Story #34 of 107: “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon
Why do we read science fiction? Maybe that’s too big of a question to answer. Why do we love the stories that we do? What’s qualities does a story have that pushes our buttons? That might be getting closer to where I want to go. The last lines of “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon misted my eyes as I read them. But it wasn’t because our unnamed narrator was dying. I wasn’t moved either in our last story, “The Monster” when Marion and Bernard were about to die.
No, I’m moved because our astronaut protagonist says: “‘God,’ he cries, dying on Mars, ‘God, we made it!'”
That’s one reason I love this story. I believe many of us who read science fiction have an affinity for Mars, and a desire to go there. And subset of those readers would even be happy to die there. Sturgeon knew that and hooked us.
But Sturgeon couldn’t have written just that last line to win us over. There is a long build up that makes that last line work. The dying astronaut is visited by hallucinations of his younger selves. One is a boy playing with a model, a boy like many of us who used to play with models. Those of us who love this story can remember being young and pestering older folks with our enthusiasm for newly acquired knowledge.
The dying astronaut has a vivid memory of skin diving and nearly drowning. I admire the story even more because I can remember skin diving a couple of times when I thought I was drowning. I was always a terrible swimmer and shouldn’t have even been trying the things I did. I remember the first time I used a snorkel, mask, and fins, and how I also swallowed water and thrashed in the water. I can remember trying to swim further than I was capable. I remember what it felt like to make it back to the beach, the relief. Those experiences resonated with Sturgeon’s character, and I imagined they were based on his own experiences. Such embedded connections make a story succeed.
However, we don’t have to have shared experiences with Sturgeon and his fictional character. We all wonder what it’s like to die. Maybe we’ve even been sick enough to think we’re dying. There is something special about that last moment, a moment we wait our whole life to experience. How will we handle it?
The first work of fiction I remember from childhood is about a man’s last thoughts when dying. I didn’t know that then. I was seeing the movie version of High Barbaree when I was about six. Later on, I learned it was based on a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. In the movie, Alec doesn’t die. In the book he does. But I’ve been intrigued by the idea of last thoughts my whole life. That also makes me love “The Man Who Lost the Sea.”
This is the second time this year that I’ve written about “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” I had already forgotten that. I had to use the search feature on my blog to check. The story was even better this second time. I’m not about to die, but I’m old enough that I think about it often. Because I’ve spent so much of my life reading science fiction my last thoughts might be haunted by science-fictional themes. My last thoughts could recall all those far-out ideas I loved by reading science fiction. I might even judge my time on Earth by how many became real?
I do know as I age, what I value in a science fiction story changes. Reading through the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction is revealing what I still care about and what I don’t. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” still resonates, but so many of the stories don’t. If I was sitting across the table from the stories I’m breaking up with I should tell them, “It’s me, not you.”
I had a friend who died in middle age. His name was Williamson, and before he died he kept rejecting things he once loved. Towards the end, he only cared about two things in life, the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. This dwindling of interests before death I call the Williamson Effect. As I progress through my seventies, and maybe beyond, I imagine I’ll reject most of the science fiction stories I once loved. They will just stop working. I tend to think “The Man Who Lost the Sea” will continue to work for a long time, maybe not to the bitter end, but close.
“The Monster” by French writer Gérard Klein was first published in October 1958 in Fiction #59, but later translated and reprinted in the September 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Later on it was collected in Thirteen French Science-Fiction Stories edited by Damon Knight. According to the VanderMeers in their introduction to the story in The Big Book of Science Fiction, Klein is quite a prolific science fiction writer in France. ISFDB lists five translations and a decent number of reprints for “The Monster.”
I found “The Monster” a compelling story until the ending. Marion, the stay-at-home wife of Bernard anxiously awaits her husband return from work. When she hears that an alien from space has been cornered in the park she begins to fret because she knows Bernard walks home through that park. The story tightens by Marion listening to radio broadcasts, and then by her efforts to get into the park which has been cordoned off by the police. The tension Klein builds is quite effective. We slowly learn that Bernard has been the one viction of the alien, and now the alien keeps calling out “Marion” in the voice Marion knows as Bernard’s.
The buildup for this story was quite nice, but the resolution was disappointing. We are shown how Marion has always been dependent on Bernard, but in the end we’re also told that too. The story isn’t about the alien, but Marion. I’m going to quote a significant part of the story from near the ending to explain my disappointment, and to discuss the nature of reading science fiction.
“I’m coming, Bernard,” said Marion, and she dropped the microphone and threw herself forward. She dodged the hands that tried to stop her and began running down the graveled path. She leaped over the copper-meshed web and passed between the gleaming tongues of the flamethrowers.
“It’s a trap,” called a deep voice behind her. “Come back. The creature has absorbed some of your husband’s knowledge—it’s using it as a lure. Come back. That isn’t human. It has no face.”
But no one followed her. When she turned her head, she saw the men standing up, grasping their lances and looking at her, horrified, their eyes and teeth gleaming with the same metallic light as the buttons of their uniforms.
She rounded the pond. Her feet struck the cement pavement with soft, dull sounds, then they felt the cool, caressing touch of the grass again.
She wondered even as she ran what was going to happen, what would become of her, but she told herself that Bernard would know for her, that he had always known, and that it was best that way. He was waiting for her beyond that black doorway through which his voice came with so much difficulty, and she was about to be with him.
A memory came suddenly into her mind. A sentence read or heard, an idea harvested and stored away, to be milled and tasted now. It was something like this: men are nothing but empty shells, sometimes cold and deserted like abandoned houses, and sometimes inhabited, haunted by the beings we call life, jealousy, joy, fear, hope, and so many others. Then there was no more loneliness.
And as she ran, exhaling a warm breath that condensed into a thin plume of vapor, looking back at the pale, contracted faces of the soldiers, dwindling at every step, she began to think that this creature had crossed space and searched for a new world because it felt itself desperately hollow and useless in its own, because none of those intangible beings would haunt it, and that she and Bernard would perhaps live in the center of its mind, just as confidence and anxiety, silence and boredom live in the hearts and minds of men. And she hoped that they would bring it peace, that they would be two quiet little lights, illuminating the honeycombed depths of its enormous, unknown brain.
She shuddered and laughed. “What does it feel like to be eaten?” she asked herself.
She tried to imagine a spoonful of ice cream melting between her lips, running cool down her throat, lying in the little dark warmth of her stomach.
“Bernard,” she cried. “I’ve come.” She heard the men shouting behind her. “Marion,” said the monster with Bernard’s voice, “you took so long.”
She closed her eyes and threw herself forward. She felt the cold slip down her skin and leave her like a discarded garment. She felt herself being transformed. Her body was dissolving, her fingers threading out, she was expanding inside that huge sphere, moist and warm, comfortable, and, she understood now, good and kind.
“Bernard,” she said, “they’re coming after us to kill us.”
“I know,” said the voice, very near now and reassuring.
“Can’t we do anything—run away?”
“It’s up to him,” he said. “I’m just beginning to know him. I told him to wait for you. I don’t know exactly what he’s going to do. Go back out into space, maybe? Listen.”
This is almost the end of the story, yet not the complete ending, but the part that’s worth discussing. The ending could be interpreted in several ways, but that’s true of most good stories. But I’m not particularly concerned about that at the moment. What I want to talk about is the difference between story and metaphor.
Story is the artificial world created by the writer. Metaphor is what the writer wants you to contemplate. I’m not against metaphor, but what I really love is story. As I read “The Monster” I got caught up in Marion’s worry for her husband, and wondering what kind of alien was trapped in the park. I assumed it was a real alien. At least a real story alien. What I got was a metaphor alien. And that disappointed me.
Klein had set up realistic situation and turned it into a page-turning story. But he didn’t give me a realistic story ending. This is the only story I’ve read by Gérard Klein. I have no idea what his work is like. But for my purposes I’m going to use “The Monster” as my example for science fiction in general.
Most science fiction writers are just storytellers. They might also include philosophical insights, metaphors, political messages, religious preaching, satire, etc., but their main goal is to tell a story. Think of it this way. We create all kinds of lies to convince children to believe that Santa Claus is real. That’s storytelling. But if we sat a kid down and said, Santa Claus is a metaphor to teach you about the goodness of giving I believe most kids will say, “Cut the crap. I knew you were lying to me. I loved the lies. Don’t spoil them now with some cheesy moral lesson.”
I wanted a real alien at the end of “The Monster.” Marion felt real. The story felt real up to the end. Why didn’t I get a real alien? All I got was some cheesy metaphor. I can accept Marion is dependent on Bernard. I can accept that people are hollow and lonely shells without other people. I can even accept that some belief, philosophy, religion will provide a shell to bind lonely people together. And I can even accept that Klein uses the alien to present his meaningful messages. I can even accept such messages don’t have to be true for the story to work. But where’s my fucking monster from space? How did it get here? What’s it like? How does it survive? What kind of environment does it need to live? What kind of technology does it use? Why would the police want to kill such a unique being? Where’s its spaceship? Why isn’t the alien as real as Marion?
In my old age I’ve come to love science fiction that immerses me into a fully-developed fictional world. Metaphors bridge fiction worlds with reality, and that’s fine if you like that kind of thing. But story comes first. And I want a whole story. Don’t lead me up to a point and yell, “Surprise!” Don’t break the goddamn fourth wall (unless it integrated into a much deeper story).
I know, I’m getting to be a grumpy all guy whining for his 100% science fiction stories.
Over the years a number of people have emailed me about how they use the Classics of Science Fiction list as a reading goal. Well, I’ve never had anyone tell me they’ve read through the entire list — until now.
There’s always been a misconception about books called classics. I think some people feel they are guaranteed great reads. Classics are only books that get remembered over time. Our list was assembled from many sources, including fan polls, awards, lists by critics, writers, and editors, and so on. Just because these books have been statistically remembered by our various sources doesn’t mean they will be loved by readers. I’ve always wondered how science fiction fans who do read from this list react to the books. Well, I’ve gotten one answer. His reaction is completely different from mine, but then I expected that. I expect everyone to love some books and hate others. And that’s okay to hate books called classics.
Lists are very popular on the web, but just how useful are they? Szymon Szott is the first person to tell me they’ve finished our list. This is his answer. Now Szymon admits he quit on some books, but he did try, and I think that’s good enough. I asked Szymon to write up his reaction and here it is:
Jim has asked me to share my thoughts after completing the Classics of Science Fiction v5.
The list is quite long (115 books) and I didn’t read them back-to-back. Some of them I read a long time ago and their plot remains a bit vague (Ubik) while others are among my all-time favorite novels and I’ve read them multiple times (Dune). In recent years, however, I’ve been trying to steadily chip away at the list. In mid-October I finished China Mountain Zhang and thus completed my quest, having read 36 books from the list this year. Overall, my average rating was 3.65 out of 5 stars and since I rarely give 5 stars to a book, it goes to show that I really enjoyed the experience.
My all-time favorite novels from the list are:
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
No surprises there, my top three are the same as WWE’s Most Read Books of All-Time and the other two are acknowledged modern classics. However, I read the list to find books which would surprise me, so here are my top five unexpected hits with brief summaries to whet your appetite:
Mission of Gravity - a hard SF exploration of a cool idea: a planet where the gravity varies from 700 g at the poles to 3 g at the equator.
Flowers for Algernon - another exploration of an SF idea (increasing intelligence through surgery), but very human-focused, a moving tale.
Dreamsnake - a grand story set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it must have inspired the Fallout game series.
Ammonite - interesting planet exploration, where a virus alters the colonists.
The Windup Girl - near-future biopunk novel, which the author wrote during a SARS outbreak in Asia (making it unexpectedly relevant to current times).
I didn’t, however, find absolutely all the books amazing. In fact, I didn’t finish two of them: The Female Man and Synners. The former was just plain confusing while the latter had a combination of plot, characters, and prose style that didn't work for me. Out of the books that I did finish, here’s my bottom five:
Last and First Men
To Your Scattered Bodies Go
I read that the two Stapledon books were influential to many SF authors, but were just plain boring to read (having almost no plot or characters). The others aren’t terrible but have some element that put me off (sentient dolphins, a resurrected Göring, or all-combination sex).
Are there any books I think are missing from the list? Well, the arbitrary cutoff is at at 12 citations and here are some great books which I enjoyed that didn’t make it:
On the Beach
Perdido Street Station
They’re all quite different but at the heart of each is the exploration of SF concepts and all of them filled me with a sense of wonder.
Overall, I think the Classics of Science Fiction v5 list is a great resource. Should you read it from beginning to end like I did? Only if you’re either studying the history of SF or are an obsessive completist. Otherwise, treat the list as a recommendation of outstanding SF books and don’t fear to stop reading a book if it doesn’t meet your expectations. Life’s too short for books you don’t enjoy!
I believe Szymon’s finally recommendation is a good one. By the way, Szymon has written for us before:
“Pelt” first appeared in the November 1958 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. However, it was more recently recognized in the Library of America’s anthology, The Future is Female. LOA has a web page about Carol Emshwiller and a copy of the story to read online. Judith Merril included “Pelt” in her 1959 volume of the best SF stories of 1958, and again in her Best of the Best volume that collected her favorite stories from the first five years of her annual anthologies. However, “Pelt” only has a modest history of being reprinted.
“Pelt” is another variation of the first contact story, but with a nice twist. The story is told from the point of view of a dog, a companion to a human hunter on a new planet, Jaxa, hoping to make a killing in fur trading. I enjoyed watching how Emshwiller presented the dog’s point of view, but overall I didn’t really enjoy the story. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t sparkle. The insight of the story, its moral compass you might say, points to the evil we humans do. It felt modeled on mountain men from out west in the 1830s who were fur trappers and traders. Instead of killing a native American, the hunter kills a native Jaxan.
Like I said, seeing how a writer presents a dog’s POV was fun. I don’t think Emshwiller intended for her doggy protagonist to be uplifted or enhanced even though we’re shown a stream-of-conscience observation of events by the dog. The man is known to the dog as the master, and she is called many endearing names, including the Queen, and Aloora.
Emshwiller has the problem of revealing both the thoughts of the dog and alien to us.
The thing spoke to her then, and its voice was a deep lullaby sound of buzzing cellos. It gestured with a thick, fur-backed hand. It promised, offered, and asked; and she listened, knowing and not knowing.
The words came slowly. This…is…world.
Here is the sky, the earth, the ice. The heavy arms moved. The hands pointed.
We have watched you, little slave. What have you done that is free today? Take the liberty. Here is the earth for your four shoed feet, the sky of stars, the ice to drink. Do something free today. Do, do.
Nice voice, she thought, nice thing. It gives and gives…something.
Her ears pointed forward, then to the sides, one and then the other, and then forward again. She cocked her head, but the real meaning would not come clear. She poked at the air with her nose. Say that again, her whole body said. I almost have it. I feel it. Say it once more and maybe then the sense of it will come.
But the creature turned and started away quickly, very quickly for such a big thing, and disappeared behind the trees and bushes. It seemed to shimmer itself away until the glitter was only the glitter of the ice and the black was only the thick, flat branches.
The alien even sounds like he could be Chief Joseph. Aloora knows the being is intelligent before the human, or at least that’s how it appears. But the human does see that the alien is holding something. Animals don’t usually hold objects in the wild.
The tiger thing held a small packet in one hand and was peering into it and pulling at the opening in it with a blunt finger. Suddenly there was a sweep of motion beside her and five fast, frantic shots sounded sharp in her ear. Two came after the honey-fat man had already fallen and lay like a huge decorated sack.
The master ran forward and she came at his heels. They stopped, not too close, and she watched the master looking at the big, dead tiger head with the terrible eye. The master was breathing hard and seemed hot. His face was red and puffy looking, but his lips made a hard whitish line. He didn’t whistle or talk. After a time he took out his knife. He tested the blade, making a small, bloody thread of a mark on his left thumb. Then he walked closer and she stood and watched him and whispered a questioning whine.
He stooped by the honey-fat man and it was that small, partly opened packet that he cut viciously through the center. Small round chunks fell out, bite-sized chunks of dried meat and a cheesy substance and some broken bits of clear, bluish ice.
The master kicked at them. His face was not red anymore, but olive-pale. His thin mouth was open in a grin that was not a grin. He went about the skinning then.
He did not keep the flat-faced, heavy head nor the blunt-fingered hands.
The master skins the alien but doesn’t take the head or hands, which has meaning in the ending. The hunter leaves the meat like buffalo hunters did in the old west. Why is Emshwiller telling us this story? Is she saying humans don’t change. That they will always exploit every frontier they conquer?
I have mentioned this before. But I believe some stories are good enough for a magazine publication. Then a few of them are worth republishing in an annual best-of-the-year collection, and then a fewer still are worthy of being remembered in a retrospective anthology. For me, “Pelt” is a 3-star story that I would have been happy to read in a magazine, but would have been disappointed to find in Merril’s annual anthology.
I think the story was well told, but I’m disappointed with its message and speculation. Even though the story is protesting awful aspects of humanity, it also assumes those aspects will be a part of us in the future. I believe much of the world has already turned against killing for fur, colonialism, and exploiting indigenous people. Sure, it still goes on, but we have changed a lot since 1958.
I’m not for censorship or cancel culture, but we need to think why we remember stories. It has often been said that science fiction isn’t about the future, but the present. And to a degree that’s true. But remembered science fiction is also a message from the past to the future, our present. And in that regard, I find “Pelt” a bit depressing, and even insulting. Emshwiller is suggesting that humans don’t change, that 19th century attitudes will exist in the future when interstellar space travel is possible. One of the reasons I dislike The Expanse series on television because it assumes we’ll carry 20th century attitudes towards war and diplomacy into the age of interplanetary travel.
Now I understand storytellers need conflict for their stories, but I’m disappointed when they use outdated conflicts, and I think this is the case in “Pelt.” I want to believe in the future we’ll no longer be killing for furs, or murdering indigenous beings, but who knows, maybe Emshwiller will be right. More than likely, Emshwiller modeled her conflict without thinking much about it, and I’m making too much out of it. In other words, it was just a little story she knocked out for F&SF, and I should just read it as such. But still, it was depressing. Imagine reading a story where humans enslave aliens, wouldn’t you find that offensive and depressing?
Story #31 of 107: “The Visitors” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
“The Visitors” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky appears to have been written in 1958 according to ISFDB.org, but it gives no original Russian publication source. This older story feels like a trial run for the Strugatskys famous 1972 novel Roadside Picnic. However, the Wikipedia entry for that novel makes no mention of this earlier story about the visitors.
“The Visitors” is yet another first contact story. I’ve lost count of the number we’ve read so far in The Big Book of Science Fiction. “The Visitors” lacks the originality that we discover in Roadside Picnic, but is still a good story. It’s a matter-of-fact account by one observer, K. N. Sergeyev, an archaeologist, who tells a first person story of meeting an alien, and then later quotes from his boss’s diary left at the landing site which describes a close encounter of the third kind. His boss, Boris Yanovich Lozovsky, ultimately volunteers for an encounter of the fourth kind by becoming a storaway on the alien’s ship. “The Visitors” was written during the height of UFO mania, but the story structure and description of events reminds me of The War of the Worlds.
In “The Visitors” we have a very simple account of aliens landing and two humans observing them gather cars, sheep, cows, and other odd bits, before leaving. Boris Yanovich gets to interact with them, but there is no real communication. All their activities are a mystery. Boris thinks they are intelligent machines, but Sergeyev describes them as looking like dog size spiders. I couldn’t help but think of an eight-legged version of the Boston Dynamics robot called Spot.
I enjoy first contact stories, even after reading hundreds of them over the last sixty years. You’d think I’d be burnt out by now. It’s doubtful we’ll ever meet aliens, so science fiction will reimagine the first encounter an infinite number of times. In some ways that’s very frustrating.
Shouldn’t we examine our unquenching thirst for science fiction, especially regarding specific ideas like first contact? Once we thoroughly understand the concept of first contact wouldn’t it be more efficient if we got on with other things? There is so much to learn about reality, why waste all this time with repeating endless speculations on what is essentially is a one sense-of-wonder insight. I’ve often thought we should replace science fiction with a set of concise nonfiction books, each volume covering one science fictional concept, revised and updated every five or ten years.
I have my own ideas of how we’ll make first contact. Someday humans will make a SETI connection with alien beings, and eventually we’ll start sending each other selfies. It might take decades or centuries to even work out a common language and communication standards. I believe most science fiction is overly optimistic in first contact SETI novels by having us intercepting pictures or video right from the start, decoding strange messages in days. I doubt that will happen. I should write a novel about how I picture it happening.
There seems to be a resurgence in UFO interest. Many books were written in the 1950s and 1960s about first encounters, and ufologists worked through all the ideas that science fiction writers have done. I sense the Strugatsky brothers were into UFOs, or they knew about that subculture because “The Visitors” feel more like a UFO report than SF a story.
Evidently, many of us have a strong desire to know we’re not alone in the universe. I’d like to read a novel where the focus is on how human societies change when that finally happens. Any recommendations?
“Sector General” was first published in the November 1957 issue of New Worlds, and is the first story in the long running Sector General series. James White would eventually produce enough short stories and novels about his galactic hospital service that would span twelve books. “Sector General” was reprinted in the first book, Hospital Station.
As far as I can remember, this is the only story I’ve read by James White. “Sector General” is long, episodic, and ends rather abruptly. Dr. Conway is an idealistic young doctor with too many preconceived notions. In the course of the story, he’s forced to change his mind several times.
Most of the story is infodumping because White wants to world build his setup. The setting is a giant space station that serves as a hospital for any kind of alien species. Doctors can quickly acquire the needed biological knowledge for each species via education tapes downloaded into their brain.
If you love Star Trek and Star Wars you’ll probably love the Sector General series, it’s another galactic civilization. The writing in “Sector General” reminded me of a Star Trek novel, where the fun seems to be learning about an ever growing fictional universe.
“Sector General” did not work for me, although the series sounds interesting. It reminds me of other doctors in space stories by Murray Leinster and Alan E. Nourse. I find the premise of human doctors working on alien patients to be unrealistic, but still a neat idea. White chased after too many squirrels in “Sector General.” He was obviously more excited about all the ideas that came to him rather than focusing on storytelling structure. There was content for two good stories in “Sector General” if they had been worked out properly.
Story #29 of 107: “Stranger Station” by Damon Knight
“Stranger Station” by Damon Knight is not a story I’ve read before. It was first published in the December 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and was reprinted in Knight’s second collection, In Deep. It has also been reprinted in many significant anthologies. I own ten of them.
I’ve never read a novel by Knight, and I can count the number of short stories I remember reading by him on one hand: “To Serve Man,” “The Country of the Kind,” “Four in One,” “The Handler,” and now “Stranger Station.” I’ve been impressed with all of them except “To Serve Man.” It’s okay, but The Twilight Zone adaptation spoiled it for me. However, I feel a kind of kinship with Knight because he created the Clarion writers workshops, and I attended Clarion West in 2002. I mostly remember Knight because of his original anthology series Orbit.
“Stranger Station” is exactly the kind of story I was hoping to find in The Big Book of Science Fiction — something I haven’t read that I regret not having read. I bought the SF Gateway Omnibus of Knight’s four collections: Far Out, In Deep, Off Centre, and Turning On after I read “Four in One,” but I haven’t started reading it yet. “Stranger Station” makes me want to find the time.
As I read “Stranger Station” I kept thinking this 1956 story should have been in Harlan Ellison’s 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions. I thought it exceptionally disturbing. I don’t remember reading “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” Knight’s story that was in that famous anthology. I barely remember reading Dangerous Visions in 1968, but can’t remember the specifics to any of the stories.
I didn’t think “Stranger Station” was disturbing because of daring content, but found it unsettling in the way Knight brought us into story, with Paul Wesson descending into madness, and leaving us with horrifying assessment of humans. Not only is the story well told, but it pushes the limits of science fiction for 1956.
Remember, these essays are not reviews. They’re my discussion for our group reads. There will be spoilers.
“Stranger Station” touches on several major science fiction themes: first contact, communication with aliens, ethnocentrism/xenocentrism, cultural humility, cultural shock, cultural imperialism, artificial intelligence, artificial gravity, and more. Knight guesses human spaceflight will take us to Titan by 1987. Of course, that’s wrong, but it could have been right if we had continued with Apollo era funding of space exploration and had not quit in 1972. Knight’s design of space station with artificial gravity is also very impressive for 1956, as his imagination for picturing an AI that reminded me of an evolved Alexa. If Knight had guessed at digitizing media I would have thought he had access to a time machine.
One reason I’m late posting my comments for this story is I’ve read it twice trying to figure it out. Philosophically it seems to be the opposite of “The Country of the Kind” where society has apparently found an exceptional cruel way to deal with lawbreakers with kindness. In “Stranger Station” Knight suggests the solution to fight an alien invasion is hate. But are they really what he’s saying in both cases? The man who considers himself King of the World in “The Country of the Kind” makes a case that society’s rebels deserve compassion too. But Paul Wesson’s solution to the alien’s invasion plan is an act of hate like the character in “The Country of the Kind.”
Science fiction writers seldom try to deal with the problem of alien contact. Most SF stories present aliens like Star Trek and Star Wars. Some aliens are friends, some are enemies, but being around them is no big deal. Knight imagines aliens that drive us insane and we drive them insane. In his story, one human and one alien meet every twenty years at a specially designed space station. They do not meet face-to-face, and they aren’t even supposed to see each other via video. Just being near each other causes psychic distress.
Knight has set up a story about contact between an advanced society and a backward society. In this case, we’re the backward society. It reminds me of stories about cargo cults. We have latched onto a biological byproduct from the aliens’ body that produces longevity and make a fetish of it like a crudely designed model plane. We almost worship the golden fluid, and set up a highly ritualized meeting place where we encounter the aliens, kowtow to their wonders.
In the story, Paul Wesson discovers the aliens are preconditioning us with love so that when we finally do attain interstellar travel we won’t destroy their culture with hate. Wesson resists this and fights back with hate, causing the giant alien the writhe in so much pain that it shakes apart the space station and dies.
What is Knight telling us? Is it a very dark judgment of the human race? At the end we’re told that the computer, Aunt Jane, is also expressing love. My current guess is Knight believes we’ll destroy AI minds too with our hate because of resentment. I currently can’t tell if Knight goes beyond cynicism in this story to any higher judgments.
This is another story that has taught me there were far more great science fiction writers back in the day than I discovered growing up. In the 1960s I barely got beyond the Big Three (Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov) by discovering Delany-Zelazny-Ellison and a couple other writers like Brunner and PKD. I’m having BIG FUN in my old age discovering other writers from the 1950s and 1960s that I should have discovered way back then.
I doubt I’ve even begun to fathom this story. I will need to reread it several times, but as if now:
Story #28 of 107: “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov was obviously aiming to tell the tallest tall tale he could imagine when he wrote “The Last Question” for the November 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly. And what a whopper! No one has ever claimed to have caught a bigger fish. Hell, “The Last Question” is the most hubric statement ever made about mankind. Asimov was known for his ego, and he assumes our species is just as egotistical. But then, science fiction has never been timid about thinking big.
Asimov claimed “The Last Question” was his favorite story he ever wrote. See this quote I stole from Wikipedia:
Why is it my favorite? For one thing I got the idea all at once and didn't have to fiddle with it; and I wrote it in white-heat and scarcely had to change a word. This sort of thing endears any story to any writer. Then, too, it has had the strangest effect on my readers. Frequently someone writes to ask me if I can give them the name of a story, which they think I may have written, and tell them where to find it. They don't remember the title but when they describe the story it is invariably 'The Last Question'. This has reached the point where I recently received a long-distance phone call from a desperate man who began, "Dr. Asimov, there's a story I think you wrote, whose title I can't remember—" at which point I interrupted to tell him it was 'The Last Question' and when I described the plot it proved to be indeed the story he was after. I left him convinced I could read minds at a distance of a thousand miles.
“The Last Question” is stuffed full of science fictional ideas, and has often been dramatically presented at planetarium shows. At the ISFDB.org the story is also listed with quite a number of topic tags for such a short story. Unfortunately, the tag system hasn’t been widely implement yet. I’d love to know all the other SF stories that deal with “reboot” and “heat death of the universe.” I know Tau Zero by Poul Anderson was a reboot story, but it has a different topic tag for that concept – “big crunch.”
“The Last Question” reminds me of an old cartoon. Let’s see how well my memory works. The cartoon showed a giant mainframe computer and two men in lab coats in front of it. One scientist had typed in “Is there a God?” and on the printer the other scientist reads, “There is now.” I’ve always wondered if that cartoon inspired Asimov to write “The Last Question.” I can’t find a copy of that cartoon on the net, but if anyone has a copy please post a link in the comments. On the other hand, the cartoonist may have gotten their idea from the Asimov story.
“The Last Question” is very popular and there’s many audio versions on the net, including this one read by Leonard Nimoy.
In 1956 when this story was written, computers were huge machines that filled large rooms and were only getting bigger. Most people had not seen one, but they were often discussed in pop culture, frequently within jokes. People considered them thinking machines. 1956 was also around the time that artificial intelligence became an academic discipline.
I thought it amusing that Asimov imagines a “Microvac” computer, but even then his micro was quite large. Did science fiction writers ever imagine small personal computers before small personal computers were invented?
Overall, “The Last Question” is a gem of a story, and one that epitomizes the idea story in science fiction. Asimov quickly sketches in a series of characters at every temporal stage of the story, and even though they lack depth of characterization, they capture different stages of humanity that have been imagined before in science fiction. Jerrodd’s family reminds me of the family Stone in Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones. VJ-23X of Lameth was a common futuristic character type in 1930s science fiction, like the kind that Edmond Hamilton, Neil R. Jones, or Raymond Z. Gallun wrote, and Zee Prime recalls what Olaf Stapledon imagined in Last and First Men or Star Maker.
In other words, this is a very science fictional story. And to steal from Aldous Huxley, “The Last Question” reflects the Perennial Philosophy of Science Fiction, which believes humanity will go on no matter what. If our planet dies we’ll find another one. If we lose our star, we’ll build another one. If we outgrow this galaxy, we’ll take over all the rest. If the universe dies, we’ll create another. Nothing is going to stop us. It’s certainly a positive philosophy, but is it a healthy one?
Story #27 of 107: “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith
At first, I was disappointed to see “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was the next story in The Big Book of Science Fiction. I was hoping for a story new to me, instead of another reread. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” seemed too fresh in my mind and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it. But I have this thing about rereading stories. I’ve disciplined myself to always reread a work when encountering it again in another anthology. Experience has taught me it’s well worth the time and effort, and that was the case this time too.
Each time I forget why I love this story, but whenever I start rereading all the details I admired comes back to me. Cordwainer Smith has created a delicious tale for people who love cats and space travel, and I’m his perfect target audience.
I have to wonder why Smith wrote this story? It came out in the October 1955 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, just before the dawn of the Space Age. The story speculates we’ll eventually discover dangers in interstellar space that we can’t fathom consciously. Unknown threats that will drive us mad. Eventually in Smith’s fictional universe, we’ll discover that people with telepathic powers partnered with cats with telepathic powers can overcome those dangers. Humans perceive those unknowable attackers as dragons, and cats see them as rats.
In the 1950s there were countless stories about telepathy, ESP, psionics, and other psychic superpowers. There were a fair number of stories about humans having psychic bonds with cats, with other Earthly animals, as well as all kinds of alien space creatures. Did people in the 1950s really believe the space was going to be full of psychological barriers, that humans were going to develop psi-powers in the future, and we’d communicate with animals and aliens with our minds? Or were those the futures we wanted?
As a kid I thought science fiction was speculation about possibilities just around the corner, maybe within my lifetime, but now as an old person, I wonder if I ever really believed that? I think I did. Or at least, I think I hoped. Was I just a gullible kid who wanted to believe in science fictional theories. Had I put my own hopes for the future into the hands of writers who were only making shit up to tell a neat story? Or is there an inbetween position, where writers were making stuff up, but they also kind of believed their own bullshit?
Paul Linebarger, the real person behind the byline “Cordwainer Smith” was quite a serious and well-educated dude, even writing a textbook Psychological Warfare. Since “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was written in the middle of Cold War, when psychological warfare and brainwashing were topical topics, it’s easy to see the inspiration of the story. But why blend that heavy subject with sentimental fluff about cats? Imagine The Manchurian Candidate with several cute cat scenes.
Do stories need to make sense? Do stories about serious topics need to be serious and logical? “The Game of Rat and Dragon” has been reprinted extensively, including four of the giant doorstop SF retrospective anthologies of this century. Why is that?
Why do science fiction readers keep reading this story? Is it just our love of cats? Do we still hope people will become psychic? Or fear space might have psychological barriers? Or is it merely a story, well told, that entertains us for a few minutes?
The obvious answer is yes, it’s just a little story. But time and time again, I have to wonder why science fiction resonates with us. Science fiction has become immensely popular. As a society we have a vast appetite for fiction and an unquenchable thirst for novelty. Are we bored with reality and need all the books, movies, television shows, and video games we can consume which features interesting fictional realities? Why am I spending so much of my remaining life reading science fiction?
And what about the ending? Isn’t it questioning another normalcy? Doesn’t Underhill love the cat, Lady May, just a little too much? A nurse shows interest in him, and then feels rebuffed because Underhill can only ask about a cat. Should we wonder about Underhill rejecting human company for feline? Or does that line up with our own preference for pet companions? Or is it symbolic for our preference for fiction over life?
Science fiction fans usually discover the genre when young, enchanted by its sense of wonder, even becoming addicted to the fantastic for the rest of their lives. I can understand why I was captivated by tall tales in my adolescence but why didn’t I ever outgrow them? After forty years of adult reality, why do I still enjoy children’s fantasies?
This is my second reading of “Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz during the past year. Last July I read it in The Great SF Stories 17 (1955) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. “Grandpa” was first published in the February 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and it’s been well anthologized since. This was a great pick by the VanderMeers because “Grandpa” deserves preserving, and Schmitz deserves better recognition. And it allows me to bring up the topic of young adult (YA) literature in science fiction.
“Grandpa” has never been marketed as YA, but the protagonist is just 15. In 1955 there was quite a lot of YA science fiction being published. Literary critics considered the whole genre aimed at adolescents. Heinlein had his much-loved novels from Charles Scribner’s (the Heinlein Juveniles), Andre “Alice” Norton’s novels were popular, as were the Winston Science Fiction series, and Isaac Asimov had his Lucky Starr series. Plus quite a few SF writers were cranking out books intended for young readers. Most of the many SF magazines knew their audience ran young. The early days of television had a number of popular science fiction adventure shows aimed at kids. I’d say the 1950s and 1960s was a transition time for American childhood, as kids switched from dreaming of becoming cowboys when they grew up, to hoping to become spacemen. (I know I should say cowpeople and spacepeople but it just doesn’t sound right.)
