“A Meeting With Medusa” by Arthur C. Clarke is story #10 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “A Meeting With Medusa” first appeared in Playboy, inDecember 1971.
“A Meeting With Medusa” is among Arthur C. Clarke’s best works of science fiction, including Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The City and The Stars. And I like it better than any of his more famous shorter works including, “The Nine Billion Names of God,” “The Star,” “The Sentinel,” and “Rescue Party.” I believe it’s his best work of hard science fiction, and probably one of the best works of hard science fiction by anybody.
The story is set up with Howard Falcon surviving a dramatic crash of a giant dirigible on Earth. Years later, he is descending into the atmosphere of Jupiter where he mans a monstrous hot-hydrogen balloon. Clarke was never known for writing literary fiction and wasn’t particularly good with characterization and drama, but this story has both.
“A Meeting With Medusa” reminds me of two other classic science fiction stories, “The Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum and “Call Me Joe” by Poul Anderson. I don’t want to explain why because I don’t want to spoil the reading of “A Meeting With Medusa.” If you know those two stories, you’ll have a couple of hints.
“A Meeting With Medusa” has been reprinted often, and it won the Nebula Award for Best Novella in 1973. It has also been translated into many languages. This is not a story to miss if you love science fiction. I believe this is the third time our SF short story group has read “A Meeting for Medusa,” and it is well admired.
“A Meeting With Medusa” resonates with our deepest desires for science fiction. We want to explore the universe, and we want to find amazing wonders of nature and lifeforms, and I think most of all, we don’t want to be alone. Most of us will never leave Earth, so science fiction empowers our imaginations to go where we can’t.
I’ve always thought of science fiction as a tool for speculating about the future. History is a tool that lets us know the past, but we can’t know the future like history teaches us about the past. Science fiction can only extrapolate upon endless possibilities. I’d love to know the history of the future, to what will come after I die, but that’s impossible. Science fiction gives me hints, enough to soothe that desire to know the future just a tiny bit.
To me, the best hard science fiction leaves me with the feeling that whatever it imagines might possibly come to be after I die.
“The New Prehistory” by René Rebetez-Cortes is story #9 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “The New Prehistory” was evidently first published as a short story in a periodical in 1964 according to the only record I can find. It was collected in La Nueva Prehistoria Y Otros Cuentos in 1967, translated as The New Prehistory and Other Tales by René Rebetez. The site linked above lists 19 short stories, all labeled science fiction.
According to David Hartwell in his introduction to the story, “The New Prehistory” was translated by Damon Knight and was first published in 1972. So the publishing history varies. Hartwell says Rebetez-Cortes was Columbian but the cover of the author collection above suggests something different. Google says he was born in Subachoque, Columbia in 1933 and died on December 30, 1999, in Isla de Providencia, Columbia.
“The New Prehistory” is a very short literary allegory that could be called introverted horror. It’s about a man going to a movie but hates waiting in line. He steps away from the line while watching his friend wait in the queue. Then the line becomes possessed by some unseen force and all the people in the line start acting like they’re part of one giant snake-like organism. People who stood in groups became giant amoeba-like organisms. Individuals stayed individuals. Eventually, the new giant organisms take over the world and hunt the individuals.
Even though a lot of people are calling “The New Prehistory” science fiction I’m not. It’s the kind of fantastic story I heard read in creative writing classes from high school to graduate school. In every writing class there always seemed to be one student who everyone thought was brilliant who would write these kinds of fantastic allegories. They were popular with both the teachers and students because they always seemed so damn clever.
I believe writers, and even oral storytellers, have always used the fantastic in their tales. But that doesn’t mean they are science fiction. Some scholars in science fiction have been trying to claim more territory for the genre for decades. They want to both up the reputation of the genre and claim more types of stories as ours. When I was young, I agreed with this. I wanted the genre to have prestige. But after a lifetime of reading, I realize I’m a consumer of science fiction and I want real science fiction, not ersatz sci-fi.
Science fiction is impossible to define so editors can call anything they want science fiction, but as a consumer, I know what I want, and this kind of story is not it. I remember when I was young back in the 1960s and wondering what science fiction must be like written in other countries in other languages. Then in the early 1970s, we got some Soviet science fiction anthologies and I got my wish. Slowly, the idea of world science fiction has grown, but all too often I believe editors have grabbed anything they could to fill their anthologies. I think that’s a disservice to the genre, and dishonesty to the literary world.
I know that other SF readers will accept these stories as science fiction because their definitions of the genre are different. And that’s cool. The reality is we don’t all think alike. But I would like to think that science fiction was a term with validity and to me, the intent of the genre is more specific, even quite narrow.
Just because a story has elements of the fantastic doesn’t make it science fiction or fantasy. I also believe fantasy as a genre covers definite territory too. As an emerging bookworm back when I was in grade school, I’d go up and down the library shelves looking for certain kinds of stories. Stories about space travel, robots, new technology, and time travel. They were always about the future, or they were set in current times when things changed. “The New History” is set in current times and things changed, but I still don’t consider it science fiction. Why? Because of the tone of the story.
