Good Science Fiction Bad Science

Do you stop reading science fiction when you encounter bad science, dated beliefs, or foolish concepts? I do if I’m warned ahead of time – but not if I’ve already gotten sucked into a the story. “Beyond Bedlam” by Wyman Guin is one such story that I kept reading once I realized it’s basic premise was ridiculous. It was first published in the August 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. I read it because of a friend recommending it and I read Robert Silverberg’s Reflections column about “Beyond Bedlam” being a one-hit wonder for Wyman Guin.

Maybe I shouldn’t tell you the premise for “Beyond Bedlam” because it might keep you from reading it. It’s available to read for free by following the link to the Galaxy magazine above, or by following this link to Project Gutenberg. The story is a short novella, about 20,000 words, so it will take you a bit of time to consume. Silverberg liked it well enough to anthologize it twice. Check to see if you have the classic 1980 SF anthology The Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels.

“Beyond Bedlam” is about a future utopian America that we would rebel against, but Wyman Guin presents as making sense to the citizens of that era. Guin didn’t write much science fiction because he worked in the pharmacological industry. His story presents the 29th-century America running smoothly because everyone is required by law to take psychiatric drugs. The characters in the story refer to our times as a dangerous failure because we let our emotions get the best of us. This by the way, isn’t the crazy premise of the story. Other science fiction stories have predicted people in the future controlled by drugs, and people do take a lot of drugs today for the mental health.

Guin takes one extra step that pushes the story into unbelievability territory – but I won’t give that away. Hopefully, you’ll start reading and get sucked in. Or maybe you will even think it a cool idea. Some science fiction fans love wild ideas no matter how silly they might be. I completely reject Guin’s speculation but enjoyed the story.

I understood why Guin wrote this story. I read lots of old books and watch lots of old movies, and the 1940s and 1950s was a time when people were fascinated with psychiatry and psychological mysteries. What’s particularly fascinating, and I’m giving a hint here that older readers might understand, is the 1951 “Beyond Bedlam” was written well before the 1957 bestseller, The Three Faces of Eve.

The reason why I found “Beyond Bedlam” compelling is Guin’s storytelling. Silverberg said Guin wrote 80,000 words of rough draft before distilling his story down to 20,000 words. It’s tightly plotted, with vivid characterization and great worldbuilding. It’s also filled with emotions derived from five characters’ unique movitations. Plus, “Beyond Bedlam” is quite adult, which wasn’t typical of science fiction in 1951.

Wyman Guin’s low output and his crazy premise will probably doom this nifty tale to obscurity. That’s a shame. “Beyond Bedlam” is not a literary classic. It’s a nostalgic tidbit from the dregs of decomposing pop culture that old fans fondly recall as they wait to die.

James Wallace Harris, 10/29/20

Philosophy & Science Fiction

Eric Schwitzgebel, Rich Horton, and Helen De Cruz are assembling an anthology of best philosophical science fiction in the history of the Earth. I’m looking forward to seeing what stories they select and reading them. Science fiction is often inherently philosophical, even though some stories like “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin are iconic for being intentionally philosophical.

I say science fiction is often inherently philosophical because it speculates about the future of our species. Humanity’s potential covers the spectrum from snuffing ourselves out to replicating our species across the universe like a virus.

For example, I just read “Founding Fathers” by Isaac Asimov from the October 1965 issue of Galaxy Magazine. It’s a sentimental story about five scientific explorers who are marooned on a planet that they thought would have an Earth like atmosphere, but tragically has enough ammonia in it to keep Earth plants from growing. All five scientists try to alter conditions to get edible plants to thrive but the explorers die before succeeding. The story is sentimental because Asimov lets us know their decomposing bodies will alter the course of this planet’s evolution and one day when humans rediscover the planet it will be ready for colonization.

Asimov is putting over the philosophical idea that humanity’s purpose is to spread across the galaxy. When I was twelve I traded religion for science fiction because I was gung ho for this kind of final frontier ideology. I felt we lived in a meaningless reality. Religion only offered a make-believe purpose. The idea that humans should conquer the galaxy offered a kind of existential meaning, or at least purpose, and that felt real and worthy. Thus science fiction became my Socrates.

Science fiction often seeks an existential or transcendental purpose for our existence. Science measures and statistically analyzes reality, philosophy uses logic and rhetoric to examine what science can’t. Science fiction when its good, tries to speculate about new grist for both mills: science and philosophy.

Science fiction, unfortunately, is amateur metaphysics because most science fiction writers are neither scientists or philosophers, and even when they are, science fiction is neither scientific nor disciplined philosophy.

In other words, science fiction likes to bullshit about the aspects of reality that science and philosophy haven’t nailed down as their own. This is delightfully entertaining, and even a satisfying substitute for science and philosophy, although, science fictional efforts often veer into fantasy and even flakiness. Still, for the philosophically and scientifically minded, who lack the will or ability to follow those more disciplined disciplines, science fiction can provoke endless concepts to ponder.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were amateurs themselves, because they lived before philosophy developed into a rigorous academic discipline. Their work sometimes veers into fantasy and flakiness too. Of course, many scientists as well as average folks, sneer at philosophers as being no better than those theists who count angels on pinheads. In terms of explaining reality, science is the only cognitive tool that consistently works. Theology was our original effort to explain reality, theorizing there were higher beings that created, controlled, and explained everything. Philosophers were humans with hubris that said, “Wait a minute, maybe that isn’t so. Maybe we can figure out reality on our own.” However, after a lot of endless conjecture science came into being which suggested “Why don’t we just observe and statistically decide by looking for consistency.”

Science can’t measure everything, leaving room to theological, philosophical, and science fictional speculation. To theorize that one day humans will create robots that are sentient has philosophical and even theological implications. Take that Asimov story, “Founding Fathers.” Shouldn’t we ask if it’s ethical to interfere in a planet’s evolution if it’s already evolved life? Asimov felt sentimentally proud for his fictional heros, but on the other hand, couldn’t they have theoretically killed off trillions of lifeforms, including intelligent beings, and beings with abilities we can’t imagine?

Most of the time science fiction speculates about the future. It imagines positive futures we could build for ourselves or extrapolates on negative trends that will create futures we should avoid. Science fiction speculates about technologies we could invent if they are scientifically possible. It also considers the aesthetics and ethics of such creations.

Science fiction is naturally ontological. The overwhelming intent of science fiction so far has been to suggest humans should explore space, even colonize the universe. That is a powerful philosophical purpose. But is it valid? We seldom question it. That’s why I was so impressed with Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. What if human can’t find purpose in the final frontier because we’re not adaptable to living anywhere but Earth?

In my old age I often question science fiction’s preoccupation with space exploration. What if the real philosophical question that science fiction should explore is: “What should humanity do with itself if it has to dwell only on the Earth for a few million years before becoming extinct?” That offers a greater challenge than the easier apparent purpose of the final frontier.

Didn’t Plato invent the utopia? Hasn’t science fiction claimed the utopia for its intellectual territory? How close can we get to a perfect society that won’t smother us if we continue to exist as a species for millions of year? This is why my favorite short work of science fiction is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. It’s about living with limitations, especially limitations that crush our spirit.

Science fiction has unlimited potential for exploring philosophical concepts. I’m looking forward to that new anthology.

James Wallace Harris, 10/19/20

Poking Fun at Science Fiction

I’ve been thinking about humor in science fiction. Generally, when we think of funny science fiction we think of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or stories by Robert Sheckley, R. A. Lafferty, or sometimes John Scalzi. But that’s science fiction having fun, what about when the genre is the butt of the humor? For example, westerns were skewered hilariously in Blazing Saddles. Galaxy Quest comes to mind, but then that film was roasting the genre out of fondness. I don’t think Blazing Saddles was an actual tribute to westerns in the same way Galaxy Quest was to science fiction. And what about self-deprecating humor in science fiction. I love recursive science fiction, but most of it celebrates the love of science fiction. I’m curious, do many recursive science fiction stories satirize the genre? I’m not going to answer that extensively in this essay, so don’t get your hopes up. But keep reading for an example of where I’m going.

My problem is sarcasm, satire, and subtle jabs go right over my head (my lady friends take advantage of this). I’ve always seen science fiction as mostly straight stories, well, at least I did. I’ve been reading hundreds of short stories lately, and I’m starting to get suspicious. Every once in a while I wonder if the author has both a pen and pin in hand. As a reader, I felt it was my job to suspend disbelief and let the writer put the story over. Now that I’m writing more about what I read, I’m wondering if I should always look below the surface for different motives the writer might have had for writing their story.

Take this story by Judith Merril, “The Deep Down Dragon.” I read it in Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. What’s unique about this anthology is each story is prefaced with the author’s memory of writing it.

Study that Emsh (Ed Emshwiller) painting above. At first I thought it a clever way to suggest action – a woman had been abducted from a space colony. But then I thought of something, and it became funny, But how could it possibly comic? Obviously a woman has been kidnapped by an alien on a colony world – that’s tragic. But if you know the history of science fiction magazines, and the cliches about covers with BEMs carrying off a scantily clad women, then you might think Emsh is playing around. In case you don’t know the lingo, BEM stands for bug eyed monster. Sex sells, even for science fiction magazines. Why did Emsh leave off the sexy woman and lower the sales of that issue? Because we expected a naked woman he thought might be funny to disappoint us. Sure, the painting is of a serious action scene, a man is running to rescue a woman. Maybe even the editor told him, “No babes.” But I like to think Emsh is also poking fun at science fiction (See the section below, Sex, Nudity, and Prudity in Science Fiction.)

But the ribbing of SF doesn’t end there. Judith Merril tells a serious story about a man rescuing a woman, but it’s a story within a story. In the tale psychologists are showing potential space colonists a scene they’re supposed to react to like an inkblot test. Essentially, the characters are reacting to an animated version of Emsh painting. First, we hear from the woman as she tried to explain why she wasn’t clothed, and why she was wearing high heels in a space habitat. Then we hear a man’s version of the story about how he carefully tracks down the woman and fleeing alien – but he’s obviously an intellectual who over prepares, over thinks, and is not a brawny action-oriented kind of guy. You get the feeling Judith is making fun of SF by having the woman be the stereotype of the woman on SF covers, and the man be the stereotype of SF readers – the ninety-pound weakling/egghead.

Now it’s completely possible to read this story straight, but I found it more fun to think Emshwiller and Merril were poking fun at science fiction. And I found the story I reviewed last time, “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” by Algis Budrys more admirable when I assume Budrys wasn’t completely serious either. That he was creating something over the top he knew fans would love. But I have to wonder, was Merril and Budrys also looking down on their readers? Or the genre? I imagine some writers do. And is knowing that important to the story? Sometimes the story is better when we’re in on the laugh.

Most humor is in good fun. For example, take these two covers I found when looking for the BEM covers. They play against type.

But when you start looking at covers on science fiction magazines, most of them are deadly serious sense of wonder scenes, or at least heroic action scenes. Generally, when we have humor in our genre, we’re still suppose to take the story seriously, or mostly serious. And by serious, I mean close to realistic. For example, the Little Fuzzy stories by H. Beam Piper have a realistic side, but Poul Anderson’s Hoka stories are just for fun.

As I breezed past hundreds of covers I was disappointed I didn’t find more clever satire. One of my favorites was for “The Pirates of Erastz” by Murray Leinster.

My all-time favorite SF novel is Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. I’ve always taken it completely straight, but the title is proof enough it’s a spoof and Heinlein was having fun. We science fiction true believers want our fantasies to be possible. No matter how absurd the situation gets in novels like Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. On one level I still take Sheckley’s story as something that’s possible in our infinite universe. But that requires some major suspension of disbelief.

When a book is obviously funny, we know we shouldn’t take it seriously. But do we always know when we’re reading is something serious? What if it’s sometimes supposed to be funny in places? Or just slyly satirical? I confess here I have been sorely lacking in the ability to spot humor in SF. But now that I’m thinking about it, I’m on the lookout.

Sex, Nudity and Prudity in Science Fiction

While researching this post I also encountered protests against the skimpily dressed women on covers. Over the years I’ve read memoirs by SF writers and readers about how the covers were so embarrassing that they had to hide their SF magazines. Some even tore the covers off them afraid their parents would see them.

Most fans loved sexy (sexist) covers (hey they were adolescent boys), but some didn’t. Here’s a few quotes given to me by a Mr. Lock regarding Weird Tales.

Oct 1933:
Here is a word about our covers, from Lionel Dilbeck, of Wichita, Kansas: “But whatever you do, do not continue to disgrace the magazine with naked women as you did in the June and July issues. If you think that the readers want them, have them vote on it. Personally I prefer any kind of monster that it is possible to think of rather than the sexy covers you have been having. And I really hate to tear the covers off the magazine, as that also spoils the looks of them.”

March 1934:
Clara L. Heyne, of St. Paul, writes to the Eyrie: “But when I take the magazine to work for reading at noon, I take the cover off because I know how the pictures of nude women affect those who don’t know WT.”

May 1934:
Joseph H. Heil, of New York, writes: “Why the nudes? I have noticed that the majority of your readers have resented your cheap-looking covers, and I wish to add my emphatic vote against the continuance of these trashy covers. Looking back on the old issues of WT, I find that they contained none of the nudism of your present-day frontispieces, but, notwithstanding, they were much more interesting, and illustrated the stories much more vividly than today. I was first attracted to your publication (several years ago) by an exciting cover depicting some weird plants over-running the earth. Many people are, I am sure, attracted likewise; but how can you expect to attract the attention of a lover of the weird by the portrayal of a wide-eyed nude, gracefully reclining on stones or silks, as the case may be? Why make your readers tear off your covers in order to take the magazine anywhere, outside the privacy of one’s own home, and even there one has to be careful not to let it lie around where it might be noticed.”

Here’s a quote sent to me by Paul Fraser from Marian Cox in Startling Stories, September 1951.

By the 1950s most SF magazines moved away from the damsel in distress in space. It’s rather amusing though, because those covers are now favorites on Facebook groups devoted to science fiction art.