YA lit is all about having young protagonists for young readers to identify. That’s why I call “Grandpa” YA fiction. “Grandpa” is an engaging adventure story that would be empowering to a teenage reader, the kind who cast themselves as action heros in their daydreaming. I’d also call Schmitz’s most famous story, “The Witches of Karres” YA too. And the Telzey Amberdon series is based on a female character who started out as a 15-year-old character.
“Grandpa” is part of The Hub series that ran mainly in Astounding and Analog, a science fiction magazine aimed at adults, but I believe most of its readers got hooked on it in their teens, I know I did. Grandpa, the title character, is a giant floating beast that’s usable as a watercraft. That’s incredibly cool. This world is full of strange symbiotic pairs, and that’s really neat too. And the biology and ecology of this world is rich and complicated and far from understood. Far out. Aren’t these elements the common denominator of science fiction? My favorite YA books of childhood were Heinlein’s juveniles, and they certainly had all these elements and more.
“Grandpa” has everything a teen reader loves about science fiction. Space explorers, colonists on an alien worlds, exotic animals that are both dangerous and pet worthy, freedom from parents, carrying a gun and getting to use it, life and death struggles, belonging to an elite organization while still being a rogue free thinker. This applies to most of the YA science fiction I read in junior high. It’s still the basis for many popular science fiction movies today.
We should ask ourselves: Why does this formula appeal so to us? It’s often been observed how YA fiction finds ways to get young protagonists free of their parents. Cord is just fifteen in this story, and I expect a lot of fifteen-year-olds would love to be out on their own like him. But at that age we really don’t want to join the 9-to-5 mundane world of work. Space is our fairyland. Mars would be great, but we really want a world teaming with endless lifeforms, but not many humans. A few intelligent aliens might be fun, but not too many of those either. We want a world where we can roam and explore without too many responsibilities, and especially without adult supervision.
As adult readers, we still want this kind of adventure too. But at 70, how can I identify with a 15-year-old protagonist? Why is this story still fun? Why am I even nostalgic for this type of fiction? Which I am. And if I crave such adventures why not just go have real adventures? When I was a teen growing up in Miami I would sometimes visit my Uncle Jack out at the Conservation Club in the Everglades. I got to ride swamp buggies and airboats and see giant alligators and other wildlife — not too different from Cord’s fictional adventures. But I preferred saying home and reading science fiction. What’s that all about? My only adventures in nature today are when I visit the Botanic Gardens for a walk. Why do I prefer imaginary worlds to the real world? What’s in fiction adventures that keep us addicted to them our whole life?
Now it’s one thing for a teenager to read “Grandpa,” but it should be a whole different experience for a old guy like me to read. It wasn’t. It made me wish I was fifteen again, and living Cord’s adventure. When I was a teenager I hoped when I grew up space travel would be common and I could have such adventures. That’s why the recent SpaceX Inspiration4 mission was so exciting to people.
However, I have to wonder, what would be age appropriate science fiction for me to read at seventy? I guess that’s why people are so excited about 90-year-old William Shatner going into space in a couple of weeks, we never want to give up that dream about the final frontier.
James H. Schmitz was popular at Astounding/Analog and often got the cover, but he is seldom remembered today. He did write a lot of books, many still in print, but I seldom meet people who talk about them. I wonder if they appeal to girls because he often used female protagonists? (And did boys like having those girl characters?) I found this essay by Mercedes Lackey writing about Schmitz in the introduction to Agent of Vega and Other Stories. I don’t know if it’s cool or legal to quote so much, but I she expresses exactly how we get captured by science fiction when young:
There's a commercial on cable stations lately that talks about moments of epiphany—moments when you understand something that changes your life.
I've had at least one of those moments—and when it was over, my life had been changed forever.
It was when, when I was eleven or thereabouts, I went looking in the living room for something to read.
Now, in my house, books were everywhere and there was very little my brother and I were forbidden to read. We both had library cards as soon as we got past "Run, Spot, run," and by the time I was nine I was coming home with armloads of books every week and still running out of things to read before the week was over. By the time I was ten, I had special permission to take books out of the adult section—yes, in those dark days, you needed a permission slip from your parents to read things that weren't in the children's section.
Now, the peculiar thing here is that although I read anything that looked like a fairy-tale and every piece of historical fiction I could find, I hadn't discovered classic juvenile science fiction. I can't think why—unless it was because my library didn't have any. It was a very small branch library, and I hadn't yet learned that you could request anything that was in the card-catalog for the whole county-wide system. It might also have been because my branch library had helpfully segregated the juvenile section into "Boys" and "Girls," and I wasn't brave enough to cross the invisible line-of-death dividing the two. I do recall reading two little books called Space Cat and Space Cat Meets Mars and loving them—and also something called City Under the Back Steps about a kid who gets shrunk and joins an ant colony—but that was in a different library, before we moved, and perhaps the books hadn't been so helpfully segregated there. Be that as it may, although I was knee-deep in the historical novels of Anya Seton and Rosemary Sutcliff by then, I hadn't ventured into the adult Science Fiction section. I hadn't fallen headfirst into Andre Norton's myriad worlds, I hadn't joined Heinlein's resourceful heroes, I hadn't discovered Anderson, Asimov, Clarke, Nourse, Simak. . . .
All that was about to change. Because my father had.
My father was a science fiction reader; in our house, where library books were everywhere, it was my father who bought the paperbacks. They were divided pretty equally in thirds—suspense (including spy-novels), war, and science fiction.
It was the start of summer vacation, I had already bored through my stack of nine books, and we weren't going back to the library for another two days. I was desperate. I ventured into the living room, and picked up James Schmidt's Agent of Vega.
I'm not sure why. It certainly wasn't the cover—in those days, science fiction books were sporting rather odd abstract paintings—possibly trying to divorce themselves from the Bug Eyed Monsters of the pulp covers so that they could be taken Seriously. That wasn't going to happen, not in the Sixties, but you couldn't fault the editors for trying. It wasn't the title—I hadn't a clue what, or who, Vega was, and I wasn't interested in the James Bond books (yet) that featured the only other "agent" I knew of. Perhaps it was just desperation. I asked politely if I could read it, was granted permission, and trotted away to my room with my prize.
Five minutes later, it was true love.
It was an epiphany.
Here was everything I had been looking for—exotic settings, thrills, adventure, heroines who were just as resourceful and brave as the heroes, and something more. There was a magic in the words, but there was more than that. It was imagination.
No one, no one, since my fairy-tales, had written like this. This James Schmitz fellow seemed as familiar with androids and alien planets as I was with the ice-cream man and the streets of my hometown.
And here, for the first time, I encountered psionics.
Psi! There was even an abbreviation for it! Telepathy! Telekinesis! Teleportation! Empathy! Precognition!
Oh, these were words to conjure with! Better than the magic of the fairy-tales, these were scientific which meant that someone, somewhere (oh let it be me! Me!) might find a way to get one of these powers for himself!
Much has been made of the "sense of wonder" that science fiction evokes, and believe me, there was nothing to evoke that sense quite like the worlds of James Schmitz. Especially for someone who had never read anything like this before. The man had the right stuff; no doubt of it. By the time that I was done with that book, I was well and truly hooked. And my life had just taken that irrevocable, epiphanal change.
“The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke appeared in the very first issue of Infinity Science Fiction in November 1955 and got top billing on the cover. Was Clarke famous in 1955? “The Star” won a Hugo for him in 1956, so did that make him famous? Clarke was quite prolific at writing short stories and getting them published in a wide variety of science fiction magazines since 1946. So when did Arthur C. Clarke become famous as a top science fiction writer? By 1955 he was known for “Nine Billion Names of God,” Against the Fall of Night, Childhood’s End, and for the nonfiction book, The Exploration of Space, which Wikipedia claims Wernher von Braun gave to John F. Kennedy to promote the idea of space exploration. I ponder all this because I recently read a query on Facebook asking when Clarke became famous enough to be considered integral to the Big Three of science fiction writers. (Although, a more interesting question might be: Who are the top three writers of science fiction in 2021? I could not even begin to answer that.)
I discovered Clarke in 1963 when I read Dolphin Island, first published that year. I then discovered Islands in the Sky (1953) around 1965. In March of 1967 I argued with my best friend over who was the greatest science fiction writer, me claiming Heinlein, but Connell claiming Clarke. So by the mid-1960s I knew who he was, but only vaguely. I believe I had also read The Exploration of Space by then. Still, I was only slightly familiar with Clarke, but Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov were already the Big Three of science fiction. I accepted that because it seemed so.
But when did Clarke become famous? When 2001: A Space Odyssey came out that seem to make him well known. In July 1969 he was interviewed on live television during the Apollo 11 moon launch and landing as if everyone knew him, not just SF fans. But when did he become a legendary science fiction writer to science fiction fans? Clarke was the Guest of Honor at the Worldcon in 1956, the year after Asimov. Heinlein was Guest of Honor in 1941, just two years after he began publishing, and again in 1961, 1976.
I bring all this up because I wonder if the success of stories is related to the success of their authors? How long does it take for a great story to be recognized as a classic? Members of the Worldcon voted “The Star” the best short story the year after it came out, but T. E. Dikty didn’t select it for his best of the year annual. Dikty did pick “The Game of Rat and Dragon” that competed with “The Star” for the Hugo.
Looking at the story’s ISFDB entry, we can see it’s been reprinted quite often. However, that ball didn’t start rolling until 1962 when “The Star” was included in The Hugo Winners edited by Isaac Asimov and A Century of Science Fiction edited by Damon Knight. Those two anthologies were often reprinted, and were selections for the SFBC. That spread the word far and wide. Plus “The Star” was included in Clarke’s third collection, The Other Side of the Sky that went through many editions. The list of reprints at ISFDB is quite long, and so is the list of languages its been translated into.
I’m surprised that the VanderMeers included “The Star” in The Big Book of Science Fiction, since they often seem to avoid the widely reprinted classics. I would have expected them to find a less famous Clarke to promote. They didn’t include a story by Heinlein because they couldn’t get the rights — and that omission really sticks out. The Asimov they picked was Asimov’s favorite I believe, but not mine. Both “The Star” and “The Last Question” are excellent stories, but not evidence that Clarke and Asimov were once part of a Big Three. Are there three stories that would stand as evidence?
When I go to bookstores I often check to see how many books are available by Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov. Where once each of their titles would fill a shelf or two, they now take up inches with a few titles. Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov are hardly the big three today. Will “The Star” survive if Clarke’s reputation doesn’t?
The story is rather slight, and can be read in 5-15 minutes, and I believe most people remember it because of its trick ending. Just to remind folks, I’m not reviewing stories, but discussing them, so I will spoil that surprise ending.
It’s rather interesting that Clarke’s two most famous short stories confirm the existence of God, and his two most famous novels, suggest that mankind will be resurrected into a higher state of being. That’s rather interesting since I believe Clarke was an atheist. Was he just going for a surprise ending, or was he making a philosophical statement. Maybe we should look closer at those two short stories.
In “Nine Billion Names of God,” the almighty dissolves the universe after Buddhist monks compile a list of all his possible names. In “The Star” God destroys a planet of advanced beings just to signal to our planet that his son had arrived. Was Clarke wanting his readers to consider that God is not nice? Or the ways of God are not fathomable by us? James Blish in A Case of Conscience and Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow also use science fiction to question the nature of God.
In my opinion, Clarke was going for the cheap gasp. In both stories, he setup the story nicely. In “The Star” he does some astronomical infodumping, and covers a couple classic science fiction themes, one of which is a favorite of mine. I love stories about exploring the remains of extinct alien civilizations. Clarke even throws in a nice Jesuit character that I was getting to like. Then WHAM – the surprise.
When I reread these stories, and I do reread them because I have a personal rule to reread stories when I encounter them again in another anthology, I know what’s coming so I try to look for interesting bits along the way to the ending. This time I liked the Jesuit, and that he has a copy of Ruben’s engraving of Loyola in his cabin.
On the other hand, is this enough to keep reprinting “The Star?” If science fiction is mostly neat ideas and surprise endings is that enough for us to keep reading it. Shouldn’t we want more? What did Clarke give the science fiction world to make him famous?
I fear most science fiction has little lasting value. That’s why we see all its themes recycled for each new generation reclothed in current fashions. I wonder if “The Star” survives because no later generation has come up with this same trick ending?
If I was anthologizing SF stories from the 20th century and wanted to include an Arthur C. Clarke story, I’d use “Rescue Party.” I’ve read that Clarke was annoyed by the number of people who told him their favorite story of his was “Rescue Party” because it meant his career had been going down since his first professional sale. “The Star” is much better written, but if we’re going for unique ideas, “Rescue Party” has more. A race of aliens come upon the Earth but there’s no sign of humanity. The aliens poke about our remains wondering who we were. This is the inverse of the theme I like so much. A very nice twist. We have abandoned the solar system like the beings of “The Star” should have. Near the end of the story, the aliens discover we’d left monitoring equipment to record the end of our world, and followed the direction in which it was beaming data. The story ends with them going off to find us.
The science fiction theme that humanity must leave the Earth and solar system to survive is a strong one. It’s part of the drive behind Elon Musk’s effort to colonize Mars. It promotes the belief that no matter what God or Nature throws at us, we will hang on. That’s a much more powerful message for Clarke to leave his readers.
To answer my original query I’m guessing Clarke became famous when a certain percentage of science fiction readers thought his ideas and stories were among the best. I’m guessing that happened between Childhood’s End (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956), maybe as late as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and definitely by Rendezvous with Rama (1973).
I found this quote in I, Asimov: A Memoir where Isaac Asimov claims Clarke was famous by 1949. But I find that hard to believe, because that was before any of his famous stories.
There was no question that by 1949 I was widely recognized as a major science fiction writer. Some felt I had joined Robert Heinlein and A. E. van Vogt as the three-legged stool on which science fiction now rested.
As it happened, A. E. van Vogt virtually ceased writing in 1950, perhaps because he grew increasingly interested in Hubbard’s dianetics. In 1946, however, a British writer, Arthur C. Clarke, began to write for ASF, and he, like Heinlein and van Vogt (but unlike me), was an instant hit.
By 1949, the first whisper of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov as “the Big Three” began to be heard. This kept up for some forty years, for we all stayed alive for decades and all remained in the science fiction field. In the end, we all three commanded large advances and found our books on the best-seller lists. (Who would have thought it in the 1940s?)
I, Asimov (pp. 140-141). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Story #24 of 107: “Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver
Now that we’ve reached the 1950s in our group discussion of The Big Book of Science Fiction, I think we should try and remember the historical context that gave birth to our genre. Although science fiction was part of the pulp magazine tradition of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the American public at large hadn’t discovered science fiction yet. During WWII the atomic bomb and V-2 rockets opened their eyes. In the late 1940s the flying saucer mania got people thinking about invasions from space and aliens. Then around 1950 a flood of science fiction TV shows, movies, comics, paperbacks, magazines, and hardbacks hit pop culture causing the Baby Boomers to grow up with the genre. (I chronicled all this in “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”)
Science fiction writers were in the unique position to prepare America and the world for the future. John W. Campbell Jr. was the prophet for the space age urging his disciples to write positive fiction about the potential of the future. Not everyone was so optimistic, but their stories usually appeared in the dozens of new digest size magazines that were part of a publishing boom in science fiction, which competed with Astounding Science Fiction.
“Let Me Live in a House” first appeared in the March 1954 issue of Universe Science Fiction, from a group of low-budget magazines edited by Raymond A. Palmer, former editor of Amazing Stories, and creator of Fate Magazine. Ray Palmer was major promoter of UFO fiction and nonfiction, and a legendary nut-ball in the SF world. In other words, Palmer was what Philip K. Dick called a Crap Artist. People now consider John W. Campbell a nut, but we should remember back in the 1950s and 1960s all science fiction readers were consider geeky, nerdy, nutty, and social zeroes. One reason I’m reviewing the BBofSF is to retrace the steps of my philosophical development from reading science fiction. Back then, I was a crap artist much like Jack Isidore in PKD’s Confessions of a Crap Artist, which is my favorite work by Philip K. Dick.
“Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver is the kind of story I was hoping to find in The Big Book of Science Fiction — one that I hadn’t read and one that deserved to be rediscovered and preserved. Chad Oliver is an author I’ve been curious about lately. I read his The Mists of Dawn as a kid because it was part of the Winston Science Fiction series, and I reread that novel last year when I got nostalgic for those old YA SF novels. Recently, I was quite taken with his story “Transformer” and wrote about it in “From Let’s Pretend Literature.” Now with “Let Me Live in a House” I’m feeling a need to read more Oliver. Luckily, several of his novels and collections are available at Amazon for $1.99 each for the Kindle editions.
Chad Oliver is little known today, even Wikipedia doesn’t say much about him. Usually, when people mention him, they mention he was anthropologist. I did find this nice “Annotated Bibliography and Guide” to his work.
Oliver explores two major science-fictional themes in “Let Me Live in a House.” The first is about the brutality of space. This story was written well before Sputnik and the creation of NASA. I was impressed that Oliver predicted that only people with the Right Stuff would become astronauts. He also speculated that space would be psychologically hostile to humans, and the premise of this tale is astronauts will need to take their culture with them to survive. We’re shown four astronauts on Ganymede, living in twin track houses, with two married couples playing neighbors and best friends. This opening reminds me of the kind of stories Philip K. Dick was writing in the 1950s, where people live inside artificial delusions.
The two couples, Gordon and Helen Collier, and Bart and Mary Walters, have been conditioned to think they are living an ordinary suburban life of playing cards and watching TV. The men occasionally monitor conditions on Ganymede from a hidden room but they try not to think about where they are. Gordon is starting to crack, becoming aware that he’s pretending, becoming more and more paranoid. Then one night they hear a strange noise while playing cards:
Gordon Collier walked nervously out of the room, followed by Barton. He clenched his fists, feeling the clammy sweat in the palms of his hands, and fought to keep the fear from surging up within him. They walked into a small hall and Gordon pressed a button. A section of the wall slid smoothly back on oiled runners, and the two men walked into the white, brightly lighted equipment room.
Gordon kept his hand steady and flipped on the outside scanners. He couldn’t see a thing. He tried the tracer screen, and it was blank. Barton tried the radio, on the off chance that someone was trying to contact them. There was silence.
They checked the radar charts for the past hour. They were all quite normal—except the last one. That one had a streak on it, a very sharp and clear and unmistakable streak. It was in the shape of an arc, and it curved down in a grimly familiar way. It started far out in space and it ended. Outside—outside in the ice and the rocks and the cold.
“Probably a meteor,” Barton suggested.
“Probably,” Gordon agreed dubiously, and made a note to that effect in the permanent record.
“Well, what else could it have been?” Barton challenged.
“Nothing,” Gordon admitted. “It was a meteor.”
They swung the wall shut again, covering the tubes and screen and coils with flowered wallpaper and Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. They returned to the living room, where their wives still sat around the card table waiting for them. The room was as comfortable as ever, and the tri-di set was on again.
It was all just as they had left it, Gordon thought—but it was different. The room seemed smaller, constricted, isolated. The temperature had not changed, but it was colder. Millions and millions of miles flowed into the room and crawled around the walls….
“Just a meteor, I guess,” Gordon said.
They went on with their game for another hour, and then Barton and Mary went home to bed. Before they left, they invited Gordon and Helen to visit them the next night.
As Gordon becomes undone we slowly learn how Oliver predicts living in space will be a psychic burden. This reminds me of the brilliant story by Edmond Hamilton, “What’s It Like Out There?” that came out in 1952, two years before this story. Joachim Boaz has a review of that story which is part of a series about SF that shows the brutality of living in space. The 1950s was a time when psychiatry was a popular topic at parties and in fiction, so this makes sense, and besides Oliver was an anthropologist. Space was still a huge unknown, so such stories are an obvious speculation. However, they weren’t common in the genre because most science fiction fans were gung-ho to explore space. These were not the kind of stories that John W. Campbell Jr. would publish.
I grew up in the 1960s readily accepting the faith of a high frontier, a true believer in SPACE. As a kid, I loved Heinlein’s 1950 novel about Ganymede, Farmer in the Sky. Heinlein saw space like Americans in the 19th century thought of the West. His novel starkly contrasts with “Let Me Live in a House,” and had all the positive sentimentality of Little House on the Prairie. I’m not sure I could I would have enjoyed reading “Let Me Live in a House” when I was a teen.
Oliver adds a second SF theme in “Let Me Live in a House,” that was far more common, that of first contact. He applies that same kind of fear and paranoia he did about exploring space to it. It turns out the noise Gordon and Bart hear is a spaceship, and a few nights later there is a knock on their door. This reminds me of the classic Fredric Brown story, “Knock,” based on the the idea of the last man on Earth sits in a room alone and hears a knock upon the door.
When Gordon opens the door a man that looks like the portrait of Bart’s grandfather comes in. Of course, it’s an alien, and we eventually learn it projects a human image because its physical features are two horrible for the humans to witness. Gordon must escape this illusion and overcome the alien in a battle of logic.
In my post about “Prott” by Margaret St. Clair, I talked about the problem SF writers have with first contact stories. Oliver deals with those problems in a number of ways. The alien obviously has great mental powers, even telepathy, and can communicate in English. And we don’t get to know the alien because it disguises itself as a human. Gordon does get to see what the alien really looks like, which is so gruesome that it drives him mad. Remember how Greek philosophers said if we could see the face of God we’d go mad?
Oliver is predicting we won’t be able to live in space, and that we really won’t be able to handle aliens — other than our tried and true method of dealing with xenophobia. Is the reason why this story isn’t well known because of its negative attitude towards space exploration? And did the VanderMeers anthologize it because of its contrarian take? What’s interesting is three of their stories, “Prott,” “Let Me Live in a House,” and “The Microscopic Giants” were first anthologized in Science Fiction Terror Tales edited by Groff Conklin. I wonder if they read that anthology? We have to give both Conklin and the VanderMeers credit for mining stories out of the lesser science fiction magazines. In 1954, Astounding, Galaxy, and F&SF were the big three, but there were a couple dozen other science fiction magazines coming out at that time. Have anthologists read them all?
The science fiction short stories that appeared in the 1950s were ones I read in old anthologies I checked out of libraries in the 1960s. From now on, as we progress through the BBofSF, we’ll be reading stories I consumed over the last sixty years, as well as ones I missed. It’s time to reevaluate everything that went into the evolution of my thinking.
Collectively, I’d say people still believe in the John W. Campbell view of the future. We’re still gung-ho on space exploration. But there’s still a chance for Chad Oliver’s speculation to be valid. We might not survive space psychologically or biologically. But we should also ask: Why do we want to go into space? Did the romance of science fiction impregnate those desires into us? We have a lot of stories to read that might help us answer those questions?
Story #23 of 107: “The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn
“The Liberation of Earth” was first published in the May 1953 issue of Future Science Fiction. It hasn’t been widely reprinted, but it’s been in all the versions of Brian Aldiss’s The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus and it’s in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. I believe I’ve only read it once before, in The Great SF Stories 15 (1953) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I owned a copy Of All Possible Worlds back in the 1960s and might have first read it then, but just can’t remember. For a short time in my adolescence I was into William Tenn because I had found an old copy of Galaxy Science Fiction with “Time Waits for Winthrop,” and that amused me. I remember seeking out his stories, but don’t remember what I read. I recently read Of Men and Monsters and loved it. In my review I made a case that people should try to read Tenn’s only novel without encountering any spoilers — don’t even read the blurbs on the book cover.
I am less taken with “The Liberation of Earth.” Oh, it’s good enough, and fun, I’m just not keen on satire in my old age. However, it might be a problem with presentation. My inner reading voice is not very impressive, especially for sarcasm and other forms of comic snideness. Comedy depends heavily on presentation. “The Liberation of Earth” is a long monologue describing the invasions and liberations by two groups of aliens, the Dendi and the Troxxt, who use the Earth like the U.S. and Russia fought over third world countries for their client states.
If I could have heard “The Liberation of Earth” read by a professional narrator I might have been wowed by all the relevant satire. The VanderMeers really tout its greatness, especially as an antiwar work that was originally inspired by the Korean War. And I do imagine if the people of Afghanistan read this story today they could relate to the “joys” of being liberated time and again.
I think there is another target for Tenn’s satire in this story — science fiction — especially the cherished notion that humanity would be welcomed as an equal partner into a wise galactic federation. “The Liberation of Earth” came out after The Day the Earth Stood Still, so I wondered if it was also harpooning it?
However, there is another issue I should mention. I believe I’ve come to want a certain kind of storytelling, and this narrowing of my tastes leaves me a bit closeminded about other kinds of storytelling. I like stories with characters I can get to know and care about. I don’t have to like them, but they have to involve me. “The Liberation of Earth” only has an unnamed narrator, and not someone we get to know. When Australia is turned to ash it was only an abstraction. If there had been an Australian character we had come to care about, it might have mattered. Like the Australians in the novel On the Beach. The one William Tenn story I do remember well and love, is the novel Of Monsters and Men, and that was because of Eric the Only. I followed Eric through many adventures, and we solved the mysteries of his world together.
I recently listened to The Best of Walter M. Miller Jr. on audiobook. Many of the stories in that collection were exactly the kind I love, with captivating characters, dramatic plots, presented by a very talented professional narrator. I’ve been listening to the Miller stories over the same weeks I’ve been reading The Big Book of Science Fiction, and the contrast is stark. Too many of the stories in the BBofSF just depend on ideas and cleverness, and that’s not enough for me. And to be honest, I can’t believe it’s enough for any reader. However, that’s another thing I’m learning from group reading these stories on Facebook. Everyone likes different kinds of science fiction.
Miller stories are just the right kind for me, even though they aren’t particularly famous in science fiction history, and some of them are a bit weird and strange, even for science fiction. But gosh, they’re great stories, with great storytelling — again, at least for me. Since this collection isn’t even in print at the moment maybe they aren’t the right kind of storytelling for a lot of SF fans. The audiobook I listened to is new, but narrates a collection last published back in 1980. My absolute favorite is “The Darfsteller.” It was first published in the January 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. I believe it was the first novelette to win the Hugo Award even though it’s a novella. I’m guessing the magazine version was much shorter. After that three stories are tied for second place as my favorites: “The Lineman,” “Conditionally Human,” and “Dark Benediction.” Although if I listened to the book again I might pick other stories out of the 14 in this collection. And I should probably give a trigger warning that these stories might be offensive to modern readers who expect characters in the past to have 21st-century enlightened views.
I’d really wish the audiobook publishers of the Miller collection would do one for Tenn. In fact, there are many science fiction authors I love who mainly wrote short stories and there’s no audiobook editions of their work. Several of those authors are in print from NESFA Press, including William Tenn. Audible Studios has done one NESFA book that I know of, His Share of Glory by C. M. Kornbluth. I wish they’d do them all. With a good audio narrator I might even love “The Liberation of Earth.” I have found that audiobooks can often get me to enjoy books I don’t enjoy reading.
Many of the stories we’ve read in The Big Book of Science Fiction have been disappointing to some of our membership, but then others in the group have liked them. It’s really hard to judge fiction. It seems the VanderMeers prefer kinds of storytelling I don’t, but like I said, presentation matters. So does mood. I’ve changed my mind about stories because my mood had changed. And then there’s age. I think we resonate with stories differently depending on our age. I don’t remember if I read “The Liberation of Earth” back in the 1960s, but I’m pretty sure I would have liked it much better when I was young.
Story #22 of 107: “The Prott” by Margarett St. Clair
“Prott” by Margaret St. Clair was first published in the January 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, and later anthologized by Groff Conklin in Science Fiction Terror Tales in the U.S. and by Edmund Crispin in Best SF in Great Britain. I don’t remember reading anything before by Margaret St. Clair, or by her pen name Iris Seabright, but I have seen both names enough over the years to know she was around. Wikipedia says she published over 130 stories. St. Clair only has one book in print at Amazon, a 2019 collection of 17 stories, The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales, but “Prott” isn’t included. James Nicolls reviewsThe Best of Margaret St. Clair edited by Martin H. Greenberg that came out in 1985. That collection did include “Prott.”
“Prott” is a first contact story, and St. Clair worked hard to make her aliens alien, which is something I admire. She also focused on the problem of communication, which is another theme I like. The story is told in a frame of two men having drinks and one of them gives the other a diary to read which is the story. It’s from an unnamed academic who had gone out beyond the asteroid belt to study the sex life of the Prott, an alien race who lives in space that looks roughly shaped like poached eggs. We learn of his frustrating effort to communicate with the aliens via telepathy and a threat to humanity. The story is slightly humorous in tone, and the threat is a distant cousin to what Fredric Brown described in Martians, Go Home. It even shares a bit of the puzzle we saw in Murray Leinster’s “First Contact.”
The problem with “Prott” is it suffers the fate of all first contact stories. Writers can describe their aliens in various ways so that they look very alien, and make them very difficult to talk to, but once any kind of communication is establish, it’s hard to wrap up the story without resorting to a gimmick to distract us from the fact we can’t ever know the alien. One of the best first contact stories is “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang filmed as Arrival. That story wraps ups with a time paradox gimmick that is very satisfying. In the Leinster story, the gimmick involves trading spaceships. In The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell we’re left with an spiritual conundrum of why would God do something so horrible to a Catholic priest. “Prott” leaves us with a bit of comic horror. Unfortunately, for me, it was an unsatisfying payoff.
St. Clair builds up a nice mystery about the Prott but leaves the ardent researcher with a frustrating problem he can’t solve. Readers are just as frustrated because we don’t know what —– the —- is either. The release of this up-to-now mostly serious story is to wrap things up with an O. Henry ending. That concluding gimmick wasn’t satisfying for me.
That’s the problem with first contact stories, it’s almost impossible to conclude them in a satisfying way. In the novel Contact by Carl Sagan there is a tremendously long build-up to create the mystery of the aliens until we’re finally dazzled by a show of their powers. In the end Ellie is returned to Earth at the same time she left with no evidence of the aliens’ existence. She’s like Dorothy waking up in the film version of The Wizard of Oz, or any Christian that must claim they know God exists because of their faith. In the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind we finally get to meet aliens, but before we learn anything real, Roy takes off with the aliens in their flying saucers. The gimmick is a sleight-of-hand bait and switch. We’re happy for Roy, but we’re left with nothing.
In fiction where we do get to know aliens they often become like us. In the novels Children of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky the spider-like alien characters discovered in the first volume become more human in the second volume. Tchaikovsky retries to introduce alienness with uplifted octopi, and a new alien race and ends the second book before we get too chummy with those alien characters. Tchaikovsky does a good job of creating a sense of alienness but the more time we spend with these new creatures the more we have to relate to them in human terms. I believe these novels are popular because his gimmick is to end the story at the right moment.
In “Prott” the less we know about the Prott the more alien they seem. Yet, we never learn what they are, how they evolved, what kind of environment and ecology they live in, how they find meaning, or anything about their social structure. The conclusion is they become pests to us, which is relatable to the reader, and the gimmick. What I wanted was our Margaret Meade like protagonist to observe more customs. We were promised sex. You have to give Philip Jose Farmer credit for being explicit for his stories of alien encounters..
We have always wondered if we’re alone in the multiverse, and if we’re not, what strange beings could exist that we can’t comprehend? It’s an impossible task for the science fiction writer to describe the indescribable. Just look at all the versions of Star Trek and all the aliens we’ve encountered in countless episodes over the decades. In the end, most of the stories are about Klingons and Vulcans who are all too much like us. One reason I believe H. P. Lovecraft was so popular is he invented so many horrible alien monstrosities that we only know from awe and horror. But doesn’t religion use the same gimmick?
“Prott” is another nice try at creating an alien, but really just a minor effort. The reason why “The Martian Odyssey” was so successful, and so well anthologized is Tweel was such a great alien character. Stanley G. Weinbaum hit that one out of the park. The Prott aren’t that interesting. Neither was the structure of how St. Clair told her story, which was closer in style to the 19th century than what was innovative in the 1950s. I know I keep harping on this, but the competition at that time was “Coming Attraction” and “Fondly Fahrenheit.” St. Clair is doing a pale imitation of Poe.
Story #21 of 107: “The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean
“The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean first appeared in the September 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. It’s not a great story, but it’s not bad either. I believe other people must like it far more than I do because it’s been reprinted quite often.
This story has a problem that’s quite common in science fiction stories. Writers get a neat idea first, and then they invent a story to present their idea. Quite often the story is never as good as the idea. Superior science fiction stories have a great story with neat ideas that only decorate the story.
In this case MacLean wonders, what if we had a mathematically formula that could explain how an organization could grow at an exponential rate. What she imagines is a Ponzi scheme designed by a sociologist, and has two professors test it on a women’s sewing club. You can probably guess the ending. But can you guess how MacLean will dramatize this story with plot and characters?
If you’ve read much science fiction you might know where I’m going. Science fiction is full of stories that begin with two people talking about an idea, then we see the idea implemented in a cursory way, and finally, we have some kind of surprise ending. When done poorly, the story usually begins with two characters infodumping on the reader, and that’s the case here. Often such stories involves a contrived setup. In this case, an administrator is putting the screws to a sociology professor to justify his department’s existence. That’s still a relevant real-world problem in universities today, and not just for sociology departments. It’s actually a genuinely interesting problem that we should care about as readers – how do academic programs pay their way? Does society need their graduates? Is the program worth the cost to the university, state, and students? What does the discipline do for the community? I was hooked by this idea as a story problem, and I was anxious to read on.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t pleased with MacLean’s answer. She came up with a good setup, but she doesn’t have anything to say. I don’t mean a Western Union message. Good short stories elevate us with insights. At this point I’m expecting a dramatic story that shows me the value of sociology – something I can understand. We don’t get that. We neither get a true short story, or an understanding of sociology. What we get is a mildly pleasant joke.
Science fiction has produced countless stories like this. A pleasant setup to present a nifty idea. When I was younger being amused by an idea was enough, but I’m older and I don’t have much time left to live. I only want to read 5-star stories, or at least top-notch 4-star stories. “The Snowball Effect” is only a 3-star story. I believe it was perfectly fine for the September 1952 issue of Galaxy, but I’m surprised it was ever reprinted.
