The 1953 SF&F Magazine Boom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 5/13/22

Update: Thanks to John Boston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/14/22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

James Wallace Harris, 5/8/22

The Problems with Classic Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 5/1/22

Assembling a List of My Favorite Science Fiction Short Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Top Favorites For Now

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/30/22

Science Fiction Can’t Save Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/26/22

Old and New Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boobs” by Suzy McKee Charnas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/13/22

Is There Any New Territory for Science Fiction to Explore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

Does Too Much Suspension of Disbelief Ruin a Story?

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

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

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

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

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

Speedbump #1

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

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

Speedbump #2

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

Great Idea #1

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

Speedbump #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expectation #1

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

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

Speedbump #4

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

Speedbump #5

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

Speedbump #6

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

Great Idea #2

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

I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

And just for that one moment

I could be you


Yes, I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

You’d know what a drag it is

To see you

Expectation #2

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

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

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

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

But this story didn’t follow my expectation.

Speedbump #7 and #8

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

Conclusion

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/1/22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/27/22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s me. What about you?

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/22/22

When is a Forgotten SF Story Worth Ressurecting?

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

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

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

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

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

That line did nothing for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/17/22

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

Finishing The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/15/22

“Craphound” by Cory Doctorow

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 3/15/22

“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/12/22

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

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

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 3/6/22

The Implications of Giving Comic Books Another Try

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris 3/8/22

“The Remoras” by Robert Reed

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And to make his story even more fun, he takes us through several plot twists. There is a scene when Quee Lee is on the surface of the ship describing a tremendous light show of lasers destroying comets before they could hit the ship that reminded me of the “Tears in the Rain” speech by Roy Batty in Blade Runner. It goes like this: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain… Time to die.”

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 3/6/22

“Gorgonoids” by Leena Krohn

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 3/1/22

New Feature At CSFquery

In Praise of Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/1/22

“The Brains of Rats” by Michael Blumlein

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 2/24/22

More Books for PKDickheads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 2/23/22

“Death is Static Death is Movement” by Misha Nogha

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 2/22/22

“Before I Wake” Kim Stanley Robinson

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 2/20/22

“Burning Sky” by Rachel Pollack

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 2/18/22

“Two Small Birds” by Han Song

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #91 of 107: “Two Small Birds” by Han Song

“Two Small Birds” by Han Song is a beautiful story that I admired for the writing and imagery, with many sentences that I twanged my heartstrings, especially, “I’m shocked to smell the flavor of olden days.” There’s not a moment that crawls by that I don’t feel that.

But here I go again being a little pissant. I don’t believe “Two Small Birds” is science fiction, or at least I don’t want to believe it. I’m not sure what label to give this story, but somehow I feel it’s unfair to shanghai every beautiful work of the fantastic and force it to sail upon our great clipper ship the Science Fiction. This is another case where I believe like their mentor Judith Merril, the VanderMeers want to uplift the genre by claim jumping other folks’ goldmines.

Now I will have to defend my position by going all verbose on you. Sorry about that. Let’s start with the simplest way to make my case. We make generalizations and classifications to find an agreement on what we’re pointing at with our words. Even though they are very similar, we like distinguishing between dogs and cats.

Nowadays anything that mentions anything that has the slightest whiff of science fiction gets slapped with the label science fiction. We need more labels. More precise labels. I saw an interview with David Brin the other day, and he came up with a lovely label, “speculative history.” Science fiction has become too trendy, too broad. It’s a monopoly that needs to be broken up.

I don’t have a label for “Two Small Birds,” but I don’t want to use science fiction for the job. I already have a lifetime of reading that uses that label, and this story is not really like those stories.

This reminds me of a book I recently read, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W. Anthony about determining the location of the culture that produced the Proto-Indo-European language. Somewhere in pre-history, there exists a proto-fantastic-storytelling form that is the mother of all the genres. And like English, German, Spanish, etc. share elemental sounds from the Proto-Indo-European, science fiction, and whatever we should label “Two Small Birds” share common story elements that are similar, but they are as different as English and Italian.

I’m also reminded of the book I’m reading now, The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow who argue against singular generalizations about human societies in pre-history because they certainly took a myriad of forms. And every shaman, guru, seer, witch-doctor, medicine man, mystic, astrologer, came up with a different creation story to explain reality. Out of thousands of years and countless refined perspectives we created science. It’s a very precise label. That makes it useful. I believe science fiction has a similar distillation from all the proto-fantastic storytelling forms, and we could make it precise too. We could if we tried.

“Two Small Birds” reminds me of Carlos Castaneda, Bob Dylan, Walt Whitman, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and a certain work of Thomas De Quincey, among many others. You wouldn’t call any of those dudes science fiction writers, would you? And I will admit there are lines in “Two Small Birds” that sound science fictional. I just don’t think it fits into the taxonomy of how we should classify science fiction.

Now, I will admit things are evolving, and language is never static, and it appears that younger generations want to slap the Sci-Fi label onto any kind of strange story they love because they feel the genre should be all-encompassing. But I say it’s valuable to have a word other than calling every creature an animal because sometimes it’s important to distinguish a giraffe from an elephant.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/15/22

“Vacuum States” by Geoffrey A. Landis

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #90 of 107: “Vacuum States” by Geoffrey A. Landis

“Vacuum States” by Geoffrey A. Landis is a clever second-person tale that draws the reader into the story.

I suppose I should say more.

“Vucuum States” is full of concepts about physics and cosmology. The only trouble is I can’t tell the real physics from the mumbo-jumbo that Landis made up.

Like many of the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, I didn’t consider it a real short story, although it was. There are no constraints on what writers can call fiction. The VanderMeers like stories that feel intellectual, and this one feels like a fun lecture in physics. But as I read “Vacuum States” I was mildly annoyed that I was reading something so contrived, however, the ending put a smile on my face and redeemed my reading effort.

But why didn’t they use “Ripples in the Dirac Sea” which is also from 1988, and Asimov’s? It came in 2nd place instead of 10th in the readers’ awards that year. And it won the Nebula Award and came in 3rd in the Hugos. Maybe because the VanderMeers had already included Dirac in their giant anthology, The Time Traveler’s Almanac. I need to consider that all my whining about story choice in this volume is because the VanderMeers used the stories I would have chosen in other anthologies.

Then what about “A Walk in the Sun” from three years later? It won the Hugo and the Asimov’s Readers’ Award. It was a real story, even more so than Dirac. Of course, I have that story in three other anthologies, but could they have known that?

I doubt either of the VanderMeers are reading these reviews but if they did, they’re probably annoyed at my constant questioning of their story selection choices. But I keep wanting to know about the process and the issues to consider. Do the authors ever get a say? I see The Big Book of Science Fiction as the main anthology that young readers will know 20th science fiction short stories. Part of my grumpiness is they seldom picked the stories I remember as the best SF from the 20th century. I worry my favorites will be forgotten. But I also think about the authors. Is “Vacuum States” how we should judge Landis if we only have one story? It’s not a bad story, but there’s just not much to it.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/14/22

“All the Hues of Hell” by Gene Wolfe

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #89 of 107: “All the Hues of Hell” by Gene Wolfe

I’ve only read a handful of stories by Gene Wolfe, but the ones I have read impressed me immensely, and I’m afraid “All the Hues of Hell” paled in comparison. One problem is Wolfe’s most famous stories are rather long, so maybe the VanderMeers didn’t want to include any of those because of length. But there are many to choose from, and like the Willis story, I wonder why “All the Hues of Hell” got the nod.

I hate to keep nagging about the selections in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Partly, it’s because I wonder how anthologies are put together. I assume some anthologists love to promote underdog stories hoping they will become more famous. However, I find it very hard to imagine not picking the very best stories from each author, especially for a retrospective volume that covers a whole century. I’m afraid I would never buy a Gene Wolfe book after reading “All the Hues of Hell,” but I have after reading some of his other stories. My running assumption with this volume is the VanderMeers’ taste in science fiction is just different from mine. And “All the Hues of Hell” is on the horror side of things, and they seem to like horror science fiction.

In the VanderMeers’ introduction, they quote Wolfe: “My definition of a great story has nothing to do with ‘a varied and interesting background.’ It is: One that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure.” I don’t know if I’m a cultivated reader, but I have learned that rereading often brings increased pleasure. This is my first reading of “All the Hues of Hell,” so it might improve when I read it again in the future. But for this first reading, I found it confusing.

I think I got the gist of it. A scout ship, the Egg, leaves the mothership, Shadow Show, with a crew of a husband and wife team, L. Skinner “Skip” and Marilyn Jansen (Jansen 1, Jansen 2), along with an android/robot/cyborg named Kyle, and his pet macaw, Polyaris. Marilyn is pregnant. They are under the command control they call the Director. I don’t know if this is a person or a computer? Their mission is to capture a being from a mostly invisible world they call the shadow world. While Skip is on an EVA to capture the creature he goes insane and claims he’s dead and the world he’s visiting is Hades. Kyle and Marilyn go through various activities to rescue Skip and he is restrained when he is brought back with the captured being. [On second reading I realized that Skip never left the Egg, but was jacked into some kind of virtual reality that let them see the shadow world.]

All of the action takes place inside the Egg, and all the characters float in microgravity. There is a black sphere, maybe a magnet torus, in the room, to hold the alien when it’s captured. Much of the conversations deal with Skip’s insanity and descriptions of what he’s seeing. I never knew why he went insane, other than the exposure to the shadow world, or the fact, that’s what Wolfe wanted. Like a Philip K. Dick story, there is a fair discussion of mental illness and insanity.

At one point Kyle tells Polyaris that it’s raining frogs and fish and asks the bird if it remembered Charles Fort. Few people today know who Charles Fort was, so why would someone in the far future know about him? He collected odd stories that people claimed were evidence for the occult, but his popularity was decades before I was born, and I’m seventy. The reference amused me but thought it was jarring. I also considered it a writer-ly thing to throw out. I assume Wolfe wanted to connect the odd goings-on in this story with the occult, but it didn’t need a reference to Fort.

All the descriptions of the actions within the Egg, and the events of the virtual EVA were very confusing to me. I assume Wolfe saw clearly what he created in his mind’s eye, but I never saw the scene clearly. That hurt the story for me.

