you only read Heinlein occasionally, you might not detect his pet ideas. But reading him solid like I am now, starting from the beginning and working forward as he published new stories, For Us, The Living is a fascinating clue to how Heinlein thought.

From reading all the biographies of Heinlein, and his work, I get the feeling he was deeply dissatisfied with our society and was burning to reshape it. Many of the lectures/infodumps deal with customs and beliefs that were common in the 1940s and are still embraced today. I think Heinlein resented the thinking behind them as impediments to his freedom. By the time I started reading Heinlein in 1964, when I was twelve, I had already decided to become an atheist. Maybe I felt a kinship with Heinlein’s quest to be mentally free. But I grew up in the sixties when youthful rebellion was required. We were way beyond Heinlein regarding free thinking.

What I loved about Heinlein as a kid, was all the gung-ho-ness for exploring space. What I’m seeing in my rereading is Heinlein had several ambitions as a writer, and the space stuff was only one of them.

Heinlein always told us that “Life-Line” was his first effort at writing. He’d brag how he read about a writing contest in Thrilling Wonder Stories that offered a $50 prize, but when he finished his first effort, it was good enough to sell to John W. Campbell for $70. He never mentioned For Us, The Living. I vaguely remember reading that Heinlein and his wife burned copies of it before he died because they didn’t want it published. But evidently, he had lent it to a biographer, and that copy was rediscovered. I’m glad his estate went against his wishes. It offers so many clues about Heinlein. It also tells us that Heinlein wasn’t quite honest. That he had secrets he didn’t want us to know. I think these essays I’m writing are a way to deduce some of them.

James Wallace Harris, 9/29/22

“If This Goes On —” by Robert A. Heinlein

A science fiction story’s impact depends on when it’s read. Readers reading “If This Goes On —” by Robert A. Heinlein in the February and March 1940 issues of Astounding Science Fiction would have reacted to the story much differently than I did reading it in the mid-sixties. I felt like I was living in the “Crazy Years” that Heinlein predicted for America in his Future History, and I could believe a second American revolution followed by a theocracy could be in my future too. And I can still believe that happening today. Are we still in the “Crazy Years?”

I’m watching Ken Burns’s new documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, which reveals a much different America than I was taught in history classes, but one that those 1940 readers of Astounding would have known as real life. That documentary series is an excellent companion to my study of early Heinlein.

Reading “If This Goes On —” today changes the story’s impact again. Not, because anything has changed politically, but because I have a lifetime of reading under my belt and I know of much better-written stories on the same theme.

“If This Goes On —” is the perfect example of why science fiction goes out of fashion. Science fiction keeps evolving. Yes, Heinlein gave us the startling idea of a theocracy overtaking the United States, but since then Margaret Atwood took the same idea and devised a much better story with The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s worldbuilding, writing, characterization, and storytelling far exceed Heinlein’s.

“If This Goes On —” was later revised and expanded for the collection Revolt in 2100. In 1967 it was included in The Past Through Tomorrow which collected Heinlein’s Future History stories. Revolt in 2100 is currently in print for the Kindle and Audible, and contains two other short stories, “Coventry” and “Misfit.” It’s a shame that The Past Through Tomorrow hasn’t stayed in print. I wish I had both an ebook and audiobook edition of it.

“If This Goes On —” as revised is considered a novel, but I’m not sure how long the two-part serial was in 1940. It may have been just a long novella. It would have been Heinlein’s first published novel if it was novel-length.

The setting for “If This Goes On —” is three generations after a theocracy has taken over the United States and is about an underground cabal that works to overthrow it. The focus of the story is all over the place. The story is told in the first person by John Lyle, a West Point trained guard at the Palace of the Prophet Incarnate in New Jerusalem. While on guard duty he has a brief encounter with Sister Judith, a virgin on her way to service the Prophet. As in many Heinlein stories, Lyle falls in love with her immediately.

Judith is able to avoid a fate worse than death twice with the implication she wants to be with John Lyle, and Lyle and his roommate Zeb concoct a plan to rescue her. This plan goes awry and John and Zeb must join the opposition cabal. From there the story becomes a thriller with John Lyle acting like a proto-James Bond for a chapter. That part of “If This Goes On —” reminded me of “Gulf” which Heinlein would write at the end of the 1940s. This chapter lets us know that America’s theocracy is a well-developed police state, but one where most people are happy.

The story then slows down for many chapters allowing Heinlein to preach about freedom and some of his other pet subjects, including nudism. I never noticed what a nut Heinlein was about naked bodies when I was a kid. I wonder if readers in the 1940s picked up on that? Heinlein uses John Lyle as an innocent who must learn the ropes from his world-wise friend Zeb. So the rest of the story is a kind of a letdown. Sure, Heinlein has the cabal overthrow the theocracy, but it’s all done too quickly and easily. And the dying love that John Lyle felt for Judith, is unsatisfactorily waved off. That was annoying because Heinlein asked us to believe at the beginning of the story that John Lyle would throw away a promising military career and a faith he completely embraced after one encounter with Sister Judith.

That’s something I’m learning about Heinlein from this current study. Throughout his writing career, he produced stories where people fell instantly in love and even married right away, yet he never gives us believable reasons for their love. Heinlein also expects us to hate his bad guys with little justification too. In his later novels, he just refers to them as the Black Hats.

Even though I’m complaining about the parts I didn’t like, I have to also mention that Heinlein had a way of jumping in and immersing the reader into a completely new world. Most of my disappointment with the story came from Heinlein not delving deeper into this world. Here’s the opening page from the original 1940 version that was significantly rewritten for the book version.

When I first read “If This Goes On —” when I was a young teen, just the idea of an American theocracy was enough to make me admire the story. And the idea that the United States went through the “Crazy Years” was enough to make me excited about Heinlein’s Future History concept. But now, after decades of reading more evolved science fiction, I can see what little world-building Heinlein put into these stories. And after decades of reading literary novels, I can also see what little characterization he put into them too.

I assume if a young person today reads “If This Goes On —” and they’re not very picky or sophisticated about what they read, they might like this old 1940 novel. It has a number of elements popular in modern YA dystopias. The important when factor applies to both when in the development of the reader, and when in the development of our society. Since we’re politically in a time when some people want a theocracy “If This Goes On —” becomes relevant again. And if you’re young, naive, and unsophisticated, and feel oppressed by the current political situation, “If This Goes On —” could be a relevant read to you too.

I just think it’s a shame that “If This Goes On —” is so poorly written and underdeveloped. Novels like The Handmaid’s Tale or Little Brother by Cory Doctorow would be much better substitutes for young readers today. John Lyle and Zeb are in their early twenties, graduates of West Point, so “If This Goes On —” is not a YA novel, however, it feels like one. If Heinlein had fleshed out his American theocracy and truly developed his young characters fighting against it, “If This Goes On —” could have been a significant novel that we should remember. It’s not.

I think readers of 1940s Astounding sensed that Heinlein was onto something. “If This Goes On —” threw out enough ideas to excite those readers. And since they were pulp readers, they didn’t expect much in the way of literary development.

While watching the Ken Burns documentary, I wondered how close we were to a Protestant theocracy in 1940? I’m also reading The Plot Against America by Philip Roth which covers the same time period as the documentary. I’m not sure Heinlein had the writing chops, or the guts to write a novel like Roth’s, but can you imagine what readers of Astounding would have thought if The Plot Against America was serialized in that magazine in 1940?

James Wallace Harris, 9/20/22

Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein

Sixth Column first appeared in the January, February, and March 1941 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction. For it, Heinlein used the pseudonym of Anson MacDonald, so it’s not considered part of his Future History series. Sixth Column is generally thought of as one of Heinlein’s bottom-of-the-barrel novels. Critics sometimes try to defend Heinlein by pointing out he wrote Sixth Column based on a story given to him by John W. Campbell, Jr., thus transferring some of the blame for this stinker to his editor. Also, it’s often dismissed as a racist Yellow Peril novel that was common back in the 1930s. Even if you ignore the racism, the story itself is silly and unbelievable. The story’s sense of reality is equal to a comic book.

The basic plot is six American servicemen are the sole survivors of an overwhelming attack on the United States that completely destroys all our military. We are occupied by soldiers from an unnamed Asian country, that Heinlein refers to as Pan Asian. The six surviving soldiers were in a hidden mountain bunker doing secret scientific research, and one of them just happens to be smarter than Einstein who can churn out exotic weapons based on theoretical physics. The story is about how they conquered the invaders and freed America.

Heinlein’s Sixth Column falls into the category of invasion literature. These were an early form of science fiction that began in the last third of the 19th century and ran until WWI. In England, the common fear was Germany would take over. But every country had authors that wrote scary stories about invasions from other countries. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Well is considered inspired by the invasion literature genre.

Since Sixth Column was written in 1940, and Japan had been invading countries since 1931, I have to assume Heinlein meant Japan when he wrote Pan Asian. It’s a shame Heinlein just didn’t write Japan and Japanese instead as he typed. It would seem much less racist now, and probably a bit prophetic at the time. Were there legal issues back then?

The Pan Asians who occupied America in this story completely controlled every aspect of Americans’ lives. They only allowed one freedom – the freedom of religion. Heinlein’s six soldiers invent a religion to spread to all the major cities as a cover and then use secret super weapons to defeat the enemy.

Sixth Column is readable, but that’s about all I can say for it. I did think the idea of creating a fake religion was neat. In another serial Heinlein wrote in 1940, “If This Goes On—” he has the U.S. overthrown by a theocracy. I’m reading that one now. Heinlein sure did like to think big in his plotting. The idea of six men repelling an entire invasion was exciting stuff in 1941, at least to pulp magazine readers. Heinlein loved creating characters that were confident in their abilities and could essentially do anything. Heinlein plotted Sixth Column better than Methuselah’s Children, his second three-part serial of 1941. I think that was due to focusing on fewer characters and a smaller scale if you can envision six men fighting off millions being a smaller setting than the events in Methuselah’s Children. But I do since Heinlein’s imagination ran to even bigger whoppers to believe in that story.

But even with this faint praise, I can’t recommend reading Sixth Column, unless you’re like me and studying all of Heinlein’s work.

James W. Harris

Szymon Szott Reads All the Stories on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story List

I have a guest columnist for y’all, Szymon Szott. Szymon worked out a computer program to find the minimum number of anthologies to buy that had the most stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list. The results were presented in these three columns:

Szymon was the first reader to tell me they’ve read all the novels on the novel list, and now he’s read all the short stories on the short story list. I still haven’t finished either list. Here’s his report on the short story reading experience.

Introduction

Hi, Szymon here again. Last time I wrote that “you won’t love every work of classic science fiction” and that was after reading all the books from the list of classic SF books. Now I’m back with some thoughts after reading all the works from the classics of SF short stories. Currently, the list consists of 110 novellas, novelettes, and short stories. I read these works over a period of about four years although 80% in the last twelve months.

It was great fun to read these outstanding works, I enjoyed most of them, and those that weren’t as good at least ended quickly. The brevity of these works makes them more accessible: a short story doesn’t require the same commitment as a novel. Also, if you’re an obsessive checklist completist like I am, then you’ll be making faster progress through short stories than through the list of classic SF novels.

Favorite Stories

I rated each story on a 1-5 scale (5 being ‘excellent’) and the average of all my ratings was 3.5 which confirms my overall positive experience. I gave 19 stories a score of 5, but if I were to recommend my top 10 favorite stories (at this moment) they would be the following.

TitleAuthorYearReview
NightfallIsaac Asimov1941Grand tale, memorable idea (but I don’t want to spoil it).
ArenaFredric Brown1944Like a Star Trek episode, a timeless classic!
Second VarietyPhilip K. Dick1953A movie (Screamers) was based on this tale. Similar themes to Blade Runner, vintage PKD.
The Last QuestionIsaac Asimov1956At least my third read. A great look into the possible future of any sentient life in the universe.
Flowers for AlgernonDaniel Keyes1959I knew the novel, which I prefer, but the story is still outstanding!
Inconstant MoonLarry Niven1971Last day on Earth. Apocalypse/catastrophe story. Great fun, I love this kind of tale!
Vaster Than Empires and More SlowUrsula K. Le Guin1971Colonists on a forest world find that it is conscious (as a whole planet/biosphere). Perfectly done!
Jeffty Is FiveHarlan Ellison1977Very nostalgic and a bit on the horror side (well, it is Ellison). Memorable!
The Mountains of MourningLois McMaster Bujold1989I first thought it was great, but then the denouement hitched it up a notch. Worthy of the Hugo and Nebula that it won!
Story of Your LifeTed Chiang1998Hard SF. The perfect marriage of story, plot, and physics (Fermat’s principle).

Surprisingly, only one story from the 90s made it to the above list even though the 90s were on average my highest-rated decade (with a score of 4.0). I was in my teens then, which is in line with the theory that “the golden age of science fiction is thirteen.” Meanwhile, the true Golden Age of SF (the 40s and 50s) are my next favorite decades, both with an average rating of about 3.8.

Favorite Authors

These are the authors that had the highest average scores (among authors with more than one story on the list):

  • Isaac Asimov
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Octavia E. Butler
  • Connie Willis
  • George R. R. Martin
  • Harlan Ellison
  • John Varley
  • Larry Niven
  • Arthur C. Clarke
  • Robert Silverberg
  • Ted Chiang
  • Robert A. Heinlein
  • Roger Zelazny
  • Philip K. Dick

The authors in bold are those I already knew I enjoyed. I’ll be reading more works by the other ones!

Sources Used

One of the coolest aspects of completing this list was finding sources (books, podcasts, etc.) from which to read the stories. For each story, I looked to see if it was available online for free, in any of the books I already own, in any of the book services I subscribe to, and, finally, in my local library. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database was an indispensable resource in this regard. Ultimately, I didn’t follow my own advice but rather worked with what I had available. I used a total of 48 unique sources to find the stories, but two of them stand out in terms of the number of stories: Sense of Wonder and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. They’re both great anthologies and I’ll be reading the other stories they include as well.

Looking at the per-source average rating, these were my favorite, which I’ve arranged by type:

  • Anthologies: Future On Fire (80s stories, edited by Orson Scott Card)
  • Podcasts: Drabblecast, Escape Pod
  • Collections: Exhalation (by Ted Chiang), Dreamsongs (by George R.R. Martin), The Best of Connie Willis
  • Magazines: Clarkesworld

Missing Stories

Finally, I’d like to share two stories that aren’t on the list. The first one is a classic: “The Colony” by Philip K. Dick. It doesn’t have enough citations to make the list. The second one is too new to have been included: “The Ocean Between the Leaves” by Ray Nayler (which Jim has blogged about). Both have what I love most about SF stories: a sense of wonder and high “readability”.

Conclusion

Overall, I think the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories v2 list is just as great a resource as the novel list. And it’s even better if you want to read all the stories from beginning to end: it’s not that long a project and you can find the best that SF has to offer in compact form. Highly recommended!

Methuselah’s Children by Robert A. Heinlein

Methuselah’s Children first appeared 81 years ago this summer, in the July, August, and September 1941 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction. In 1948, Erle Korshak gave Heinlein a $200 advance to publish the serial at Shasta Press. The revised and slightly expanded version should have been Heinlein’s third hardback book, but it didn’t get published until 1958. In 1967 Methuselah’s Children was included in The Past Through Tomorrow, Heinlein’s giant collection of Future History stories. The Past Through Tomorrow was widely distributed by the Science Fiction Book Club, so I expect many people have read this novel. Methuselah’s Children was first reprinted in paperback in 1962, having an extensive reprint history.

This past week while convalescing after surgery, I got hooked on reading early Heinlein. I needed reading material I could consume on my iPhone, and I’ve been meaning for years to reevaluate my adolescent love of Heinlein’s fiction. This seemed like a good time, and it made me feel more productive while lying around all day. I’ve finished Methuselah’s Children and The Sixth Column and working on Revolt in 2100. These are Heinlein’s first three novels (depending on how you measure wordage).

I expect to read even more from Heinlein’s pre-war stories. I feel like an academic studying his early work. I used to think that Heinlein had four periods where the stories were distinctively different. I grouped them into the Pre-WWII stories, the 1947-1959 stories, novels from the 1960s, and the later novels. Some of his books from the 1950s I have read many times, and are my favorites. Heinlein’s books from the 1960s I’ve read at least three times each, I think. I read most of the pre-WWII stories only once, except for the more famous anthologized short stories. I’ve read those several times. For his later work, I’ve only read those books either once, or I didn’t finish them.

I’m now realizing that Heinlein changed far less from period to period than I previously thought. A lot of the perceived differences were due to the markets that published the stories. His work at Putnam showed Heinlein at his most verbose. I’m now seeing those personal pet ideas he expounded on at length in his later novels revealed in his earlier works as mere asides. Despite editorial restraint or the limits of length, Heinlein expressed himself one way or another.

Heinlein was incredibly prolific before WWII. One estimate suggested that 20% of Astounding Science Fiction in 1941 was written by Heinlein using his own name or under pseudonyms. After the war, five of those stories were published as novels, even though they were very short, or fix-ups. Most of the famous Future History stories were written during this period. Before Heinlein quit writing to join the war effort in 1942, he wrote five tales that would be published as novels. I’ve read the first and last three times each, but the middle three only once.

  • Beyond This Horizon (1948, Fantasy Press) (Astounding April, May 1942)
  • Sixth Column (1949, Gnome Press) (Astounding, January, February, March 1941)
  • Revolt in 2100 (1953, Shasta) (Astounding, February, March 1940)
  • Methuselah’s Children (1958, Gnome Press) (Astounding, July, August, September 1941)
  • Orphans of the Sky (1964, Putnam) (Astounding, May, October 1941)

When I first started reading Methuselah’s Children I thought I must have first read it when I got The Past Through Tomorrow in 1967. It was considered the last story in Heinlein’s Future History, and the one that was set second furthest in the future. The characters in “Universe” and “Common Sense” (reprinted as Orphans of the Sky) lived the furthest in the future in Heinlein’s fictional universe. When I started writing this essay I remembered borrowing and reading Methuselah’s Children from Homestead Air Force Base Library in 1965 because that library had all of Heinlein’s Gnome, Fantasy Press, and Shasta’s editions. I distinctly remember its cover (see above).

I have not read Methuselah’s Children since then, and I barely remembered it. I can’t say it’s a great story. You can tell Heinlein was just learning how to write a novel. It’s rather episodic, with three main story arcs that go along with being serialized over three issues. And Heinlein hadn’t figured out how to plot a long story yet, nor was he particularly good at developing dramatic scenes. I believe Sixth Column had better plotting, and Revolt in 2100 had some better dramatic scenes. However, Methuselah’s Children is full of exciting science fictional ideas, referencing many of his other early stories that fit within the Future History timeline.

I’m not sure I’d recommend Methuselah’s Children to modern readers, although at Goodreads there were many reviewers who raved about it. Now that I’m rereading old Heinlein I’m also pondering why as I go along.

First, let’s consider the science fictional concepts presented by Heinlein for the readers of 1941.

  • Longevity. The Howard Family (the collective name, there were many surnames) began selective breeding in the 19th century by only marrying spouses that had four living grandparents. By the 22nd century, many of them were living close to two hundred years. The oldest, Lazarus Long, was 213 at the beginning of the novel, and somewhere between 50-75 years older at the end. No one knows for sure because of the time dilation of space travel. In 1941 Americans were still interested in eugenics, but the techniques used to achieve longevity in this story were merely animal husbandry. Heinlein should have known this wouldn’t work because we’ve never bred any long-lived farm animals.
  • Political Utopia. The story is set after the Crazy Years and the Second American Revolution, under a new constitution called The Covenant. Maximum political freedom was guaranteed. However, The Covenant breaks down when the average citizen learns that the Howard Family has longevity and they want to suspend its freedom and torture the Howard Family members into revealing their secret. It’s a shame that Heinlein didn’t flesh out this semi-utopian period.
  • STL and FTL Space Travel. The Howard Family escapes Earth by stealing the sister ship to the one in “Universe” and “Common Sense”. Their ship, the New Frontiers, starts out slow, but Andrew Jackson Libby, a character from Heinlein’s second published story, “Misfit” finds a way to soup up the engines to travel near light speed. Eventually, he learns how to make it go faster than light. That means in two 1941 stories Heinlein explores several ways to achieve interstellar travel.
  • Psychic Powers. Even though the Howard Family breed for longevity they still have birth defects (assumed from all that inbreeding). Heinlein is careful to point out how well they take care of these children. Some of those handicapped offspring had psychic powers, and that figured in the plot in a couple of places. Children with birth defects and psychic powers reminded me of stories by Philip K. Dick from the 1950s and 1960s. Heinlein’s aliens also have various degrees of psychic powers. In one instance, reminding me of Arthur C. Clarke’s stories Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is interesting for 1941. SF in the 1950s was known for its ESP stories.
  • Vastly Superior Aliens. The Howard Family refugees first encounter an alien species called the Jockaira, a pleasant, vaguely humanoid people that welcomes them to their planet. Then the Howards meet the real rulers of the planet and it scares the shit out of them. This is very interesting because John W. Campbell supposedly had some kind of unwritten editorial rule that forbade stories with superior aliens. For the rest of his writing career, Heinlein always claimed humans were the meanest, toughest species in the galaxy, but in this story, we run away with our tails between our legs.
  • Lotus Eater Aliens. The next planet has extremely nice aliens. Too nice.

For 1941, this is some impressive science fiction, but is it for 2022? And was the writing all that impressive, even for 1941? Heinlein has a reputation for blazing onto the pulp scene as a far superior writer. I have my doubts in places. This is where I wonder if this story will survive the test of time. Heinlein loved writing stories where people had huge meetings in large halls to argue about their problems using Robert’s Rules of Order. These group meetings happened several times in Methuselah’s Children. To me, this was a cheating kind of infodump. And quite often it allows Heinlein to spout his philosophy using his protagonist. Lazarus Long is a popular character but could be a holier-than-thou know-it-all.

At the beginning of the novel, Mary Sperling is the leader of the Howard Family because of her age. It’s a shame Heinlein didn’t stick with this woman protagonist. Mary was the chairman of the board and the moderator at meetings where the various families send their representatives. But when Lazarus Long admits he’s older Mary gives him the gavel. From then on Lazarus conducts the meetings. Heinlein tries to make him sound like a cross between Mark Twain and Will Rogers, but in my mind, he failed. I never felt Lazarus showed the wisdom that a man of 213 years should have.

Heinlein loved his character Lazarus Long and brought him back in several stories. We’re told Lazarus wears a kilt with a gun (blaster) strapped between his legs. The jokes I could make about that. I was never sure he wore anything besides a kilt, but every chance he gets Lazarus will shuck his skirt. I’ve read that Heinlein was a nudist, and that concept shows up over and over again in his stories. I tried to imagine a hundred thousand naked people in a spaceship in zero-g and it brings out the Puritanical prude in me. The thought of being in a cabin with Lazarus long while floating in free space and being forced to stare at his two guns hurt this story.

Also, Lazarus often acted like he was ready to shoot first and ask questions later. Throughout Heinlein’s fiction, his characters ignore laws and often commit capital punishment for offenses that the law would seldom execute.

Lazarus Long has an ego the size of Texas. I’m sure Heinlein used all the incidents I saw as egotism as a way to prove that Lazarus was a competent man who could do anything. At one point, Lazarus shows how any man with moxie can bully his way through the telephone system to talk to the world leader. I wonder if Heinlein thought he could call up FDR anytime he wanted?

In another story arc, Lazarus steals an interstellar spaceship, buys a giant cargo vessel, and rescues over a hundred thousand people – all by himself. This really hurt the novel because it’s absolutely unbelievable. Methuselah’s Children would have been a much better story if the Howard Families totaled fewer than a thousand people. At one point Lazarus is moderating a meeting of all hundred thousand using televisors. That just seemed ridiculous to me. Try imagining Donald Trump interacting with a hundred thousand of his fans concurrently who wanted their say too.

And maybe Lazarus Long isn’t Heinlein, but I imagine this character is the person Heinlein wished he could be. Ditto for Jubal Harshaw, and all the other characters people think of as standing for Heinlein. The William Patterson biography of Heinlein hints that Heinlein was an unpopular cadet at the Naval academy and that he was very thinned-skinned.

Heinlein fans have often accused critics of not understanding that writers aren’t their characters. But for Heinlein, I believe he created a dominating character that he wished he could be. For some readers, this works. I’m guessing they’d like to be those characters too. And maybe I did too when I was a kid. Now, Heinlein’s supermen are unappealing, to say the least.

Still, I found Methuselah’s Children to be very readable and thought-provoking. The way the story handles the resentment over genetically enhanced humans was done better with Nancy Kress and her novel Beggars in Spain, so I’d recommend it before Methuselah’s Children.

In 1941 Heinlein was dealing with several ways of achieving interstellar travel. That was amazing at a time when most Americans pictured space travel like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordan series, where alien planets seem no further than the Moon. Heinlein worked to get his readers to imagine the immense distance between the stars and the limitations Einstein had put on space travel. Unfortunately, all that has been done countless times since. So I don’t know if young readers need to dig this far back in science fiction to find rewarding stories on those science fictional topics.

My main enjoyment in reading Methuselah’s Children is finding all the easter eggs linking to earlier Future History stories. Also, I liked that Heinlein kept imagining the United States being overthrown by various other forms of government. Even though I believe this 81-year-old story is unworthy of future pop culture recognition, it still entertained me because I’m a life-long Heinlein fan.

But I’m also seeing that I never really paid attention to Heinlein’s philosophy and politics. What mattered to me were the science fictional ideas. When I was young I wanted Heinlein to be read and loved by everyone. I wanted him to become a classic author like Charles Dickens. That just isn’t happening. If 10,000 novels are published every year, 99.999% of them will be forgotten, leaving about ten to fight for a slot in our long-term pop culture memory. If you look at Wikipedia’s list of 1941 fiction, Methuselah’s Children is there (probably because of an editor who is a Heinlein fan), but so are a bunch of books already forgotten. It’s funny, but from the list, the most memorable pieces of 1941 fiction for me were Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain and “Nightfall,” by Asimov. If we look at Wikipedia’s remembered films of 1941, I see far more that have retained some pop cultural vitality – especially Citizen Kane.

People probably wonder why I obsess over remembering the past, worrying about what will be remembered and what won’t. I’m just fascinated by what history and world culture retain from pop culture. What works of art can speak the furthest across time.

I started reading Heinlein when I was twelve, so maybe I’m now finalizing the project twelve years before I die. I’m seeking both closure and exorcism. When I retired I got heavily into reevaluating my past, but I’ve been doing that for a decade and I realize I don’t want to spend my last years looking backward. I want to get back to thinking about the future.

James Wallace Harris, 9/11/22

Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Why read an old science fiction novel? Maybe a friend recommended it. Or maybe you discovered an author you like and you’re reading all of their books. Or it was on a list of great science fiction novels. Or a YouTuber reviewed it. Maybe even, it was assigned in a class. In my case, and I think it’s true of most people my age, we’re rereading old SF novels we loved in our youth.

A better question to ask: Which old science fiction novels should we read? The obvious answer is the true classics. But what makes a book classic? I once calculated there were less than one hundred famous books from the 19th century that are regularly read today. Scholars and fans of 19th-century lit are familiar with more titles but I’m talking about the average bookworm. I’m going to assume as the 21st century progresses, we’ll collectively forget about most of the science fiction published in the 20th century.

I’m reading and rereading old science fiction because of nostalgia and to fill in the gaps in my knowledge about 20th-century science fiction. But as I do this I’m thinking about which books might survive long term. Doing that requires analyzing books for their various qualities. One way to do that is to recall what made me love a book then and try to figure out why it might be loved or hated today.

If I was thirteen years old today and read Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein which was first published in 1949, would I love it like I did when I read it at thirteen in 1964? I’m not sure I can answer that at 70 because my mind is clouded with nostalgia. Probably any 13-year-old today would laugh at Heinlein’s attitude toward women. But would kids today, especially those science-savvy kids, dismiss the book because Heinlein has Mars populated with life, even with beings more intelligent than humans? Or would they forgive him in the same way we forgive 19th-century writers like Jules Verne, and assume Heinlein was from some pre-scientific dark age and just didn’t know better?

Would the core story in this 1949 science fiction novel still be entertaining to any reader in 2022? People still find Journey to the Center of the Earth immensely entertaining even though they know Verne was full of lala regarding his science.