Maybe I can explain my harsh attitude with an analogy. I think of anthologies like a generation spaceship designed to save people from a dying Earth. Best-of-the-year annuals are constructed to rescue the best stories of the year. Retrospective anthologies are designed to save stories from specific periods. I believe the VanderMeers have a somewhat different approach. To them anthologies are like the starship Enterprise exploring the galaxy, looking for neat planets and interesting phenomena happening around the Milky Way. They want to make a wide survey that reveals the diversity of what’s going on. From my perspective only a few stories can be saved, so why not the best? For them, lets check out some interesting possibilities.
There’s a great SF story I can use here, “One in Three Hundred” by J. T. McIntosh. It first appeared in the February 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The setup has the world coming to an end and there’s only enough rockets to save one in three hundred people. Each rocket is assigned a person to pick those that will be saved. Bill Easson must decide who in his small town will go. He knows there are many personality factors to consider and he will make mistakes by picking people who won’t survive the mission, but he still has to pick.
For me, it’s important to pick science fiction stories that can survive the harsh climate of future readers. Like Bill picking people he feels has what it takes to survive on the new planet, anthologists pick stories that have qualities that make them survivalists. All the stories we’ve read so far in The Big Book of Science Fiction are still readable, I’m just that asshole we see in war movies that tell a squad member they don’t think they’ll make it.
I doubt many 20th-century science fiction stories will be loved by readers in the 22nd-century. I don’t believe “The Snowball Effect” will make it. It’s only marginal in 2021. What bothers me are the stories I believe have a better chance to survive the long haul that wasn’t pick by this anthology. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe I know any better than the VanderMeers. Nobody can predict the future – but we all keep trying.
It’s just there are stories I want to see saved, and to do that they need to be anthologized several more times before the year 2100. Every ship they miss reduces their chance to make it. To make matters more emotional for me, is the 1950s is my favorite decade for science fiction. The VanderMeers have chosen 20 stories from the 1950s, so they like that period too, unfortunately we only agree on two stories at the most. But I have to say I haven’t read all their selections so that number might go up. Four of those twenty stories were from 1952. Here are the 1950s SF stories from The Big Book of Science Fiction:
September 2005: The Martian • (1951) • short story by Ray Bradbury
Baby HP • short story by Juan José Arreola (trans. of Baby H. P. 1952)
Surface Tension • (1952) • novelette by James Blish
Beyond Lies the Wub • (1952) • short story by Philip K. Dick
The Snowball Effect • (1952) • short story by Katherine MacLean
Prott • (1953) • short story by Margaret St. Clair
The Liberation of Earth • (1953) • short story by William Tenn
Let Me Live in a House • (1954) • novelette by Chad Oliver
The Star • (1955) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
Grandpa • (1955) • novelette by James H. Schmitz
The Game of Rat and Dragon • (1955) • short story by Cordwainer Smith
The Last Question • (1956) • short story by Isaac Asimov
Stranger Station • (1956) • novelette by Damon Knight
Sector General • (1957) • novelette by James White
The Visitors • novelette as by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky
Pelt • (1958) • short story by Carol Emshwiller
The Monster • (1965) • short story by Gérard Klein? (trans. of Le monstre 1958)
The Man Who Lost the Sea • (1959) • short story by Theodore Sturgeon
The Waves • short story by Silvina Ocampo (trans. of Las ondas 1959)
Plenitude • (1959) • short story by Will Mohler
Here are 18 SF stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list from the 1950s. These stories were selected because they were most cited by a meta-list system. The number at the end is the total citations the story received. The bolded stories are those that overlap with The Big Book of Science Fiction. By the way, the BBofSF was one of the citation sources.
Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber (1950) 11
The Little Black Bag by C. M. Kornbluth (1950) 8
Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith (1950) 9
There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury (1950) 8
The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke (1951) 9
Surface Tension by James Blish (1952) 9
The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953) 12
Second Variety by Philip K. Dick (1953) 8
The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin (1954) 12
Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester (1954) 13
The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith (1955) 14
The Star by Arthur C. Clarke (1955) 16
The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight (1956) 11
The Last Question by Isaac Asimov (1956) 8
This list is closer to my tastes, but probably far from my final list. Below are the 1950s stories from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One that the SFWA membership remembered. Notice only one story, “Surface Tension” is remembered on all three lists. It would probably be on mine too.
Scanners Live in Vain • (1950) • novelette by Cordwainer Smith
The Little Black Bag • (1950) • novelette by C. M. Kornbluth
Born of Man and Woman • (1950) • short story by Richard Matheson
Coming Attraction • (1950) • short story by Fritz Leiber
The Quest for Saint Aquin • (1951) • novelette by Anthony Boucher
Surface Tension • (1952) • novelette by James Blish
The Nine Billion Names of God • (1953) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
It’s a Good Life • (1953) • short story by Jerome Bixby
The Cold Equations • (1954) • novelette by Tom Godwin
Fondly Fahrenheit • (1954) • novelette by Alfred Bester
The Country of the Kind • (1956) • short story by Damon Knight
Flowers for Algernon • (1959) • novelette by Daniel Keyes
These Hall of Fame stories are much closer in agreement with the CSFquery list.
I’m not ready to compose my list of favorite 1950s science fiction stories. I’m still reading. But there is one problem with my focus on the 1950s. I’m discovering stories that I love that currently aren’t well remembered. That’s a bad sign for the survivability. There’s a good chance I could pick 20 stories that few people would even enjoy reading today, much less in 79 years.
Story #20 of 107: “Beyond Lies the Wub” by Philip K. Dick
“Beyond Lies the Wub” is Philip K. Dick’s first publish story and we can already see hints of what’s to come in his future writing. It’s a fun little story with a cheeky horror twist. The wub is a gentle creature who loves to enjoy itself, indulging in food, conversation, and philosophy. I wonder if PKD saw himself as the wub? In the end Captain Franco kills the wub and eats it — and we’re shocked to learn that the wub takes over his mind. I wonder if PKD saw himself in this too, because we read his stories, putting them inside us, and we write and talk about them becoming a little bit like PKD.
Yesterday I wrote about my lifelong addiction to science fiction at my personal blog. I was lamenting that I wasn’t challenging myself much by reading science fiction short stories which I felt were only a couple steps up from comic books. Comments were left defending comic books, but I wasn’t attacking them. What I was implying is art represents different levels of complexity to create and takes different levels of effort to consume. Art is anti-entropic. I was saying science fiction short stories on average require more complexity to create and consume than comic book stories. (I wasn’t considering the comic art in the comparison.) The average science fiction novel takes more work to create and read than the average science fiction short story. But I also believe the best literary novels and short stories are more complex on average than most of the best science fiction novels and short stories.
Take for example the Jorge Luis Borges story we read. Borges was far more ambitious in that story than any of the other stories we read so far. It took more cognitive effort to write, and it takes us far more cognitive effort to read. I was criticizing myself for indulging in mostly consuming science fiction in my lifetime rather than pursuing more active activities, or even consuming more complex art.
But the thing is I enjoyed “Beyond Lies the Wub” more than I did “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” even though the PKD is much closer to comic book writing, and the Borges is far more complex than average science fiction short story writing. I shouldn’t though. “Beyond Lies the Wub” is junk food, and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is haute cuisine, relatively speaking. But who’s to say which is superior?
In past years, I believe the average level of complexity of the short stories of The Best American Short Stories annuals were greater than the complexity of science fiction short stories in their annual best of the year volumes for the same years. I would say that if we compared the 2021 annuals from this year, science fiction is approaching the complexity of literary writing, but hasn’t quite caught up.
I also feel that the complexity of the science fiction stories we’re reading in The Big Book of Science Fiction from each period doesn’t always match the highest level of complexity from other stories that could have been chosen. “Surface Tension” is definitely far more complex than “Beyond Lies the Wub” for a 1952 science fiction story, but it is far less sophisticated than “Baby Is Three” by Theodore Sturgeon.
“Beyond Lies the Wub” is a fun story, but it’s far from PKD’s best. Why is it here when there is much better SF from that era? Why did the VanderMeers skip over “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber and “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith both from 1950? These were dazzling stories that began the decade for science fiction and showed a quantum leap over the what was being written in the 1940s. If we had to have a PKD story from the 1950s, why not “Second Variety?” And is the 1950s the right decade for using our one PKD story?
I can think of a lot of science fiction stories from the 1950s that are far more complex and challenging than the ones we’re getting in this anthology. But was that the goal of the book? “Beyond Lies the Wub” is fun, and quite often I prefer reading just for fun, so I can’t blame the VanderMeers for their choice if that’s the case.
In my essay yesterday I was basically lamenting I could have done more with my life than read all that science fiction. But it is the art form I chose to admire and become part of my life. And in my retirement years I’ve been focusing on science fiction short stories. And I’m learning that some science fiction stories are way better than others – in my subjective view. However, if we use complexity to measure them, isn’t that less subjective and more objective?
“Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester and “The Moon Moth” by Jack Vance are far more complex than the stories we’re getting in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Why weren’t they chosen? Bester and Vance were dazzling in their writing. If we’re given a collection of stories that claim to be the ultimate science fiction short stories of the 20th century, shouldn’t they be the most ambitious, challenging, and complex examples? I don’t know. I’m just wondering?
Story #19 of 107: “Surface Tension” by James Blish
“Surface Tension” by James Blish first appeared in the August 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. In 1957 it was published by Gnome Press as The Seedling Starsalong with three other pantropy stories by Blish to make a fix-up novel. When the Nebula Awards were being created in the 1960s, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted for their favorite science fiction short stories published before the advent of the awards and “Surface Tension” was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One in 1970. It has been anthologized many times. The version of “Surface Tension” in The Big Book of Science Fiction is different from the one that appeared in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. It has “Sunken Universe” (Super Science Stories, May 1942) inserted into it after the introduction, which is the way it is in The Seedling Stars. However, the introduction had additional paragraphs not in the Hall of Fame version, and I expect a careful reading of the later sections should show changes too. H. L. Gold was known for editing stories and Blish was known for rewriting his stories, so we don’t know which happened. My guess is Blish came up with additional ideas to add to the story for the book version. I’ve read the slightly shorter version three times before over my lifetime, and a few paragraphs in this version stood out to me as new. Mainly they were about the original crew theorizing about their future pantropic existence.
Lately I’ve been writing about why I disliked a story, but for “Surface Tension” I need to explain why I love a story, and that might be even harder to do. Every once in a while, a science fiction writer will come up with an idea that’s so different that it lights up our brains. Wells did it with “The Time Machine.” Heinlein did it with his story “Universe.” Brian Aldiss did it with his fix-up novel Hothouse. Robert Charles Wilson did it with his novel Spin. “Surface Tension” is one of those stories. It has tremendous sense of wonder.
I’m torn between explaining everything that happens and not saying anything. These posts are all about making comments to our short story club where everyone is supposed to have read the story and we don’t worry about spoilers. I recently read Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn and it was so delicious learning every plot element as it unfolded that I didn’t want to spoil anything for first time readers. I tried to explain why in my spoiler-free review. But I need to talk about “Surface Tension,” so if you haven’t read it, please go away and do so.
As I’ve said before about great short stories, they have a setup that allows the author to say something interesting – not a message, but an insight. The setup for “Surface Tension” is five men and two women have crashed on the planet Hydrot that orbits Tau Ceti. Their spaceship can’t be repaired, their communication system was destroyed, and they don’t have enough food to survive. However, their ship is one of a swarm of seed ships spreading across the galaxy that colonizes each planet with customized humans adapted for each unique environment. This is called pantropy, also representing a kind of panspermia, and anticipates the idea of transhumanism. In other words, Blish has a lot to say with this story.
Because no large organisms can survive in the current stage of Hydrot’s development, the crew decide to seed it with intelligent microorganisms. The seven will die, but each of their genes will be used to fashion a new species of roughly humanoid shape creatures that can coexist with the existing microorganisms of the freshwater puddles on Hydrot. They won’t have their memories, but they will have ancestral abilities. The crew creates these creatures and inscribe their history on tiny metal tablets they hope will be discovered one day by their tiny replacements.
From here the story jumps to the underwater world of the microorganisms and we see several periods of their history unfold. Blish used his education in biology to recreate several concentric analogies of discoveries that parallel our history in his puddle world of tiny microorganisms. The wee humanoids form alliances with other intelligent microorganisms in wars to conquer their new environment. Then they begin an age of exploration that eventually parallels our era of early space exploration. But you can also think of it paralleling when life first emerged from the sea to conquer the land.
One reason this story means so much to me is Blish makes characters out of various types of eukaryotic microorganisms and that reminds me of when I was in the fourth grade and our teacher asked us to bring a bottle of lake water to class. That day we saw another world through the eyepiece of a microscope. Blish made that world on a microscope slide into a fantasy world where paramecium becomes a character named Para who is intelligent and part of a hive mind that works with the transhumans. Their enemies are various kinds of rotifers. However, I know little of biology and don’t know what the Proto, Dicran, Noc, Didin, Flosc characters are based on.
The main transhuman characters are Lavon and Shar who’s personalities are preserved over generations. I wondered if the seven original human explorers (Dr. Chatvieux, Paul la Ventura, Philip Strasvogel, Saltonstall, Eleftherios Venezuelos, Eunice Wagner, and Joan Heath) were archetypes for the microscopic transhuman characters? Blish suggests that in the opening scene:
They take human germ-cells—in this case, our own, since our bank was wiped out in the crash—and modify them genetically toward those of creatures who can live in any reasonable environment. The result will be manlike, and intelligent. It usually shows the donors’ personality patterns, too, since the modifications are usually made mostly in the morphology, not so much in the mind, of the resulting individual.
“That’s right. In the present situation we’ll probably make our colonists haploid, so that some of them, perhaps many, will have a heredity traceable to you alone. There may be just the faintest of residuums of identity—pantropy’s given us some data to support the old Jungian notion of ancestral memory. But we’re all going to die on Hydrot, Paul, as self-conscious persons. There’s no avoiding that. Somewhere we’ll leave behind people who behave as we would, think and feel as we would, but who won’t remember la Ventura, or Dr. Chatvieux, or Joan Heath, or the Earth.”
However, I never could decipher who Lavon and Shar were. Each time I reread this story I notice more details, and more analogies. “Surface Tension” is both simple and complex. At a simple level its just a space adventure tale about exploration and survival. But in creating a fantasy ecology, Blish hints at the deeper complexity of a writer becoming a worldbuilder. And Blish is also philosophical about the future of mankind, reminding me of Olaf Stapledon. This is the kind of story that can blow adolescent minds.
“Surface Tension” would make a wonderful video game, or a beautiful animated film.
“Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola is a short piece of satire on household products, but it’s not really a short story. Arreola imagines a device for children to wear that converts their kinetic energy into stored electricity for later household use. I’m terribly sorry that the VanderMeers have included all these historical curiosities at the beginning of their anthology because I worry it will turn off readers from finishing the book. I swear, there are really good stories to come. I’ve talked a lot of people into buying this book, and I fear many of them are thinking, “Harris, you owe me $25 plus tax.”
“Baby HP” was mildly interesting filler but only for a lesser literary magazine that couldn’t acquire better content. “Baby HP” represents a science fictional idea without a story. It’s like the kind of thing writers hate when they meet fans who tell them, “I’ve got a great idea for a story, you write it and we’ll split the money 50-50.” An idea for a story is not a story. Let me illustrate what I mean:
The Algernon Corporation offers a unique product to American consumers. Have you ever wanted to do something significant with your life but lacked the intelligence and talent? Here’s your chance to write that bestselling sci-fi novel, invent that new gadget everyone thinks they need but don't, or maybe finally discover a cure for overactive bladders, or even compose the last great rock album, or work on any other dream ambition that takes the intense concentration and vast intelligence you don't have.
We offer a series of treatments that will triple your IQ within one year. You’ll have three years to burn bright, before returning to your normal self in the fifth year. We feel so confident that you'll succeed that the only cost for this treatment is the promise of sharing the proceeds of your success 50-50 with us.
If you compare the above to Daniel Keyes brilliant novelette, “Flowers for Algernon,” you’ll know what I mean when I say “Baby HP” isn’t a real short story. Clever ideas and philosophical insights don’t make good short fiction. Readers want short stories to have the impact of a novel in a quick read. Not a summary. Short stories run in size from flash fiction to novellas, but for each length there is an appropriate amount of dramatic action required. Stories need to evoke emotions, from the silliest comedy to gut wrenching tragedy. It’s possible to do without human characters, but readers really love characters to care about. All the best short stories capture a moment when someone evolves and the reader shares that insight. You can’t just tell the reader. The short story is a trigger that causes readers to resonate emotionally. The very best stories will fill you eyes with tears, either from laughing or crying.
What Makes a Great Science Fiction Retrospective Anthology?
The membership in our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction, has been getting a bit restless with The Big Book of Science Fiction. Participation has fallen off. I don’t know if that’s because people don’t like the stories, or because the relentless pace of reading a short story every other day is wearing them out. Also, I sense many of our members might not enjoy older SF. I hope enthusiasm picks back up as we get further into the anthology, and into modern times. I know there are some truly great short stories to come.
This makes me ask: What makes a great science fiction retrospective anthology?
The group has read many anthologies together in the past year, and some books have succeeded better than others. A few have even stood out, and I’d say that’s because they had a higher concentration of popular stories. We vote on stories when we finish a book. If only a handful of stories get a majority of votes, we usually see more complaints about the number of disappointing stories. But if the votes are scattered over half the table of contents, the generally feeling is the anthology was a good one.
How readers rate an anthology is very subjective. For me, a handful of great stories can leave an overall positive reaction to the anthology. On the other hand, too many bad stories can taint my whole impression.
I tend to think the group is partial to newer SF, and prefer longer stories, since novelettes and sometimes novellas are the stories that get the most votes. However, a long story that doesn’t work well generates lots of negative comments. My guess is the novelette length is optimal if the content is good or better. It seems it takes exceptional content to make a short story or novella work. Often a short story doesn’t have the length of runway to take off, to catch the readers minds on fire. And frequently a novella stretches an idea too thin, thus provoking boredom.
My hunch is our membership prefers stories from the 1980s on because that’s what they’ve grown up with, and stylistically, stories within the past 40-50 years feel modern. Anything older is often tainted with quaintness, too much simplicity, or sometimes dated by changes in social consciousness.
This puts an anthology like The Big Book of Science Fiction at a disadvantage because it’s mostly filled with shorter works, and a lot of the content is older. It is a challenge for any editor to cover short science fiction over the entire 20th century.
Another factor that makes readers love an anthology is when it contains stories they’ve previously read and loved. There is a feeling of affinity with the editor for sharing an admiration for a favorite story. An editor put themselves at risk if they go out of their way to find obscure, rare, and unknown stories, unless those stories convince the reader they’ve found undiscovered gems. Anthology readers love finding buried treasure. But that’s getting exceedingly hard to do. The territory has been covered countless times, and time is eroding older stories faster and faster.
Not many science fiction fans love short stories, it’s a specialized reading audience that’s fading away. Our SF short story club on Facebook has 566 members, whereas the SF book club has 8,800 members. And only a tiny fraction of our membership actively participate in any particular group reading.
At one time, SF anthologies were very popular, but their popularity has waned along with the SF magazine reader. Original anthologies are still somewhat popular, and annual best-of-the-year anthologies remain somewhat popular. I think this is true because they publish current work. But theme and retrospective anthologies aren’t very common anymore. I wonder if that’s because readers have been burned by too many anthologies that had too many duds? I’ve had friends that told me they tried the SF magazines but didn’t renew because they seldom found enough good stories in each issue. That might be true of theme/retrospective anthologies.
Thus a great retrospective SF anthology is one with a high percentage of impressive stories. But what is that percentage? For me, 25% has to be 5-star stories, and another 25% of 4-star stories. The rest can be 3-stars. But reading too many stories that felt like a waste of time can ruin the whole vibe of an anthology. Of course, this is just me, but from the comments we see, I don’t think I’m alone. By the way, I rate stories I believe worthy of several readings over lifetime as 5-star stories. And any story I read and immediately feel I’m looking forward to rereading it is a 4-star story. 3-star stories are good solid stories I feel no need to reread.
I require less for an annual anthology or original anthology to like them. I’d say only one to four 5-star SF stories come out each year. Thus I only expect to see one or maybe two in any annual anthology. The odds are against even one to appear in an original anthology.
By my reckoning, I felt there are three 5-star stories in the first 20 stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction: “A Martian Odyssey,” “Desertion,” and “Surface Tension.” That’s low for a retrospective anthology claiming to be the ultimate collection. We’ll be voting on the first 20 stories soon, so I’ll see how the others feel. I’ve already seen reviews by some of the younger readers who only gave “A Martian Odyssey” and “Desertion” three stars. That’s another piece of evidence that members prefer newer stories.
I really enjoy older SF, and I was hoping the VanderMeers would have found more older gems I hadn’t read. My guess, as time goes buy, it’s going to get harder and harder to assemble retrospective SF anthologies that cover the entire 20th century because there are fewer old farts like myself that enjoy SF from the entire century.
Story #17 of 107: “September 2005: The Martian” by Ray Bradbury
The quick take on this story is I wonder why an average work by Ray Bradbury who is famous for many other exceptional stories is included in this anthology. By now, if you’ve been following this series of reviews on the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, you’ll know it’s going to be another self-psychoanalysis session of why I’ve been reading science fiction for sixty years.
I have a love-hate relationship with Ray Bradbury. Mostly love, but after churning out tons of science fiction stories in the 1940s and early 1950s, he seem to abandon the genre. I hated that. And the fact he never quite wrote real science fiction, I also hated that. I love The Martian Chronicles even though Bradbury never took Mars seriously, which I did, so I hated that too. “September 2005: The Martian” was originally published as “Impossible” in the November 1949 issue of Super Science Stories. It was retitled and embedded into a chronology for The Martian Chronicles. Later editions changed the title to “September 2036: The Martian.” I assume once we get to the 2030s it will be retitled again, then maybe not, if Elon Musk colonizes the planet before then.
“The Martian” is an emotional story about an elderly couple living on Mars who painfully miss their dead son. Tom died as a teen back on Earth before they immigrated. Then one morning Tom shows up at their house on Mars. We know from previous stories in The Martian Chronicles that Mars was once inhabited, and the Martians have shapeshifting capabilities. This shapeshifting theme was used to perfection in the 1948 story “Mars is Heaven!” I found it less effective in this story, “The Martian.” The lone Martian gets trapped into a human shape whenever it gets near a human because of their need to see a lost loved one. I always considered shapeshifting a fantasy theme, but John W. Campbell used it for his SF famous story, “Who Goes There?” and it was used in the first episode of Star Trek when it premiered in 1966, “The Man Trap.”
Shapeshifting is a very ancient theme in storytelling and fiction. I’m not sure Bradbury’s use of it in this story is very original. Bradbury plays up the emotion by having the Martian appear as dead children to two different couples. Although Bradbury keeps telling us how old and elderly LaFarge and Anna are, but they are just fifty-five and sixty, and that seems funny now. Probably when I read this story the first time in my teens, 55 and 60 were ancient.
Even though I enjoyed “The Martian,” I was also annoyed at it. You get the feeling the Martian colony is clone of some small midwestern town from Bradbury’s youth of the 1930s. Bradbury even admits inspiration from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, another fixup novel of short stories. My theory was Bradbury wanted to be a literary writer all along, but started out in science fiction because of fan friends, and because the genre was easier to break into. Once he achieved fame he moved on to the larger literary world. And who can blame him for not staying bottled up in one small genre? Because Bradbury had a thing for fantasy and horror, his science fiction never quite felt futuristic. He was never a Campbell writer, and “The Martian” feels more inspired by Poe or Collier, than the science fiction of his day.
Don’t get me wrong, “The Martian” is a solid story that is sentimental and moving, with a touch of horror and grotesque, just set on Mars. My situation in reviewing it is compounded by three concerns. First, why is this story in The Big Book of Science Fiction? I still can’t figure out if this anthology is the VanderMeers’ view of the best of 20th century science fiction, or the best of 20th century science fiction after a 21st century reevaluation, or the best stories that aren’t already in in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame which has stayed in print since 1970? This anthology only has three stories from the 1940s, and only one from Astounding (“Desertion”). The 1940s was considered the Golden Age of Science Fiction. I guess its not now. The Bradbury is from a minor magazine, and the other story is by Jorge Louis Borges, who was never part of the science fiction world. Is this a snub of John W. Campbell?
My second conflict is with Ray Bradbury, but I’ve already covered that love-hate relationship. “The Martian” is average-good Bradbury, but far from great. Why not pick one of his standout stories? To me, the obvious choice is “There Will Come Soft Rains.” Maybe I’m putting too much importance on The Big Book of Science Fiction. Maybe it’s just a collection of stories that the VanderMeers liked, and not the important short SF from the 20th century anthology that I expected it to be. I guess I lament that large SF anthologies just don’t come around very often anymore, and the ones that do I put all my hope for preserving the great SF short stories of the past that I love and want to be remembered.
My third conflict is between the fantasy of space travel in fiction and the reality of space travel in real life. This gets especially complicated because my expectations when young are so much different from my beliefs in old age. Let’s say when I was young science fiction was my Bible and I had unwavering faith of the final frontier. Now that I’m old, I’m skeptical about the final frontier, and science fiction is my fantasy escape from an ever harsher reality. When I was young I look down on Bradbury for writing fantasy flavored science fiction, but now that I’m old I admire Bradbury for his quaint sentimental space fantasies, and just ignore their unrealistic and unscientific aspects. In fact, I ache to read The Martian Chronicles: The Complete Edition (2009) that includes all of Bradbury’s Martian stories. Unfortunately, that limited $300/900 edition is out of print and costs thousands of dollars to acquire used.
Maybe I can explain my problem in another way, although I’m afraid my analogy might offend some people. I recently followed SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission to orbit with four ordinary people getting to play astronaut for three days. Don’t get what I’m about to say wrong. I admire what the private space companies are achieving, and that three day mission was very impressive. But I’m against space tourism. Space is very costly on so many levels, including to the environment. To see the colonization of space has been my lifelong dream, but I’ve changed my mind. If space travel is going to be yet one more way we’re destroying the Earth then any mission should be vital. Turning space into a playground for the rich is obscene. On the days the news followed the Inspiration4 mission, it also showed scenes of 15,000 desperate Haitians huddling under a Texas bridge. The contrast was philosophically heavy.
At first I was very excited about this space mission. When I was young I dreamed of going into space and I envied those two men and two women. But my mind was completed changed when I saw them being interviewed in orbit. This is probably just me, but ordinary people just don’t look like they belong in space, which is the exact opposite of what SpaceX wants us to think. The people from Earth in “The Martian” never looked like they belonged on Mars.
Now that I’m old, I’m not sure if humans are meant for space. Space is perfect for robots, which seem right at home in the extreme environments of outer space and on other planets. I can accept highly trained astronauts who travel into space with a purpose machines can’t yet solve, like repairing the Hubble telescope. But watching ordinary folk goofing off in zero-g and gawking at Earth seem way too frivolous. It trivializes what some humans train for years to do.
There are some Ray Bradbury science fiction stories I love dearly, but there are others I feel took science fiction too lightly, like he was never a true believer in the final frontier. This really shouldn’t bother me now that I’m no longer a true believer myself, but I guess I’m still holding onto earlier resentments.
Reading science fiction at this time in my life and this moment in history feels like playing the fiddle while Rome burns. But it’s my way of reevaluating my life, my 1960s expectations for the future that we’re now living in, the contrast between what science fiction was and what it will become, and the relationship between science fiction and reality.
The collective desire for the space program to get to Mars today was partly inspired by Ray Bradbury and other science fiction writers. It’s the ultimate goal for many people and nations. I think we seriously need to psychoanalyze that desire.
Story #16 of 107: “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak
“Desertion” and its sequel “Paradise” are from the 1940s, the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction. They are also the middle stories from the classic science fiction fix-up novel City. “Desertion” was published in the November 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and “Paradise” in the June 1946 issue. If you haven’t read the stories please go read them now because I need to write about the details of each to make my point and that will give away major spoilers.
“Desertion” is the perfect story to make my case that 1940s science fiction was often about the next evolutionary step for our species. In a way, John W. Campbell, Jr. could be considered the Ralph Waldo Emerson of a 20th century transcendentalism, but we call it science fiction. I say that because many science fiction stories from the 1940s and 1950s were about breaking on through to the next stage of human existence. Maybe this desire was inspired by the actual horrors of WWII or the dreaded fears of Doomsday felt during the Cold War. Was science fiction our collective unconscious merely telling us we need to change before we destroyed ourselves and the planet? Or was it just another theme the science fiction muse has always entertained?
The VanderMeers did say in their introduction, “City was written out of disillusion…seeking after a fantasy world that would serve as a counterbalance to the brutality through which the world was passing.” That might be the realistic take on science fiction, that it offers fictional escape from reality, but growing up I believed science fiction’s purpose was to inspire us to create the futures we wanted to build, and divert us away from the futures we feared. In my old age science fiction has become my escape, my comfort food, but when I was young I believed in the potentials it promised. I have to wonder if young readers today find the genre a fiction of escape or hope? But even the one utopian Star Trek is now is about endless conflicts.
In “Desertion,” Kent Fowler has sent many men to their apparent death trying to colonize Jupiter by downloading their brains into genetically engineered creatures modeled on Jovian lifeforms that can survive the harsh conditions of Jupiter. The idea of adapting the human form to an alien environment is called pantropy, and “Desertion” is one of the early examples of the idea being used in science fiction. However, Simak takes the idea even further when Kent Fowler and his dog Towser are converted into the Jovian Lopers. Fowler just couldn’t ask another man to volunteer, so he underwent the process himself and taking his old dog with him. As Lopers, Fowler discovers that Towser is more intelligent than he ever imagined when they begin telepathic communication. The reasons his men never returned to the dome after being converted to Lopers was their minds expanded into a new stage of awareness and they couldn’t stand downgrading into human form again.
Five years later, Fowler does return to the dome in the story “Paradise.” He feels its essential that he let his fellow humans know about this greater stage of consciousness. In this story though, we also learn humanity is facing another crisis point in their development. Superior humans called mutants also exist, as do uplifted dogs, and intelligent robots. When Fowler tries to spread the word that paradise can be found on Jupiter, his message is suppressed by Tyler Webster who wants humans to stay human. Webster pleads with Fowler to withhold knowledge of the heaven on Jupiter because he fears all humans will rush to attain instant resurrection (my words).
“But I want you to think this over: A million years ago man first came into being—just an animal. Since that time he had inched his way up a cultural ladder. Bit by painful bit he has developed a way of life, a philosophy, a way of doing things. His progress has been geometrical. Today he does much more than he did yesterday. Tomorrow he’ll do even more than he did today. For the first time in human history, Man is really beginning to hit the ball. He’s just got a good start, the first stride, you might say. He’s going a lot farther in a lot less time than he’s come already.
“Maybe it isn’t as pleasant as Jupiter, maybe not the same at all. Maybe humankind is drab compared with the life forms of Jupiter. But it’s man’s life. It’s the thing he’s fought for. It’s the thing he’s made himself. It’s a destiny he has shaped.
“I hate to think, Fowler, that just when we’re going good we’ll swap our destiny for one we don’t know about, for one we can’t be sure about.”
“I’ll wait,” said Fowler. “Just a day or two. But I’m warning you. You can’t put me off. You can’t change my mind.”
“That’s all I ask,” said Webster. He rose and held out his hand. “Shake on it?” he asked.
Simak, Clifford D.. The Shipshape Miracle: And Other Stories (The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak Book 10) (pp. 83-84). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.
“Desertion” is also an early example of mind uploading, a very popular theme in science fiction today. “Desertion” and “Paradise” also assume there would be life, even intelligent life on every planet of the solar system. The City stories are extremely positive about human potential. The collected motif of the City stories is humans have left the solar system and only intelligent dogs and robots remain to remember them, to tell their story. Childhood’s End used that theme too, about humanity leaving Earth for a new stage of evolution.
“Paradise” is also an early story about mutants. After Hiroshima, people feared radiation would create mutations that were either monsters or an evolutionary superior species. In “Paradise,” the mutants are that superior species, ones who are waiting for normal humans to get their act together. Mutants arrange for Tyler Webster to get a kaleidoscope that will trick his brain into opening its higher functionality. The kaleidoscope is like the toys from the future in “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” that trigger evolution in normal human children. Also within the same story is the idea that Martians had developed a philosophy that could trigger evolutionary uplift. Heinlein also worked this theme in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Sturgeon’s classic fix-up novel, More Than Human (1953) deals with mutants with wild talents, and the evolution of a gestalt mind. But this theme was repeated countless times in 1940s and 1950s science fiction.
In other words, “Desertion” is one of the bellwether stories our genre.
There used to be a common pseudo-science belief that humans only used 10% of their brains and we have the potential to unlock the mysterious 90%. This was a common myth in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and probably went back decades and decades. I just checked Wikipedia and found they had an entry on “The Ten Percent Brain Myth” that even mentions John W. Campbell.
A likely origin for the "ten percent myth" is the reserve energy theories of Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis who, in the 1890s, tested the theory in the accelerated raising of child prodigy William Sidis. Thereafter, James told lecture audiences that people only meet a fraction of their full mental potential, which is considered a plausible claim. The concept gained currency by circulating within the self-help movement of the 1920s; for example, the book Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain includes a chapter on the ten percent myth that shows a self-help advertisement from the 1929 World Almanac with the line "There is NO LIMIT to what the human brain can accomplish. Scientists and psychologists tell us we use only about TEN PERCENT of our brain power." This became a particular "pet idea" of science fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell, who wrote in a 1932 short story that "no man in all history ever used even half of the thinking part of his brain". In 1936, American writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas popularized the idea—in a foreword to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People—by including the falsely precise percentage: "Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability".
The belief was based on the logic that feats of human endurance and mental powers have been displayed by Indian fakirs, hypnotists, yogis, mystics, tantric masters, psychics, shamans and other outliers with esoteric knowledge, and that proves we had all untapped potential. Science has since shown that we use 100% of our brains, and disproved all those pseudo-scientific claims.
Yet, back in the 1940s science fiction writers and readers, and especially John W. Campbell, Jr. believed humanity was on the verge to metamorphizing into Human 2.0 beings. That’s what “Desertion” and “Paradise” is about, and you see that same hope in so many other stories from the 1940s and 1950s. It’s also why John W. Campbell, Jr. and A. E. van Vogt went gaga over Dianetics in 1950. Please read Campbell’s editorial and L. Ron Hubbard’s article on the subject in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. We look down on Campbell today for believing in this malarkey, but Dianetics reflected the promise of all the stories he had been publishing. Campbell was desperate to quit promoting fairytales for adults and find an actual portal into the future then and now.