I guess the ending is supposed to be significant. The alien, the shadow creature, evidently possesses Marilyn’s fetus. Oooh, all scary, but not! In retrospect, that means Skip’s insanity was due to possession. I just didn’t see that at the time.

For the sake of this story, and this review, I just reread “All the Hues of Hell.” This time I pictured the setting much better. I was wrong about Skip, he never left the Egg. He went insane while inside the scout ship with Kyle and Marilyn. They all were observing the shadow planet with some kind of AR, or some kind of computer sensing device. None of them ever left the Egg. Marilyn took control of a tractor beam, or force field, or magnetic waldoes, and grabbed up the shadow creature.

On the second reading, I don’t think Skip’s insanity had anything to do with the shadow being. I think the stress of the mission drove him nuts, and he characterized everything with his own fears.

Even though the story was clearer on the second reading, I didn’t like it any better. Actually, I was horrified they grab a possible sentient being for scientific study. Made me think of little green men in UFOs abducting Whitley Strieber.

I now wonder if this 1987 story was inspired by the 1986 film Alien? Kyle is an awful lot like Bishop, especially since he might be an unreliable narrator and was intentionally putting the mission at risk to capture the creature. And in the end, Marilyn has an alien inside of her.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/12/22

“Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #88 of 107: “Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis

Normally, everything I’ve read by Connie Willis is enchanting, but it was a bit of a slog for me to read “Schwarzschild Radius.” The story is quite clever. Modeling the physics of a black hole against events by Germans at the Russian front in WWI. Karl Schwarzschild was a German physicist who first mathematically worked out the ideas of black holes from Einstein’s equations. The title of the story, “Schwarzschild Radius” is the actual name given by scientists to the size of an event horizon in a rotating black hole.

Schwarzschild died at the front from an autoimmune skin disease. Willis took this fact and made it into a science fiction story. She has a first-person narrator, a soldier who had served at the front, being interviewed by a biographer of Schwarzschild. The story switches from the present to flashback memories. Willis makes the conflict of the story about the soldiers’ failure to communicate outside of the front as if they were trapped inside an event horizon of a black hole. This is a neat idea intellectually, but I found it contrived and strained in the storytelling. Using a series of frustrating incidents to show the parallels to physics was just too obvious.

The details of these episodes were on the surreal side, which might have been Willis’ intention, but I found that annoying. I prefer stories that feel like realistic paintings, and this story felt like modern art.

“Schwarzschild Radius” was anthologized in The Norton Book of Science Fiction and The Big Book of Science Fiction, as well as being included in Nebula Awards 23 for being a finalist. So this story is admired. But there are stories that are admired for the clever writing that I just don’t enjoy.

First off, “Schwarzschild Radius” is overly complicated with its framing. It is another layer of modeling the event horizon, but was it really needed? Being in the German trenches on the Russian front in WWI is a perfect metaphor for being inside the Schwarzschild radius. And the idea of waiting for a letter from Einstein and understanding Schwarzschild’s disease are great elements to include in the story. But I never felt for any of the characters.

Willis seems to pattern the mood of the story from the mood in Catch-22, but I never cared for her characters like I cared for Heller’s characters. The repeated requests to get a message out reminded me of Yossarian constantly asking about Snowden. And the soldier building the motorcycle reminded me of Orr. Of course, Heller had a whole novel to develop his characters, and Willis just has a short story.

There were some vivid moments, like when the narrator feels revulsion at Schwarzschild’s skin disease, or when the explosion buries him in the trenches. But most of the action went by too quickly. We never got to settle into any scene to get into it. Personally, I believe the story would have been much more effective without the framing. The framing words could have been used to expand the heart of the story.

I wonder why the VanderMeers picked “Schwarzschild Radius” when there are so many other Willis stories to choose from? Maybe her top stories are over anthologized. I never thought a story could be over anthologized until I read a letter by Philip K. Dick asking Lee Harding editing Beyond Tomorrow to substitute “The Commuter” for “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” He did. I wonder how often this happens, and I wonder which story Connie Willis would have liked in this volume? “Schwarzschild Radius” could be her favorite, and I’m a dunderhead not to see it. I know Rich Horton loves this story.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/12/22

Improving the Internet for Researching Science Fiction

I wrote an long review of We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick for my personal blog. Normally, I would put my science fiction reviews here, but my goal is to review every book I read in 2022 at Auxiliary Memory. Go read the review if you’re interested in PKD, but what I want to do now is talk about how I researched that review. I found quite a few impressive sites devoted to Philip K. Dick, but I didn’t think Google was very good at helping me find them. I also assumed there are way more great sites out there that I’m not finding through Google.

Google is unfortunately geared at helping people sell stuff. It’s a shame it doesn’t offer us radio buttons or a pulldown menu near the search box where we could tell Google what kind of results we want. If the box “[ ] I’m Buying” isn’t checked, then don’t show us any site trying to sell us stuff. There is scholar.google.com to search, but its results come mainly from academic sites (often with content behind paywalls), and I want results from all sites. I believe search engines aren’t the solution.

Once upon a time I wanted to become a librarian, so I’m thinking of librarian type solutions. Remember the good old card catalog? I believe one way to separate the informational wheat from the chaff is to use a curated card catalog. And I believe one already exists – Wikipedia.

Here is Wikipedia’s entry for We Can Build You and the entry for Philip K. Dick. The first link in the Reference section is to the novel’s entry in ISFDB. Between those three web pages, most readers would learn about all they wanted about We Can Build You before reading it. Searching Wikipedia first was far more efficient than starting with Google.

What Do We Want From An Internet Search Tool?

  • Immediate access to the exact information we seek
  • Links to the most authoritative information
  • We want enduring sources that can be sited
  • We want accurate information
  • We want human curated information
  • We want cumulative history of the information
  • We want information organized into useful subcategories

Using my research for We Can Build You as an example, here’s what would be the ideal results, both in general, and specifically how I see Wikipedia providing it.

  1. A comprehensive history of the writing and publication of the book.
  2. A complete but concise summary of the plot with a listing of characters.
  3. A summary of the most common interpretations of the book
  4. A summary of how the book has been reviewed and judged.
  5. Links to the best online reviews/essays/academic papers
  6. Links to databases that contain information about the book
  7. Links to where I can buy/download the book
  8. Links to books/essays/academic articles about the book
  9. Bibliography of significant books/journal citations that aren’t online.

Wikipedia has already been moving in this direction. The entry for We Can Build You is a decent start. Dr. Bloodmoney has some improvements. But the entry for The Man in the High Castle gets much closer to what I’m wanting.

Google claims there are 53,800 pages with information about [“We Can Build You” by Philip K. Dick]. Just how many extensive reviews or scholarly papers on We Can Build You exist? Some might be on the 12th page of a Google results or the 153rd, or hidden behind a firewall protecting academic publications so they aren’t easily found. How many excellent articles on the book have been written? 8, 15, 172? What if human editors decided on the best 5-10 to list on the Wikipedia, especially if their full text was available online? At what point do we have enough information about any subject?

A Wikipedia entry doesn’t need to be a dissertation on the subject but it should be the start of one. It should provide all the links to start writing a dissertation.

ISFDB lists eight reviews, but not links to the actual reviews. Some of those reviews are on the internet, some are not. One of those reviews is also listed on Wikipedia but without a link, even though the full text of the magazine is available online. Read the Theodore Sturgeon’s review in the January 1973 issue of Galaxy, and it is summarized on the Wikipedia page. However, none of these links proved that useful to me, and I have to assume much better content has been written about We Can Build You in the last fifty years.

Wikipedia could link to all the academic contend behind paywalls. That would be a tremendous step forward. Better yet link to a service that would allow users to easily buy those articles with Paypal (and give Wikipedia a cut). Or if the publication was something for sale on Amazon, link to it and allow Wikipedia an affiliate cut. Here is the opening page to a book I found that has a chapter on We Can Build You that I discovered though scholar.google.com. It was on Amazon for $9.99 for the Kindle edition. The book is The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick: A Reading of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels by Umberto Rossi.

I found this first page of the introduction so exciting that I bought the book – and it has a chapter on We Can Build You. Because of my knowledge of Sheckley and PDK I know Rossi will have incredible insight. This book should have a link on Wikipedia.

All the scholarly opinions about We Can Build You would be too much for Wikipedia to summarize, but it should point to the best. That would certain be a better solution than Google. Google is finding information by machine indexing. Right now, Wikipedia is presenting information by human intelligence. I believe we need more human help in internet searches than brute force AI. Of course, AI will eventually be better than humans. Someday, an AI will write the perfect nonfiction book on any subject we request of it.

Scholar.google.com returned 47,700 results for the search [We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick]. Wikipedia could link to that search results, and it could list some of those citations that have been human verified by editors to be among the best. Wikipedia is written and edited by volunteers. New volunteers looking for something to contribute could curate the most important links.

While researching We Can Build You I found all kinds of web pages that offer useful information. At the site The World Dick Made they had user sortable listing of PKD’s novels with star ratings, giving the data written and date first published. Here are the books that get 5 and 4 star ratings. We Can Build You gets 4 stars from this site. This certainly would be a nice link for Wikipedia. The link for the novel takes us to a page with more good information, including a long list of characters within the story.

Our own citation listing shows We Can Build You wasn’t very popular on recommended lists and fan polls, but that Josh Glenn put it on the list “75 Best New Wave Sci-Fi (1964-1983) Novels.” That would be another worthy link to include at Wikipedia.

Ultimately, what we want from an internet search is knowledge. Most of us use Google to gather data so we can assemble that data into our own version of knowledge. That’s what my review ended up being. However, my take was highly idiosyncratic. Most people searching on We Can Build You would want facts. Wikipedia does a decent job now, and it’s getting better all the time. However, some researchers would want to know about or even want to read the most common idiosyncratic takes on the novel. Right now, we have to use Google to track those down but it’s very inefficient. Scholar.google is better, but still returns to many results. The right links added to Wikipedia would make it a far superior search tool.

In the future, I can picture the volunteer editors at Wikipedia adding more and more information to each entry, and it will get into helping its users find those idiosyncratic views. This will be much more efficient than Google.

Right now I have several shelves of books about science fiction and its history. If I started with the main entry for Science Fiction in Wikipedia and pulled out all the content that is linked to it, I’d have the best book ever written on the subject, with the best illustrations. All the famous SF authors and their novels have entries in Wikipedia, as well as most of their famous short stories. Wikipedia also covers the editors, book publishers, and magazines. Eventually, Wikipedia could describe every SF stories ever written, and link to where they could be bought or read online, as well as links to everything we know about them. That’s why I believe Wikipedia should become the card catalog of the internet.