Red Planet was immensely appealing to me in 1964. It was about a boy, Jim Marlowe, and his friend Frank Sutton, living in a colony on Mars. Jim also had a pet Martian “rounder” that is somewhat intelligent and could speak some English. Because Mars is so cold the colonists must migrate between the south and north to avoid Martian winters. The plot involves Jim and Frank going away to boarding school and learning the corporation that owns the colony secretly wants to end the practice of migration to save money. Jim and Frank sneak away and travel across the Martian landscape to warn their parents, which eventually causes the colonists to revolt against the corporation. The plot also deals with the Martians and the conflict of intelligent species, so it’s very exciting.

In 1965 with the Mariner IV flyby probe we learned that Mars was much closer to being like the Moon than Earth and there would be no advanced life forms found there. Ever since then science fiction writers have been writing quite differently about Mars. Some readers felt NASA invalidated all the older science fiction about Mars, and some readers didn’t mind at all. I wonder what young readers growing up in the 21st century think when reading such stories. I know they are often quick to reject stories for woke reasons, and that’s understandable. I sometimes wonder if they ignore the less evolved attitudes of our ancestors, and the science we know about Mars, could older stories gain fans just because of their storytelling virtues?

I can overlook bad science and some lack of wokeness. I even wrote an essay – “I Miss Martians” because I get a kick out of stories where the solar system is full of life and intelligence. But I remember a time before NASA’s probes when many people hoped that would be true. Will readers growing up after that time feel the same way? Is The War of the Worlds still a popular book with young readers?

Books are like people, they survive death in the memories of folks who loved them. But as those people die, who will keep the memories going? History keeps the memory of significant people alive. For a book to keep being read requires a similar kind of historical significance.

Red Planet was the first Heinlein story I read. That was back in the autumn of 1964 just before I turned thirteen, and before Mariner IV. My eighth-grade English teacher required us to read three books for each six-weeks grading period. Red Planet was on her approved list, and maybe the only science fiction title. I wished I remembered her name because I’ve always been thankful to her for introducing me to Heinlein. By the end of 1965, I believe I had read all of Heinlein that had been published in paperback and hardback up to that time.

The Heinlein juveniles won library awards and were recommended for young adults. In the late 1940s when few science fiction writers got published in hardback, Heinlein sold his young adult novels to Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publisher of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. After WWII Heinlein also broke into slick magazines with several SF stories published in Saturday Evening Post, and he even had a Hollywood movie, Destination Moon, made in 1950. And I have met countless people on the web testifying how much they loved the Heinlein juveniles growing up. I think they are why those twelve books stay in print. But after they die, do those twelve books have any literary or historical significance to keep them in print?

Heinlein’s words had a certain amount of respect around the time I was born in 1951 but I’m not sure his same words would be respected today. While liberals shame-censor books with woke concerns and conservatives seek to actually have books banned from school and public libraries I’m not sure how the books I loved as a kid would be judged today.

Red Planet made a great impact on me as a kid. Conservatives today would probably completely approve of Red Planet — the only fault they might find in it is I grew up to be a liberal. I’m afraid my liberal friends would not approve of this novel because Heinlein had a completely 1940s attitude towards the role of women in society. But his attitudes didn’t rub off on me because I completely embraced feminism in the 1960s. I did wince at all of Heinlein’s patriarchal sentiments when I reread Red Planet this weekend. What’s strange is just a few years later, in the 1950s Heinlein changed his attitude completely toward what jobs women could hold. Wonder what made him change? And should we retroactively forgive him for his 1940s attitudes?

I’ve wondered if Heinlein’s third wife, Ginny, changed Heinlein’s mind about women. Or did his science fictional instincts make him ask: What if women had the freedom to be who they wanted? In the 1950s Heinlein made women rocket scientists, spaceship pilots, and combat soldiers. He put them in leadership positions. Did he think of that himself? Or were there feminists in the 1950s who changed his mind? Is a feminist change in SF significant enough historically to keep Heinlein’s 1950s books in print?

My favorite part of Red Planet is the Martians. They appear to be the same Martians Heinlein uses in his 1961 novel Strange in a Strange Land. However, they don’t seem to be the same Martians in his 1956 novel, Double Star. And there’s even a recursive SF joke in Red Planet. Willis turns out might be a princess of sorts, bringing in an Edgar Rice Burroughs allusion. In Red Planet, the Martians have a ceremony with water and call Jim their “water friend” but in Strange in a Strange Land, Mike undergoes the same water ceremony and is called a “water brother.”

In other words, I don’t care if the real Mars is lifeless, but it’s amusing to see how Heinlein gave Mars an intelligent species for his books. Alan Brown in his review of the novel said he thought Stranger was actually a prequel to Red Planet. If Stranger in a Strange Land stays in print, will it help Red Planet be remembered by science fiction scholars as a footnote?

Actually, many themes that Heinlein covered in other books are touched upon in Red Planet. Heinlein was a nudist, and the men in this novel only wear jockey shorts on the inside and describe women wearing what Earth women would wear to the beach. A lot of cheesy 1950s science fiction movies pictured such skimpy attire for the future. Will some science fiction books be remembered for their bad visions of fashion of the future? I doubt Red Planet has enough of those.

The revolution in Red Planet has a lot of similarities to the revolution in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Many of Heinlein’s stories involve revolutions or overthrowing some kind of tyranny. And they often have a big committee meeting where everyone argues and abuse Robert’s Rules of Order. And all these stories involve innocents being killed to ramp up the emotions and justify the revolutionaries using deadly force. Heinlein loved replaying the American revolution. I’m pretty sure MAGA people, and even preppers would find Red Planet appealing for its politics.

What’s funny is Jim Marlowe throws fits over minor school rules claiming it violates his freedom. Heinlein loved the Navy Academy and Jim would have been considered a whiner there. The way freedom is defined in Red Planet is the same kind as people who didn’t want to wear masks during the pandemic defined it. Heinlein also spends a fair amount of time promoting gun ownership in this book. He also promotes a kind of frontier justice that many conservatives today would love.

I was disappointed with this rereading of Red Planet because Heinlein failed to make his Martian colony realistic, or even spend much time on how a colony would be built. Heinlein saw Mars as a solution to Earth’s overpopulation and a place for people wanting to be free to be pioneers. Both are absolutely ridiculous assumptions.

The Martians in Red Planet have the same ability to make people disappear as Valentine Michael Smith did in Stranger in a Strange Land. I find that concept extremely unethical in the way Heinlein uses it. It gives his characters a god-like power which Heinlein assumes his characters know what’s right and wrong and can make god-like judgments. In more than one novel Heinlein has stated that bad manners should be a capital offense. Again, this will probably appeal to the MAGA crowd.

In recent decades I’ve developed a theory that Heinlein wanted to be another Ayn Rand, especially after the success of Atlas Shrugged. He switched from writing short YA novels to long preachy adult novels after Ayn Rand became famous. And Heinlein promoted a similar kind of political philosophy. Before he died, Heinlein said in many places he wanted to be remembered for three novels: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I see those as his Ayn Rand novels, but the same political sentiments exist in Red Planet. I believe Heinlein knew most of his novels would be forgotten in the 21st century, and he intended to winnow out the ones he wanted and why. I never liked Heinlein’s politics, so as I’ve gotten older, I jettison his 1960s and later novels too. I love a lot of his 1940s work, but I know they have woke problems. And from 1960 on, they have had political and literary problems. That leaves me with his 1950s work. And as I reread it, I might revise my opinions on those stories too.

Heinlein also likes writing stories about advanced aliens judging humanity. Red Planet parallels Have Space Suit-Will Travel in this regard. I’m not sure this theme is strong enough in Red Planet to ensure its long-term survival.

I still enjoyed reading Red Planet this weekend. I’ve read it several times over my lifetime. It’s a nostalgic favorite, but not a top favorite. It’s too quaint for modern readers, but I don’t think it offers enough historical or literary value to last. And I can see why it would offend many readers.

When I was young I loved Heinlein’s books so much that I thought they would become classics, but I doubt that now. I wanted Heinlein to be the H. G. Wells of 20th-century science fiction. I’m starting to think he might be remembered like Edward Page Mitchell.

James Wallace Harris, 8/23/22

Wow — I Wish I Hadn’t Opened That Can of Worms

I need an equivalent saying to “My eyes are bigger than my stomach” that applies to trying to read too much. My reading desires far exceed my ability to get things read. For the past year, I’ve spent most of my reading time consuming short stories. On average, I still squeeze in a book a week, but usually, it’s anthologies or nonfiction, rarely novels. Lately, I’ve been missing novels or I thought I did. Novels get all the buzz. Novels are what readers remember. Novels are what pop culture respect. So I felt I was missing something important.

One thing about getting old is letting things and pursuits you love fall away. I regret not keeping up with new science fiction novels. I’ve identified with being a science fiction fan my whole life, so I feel a pang of loss that I haven’t kept up with the genre.

I felt I should fight that aging trend. I told myself I should catch up. Last week I decided I would look for all the best science fiction novels that have come out in 2022 and read three or four of them. I quickly discovered it was like lighting a cigarette from a Raptor 2 engine. Not only are publishers launching SF novels like SpaceX launches Starlink satellites, but many are reaching orbit with reviewers and list makers, and I’m essentially grounded.

I went to Google and searched for the best science fiction of 2022 and found these lists:

Because I subscribe to Scribd.com I was able to sample several of them right away. For the others, I used the Look Inside feature at Amazon. It didn’t take me long to remember that novels aren’t like short stories, which I can read in a sitting, but each requires a week’s commitment. None of the ones I started grabbed me enough to make me want to make that commitment. I’m willing to take on some long reads, but only if the novel is great. I used to go to the bookstore every week and pick a science fiction novel out by the cover. I was willing to climb many mountains to find an El Dorado.

I needed another plan. I needed to know more about a book before I started reading, a judgment of its value. So I started going through the SF magazines and reading their book reviews.

Twenty years ago I felt I was getting out of touch with current science fiction. Going through all these reviews was like pistol-whipping myself with the truth. I’m completely out of touch. And more depressingly, I realize I’ll never catch up. If I really want to read great 2022 science fiction novels, I’ll just have to wait the years until they are universally recognized.

I probably never did keep up, even when I was reading a paperback a day back in my school days. I just had the illusion I was because so many books and authors felt familiar.

I’ve come to accept that I can’t stay current with modern science fiction. I will accidentally stumble upon a new novel now and then, probably because it gained immense popularity. I’ve also got to accept that what I really like is reading old science fiction and reading about old science fiction. I’m now more of a science fiction scholar, specializing in a period in the genre’s history. I can’t honestly call myself a science fiction fan anymore.

I just finished John Brunner by Jad Smith, a monograph on his life and work, part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series from the University of Illinois Press. It inspires me to read several Brunner novels I missed from decades ago. Even that urge is unrealistic, but I’m more likely for me to read one of Brunner’s older novels than to read a new novel from an unknown writer.

For me, at seventy, it’s more rewarding to understand the science fiction novels from my past that were about my generation’s imagined future than trying to read current novels about the new futures young readers are imagining today.

Science fiction isn’t really about the future at all. It’s taken me a lifetime to learn that. Science fiction is about the present and what we think about the future at that moment. Reading the science fiction I grew up with is a kind of meditation on who I was. Reading new science fiction tells me about the current generation. And I’m afraid that opens up a can of worms I can’t face. Pop culture has gotten too fast, too complex, and too prolific, to keep up with.

I’ve got to retreat to a smaller territory, to putter about in my own small land.

One of the aspects of getting old is learning to let go of who you think you are, who you wanted to be, doing what you want to do, going places you wanted to go, and things you wanted to own. That sounds depressing, but getting older requires a kind of streamlining or downsizing so you won’t get depressed. It’s just a practicality.

For a couple of days, it became depressing trying to catch up, but now I’m happier.

James Wallace Harris, 8/18/22

“Fair” by John Brunner

This review is a product of synergy and serendipity from what I’ve been reading from diverse sources over the last 40 hours. I’m going to try and reassemble all my influences before talking about my reading of “Fair” by John Brunner.

Yesterday, I got a tweet from Joachim Boaz about John Brunner (Modern Masters of Science Fiction) by Jad Smith and it intrigued me enough that I bought the Kindle edition and started reading it. I’ve read Stand on Zanzibar twice, once just after it came out, and again when it was published as an audiobook. And I’ve read a handful of Brunner’s short stories. Normally, that wouldn’t be enough to get me to read a monograph on an author, but I have a fond memory of spending an afternoon once with John Brunner. My college roommate was on the programs committee which brought in Brunner, Fred Pohl, and James Gunn for a morning panel at our school about science fiction. Greg was also their chauffeur, and I got to tag along. I mention this not out of name-dropping but because the authors took us to lunch and Greg and I sat and listened to them talk, Then afterward, we took Pohl and Gunn to the airport and Brunner asked if we’d take him down to see the Lorraine Motel. This was Memphis in the early 1970s before it was renovated into the National Civil Rights Museum. The key piece of information here is Brunner told us about being involved with the Martin Lurther King, Jr. Society in London. After, we went downtown Brunner took Greg and me out to eat at a Mexican restaurant. The impression he made on me came back when I started reading the Jad Smith monograph.

Joachim had also blogged “Future Media Short Story Review: John Brunner’s ‘Fair’ (1956)” but I wasn’t ready to read the story just yet. I was into the monograph, and the monograph inspired me to read Earth Is But a Star (1958) reprinted as an Ace Double The 100th Millenium (1959) and later expanded into Catch A Falling Star (1968). Jad Smith compared it to The Dying Earth (1950) by Jack Vance which I’ve recently read, but what really grabbed me is the inside cover blurb that quotes a passage at the beginning of the novel:

I know you’re wondering why I am digressing so much but stay with me. The sentiment of this quote is exactly what I’m worried about at the moment. But in the Jad Smith book on John Brunner, it’s what he worried about across his entire career, and in so many stories. It can be summed up by this question: What do we owe the future? My faint memories of meeting John Brunner retained an impression that he was both far more sophisticated than I was, and he was concerned about the future and mankind. He wanted us to solve our problems. It’s why he was involved with Martin Luther King, Jr. Society in London. I learned in the Jad Smith book Brunner founded that society.

Yesterday I also read “How To Do More Good” in Time Magazine. And twice yesterday I ran into reviews of What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill. Are you now getting the serendipity and the synergy of my reading? This topic was often at the core of what Brunner wrote. Like the fate of the humans in To Catch a Falling Star, we know our future too regarding climate change. Brunner could never understand why we don’t do something about all the problems we faced. In his later books he got quite cynical, and so am I. This is what draws me to him now.

All of this is important too for when I finally read his early story “Fair” an hour ago. I’ve now read 44% of the Jad Smith book on Brunner, and quite often Brunner’s plots are about saving the future. In his early stories, Smith said he would start out with a very bleak outlook but then end them with endless optimism. That applies to “Fair.”

Smith also summarized a common trait of Brunner’s where he would create an anti-hero, and that’s also what he’s done in “Fair.” Smith described how Brunner, a British author, had to write for the American markets to earn a living. Brunner grew up reading American pulps and understood how American science fiction was different from British science fiction. He tried to develop a style that merged the two. And he slowly worked toward developing a strong realistic attitude towards his subject matter even while using wild pulp conventions.

However, by the time he got to his most successful period of Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and Shockwave Rider, many reviewers felt he was too realistic, too mainstream. I think we can see a hint of this in “Fair.”

“Fair” is about a nasty future. “Fair” is about Alec Jevons, a man who has lost his job, been left by his wife, and is rejected by society because his mother wasn’t of the right nationality. It was written during the Cold War, but it’s set in the future that Jevons felt he help create. Actually, it is the future we are creating. (And isn’t Brunner always speaking to us?) The fair of the story is a sprawling science-fictional fair of the future where people go to escape their miserable lives. Jevons is older than the mostly young people at the fair and he impresses them with his physical abilities on one gigantic ride designed to throw riders off. But where he has his revelation is in a booth that provides mental experiences that feel real.

I won’t tell you anymore. By luck, my best reading copy of the story was in SF: Authors’ Choice 4 edited by Harry Harrison. I say luck because it has an introduction by John Brunner that tells us quite a bit about why and how he wrote this story. I’m going to reprint it here hoping I’m not violating copyrights too much, but these introductions are seldom reprinted, and often are very enlightening.

Read the ISFDB page for where “Fair” has been reprinted. I always enjoy it when I discover a story I’m searching for is already in one of the anthologies I’ve collected over the years. But you can also read “Fair” online in New Worlds (March 1956) where it was first published under the byline of Keith Woodcott.

I love that I’m rereading these older SF stories. I feel guilty about not reading new science fiction, and not knowing about the latest popular science fiction novels. But I’m retreading over territory I explored growing up. The first time around I read stories that appealed to the teenage me. I mainly focused on Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Dick, and Delany, but I read fairly widely. What I’m discovering in old age is I missed so much the first time around. There were so many writers I didn’t get to. Reading the Jad Smith monograph on Brunner tempts me to read a lot of Brunner that I just didn’t know was there.

The monograph also adds a sense of philosophy and intellectualism that I also missed in reading science fiction when I was young. John Brunner had quite a lot to say in “Fair,” and Smith is helping me see how Brunner developed as a writer.

James Wallace Harris, 8/16/22

“The Hemingway Hoax” by Joe Haldeman

The Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction is reading The Best of the Best, Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels edited by Gardner Dozois. This week’s discussion story is “The Hemingway Hoax” by Joe Haldeman which first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction (April 1990). I remember reading the story when it came out. I was around forty then, and I’m seventy now. I thought it might be interesting to explore how my attitudes toward “The Hemingway Hoax” have changed since I got old.

I was an English major in college and had read A Farewell to Arms (1929) and The Sun Also Rises (1926) and a handful of Hemingway’s short stories. Other than classroom discussion I knew little about Hemingway. I’ve read several biographies since then, and more of his fiction, but at the time I didn’t know about the central inspiration of “The Hemingway Hoax,” that Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife, had lost all his early manuscripts. At the time I thought that fascinating and probably encouraged me to go read about Hemingway.

“The Hemingway Hoax” focuses on John Baird, a Boston University professor specializing in Hemingway. Baird is a vet, wounded in Vietnam, who identifies with Hemingway’s war wounds, and eventually makes a list of all the things they share. He’s married to a much younger woman, Lena. They are vacationing in the Florida Keys, but are worried about their future. Baird’s trust fund is about to run out and they are used to living a rich lifestyle. Baird is afraid of how Lena will react to living within an academic’s salary. Then Baird meets Castle, a con man who suggests a scheme for Baird to forge a lost manuscript of Ernest Hemingway. Baird is not really interested, but think’s it is an amusing idea. Lena who married Baird for his money connives with Castle to force Baird into the caper. Along the way, Castle cons a woman named Pansy into the scheme too.

The magazine version of “The Hemingway Hoax” is a long novella, which Haldeman later expanded into a short 155-page novel. (Or did he cut it down for magazine publication?) The novella won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. See Mark R. Kelly’s blog for a comparison of the novella and novel. This long story follows three main plot threads:

  • The Hemingway Hoax – how to forge a Hemingway unpublished manuscript. I thought this was an A+ idea for a plot both at forty and seventy. Unfortunately, Haldeman doesn’t stick with this plot. A few years ago PBS had an episode of Secrets of the Dead that told of an effort to forge a book by Galileo. It was tremendously fascinating. Baird does do a bit of work on this plot, finding typewriters and paper Hemingway would have used and starting a couple of drafts that were interesting. The old me was quite disappointed when Haldeman didn’t finish this plot, but the younger me was more than happy when Haldeman introduced the science fiction.
  • The Baird Con – as a counterplot, when Lena and Castle plan to con Baird into doing something illegal it could have taken the story into noir territory. The older me loves film noir and was excited by that direction. This also could have been an A+ idea too, but it was mainly used for sex and violent scenes. When I was younger I liked sex and violent scenes, but the old me hates excessive violence, and graphic sex scenes only seem suitable for hot romance novels and porn. I could understand taking the noir route with the cheating wife, skipping the science fiction, and selling it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Better yet, I would have been even more impressed if Haldeman had skipped both the noir and the SF and gone the straight literary route like Possession by A. S. Byatt, another story about a literary mystery.
  • The Hemingway Demon – the story has one other character, a supernatural character that physically looks like Hemingway from different times in his life. I call it a demon because like Maxwell’s Demon, it guards the flow actualities between universes in a multiverse Haldeman calls the Omniverse. When I was young this was exciting stuff, but the old crotchety me considers multiverse plots much like time travel plots, easy to abuse. When anything can happen it spoils the story for me. I like my fictional universes to have limitations that reign in the plots. Haldeman goes wild with the universe hopping. That was fun at forty but tedious at seventy. It would have been mindblowing to me at thirteen if the story had been available for me to read in 1964.

You can’t expect a writer to write what you want. That’s completely unfair. But as a reader, every story creates anticipation. Stories are great when they fulfill that initial anticipation. In this reading, Haldeman got me excited about forging Hemingway and then didn’t complete the mission. I have to wonder if he felt compelled to add the science fiction thread because he’s a science fiction writer, and knows where to sell science fiction. I wonder if he would have even liked writing the story as mainstream fiction. When I was young I wanted everything to be science fiction, but as I’ve gotten older, my interests have widened. Not only do I not need everything to be science fiction, but when it is science fiction it needs to be reasonably realistic and down to Earth.

Getting old has done something to my reading tastes. My time in this life is dwindling, and my physical health also limits how much I can read. I now hate when stories are padded with extra scenes. I generally prefer science fiction at the short story or novelette length. Most novellas stretch out ideas too much. The older, impatient me, felt Haldeman was too ambitious with this story. What I really love is a story that has lots of realistic details, good characterization, a tight plot, and a compelling narrative style. But I want it focused. I don’t want any wasted words or scenes.

I’m afraid when reading “The Hemingway Hoax” Haldeman hooked me on the writing of a forged Hemingway manuscript and then distracted me with all the omniverse mumbo-jumbo. It allowed him to come up with a clever idea of what happened to the lost manuscripts, and it gave Haldeman a chance to write from Hemingway’s point of view as he lived his life backward. All that was interesting, but wasn’t part of the story that hooked me this time.

When I was young I found stories and novels that used real people as fictional characters to be neat and fun. But over a lifetime of reading biographies, I now see such a practice as exploitation – an easy way to get readers’ attention. Reading such books as The Paris Wife by Paula McLain produced a false idea of what Hadley and Hemingway were like. I wrote about this in my essay, “Why Did Ernest Hemingway Leave Hadley Out of The Sun Also Rises?

In recent years, we’ve seen more and more best sellers and movie blockbusters that fictionalize historical people, and I’ve realized that I don’t like this trend. That has tainted my rereading of “The Hemingway Hoax.” I thought John Baird was a great idea for a character, a wounded vet who identified with Hemingway in so many ways, including his war wounds. And I thought a fictional character who is a Hemingway scholar trying to forge a lost Hemingway manuscript was a legitimate use of Hemingway’s name in fiction. Creating a supernatural demon that monitors the influence of Hemingway across the multiverse is a fun science fictional idea, but not really significant or meaningful to me at 70.

When we’re young any far-out idea is fun. But now that I’m old, I like my speculation within the realm of realism. “The Hemingway Hoax” is a case where the story was five stars when I was young, but only three stars when I’m old.

James Wallace Harris, 8/15/22

Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee

I wonder if Alec Nevala-Lee will get a reputation as a visionary killer. After his book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Gold Age of Science Fiction came out, John W. Campbell’s name was removed from the award created to honor him, and the reputations of Asimov, Heinlein, Hubbard, and the science fiction Golden Age declined. As I read the first part of Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller Nevala-Lee made me strongly dislike Buckminster Fuller by carefully chronicling Fuller’s personal faults. But by the end of the book, I was willing to overlook them. Bucky never redeems himself, but Nevala-Lee’s excellent biography brings everything into perspective. It brings closure to some of my hippie and New Age fantasies.

Inventor of the Future is a remarkable book about a remarkable person. I was constantly impressed by Nevala-Lee’s writing and research as I read Inventor of the Future but I never could stop thinking about the problems biographers must have in these woke times. How do you present a remarkable person without also throwing them under the bus of moral condemnation? Nobody is without sin, so it’s best not to be throwing stones because it might inspire a stoning by the hordes. But a great biography will always tell it like it is.

After I finished the book I watched some older documentaries about Buckminster Fuller and they left out the negatives. Maybe they didn’t even know them. Alec Nevala-Lee could have done that too, but I’m glad he didn’t. I had an epiphany the other day. I had just finished reading a history book about the first Crusade and then caught a movie about the Crusades on TCM. The difference between what happened in history and how we remember it in Technicolor was striking. In history, the Knights of Christendom slaughtered all the citizens of Antioch and Jerusalem, men, women, and children. And instead of returning the territory to the Holy Roman Empire, the crusaders claimed it for themselves.

We constantly cover up history. My epiphany revealed that is why we don’t change.

We don’t like remembering ourselves as the bad guys, so we whitewash history. It’s why the conservatives fight to keep Critical Race Theory out of education and why liberals want to erase racists from our collective memories. We don’t want to remember that our ancestors were killers, slavers, and routinely committed genocide, or even that our parents and grandparents were racists, sexual predators, and misogynists.

I’m on the third volume of a three-volume history of the world by Susan Wise Bauer and it added to that epiphany. How can we stop being evil if we keep forgetting who we really were? Buckminster Fuller was not evil, but he had enough personal failings that in our woke times many will want to dismiss him. But if we choose to forget him for the darkness in his life, we also throw out the light, the visionary insights.

When I was growing up in the 1960s Buckminster Fuller was a counter-culture hero, especially to hippies who wanted to create communes. Stewart Brand popularized Fuller with his Whole Earth Catalog. We thought Fuller was a genius. We thought Bucky was a futurist, a visionary, a seer. We thought Fuller was a prophet who would lead us into a new society. Then for decades, he was forgotten until people like Steve Jobs started talking about Buckminister Fuller again.

Nevala-Lee’s last biography painted John W. Campbell, Jr. as a racist and crackpot, and he got tarred and feathered by the genre. Buckminster Fuller is not described as a racist, but Inventor of the Future portrays him as a crackpot who used a lot of other people’s money to build inventions that didn’t work. Nevala-Lee quotes Fuller bragging about patronizing over a thousand brothels in Chicago after he was married. Nevala-Lee also writes about several of his love affairs with younger women whom he promised to marry but never did. But I was most disturbed by Bucky’s lying, it reminded me too much of Donald Trump.

However, in the second half of the book, Nevala-Lee clearly shows us how Bucky became the inspiration to more than one generation. People considered him the Da Vinci of the 20th century. And he tirelessly traveled the world promoting his philosophy about saving Earth and making it a better place. He could hold audiences spellbound for hours with his off-the-cuff talks about how the universe works.

Buckminster Fuller became a New Age guru in a dark suit and tie. I first heard about Fuller when the Montreal Expo 67 was in the news. Right after that, I encountered him again in The Whole Earth Catalog. During the 1970s I followed all the New Age, Mother Earth News, and Intentional Community movements. Fuller was a prophet to them all. But then I got married, went to work, and forgot about all those dreams. Most of my hippie and New Age friends did too. Then in the 1980s, Fuller’s name would come up again with my computer heroes. Nevala-Lee biography begins with Bucky meeting Steve Jobs. Then I went for years without hearing much about Buckminster Fuller, until the discovery of buckminsterfullerenes. For the most part, though, I had forgotten all about Bucky.

I loved Nevala-Lee’s Astounding (see my review), even though he revealed personal aspects of my heroes that disappointed me. And I’m quite taken with Inventor of the Future, which fills in many details I didn’t know. Both are well-written biographies, and I happen to be partial to biographies.

The thing is, both books revealed things about myself. I’ve consumed a lot of crackpot ideas back in the 20th century as did the science fiction fans, hippies, and New Agers that were my friends. Buckminster Fuller, John W. Campbell, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and Isaac Asimov were all idealists about the future. We got so much hope from them, and those men inspired endless speculation. They are just the tip of the iceberg because there were so many other men and women with them that were also visionaries in the 20th century. Bucky knew many of them. And I’m pretty sure none of them were saints.

Those seers warned us about all the ways the sky was falling and the utopias we could build. They were our spiritual leaders, our prophets. Just because they got some details wrong, or they were assholes at times, or even psychopaths, doesn’t mean we didn’t resonate deeply with their dreams.

James Wallace Harris, 8/14/22

Why Did I Stop Reading New Science Fiction?