Sure, science fiction is fun stories set in the future, often about space travel, aliens, robots, and posthumans, but it also connects to real hopes and fears. The belief humans could transcend their present nature is a fundamental hope within the genre. A modern example is The Force in Star Wars, or the discipline of Vulcans in Star Trek. Clifford Simak spent his entire career writing stories about people who transcend our ordinary consciousness. And is this so weird and far out? We Baby Boomers dropped acid in the 1960s chasing higher states on consciousness, then in the 1970s we pursued all kinds of New Age therapies and ancient spiritual practices. Of course, since the Reagan years of the 1980s we’ve come down to Earth accepting human nature for what it is. We’ve stopped looking for transcendence and scientific utopias, accepting our normal Human 1.0 selves that pursue wealth, power, conquest, war, and commercialization of space and the future.
Reading the best science fiction stories of the 20th is a kind of psychoanalysis of our expectations about the future, both good and bad.
The anthology which up till now has been the gold standard for identifying the best science fiction of the 1895-1964 era is The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One which contains short stories, and the supplemental volumes Two A and Two B which contain novelettes and novellas. Volume One holds the top spot at “Best Science Fiction Anthologies” at Listopia/Goodreads. The stories were selected by members of Science Fiction Writers of America in the 1960s to recognize science fiction published before the Nebula Awards began in 1965.
In recent decades I’ve encountered many a science fiction fan who wondered what the table of contents would be to an updated Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume for 20th century science fiction if SF writers voted today. Any retrospective SF anthology that covers the 20th century is essentially competing with that wish. “Huddling Place” another story from Simak’s City was chosen for The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, but I’ve known many fans who thought they should have picked “Desertion.” Events in “Huddling Place” are referenced in “Paradise.” But if you look at the table of contents for the volumes One, Two A, and Two B, you’ll see several stories about next stage humans.
“Mimsy Were The Borogoves” (1944) – Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
“Huddling Place” (1944) – Clifford D. Simak
“That Only A Mother” (1948) – Judith Merril
“In Hiding” (1948) – Wilmar H. Shiras
“The Witches of Karres” (1949) – James H. Schmitz
“The Little Black Bag” (1950) – C. M. Kornbltuh
“Surface Tension” (1952) – James Blish
“Baby is Three” (1953) – Theodore Sturgeon
“Call Me Joe” (1957) – Poul Anderson
“Flowers for Algernon” (1959) – Daniel Keyes
“The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (1962) – Cordwainer Smith
The Big Book of Science Fiction covers the same territory as The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volumes, and there is some overlap of contents, but I think it features less of the transcendental science fiction I’m talking about here. Maybe it’s stories are more realistic, but we have many stories to read before we know. But the acceptance of our existing human nature is understandable, because we don’t believe in those kinds of hidden talents anymore. Well, at least most scientifically minded adults. Wild talents and mutants have become the staple of comic book fiction. We have demoted those hopes to the level of children’s power fantasies.
I’ve often said science fiction beliefs replaced religious beliefs in the mid-20th century, and maybe now we’ve become atheists to science fiction too. If you doubt my assertion the SF replaced religion just think of Fowler as Jesus. He had died and was resurrected into a new life in heaven, and his soul has been expanded with great spirituality.
I even wonder if the VanderMeers included “Desertion” and “Surface Tension” for their use of the pantropy theme rather than psychic potential theme? Science fiction has given up on quickly evolved humans, and instead promotes technical transhumanism and genetically engineered Human 2.0 beings.
“Desertion” was probably a Top Ten story when I was young, and it’s still a 5-star favorite in my old age. But I now know there is no life on Jupiter and Mars, and I will never find the kind of transcendence that Fowler and Towser found. NASA probes have shown the solar system is sterile rocks, and nothing like what Simak imagined. Oh, we still hold out for life on Titan or some other moon’s deep ocean, but I doubt we’ll find it when we get there. Thus “Desertion” has become a fond fantasy from my youth, sort of like Santa Claus.
Update: I remember people saying we only use 5% of our brains, but research shows the figure used was 10%, so I made that change. I also found the quote from Wikipedia attributing Campbell to promoting the idea.
Story #15 of 107: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges is not science fiction. Some might call it fantasy, but I don’t think it belongs to that genre either. Oh, it’s a story F&SF could publish, but I doubt it’s eerie enough that Rod Sterling would have used it for The Twilight Zone. By accident, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” speculates about what science fiction does, as if Borges’s story is about a man who stumbles upon the possibility of science fiction and science fiction writers in a world where they never existed.
I don’t think our genre can claim all forms of speculation, even when it speculates about other worlds, other realities, and weird possibilities that are the territory that science fiction has long claimed. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is not genre, but a literary work. Literary writers sometimes accidently wander into our territory, and some even intentionally write a science fiction story, such Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood. But in the case of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” I don’t believe Borges has trespassed on our property.
Sure, maybe I’m splitting hairs, but it points to a distinction I’d like to make. Literary works are aimed at everyone, science fiction is aimed at science fiction fans. That’s why it’s a genre. Ishiguro and Attwood expect everyone to read their books, not just science fiction fans. And although science fiction writers wished that everyone read their books, they got to know they’re writing for a specific audience. Science fiction is a term used to shelve books separately in libraries and bookstores, to make it easier for its readers to find them. Science fiction is the term printed on books to assure science fiction readers they’ll be buying what they want to read. Branding something science fiction that’s not meant to be science fiction is unfair to both the writer and reader.
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a story science fiction readers should like because it’s about playing around with reality, which is what science fiction does, but I’m pretty sure Borges never intended it to be science fiction. It’s almost as if he separately co-invented the concept, but his story is still not quite the same.
By the way, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” reminds me of a charming episode of Nova I saw decades ago about physicist Richard Feynman and friends making an expedition to an obscure unknown country, Tannu Tuva.
Borges is playing on the idea of obscure knowledge and hidden wisdom. His story also reminds me of Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East. We all want reality to be more than the mundane reality that bores us. We all want to find a hidden clue to esoteric possibilities. If anything, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is another kind of SF – spiritual fiction because it alludes to the magic of the mystical.
Story #14 of 107: “The Microscopic Giants” by Paul Ernst
The VanderMeers didn’t have to go far to find “The Microscopic Giants.” It was in the same October 1936 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories that the last story we just read had been reprinted (“The Last Poet and the Robots” retitled as “Rhythm of the Spheres”) . I’ve often wondered why anthologists focused so much on Astounding Science Fiction, but these two stories suggest that there was a good reason – science fiction stories in the other pulp magazines just wasn’t as good. The whole time I was reading “The Last Poet and the Robots” I wondered why the VanderMeers hadn’t picked Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” instead. It featured the same kind of monomaniacal megalomaniac mad scientist acting like a god, but in a much better developed tale.
However, “The Microscopic Giants” is a somewhat better story than Merritt’s. It’s still a crappy story by modern storytelling conventions, but it has several good SF speculations in it. I’ve always liked the idea of humans existing in the far past where geological changes hides any evidence of them. Unfortunately, that theory isn’t the solution to the mystery within this story. The introduction sets us up for a hollow Earth story, but it’s not that either. “The Microscopic Giants” is about lifeforms that are much denser than rock, existing deep within the Earth, who can move through ordinary matter. That’s a keen idea, but it was handled in the most basic way. First contact is simplistic and xenophobic, and the humans are left hoping never to encounter this new superior species again. Rather a chickenshit resolution.
Finding better undiscovered stories is the challenge to assembling any retrospective anthology that covers science fiction in the 20th century, especially if you have reasons not to reprint the fan favorites. All the old pulps have been mined time and time again. I’m sure new editors want to discover previously unrecognized stories whose enlightened qualities could only be recognized by contemporary readers. These two stories were duds in that regards. Like I said, the current champ for a SF story about a monomaniacal megalomaniac mad scientist acting like a god is Kidder in “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon.
If I was going to offer a substitute for “Microscopic Giants” using the hollow Earth theme it would be “DP!” by Jack Vance from the April 1953 issue of Avon Science Fiction and Fantasy Reader. It’s about the world being overrun with refugees from the hollow Earth and how countries of the surface world try to deal with the crisis. I read it during the Syrian refugee crisis which gave “DP!” depth. “Microscopic Giants” offer no insights to modern readers and it’s really not worth saving.
However, I can’t think of any short stories that deal with super-dense beings living and moving around inside the Earth. The Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark” featured a creature called the Horta that could move through rock. And I also thought of the classic comedy-horror film Tremors (1990). I do vaguely remember stories that used the emptiness of matter to allow characters to move through solids, but my old brain can’t dredge any titles up right now.
Reading The Big Book of Science Fiction has been interesting, but so far few of the fourteen stories we’ve read have been quality stories by modern reading standards. Too many have been intellectual/historical curiosities. I keep hoping the VanderMeers will find gems I haven’t read before. So far, their best find new to me is “The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois. I thought his story was well-told for 1920, and Du Bois nicely finessed the point he wanted to get across. So far the other stories have done little finessing.
Paul Ernst had several ideas he wanted to explore, but he didn’t know how to put them into a story. His solution was a minimalist frame with cliché conflict. That’s common for our genre. I’m also listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. and with every story I’m amazed by how Miller sets up his story with an excellent dramatic conflict. Well, at least the later stories. I’m hoping to see more of that skill as we progress through this anthology.
Story #13: “The Last Poet and the Robots” by A. Merritt
“The Last Poet and the Robots” by Abraham Merritt has a rather interesting publication history. It was part of a round-robin novel first published in the April 1934 issue of Fantasy Magazine, a fanzine. The website The Cosmos Project gives the history of the story and reprints the novel written chapter-by-chapter by 18 famous SF writers from the early 1930s. Besides Merritt, John W. Campbell, E. E. “Doc” Smith, and Edmond Hamilton contributed, as well as many authors whose names aren’t familiar today. “The Last Poet and the Robots” was chapter 11, and many consider it the best chapter. It was the only chapter to be reprinted as a story in a professional magazine (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1934). In 1949 it was published in book form in the collection The Fox Woman.
What’s notable about “The Last Poet and the Robots” is it’s a very early story about robots, especially mechanical robots with conscious minds. We get the word “robot” from the 1921 Czech play, R.U.R., that was first translated into English in 1923. It’s amazing how fast this word was embraced around the world. Mechanical men and other android like beings had existed before. In the play, the robots are slave workers that have a biological basis, closer to the replicants in Blade Runner. In the 1920s and 1930s the idea of mechanical robots came into being but they weren’t sentient at first. And the term “artificial intelligence” emerged from computer science in the 1950s. So Merritt might get some credit here with this 1934 story. It would be interesting to trace the history of sentient machines in science fiction.
The story also presents a number of common science fiction themes from that era such as the mad scientist, evolved humans, immortality, robot overlords, a subterranean world, and super-science technology. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the story particularly interesting or memorable. It was somewhat forward thinking that the super-beings are multiracial, but aren’t they really monsters? Narodny, the Russian mad scientist and poet, and ruler of the renegade super-humans, feels no qualms at killing normal humans when needed, even when trying to save humanity from the robots. That was a common aspect to superior beings in SF back then, they had god-like attitude regarding life and death. Merritt describes him like van Vogt’s evolved beings in his novel Slan.
Narodny did not hate mechanization. He was indifferent to it. Being truly intelligent he hated nothing, Also he was indifferent to the whole civilization man had developed and into which he had been born. He had no feeling of kinship to humanity. Outwardly, in body, he belonged to the species. Not so in mind. Like Loeb, a thousand years before, he considered mankind a race of crazy half-monkeys, intent upon suicide. Now and then, out of the sea of lunatic mediocrity, a wave uplifted that held for a moment a light from the sun of truth—but soon it sank back and the light was gone. Quenched in the sea of stupidity. He knew that he was one of those waves.
Later on Merritt continues his characterization of Narodny as a superman.
All were one with Narodny in indifference to the world; each with him in his viewpoint on life; and each and all lived in his or her own Eden among the hundred caverns except when it interested them to work with each other. Time meant nothing to them. Their researches and discoveries were solely for their own uses and enjoyments. If they had given them to the outer world they would have only been ammunition for warfare either between men upon Earth or men against some other planet. Why hasten humanity's suicide? Not that they would have felt regret at the eclipse of humanity. But why trouble to expedite it? Time meant nothing to them because they could live as long as they desired—barring accident. And while there was rock in the world, Narodny could convert it into energy to maintain his Paradise—or to create others.
This kind of evolved human is something science fiction presented time and again in roughly the same way. After van Vogt’s book came out, some science fiction fans called themselves slans. And L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950) promised to be a kind a pseudo-science guide to creating such a being. John W. Campbell, Jr. and A. E. van Vogt went nuts over it. These superior being characters are especially repugnant when we remember the 1920s and 1930s was the time of eugenics, KKK, and National Socialists. Robert A. Heinlein used a similar superior being in his novella “Gulf” in 1949, which was a test flight for Stranger in a Strange Land.
I’m kind of surprised that the VanderMeers used this story, since their selection process attempts to show science fiction’s past in a better light than its current reputation for sexism and racism. Merritt does present Narodny as a poet/artist/creator though, so I’m sure he didn’t think of his character as being repugnant like I do. This description of Narodny’s creations and interests makes him epic and god-like, but his portrayal as a monomaniacal megalomaniac worries me.
But deep down in earth, within the caverns, were music and song and mirth and beauty. Gossamer nymphs circled under the little moons. Pan piped. There was revelry of antique harvesters under the small suns. Grapes grew and ripened, were pressed, and red and purple wine was drunk by Bacchantes who fell at last asleep in the arms of fauns and satyrs. Oreads danced under the pale moon-bows and sometimes Centaurs wheeled and trod archaic measures beneath them to the drums of their hoofs upon the mossy floor. The old Earth lived again.
Narodny listened to drunken Alexander raving to Thais among the splendors of conquered Persepolis; and he heard the crackling of the flames that at the whim of the courtesan destroyed it. He watched the siege of Troy and counted with Homer the Achaean ships drawn up on the strand before Troy's walls; or saw with Herodotus the tribes that marched behind Xerxes—the Caspians in their cloaks of skin with their bows of cane; the Ethiopians in the skins of leopards with spears of antelope horns; the Libyans in their dress of leather with javelins made hard by fire; the Thracians with the heads of foxes upon their heads; the Moschians who wore helmets made of wood and the Cabalians who wore the skulls of men. For him the Eleusinian and the Osirian mysteries were re-enacted, and he watched the women of Thrace tear to fragments Orpheus, the first great musician. At his will, he could see the rise and fall of the Empire of the Aztecs, the Empire of the Incas; or beloved Caesar slain in Rome's Senate; or the archers at Agincourt; or the Americans in Belleau Wood. Whatever man had written—whether poets, historians, philosophers or scientists—his strangely shaped mechanisms could bring before him, changing the words into phantoms real as though living.
He was the last and greatest of the poets—but also he was the last and greatest of the musicians. He could bring back the songs of ancient Egypt, or the chants of more ancient Ur. The songs that came from Moussorgsky's soul of Mother-earth, the harmonies of Beethoven's deaf ear, or the chants and rhapsodies from the heart of Chopin. He could do more than restore the music of the past. He was master of sound. To him, the music of the spheres was real. He could take the rays of the stars and planets and weave them into symphonies. Or convert the sun's rays into golden tones no earthly orchestras had ever expressed. And the silver music of the moon —the sweet music of the moon of spring, the full-throated music of the harvest moon, the brittle crystalling music of the winter moon with its arpeggios of meteors—he could weave into strains such as no human ears had ever heard.
So Narodny, the last and greatest of poets, the last and greatest of musicians, the last and greatest of artists—and in his inhuman way, the greatest of scientists—lived with the ten of his choosing in his caverns. And, with them, he consigned the surface of earth and all who dwelt upon it to a negative Hell—Unless something happening there might imperil his Paradise!
I’m not really familiar with Merritt’s work. I’ve read quite a bit about his popularity, but not his famous novels, which are now mostly forgotten. From what the VanderMeers say in their introduction, he was a lot more successful than I knew. Merritt’s biography at Wikipedia is quite fascination. It says he was a major influence on H. P. Lovecraft and Richard Shaver. That combination right there makes me wonder though. He even influenced the creators of the game Dungeons and Dragons.
Story #12: “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum
This is the fifth time I’ve read “A Martian Odyssey” and the third time reading “The Valley of Dreams,” the lesser known second part of the story. It’s a shame the Mars of that story isn’t the Mars that NASA’s rovers explore. Humans have been piddling around in LEO since 1972 when all along we’ve known that Mars is our real destination. Maybe we haven’t gone because we know the Mars out there isn’t the Mars of Stanley Weinbaum or Ray Bradbury.
I’m watching For All Mankind on Apple TV+. It’s an alternate history story that begins in 1969 when the Russians become the first nation to land men on the Moon. Our failure spurs us to build a permanent base on the Moon, and from then on, history keeps changing. I call this kind of story a “I could of been a contender” tale after the Marlon Brando character in On the Waterfront. Ever since Apollo 17 space enthusiasts have wondered what could have been if we’d kept going. This show soothes those regrets. I’m seeing more science fiction that retells recent history but with better results. Mary Robinette Kowal is doing the same thing with her Lady Astronaut series.
The alternate history I’d want to relive would be where “A Martian Odyssey” was incorporated into our reality, and not fiction. My favorite era of science fiction is from “A Martian Odyssey” from 1934 to “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny in 1963. Those two stories are the alpha and omega in the table of contents for The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg. That’s where I first read “A Martian Odyssey” over fifty years ago.
What can I say about “A Martian Odyssey” that hasn’t been said before? If you haven’t read it and its sequel “Valley of Dreams” from the November 1934 issue of Wonder Stories, then go read them here and here. And if you don’t want to do that, here’s an excellent summary of “A Martian Odyssey” at Wikipedia.
What I want to write about is the legacy of the story. “A Martian Odyssey” was first published in Wonder Stories, July 1934, and then reprinted just five years later in Startling Stories, in the November 1939 issue. Then in 1943, Donald Wollheim reprinted it in The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, a book some consider the first real SF anthology. But the next jump is a big one, when members of SFWA voted it into The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One in 1970. Why hadn’t Groff Conklin, or any of the other classic anthology editors of the 1950s and 1960s reprinted it? Did they feel that everyone had a copy of Wollheim’s 1943 paperback, or bought the 1949 hardback, A Martian Odyssey and Others from Fantasy Press (or its Lancer paperback reprint in the 1960s)? After that big gap from 1943-1970, “A Martian Odyssey” has been regularly reprinted almost every year or two since.
“A Martian Odyssey” is now considered a classic. This novelette epitomizes science fiction about Mars. But is it really about Mars? Well, not the Mars NASA explores. Martians aren’t quite as well known in literature as ghosts, goblins, fairies, elves, wee folk, and other imagined creatures of fantasy, but almost. Mars has always been our best hope for another planet for humanity, one where our sense of wonder runs rampant. Once all of Earth had been explored in the early 20th century, Mars became the location for lost civilizations and exotic lands.
“A Martian Odyssey” is a first contact story and all it involves. Tweel is everybody’s favorite alien. “A Martian Odyssey” anticipates both ET and Arrival. And I think that’s the heart of what I’m trying to get at in these essays. The best science fiction stories are those that come closest to the ideal forms of science fiction. And, like I said before, I believe the ideal forms of our genre are not very many. Mars has become the ideal planet, but the ideal doesn’t have to be Mars. Like Tweel is the ideal first contact with an alien, but the ideal doesn’t have to be Tweel.
Then why isn’t “The Conquest of Gola” remembered as well? Why don’t we remember Venus and the first contact with Golans from that story like we do Mars and Tweel from “A Martian Odyssey?” Even though the females from Gola are described as being very interesting beings, they weren’t likable. And their world, Venus wasn’t appealing either.
Dick Jarvis, the human that befriends Tweel has a great adventure on Mars, seeing many wonderous things and beings. Mars is as magical as Oz. “The Conquest of Gola” reminds us of the battle of the sexes on Earth. It reminds us that humans exploit other lands and peoples for profit. It reminds us we’re violent, intolerant, and can’t communicate.
If you want to write an enduring science fiction classic be positive. Make the humans, aliens, and planet appealing. We want enchantment more than scolding. I first fell in love with Mars when I read The Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein in 1964. I was twelve. It had Willis and the Old Ones, mysterious Martians, and Mars was full of exciting adventures for Jim and Frank. However, Heinlein’s bad guys, the bureaucrats from Earth contrasted the bad old ways of Earth against the good life of pioneers on the red planet. That worked. Leslie F. Stone just didn’t inspire us to colonize Venus.
Finally, I don’t know why “Valley of Dreams” isn’t nearly as popular as “A Martian Odyssey since it continues the same story.
Story #11: “The Conquest of Gola” by Leslie F. Stone
“The Conquest of Gola” first appeared in the April, 1931 issue of Wonder Stories, but more importantly, it was reprinted in The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin, one of two giant retrospective anthologies published in 1946, the other being Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy & McComas. Those two volumes were widely acquired for library collections. Over the next three decades, baby boomers would discover those anthologies and others, learning about the history of the science fiction magazines, and expand the growing population of science fiction fans. Conklin was the John the Baptist of the genre, editing over forty anthologies from 1946-1968. I loved his anthologies growing up, always searching for them when I went to a library. (See “Why Anthologies are Important to Science Fiction.”)
In recent years “The Conquest of Gola” has been reprinted many times in both genre retrospectives and anthologies showcasing women science fiction writers. Beside being written by a woman in the early days of pulp science fiction, it’s also about a matriarchal society on Venus. Story #11 is the second tale featuring a female dominated utopia. However, in both stories, it was a dystopia for the males.
In “The Conquest of Gola,” Gola is the planet Venus, which is ruled by female super-beings. Males are considered gentle consorts, kept for pleasurable companionship. When two ships from Earth arrive, crewed only by men who want to exploit Venus by promoting trade and tourism, the female rulers of Venus are annoyed. They see males from our planet as vastly inferior. They assume the females of Earth have allowed their males extra freedom and gave them spaceships as playthings. When the rulers of Gola discover the Earthmen are the dominant gender from our planet, that blows their minds. After repeatedly being told to leave, the Earthmen turn to violence, destroying the capital, and conquering the other cities. Earthmen then start convincing the males of Gola to join them. Finally, the females of Gola have enough, kill all the humans, and put their males back in their old roles, and live happily ever after.
“The Conquest of Gola” is a pretty good yarn, a bit clunky sounding today because of the typical writing quality common to SF pulps back then. Yet, it has many interesting bits of speculation. First, and this was common for the time, was the idea that superior beings possessed telepathy and other extrasensory powers. “The Man Who Evolved” was in the same issue of Wonder Stories. That’s another SF theme I’d like to trace over time. Second, is the focus on gender. Like in “Sultana’s Dream,” males are considered stupid and violent, whereas females are peaceful and intelligent, the obvious gender to be lead society. But I don’t think that originated in science fiction. People have long speculated what it would be like if women ruled the world. Another idea in the story I’ve seen in other SF stories, is the belief that once a species reaches a certain level of maturity, it will become less materialistic. The inhabitants of Gola had spaceships long ago but gave them up.
Reading this story has me thinking about building a subject database for the science fiction stories I read. I struggle with memory. First, I’m getting old, and my recall is flaky, but second, I’ve read thousand of science fiction stories. Often, I only vaguely remember a story by a particular topic, and can’t remember the title or author. I’d love to have a database that would allow me to retrieve stories by themes, topics, or subjects. For example, list all stories about societies ruled by women. That query should help me remember “Sultana’s Dream” and “The Conquest of Gola.”
I showed a spreadsheet sample for remembering subjects when I reviewed “The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois. That was a quick and dirty solution, but to really get the job done would require a relational database because I’d want each story to be able to have unlimited subjects attached to it.
And is subject the right word? Should it be theme? Or concept, or idea? What is the right word for describing what a science fiction story is about? For “The Conquest of Gola” there are several keywords I’d like to link with the story so when I want a list of stories that deal with a specific subject, it would add “The Conquest of Gola” to the listing. For this story I’d link it to these subjects:
You can probably see how this gets tricky fast. Why do I need Gender and Female? Or even Feminism? What if I wanted to list all SF stories that deal with gender roles in society? (Think The Left Hand of Darkness.) But another time, wanted a list of all stories where females are the dominate gender? Will all such stories be about feminism? What if I wanted just a list of stories that promoted feminism? Is “The Conquest of Gola” really about feminism? I’m not sure. It’s often used as an example for women writing science fiction, but does that fact make it about feminism? The Handmaid’s Tale is obvious a work I’d tag with feminism in the subject field. I’d put feminism in “Sultana’s Dream” subject field for sure, but I don’t think I would for “The Conquest of Gola.”
See why creating a subject database for science fiction stories is tricky? It’s probably why we don’t see any. ISFDB started the “Tag” field, and if you search for “Feminism” it brings up only 13 entries. My guess is they gave up on that project, suggesting it I might be waste my time.
However, as I review the 107 stories of The Big Book of Science Fiction I might build a test database. It sure would help me to remember SF stories if I had a database with a carefully designed subject field. Each title could have any number of subjects tagged to it, but does that mean the number of subjects would be unlimited? Would it help manage complexity if I used two fields: Theme and Subject? We’ll see.
It only took us to the tenth story in this giant retrospective science fiction anthology to get to the galactic civilization, probably the the most cherished of all science fiction concepts, and the destination fantasy of true fans. “The Star Stealers” anticipates both Star Trek and Star Wars. The galactic civilization is to science fiction what Middle-Earth is to fantasy.
“The Star Stealers” is the second of seven stories (1928-1930) in Hamilton’s early space opera series, Interstellar Patrol. Those stories are among the earliest science fiction about interstellar travel, and among the few to leave the galaxy. This story could have been the inspiration for Star Trek since it involved a Federation governing the galaxy, a captain commanding from a bridge of a Federation ship, and even a second officer who is a woman. Edmond Hamilton and E. E. “Doc” Smith were the pioneers of space opera.
Five of the Interstellar Patrol stories were first published in book form in 1965 as Crashing Suns, the year before Star Trek premiered. All of them were republished in 2009 as The Star-Stealers: The Complete Adventures of The Interstellar Patrol, The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume Two, a collector’s edition from Haffner Press that’s now out of print and costs hundreds of dollars used, if you can find a copy. However, because it took decades for these stories to be reprinted suggests they weren’t fan favorites. Most of Hamilton’s early magazine work wasn’t published in book form until the late 1960s or 1970s. Edmond Hamilton is most famous for his Captain Future series, but even those fan favorite stories from the 1940s weren’t reprinted as books until 1969, and then as cheap Ace paperbacks. Hamilton’s appeal seems rather limited. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark and Lensman series vastly overshadowed Hamilton’s space operas.
I’m still trying to discern the VanderMeers’s methodology for the stories they collect in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Anthologies usually have a design behind them. The simplest approach is to bundle a bunch of stories you expect readers will enjoy. Because this anthology is a retrospective of 20th century science fiction I assume the stories showcase the genre. In the introduction the VanderMeers tell us they want to broadening the history of the genre by including women writers and foreign-language stories in translation. I thought that was an excellent ambition. But I assumed when they did include traditional SF stories, those stories would be the classics, and maybe the best example of each writer’s work.
This has happened some, but not to the degree I assumed. For example, “The Star Stealers” is not Edmond Hamilton’s best. Hamilton was never a good writer, and it shows in “The Star Stealers,” which is little better than a comic book without pictures. Hamilton wrote two stories, “The Man Who Evolved” and “What’s It Like Out There?” I believe belong in retrospective SF anthologies. The original use of the term space opera was as a put down for the kind of writing “The Star Stealers” epitomizes. I even wonder if Hugo Gernsback, who had no ear for prose, had turned down “The Star Stealers.” Weird Tales is a legendary magazine today, but it’s content was often amateurish. But Hamilton was practically a house writer for them, so he probably didn’t submit it to Amazing. This story was no more sophisticated than the illustration that went with “The Star Stealers” at the top of the page.
Still, there’s plenty to like about “The Star Stealers,” and it makes an interesting entry for the anthology. The plot parallels the story by Wells, “The Star,” which was about a rogue astronomical body flying through the solar system, swinging too close to Earth. In “The Star Stealers” a giant sun is detected coming from outside the galaxy that will swing too close to Earth. For this story, the object is traveling many multiple speeds of light and will reach the solar system in four months. This is ridiculous, but Hamilton’s Federation space cruisers can travel a thousand times the speed of light, so its no problem. (By the way, how do astronomers detect objects approaching Earth traveling faster than light in their telescopes?)
“The Star Stealers” was published the year before Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, and just five years after Edwin Hubble proved the existence of galaxies outside of the Milky Way, and less than two decades since Einstein explained that nothing could travel faster than light. Hamilton has his space cruiser traveling from Alpha Centauri to our system in twelve hours. This is almost as fast as they travel in Star Wars, but a good deal slower than what they can do in Star Trek. We might forgive Hamilton for breaking Einstein’s speed law in 1929, but even modern writers can’t let go of FTL.
In recent decades we’ve been seeing more stories following Einstein’s laws for interstellar travel, but for the most part writers keep coming up with theoretical gimmicks to go faster. Readers want science fiction where humans roam the galaxy at will, and we see this in “The Star Stealers.” However, the super-science of that story and other early space operas has been deemed excessive by modern fans. “The Star Stealers” feels as archaic today as a silent movie. At one time, “Doc” Smith had his characters hurling galaxies at each other, but nowadays, science fiction readers are happy with space opera that span just a few hundred light years. Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought series is the last science fiction I’ve read that covers the entire galaxy. The only other SF story I know that has characters traveling between galaxies is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. I should forgive Hamilton because “The Star Pit” is not ridiculous to me at all, in fact, it’s my all-time favorite SF novella.
But as I said, “The Star Stealers” is a fascinating choice for this anthology. It anticipates the ultimate setting of science fiction fans who want to dwell in a galactic civilization, with countless exotic worlds to visit, and plenty of exotic races of intelligent aliens to be friends and foes. Edmond Hamilton grasped the final frontier early, and the idea of a federation of star systems. “Doc” Smith’s first space opera, The Skylark of Space has a lone Elon Musk like inventor competing with a mad scientist, Blackie DuQuesne to explore the galaxy. Hamilton jumps ahead of Smith by imagining a civilized galaxy. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s prose was painful, and he never achieved the popularity of Smith. “Doc” Smith’s second space opera series, The Lensman series actually popularized the galactic civilization which eventually led to Star Trek. It was Asimov, with the Foundation series, that popularized the galactic empire, which led to Star Wars. I keep mentioning those two franchises because they represent the most loved examples of science fiction today, and these earlier stories represented how thousands of fans eventually turned into hundreds of millions of fans.
So, in that sense, the VanderMeers have made an exceptional pick. Unfortunately, “The Star Stealers” is also a perfect example of bad writing, even for old timey science fiction. First, the bad characterization.
The hero of this tale is Ran Rarak. We expect him to be dashing, but there is no supporting description, even though he’s the admiral of a mighty space fleet. We expect Ran to be heroic, but in the big fight he gets knocked out and is unconscious for ten weeks. We eventually see Ran duking it out with one alien, but it’s an ordinary non-superhero punch out. And the one problem he solves is by ramming the enemy’s pivotal machine with his space cruiser.
Hamilton should get credit for introducing a female character in early SF. Dal Nara, pilot, second officer, is a woman who gets to be part of the story action but her only insight is to yell, “Hey, look!” warnings on a few occasions. Her only action is to use her long legs to grab a means of escape. And finally, her chosen reward for help saving the solar system is to visit a beauty parlor. But she’s not the love interest. Hamilton, we give you a gold star, but it doesn’t stick and falls off.
And like in Star Trek, characters are comically tossed around the bridge to show conflict in space. Only one named character in the story is killed, Nal Jak, but he does nothing, and we don’t even know the color of his shirt. Hurus Hol we’re told is the brilliant scientist, but we’re never shown him being brilliant. However, he does commit one of the cardinal sins of bad science fiction, he infodumps on Ran Rarak in a completely condescending way:
He was silent again for a moment, his eyes on mine, and then went on. “You know, Ran Rarak, that the universe itself is composed of infinite depths of space in which float great clusters of suns, star-clusters which are separated from each other by billions of light-years of space. You know, too, that our own cluster of suns, which we call the galaxy, is roughly disklike in shape, and that our own particular sun is situated at the very edge of this disk. Beyond lie only those inconceivable leagues of space which separate us from the neighboring star clusters, or island universes, depths of space never yet crossed by our own cruisers or by anything else of which we have record.
“But now, at last, something has crossed those abysses, is crossing them; since over three weeks ago our astronomers discovered that a gigantic dark star is approaching our galaxy from the depths of infinite space—a titanic, dead sun which their instruments showed to be of a size incredible, since, dark and dead as it is, it is larger than the mightiest blazing suns in our own galaxy, larger than Canopus or Antares or Betelgeuse—a dark, dead star millions of times larger than our own fiery sun—a gigantic wanderer out of some far realm of infinite space, racing toward our galaxy at a velocity inconceivable!
“The calculations of our scientists showed that this speeding dark star would not race into our galaxy but would speed past its edge, and out into infinite space again, passing no closer to our own sun, at the edge, than some fifteen billion miles. There was no possibility of collision or danger from it, therefore; and so though the approach of the dark star is known to all in the solar system, there is no idea of any peril connected with it. But there is something else which has been kept quite secret from the peoples of the solar system, something known only to a few astronomers and officials. And that is that during the last few weeks the path of this speeding dark star has changed from a straight path to a curving one, that it is curving inward toward the edge of our galaxy and will now pass our own sun, in less than twelve weeks, at a distance of less than three billion miles, instead of fifteen! And when this titanic dead sun passes that close to our own sun there can be but one result. Inevitably our own sun will be caught by the powerful gravitational grip of the giant dark star and carried out with all its planets into the depths of infinite space, never to return!”
Hurus Hol paused, his face white and set, gazing past me with wide, unseeing eyes. My brain whirling beneath the stunning revelation, I sat rigid, silent, and in a moment he went on.