I never believed while reading the story that people could become group organisms. If the author had made some kind of case for that it would have been science fiction. But that wasn’t his intent. He was obviously making a case about the horrors of being in a group. As an introvert, I completely understand that angle. It’s a good story for that purpose. But that’s a completely mundane purpose. Science fiction is not about the mundane. Science fiction is about the far out, but as a real possibility, even in humor. I never thought the people in “The New Prehistory” were becoming group monsters, nor did I think the author wanted us to believe that. I felt the author was giving us an allegory about how he felt about the real world.
For me, science fiction has to be about what the real world could become. The fantasy genre is about make-believe worlds, but believable worlds within their own concepts. I know most science fiction is unbelievable, or has become so. For me to think of it as science fiction, I have to believe it’s possible, or at least think people once thought it possible.
“The Golem” by Avram Davidson is story #8 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “The Golem” was first published in the March 1955 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Avram Davidson (1923-1993) uses his own childhood pop culture references to get us to visualize the setting “The Golem” at the beginning of this 1955 story:
Anyone who attended the movies in the twenties or the early thirties has seen that street a thousand times. Past these bungalows with their half-double roofs, Edmund Lowe walked arm-in-arm with Leatrice Joy, and Harold Lloyd was chased by Chinamen waving hatchets. Under these squamous palm trees Laurel kicked Hardy and Woolsey beat Wheeler upon the head with a codfish. Across these pocket-handkerchief-sized lawns, the juveniles of the Our Gang comedies pursued one another and were pursued by angry fat men in golf knickers. On this same street—or perhaps on some other one of five hundred streets exactly like it.
And he does the same thing at the end:
Presently the sound of the lawnmower whirred through the quiet air in the street just like the street where Jackie Cooper shed huge tears on Wallace Beery’s shirt and Chester Conklin rolled his eyes at Marie Dressler.
I assume that Davidson was nostalgic for the films he saw as a kid in the 1920s and 1930s but how many readers today will know them? I was familiar with all those names and images, but his story keyed in another era for me, the late 1950s and The Twilight Zone. I visualized Mr. and Mrs. Gumbeiner, an old Jewish couple sitting on their porch with their uninvited Golem guest as one of the comic episodes of that classic TV show.
The tone of the story reminded me of Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson, so in 1955, Avram Davidson was ahead of his times — by four years.
Of course, in 2023 we’re starting to get worried about AI and real robots while science fiction readers are still enchanted by stories about friendly androids, cute robots, or sexy sexbots. So I assume modern readers could still be enchanted by this quaint old-fashion story. It’s the kind of Jewish comedy schtick that was once very popular, but I wonder if modern readers concerned with cultural correctness might consider it a stereotype? Essentially, “The Golem” is a time capsule of history, that mixes 1955 science fiction with Jewish folklore while asking us to remember old Hollywood films that kids loved twenty and thirty years earlier.
It’s interesting that David Hartwell included “The Golem” in The World Treasury of Science Fiction. How many stories in that anthology are there because of Hartwell’s own nostalgia? Other editors have loved this story too, just look at the long list of reprints it’s gotten over the last several decades.
However, even though I enjoyed this little blast from the past, I have to wonder if its storytelling hasn’t become too quaint for modern readers. Right after reading it, I started listening to “The Affinity Charm” by Jennifer Egan, the first story in her fix-novel The Candy House. The setting for that story is an apartment where people have gathered after a lecture to discuss what everyone thought. Egan presents a diverse group of intellectuals all arguing from different academic perspectives. To these modern sophisticates, “The Golem” would be an overly simplistic tale they’d quickly dismiss. I wonder if even uneducated young people today would be too sophisticated intellectually to enjoy this story?
I only considered “The Golem” mildly entertaining, mostly for its nostalgia. But then I can remember 1955. How will people born after 1985 or 1995 see it? Hartwell’s anthology came out in 1989, and I’m starting to wonder from its first eight stories if it isn’t already a relic of the past?
“On the Inside Track” by Karl Michael Armer is story #7 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “On the Inside Track” was first published in the original anthology, Tales From the Planet Earth in 1986, edited by Frederik Pohl and Elizabeth Anne Hull. As far as I can tell from ISFDB.org, those are its only publications.
“On the Inside Track” is by a German writer, Karl Michael Armer, and it’s set in Europe, but it seems like a typical American science fiction story. It’s also a good story, one that I’ll want to reread in the future. Actually, I might want to read all the stories in Tales From the Planet Earth after reading the review it got in The New York Times.
One reason I liked “On the Inside Track” is its protagonist, Robert Förster is 70 years old, and I’m 71. Förster is well-to-do and unhappy. I’m happy but not well-to-do, but we both share quite a lot of observations and reactions about being old. Förster’s life is interrupted when an alien, Sassacan, moves into Förster’s mind. In this story, aliens conduct interstellar travel by mind projection. Sassacan visits Earth to conduct business negotiations with other aliens who are occupying other human bodies.
Förster doesn’t mind being used because it’s a diversion from being bored and lonely. In fact, he gets to like the company. This story reminds me of Sheckley’s novel, Mindswap but without the humor. “On the Inside Track” is pleasant, but slightly predictable. I guessed two of its surprises, but that didn’t mar the reading experience.