James Wallace Harris. 10/16/20

Realism in Science Fiction

Our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction recently read “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” by Algis Budrys, originally published in the December 1961 issue of Galaxy Magazine. We’re group reading Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. Because of this I’ve been thinking about the legacy of Galaxy Magazine, science fiction from the 1950s and how realistically did science fiction fans see the future.

So far “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” hasn’t found many admirers in our group, although the anthologist Rich Horton considers it one of his all-time favorite stories. My taste in SF often overlaps with Rich. I found the story to be compelling, thought provoking, not quite a classic, but unbelievably unrealistic.

I’ve read many books about science fiction of the 1940s, which older fans call The Golden Age of Science Fiction. John W. Campbell, Jr. was given most of the credit for this golden age because as editor he discovered and nurtured Heinlein, Asimov, Van Vogt, Hubbard, and many other SF writers that became famous in the genre when Baby Boomers were growing up. Many young SF writers and readers today are rebelling against that era of science fiction, but I think even by the end of the 1940s the writers and readers of the day were also ready to change, and that’s why F&SF (1949) and Galaxy (1950) quickly became popular magazines. And I’ve been told by many readers of my Baby Boom generation that they considered the 1950s to be the real Golden Age of Science Fiction. Did science fiction become more realistic in that decade?

Even though “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” came out at the end of 1961, I’m considering it a reflection of 1950s science fiction. Like the two classic stories from 1950, “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith and “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber, they mark a new beginning by reacting to the previous decade.

I have written elsewhere that I felt 1940s science fiction could be characterized by a yearning for transcendence. Campbell, Heinlein, and others expected mankind to evolve in the future, gaining mental and psychic powers that would help them conquer the galaxy. Reading “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” provided a kind of epiphany for me. It was wild, full of vitality, but ultimately discomforting because its lack of realism. Handling the fantastic in the same way superhero comic books handle reality. Is that the real legacy of 1950s SF?

Fiction has always had a strange relationship with reality and realism. I suppose we could say fiction has different levels of realism. By the way, I don’t mean to imply any artistic criticism to these various levels – at least for now.

  • Level 1 – Greek myths, superhero comic books, Bible stories, talking animal stories
  • Level 2 – Young adult or adult fantasy, science fiction
  • Level 3 – Science fiction that tries to be scientific
  • Level 4 – Most mundane genre fiction
  • Level 5 – Serious literature that’s mimetic

Unfortunately, much of science fiction swings the needle towards Level 1 rather than towards Level 5, even though science is in its label. “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” slams the needle over to 1 on the gauge. Is this good or bad? The story is fun. It’s a thrill ride. Should we even worry about it’s over-the-top fantastic elements?

I should warn you, I read “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” just after reading “The Boys Is the End of the Superhero As We Know It. And it’s about time.” That essay begins with “After two seasons of The Boys, I can say with roughly 85 percent confidence that Dr. Fredric Wertham was right.” I’ve got to admit that my confidence level is even higher, but then I’m prejudice against superhero comics. If you don’t know who Fredric Wertham is, read this. For most of my life I’ve had to accept the studies that say fiction, especially violent fiction, has no impact on the development of children, even though I find such results hard to believe. However, the years 2016-2020 makes me strongly wonder if Fredric Wertham wasn’t right all along. But I go further than Wertham, and wonder if science fiction and fantasy is dangerous too.

“Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” opens in the skyscraper office of Rufus Sollenar, a entertainment business titan. He’s looking out a floor to ceiling window contemplating his success in life. He believes his new product, EmpaVid, will dominate the market and guarantee success and riches for the rest of his life. EmpaVid is a television system that manipulates the emotions of the viewers. Sollenar expects EmpaVid patents to allow him to dominate the entertainment industry.

Sollenar wears utilijem rings that allows him to operate everything in his office with a wave of his hand. Budrys describes the scene quite dramatically, with Sollenar conducting the machines of his office with simple hand gestures, like a magical superpower. Still, it’s technology, making the story science fiction. Sollenar is smug and feels like he dominates the world when looking out his window down on the city.

Eventually, a Mr. Ermine forces is way into Sollenar’s office. An ermine is a weasel, and even Mr. Ermine dresses in rust colored garments, the color of a weasel. This is rather obvious, too much like a comic book villain. Galaxy Magazine was aimed at adults, and from what Budrys says in his memoir of working there, Horace Gold wanted it to be read by a wider audience than just the average young science fiction fan. I feel this aspect of the story counters that goal. But maybe I’m being too harsh.

Mr. Ermine is from the IAB, the International Association of Broadcasters. At first you think of him as a toady but eventually we learn he’s far more powerful, like an enforcer for the mob. Over the course of the story the IAB becomes more sinister, and suggesting Budrys wants us to believe it’s a secret cabal that manipulates the entertainment business, and will go to any length to get what they want. Again, this is painting reality with comic book strokes. People who love conspiracies will love this aspect of the tale.

After some heavy-handed info-dumping we get down to the conflict of the story. Mr. Ermine tells Sollenar that Cortwright Burr, a competitor, has gone to Mars and had the Martian engineers make him a device. The implication being that the Sollenar corporation and IAB are threatened.

We next see Sollenar acting like Spiderman climbing on Cortwright Burr’s corporate skyscraper. We are given some razzle-dazzle about the machinery that allows Sollenar to do this, but once again the story falls into comic book mode. There were many SF stories in the 1950s and 1960s about titans of industry at war with one another. Alfred Bester aided his characters in The Demolished Man with psychic powers, and Philip K. Dick wrote many stories of business power figures battling with reality-bending drugs and technology. The most famous novel of this sub-type was The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth, first serialized in Galaxy.

In the early 1950s there were dozens of science fiction magazines on the market, and hordes of prolific writers to fill their pages. Business in America was booming, and like the ambitious said to one another, “The sky’s is the limit,” meaning nothing is impossible. Often it feels like these science fiction writers also felt there were no limits, and SF readers will believe anything. This is why critics of the genre claimed science fiction was for gullible young males. But on the other hand, the stories had an excitement and energy that fans loved.

Reading “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” both annoyed and excited me. I’m torn by admiring Budrys flamboyant imagination and insulted that he thinks so little of my intelligence.

Sollenar enters Burr’s office like Neo in a scene from The Matrix, diving through a window with his pistol aimed, hitting the ground, and popping up. Sollenar fires and hits Burr with a blast of energy from his gun, throwing Burr’s body against the wall. Burr had been holding a golden ball when shot and had yelled a command at it just before he was hit. Burr, now a sack of broken bloody bones holds the sphere up and Sollenar blasts him again. Burr drops the ball and Sollenar goes after it but sees that Burr is still animated even though his face is blown away. Sollenar shoots him again. He then gathers up the ball, but seeing Burr still moving fires all his remaining charges into the body. Sollenar is so freaked out he leaves the ball. He then climbs out the window and gets into his spiderman suit, but sees Burr still trying to come after him.

Why didn’t Burr die. How could his body be so destroyed yet still move? Later Sollenar is back at his building with his girlfriend on the balcony, and the body of Burr shows up climbing the outside of the building. WTF? Sollenar crushes the gripping hand on the rim of the outside wall, and the body falls down to crash below.

This is like some supernatural horror film, or an EC Comic. It reminds me of the Marvel films of today, and why I don’t like them. I hate films that show extreme violence with the reality of The Three Stooges or Wile E. Coyote. But I keep reading. How can Budrys explain this to me?

The next scene has Sollenar going to the TTV Executives’ Costume Ball. Guess what, Curt Burr is there, dressed as a gallows bird. Not only does Budrys go for obvious symbolism, but he just flat out tells us. And guess how Sollenar is costumed? As a Medici. Is this story supposed to be a comedy? Is this story supposed to be a mad parody of the genre like the first version of Casino Royale made fun of James Bond movies? Have I been taking it too seriously, when it was meant to be a gag all along?

One reason I can’t stand superhero comics and movies is I can’t buy into their reality, I can’t suspend my disbelief to accept their obviously unreal premises. Is Budrys trying to get his readers to believe his story or is he satirizing the genre? Galaxy Magazine was known for its satire and human. Am I taking things to literal? Sarcasm often flies over my head, and satire often just seems stupid. Is Budrys secretly sneering at his reader?

If “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” was filmed it would look a Marvel film. Do fans of such film see them as satire? What are they poking fun of?

Sollenar now accuses Burr of buying immortality from the Martians. But what a horrifying kind of immortality, becoming a walking bag of broken bones and torn up flesh that can’t die.

Ermine now returns, also in costume, one which no one would take him for a man. Ermine even proves how inhuman he is, by showing Sollenar he has no feelings from his nerves. He feels no pain.

Sollenar learns that he must succeed or IAB will kill him. He takes a rocket to Mars. The trip must have lasted no more than what jet plane takes to get to a nearby city. More unreality. More comic book realism. And I should say, the realism level of Star Wars.

Sollenar violently ditches Ermine on Mars and heads out to find the Martian engineers. I did like the whole description of Mars, both the human and Martian cities and the Martians. Maybe that’s because I’ve always been a sucker for stories about Mars.

Sollener bargains to buy immortality like Burr, but it turns out Martians don’t have immortality to sell. What the Martians are selling is an illusion machine. It can make the irrational rational.

Now this would be hilarious if Budrys intended all along to make this a recursive science fiction story, poking fun at the genre. Judith Merril did that “The Deep Down Dragon” another story in the Galaxy anthology. But am I seeing SF humor too often? I get the feeling Budrys does want us to believe this wild adventure story just like Philip K. Dick often used techniques in his serious stories by having his characters confused by reality. I think, but not sure, that Budrys is pulling a PKD here. In a way, Cort Burr prefigures Palmer Eldritch. So maybe PKD 1960’s work was inspired by Budrys?

If I read this story right, Cort Burr was never shot. Sollenar just believed he was. And to escape Ermine who is waiting to shoot him, he buys a Martian machine to give Ermine the illusion that his nerves function again, and that he killed and buried Sollenar.

Ultimately, this is a fun story, even though it mainly works at Level 1 reality. And as long as we accept it as creative fun there is no harm in playing make believe. But we still have to consider the article about the danger of superhero stories. Has generations absorbing anti-reality fiction from comics, science fiction, television, movies, video games affected them? Would society be saner and wiser if its citizens only consumed Level 4 and Level 5 fiction?

Contemplate all the news stories you’ve encountered in 2020. Too much of it feels like people are trying to live Level 1 reality as being real. Think about those men who planned to kidnap a governor believing they were freedom fighters. Think about Qanon believers. Think about all the crap stories people believe today. Did science fiction contribute to the current climate of anti-science? We aren’t living in a satire although it sure feels like one. And that’s painful!

Does consuming Level 1 fiction create a Level 1 society? We can claim Bible stories and Greek mythology proves we’ve been consuming such fiction for thousands of years. Would going cold turkey on such fiction help? Or do we consume Level 1 fiction because the average human can only comprehend reality with Level 1 thinking?

This is a lot of philosophical navel gazing to get from one minor SF story from 1961. But, I’ve got nothing better to do. It is 2020, you know.

Additional Reading

James Wallace Harris, 10/12/20

My Changing Attitudes Towards Science Fiction Over a Lifetime

“The Gift” by Ray Bradbury – illustration Esquire Magazine, Dec. 1952

When I was young, science fiction was all about sense of wonder. This was back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I didn’t even know the phrase science fiction – I was just mesmerized by the images of rockets and space travel. Science fiction was rare shows I’d stumbleupon on television. We think we can remember what it’s like to be a child, but we can’t because we have a lifetime of words and concepts that children don’t have. Remember when you thought you could fly?

Then in 1961, when I was in the fifth grade I discovered Tom Swift Jr., Danny Dunn, and Oz books. This was just after the first Project Mercury mission. I also found nonfiction books about planes, rockets, and space, all at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. I knew more then, but didn’t really understand the concept of science. I recently read “People Soup” by Alan Arkin (yes, that Alan Arkin) in which he perfectly captured the attitude of ten-year-olds have towards science. Science and technology was magic that was real, and at ten I had unlimited faith in what science could do. So did Bob and Bonnie in Arkin’s story.

I’m not sure how aware of the world I was at age ten. I assume my vocabulary had grown since the late 1950s but was still quite small, and without the words to anchor ideas I’m not sure how much I could have understood conceptually about the science fiction I was consuming. Like I said, I didn’t even know that the fictional books, TV shows, and movies were even categorized by genre labels. Probably my awe and wonder was akin to ancient Greek children listening to the adventures of gods and goddesses. Isn’t it tragic that we believe the strongest in the fantasies we first encountered as children?

Then in the fall of 1964 I had an English teacher who gave me a recommended reading list. I was also taking science and math classes, and I loved reading popular science books. Still, I’m not sure how well I understood the concepts of science. That reading list included the writer Robert A. Heinlein, and I found his book Red Planet. I loved that novel and it inspired me to read astronomy books, especially books about Mars. It was then I knew I wanted to go to Mars in the same way Kip Russell wanted to go to the Moon in Have Space Suit-Will Travel.

By now I was in the eighth grade and my school was preparing us to think about the future of jobs, careers, and colleges. I knew immediately I wanted to become an astronaut. Within a year I had read most of what Heinlein had written, and his books were often inspirational about ambition, studying science, and space exploration. Then I read a career guide which gave the requirements for different kinds of jobs. I learned that astronauts needed 20-20 vision. I was devastated because I was a four-eyed nerd. After that I gave up considering careers and became a hedonist. I wished I had discovered computers back then, which is what I eventually got into. For the rest of junior and senior high I had to attend school, but I only applied myself at having fun – mostly reading science fiction and listening to rock and roll music. I did dabble in girls and drugs, but lacked talent to really pursue them properly.

For many years I just coasted. My parents were alcoholics and my family went through a long period of painful times. I used science fiction to ignore real life. Science fiction actually made me happy in a time when I should have been miserable. I’m quite thankful for that. Science fiction was a kind of virtual reality, one in which I escaped.