The plotting of the story is about at the level of old Buck Rogers serials, which were more primitive than the Flash Gordans. Humans detect a giant sun heading towards the Milky Way and calculate it will swing near enough to the Sun to capture Sol and pull it into intergalactic space. They quickly assemble a fleet of fifty Federation space cruisers and take off. When they reach the giant sun which turns out to be populated death star, their fleet is almost completely destroyed, and our heroes get immediately captured. Like so many episodes of Star Trek where Captain Kirk is confined by ropes, chains, jails, cells, dungeons, and sexy space-babes, the plot pivots on merely escaping confinement and performing one little act, thus saving the Earth, solar system, galaxy, or universe. It turns out not all the fleet was destroyed, and good old Federation cruiser Number Sixteen escaped to fetch back a fleet of 5,000 Federation ships in the nick of time. Hamilton couldn’t even be bothered to name his ships, even the one that saves the day.
Edmond Hamilton seems to know little about astronomy or physics. He keeps mentioning three billion miles like it’s a tremendous distance, yet that’s just a tiny fraction light travels in one year: 5,878,625,370,000 miles. His ships accelerate but never decelerate. And a Federation spaceship can suddenly stop or hover in relation to each other even though they’ve been traveling a thousand times the speed of light. Another foreshadowing of Star Trek and Star Wars.
Like I said, this story was written just a few years after Hubble made the measurements to calculate that other galaxies were outside the Milky Way. It appears that Hamilton thinks our galaxy and the universe is terribly tiny. Was that true for all people back in the 1920s? Maybe it was for teenage readers of SF.
Even though E. E. “Doc” Smith was far more famous than Edmond Hamilton, he wasn’t much better as a writer. “The Star Stealers” is typical for both storytelling and science back in the 1920s and 1930s. There’s a reason why John W. Campbell, Jr. is so famous, because he attracted both stories and writers that were a quantum leap in quality and talent. And it explains why it’s hard so hard to find good science fiction stories between H. G. Wells and Robert A. Heinlein. This brings us back to the anthology.
Should we remember the all the bad stories that helped evolve the genre? There is a kind of fun academic appeal to reading old clunkers like “The Star Stealers” but is that what most buyers of retrospective anthologies want? And I still wonder if there were truly good stories from back then that could be rescued.
Look at it this way. There was thousands and thousands of short stories published in the 19th century, but how many are still embraced by readers today? Is the number even greater than 25? Or 10? I’m talking by bookworms, not scholars.
When a century separates readers from the 20th century, how many of these SF stories will still be read? At what point should we let go? Just how big would The Big Book of Science Fiction be if it only reprinted four and five star stories? My definition of a four-star story is any story on reading the first time leaves you knowing you’ll want to reread it. My definition of a five-star story are stories which bookworms cherish and read many times over their lifetime.
“The Star Stealers” fits neither definition for me. My definition for three-star stories are solid well-written stories that deserve to be published in a professional periodical, and might even deserve to be reprinted in an annual best-of-the-year anthology. It’s hard to judge the quality of “The Star Stealers” today by whether it deserved a magazine editor’s acceptance. But I’m guessing Farnsworth Wright was excited about the ideas in “The Star Stealer” and knew Hamilton wasn’t much of a writer. Wright and Gernsback knew their readers weren’t mature or educated, just enthusiastic. Even in 1929 I probably would have considered it a 2-star story, but I probably would have bought it if I was a magazine editor. It was different.
I enjoyed reading and writing about “The Star Stealers” because I’m an autodidactic scholar of science fiction, but I have to wonder what the average science fiction fan today will think of it.
With the ninth story of The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, we’ve finally reached the land of science fiction. In our group discussions many have questioned whether the earlier stories were truly science fiction. With “The Fate of the Poseidonia” by Clare Winger Harris from the June 1927 issue of Amazing Stories we’ve finally reached the era of pulp science fiction magazines. If anything defined the concept, it was the science fiction magazines.
Clare Winger Harris images a much different winter of 1994-95. George Gregory discovers his girlfriend Margaret has taken up with another guy, a Mr. Martell. Martell looks odd, and acts suspicious. George tells Margaret of his worries, but she defends Martell and dumps Gregory. Mr. Gregory starts spying on Mr. Martell out of jealousy, and learns that Martell is a Martian spy. Unfortunately, no one will believe him, and he’s committed to a mental hospital.
Is “The Fate of the Poseidonia” the earliest example of Martians living amongst us stories? My two favorites of that theme are A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis. Both of these novels have a quiet beauty you don’t often find in science fiction. This theme was also used on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. The idea of Martians passing for humans is very entertaining to me which caused me to like “The Fate of the Poseidonia” more than it probably deserves. It’s a decent story, mainly suffering from an unskilled writer, but Harris did win third prize for it at Amazing Stories.
What makes this story so distinctive among those we’ve read so far is how the reader in thrown into the future. This isn’t a dream, or an experiment in storytelling, a political allegory, or philosophical musing. This story contains the real essence of science fiction. The setting is science fictional, and the intent of the story is science fictional. Clare Winger Harris asks us to believe that there are intelligent beings on Mars who come to Earth to steal our water. Their planet has dried up and they have the technology to lower ocean levels by many feet. Harris has created an entertaining example of “What if …?”
In 1927 it was widely assumed there could be life elsewhere in the solar system, especially Mars and Venus. Until Mariner 4 flew by Mars in July of 1965, hope was held out for life on Mars, even intelligent life. I’m not sure people growing today can understand how it was almost a common assumption that Mars and Venus could actually be inhabited. Sure, most scientists held little hope, but the public did, and it was reflected in Pre-NASA science fiction. From H. G. Wells to Roger Zelazny there were endless science fictional speculations about Martians. I loved the idea of Martians as a kid, and even wrote an essay, “I Miss Martians.”
I also grew up with NASA, so I quickly gave up all hope for finding any kind of life within our solar system. The more I read popular science, the more skeptical I became about science fiction. Eventually, I doubted most of what science fiction hoped. But in my old age I realized I still love the old unscientific science fiction. (I’m really digging listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr.)
I’ve mentioned this before, but I grew up reading Oz books before I discovered science fiction. At the beginning of the 20th century L. Frank Baum produced a series of children’s books about a fictional location that existed somewhere on Earth, but in a geography that had eluded all explorers. Over the series, the Land of Oz became richly complex. As a gullible nine-year-old in 1962 I wanted Oz to actually exist. I knew it didn’t, but I wanted it to be a real place. Hell, it was crushing to lose Santa Claus at 6, then Oz at 9, and Christianity at 12. So I turned to science fiction. My 69-year-old self realizes that for most of my lifetime, science fiction was my replacement for Oz and religion. I always rationalized that reading science fiction prepared me for the future, and inspired me to learn about science, but in reality, it was my way to escape the mundane.
This is very different from my middle-age self who wanted science fiction to be scientific. Now I see very little difference between science fiction and fantasy. Both are fairytales for readers who have left childhood. Both are about world building fictional universes. There seems to be some differences because some readers show preferences for one over the other. Maybe science fiction are those tales that seem more realistic. However, in 2021 how realistic is “The Fate of the Poseidonia” then? It’s far from scientific. In 1927 it was thought to be more realistic, but not if you were properly educated.
I’m using these essays reviewing the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction to understand the evolution of the genre, but also to psychoanalyze myself. Why do I love science fiction so much? I want to define the term science fiction because it seems to point to exactly something that pushes my buttons. A good deal of pop culture is now science fiction, so I’m not alone in my attraction. Maybe we should all analyze this fixation?
We could say science fiction is fiction set is the future. That might be the one telling trait that defines science fiction for me, but maybe not everyone. Fantasies are set in the past, present, or never-never land. When they are set in the future, like Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, I want to call them science fiction. This lets us file steampunk and alternate history in the fantasy bin. I like that, because neither of those types of stories feel like science fiction to me. We could split the difference on time travel stories. If characters head to the past, it’s fantasy, but if they go forward, it’s science fiction. But there’s a problem. All those stories about visiting dinosaurs are definitely science fiction to me.
What if someone today wrote a story set in the future where we discover an ancient dying civilization on Mars, something that’s been proven to be impossible? I can amend my definition by saying even fantasies set in the future belong in the science fiction bin too. In fact, older unscientific SF has become my favorite kind of science fiction in recent years. And I’ve notice a trend for writers to produce alternate history science fiction, like the novel The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, or the Apple TV+ series For All Mankind. I might not be the only person nostalgic for what science fiction used to be.
As I read and review the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, and our Facebook group discusses them, I’m trying to find a reason to keep the term science fiction. I swing back and forth from wanting to throw out all genre labels, to finding a practical meaning for the term science fiction that most people can agree on.
Right now my working definition is “Science fiction is fiction set in the future.” That leaves a lot of holes, but then we have almost a hundred stories yet to consider.
“The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois is the first story we’ve read in The Big Book of Science Fiction that reads like a modern short story, and feels like modern science fiction. Is there a name for the form of fiction we now consider the standard model? All the stories we’ve read so far felt quaint, experimental, philosophical, pretentious, or unnatural. “The Star” by H. G. Wells was the closest to normal, but it did feel old fashioned, like other stories from the 19th century. Du Bois story is from 1920, yet felt more polished and modern than most science fiction from the 1920s, 1930s, and into the 1940s.
I know I’m not being very precise here when trying to talk about writing styles or forms. I just don’t have the terminology. I’m trying to describe something I’ve observed from personal experience that might have precise labels among academics. The prose of Charles Dickens, Henry James, or Edith Wharton has a quality that makes them feel old to me, but they are still very readable. Then in the 1920s, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and other writers made their prose more streamlined, and thus created what I think of as the modern form of fiction. Modern fiction has a greater percentage of dialog, and that dialog rings more natural. In the 19th century, the narrative part of fiction was quite wordy, especially with writers like Henry James. H. G. Wells was long on narrative and short on dialog, and his characters sounded Victorian.
The prose in 1920s Amazing Stories and early 1930s Astounding feels oldy too, and has a clunky quality of bad writing. Science fiction has always had the extra burden of explaining the science fictional aspects. This is called info-dumping, and is comparable to 19th descriptive narration that would spend paragraphs describing a mantelpiece.
“The Comet” feels more like Fitzgerald in its storytelling techniques, which are more advanced than the first decades of science fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. A large part of Heinlein’s success when he made a splash in the early 1940s was his use of modern streamline writing. The focus was on dramatic dialog, while minimizing the infodumping and narrative descriptions. Heinlein’s prose sounds snappy, even breezy compared to his predecessors. Heinlein’s style immerses the reader into the fantastic with the minimum of fuss and notice.
In other words, I’m quite impressed with W. E. B. Du Bois writing in “The Comet.” It’s a shame he didn’t become a genre writer during the pulp era. “The Comet” is pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic, as was “The Star” by Wells. The difference was Wells was narrating a ponderous worldwide overview, while Du Bois used the POV of one person.
Both are good stories, but “The Comet” points the way to the future. As we progress through the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we’re seeing both science fiction themes evolve, as well as the techniques of fiction writing.
I would love if I could quantify these two progressions. I have no idea how to track changes in fiction writing. For science fiction themes I picture myself building a database of theme examples. Designing the structure of such a database will take considerable thought. Most science fiction stories have multiple themes. For example:
Notice that Earth Abides and The World, The Flesh, and The Devil do away with Pre-Apocalyptic and Apocalyptic phases of the story, jumping immediately into the Post-Apocalyptic phase. The direction of storytelling is towards getting into a tale quicker, and when there, conveying the action in prose that is speedier to read. Modern bestsellers are very easy to read, dominated by near realistic dialog. Older fiction have archaic dialog, sometimes sounding like lectures, that slow the story.
Written fiction, novels and short stories, can convey the inner world of thoughts and opinions, that media fiction, movies and television shows, seldom attempt to express. But written fiction seems to be moving away from this unique attribute in favor of speed. But it would be a shame to abandon it entirely. (As an aside, some modern written fiction comes across like the young writers were inspired by movies rather than books.)
All stories have a setup and something to say. In “The Comet” Du Bois wants to say things about race, using the setup of a science fiction theme to express himself. The collapse of civilization allows Jim Davis, a black man from 1910s New York City to connect with Julia, a white woman. This connection was impossible before the apocalypse. Like Rod Sterling talking about a character entering the twilight zone, science fiction allowed Du Bois to put Jim Davis in a setting to show how race is an artificial construct of society.
Because Du Bois’ goal was to change readers’ minds about race, can “The Comet” still be science fiction? In an earlier essay, I said science fiction are those stories set within specific themes, like the future, traveling in space, or after the collapse of civilization. Racism is a universal theme that SF can’t claim. Science fiction is the setup of “The Comet,” but the story was written to say things about racism.
This brings us to an interesting question: Do both the setup and the intent of the story have to be science fictional to make the story science fiction? Eventually, in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we’ll reach such stories. I expect that will be soon, maybe with “The Star Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton. Both Earth Abides by George R. Stewart and The World, the Flesh, and The Devil use both science fiction as a setup, and to say things about living in a post-apocalyptic world. Sure, they also say things about us and our society, but the purpose of these stories is to speculate about life after the apocalypse, in that territory of the future belonging to science fiction.
Because W. E. B. Du Bois brings back civilization at the end of “The Comet,” we’re not really in the future. “The Comet” feels like science fiction, even great science fiction, until the end, that is. We’re jerked back to the present like in the earlier story “Sultana’s Dream.” Du Bois ventured into the shadows of the twilight zone, but didn’t stay.
On one hand, does the label science fiction really matter? “The Comet” is an excellent short story. The literary world has had several major writers rejecting the science fiction label on their work. They have good reason to reject the label. On the other hand, if a literary writer strays into science fiction’s territory, using science fictional techniques for their story’s setup, and especially when what they have to say is science fictional, shouldn’t the work be called science fiction? On our third hand, if the term science fiction isn’t precise, isn’t it unfair to use the label on those who don’t want it? And if science fiction is just a marketing term, shouldn’t it be restricted to genre fiction? “The Comet” is literary fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four are literary fiction and science fiction by my definition. But I can understand why literary writers wouldn’t want the science fiction label if its also equated with genre writing.
I believe we’re still on the road to science fiction, but we haven’t gotten there yet. But I’m starting to wonder whether or not I’m painting myself into a corner. I do not know our ultimate destination, but my intuition tells me I’m going to define science fiction in way that only I use. Most people will gladly accept “The Comet” as a perfectly good example of science fiction. I’m sure old Hugo Gernsback would have reprinted this story in Amazing Stories if he had known about it.
What would W. E. B. Du Bois think? 1920 was well before the term science fiction existed, but Du Bois lived until 1963. Did anyone ever ask him, “Were you writing science fiction when you wrote ‘The Comet?'” I believe he had a very clever idea for a story setup to express significant insights about racism. I’m not familiar with his work, but did he ever write a story about the future where racism didn’t exist? “The Comet” almost goes there. Such a story would be fully within my definition of science fiction.
Didn’t Du Bois pull back at the last moment because he knew most of his readers couldn’t go all the way? My point is science fiction is about going places we haven’t thought about going before. Du Bois got so very close. I’d like to even imagine he wanted to write that story.
Reading The Big Book of Science Fiction is causing me to reevaluate my relationship with science fiction. For most of my life I wanted science fiction to be serious speculation about the future. I considered ideas the pinnacle of science fiction’s virtues. But after reading a couple thousand science fiction short stories over the last decade, I realize storytelling is the primary consideration. Insights and ideas are secondary. Anyone can have a cool idea, it’s how they’re presented that determines the success of a story.
“The Doom of Principal City” by Yefim Zozulya reeks of Western Union. It might be an interesting example of an early dystopia, but that’s all it has, academic appeal. The reason why Nineteen Eighty-Four is still read and why its still so damn readable, is because we care about Winston Smith. The next reason we read Nineteen Eighty-Four is the marvelously crafted world building. We don’t have a character to care about in “The Doom of Principal City” and the setting only feels didactic. I’ve come to really dislike satire. Too often satire is buckshot broadsides, whereas beautiful storytelling uses precisely placed bullets. Of course, when I was young, satire was easy to love because it made us feel grown up and superior, but now that I’m old satire feels childish and snooty. “The Doom of Principal City” came across as vague cleverness, but then the writer might have feared political reprisals.
I should give Zozulya credit for the context in which was written, but I can’t. There was a certain level of cleverness in having the city conquered by peaceful means that turn oppressive, but the solution is the same old violence and destruction. I should give Zozulya credit because the story is still topical. Principal City could be Kabul. Think about it. Reread the story. But like I said, real art is about specifics. Its easy to be vaguely clever, but much harder to be vividly detailed.
Which gets me back to my new realization of what I love about science fiction. Storytelling is becoming everything. Science fiction only grabs me now with how the story is told. It can be simplistic or sophisticated, but its got to suck me in. Philosophical fiction, satire, social protest, experimental fiction just doesn’t dance anymore. I can admire writers for what they’re trying to do intellectually, but not as science fiction that moves me emotionally.
And I think this is due to aging. When I was young, I was easily amused, and easily impressed. “The Doom of Principal City” might have struct me as clever, or meaningful. Now, not so much. And partly that’s due to its narrative style. It feels like a parable, or allegory, rather than modern fiction. It’s setup reminds me of “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory about a small country under attack by a powerful country with a superhero military force. I’m not fond of superhero stories, but Gregory’s storytelling was vivid and rich. That’s what’s missing from “The Doom of Principal City.” I have to wonder if writers back in 1910s didn’t have such abilities, or we’re just getting the weak examples of what they could do. I don’t think its the translation. “The Dead” by James Joyce was from that decade, so we do know what’s possible, although it might be fairer to use Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Rice Burroughs to compare, since they were genre writers.
I worry that the poor storytelling examples we’ve had at the beginning of The Big Book of Science Fiction is because the genre lacked for better ones. Or, are the VanderMeers more impressed with ideas?
“Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker is a recent example of what I consider captivating storytelling. It does have plenty of sparkly ideas, but what really sparkles is how they’re presented.
In his very first sentence in “Mechanoplis,” Miguel de Unamuno, lets us know his story was inspired by reading Erewhon by Samuel Butler. That 1872 novel is considered one of the first books to imagine artificial intelligence. Butler extended Charles Darwin’s recent ideas on natural selection to apply to the machines of the industrial revolution. Could machines develop consciousness and become self-replicating? This makes it hard not to consider Erewhon a major science fiction novel of the 19th century. However, I’m still on the fence about whether or not genre science fiction can claim utopian literature. My current thought is those old utopian novels inspired the birth of genre science fiction by getting people to think about the future. But along the way there was a fork in the road. Some science fiction has continued to worry about the future, like the recent novel The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. But most genre SF has made the future into a Disneyland of thrills, adventures, and fun. The future becomes a place we want to visit.
It’s hard to trace the evolution of ideas in utopian novels and proto-SF stories of the 19th century to mid-20th century genre science fiction. Butler used the future to comment on Victorian society with satire closer to Jonathan Swift’s 18th century work than how Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov used the future in the 20th century science fiction. But I do see stepping stones, from story to story.
Reading “Mechanopolis” by Miguel de Unamuno in The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer provided an immediate sense of déjà vu. I can’t remember if I read this 1913 story from the Spanish writer Unamuno in another anthology, or because it feels so much like other science fiction stories I’ve read, especially, “Twilight” by John W. Campbell, Jr. from 1934.
“Mechanopolis” begins with an unnamed narrator lost in a desert, nearly dead, who happens upon an oasis where he finds an automated railway system that takes him into a deserted city where machines maintain an automated society long after humanity has left. The forgotten cafeterias allow our narrator to eat. That was true in the Campbell story too. However, in this story the narrator goes mad as he realizes the machines have souls, and even write about his activities in their daily newspaper, spooking the hell out of him. The abandoned cities in “Twilight” still functioning by self-repairing machines, but they inspire a great sense of wonder, not fear.
In the end of “Mechanopolis,” the narrator escapes the city and returns to the desert. He encounters Bedouins who save him. When the narrator returns home he works to stay as far away from machinery as possible. Of course, this reminds me of the ending to the 1984 classic SF story “Press Enter ▮” by John Varley. I’ve written about it before. Victor Apfel, in the Varley story becomes so afraid of machines he rips the wiring out of his house.
“Mechanopolis” is a rather brief expression of a theme that shows up time and again in science fiction. We are definitely on the road to science fiction with this story. Unamuno completely ignores how his narrator finds his way to the mechanical city. In “Twilight,” Campbell has his story told to a man of our times by a wayward time traveler he picks up hitchhiking.
This reveals an interesting aspect to the evolution of science fiction. Writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries had a difficult time setting their story in the future. Often, those early tales about the future have people from the present stumble into some kind of suspended animation. In 1819 Washington Irving has his title character in “Rip van Wrinkle” fall asleep for twenty years. In 1888 Edward Bellamy has his character, Julian West, go under a hypnotic sleep for 113 years to get to the future described in Looking Backward. Of course, the most famous solution was by H. G. Wells in 1895, when he sent his character into the future via a time machine. But then in 1928 Buck Rogers returns to the old method getting to 2419 by being trapped in a cave in where radioactive gas puts him into suspended animation.
All these writers evidently felt there must be some connection between the present day and the future. Maybe they thought we needed a POV like ourselves to react to the future. However, Ray Bradbury did away with the human viewer altogether in “There Will Come Soft Rains” where he describes an automated house working after the humans are gone, and we assume extinct because of WWIII. It’s a beautiful story. However, the machines aren’t sentient, and we don’t fear them. We’re just wistful to see them working without us.
Unamuno has his character take a strange train ride. Does his narrator ever realize he’s in the future? Or is it possible that this mechanical city is somewhere on Earth like the land of Oz, in current time but having a quite divergent development from the rest of the world? Or is Mechanopolis in another dimension? I’m not sure we know. The train is a portal, but not much else is explained. I’m assuming Mechanopolis is in the future. Art the narrator sees in the machine’s museums he feels are the originals might imply the narrator was in the future. But he also wondered if our museums held perfect forgeries. That could imply Mechanoplis was not in the future.
One of the surprising aspects to the 1909 story, “The Machine Stops,” is E. M. Forster just puts his readers into the future. That approach eventually becomes the standard for science fiction. We read science fiction so we can jump into the future. Any comparison to the present is at an unconscious level.
“Mechanopolis” anticipates automated cities in future stories like The Dying Earth by Jack Vance or The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. In those two the humans aren’t quite gone but our species is fading away. I just remembered, The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson from 1912. He took his readers to the far future too, where the remaining humans survive in the remnants of a technological civilization. Hodgson got his readers there with a reincarnated character from our times. Some editions of that book lop off that introductory section, and jump immediately to the future. Evidently, those editors felts modern readers didn’t need the connection with the present day.
Another story where the humans are gone but the machines remain is the connecting filler to the fix-up novel City by Clifford Simak. We are told humans have left and only intelligent machines and uplifted dogs remain. The gimmick of the fix-up is the robots and dogs are telling tales about humans, which are just reprints of Simak short stories. With Simak, we love the machines.
“Moxon’s Master” the 1899 story by Ambrose Bierce features a chess playing machine killing a human. We have a long history of anthropomorphizing animals and objects, so when did the idea of sentient machines first develop in science fiction? Unamuno’s 1913 story is way before computers, or even the concept of robots were developed. That was even more true of Erewhon. Why does Butler or Unamuno imagine machines will become aware? It’s one thing to assume automated machinery will keep running, or could even be made self-servicing. It’s a whole other concept to imagine that machines could observe people, and in this story, feel concern for the narrator’s state of mind. Evolving machines was quite a leap for Butler, but Darwin inspired all kinds of fears about evolution. A great case could be made that Darwin is really the father of science fiction.
In this very short story, Unamuno comes up with automated cities, the extinction of humans, cities that keep functioning without humans, self-aware machines, and even machine inheriting the Earth. He also comes up with the fear or paranoia of intelligent machines. It’s doubtful many English writers and readers knew about Unamuno’s story. Could there have been any chance of Campbell reading it? I wonder what Spanish writers Unamuno influenced with science fictional ideas?
If fiction could be classified like a biological taxonomy then labels like science fiction could have a fairly exact use in categorizing literature. We could point to an infographic of a circle on a page, and say everything inside the circle is science fiction, and everything outside of it is not.
The VanderMeers want to call “Elements of Pataphysics” by Alfred Jarry science fiction. I don’t. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, the editors of The Big Book of Science Fiction, the anthology our short story club is reading, are disciples of Judith Merril. Merril wrote science fiction, but is mostly remembered for her annual anthologies from 1956-1968 that collected what she considered the best science fiction of the year. Merril was notorious for including stories that she called science fiction but which her readers disagreed. Nor would I think the world-at-large would call “Elements of Pataphysics” science fiction. See this Wikipedia entry, which considers it a spoof or satire on science. I’d call it experimental fiction that plays with language, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, and communication.
As a collector and reader of best-of-the-year science fiction anthologies I have a hard time reading Merril’s annual anthologies because I felt some stories just aren’t science fiction – and I wanted them all to be science fiction. I keep reading similar complaints about The Big Book of Science Fiction. I’m trying very hard to be open minded and stretch my sense of science fiction to meet the VanderMeers half-way, but I’m afraid “Elements of Pataphysics” is outside of that circle I call science fiction.
As much as I admired Merril, I also believe by trying to expand the genre she neglected some solid middle-of-the-road SF stories that deserved to be remembered. Instead of claiming the experimental and avant-garde for the genre, she could have used the anthology space to boost a few mid-level SF writer’s careers, but that’s parsecs in the past.
Not that “Elements of Pataphysics” isn’t a wonderful story. Not that it isn’t brilliant. Not that it doesn’t deal with science and fiction. And this was also true for the stories Merril wanted to call science fiction but her readers didn’t. Merril wanted to expand the domain of science fiction and often claimed the hard-to-define experimental work as sci-fi. But in many cases, and with Jarry’s story here, I believe its literary poaching. Just because you Shanghai a story and call it science fiction doesn’t mean its is.
And just because science fiction is hard to classify doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We just can’t cull anything we like with our SF branding iron. I know I’m trying to bail the ocean with a sieve when I argue to define science fiction, but when I eat a dessert I expect it to be sweet, and when I read science fiction I expect it to be science fictional.
The trouble is the reading public and publishers have often classified anything weirdly like science fiction as science fiction. It’s a classification kitchen sink. To begin with, I don’t believe all books need a classification label other than fiction. If a story doesn’t fit a clear classification, just call it a story or novel. We need to only use the label science fiction when a story has the exact traits of science fiction.
If we copy the structure used to classify life forms then fiction could be a very high level domain, and genre could be one level down. Science fiction could be in a domain below that. Any domain or order within it should be clearly definable. We should be able to list characteristics that readers universally respect as belonging to science fiction. And if you think about them, there really isn’t that many that science fiction has a right to claim. Science fiction has homesteaded certain lands for decades and I believe has a legitimate right to claim them now. Some of the obvious ones include:
Stories set in the future
Stories set in space
Stories about time travel
Stories about aliens from space
Stories about robots and any human created intelligence
Stories about new inventions and new technology that hasn’t been invented or discovered
Stories about humans that aren’t Homo sapiens sapiens.
Stories about artificial life possible within our physical reality
Stories about artificial realities, but possible within this physical reality
Stories about other dimensions, but part of this physical reality
Stories about metafiction related to science fiction
Utopias and dystopias if set in the future or in space
Alternate history (this could be contested and established as its own domain)
“Elements of Pataphysics” defined pataphysics as territory outside the circle of metaphysics, and metaphysics as the territory that surrounds the physical. I believe that puts pataphysics into the realm of the abstract theoretical. It intentionally defined its territory as not existing. I could use the definitions of pataphysics to classify Flatland and Alice in Wonderland, and maybe works of fantasy in general. Especially if we reserve the metaphysical as territory that could exist even if it’s outside our physical reality. (The hopes and ambitions of religion and spiritualism’s dwell there.)
Science fiction belongs in that circle defining physical reality because science is confined to that territory. Science fiction does not extended into metaphysical territory, so it can’t extend into the pataphysical. Fantasy belongs to the pataphysical, and maybe the metaphysical, but not the physical. Jarry’s fiction creates pataphysics by alluding to the science, mathematics, linguistics, logic, and rhetoric of the physical. In other words, he describes the impossible and ineffable by analogy to the tools we use to understand the physical. For me, its essential that science fiction stay out of the metaphysical, and thus the pataphysical. The metaphysical belongs to the woo-woo and things that go bump in the night. Reality’s only portal to the metaphysical is through leaving our bodies and imagination is our only portal to the pataphysical. Science fiction holds out hope that we can get there from here.
“Elements of Pataphysics” is a 5-star story that belongs in The Big Book of Experimental Fiction. It’s a marvelous piece of writing, and the translation feels very well done. What Jarry describes as pataphysics could apply to metafiction, and other experimental forms of fiction. I’ve always thought that Merril and the Harrison/Aldiss anthologies tried to latch onto works of experimental fiction and relabel them science fiction to give prestige to our genre. We need to accept who we are without such pretensions.
I suppose some will claim I’m limiting science fiction. If the word “science” is part of the label, then that label must limit itself to the territory of theoretically scientific. But more importantly, I believe we should recognize what science fiction is and embrace those aspects. The literary world has always criticized science fiction as appealing to adolescents. I agree with them. We shouldn’t take offense. There is a certain excitement during that stage of life from ages 12 to 22 that science fiction targets. Certain kinds of music, movies, and television shows resonate with that stage too. Most of us look back on what we fell in love with in adolescence for the rest of our lives. It’s a peak time of life. Sure, we might have been stupid, but we were passionate.
I believe religion originates in the pre-adolescent mind, and embracing science fiction is a rejection of religion. Instead of heaven, we claims the heavens, instead of gods, we look for aliens, instead of everlasting life, we seek immortality. In our teen years we are told about reality, and we ask, “Isn’t there more?” The difference between science fiction and fantasy, is the difference between accepting pipe dreams and holding out hope.
“Elements of Pataphysics” targets the next stage in life, our twenties, one that inspires people to be artists. Although there are exceptions, science fiction has never been particularly arty, or even seriously intellectual. At its best its visionary, can even be a bit literary, but it stands between the fairytales that appealed to us in the previous stage of life, and the hard reality of adulthood. It has the sense of wonder of discovering reality, but the childlike desire to reshape reality into exciting possibilities of what if. Science fiction considers all the possibilities of growing up, all the portals of what might be possible. Those possibilities are a comfort to the stress of metamorphizing from child to adult. The odds are long, but in adolescence we have tremendous hope.
Many of us keep consuming science fiction for the rest of our lives because of that Zoloft-like quality it confers. It helps us to remember what we wanted to be. I think it’s existentially vital we recognize science fiction for exactly what it is. In classifying science fiction, there is an essential trait to be observe. It’s a unique strain of hubris that says, “We can create anything that’s possible in this reality.” Anything not possible need not apply.
These early stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction represent fiction on the road to science fiction. I already know where we’re heading because I’m well versed in 1930s and 1940s science fiction. What I classify as science fiction is down the road a piece further, into the 1950s and 1960s. Science fiction evolved and mutated in every decade of the 20th century. 21st century science fiction is already rejecting this past, those stories and authors I love. The ones I use to define my sense of the genre. It’s becoming something else again. But the road goes on, and I don’t.
I believe as we read the stories in the VanderMeers’ anthology, we’ll learn to sense the essence of science fiction, which is to use certain techniques of storytelling to speculate about the edges of science. In “The New Overworld” Paul Scheerbart creates a fairytale about two lifeforms on Venus that I mentally pictured as illustrations from Dr. Seuss books. We can call this story science fiction because its set on Venus and it speculates about alien lifeforms, but it’s closer in tone to a children’s picture book. It’s all too obvious that the story is about solving social problems with cooperation and technology. But we never believe Scheerbart believes he is speculating about Venus or alien lifeforms. It’s all allegorical in intent. The story obviously has a philosophical lesson.
On the road to science fiction, our destination is fiction that convinces us we are there, in the future, out in space, on other planets. Wells was there in “The Star” because we could picture the worldwide catastrophes. In “Sultana’s Dream” we were almost there but then had it snatched away from us when we learned it was all a dream. In “The Triumph of Mechanics” we got there again because we were meant to believe mechanical rabbits were possible. However, the story was a tall tale and we knew Strobl didn’t mean it.
Science fiction writers know they can’t predict the future, but real science fiction feels like they have. It has to be convincing. It doesn’t matter if their future can’t possibly become real, it’s got to feel real when we read it. We’ve got to believe while we read. It has to be a fully realized fictional reality.
Back in 1911 when “The New Overworld” came out, what we think of as science fiction was an oddity. The following year, in 1912, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs will be serialized in All-Story Magazine as “Under the Moons of Mars” by Norman Bean. Probably most readers wouldn’t buy astral projection, but they wanted to believe in Barsoom. Burroughs triggers a certain kind of desire in readers, and that’s the heart of science fiction. Readers still want to believe in Barsoom, long after NASA put a stake in that dream.
I have not read Paul Scheerbart’s other works, or novels, which this article in Science Fiction Studies describe. The VanderMeers regrets Scheerbart isn’t remembered, but from the description of his stories I can see why he is. But Erik Morse in The Paris Review has read some of the recent English translations of Scheerbart and he found them interesting, even captivating, but strange.
Authors and their books are forgotten over time for many reasons. Usually, it’s because the work just doesn’t hold up. Sure, academic publishers will come out with expensive editions that are historical curiosities, but they just aren’t readable by the public at large. Wells was not forgotten because his SF novels are still page-turners.
I will give one other reason why Paul Scheerbart is forgotten, he was German. I wouldn’t have considered this reason until I read The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Alexander von Humboldt was probably one of the most amazing men to ever live. In the 19th century, he was probably the most famous of the century, maybe even more famous than Napoleon or Lincoln in their times. I had no idea who he was before I read the book, and neither do most English speaking people, even though in the 1800s most Americans loved him very much.
At the end of the biography, Wulf gives an interesting reason why von Humboldt was forgotten in America and Great Britain. During WWI Americans actually burned German books, and anti-German sentiment became ever greater during WWII. So if we can collective erase Alexander von Humboldt who inspired Thomas Jefferson, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and many other influential Americans, then it’s easy to imagine not remembering Paul Scheerbart.
The 19th century was full of brilliant eccentric writers who wrote far out books with wild ideas, many of which could be considered science fiction. And we’ve forgotten most of them. Actually, we’ve forgotten probably 99.99% of them. If we don’t remember Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky for his great science fictional predictions, why should we remember Paul Scheerbart?
It’s a shame that pop culture has such a short attention span. Books like The Big Book of Science Fiction try to correct that. Sure, our group argues over what the VanderMeers collect for us to read, but shouldn’t we judge them not by whether or not we enjoy the stories, but by what they are helping us to recall from a pop culture ancestry? There was a great deal of proto-SF published before Amazing Stories came out in 1926, but we remember damn little of it today. What I want to remember is what popular literature was like from 1900-1925, in all its forms. Their anthology helps. The VanderMeers’ introductions hint at so much more I want to know.