Early this morning, before it got light, I woke up and wondered when did I stop reading new science fiction? And why? I assume my unconscious mind had been mulling over the feeling that I’d lost touch with science fiction in the 21st century. (See yesterday’s essay.) Before I went to sleep last night, my conscious mind assumed it was natural to stop reading science fiction as one got older. Evidently, my unconscious mind objected to that assumption and I awoke with several other possibilities to consider.

I read many new science fiction books as they came out in the 1960s and 1970s because of the Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC). I was also aware of new SF books as they were published because I subscribed to the science fiction magazines and fanzines and loved reading reviews. I bought new SF paperbacks and read them because of those reviews. I think I stop regularly reading reviews back in the 1990s. That might be the main reason I got out of touch with the genre and new writers.

I got married in 1978 and started working full-time at a job I’d stay in for the next 35 years. In 1979 I became obsessed with microcomputers and shifted most of my reading to studying computers. Sometime during the 1980s, I canceled my membership with the SFBC, and let my magazine and fanzine subscriptions lapse.

However, Susan and I loved going to the bookstore at least once a week, and I always went through the science fiction section. During the second half of the 1980s and into the 1990s I’d get nostalgic for science fiction and resubscribe to the SFBC, F&SF, and Asimov’s. Sometimes I’d even subscribe to Locus Magazine, and for a short while, I wrote for Lan’s Lantern. During those periods I’d try and catch up with what was new.

When I did return to science fiction periodically, I realized science fiction had changed and changed quite a bit. Books were now bigger, often huge. And trilogies became common, or even longer series. And by the 1990s most of the writers I grew up reading had died. Long books and trilogies turned me off – I just didn’t want to make the commitment. I grew up reading SF books that were often less than 250 pages, with many with less than 200 pages. Now new novels were two and three times that size. And the thought of having to read three of them to complete a story seemed absurd.

And the SFBC kept changing too. I just didn’t know all the new authors, and the SFBC kept offering other kinds of books, fantasies, media tie-ins, gaming — books that just didn’t appeal to me, so I’d quit. For many decades the SFBC’s two monthly selections seem to zero in on the core SF books everyone was reading – and then it didn’t.

My guess is the boom in SF and fantasy gave us too many choices so it was no longer obvious what to read. At the bookstores, the SF/F section just grew and grew. It was like a tsunami of new titles and authors. Not only was it impossible to keep up with reading the popular titles it became impossible to even keep up with a sense of the genre. SF had gotten too big. There seemed to be hundreds of new writers and I just didn’t know who they were. Even reading Locus Magazine didn’t help.

When I retired in 2013 I came back to science fiction. But instead of trying to catch up on the new works, I jumped back in time to read the classics I missed the first time around. I focused mainly on books from 1950-1980. And then I got into short stories again and started my project of reading all the best-of-the-year SF anthologies from the 20th century. It was more rewarding to fill in my knowledge of a historical period than trying to keep current.

However, after years of gorging on classic science fiction, I’m back to craving new science fiction. The genre is even larger, and I’m still not interested in trilogies and book series. I read science fiction for its ideas. Following a character through endless obstacles book after book is just tedious to me. I hunger for standout standalone stories that convey a far-out concept. So far, I’ve had my best luck with Kim Stanley Robinson.

I believe one of the main reasons I don’t read new science fiction is because the genre is no longer based on new ideas. Quite often the first book in a trilogy or series will have a new idea and unique worldbuilding, but the sequels just grind that idea and setting into the ground. And sadly, I’m not sure there are that many new ideas anymore. Writers are having to rehash old themes. Sometimes they find fresh ways to present them, and that works, but all too often new stories just feel like slight variations on old tunes.

However, I haven’t given up. Breakthrough SF novels do come out. The problem is finding them. How I go about that will be a topic for my next essay.

James Wallace Harris, 8/10/22

How Many 21st Century SF Books Have You Read?

I’ve been watching a lot of science fiction book reviewers on YouTube and quite often they make me feel completely out of touch with current science fiction. It seems like there are a thousand new science fiction books published each year, and I seldom read what people are talking about.

I feel well-read in the genre before 1980, maybe even 1990, but after that, when I hear young people talking about new science fiction I feel like I’ve been left behind. To see how unread I am I use the list builder feature and CSFquery to find any SF book that had gotten at least 3 citations published during the years 2000-2022. I created the checklist below. I marked the ones I’ve read with an R and the ones I’ve bought hoping to read with an O.

I haven’t done too bad for those books that have gotten a lot of attention, but as their recognition has fallen off, so has my rate of reading. When I was young I read one or two dozen new SF books each year, but that’s been decades. I recently read Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, meaning I’m a year late. I don’t remember the last time I read an SF book just after it was published.

How well-read are you with 21st-century science fiction? Are you young or old? How many new SF books do you read each year? And what books do you recommend that are missing from the list?

Title Author Year Citations Read/Own
The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins 2008 17 R
The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi 2009 17

R
The Road Cormac McCarthy 2006 16

R
Altered Carbon Richard K. Morgan 2002 15

R
Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie 2013 15

R
The Martian Andy Weir 2012 13

R
Old Man’s War John Scalzi 2005 13

R
The Time Traveler’s Wife Audrey Niffenegger 2003 13

R
Anathem Neal Stephenson 2008 12

O
The City & The City China Miéville 2009 12

R
Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro 2005 12

R
Revelation Space Alastair Reynolds 2000 12

O
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War Max Brooks 2006 12

 
Cloud Atlas David Mitchell 2004 11

R
Embassytown China Miéville 2011 11

R
Little Brother Cory Doctorow 2008 11

R
Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood 2003 11

 
Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel 2014 11

R
Boneshaker Cherie Priest 2009 10

R
Passage Connie Willis 2001 10

 
Accelerando Charles Stross 2005 9

 
Pandora’s Star Peter F. Hamilton 2004 9

O
Ready Player One Ernest Cline 2011 9

R
The Speed of Dark Elizabeth Moon 2002 9

R
Spin Robert Charles Wilson 2005 9

R
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union Michael Chabon 2007 9

R
Air Geoff Ryman 2004 8

 
Blackout/All Clear Connie Willis 2010 8

O
Leviathan Wakes Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck 2011 8

R
Redshirts John Scalzi 2012 8

R
The Years of Rice and Salt Kim Stanley Robinson 2002 8

O
Among Others Jo Walton 2011 7

R
Ancillary Sword Ann Leckie 2014 7

 
Annihilation Jeff VanderMeer 2014 7

R
The Fifth Season N. K. Jemisin 2015 7

O
Ilium Dan Simmons 2003 7

 
Midnight Robber Nalo Hopkinson 2000 7

 
Mockingjay Suzanne Collins 2010 7

R
Rainbows End Vernor Vinge 2006 7

 
River of Gods Ian McDonald 2004 7

 
The Three-Body Problem Cixin Liu 2014 7

R
Wool Omnibus Hugh Howey 2012 7

O
Blindsight Peter Watts 2006 6

O
The Calculating Stars Mary Robinette Kowal 2018 6

R
Catching Fire Suzanne Collins 2009 6

R
The Dervish House Ian McDonald 2010 6

 
Hominids Robert J. Sawyer 2002 6

O
Light M. John Harrison 2002 6

 
The Scar China Miéville 2002 6

 
The Separation Christopher Priest 2002 6

 
All the Birds in the Sky Charlie Jane Anders 2016 5

R
Ash: A Secret History Mary Gentle 2000 5

 
The Chronoliths Robert Charles Wilson 2001 5

 
Ninefox Gambit Yoon Ha Lee 2016 5

 
Pattern Recognition William Gibson 2003 5

 
Red Rising Pierce Brown 2014 5

O
The Telling Ursula K. Le Guin 2000 5

 
Zoo City Lauren Beukes 2010 5

 
The Algebraist Iain M. Banks 2004 4

 
Ancillary Mercy Ann Leckie 2015 4

 
Bold as Love Gwyneth Jones 2001 4

 
Chasm City Alastair Reynolds 2001 4

 
The City We Became N. K. Jemisin 2020 4

 
Diplomatic Immunity Lois McMaster Bujold 2002 4

 
The Goblin Emperor Sarah Monette 2014 4

 
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe Charles Yu 2010 4

O
In War Times Kathleen Ann Goonan 2007 4

 
The Last Colony John Scalzi 2007 4

 
The Long Way to a Small, Angry, Planet Becky Chambers 2014 4

O
Look to Windward Iain M. Banks 2000 4

 
Matter Iain M. Banks 2008 4

 
A Memory Called Empire Arkady Martine 2019 4

 
Network Effect Martha Wells 2020 4

 
Piranesi Susanna Clarke 2020 4

 
The Plot Against America Philip Roth 2004 4

 
Seveneves Neal Stephenson 2015 4

R
Spinning Silver Naomi Novik 2018 4

 
The Year of the Flood Margaret Atwood 2009 4

 
11/22/63 Stephen King 2011 3

 
1Q84 Haruki Murakami 2011 3

O
2312 Kim Stanley Robinson 2012 3

R
Absolution Gap Alastair Reynolds 2003 3

 
All Systems Red Martha Wells 2017 3

R
Ancient, Ancient Kiini Ibura Salaam 2012 3

 
Black Sun Rebecca Roanhorse 2020 3

 
The Book of Phoenix Nnedi Okorafor 2015 3

 
Brasyl Ian McDonald 2007 3

 
Children of Time Adrian Tchaikovsky 2015 3

R
The City in the Middle of the Night Charlie Jane Anders 2019 3

 
The Collapsing Empire John Scalzi 2017 3

 
Crescent City Rhapsody Kathleen Ann Goonan 2000 3

 
Cryoburn Lois McMaster Bujold 2010 3

 
Daemon Daniel Suarez 2006 3

 
Death’s End Cixin Liu 2016 3

 
A Desolation Called Peace Arkady Martine 2021 3

 
Divergent Veronica Roth 2011 3

 
The Dreaming Void Peter F. Hamilton 2007 3

 
The Drowning Girl Caitlín R. Kiernan 2012 3

 
Dust Hugh Howey 2013 3

 
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Claire North 2014 3

O
Genesis Poul Anderson 2000 3

 
Gideon the Ninth Tamsyn Muir 2019 3

 
The Girl with All the Gifts M. R. Carey 2013 3

R
The Highest Frontier Joan Slonczewski 2011 3

 
The Host Stephenie Meyer 2008 3

 
House of Suns Alastair Reynolds 2008 3

 
The Islanders Christopher Priest 2011 3

 
Jack Glass Adam Roberts 2012 3

 
Jade City Fonda Lee 2017 3

 
The Kappa Child Hiromi Goto 2002 3

 
Life Gwyneth Jones 2004 3

 
Lilith’s Brood Octavia E. Butler 2000 3

 
The Long Earth Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter 2012 3

 
Mexican Gothic Silvia Moreno-Garcia 2020 3

 
The Mount Carol Emshwiller 2002 3

 
My Real Children Jo Walton 2014 3

 
The Obelisk Gate N. K. Jemisin 2016 3

 
Omega Jack McDevitt 2003 3

 
Perdido Street Station China Miéville 2000 3

 
The Prefect Alastair Reynolds 2007 3

 
Probability Space Nancy Kress 2002 3

 
Pushing Ice Alastair Reynolds 2005 3

O
The Quantum Rose Catherine Asaro 2000 3

R
The Quantum Thief Hannu Rajaniemi 2010 3

 
Quicksilver Neal Stephenson 2003 3

O
The Red: First Light Linda Nagata 2013 3

 
Redemption Ark Alastair Reynolds 2002 3

 
Rosewater Tade Thompson 2018 3

 
Shadow of the Hegemon Orson Scott Card 2001 3

 
Shift Hugh Howey 2013 3

 
Singularity Sky Charles Stross 2003 3

 
Six Wakes Mur Lafferty 2017 3

 
Song of Time Ian R. MacLeod 2008 3

 
Starshine G. S. Jennsen 2014 3

 
The Stone Sky N. K. Jemisin 2017 3

 
Stories of Your Life and Others Ted Chiang 2002 3

O
Strange Bodies Marcel Theroux 2013 3

 
Surface Detail Iain M. Banks 2010 3

 
Trail of Lightning Rebecca Roanhorse 2018 3

 
Uglies Scott Westerfeld 2005 3

O
Under the Dome Stephen King 2009 3

 
Valor’s Choice Tanya Huff 2000 3

 

James Wallace Harris, 8/9/22

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

All people crave romance and sex, accomplishments and adventures, possessions and travel. Most of us settle for marriage and work while living our fantasies out vicariously in fiction. We use books, TV shows, movies, video games, or VR as substitutes for our desires. When fiction fails to satisfy we dine out, party, exercise, or travel. What we really want is to live a different life.

Knowing this should enlighten us about the fiction we choose. Are the stories we love most the ones we wished we were living?

Andy Weir’s latest book Project Hail Mary, left my eyes watery and my nose runny while listening to the last chapter on audio. I loved it. Is that the life I wished I was living? At 70, I know it’s an absurd fantasy and should answer that question with no. But when I was a teenager I would have said yes with great enthusiasm.

Nowadays, few science fiction books move me like that. And, I have to ask myself why. Did Project Hail Mary impact me in the same way the Heinlein juveniles did in the 1960s when I was twelve? Getting close to the end of life, I’m not sure I have much of a sense of wonder left, at least not the kind I had when reading science fiction in that golden age of being young.

When I discovered science fiction sixty years ago almost every story blew my mind with far-out ideas, giving me a tremendous sense of hope for the future, especially for the possibilities for my personal potential. Now, that I’m living in the future, with what little potential I have left, I see science fiction from a different vantage.

Project Hail Mary is one hell of a hopeful book and I enjoyed the hell out of it. I highly recommend reading it. If I had read it in 1964, or if I was 12 years old today, it would have made me a true believer in the science fiction faith. This week I read Weir’s novel and forgot about the world we see every evening on the NBC Nightly News, and I entered into a wonderful virtual reality created by Andy Weir’s skillful worldbuilding with words.

The entire time I listen to Project Hail Mary I marveled at Weir’s storytelling skills. He blended many of my favorite SF themes into an enchanting first-person narrative. Weir obviously imagined his novel as a movie, creating a lovable hero that will save the Earth. For some reason, science fiction blockbusters always seem to put Earth in final jeopardy. And many of them love having an average guy overcome an endless series of obstacles. Kurt Vonnegut gave some famous advice to would-be writers. He said: create a likable character and then do mean things to them. Andy Weir gives Ryland Grace a long series of impossible problems to solve.

The story begins with Ryland waking up in a strange hospital bed, not knowing who he is, where he’s from, or where he’s at. This is a neat storytelling trick. The novel breaks down into two tracks: the now and the past. Amnesia is the perfect excuse for creating flashbacks. Normally, I hate flashbacks, but Weir’s gimmick made me look forward to them.

I don’t want to tell you much about the novel and I want to beg you to get the audiobook version. The narrator acts out each character with a different voice, including accents for different nationalities. For the alien, Rocky, who speaks in musical tones which the audiobook plays, the narrator creates a charming accent for his English. The audiobook should have way more impact than just reading with your eyes.

Looking at reviews on Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon, some readers loved this novel, while many others complain it’s too tedious. Weir tells this story in one long series of problems that Ryland Grace solves, many of which involve science. I assume the readers who love this story are problem solvers. If you’re not, this book might not be for you.

Ryland Grace is the ultimate competent man who can do everything. This character attribute is why I loved the Heinlein juveniles as a kid. It’s why I also loved the recent Bobiverse books. That’s one of my big personal fantasies, being a generalist that knows everything and can do anything. I’m not. I’m half-ass at doing a lot of things, and I vaguely know a little about a lot.

Ryland Grace is the modern manifestation of Tom Swift. That might be another clue for you if you’re thinking about reading this book.

Another fantasy Project Hail Mary tunes into is being alone in the world. I love the last man on Earth type stories, the Robinson Crusoe types. Ryland Grace is alone in space for a lot of this story. He even meets his Man Friday. (I hope I’m not giving too much away.)

Ryland Grace is the hero that saves Earth, and that’s one fantasy this book promotes that’s not mine. I don’t like attention. However, because of the way Andy Weir presents Ryland Grace’s achievements, I didn’t feel getting attention was a theme of this story. In flashbacks, we learn that Ryland Grace loved being a junior high school teacher who enjoyed promoting science with his students. That’s another theme that Heinlein and Weir are into that doesn’t resonate with me, but I imagine it will for teachers. Project Hail Mary would be a great book to teach in an English or science class.

Now to the negatives – which I just ignored because I was enjoying the story so much. Ryland Grace pulls a rabbit out of the hat every time, and his mental abilities are unrealistic. Plus, the invented science for this story is too good to be true. If people love Superman for his fantasy physical feats, Ryland Grace is a Superman of intellectual feats. In other words, the reality of this story is closer to a comic book than literary fiction.

That brings us back to my original psychobabble. Why do we choose the fiction we do? Why do we love some stories way better than others? Do the same themes appeal to us our whole life, or do they change as we age?

The Heinlein juveniles made the biggest impact on me of anything I read as a teen. That’s because I wanted to be like the characters in those books, and I wanted to grow up and live adventures similar to those in the stories. I wanted those fantasies to become real.

I can’t possibly believe that at 70. I’m a great deal more aware of reality now. I shouldn’t buy into anything in Project Hail Mary. I should be too old to enjoy it, but I did. A simple answer is I know too much about reality, and yet, I loved reading this book because it help me escape from reality that’s becoming all too harsh and hard. And that might have been the reason I loved science fiction as a kid too. The 1960s were tough times for anyone to grow up in, and I had feuding alcoholic parents who dragged me and my sister from state to state. That made things worse. Is it any wonder I wanted a science fictional fantasy to be real? Is it any different today?

Project Hail Mary is not a young adult novel, but it has that kind of appeal. As a kid, I knew science fiction was fantasy but reading science fiction made me hope that reality would become more like science fiction. It didn’t. We have science-fictional technology, but not science-fictional lives. That’s what we wanted. That’s what I wanted then, and now. And I can only find that life in books, books like Project Hail Mary.

James Wallace Harris, 8/7/22

The Challenge of Writing a Significant Time Travel Tale

My aim is to review a time travel novel, Time’s Last Gift, by Philip José Farmer, but I need to explain my attitude towards time travel stories before I can pass judgment. I bought Time’s Last Gift because I read on the cover blurb that four scientists from the year 2070 travel back to 12,000 BC to study the Magdalenian culture. Since I’ve recently read a number of books on prehistory that plot appealed to me. I even read a large book just on locating the origin of the people who produced the proto-Indo-European language.

Within Time’s Last Gift, one character, Robert von Billmann is obsessed with finding the people who created the Proto-Indo-Hittite language. If you’re not interested in pre-history or the origins of language you might not want to bother with Time’s Last Gift – unless another factor appeals to you, but I want to wait and mention that after the spoilers warning. Let’s just say that John Gribardson, who was made leader of the expedition at the last minute has a very interesting backstory.

Does Time’s Last Gift stand on its own as a solid story and as a good addition to the time travel theme despite any details related to actual history or literary plot gimmicks? To me, a worthy time travel story has to add something different to the theme, otherwise, it’s just a romance, thriller, or historical novel that jumps around in time.

There have been countless science fiction books about time travel, but for me, I find very few of them worthy of using the theme. Most throw their characters into the past or the future and develop a story about that new setting. What I love is a time travel adventure that also explores the wonder of time and time travel. H. G. Wells set the bar very high with The Time Machine in 1895. I’m not sure any work has ever surpassed it for its sense of wonder.

There are so many time travel stories that Michael Main has created The Internet Time Travel Database. Town & Country Magazine listed their top 35 time travel books but only three of my top favorites make their list. Read This Twice found 92 favorite time travel books, and they do list many of my favorites. About Great Books lists 30-time travel books they think are great, and seven of my favorites are there, but I don’t consider many of those books really time travel stories. But that brings up another issue.

What is time travel? Replay by Ken Grimwood is one of my all-time favorite novels, but does Jeff Winston time travel? He repeats his life over and over. I call such fiction time loop stories. Stories such as The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig are really time loop stories too, which I consider a different theme than time travel stories. I’ve written about it before.

Are such literary classics as The Time Traveler’s Wife, Kindred, Slaughterhouse-Five, A Christmas Carol, and Woman on the Edge of Time really about time travel? Don’t they just use the gimmick of time travel to reveal deep characterization or explore social issues in a clever way? These are great novels, but I don’t really want to lump them into the kind of science fiction novel I’m pointing to. Nor do I want to consider all the novels that use time travel to hook people up romantically.

Real science fiction about time travel should make us think about the nature of time travel. Time’s Last Gift does do this. Time travel has always been plagued by paradoxes, but I believe Farmer has found a neat way around them. If a time traveler goes into the past and changes the future, it’s already happened. Whatever exists now, whether affected by time travel or not, is what is. Speculations about what might be changed are no different from what was changed. If a time traveler shows up in 12,000 BCE there was never a 12,000 BCE without a time traveler. Of course, that means everything that happens is fixed. Or is it? Does this theory about time travel require predestination? It could mean everyone has free will, but whichever way history plays out it only plays out once.

Most of Time’s Last Gift is about living in 12,000 BCE. The four scientists immediately befriend a small tribe of humans and learn their language. John Gribardsun even wears their clothing and hunts with their weapons, although he often uses his rifle when necessary to help feed the tribe. The main conflict of the story deals with the two scientists who are married, Rachel and Drummond Silverstein, and their breakup. Farmer suggests that time travel has a psychological effect, like a larger case of jet lag, and it wears on three of the scientists. Gribardsun seems immune. In fact, he thrives in the past, and his vitality attracts both Rachel and the young women of the tribe. Much of the novel is about whether or not Drummond is out to kill Gribardsun because of jealousy. I didn’t care for this part of the story. It felt like a contrived conflict to move the novel along. However, the story is very readable and kept me reading.

Beyond Here Lie Spoilers

In the 1950s Philip José Farmer wrote some very innovative science fiction stories – “The Lovers,” “The Alley Man,” “Sail On! Sail On!” and others. Then he created two series that were fairly successful, the Riverworld series and The World of Tiers. Farmer won the Hugo award for best novel for the first Riverworld story, To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971). I loved that novel when it came out because the main character was Sir Richard Francis Burton, the 19th-century explorer, and translator. And I loved the second book, The Fabulous Riverboat (1971) because it featured Mark Twain. I had read biographies of both men and that made me partial to those Farmer’s novels.

Over the decades I have come to feel that using a famous historical person as a character in a novel is a cheat, a way to sell books. But I also consider writing book series as a crutch for writers. For the rest of his life Farmer mostly churned out books for various series, and they were just so-so. He later refined the famous person gimmick by switching to writing about famous fictional characters, and this is where Time’s Last Gift comes in. John Gribardsun is Tarzan. It’s never said within the novel, but I guess it fairly quickly. If you’ve ever read a Tarzan novel, Time’s Last Gift feels like one and could have been Tarzan’s Time Machine.

There’s nothing wrong with book series, they do help writers to pay bills, but each book feels like just another episode in a TV series to me. If you love a series, that’s great. But for me, usually, only stand-alone novels can be great.

I assume Farmer didn’t use the name Tarzan in the book because of being sued by the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, but ISFDB even lists Time’s Last Gift among the Tarzan novels. Philip José Farmer wasn’t the only writer to continue the character. More importantly, it’s part of Farmer’s Wold Newton series where he brings many famous characters from literature into the real world. If you really like this kind of publishing gimmick, then Time’s Last Gift might excite you.

I find the Wold Newton idea fascinating in conception, but lackluster in execution. It capitalizes on the readers’ love of famous books and characters and I consider that exploitation. Heinlein did the same thing in his later books bringing back his own favorite characters and tieing them into his favorite fictional worlds. The idea is neat, but again, the execution was horrible.

As a time travel novel, Time’s Last Gift is mediocre – readable and somewhat interesting. The plot moves along well enough. The John Gribardsun character is appealing but his adventures back in 12,000 BCE aren’t that significant. If you enjoy the idea that it’s an alternate origin story for Tarzan, and Farmer makes him immortal, then you might enjoy the book more.

I judge time travel stories by how creative they are at dealing with time travel. For example, Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—” uses time travel and gender reassignment in a unique way. David Gerrold uses The Man Who Folded Himself to allow a time traveler to really get to know himself. Jack Finney in Time and Again used historical photographs to enhance his novel. Kurt Vonnegut combined memoir and fiction brilliantly. Connie Willis has explored both drama and comedy in her time travel novels. Of course, Wells illustrated both evolution and cosmology to his 19th-century readers. Wells inspired the Dying Earth genre and the idea that humanity will spin off different new species. Olaf Stapledon ran away with that idea with his novel Last and First Men.

With time travel stories, writers need to go big or go home. Philip José Farmer knew this. This is why he tacked on the Wold Newton afterward in a 1977 later edition. If you think Wold Newton is cool, then that might make Time’s Last Gift a good time travel story. If not, you might want to pass on it.

Here's a list of my favorite time travel stories.

1895 - THE TIME MACHINE by H. G. Wells
1934 - "Twilight" by John W. Campbell
1935 - "Night" by John W. Campbell
1941 - "Time Wants a Skeleton" by Ross Rocklynne
1941 - "By His Bootstraps" by Robert A. Heinlein
1943 - "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
1946 - "Vintage Season" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore 
1951 - "I'm Scared" by Jack Finney
1952 - "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury
1952 - "Hobson's Choice" by Alfred Bester
1953 - "Who's Cribbing" by Jack Lewis
1956 - "A Gun for Dinosaur" by L. Sprague de Camp
1956 - "The Man Who Came Early" by Poul Anderson
1957 - THE DOOR INTO SUMMER by Robert A. Heinlein 
1957 - "Soldier from Tomorrow" by Harlan Ellison
1958 - THE TIME TRADERS by Andre Norton
1958 - "Poor Little Warrior!" by Brian Aldiss
1958 - "The Ugly Little Boy by Isaac Asimov
1958 - "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" by Alfred Bester
1959 - "All You Zombies---" by Robert A. Heinlein
1964 - FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD by Robert A. Heinlein
1964 - "When Time Was New" by Robert F. Young
1965 - "Traveller's Rest" by David I. Masson
1966 - "Behold the Man" by Michael Moorcock and BEHOLD THE MAN (1969)
1967 - "Hawksbill Station" by Robert Silverberg
1968 - THE LAST STARSHIP FROM EARTH by John Boyd
1969 - SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
1970 - TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney
1970 - THE YEAR OF THE QUIET SUN by Wilson Tucker
1971 - DINOSAUR BEACH by Keith Laumer
1973 - THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF by David Gerrold
1976 - "The Hertford Manuscript" by Richard Cowper
1967 - "Infinite Summer" by Christopher Priest
1980 - TIMESCAPE by Gregory Benford
1982 - "Firewatch" by Connie Willis
1985 - "Sailing to Byzantium" by Robert Silverberg
1988 - "Ripples in the Dirac Sea" by Geoffrey A. Landis
1992 - DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis
1995 - THE TIME SHIPS by Stephen Baxter
1995 - FROM TIME TO TIME by Jack Finney
1998 - TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis
2003 - THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger

Time Travel Anthologies

The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF and The Time Travel MEGAPACK is currently 99 cents at Amazon for the Kindle edition.

James Wallace Harris, 7/30/22

“The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden

What if our pleasure in life is wallowing in the minutiae of our favorite subject? I follow a lot of YouTubers and most of their channels are about going deeper and deeper into a beloved special interest. When we are young we pursue pleasures of the flesh, but as we get older we follow our Alice of interest down a rabbit hole. This lets us find our true tribe, our people.

I feel like I’m among a few survivors of a tribe that is dying out. I lament that our culture and language are disappearing. My tribe is those beings who grew up reading science fiction magazines in the mid-20th century. I know that tribe was never very large and that all the various tribes of pop culture eventually fade from the collective memory of the present. But this sense of passing is why I find myself enjoying recursive science fiction so much now. Recursive science fiction is science fiction about science fiction, and quite often it remembers the genre’s past. And to enjoy such stories requires either a direct experience of the past or a good education about that past.

One of the funniest recursive science fiction stories I’ve ever read is one that seems to parody/remember more of the genre than any other recursive science fiction story I’ve read. The story is “The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden (Eric Pelletier 1899-1979). Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since this story has been reprinted, meaning if you want to legally read it, it will require tracking down a used copy of F&SF for September 1980, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction 24th Series edited by Edward L. Ferman in 1982, or Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories about SF edited by Mike Resnick in 1992. If you have a free account with the Internet Archive you can check out The Best of F&SF 24th for one hour. Since this story hasn’t been reprinted in 30 years, and its author has been dead for 43 years, I hope their heirs won’t mind me offering you a pdf copy. (If you do, let me know and I’ll take it down, but I doubt if six people will read it.)