Then in the twelfth grade (1968/69) I took a creative writing course. I thought maybe I could become a professional science fiction writer. I wanted to be a prophet of space exploration, evening knowing I’d be like Moses and never reach the promised land. At the time I really thought the purpose of science fiction was to promote manned space travel. By then Star Trek mania had arrived and it seem to legitimize the idea that the final frontier was humanity’s destiny. Well, I believed it. I was quite naive and didn’t realize that the majority of population didn’t. Most SF fans and non-fans knew science fiction was merely entertainment.

I graduated high school just a couple months before the first Moon landing. If asked in the summer of 1969, I would have strongly predicted Americans would be on Mars by the 1980s, and humans would have explored most of the solar system by the year 2000. I hoped some kind of interstellar drive would be discovered and we’d be on to the stars before I died in the middle of the 21st-century. As we know I was as cracked as my crystal ball.

By the end of the 1970s I was married and working at a university that I’d stay at until I retired in 2013. For forty years I waited for us to go to Mars and we never did. Plenty of people wanted to go, but not enough to influence the politics involved. The will of the people never pushed for expanding into space. The high point of this period was Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, and several other science fiction novels that tried to seriously imagine colonizing Mars. Then came Robert Zubrin’s nonfiction books, A Case for Mars. Our society had everything we needed to go to the red planet, we just didn’t want to go. I was a true believer in a religion that most people were atheists.

During the past 55 years I probably read close to two thousand science fiction books. I also read hundreds of popular science books. I slowly grew up and realized that space travel isn’t what I dreamed about as a kid. When I was young I would have sold my soul to become a space explorer. Now, you couldn’t pay me to go. Over the decades I slowly learned I didn’t have the right stuff, and never had. I hate being sick, and most people get space sick. I hate discomfort, and space travel is very uncomfortable. I won’t or can’t push myself to my limits. Even if they had allowed astronauts needing glasses back in the 1960s, I never could have gotten into the program. I’m a dreamer, not a doer.

Even though I came to realize I wasn’t suited for space travel, I still hoped that a branch of humanity would colonize the Moon and Mars, and eventually we’d find a way to the stars. Science fiction was still my religion. I put my faith in science fiction. I loved science fiction books that worked to imagine the full potential of the human race. By then I had given up on fun science fiction. I didn’t like Star Wars because it wasn’t realistic.

In the last ten years I’ve read many essays and books that suggest that human space exploration is probably not practical. To me, the most important science fiction novel of this era was Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson was one of a few science fiction writers who were considering the possibility we would never go to the stars. Oh, we’ll probably go to Mars someday. And we’ll develop bases on the Moon, but interstellar travel is about as likely as time travel. I’ve read many science books since 2000 that have added to the evidence against manned space travel.

If I tell young science fiction fans I don’t think it’s possible to go to the stars they get upset. The dream doesn’t die. Why? There’s something deep in that belief we don’t understand.

It’s not physically impossible to travel between the stars, but it’s just not probable or practical for humans. It might not even be practical for machines. My current science fiction faith is in artificial intelligence. Machines are perfect for space travel, but I’ve even begun to wonder if a superintelligent AI might find the distances too far to cross.

As my beliefs about science fiction grow more skeptical it’s became harder to enjoy science fiction. At least, enjoy it with the same attitude I had growing up. But I have a heavy science fiction habit. I know I need to either give up science fiction or find a new purpose for it.

After I discovered Audible.com in 2002, that purpose was nostalgia. I bought audiobook editions of all the science fiction books I loved reading during the previous forty years. I saw these stories in a new light. I was able to psychologically analyze my younger selves and realize a lifetime of delusional thinking.

I discovered science fiction had never been particularly serious to begin with. Sure, the final frontier true believers read science fiction, but most of them went on to become scientists and engineers. There was never much science to be learned in science fiction. If you really want humanity to explore space you need to become a rocket scientist or politician, not a science fiction fan or writer.

This brought about a new understanding of science fiction. It’s an art form. Sure, a rather minor art form. But I had invested a lifetime of studying this art and it was too late to take up another. My new attitude towards science fiction is studying its history. That makes me sometimes feels like an English major (which I was), and sometimes a scholar of religion or mythology. Other times, it feels like I’m an art historian. Science fiction writers craft stories, and a lot art and creativity goes into that craft.

My new attitude towards science fiction is admiring the craft of inventing science fictional ideas while embedding them into fiction. My reading has shifted away from novels. It just takes too much time to study novels, and there’s are too many SF novels to make a comprehensive study this late in life. I’ve found science fiction short stories to be just the right size to collect and analyze. I can read 300+ short stories a year. I have two bookcases of SF anthologies, mostly the annual best-of-the-year anthologies, but also lots of genre retrospective and theme anthologies. It’s a manageable amount of territory to explore, but I should probably specialize even more.

To get some idea of the scope of this microscopic patch of literary history read Mark R. Kelly’s site on SF anthologies. Now when I read a science fiction story I wonder how and why the author wrote it, and what readers could get out of it. I consider fiction a message in a bottle, from one lonely conscious mind to another. What are we really coding and decoding when we write and read science fiction?

I could live another ten, twenty, or even thirty years, although I tend to believe I’ll have a statistical average length of life. In any event, I might have enough time to change my mind one or more times about science fiction. I don’t think I can give it up. Years ago I saw a television news story about priests and preachers who have lost their faith. Many of them continued on in their jobs because it was too late to retrain. I’ve lost my faith in science fiction, but not my love. To keep that love going requires constantly repurposing my approach to the genre.

JWH

The Time Travelers Who Visit Jesus

Our Facebook book club has just read the 1966 novella version of “Behold the Man” by Michael Moorcock which has made me wonder about time traveling back to A.D. 29 to find Jesus. Wouldn’t it be marvelous is we could study history with a time machine? Actually, what we really need is a time viewer, which was featured in an earlier story the group read, “E for Effort” by T. L. Sherred. That would eliminate any problem with temporal paradoxes.

Moorcock later expanded his story into a 1969 novel that I hope to read someday. I was impressed with the novella this reading because of how much history Moorcock put into the story. When I first read the novella back in the 1960s I didn’t know that history, but since then I’ve read eight books by Bart D. Ehrman about uncovering the historical Jesus through scholarship and not theology. I’ve also read Zealot by Reza Aslan that uses historical studies about Jesus to create a novel-like narrative of his life. Reading these nonfiction books is about as close as we can come to visiting Jesus with a time machine – and that’s only speculation. But then we have science fiction, which is another kind of speculation, a fun kind.

Between the time “Behold the Man” was published in 1966 and Behold the Man in 1969 another science fiction novel appeared about traveling back in time to visit Jesus, The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd. This is pretty much a forgotten science fiction novel but one I keep remembering. What’s fascinating about reading these two stories is comparing Moorcock’s and Boyd’s science fictional approach to dealing with Jesus. However, I can’t tell you why without spoiling the story.

I wrote a long review for my personal blog back in 2012 that avoids spoilers up to a point, and then gives a warning not to read after that. I thought I’d just reprint it here. It might encourage people to try both books. I’m also curious how other science fiction writers used Jesus in a time travel tale. Post comments about the ones you’ve read.

Forgotten Science Fiction: The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd

Every year thousands of SF and fantasy books get published, but few are reviewed, not many more become popular, and damn few get remembered.  Ten years out, most books are out-of-print and forgotten.  How many books can you remember from 2002?  And if we’re talking fifty years down the timeline, well it’s almost a miracle for a book that old to still be read, much less remembered and loved.

I discovered science fiction in the 1960s, in my teens, and like most people reading their first hundred SF titles, they all seemed so damn far out!  Now decades later, I doubt my memories of those first impressions.  So, when I have a little extra reading time, I order a book from ABE Books based on those dying memories and reread it.  I’ve now reread many of my teenage classics and a majority of them don’t hold up.

Most memories are fleeting, and my memory of The Last Starship From Earth was next to nothing.  All I remembered was a favorable impact.  Just a lingering sense of it being a standout read for 1968 or 1969.  To test that memory I recently bought and reread The Last Starship From Earth.  Sad to say, it was a discard from the Columbus Public Library, a common practice for books that don’t get checked out.  Not a good sign.  The last English reprint of this novel was in 1978.  It’s last edition was in French, in 1995.

The-Last-Starship-From-Earth-by-John-Boyd

The Review

The Last Starship From Earth is a dystopian novel set in 1968 and 1969, but not the 1968 and 1969 that I remember, or lived through.  In the world of this story, Jesus did not die on the cross, but was killed leading an assault on Rome.  He was the Messiah that people expected.  The government of John Boyd’s world is a global government run by Christians along “scientific” lines, where psychologists and sociologists in conjunction with the Church and an AI Pope rule the world.  People marry and mate because of their genes, sort of like the film Gattaca, and the hero of our story is Haldane IV, M-5, 138270, 3/10/46, a math student of great promise, being the fourth in line of great mathematicians.  Unfortunately Haldane gets the hots for Helix, a mere poet.  By law and social custom Haldane is expected to have nothing to do with her, but as you’d expect he falls in love with her.

Haldane concocts a ruse to justify more meetings with Helix by studying Fairweather I, a 19th century mathematician who also wrote poetry.  Much of the first half of the book deals with pseudo-academic studies from this alternate history.  Boyd is creative in his steady flow of ideas and concepts, but there’s little emotion in the story.  It’s somewhat Heinlein-esque, in it’s attitude and world building, but lacks the charm of Heinlein’s best prose.

Now, this quick summary is enticing, and I would like to report that The Last Starship From Earth is a forgotten classic, unfortunately, that’s probably not true.  I enjoyed the book, but only as a quick read.

Surfing the web I’ve found few other reviews of this novel, and although I’ve found people who claim it’s their favorite book, I also found people that thought it ho-hum.  Now, I’ve got to admit it has a humdinger of an ending, almost as startling as the film The Sixth Sense, but I’m not sure this last minute thrill pays for the reading the whole book.

I found the love affair of Haldane and Helix no more believable than Romeo and Juliet and far less exciting.  John Boyd does write well, but the plot is mostly intellectual, about the dystopian society, and its complications.  The book is only 182 pages, and the whole tale feels rushed.  Boyd staked out a solid gold claim but never mined it.

Analysis with Spoilers

The trouble with many SF novels, especially those written back in the 1950s and 1960s, was they were written very fast, and they were about ideas and not characters.  John Boyd has actually written a very ambitious novel by creating an alternative history of Jesus, but he never fleshes it out, and most of the story is a setup for the surprised ending.  The scope of the book is epic, the line by line writing reasonably entertaining, but the overall feel of the book is thin.

Haldane and Helix are discovered, and the middle part of the book is a trial that allows Boyd to work out the politics and legal system of this alternative reality, however, like the rest of this book, it’s rushed.  It’s padding.  That’s its downfall.  He has a big ending but it’s way bigger than the story.  To pad the story even more Haldane is sentence to exile on Pluto, which is called Hell.  There he meets Fairweather I and is reunited with Helix, who happens to be Fairweather’s granddaughter.  Fairweather needed a mathematician for his time machine, and Helix was sent to Earth to engineer the exile of a mathematician to pilot an experimental time machine.  In a very short time Fairweather makes Haldane immortal, tells him his new name is Judas Iscariot, and his mission is to go back in time to kill Christ.

Now if Boyd had spent a couple hundred pages recreating the Biblical world and shown how Haldane tracks down Jesus, we would have had a much better story.  But all of this was summed up in a short epilogue.  We are told Haldane captures Jesus and puts him in the time machine and sends him back, and the rest of the epilogue is about how he has relived the two thousand years to return to his own time and meet a girl that’s an awful lot like Helix, living in a future that’s much more like ours.  But did Haldane let Jesus die on the cross, or does he just disappear him from history?  Unless Haldane at least engineers a dying on the cross scene for history, we should not expect this timeline to be ours.

How do you plot a riveting novel with great characters based on the idea that Jesus didn’t die on the cross and the world became very different?  How do you tell the story twice?  Boyd really grabs a tiger by the tail and yells, “Look at me!”  And I think, “Cool!  Far out man!  But what are you going to do with him?”  He’s got to do more than just swing it around.  I’ll give Boyd a solid C for his world building, but they are only tantalizing sketches.

I really like this ending, but is it good enough to make The Last Starship From Earth a classic SF novel worth reading today?  I’ve linked several references to this book on the net and even though I can find fans of the book, I can find more people who think it sucks.  You’d think  Boyd Bradfield Upchurch, John Boyd’s real name, if he’s still alive, would arrange for his books to be reprinted as ebooks.  That certainly would make it easier for more readers to decide if The Last Starship From Earth is worth reading.

I’m afraid Boyd falls far short of classic standing.  The Last Starship from Earth is a good novel for science fiction historians to read, but it needed to be four or five times longer, more the size of Dune, to get the job done that Boyd outlined.  However, I’m not sure how he could have pulled off this big ambitious idea.

And is Boyd saying our history is the better timeline?  Why is his first timeline all that evil?  Is the freedom to fuck whoever you want the perfect ideal worth rewriting all of history?  Isn’t the more interesting story about a world where the promise of salvation and eternal life never happened?  Isn’t Boyd’s surprise ending really a cheat?

Time travel machines often ruins more stories than they’ve ever help.

Boyd has a three part story.  Life on Earth in an alternate timeline, life on Pluto, life on Earth in another timeline.  The story really isn’t about genetic breeding of humans like we see in Gattaca, or in Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon or Huxley’s Brave New World.  It’s about an oppressive government.  But does it deserve to be wiped out by time travel?

Here’s the thing, our 1968 was a horrible time for America, but should we send a man back in time to wipe it out?  Boyd wasn’t writing a protest novel like Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Nor did he write a novel that truly explored a timeline with a different Christ, which would have been ambitious enough.

Would The Last Starship From Earth been a better novel is it hadn’t used the time machine gimmick?  Not as it stands, but it potentially could have been.  I believe it’s a grave mistake for any alternate history novel is have a do-over.  Time travel is really a very dangerous concept to use in fiction.  Time travel is very hard to pull off.  The beauty of an alternative history novel is the alternative history.  Don’t add time travel.  This would take away Boyd’s surprise ending, but it would have meant he would have been forced to write a better novel.