I do have one quibble. Why did they leave out “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster? Was it already too famous? Or too long? That 1909 story was the best single science fiction story from 1900-1925.
Because “The Triumph of Mechanics” by Karl Hans Strobl is included in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we have to assume Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had a good reason other than it just being a fun story. It is the first English appearance of this 1907 Austrian story translated by Gio Clairval, so they must have had it translated for a special reason. Wouldn’t they? However, I am at a loss to see its historical significance to science fiction. Although, in retrospect, we’d call it science fiction today for several reasons. “Sultana’s Dream” also came out in 1907. England, India, and Austria. It’s still a long way to April, 1926 America.
My reaction to an American inventor, Hopkins, coercing a town to give him a building permit by producing a billion mechanical rabbits was to instantly recall Flat Cats, those quickly reproducing Martian animals in Heinlein’s novel The Rolling Stones. The idea of overproducing pets was also used in the classic Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” When I saw tribbles in 1967 I instantly thought flat cats too. However, Heinlein admits getting the idea from the 1905 story “Pigs is Pigs” by Ellis Parker Butler, about Guinea pigs that reproduce at an exponential rate at a train station. Full text of the story is here. There have been several animated films based on that story, starting in the silent era, but here’s Walt Disney’s version from 1954. Any chance that Strobl reading “Pigs is Pigs” before writing his story? And could Ellis Parker Butler have snagged the idea from an earlier tale, maybe an old German fairytale?
The main reason “The Triumph of Mechanics” is science fiction is the little toy robotic rabbits can reproduce – self replicating machines. But I have a question. Why would Hopkins need a factory to manufacture toy rabbits when he can quickly produce a billion of them without a factory?
I wish I knew more about the original publication of “The Triumph of Mechanics.” Did it first appear in a magazine or newspaper? Did it have illustrations? 1907 was years before the word robot came into vogue. However, mechanical or clockwork creatures have been around in fiction for a long time. The story also mentions some other far out ideas for creating wonderful toys, including making a glass like material out of solidifying air. They marveled at how such an artificial substance could take over the toy industry. I thought of plastics. I imagined whispering into Benjamin Braddock’s ear, “Two words – solidified air!”
I wonder if there was any significance that the go-getting inventor was American? Had Europeans stereotyped us as marvelous inventors because of Thomas Edison? The overall tone of this story was amusing, just a tall tale, like something Mark Twain would have written. Since it was also written well before the term science fiction existed, I wondered if its readers thought it was some special kind of fiction, something out of the ordinary? As we read each story in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we need to remember we won’t reach stories published in a genre magazine until the 9th story, and even then, the term science fiction wasn’t coined right away by Hugo Gernsback. He tried to pass off scientifiction on us. The tag science fiction began to emerge in the 1930s but didn’t catch on with the public at large until the 1950s.
The second story in The Big Book of Science Fiction is “Sultana’s Dream” by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein. First published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine in 1905. By today’s standards, “Sultana’s Dream” is a rather simple narrative that imagines Ladyland, where gender roles are reversed. It doesn’t feel like a traditional short story in structure, and the VanderMeers called it a conte philosophique, which means philosophical fiction. In this case Hossain is writing utopian fiction, which is often science fictional. I assume the story was intended to be satirical, or even humorous, with it’s topsy-turvy gender role reversals. Now, it just feels quaintly sci-fi, but visionary feminist.
I wonder if Hossain was a proto-SF fiction fan, or had read utopian or science fiction fiction? Only when we use our imagination to put “Sultana’s Dream” into the context of when and where it was written does it become impressive. Hossain lived in British controlled India, and was Bengali, well educated and well-to-do. Wikipedia spells her name slightly different, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, and said she published under the byline Mrs. R. S. Hossain, but was commonly known as Begum Rokeya.
It’s in retrospect that we admire this story. For example, Chitra Ganesh created a graphic novel “Sultana’s Dream” in woodcuts, and the University of Michigan created an exhibit at their Museum of Art. Their website has a copy of the story to read online, and four different narrators reading an audio version of the story. They pick women of different ages to narrate the story. The same exhibit was at the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery with a different set of presentations and videos.
I assume the VanderMeers were inspired by the recent republication of the story in Sultana’s Dream: A Feminist Utopia and Selections from the Secluded Ones by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, edited and translated by Roushan Jahan. That volume appears to have come out in 2015, the year before The Big Book of Science Fiction. However, there was from 2005 Sultana’s Dream; and Padmarag: Two Feminist Utopias by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain; translated with an introduction by Barnita Bagchi. I’m curious, are feminists finding these stories first, or science fiction historians? How was my favorite early feminist utopia, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, discovered? I find these old SF stories through SF researchers, but did they find them first? And could Gilman have possibly read “Sultana’s Dream” from 1905 before she serialized her novel in 1915? Wikipedia says there was a novella version of Sultana’s Dream published as a book in 1908. Was it expanded from the 1905 story? Could a copy have gotten to America?
Do we rate the story by today’s standards of storytelling, or 1905’s standard of thinking? If you read “Sultana’s Dream” as just another science fiction story you might dismiss it. If you read it as the VanderMeers intend, to understand the evolution of science fiction, then its quite impressive.
The VanderMeer’s anthology is dedicated to Judith Merril who was famous for looking far and wide for stories to expand the reputation of science fiction in her anthologies. I think we have to accept the VanderMeer’s goal here. Although “Sultana’s Dream” is a quaint read, not famous in its time like “The Star” by H. G. Wells, their second story shows that science fictional thinking was happening all over the world.
But I have to wonder where Hossain got her ideas for solar power, and the other Jules Verne inventions? I wish I had more access to popular magazines of the time, because I believe they reveal popular thinking and culture better than history books. Far out gadgets and futurism was all the rage by some readers. Was it just a few geeks of the day, or were those ideas popular with everyone? Did the science fiction books that excited people in England get read in India as well?
Of course, I assume, science fictional speculation has always existed. My commonly used example is the Noah’s Ark, a catastrophe story that could have been the inspiration for “The Star.” This makes me ask, are there older, even much older, visions of feminist utopias? Could Hossain have been inspired by the ancient Greeks stories about the Amazons. Or are there feminist utopias in Hindu and Bengali literature? I don’t mean to suggest Hossain wasn’t creative, but my pet theory is all concepts have been around since pre-history, even science fictional ones.
When I discover old science fiction stories that I want to believe are the earliest examples of a science fictional idea, eventually if I keep reading, I find older examples. The Big Book of Science Fiction captures the examples from the 20th century. But if we had The Big Book of 19th Century Science Fiction, would we find earlier examples of all the ideas we thought first appeared in the 20th century? I believe there’s a kind of generational myopia that feels like everything cool was created for by some slightly older dudes and dudettes. For example, The Beatles and Bob Dylan are about ten years older than me. Us Baby Boomers thought they were revolutionary geniuses of our times. But actually, they were inspired by some slightly older musicians and songwriters, who The Beatles and Dylan were convinced were the revolutionary geniuses of their times.
I wish I had some kind of software where I could plot science-fiction ideas on a timeline that also positioned them on a map of the world. That way we could plot the progress of a concept as it evolved over time and space. When were flying cars first proposed? Hossain’s flying car was rather unique, but hardly the first. How far back do flying cars go as an idea, aren’t they really just a descendant of flying carpets and flying chariots?
This my second review of “The Star” by H. G. Wells, because I attempted to read The Big Book of Science Fiction earlier this year. I didn’t get far. I’m hoping the group read will get me to the end this time. But we will see. Since this is a second review I’ll need to find new things to say.
One thing I noticed this time while poking around on Google to see how “The Star” is used in a number study sites for classroom discussion. Being taught in school is one indicator that a work of fiction has become a classic. Three cheers for science fiction then. The story came out in 1897, between the publication of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Hugo Gernsback liked it so much he reprinted it twice, in 1923 and 1926.
“The Star” had already been repackaged in several collections by Wells, including an edition put out by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1925, the prestigious publisher of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s. I’ve read that before pop culture used Albert Einstein’s name to imply the smartest man in the world, people used Mr. Wells. One of the more popular books in the early days of fandom was The Short Stories of H. G. Wells that ran over a thousand pages. Another giant collection of short stories by Wells was put out the The Literary Guild, for the high-brow crowd. This listing of reprints at ISFDB is one of the longest I know about, and I’m sure that database hasn’t indexed all the places “The Star” has been reprinted.
In other words, “The Star” was widely read outside of science fiction, especially in the 1920s and 1930s before the genre had established itself in the public’s consciousness. I can’t help but wonder what the average person thought of the story? Did Charlie Chaplin talk about it at Hollywood parties while he was working on The Gold Rush? What did the average British citizen think of the story when they read it in The Graphic, the Christmas Number for 1897? Here’s an ad from that issue to give you an idea of the times.
Why would they run an end-of-the-world story in their Christmas issue? I have to assume they really thought the story something special. So what did people say about it then? I wish I could find references to how average readers reacted to early science fiction. So far my best indication of what people read back then that we’d call science fiction is the anthology Science Fiction by The Rivals of H. G. Wells which presents thirty stories that came out around the same time as “The Star.” I wish I had a book of letters to the editors about those stories, or extracts from diaries and personal letters where people wrote about them.
In the introduction to The Big Book of Science Fiction the VanderMeers say this about science fiction:
This kind of eclectic stance also suggests a simple yet effective definition for science fiction: it depicts the future, whether in a stylized or realistic manner. There is no other definitional barrier to identifying science fiction unless you are intent on defending some particular territory. Science fiction lives in the future, whether that future exists ten seconds from the Now or whether in a story someone builds a time machine a century hence in order to travel back into the past. It is science fiction whether the future is phantasmagorical and surreal or nailed down using the rivets and technical jargon of “hard science fiction.” A story is also science fiction whether the story in question is, in fact, extrapolation about the future or using the future to comment on the past or present.
But “The Star” isn’t about the future, and neither are most of the stories in that rivals anthology. Back then, the fantastic happened in the present. When Wells was writing, science fiction hadn’t evolved into its future oriented self. The VanderMeers wants their anthology to show the evolution of science fiction and I think this is an important distinction about “The Star.” I believe as we read along in the volume, we’ll observe how science fiction moved into the future.
There is one weak area in “The Star.” I was never sure what kind of astronomical object the intruder was. At different times in the story it’s implied that the intruder is a comet, planet, or star. Wells was big on science, so why was he so sloppy here? If the visitor was another planet, wouldn’t it and Neptune have shattered when they collided? If it was a comet, Neptune would have absorbed it. I’m guessing it was some kind of dark or dwarf star that absorbed Neptune in the collision. We know Wells knew about stellar evolution because he has the Earth being destroyed when the sun expanded into a red giant in “The Time Machine.”
Most people have heard of book clubs, but we have a short story club devoted to science fiction. It’s a Facebook group. Anyone can join even though it’s a private group. Just answer the two questions. However, many people don’t like Facebook, and that’s cool. Because we’re about to read and discuss The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, I thought I’d post my thoughts on each story here so those people who don’t use Facebook can participate via the comment section.
The Big Book of Science Fiction has over one-hundred short stories. We’ll read and discuss a story every other day. This is a huge book and a major commitment to read. I’ve owned it for years and have been too intimidated by its size to try reading it. What I hope is the discipline of the short story club will push me to climb this Mt. Everest of anthologies. Because it’s a recent retrospective anthology it aims to give a contemporary overview of the history of science fiction by including more women writers and foreign stories, I expect reading its stories will be a graduate course in science fiction literature.
If you don’t already own this book and are tempted to join the group or buy it to read along with the discussion here, I should warn you about its size – it’s a monster. Like the size of a large city phone book back in the day, and also printed on thin paper. Reading the Kindle edition is the practical way to go. If you want the paper edition, you might check it out at Barnes & Noble first. I’d hate to recommend people to buy this dingus and not be able to read it because they don’t have weight-lifter arms.
Many of the stories will be in old anthologies, so you don’t have to buy the book if you want to read along from you own library. However, about two dozen stories are foreign translations commissioned for this anthology and won’t be available elsewhere.
I should also warn anyone who is thinking about buying this book that if you prefer the traditional classics of science fiction this book skips over many of them. No Heinlein, no Bester, etc. Some older fans have complained they didn’t like a lot of the stories. I’m reading it because I want to see a new view of old science fiction. I have read about a quarter of the stories before, and some of them are among my favorites.
We start discussion August 20th, beginning with “The Star” by H. G. Wells. The group will discuss a story every other day until March 20, 2022. The links below are to my reviews. Here are other group member’s online reviews:
The Star – H. G. Wells Sultana’s Dream – Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein The New Overworld – Paul Scheerbart The Triumph of Mechanics – Karl Hans Strobl Elements of Pataphysics – Alfred Jarry Mechanopolis – Miguel de Unamuno The Doom of Principal City – Yefim Zozulya The Comet – W. E. B. Du Bois The Fate of the Poseidonia – Clare Winger Harris The Star Stealers – Edmond Hamilton The Conquest of Gola – Leslie F. Stone A Martian Odyssey – Stanley G. Weinbaum The Last Poet and the Robots – A. Merritt The Microscopic Giants – Paul Ernst Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius – Jorge Luis Borges Desertion – Clifford D. Simak September 2005: The Martian – Ray Bradbury Baby HP – Juan José Arreola Surface Tension – James Blish Beyond Lies the Wub – Philip K. Dick The Snowball Effect – Katherine MacLean Prott – Margaret St. Clair The Liberation of Earth – William Tenn Let Me Live in a House – Chad Oliver The Star – Arthur C. Clarke Grandpa – James H. Schmitz The Game of Rat and Dragon – Cordwainer Smith The Last Question – Isaac Asimov Stranger Station – Damon Knight Sector General – James White The Visitors – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky Pelt – Carol Emshwiller The Monster – Gérard Klein The Man Who Lost the Sea – Theodore Sturgeon The Waves – Silvina Ocampo Plenitude – Will Worthington The Voices of Time – J. G. Ballard The Astronaut – Valentina Zhuravlyova The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink – Adolfo Bioy Casares 2 B R 0 2 B – Kurt Vonnegut Jr. A Modest Genius – Vadim Shefner Day of Wrath – Sever Gansovsky The Hands – John Baxter Darkness – André Carneiro “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman – Harlan Ellison Nine Hundred Grandmothers – R. A. Lafferty Day Million – Frederik Pohl Student Body – F. L. Wallace Aye, and Gomorrah – Samuel R. Delany The Hall of Machines – Langdon Jones Soft Clocks – Yoshio Aramaki Three from Moderan – David R. Bunch Let Us Save the Universe – Stanisław Lem Vaster Than Empires and More Slow – Ursula K. Le Guin Good News from the Vatican – Robert Silverberg When It Changed – Joanna Russ And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side – James Tiptree Jr. Where Two Paths Cross – Dmitri Bilenkin Standing Woman – Yasutaka Tsutsui The IWM 1000 – Alicia Yánez Cossío The House of Compassionate Sharers – Michael Bishop Sporting with the Chid – Barrington J. Bayley Sandkings – George R. R. Martin Wives – Lisa Tuttle The Snake That Read Chomsky – Josephine Saxton Reiko’s Universe Box – Kajio Shinji Swarm – Bruce Sterling Mondocane – Jacques Barbéri Blood Music – Greg Bear Bloodchild – Octavia E. Butler Variation on a Man – Pat Cadigan Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead – S. N. Dyer New Rose Hotel – William Gibson Pots – C. J. Cherryh Snow – John Crowley The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things – Karen Joy Fowler The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets – Angélica Gorodischer The Owl of Bear Island – Jon Bing Readers of the Lost Art – Élisabeth Vonarburg A Gift from the Culture – Iain M. Banks Paranamanco – Jean-Claude Dunyach Crying in the Rain – Tanith Lee The Frozen Cardinal – Michael Moorcock Rachel in Love – Pat Murphy Sharing Air – Manjula Padmanabhan Schwarzschild Radius – Connie Willis All the Hues of Hell – Gene Wolfe Vacuum States – Geoffrey A. Landis Two Small Birds – Han Song Burning Sky – Rachel Pollack Before I Wake – Kim Stanley Robinson Death Is Static Death Is Movement – Misha Nogha The Brains of Rats – Michael Blumlein Gorgonoids – Leena Krohn Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ – Kojo Laing The Universe of Things – Gwyneth Jones The Remoras – Robert Reed The Ghost Standard – William Tenn Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System – Geoffrey Maloney How Alex Became a Machine – Stepan Chapman The Poetry Cloud – Cixin Liu Story of Your Life – Ted Chiang Craphound – Cory Doctorow The Slynx – Tatyana Tolstaya Baby Doll – Johanna Sinisalo
What writers create with the tools of science fiction varies as tremendously what carpenters build with their tools. However, the consumers of science fiction, the editors and readers, tend to prefer specific products often by specific tools. In our short story club on Facebook, one reader noted that The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collected edited by Gardner Dozois which we just finished reading only had one story about spaceships. (I don’t know if it was just a curious observation or lament.)
If you expect science fiction writers to always use their tools to build spaceship stories you’ll be disappointed by how diverse science fiction stories have become. In the old days writers had fewer tools, mainly extrapolation (If this goes on…) and speculation (What if?), so they produced similar products.
Extrapolation was a great tool for creating stories about the near future that dealt with social and political change. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley used that tool to great success. Many SF writers cranked out stories based on the speculation tool: “What if we could travel to the planets?” “What if we could travel to the stars?” “What if we could travel in time?” “What if aliens invade the Earth?” and “What if we could build machines that act like humans?”
I discovered science fiction in the 1960s, so my concept of science fiction was shaped by the tools writers were using then. Even as a kid, I could tell that stories produced in the 1930s were different from those created in the 1940s or the 1950s. Writers in the 1960s were using new tools to create new kinds of science fiction that riled some older readers. Those oldsters claimed New Wave stories weren’t even science fiction, but I was young and loved that stuff. Now I’m old, and new waves are washing over me.
On social media I often see comments from science fiction readers bitterly bitching about contemporary science fiction. Does that mean what N. K. Jemisin produces isn’t science fiction? It’s true, what she’s building with the tools of science fiction in the 2010s doesn’t look like what Lois McMaster Bujold built in the 1990s, or Ursula K. Le Guin crafted in the 1970s, or Robert A. Heinlein hammered together in the 1950s. But isn’t all that work crafted with the same tools out of the SF toolbox?
The opening story in the Dozois anthology was “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard. It’s about a central American guy escaping into an Aztec reality. That doesn’t sound very science fictional. But is it any different from Harold Shea escaping into various western mythologies by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Platt? Sure, we can claim both stories were built with fantasy writing tools, but isn’t that missing the point?
The next story was “Dogfight” by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick, a What If story. What if we had technology that allowed people to mentally projects images into the air and make games out of them? This was a product of adding cyberpunk tools to the science fiction toolbox. I’ll assume most of our short story club members felt it was science fiction. “Snow” by John Crowley uses a slight variation of this tool. What if we had a tiny machine that followed us around like a wasp and filmed our life?
“Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling imagines a dinner party hundreds of years ago in the Arab world when Europe was in decline. This story feels like it was completely constructed by tools for writing historical fiction. It wasn’t the only such story that Dozois picked for his anthology of the best science fiction short fiction of 1985. Many in the group rebelled at his decision, claiming those stories weren’t science fiction. And to be honest, even though I liked these historical stories I thought it odd they were in an anthology labeled the best science fiction. In other words, even when I try to be broadminded there are walls of the box that I can’t think outside of.
The group is about to start reading The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. There are already grumbles that their view of science fiction isn’t science fiction. Not only do readers prefer science fiction built with specific tools, so do editors, and unfortunately, there’s also generational preferences.
This has interesting implications for our group. We vote for the anthologies we read. We’ve learned that Judith Merril saw the genre much differently than Donald Wollheim or Gardner Dozois or Terry Carr. I’m expecting the VanderMeers to have a very unique view too. I still say the various stories are constructed with the same tools, but what writers make with them varies, and that’s reflected in editor choices, or fan’s personal preferences. I can easily see our group balkanize into Facebook groups devoted to Dozois SF or Carr SF or 1950s SF, or Military SF. John W. Campbell, Jr. really did define a certain kind of science fiction, and I think we’re learning anthology editors have distinct views too.
There is no requirement or pressure in our group for people to read the stories. We expect members to read whatever they want. But there is a certain pressure to find anthologies that people will like. It is somewhat disappointing to hear too many complaints about disappointing stories. Although I don’t want people to stop criticizing stories. I believe we all like learning about each other’s tastes, and some stories are actually better than others. Maybe what I want is for people who love collies to not judge pugs by collie standards.
One reason we only have about a dozen members who regular read most of the stories out of over five hundred members, is the lurkers probably choose to read only what they like. It’s probably why most SF fans prefer novels over short stories, and books over magazines. There are very few readers who have eclectic tastes suited for enjoying the diversity of short stories.
We’re a short story club, and like book clubs it’s very hard to find consensus, even more so because of the nature of anthologies. I’m looking forward to the VanderMeer anthology and I’m trying to be open to what they present, however I fear a backlash. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve complained myself about reading stories I didn’t like. On the other hand, I’m getting tired of younger generations complaining about older works and writers, and older generations complaining about newer works and writers. That’s driving me to expand my reading consciousness. It doesn’t mean I don’t prefer living in the past with 1950s and 1960s science fiction, but I’m trying not to be my dad who always screamed “Turn off that goddamn noise” when I played The Beatles.
I believe our Facebook group offers an interesting chance to try out a lot of different kinds of science fiction built with many different tools over many generations. It’s both rewarding and enlightening.
Even though I bought all 35 volumes of The Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois as they came out, I never read one from cover to cover until now. Their size was just too daunting. I finally overcame my fear of giant anthologies when I listened to The Very Best of the Best from beginning to end, and then again when the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction voted it in as a group read. For summer 2021 we read The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection. This is the first of the annuals I’ve finished. Reading and discussing a short story every other day is a great way to read an anthology, and I expect someday to read the other 34 volumes – with or without the group.
Since I’ve joined this Facebook group, I’ve been reading at least one short story a day. We keep two group reads going concurrently. Because I also read stories on my own I’ll read over four hundred short stories this year, maybe as many as five hundred. For the three years before joining the group, I read at least two to three hundred short stories each year. I’m slowly getting a feel for the form, since I’ve probably gotten my ten thousand hours in. However, it wasn’t dedicated study.
For this post I thought I’d reprint my Facebook comments on the twenty-four stories in this anthology. If I find time, I’ll write separate reviews of the stories I liked best. Here’s my rating system. One and two stars usually only show up in magazines.
Writing level of a fiction workshop or amateur publication
Writing level of semi-pro magazine, or lesser pro magazine story
Solid story from a professional magazine, should be minimum level for an annual anthology
Solid story that I found particularly entertaining
An exceptional story I know I’ll want to reread someday, or have already read many times
An exceptional story that’s almost a classic, something I’d anthologize
A classic that’s well anthologized and remembered
My Rating System
01 of 24 – “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard F&SF (May 1985)
“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard is not science fiction, but magic realism that claims we can return to an past reality destroyed by modernity. The setting appears to be current day Honduras and the plot focuses on Esteban Caax, 44, a farmer, probably a descendent of the Azetecs. Esteban loves living in the country, and pursuing a simple life. However, his life is complicated when his wife Incarnación, 41, buys a battery powered TV on credit from Onofrio Esteves. Incarnación wants to move to town and take up modern ways.
Onofrio sold the TV to Incarnación to force Esteban into debt so he has to return to jaguar hunting. There is a rare black jaguar that’s keeping a tourist resort from being built, one that Onofrio and his son want to develop.
When Esteban goes hunting the jaguar he finds a beautiful woman, Miranda, in the jungle who suduces him. He eventually learns she is the black jaguar and she wants Esteban to return to an older, magical reality, part of his real heritage. At first Esteban refuses, but ultimately, he’s forced to follow Miranda into an ancient alternate existence.
Shepard’s writing is amazing and beautiful, and this story reminds me of “The Woman Who Rode Away” by D. H. Lawrence, another story about finding a way back to an older reality of the Aztecs, and one of my all-time favorite stories.
I’ve seen this theme enough times to wonder if people really do believe there are ancient ways to rediscover. I got to meet Shepard at Clarion West 2002. It’s a shame his work hasn’t stayed in print. The collection, THE BEST OF LUCIUS SHEPARD is available for the Kindle for $2.99. He has nothing on Audible. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucius_Shepard
02 of 24 – “Dogfight” by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick Omni (July 1985)
You’ve heard of unreliable narrators, well, Deke is an unlikeable narrator. “Dogfight” by Michael Swanwick and William Gibson is now considered a Cyberpunk classic, and it brings back memories of all the excitement that literary movement generated in the 1980s. Many cyberpunk stories embraced a noirish quality of dark settings, involving criminal activities, and “Dogfight” fits the stereotype. Deke is a petty thief that finds his calling in a game of Spads & Fokkers. In a rundown bus stop, Tidewater Station, Deke discovers a crippled vet named Tiny playing out the role of Minnesota Fats with the game of Spads & Fokkers, and Deke decides to steal Tiny’s throne by becoming the Fast Eddie of the game.
Along the way Deke befriends a college girl with her own ambitions named Nance. Ultimately, Deke uses Nance, and brutually steals her dream and crushes Tiny’s purpose for being. Deke is elated to finally be good at something, ignoring the cost of his success the others paid.
The neat thing about “Dogfight” is the idea we’ll being able to jack into hardware and project 3D images that others can see. There is no explanation for how this works at all. We’re just told people can imagine tiny WWI planes and people will see them flying around the room fighting in aerial dogfights. That was the problem with most cyberpunk stories, they imagined computer technology doing things it will never do.
03 of 24 – “Fermi and Frost” by Frederik Pohl Asimov’s (January 1985)
This is the third reread for me, so I’m wonder if I didn’t read part or all of this anthology back when it came out. “Fermi and Frost” is barely a short story. It’s more of a meditation by Pohl on nuclear winter.
The story begins in the chaos of people trying to fly out of JFK knowing that the missiles are coming to hit New York. Harry Malibert lucks out and gets a flight to Iceland and rescues a nine-year-old boy named Timmy. Iceland barely survives the nuclear winter, and Harry becomes Timmy’s father. Pohl tells us they could have a happy ending or a bad one. I’m sure most readers picture the happy ending, where humanity survives.
I liked this story because I always liked stories about the last humans on Earth, but this one is barely a sketch on the subject.
04 of 24 – “Green Days in Brunei” by Bruce Sterling Asimov’s (October 1985)
“Green Days in Brunei” was a finalist for the novella Nebula, but it lost to the 800-pound gorilla “Sailing to Byzantium,” also in this anthology, as is “Green Mars” by KSM, another heavyweight.
The pacing of “Green Days in Brunei” felt like an condensed novel rather than a stretched short story. I believe it’s really hard to pull off a novella that feels perfect for its length. In this case, I was wanting more, not less. The plot of the story is rather sparse, a techie, Turner Choi, takes job in a country that’s fighting technology, Brunei, falls in love with a princess, and has to choose between East and West worlds. Sort of a reverse King and I.
Turner is an interesting creation set in the middle of a fascinating political/philosophical situation. Sterling has done a good job creating a computer geek trying to make it in a repressive society. Seria, the princess and love interest, is also interesting, but more contrived. I wished her character could have been fleshed out, and it would have been if this story had been a novel. Jimmy Brooke, the corrupt and aged rock star almost steals the story. He feels somewhat like a J. G. Ballard character. Moratuwa, the political prisoner, and Buddhist is another character needing more onpage time.
This 1985 near future cyberpunk story missed the internet but scored hits on the social changes. The reason this story is so interesting to read is all the details of the Brunai society, which tries to repress western technology but still wants to succeeed at finding work for its people. That’s a valid philosophical problem today.
Like most cyberpunk writers, Sterling vastly oversimplifies programming robots. In many ways, SF writers expected too much from computers, but often imagined too little.
05 of 24 – “Snow” by John Crowley Omni (November 1985)
John Crowley was one of our teachers for the week at Clarion West 2002. I had not read anything by him at the time. I wish I had read “Snow” before I met him. What a beautiful story – but then I resonated with “Snow” because of my lifelong obsession with memory. I wanted wasp technology starting back in the 1950s. But I wouldn’t use it for remembering dead people. I’d want it for remembering my own life. I especially loved the randomness of the memories. “Snow” reminds me of one of my all-time favorite stories, “Appearance of Life” by Brian Aldiss.
06 of 24 – “The Fringe” by Orson Scott Card F&SF (October 1985)
Orson Scott Card continues the winning streak of great stories with “The Fringe.” Timothy Carpenter, is a wheelchair-bound teacher in a post-apocalyptic farming community who like Stephen Hawking speaks through a computer-generated voice. Because this 1985 story was probably before Hawking was famous I wonder if he was Card’s inspiration? And the use of the computer for speech synthesis and networks suggests Card could see into the future.
The plot of “The Fringe” is told in a straightforward narrative yet suggests complexity and layers. Carpenter, a hero of a rebuilding civilization because of his ideas on crop rotation, chooses to teach farm children on the fringe of that recovering civilization. The conflict of the story is between Carpenter and the students who hate him for turning in their fathers for their black market activities that undermine a community whose survival depends on interdependence. The story is surprisingly dramatic throughout, although Carpenter’s rescue is almost too good to believe possible.
07 of 24 – “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” by Karen Joy Fowler Asimov’s (October 1985) 2nd story from this issue
Miranda suffers from lifelong guilt for dumping Daniel who then volunteered for the army during the Vietnam War and was killed. Decades later she encounters him again several times during lucid dream psychotherapy. At first, Daniel is a realistic mental projection, the same age as Miranda as if he had continued to live, but as the sessions progress, he becomes younger, and eventually Miranda witnesses Daniel kill a child, one Daniel shot thinking he has a grenade. Miranda becomes obsessed she’s learning details about Daniel’s real life that she couldn’t possibly know.
At the beginning of the story, the idea of lucid dreaming therapy sounds practical, but as the story progresses the encounters in the lucid dream world suggest that Miranda is somehow communicating with an afterlife Daniel, making the story into a supernatural fantasy. However, we are restrained by the title. Is Miranda just looking at a lake of artificial things?
This is another story I read back then that I couldn’t tell you anything about before rereading it, but as I read it came back to me, with the scene with Daniel killing the kid triggering a memory of horror I felt reading it the first time. I thought this story was quite effective and wonder how Paul can consider it mediocre.
08 of 24 – “Sailing to Byzantium” by Robert Silverberg Asimov’s SF (February 1985)
“Sailing to Byzantium” is not my all-time favorite SF story, but it should be. It’s an epic work of imagination that only a few science fiction stories surpass. I know it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “The Time Machine,” but it might equal the haunting mood of “The Vintage Season.” I still have a greater personal attachment to “The Star Pit.” Obviously, the Muse was with Silverberg when he wrote: “Sailing to Byzantium.”
Many science fiction writers have tried their hand at far-future stories, but “Sailing to Byzantium” comes closest at conveying what we can never know. What Silverberg works to do in this story is to explain to us what Phillips tries to convey to Willoughby.
09 of 24 – “Solstice” by James Patrick Kelly Asimov’s SF (June 1985)
“Solstice” is a horrifying examination of the sexual abuse of a clone. Tony Cage, who is a wealthy superstar drug designer has himself cloned, but in the cloning process had the clone made female. Cage raised the clone as Wynne who everyone thinks of as his daughter, but Cage sees as a version of himself. There are two other stories I know about that explore sex with the self theme, “All You Zombies—” by Heinlein, and David Gerrold’s THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF. Both of these stories used time travel to hook up a person with themselves, but Kelly uses cloning, so it’s not quite the same, but I think it’s meant to be.
Tony Cage is an egomaniac of the first order who doesn’t see Wynne as herself, but the perfect companion he is creating over time. Cage is educating Wynne to be him and is troubled when Wynne goes in her own direction. Cage even uses cold sleep to even out the years between them as Heinlein did in THE DOOR INTO SUMMER for his unrelated characters. As the story unfolds we see Cage’s obsession with Wynne grow and only get hints of what’s happening to Wynne, but in the climax of the story, we learn that Wynne suffered from deep psychological damage because she saw herself as a daughter of Cage.
The common belief is clones will be duplicates of a person, but they won’t be, and I believe Kelly’s insight is right, they will be our children.
This story is actually two stories, the one described above, and the story of Stonehenge. I was fascinated by all the infodumping about Stonehenge Kelly presented, and I assume it’s true, but I believe it diluted and damaged the main story. The dramatic conclusion of Tony and Wynne’s tale happens at a solstice event at Stonehenge and evidently, Kelly wanted to make that more impactful. For me, the blending of the two stories was clunky, and I would give this story a lower rating, but the other part is too powerful.
10 of 24 – “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” by Avram Davidson Amazing Stories (May 1985)
Cosimo Damiano, the King of the Single Sicily is aided by Dr. Engelbert Eszterhazy to ward off the attacks of Mr. Melanchthon Mudge who wants to steal Cosimo’s only possession of value, Duke Pasquale’s ring.
Avram Davidson’s charming prose is due to his creative use of names and nouns, and a lot of knowledge about old literature and history. However, why is this fantasy story in an anthology devoted to science fiction?
And “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” doesn’t even contain fantastical fantasy, it’s really a very gentle fantasy about what feels like medieval times when people believed in magic. This story reminds me of the Thomas Burnett Swann story we read. Both Swann and Davidson are enchanted by the past, by arcane mysteries and myths.
Not sure how to rate this story. It’s beautiful writing, but the story is all cotton candy, it expresses very little emotion or philosophy, other than the kindness of Eszterhazy for the poor deluded Cosimo. For now, I’ll say ***+ because I have no desire to read it again, although I can imagine fans of Davidson frequently returning to his kind of storytelling. It’s a very delicate form of escapism.
11 of 24 – “More Than the Sum of His Parts” by Joe Haldeman Playboy
Joe Haldeman seems to suggest in “More Than the Sum of His Parts” that becoming a cyborg will go to our heads and make us into monsters, like a variation of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or maybe the moral was better bodies don’t make for better minds. I thought this was the weakest story in the collection so far, but it’s still pretty good. I did wonder if Playboy would have bought this story without the cyborg penis and description of its use?