However, I’ve got to ask a question: Is World SF really any different than American science fiction? World SF is set in other countries, and sometimes it even references cultural differences or tries to exploit local myths and beliefs, but mostly science fiction is science fiction. “On the Inside Track” makes a decent addition to the anthology but I didn’t think about Germany while I was reading it. Förster’s desire to be commanding is alien to me, but I don’t think that as a German trait, but as an alpha male trait of a person wanting to be successful.
I guess I need to wait and see if Hartwell finds a story from another country that feels truly alien to me. Alien in the sense that it’s completely foreign, and not space alien.
If you’re an old movie fan, either from being old or just because you love old movies, you might know Walter Tevis from his first novel, The Hustler (1959). It was made into a stunning Paul Newman movie. Jeez, that’s a helluva start for a young novelist. Wait, that happened to Larry McMurtry too. (Note to self, see how many young novelists were made famous by Paul Newman, it might be worth a blog.) Tevis’ last novel, The Color of Money (1984) was also made into a movie starring Paul Newman. I’m sure the first and last thing is unique.
Tevis was forgotten for a while until David Bowie made his second novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), into a weird quirky flick in 1976. Don’t rush out and watch that movie though, they ruined the book, but do read the novel, it’s quiet and lovely and should resonate with your soul. (You can watch the film afterward to see what Bowie does in the role, and there is another film version and a Showtime TV series to check out too.)
Most young people today will know of Walter Tevis if they read the credits or reviews of Queen’s Gambit (1983), the hit series on Netflix. The TV show is excellent but the book is better. All this media exposure has made Tevis (1928-1984) a minor forgotten writer with some fame.
You might have figured out by now that I’m a fan of Walter Tevis. That’s even more true now that I just finished his 1980 novel Mockingbird. What a strange trip it was. I thought it a perfect novel for the 2020s because it is about artificial intelligence and the decline of the human race and our civilization. Mockingbird is set in the 25th century but I don’t think it will take us that long.
I don’t want to give any spoilers to this novel because it‘s the kind of story that you should just unfold slowly as you read. But I do need to say enough to get you to read Mockingbird. Mockingbird has over two thousand customer ratings on Amazon with a 4.5 average.
For most of the novel Tevis tightrope walks between existentialism and nihilism and has a brush with Christianity. I will tell you the ending made me happy because of how Tevis ties up the story and his philosophical speculations. Tevis doesn’t stick to any one philosophy. He appears to be extrapolating on the decline and corruption of liberal thought but what he projects for conservatives isn’t any better. Walter Tevis was one of those tortured souls that tried mightily to figure out reality in his fiction.
The story opens with Robert Spofforth, a robot who looks like a black man but has an artificial brain. Later in the novel, Spofforth is described as the most beautiful object humans ever created. Bob is a level 9 robot, the most advanced of his kind, but the only unit of this model that hasn’t destroyed himself. He has been programmed so he can’t commit suicide. Currently, he is the Dean of New York University, but he might be the most intelligent and most powerful being left on the planet.
Spofforth hires Paul Bentley to come to New York because he’s the only human being he can find that can read. Bentley’s narrative is the main part of the novel. Paul then meets Mary Lou, an iconoclast living among the sheep, and teaches her to read. But Bob didn’t hire Paul to teach people to read but to translate the intertitles in silent films. Bob doesn’t want humans to learn to read again.
The human population has shrunk from billions to just a few million. Robots care for all their needs, but very poorly because robots are also a declining species. Humans routinely consume drugs, have a lot of casual sex, and pursue inner development.
There are elements in Mockingbird that will remind you of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, with a slight hint of The Road. And if you’ve read The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett, Mockingbird reminded me of it too. And there’s a little bit of Cool Hand Luke in the story. (Another Paul Newman connection).
And if that’s not enough to get you to read Mockingbird there’s a cat named Biff. I’m off to read The Steps of the Sun (1983) but it hasn’t gotten kind reviews. I also bought The King is Dead (2023) which reprints his 1981 collection Far from Home and adds many unpublished works.
“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon is story #6 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” was first published in the October 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
My third reading of “The Man Who Lost the Sea” left my eyes stinging with tears, just like they had for the second reading. Nearly everything I felt while reading the story for the third time I had said in my second review. My first review was all about trying to get everyone to read the story.
I found Sturgeon’s prose while reading “The Man Who Lost the Sea” this time far more vivid than the first two times, and I look forward to reading it again in the future. A couple weeks ago I watched a YouTube video by a guy reviewing classic litature (Joyce, Proust, Pynchon). He said his professor had taught him to really get to know a book required reading it ten times.
I have a self-imposed rule when reading anthologies. Whenever I’m reading a new anthology and it has stories in it that I’ve read before, I reread them — even if they were in the last anthology I just finished. Even if I didn’t like them. Sometimes a story I didn’t like on my first reading, or the second, becomes a favorite.