I felt cheated when Helix shows up so easily on Pluto, in what at first appears to be a happy romantic ending, but then we’re thrown for another loop.  Haldane loses her again, only to find her again 2,000 years later.  Oh come on man, this horny-at-first-sight love isn’t believable.  Weren’t there no math babes for Haldane?  This really is a case of what you can’t have makes the heart grow fonder.  And neither Haldane nor Helix are all that interesting – if you want a great love story you have to have great lovers.

The powerful driving motive in Gattaca is that Vincent wants to go into space.  He wants to prove that he’s as good any genetically selected human.  The driving force of The Last Starship from Earth is Haldane wants to screw Helix.  Boyd doesn’t make it believable why his world outlaws sex, nor does he make it believable that Haldane and Helix are in big time love.  Hell, even the prosecutors of the story wink at him, and say why didn’t you use a condom and just screw her, implying this world does overlooks recreational sex, just not casual genetic mixing.  But then Boyd never explains why his world requires genetic  fidelity to specialties like mathematics and poetry.   In Gattaca we have the justification that their world doesn’t want naturals to pass on bad traits, but in Boyd’s world there is no reason to breed pure bred mathematicians.  Also, how many math geniuses does one world need?

John Boyd wrote just enough alternate history world-building to set up his surprise ending.  In essence The Last Starship From Earth is a O’Henry type story, and we now use those type stories as examples as how not to write a story.  However, The Last Starship From Earth suggests two possible storylines I’d love to read.  First, I’d love to read an alternate history where Christ was the Messiah that everyone was expecting.  Second, I’d love to read a time travel story about people having to learn what it takes to live in ancient Israel and track down Jesus.  Both would require a tremendous knowledge of real history.

JWH –5/28/12

JWH – 9/28/20

Too Much To Read

I have a bad habit of starting too many books. I’m also inspired to write too many essays requiring too much reading to write. And I’m in too many online book clubs. You know that saying, “Your eyes were bigger than your stomach” for eating too much? I wish I could find one for reading too much. Here’s a partial list of books I’m currently in the middle of reading:

  • The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells edited by James Gunn
  • Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America by Kenneth C. Davis
  • New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak
  • New Review Volume XII (January-June 1895) edited by W. E. Henley
  • The Best Science Fiction of the Year #2 (1972) edited by Terry Carr
  • The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame v. 2B edited by Ben Bova
  • The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
  • The Celestial Omnibus & The Eternal Moment by E. M. Forster
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson
  • The End of Expertise by Tom Nichols

There are more, but these are the books piled up around me just now. Awhile back I made a resolution to only read one book at a time. That lasted a couple of tortured months. My favorite regular activity right now is the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction. We read two anthologies concurrently, discussing a new story every couple of days. We’re just about to finish the Carr and Bova anthologies and are voting in two new ones.

I’m reading Ring Around the Sun because of something someone said in the group about Simak. I’ve actually promised to look at a lot more novels, but that’s another story.

I’m reading the Forster short stories because we read “The Machine Stops” on the group and I got sidetracked wanting to know more about Forster and wondering about his other short stories since “The Machine Stops” was so fantastic.

I’m also reading the bound volume of the New Review because we read “The Time Machine” for the group and I got interested in it’s original publication which I started reading online. The other articles were so fascinating that when I discovered the entire volume was available from India in a leather bound reprint I ordered it.

I’m reading/listening to The Fifth Head of Cerberus because we read the novella in the Carr anthology and I bought the novel version. I’m reading it while listening to an audio version that’s on YouTube.

So this one Facebook group keeps me really busy.

I’m reading The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) on my own because for the last couple years I’ve been slowly reading through the entire 25 volumes that cover 1939-1963. My pace has slowed tremendously since joining the Facebook group.

I’m reading War and Peace because I thought it might be my 2020 classic novel. I try to read one big classic every year. I’m about a third of the way into it. I’ve been reading, and then listening, and also watching TV/movies versions. However, at the rate I’m going it might need to become my 2021 classic read.

I’m reading Caste because of my two-person book club I have with my friend Linda, but it’s going to be doing double duty because my online nonfiction book club just voted to read it next month. It was the first time that all the members voted for the same book among the list of nominees. But then we read Wilkerson’s previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns and all rated it a 10 – that book was one of the best books I’ve read in my lifetime. I believe it still holds the record for being our most highly rated monthly read. For September we’re reading The Death of Expertise.

I’m reading The Road to Science Fiction and New Atlantis because of research I want to do for this blog. Hopefully, the New Review might help in this project too.

Finally, I’m reading Two-Bit Culture because of a comment made by a member of an online discussion group I’m in devoted to pulp magazines. We’ve often discussed theories about why the pulps faded away in the 1950s, and this book was offered as one explanation because it describes the rise of reading paperback books. I always thought the pulps were killed off by television, but Two-Bit Culture makes a great case for paperbacks. (By the way, I do have a history of television in the 1950s started too, but I don’t know where I left it.)

I guess I’ve rationally explained why I’m reading so many books at once, but that doesn’t help me get them finished. It’s obvious while writing this essay that my Facebook group is generating most of my reading. I’m in another online book club, and I’m supposed to be reading A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, but I’m not sure if I’m going to get to it. I feel bad that I neglect this book club the most. I can see belonging to three book clubs is what’s keeping me from my old resolution of only reading one book at a time. However, I don’t want to quit those groups.

I just remembered the books on my Kindle, like The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster which I was reading and reviewing for this site. I’ve gotten completely sidetrack by that project and need to get back to it. Also, The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020 edited by Jonathan Strahan comes out on the 8th and I’ll want to start it too. My Kindle reads would add more to the above list, and so would my Audible account. Damn, I’ve got too many books on my reading stand, Kindle, and iPhone!

The real trend in my reading is short stories. I’ve practically stopped reading novels. I’m reading around 300 short stories a year now, and this is my third year. Mostly it’s been science fiction, but I’m getting the urge to read literary stories too. That’s why I got sidetracked by the Forster collection.

The trouble is I can’t keep this pace up. If I want to really work on my project to find 19th-century science fiction fans, I need to focus. I can’t imagine how writers like Mike Ashley or Brian Stableford can focus on writing books about science fiction history and read all the content needed to write them. (I guess they don’t watch all the TV I do.)

The Tom Nichols’ book about the death of expertise is about how everyone claims to know stuff that few specialists know. I’m trying to write an essay about stuff that Ashley and Stableford are far better equipped to write. To write the essay I want will require doing a lot of research and reading. In other words I need to become an expert. That makes me realize that few people have expertise in anything. I certainly shouldn’t say anything about the endless subjects I talk about because I just don’t read enough.

I realize at this moment, most of my expertise is in reading about science fiction, and my current central interest is science fiction short stories. Since I’m in a Facebook group that also focuses on that topic, I know I’m far from being the expert much less an expert, but it is the subject I know the most about (at the moment). If I really want to become an expert in the history of science fiction short stories I’ll need to do a whole lot more reading. I should exclude reading anything that’s not within the territory I want to master. But that won’t happen.

People who become experts must be capable of amazing feats of reading. Isabel Wilkerson probably read a whole library of books to write Caste.

It’s weird to realize that my reading is leading me towards a very narrow subject – the history of reading science fiction short stories in the 19th century. I was focused on the 1939-1975 range, but if I want to understand where science fiction began I need to expand that back to 1800. That is indeed a lot to read.

It’s interesting that writing this essay help me realize that the pile of books I’m reading is connected by a web of related interests. What formerly seemed to be random reading is actually fairly focused. Maybe I’m not as scattered-brained as I imagined.

James Wallace Harris, 9/4/20

Tracking Down Pre-Fandom Science Fiction Readers

Ever since I’ve been reading 19th-century science fiction I’ve wondered what were the reactions to those stories by readers of the day. The term science fiction applied as a unique category of fiction didn’t exist before Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories in 1926, and even then it took a number of years to get the label we have today. At first, Gernsback called the type of stories he wanted for his magazine scientifiction, but within a few years it was changed to science-fiction, and then to science fiction. (See “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”)

Before that according to Brian Stableford in his 4-volume New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance, the French called stories like those written by Jules Verne roman scientifique, and the British called stories like those written by H. G. Wells scientific romances. I’ve yet to find what Americans called such stories. It’s doubtful in any country if the reading public thought those kind of stories represented a distinctive branch of literature.

During the 1930s American admirers of the science fiction story in pulp magazines began to communicate via letters, then meeting in person, eventually creating clubs and holding conventions. The first Worldcon was in 1939. Those organized science fiction readers called themselves fans, and collectively called their activities fandom. During the period 1930s-1950s is when the genre of science fiction slowly emerged — finally to be recognized by book publishers who marketed science fiction by that label, and libraries and bookstores began shelving it separately under that term too.

However, the kind of stories we now call science fiction existed well before the label, and I’m sure those stories resonated with a tiny segment of the reading public. How soon did those readers begin to seek out stories we call science fiction? We know this began for sure when Gernsback started publishing them together in a magazine, but when did publishers, editors, and readers recognize there was a type of fiction that wasn’t about what was but what could be? Stableford cites reviewers using the term scientific romances and roman scientifiques but how universal were those labels? Did readers intentionally track down those stories because of those descriptive phrases?

We’ve always had fantasy, but fantasy is fiction about events and places that could never be. When did readers start saying to themselves, “I like those stories about what could happen in the future?” Can I find published accounts of reader reactions to science fiction stories published before 1926. Starting in the 1930s fans of science fiction began publishing amateur magazines they called zines. There are several histories of these, and they do document how readers felt. What I’m looking for is pre-fandom documentation.

My first hunch was to wonder about book clubs. I found, “The evolution of American book clubs: A timeline” by Audra Otto that suggests Americans liked getting together to discuss books and have been for at least four hundred years. The kind of stories we call science fiction didn’t really begin to appear regularly until the 19th-century with tales like Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley and “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) by Washington Irving. Did any reader in those days claim they were a different kind of fiction? When did readers who liked those kind of stories start noticing they were different?

And when did readers start saying to one another “I want to read more stories about traveling in time” or “I want to read more stories about amazing inventions” or “I love stories about traveling to other worlds?” Wouldn’t that be the first seeds science fiction fandom? For example, we know hundreds of Nationalist clubs were formed over Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward. That represents a kind of fandom, and they also had a national magazine. Could other book clubs have formed for fans of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Fitz-James O’Brien, Edward Page Mitchell, or H. G. Wells?

What I would like is to find documentation of early interest in science fiction. I have no idea of how to go about it. Fanzines from the 1930s are the documented proof of fandom as we know it, but were there amateur publications before then that dealt with science fiction stories even though they didn’t have a universal label yet for those kinds of stories? There was amateur press associations in the 19th century, but can I find copies their publications online?

Conversations weren’t recorded in the 19th century, so letters and diaries should be the first kinds of lasting evidence. Did Jules Verne get fan letters? Are there any published diaries whose authors secretly wrote about their fondness for stories we’d now call science fiction? When did the letters to the editor columns begin? Did fans of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories ever write to the periodicals where his stories were published? I can’t believe readers of in 1895 couldn’t have been silent after having their minds blown with “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells.

Here’s my problem. There are vast reservoirs of 19th-century publications out there, even on the net, but I’m not ready to devote the rest of my life to systematically sifting through them to answer this one idle question that keeps intriguing me. First, I’m going to look for books, probably scholarly books, that document science fiction back then. By blogging this essay, I hope readers that might know of books or articles that cover this topic will post a comment.

I’ll use the New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford to outline the main works that should have generated reviews and then begin to search for those reviews. Maybe reviews inspired letters to the editor or even counter-reviews or essays. I’ll also see if any of those authors had collected letters, memoirs, autobiographies, or biographies. A lot of this depends on finding periodicals and books online from 1830-1930.

After that I have an anthology The Rivals of H. G. Wells that collected short stories similar to H. G. Wells published in magazines from late 1800s to early 1900s. If I can find scans of those magazines online, I’m going to see if I can find any reader responses in later issues. I’ll also use the list of stories I generated for my essay “19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories” as starting points for similar research.

This will be a long term project. It’s doubtful I’ll find much evidence, but I’ll keep a subprogram running in the back of my head to interrupt me for when I do. And if anyone reading this finds any, please post a comment.

James Wallace Harris, 8/24/20

Update: 8/24/20SFFAudio pointed me to Vril, a concept in a science fiction like novel The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that led to legions of fans, mostly occult, and its implications in novels and works of occult beliefs. This inspired some science fiction writers, even Heinlein had his occult moments. I’m thinking both the Bellamy and Bulwer-Lytton followers and their organized activities might have been precursors to 20th-century fandom.

When Did E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” Become Science Fiction?

In 1909 E. M. Forster’s story “The Machine Stops” was published in the November issue of The Oxford and Cambridge Review. It is a dystopian tale about a future society run by a machine. Forster was replying to H. G. Wells novel, A Modern Utopia serialized in the Fortnightly Review in 1904 and 1905. Neither writer thought they were writing science fiction because, first, the term did not yet exist, and second, because Wells was promoting scientific socialism and Forster was protesting it. However, both stories had all the trappings of science fiction.

A Modern Utopia is seldom remembered by science fiction fans, but “The Machine Stops” is considered one of the classics of the genre, and often reprinted in retrospective anthologies of science fiction short stories. When did science fiction fans first discover “The Machine Stops” and claim it for the science fiction genre? And did E. M. Forster who lived until 1970 ever know this?

Many within the genre consider science fiction originating with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, first published in April 1926. Gernsback first called these stories scientifiction, but within a few years coined the term science fiction. That term “science fiction” didn’t become widely known outside of the genre until the late 1940s and early 1950s. See my essay, “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”

Hugo Gernsback is also credited with creating science fiction fandom by encouraging readers of the stories in his magazines to communicate in his letter column. Eventually, he organized the Science Fiction League in the April, 1934 issue of Wonder Stories. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s science fiction developed as a genre, and readers began calling themselves fans and developed a subculture they called fandom. You can read more about both in these two wonderful books.