Of course, the next problem is making this knowledge permanent.

James Wallace Harris, 2/11/22

Futures Past – Jim Emerson

There are millions of science fiction fans, but how many of those readers love to read about science fiction? Especially, about the history of science fiction way before they were born. I do, but maybe I’m an extreme outlier.

Back in the 1960s, I discovered Sam Moskowitz and loved reading his books about the history of science fiction. I also enjoyed his magazine columns profiling science fiction writers. Over the years I’ve read and collected several shelves of books about our genre. In the 1990s, I subscribed to a fanzine titled Futures Past. It was quarterly, and each issue covered one year in science fiction starting with 1926. It died after four issues and I was greatly disappointed.

Now the creator of that fanzine, Jim Emerson is back. He’s starting over again with 1926, but this time each issue has been expanded into a book (pdf, trade paper, and hardback). To keep costs down, Emerson doesn’t sell through Amazon or bookstores. He sells direct. I bought the first two volumes, 1926 and 1927 with Paypal, but there are other purchasing options. Order from this website. Emerson offers the first volume on pdf for free to give readers an idea of what the books will be like. However, the first volume is only 64 pages, and volume 2 is 144 pages, a much more impressive entry in the series. If you want to give the series a try after looking at the pdf of 1926, I’d buy the 1927 volume first. I plan to collect them all. The home page for Futures Past is here.

Emerson is still working full-time and figures he can only produce one volume a year. He writes all the content and does all the graphic layouts. Jim hopes when he retires to produce two or more volumes per year, and eventually cover 50 years of science fiction history (1926-1975). However, this time he plans to jump around and not go year by year after 1928. I’m glad to hear that. As much as I like reading about science fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, I really want to read about the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I vote for 1941, 1953, and 1968.

I’m very curious how many science fiction fans will be interested in these books. Each volume covers the science fiction magazines, books, and movies that came out during that year. What makes these books so much better than the old fanzines is the use of color printing. I’ve always loved the art on magazine and book covers and still photos and posters from movies. (I’m showing images below from 1927 because you can download the pdf to 1926 and look at it for yourself.)

Each book is a visual history, but there is also a great deal of reading content. Emerson is quite the historian of science fiction’s history, reminding me of Sam Moskowitz, Brian Stableford, and Mike Ashley. Pages 58-93 of the 1927 volume is devoted to the silent film Metropolis which I’ve seen three times over my lifetime, and look forward to seeing it again. About 80 pages of the 1927 volume are devoted to science fiction in silent films.

Both volumes spend many of their pages on science fiction in silent films, a topic I knew little about. I’ve seen fewer than 40 silent films and assumed there was just a handful of science fiction titles. Of course, Emerson includes fantasy and horror, but the number is far greater than I imagined. In one article he lists six pages of lost films.

My favorite section is Science Fiction Books of 1927 (pp.116-133). And my second favorite section is Magazines of 1927 (pp. 94-115. I especially love all the photos of the covers, but there is quite a lot to read about these forgotten books and magazines.

Here’s the table of contents for the 1927 volume.

The original fanzine covering 1926 inspired my interest in Lady Dorothy Mills, a forgotten travel writer from the 1920s who also wrote novels, including one science fiction title. I read about her SF novel Phoenix in the 1926 issue and spent years tracking down a copy. The one mention of a book has inspired thirty years of chasing her books and creating a website devoted to Lady Dorothy Mills. So thanks, Jim Emerson.

Like I said, I love reading about the history of the genre, but I wonder how many science fiction fans are like me? If you like to read about science fiction, leave a comment. I’ve been thinking about profiling some of my other history books on the subject.

James Wallace Harris, 2/9/22

“Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #86 of 107: “Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy

“Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy is one of the great classics of science fiction. I’ve read it before, and it was a delight to read it again. Of course, I’m partial to science fiction stories about intelligent chimpanzees, and I’m not referring to The Planet of the Apes (but I enjoy those kinds of stories too).

One of the first intelligent chimp stories I can remember reading is “Jerry Was a Man” by Robert A. Heinlein. Then came “Rachel in Love.” Next was the novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. There is another novel, but I shouldn’t mention the title because it might spoil the story. And there are other stories which I’ve forgotten at the moment. Nor I’m not talking about stories like Brin’s Uplift novels. I’m only talking about stories that are set in the present with an intelligent chimp, one that you can identify with. One that makes you think we’ve been evil to chimpanzees.

And if you want to know just how evil, watch the documentary Project Nim from 2011. Trigger warning: Project Nim is going to rip out your heart, stomped the crap out of it, and if you’re a good person, make you thankful it did. If it doesn’t make you cry in empathy and outrage you might want to see a psychiatrist.

“Rachel in Love” should also make you cry. I did. It should also make you hate what we’re doing to chimpanzees. It made me hate it again. I was thankful to read in the VanderMeer introduction there has been a law passed against using chimpanzees in research. “Rachel in Love” should also make you happy, because of its wonderful storytelling skills. The structure and narrative of this tale are perfect. Sure, it takes some kinky turns sexually, but then, so do our hormones.

Rachel is a chimpanzee who has been imprinted with personality scans of Dr. Aaron Jacob’s deceased daughter Rachel. She has two sets of memories. Her own chimpanzee childhood, and Rachel’s. Dr. Jacob named the chimp after his daughter.

By Murphy inventing the personality overlay for this story, it provides a kind of Rosetta Stone that lets humans see into the world of the chimpanzee. Rachel is neither human nor chimp, but a bridge between the two. Nim Chimpsky, a real chimpanzee raised in a human family is a tragic animal figure that we can only imagine how he thinks. We want to believe he is as intelligent as Rachel when we look into his eyes but we never know for sure. Jerry, Heinlein’s chimp has been uplifted enough for the law to consider giving him legal status. And Bruno Littlemore is really a fantasy creature created for satire, but one we side with.

I’m old enough to remember a time when people considered animals completely lacking in consciousness. Humans were God’s chosen, and the animals were just for our use. Even nature lovers like Teddy Roosevelt would shoot them all day long and never consider what the animals might perceive. Now, I think we realize that consciousness is a spectrum, and awareness, even self-awareness is not unique to us. Back in 1987 Pat Murphy knew this and wrote “Rachel in Love.” I wonder when everyone will know it.

[I’m sorry I’m behind in reviewing these stories. I had to skip #83-85. I hope to get back to them someday.]

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James Wallace Harris, 2/7/22

“A Gift from the Culture” by Iain M. Banks

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #82 of 107: “A Gift from the Culture” by Iain M. Banks

I strongly disliked “A Gift from the Culture” by Iain M. Banks. Not because it’s badly written, but because the main character kills an untold number of people, and because he doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing. I also hate this story because its plot engine is so uninspiringly cliché that I picture Banks stealing it from an ancient film Noir B-movie.

Wrobik is coerced by mobsters into committing mass murder to pay off his gambling debts. The gambling debt plot motivation is as hoary as tying damsels in distress to the train tracks. But to make matters worse, this story is set within the Culture series, a fictional universe of the far future, where humans are now posthuman, and society is post-scarcity. I’ve read about Culture novels for years and thought it was a great theme. But when I tried one of the novels in the past, I was immediately put off because the plot was about assassins. I quit the novel in disgust. I hate stories about assassins.

If I read a novel about a utopia, I want to read about citizens of that utopia. I want a superior character to follow. In both tries at a Culture story, I get amoral characters. That’s why I hated this story. If you’re a science fiction writer creating a utopian future, I want stories that inspire hope, not make me think human failure is endless.

I assumed while reading “A Gift From the Culture” that Banks would find a clever way to allow Wrobik to escape his role as a mass murderer. But no, evidently Banks felt he promised his readers a spaceship shot down with a handgun and he had to deliver.

I also wondered why Wrobik just didn’t shoot the driver when Kaddus and Cruizell forced the gun on him, and then shoot Kaddus and Cruizell. If the gun can blow up a spaceship, it could blow up a mobster’s limo.

I don’t mind stories with amoral protagonists, but those stories have to justify our observations of evil in some way. There was nothing in Wrobik’s situation or personality to care about. He was weak and despicable. Nor was there anything interesting about the criminals in this story. They were so cardboard and cliché that they made the story cartoonish. Kaddus and Cruizell were no better than Snidely Whiplash. Wrobik is no Walter White.

I’ll have to keep trying to find a Culture novel I will like. I just hope they aren’t all about criminals at the edge of utopia.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/1/22

“Readers of the Lost Art” by Élisabeth Vonarburg

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #81 of 107: “Readers of the Lost Art” by Élisabeth Vonarburg

On the surface, “Readers of the Lost Art” by Élisabeth Vonarburg feels like something written for the Marquis de Sade but he would have been bored by this pretty presentation of two people being flayed alive for art. Again, the VanderMeers have selected another science fiction horror tale. I have to assume there is more to the story than what we’re told in words.

The introduction claims it’s transgressive and transformative and about ritual and creativity. But I’m sure the Incas could have said the same thing about their human sacrifices. However, the story seemed straightforward to me, and I missed any symbolism or satire. I sensed each action in the story before it was revealed but evidently missed all the intended literary implications. My bad.

“Readers of the Lost Art” feels like the kind of story we read in Dangerous Visions so long ago. That anthology edited by Harlan Ellison from the 1960s was intended to shock. The trouble with stories written to shock is they often don’t. They just seem silly and absurd. They feel like kids playing a game of gross-out. I’m sure the VanderMeers and other readers do find intellectual insights in this story, but I didn’t.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a good story with shocking elements. The same night I read “Readers of the Lost Art” I also reread “Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read that story and it has grosser elements than the Élisabeth Vonarburg tale. And it’s even experimental fiction. The reason why “Fondly Fahrenheit” is a masterpiece is in its storytelling style. “Fondly Fahrenheit” sparkles, whereas “Readers of the Lost Art” was merely good writing. I wonder if it sparkled in the original French?