Of course, not everyone will find this story funny or meaningful. It depends on you knowing a good deal about the genre’s history. I thought I’d review the story by providing links to the pertinent bits of history that knowing will let the reader appreciate the story.

The story is an exchange of letters between Oginga Nkabele, a young man from Africa studying in America, and Edward L. Ferman, the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF). Nkabele, from the tribe of Diolas in Senegal, Africa, was educated by French and Belgian missionaries who he refers to as the Holy Ghost Fathers. One of his teachers, Father Devlin brought three steamer trunks containing over five hundred pulp science fiction magazines from 1936-1952. Nkabele has read these magazines so thoroughly that he’s even memorized some of his favorite stories. Nkabele feels he’s an expert on science fiction and decides to become a rich science fiction writer while in America.

Unfortunately, the stories he submits to Ed Ferman are modeled on the writing styles that were heavily criticized for bad writing when they were new and are now so out of fashion as to be glaringly awful. Ferman is appalled by Nkabele’s stories and rejects them immediately. Nkabele feels the rejection letter is a mistake and keeps pestering Ferman with more letters. In fact, he never accepts any rejection and keeps trying to convince Ferman his stories are brilliant and will make him famous and promises they’ll help sell more copies of F&SF.

Through the exchange of letters, two fun plots emerged. One is a horror tale for SF magazine editors which is hilarious if you’re not an editor, and the other is about how the genre has changed drastically from its past which is still wistfully nostalgic for some.

First, it’s important to know the magazines Nkabele admires. It’s notable that Father Devlin did not subscribe to Astounding Science-Fiction, the magazine revered until recent decades (another irony of this tale). Nkabele’s favorites are:

Nkabele’s favorite writers are Richard Shaver, L. Ron Hubbard, and Stanley G. Weinbaum, but is also a fan of Robert Moore Williams, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Nelson Bond, Ray Cummings, Eric Frank Russell, P. Schuyler Miller, and Raymond Z. Gallum. Although not specific to this story, if you know about The Shaver Mystery you’ll have a sense of the kind of thinking fans of these magazines pursued.

Most telling of all is that Nkabele’s favorite editor is Raymond A. Palmer. That’s quite revealing. Young science fiction writers today want to erase the memory of John W. Campbell, but when I was growing up, science fiction fans wanted to forget Ray Palmer’s impact on the genre.

To understand Nkabele’s taste in science fiction, even more, is to know the names of the three stories he keeps submitting:

  • “Astrid of the Asteroids”
  • “Slime Slaves of G’Harn”
  • “Ursula of Uranus”

The magazines Nkabele loved were the ones that appealed most to adolescents featuring exotic interplanetary adventure stories told in purple prose. The exact kind of science fiction John W. Campbell was fighting against in our Golden Age of Science Fiction. But Nkabele considers his science fiction the actual Golden Age of Science Fiction. Over the decades, different generations have defined their own Golden Age of Science Fiction. Youth always reject the past. Nkabele can’t fathom why Ferman is rejecting his Golden Age.

It helps to know a little about Edward L. Ferman since he’s a major character, but it’s very important to know about Harlan Ellison. Ferman panics and gives Nkabele Ellison’s address and phone number to get rid of him. Ferman tells Nkabele about Ellison’s legendary SF anthology Dangerous Visions. Now Harlan Ellison starts writing letters and Eric Norden parodies Ellison’s writing style in an over-the-top style that wasn’t far from Ellison’s own. They even rope in Isaac Asimov. Norden does a great job of making each letter writer sound like a distinct personality. Sometimes the epistolary caricatures aren’t so flattering and it’s a wonder Norden didn’t get sued by Ellison who was known for his litigious wrath.

It also helps to know about BEMs – Bug Eye Monsters – especially SF covers that showed BEMs running off with mostly naked Earth women. BEMs in SF anticipated the whole abductee theme of UFO fanatics. And Ray Palmer turned his SF magazines into UFO fanaticism.

Parodying science fiction has been around for a long time, and Norden mentions a classic, Venus on a Half Shell by Kilgore Trout. Kilgore Trout is a character in many of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. But I’ll have more to say about such other fun novels and stories soon.

I’m not sure how many current SF readers will enjoy “The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden. Is the pop culture that it skewers too oldy moldy? I tend to think the people who will enjoy it most are the people of my tribe.

James Wallace Harris, 7/24/22

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies by Barry N. Malzberg

I’ve been reading recursive science fiction lately, and one of the most famous recursive science fiction stories is Barry N. Malzberg’s “A Galaxy Called Rome.” Recursive science fiction is science fiction about science fiction. Sometimes this is a story that mentions science fiction, sometimes it’s a story about science fiction writers, their fans, and science fiction conventions, and sometimes it’s in-jokes about the genre, other times recursive science fiction is about the writing of science fiction, and that’s the case with “A Galaxy Called Rome.”

“A Galaxy Called Rome” has been reprinted often you can find it in these anthologies and collections. I read it in the anthology Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories About SF edited by Mike Resnick in 1992. I highly recommend that volume if you can find it, but it was only published once by Avon. Probably the cheapest collection of Malzberg’s stories is The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg because the Kindle edition is only $4.99. However, Malzberg expanded “A Galaxy Called Rome” into a short novel, Galaxies, and it’s available for $1.99 for the Kindle edition at Amazon.

Malzberg is known for his recursive science fiction, especially since he seems to have experienced a great deal of existential angst over being a science fiction writer. NESFA even came out with a collection of his recursive SF called The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg.

“A Galaxy Called Rome” is a novelette composed of 14 short chapters. It first appeared in the July 1975 issue of F&SF and has been anthologized a number of times. It is probably Malzberg’s most famous work of short science fiction. 

Malzberg expanded the same story into 49 chapters for a 1975 short novel version retitled Galaxies. Malzberg gained attention for a handful of science fiction novels in the first half of the 1970s. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Beyond Apollo but got a fair amount of recognition for Galaxies, The Falling Astronauts, and Herovit’s World. He went on to publish prolifically in and outside of the genre

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies are also works of what the literary world calls metafiction – fiction about fiction. I prefer the novelette version of the story because the novelette is my favorite length for science fiction. However, the longer version of the story, Galaxies, lets Malzberg dig deeper into the nature of writing science fiction.

I want to recommend this story, but with carefully considered restrictions. If you read science fiction for escape this story isn’t for you. Well, if you want to know why you read science fiction for escape, then you might want to read it. This story is for people who like to intellectually examine everything and take things apart. This story is for readers who love academic exercises in cleverness. This story is for readers who want to know how magic tricks work.

I alternated reading Galaxies with listening to Red Rising by Pierce Brown. It was an excellent contrast. Red Rising is exactly what most science fiction readers want to read. The story immediately sucks the reader into a fantasy reality. It’s designed for your mind to forget the real world and immerse yourself in a fantasy about Mars. The reader is expected to buy into its make-believe. Galaxies on the other hand constantly remind the reader of our reality while describing how a science fiction writer goes about their business of fooling the reader.

Reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” or Galaxies could ruin your love of science fiction. Or it could make you appreciate escapist literature all the more. I know when I would switch to Red Rising after reading a dozen chapters of Galaxies I felt like that guy in The Matrix, Cypher, who wanted to take the blue pill and enjoy the juicy steak. And that might be a good analogy. Reading Malzberg is like taking the red pill and seeing an ugly reality. It might be philosophically enlightening to know the realness of reality, but it’s still grim and gritty.

This is probably why Malzberg never became a popular sci-fi writer, he was too hung up on reality. Most of the recursive science fiction I read in Inside the Funhouse was big fun. Recursive science fiction comes in many flavors but they can be roughly divided into two kinds. One kind celebrates our addiction, and the other makes you feel like you’re withdrawing from heroin. Reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” is like learning about Santa Claus as a kid, it hurts but makes you feel grown up. Reading Galaxies can feel like the agony of soul searching before deciding on becoming an atheist.

I ended up highlighting almost ten percent of Galaxies when reading the Kindle version. I won’t show all these quotes because that would probably be a copyright violation, but I do want to show enough of them to give people a chance to understand what Malzberg is doing. Malzberg is very open and straightforward with his intentions as stated in this first section.

It’s rather interesting that Malzberg tells us how the idea of the story within a story came to him. Well, the idea for the story he’s going to use to discuss writing. In the course of reading a novel about writing a novel, we will develop a whole story with characters, setting, plot, and conflict. However, we won’t experience that story like we normally do. Imagine being served a meal and instead of enjoying eating it, we put it under scientific analysis.

One thing Malzberg doesn’t do is try to imagine what we readers think while reading all of this. We readers are also part of the process. As I read Galaxies I got the idea that Malzberg both loved and hated science fiction. I got the impression he wanted to be a respected writer of hard SF, but his sense of reality conflicted with the fantasy nature of writing escapist literature.

These early sections are quite seductive, but I must warn anyone considering buying Galaxies that the going will get tough. “A Galaxy Called Rome” is the light fluffy version to read for those who aren’t ready to climb a mountain. Even though Galaxies is only 154 pages long, it’s a Ph.D. dissertation on deconstructing science fiction novel writing.

The story within this novel is about Lena Thomas who is the only living crew member of an FTL spaceship, Skipstone, that carries a cargo of 515 dead people in cryonic suspension. The year is 3902. Like in Heinlein’s novel, The Door Into Summer, rich people with diseases invest their estates and freeze their bodies in the hopes of one day being revived and cured. Those estates pay for the development of interstellar travel. Those dead people will eventually communicate with Lena like the dead in PKD’s Ubik when Lena and the Skipstone get trapped in the black galaxy. This allows Malzberg to explore metaphysical and religious themes in writing a novel. The ship also has robots programmed with human minds that help Malzberg explore other science fictional themes. His story notes get more and more extensive while getting more and more complicated. This also allows Malzberg to show how worldbuilding and plotting are developed as a writer tells their story.

Malzberg uses all this exploration in writing a science fiction novel to also speculate about the future. He imagines our civilization collapsing and being completely forgotten and a new world civilization rising in the following nineteen centuries. Malzberg imagines we’ll face limitations we can’t overcome and wild possibilities that far exceed today’s limitations.

Much of this novel is about being a writer, and specifically a writer of science fiction. You get hints along the way that Malzberg might be jealous of famous literary writers like Cheever and Updike, at other times you might feel his resentment at not being more successful at being a science fiction writer. But Malzberg is confident of his own gifts too.

In some of the actual passages of the novel, the dialog reminds me of Sheckley or Adams, or maybe even PKD, and even then Malzberg keeps making digs at science fiction.

Over time, the conflicts Malzberg provides for Lena’s story become repetitious. He knows he’s padding this novel, and even talks about how writers do pad their novels. The second half of Lena’s story becomes one long dark night of her soul struggling to escape the black galaxy. I have to wonder if such soul searching also plagues Malzberg.

Eventually, you wonder if Malzberg can find an ending to Lena’s story. Chapter after chapter he tortures the poor woman, and we can’t imagine any possible happy ending. Yet, Malzberg gives us a very strange ending that I was quite happy to read. I guess he took pity on us.

Reading Galaxies makes me doubt reading science fiction, but then I’ve doubted my addiction to our genre for decades. As a young person back in the 1960s and 1970s I thought science fiction was a wonderful tool for thinking about all the possibilities of the future, both good and bad. But after living to the year 2022, which was a very futuristic sounding year back in 1965, I know the future is everything we never imagined.

Contrasting Galaxies with Red Rising it’s quite obvious that science fiction’s purpose is escape. And the genius of writing science fiction is creating stories set in fictional worlds that are so compelling we forget this one. By Malzberg intruding into his novel and telling us everything only shows we don’t want the author intruding into our stories. Some philosophers have speculated that God invented our reality and walked away from his creation and that’s a great thing. That knowing God’s intention would ruin his/her/its art. I always felt Heinlein destroyed his career after he started poking his nose into his stories.

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies were written as the New Wave in science fiction was fading and postmodernism fiction in the literary world was becoming old hat. It was an impressive experiment of the times, but as far as I know, readers have lost interest in such experiments. The Post Moderns of our times demand wokeness in fiction but not the metafictional kind. If anything, modern SF readers want longer voyages of fictional escape with far greater feats of worldbuilding.

It would be interesting to see someone write a version of Galaxies today that reveals what today’s SF writers go through to entertain their readers in the 2020s.

James Wallace Harris, 7/23/22

Mainstream Science Fiction

Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility is straight-ahead science fiction but it doesn’t feel like a genre novel. Explaining why will be hard. Science fiction has always avoided clear definition and trying to discern the difference between hardcore genre science fiction and literary science fiction might prove equally elusive. For most readers, it doesn’t even matter.

Sea of Tranquility was both entertaining and well-written. I liked it quite a lot. Many readers at Goodreads loved this short novel and gave the story five stars. However, the story was missing something for me. It lacked the intense impact I get from classic genre science fiction I love, even ones not as well told as Sea of Tranquility.

Most modern science fiction aims to be as dashing as Hans Solo but Sea of Tranquility was as mundane as a computer programmer. I considered that a positive but I have to admit the story had a certain blandness even though it dealt with many big science fictional concepts.

I do not want to tell you about those concepts because the way Mandel rolls them out makes it fun to explore the plot clue by clue. If you don’t want to read the novel but want to know a precise summary, Wikipedia has a blow-by-blow overview. However, I do want to tell you enough to want to read it. In the year 2401 Gaspery-Jacques learns about three anomalies in history. In the years 1912 a man named Edwin, in 2020 a woman named Mirella, and in 2203 a woman named Olive had the same bizarre experience that they’ve recorded in various ways in their own times. Historians in the 25th century find those records and decide they might be clues to an amazing hypothesis. Gaspery-Jacques decides he wants to be the person that solves the mystery even though he’s only an uneducated house detective for a hotel in a colony on the Moon. Lucky for Gaspery-Jacques, his sister is a brilliant scientist with connections.

BEWARE – Spoilers Ahead

To get into my discussion of mainstream science fiction versus genre science fiction will require giving away the story. The structure of Sea of Tranquility is much like another mainstream science fiction novel, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas was far richer and more intense than Sea of Tranquility, more like a genre novel. Both deal with epic concepts, but only Cloud Atlas felt epic in the storytelling. Mandel gives us a much quieter story and that’s often a trait of mainstream science fiction. Its tone is like two other recent mainstream science fiction novels, Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro and Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan.

Sea of Tranquility explores the idea that our reality is a simulation. In the 25th century, scientists have a very carefully controlled type of time travel. They theorize the anomalies experienced by Edwin, Mirella, and Olive might be glitches in the simulation software. After five years of training, they send Gaspery-Jacques back to interview each of these people. We don’t know that right away, because Mandel at first tells each of their stories chronologically in time. I’m thinking of reading the book again to see if knowing that they are being interviewed by a time traveler changes how I experience the story. I guessed this might be happening because loose-lips by some reviewers said the book is a time travel novel. It would have been more fun not knowing that.

That’s another difference between mainstream science fiction and genre science fiction. Their stories often begin ordinarily and feel mundane and the science-fictional concepts creep into the tale. Genre science fiction often begins like the opening of a heavy metal concert, while mainstream science fiction begins with a quiet chamber quartet before a cerebral symphony.

Genre science fiction writers love to crank the volume to 11 and keep it there, while mainstream science fiction unfolds gently at volume 4 and politely increases to 6 or 7 at carefully chosen moments. If you compare Hyperion by Dan Simmons to Sea of Tranquility you’ll know what I mean.

Sea of Tranquility is science fiction for PBS Masterpiece. Station Eleven was Mandel’s polar opposite of Mad Max: Fury Road. Even though Sea of Tranquility explores such a deafening concept as the simulation hypothesis it does so in a whisper. A genre novelist writing the same story would have had epic rents in the fabric of reality, killing millions while its heroes save the universe at the last minute. Mandel’s hero eerily validates the hypothesis with a kind of “Ummm, that’s weird.”

Sea of Tranquility is also a pandemic novel about a writer writing a novel about a pandemic just before a pandemic hits. Olive Llewellyn is a novelist who lives on the Moon but tells of her publicity tour on Earth just before a brutal plague spreads across Earth in 2203. I assume Olive’s details and feelings about promoting a book came from Mandel’s own experience. Some of the characters in this novel were in Mandel’s previous novel, The Glass Hotel, and Edwin’s full name is Edwin St. John St. Andrew. Since he shares a middle name with Mandel I have to wonder if he was an ancestor of hers? Now I have to read The Glass Hotel. One of my favorite writers, Larry McMurty liked to recycle characters in other novels.

Finally, I wonder if fans of science fiction by Margaret Atwood, Hilary St. John Mandel, or Kazuo Ishiguro would also be fans of Dan Simmons, Iain M. Banks, and James S. A. Corey? Or vice versa? Let me know how you feel.

James Wallace Harris, 7/4/22

Science Fiction Writers in Conversation with Each Other

Imagine a world where science fiction had never been invented. Could you have written the first science fiction story? Be honest now, and think hard about yourself and what I’m asking. Before Galileo, did anyone think the Moon was a world that could be visited? Once people heard Galileo saw mountains on the Moon with his telescope they began to imagine going there. Science fiction needed certain kinds of seed ideas to begin. When the seeds come from reality I’ll call that Stage 1 science fiction. We don’t see a lot of that kind of science fiction anymore. Maybe The Martian by Andy Weir when he tried to realistically portray growing potatoes on Mars or when a writer extrapolates on current events like John Brunner did in Stand on Zanzibar back in 1968 or what Kim Stanley Robinson did in The Ministry for the Future in 2020.

Once the genre got rolling, science fiction seeded itself. One story about a trip to the Moon inspired an infinity. I call that Stage 2 science fiction. In Stage 2 writers try to stick to reality but work off the collective knowledge of the genre. Eventually, science fiction was making copies of copies, where the inspiration had no connection with reality. I’ll call that Stage 3 science fiction.

Early stories about traveling to the Moon were Stage 1 because it’s not likely the authors had read each other’s work. But when Verne and Wells wrote their novels of lunar exploration a lot of their inspiration was Stage 2. When John Varley wrote his stories about a lunar colony, most of the science-fictional concepts within those stories had been germinating for generations in the genre – Stage 3.

I believe science fiction writers have an ongoing conversation that never ends. To take part in this conversation, publish a story. It can be Stage 1, 2, or 3. To be heard and answered requires writing something in Stage 1 or 2, or a very creative Stage 3.

This is why I’ve become fascinated by the forgotten writer Walter F. Moudy. The 1950s and 1960s were a fertile time for Stage 1 and Stage 2 stories. By the second half of the 1960s and early 1970s writers who made themselves noticed were writing a baroque Stage 3 science fiction to attract attention. For example, the works of Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and Robert Silverberg were based on old SF ideas told with new writing styles. Unfortunately, Moudy wrote Stage 3 stories in the same prose style that the classics of Stage 2 were written. His 1964-65 stories feel like they were written in 1954. One reason the New Wave writers of the 1960s were so important is they recognized that retelling Stage 2 stories in the same way, would get them ignored. The reason why Heinlein blazed onto the scene in 1939 is that he wrote Stage 1 stories with a new writing style, making his stories stand out.

I enjoy reading Walter F. Moudy in 2022 because I doubt I could write any better than he did, and he was responding to the stories I admired back then. His writing ability and knowledge of the genre were just good enough to get five works published and then become forgotten. As a would-be science fiction writer, I greatly identify with that. He wanted to join the conversation and made the effort to have his say. He just wasn’t heard, but now after decades, I’m listening.

While reading Walter F. Moudy’s meager output of science fiction I kept feeling his stories were inspired by the science fiction he and I both read. They made me wonder what he was trying to say in the ongoing conversation.

Of the five science fiction stories, I’ve read by Walter F. Moudy, “The Search for Man” is my favorite, although if I reread “The Survivor” or No Man On Earth I might change my mind. All were good fun, old-fashion science fiction, the kind my nostalgia loves. As I read “The Search for Man,” I kept wondering what science fiction Moudy had read that inspired this story. I can’t say for sure but this story about robots speculating about long-dead or gone humans reminded me of City by Clifford Simak. That “The Search for Man” set hundreds of years into the future speculated about our times and turned us into a religion reminded me of A Canticle for Leibowitz. That both the protagonists of No Man On Earth and “The Search for Man” were about a super-human and a super-robot reminded me of The Hampdenshire Wonder, Slan, Odd John, Chocky, Stranger in a Strange Land, and all the other science fiction stories about next-stage beings. Reading those two Moudy stories made me think about how I would have written a story on that theme. How much could I base it on reality, and how much would be inspired by other science fiction?

“The Search for Man,” begins with a baby being born, but it’s a strange birth, a kind of decanting that made me think of Brave New World. Then we learn the baby will only have three senses, and it will be put into a robotic baby’s body, the first of four body types it will use.

Moudy sets up a good mystery for us. Humans died out hundreds of years earlier, with all other animal life. The humans had tried to travel to the stars, but it appears their three missions had failed. The robot brains have improved their brains with genetics found in 12 human brains that had been preserved. The robots have found long-dead humans in various kinds of chambers that tried to create suspended animation. Their hope is to find a chamber with a viable human to resurrect. There are classes of robots that are archeologists and others that are priests that teach a strange religion based on their theories about humans. All of that is a very appealing setup for a story, at least for me.

I’m not sure Walter F. Moudy would have written “The Search for Man” without reading a lot of science fiction. Part of the conversation science fiction writers have is about science fictional ideas, but the other part is about how to present those ideas in a story. I felt “The Search for Man” was Moudy’s reply to both but in the language of 1950s science fiction. I wonder if he had been more of a stylist would he have made a greater impact?

“The Search for Man” was published in an original anthology In The Wake of Man that’s never been reprinted. I’ve been trying to get a copy, but it’s expensive, starting at $75 used. I had found a $10 copy for sale, but my order was canceled a couple days after I ordered it. Right now the only source for this story is a copy of In The Wake of Man at Archive.org. If you are a member, which is free, you can check it out for an hour to read online. Thanks to Joachim Boaz for finding that link.

Joachim Boaz and Rich Horton have also been writing about Walter F. Moudy. Rich is planning to review all of Moudy’s work soon.

James Wallace Harris, 6/30/22

Blowing Your Chance to Speak to the Future

Writers cherish the myth that their work will make their names immortal. And it is true we have remembered some authors for thousands of years. However, if you want to be heard across time, you have to write something timeless.

My friend Mike and I are fascinated by forgotten writers, especially forgotten science fiction writers. We can’t help but wonder why a writer quits after their initial success of selling a few stories or maybe a novel. Mike texted me the other day about such a writer he discovered in an interview with Geraldine Brooks in The New York Times.

It was part of their By the Book series, where all writers are asked the same standard questions. My favorite question: “What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?” Often this makes for an interesting title to chase down. Brooks said: “‘No Man on Earth,’ by Walter Moudy. The only other person I know who has read it is my son because I pressed it on him.”

So one well-regarded literary writer resurrects Walter F. Moudy 49 years after he died. That one little mention in the Times got me to read his novel. Maybe a few other people will too. And it’s a pretty good science fiction story for 1964. The question is, could it have been better? What would have made that novel stay in print? Is it worth reprinting? And do I recommend you read it?

You can read a pdf copy of No Man On Earth here.

It turns out that No Man On Earth is a forgotten science fiction novel by a forgotten science fiction writer, Walter F. Moudy (1929-1973). His ISFDB entry lists one novel and four short stories. This novel appeared in October of 1964, and then three of his four stories appeared in April and May of 1965, two in Fantastic and one in Amazing, both edited by Cele Lalli (Goldsmith). Moudy would have been in his mid-thirties. In 1966 he published another novel, The Ninth Commandment, probably not science fiction, and one I can’t track down. Finally, in 1975, after his death, Moudy had one more story, a novella, published in an original anthology, In the Wake of Man. The other two authors in that book were Gene Wolfe and R. A. Lafferty, pretty impressive company.

Besides No Man On Earth, I’ve read his three stories in Fantastic and Amazing, but it would cost me $75 to read his final story and that’s too much. For me, Walter F. Moudy’s science fiction legacy is that one novel, two short stories, and a novelette. Not much to go by, but still, I’m terribly envious since I’m a lifelong would-be science fiction writer. I’d give anything to have contributed even that much to the genre.

Why after his initial success in 1964-1966 did Moudy quit writing? And how did Roger Elwood get his last story? I guess Moudy tried one more time before he died to say something in print. But maybe Elwood had been holding it for years, and it was written in the mid-sixties. Reviewers haven’t been kind to it.

I was able to track down a few biographical details. Moudy was from Missouri, served in the Air Force from 1950 to 1953, got a degree in 1954, and then a law degree in 1957. He was Phi Beta Kappa. Moudy was married and had three children. In other words, he had a successful life and didn’t need to be a writer. Still, as I read his work over the last few days, I felt he had something to say. At least in No Man On Earth.

His three short stories were rather minor. The first, “The Dreamer,” was about a young man who wanted to get rich and famous as a space trader. The story was told like a fable. Its redeeming feature was a super-intelligent parrot. The second, “I Think They Love Me,” is about rock stars going to extreme lengths to survive hordes of screaming teenage girls. This was written a year after The Beatles hit America and was kind of cute, but not really worth remembering. The last, and the one most anthologized, is “The Survivor,” about a televised war game between America and Russia. It reminded me of The Hunger Games. This story came out in 1965 and was probably inspired by the 1964 Olympic games and the films Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe. “The Survivor” was gritty, detailed, and suggested each country sacrifice 100 men every four years in a fight to the death rather than risking total national annihilation.

Those three stories were somewhat entertaining, especially the last one, but they don’t leave the kind of impression that Moudy was making a statement. However, No Man On Earth does. Writers can make different kinds of statements. They can aim to write a better story than what’s written before. Or they can capture their times realistically in words. And common with science fiction writers, they can say something philosophical about reality. And there are so many other ways.

For example, I believe Robert Heinlein was influenced by the success of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand in 1957, and that’s why he aimed so high with Stranger in a Strange Land. In his later years, Heinlein repeatedly tried to convince fans that Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) were books that he wanted to be remembered for because they expressed his philosophy on freedom and responsibility.

My guess is Moudy was inspired by Stranger in a Strange Land when he wrote No Man On Earth. Heinlein’s main character Valentine Michael Smith is a human raised by Martians who taught him psychic powers. Moudy’s main character, Thad Stone, had a human mother and alien father and was a super-genius. Both novels are told with picaresque plotting. Both books comment on sex and society. Moudy has Stone tour many planets and visits many kinds of societies and civilizations. No Man On Earth ran 176 pages in its first publication, a slim paperback original to Stranger’s 408 pages in the G. P. Putnam’s Sons first-edition hardback. Heinlein was obviously trying to hit one out of the genre after over twenty years of being a big fish in a small pond. Frank Herbert also aimed sky high with Dune in 1965. It was also over 400 pages.

There are a lot of one-hit wonders in the book world but few writers struggle with their masterpieces like Harper Lee or John Kennedy Toole. My guess is Moudy knocked this novel out quickly and was probably paid around $750 for his paperback original and when it disappeared on the twirling wire racks after a couple of months felt his time was better spent being a lawyer. If he had written a 400-page monster and got it published by a major hardback publisher No Man On Earth might have had a better chance. He just didn’t aim high enough.

It would have also helped if he had written No Man On Earth in an innovative style that made the genre take notice, like Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land. Moudy’s story and writing reminded me a bit of Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955), Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror for Observers (1955), and Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), all books he could have read and could have inspired No Man On Earth.

Obviously, if Geraldine Brooks fondly remembers No Man On Earth in 2022 so it can’t be a stinker. I liked it quite a lot and rushed through it in two days because it was compelling in the old-fashion kind of science fiction I love. It’s great that Tevis’s 1963 novel is still remembered, and I think it’s a shame that Moudy’s book isn’t more remembered.

James Wallace Harris, 6/21/22

Does Our Memory of Favorite Science Fiction Skew To Older Science Fiction?

James Patrick Kelly gives a plug for our Classics of Science Fiction database site (csfquery.com) in his column “On the Net” in the July-August 2022 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. He mentions us as a jumping-off point to talk about famous science fiction stories made into movies. In passing, Kelly says our v.5 list is skewed to older works. I’ve worried about that myself, and I’ve tried to come up with a system configuration that would promote newer works.