“The Man Who Lost the Sea” is the kind of story that I use for my 5-star ratings. Those are stories I want to read and reread over my entire lifetime. I’ve probably read “The Man Who Lost the Sea” more than three times because I can’t remember everything I read years or decades ago. I’ve just read and reviewed it three times in a little over two years for this blog. The great thing about doing this blog is documenting my memory, it’s highly unreliable, and getting more so.
Memory is one of my favorite subjects and themes, and “The Man Who Lost the Sea” is also about memory and memories.
“Triceratops” by Kono Tensei is story #5 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “Triceratops” was first published in the August 1982 issue of Omni.
On one level, “Triceratops” isn’t much of a story. Nice enough. Sort of a bland version of Bradbury. A dad and his son are out biking and they see something out of the ordinary. Eventually, they learn it’s a triceratops, and conclude they alone, for some reason that’s not clear, can see into another dimension. Father and son bond over secretly watching a Cretaceous landscape superimposed over their Japanese subdivision.
David Hartwell’s aim is to showcase science fiction from around the world in this anthology, but hopefully, this story isn’t representative of the best SF from Japan or the world. And I’d hate to think Hartwell picked it because he characterizes Japan as a country of big monster fans.
It’s a challenge to find an essay hook for this story. I think I’ll use a video I watched from the Outlaw Bookseller (Steven E. Andrews) this morning on conceptual breakthroughs in science fiction. Andrews begins by talking about the first lines of classic science fiction stories.
The ones we remember have great first lines that announce a paradigm shift. His first example was from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” The second was from Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World, “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.”
Unfortunately, Tensei begins his story with “The father and son were returning from cycling.” That’s a rather mundane first sentence. Tensei waits for quite a few paragraphs before bringing on his paradigm shift.
Andrews then goes on to say the best SF stories have a conceptual breakthrough that comes near the end that inspires a sense of wonder. “Triceratops” does depend on a conceptual breakthrough, but it’s in the middle. The father and son decide if they think that the Cretaceous can intersect dimensionally with the present then they can see the two together. The logic of “if you believe it to be true it will be true” isn’t much of a conceptual breakthrough, although the film version of The Wizard of Oz pulled it off nicely.
This is the first story I would have left out of this anthology. Unfortunately, it was the first example of world SF. Not a good start.
“Chronopolis” by J. G. Ballard is story #4 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “Chronopolis” was first published in the June 1960 issue of New Worlds.
“Chronopolis” is set in the future where society has outlawed keeping time. Ballard imagined a future where our high-tech global civilization collapsed from the complexity of overpopulation. In this new world, the population is much smaller having giving up the rat race.
The story begins in a holding cell. Conrad Newman is awaiting trial for as of yet unspecified crimes. Newman is obsessed with making his south-facing jail cell window into a sundial so he can accurately keep the time while everyone else is unconcerned about when things will happen. Gradually we learn that this society operates without a schedule, and clocks are illegal. They allow timers, which people use to cook eggs, time a math class, or how long they should sleep, but not clocks that force schedules onto life’s activities.
Ballard has come up with a nifty idea. You don’t know if this new world he described is better or worse for not knowing the time, but Conrad Newman is a renegade who secretly embraces keeping time, allowing him to outcompete other people. Newman’s world is the opposite of Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Conrad Newman is the polar opposite of Everett C. Marm. It’s funny, but we root for each character in their separate stories.
I got to say, I really liked this story a lot even though when you think about it, there’s not much to it. On the one hand, it’s the old fashion kind of science fiction that’s based on a neat idea. On the other hand, it feels different from the other science fiction of 1960 or before. J. G. Ballard is considered one of the pathfinders of the New Wave movement in science fiction in the mid-1960s. “Chronopolis” isn’t really New Wave yet. Probably why it feels different is it’s British science fiction, and British science fiction always felt more grown-up to me.
I’ve only read a couple novels by Ballard, and maybe a dozen short stories, but they’ve all impressed me as being “heavy” in the old hippie sense of the word. I assume that was another way of saying weighty. I recently read “The Terminal Beach” by Ballard and was equally impressed, and it felt equally heavy. Years ago, I bought The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard on audiobook. It’s 55 hours long. I also have it on the Kindle. Whenever one of his stories comes up on the discussion group I like listening to them. They feel mature and atmospheric. I also like reading them because I’m impressed with Ballard’s prose. Each time I read one of his stories, I tell myself I need to listen to the entire 55-hour audiobook and I really want to get into Ballard’s work.
The other day at the Friends of the Library used bookstore I found Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars. I couldn’t tell if it was a novel, memoir, monograph, or what, but I bought it. This is how it’s described at Amazon:
An existential odyssey weaving together lived experience and theoretical insight, this startling autobiographical hyperfiction surveys and dissects a world where everything connects and global technological delirium is the norm.
The mediascapes of late capitalism reconfigure erotic responses and trigger primal aggression; under constant surveillance, we occupy simulations of ourselves, private estates on a hyperconnected globe; fictions reprogram reality, memories are rewritten by the future…
Fleeing the excesses of 1990s cyberculture, a young researcher sets out to systematically analyse the obsessively reiterated themes of a writer who prophesied the disorienting future we now inhabit. The story of his failure is as disturbingly psychotropic as those of his magus—J.G. Ballard, prophet of the post-postmodern, voluptuary of the car crash, surgeon of the pathological virtualities pulsing beneath the surface of reality.