12 of 24 – “Out of All Them Bright Stars” by Nancy Kress The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (March 1985)
Sally Gourley, a waitress, waits on a blue alien named John who her boss Charles demands she not serve. This story won the Nebula and was included in two textbooks devoted to science fiction, so it’s bound to be an important story, however it’s short and somewhat mysterious. Sally doesn’t feel the prejudice and hatred towards the alien, but then in the end she thinks: “And all at once I’m furious at John, furiously mad, as furious as I’ve ever been in my life.”
Why. I’ve read this story before, and I read it twice in a row tonight trying to figure out why Sally is furious at John. My guess is Sally doesn’t want to know there are better beings in the universe because she had to live with humans. In the last lines she’s responding to something John said:
“I make so little difference,” he says. Yeah. Sure.
Not only do humans look bad in comparison, Sally knows we aren’t going to change, even when we encounter Christ-like figures. I wonder if Kress was saying this to herself regarding her efforts to write enlightening stories?
13 of 24 – “Side Effects” by Walter Jon Williams F&SF (June 1985)
“Side Effects” is something that could have run in THE NEW YORKER because it was so well-written, and whatever mild science fiction it contained was minimal and slipstream.
I was quite impressed with this story and tried to imagine all the intellectual work that Walter Jon Williams had to put into it. It’s also still very relevant. Even after 35 years, it works as a near-future tale. Since I’m old, I’m having to take a lot of drugs, some of which doctors give me as samples. I often wonder if I’m a guinea pig. And they frequently cause side effects.
14 of 24 – “The Only Neat Thing to Do” by James Tiptree, Jr. F&SF (October 1985) (2nd story from this issue)
I didn’t know Tiptree wrote space opera, although “The Only Neat Thing to Do” feels slightly familiar. As does most of the stories we’ve read from this anthology. It’s weird to think what my brain might retain after thirty-five years.
While reading this story I wondered about how Tiptree wrote it. Was she a fan of space opera beforehand? Had she read “The Cold Equations?” To write space opera requires thinking about interstellar travel and other space travel fiction. Tiptree’s sense of space travel feels like it came from Star Wars or Edmond Hamilton (in other words, not hard SF). And Coati Cass reminds me a lot of Heinlein’s title character in PODKAYNE OF MARS. Not only is Triptree writing space opera, but it’s also YA.
Overall, I loved this story, but it had some problems. The communication pipes don’t make sense. What’s their propulsion system? How do they navigate? How long do they take to get where they are going? Even with cold sleep, how long has Coati been gone?
Dozois sure could pick them this year. Four of the six finalists for the Nebula award for the novella are in this anthology. We have one more to read, “Green Mars.”
15 of 24 – “Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985)
“Dinner in Audoghast” is an odd story to appear in a science fiction magazine. I try to imagine why Bruce Sterling wrote it. Picturing a long-forgotten African-Arab city is an interesting choice. I assume because William Gibson had made Japanese culture famous Sterling thought he might try it with Arab culture. George Alec Effinger also used Arab culture in a cyberpunk novel two years later in WHEN GRAVITY FAILS.
Audoghast was the western terminus of a trans-Saharan caravan system during a time when Arab culture was waxing and European culture was waning. It’s a fascinating time period to set a historical novel. Maybe Sterling wanted to write such a historical piece and added the leprous fortune-teller into the story to give it some reason for an SF magazine to publish it. Sterling certainly had to do the work of a historical fiction writer to write this story, and he found a wealth of details to paint a colorful setting.
I don’t know if cyberpunk writers started this or not, but in the coming decades coopting foreign and historical cultures became big in science fiction. It’s led up to today’s World SF stories.
16 of 24 – “Under Siege” by George R. R. Martin Omni (October 1985)
On one hand, “Under Siege” is not the kind of story I enjoy. I’m not fond of alternate history. On the other hand, this is an impressive story. It showcases the kind of writing skills George R. R. Martin had before writing The Song of Ice and Fire books.
Again, we’re treated to another bit of history. Was this a fad back then for SF writers? I looked up the Siege of Sveaborg to see what Martin was working with. It seems like a rather esoteric point in time to pivot the future of the U.S.S.R.
I admired what Martin was doing in the 1808 scenes, but I felt nothing for those characters. However, the narrator, the killer geek mutant narrating the story did grab me. Was his name ever given? I felt for him.
17 of 24 – “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” by Howard Waldrop Omni (January 1985)
Reading “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” made me order THINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME: SELECT SHORT FICTION 1980-2005 by Howard Waldrop. I’ve read this story before, and a few other Waldrop stories and always loved him. Don’t know why I haven’t tried to read more from the guy. I’m amazed that Waldrop comes from Houston, Mississippi, because my mother’s folks are from that part of the country, and I’ve briefly lived in two small northern Mississippi towns and know what kind of upbringing Waldrop would have had. It’s not the kind that would produce these stories. Houston is not far from Oxford, the stomping grounds of William Faulkner.
“Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” is another nostalgia-driven story about a time I fondly remember. I started listening to the radio in the 1958-1963 era when many of the songs in the story first appeared. I even lived in Philadelphia in 1959 for a few months. I loved that glorious Doo-Wop music before it was shut out by the British Invasion in 1964-1965, it’s like imprinted on my soul. I also remember AM radio having Oldie-Goldie weekends. All the songs mentioned in the story push my nostalgia buttons like crazy. Even the UFO book Leroy was reading was probably one I read, because for a short while I gorged on UFO books, however, I mainly remember the crazy George Adamski.
The battle of the bands between Leroy and Kool-Tones and Bobby and the Bombers on November 9, 1965, that knocked out the lights of the northeast USA was one cool story.
18 of 24 – “A Spanish Lesson” by Lucius Shepard F&SF (December 1985)
Lucius Shepard creates a fake Roman à clef about his 17-year-old self vagabonding in Europe in 1964 and meeting two escaped clones from an alternate reality spawned by the evil soul of Hitler. This story is rather schizoid, mixing an On The Road memory with Nazi occult horror, where Adolf is a Lovecraftian elder god. Fictionalizing Nazis is dangerous artistic territory because it generally makes any work trivial in comparison to reality. Shepard would have been better off stealing from Lovecraft. Yet, there is a lot to admire in “A Spanish Lesson.”
The trouble with being an SF/F writer is needing to add the fantastic to every story so it can be sold to an SF/F market. The start of this story and the ending is far better than its SF/F elements. It’s too bad Shepard didn’t stick with straight Kerouac, with maybe a dash of Ballard. I really liked the dynamics of Shepard being the youngest member of an ex-pat community trying to earn some respect from the older cats that he thought were cooler, but were just pretenders.
19 of 24 – “Roadside Rescue” by Pat Cadigan Omni (July 1985) – 2nd story from this issue
“Roadside Rescue” was a wham, bam, thank you ma’am kind of story, for us and the protagonist.
20 of 24 – “Paper Dragons” by James P. Blaylock Imaginary Lands
“Paper Dragons” is a story about the intersection of reality, fantasy, and science fiction. The narrator exists sometimes in the real world of ordinariness, sometimes in a fantasyland, and sometimes in a steampunk-like continuum. There were glittering aspects to this story, but it was often murky to me. I did relate to it in a couple of weird ways though. When I lived in south Florida there would be invasions of crabs. Millions of them would suddenly travel through our neighborhood. And I once found a furry caterpillar and put it in a gallon jar with branches from the bush I found it on. It made a cacoon and eventually emerged as a moth. I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t a butterfly.
Sorry, but I thought this was another story not suited for this anthology because it wasn’t science fiction. A slight case could be made that since Filby could assemble a dragon from pieces of metal that it’s science fiction, but it never felt science-fictional. Its tone was always a lament that fantasy was fading from the world.
21 of 24 – “Magazine Section” by R. A. Lafferty Amazing Stories (July 1985)
I admired Lafferty’s writing and wild imagination in this tall tale but it’s another story that doesn’t belong in this collection. Lafferty does use the word “clone” but the cloning in this story is not the least bit science fiction.
What’s interesting about Lafferty is trying to categorize his writing. I wonder what he was like in person? Was he always pulling people’s legs and telling his tall tales to other people? He’s a kind of literary leprechaun, a class clown with print. He was capable of writing science fiction, PAST MASTER is an example, but for the most part, his stories aren’t science fiction in intent. Nor do they have the flavor of fantasy. His stories are fantastic, but not genre fantastical. It’s a shame the literary world didn’t embrace him because stories like his do appear in literary magazines.
22 of 24 – “The War at Home” by Lewis Shiner Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985) (2nd story from this issue)
“The War at Home” is a punch in the gut. The Vietnam war comes to haunt America’s reality like a bad dream we can’t escape. Although the Safeway bit made me think of our times. Shiner’s story suggests chickens do come home to roost. But I wonder why he wrote it in 1985? That was ten years after the war ended. If civilizations suffer Karmic retribution, then we’re in for some bad shit, much worse than what’s going on now.
My overactive bladder means I never sleep long, so I wake up dreaming many times a night. The intensity of the opening dream sequence resonated with me. Like I said, this very short story was a punch in the gut. Hope it doesn’t give me bad dreams tonight.
23 of 24 – “Rockabye Baby” by S. C. Sykes Analog Science Fiction (Mid-December 1985)
“Rockabye Baby” feels like another one of those literary stories with an embedded fantastic element so it’s salable to a genre market. I thought the first part was excellent. The van crash, the hospital, the group home, the pursuit of drawing, all felt very realistic. Even the part of Sharkey chasing after an experimental treatment. But memories don’t equal a personality, so I don’t buy the fantastic element of the story.
I believe if the real focus of the story was the experimental treatment, the story should have started with Cody trying to rebuild his personality with cassette tapes. Now that would have been a great story too. This could have been a novel, but ISFDB doesn’t show that. Sykes has one other story and one novel listed in their database.
24 of 24 – “Green Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson Asimov’s Science Fiction (September 1985)
“Green Mars” is a hard story to describe and rate. 70% of this long novella is about rock climbing, something I’m not particularly interested in. 20% is about terraforming Mars and the conflict between Red Mars and Green Mars philosophy, something I’m very interested in. And finally, 10% of the story is about Roger and Eileen, and issues with living 300 years, another aspect of the story I loved.
Even though I’m not interested in rock climbing, Robinson did some impressive writing in presenting this part of the story. I have read memoirs of mountain climbers with the details of rock climbing, and I think KSM gives more blow-by-blow details of climbing than those memoirs. Is KSM a rock climber himself?
I admire KSM’s books for their ideas. However, he seldom produces an emotional story for me, but by the end of “Green Mars” I was feeling this story emotionally.
“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (May 1985) The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois The Best of Lucius Shepard (2011)
In 1925 D. H. Lawrence wrote “The Woman Who Rode Away” while living in New Mexico. It was a story about a bored housewife who seeks to escape reality by riding into the mountains and offering herself to the shamans of the native people she found there. In 1968 Carlos Castaneda wrote The Teachings of Don Juan about revealing ancient knowledge from a modern day shaman of the Yaqui Indians. This book became a series that was embraced by the New Agers of the 1970s. In 1985 Lucius Shepard wrote from his experiences of living in Central America “The Jaguar Hunter” about a descendent of the Aztecs escaping the modern reality by similar shamanism.
Why does this theme keep showing up? What is the allure of the far past? The belief in ancient knowledge keeps showing up in both fiction and nonfiction. It’s the basis of religion, and a major tenet of fantasy fiction. Most modern works of fantasy are slowly moving towards make believe realities, but the classics of fantasy have always been built on aspects of the past. Haggard, Burroughs, Merritt, Lovecraft, Howard, Leiber, and other classic fantasy writers of the 19th and 20th centuries wanted their readers to believe magic and magical beings were once part of our reality. You might scoff at that, but don’t all the sacred books of religion claim it too? Is it so absurd to question fun fantasy when our society teaches our children ancient fantasies as facts? If you asked kids and teens where they’d really like to live, how many would say in fantasylands like they read about or see on TV?
“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard is not science fiction, but magic realism that suggests we can return to a past reality destroyed by modernity. The setting appears to be current day Honduras and the plot focuses on Esteban Caax, 44, a farmer. Esteban loves living in the country and pursuing a simple life. However, his life is complicated when his wife Incarnación, 41, buys a battery-powered TV on credit from Onofrio Esteves. Incarnación wants to move into town and take up modern ways.
Onofrio sold the TV to Incarnación to force Esteban into debt so he has to return to jaguar hunting. There is a rare black jaguar that’s keeping a tourist resort from being built, one that Onofrio and his son want to develop. When Esteban goes hunting the jaguar he finds a beautiful woman in the jungle who seduces him. He eventually learns she is the black jaguar and wants Esteban to return to an older, magical reality, part of his true heritage. At first, Esteban refuses, but ultimately, he’s forced to follow Miranda into an ancient reality that modern life and science was destroying.
Shepard’s writing is amazing and beautiful, yet I have to wonder about the intent of this story. The setup is realistic, probably inspired by experiences of living in Honduras. The conclusion of the story is fantasy, and like the intent of much fantasy, it’s a rejection of modern life.
I find it odd that Dozois included this and a few other fantasy stories in his anthology of the best science fiction of the year. But even back in 1985 science fiction was beginning to be overrun with fantasy. To readers who just enjoy a good story, making the distinction between the two genres isn’t important. But I find there’s a philosophical difference that matters. Fantasy longs for the past, while science fiction dreams about the future.
I enjoyed reading “The Jaguar Hunter” but I also find it offensive because it rejects both reality and science. When I was young I read most of the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. I loved them. When I was grown I read an article from the 1950s that said that some librarians stopped carrying the Oz books because it gave children unrealistic expectations toward life. I was horrified by the censorship, but I knew they were right. The Oz books had given me unrealistic expectations.
That Esteban can escape his petty mundane problems by running away into the past with a beautiful woman/jaguar is a fun conclusion to the story, but isn’t that an unhealthy message? You might think I’m being ridiculous laying such a heavy criticism on a slight bit of make-believe. But look at our world today. Half the population embraces a philosophy of denialism, rejecting science and reality. We live in a culture where people never grow up, and many never escape the brainwashing of religion or storytelling. Start paying attention to how off fantasy is embraced by the people around you.
I believe every good story, has a setup and an intent. I admire Shepard’s setup, but I don’t like his intent.
I’ve been dreaming to big for my age. I haven’t posted to this blog in over a month even though I’ve started many essays. I just never finish them. Today, realization finally came that the essays I dream of writing are too big for me to actually finish. For example, last night I began the third attempt to write a review an anthology with twenty-four stories in it, one I’ve been reading on all summer. This morning I realized to write the review I mentally picture writing would take days and days of work, even weeks, and it would be thousands of words long. Most readers browsing the internet are barely willing to consume a few dozen words. Well, I can’t write that short, but I’ve got to stop writing too long.
This reflects a change in my reading habits. I’ve practically stopped reading novels. I now read several hundred short stories a year. My mind is now too impatient for novels, and I realize it’s also too impatient to write long essays. So, I’ve decided my aim is to write succinct pieces about short stories. I wanted to write overviews of anthologies, or overviews of science fictional themes, but those ambitions are too grand for my current levels of energy and concentration.
My new goal for this blog is to create distilled insights into science fiction short stories. This site was created for version 4 of The Classics of Science Fiction, but we moved version 5 to a new site. We streamlined it so it’s mostly data, getting rid of all my wordy essays. Now it gets way more hits. I need to streamline this site too. Don’t expect a huge transformation quickly, I’m switching to old man steps.
“Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction (November 1952) and was retitled in 1965 to “Anybody Else Like Me?” for Miller’s second collection The View from The Stars. This was my third reading of the story. Previously read in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1953 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, and The Great Sf Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I just listened to the story in The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. that was released on audio two weeks ago (June 2021).
Imagine you’re a science fiction writer and want to tell a story about a person who feels they are different from other people and one day they discover they’re a telepath when they finally meet someone like themselves. How would you plot such a story? I wouldn’t have done it like Walter M. Miller, Jr. did in “Command Performance,” and neither would you, but I was quite impressed with how he envisioned such an encounter playing out. Miller had an interesting take on how telepathy might work, and like many science fiction stories from the 1950s, it’s very psychological.
Most writers picture telepathy as people talking to each other without speaking aloud. Miller takes the concept much further. He has his characters, Lisa Waverly and Kenneth Grearly sharing thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, fantasies, and inputs from all five senses. Much like that old saying about walking in someone else’s shoes.
I wish “Command Performance”/”Anybody Else Like Me?” was a novel instead of a short story, and Miller had worked out Lisa’s and Kenneth’s relationship at length. However, it appears Miller never finished a fully completed published novel. Miller’s most famous book, A Canticle for Leibowitz was a fix-up novel based on three previously published stories. ISFDB only lists one story in the novel section, “The Reluctant Traitor,” probably a novella, that appeared in the January 1952 issue of Amazing Stories. Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was a novel he almost completed before committing suicide, was finished by Terry Bisson, and published after his death.
According to ISFDB, Walter M. Miller, Jr. published 41 works of short fiction in the 1950s, and one in 1997, so evidently writing novels wasn’t his thing. I found this essay by Terry Bisson, “A CANTICLE FOR MILLER; or, How I Met Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman but not Walter M. Miller, Jr.” to be quite interesting, revealing a few more tidbits about Miller. And now that I’m listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. that just came out in audio, I’m finding each story makes me want to know more about Miller as a person. As Bisson points out, Miller did not want to meet people, and never even met his agent. That makes me even more curious about him.
I believe stories reveals details about their writers, even when writers desperately try to stay hidden. I’m only on the fourth story in this audiobook, and I’m guessing there will only be fourteen total if it’s based on the 1980 edition of the book of the same name. (Why hasn’t his other stories been collected?)
I can’t find much on Miller except his entries in Wikipedia and SF Encyclopedia. But at the beginning of his career he wrote this profile about himself for the September 1951 issue of Fantastic Adventures:
I believe this provides us with a few additional clues. Miller became a recluse making himself enigmatic. I don’t think Miller was telepathic, but he might have felt himself different from other people. But as I listen to his stories I can’t help but wonder about the man who wrote them. They are a strange take on science fiction, focusing on humans, and less about aliens and spaceships. Miller seemed more interested in psychology, philosophy, religion and aspects about mundane life. One reason why I’m so fond of science fiction of the 1950s is because the characters were often ordinary, just ones who encountered the fantastic in strange little ways.
I’m really enjoying this collection and looking forward to hearing all 22 hours. I then hope to reread A Canticle for Leibowitz before trying Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.
James Wallace Harris, 7/8/21
A friend sent me a chapter from Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl Weary where Merril recounts her affair with Walter M. Miller, Jr. while married to Frederik Pohl. It added many more puzzle pieces to my growing mental picture of Miller. I went to buy the book on Amazon and Amazon informed me I already had a copy. Now I need to read it.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a table of contents for the audiobook version of The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. but I’m hoping it’s the same as the 1980 hardback edition. That book seemed to combine the two previous paperback collections, Conditionally Human (1962) (3 novellas) and The View from the Future (1965) (9 stories and novelettes) and added two other stories for a total of 14. That leaves 27 stories uncollected. There were other collections of Miller’s stories, but they all seem to reprint from that same list of 14. Maybe they were all dogs, and not worth reprinting, but sometime I hope to read them too.
I know the short story is an obscure art form on the wane, and the minority of readers who still enjoy reading short stories mostly read new ones as they come out in online periodicals, but I’m concerned with remembering the best science fiction short stories from the past. Old novels, movies, and television shows have massive support systems for being remembered and introduced to new potential fans. Have you ever seen a book 1,001 Short Stories to Read Before You Die? YouTube is overrun with YouTubers devoted to their favorite books, movies, albums, and television shows, but has YouTube every offered to show you one devoted to short stories? And how often do you see a Top 100 list of all-time best short stories on the web where they live and die by Top 100 lists? Or even the equivalent of the Billboard Hot 100 for current short fiction releases?
About the best a short story can hope for is getting anthologized, and even then, damn few anthologies stay in print. Anthologies that reprinted science fiction short stories were common on twirling book racks in the drugstores of the 1950s through the 1970s, but they’ve about disappeared today. Of course, the science fiction magazines that published the stories originally, have faded into obscurity only loved by the last 10,000 subscribers. The internet has brought about a renaissance of online publication of short stories, and that’s reflected in the annual awards which pretty much ignore the printed magazines nowadays.
Science fiction short stories published in periodicals go back at least two hundred years, and there are fans who still read them too, just not that many. And those fans are dying off. There’s barely enough storyworms to keep the memory of classic short SF alive. (Which probably explains why so few anthologies are for sale.)
Last night I read “The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight for the fourth time this century. And it wasn’t because the mood struck me to read it again. I’m reading The Great SF Stories 18 (1956) (1988) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg and it’s included in that anthology. It was also included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (1970) edited by Robert Silverberg which I listened to when it came out on audio in 2017, and then listened to again when the book club I’m in read it last year. I first read The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology back in the 1970s when it came out. I also read “The Country of the Kind” recently in Science Fiction of the Fifties (1979) edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph Orlander.
I have this self-imposed rule that I don’t skip short stories I’ve read before when reading anthologies. I’ve discovered it takes multiple readings to fully appreciate a short story. “The Country of the Kind” has gotten better on every rereading.
This got me to thinking. How do average science fiction fans stumbleupon old science fiction short stories to read? I figure it’s the same way I discover older SF short stories, by reading anthologies. But like I said, anthologies aren’t as common as they once were. How often do young science fiction fans buy a SF anthology? Or a collection? Do they even know the difference between an anthology and collection? Many people selling them on eBay don’t. The collection is a book of short stories by a single author, and I believe this is the most common way that bookworms still read short stories today. It’s when they decide to consume everything by their favorite author that they finally turn to the short story.
An anthology is a book of short stories by multiple authors. Most readers today see them as annual best-of-the-year volumes that collect the top short stories from the previous year. About every five years a large retrospective anthology comes out that presents the best of the genre’s past. I hardly ever see them anymore, but some theme anthologies reprint short stories with similar subjects are still being published. Baen used to do this, but I haven’t seen any in a while. One exciting new anthology that just came out is The Best of World SF: Volume 1edited by Lavie Tidhar.
Yesterday I went looking for 21st-century anthologies that look back on science fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries. Here’s what I found currently in print. A few of these titles are aimed at the textbook market, reminding me that school reading is another way young readers encounter old SF stories.
Hyperlinks in the titles below are to the CSF database were you can see their table of contents by story in order by year published. That page also has additional links for more information about all the stories. If you don’t want to lose your place here, do a right-click and select Open in New Window, and then close that window after you’ve poked around.
Here’s how these anthologies remember short stories by decades. Like I said, science fiction short stories have been around a very long time. But looking at the numbers below makes it look like something happened in the 1930s. Amazing Stories began in 1926, which some claim was the start of the genre, but others think it really began when John W. Campbell, Jr. became editor of Astounding Science-Fiction in the late 1930s. (See my essay “19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories” for an overview of a baker’s dozen of anthologies that remember that century.)
It’s interesting to see the distribution of stories by decades. Both The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and The Big Book of Science Fiction have something from every decade. In terms of totals, the 1950s win, with the 1980s coming in second. The so-called Golden Age of the 1940s seems to be fading.
If you want to read some of the classics of SF anthologies, check out Mark R. Kelly’s Anthology page.
The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list, which is set to a minimum of 8 citations produces a list of 97 stories. It remembers stories from 1934-2010, which is a kind of a moving memory bubble. The entire database contains 4,554 stories from 1809-2010 with at least 1 citation. We currently believe that 7-8 citations represent a certain level of popularity or remembrance.
“The Country of the Kind” is reprinted in the Sense of Wonder (2011) anthology, so it’s still being remembered. Here’s the history of where it’s been anthologized since its original publication in 1956. The last major anthology it was in was The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 (2014) edited by Gordon Van Gelder.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note “The Country of the Kind” gets reprinted every few years in an anthology. That’s how Damon Knight’s little classic stays alive. I doubt many young readers today read anthologies, so it’s probably just barely hanging on in our collective memory.
When I researched this story on Google, I did notice that several sites devoted to writing school papers offered an analysis of the story for a fee. Being taught in school is another way for a short story to survive. There are other ways. Getting made into a movie or TV show sometimes happens, but that mostly seems to happen to stories by Philip K. Dick. Several episodes of Love, Death & Robots were based on recently published SF stories. I’m also in a Facebook group that helps.
Speaking of reading science fiction short stories in school, I can tell from my stat pages that some are probably popular with teachers. I doubt that many Googlers would be searching on these stories unless they were forced to by a school assignment. Another indicator they are assigned reading is they get hits only during the school year.
It’s rather telling that “The Country of the Kind,” “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin seem to be very popular in the classroom. And each of those stories deal with a particular incidence of violence. It’s almost as if controversial nastiness makes for teachability.
Finally, I’ve thought of one other new way that short stories are presented to help them be remembered: audiobooks. Both audiobook publishers and podcasters present audio productions short stories. For example, here’s one for “The Country of the Kind.” I noticed yesterday that Audible came out with The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. in June with over 20 hours of readings of Miller’s short stories. That made me very happy. Audible has some SF anthologies, but not many. The best way to find audio productions of short stories is to look for collections by your favorite author. For example, they have The Complete Short Stories by J. G. Ballard that runs over 63 hours, or five volumes of The Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick.
Has any science fiction writer from the 20th or 21st centuries ever done a better job exploring the science fictional themes than H. G. Wells covered in the 19th century? Has any novel or film ever gone any deeper into the idea of invaders from outer space than The War of the Worlds? Haven’t we been recycling the same speculations that H. G. Wells began way back then?
This is the third time I’ve read The War of the Worlds by H. G. wells since 1963. The first time I was in the seventh grade. I was too young to understand the novel and read too fast to really appreciate anything other than the basic plot. Back in 2005 I listened to an audiobook edition. I realized then that The War of the Worlds was far better than what I remembered, or any film or TV version I had seen over my lifetime. Reading it again this week, after rewatching the 1953 film, and seeing the 2019 British TV miniseries, I understand why we’re still reading this 1898 novel, and why people keep making filmed versions of it. There were three in 2005 and two in 2019. The War of the Worlds is truly a five-star classic.
I’m not sure young readers know how much credit we should be giving H. G. Wells for his contributions to science fiction. In one sense, the novels he published from 1895 to 1900 can almost be considered the foundation of the genre. Wells covered many of the main science fictional themes that writers are still tilling today. The trouble is, I haven’t read widely enough in earlier literature to know how much Wells borrowed and how much he created.
I do feel Wells brought new speculations and what ifs to the genre. We credit Wells for starting the space alien invasion theme, but Wells only took invasion literature that began in 1871 with The Battle of Dorking in a new direction. Instead of worrying about invaders from Germany or France, Wells asked, “What if invaders didn’t come from Earth?”
Once he proposed that one question, it generated all kinds of possible SF speculation. What if beings from other worlds were more advanced than us? Science fiction has explored that question over and other, but I’m not sure we’ve ever psychologically accepted any being could be superior to ourselves. Reading The War of the Worlds this time made me noticed just how much Wells thought about it. I would love to find reviews of his book published at the end of the 19th century to see if his readers significantly pondered Wells’ ideas. Here are some quotes:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.
Yet so vain is man, and so blinded by his vanity, that no writer, up to the very end of the nineteenth century, expressed any idea that intelligent life might have developed there far, or indeed at all, beyond its earthly level. Nor was it generally understood that since Mars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of the superficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time’s beginning but nearer its end.
And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us.
And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
In three other points their physiology differed strangely from ours. Their organisms did not sleep, any more than the heart of man sleeps. Since they had no extensive muscular mechanism to recuperate, that periodical extinction was unknown to them. They had little or no sense of fatigue, it would seem. On earth they could never have moved without effort, yet even to the last they kept in action. In twenty-four hours they did twenty-four hours of work, as even on earth is perhaps the case with the ants.
“This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.”
I learned nothing fresh except that already in one week the examination of the Martian mechanisms had yielded astonishing results. Among other things, the article assured me what I did not believe at the time, that the “ Secret of Flying,” was discovered.
It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human science it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonweal of mankind.
If the Martians can reach Venus, there is no reason to suppose that the thing is impossible for men, and when the slow cooling of the sun makes this earth uninhabitable, as at last it must do, it may be that the thread of life that has begun here will have streamed out and caught our sister planet within its toils.
Dim and wonderful is the vision I have conjured up in my mind of life spreading slowly from this little seedbed of the solar system throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space. But that is a remote dream. It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.
Can we really imagine meeting a being that is as far above us as we’re above a dog? What if the gap is as large as between people and ants, another comparison Wells makes in the book. Actually, in several places, we’re no more important to the Martians than bacteria are to us under the microscope. Wells can imagine this possibility and he tries to illustrate it in the story, but I don’t think he really succeeds because it’s something impossible to imagine. But Wells, and science fiction written since have tried. Consider Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
We have to remember how Wells portrays the Martians and how readers of Pearson’s Magazine in 1897 imagined them. The Martians had weapons that used heat, light, gas, and biological agents that quickly dispatched the greatest military in the world. London, the most advanced city on the planet was quickly overrun, and millions had to flee. This is impressive, but does it really mean the Martians are intellectually superior to us? They are more advanced technologically. And that’s been the most common thread in alien invasion stories since, even though we keep gaining in our own technological prowess.
Martians treated us like animals. In fact, they treated us like cows or pigs, and used humans for food. Does this mean they’re superior? We assume we’re superior to farm animals, but we’ve never been a cow and can’t imagine what cows think of us.
The Martians invaded Earth like England invaded other countries, and the English felt superior because they could get away with it. But does it make them superior? Over and over again science fiction has tried to portray superior aliens. Usually, writers give them advance technology like Wells did in his novel. Writers often give aliens telepathy or other psychic powers to suggest a higher state of being, and at one point Wells speculated about this. Often, advanced aliens are described like gods in old religious texts. But just how realistic is that? Isn’t it really a lack of imagination? I’m not faulting Wells, because he did try, but I think he hit a wall, and so has every other SF writer since.
Notice that Wells gave the Martians the same power that Nancy Kress did in her story Beggars in Spain. Not needing sleep would indeed be a plus, but does it make a being superior? It is a very nice specific attribute. What other attributes make a superior being?
Are we incapable of imagining a realistic being more developed than humans? We consider ourselves superior to animals because we have language. In recent years, many science fiction stories have explored the idea of communication with beings from other stellar systems. The film Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” does suggest a possibility. What if a language isn’t based on linear time, and the structure of the sentence isn’t depended on word order? That’s a wonderful theory, but is it even possible? Imagining the impossible is impressive, but not as impressive as imagining the possible that hasn’t been discovered yet.
Can we imagine a process of communication that goes beyond language? We always fall back on telepathy. Would that be instantaneously sharing of words, or sharing sense organ input? If the Martians of Wells’ novel could read human minds, would they still kill and eat people, and destroy their civilization? Wouldn’t a superior alien have empathy and compassion for other beings? If we were really superior to animals would we eat them and kill them the way we do? Aren’t we just acting like animals that eat each other?
If you look at in the right light, Christianity was an effort to create a superior human. Unfortunately, few humans have ever achieved what Christian theory hoped to have achieved. Religions have routinely rediscovered compassion throughout history, but they’ve never been able to make humans compassionate. We see in Star Trek, at least in some episodes about the Prime Directive, how the Federation tried to codify a compassionate treatment of other beings, but often the plots don’t allow for it. Still, it’s a concrete example.
Science fiction writers keep trying to imagine a superior being and keep failing. I believe Heinlein tried with Stranger in a Strange Land, by giving his Martian named Smith superpowers. But Smith shows no compassion for lesser beings, and frequently vanishes them out of existence. Clarke tried with Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but again he falls back on godlike powers, and a lack of compassion for lesser beings. Remember, Earth and humans were destroyed when a new species of humans emerged. Why do we continually believe superior beings have the right to destroy lesser beings?
We seem stuck in a Groundhog Day loop regarding invading aliens. Did anything new really show up in Independence Day (1996) a century after The War of the Worlds, or will show up in The Tomorrow War that’s coming out on Amazon Prime? Isn’t it logical to assume any alien that’s invading us can’t be superior because they’re invading us? Superior beings don’t go around exterminating other beings? Conversely, we can’t be all that superior to the other species on this planet. Unless the only definition of superior is the ability to destroy. And how often in science fiction are we the alien invader? Just recall the film Avatar for an easy example. Or think of how we treated the aliens in District 9.
There are two stories I’ve read this year that dealt with this issue, but sadly, I can’t remember the title and author of either one. The first suggested there were two types of beings in the galaxy. One type wants to conquer the galaxy because they are spreaders. The other type wanted to explore the galaxy because they are seekers, seekers of knowledge. We like to think humanity is a seeker species, but we’re really spreaders.
The other story was about species genocide. A character had the military power to destroy a whole species of alien invaders, but worried about using it. The justification given to her claimed the galaxy was full of violent species that acted no better than murderers or thieves, so it was either kill or be killed, so she killed the invading aliens. As long as we’re a product of evolution do we always assume we have to keep playing its game.
My idea of a superior alien is one that can step outside of their evolutionary upbringing and can act with compassion and empathy towards their fellow species. But I also imagine, this superior species would also develop the ability to communicate precisely, way beyond the power of words, and understand reality. We only perceive reality indirectly, with very limited senses, and usually interpret what we perceive with a lot of bullshit desires. I’m guessing a real superior space alien would avoid us like a dangerous pathogen or generator of gamma ray bursts.
In the end, I wondered if Wells didn’t model his Martians on the English in Africa and India. That implies any science fiction about aliens is really about looking at ourselves in a mirror. Shouldn’t science fiction writer ask how we could become superior beings?
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction group on Facebook has been reading through the Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction reader award short fiction finalists. “Minerva Girls” by James Van Pelt is about three teenage girls who build their own spaceship and go to the moon. I thought the story was a lot of fun, but one of our members said he couldn’t get into it because it was too unbelievable. Well, that’s true, believing children can invented anti-gravity and build their own spaceship out of a gas tank unearth from a service station is beyond farfetched, but it’s still a fun idea for a SF story. Coincidently, that plot is how I got into science fiction in the fifth grade by reading Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint.
Of course, it’s one thing to be a child and fantasize about of being a child space explorer, and being an old man believing a story about children inventing a spaceship. Obviously, realism didn’t get in my way of enjoying “Minerva Girls.” I started thinking about why and realized I’ve read a number of stories over my lifetime where kids build their own spaceship. It’s a neat little SF theme that doesn’t seem to ever go away.
Like I said in my last essay, cherished ideas acquired in childhood often have a habit of sticking with us for the rest of our lives, even if they have no possible reality. Most people learn the truth about Santa Claus at an early age yet keep the myth alive for the rest of their life. Who doesn’t love watching Miracle of on 34th Street every year?