However, I’m starting to think that our memories naturally skew towards older books. Our lists are generated from a system. We’ve collected all the ways we can find where people remember books – awards, fan polls, recommended lists, anthologies, books used in schools, lists created by magazines and websites, etc. Each one we call a citation. There are two lists of citations, one for books and one for short stories. Older books have more citations than newer books because they’ve been around longer. Our citation lists go back to 1943, but most of them have been from the past 25 years. But even when we come up with systems to give newer books a little edge, older novels and stories still have more citations.

Pop culture has just found more ways to remember The Left Hand of Darkness since 1969 than Ancillary Justice since 2013. 49 ways to 13. Even when I limited citations from the 21st century it’s still 33 to 13. This makes me wonder if collectively we just remember older books better. Although, if we could get 1,000 college students to read The Left Hand of Darkness and Ancillary Justice would they still favor the book from 1969 over the 2013 novel?

At our site, we avoid saying books with more citations are better – because there’s no way to prove that. But what if some books are better than others at being remembered? The Left Hand of Darkness has never been one of my favorite SF novels, but it is one I admire for its ideas and writing, and maybe that’s why it’s remembered. Many English professors will tell you, that Ulysses by James Joyce is the #1 novel in the English language. I’ve tried to read it several times but never could finish it. But I’m willing to admit that it’s legendary.

A while back we came up with a solution to help people find newer novels and stories to read. We created the List Builder. If you want the most remembered SF novels published since 2000 just use that tool. Here’s a list of 51 21st Century SF Novels with at least 5 citations.

On the other hand, if you are in the mood for something from the fifties just put in 1950 to 1959. If you think our cutoffs are too stringent, lower them. I’m still thinking of adding a feature to the List Builder that would allow our users to delimit the citations by date. Would citation sources only from the 1990s pick different books from the 1940s than citation sources from the 1960s?

We’re trying to keep CSFquery as simple to use as possible yet offer the maximum flexibility for generating lists that users might want. Our v.5 and v.2 lists are just canned lists based on our cutoffs of 12 and 8 citations for novels and short stories. We chose those cuff-offs to produce lists of around 100 titles. The List Builder lets the user decide if they want more or less but pop culture has decided what to remember.

We’re open to suggestions. If you know of other citation sources that we don’t use, let us know.

James Wallace Harris, 6/12/22

Interruptions

Several health issues have kept me from blogging and that’s annoying. I’ve gotten old and can’t do a lot of what I once could do, but I didn’t expect to be shut out of blogging. I have back problems and sometimes it keeps me from sitting at the computer. I’m writing this in a recliner on an old Chromebook. I’m also taking a drug that makes me feel out of it. However, I don’t want to give up. This post is a test to see how well I can work reclining using different equipment and tools. I’ve spent years getting my software tools just right, and now I must start over.

Luckily, WordPress is web-based. And my default browser on my Windows 11 machine is Chrome. However, I have no idea how to edit photos on a Chromebook — at least for now. I also used Notepad++ as my temporary memory. That’s where I keep ideas, and lists, and do my thinking by typing before I move over to WordPress. I’ve been contemplating getting a new machine for writing in bed and I’m considering Windows, Mac, and Chromebook.

I’m still participating in my daily science fiction short story discussion on Facebook but quite often I encounter stories I want to write about here. And there are topics I’d like to research and write about but don’t feel well enough to do it. For example, we’ve been reading SF stories from 2020 speculating about the effects of climate change on the future, and even though I’ve been thinking SF writers should write more about that topic, I’m starting to feel it’s a poor theme for science fiction.

It’s very hard not to be gloom and doomy in a story about our future. And if it’s upbeat, it often comes across as Pollyannish. There’s nothing gosh-wow or sensawonderish about adapting to climate change. I’m even been theorizing that science fiction has never been about reality anyway.

Well, my back is protesting too much…

James Wallace Harris, 5/27/22

The 1953 SF&F Magazine Boom

For some very interesting reasons, 1953 was a year when over forty different science fiction and fantasy magazine titles appeared on newsstands in English-speaking countries. I haven’t tried to research non-English countries. And I’m not even sure I’ve found all the magazines published in English. Some of the titles below are reprint titles, but most of these magazines published new fiction.

Links are to Wikipedia. It’s amazing (astounding, authentic, fantastic, startling) how many of these magazines have extensive entries in that online encyclopedia.

For fun, I’ve collected the covers from 194 SFF magazines from 1953. You can view them at the Internet Archive. If you download the Comic Book Zip file you can change the .cbz extension to .zip and have a compressed folder of those covers. Unzip it and set your desktop background to a slideshow using that folder. It’s a fun way to view those covers over days and weeks. Or load the .cbz file onto your tablet if you have a program to read .cbz files. They look great on a tablet. As you flip through the covers pay attention to the authors. Notice how many are still famous today – such as Philip K. Dick – and how many are forgotten. Also, study the artwork. A lot of 1953 comes through those images, but it’s like interpreting dreams. Not very reliable, but strange and weird.

Many of these magazines are available on the Internet Archive. Reading them will show the future, but usually not this future – the times we live in now. Nor do they show the future young people seek today. Yet, there are lots of overlapping themes. Space travel, robots, posthumans, catastrophes, the end of the world, and so on. Writers and readers just saw it differently back in 1953.

I’ve been fascinated by the 1953 science fiction boom for years, but recently our short story club voted to group read the best stories from one year. I nominated 1953 but it didn’t win. I’m afraid the average age of our group members is now too young to be interested in science fiction from so long ago. 1976 won.

I have a theory about science fiction readers. I believe they bond for life with the science fiction stories that came out in the decade before their teen years, the decade of their teen years, and the decade of their early twenties. My teen years were in the 1960s, so I resonate best with science fiction from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I’m guessing most of our members are in their 50s, and twenty years younger than me. So they will lean toward science fiction from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The ones closer to 60, will enjoy science fiction from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

The readers who were teens in the 1940s are dying off, and the ones from the 1950s are getting pretty old. If my theory is correct, science fiction short stories from the 1950s should be fading away from pop culture memory.

I had hoped my favorite science fiction short stories I loved reading when growing up would become eternal classics. But ask yourself how many people remember SF stories before John W. Campbell? Science fiction isn’t like rock music from the 1960s and 1970s, which many young people today are embracing over their own generation’s current music. But why not?

Science fiction in 1953 spoke to a generation and it’s fascinating to think about why. The number of science fiction readers before WWII was so small that it didn’t register in pop culture. The war brought rockets, atomic bombs, computers, and nuclear power. The late 1940s brought UFOs – the flying saucer craze. The 1950s began with science fiction movies and television shows. By 1953, science fiction was a fad bigger than the hula-hoop would ever be, we just never thought of it that way. I do wonder if the fad will ever collapse, but I see no sign it will.

Science fiction themes and ideas don’t change that much, but how they are presented does. Today, the short story club read “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” by Mercurio D. Rivera which appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a great story, but it’s also just a modern version of “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon, from the April 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. I’m not saying Rivera copied Sturgeon, but he took a similar theme and made a story for his generation.

I imprinted on 1950s science fiction because that’s what I first read. I embraced the 1960s and 1970s science fiction because that was my generation’s science fiction while I was going to high school and college. Now that I’m old, my mind is returning to the science fiction of the 1950s. I was born in 1951, so I don’t remember 1953 except through old books, movies, music, and TV shows I discovered in the 1960s.

Sometimes I think I’ve doubled back along the trail to see where I took a wrong turn. 2022 is the future of who I was in 1962. But it’s not the future science fiction promised. Maybe I reread old science fiction to get back to the future I wanted.

James Wallace Harris, 5/13/22

Update: Thanks to John Boston

In 1954, these best-of-the-year anthologies chose these stories as the best from all those magazines:

Portals of Tomorrow ed. August Derleth (Rinehart LCC# 54-6523, 1954, $3.75, 371pp, hc)

  • ix · Introduction · August Derleth · in
  • 3 · The Hypnoglyph · John Anthony · ss F&SF Jul 1953
  • 17 · Testament of Andros · James Blish · nv Future Jan 1953
  • 47 · The Playground · Ray Bradbury · ss Esquire Oct 1953
  • 69 · Gratitude Guaranteed · R. Bretnor & Kris Neville · nv F&SF Aug 1953
  • 101 · Rustle of Wings · Fredric Brown · ss F&SF Aug 1953
  • 109 · The Other Tiger · Arthur C. Clarke · vi Fantastic Universe Jun/Jul 1953
  • 113 · Civilized · Mark Clifton & Alex Apostolides · ss Galaxy Aug 1953, as “We’re Civilized”
  • 129 · Stickeney and the Critic · Mildred Clingerman · ss F&SF Feb 1953
  • 139 · The Word · Mildred Clingerman · ss F&SF Nov 1953
  • 147 · Hermit on Bikini · John Langdon · ss Bluebook Mar 1953
  • 167 · Jezebel · Murray Leinster · ss Startling Stories Oct 1953
  • 189 · D.P. from Tomorrow · Mack Reynolds · ss Orbit #1 1953
  • 201 · The Altruists · Idris Seabright · ss F&SF Nov 1953
  • 221 · Potential · Robert Sheckley · ss Astounding Nov 1953
  • 241 · Eye for Iniquity · T. L. Sherred · nv Beyond Fantasy Fiction Jul 1953
  • 273 · Kindergarten · Clifford D. Simak · nv Galaxy Jul 1953

The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1954 ed. Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty (Fredrick Fell, 1954, $3.50, 316pp, hc)
In England as The Best Science Fiction Stories: Fifth Series.

  • 9 · Editors’ Preface · Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty · pr
  • 13 · Icon of the Imagination · Fritz Leiber · in
  • 19 · DP! · Jack Vance · ss Avon SF&F Reader Apr 1953
  • 41 · The Big Holiday · Fritz Leiber · ss F&SF Jan 1953
  • 50 · The Collectors · G. Gordon Dewey & Max Dancey · ss Amazing Jun/Jul 1953
  • 65 · One in Three Hundred [Bill Easson] · J. T. McIntosh · nv F&SF Feb 1953
  • 108 · Wonder Child · Joseph Shallit · nv Fantastic Jan/Feb 1953
  • 136 · Crucifixus Etiam · Walter M. Miller, Jr. · ss Astounding Feb 1953
  • 159 · The Model of a Judge · William Morrison · ss Galaxy Oct 1953
  • 172 · The Last Day · Richard Matheson · ss Amazing Apr/May 1953
  • 190 · Time Is the Traitor · Alfred Bester · nv F&SF Sep 1953
  • 217 · Lot [David Jimmon] · Ward Moore · nv F&SF May 1953
  • 249 · Yankee Exodus · Ruth M. Goldsmith · ss F&SF Jul 1953
  • 262 · What Thin Partitions [Ralph Kennedy] · Mark Clifton & Alex Apostolides · nv Astounding Sep 1953
  • 298 · A Bad Day for Sales · Fritz Leiber · ss Galaxy Jul 1953

Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1954 ed. Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty (Fredrick Fell, Mar ’54, $3.50, 317pp, hc)
In England as The Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: Second Series.

  • 9 · Introduction · Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty · in
  • 15 · The Enormous Room · H. L. Gold & Robert Krepps · na Amazing Oct/Nov 1953
  • 81 · Assignment in Aldebaran · Kendell Foster Crossen · na Thrilling Wonder Stories Feb 1953
  • 146 · The Oceans Are Wide · Frank M. Robinson · na Science Stories Apr 1954
  • 224 · The Sentimentalists · Murray Leinster · na Galaxy Apr 1953
  • 269 · Second Variety · Philip K. Dick · nv Space Science Fiction May 1953

Then in 1986 Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg looked back over 1953 and found these stories worth remembering:

saac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: 15 (1953) ed. Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg (DAW 0-88677-171-4, Dec ’86 [Nov ’86], $3.50, 352pp, pb) Anthology of 17 stories first published in 1953 plus a summary of the year in and out of sf plus remarks on the various writers. Recommended (CNB).

  • 9 · Introduction · Martin H. Greenberg · in
  • 13 · The Big Holiday · Fritz Leiber · ss F&SF Jan ’53
  • 24 · Crucifixus Etiam · Walter M. Miller, Jr. · ss Astounding Feb ’53
  • 48 · Four in One · Damon Knight · nv Galaxy Feb ’53
  • 86 · Saucer of Loneliness · Theodore Sturgeon · ss Galaxy Feb ’53
  • 102 · The Liberation of Earth · William Tenn · ss Future May ’53
  • 123 · Lot [David Jimmon] · Ward Moore · nv F&SF May ’53
  • 155 · The Nine Billion Names of God · Arthur C. Clarke · ss Star Science Fiction Stories #1, ed. Frederik Pohl, Ballantine, 1953
  • 164 · Warm · Robert Sheckley · ss Galaxy Jun ’53
  • 176 · Impostor · Philip K. Dick · ss Astounding Jun ’53
  • 194 · The World Well Lost · Theodore Sturgeon · ss Universe Jun ’53
  • 216 · A Bad Day for Sales · Fritz Leiber · ss Galaxy Jul ’53
  • 224 · Common Time · James Blish · ss Science Fiction Quarterly Aug ’53
  • 250 · Time Is the Traitor · Alfred Bester · nv F&SF Sep ’53
  • 277 · The Wall Around the World · Theodore R. Cogswell · nv Beyond Fantasy Fiction Sep ’53
  • 308 · The Model of a Judge · William Morrison · ss Galaxy Oct ’53
  • 322 · Hall of Mirrors · Fredric Brown · ss Galaxy Dec ’53
  • 331 · It’s a Good Life · Jerome Bixby · ss Star Science Fiction Stories #2, ed. Frederik Pohl, Ballantine, 1953 

5/14/22

Remembering Fantasy Press, Arkham House, Prime Press, Gnome Press, Shasta Publishers, and Others

Over My Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era is a memoir by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach recollecting his involvement in writing, editing, and publishing science fiction. It was published in 1983 and covers the good old days of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (although there is some brief updating to 1980 when it was written). This is a book that only collectors of old science fiction hardbacks will appreciate, or maybe SF fans interested in the history of science fiction publishing, writers, and fandom. I can’t imagine it appealing to anyone else. Eshbach was one of the founding members of First Fandom.

There are young people today who can’t remember a time before smartphones. There are slightly older young people who can’t remember a time before video games. I can remember the time before personal computers, but I’ve always known a world with television sets. My parents knew a world before TVs, and their parents knew a world before radio.

I’ve never known a time without science fiction, but there was one. Eshbach grew up in such a time. My parents probably didn’t hear the term until their thirties in the 1950s. The label ‘science fiction’ emerged in the 1930s with pulp magazine readers. (Read: “How Science Fiction Got Its Name” by Sam Moskowitz, F&SF Feb 1957). Before WWII very few science fiction books appeared and they weren’t labeled science fiction.

After WWII, pulp magazine science fiction began being reprinted in hardback books, and eventually in paperbacks. For about a decade before large publishing houses embraced the genre, small publishers promoted science fiction. In a handful of locations around the country, a few ardent fans would pitch in a few hundred bucks each and start a publishing company reprinting their favorite stories and novels from the pulps.

Print runs were often just 1,000-3,000, but this jump-started the genre, especially as libraries bought these books. Seeing the cover images today triggers memories of when I checked out these books from libraries in the 1960s. Even today, I’ve seen these old specialty publishers as beat-up and rebound library discards. There’s no telling how many young readers found sense-of-wonder in their pages.

Most of these legendary small press publishers went out of business because of poor management, competition from the big publishers, and paperback reprints, but especially because of the Science Fiction Book Club which began in 1953.

Lloyd Arthur Eshbach writes about those small publishers in Over My Shoulder. What’s funny is I just bought this 1983 first edition from Amazon sold as new in 2022. Amazon even said “Only 2 left in stock (more on the way).” Now only 1 left in stock. There are plenty of used copies on ABEbooks.

My copy arrived in plastic shrink-wrap in an old shipping box sent to Amazon, inside an Amazon shipping box. It’s not an actual new book, and I doubt they’ll be getting any more soon. I bought this title decades ago, and never read it, and gave it to the library book sale. I bought it again last week when I ran across a mention of it on the internet.

I now know more about the people and histories that Eshbach writes about, and I read it with great pleasure. It was written over forty years ago, and it’s Eshbach’s memoir of discovering science fiction magazines in the 1920s, writing it in the 1930s, and publishing it in the 1940s and 1950s. He remembers First Fandom, the First Worldcon and other early Worldcons, and many big-name fans and pros from the 1940s and 1950s. The book is full of anecdotes about science fiction books that are now collector items, such as how Eshbach finished stories for John W. Campbell and E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, or how Hannes Bok, the wonderful cover artist, barely survived by painting SF and fantasy subjects, ended up writing about astrology and selling horoscopes, which paid better. The book is filled with loving memories, some regrets and apologies, some gossip, and even some setting the records straight. It also has a nice section of photographs.

Fantasy Press (1946-1961)Wikipedia, ISFDB, eBay, ABE, Biblio

Eshbach was the main mover behind Fantasy Press. I own its first edition of Beyond This Horizon by Robert A. Heinlein. I couldn’t afford to buy it today, but I was lucky enough to afford it over 50 years ago. It was $3 when it came out in 1948, maybe $10 when I bought it in 1970, probably 10x the cover price when Eshbach published his memoir, and often 100x or more today. Some of the other titles are now 1000x.

The only other Fantasy Press book I own is the first edition of The Titan by P. Schuyler Miller. I bought it a few years ago for the Hannes Bok cover. I could afford it because Miller is not famous. I’d love to own most of the books that Eshbach published but they are rare and expensive today. Follow the links above. I’d especially love to own Assignment in Eternity by Heinlein. Probably the most famous of the Fantasy Press books were the original Lensmen books by E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith. A complete set of Fantasy Press books is currently listed on eBay for $34,000.

I avoid thinking about collecting rare science fiction books because I need my retirement savings for future vital expenses. Still, it’s pleasurable to read about the early history of science fiction publishing. And every now and then I’ll treat myself to one of these books published by these early publishers if I can get it cheap enough. (And only if I love the cover.)

Gnome Press (1948-1962)Wikipedia, ISFDB, eBay, ABE, Biblio

Eshbach also relates a short history of some of his competitors because he knew everyone in the business. Gnome Press is probably the most famous of the early SF publishers. I only own three of them, Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras, The Seedling Stars by James Blish, and The Mixed Men by A. E. van Vogt. Gnome is most famous for the first editions of Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation in book form. Currently, a signed set of the trilogy is going for $32,000 on eBay. They also published I, Robot, and a signed copy is going for $7,895.00 on eBay right now.

I remember reading four books by Robert Heinlein back in 1964, at the Homestead Air Force Base library, that were Gnome Press editions. I remember it because their covers are burned into my memory. They weren’t great covers, but I’d love to own them for nostalgic reasons.

That was one of the important impacts of Fantasy, Gnome, Shasta, Arkham, and other small publishers. They were bought by libraries and that’s how many readers in the 1950s and 1960s discovered these science fiction classics.

Eshbach has chapters on these publishers but I don’t own any of these books:

Plus Eshbach does a chapter that quickly covers several smaller publishers. If you collect books, Eshbach does mention a lot of interesting little publications that might be worth tracking down, many of them with some inside information. I was disappointed that Eshbach didn’t give a book-by-book history of his acquiring all the Fantasy Press titles. He does have a final chapter that lists all the books published by each publisher with the print run for each first edition.

Further Reading:

Here’s a photo of a complete set of Gnome Press from Hydraxia Books:

James Wallace Harris, 5/8/22

The Problems with Classic Science Fiction

The first problem I face with assembling my Top 100 Science Fiction Short Stories list is that I’m partial to crusty old SF stories that younger readers will feel are badly dated. Our discussion group read “Rescue Party” by Arthur C. Clarke for today. Here’s my comment:

Some members of the group, and not always the younger ones, have pointed out how dated parts of this story are today, and that the characterization is rather poor. Clarke was never a particularly good writer when it came to characterization, but this story was on par for 1946. Most of our group are older fans, and we’re used to older stories, so even with them, this story might not be a great story. Generally, people liked it, rating it 3-4 stars, with one person giving it 2.

You can read “Rescue Party” for yourself if you want. Here is the story in the original publication, and here it is again at Escape Pod with both audio and text. The group read the story from The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction that came out in 1980. Evidently, Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg considered “Rescue Party” a modern classic 42 years ago even though most anthologies back then were remembering Arthur C. Clarke with “Nine Billion Names of God” and “The Star.” One of our members said Clarke might be remembered for “A Meeting with Medusa” which came out in the 1970s and is a much more polished story by contemporary standards.

“Rescue Party” was anthologized in The World Turned Upside Down edited by David Drake, Eric Flint, and Jim Baen in 2004, but that anthology was promoted as collecting stories that we old SF fans loved when we were growing up. That’s certainly true for me because it has many old science fiction stories I love that I use for my Top 100 list of SF short stories.

In other words, I can make a list of the short science fiction stories I love, but if younger readers read those stories would they be disappointed? First, do I care? It’s my list. Actually, I do. I don’t want to waste readers’ reading time. Nor am I interested in trying to be a teacher pushing young people to read the SF classics.

I realize there are two solutions for me to pursue. One is to find the stories that are great science fiction and are well written that aren’t dated. There’s certainly plenty to choose from. And I might do that. But I had a different idea when I started work on this list. I wanted to show the evolution of science fictional ideas and my evolution as a science fiction reader. It’s not about recognizing the best stories. I no longer believe in the best of anything. This world is too complex and multiplex to order in ranks and ratings. I’ve already bogged down trying to rank my favorites numerically.

I want to start in the 19th century and progress to the 21st by reviewing the science fiction stories that evolved the genre. Contemporary readability or social correctness won’t matter. Figuring this out has given me a direction.

James Wallace Harris, 5/1/22

Assembling a List of My Favorite Science Fiction Short Stories

I’ve come to realize that one of the more important things to me in my life is my enjoyment of reading science fiction. I have many friends who love to travel and when they talk about themselves they often talk about where they’ve been. They make me feel guilty because I’ve traveled so little. I tell myself that I travel in my mind because I love to read. Thus making a list of favorite books is like making a list of places I’ve been.

Lately, I’ve been more interested in short trips — reading short stories. I’ve decided to assemble a list of short stories I love most over a lifetime of reading. I have about a hundred I’m pretty sure about, but there’s almost another two hundred I remember fondly that I need to reread before deciding. I’ve also decided that I need to be more selective and limit the final list to 100 or less. Or at least, define my Top 100, and Next 100. But I’m leaning toward forcing myself to pick my absolute favorite 100 SF short stories.

This has pushed me into thinking about the criteria by which I judge a story. Here are qualities I’ve come up with so far:

  • Sense of wonder
  • Storytelling
  • Emotion
  • Insight
  • Characterization
  • Writing
  • Memorable

For now, seven is enough. I can think of these qualities as The Seven Virtues of Fiction. Here are my two working lists. I’m far from finished. I’m going to have to do a lot of rereading. And I’ve been doing that since I joined a Facebook group that reads a science fiction short story a day and discusses each. It’s these group readings that have made me realize how important science fiction short stories are to me.

I could finish this project in one year if I quit the reading group and read one story a day. That probably won’t happen. Thus, it might take me years to finish. I’ve even thought of turning this project into a book like David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels.

My Top Favorites For Now

  1. 1967 – “The Star Pit” – Samuel Delany
  2. 1959 – “Flowers for Algernon” – Daniel Keyes
  3. 1895 – “The Time Machine” – H. G. Wells
  4. 1976 – “Appearance of Life” – Brian W. Aldiss
  5. 1963 – “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – Roger Zelazny
  6. 1946 – “Vintage Season” – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore
  7. 1957 – “The Menace From Earth” – Robert A. Heinlein
  8. 1941 – “Universe” – Robert A. Heinlein
  9. 1966 – “Empire Star” – Samuel R. Delany
  10. 1977 – “Jeffty is Five” – Harland Ellison
  11. 1984 – “Press ENTER ■” – John Varley
  12. 1991 – “Beggars in Spain” – Nancy Kress
  13. 1973 – “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  14. 1987 – “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” – Lawrence Watt-Evans
  15. 1950 – “Coming Attraction” – Fritz Leiber
  16. 1985 – “Snow” – John Crowley
  17. 1990 – “Bears Discover Fire” – Terry Bisson
  18. 1953 – “The Last Day” – Richard Matheson
  19. 1953 – “One in Three Hundred” – J. T. McIntosh
  20. 1953 – “Deadly City” – Paul W. Fairman as Ivar Jorgensen
  21. 2020 – “Two Truths and a Lie” – Sarah Pinsker
  22. 1944 – “Desertion” – Clifford D. Simak
  23. 1944 – “Huddling Place” – Clifford D. Simak
  24. 1961 – “The Moon Moth” – Jack Vance
  25. 1951 – “Angel’s Egg” – Edgar Pangborn
  26. 1953 – “Lot” – Ward Moore
  27. 1952 – “The Year of the Jackpot” – Robert A. Heinlein
  28. 1950 – “There Will Come Soft Rains” – Ray Bradbury
  29. 1934 – “The Martian Odyssey” – Stanley G. Weinbaum
  30. 1954 – “Fondly Fahrenheit” – Alfred Bester
  31. 1966 – “Light of Other Days” – Bob Shaw
  32. 1998 – “Story of Your Life” – Ted Chiang
  33. 1987 – “Rachel in Love” – Pat Murphy
  34. 1985 – “Sailing to Byzantium” – Robert Silverberg
  35. 1988 – “Kirinyaga” – Mike Resnick
  36. 1990 – “The Manamouki” – Mike Resnick
  37. 1909 – “The Machine Stops” – E. M. Forster
  38. 1948 – “Mars is Heaven!” – Ray Bradbury
  39. 1957 – “Omnilingual” – H. Beam Piper
  40. 1952 – “Baby Is Three” – Theodore Sturgeon
  41. 1966 – “Behold the Man” – Michael Moorcock
  42. 1995 – “Think Like a Dinosaur” – James Patrick Kelly
  43. 1980 – “The Ugly Chickens” – Howard Waldrop
  44. 1973 – “The Death of Doctor Island” – Gene Wolfe
  45. 1948 – “In Hiding” – Wilmar H. Shiras
  46. 2004 – “Travels with My Cats” – Mike Resnick
  47. 1956 – “The Country of the Kind” – Damon Knight
  48. 1954 – “A Canticle for Leibowitz” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  49. 1946 – “Rescue Party” – Arthur C. Clarke
  50. 1943 – “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore
  51. 1944 – “No Woman Born” – C. L. Moore
  52. 1952 – “Surface Tension” – James Blish
  53. 1960 – “The Voices of Time” – J. G. Ballard
  54. 1972 – “When It Changed” – Joanna Russ
  55. 1940 – “Requiem” – Robert A. Heinlein
  56. 1984 – “Bloodchild” – Octavia Butler
  57. 1939 – “Black Destroyer” – A. E. van Vogt
  58. 1912 – “The Scarlet Plague” – Jack London
  59. 1953 – “A Case of Conscience” – James Blish
  60. 1977 – “The Screwfly Solution” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  61. 1972 – “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” – Gene Wolfe
  62. 1965 – “The Saliva Tree” – Brian W. Aldiss
  63. 1956 – “The Man Who Came Early” – Poul Anderson
  64. 1988 – “The Last of the Winnebagos” – Connie Willis
  65. 1983 – “Speech Sounds” – Octavia Butler
  66. 1953 – “A Saucer of Loneliness” – Theodore Sturgeon
  67. 1969 – “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  68. 1957 – “Call Me Joe” – Poul Anderson
  69. 1947 – “With Folded Hands …” – Jack Williamson
  70. 1977 – “Ender’s Game” – Orson Scott Card
  71. 1970 – “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” – Gene Wolfe
  72. 1933 – “Shambleau” – C. L. Moore
  73. 1945 – “Giant Killer” – A. Bertram Chandler
  74. 1981 – “True Names” – Vernor Vinge
  75. 1951 – “The Quest for Saint Aquin” – Anthony Boucher
  76. 1952 – “Sail On! Sail On!” – Philip Jose Farmer
  77. 1955 – “The Star” – Arthur C. Clarke
  78. 1958 – “The Ugly Little Boy” – Isaac Asimov
  79. 2019 – “At the Fall” – Alec Nevala-Lee
  80. 1954 – “The End of Summer” – Algis Budrys
  81. 1952 – “What’s It Like Out There?” – Edmond Hamilton
  82. 1956 – “Brightside Crossing” – Alan E. Nourse
  83. 1998 – “Craphound” – Cory Doctorow
  84. 1956 – “Exploration Team” – Murray Leinster
  85. 1953 – “Four in One” – Damon Knight
  86. 1976 – “An Infinite Summer” – Christopher Priest
  87. 1954 – “The Music Master of Babylon” – Edgar Pangborn
  88. 2002 – “The Potter of Bones” – Eleanor Arnason
  89. 1940 – “Quietus” – Ross Rocklynne
  90. 1950 – “The Veldt” – Ray Bradbury
  91. 1959 – “The Alley Man” – Philip Jose Farmer
  92. 1955 – “The Darfsteller” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  93. 1939 – “The Day Is Done” – Lester del Rey
  94. 1957 – “The Lineman” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  95. 1966 – “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” – Philip K. Dick

Stories I need to reread or maybe read for the first time.