One major difference between the two stories is pacing. “Fondly Fahrenheit” relentlessly races, while “Readers of the Lost Art” trods at a casual nonchalant. That’s an arty way of being aristocratically indifferent, which I think the story intended, but I also think it hurt its presentation. The story is one long, evenly paced, description of a performance piece, with side glances to events in the audience. I was actually more intrigued by those glimpses at the watchers of the performance.

Notice the even paragraphs, the careful, but the plodding pace of the descriptions.

Now, look at a similar page from “Fondly Fahrenheit.” This is actually one of the slower sections of the story, yet murder and a change of planets happen on this Kindle page. But also, Bester tells more about the characters and moves the story along better with each sentence.

It’s not that “Readers of the Lost Art” is badly written, but it’s overly descriptive. It’s Henry James to Bester’s Ernest Hemingway. And that is an artistic choice. But was it the right choice for a story about humans being skinned alive? If you’re writing about shocking scenes, shouldn’t the sentence structure shock too?

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James Wallace Harris, 1/29/22

“The Owl of Bear Island” by Jon Bing

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #80 of 107: “The Owl of Bear Island” by Jon Bing

This 1986 tale by Norwegian writer Jon Bing makes me wonder if he intended it to be cyberpunk. Computers play a significant role in “The Owl of Bear Island,” a story about alien possession. To be honest, I thought the VanderMeers’ introduction to the story more interesting than the story itself. And within the story, I got distracted by wondering what kind of computers they might have had in 1986. I assume the scientists were using minicomputers. I began wondering about DEC, Data General, HP, and others from that era, and thinking of one of my favorite books, The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Bing also brings up programming (FORTRAN and SIMULA), AI, and Expert Systems. In fact, the narrator’s escape plans involve computers.

This plain story about two scientists at a research station on an island in the Arctic being taken over by an alien presence could have been much better. The unnamed first-person narrator thinks of the alien as an owl. He assumes it killed his partner, and he knows enough to struggle to free his mind. “The Owl of Bear Island” has neither suspense, atmosphere, or dread, but is its matter-of-fact style due to the style being lost in the translation, or was the original writing just that straightforward? I don’t know.

Also, I began to think of the problem of remotely operating another being over the distances of light-years. Is telepathy instantaneous? Or was Bing suggesting the alien was on the island with them? Either way, we might call this story horror cyberpunk. It would have been a creepier story if we learned about the possession as it unfolded. Think of the drama of slowly realizing that your choices aren’t your own, especially while living alone far from civilization, during the dark days of the arctic.

Bing’s narrator just comes out and tells us what happened, and then later, just tells us his plans for escape. Good storytelling involves leading us along as events unfold. This story should have been a chess game between a human and an alien. Instead, it’s a quick journal report.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/27/22

“The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets” by Angélica Gorodischer

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #79 of 107: “The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets” by Angélica Gorodischer

I’ve been getting behind in my reviews of the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction. The discussion group is now on story 81. I don’t want to flame out on this project, now that I’m getting so close to the end. But I’ve also been worrying about publishing too much and not having enough worthy things to say about these stories. Once this project is over I’m not going to commit to reviewing large anthologies story by story. I think reporting on reading stories of quality will be more important than reporting on reading in quantity.

“The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets” by Angélica Gorodischer, which was first published in 1985, is a well-written, and quite charming story about a global civilization that has grown up after the fall of our global civilization. For example, the 79 Independent States of North America have only become recently reunited, under an aged bit-part video actor named Jack Jackson-Franklin. The U.S.A. is now a third-world country.

The story setup follows worldwide gossip about a transsexual woman astronaut living in Rosario, a former territory of Argentina, who will fly an ancient preserved spaceship to the edge of the universe.

We are told in this new civilization gun-powder no longer exists but magic does work. That Rosario is so poor that its citizens had to go in together to buy a clock, one of two in the country. The spaceship launched at 5:45am and returned at 6:11am the same day.

The person who is most interested in this news is Her Gracious and Most Illustrious Virgin Majesty Ekaterina V, Empress of Holy Russia. Most of the charm of this story comes from describing the new political orders around the world.

Gorodischer’s prose reminds me of a Bob Dylan song, “Desolation Row” and vaguely remembered hippie novels from the 1960s.

This story is told almost like a fable, a fantasy. I encounter that voice often in translated stories. I wonder if it’s a popular narrative style in South America? Here is the astronaut’s report of what the edge of the universe was like.

For some reason, time dilation worked backward in this story, and the astronaut aged on her 26-minute voyage, rather than the people on Earth. The unnamed astronaut marries and has a son, and when he’s born a green shoot grew out of the ground. I’m not sure what this signifies, other than it’s a sign of renewal in nature.

Angélica Gorodischer gives us another perspective on science fiction. I can see why the VanderMeers liked this story. However, I wonder if it’s not anti-SciFi? It feels like a naturalist or humanist take on the absurdity of the hubris of science fiction.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/27/22

“The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” by Karen Joy Fowler

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #78 of 107: “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” by Karen Joy Fowler

This is my third time reading “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” by Karen Joy Fowler, first published in the October 1985 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s another science fiction story about memory, so it’s interesting to compare it with our last story, “Snow” by John Crowley. In that story, a man remembers his dead wife, in this story, a woman remembers her dead boyfriend. We should make a list of all the ways science fiction is used to play with memory.

In 1970, Miranda dumps Daniel a boyfriend she’s in love with because he’s being drafted. He dies in the Vietnam War two years later, and for thirty years Miranda has felt guilty. Especially, because she intentionally broke up with Daniel because she feared what the war could do to him.

The story takes place after Miranda is a grown woman, and her son is older than Daniel when he died. She goes to an experimental therapist, Dr. Anna Matsui, who uses induced lucid dreaming to get her patients to confront their inner demons.

I’ve been obsessed with memory my whole life, and even more so since I’ve become old my memory has begun to fail. When I was young I used to play around with lucid dreaming. So this story resonates with me strongly.

Miranda meets Daniel in her dreams twice under the control of Dr. Matsui. The first time is a satisfactory encounter according to Dr. Matsui, and she wants it to be the only dream session. Daniel had forgiven Miranda, and that was enough to work with Miranda in regular therapy. However, Miranda begs to go again, but things go badly. Dr. Matsui refuses to put Miranda under again. Up till now, the dreams are based on how Miranda remembers Daniel, from their time at college.

However, Miranda induces her own lucid dream at home, and she meets Daniel at Camp Pendleton, and they argue even more. This time Daniel tells her how he killed a young boy thinking the boy had a hand grenade but didn’t. These are experiences that Miranda could have never known. We have to wonder is she learning something real, or if this is her mind playing tricks on her?

Her final dream with Daniel happens in Vietnam, and Miranda tries to keep Daniel from killing the boy and getting killed himself. Everything is realistic, and Miranda is experiencing things beyond her imagination. This time she tries to stay with Daniel as she sees a bomb fall from the sky, but Daniel tells her to go. He tells her he never wanted that. While she pulls away from the scene she sees Daniel and other soldiers die.

I spotted something different this reading. At one point Daniel tells Miranda she could never know what it was like to have the draft hanging over her head, or getting a low number in the draft lottery because of her birthday. This time I wondered if Karen Joy Fowler is writing the story for all women who felt guilty about not going to war in Vietnam. The two times I read the story before, I saw it only as Miranda’s personal story. But now I wonder if Miranda is all of us who didn’t go to Vietnam. That makes it a much more powerful story.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/25/22

“5,271,009” by Alfred Bester

Why did Alfred Bester write “5,271,009?” Is it merely a wild story, or does Bester have something to say? To rant? Sometimes, when I read old science fiction stories I wonder if science fiction writers weren’t satirizing science fiction and if that’s the case with “5,271,009.”

In the March 1954 issue of F&SF the editors give us a hint with their introduction:

Now, I’m not sure if Boucher and McComas aren’t misleading us, or misreading Bester’s story. I’ve never considered science fiction “pap for paranoids,” or that it’s read by people seeking stories that will free them from their responsibilities. “5,271,009” is one wild ride that begs to be explained.

The editors think the story is Bester’s reply to the critics of science fiction fans. I wonder if Bester isn’t criticizing science fiction too. That it’s a hyperkinetic parody of science fiction. I absolutely crave to hear this story read by a narrator that could do it justice, but the only readers I can imagine reading this story as Bester wrote it are dead. I picture either Robin Williams or Jonathan Winters reading it in their most manic moods.

Alfred Bester was only a part-time science fiction writer. He was also a magazine editor, scriptwriter for radio and television, and scripted comic books. In his introduction below, you can tell Bester has a real life. The over-the-top plot of “5,271,009” reminds me of comic books more than it does science fiction. In the 1950s science fiction was considered crapola-lit for geeky adolescent males, but comic books had even a worse reputation, fit only for the subliterate. Science fiction claimed to teach some science but it was damn little, but comics had no claim to redemption.

Actually, I wonder in “5,271,009” if Alfred Bester isn’t doing something like William Shanter did in the famous “Get a Life” skit on SNL. In the story, Mr. Solon Aquila is described as being two parts Beelzebub, two of Israfel, one of Monte Cristo, one of Cyrano, and mix violently. I believe Mr. Solon Aquila is Bester, Jeffrey Halsyon is either the science fiction genre, or the stand-in for all science fiction fans, or both. Just to give you a taste of Bester’s prose and the sound of Aquila:

Is Aquila just an over-the-top character, or is he a bit more?

This time when I read “5,271,009” I had an introduction by Bester to give me more clues. This copy is from Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester which reprints a 2-volume collection from 1976.

We learn that “5,271,009” was written on assignment to fictionalize the cover artwork. Bester thought the art was obvious camp, and at first didn’t want to take on the project. He felt the story would have to be mad camp. I’ve been seeing that cover since the 1970s and I’ve never once considered it mad camp. Have you? I love the covers on F&SF, especially the ones from the 1950s. If I had to describe what was happening on the cover, I would say a convict was left to die out in space and given enough air to make it torture. But then, that might be exactly what Bester is making fun of.

Of course, we know what the writer imagines doesn’t have to be what the reader reimagines. The basic setup for “5,271,009” is Jeffrey Halsyon, an artist who has gone insane and has quit painting. Solon Aquila is a collector of Halsyon’s work wants him cured so he’ll return to painting. How that’s achieved is a story that feels like a collaboration by Robert Sheckley, Philip K. Dick, and Douglas Adams. But then, this is 1954, and well before those writers showed us just how far out science fiction could get.