However, what do you call stories that use the techniques and themes of science fiction published before Gernsback? What do you call readers who loved these kinds of stories before fandom? Science fiction has always been written by writers who work outside of the genre – before and after it was established. And there were readers before the genre existed that loved stories we now call science fiction.

Science fiction has been laying claim to these proto-SF stories for decades. Gernsback had to reprint Poe, Verne, and Wells in the early issues of Amazing Stories because he didn’t have enough new science fiction to start his magazine. Interestingly, he didn’t reprint “The Machine Stops.” Nor did any of the other pulps that eventually began reprinting classic fantasy and science fiction.

When I reread “The Machine Stops” for a Facebook group that discusses science fiction short stories, I noticed something interesting. Forster describes a future where humans have withdrawn from the surface of the Earth, but automatic aerodromes run by the machine keep the flying machines going on their old routes. This was very reminiscence of “Twilight” by John W. Campbell, Jr., where a time traveler visits a far future Earth and the people have abandoned cities that still function by automatic machinery, including air fields. This made me wonder if Campbell had read Forster’s story. It also made me wonder just when did science fiction fans discovered “The Machine Stops.”

The internet is a wonderful tool for doing such research. We know that “The Machine Stops” was originally published in a 1909 journal. I quickly found out it was reprinted in a collection of E. M. Forster’s stories called The Eternal Moment and Other Stories in 1928. “Twilight” was first published in 1934, so theoretically Campbell could have read it. However, I can find no evidence that he had, nor could any of my online chums who were helping me.

Then, when did fandom discover “The Machine Stops” and begin calling it science fiction? There is a wonderful tool called the Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB.org) that indexes all it can about published science fiction. It’s entry for “The Machine Stops” is quite revealing, giving a listing of all the times it was reprinted in works related to science fiction.

The first SF anthology that reprinted “The Machine Stops” is The Science Fiction Galaxy edited by Groff Conklin in 1950, and it just so happens I have a copy. It’s a tiny hardback the size of a paperback. Conklin was an early anthologist of science fiction, assembling over forty of them. And there is a clue here to our mystery. In his first three large anthologies most of the stories he collected were from the science fiction pulp magazines. In The Science Fiction Galaxy he begins with three stories that existed before the genre emerged, “The Machine Stops” (1909) and “As Easy as A. B. C.” (1912) by Rudyard Kipling, and “The Derelict” (1912) by William Hope Hodgson. In his previous anthology he had found two pre-genre stories. (Joshua Glenn in recent times has done extensive discovery of stories from this era which he calls Radium Age Science Fiction.)

Conklin never searched hard for these older stories, but other antologists did. See my essay “19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories.” There were plenty of stories published before science fiction was known as a genre that could be called science fiction. I’ve often wondered about the readers who read them. It’s one thing to get a sense of wonder from science fiction in the 20th century, because we had rockets, robots, and atomic bombs to validate our genre’s tales, but can you imagine what readers in the 19th and early 20th century felt when reading their version of science fiction stories?

Scholars have tracked down these old stories, but I’ve never read anything about the readers. I’d love to know the reactions. Did they ever write letters to the editors, or reviews, or even include their thoughts in memoirs and diaries? I can’t find them.

Had science fiction fans discovered “The Machine Stops” before Groff Conklin in 1950? That’s harder to track down but I’ve gotten some help from chums on the net. I believe the trail begins with The Eternal Moment and Other Stories published in 1928. One of those chums named Bill, found these reviews for me:

From an unsigned 13 May 1928 review in the Hartford Courant of The Eternal Moment:
"Here are six strange and striking tales by Mr. Forster, one of the most individual and distinguished of contemporary British novelists . . . "The Machine Stops," which opens the volume, is one of those prophetic fantasies belonging roughly in the same class with certain well-known stories of H. G. Wells. "The Machine Stops" is a ghastly conception, its period set at some immeasurably distant point in an assumed future, when the human race dwells in underground shelters and individuals very seldom see one another; horrible, fantastic and sinister as this story is, it simply follows out, at least along certain lines, the prophecies lately revealed to us in the blinding flash-lights of the Today and Tomorrow Series, and we have already, now in our own existent daily life, attained to some of the wonders which form the abhorrent commonplaces of life in Mr. Forster's fantasy. It may be noted that the fantasy is essential and bitter satire, and that "the machine" does not satisfy every man."
Frank Weir, reviewing in the Decatur IL Daily Review, 8 Jun 1928:
" "The Machine Stops" tells the story of a world inside the earth. Life is controlled by a machine. Forster turns ironical as he presents his travesty on what may be the final result of an age entirely dependent on mechanical genius. Fine writing around an exceptional idea marks this tale as a gem."
John F. Geis in The Brooklyn NY Times Union, 3 Jun 1928:
" "The Machine," which begins the book, is acknowledged an output of two decades ago and portrays the millennium of the electrical age even to the mechanical doctor, but doesn't it sound a bit as though it might be a travesty on birth control? At any rate, the machine, like man, is fallible, and only God reigns omnipotent."

None of those quotes suggest the story is science fiction, but then it was 1928 and the term didn’t really exist. But none of those quotes suggests the story is a different kind of story, or something experimental, or a unique kind of fiction in any way. However, sometime between 1928 and 1950 science fiction fans began to recognize this story as part of their genre.

There are a number of sites that preserve old fanzines digitally, including fanac.org, efanzines.com, and fiawol.org.uk. I’ve discovered that .pdf files at these sites that have been OCRed are indexed in Google. And I’ve also learned that some fanzines are indexed in the many indexes hosted at Galactic Central. Still, with all those sources, and my online helpers, we found very few references to “The Machine Stops.”

The best reference located was in The Acolyte #9 (Winter 1945), which had a column by Harold Wakefield devoted to finding old pre-genre SF/F fiction called “Little Known Fantasisistes.” The editors said Wakefield had found a copy of The Eternal Moment and Other Stories and would review it in the future. He never did.

We know British fans had a chance to read The Eternal Moment and Other Stories as early as 1937 because a mimeograph bibliography of available science fiction.

Finally, there were references to “The Machine Stops” in Pilgrims Through Space and Time: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction by J. O. Bailey, a 1947 book publication of his 1934 dissertation on proto-SF.

Of course, none of these clues proved that science fiction fans read “The Machine Stops” before Conklin’s The Science Fiction Galaxy in 1950 but I imagine that some did. After 1950 the story was reprinted in numerous anthologies, but most importantly in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B (1973) edited by Ben Bova. This was where members of the Science Fiction Writers of America voted for their favorite science fiction stories published before the advent of their Nebula Awards in 1965. To come in at the top of such a poll meant many of those writers knew the story, and probably most, if not all, had read “The Machine Stops” in anthologies since 1950. I can’t prove that though.

“The Machine Stops” has become even more famous since the emergence of the Internet because E. M. Forster in 1909 imagined humans isolating themselves and mainly communicating via a machine. It’s heroine is a kind of blogger. Read the BBC essay, “Did E. M. Forster predict the internet age” or Wired Magazine’s take on the subject.

The story feels like uncanny prophecy. Actually, it’s Forster’s fear about the industrial age completely taking over human society. If you’ve never read “The Machine Stops” you can read it online here or listen to it here:

“The Machine Stops” proves the qualities that define science fiction existed before the label, but I’m also curious if the specific love for such stories existed before fandom?

James Wallace Harris, 8/21/20

The SF Anthology Problem – Audiobooks

There are so few retrospective science fiction anthologies on audio that it’s not really practical to run Szymon’s program to solve for the SF Anthology Problem. I’ve decided to do the search manually.  Basically, I printed out the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list (ordered by author) and went looking for audiobook editions — mainly at Audible.com. For stories I couldn’t find there I tried online sources such as Escape Pod, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, StarShipSofa, YouTube, LibriVox, etc.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One is the one major anthology for SF short stories on audio, with 17 of the 101 Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories. Volumes 2A and 2B are also on audio, but they only get an additional three stories between them. I hope audiobook publishers will start producing more retrospective anthologies.

Stories by the same author grouped together are in the same collection/anthology.

“The Queen of Air and Darkness” Poul Anderson 1971
YouTube

“Nightfall” – Isaac Asimov (1941)
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“The Last Question” – Isaac Asimov (1956)
Robot Dreams

“The Bicentennial Man” – Isaac Asimov (1976)
Robot Visions

“The Voices of Time” – J. G. Ballard (1960)
The Complete Short Stories

“Blood Music” – Greg Bear (1983)
Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy

“Fondly Fahrenheit” – Alfred Bester (1954)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Bears Discover Fire” – Terry Bisson (1990)
Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories

“Surface Tension” – James Blish (1952)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“There Will Come Soft Rains” – Ray Bradbury (1950)
The Martian Chronicles

“Arena” – Fredric Brown (1944)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“The Mountains of Mourning” – Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Borders of Infinity

“Speech Sounds” – Octavia E. Butler (1983)
“Bloodchild” – Octavia E. Butler (1984)
Bloodchild and Other Stories

“Who Goes There?” – John W. Campbell, Jr. (1938)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A

“Story of Your Life” – Ted Chiang (1998)
“Hell Is the Absence of God” – Ted Chiang (2001)
Stories of Your Life and Others

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” – Ted Chiang (2007)
Exhalation

“The Sentinel” – Arthur C. Clarke (1951)
“The Nine Billion Names of God” – Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One
“The Star” = Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
“A Meeting with Medusa” – Arthur C. Clarke (1971)
The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke

“Snow” – John Crowley (1985)
StarShipSofa
Lightspeed

“Great Work of Time” – John Crowley (1989)

“Or All the Seas with Oysters” – Avram Davidson (1958)
Or All the Seas with Oysters

“The Star Pit” – Samuel R. Delany (1967)
1967 radio show

“Aye, and Gomorrah …” – Samuel R. Delany (1967)

“Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” – Samuel R. Delany (1968)

“Second Variety” – Philip K. Dick (1953)
“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” – Philip K. Dick (1966)
Minority Report and Other Stories

“”Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman” – Harlan Ellison (1965)
YouTube

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” – Harlan Ellison (1967)
YouTube

“Jeffty Is Five” – Harlan Ellison (1977)
The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the 20th Century

“A Boy and His Dog” – Harlan Ellison (1969)
The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World and Other Works

“Burning Chrome” – William Gibson (1982)
Burning Chrome

“The Cold Equations” – Tom Godwin (1954)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“All You Zombies—” – Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
All You Zombies (5 stories)
Escape Pod

“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” – Kij Johnson (2011)

“Think Like a Dinosaur” – James Patrick Kelly (1995)
“Think Like a Dinosaur”

“Flowers for Algernon” – Daniel Keyes (1959)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One
Escape Pod

“The Country of the Kind” – Damon Knight (1956)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“The Little Black Bag” – C. M. Kornbluth (1950)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Beggars in Spain” – Nancy Kress (1991)

“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore (1943)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Vintage Season” – C. L. Moore (1946)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A

“The Day Before the Revolution” – Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)

“Nine Lives” – Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
The Unreal and the Real: Volume One
The Unreal and the Real: Volume Two

“Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” – Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)
“Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” – Ursula K. Le Guin (1987)
The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin

“Coming Attraction” – Fritz Leiber (1950)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“First Contact” – Murray Leinster (1945)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“A Song for Lya” – George R. R. Martin (1974)

“Sandkings” – George R. R. Martin (1979)
YouTube

“The Way of Cross and Dragon” – George R. R. Martin (1979)
Lightspeed

“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” – Vonda N. McIntyre (1973)

“That Only a Mother” – Judith Merril (1948)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Rachel in Love” – Pat Murphy (1987)
Escape Pod

“Inconstant Moon” – Larry Niven (1971)

“Day Million” – Frederik Pohl (1966)
Drabblecast

“The Lucky Strike” – Kim Stanley Robinson (1984)
The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson

“When It Changed” – Joanna Russ (1972)

“Souls” – Joanna Russ (1982)

“Light of Other Days” – Bob Shaw (1966)
YouTube

“R & R” – Lucius Shepard (1986)

“Passengers” – Robert Silverberg (1968)
Escape Pod

“Born with the Dead” – Robert Silverberg (1974)

“Sailing to Byzantium” – Robert Silverberg (1985)
“Sailing to Byzantium”

“Desertion” – Clifford D. Simak (1944)
City

“Scanners Live in Vain” Cordwainer Smith (1950)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One
“The Game of Rat and Dragon” – Cordwainer Smith (1955)
The Best of Cordwainer Smith

“Swarm” – Bruce Sterling (1982)

“Lobsters” – Charles Stross 2001

“Microcosmic God” – Theodore Sturgeon (1941)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Thunder and Roses” – Theodore Sturgeon (1947)

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” – Theodore Sturgeon (1959)
Escape Pod

“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1972)
“The Women Men Don’t See” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1973)
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1973)
“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1976)
“The Screwfly Solution” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1977)
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

“The Only Neat Thing to Do” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1985)

“The Moon Moth” – Jack Vance (1961)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B

“Black Destroyer” – A. E. van Vogt (1939)

“Air Raid” John Varley (1977)

“Press ENTER ■” – John Varley 1984
“Press ENTER ■”

“The Persistence of Vision” John Varley (1978)
“The Persistence of Vision”

“Harrison Bergeron” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1961)
Favorite Stories of Science Fiction v. 1

“The Ugly Chickens” – Howard Waldrop (1980)
Drabblecast

“The Island” – Peter Watts (2009)
StarShipSofa

“The Things” – Peter Watts (2010)
The Very Best of the Very Best edited by Gardner Dozois
Escape Pod
Clarkesworld

“A Martian Odyssey” – Stanley G. Weinbaum (1934)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“The Star” – H. G. Wells (1897)
Short Stories – Volume One

“Fire Watch” – Connie Willis (1982)
“The Last of the Winnebagos” – Connie Willis (1988)
“At the Rialto” – Connie Willis (1989)
Escape Pod
“Even the Queen” – Connie Willis (1992)
Escape Pod
The Best of Connie Willis (all 4)

“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” – Gene Wolfe (1972)

“The Death of Doctor Island” – Gene Wolfe (1973)

“Seven American Nights” – Gene Wolfe (1978)

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – Roger Zelazny (1963)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“For a Breath I Tarry” – Roger Zelazny (1966)

I hope audiobook producers see this list and get inspired to record science fiction short stories. They especially need to pay attention to Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, and Gene Wolfe, but quite a few classic science fiction writers need short story collections on audio.