  1. 1897 – “The Thames Valley Catastrophe” – Grant Allen
  2. 1920 – “The Mad Planet” – Murray Leinster
  3. 1927 – “The Colour Out of Space” – H. P. Lovecraft
  4. 1928 – “The Revolt of the Pedestrians” – David H. Keller
  5. 1931 – “The Jameson Satellite” – Neil R. Jones
  6. 1931 – “The Man Who Evolved” – Edmond Hamilton
  7. 1932 – “Tumithak of the Corridors” – Charles R. Tanner
  8. 1934 – “Old Faithful” – Raymond Z. Gallun
  9. 1934 – “Sidewise in Time” – Murray Leinster
  10. 1934 – “Twilight” – John W. Campbell
  11. 1936 – “At the Mountains of Madness” – H. P. Lovecraft
  12. 1936 – “Devolution” – Edmond Hamilton
  13. 1937 – “The Sands of Time” – P. Schuyler Miller
  14. 1939 – “The Four-Sided Triangle” – William F. Temple
  15. 1939 – “Living Fossil” – L. Sprague de Camp
  16. 1939 – “Rust” – Joseph E. Kelleam
  17. 1940 – “Coventry” – Robert A. Heinlein
  18. 1940 – “Into the Darkness” – Ross Rocklynne
  19. 1941 – “Microcosmic God” – Theodore Sturgeon
  20. 1941 – “Nightfall” – Isaac Asimov
  21. 1941 – “Time Wants a Skeleton” – Ross Rocklynne
  22. 1942 – “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” – Robert A. Heinlein
  23. 1943 – “The Cave” – P. Schuyler Miller
  24. 1943 – “Daymare” – Fredric Brown
  25. 1943 – “The Halfling” – Leigh Brackett
  26. 1943 – “Q.U.R.” – Anthony Boucher
  27. 1947 – “E for Effort” – T. L. Sherred
  28. 1949 – “Gulf” – Robert A. Heinlein
  29. 1949 – “Manna” – Peter Phillips
  30. 1949 – “Private Eye” – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore
  31. 1950 – “Liane the Wayfarer” – Jack Vance
  32. 1950 – “The Little Black Bag” – C. M. Kornbluth
  33. 1950 – “The Man Who Sold the Moon” – Robert A. Heinlein
  34. 1950 – “Scanners Live in Vain” – Cordwainer Smith
  35. 1950 – “The Silly Season” – C. M. Kornbluth
  36. 1951 – “Bettyann” – Kris Neville
  37. 1951 – “Beyond Bedlam” – Wyman Guin
  38. 1951 – “Brightness Falls from the Air” – Margaret St. Clair
  39. 1951 – “Dune Roller” – Julian May
  40. 1951 – “Izzard and the Membrame” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  41. 1951 – “The Marching Morons” – C. M. Kornbluth
  42. 1951 – “The Sentinel” – Arthur C. Clarke
  43. 1952 – “Bring the Jubilee” – Ward Moore
  44. 1952 – “Command Performance” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  45. 1952 – “Conditionally Human” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  46. 1952 – “Fast Falls the Eventide” – Erik Frank Russell
  47. 1952 – “Lost Memory” – Peter Phillips
  48. 1952 – “The Lovers” – Philip Jose Farmer
  49. 1952 – “The Martian Way” – Isaac Asimov
  50. 1953 – “Common Time” – James Blish
  51. 1953 – “DP!” – Jack Vance
  52. 1953 – “Imposter” – Philip K. Dick
  53. 1953 – “It’s a Good Life” – Jerome Bixby
  54. 1953 – “The Liberation of Earth” – William Tenn
  55. 1953 – “The Model of a Judge” – William Morrison
  56. 1953 – “Second Variety” – Philip K. Dick
  57. 1953 – “Specialist” – Robert Sheckley
  58. 1954 – “5,271,009” – Alfred Bester
  59. 1954 – “Let Me Live in a House” – Chad Oliver
  60. 1954 – “Memento Homo” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  61. 1954 – “The Midas Plague” – Frederik Pohl
  62. 1955 – “The Allamagoosa” – Eric Frank Russell
  63. 1955 – “Who?” – Algis Budrys
  64. 1956 – “Anything Box” – Zenna Henderson
  65. 1956 – “The Dead Past” – Isaac Asimov
  66. 1956 – “The Last Question” – Isaac Asimov
  67. 1956 – “The Minority Report” – Philip K. Dick
  68. 1956 – “Pilgrimage to Earth” – Robert Sheckley
  69. 1958 – “Or All the Seas with Oysters” – Avram Davidson
  70. 1958 – “Pelt” – Carol Emshwiller
  71. 1958 – “Who Can Replace a Man?” – Brian W. Aldiss
  72. 1959 – “All You Zombies—” – Robert A. Heinlein
  73. 1959 – “Day at the Beach” – Carol Emshwiller
  74. 1959 – “The Man Who Lost the Sea” – Theodore Sturgeon
  75. 1959 – “Plenitude” – Will Mohler
  76. 1960 – “The Fellow Who Married the Maxill Girl” – Ward Moore
  77. 1960 – “The Sound Sweep” – J. G. Ballard
  78. 1960 – “The Voice of Time” – J. G. Ballard
  79. 1961 – “The Dandelion Girl” – Robert F. Young
  80. 1961 – “Hothouse” – Brian W. Aldiss
  81. 1961 – “Monument” – Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
  82. 1961 – “The Ship Who Sang” – Anne McCaffrey
  83. 1961 – “The Sources of the Nile” – Avram Davidson
  84. 1962 – “The Dragon Masters” – Jack Vance
  85. 1962 – “Earthlings Go Home!” – Mack Reynolds
  86. 1964 – “The Terminal Beach” – J. G. Ballard
  87. 1965 – “He Who Shapes” – Roger Zelazny
  88. 1965 – “Man in His Time” – Brian W. Aldiss
  89. 1965 – “Traveler’s Rest” – David I. Masson
  90. 1966 – “Day Million” – Frederik Pohl
  91. 1966 – “The Lady Margaret” – Keith Roberts
  92. 1966 – “Neutron Star” – Larry Niven
  93. 1966 – “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” – R. A. Lafferty
  94. 1966 – “When I Was Miss Dow” – Sonya Dorman
  95. 1967 – “Baby, You Were Great” by Kate Wilhelm
  96. 1967 – “The Cloud Sculptures of Coral D” – J. G. Ballard
  97. 1967 – “Faith of Our Fathers” – Philip K. Dick
  98. 1967 – “Gonna Roll the Bones” – Fritz Leiber
  99. 1967 – “The Heat Death of the Universe” – Pamela Zoline
  100. 1967 – “Riders of the Purple Wage” – Philip Jose Farmer
  101. 1968 – “Nightwings” – Robert Silverberg
  102. 1969 – “Nine Lives” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  103. 1970 – “Slow Sculpture” – Theodore Sturgeon
  104. 1971 – “Inconstant Moon” – Larry Niven
  105. 1971 – “A Meeting with Medusa” – Arthur C. Clarke
  106. 1971 – “The Queen of Air and Darkness” – Poul Anderson
  107. 1971 – “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  108. 1971 – “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  109. 1972 – “Nobody’s Home” – Joanna Russ
  110. 1972 – “Patron of the Arts” – William Rotsler
  111. 1972 – “The Word for World is Forest” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  112. 1973 – “The Girl Who Plugged In” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  113. 1973 – “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  114. 1973 – “The Women Men Don’t See” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  115. 1974 – “Born with the Dead” – Robert Silverberg
  116. 1974 – “The Day Before the Revolution” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  117. 1975 – “A Galaxy Called Rome” – Barry N. Malzberg
  118. 1976 – “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  119. 1977 – “The Screwfly Solution” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  120. 1978 – “The Persistence of Vision” – John Varley
  121. 1979 – “Sandkings” – George R. R. Martin
  122. 1982 – “Burning Chrome” – William Gibson
  123. 1982 – “The Postman” – David Brin
  124. 1982 – “Souls” – Joanna Russ
  125. 1982 – “Swarm” – Bruce Sterling
  126. 1983 – “Blood Music” – Greg Bear
  127. 1985 – “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” – Karen Joy Fowler
  128. 1985 – “The Only Neat Thing to Do” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  129. 1985 – “Out of All Them Bright Stars” – Nancy Kress
  130. 1988 – “Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance?” – Howard Waldrop
  131. 1988 – “Schrödinger’s Kitten” – George Alec Effinger
  132. 1989 – “Dori Bangs” – Bruce Sterling
  133. 1989 – “The Edge of the World” – Michael Swanwick
  134. 1989 – “For I Have Touched the Sky” – Mike Resnick
  135. 1989 – “The Great Work of Time” – John Crowley
  136. 1989 – “The Mountains of Mourning” – Lois McMaster Bujold
  137. 1991 – “Griffin’s Egg” – Michael Swanwick
  138. 1993 – “Wall, Stone, Craft” – Walter Jon Williams
  139. 1994 – “The Martian Child” – David Gerrold
  140. 1994 – “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” – Mike Resnick
  141. 1995 – “The Lincoln Train” – Maureen F. McHugh
  142. 1995 – “Wang’s Carpets” – Greg Egan
  143. 1995 – “The Flowers of Aulit Prison” – Nancy Kress
  144. 1997 – “The Undiscovered” – William Sanders
  145. 1999 – “Ancient Engines” – Michael Swanwick
  146. 1999 – “macs” – Terry Bisson
  147. 2001 – “Fast Times at Fairmont High” – Vernor Vinge
  148. 2001 – “Hell Is the Absence of God” – Ted Chiang
  149. 2001 – “New Light on the Drake Equation” – Ian R. MacLeod
  150. 2001 – “Undone” – James Patrick Kelly
  151. 2003 – “The Empress of Mars” – Kage Baker
  152. 2005 – “The Calorie Man” – Paolo Bacigalupi
  153. 2005 – “Magic for Beginners” – Kelly Link
  154. 2008 – “Exhalation” – Ted Chiang
  155. 2008 – “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” – James Alan Gardner
  156. 2009 – “The Island” – Peter Watts
  157. 2010 – “The Sultan of the Clouds” – Geoffrey A. Landis
  158. 2010 – “The Things” – Peter Watts
  159. 2010 – “Under the Moons of Venus” – Damien Broderick
  160. 2011 – “After the Apocalypse” – Maureen F. McHugh
  161. 2011 – “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” – Kij Johnson
  162. 2012 – “Close Encounters” – Andy Duncan
  163. 2012 – “Mahiku West” – Linda Nagata
  164. 2014 – “Someday” – James Patrick Kelly
  165. 2014 – “Yesterday’s Kin” – Nancy Kress
  166. 2015 – “Gypsy” – Carter Scholz
  167. 2015 – “Today I Am Paul” – Martin L. Shoemaker
  168. 2017 – “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” – Tobias S. Buckell
  169. 2018 – “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” – Daryl Gregory
  170. 2019 – “The Archronology of Love” – Caroline M. Yoachim
  171. 2020 – “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” – Mercurio D. Rivera

James Wallace Harris, 4/30/22

Science Fiction Can’t Save Us

In the latest issue of Uncanny Maureen McHugh in “The Goldfish Man,” tells a story about a woman, Sima, who became homeless during the pandemic and eventually gets Covid while living in her car. I love McHugh’s writing and what I’m about to say isn’t a criticism of her story. Up to a point, the story is completely literary and could have been published in The New Yorker because it’s so well-written. My problem is with the implied ending, which is science-fictional and reflects a severe limitation of our genre.

Any writer concerned with our contemporary problems will want to write about them but I believe science fiction writers are at a disadvantage. If they want to sell their stories to a genre magazine it will need a genre hook and for many of the problems we face, coming up with a legitimate hook is a challenge. Our best minds can’t solve homelessness, and we’ve made quite a mess with our response to Covid. Literary writers can write about the impact of these two problems on individuals, which is what McHugh has done beautifully for most of the story.

Don’t read beyond this point if you don’t want to know spoilers for the story.

I’m not saying writers have to solve the problems they present in their stories but if they do, readers should be able to evaluate and judge them. And that works on two levels. First, and mainly, we judge plot solutions at the storytelling level. But second, at least for me, we have to judge how problems are solved on their real-world practicality.

In “The Goldfish Man” Sima might have solved her problem by hitching a ride with aliens, or she might have not. McHugh’s last line is “What happens next is impossible to explain.” That’s a great last line because it leaves what happens up in the air. If she actually left with Lane and Randy for a science fiction adventure Sima probably couldn’t explain it to us because it was too far out to comprehend. If Lane was insane, and she doesn’t leave, maybe McHugh can’t explain what happens to Sima.

I feel what this story shows us is science fiction can’t save us. If science fiction can only offer us rides to other planets, the ability to shift dimensions, or hop to new time periods, it’s no solution to Sima being homeless or a clue to how we might solve homelessness. If Sima does leave Earth I’m disappointed with the story. McHugh hasn’t given us an adequate explanation of how Sima will survive her new problems of making her living on other planets, in other times, or on alternate Earths.

If Sima stays, how will she survive now that she’s losing her support person Linda? I know McHugh doesn’t have a solution for homelessness, but how does Sima survive? McHugh described Sima’s problems in great detail and I now care about her. Because the story was so realistic I wanted a realistic ending, not a science fictional one. The idea that Sima takes off with Lane and Randy for the Twilight Zone annoyed the crap out of me. That seems like an ending we’d give a child. A soothing fantasy. It’s why the faithful say there are no atheists in foxholes. I’m an atheist and if I was in a foxhole in Ukraine I’d be praying for God too, but it’s still wishing for a magical solution to save me.

I believe magical science fiction solutions also reveal a weakness in our genre. Literary fiction can explore realist solutions that science fiction usually can’t.

This story reminds me of “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” by Lawrence Watt-Evans and its third sequel “How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” (Asimov’s 3/19). In the first story, which is a 5-star classic of the genre, the protagonist doesn’t leave our Earth when he gets the chance. It’s a rejection of science fiction, which makes the story brilliant and deeply moving. In the third sequel, a new protagonist does choose to leave. It’s a good story, on the level of some similar stories by Robert Sheckley, but it’s no classic like the original. The difference between the two is the lesson that science fiction won’t save us.

Science fiction is fun fiction but sometimes people want to believe in science fiction. Like religion, I no longer believe science fiction can deliver on its promises. I’m sure many reading this will say that science fiction never promised anything but stories and escapist pleasures, but I think there are whole generations that bought science-fictional beliefs like previous generations bought the beliefs of religion.

A major example is colonizing Mars. Colonizing other worlds has become the belief many people embrace for what to do after we destroy the Earth. People also want to believe that recoding their souls and putting them into robots or clones is a possible form of scientific immortality now that they have rejected life after death that religion promised. Neither of these science-fictional solutions will save us. For many years I believe we shouldn’t have all our genetic eggs in one planetary basket, but now I see I was wrong. The Earth is the only home we’ll ever have. Sure, a few people might live on the Moon or Mars for short periods, but there’s no other home for humanity other than Earth. And to put it flatly, we’ll never escape death, either with science or Jesus.

Growing up I had alcoholic parents that dragged me and my sister from home to home and from state after state. Science fiction did save me back then. Or I thought it did. It let me solve my problems by ignoring them. Psychologically that helped me survive, but looking back now, it wasn’t a good long-term solution.

I now see magical solutions in fiction as a terrible solution even for make-believe characters.

James Wallace Harris, 4/26/22

Old and New Science Fiction

The Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction will begin discussing The Best Science Fiction of the Year v. 6 edited by Neil Clarke on April 24th for Group Read 38, and The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg for Group Reading 39 on April 29th. That means during May, June and some of July will be alternating between old and new science fiction short stories each day.

Silverberg and Greenberg compared their anthology to the two classic SF anthologies from 1946: The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin, and Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas. For decades, readers found those two anthologies in their libraries and were standards for introducing readers to short science fiction. They hoped The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction would cover 1946-1979 like those two classic anthologies did for science fiction before 1946.

The Neil Clarke volume is his pick of the best short science fiction of 2020. Group Read 38 schedule. Group Read 39 schedule.

Now that I’m regularly reading old and new science fiction short stories I’m learning how both science fiction and writing science fiction are evolving. Part of my daily routine is reading the next day’s story, and then thinking about it when I’m going to sleep at night so that in the morning I can type up a short review for the group when I start my day. Belonging to this Facebook group has been a real education, kind of a graduate course in science fiction literature. More than that, it’s been a meditation on my lifelong relationship with science fiction. I’ll try to write longer reviews for this blog for those stories that really inspire me.

I hope Silverberg and Greenberg won’t mind me reprinting their short introduction because it says so much about remembering science fiction short stories. 75 years later, the CSFSS list only recalls one story from the Conklin anthology and four from the Healy/McComas book. 42 years later, the list remembers 10 from the stories Silverberg and Greenberg picked out. But how many of those 10 will remain in another 33 years?

James Wallace Harris, 4/23/22 – updated 4/27/22

“Boobs” by Suzy McKee Charnas

Today’s story at the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction group on Facebook is “Boobs” by Suzy McKee Charnas. You can read it here. In the first comment, Jeppe said he was surprised it won the Hugo, which was my reaction too. It is a slight story about a girl hitting puberty and becoming a werewolf, but it’s been reprinted quite a bit, indicating its popularity. The group is reading Hugo and Nebula Award Winners from Asimov’s Science Fiction edited by Sheila Williams.

So, I asked myself, “Why would this story win an award?” I came up with two theories, neither of which involves the quality of writing.

First, “Boobs” is about being different and being bullied. Kelsey is a young girl who is developing faster than her peers and when she starts wearing a bra gets the nickname Boobs from the school bully, Billy. This reminded me of a recent phone call with my old friend. Connell had been extra tall in high school and it had been an unpleasant time for him. He told me the reason why I hadn’t been bullied in school was that I had been average-looking. I didn’t stick out. And that was true. I was of average height, average looks, average clothes, and average intelligence.

“Boobs” is about sticking out and being ridiculed and bullied, and I have a feeling that might have been true for a lot of science fiction fans. A story that resonates deeply with an old hurt might get the vote on an award ballot.

The second reason probably deals with the same psychology. “Boobs” is revenge porn. Kelsey eventually kills and eats Billy when she’s in her werewolf state. That was a quite satisfying way to plot the story, but isn’t giving the class asshole the death penalty a little harsh? If you pay attention to stories and movies, revenge against bullies is a popular plot. Revenge might be the number one plot for westerns. Westerns are often about grown-up bullies, and the common solution is to kill them. The recent western, Power of the Dog, has been described as being about toxic masculinity. It’s about a bullied kid who gets his revenge. The deep-down desire to see violent people come to a violent end is probably another reason why “Boobs” got its votes for the Hugo.

And who knows, maybe if young girls did turn into werewolves and fed on bullies and stray dogs society would be much nicer. I bet guys like Putin or Trump would never have survived adolescence.

I thought the best thing about “Boobs” is how Charnas describes being a wolf, especially perceiving the world through smells. It was also interesting that “Boobs” was a science fiction story about a young girl getting her first period. “Even the Queen” by Connie Willis was also a Hugo award-winning short story about menstruation. Are there other SF stories on this topic? Enough to create an anthology? Have any of them won awards?

Although I thought “Boobs” was a slight story, I did think it was a good story. And it reinforces my belief that straightforward science fiction/fantasy stories set closer to the present, and ones readers can relate to emotionally, will be more successful than dazzling complicated stories set in the future.

All too often we expect award-winning stories to be profound, brilliant, dazzling, impressive, complex, etc. Maybe just pushing the right emotional button is all you need to get readers to like your story.

James Wallace Harris, 4/13/22

Is There Any New Territory for Science Fiction to Explore?

Ray Nayler had a successful year writing science fiction short stories in 2021. Three of his stories made the Asimov’s Readers’ Award Finalists poll: “A Rocket for Dimitrios” (novella), “Año Nuevo” (novelette), and “Muallim” (short story). That doesn’t include four other stories he had published in other magazines in 2021. The Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction has been reading and discussing all the finalist stories and Nayler’s stories have been popular with our group. We tend to be an older crowd that’s been reading science fiction for a long time, and Nayler’s stories fulfill our need for new science fiction that feels like older science fiction.

Before I say what I want to say, just let me assure you I’m not picking on Ray Nayler, but questioning science fiction in general. I enjoy Nayler’s stories and consider them among the best science fiction coming out today. I’m looking forward to his first novel, The Mountain in the Sea coming out in October.

While reading all the finalists for the Asimov’s Readers’ Award, and especially Nayler’s stories, I couldn’t help but wonder if science fiction has any new territory left to explore? All the stories seem to be variations on old themes. I always wanted to be a science fiction writer, but reading these stories made me think just how hard it must be to write new science fiction, especially original science fiction. Our Facebook group has read hundreds of SF stories, and it’s obvious that few stories succeed with a majority of our readers. Writing a major science fiction short story is very rare.

Nayler’s stories stood out for me of the sixteen finalists. They were the most enjoyable to read, and I felt the most successfully told. However, they all seemed like old friends wearing snazzy new threads. I can’t help but wonder if new science fiction writers ever come up with new science-fictional ideas? Or has our genre explored all the territory to be explored?

Of course, this is my problem since I’m 70 years old and I’ve been reading science fiction for 60 of those years. Younger readers might not see any problem at all. If you live long enough, you begin to feel like Solomon writing Ecclesiastes 1:9 and saying “There is nothing new under the sun.” That feels like an oxymoronic adage when talking about science fiction. (Yet, I felt “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” by Roger Zelazny was something new under the sun in 1963.)

My favorite of Nayler’s stories was “A Rocket for Dimitrios.” (Story links are to pdf files to read.) However, its plot was inspired by A Mask for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, called A Coffin for Dimitrios in the U.S., which better connects to Nayler’s title. I haven’t read that novel, but I’ve seen the Sidney Greenstreet/Peter Lorre movie from 1944, so that’s how I pictured it when reading Nayler’s novella. Both stories about Dimitrios overlap in interesting ways with exotic flavors.

“A Rocket for Dimitrios” is an alternate history story, so it’s a double retread, It’s rewriting history, and writing a classic mystery novel. That’s quite clever, and I think that points to Nayler solving the problem I’m discussing. If you can’t produce a new science fiction idea for a story, repackage old ones in clever ways. And is that what all the new science fiction writers must do today? Or, am I seeing something different? Are new writers reinventing science fiction with each new generation because they haven’t read the old science fiction? Is it a variation on the famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” by George Santayana?

“A Rocket for Dimitrios” is a sophisticated alternate political history that reflects a great deal of our current political reality. After America finds a crashed flying saucer in 1938 it becomes the sole superpower using advanced technology discovered in the UFO. The story creates an alternative geopolitical view from around 1960 I guess. (FDR is in his 7th term.) Because Nayler is in the foreign service and has been stationed in the Caucasus, he obviously knows the history of Turkey after the fall of the Ottomans. This local coloration gives the story its strongest appeal, but then that was true of the movie, and probably the novel.

Fictional characters Sylvia Aldstatt, Alvin Greenly, and Chief Inspector Rafik Bayar are mixed with alternate history characterizations of Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hedy Lamarr. Greenly is in the OSS and Aldstatt is a medium that uses alien technology to speak to the dead Dimitrios Makropoulos. This story is far more complex than the other nominated stories for the Asimov’s Reader Awards which suggests a growing writing maturity by Nayler. This was my second reading of this story and I rate it a strong four stars out of five.

Even though this is a fun story I can’t help but believe it’s Nayler’s philosophical statement about current world affairs. In that sense, it’s quite interesting to compare “A Rocket for Dimitrios” to David Brooks’ latest editorial in The New York Times. Both Nayler and Brooks want to be positive, but they see the growing trend toward nationalistic thinking since the 2016 election, and it’s not positive. The obvious connection to both story and essay is humans are an intelligent species, just not quite intelligent enough to survive. Both Nayler and Brooks are hopeful, I’m not.

Muallim” is a wonderful story about a teaching robot and a student-teacher in Khynalry, Azerbaijan. The plot is rather simple, about how the village tricks the student teacher who wants to change their old ways, but the story is far richer. I think we should ask why? “Muallim” is an exceptional science fiction story, but what makes it so?

The obvious answer is the setting. Naylor’s foreign service experience, knowledge of languages, along with being a keen observer of local details, infuses wonderful details into this story. Would this story have been as good if it was set in Los Angeles? Maybe, but I think not. An exotic setting can really make an old science fiction theme stand out.

Writers have reached the saturation point with writing about robots and AI. It’s extremely hard to do anything different. The foreign color of this story is what made it impressive. The story itself is just a retelling that sentient robots are just as good as humans.

I also think “Muallim” shines because it’s built on layers. The outsider, the student-teacher, rejects what Irada, the female blacksmith, and the other villagers want for their children. But then, there are other people outside of the village, who reject the robot. We know these people have been there for hundreds of years and they don’t like change, but some of them do accept the robot. Azerbaijan is in a part of the world where some of the oldest civilizations began. There’s quite a contrast between old and new. Finally, I think the story stands out for characterization. I rate it a strong four stars out of five.

Año Nuevo” caressed all my science fiction zones but didn’t give me a sense-of-wonder orgasm. That might be due to me being old. I liked Nayler’s story mostly because he’s writing good old-fashioned science fiction in an era when good old-fashioned science fiction is being left behind.

“Año Nuevo” uses twin storylines to effectively evoke two classic science fiction themes: the alien that’s unlike us, and the Jesus alien. Science fiction writers have always been challenged to describe a real alien first encounter. Of course, Nayler pulls a twist on this one and a good twist at that. Where my uncertainty comes from regarding this story is with the Jesus alien.

I’m calling aliens who bring us salvation, uplift, transcendence, or special powers, the Jesus alien. Religion has always worked in that psychological territory, so it’s interesting when science fiction offers alien saviors. I remember Arthur C. Clarke covering this topic several times. It always aroused suspicion in me, but then I’m an atheist.

We’re actually given two reasons for Bo’s transformation from a surly teenager to a loving son – he’s infected by the alien, and he has sex with Aliyah, neither of which should have brought about such a dramatic personality transformation. I also thought it too melodramatically cliche that Bo was brutally beaten by Aliyah’s brothers. That plot choice hurt the story for me. It would have passed if the story had been set in Azerbaijan but not in modern America.

Nayler is a skilled writer, but I can also see the machinations in his storytelling. This is the third finalist story in the Asimov’s Reader Awards by Nayler that our Facebook group has read. Such prolific output requires a certain amount of hackwork. “Muallim” and “A Rocket for Dimitrios” felt more original than “Año Nuevo,” but all three reveal Nayler’s approach to writing science fiction. Ray Nayler knows what readers love, hopes to give them more, and is succeeding. I give this story a strong three stars.

Nayler isn’t breaking any new ground but he’s entertaining and very readable. Is there any new territory to be found in our genre anymore? That’s the trouble with being an old science fiction reader, we’ve read it all before.

JWH

Does Too Much Suspension of Disbelief Ruin a Story?

The willing suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy many forms of fiction, especially science fiction. On the other hand, at what point does ignoring reality ruin a story?

Some readers and moviegoers are willing to accept anything the story asks of them. If the story moves along quickly and is exciting, most readers aren’t going to stop and ask questions. Other readers will slow, pause, or even stop reading when they hit a logical speedbump.

Yesterday I read “Glitch” by Alex Irvine. I hope the author won’t mind me using his story as a lecture about the overuse of the suspension of disbelief. It’s up for the Asimov’s Science Fiction 36th Annual Readers Award. You can read it here. It’s a fun story based on a neat idea. Several people in our short story group rated it highly, with one member giving it five stars out of five.