Plagued by obsessive fears, defeated by the tedium of academia, yet still certain that everything connects to Ballard, his academic thesis collapses into a series of delirious travelogues, deranged speculations and tormented meditations on time, memory, and loss. Abandoning literary interpretation and renouncing all scholarly distance, he finally accepts the deep assignment that has run throughout his entire life, and embarks on a rogue fieldwork project: Applied Ballardianism, a new discipline and a new ideal for living. Only the darkest impulses, the most morbid obsessions, and the most apocalyptic paranoia can uncover the technological mutations of inner space.
An existential odyssey inextricably weaving together lived experience and theoretical insight, this startling autobiographical hyperfiction surveys and dissects a world where everything connects and global technological delirium is the norm—a world become unmistakably Ballardian.
Some of that description faintly feels like “Chronopolis” but it’s an early story for Ballard, that hints at things to come. Also, by serendipity, I came across this YouTube video by the Outlaw Bookseller on the New Wave. Ballard figures heavily in it. Warning though, this video is one hour and twelve minutes long.
“Chronopolis” is another story that’s pushing me into the world of J. G. Ballard. One of these days, and hopefully soon, I’ll start gorging on Ballard’s books.
“Special Flight” by John Berryman is story #3 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
Editors assembled anthologies to reprint and promote stories they believe people should read — stories they feel should be kept alive. I have to wonder why Hartwell selected “Special Flight” because to most modern readers, or even readers in 1989, the story is a clunker. Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest selected “Special Flight” for their anthology Spectrum in 1961, but other than those two anthologies no other editors have wanted to save this story from oblivion.
John Berryman, according to ISFDB, only published 21 science fiction stories, and some of them were occasionally reprinted. However, John Berryman is not a name I remember. He is a forgotten author. So why read his story in 2023? I’ve never read “Special Flight” before, or even heard of it, but it’s an impressive science fiction for 1939 if you think about it in a certain way. “Special Flight” was first published in the May 1939 issue of Astounding, just months before the July issue that many consider the first issue of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Then why didn’t Hartwell choose one of the more famous stories from that year?
Reading “Special Flight” brings up a long queue of questions. The sole quality that makes this story impressive is it tries to scientifically imagine routine space flight in 1939 in a realistic manner. So, do I recommend you track it down and read it? Not really, because it gets the science all wrong. However, if you happened to have an academic bent and like to study science fiction as a subject, then “Special Flight” is an interesting read.
If you’ve ever wondered how people in 1939 imagined space flight actually working, and not just being silly Buck Rogers stuff, “Special Flight” can provide some answers. Berryman was trying to imagine a near future where we mined the Moon for minerals and rocketships were much like merchant ships or cargo aircraft. “Special Flight” reminds me of what Heinlein was trying to do in the 1950s and it also reminds me of the original Star Trek.
Shouldn’t we forgive “Special Flight” for its mistakes if it was solid scientific speculation in 1939? Jules Verne got nothing right scientifically in Journey to the Center of the Earth but it’s still a well-loved story today. Why? Because the storytelling is fun. Then what about the storytelling in “Special Flight?” It’s not bad but it’s not great either. It’s about the level of a science fiction B-movie from 1953. Remember all those old black-and-white movies where the big danger of space flight was meteors? That’s what happens in “Special Flight”
“Special Flight” is action-packed. It’s about an emergency rocket flight to the Moon to save the lives of over a hundred miners. Everything possible that could go wrong does, including a giant tank of milk busting and flowing all over the rocket ship. Berryman spends a lot of his wordage on math and navigation and not that much on characterization. The crew is often knocked around like Captain Kirk and his crew — remember how the actors threw themselves around on the sets of Star Trek? In other words, the action is cheesy. But on the other hand, the focus is on getting to the Moon, and quite a lot of detail that Berryman imagined feels realistic. For instance, Berryman imagines that spaceflight causes tiny blood clots in the brain that produces a list of effects that can make operating a spaceship difficult. He talks about the three-body problem, something I didn’t know about until I read the Cixin Liu book. He imagines an automatic pilot and system that controls chemical rockets to maneuver in space while atomic rockets provide the main thrust using water as fuel. He talks about orbital velocities, g-forces, and take-off speeds. Stuff that just wasn’t in science fiction in the 1930s.
If you like to chart how science fiction evolved or are curious about how people before WWII imagined realistic space travel, then read “Special Flight.” If you’re used to modern well-told science fiction stories, you’ll probably want to skip it.
By the way, here’s an illustration from the cover of Cosmic Stories (July 1941) that imagines being in space in a rather realistic way for the time. I do like picturing how people imagined space travel before NASA. That’s why I enjoyed “Special Flight.”
“Forgetfulness” by John W. Campbell, Jr. is story #2 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading.