Right after I read the Danny Dunn series I started in on the Tom Swift, Jr. books. These only reinforced the idea that kids could build anything that adults could.
Then a few years later in 1964 I discovered the Heinlein juveniles. In each book a teenager had adventures in space. I was now twelve, about to turn thirteen, and I still wanted to believe it was possible for a kid to build a rocket, yet I was old enough to realize that Heinlein’s book Rocket Ship Galileo was unbelievable. I knew what it took to build a rocket because I had faithfully followed every launch of Project Mercury and was reading about Project Gemini that would begin the following year. Rockets required a big hunk of a national budget and tens of thousands of grownups to build.
Then in the summer of 1966 I read a serial in If Magazine called “The Hour Before Earthrise” by James Blish where a kid builds a spaceship out of wood, powers it with anti-gravity, and goes to Mars. It was later published in book form as Welcome to Mars. By then I knew this was an idea too ridiculous to contemplate, yet I still enjoyed reading the story. I wanted to believe still, but I felt like a kid feeling too old for Santa.
There wasn’t a lot of YA science fiction when I was growing up – actually, there wasn’t a lot of science fiction period. But the genre had a reputation for being targeted at pre-adults. Many SF writers resented this, but I think it was mostly true. Today YA science fiction and fantasy is big business, and it’s not just consumed by teenagers. Evidently, adults want to vicariously be teenagers again and fantasize about having great adventures.
Part of me wants to reject my love of juvenile SF literature. That part of me wants science fiction to grow up too, and deal with reality. In particular, science fiction should explore realistic futures where going to the stars is impractical, and humanity accepts its destiny on Earth before we destroy it. But what kid wants to read that kind of science fiction? And it’s pretty obvious few adults want to read it either.
Yes, “Minerva Girls” is an unbelievable fantasy, but it’s also one we want to keep believing. I don’t mean to offend anyone by this comparison, but I wonder if the desire to believe in the science fiction we discovered in childhood isn’t akin to people who maintain their childhood religious beliefs in adulthood? What percentage of our society can’t put away childish things? I’m guessing a large percentage. Maybe the reality is we hold onto things we want to be real in the face of a reality we reject?
And reality does intrude into “Minerva Girls.” Selena and her friends have to contend with mean girls, studying things in school they didn’t want to learn, and the heartache of losing each other. They did have to come down to Earth after visiting the moon. They accepted the painful reality that their lifelong friendship was going to be broken up by two of their families moving to new cities.
There was another new bit of reality in this fantasy, instead of a trio of boys building a spaceship on their own, it was a trio of girls. In fact, in all these stories, the characters had to face plot pitfalls based on realistic everyday life hurdles. Fiction, even fantasy fiction, doesn’t work without a certain amount of realism.
I guess these stories are still appealing because wouldn’t it be fun to live in a reality where building a jalopy spaceship in the backyard could happen? Or converting an old Camry into a time machine?
Have you ever spent time thinking about why you like a particular story, movie, television show, song, photograph, painting, etc.? I believe most of us assume the critical ingredient is in the artwork itself. What if that’s not altogether true? What if our admiration also depends on what’s inside ourselves too?
I just read “Minla’s Flowers” by Alastair Reynolds in The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. It was the eleventh story in the anthology and the first one that grabbed me. The other ten were well-told tales, but they just didn’t resonate with my Sci-Fi soul. And that’s a hint at what I’m talking about. “Minla’s Flowers” pushed my buttons, but which buttons, and where did they come from?
People turn to genealogy when they want to know how their body got here, but it doesn’t explain the programming that went into creating their personality. What if we use the Butterfly Effect to explain the lineage of our personality and show where all beliefs, opinions, likes, dislikes, prejudices, loves, hates, fears, etc. that went into making who we think we are. What if the Big Bang origin of all our traits can be traced back to specific triggers, whether huge emotional explosions or tiny seeds of inspiration? Can we ever trace specific emotions back to the first flutter of butterfly wings?
This theory started taking form a few years ago when I realized I didn’t enjoy modern science fiction short stories as much as I loved older SF stories. Had I changed, or science fiction? It’s been sixty years since I started reading SF. It seems obvious that both myself and the genre have changed, but have we? The macro aspects of my personality and the genre haven’t I don’t think. But how many micro details reveal any real change? Both are complex system not easily understood, so my Freudian-like analysis will only be guesswork.
One hypothesis I’ve considered deals with information density. I know a lot more in 2021 than I did in 1962, and so does science fiction. My mind reads with a greater density of relatable knowledge, and modern SF prose is often written with a greater density of information and science fictional speculation. Yet science fiction themes don’t seem to change over time. About the only new themes to emerge during my lifetime is digital worlds and brain downloading/uploading, and both probably had precursors if I researched it enough. Last night I watched the 2019 British miniseries of The War of the World, and then started rereading the novel. It only reminds me of how I’ve been seeing shadows of Wells my whole life.
When I grew up SF stories had basic plots that exposed ordinary humans to usually one far-out bit of speculation. Now SF stories are written with a Phil Spector-like Wall of Speculation approach, embedding the plot and far-from-ordinary-humans into narratives of greater information density, especially the New Space Opera stories about the far future.
First off, I didn’t feel “Minla’s Flowers” was a five-star story, but I did feel it deserved a solid four-stars, mainly because I knew I’d want to reread it someday. In fact, I’ve already reread parts of it to compose my comment for our reading group at Facebook. That’s when I realized something. I liked “Minla’s Flowers” because it reminded me of so many other science fiction stories. Here’s my comment to the group:
Alastair Reynolds begins "Minla's Flowers" with a lone adventurer, Merlin, and his AI spaceship, Tyrant, falling out of subspace, Waynet, to make repairs on a planet, Lecythus, only to discover it inhabited by humans who had colonized it thousands of years ago and are currently at war, where he befriends an old scientist, Malkoha, and his daughter Minla.
I have to say all this triggered memories of Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers, Dr. Zarkov/Dr. Huer, and Dale Arden/Wilma Deering. "Minla's Flowers" is the first story in this collection that feels like Old Space Opera, and it was a lot of fun.
I thought for sure Reynolds was going to arrange for Merlin and Minla to become lovers ala cold sleep (think THE DOOR INTO SUMMER), but that didn't happen. Minla became his rival, even the antagonist of the story. Eventually, the plot of "Minla's Flowers" turns into the plot of WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, escaping a doomed planet by building a spacefaring nation in seventy years.
Since Merlin is needed for a future adventure by Reynolds, he undergoes a series of cold sleep timeouts, and only ages a few months during this story, while Minla reaches 80. That should remind me of several SF stories, but I can't recall any at the moment. (INTERSTELLAR?)
Reynolds extends this story time and again through philosophical and ethical issues of helping a civilization speed up its development. In this regard, Merlin's and Tyrant's roles remind me of Klaatu and Gort from the film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.
Because Reynolds embeds so much of the science fiction mythos into his story it caused the science fiction region of my soul to resonate with it. I know I will reread this story in the future, and it might even resonate more, but for now...
Science fiction speculates on a limited number of subjects. One of the reasons I didn’t enjoy many of the ten stories before this one in The New Space Opera is because they speculated about topics I either discount, or I believe are too overused. Many of the stories in this anthology assume in the far future humans will have colonized the galaxy, and we’ll share it with aliens, intelligent robots, androids that look like us, cyborgs, humans that have achieve immortality, posthumans, transhumans, and downloaded humans. Decades ago it was common to see one of these elements as the basis of a science fiction story, but now it seems science fiction writers assume they will all coexist in the future, and somehow they must all be mentioned whenever writing a story about the far future. Actually, I’d find it a reading thrill for a writer to challenge these assumptions. It’s why I loved Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.
New science fiction writers have to recycle old themes because developing new ones are next to impossible. And as a reader, at least for me, if I encounter too many stories using the same concepts, I get bored with them. I should probably avoid theme anthologies like The New Space Opera. Yet, I responded positively to “Minla’s Flowers” because it caused me to resonate with old SF I loved in adolescence. Freud was a big explorer of our subconscious mind, but did he ever suggest early sense of wonder experiences would create chimes in our personality that would ring in later years if we encounter similar wonders on the same wavelength?
Of course, I might need to be careful with line of self-analysis, or I might find out that everything I love and believe originated in old science fiction stories I first encountered in youth. I’ve often thought science fiction was my substitute for religion when it didn’t take when I was a kid.
“Minla’s Flowers” has one human, one AI spaceship, and an alien world populated by humans that colonized the planet so long ago they’ve forgotten how they got there. This simplicity of story elements reminds me of Old Space Opera. (Although Reynolds does keep trying to cram in even more science fictional elements I felt diluted the story.)
At the plot’s core, “Minla’s Flowers” is about a civilization that needs to flee its home planet to find a new world because their sun will be destroyed in seventy years. One of the first SF books I read with this theme was the omnibus When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide by by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. Has that story I read at age twelve shaped my response to future fiction? All my life I’ve thought humanity should colonize space to protect itself from extinction. Did that too come from Balmer and Wylie? Thinking about it now, I’m not sure it’s a practical or realistic idea. We were evolved for living on Earth, and all our space exploring fantasies may just be that.
Merlin fits the archetype for the science fiction hero, as does his sidekick. Where Reynolds took his story in an anti-tradition was with Minla, and that also thrilled me too. Is the right mixture for entertaining new science fiction a good bit of the tried and true, with a touch of the contrary?
Fiction is still magical. I don’t know how it works its spells. But now that I’m much older, and have consumed vast quantities of the genre, I sense patterns that my unconscious mind likes. It’s almost as if my unconscious mind learns and evolves, and maybe even has its own logic. I’m old and tired, and have a difficult time finding stories I still love, but every once in a while, something clicks. It’s a weird unexplainable experience.
At our SF short story reading group on Facebook we’ve been discussing story rating systems. Everyone has a slightly different way to review and rate stories but a 5-star system is common. However, several people expand that basic 5 levels into 10 levels with half-stars or pluses, or to 100 levels with tenths of a point refinements. Personally, I can’t distinguish that finely between stories to organize them into ten levels, much less one hundred. However, I can say subjectively I like one story better than another, and compare them relative to each other.
After reading 1,000-2,000 stories over the last four years I’m starting to get an intuition about their quality. Some stories just stand out above all the others, and the group essentially agrees that 5-stars should be reserved for those very best stories, the stories that have become recognized classics or feel will become classic in the future. And I say essentially because we never agree on anything precisely in our group. And this relative system of rating doesn’t mean one reader’s 5-star classic can’t be some other member’s 3-star it’s okay story.
We discuss one story a day, and maybe a handful of members out of a near 500 membership will read and comment on the story. Those comments are enlightening about how we each read stories, and what reading pleasures and displeasures trigger their responses. A few of us have started leaving star ratings and that’s beginning to become illuminating too.
I’m slowly getting a feel for the short story form, at least regarding science fiction stories. If you haven’t read that many SF short stories, even an average story can trigger a “far out” or “great” response. But once you’ve logged your ten thousand hours of reading time, you realize truly great stories are few and far between. My guess is less than six 5-star level stories are published each year, and probably less than two dozen 4-star level stories. Most stories are good solid stories but they must be classed as 3-stars if you consider them relative to the 5-star and 4-star stories.
In other words, a 4-star story is a story that breaks out from the crowd by a significant measure. It’s like the Magnitude scale for earthquakes, logarithmic. It just feels like a big jump from 3-stars to 4-stars, and that’s why so many in the group want to rate stories ***+ or 3.5-stars, or even 3.2 or 3.7, because they feel the story is better than average but not quite up to that 4-star level. When you’ve read a lot of stories it intuitively feels like a 4-star stories is a quantum leap above a 3-star story but few people can explain why in details. And there’s another another tremendous leap from 4-stars to 5-stars. When you think of stories like “Flowers for Algernon” or “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas” you know very few stories come close to their magnitude in power.
I think many people want to rate fiction (or movies, or albums) like people rate their purchases on Amazon where 5-stars means you have no complaints. Which is why for some products on Amazon you see 80% 5-star ratings. When it comes to the artistic, 5-stars has to be for artwork that is 1 in 100 to 1 in 1,000 in quality.
But how can we understand this at a gut-reaction level? An idea came to me today that I think might help, so I’m trying it out here. Take any author you’ve read many of their short stories. How many stand out as your very favorites? How many are almost as good? And if you count the rest, how large is that number in relation to the first two groups?
Take for example Ray Bradbury. I consider these his obvious 5-star stories:
“There Will Come Soft Rains”
“Mars is Heaven!”
I consider his 4-star stories to be:
“The Million-Year Picnic”
“A Sound of Thunder”
And the first two I’d probably rate ****+ or 4.5-stars.
There might be other stories that I haven’t read by Bradbury that I would rate with a 5-star or 4-star, but for the most part I’ve read dozens of his hundreds of stories and they go into a vague 3-star pile. If I studied his work thoroughly, I’d probably find several more stories I love, but for now, this is how I remember Ray Bradbury.
For all my favorite authors I can remember stories that stand out as classic, and some that I don’t feel are quite as good. For example, with Clifford Simak, as much as I love “The Big Front Yard,” it’s not on the the save level as “Huddling Place” or “Desertion.” As much as I love “The Year of the Jackpot” by Heinlein, it’s not on the same level as “The Menace From Earth,” or “Requiem,” or “Universe.”
Another difference between 4-star and 5-star stories is how many times I will reread them. I can enjoy a 3-star story quite a lot, but I know I’ll never want to reread them. Whereas, when I read a story for the first time and know I want to reread again someday, that tells me the story is a 4-star story. Stories that I have read many times are the ones I think of as 5-star stories. In fact, I might not know a story is a 5-star story until I’ve read it two or three times.
There is no way to objectively and quantitatively rate a work of art, but using a system based on relative impact is somewhat helpful, don’t you think?
Using this relative system to read new stories, especially by authors I don’t know, can be troublesome. I have to rate the story against all the other stories I know by other writers. So if I’m reading a new story from the latest issue of Lightspeed Magazine it has to complete with all the 5-star and 4-star stories I’ve discovered over my lifetime.
When I first started reading science fiction, I thought it superior to ordinary fantasy because science fiction prepared readers for the future. I never believed science fiction predicted the future, but I did believe science fiction could seriously ponder future possibilities. To me, the best science fiction was philosophical, speculative, and extrapolated on current trends. Both the fixup novel The Dying Earth by Jack Vance and the anthology The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan ponders the far future. But do their stories say anything serious about the future? Do any of their stories speak specifically to the adult mind? Or are they just fairy tales for grown up readers?
The Dying Earth is a collection of six related short works of fantasy that imagines life on Earth after the sun grows old, which is a wonderful science fictional concept. The stories are a cross between fantasies about magicians and science fiction about dying civilizations that barely remembers technology. In a vague way, its stories remind me of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights, but that’s because I just read “Ask Yourself Which Books You Truly Love” by Salman Rushdie in The New York Times. Rushdie was writing about our love of stories, especially the ones we first encounter as children. But I thought the Arabian Nights stories imagined when humanity and history were young, and the Jack Vance stories imagine humanity and history when old.
The Dying Earth contain these six stories:
“Turjan of Miir”
“Mazirian the Magician”
“Liane the Wayfarer”
“Guyal of Sfere”
The first three stories feel like Aesop, Homer or Grimm, simple fable or fairy tale in tone, while the later ones grow in sophistication feeling more like Dante or Chaucer. “Ulan Dhor” comes across the most like science fiction, but science fiction from the 1930s out of Weird Tales.
After “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells, and The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, other writers began expanding the end of time theme, but Vance got to name it with this book. Normally, I don’t like fantasy stories, but I did like The Dying Earth. This book was so successful that Vance wrote more stories about living under the dark red sun that were collected in three different volumes. I haven’t read them yet, but I bought Tales of the Dying Earth for the Kindle which puts all four into one book.
Normally, I avoid fantasy, preferring science fiction, but I started life as a bookworm with the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. If you only know Oz from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, then you don’t know Oz. Not that the film isn’t wonderful, but it doesn’t convey the vastness of Baum’s fantasy worldbuilding. I’m not a scholar on children’s fantasy books, but is there any fictional world building before the 20th century that can compete with the Oz books?
I know pop culture has pretty much forgotten Baum’s fantasyland, but for children growing up in the early decades of the 1900s, the Oz books were as popular as the Harry Potter books are today. Many classic science fiction writers grew up reading Oz books, including Robert A. Heinlein, who referenced them in his later World as Myth novels.
I bring up the Oz books here because Baum’s basic plotting device is often used by fantasy and science fiction writers. It works like this. Introduce one or more normal characters, and maybe some exotic or magical characters. Give them a quest. Take the group from one strange location to the next, where they meet wonders and far out beings. Keep it up until you’ve filled a book’s worth of pages. Tie things up with a satisfying insight. Ringworld by Larry Niven is a great example of this, and so is some of the stories in The Dying Earth, especially “Ulan Dhor” and “Guyal of Sfere.” The later story even has an Oz like wizard that explains things at the end.
The Dying Earth theme is powerful because writers usually explore two visions: the end of man, and the end of Earth. Just to meditate on that idea generates a powerful sense of wonder. However, I don’t think Vance’s stories say any more about the future than One Thousand and One Nights says about the past. They are just fairy tales for grownups. Modern fantasy has vastly evolved past these stories in sophistication. I will keep reading in this series because I’ve been told Vance eventually gets more sophisticated too, but I wonder if he ever gets more adult.
I wonder if the 20th century trend of writing stories set in an ever-growing fantasyland might have begun with Baum? That kind of never-ending world building appeals to both children and adolescents, and has apparently seduced many an adult reader too, because it seems like all genre writers are churning out countless books in series. And doesn’t our hunger for story series and complex world building comes from our childhood love of fantasy series?
The Dying Earth as a theme keeps expanding with new writers and new readers. Science fiction writers and readers also love the Far Future as a similar setting for a theme, although the name for that theme seems to have become The New Space Opera. Fans of this theme don’t worry about the end of the Earth or humankind, because they believe humanity has plenty of places to go. And like Baum inventing endless fantasy beings for Oz, the New Space Opera writers have invented endless far out aliens, robots, AI, transhuman, and posthumans to populate stories using this theme.
But to be honest, I’m not that fond of the New Space Opera theme. Oh, the ideas they come up with have a wonderful sense of wonder, but these stories are often presented as hard science fiction, which imply their science fictional inventions could be possible, and I don’t believe that. The opening of “Glory” by Greg Egan is dazzling. It sounds so scientific yet I can’t believe it’s no more realistic than magic. It begins:
An ingot of metallic hydrogen gleamed in the starlight, a narrow cylinder half a meter long with a mass of about a kilogram. To the naked eye it was a dense, solid object, but its lattice of tiny nuclei immersed in an insubstantial fog of electrons was one part matter to two hundred trillion parts empty space. A short distance away was a second ingot, apparently identical to the first, but composed of antihydrogen.
A sequence of finely tuned gamma rays flooded into both cylinders. The protons that absorbed them in the first ingot spat out positrons and were transformed into neutrons, breaking their bonds to the electron cloud that glued them in place. In the second ingot, antiprotons became antineutrons.
A further sequence of pulses herded the neutrons together and forged them into clusters; the antineutrons were similarly rearranged. Both kinds of cluster were unstable, but in order to fall apart they first had to pass through a quantum state that would have strongly absorbed a component of the gamma rays constantly raining down on them.
Left to themselves, the probability of them being in this state would have increased rapidly, but each time they measurably failed to absorb the gamma rays, the probability fell back to zero. The quantum Zeno effect endlessly reset the clock, holding the decay in check.
The next series of pulses began shifting the clusters into the space that had separated the original ingots. First neutrons, then antineutrons, were sculpted together in alternating layers. Though the clusters were ultimately unstable, while they persisted they were inert, sequestering their constituents and preventing them from annihilating their counterparts. The end point of this process of nuclear sculpting was a sliver of compressed matter and antimatter, sandwiched together into a needle one micron wide.
The gamma ray lasers shut down, the Zeno effect withdrew its prohibitions. For the time it took a beam of light to cross a neutron, the needle sat motionless in space. Then it began to burn, and it began to move.
The stories in The New Space Opera are exactly what I wanted to believe in growing up. I desperately wanted humanity to have all this potential. I knew I’d never live to see such successes in space, but I wanted to die confident that humanity would go on to achieve these wonders. Now that I’m approaching seventy, I realize my childhood dreams were wishful fantasies, no more realistic than the far-out promises of religion. Sure, we will explore space, but not like the epic super-science visions produced by the New Space Opera stories. We’re not going to transfer our minds into other bodies, whether biological or digital. We’re not going to build spaceships the size of Jupiter. We’re not going to have galaxy spanning civilizations. All those ideas are just fairy tales for adults.
However my problem with the New Space Opera stories is not that they imagine impossible futures, but how the stories are often told. Many of the stories in this anthology cram too many ideas into one plot. Their authors love to jam in so many speculative concepts that basic story gets crushed. Characterization and plotting take a back seat to worldbuilding. And it’s not that these writers are constantly infodumping ideas, but instead they throw out endless hints assuming readers can fill in the details mentally. Often those hints require cognitive decryption which for me distracts from the story. Sometimes stories combine a dozen science fictional concepts into one futuristic setting as if every science fictional speculation to date will come true. The cumulative effect is a goulash of cliché science fiction. That’s why when I got to Kage Baker’s “Maelstrom” it felt refreshingly different. Her speculation about colonizing Mars took a backseat to plot and character. That’s why I prefer Robert Reed’s “Good Mountain” to “Hatch,” his entry in the anthology.
I’m afraid too many of the stories in The New Space Opera depend too much on the big standard theories of current SF. I love science fiction for its ideas, but I also need a good story. Dense worldbuilding isn’t good enough for me. But hey, that might just be me. Maybe my aging brain can’t handle modern science fiction. Maybe that’s why I preferred Vance’s fantasy stories, even though I prefer science fiction over fantasy. Evidently, there’s something in how storytellers need to tell adult fairy tales that count.
Paul Fraser in our science fiction short story discussion group on Facebook makes a distinction between dense stories and story stories in modern SF fiction. I agree. I think the editor Gardner Dozois liked to promote dense stories, and we see that in The New Space Opera. Our group has seen dense stories popular in Asimov’s Science Fiction too. See their list of finalists for their 35th annual reader awards. One example of an overly dense story is Ray Nayler’s “Return to the Red Castle,” where he takes a simple plot of a woman wanting to help her old teacher, an android, recover her memory, by throwing in enough ideas for a half-dozen science fiction stories. I wanted the story to be more about Irem and Umut’s issues with memory, and less about the world building for the Istanbul Protectorate. But obviously, plenty of readers loved it just the way it is.
But whatever you prefer, dense or story, aren’t these stories still adult fairy tales? Isn’t the problem how the story is told rather than issues with the content? Is Little Red Riding Hood and her problems with the wolf any different in true age appeal than Irem’s problem with her android? I’m sure James Joyce and Proust’s novels are aimed at adult minds. But how much science fiction is truly adult in nature? And I’m not talking about X-rated content. If young children and young adults had the readings skills, wouldn’t they find most science fiction and fantasy fiction appealing? Can you name any science fiction novel that only appeals to a mature mind?
I wonder now if The Dying Earth and The New Space Opera stories aren’t aimed at the child in me. That I still read such stories because I never grew up. Or maybe, the wonders we imagined in childhood never leave us. As a ten year-old I wanted to live in Baum’s Oz. As a thirteen year-old I wanted to live on Heinlein’s Mars. It’s taking me sixty-nine years to accept the only place for humans is Earth, but I’m not sure if I will ever grow up and accept that. I have to wonder if I’ve never outgrown fairy tales.
Daniel F. Galouye (1920-1976) was never a famous science fiction writer, but back in the 1950s and 1960s his shorter work appeared regularly in many of the SF magazines with the notable exception of Astounding/Analog. Galouye published five novels, three of which made it to my list of SF novels of the 1960s (Dark Universe, Lords of the Psychon, and Simulacron-3). Over the years, I’ve seen several mentions of his work and have meant to read them, but it hasn’t been until I got Lords of the Psychon in a batch of old paperbacks from eBay that I’ve had a chance. Galouye’s books aren’t rare, but they aren’t widely known either. Dark Universe and Simulacron-3 are currently in print, and Dark Universe is even available on Audible.com. Simulacron-3 inspired both a TV miniseries (World on a Wire) and a movie (The Thirteenth Floor), and some have called it an early cyberpunk novel. Not a bad legacy for a writer who is mostly forgotten.
Lords of the Psychon was a lot of fun to read, but not as much fun as I had with Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn, the SF book I read before it. Both of these 1960s novels deal with alien invasion. Both novels are set years after the aliens have conquered Earth. Both novels deal with a small group of humans hoping to overthrow the aliens. Both novels have a unique take on showing the alienness of the invaders.
Don’t read beyond this point if you hate any kind of spoilers.
In this section I’ll give you a bit more of the details but still try to avoid all plot spoilers. The 1950s was a time when many science fiction stories, especially in Astounding Science Fiction, explored psychic powers, ESP, or sometimes called psionics. I’ve always thought Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) was the pinnacle of that trend which quickly faded from popularity. I now see that Daniel F. Galouye had something more to add in 1963 with Lords of the Psychon. Actually, I feel the novel was inspired by Heinlein, and even feels somewhat like a 1950s Heinlein novel in tone. Galouye was a test pilot during WWII, so he also has a military background like Heinlein.
The setup for Lords of the Psychon is the speculation that the fundamental subatomic building blocks of reality can be controlled by thought, and this 1963 novel predates such woo-woo physics books as The Tao of Physics (1975) by Fritjof Capra and The Dancing Wu Li Masters (1979) by Gary Zukav. Basically, Galouye tortunes quantum mechanics to come up with a fun science fictional idea. Instead of swinging East like Capra and Zukav, Galouye keeps a western view of psychic powers.
Today, we think of such psionic themes as malarky, but I believe Galouye worked hard to pull off his speculative fiction. Eventually, the story moves towards Theodore Sturgeon and gestalt minds. In other words, I give Galouye credit for producing an evolutionary science fictional work.
I won’t go into plot details because I really don’t like any such spoilers myself, but I will reprint two reviews from 1963 that do, so read them at your own risk. The first is from Analog, November 1963 by P. Schuyler Miller.
I love reading reviews of books from when they first came out to see how my reaction is different. Miller praises Lords of the Psychon but claims Galouye’s first novel, Dark Universe, is the real standout. That means I need to read it soon.
S. E. Cotts reviews the novel in the August 1963 issue of Amazing Stories. I know nothing about Cotts, but I like her review. If you know anything about S. E. Cotts, leave a comment.
Cotts also gives away way too much of the plot for my taste. I’m still figuring out how to review fiction. I like the details of a story to unfold as the author intended. Both Miller and Cotts reveal things I prefer to learn for myself. However, I suppose they believe that a certain amount of plot details need to be given to hook the reader into buying the novel.
Rosemary Benton writing for Galactic Journey gives this novel 4.5 stars. Her 2018 review pretends to have been written in 1963. She also gives away quite a few plot points. Unlike Miller and Cotts, Benton seems to prefer Psychon over Dark Universe.
I believe Lords of the Psychon is a 4-star out of 5-star novel for those readers who delight in reading science fiction novels from the 1960s. I admire Galouye’s speculation even though I don’t think it’s scientific. I feel the novel is plotted tighter than modern SF novels, and is told with far fewer words, which is one of the reasons why I prefer older science fiction. Hopefully, that’s enough information for people who don’t like spoilers, but if it’s not, just read the three reviews above.
Everyone remembers Roy Batty’s monologue from the end of Blade Runner, sometimes called “Tears in the Rain.” Wikipedia even has an entry for it. It’s very short but when you hear Rutger Hauer speak it in the film, it feels timeless.
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
Well, today I was listening to The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, and in particular, to the short story “Ulan Dhor Ends a Dream,” and it reminded me of Roy’s monologue. It evoked the same emotion. Aren’t these monologues so much more impressive when performed/spoken?
I have known the Ampridatvir of old; I have seen the towers glowing with marvellous light, thrusting beams through the night to challenge the sun itself. Then Ampridatvir was beautiful — ah! My heart pains when I think of the olden city. Semir vines cascaded from a thousand hanging gardens, water ran blue as vaul-stone in the three canals. Metal cars rolled the streets, metal hulls swarmed the air as thick as bees around a hive — for marvel of marvels, we had devised wefts of spitting fire to spurn the weighty power of Earth … But even in my life I saw the leaching of spirit. A surfeit of honey cloys the tongue; a surfeit of wine addles the brain; so a surfeit of ease guts a man of strength. Light, warmth, food, water, were free to all men, and gained by a minimum of effort. So the people of Ampridatvir, released from toil, gave increasing attention to faddishness, perversity, and the occult.
This made me wonder how many stories have a monologue of remembrance in them? It’s a very powerful trick of fiction, don’t you think? Charles Dickens used it very effectively as the opening to A Tale of Two Cities.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
I believe Heinlein must have been inspired by Dickens when he wrote the opening to Glory Road.
I know a place where there is no smog and no parking problem and no population explosion...no Cold War and no H-bombs and no television commercials...no Summit Conferences, no Foreign Aid, no hidden taxes—no income tax. The climate is the sort that Florida and California claim (and neither has), the land is lovely, the people are friendly and hospitable to strangers, the women are beautiful and amazingly anxious to please—
I could go back. I could—
I can’t recall any others at the moment. Can you? If you can, post them in the comments.
The most read essay on my personal blog is “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” Evidently, I’m not the only person who runs from dinosaurs in their dreams, because 25-50 people daily find my essay on Google. I recently realized that I sometimes run from both human giants as well as giant space aliens in my dreams too. This obviously reveals my personal philosophy about the big dangers of life – keep a low profile. In my dreams the solution to avoiding being killed is to be quiet and hide from all the big monsters.
Warning: Don’t read this review. Just go read the book below to have the maximum fun. Don’t even read the blurbs on the cover. However, if you need more convincing, keep reading, I’ve kept the spoilers to the bare minimum.
Keeping a low profile is exactly what Eric the Only doesn’t do in Of Men and Monsters, a classic science fiction novel by William Tenn. It’s an expansion of Tenn’s October 1963 story for Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, “The Men in the Walls.” I vaguely remember reading the novel back in the early 1970s, but decided to reread it yesterday because of reviews by Joachim Boaz and MarzAat. Luckily, I didn’t read their entire reviews ahead of time because they both have spoilers. I just got caught up with MarzAat’s enthusiasm responding to Joachim’s review, and grabbed my copy of book and started reading. In fact, it’s the first novel in decades that I’ve read in less than a day. Just fun, good old fashion science fiction. Joachim gives it four stars out of five, and that’s what my initial assessment was too, however…
Of Men and Monsters has a simple backstory. Giant aliens from space have conquered Earth and humans are thrown into a kind of dark age, living in the walls of alien buildings. The story is well told, and surprisingly engaging for such a simple premise. Eric the Only, is a member of one of many tribes trying to survive by stealing food from the aliens they call monsters. Each tribe has a competing philosophy about existence, and Eric the Only is a bright young man trying to figure out reality from many contradictory beliefs.
Think about giants in the Bible, or “Jack and the Beanstalk,” or the big and little episodes in Gulliver’s Travels, or “Giant Killer” by A. Bertram Chandler, or J. G. Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” (now animated for season 2 of Love, Death & Robots). And if you remember, the 1968 TV show Land of the Giants. I wonder if Willian Tenn was given any credit or money for his idea? He probably wasn’t as pugnacious and litigatious as Harlan Ellison. Well, the Land of the Giants is somewhat different, with castaway humans on the planet of giant aliens. Anyway, giants make up a tiny sub-sub-sub-genre that I believe triggers a certain psychological appeal. For some reason, pop culture returns to it fairly often.
Of Men and Monsters also reeks of another minor motif I’ve seen in science fiction, and that’s about life in the corridors. I remember reading the “Tumithak of the Corridors” stories in Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov, an anthology of his favorite science fiction stories he loved reading growing up in the 1930s. But life in the corridors was also the setting in Heinlein’s Orphans in the Sky (1963), a fixup novel based on “Universe” and “Common Sense” first published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1941, and in Brian Aldiss’ 1958 novel Non-Stop (called Starship in the U.S.). This motif often connects to the theme of forgotten civilization which we find in many science fiction and fantasy stories about the far future. Not only do we love stories about running from big beings like dinosaurs, King Kong, 50-foot high women, and giant space aliens, but we also love stories about forgetting who we were as a society.
The corridor motif also runs parallel with the back to the primitive theme in post apocalyptic stories of the 1950s. Science fiction writers have suggested in both books and movies that after a nuclear war civilization could be reduced to living like hunters and gathers again. Writers imagine our descendents forgetting the past, and picture these future humans like cavemen or 19th century native Americans. I vaguely remember some Andre Norton novels like this. Eric the Only wears just a leather jock strap, and the women of his tribe only wear their hair, but very long. His tribe use spears for weapons and live by rigid customs created by superstitions. Some readers might consider this aspect of the story satire on humanity, but I didn’t. It just felt logical to the plot.
I’ve tried very hard not to give the details here to Of Men and Monsters because I thoroughly enjoyed how the story unfolded. I wouldn’t have told you about the monsters being aliens but that tends to be in all reviews and on the cover blurbs. I will give one tiny spoiler that I found fascinating. The tunnels the humans live in are the air spaces of the insulation used by aliens in their buildings. That should give you an idea of relative size. All the cover art on the many book editions gets this wrong drawing the aliens only three or four times the size of humans. The aliens are immensely larger.
Probably reading Of Men and Monsters was so entertaining for me because I need some escapism. I had a CT scan Friday and I’m waiting the results. In other words I’m hiding from a big monster. But I also loved this book because it is so 1950s science fictional. It’s a retreat into my childhood and contained so many themes, ideas, motifs, and speculations that I loved when first discovering science fiction. Because of that I’ll give it 5-stars when I rate it for Goodreads. I’m sure a reader less prejudiced by nostalgia wouldn’t be so generous.
One last thing. Towards the end of the story William Tenn intrudes in the novel by allowing one of the characters to philosophize about humanity. That character says we’re kin to rats and roaches and we’ve not been kind to each other or to the other species we share the planet. I agree with what Tenn is preaching, but I felt this bit of philosophy dumping marred the story. The story itself had already inspired me to think of these things without being told. If this novel has a flaw it’s how modern knowledge that should have been forgotten was worked into the story. Either that, or Tenn should have developed the backstory of the Aaron tribe to explain how they could have retained that knowledge.