I liked “Glitch,” but I hit several speedbumps where I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

The story begins with Kyle Brooks waking up in a hospital room wondering how he got there. We quickly learn that Kyle was killed in a terrorist attack by a white supremacist. His mind had been backed up and he had a new body without scars, tattoos, or piercings. That implied to me it was a clone.

Speedbump #1

Where did Kyle’s new body come from? Since the doctor examines Shari’s wounds and gives her a prescription it’s implied that it’s right after the bombing. Did they grow a clone body in hours? Did they have one in storage? No one else in our group asked about this.

Obviously, Irvine wants to ignore this, so I will too. Mind uploading is a very popular topic in science fiction right now, although it’s been around for decades. I fondly remember Mindswap by Robert Sheckley from 1966 and less fondly I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein from 1970. I don’t believe mind swapping will ever be possible but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for stories about this theme. It is a fun concept.

Speedbump #2

We quickly learn that Kyle isn’t alone in his new body. For some reason, Brian, the terrorist bomber is sharing Kyle’s mind. This is much harder to believe. Kyle is at a special hospital for restoring minds. Evidently, it’s quite a regulated business. How in the world could two people be in one mind? Irvine does some hand waving that is completely unsatisfactory to me.

Great Idea #1

However, this is a very cool plot twist so once again I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. The possibility of a liberal who is about to marry a person of color coexisting with a white supremacist is a great fictional situation. Again, I let my suspension of disbelief go. I love the possibility of a bad guy walking a mile in the shoes of a good guy.

Speedbump #3

The police show up at Kyle’s house the next day. They have evidence that suggests the terrorist bomber is inside Kyle’s mind, but Kyle tells them no, even though he knows Brian is there. The cops even tell Kyle that if he’s lying, he can be prosecuted as a conspirer for Brian’s crime. This is the hardest part of the story for me to buy. Kyle should have immediately told the cops that Brian was in his mind. Kyle obviously doesn’t want him there, and he has no resources to remove him, why wouldn’t he ask for help from people who did have the resources?

I know why Irvine made this plot choice. He wanted Kyle to become the action hero of the story. Personally, I always find stories where an ordinary person becomes an action hero to be completely unbelievable. I really don’t want to suspend my disbelief on this point, but I’ve got to buy into it because I want to know how Kyle rids himself of Brian.

This is why I’ve stopped watching thrillers and action movies because movies have made everything with this kind of comic book logic. Comic book logic is the most extreme version of suspension of disbelief. Anything is possible. All a writer must do is say it’s so. They expect the reader to accept that whatever is suggested is real. No critical thinking is assumed as standard.

Alex Irvine does write for comics and I’m afraid “Glitch” descends into full comic book logic from here on out. As the plot speeds up, so does the frequency in which Irvine asks us to suspend our disbelief. Irvine isn’t alone in doing this. It’s become a common practice in science fiction stories that involve action.

Science fiction books used to be more realistic. Movies and television shows have always leaned towards comic book logic. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon started out as comic strips in the newspapers. In modern times, as comic book movies have dominated box office sales, comic book logic has infected all genres of movies based on action. I think this has inspired science fiction writers to use it more and more in their books and short stories.

The result of this is that readers don’t just suspend their disbelief at basic conceptual science fiction ideas, they have turned it off for any kind of characterization or plotting. We’re asked to accept the absurd, the impossible, the unbelievable, the illogical, the inane, actions people would never do, to move the plot forward, usually at a breakneck speed.

When I point this out most people tell me, “It’s just a story – chill out.” And I suppose that would be okay if we were all five years old and still believed in Santa Claus. But if you look at our society, comic book logic has corrupted all ages in all levels of society. The world is filling up with gullible people who expect reality to be like comic books and movies. They expect anything is possible, they want anything they believe to be true. Is this because of the fiction we consume? Has the suspension of disbelief needed for fiction transferred to how we live our lives?

One of the early critics of science fiction suggested that good science fiction should only have one suspension of disbelief per story. That after the fantastic concept everything else should be realistic. This is true for two other stories I’ve read recently, “Fire Watch” by Connie Willis and “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler. The first gives the ability to time travel to historians, and the second has a plague that destroys speech. After those starting points, we’re not asked to suspend our disbelief again. Both short stories are classics of science fiction.

I believe the science fiction norm has changed over time so that writers seek to cram in as many speculative ideas as possible because it keeps their readers constantly thrilled. The side-effect of this paradigm shift is that we’re asked to suspend our disbelief over and over.

If “Glitch” had only expected me to believe that mind swapping will be happening after the mid-21st century, and two minds could occupy one body, I would have been happy to let the story unfold. In fact, I was looking forward to several possibilities playing out. I’ll call these Expectations.

Expectation #1

I wanted Irvine to work out how two minds in one body would function. The old saying about walking a mile in my shoes has come true, so I wanted to see what would happen. How much of our personality is determined by our body and how much is determined by our experiences? Would Brian, the white supremacist, change because he was in a new environment?

Irvine didn’t go in that direction. Irvine spent the rest of the story having Kyle do everything possible to rid himself of Brian. Now that’s logical, but since we’re in a story about two people in one body, I wanted to imagine how that would work. Basically, it works just enough to maintain an action-oriented plot where Kyle would become a hero. I can accept that, but I also expected Kyle’s actions to save himself would be realistic from now on in the story. I also expected Kyle to grow from this experience, gain insights, or have an epiphany. Nobody grows in this story.

Speedbump #4

To save himself and prove to the police he’s not guilty of cooperation under the habeas mentis law, Kyle figures he needs to find the bad guys, stop the next bomb, and prove himself the hero. This has become such a cliché plot point that I groaned at having to read it. In science fiction, there is a suspension of disbelief over fantastic ideas, but in storytelling in general, there’s also a suspension of disbelief in basic plotting. This plot motivation is so tired that I usually stop reading or watching. Still, I wanted to find out how Kyle rids himself of Brian.

Speedbump #5

Kyle decides he needs help and remembers a programmer from work named Abdi. The magical hacker is the new fairy godmother in fiction. Abdi can quickly solve all of Kyle’s problems with his band of fellow hackers and cog swappers.

Speedbump #6

Irvine introduces us to cog swapping. Kyle needed a hospital to put a copy of his mind back into his body, but Abdi and his merry band can swap minds and stream real-time brain backups with tiny nifty gadgets. Think magic wands. This is when the story got downright stupid. I no longer could suspend disbelief at all. It was now moving a comic book panel speed.

Great Idea #2

When Kyle reaches the hideout of the bomb makers he is attacked by Brian in his body. It turns out the Brian in Kyle’s head is a copy, and the Brian with a body has no need of him. Kyle’s Brian is furious at being betrayed. This is a fantastic plotting idea. If Great Idea #1 is having the bad guy in the good guy’s head, walking a mile in his shoes, then Great Idea #2 is having the bad guy see himself. This reminds me of Bob Dylan’s song “Positively 4th Street.”

I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

And just for that one moment

I could be you


Yes, I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

You’d know what a drag it is

To see you

Expectation #2

If we could travel back in time one week and spend that week with ourselves, would we like each other? When the real Brian showed up in “Glitch” I was thrilled. This was a new plot twist. This was something different. And it inspired my hopes that the story would turn around.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an old saying that should have applied here. My first expectation was internal Brian to change because of walking a mile in Kyle’s shoes. My second expectation was that the internal Brian would side with Kyle to fight external Brian. I saw this as a great symbolic solution to the story. Internal Brian would change, help Kyle catch external Brian, and then fade away inside of Kyle as Brian’s evil personality was overwritten by Kyle’s goodness. That’s what the doctors told Kyle would happen at the beginning of the story.

This would be deeply positive symbolism. By the story’s logic, we should blow up all white supremacists. That’s its solution to racism. But that’s not a practical solution in the real world. We need to overwrite racism with positive personality traits. We need racists to see that they are wrong. Simple fiction has simple bad guys with simple solutions – kill the bad guys. That’s Old Testament thinking. New Testament thinking involves conversions and salvation.

Simple fiction needs bad guys to kill without remorse. Terrorists are the safe one-dimensional bad guy to use in fiction. I wanted “Glitch” to go deeper.

But this story didn’t follow my expectation.

Speedbump #7 and #8

Kyle kills external Brian by setting off the bomb. This was clearly foreshadowed early in the story. Kyle awakes in the same hospital that he did at the beginning of the story. He is free of internal Brian. How? Abdi’s magic of course. If it was that easy, why didn’t the hospital erase Brian at the beginning of the story? And Kyle has another new body. Where the hell does all these clones of Kyle keep coming from?

Conclusion

“Glitch” was fun to read. I tripped over one speedbump after another. I’m old, so I’m probably too judgmental and cranky. I thought Irvine has a great idea for a novel. The story unfolds much too fast. It should have been longer with subplots and proper pacing. It needs depth and subtlety. Even with the existing plot, it would probably make a lot of readers happy. I wouldn’t want to read it though, not as is. However, if it was fixed without all the speedbumps I might.

It would be entirely unfair for me to expect Irvine to write a story other than the one he wrote. I have to wonder if other readers aren’t like me and as they read react to stories with ups and downs, or with hopes that the tale will go in different directions and explore the territory the story inspires in our minds?

James Wallace Harris, 4/1/22

1971 WSFA-Analog Poll of Best SF Short Stories by Michael T. Shoemaker

With building our database, Classics of Science Fiction, we love to find data sources from the past so we can show how science fiction novels and short stories are remembered over time. We call each source a citation. It’s much harder to find data on the popularity of short stories, so I was very happy when Ken Papai posted to Facebook about P. Schuyler Miller’s discussion of a 1971 poll on the best SF short stories of all time. The poll was featured in Miller’s column, The Reference Library in the October and November 1971 issues of Analog Science Fiction. The poll was conducted for Miller by Michael Shoemaker for the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA). Ken found this mention while reading Wikipedia.

Ken’s post inspired a web hunt for me. Miller’s two essays summarized the poll, but I wanted to see Shoemaker’s results. I went to Google but it was no help. Then I went to Fanac.org, the archive of fanzines hoping to find a fanzine from that period that printed the results. I had no luck because it has so many fanzines from 1971. Then Dave Hook in our group thought of looking up Shoemaker in ISFDB.org and found that Shoemaker had published the results in the WSFA Journal #77 for June-July 1971. I then went back to Fanac.org and found that issue to read, and the article by Shoemaker. Then Piet Nel sent me a Word document with the results taken from an SFADB page he saw long ago. Finally, I think it was Dave who found the old SFADB listing on the Wayback Machine. The SFADB listing is the easiest to read. However, I have compiled Shoemaker’s WSFA article with Miller’s two articles into a pdf if you want to read the originals.

I write about all this to show the value of the internet, and especially tools like ISFDB, SFADB, and Fanac.org. But it also shows the value of making friends on Facebook and belonging to a group devoted to reading science fiction short stories. I love these internet treasure hunts for information.

I will add this citation source to the database. It will help reflect how readers in 1971 remembered the science fiction short stories they loved. That’s why I find fascinating about this work, how novels and stories are remembered and forgotten. I’ve been thinking about getting Mike to program our system so we can show what stories were popular for any given year. Right now our results are cumulative for all citation source years. You can use the List Builder feature to show what stories were popular up to 1971, but that reflects all the citation sources through now. What I think would be cool is to pick a year, or range of years, and show what people remembered for just that time period.

Mike Shoemaker’s article shows what short stories were remembered in 1971. You can pick any single citation source now to see what short stories were remembered for the year the citation was created. But it would be cool to compare what readers in 1972 remembered versus what readers in 2022 remembered.

By the way, even if you’re not interested in how I found this poll, you might find Shoemaker’s opinion of it interesting. He was distressed that certain stories were popular, stories I love. That’s the thing about polls and meta-lists. They don’t always reflect our opinions. Shoemaker also noted that the recent Science Fiction Hall of Fame probably had a lot of impact on the voting.

Finally, one last nod to Fanac.org. It has the fanzine Lan’s Lantern #30 that ran my article that was the origin of our Classics of Science Fiction database.

James Wallace Harris, 3/27/22

What is Your Preferred Space-Time Setting for Science Fiction?

At one time I loved reading science fiction stories set anywhere in space and time, which would be all the squares on the chart below. At 70, my focus has narrowed to what I show in shades of green. The darker, the more interested I am in reading fiction or science fiction set in that space-time. I don’t hate stories set further afield, but I’m just not that into them anymore either.

One assumption deals with age. When I was young I was dazzled by any possibility. Galactic empires set in the far future had such a tremendous sense of wonder that I thought colonizing the galaxy was humanity’s reason for existing. I was also blown away by Olaf Stapledon’s stories of post-humans, and figured that was our destiny too.

Of course, I began my science fiction habit with a gateway drug of Heinlein’s juveniles, first with adventures about boys going to the Moon and Mars, then with stories that ranged over the solar system, and finally with tales that ventured into interstellar travel. I also embraced stories robots, time travel, alternate history, the multiverse, and other dimensions. I really wanted to believe we could go anywhere.

One of my all-time favorite SF stories, “The Star Pit” is set on the galaxy’s rim and is about the few special people who can travel to Andromeda and the impact their freedom had on the characters who couldn’t. As a kid, that story mirrored the frustration I felt not being able to leave Earth.

I still love “The Star Pit” but for nostalgic reasons. I still reread all my favorite SF stories set in any of the space-time locations above, but when it comes to reading new SF stories I prefer stories set in the near future set, especially on the Earth, but no further than the Moon, or Mars. To a lesser degree, I enjoy science fiction about machines exploring the asteroids and the outer system, or about SETI contact with nearby stars.

Why has aging narrowed my fictional horizons? When I was young I believed anything was possible. Now that I’m 70 I doubt humans will ever travel beyond the Moon and Mars. I believe intelligent machines will live out our big science fictional dreams. The more I’ve learned about the hostility of space on our biology, the more I’ve doubted people will live beyond Earth. As I’ve grown more practical and become less of a dreamer, I find it terribly hard to picture people actually wanting to live anywhere but Earth. I believe Elon Musk will get us to Mars, but we’ll discover we won’t like living there. Thus it’s become harder to enjoy stories set in far-ranging places of space and time.

But that’s me. What about you?

Where do you like your science fiction stories set? Has growing older affected the science fiction you love to read?

James Wallace Harris, 3/22/22

When is a Forgotten SF Story Worth Ressurecting?

Today I read “it walks in beauty” by Chan Davis, first published in Star Science Fiction (January 1958) edited by Frederik Pohl. You can read the magazine version here. It was reprinted 9/3/3 in SciFiction at SciFi.com by Ellen Datlow who rediscovered the author’s original version. That version is in print in It Walks in Beauty, a collection of stories and essays by Chandler Davis edited by Josh Lukin. That collection was reviewed at The New York Review of Science Fiction by Mark Rich, who also provides biographical background on the mysterious Chan Davis that I won’t repeat here. However, I learned from Rich’s essay that the version I read today was altered by Frederick Pohl, which Lukin explains in an introduction:

Only looking at the two versions quickly I felt Pohl improved the story. Especially, with the opening line:

“Harriet waved to Max from the end of its row, but Max’s thoughts were far away.”

I kept rereading it wondering why Harriet was being referred to as its. Was Harriet a robot I wondered? In the Davis version, the opening line is:

“I love Luana,” said Max dreamily, leaning against the ladder that ran up the towering vat of Number 73.”

That line did nothing for me.

“it walks in beauty” is not a great story except that it plays with pronouns. Sexually attractive females are shes, but women who work are its or careers. Because we’ve become a pronoun conscious society, this makes this science fiction story from 1958 very interesting in 2022.

Max is in love with Luana, an exotic dancer. Women who want sex and babies become star performers that men chase, which is why Davis originally called the story “The Star System.” These women do everything they can to appear sexually attractive to men. They are also the women men marry. The women who want careers wear their hair short like men, wear pants, don’t get married, and don’t have children. In this story, they are ignored by men, treated like coworkers, and referred to with the pronoun it, or collectively as careers rather than girls or shes.

Chan Davis characterized men as single-minded. They equate love with sex, accept career women as equals or even professional superiors, but they don’t think of them as women. Paula is a career that is friendly and encouraging to Max, helping him to advance at his job. Max asks Paula if she wants to come with him to Luana’s dance club. He expects her to be one of the guys who’d want to watch a stripper. Eventually, Paula reveals to Max that she has a sexual side but Max can’t accept that, even when she tricks him into seeing her with a wig and make-up. He’s horrified at her pretending to be a woman, and can’t accept it when Paula tells him that Luana wears and wig and dresses up too for the part. And it really blows Max’s mind when Paula tries to convince him that playing the sexy girl role is offensive to women.

There’s a lot to admire in this 1958 science fiction story. Why then, hasn’t it been reprinted in major science fiction anthologies? Maybe in the 1950s they never imagined society playing around with pronouns? Maybe they didn’t like the idea of women having careers or the suggestion that being a sex object was an act. In 2022 people might appreciate this story more.

It’s like the famous story, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster. It’s a great story for 1909, but it became a fantastic story after the internet became real.

I’m partial to 1950s science fiction, so the story might impress me in ways that modern readers will miss. I’m impressed that it stands out in hindsight. In 1958 I was seven, but if I had been ten years older, I still don’t think I would have picked up on the pronoun thing so quickly. The difference between the Pohl edit and Davis’ original is Pohl throws the reader into the pronoun thing and Davis waits to explain it. Pohl, as a skilled writer and editor, knew it was savvier to let the reader learn in context. He wanted to give the story teeth.

Chan Davis didn’t stick around the science fiction field for long. He was a social activist back in the 1950s so he had more important things to deal with. There’s an interview with Davis by Lukin in The Cascadia Subduction Zone v. 1 n. 1 (January 2011). This sidebar might tempt you to read it:

James Wallace Harris, 3/17/22

p.s. In case you’re wondering, I now use screenshots of quotes because my WordPress theme doesn’t word wrap in some browsers the preformatted mode I used for quotes.

Finishing The Big Book of Science Fiction

After finishing “Craphound,” I decided to go ahead and read “The Slynx” by Tatyana Tolstaya and “Baby Doll” by Johanna Sinisalo and finish The Big Book of Science Fiction. That gave me a real sense of accomplishment because The Big Book of Science Fiction is probably the largest book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read War and Peace. I’m guessing TBBofSF is even longer than The Bible.

I don’t have any final assessment on this anthology. It’s just too damn big to judge as a whole. I did complain about many of the stories, but on the other hand, it has a massive amount of great science fiction too. The other day it was on sale for $2.99 for the Kindle edition at Amazon, and I thought what a wonderful bargain. I wished I hadn’t owned it already so I could get in on such a deal.

“The Slynx” was a good science fiction story, about Moscow in the far future after an atomic war where people only remember “The Blast.” The story is about civilization being thrown back into the Dark Ages. People live by myths and superstitions. Mutations are common. This kind of story was very popular in the 1950s, and Wikipedia refers to them as nuclear holocaust fiction. Among my favorites are A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett. What struck me most was how Tolstaya portrayed people’s thinking in this future much like how I imagined people thinking in prehistory.

I’ve read “Baby Doll” before, but I’m not sure where. I might have read it years ago when I first bought The Big Book of Science Fiction and tried a few stories from it. At the time, I never imagined I would read it from cover to cover. “Baby Doll” is a disturbing story about the near future where the main character is an eight-year-old girl who tries to be as sexualized as possible from the clues she gets from society and her peers. It came out in 2002 and imagined a near future where grade school children would emulate the dress styles, language, and behaviors they got from watching porn and adult reality shows. I can’t help but wonder how much of that is true today? Imagine if the MTV Awards show could be sent back in time to the people in the 1950s. What would they think?

My sister recently told me she tried to get her very young granddaughter to wear something less provocative to school and the kid got upset claiming her granny was slut shaming her. I doubt “Baby Doll” could be taught in a 7th grade English class, but I sure would love to hear what the students would say about it.

On the same day finishing The Big Book of Science Fiction, I also finished Star Science Fiction Stories, the first in a series edited by Frederik Pohl from 1953. That means Group Read 27 and 35 are finishing for our Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction. It also means Group Read 36, Asimov’s SF Magazine Poll Finalists for 2021 starts 21st March, and Group Read 37, Hugo and Nebula Award Winners from Asimov’s Science Fiction edited by Sheila Williams will start a few days after that. It’s a coincidence that our 36th group read will be the 36th annual readers’ awards for Asimov’s Science Fiction.

So for the next several weeks, the Facebook group will be reading and discussing SF stories from the 1980s and 1990s, and 2021. If you’re interested and use Facebook drop by. I won’t be reviewing every one of these stories here, but I’ll probably write about the ones that impress me most.

James Wallace Harris, 3/15/22

“Craphound” by Cory Doctorow

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #105 of 107: “Craphound” by Cory Doctorow

Craphound” by Cory Doctorow belongs to that wonderful sub-sub-sub-genre, nostalgia stories by science fiction writers. Other classics of that theme are “Jeffty is Five” by Harlan Ellison, “Travels With My Cats” by Mike Resnick, and “A Scent of Sarsaparilla” by Ray Bradbury. I belong to several online groups where old science fiction fans dwell on old science fiction, and many of them collect all kinds of crap from when they grew up. The novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline resonates so well with certain readers because of its nostalgia for the 1980s.

Over my lifetime I’ve known many collectors of science fiction and their collections usually included memorabilia crap from the past. Forrest J. Ackerman, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison were known for their huge nostalgic collections (much of it toys). Just pay attention to Harlan Ellison’s house in the documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth. A few glimpses can be had in this preview from YouTube.

All during my school and college years, I thought science fiction was about the future, but ever since then, science fiction has been about the nostalgic past. There’s an article at The Economist, “If you think sci-fi is about the future, think again” that I’d love to read but it’s behind a paywall. It’s subtitled “An exhibition in London shows how much of science fiction is fuelled by nostalgia.” If anyone is a subscriber and is willing, send me a copy.

Cory Doctorow has tuned into these nostalgic readers with a story about Jerry and his best friend known as Craphound, an alien from outer space. Both are professional hunters of old crap that they resell for big dollars to the addicts of nostalgia. Sadly, their friendship is shattered one day when they get into a bidding war over an old suitcase of cowboy clothes and toys at the East Muskoka Volunteer Fire Department Ladies’ Auxiliary sale.

Why would aliens want our old crap? Well, without Craphound (which Doctorow uses for his domain name) the story wouldn’t be science fiction, and Doctorow couldn’t have sold it to a science fiction market. Without Craphound the story would just be about a loser with arrested development making a living by going to garage sales and Goodwill stores. Without Craphound, the story would be about people like us. Just imagine if you’re yard sale copilot was an ET.

Nostalgic SF is closely related to Recursive SF. If I could remember better, I could cite a long list of stories where science fiction stories longingly look back to the past.

In recent years I’ve been collecting old science fiction anthologies and a fair amount of old science fiction magazines and fanzines. I was just looking at my wall of bookshelves and thinking about all the people that once held those books and magazines. There must have been thousands of folks like me. Mike Resnick was one since I bought some fanzines on eBay with mailing labels addressed to him. When I die my wife will liquidate my collection and it will go to new collectors. Some of my things would make garage sale craphounds very happy. Who knows, maybe one of them will be an alien.

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James Wallace Harris, 3/15/22

“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #104 of 107: “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Warning: Don’t read this essay if you haven’t read “Story of Your Life,” or at least seen Arrival. I want to explore how and why this story works and that means spoilers, and “Story of Your Life” is much too lovely to spoil for anyone. There are copies on the internet and it can be found in many anthologies, but it’s best to own a copy of Stories of Your Life and Others.

Today I read “Story of Your Life” for the third time, and watched Arrival for the second time. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang is the epitome of what science fiction strives to achieve. There were many stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction that I don’t believe deserve that label, but this story does. Science fiction is notoriously hard to define because everyone wants to define it differently, but I’d like to think “Story of Your Life” fits within everyone’s definition of science fiction.

For me, the best science fiction does two things, and the greatest does three. The best science fiction stories combine wonderful storytelling with a sense of wonder. Sense of wonder emerges when readers are taken from the edge of current science to the forefront of tomorrow’s science. What elevates a 4-star story into a 5-star story is when it emotionally, spiritually, and philosophically transcends. Ted Chiang is transcendent in “Story of Your Life.”

Chiang asks, what if we meet aliens that perceive reality differently from us? What if we see reality linearly, and they see it holistically — could we communicate? Science fiction, for the most part, has always assumed we’ll bridge the language divide with aliens quickly. Chiang’s story asks, “Wait, what if that’s not true?” It’s one thing to question the possibility, it’s another thing altogether to show how the difficulties could unfold. It’s even greater when the writer takes us through the process so we see why too.

Time and again, Chiang presents us with an idea and the evidence to support the idea. For example when Louise Banks, the linguist in the story, realizes that the Heptapods’ written language was not patterned on its spoken language. That’s kind of mindblowing until Chiang reminds us that there have been written languages in human cultures that didn’t follow the structure of their spoken languages. Would we have ever deciphered ancient Eygptian hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone?

According to Wikipedia, Chiang spent five years studying linguistics before writing this story.

“Story of Your Life” is actually twin narratives, two stories. The first is a third-person narrative relating Louise’s and Gary Donnelly’s work with the Heptapods to learn their language. The other story is a second-person narrative of Louise talking to her daughter.

The twin narratives represent a linear story and a holistic story. One is how humans think, and the other is how Heptapods perceive. From our perspective, they know the future. When Louise begins to understand that this might be possible she struggles to understand how and what are its implications. Louise imagines someone having the Book of Ages where everything that’s ever happened is written down. Humans perceive reality as if reading such a book word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, but the Heptapods know it all at once.

This is the great leap forward that science fiction makes to inspire a sense of wonder. This explains how the second-person narrative of the story works.

“Story of Your Life” also presents science facts too. Unfortunately, these are often perceived as infodumps by science fiction readers. Infodumps can burden a tale. In this story, I was quite entertained by them, especially Fermat’s Principle. It’s very hard to teach science within a science fiction story. I took many science courses in high school and college and read hundreds of popular science books, but my science knowledge is rather flimsy and fading. This is the first time I’ve encountered Fermat’s Principle, even even though it wasn’t entirely mind-blowing, it hurt my head to contemplate. Who sticks things like this into science fiction and gets away with it? Not many writers. Ted Chiang does.

Ted Chiang is basically performing a magic trick upon his readers. He uses real science several times as a diversion so we will believe in the science fiction illusion he creates. I do not believe there is any being that comprehends reality holistically like the Heptapods. Theists claim God can but I’m an atheist. But for the sake of this story, I suspend my disbelief and let it be true. Science fiction doesn’t have to be realistic, it just has to feel within the realm of reality.

Louise learns just enough of the Heptapod’s written language to start thinking in it, and that affects her dreams. She can’t consciously perceive holistically like they do, but her unconscious mind can, its perceptions leaking out in dreams and visions creating the second-person story.

My mind aches while trying to imagine how Ted Chiang constructed this intricate story. There are certain stories I consider writing models that new science fiction writers need to beat. “Story of Your Life” set the pace in 1998. It’s definitely a 5-star story, but it’s more than that. A few great science fiction stories are also philosophical, and they go beyond great storytelling.

In the end, we know that Louise has been talking to her daughter in dream sequences. The daughter was born after the Heptapods left after the story ends. She died young. On first reading or first viewing of Arrival, we assumed her daughter died before the story starts. Louise learns during the story, and before we do, that she is seeing the future. Sadly, she also knows her daughter’s life will be brief, and when and how she will die. For us who live linear lives, we know what a tremendous burden such knowledge would be. Yet, Louise fully embraces her tragic future. She accepts the ecstasy and the agony.

As far as I can find, Chiang never gives the daughter a name, but in the movie, they make a special point to let us know it’s Hannah. I wonder why for each case. The screenwriters also change the name of the aliens from Flapper and Raspberry to Abbott and Costello. In this case, I prefer the screenwriters’ choice.

What Chiang tells us if we perceived reality holistically, if we’re omniscient, we’d still choose to follow our paths. This questions the whole idea of free will. It’s Buddhism versus Christianity. But we don’t get so technical when we experience this story, it evokes an epiphany in Louise, but one that we should resonate with emotionally.

Many will ask, why did Louise agree to have a baby when she knew her daughter would die from a horrible disease? With the Heptapod’s way of perceiving choice isn’t a factor. Acceptance is a path in Eastern philosophy.