It’s interesting that Solon Aquila takes on the job of curing Jeffrey Halsyon. And doesn’t the name Halsyon sound like halcyon? One definition of halcyon is “Often used to describe an idyllic time in the past that is remembered as better than today.” Another confession, that’s exactly how I look back on old science fiction.

Aquila drugs Halsyon and puts him through a series of hallucinations where Halsyon plays out adolescent fantasies often found in science fiction stories, and the number 5,271,009 shows up again and again in these fantasies. The first is a sex fantasy:

Of course, like stories about three wishes, this fantasy breaks apart when Halsyon is told all the women hate him and consider his duty rape. The next hallucination involves the space adventure pictured on the cover of F&SF. Bester is suggesting that science fiction fans imagine themselves as this kind of hero.

In each fantasy, Judith shows up. She is the fantasy girlfriend of all science fiction fans. After Jeffrey makes his escape he is the vile anti-hero that is blamed for the alien invasion by the Grssh. But at the last minute, Halsyon saves the planet. But that fantasy doesn’t work out either.

His next fantasy is my favorite, one I’ve often entertained in my daydreaming, and the plot of favorite stories. Jeffrey returns to being his 10-year old self but retains his 33-year-old mind.

But damn, this fantasy crashes and burns too. The next fantasy is most unpleasant, where Jeffery is in a time loop, like a bad Groundhog Day. Bester makes allusions to Shakespeare and Dante. Slowly, he’s bringing the story around to a meaningful message.

Next up, is another favorite science fiction fantasy I love to daydream about, being the last man on Earth. By the way, I just read Bester’s story, “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To” which uses the same fantasy. In both cases, Bester or Mr. Aquila ruins the fantasy.

Finally, Jeffrey Halsyon escapes the fantasies, or so he thinks and confronts Mr. Aquila.

The answer to that question is 5,271,009. Halsyon is not out of the nightmare yet, he still has millions to go.

The ending is very much like the red pill-blue pill of The Matrix. But the choice isn’t between living in reality or living in fantasy. Instead, it’s much like Hindu or Buddhist philosophy. We evolve through many lives of reincarnation. We can grow faster if we live hard lives. Yeah, it’s that old what doesn’t kill us that makes us stronger.

Now, is this just a neat story that Alfred Bester wrote for Boucher and McComas? Or is it Bester telling science fiction, or science fiction fans, “Get a life!” To be more precise to the story, “Grow up!”

James Wallace Harris, 1/24/22

“Snow” by John Crowley

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #77 of 107: “Snow” by John Crowley

We can learn quite a bit about writing from reading “Snow” by John Crowley. It’s a lovely story that most readers admire. Understanding why reveals those writing lessons. You can read/listen to the story here.

The setup is simple. Beautiful blonde Georgie marries a rich man who buys her everything, including a “wasp” that follows her filming 8,000 hours of her life. The film is destined for a funeral memorial, so it’s a rather odd gift. The rich man dies, Georgie becomes rich, marries Charlie for his looks, and eventually dies herself. Charlie loves Georgie, misses her, and after two years of grieving goes to the cemetery to see the films the wasp took. However, things don’t work out like he thought they would.

First, “Snow” zeroes in on everyone’s deep-rooted feelings for departed loved ones. This has nothing to do with science fiction. William Faulkner said in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech “…problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing…” is exactly why “Snow” works.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules for Writing, he advises “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” What really makes “Snow” work as a story is all the ways the “wasp” fails to work with Charlie’s expectations. Or even to what we readers want and expect. But more than that, chasing memories causes Charlie to learn through the slow suffering of aging, desire, and looking backward.

I expected Charlie would go to the cemetery and request to see certain days that he fondly remembered being with Georgie. That’s what he expected too. But the wasp system didn’t work that way. There are two buttons: Access and Reset. The first shows one scene, randomly. Reset shows another random scene. Charlie goes to the caretaker disappointed. He learns the recording technology used by the wasp is at the molecular level so they can squeeze in 8,000 hours of film, but there is no ordering and no time/date stamps. Just momentary glimpses from the past.

Charlie keeps coming back, addicted to those random scenes, learning about himself and Georgie. Eventually, Charlie notices that the memory clips are fading over time, turning snowy. He complains to the director, who tells him an interesting story about being a film archivist in his old job for the movie studios. He tells Charlie that in the oldest film clips, people’s faces looked pinched, cars and streets looked black, and things felt wintery.

Charlie never goes back to the cemetery. The last paragraphs are about what Charlie has learned about human memory. He believes there are two kinds, one that worsens over time, and another that can grow more intense.

Charlie is a character we can root for, we can feel and empathize. That’s another of Vonnegut’s rules. His number one rule is, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” My time was not wasted. This is the second time I’ve read this story, and both times I felt a powerful sense of resonance with the John Crowley gives us. It made me think about my own life and wants. The time it took to read it produce worthwhile insights for me. “Snow” made me contemplate the nature of memory, recognizing how much our memories are like the memories collected by the wasp. Yet, what I wouldn’t give for a film library of my life.

Vonnegut also says, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Charlie wants Georgie, either in real life or in memories. This is something everyone feels, so does that make this story more powerful? More powerful than say a story about someone wanting to save Earth from alien invaders? I think it does. I think the most powerful science fiction stories are the ones that make us think about people. Remember Charlie Gordon? Or Kip Russell?

Another piece of advice from Vonnegut is, “Start as close to the end as possible.” Crowley doesn’t spend any time when Georgie was alive. He gets right to the heart of the story and only spends a bit over six thousand words in storytelling. I think that’s another plus for this story. Short, sweet, and POW! That’s why Bob Shaw’s “Light of Other Days” was so effective.

Finally, and this is the hardest to judge, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action,” but I believe Crowley adhered to this advice very well indeed. In the end, Charlie says, “I wanted to go, get out, not look back. I would not stay watching until there was only snow.” One for action, one to tell us all about Charlie.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/23/22

My Anthology Problem

I’ve read over a thousand science fiction short stories in the last three years and I’ve decided I have an anthology problem. This is different from the anthology problem Szymon Szott solved for me in “The SF Anthology Problem – Solved.” No, my current problem is finding anthologies with a higher percentage of great stories to read.

I and other members of our science fiction short story reading group never can find anthologies where we love all the stories. Of course, that’s asking too much from editors but we still crave 24k carat gold anthologies. Even the Gold Standard of science fiction anthologies, volume one of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame had stories I didn’t enjoy (“The Weapon Shop”) and it was created by polling science fiction writers for their all-time favorite stories.

One of our members, Austin Beeman, has a useful website that reviews science fiction anthologies. He has a nifty infographic that measures the percentage of great/good/average/poor/DNF stories. Here’s his chart for The Hugo Winners: Volume One. Austin considers it has a 94% positive rating, but then that’s for a book of all award-winning stories. Austin tends to be generous by including stories he rates Good in that figure. I wouldn’t.

Most science fiction anthologies never get anywhere near that percentage of good and great stories. Why?

I just finished reading The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. Even though I enjoyed most of the stories to varying degrees, I thought only 5 of the 13 were worth my time.

And isn’t time the essential yardstick here? I only have so much time for reading. I only have so many years left in life. And the number of books I want to read will take more time than I have left. From a different time perspective, many of these stories are supposed to be the best of one year, and often the anthologies I read are assumed to be the best of all time.

There is the problem that some stories are extremely time-worthy to some members of our group, while other members complain those same stories were a waste of their time. I’m realistic enough to know that no editor can ever satisfy every reader one hundred percent, but I believe there are stories that a good majority of readers will admire. Is it possible for editors to pick more of them?

I’ve known many people who say they don’t read science fiction magazines because they don’t find enough good stories in each issue. And I think that’s true. Magazines have the lowest hit rate. And now that most of the print magazines are bi-monthly, they are fat with stories, but instead of feeling I’m getting my money’s worth, it just makes me hesitant to start reading because I dread all the disappointing stories.

Many old-timers complain that the print magazines aren’t fairly represented at award time or in the best-of-the-year anthologies, but is that actually true? I tend to only read online stories when someone recommends a story, and that makes me avoid the filler stories. But also, if I was a writer, I think I’d prefer to have my stories online so they were easy to be read. I generally only read stories published online when they are anthologized by best-of-the-year volumes, so that makes me think online publishers have a higher hit rate. I don’t know if that’s true.

Original anthologies often do much better than magazines, probably because they pay more. You can tell their hit rate by how many of their stories get anthologized in the best-of-the-year volumes.

For the annual best-of-the-year volumes, our group has found that the success rate depends on the editor. But I also think size matters. Gardner Dozois’ giant yearly anthologies with over thirty stories often had more hits in them than his competitors with fewer pages. But his percentage of hits was probably lower.

To be honest, some of Dozois’ competitors mixed fantasy with science fiction, and for me, that automatically lowers the hit rate. Could the success rate of an anthology depend on the type of story?

Our group is currently reading the gigantic anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction and it has many stories generally loved, as well as many stories generally disliked. We were considering four other giant 21st century SF anthologies that look back on the 20th century but I doubt we’ll vote to read them as a group. Some of our members have promised to read and review them on their own and let us all know.

Again, I think size is a factor. If these giant retrospective volumes had been smaller, they might have forced their editors to be pickier about what they anthologized. I have many giant science fiction anthologies on my shelves, and I’m becoming leery of reading them. I think somewhat smaller retrospective anthologies like The World Turned Upside Down edited by David Drake, Eric Flint, and Jim Baen, and Masterpieces edited by Orson Scott Card are much more solid with hits. I’m more likely to buy that size anthology in the future.

Theme anthologies are a bit different. I’m more forgiving. I still expect good stories, but I don’t expect great stories simply because I’m reading to be entertained by how an idea is used.

Giant anthologies are great for writers because more stories are preserved and given a chance to find readers. Yet, is such noble efforts fair to readers? Few readers want to be slush pile readers.

That suggests another possibility. I do think too many stories are being published each year, but what if it’s a theme distribution issue? Allan Kaster has switched from general best-of-the-year SF anthologies to best-of-the-year theme volumes. The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories and The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories might be the solution. This opens up a whole new avenue for editors, and maybe readers.