Instead of counting all the titles and authors of science fiction books I’ve read, I’m starting to tally all the far-out concepts science fiction has given me. In “Forgetfulness” John W. Campbell took one of my favorite concepts, walking in ancient dead alien cities, which was probably an old SF concept even in 1937, and gave it a couple twists. It’s going to be impossible to talk about this story without giving spoilers so think of this essay as an analysis of SF concepts and not a review. You can read the story online here, or buy it in a $2.99 Kindle edition of Campbell’s collection Cloak of Aeshir. However, I don’t recommend buying unless you’re a big fan of John W. Campbell.
“Forgetfulness” begins with a spaceship landing on the planet Rhth, one of nine planets in the system. The main point-of-view character is Ron Thule, an astronomer, from the planet Pareeth. They have traveled for six years, in a spaceship 2,500 feet long and 400 feet in diameter, covering 3.5 light-years, traveling at nearly the speed of light. These people from Pareeth are looking for a world to colonize, and are disappointed that Rhth is already inhabited. They hope to settle in the remains of a majestic city that was built by spacing-faring race millions of years ago and discover its secrets.
Try and pronounce Rhth. If nine planets weren’t a giveaway, the name Rhth should be. There they meet Seun, a very tall, graceful human-shaped being, clothed in a golden outfit, with a beautiful colored cape. All the people of Rhth wear gold suits and colored capes and live in opalescent domes twenty to thirty feet in diameter situated under giant green trees near the dead city. The buildings of that titanic city are three thousand feet high, but the winds have filled the streets with five hundred feet of dirt.
Seun has told Ron Thule and the commander of the Pareeth mission, Shor Nun, that the builders of the city had once visited their world. And that their world, Pareeth, once orbited the same sun as Rhth, but had been torn away by a rogue star. This hints that maybe the builders had conducted a kind of panspermia across the galaxy. As the story progresses the achievements of the builders become greater and greater. However, the people of Pareeth eventually discover secrets that can shatter their minds and their hopes.
Most of us find a great sense of wonder reading about the rediscovery of lost cities. So, it’s not a remarkable feat of creativity for a science fiction writer to imagine humans finding long-dead alien cities. Still, it’s one that sets off a powerful sense of wonder and has been used time and again in science fiction.
Campbell puts a twist on this concept, by having aliens discover a city from a long-dead civilization of mankind. John W. Campbell has a reputation that claims he wanted humans to be the galactic crown of creation, and this story supports that. In his earlier story, “Twilight” he had a human time traveler discover a far future deserted human civilization. That gave him a chance to imagine the engineering marvels of what we could achieve someday. In “Forgetfulness” he has aliens discover dead human civilization, but this time, Campbell imagined an even more impressive future for us built by super-science. You should read both stories to see just how hopeful Campbell was for the human race.
Both “Twilight” and “Forgetfulness” could be considered Dying Earth stories, although H. G. Wells in “The Time Machine,” William Hope Hodgson in The Night Land, and Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men, took that idea, even much further.
Unfortunately, “Forgetfulness” is hard to read. Part of that is due to a dated writing style, but also because Campbell didn’t really have much of a story to tell. They came, they discovered wonders, they were frightened, they were disappointed. There’s no drama or revealed emotions. “Forgetfulness” was reprinted in the classic 1946 anthology Adventures in Time and Space but has been mostly forgotten since. Damon Knight remembered it in his 1966 anthology Cities of Wonder, and Brian Aldiss and Harrison brought it back again in 1973 for The Astounding-Analog Reader. Both are very minor anthologies. The second contained just seven stories from Astounding covering 1937-1941, a rather odd collection.
It’s interesting that a story about remembering has been forgotten. The big concept in “Forgetfulness” is visiting the remains of an astonishing civilization millions of years after its citizens have gone. Campbell puts his own twist on it by having that civilization be a future version of ours. However, there’s another important concept he wanted to get across, and that’s how we forget the past. Shor Nun and Ron Thule can’t understand why Seun doesn’t understand how the city works. But then Campbell reminds us we couldn’t explain the technology of cavemen, or from other periods of human civilization. Remember all the discussions about how did the Egyptians build the pyramids? Well, it turns out Seun has even newer technologies that are even further advanced than the builders and they have merely forgotten earlier primitive technology.
I have to wonder if Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Rescue Party” wasn’t inspired by “Forgetfulness” and “Twilight.” Or that the screenwriters for Forbidden Planet hadn’t read “Forgetfulness” too. Or were their ideas independently invented?
That’s the thing about science fiction. Concepts keep getting reused. Are they forgotten and then reinvented? Or does science fiction evolve over time as concepts merge and mutate? Will some young writer in the 2020s come up with a story about a far-future space race discovering a future Earth and finding the ruins of what our civilization will become? How will this writer imagine the pinnacle of our success? Campbell wanted to believe that humanity will evolve until it has god-like powers. That idea has shown up in science fiction over and over again. But do we still believe that? Right now the peak of our civilization might end this century.
I have become fascinated by science fiction book reviewers on YouTube. Most are young, and what’s particularly fascinating to me is how they are reading old books to learn the history of science fiction. That’s something I’ve been curious about for years, how do younger people feel about older science fiction. Of course, some of them bring a woke perspective, but I don’t mind, I often accept their criticism. On the other hand, some of the woken lack compassion for what it meant to grow up in the past.