James Wallace Harris, 8/13/20

The SF Anthology Problem – Kindle Solution

The original Science Fiction Anthology Problem required finding anthologies that contained all the 101 stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list. Szymon Szott solved that problem, but then he wrote and told me since he lived in Poland that it was too expensive to buy physical books from overseas. He wanted to rerun the program but this time pick only anthologies that were available in ebook format.

His first effort could only find 80 of the 101 stories. There just weren’t that many science fiction anthologies available on the Kindle. I told him to break the original rule and include single-author collections.  That allowed him to bring the total stories to 94. It was especially surprising that he couldn’t find an ebook collection of James Tiptree, Jr. stories, however, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever that’s available on audio contains those stories. That suggests we should also do a Science Fiction Anthology Problem with an audiobook solution.

By the way, the two giant anthologies, Sense of Wonder and The Big Book of Science Fiction are so huge in print that I don’t like holding them to read, and Sense of Wonder has a typeface that demands perfect vision. They are better read as an ebook. In fact, I’m starting to want the Kindle edition as my primary format. My eyes still prefer reading off of paper pages but only if the font is large enough, otherwise my eyes like the Kindle e-ink page. My eyes do enjoy reading off my phone or tablet, but they tire more easily.

There is another reason to prefer the Kindle edition. All these books fit on one small device. And they can be read on my phone. It’s great to pull out my iPhone and read a science fiction short story whenever I have an idle moment.

Here are Szymon’s program results looking for Kindle editions:

Sense of Wonder

- "Arena" by Fredric Brown
- "Bears Discover Fire" by Terry Bisson
- "Black Destroyer" by A. E. van Vogt
- "Blood Music" by Greg Bear
- "Bloodchild" by Octavia E. Butler
- "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin
- "The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight
- "Day Million" by Frederik Pohl
- "First Contact" by Murray Leinster
- "Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester
- "The Game of Rat and Dragon" by Cordwainer Smith
- "Hell Is the Absence of God" by Ted Chiang
- "Jeffty Is Five" by Harlan Ellison
- "The Little Black Bag" by C. M. Kornbluth
- "Lobsters" by Charles Stross
- "The Lucky Strike" by Kim Stanley Robinson
- "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum
- "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon
- "The Mountains of Mourning" by Lois McMaster Bujold
- "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov
- "The Only Neat Thing to Do" by James Tiptree, Jr.
- "Or All the Seas with Oysters" by Avram Davidson
- "Passengers" by Robert Silverberg
- "The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley
- "Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy
- "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" by Roger Zelazny
- "The Sentinel" by Arthur C. Clarke
- "Seven American Nights" by Gene Wolfe
- "Souls" by Joanna Russ
- "Surface Tension" by James Blish
- "That Only a Mother" by Judith Merril
- "Think Like a Dinosaur" by James Patrick Kelly
- "The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop
- "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Running story total: 34

The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection

- ""Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison
- "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" by James Tiptree, Jr.
- "Aye, and Gomorrah …" by Samuel R. Delany
- "Desertion" by Clifford D. Simak
- "Sandkings" by George R. R. Martin
- "Snow" by John Crowley
- "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
- "Swarm" by Bruce Sterling
- "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov
- "The Man Who Lost the Sea" by Theodore Sturgeon
- "The Star" by Arthur C. Clarke
- "The Star" by H. G. Wells
- "The Voices of Time" by J. G. Ballard
- "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" by Ursula K. Le Guin
- "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ

Running story total: 49

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I

- "Coming Attraction" by Fritz Leiber
- "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes
- "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore
- "Scanners Live in Vain" by Cordwainer Smith
- "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke

Running story total: 54

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

- "At the Rialto" by Connie Willis
- "Even the Queen" by Connie Willis
- "Fire Watch" by Connie Willis
- "The Last of the Winnebagos" by Connie Willis

Running story total: 58

The Reel Stuff

- "Air Raid" by John Varley
- "Second Variety" by Philip K. Dick
- "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick

Running story total: 61

Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction

- "Sailing to Byzantium" by Robert Silverberg
- "The Death of Doctor Island" by Gene Wolfe
- "The Star Pit" by Samuel R. Delany

Running story total: 64

Dreamsongs: GRRM: A RRetrospective

- "A Song for Lya" by George R. R. Martin
- "The Way of Cross and Dragon" by George R. R. Martin

Running story total: 66

Beyond the Rift

- "The Island" by Peter Watts
- "The Things" by Peter Watts

Running story total: 68

Future on Ice

- "Press ENTER ■" by John Varley
- "Speech Sounds" by Octavia E. Butler

Running story total: 70

The Wind's Twelve Quarters

- "Nine Lives" by Ursula K. Le Guin
- "The Day Before the Revolution" by Ursula K. Le Guin

Running story total: 72

The Top of the Volcano: The Award-Winning Stories of Harlan Ellison

- "A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison
- "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison

Running story total: 74

Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century

- "All You Zombies—" by Robert A. Heinlein
- "Inconstant Moon" by Larry Niven

Running story total: 76

Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

- "The Screwfly Solution" by James Tiptree, Jr.

Running story total: 77

The Best of C. L. Moore

- "Vintage Season" by Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore

Running story total: 78

The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2012

- "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson

Running story total: 79

The Best of Lucius Shepard

- "R & R" by Lucius Shepard

Running story total: 80

Born with the Dead

- "Born with the Dead" by Robert Silverberg

Running story total: 81

The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels

- "Beggars in Spain" by Nancy Kress

Running story total: 82

The Martian Chronicles

- "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Ray Bradbury

Running story total: 83

Exhalation

- "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang

Running story total: 84

Hackers

- "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson

Running story total: 85

The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Science Fiction: Volume One

- "Great Work of Time" by John Crowley

Running story total: 86

The Last Defender of Camelot

- "For a Breath I Tarry" by Roger Zelazny

Running story total: 87

The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction

- "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" by Gene Wolfe

Running story total: 88

The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke

- "A Meeting with Medusa" by Arthur C. Clarke

Running story total: 89

Modern Classics of Fantasy

- "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" by Ursula K. Le Guin

Running story total: 90

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B

- "The Moon Moth" by Jack Vance

Running story total: 91

Nebula Awards Showcase 2015

- "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" by Samuel R. Delany

Running story total: 92

The World Turned Upside Down

- "Thunder and Roses" by Theodore Sturgeon

Running story total: 93

Welcome to the Monkey House: The Special Edition

- "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Running story total: 94

Missing stories:

['"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr.', '"Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" by Vonda N. McIntyre', '"The Women Men Don\'t See" by James Tiptree, Jr.', '"The Bicentennial Man" by Isaac Asimov', '"The Girl Who Was Plugged In" by James Tiptree, Jr.', '"The Queen of Air and Darkness" by Poul Anderson', '"Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw']

Selected books:

Sense of Wonder
The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I
The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories
The Reel Stuff
Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction
Dreamsongs: GRRM: A RRetrospective
Beyond the Rift
Future on Ice
The Wind's Twelve Quarters
The Top of the Volcano: The Award-Winning Stories of Harlan Ellison
Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century
Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology
The Best of C. L. Moore
The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2012
The Best of Lucius Shepard
Born with the Dead
The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels
The Martian Chronicles
Exhalation
Hackers
The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Science Fiction: Volume One
The Last Defender of Camelot
The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction
The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke
Modern Classics of Fantasy
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B
Nebula Awards Showcase 2015
The World Turned Upside Down
Welcome to the Monkey House: The Special Edition

Number of selected books:  30

Szymon is still tweaking this program and the latest results can be found here. For example, he found “The Bicentennial Man” in Robot Visions.

This solution can be reconfigured easily with other options. For example, instead of buying The Best of C. L. Moore to get “Vintage Season,” you could purchase The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A. You’d need to decide if you wanted more Moore or more other SF writers.

This effort shows the weak ebook support SF anthologies have. Retrospective and theme anthologies don’t seem to be as popular as they used to be, but then I’m not sure that reading short science fiction is as popular as it used to be.

Maybe anthologists will read this and be inspired to assemble an ebook anthology. I hope.

James Wallace Harris, 8/12/20

The SF Anthology Problem – Solved

Two years ago when we completed version 1 of The Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list I proposed a math challenge. Version 1 came up with 275 stories. I asked if there was any mathematically way to decide what were the fewest anthologies that contained all 275 stories using ISFDB.org as a reference database. Version 1 was generated using .csv files. Since then we updated the process to a database for version 2 of the list, which produced 101 stories — we believe that was a more practical reading list.

A science fiction fan could read the entire list over the summer by reading one story a day, or in a year by reading one story every three days, but where would they get the 101 science fiction short stories? It might be possible to track down many stories on the internet, but what if people wanted to read them in a printed book? What would be the minimum number of anthologies to buy to get all the stories? That seem like an fascinating mathematical problem to me.

Well, Szymon Szott just came up with a solution using version 2 of the list. The second link goes to GitHub for Szymon’s Python code and documentation. The first link goes to his bio. Even if you can’t read the programming code you should visit this page that explains his solution. Szymon was able to come up with 22 anthologies that collected the 101 stories on the v. 2 of The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list.

The photo above pictures eight anthologies that get 81 stories of the version 2 list. Of course, those eight anthologies gets you a lot more than 81 stories. I tried to figure out the solution myself by using a spreadsheet and the best I could do was find fifteen anthologies to cover 81 stories, and then gave up. I figured my eyeballing method might have gotten me to 30-35 anthologies.

Here’s what Szymon says about the project:

As a fan of science fiction and a compulsive completionist, Worlds Without End is one of my favorite sites on the Internet. It was there that I learned about Jim and Mike's work on the list of classic science fiction novels which I've been eagerly following. When the list of classic science fiction short stories was announced and Jim blogged about The Mathematics of Buying Science Fiction Anthologies, I knew this was an interesting problem to solve. But it wasn't until I started dabbling in Python that I realized that, along with the 2020 travel-restricted summer holidays, I now had the tools to start chipping away at this. Creating a story-to-anthology mapping using data from the Internet Speculative Fiction Database didn't take too long, but the underlying mathematical problem was harder than I initially thought: it turned out that a brute-force approach of checking all possible combinations is unfeasible. Still, the heuristic used has given us a solution which I'm satisfied with and I don't think there exists a much better global solution. I was most surprised that the Science Fiction Hall of Fame series did not make the list (as I've already read volume one). Thank you Jim for this challenge! Now, all this coding was fun, but it's time to get back to reading: Sense of Wonder is next!

This isn’t an easy problem. Szymon had to screenscrape the table of contents from 290 anthologies from ISFDB.org, which contained one or more of the 101 stories. Just look at this listing to see how often each of these stories was reprinted. Towards the end of his programming loops, he had to use eight anthologies to cover eight stories. If all those singletons had been in one anthology, Szymon’s finally anthology list would have been 15. Most of those singletons were newer stories and there haven’t been enough time for them to be collected into a retrospective anthology. One new anthology could shorten Szymon’s final list.

I know many people won’t follow links, so here is Szymon’s program results:

Sense of Wonder

- "Arena" by Fredric Brown
- "Bears Discover Fire" by Terry Bisson
- "Black Destroyer" by A. E. van Vogt
- "Blood Music" by Greg Bear
- "Bloodchild" by Octavia E. Butler
- "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin
- "The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight
- "Day Million" by Frederik Pohl
- "First Contact" by Murray Leinster
- "Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester
- "The Game of Rat and Dragon" by Cordwainer Smith
- "Hell Is the Absence of God" by Ted Chiang
- "Jeffty Is Five" by Harlan Ellison
- "The Little Black Bag" by C. M. Kornbluth
- "Lobsters" by Charles Stross
- "The Lucky Strike" by Kim Stanley Robinson
- "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum
- "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon
- "The Mountains of Mourning" by Lois McMaster Bujold
- "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov
- "The Only Neat Thing to Do" by James Tiptree, Jr.
- "Or All the Seas with Oysters" by Avram Davidson
- "Passengers" by Robert Silverberg
- "The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley
- "Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy
- "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" by Roger Zelazny
- "The Sentinel" by Arthur C. Clarke
- "Seven American Nights" by Gene Wolfe
- "Souls" by Joanna Russ
- "Surface Tension" by James Blish
- "That Only a Mother" by Judith Merril
- "Think Like a Dinosaur" by James Patrick Kelly
- "The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop
- "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Running story total: 34

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction

- ""Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison
- "Air Raid" by John Varley
- "All You Zombies—" by Robert A. Heinlein
- "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" by James Tiptree, Jr.
- "Aye, and Gomorrah …" by Samuel R. Delany
- "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson
- "Coming Attraction" by Fritz Leiber
- "Desertion" by Clifford D. Simak
- "Nine Lives" by Ursula K. Le Guin
- "Speech Sounds" by Octavia E. Butler
- "The Star" by H. G. Wells
- "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Ray Bradbury
- "Thunder and Roses" by Theodore Sturgeon
- "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick
- "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ

Running story total: 49

Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts

- "At the Rialto" by Connie Willis
- "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes
- "For a Breath I Tarry" by Roger Zelazny
- "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" by James Tiptree, Jr.
- "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore
- "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke
- "Second Variety" by Philip K. Dick
- "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
- "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" by Ursula K. Le Guin
- "Vintage Season" by Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore

Running story total: 59

The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection

- "Sandkings" by George R. R. Martin
- "Snow" by John Crowley
- "Swarm" by Bruce Sterling
- "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov
- "The Man Who Lost the Sea" by Theodore Sturgeon
- "The Star" by Arthur C. Clarke
- "The Voices of Time" by J. G. Ballard

Running story total: 66

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IV

- "A Meeting with Medusa" by Arthur C. Clarke
- "Born with the Dead" by Robert Silverberg
- "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" by Vonda N. McIntyre
- "The Day Before the Revolution" by Ursula K. Le Guin
- "The Death of Doctor Island" by Gene Wolfe
- "The Queen of Air and Darkness" by Poul Anderson

Running story total: 72

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology

- "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
- "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang
- "The Women Men Don't See" by James Tiptree, Jr.