I guess what I want is retrospective science fiction anthologies aimed at science fiction fans who came of age in the 1960s who don’t like fantasy and who are somewhat nostalgic for 1950s science fiction. However, I am willing to try new things. Rich Horton gave our group a list of stories he liked best among the two decades of stories he reviewed for Locus Magazine. I’d buy them as an anthology, even though many of them were fantasy stories. I don’t entirely live in the past, or focus exclusively on SF. And I hope our group finds more anthologies that cover contemporary SF/F to read. I just wished they weren’t too big and had mostly great stories.

The reality is no anthology is going to be perfect, except for the editor who assembled it. Subjective tastes vary. But as readers, I think we all love it when we can find an anthology that has a high percentage of stories that wow us. And I assume editors love it when they create an anthology that gets praise for having a lot of great stories. Perfect anthologies are impossible, but I think we all hope to find them.

James Wallace Harris, 1/21/22

The Great SF Stories 25 (1963)

Isaac Asimov died on April 6, 1992. The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) was published in July 1992 and was the last volume in the series. On the last page Greenberg let us know:

I had assumed all along that Martin H. Greenberg (who died June 25, 2011) had been doing most of the editorial work for The Great SF Stories series, but felt that hunch confirmed when Isaac Asimov’s introductory comments went missing from volumes 24 and 25. I’ve now read volumes 1-18 and 25. I love this series. I read volume 25 out of order because my short story discussion group voted to group read it after Christmas.

This series has always been unique because Asimov and Greenberg were reevaluating the best stories of the year with many decades of hindsight. Here are the stories they picked as the best of 1963 from 1992:

Back in 1964, Judith Merril picked these stories as her favorites for 1963:

For some reason, Merril included “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” in her 10th Annual in 1965.

In 2022 the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list remembers 41 titles from 1963 in its database, but here are the stories that got at least two citations. 1963 wasn’t a remarkable year, especially since it takes eight citations to get on the final list. Meaning, only “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is really remembered today.

After all these years, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is the obvious best SF story for 1963, and the one most remembered. Most science fiction fans discover it today in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame v1. “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To” is another favorite, but it’s mostly forgotten in 2022, as is “New Folks’ Home.” “No Truce With Kings” won the Hugo for short fiction that year but I just don’t think it holds up or is remembered, even though the ideas within it are interesting. The more remembered Poul Anderson story should be “The Man Who Came Early.” The surprise story is “Turn Off the Sky” by Ray Nelson, however, it will probably only appeal to fans of the Beat writers.

I doubt many of these stories will get reprinted in the future. It’s a shame that The Great SF Stories 1-25 (1939-1963) hasn’t stayed in print. They are becoming collector items and can be a bit expensive to collect. Scans were available on the internet, but they’ve been taken down from the obvious places.

Below are my stories notes for the group discussion:

Story 01 of 13 – “Fortress Ship” by Fred Saberhagen
If Magazine (January 1963)
Retitled for collections as “Without a Thought”
1st story in the Berserker series

In not a very auspicious beginning to the Berserker series, “Fortress Ship” introduces us to the idea of alien intelligent robotic spaceships programmed to destroy all life in the galaxy — a doomsday weapon. This story was interesting because it proposed programming a game of checkers with boxes of colored beads and a set of cards for specific moves. The first computer checker game was in 1952. I wonder if Saberhagen knew about computers? The Berserker series is about AI minds, but I don’t know if that concept was known in 1963.

In “Fortress Ship” a Berserker ship the size of New Jersey is destroyed by three small human spaceships. I haven’t read the series, but I bet Saberhagen made it more difficult in later stories. Berserker minds understand human minds and can use our languages. I’ve read on Wikipedia that other alien species also fight the Berserkers. I’d like to read more in this series.

Rating: ***


Story 02 of 13 – “Not in the Literature” by Christopher Anvil
Analog (March 1963)

Anvil imagines a world where people haven’t discovered electricity but are still trying to orbit a satellite. Not sure if the story takes place on an alternative history Earth or on another planet. But at the beginning of the story, the attack of a wasp-like creature called a drill on Alarik Kade suggested another world to me. On first reading, I thought the drill was some kind of assassin’s drone device. Rereading it makes me think it was only some kind of insect. That means it could be an alternate Earth story I suppose, where a wasp is called a drill.

I found the whole beginning of the story odd. It was a kind of slapstick physical comedy. It doesn’t match the tone in the second part of the story.

I assume Asimov and Greenberg liked this one because of the chemical-engineered world that couldn’t conceive of electricity. And that’s a neat idea. Especially trying to imagine how they could build a rocket with telemetry without electricity. On the other hand, the storytelling was disjointed at best.

Rating: ***+


Story 03 of 13 – “The Totally Rich” – John Brunner
Wor

The setup for “The Totally Rich” reminded me slightly of “Vintage Season” or “Sailing to Byzantium” with Brunner imagining a class of rich people who live undetected by us ordinary folks. It reminded me of those classic stories because of the elite vacationers in time, and the elite far future citizens who party at one recreated city after another, are like the elite rich in this story, who can have nearly anything they want.

Derek Cooper is tricked by Naomi, one of the elusive rich in Brunner’s story. She’s had a whole picturesque village built with actors playing all the citizens just to fool Derek into working for her. That’s the power of her wealth. But she wants something impossible, something her money can’t even buy. She hopes Derek, given enough time and money can invent what she needs.

This is a great setup for a science fiction story. I thought it was going to be at least a 4-star story. But then, Brunner doesn’t satisfy my expectations, leaving me with a 3-star story.

I tend to think it would have taken a full novel to play out the idea Brunner began, and he didn’t want to do that. The quick tragic ending just didn’t work for me.

Rating: ***+


Story 04 of 13 – “No Truce With Kings” – Poul Anderson
F&SF (June 1963) (Hugo Award – Best Short Fiction)

I was really looking forward to reading “No Truce With Kings” after enjoying Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early” so much a couple weeks ago. Plus, Kings had won a Hugo, even though I find it impossible to believe it beat “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.”

Unfortunately, my expectations were misplaced. “No Truce with Kings” is too long, too muddled, and just too damn political. Did Poul Anderson really believe humans were better off living under feudal societies? Did he really want to downsize the government that much?

I thought “No Truce With Kings” was murky because I never could picture the battles, or even know which side to sympathize with. I wanted to side with the aliens, the nation builders, and even the feudalists.

If anything, this story made me feel humans are too stupid to deserve to survive. It glorifies war in the worst ways.

On the other hand, there’s lots of good writing in this story.

Rating: ***


Story 05 of 13 – “New Folks’ Home” – Clifford D. Simak
Analog (July 1963)

“New Folks’ Home” is a lovely little tale that reminds me of WAY STATION, another Simak story about a human serving as a contact on Earth for an alien interstellar community. I identified with Frederick Gray because I’m seventy. It’s interesting that Simak was only 59 when he wrote this story. I guess it was his fantasy for old age.

Rating: ****+


Story 06 of 13 – “The Faces Outside” – Bruce McAllister
If (July 1963)

Odd story about humans kept in a giant aquarium. As I read it I thought it would be a story that would fit in the VanderMeer anthology. Then I noticed that Merril had included it in her 9th Annual, which reinforces that thought. Not my cuppa tea.

Rating: ***


Story 07 of 13 – “Hot Planet” – Hal Clement
Galaxy (August 1963)

“Hot Planet” by Hal Clement reminded me of “Brightside Crossing” by Alan E. Nourse, another hard SF story about surviving on Mercury. Both stories have been invalidated by time and newer science, but both still present good old fashion science fiction adventure.

What was significant about “Hot Planet” was Clement’s use of women scientists.

Rating: ***+


Story 08 of 13 – “The Pain Peddlers” – Robert Silverberg
Galaxy (August 1963) (2nd story from this issue)

Silverberg’s writing in “The Pain Peddlers” is what I consider great hack writing. He’s obviously mastered the technique of writing short stories for the pulp/digest markets. This isn’t a great story, but it’s very readable and competently entertaining, and a solid addition to the magazine, even a worthy entry for an anthology, but to be honest, not one that will be remembered.

Rating: ***+


Story 09 of 13 – “Turn Off the Sky” – Ray Nelson
F&SF (August 1963)

Wikipedia says Nelson was the guy who invented the propeller beany as a symbol for science fiction fans. It also says he gave LSD to Philip K. Dick. The F&SF intro said he was working on a book about beatniks in Chicago. I’d like to read that.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Nelson_(author)

“Turn Off the Sky” was quite an interesting read, especially if it was written four years before it was published. Mainly for the satire on radicals and beatniks. It appears to be pro-capitalist, but I’m not sure. I thought it funny with its quip about arguing over Marx and Robert Heinlein.

The story was readable and fun, but it was more impressive in its dealing with the 1950s subculture, especially, anticipating a lot of stuff that happened in the 1960s counter-culture. It even has a sitar being played years before George Harrison made it famous.

Rating: ****


Story 10 of 13 – “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To” by Alfred Bester
F&SF (October 1963)

Linda Nielsen thinks she’s the last person on Earth. Like Ralph Burton, played by Harry Belafonte in the 1959 film THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL, Linda is fixing up her apartment by taking whatever she wants from a deserted New York City. I mention this movie because it’s a favorite movie and I pictured it as I read “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To.” I love the last person on Earth stories. My all-time favorite novel is this type is EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart.

However, I’ve always thought it would be neat if the last person on Earth was actually the last person, but in these stories, someone else always shows up. In the movie, it was Sarah Crandall, played by Ingar Stevens. Since Bester describes Linda as Nordic, I wondered if he saw the movie with the Nordic Stevens and decided to just start with a blonde. Also, in the last people on Earth stories, the second person is generally of the opposite sex, so the plot develops sexual tension. In a number of these stories, a third person shows up. Usually, it’s two males fighting over one female. Another movie example of this is THE QUIET EARTH (1985).

Bester brings about an interesting twist in the end that finally convinces Jim Mayo and Linda Nielsen to get it on. This satisfies us readers who have been waiting for that action, but it wraps up the story too quickly, at least for me.

Rating: ****+

However, the ending reminds me of another last Adam and Eve story, “Quietus” by Ross Rocklynne. It’s in THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN. Read it here:

http://baencd.freedoors.org/…/The…/0743498747__17.htm


Story 11 of 13 – “Bernie the Faust” – William Tenn
Playboy (November 1963)

“Bernie the Faust” captures a certain time and place in New York City that I’ve only learned about indirectly from plays, movies, and books. It reminds me of stories about Seventh Avenue such as I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, and makes me wonder if Willian Tenn was intentionally trying to create Jewish humor science fiction?