Most of these book reviewers don’t review new books. I’m used to those book reviewers in science fiction magazines reviewing the books that are just coming out or will be soon. So I assume these YouTube reviewers aren’t getting ARCs or review copies. Some of these reviewers seem to be making money off their YouTube channel, maybe enough to make a living. Or that’s the hope. My favorite reviewer is Bookpilled, and he admits his YouTube channels are the way he makes his living. That might be changing since he’s about to become a world traveler. Not all of his videos review books. He makes money by buying used SF and reselling it online, and some videos are showing what’s up for sale.
Bookpilled is my favorite because reviews books intelligently, and with a lot of insight. I don’t know his real name, but I think it’s Matt. He actually gets me to read books. The link above is to his main site, but here is his last favorites video:
The next channel I like is Fit 2B Read. I liked this particular review because it made me want to read/reread all five books. I wish these reviewers would use their own names. I like how Fit 2B Read sought out forgotten classics. That’s what I’m doing myself. The guy is very camera ready and his show is either scripted or he’s very good at talking off the cuff. One of the main problems with watching YouTube videos is they waste the viewer’s time by either giving us information unrelated to the video or by slowly meandering around a topic or just never getting to the point.
I probably shouldn’t say this, but some YouTubers just don’t speak well enough or look good enough to watch. Fit 2B Read does a good job of being a talking head. He doesn’t get too close to the camera. He speaks fast, but not too fast. And he’s coherent. Like many of these YouTubers, he cranks out the content, finding different reasons for creating a topic to film. This doesn’t always work, but I know that YouTubers have to constantly produce new content or they’ll lose viewers. YouTube has some kind of statistical science for promoting videos, and that puts YouTubers who want to build their channel and make money on the rat race treadmill. Fit 2B Read does make some slick-looking videos.
And talk about a slick production, I’m quite impressed with The Library Ladder. His production is eye-catching, he has a radio announcer voice and a camera-ready mug. But what really wows me about this guy is his collection. I assume he’s wealthy because he often shows books that are rare collectibles. The video of his that makes me drool is the one on Gnome Press.
One of the strangest reviewers is the one for Media Death Cult. His stage name is Moid Moidelhoff, but I don’t know if that’s a real name. Moid is quite a character. In many of his videos, he’s wearing a gun. Moid goes all out for his channel. He’s even started interviewing famous writers. Here’s his review of two lesser-known Philip K. Dick novels. (He hopes to review them all.)
Next up is the Secret Sauce of Storycraft. I was impressed with her take on The Sparrow but today I watched an earlier video, Classic SciFi Sampler, and she disappointed me with how many mistakes she made and how often she admitted she didn’t know something and didn’t want to look it up. That was an older video and I think she evolved quite a lot. Right now I’m forgiving of her mistakes because she seems young and fairly new to science fiction. But what I like is how she’s working to catch up.
I thought the premise of the video below was a great idea. She wanted her users to know what kind of books she disliked because if she only reviewed books she liked they wouldn’t completely understand her as a reviewer. Unfortunately, she only gives a litany of her emotional reactions to the 8 books, and no useful details as to why. The reason why I liked her review of The Sparrow is she worked out a framework of ideas to judge the book and that gave me something to think about. The woman who does Secret Sauce of Storycraft does know how to make a video, speaks well on camera, is camera ready, and stays on topic. I’m expecting her to improve. She needs to give us more details about the book and I hope she comes up with more analytical thinking about the themes in books like she did for The Sparrow.
The Shades of Orange, by a young woman named Rachel, also shows potential. She gives a bit more detail about the books than the reviewer on The Secret Sauce of Storycraft. I’m showing this video because she rereads Shadow & Claw by Gene Wolfe, a book my friend Mike is reading, and one I’ve been thinking about reading. She starts with some new releases. I want to see more of that. I’m completely out of touch with newer science fiction.
I wish these reviewers would give more details about the books and less about their impressions. I do not like spoilers, so I know it’s hard to present a book without ruining the story for people like me. I liked how she said that Shadow & Claw was about a regressed society which she didn’t learn right away in her first reading, but made a big difference in enjoying the book in her second reading. That’s a good detail and it’s not a big enough spoiler.
The Outlaw Bookseller often creates videos on topics I’m most anxious to watch but I have trouble watching them. My problem is he doesn’t get down to business quick enough, or he digresses, but when he is on target, he’s often the most knowledgeable about the genre of the reviewers mentioned here. And he covers the books and topics I’m most interested in. For example, I recently wanted to read a D. G. Compton novel. The Outlook Bookseller does give the level of detail I want, but he sometimes tells too much about the story. The details he does give are a description of what happens in the book. That’s great if they aren’t spoilers, but I also want analysis. The Outlaw Bookseller does give me most of what I want from a review, but I have to admit the presentation doesn’t work well for me. The reviewer has the details I want but gives them too fast, and in a kind of stream of conscious way that’s hard to hang onto cognitively. I think I would do better reading his reviews. I’m sticking with this channel, trying to adapt to the presentation, because this guy knows his stuff.