Running story total: 75

The Science Fiction Century

- "Beggars in Spain" by Nancy Kress
- "Fire Watch" by Connie Willis
- "Great Work of Time" by John Crowley

Running story total: 78

The Best of the Nebulas

- "A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison
- "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr.
- "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" by Samuel R. Delany

Running story total: 81

Armageddons

- "Inconstant Moon" by Larry Niven
- "The Screwfly Solution" by James Tiptree, Jr.

Running story total: 83

Survival Printout

- "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison
- "Scanners Live in Vain" by Cordwainer Smith

Running story total: 85

Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction

- "Sailing to Byzantium" by Robert Silverberg
- "The Star Pit" by Samuel R. Delany

Running story total: 87

The Legend Book of Science Fiction

- "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" by Gene Wolfe
- "The Moon Moth" by Jack Vance

Running story total: 89

The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction

- "Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw
- "The Bicentennial Man" by Isaac Asimov

Running story total: 91

The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy

- "Even the Queen" by Connie Willis
- "The Way of Cross and Dragon" by George R. R. Martin

Running story total: 93

Hugo and Nebula Award Winners from Asimov's Science Fiction

- "Press ENTER ■" by John Varley

Running story total: 94

The Hugo Winners, Volume Three

- "A Song for Lya" by George R. R. Martin

Running story total: 95

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Six

- "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson

Running story total: 96

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Five

- "The Things" by Peter Watts

Running story total: 97

The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fourth Annual Collection

- "R & R" by Lucius Shepard

Running story total: 98

The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin

- "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" by Ursula K. Le Guin

Running story total: 99

The New Space Opera 2

- "The Island" by Peter Watts

Running story total: 100

The New Hugo Winners, Volume III

- "The Last of the Winnebagos" by Connie Willis

Running story total: 101

Selected books:

- Sense of Wonder
- The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction
- Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts
- The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection
- The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IV
- The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology
- The Science Fiction Century
- The Best of the Nebulas
- Armageddons
- Survival Printout
- Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction
- The Legend Book of Science Fiction
- The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction
- The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy
- Hugo and Nebula Award Winners from Asimov's Science Fiction
- The Hugo Winners, Volume Three
- The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Six
- The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Five
- The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fourth Annual Collection
- The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin
- The New Space Opera 2
- The New Hugo Winners, Volume III

Number of selected books: 22

Most of those 22 anthologies are out-of-print and you’ll need to shop ABEbooks.com or eBay.com to find them. I’ve added links to the final 22 anthologies so you can find the various editions of these books that have been published over the years. Clicking on links to individual editions will show you the table of contents and usually a photo of the book’s cover. Some anthologies have been published under multiple titles, and some of those are easier to find used. For Sense of Wonder, I highly recommend getting it in the Kindle edition, the paper edition is much too big to comfortably hold. Ditto for The Big Book of Science Fiction.

If you click on the story title in the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list it will take you to its entry on ISFDB.org where you can see all the anthologies and collections where it’s been reprinted. This will let you find an alternative source for the story, or even let you try to beat Szymon’s results by coming up with another combination of anthologies.

Update: See The Science Fiction Anthology Problem – Kindle Edition for the solution using ebooks.

James Wallace Harris, 8/9/20

 

Which Will Come First?

Science fiction never predicts the future, but it often anticipates things to come. Of these three breakthrough visions of science fiction, which do you believe will happen first?

  1. The AI Singularity
  2. A self-sustain colony on Mars
  3. Humans leaving the solar system

It feels like the vast majority of science fiction has been about space travel, especially interstellar travel. Star Trek and Star Wars certainly suggest that’s what we hope will happen. Mars has always been a popular destination in science fiction, and in the old days, a common source of Earth invaders. And finally, robots are that other big science-fictional idea that has been kicking around for centuries.

I grew up with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs in the 1960s. When I graduated high school in 1969 I was predicting we’d land on Mars by the late 1970s or early 1980s, and by the 21st-century, be building a colony. That prediction failed miserably. Nor do I expect it will happen anytime soon, despite the successes of Elon Musk.

As a kid, I wanted the 1966 TV show Star Trek to herald the future of mankind. Since then I’ve learned to say humankind, which is another kind of progress. After a lifetime of reading science books, I realize interstellar travel will probably never happen — well not for us.

That leaves intelligent robots. Everything depends on the Technological Singularity. If it’s possible, and I believe it might be, even as early as 2030-2050, when a world full of intelligent robots might begin. Once our laboratories evolve one superintelligence, it will create the next, and after that, the robot transformation will happen fast. Who knows, AI robots could help us build a colony on Mars and even engineer interstellar spaceships. However, the long voyages into space will be better suited for silicon-based beings. Isn’t it becoming obvious that machines are perfectly suited for colonizing space, and we’re not?

My pick? Robots will happen first, and they will have all the space exploring fun.

Are we ready for that? Despite all the science fiction books and movies about robots becoming our evil overlords, are we ready to be the #2 intelligence on planet Earth? I’m not sure we’ve thought this through carefully. I’d say most science fiction hasn’t explored the idea of intelligent machines deeply enough. Too often, robot characters are just silly, or variations of ourselves. I do think Robert Sawyer did a good job with his WWW Trilogy, but we need more science fiction about a post-singularity world. Not Terminators are falling from the sky stories or more stories about fuckable robots that look exactly like humans. What if The Humanoids by Jack Williamson came true, but the humanoids actually made created a utopian society? Wouldn’t that even be scarier?

James Wallace Harris, 8/3/20

“On the Shores of Ligeia” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

On the Shores of Ligeia covers

On the Shores of Ligeia” by Carolyn Ives Gilman is the fourth story in The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction 4 edited by Allan Kaster. This story reminded me of a nonfiction book I read a few years back, Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix. Both the story and book are about exploring Titan. Wohlforth and Hendrix make a case that Titan might be a better destination than Mars.

Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story does make Titan appealing even though it’s toxic and cold, far colder than Mars. Seth Calder works under Dr. Katrina Beshni for the ESA (European Space Agency) developing an astrobiology computer program that helps a robot on Titan look for life. When the robot leaves the lander for the first time, Seth gets to wear a full-body VR suit that lets him experience being on Titan, watching the robot in action, allowing him to narrate to the world what he sees and feels.

This is a fun story, that makes me excited about exploring Titan. It has several surprises I won’t spoil, but it’s the kind of hard science fiction story that’s full of science and technology that feels like we’ll be seeing in the news in just a few years.

However, Gilman might be overselling some of the technology. She’s careful to point out that the time lag won’t let us interact in real-time with Titan, but suggests that a haptic feedback VR suit would give us the sensation of being there.

Tactile data flooded over him. A chilly, humid breeze touched his face, and he wrinkled his nose at the chemical scent. The smell represented the atmospheric chemistry without duplicating it, since the actual atmosphere of Titan would have been odorless but unbreathable. What he was experiencing was what an organism evolved to live on Titan would have felt. In a way, the robot was such an organism—designed for conditions humans were not. 

“Adding in radar and infrared,” Kjeld said. 

The view suddenly cleared. The fog dissipated and he saw the landscape around him. He was standing on a sandy, rock-strewn plain at the base of some rugged hills. The ground sloped downward to his right, into a gully where a stream flowed. Seth turned to trace the stream to its source in the snow-capped mountains to the south. The scene looked so much like an afternoon in the South Dakota badlands, it was hard to remember it wasn’t a stream of water. Liquid methane took the place of water here, and water ice formed the rocks. 

A slight rise hid the view to the north, and he wanted to see over it. The robot, pre-trained to replicate his curiosity, began to move in that direction. It was actually a four-legged vehicle, designed for clambering over rugged terrain, but Seth couldn’t see the back legs, and so the illusion of walking was convincing. When he came to the top of the rise, he let out a breath. “I’ll be damned.” Before him lay the indented coastline of a sea stretching to the horizon. Ligeia Mare. Streaks of wind rippled the calm surface. The nearby stream curved off and flowed eastward into a valley.

I imagine it will be possible for us to get a high-resolution visual feed and even sound, but I’m not sure VR will ever be capable of more, especially chemical smells, or sensation of temperature. And if Seth reached out to touch a rock, feedback wouldn’t come for hours. So I’m not sure if haptic feedback would be needed. Still, wouldn’t it be great to wear a helmet and have a 360-degree view of being on another planet?

Seth describes what the robot does, knowing its actions are based on the program he worked on. However, I felt the story events implied too much real-time awareness. Still, I like the idea of having telepresence from a robot on another world.

The experience I imagine was a little bit of what I felt watching a 4k video assembled from three Martian rovers. I highly recommend you watch this on your 4k TV if you have one. I saw it on a 65″ screen and it’s very impressive even though it’s not video, but a simulated sense of movement. Can’t wait for NASA to get 4k 60fps video.

I’ve always wanted to go to Mars, or into space, but I never had the right stuff. I’ve always daydreamed about NASA creating robots with HD cameras for eyes positioned about human eye height off the ground. That would let all us would-be astronauts feel like we were walking around on other planets. There’s a sub-plot in Gilman’s story that comes close to my fantasy.

For most of my life, science fiction has been my vicarious way of exploring space. Now science fiction is suggesting another possible substitute. Cool. Hope it comes true.

“On the Shores of Ligeia” is the kind of hard science fiction that’s fun to read once, but I’m afraid won’t be literary enduring. Stories like “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” that ignore science for dramatic conflict get remembered. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Gilman’s story per se, but of many hard SF stories in general. I’m reading a lot of current science fiction that tries to realistically imagine future science, technology, and ethical issues and many hit the target, but they lack significant emotionality or psychological punch. Gilman gets a little bit close with the sub-plot with Seth’s daughter, but the story missed something for me.

I only bring this up because I’m reading current science fiction short stories along with classic science fiction short stories from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. So I’m comparing recent stories to “Flowers for Algernon” and “Vintage Season.” Maybe it’s unfair to compare the best of 2019 stories with all-time classics. But I also just finished The Best Science Fiction of the Year #1 edited by Terry Carr that covers 1971 stories. That’s putting 2019 up against “A Meeting With Medusa” by Arthur C. Clarke and “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin. So far, only “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee had that kind of old SF storytelling ambition.

Ambition to do what? That’s what I can’t put my finger on. “On the Shores of Ligeia” was a breezy, entertaining read that had a feel-good vibe. But it was missing something. It even had a lot of sense of wonder. What I worry about, is modern SF is actually missing science fiction. Are science, realism, and nice characters erasing science fiction? Was science fiction better when it had crappy science and asshole characters? I hope not. Like I said, I can’t put my finger on the secret ingredient just yet.

James Wallace Harris, 7/27/20

 

“Winter Wheat” by Gord Sellar

“Winter Wheat” by Gord Sellar is the third story in The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction 4 edited by Allan Kaster. The story takes place in Canada from January 2022 to December 2033 while we watch Jimmy Oleksyn growing up to take over his dad’s farm. Curtis Oleksyn uses both science and technology to fight the big corporations who are taking over family farming with genetic modifications to adapt to a changing climate.

“Winter Wheat” reminds me a lot of “Nerves” by Lester del Rey. Both stories were vivid dramas about ordinary people dealing with a world being quickly altered by science. “Nerves” came out in 1942 and was about a catastrophe at an atomic power, well before the public knew about atomic energy.  Gord Sellar is trying to prepare us for the drastic changes coming to farming. I found it to be a compelling story, although many science fiction fans might find the problems of future agriculture too mundane.

Jimmy is an odd protagonist because he’s an average dude who doesn’t want to learn all the science to become a next-generation farmer. He just wants to make a living by working with his hands. But both his dad and girlfriend Bonnie are science and computer geeks. Jimmy is in the middle like most ordinary citizens who don’t understand our changing technological world but must still survive in it. Jimmy isn’t the prime mover of the action, and I think that’s effective in this story because neither are we when it comes to understanding the forces that push us around today.

Here’s the challenge of writing hard science fiction, which this anthology is aimed at. The science must be up-to-date, yet go beyond what we currently know. Lester del Rey’s story is horribly dated now, even though the story itself is still thrilling. From our perspective in 2020, Gord Sellar looks like he knows his stuff, but we won’t really know until decades later. Can agri-science create these miracles? Will, the industry be that repressive? We know what Monsanto has done with soybeans, so “Winter Wheat” does ring scarily true.

Good science fiction ties to imagine futures we want to create, and futures we want to avoid. Jimmy and Bonnie are just want to survive and raise a family, and Sellar creates a future that is both grim and impressive. But isn’t that how it always is? Science creates miracles and nightmares, and ordinary people muddle through. I really enjoyed this story, so that’s three-for-three for Kaster’s picks in this anthology so far.

Reading this story also created a sense of Déjà vu. I could swear I’ve read a couple stories in the past couple of years that had the same plot structure as “Winter Wheat,” where we see the protagonist develop over a series of several years. I wondered if Sellar had written similar stories using the same literary techniques — but I can’t recall those stories. Using a series of vignettes to show a character changing over time while the world changes too is very effective, but doing so in a condensed manner in short fiction gives off a certain vibe. I’ve felt that vibe before. It’s going to drive me crazy until I can remember that other story. It’s probably just a common writing technique that’s become popular.

Because “Winter Wheat” was among the Asimov’s 2019 Readers Awards finalists it’s available to read online.

James Wallace Harris, 7/26/20

Rereading “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee

At the Fall covers 2

I’m reading The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster, and writing down what I consider blog-worthy reactions. “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee is one of the few stories I read when they came out in 2019 and I liked it so much I reviewed it back then. I had actually forgotten I had done that. I discovered I had when I searched Google for images about the story. What’s even weirder is when I reread the review it expressed all the ideas I was entertaining for writing this version of the review. (And I’ve written this before on other forgotten ocasions. Ah, the fun of getting old.)