“Bernie the Faust” has a kind of funniness that needs to be acted out in a play or episode of the old TWILIGHT ZONE, or at least heard in an audiobook.

Rating: ***+

My favorite book by Tenn is OF MEN AND MONSTERS, which isn’t humorous. It’s a wonderful adventure tale that if you haven’t read, please don’t read about, not even the blurbs on the book cover. Everyone gives too much away.


Story 12 of 13 – “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – Roger Zelazny
F&SF (November 1963)

I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve read “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” over the past fifty years. I wish I could find the words to explain how much I admire this tale. This time as I read the story, I was noticing how effective Zelazny was using short and medium-length sentences to convey information but imply a great deal more. My own prose is too verbose. Zelazny isn’t Shakespeare, or even particularly literary, but he moves the story along without wasting words.

Rating: *****


Story 13 of 13 – “If There Were No Benny Cemoli” – Philip K. Dick
Galaxy (December 1963)

As I read this story, I marveled that Philip K. Dick even imagined this story. What a creative mind. Earth has been through an atomic war. Human colonists from Mars have returned to rebuild civilization, but their work is interrupted by another faction of human colonists from Proxima Centauri returning to Earth to rebuild civilization. There is political strife between the two groups. A neat invention in this story is a kind of AI that produces The New York Times. It seems to know everything going on in the world and influences the rebuilding of civilization.

Rating: ****+

James Wallace Harris, 1/20/22

“Pots” by C. J. Cherryh

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #76 of 107: “Pots” by C. J. Cherryh

One of my favorite science-fictional settings is when explorers find a planet with an ancient long-dead civilization. This is the setting for “Pots” by C. J. Cherryh. “Pots” also deals with another favorite science-fictional theme, the generation ship.

Cherryh’s story is long and moody, but it could have been just a flash fiction gimmick because the central idea is very simple. Usually, I have spoilers in these discussions because these pieces are my response to our group reading. However, with this story, I won’t give it away.

There are lots to like about this story. The characters are very ancient. Between cloning and the time dilation of relativity, Dr. Gothon’s life spanned over a quarter of a million years. This is one generation ship story where the characters remember their mission, and some of them even remember the start of the mission.

On the other hand, the O’Henry ending of this story is both neat and a groaner. I saw it coming. I’m never happy when a writer intentionally withholds information from me. And I don’t know if the story would have been significantly different if we knew everything right from the start.

Nor am I happy with the explanation for the conflict. I saw no reason to suppress the truth. I think “Pots” would have been a much more effective and moving story if everyone learned the truth on page one, and then have the story unfold about how it changed the different characters. That would have eliminated an exciting action scene, but so what.

I’m disappointed when science fiction uses B-movie logic to contrive a plot. “Pots” has a lot going for it, the writing, the richness of the worldbuilding, it didn’t need a violent confrontation between two groups to move the story along.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/18/22

“New Rose Hotel” by William Gibson

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #75 of 107: “New Rose Hotel” by William Gibson

“New Rose Hotel” by William Gibson first appeared in the July 1984 issue of Omni Magazine but was overshadowed by Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and the PKD awards for that year. Still, the “New Rose Hotel,” is a dazzling piece of writing.

Gibson’s story brings up the importance of writing style in the success of a story. “New Rose Hotel” is all style. Science fiction meets Raymond Chandler high on William Burroughs pretending to be Hunter S. Thompson. The story is not about the plot, but how the story is told.

The plot is your typical noir gangster drama of two tough guys double-crossed by an alluring woman. But instead of stealing money, they steal a brilliant bioengineer in the near future where cutting-edge science is the hottest of commodities. The story is set in Japan, which at the time was a rising economic powerhouse, but also because Gibson loved various Japanese subcultures.

The trouble with style is it can be like cotton candy, tasty but empty. I enjoyed reading “New Rose Hotel” but when I was finished the exquisitely crafted atmosphere left me immediately. I never cared about the narrator, Fox, or Sandii. And, I’m not fond of thrillers. I do like the 1940s and 1950s film noir movies, and I’m a fan of Raymond Chandler’s novels, but that’s because I love the historical details from those times. Gibson’s cyberpunk Japan used to be interesting to me, but over the decades that interest has faded.

This makes me wonder about science fiction settings. Why do some of them endure, and others fade? People love galactic empires. That setting is so well-loved that recent TV series and movies for Foundation, Dune, Star Wars, all have a similar feel. The same is true for interplanetary space operas like The Expanse. For a while, cyberpunk stories had a standard feel and settings, but the popularity of that cyberpunk atmosphere has dissipated. (Or is that just me? Does cyberpunk still have a fanbase?)

I have to admit that I’m partial to certain styles/settings that developed in 1950s science fiction, and they still work for me. Back in the 1980s cyberpunk stood out. It was extremely popular and many writers jumped on its bandwagon. And I assume there are readers who grew up with cyberpunk that still love it, but it’s lost its luster for me. On the other hand, a lot of the technical speculation that came out in the cyberpunk novels are now considered standard background ideas in modern science fiction. We’ve kept the cyber, but not the punk.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/17/22

“Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead” by S. N. Dyer

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #74 of 107: “Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead” by S. N. Dyer

“Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead” by S. N. Dyer first appeared in Terry Carr’s Universe 14. Dyer’s real name is Sharon N. Farber and she has written a number of science fiction stories, but little else is known about her.

“Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead” is a story about using an O’Neill space colony for patients with immune-compromised diseases and conditions. To complicate the plot, Dyer has her society resent people who voluntarily undergo the rigorous preparation to live in the colony just to be with an ailing loved one. They call these faithful partners Fidos. They hate them because they could return to Earth when all the truly afflicted know they can’t ever leave the colony. Madeline is a Fido, hiding her marriage to Henri, by pretending to have Lupus with complications just so she can stay with her husband.

I’d rate this story 3-stars and give it a plus (***+) because it’s a solid piece of science fiction I enjoyed. I liked how Dyer worked up a story setting and then developed a plot to fit it. However, even though it’s a good story, it doesn’t transcend. It was a good idea story, but I never felt emotion for Madeline or Henri.

For me, there’s a definite barrier between 3-star and 4-star stories. Of course, it’s subjective, and it’s relative. Each reader resonates with stories differently, but I think we all have buttons when pushed, will kick the story up to the next level. For me, it’s the immediate awareness that I’ll want to reread the story someday. Yet, that’s a rather vague way of explaining what I mean. What makes me want to reread a story?

A totally useless way to say it is to say stories that spark magic. Boy does that sound dumbass. It sounds like I’m Marie Kondo holding up a possession, to decide to keep or throw out. Yet, it’s about as definitive as I can get. Some stories just spark joy.

This story didn’t. It’s sparked, “That’s pretty cool.” And that’s often good enough. Most stories will never be ones we put in our “To Keep” piles. The mathematics behind that is realistic. I’ve read thousands of short stories, but it’s only practical to keep so many in my memory and heart. I often wonder about that number. Right now, it’s between 100 and 200, but I feel as I get older, it will fall below 100, and then 50, then 25, and finally, and if I’m lucky, I might remember a handful of favorites during my last days.

James Wallace Harris, 1/15/22

“Variation on a Man” by Pat Cadigan

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #73 of 107: “Variation on a Man” by Pat Cadigan

“Variation on a Man” by Pat Cadigan first appeared in the January 1984 issue of Omni Magazine. The Big Book of Science Fiction seems to be the first time it’s been anthologized. And it doesn’t seem to be included in any of Cadigan’s three collections. Does that imply it wasn’t liked? I enjoyed it, though.

“Variation on a Man” is another take on cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction that was popular back in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time there was a lot of excitement over cyberpunk, but it seems to have faded away into the mainstream of science fiction. William Gibson’s cyberpunk started with his famous novel Neuromancer was noirish. Cadigan’s story does away with cybercrime and deals with mindplayers, people who make mind-to-mind contact for various creative reasons. Deadpan Allie (Alexandra Victoria Haas) is a pathosfinder hired to help Rand Gladney become a composer again after his mind was stolen and his personality is being rebuilt.

Most of the science fiction in this story is based on downloading/uploading of minds, which has become a very popular meme in our genre. It’s a concept I don’t believe in but is kind of fun for storytelling. However, there are many people working and hoping to someday make this fantasy real. In this story world, people have artificial eyes that are easily removable, giving access to the optic nerves that can be used for computer interfaces. Allie goes into Rand’s mind this way. Sort of ghoulish, but kind of neat too.

Cyberpunk often worked at creating a hip attitude, with lots of cool jargon and nicknames. But Deadpan Allie and her boss Nelson Nelson (Duran Duran?) sound like something Damon Runyon would have created back in the 1920s, although Deadpan might have been a tip of the hat to Tin Pan Alley since the story is about music. And deadpan also means with no emotion, and Allie isn’t supposed to convey any in her work while inside people’s minds. But for me, I found these names jarring and hurt the story somewhat.

“Variation on a Man” was a pageturner for me. Even though I didn’t like the idea or the cutesy names, I wanted to know what would happen. The idea of rebuilding a personality from scratch in a grown body is interesting. Plus, the idea that all the previous personality was erased made the mystery of wanting to become a composer again another story mystery.

The tale concluded well enough but fizzled out towards the end. I never bought the psycho-mumbo-jumbo as to why Rand Gladney would or could recreate a ghost of his stolen personality. Where did it come from? His doctors claimed the new personality was kept away from any knowledge of his old personality.

I might like to read some of Cadigan’s novels, Mindplayers, Synners, or Fools. I’m not sure old cyberpunk holds up, but I kind of miss the excitement it once produced. “Variation on a Man” reminds me I need to reread The Dream Master by Roger Zelazny which I read back in the 1960s. It’s another story about mucking around in someone else’s mind.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/11/22

“Bloodchild” by Octavia E. Butler

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #72 of 107: “Bloodchild” by Octavia E. Butler

I’ve been waiting months for us to get to “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler. It’s the #1 story on our Classics of Short Science Fiction list. It has 18 citations that remember it over the last 35+ years. I’ve read “Bloodchild” three times now, and it is a great story. But I keep asking, “Why is it great?” What ingredients did Butler use to cook up such a tale?