I should mention that Arrival tacks on some extra storylines. It often appears that moviemakers believe that science fiction audiences want their heroes to save the world. “Story of Your Life” is quiet and personal. Arrival ramps up the politics and adds in a save the world plot. I have to wonder if the general population would have admired the film just as much without it?

James Wallace Harris, 3/12/22

p.s. I’ve been reading but not reviewing some of the last stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction. If I don’t have anything new to say after I’ve already oversaid everything, I decided just not to say anything.

“Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” by Geoffrey Maloney

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #101 of 107: “Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” by Geoffrey Maloney

“Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” by Geoffrey Maloney is about aliens who have come to the Earth and leave. Their motives are mysterious. They leave behind crypto machines that look like large teletypes that print on ancient-looking paper. In the story, an unnamed narrator travels with his girlfriend who hopes to meet one of the last aliens before they leave. The narrator becomes petty and jealous for being ignored. Ultimately he finds out that his girlfriend has learned about what the aliens have said about us and it’s not very nice, but true.

The mood of this story reminds me of the Strugatsky brother’s novel, Roadside Picnic. The aliens in that story are completely unknowable. In Maloney’s story, we knew the aliens were here and got to know them some, but they and their mission were always a mystery. Back in the 1950s, there were two famous science fiction stories where aliens judged humanity, the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the novel Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. But the theme is reasonably common.

Quite often in science fiction, we hope aliens will save us from ourselves, a Christ-like role. But every so often, science fiction writes about aliens who judge us, an Old Testament God-like role. In this story, the aliens are more like Margaret Mead coming to live with us for a while. At the end of this short story, we learn one question that horrifies the aliens about us. The narrator worries that the aliens will be sending an executioner, but I get the feeling these aliens are more gentle, so they would probably only put up signs – Warning! Insane Creatures.

“Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” is a nice science fiction story. Not great, but does the job and creates a neat mood. It’s part of a larger work called Tales from the Crypto-System. I’m slightly tempted to try the book, except that it’s too expensive at Amazon, and there is no Kindle edition. A $2.99 Kindle edition might rescue it from obscurity. Infinity Plus gave it a nice review back in 2005. Some of it can be read from Google Books, and I might try more of it when I have time.

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James Wallace Harris, 3/6/22

The Implications of Giving Comic Books Another Try

I’ve forgotten why, but I was Googling around and found the image above. I was quite taken with it. I did a Google image search and discovered it came from Weird Tales #14 (July-Aug 1952) and the artist was Wally Wood. I know as close to nothing about comics as is possible without knowing anything at all. I have run across some interior illustrations by Wood in Galaxy Science Fiction and admired them too. I’d love to have a big art book of his work.

I know a little bit about EC Comics, mainly from reading about the congressional hearings in the 1950s and the famous book by Fredric Wetherm, Seduction of the Innocent.

Back in 1963, when I was twelve, my grandmother subscribed to four comic books for me for my birthday. I believe they were to Superman, The Justice League of America, Wonder Woman, and The Flash. I read them as I got them, and carefully saved all the issues before my cousins Bobby and Timmy borrowed my complete library of comics. They never returned them. It didn’t bother me. I much preferred reading science fiction. And I forgot about comic books until the 1970s when I discovered underground comics in a headshop. I tried one by Vaughn Bode and another by Robert Crumb.

Over the years I’ve tried comics periodically but never could get into them. This month I’m giving them one more try because of that Wally Wood cover illustration. I went looking for a scan of #14 of Weird Science on the internet because I wanted to read the story that goes with the illustration. Evidently, the copyright holders of EC Comics keep a sharp watch on copyright violators because I couldn’t find a digital scan.

I then went to eBay, ABEbooks, and Amazon looking for a copy and discovered The EC Archives: Weird Science Volume 1 had just been released. The paperback was $18.18 and the Kindle edition was $13.99. It claimed to collect #12–#15 and #5–6. I was all ready to press the buy button when I saw a mention I should try a free 30-day trial version of Comixology. What the hell. I did. I’m going to give comics one more try.

I quickly loaded the Archives on my tablet only to discover #14 looked different.

It took a bit of research but I discovered there was a 1950 series and a 1951 series, and Archives Volume 1 had the 1950 #14. I was disappointed. Back to Google. I eventually found comics.org and this very informative page. From there I learned there was a 1994 Gemstone annual that reprinted the 1951 #14. I found the cheapest copy on eBay and ordered it. The internet is a wonderful tool! I’ve never used comics.org before but it’s as useful as isfdb.org.

While I wait for the Gemstone Weird Science Annual, I’ve been looking at The EC Archives: Weird Science Volume 1. I can’t say I’ve gotten hooked on comics. In fact, I’m somewhat shocked by what I discovered. The stories and art are very — I wanted to say crude but I don’t want to offend people. Is simplistic a better word? Unsophisticated?

I once took a graduate course in the English department on humor, and we were taught there are many levels of sophistication in humor, although I’m not sure the professor claimed any form was superior to another. Chaplin’s slapstick humor might be as brilliant as Shakespeare’s humorous wordplay.

The 1950s science fiction stories Weird Science are similar in ideas to what was being published in the pulps in the 1920s and 1930s. Now I’m not trying to be superior. My favorite kind of science fiction is novels and short stories from the 1950s. They might only be a step up from science fiction in comic books as comic books are a step up in believability over books like Dr. Seuss or Goodnight Moon. I’m not offended when brilliant literary writers complain that science fiction is adolescent, because I agree with them.

At 70, I’m fully aware that my favorite kind of fiction to read in 2022 is as sophisticated as my mind was in high school (1966-1969). I was an English major in college, and I still read the literary classics, but usually only one per year. When I say science fiction that appeared in the science fiction magazines of the 1950s was more sophisticated than the science fiction appearing in the comics or funny papers, or on the big or little screens of that decade, I’m not claiming it was superior. I’m only saying the stories were more complex and richer in detail.

For example, compare “I Created A Gargantua!” or “Lost in the Microcosm” in Weird Science to The Shrinking Man (1956) by Richard Matheson, the book version of the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, or The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). None of these stories are realistic, all of them are basically stupid, and all of them are on the level of comic book science fiction. I guess I should up the ante some and also throw in “The Drowned Giant” by J. G. Ballard, as a literary comparison. And even mention that Alice in Wonderland played around with the idea of changing size.

My point in mentioning all these stories is to support my argument that written science fiction in the 1950s was more sophisticated than comic books. Back in the 1950s comic books were aimed at kids who could read but probably didn’t read books. They were a step up from kids’ picture books. Galaxy Science Fiction was a step up from Amazing Stories, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction offered more adult reading than Astounding Science Fiction. And the 1957 science fiction novel, On the Beach by Nevil Shute, was aimed at an even more adult audience.

It’s all about being in the target audience. As I read those collected issues of Weird Science from EC Comics I felt I was regressing back to age twelve. Every time I tried comics again since I was twelve I rejected them as being too young for me and immediately quit reading them after a few pages. This time I kept reading. I even somewhat enjoyed myself. But that scared me. Getting old and being anxious over growing memory loss, made me fear that enjoying a comic book might be the first sign that I’m regressing.

I’ve always considered Charlie Gordon’s rise and fall of intelligence in Flowers for Algernon was modeled the arc of normal aging and decay. Reading Weird Science made me feel like Charlie Gordon when he realized he was on the downward slope of his IQ arc. I’ve noticed this before. I’m starting to struggle with nonfiction and more sophisticated novels.

I can picture myself getting older and reading the Oz books I loved in the 5th grade. The science fiction I love to read now is the same as I loved back in the 8th grade. However, I’m reading it with 70 years of wisdom I didn’t have then, and I’m admiring it more. I still enjoy Austen, Dickens, Trollope, Tolstoy, Lawrence, or even Joyce, but I’m slowly gravitating more and more to the fiction of my adolescence. That doesn’t upset me. I’m glad I have those stories to welcome me home.

I’m not ready yet to read comic books again, or even return to the Oz books, but I can imagine a time when I might be.

James Wallace Harris 3/8/22

“The Remoras” by Robert Reed

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #99 of 107: “The Remoras” by Robert Reed

“The Remoras” by Robert Reed was first published in the May 1994 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and has been reprinted a number of times since then. “The Remoras” is set in the far future, on a spaceship as large as a planet, crewed by immortal humans and aliens, who are taking a grand tour around the Milky Way.

The story is part of Reed’s The Great Ship Universe series, but I’ve only read a few of its many entries. My favorite was “Good Mountain,” but it wasn’t set on the Great Ship. I’ve Googled around hoping to find an overview of the Great Ship stories but couldn’t find one. It includes the novels Marrow and The Well of Stars, as well as the collection The Great Ship, but there are other books in the series according to GoodReads.

“The Remoras” is a Quee Lee story, she is a passenger on the Great Ship that is on a 500,000-year voyage that will make one orbit of the Milky Way. This story imagines the far future, when posthumans live lives we can’t imagine.

We have to assume Reed’s goal with this story is to speculate about immortality and posthuman societies, yet the story starts off with a very contemporary-sounding situation. Quee Lee is lounging around in her luxury apartment when a person name Orleans comes to her door wanting 52,000 credits her husband Perri owes. That sounds like a 1940s film noir beginning. I have a pet peeve against plots that use cliche pulp fiction plot conflicts.

We are told we’re in a giant spaceship but we don’t feel it – yet. The person at the door is a man, but not like anyone now in existence. Orleans is a Remora, humans that have mutated themselves by exposure to radiation from working on the outside of the ship. They were tagged with the name Remoras after the fish that follow sharks and feed off their skin. The Remoras are also immortal, but to normal humans look grossly disfigured by cancers. For example, Orleans has an eye that looks like a sea anemone.

At first, Quee Lee mistrusts Orleans and tells him she will tell her husband and he will have to deal with his debt. All of this first part of the story disappointed me. I find the idea of a ship as big as a planet taking passengers on a half-million-year orbit of the Milky Way to be too unbelievable. I also find the idea of longevity extending to hundreds of thousands of years to be unbelievable. And I felt nothing Reed gave us helped me see the possibilities.

But in the second half of the story, when Quee Lee goes to visit Orleans and decides she wants to temporarily experience being a Remora, the story got good. For some reason, I could buy the idea that humans could mutate themselves by consciously directing cancers and genetic alterations. It’s not that I believe such actions are possible in our reality, but Reed made them believable in his story, and that’s what counts.

And to make his story even more fun, he takes us through several plot twists. There is a scene when Quee Lee is on the surface of the ship describing a tremendous light show of lasers destroying comets before they could hit the ship that reminded me of the “Tears in the Rain” speech by Roy Batty in Blade Runner. It goes like this: “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.”

What Quee Lee saw wasn’t so eloquently and succinctly stated, but the imagery was just as impressive, like an experience Roy Batty would have seen in his short lifetime.

Reed’s story is super-science on a vast scale. Many writers of modern space opera try to imagine such far futures, but for me, they fail. I can imagine humans living for hundreds of years, but not hundreds of thousands of years. I can imagine humans traveling across the galaxy, but not in ships as big as planets. The Great Ship stories push the boundaries for what I consider credible science fiction. However, once this story zeroed in on one relationship that involves a very short period of time involving exact details I got into it.

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James Wallace Harris, 3/6/22

“Gorgonoids” by Leena Krohn

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #96 of 107: “Gorgonoids” by Leena Krohn

“Gorgonoids” by Leena Krohn is not science fiction but a science fictional meditation on artificial life. If you are familiar with John Conway’s Game of Life then you might appreciate Krohn’s story even more. The title characters are an artificial lifeform created in a computer, and the narrator of the story philosophizes about them and other artificial life forms. Artificial life and cellular automaton are fascinating subjects in the real world that are very science-fictional in nature. Krohn’s narrator is really speculating about real artificial life in a fictional essay, not creating a fictional world about artificial life.

Ann VanderMeer obviously admires surreal literary stories that are philosophical and speculative but I don’t consider “Gorgonoids” science fiction. It is a great fictional essay, but to explain what I mean why it’s not science fiction, read “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” by Mercurio D. Rivera. That story takes the idea of artificial life into the realm of science fiction.

The New Yorker did a profile on this Finnish writer, “Cracking the Codes of Leena Krohn,” by Peter Bebergal. If you enjoyed reading “Gorgonoids,” in The Big Book of Science Fiction then I recommend reading the essay about Krohn. In it Krohn is quoted about the science fiction label:

I like what Krohn is doing in “Gorgonoids,” because it inspires me to study more about artificial life. Her fictional essay involves all the questions people have when contemplating the subject of artificial life, but it lacks a story. Interestingly, her narrator takes the idea into extreme realms that science fiction explores, but only as idle navel-gazing. What makes science fiction science fiction is when a story brings those wild ideas alive in a conventional fictional structure. Science fiction can use experimental fiction techniques, but it still needs to convey a real fictional story.

Saying I don’t consider “Gorgonoids” science fiction isn’t knocking it. The VanderMeers are slowly wearing me down with all these quasi-SF stories. They need an anthology of their own – The Big Book of Experimental Fiction. That way readers could see all the ways writers push the boundaries of conventional fiction and science fiction.

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James Wallace Harris, 3/1/22

New Feature At CSFquery

In Praise of Reviews

You might not notice our new feature since it’s rather subtle, but we’ve added a column with links to reviews. If you look at the Classics of Science Fiction list (or related lists), you’ll see a new column: Reviews. Click on the number beside a title you’re interested in and we’ll show you the reviews we’ve found just for that title. Or if you want to see the reviews for all the titles, click on Show Reviews at the top. Click again and they will disappear. Clicking on a review will take you to the review. (I like to right-click links and choose “Show in new window” so I won’t lose my place in the list.)

It’s going to take Mike and me a long time to add reviews to all the titles in the database. We’re working on the titles in the main lists first. Mike is currently working on novels, and I’m working on short stories.

We’ve both discovered that searching for reviews to link is quite illuminating in many ways. The first revelation is one we already knew because it inspired the new feature in the first place. Google is terrible at finding good reviews. Actually searching for reviews to add to the database only reinforces this impression. Google is geared to selling stuff, and not necessarily to help you to find what you want to know. Google does offer the wonderful service scholar.google.com that indexes academic journals. A search using it will find exactly the kind of reviews I want to read, but sadly most of that content is behind paywalls.

Reviews of books and short stories on Google are limited mostly to professional publications that offer their content for free or content from bloggers. We try to find substantial and quality reviews, but that’s not always possible. We do include reviews from sites with paywalls if they offer a certain number of free reads. By the way, you can extend that number of free reads by switching computers or browsers. If you have a computer, tablet, and smartphone, each with two browsers, you can extend 4 free reads to 24.

What has been personally rewarding to us while gathering links is discovering the kind of reviews available. We don’t have time to read all of them closely, but we do read over them enough to judge them. That makes us both want to go back and just read reviews. It’s quite fascinating how one novel can inspire so many reactions, often opposing. Reading the reviews makes us want to read the stories. And reading the reviews of stories we’ve already read makes us want to reread some stories to look for the new perspectives we’ve found in the reviews.

Searching for these links is also revealing the junkiness of the internet. Most pages are horrors of graphical layouts. For a good portion of them, you’d think they were designed to discourage reading, especially those pages with tiny typefaces. Even more painfully revealing, is it’s all too obvious that in most cases sites are throwing up a little content just to get you to them. They want your clicks. They want you to click on their ads.

We’re also learning about the quality of reviewing. It makes me ask: What makes a great review? It also makes me ask: Are my reviews worth reading? And: What could I add to my reviews to make them more useful?

We hope we’re providing a service by helping readers find reviews of the stories we list by wading through all that internet crap for you. But more importantly, we want to help you decide on things to read. Offering lists of recommended books and short stories has its uses, but looking at lists can be dull. We thought of providing graphics and illustrations to spice up our site, but such eye candy is only a distraction. Mike came up with the idea of adding links to reviews, and I believe that will be truly helpful – a great addition.

James Wallace Harris, 3/1/22

“The Brains of Rats” by Michael Blumlein

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #95 of 107: “The Brain of Rats” by Michael Blumlein

“The Brain of Rats” by Michael Blumlein is an excellent piece on gender, but not science fiction. Like Judith Merril did sixty years ago, the VanderMeers work to broaden the scope of the SF genre. But it’s like the judge’s proclamation about pornography – “I know when it when I see it.” The VanderMeers see science fiction and I don’t. There’s no way to draw a border around the genre and stake a claim. This isn’t science fiction to me, it’s genre gerrymandering.

If I had read “The Brain of Rats” in The New Yorker I would have been impressed. Reading it in The Big Book of Science Fiction, I read it with interest but was annoyed that it was included. Genre is about marketing categories of fiction to readers seeking specific categories. Many of the stories in this anthology are not what I wanted to read when I bought a giant anthology called The Big Book of Science Fiction.

I know this is narrow-minded of me. Nor, does it matter what I want. Science fiction is whatever people want it to be because things do change with the times. I guess I’m just old and don’t want to change with them. I’m just a grumpy old fart. I’ve been annoyed ever since fantasy stories began invading science fiction magazines back in the 1960s. I realize I sound like a rabid Trump supporter ranting about the border and illegal aliens. I’m actually a liberal, and all for diversifying the real world, but when it comes to science fiction, I want a gated community. Is that narrow-minded? I do read fantasy and literary fiction, but when I’m in the mood.

I feel some writers and editors want to expand on the science fiction genre because that’s what they want to read and write and the science fiction market is easier to break into. Picking up a book or magazine to read science fiction and finding stories like this is something akin to tuning into the Olympics to watch curling and seeing one of the guys drop his broom and start figuring skating around on the ice. I’m sure readers of The New Yorker would be miffed to find a space opera tale in their mag.

There are a few lines in “The Brains of Rats” that could be interpreted as speculation, but those ideas aren’t developed. I assumed they were added so the story could be sold to a science fiction market. Michael Blumlein is an interesting writer, and I might pursue his work further, but I’ll actually be seeking it out for its literary and mainstream qualities.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/24/22

More Books for PKDickheads

After reviewing We Can Build You and Dr. Bloodmoney on my personal blog, I thought I’d be through with PKD for a while. Nope, I’ve only fallen deeper into the PKDickian black hole. While shopping for deals on old PKD books on eBay I noticed The Other Side of Philip K. Dick (2016) by Maer Wilson, a biography I haven’t read. Turns out it was cheaper to buy new at Amazon. I got it and read it immediately. Wilson knew PKD from 1972 to 1982 – during the last decade of his life. Because I only vaguely remember reading Philip K. Dick: Remembering Firebright (2010) by Tessa B. Dick, his fifth and final wife, I decided to reread it. It’s still available at Amazon, so don’t pay inflated collector prices. Tessa Dick knew PKD over the same period of time, so we have two memoirs that remember PKD over the same time period.

Both books were published on CreateSpace, a self-publishing company owned by Amazon. Tessa Dick’s book is poorly edited and has a more basic layout, but it has more information about PKD. Wilson’s book looks better and is better written, but she spends more time talking about herself, so there’s less information about PKD. If you’re really into Philip K. Dick, you’ll want to read both. I’ve already written some about the major biographies on PKD, so I’m only going to focus on these two. I really need to do an in-depth comparison someday.

All the people writing about PKD tell a different story. Reading about PKD is like watching Rashômon. Besides the biographers that never knew PKD, there are several people that did who have written biographies, memoirs, and articles. My favorite of those is The Search for Philip K. Dick by Anne R. Dick, his third wife. She knew PKD while he was writing his mainstream novels and The Man in the High Castle. Tessa was married to PKD while he was writing A Scanner Darkly, VALIS, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer – all his last novels. Wilson knew him during the same time period but she writes little about him writing the novels. But Wilson went with him to see the early rushes of Blade Runner when Dick got to meet Ridley Scott. She also knew him before and after his marriage to Tessa. And she was supposed to go with him to Europe for five weeks and then see the premiere, but PKD died before all that. She was not his girlfriend, but just a friend. PKD was agoraphobic and depended on Wilson to keep him company and drive him places. PKD had several friends that helped him like this.

I should also mention there’s a documentary on Curiosity Stream, The World of Philip K. Dick that interviews Tessa Dick. Dick’s three children, Laura, Isa, and Christopher manage a joint trust of his works and legacy, but Tessa might be the person that publically remembers him most. From reading the two books, I don’t think Tessa and Wilson liked each other, and their two memoirs contradict each other in places. Wilson believed PKD was far saner than he is often portrayed, but from reading the two books I get the feeling Wilson saw Dick when he was being his public self, and Tessa saw PKD when he was letting all his inner self hang out.

Wilson’s book has a forward by Tim Powers, and a note by James B. Blaylock, also friends of PKD during his last decade. Their comments seem to gently endorse Wilson’s view, but Tessa Dick’s memoir is far more intimate. She got to live and work with PKD.

I don’t want to get into the details here, because they can be endless, but Philip K. Dick is known for writing very strange science fiction, but he’s also known for believing a lot of strange ideas. Some people considered him bonkers, while others believed he was putting us all on. Reading Tessa’s book leaves me believing PKD was insane. Wilson’s book left me thinking he was sane, but with some mental problems, but not major ones.

The reason I love reading about PKD is I’m looking for clues about why he wrote his stories. Tessa’s book is most revealing about that. Wilson’s book is more illuminating about being a writer and dealing with the outside world. She would go with him to interviews and try to keep him from saying things that would generate bad PR. Neither book is a quality biography. Both memoirs add information and confusion about the mystery of Philip K. Dick.

I also bought Precious Artifacts and Precious Artifacts 2 from Amazon even though the same content is online at the Philip K. Dick Bookshelf. The first is a bibliography of his books, and the second covers his short stories. I don’t actually collect to collect, but my buddy Mike and I have gathered quite a bit of PKD material over the last forty years. We’re not completists, but I’m always looking out for stuff I haven’t read. And sometimes I like buying books because of their covers. Most of the information in these two books is available at the writers’ site, but also on ISFDB. However, I like holding these books. They are well illustrated with color images of the book and magazine covers.

James Wallace Harris, 2/23/22

“Death is Static Death is Movement” by Misha Nogha

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #94 of 107: “Death is Static Death is Movement” by Misha Nogha

I wasn’t going to write about “Death is Static Death is Movement” by Misha Nogha because I’m tired of writing about stories I can’t resonate with as a reader. This was another horror story, an item on the fiction menu I just never select. Then one of the group members said I should keep my review streak going. They probably didn’t notice I had already skipped a couple stories, but I’ll go back and fill in those two also.

“Death is Static Death is Movement” isn’t a short story, but a novel excerpt, which reads like the author visualized it as a comic book or horror movie but had to put it into words. It’s full of colorful mayhem that includes quite a lot of vomit, shit, snot, and body parts. Here’s a typical sample, but not the grossest.

Who enjoys this stuff other than tweens? Putting Nogha’s words into my mind’s theater made me recall EC Comics, which were banned back in the 1950s because do-gooders thought they would corrupt children. But who but children would enjoy such ghoulish grossness?

This story would also appeal to aficionados of American International horror films. There are science-fictional elements in this novel excerpt, but the tone of the story is feminism meets H. P. Lovecraft if he had lived long enough to read William Gibson.

I know there are fans of this stuff. millions of them. I’m just not one. Sorry.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/22/22

“Before I Wake” Kim Stanley Robinson

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #93 of 107: “Before I Wake” Kim Stanley Robinson

Once again the VanderMeers give us a science fiction horror story.

Kim Stanley Robinson came up with a neat setup for “Before I Wake,” where humanity is trapped in uncontrolled sleep cycles with confusing dreams after the solar system moved into an interstellar dust cloud. Something in the dust put people to sleep and they struggle to stay awake for short moments. Civilization is collapsing and cities are burning.

In the story, Fred Abernathy, a scientist, and Winston, his lab administrator struggle to keep a group of a dozen researchers awake long enough to study the problem and seek a way to counter the dust’s effects. Their efforts are thwarted because they can’t tell reality from dreaming. Fred and Winston use amphetamines and the pain of acid drops on their skin to keep themselves awake to work on a helmet that magnetically repels the dust.

Of course, this plot reminds me of the classic 1954 Poul Anderson novel, Brain Wave, where the solar system moves out of a dust cloud and people and animals all become smarter. That was a bright take on the idea. The dust had been hindering all intellectual development on earth for thousands of years, and moving out of the cloud allowed all animal life to be smarter. Robinson takes the horror side of the idea, moving into the dust that ruins our natural sleep patterns.

Lately, I’ve been reading the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction twice to make sure I get everything. For some of the stories, I need to read them twice because the intent of the story is unclear from a single reading. Robinson’s tale was easy enough to understand in one reading even though Fred goes in and out of dreams and Robinson expects his readers to feel like their experiencing a bad LSD trip. There were a couple of places in the story that did confuse me. I don’t know if they’re actual mistakes or intentional points to confuse us. For example, Fred goes to rescue Jill. At one point we’re told Jill is his wife, and another she’s his sister. In Fred’s confused state Jill could be neither.

I read “Before I Wake” the first time, and listened to it the second. I so much prefer the audio version.

“Before I Wake” is a fun read based on a neat idea however it has a bummer of an ending. Reading this story reminds me just how much I prefer happy endings and dislike horror. Because there are so many science fiction horror stories, satires, literary works of cleverness in this volume, its overall vibe is cynical. The nightmare ending of “Before I Wake” left me with a sense of hopelessness.

There are stories in the anthology that are uplifting and left me feeling good, such as “A Martian Odyssey,” “Desertion,” “Surface Tension,” “The Last Question,” “Rachel in Love,” and so on, but many did not. Now, some of the somber, even horror stories were philosophically uplifting, and quite brilliant, like “Snow,” “Bloodchild,” “When It Changed,” etc. But many of the stories were only intellectually interesting, or clever, like “Before I Wake.” I can admire them for the inspiration and execution of a creative idea, but they leave me emotionally wanting more.

I suppose it is childish of me to always want stories that leave me feeling good. But think about it, how many people take drugs to feel bad? Fiction is a drug to me. I read fiction for uplift. I have nonfiction for teaching me about reality. Great fiction needs great conflicts to move the story along, but in the end, I want epiphanies that make me feel good.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/20/22

“Burning Sky” by Rachel Pollack

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #92 of 107: “Burning Sky” by Rachel Pollack

My initial reaction to “Burning Sky” was indifference. I have no background with comics, so I find stories inspired by superhero themes unappealing. But the coda to the story intrigued me.

I remember seeing a short documentary about William Moulton Marston who wrote as Charles Moulton and was the creator of Wonder Woman. I also remember reading reviews of The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lapore in 2014. So I know just enough of Wonder Woman’s literary origin story to know it had kinky aspects. Then I wondered if Rachel Pollack knew of that history in 1989? That meant I had to reread the story and do some research.

I then wished I had a copy of Burning Sky, the Pollack collection in which the title story is gathered with 26 other stories. That’s because I read that each story has an autobiographical afterward which would probably help me. As luck would have it, that collection is available at Amazon for $1.99 for the Kindle edition. However, you don’t need to buy a copy to read the afterward to “Burning Sky.” Just use the Look Inside feature. You can also read Samuel R. Delany’s introduction to the collection where he praises Pollack highly. Here are three key paragraphs from the afterward:

This isn’t very illuminating since I already got that much from the story. I was hoping Pollack would explain the Wonder Woman connection. Delany also explained that Pollack was an authority on Tarot cards. I can see why Delany admired Pollack because his stories often deal with sexuality, and Tarot cards were part of his novel Nova.

“Burning Sky” is told by Maggie in the first person, and tells us about two other women, Julia and Louise, and about a strange group of vigilante women called The Free Women. These women wear skintight blue plastic outfits that cover everything but their faces. They attack men who attack women. “Burning Sky,” tells two stories, Julia’s run-ins with The Free Women, and Louise helping Maggie find an orgasm. Neither story really interested me. Most of the imagery deals with S&M and fetishes.

“Burning Sky” is really feminist fiction and not science fiction. For the reread I had hoped it would provide allusions to the early days of Wonder Woman comics, but I didn’t find any that I understood. I just don’t have any real knowledge of comic book history. I assumed the ceremonial hall and Free Women connected with the comic’s past. And certainly, WW was full of S&M/fetish imagery. The story had a tiny bit of the Dangerous Visions vibe, but not really, especially for 1989. Maybe the story had a bite when it was first published, but it’s rather quaint now compared to feminist fiction today.

I believe this is just a case of me being the wrong reader. I’m curious what women who enjoy S&M and loved old Wonder Women comics got out of it?

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James Wallace Harris, 2/18/22