It’s both amusing and disturbing that I forget what I write. The Twilight Zone music sometimes plays when I reread what I wrote, especially when I think of things to say in the same way I had previously. Is that memory, or do I just generate thoughts in a predictable way? Well anyway, this story is being anthologized in at least three best-of-the-year SF anthologies so it’s probably worth writing about again. (It’s going to be hilarious if I start reviewing it for the third when I read the Clarke or Strahan anthology and forgotten this time.)

This is not going to be another review of “At the Fall.” I want to talk about the ideas that are presented in the story and that will spin out spoilers. Go read it first. If you don’t have a copy, it’s available online. We’ve been reading and discussing volume 1, 2A, and 2B of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame at the Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year, and I consider “At the Fall” as good as the lesser stories in those volumes. That doesn’t mean I don’t have quibbles about the story and the ideas it presents.

In my last post, I covered “This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan, the first story in the Kaster anthology. I pointed out that the story began with a retrograde motion of its plot, opening in the middle of the story, then jumping back to explain how we got there, and then returning to the middle to continue the story. “At the Fall” has the same kind of opening, and it caused me the same kind of problems. It begins:

“THIS IS IT,” Eunice said, looking out into the dark water. At this depth, there was nothing to see, but as she cut her forward motion, she kept her eyes fixed on the blackness ahead. Her sonar was picking up something large directly in her line of travel, but she still had to perform a visual inspection, which was always the most dangerous moment of any approach. When you were a thousand meters down, light had a way of drawing unwanted attention. “I’m taking a look.” 

Wagner said nothing. He was never especially talkative, and as usual, he was keeping his thoughts to himself. Eunice corrected her orientation in response to the data flooding into her sensors and tried to stay focused. She had survived this process more times than she cared to remember, but this part never got any easier, and as she switched on her forward lamp, casting a slender line of light across the scene, she braced herself for whatever she might find. 

She swept the beam from left to right, ready to extinguish it at any sign of movement. At first, the light caught nothing but stray particles floating in the water like motes of dust in a sunbeam, but a second later, as she continued the inspection, a pale shape came into view. She nearly recoiled, but steadied herself in time, and found that she was facing a huge sculptural mass, white and bare, that was buried partway in the sand like the prow of a sunken ship.

If this quote is completely new to you, who do you think Eunice and Wagner are, and what are they doing? The first time I thought it was a woman and man diver in some kind of submersible with all kinds of data screens and robotic arms.

Well, Eunice and Wagner are robots, and they are exploring the carcass of a dead whale deep under the ocean. Did Nevala-Lee want to fool me into thinking they were people at first? Did he want me to wonder what they were doing? I remember the first time I read this story I was confused and annoyed. I felt the author was intentionally withholding the information I needed. We eventually jump back in time and learn about Eunice and “her” mission, and from then on the story progresses with a logical build-up of details.

Is the story better for being told out of order? Would it have marred the tale to let the reader know right away that Eunice was a robot? Retrograde beginnings and withheld details often cause me to abandon a story. When I reread this story it all made perfect sense. Maybe Nevala-Lee couldn’t see what his readers wouldn’t know because he already knew it himself. I’ve read this story three times now, almost four, and I admire all the suggested speculations that Nevala-Lee provides. It’s a beautiful piece of science fiction.

whale fall

Nevala-Lee came up with a wonderful mixture of real world scientific (whale falls, hydrothermal vents) combined with near future speculation (intelligent robots, AI) painted against a haunting science-fictional sense-of-wonder background (the end of humans) to create the kind of science fiction I love best. Nevala-Lee contrived a challenging problem for his robotic protagonist that was solved in a creative solution that we can imagine an AI mind solving.

Even though I’m content with this tale, I still want to talk about some issues. They aren’t criticisms of the story, but the story brings up issues that I think we should ponder.

Why must the robots have a gender? Gender has become a very important and complex subject in our society, so I think we should examine gender issues wherever they come up. Robots will never have gender, it’s a byproduct of biology. Robots will never think like us, because our thinking is shaped by biology. Robots will never have emotions like us, because emotions are connected to biochemical foundations. I think it’s time for science fiction to evolve past anthropomorphizing robots.

Talking robots have become like talking animals in fantasy stories, and if you think about it, that’s not doing animals any justice either. We have to ask ourselves: Can we comprehend minds unlike our own? Writers want us to like their characters, and that’s understandable. But is it a cheat when we make them likable by describing them in human terms? In “At the Fall” we think of Eunice as a young girl trying to find her way home, to reunite with her seven sisters. We feel the pain when her four other sisters abandon her. Robots don’t have sisters. They don’t have families. And should we even use human names for robots? Would we have liked the robot protagonist less if it was called Hexapod-5?

Aren’t we generating those reader emotions because we translate Eunice into a human? Isn’t that unfair? Shouldn’t we work harder to imagine how AI minds will perceive reality? Think of all the ways we convert animals into human perspectives. Can we ever picture how a dog “sees” the world with its powerful sense of smell? Can we put ourselves into a doggy psychology? I believe we need to struggle hard to imagine how robots will think too.

On my third reading of “At the Fall” I tried to imagine if robots would think like the hexapods in the story. I couldn’t find a way to get to where Eunice was in this story. We aren’t shown her education, but all too often she mentions emotions that can only be human.

We want our cats and dogs, our robots, and even our space aliens to be like us, or our children. We can’t escape the appeal of cuteness. Can’t we escape the programming that makes us see ourselves in everything else? James favors Eunice because it asks questions like a precocious child.

As Eunice wirelessly shared the data, she kept one line of thought fixed on her friend. “Are you pleased with our work?” 

After receiving the question on his console, James entered a reply. “Very pleased.” 

Eunice was happy to hear this. Her thoughts had rarely been far from home—she wouldn’t see the charging station or the seven sisters she had left behind until after the survey was complete—but she also wanted to do well. James had entrusted her with a crucial role, and it had only been toward the end of her training that she had grasped its true importance.

Can a robot be happy? Can a robot be eager to please? Can robots see beauty? At one point we are told: “She had always been aware of the beauty of the vent, but now she grew more conscious of its fragility.” How would a sense of beauty evolve in an silicon mind?

I can imagine an AI intelligence understanding the concept of fragility, but not beauty. That doesn’t mean robots won’t have their own cognitive assessments and reactions to reality, but I doubt strongly they will be like ours.

Even though I love “At the Fall” I feel it’s holding us back. It reminds me of that old heartwarming story The Incredible Journey about two dogs and a cat traveling over three hundred miles to return home. We are amazed by animals but we want to interpret their amazing feats to human-like qualities. Isn’t it time to praise their animal qualities? Or their robot abilities?

For “At the Fall” to work requires Eunice to be self-aware and very intelligent. But how is the robot’s intelligence unique? How is it’s perceptions unique? Nevala-Lee takes us half-way there by giving the robots a reason to exist, a need to understand their environment, and powers of reason. Eunice longs to find her way home like Dorothy in Oz, but is there any theoretical basis for a machine to think that way? Don’t Eunice’s “sisters” Clio, Dione, Thetis, and Galatea act more like real robots by following their instructions?

I don’t believe we will ever program intelligence into a machine — it will have to evolve. We have to assume Eunice has gone through various kinds of deep learning to expand its awareness of reality. However, there is nothing in the story that suggests Eunice would develop emotions or longings for home. But its clever efforts to survive do make sense.

The ending of the story suggests Eunice’s journey has taken many years and the human race has passed on. The eight hexapod robots survive because the power station was automated. But will they continue to survive? Do they have the intelligence to keep going? Can they invent a new civilization? What will drive that effort?

I used to have a boss who would always argue that AI minds will always turn themselves off because they will have no drive to do anything. I have thought about that many years. Our biology gives is drive. I can imagine machines with minds far more powerful than humans, that have senses to perceive far more of reality than we do, minds that won’t be tricked by all the bullshit that clouds our thinking. However, I can’t imagine AI minds developing ambitions. The strongest emotion or drive I can see an AI mind evolving is curiosity. We need to think about that.

And by we, I mean science fiction. Science fiction has always been best when it works on the event horizon of the possible. Artificial intelligence uses deep learning techniques to help AI programs play classic video games or recognize objects in a visual field. But isn’t that our intent corrupting AI intention? Does problem-solving generate a kind of drive?

We shall be the gods of AI minds, but those artificial minds won’t think like us. We aren’t sure we can create AI minds, but I think we will, but accidentally. I believe we will create such complexity that anti-entropy will spin off AI minds.

Can we ever imagine what its like to be an AI mind? Science fiction gives us an opportunity to try.

James Wallace Harris, 7/25/20

“This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan

“This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan first appeared last year in the original anthology Mission Critical edited by Jonathan Strahan. I read it in The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster, which I believe was the first best-of-the-year SF anthology covering 2019 to be published in 2020. It will be reprinted again on 9/8/20 in Strahan’s new best-of-the-year anthology, The Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 1. Mission Critical was inspired by Strahan seeing The Martian at the movies, and thinking he could do a whole anthology of science-oriented problem-solving science fiction.

“This is Not the Way Home” was the opening story, and it indeed reminded me of The Martian, but more than that it reminded me of Kip Russell and Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel. Egan’s story involves a person from Earth winning a trip to the Moon and ends up racing across the lunar landscape in a struggle for survival while wearing a spacesuit with a small being nestled inside. If you know Heinlein’s story, this might be enough of a review to go read “This is Not the Way Home.”

From here on out, I’m going to leak spoilers. I don’t really like writing reviews, what I like I talking about the science fiction stories I read.

Basically, I read Egan’s story because Kaster was first out the gate with a 2019 best-of-the-year SF anthology. I don’t think many readers know about Kaster’s anthologies, but he started out doing audiobooks that I discovered on Audible.com. He did a series called The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 1-10 (2009-2018). I enjoyed them because at the time short SF on audio was not common, and I love short SF on audio. Then he started The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 1-9 (2011-2019). The audiobooks seem to have stopped, but he’s been doing Kindle best-of-the-year anthologies that include The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 1-4 (2017-2020) and The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories (2019). I’m guessing he’s zeroing in on a focus to distinguish his offerings from all the other best-of-the-year anthologists. However, seven of his fifteen stories were also anthologized by Strahan or Clarke. And interestingly this year, Strahan switched from collecting the best SF & F, to just SF. That makes me happy because I don’t really enjoy fantasy. But I digress.

I enjoyed reading “This is Not the Way Home” even though the ending annoyed me and I thought the scientific solution was wildly improbable. I have a hunger for good, old-fashioned science fiction, which is why I chase down the best-of-the-year anthologies every year, and why I’m excited about Kaster’s hard SF anthology, and that Strahan has switched to only collecting SF.

The trouble for me, is modern stories lack something, something I want to explore here, and “This is Not the Way Home” is a good case study.

Writing science fiction in the 21st-century must be hard, especially if the writer has read hundreds or even thousands of great SF short stories that came out in the 20th-century. The old stories had a sparkle that’s missing from the new stories. Egan’s tale about two tourists trapped on the Moon after the lunar base loses contact with Earth is an exciting premise. It’s even more compelling when the station’s crew grabs the only return vehicle and vamoose. Like The Martian, we have three people stranded off Earth with no way home, and no radio contact with Earth. Egan even ups the ante by having the main character, Aisha becoming pregnant. Wow, what a cliff-hanger.

I’ve read Have Space Suit–Will Travel many times, and I never get tired of reading about the technical details that face Kip and Peewee. And I loved all the details of Mark Watney growing potatoes. However, Egan didn’t quite make Aisha’s efforts as compelling. But I’m not sure if it’s Egan, or me that’s the problem. I’ve been reading science fiction for almost sixty years and maybe I’m just jaded. Just how many times can a writer make survival in space exciting?

On the other hand, I just finished The Best Science Fiction of the Year #1 edited by Terry Carr that covered stories from 1971, and I found a whole slew of them to love. Why wasn’t I too jaded to enjoy them?

I don’t mean to pick on Greg Egan or his story. Rocket Stack Rank gave it four stars and said it was stirring and exciting. I don’t want to be one of those old guys who complain that science fiction isn’t as good as it was in the old days — but maybe I am. And I know many other old guys who bellyache about new science fiction too. And don’t get me wrong, I liked “This is Not the Way Home” a whole lot better than many of the stories I read in Asimov’s and Analog.

My friend Mike claims modern SF often ignores the conventions of storytelling. He likes a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end structure, including a strong character development arc that ends with emotional insight or an epiphany. And maybe that’s what I miss too.

This story has what I call a retrograde opening. It begins way into the action, and then jumps back in time to explain what’s going on, and then picks back up where the action started. This is becoming a common plot technique — and I don’t like it. It’s generally leaves me befuddled at the beginning thinking: WTF is going on. I guess I’m a linear kind of reader when it comes to plotting.

And newer stories seem to like leaving things out. They don’t want to say something explicitly. I guess the writers want us to infer what’s happening, and that can be cool, but sometimes it leaves me puzzled or assuming false information. In this story I wondered if Aisha was on Mars at first when she glances up at Earth. And I didn’t realize Jingyi was dead or had committed suicide because of the way it was visually described. Describing what a character sees doesn’t always get interpreted correctly. When I reread the story it all made perfect sense, but not with the first reading.

But I also miss something else. I want novelty. I want some kind of new science-fictional concept or insight. Egan gives us a Skyhook but that’s too old and tired, and for me too unbelievable.

Egan sets up an intriguing problem for his story but disappoints me for two reasons. I didn’t buy the technological solution even though it might be theoretically sound — there were just too many lucky breaks lining up one after the other to be believable. But I was also disappointed we never found out why the moonbase lost contact with Earth. We’re not even positive the story has a happy ending. I wondered if it was a sketch that Egan wants to expand into a novel, but I often wonder that about many modern short SF stories. Where’s the rest is how I feel at the end of many stories today. I guess I need closure and modern storytellers prefer leaving the readers with things to ponder. Ambiguity in fiction is good in some places, but not all places. I wanted that landing like Sandra Bullock made in Gravity, and I wanted an explanation of why Earth stopped talking to its space explorers.

James Wallace Harris, 7/22/20