The first time I read “Bloodchild” I assumed it was about slavery. I partly assumed that because Butler is African-American, but Butler herself assures us it’s not in her afterward to the story in her collection Bloodchild and Other Stories.

IT AMAZES ME THAT some people have seen “Bloodchild” as a story of slavery. It isn’t. It’s a number of other things, though. On one level, it’s a love story between two very different beings. On another, it’s a coming-of-age story in which a boy must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life. 

On a third level, “Bloodchild” is my pregnant man story. I’ve always wanted to explore what it might be like for a man to be put into that most unlikely of all positions. Could I write a story in which a man chose to become pregnant not through some sort of misplaced competitiveness to prove that a man could do anything a woman could do, not because he was forced to, not even out of curiosity? I wanted to see whether I could write a dramatic story of a man becoming pregnant as an act of love—choosing pregnancy in spite of as well as because of surrounding difficulties. 

Also, “Bloodchild” was my effort to ease an old fear of mine. I was going to travel to the Peruvian Amazon to do research for my Xenogenesis books (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago), and I worried about my possible reactions to some of the insect life of the area. In particular, I worried about the botfly—an insect with, what seemed to me then, horror-movie habits. There was no shortage of botflies in the part of Peru that I intended to visit.

Butler, Octavia E.. Bloodchild: And Other Stories (p. 30). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. 

This morning, as I reread the story, I tried to observe myself reading it. First of all, it succeeds because it’s compelling. “Bloodchild” draws us in immediately. It has page-turning power. Partly, that’s the vivid writing, but partly it’s the horrifying details. We’re watching a trainwreck we can’t turn away from. I’ve commented quite often how the VanderMeers keep picking science fiction horror stories, and this is another one. How many readers find the horrific a stimulus to keep reading?

I don’t like horror as a genre, but I have to admit that many of the stories I love involve elements of the gross, the ugly, the terrifying, the depressing, etc. Reading “Bloodchild” again makes me ask myself: “What makes me love science fiction?” Always before, the quick answer was science fiction was about things I wanted from the future. There is no path in “Bloodchild” I’d want to follow. Then, why do I admire it so much?

The setting of the story is another world, and I love stories about humans colonizing alien planets. I also love stories about aliens. However, these aliens are pretty damn strange. They are three meters long and insect-like. They lay their eggs in host animals, but at the time the humans arrive at their planet, their eggs, are beginning to fail in the local host animals. Humans then develop a symbiotic relationship with the Tlic, becoming the new hosts. The Tlic prefer human males, thus allowing human females to focus on producing more humans.

Gan, a teen boy, is our point-of-view character, and as the story progresses, we learn about his future as a host, and what it means to become a host. This is why when I first read the story I thought it was symbolic of slavery, but it’s not. It’s about a new kind of relationship, a new kind of love, a new kind of obligation.

Men have always wondered how women could choose to become mothers knowing all the pain they will suffer. Like Butler says, this is her pregnant man story. She is giving us a story that answers the question, “Why would you give birth knowing the pain involve?” The story is even more complicated than that. On a science-fictional level, it asks, “What would you do to survive on another planet?” and “How far would you go to develop a relationship with another intelligent alien species?”

As a kid growing up I read science fiction because I wanted to become a Mars colonist. In 1964 I didn’t expect that to be much of a sacrifice. But in 2022, I know living on Mars would involve a tremendous price in suffering. Maybe “Bloodchild” is a symbolic lesson in the cost of our SF dreams? Or maybe, it’s merely Butler imagining a very exotic situation.

One of the most important aspects of a great work of science fiction is imagining something very strange and different. That involves creating a lot of details to paint such a picture. “Bloodchild” is dense with such details.

This leaves me wondering. Are my favorite stories about characters living lives I envy, or just living fascinating lives? As a teen in the 1960s, I loved Heinlein’s juveniles because I wanted to trade my mundane existence with his characters leading exciting science-fictional lives. Can I say I’d never want to exchange places with Gan? The only story I can remember from those we’ve read in The Big Book of Science Fiction that I think I’d like to jump into is “The Martian Odyssey.”

The novel I’m listening to when I’m not reading these stories is Bewilderment by Richard Powers. It’s about a father struggling with an emotionally disturbed nine-year-old son. The boy keeps having meltdowns because he worries about all the doom and gloom in our future. One technique the father uses to calm his son is to tell stories from his collection of 2,000 paperback science fiction books.

You know what’s scarier than “Bloodchild?” Our future. At what point in our timeline will kids consider “Bloodchild” a positive escape? Is that why we read science fiction now? Is any world better than this one? Even Gan’s world?

Update: 1/10/22

My comment to the group:

Whenever I read this story I'm horrified by what Gan and the other males have to go through. It's pretty awful. But then I've been thinking, is it any worse than what women have to go through when having a baby? I've been thinking about that ever since I read that Butler called this her pregnant man story. When I first read "Bloodchild" years ago I tried to interpret it in terms of slavery. But Butler said it's not about that. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if Butler isn't just giving us a metaphor for women and birth. Then do the Tlic represent men?

James Wallace Harris, 1/9/22

“Blood Music” by Greg Bear

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #71 of 107: “Blood Music” by Greg Bear

I can’t criticize the choice of “Blood Music” by Greg Bear for this anthology. It’s tied for 3rd place on our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. In fact, The Big Book of Science Fiction contains all five of the top stories listed below. (It uses 20 of the 101 stories on our list, and 5 of the 27 stories from the 1980s.)

“Blood Music” had a total of 15 citations, which is quite significant.

Rereading “Blood Music” reminded me of how exciting science fiction used to be when it came to imagining far-out concepts. I’m currently listening to Bewilderment by Richard Powers, and at one point the narrator, the father, says he has 2,000 paperback science fiction novels laying around the house that he steals ideas from when he wants to tell his autistic son a story. That’s how I remember science fiction too, mentally indexed by ideas.

“Blood Music” is one of the best examples of the gray goo threat in fiction. Greg Bear’s particular take on Gray Goo is brilliant. Again, it’s horror science fiction, but one I enjoyed. I beginning to think the VanderMeers are actually horror fans. The next story, “Bloodchild” is another horror science fiction story. I should have kept a tally.

This novelette version of “Blood Music” first appeared in the June 1983 issue of Analog. I believe I first read it in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection in 1984, but I also read the 1985 novel version in 1987. That’s what I vaguely remembered while reading this short version again. I need to go back and reread the novel because my vague memories recall lots of padding that made the story even better.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/8/22

“Mondocane” by Jacques Barbéri

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #70 of 107: “Mondocane” by Jacques Barbéri

“Mondocane” by Jacques Barbéri is another one of those entries that felt like a fictional essay rather than a story. All I can say is this story reminded me of a wordy version of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” I just don’t consider this kind of work science fiction. Sure parts of it can sound science-fictional, but my quibble is it sounds like an art form from an alternate reality where science fiction’s intent was strangely different.

The hives of homunculi were born out of necessity. The occupants of the nuclear bunkers were found, for the most part, buried under hundreds of meters of sand. Initially, the women, crushed by a powerful lethargy, saw their volume increase considerably; their limbs atrophied, and only their head remained, at the tip of a gigantic flaccid body. Inversely, the men decreased in volume and started to live in the folds of flesh of the female bodies. 

But it was a matter of becoming animal only in appearance, cerebral functions diminishing not at all. Except the social instinct, of collective life, was intensified. The first eggs were tended in doubt and fear. Then the first larvae made their appearance. And, supplied with burrowing snouts, they set about fighting their way towards the surface. The desert is now a gigantic network of tunnels and reproduction chambers. The hives presently stage the form of life that is the most evolved, most adapted, of the planet. All things considered, the homunculi would prefer to remain underground, and come out only very rarely, mainly to hunt.
 

I felt this story descends from Poe rather than Verne or Wells.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/7/22

“Swarm” by Bruce Sterling

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #69 of 107: “Swarm” by Bruce Sterling

Well, I can’t complain about not getting good old fashion science fiction with “Swarm” by Bruce Sterling? It has a proper pedigree, being first published in the April 1982 issue of F&SF, my favorite SF magazine, and then reprinted by my two favorite best-of-the-year anthologists at the time (Carr and Wollheim). And it’s part of a well-imagined science fiction series, the Shaper/Mechanist universe.

What makes “Swarm” good old fashion science fiction? First, it thinks big. Really big. It imagines humanity dividing into two species, the Shapers, who use genetics to become posthuman, and the Mechanists, who use cybernetics as their path to evolving. Making “Swarm” even more exciting is meeting aliens who have chosen a third way, of symbiosis with multiple organisms.

“Swarm” takes place in an alien hive world fashioned out of an asteroid. Two humans, Simon Afriel and Galina Mirny survive there naked, coexisting in the hive ecology of many symbiotic species. Their clothes were consumed right off their bodies by various unintelligent alien critters who serve the hive organism. They eat what the symbiotes regurgitate.

Visually, this reminds me of The Forgotten Planet, by Murray Leinster, Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, and “Surface Tension” by James Blish. It also makes me think of the film Fantastic Voyage but imagining Raquel Welch and Stephen Boyd without suits floating in the inner space of the human body. Simon and Galina float in weightlessness instead of fluids.

“Swarm” would make a fascinating film because of its tremendously alien setting, however, it needs a plot and an ending that doesn’t spring out of a hidey-hole at the last minute. How the story wraps up is rather impressive, but there was no buildup to it at all. We’re told Galina and Simon each have their assignments from the Shapers, but those tasks don’t drive the story. “Swarm” is full of dazzling ideas, but they all feel tacked on like Christmas tree decorations.

“Swarm” got 11 citations, making it on our Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list. That’s impressive, revealing a lot of people loved this story when it came out, and it’s well remembered by two fan polls.

I’m afraid it’s only an average good story for me because I never felt anything for Simon or Galina. “Swarm” tied for 7th place with nine stories. “Fire Watch” beat “Swarm” for both the Hugo and Nebula awards that year. I liked all of the other stories below much more but felt if “Swarm” had been more emotional I would have liked it much more than the others. If we had felt a sense of posthuman difference in Simon and Galina, if the ending had been built up to so we felt the tragedies of both characters, then this story would have been at the top of the group with me. It thought big but moved little.

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James Wallace Harris, 1/5/22