My guess is these YouTube book reviewers (BookTube?) have a greater potential of promoting and selling books than bloggers and magazine reviewers. I’d like to find reviewers who focus on new books, so if you know of any, give me a link in the comments.
“Harrison Bergeron” is a political satire set in the year 2081. Kurt Vonnegut imagines everyone is not only equal under the law but handicapped to be made equal in all ways. Stronger people are weighed down, talented people are made less talented, and intelligent people have to wear earplugs that make various kinds of noises to distract them from thinking deeply. In this rather short story, George and Hazel Bergeron are watching a ballet on television. They have forgotten their 14-year-old son Harrison has been arrested for being too handsome, too smart, and too strong. During the course of the TV show, their son appears on the ballet stage having escaped to start a rebellion. (You can read it here, or read a detailed synopsis on Wikipedia.)
“Harrison Bergeron” is not a subtle satire, instead it goes for the absurd. It’s a very likable story. Vonnegut tells it in simple language with vivid details. You immediately agree with him that this dystopian world is wrong. This short story has become quite famous, having been adapted to the screen four times. National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley even reprinted the story. The National Review keeps using “Harrison Bergeron” – here’s it being used again in 2015 against economic inequality in “Inching Towards ‘Harrison Bergeron.’“
Usually, satire attacks something, and I have to wonder what Vonnegut was attacking. While reading it I thought maybe he was protesting laws designed to create equal opportunity. Then when I read about National Review and that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia quoted the story in PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin then I began to wonder even more. And it’s referenced in academic papers, including a 2013 one about transgender athletes. I thought Vonnegut was liberal. Wikipedia did say he wasn’t against his story being used in a Kansas court situation, he didn’t agree with their interpretation.
So why have conservatives embraced “Harrison Bergeron” so thoroughly? Are they using its satire the way Vonnegut intended? A site called What So Proudly We Hail promotes the story with a very pointed introduction:
Central to the American creed is the principle of equality, beginning with the notion that all human beings possess certain fundamental rights and equal standing before the law. Our concern for equality has expanded over the past half century to focus also on inequalities in opportunities, wealth, achievement, and social condition. What good is an equal right to pursue happiness if one lacks the native gifts or the social means to exercise it successfully? In this satirical story (1961), set in a future time in which “everybody was finally equal . . . every which way,” Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922–2007) challenges our devotion to equality and invites us to consider the costs of pursuing it too zealously. Although the story is not explicitly about racial, ethnic, or gender equality, the questions it provokes about the kind of equality we should want, and the costs of pursuing it, are relevant also to campaigns to eliminate inequalities among racial and ethnic groups or between the sexes. Does the society portrayed here represent a fulfillment of the ideal of equality in the Declaration of Independence, or rather a perversion of the principle? Does opposing invidious distinctions, envy, and feelings of inferiority require reducing all to the lowest common denominator, and is this the true path to “social justice”? Would homogeneity attained by artificially raising up the low, producing a nation of Harrisons rather than a nation of Hazels—a prospect offered by biotechnological “enhancement”—be any more attractive?
The story does resonate with conservative thinking and even more so today. Are there other ways to read it? On the surface, the bad guys in the story are the government and laws that try to make everyone equal in every way. However, was that what Vonnegut was protesting. Was he all fired up and wrote this story the way the conservatives have used it?
I have no idea, but I do wonder about something. Vonnegut’s story is silly, absurd, and far from real. Vonnegut was often silly and absurd. I wonder if he just didn’t get the idea of a government taking the idea that everyone should be equal, and imagining how they could go about making it happen. It was published in a science fiction magazine. If Vonnegut was serious about his satire, why didn’t he publish it in a serious magazine? And back then, bizarre speculation on social change was common in SF stories.
The story came out in 1961, well before the liberal sixties. Eisenhower was probably president when he wrote it. A similar idea about making everyone equal had been used in the 1959 novel, The Sirens of Titan. In the 1950s the main political push to make people equal was providing equal education to African Americans. And that effort was to make people better educated, not dumber. My guess is “Harrison Bergeron” is based on a silly idea that came to Vonnegut and he wrote a story to illustrate it. Conservatives have just run with it.
What’s also interesting is Hazel, the wife, has no handicapping applied to her. She’s average. Was Vonnegut saying something about women? 1961 was also before the Second Wave of feminism in the 1960s. Was he being liberal to make the Handicapper General of the United States, a woman? She had the funny name Diana Moon Glampers? Was this a dig at women?
I don’t think I’ve read “Harrison Bergeron” before. Its basic idea is so memorable that I can’t believe I’d forget it. I could have since it’s been around since the October 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s also been reprinted quite often and I could have read it and thought it so absurd as to be completely minor, and did forget it. “Harrison Bergeron” has 9 citations in The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories v. 2. I just read it because our short story club has just started reading The Treasury of World Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell. That anthology is a monster of over one thousand pages of classic science fiction where Hartwell also introduces science fiction from around the world.
Despite its fame, I still think “Harrison Bergeron” is a silly story. I’d only rate it ***+ in my system – three stars mean well-written, and a + means I liked it a lot. Four stars would mean it’s a story I’ll want to reread now and then, and I don’t feel that.
I’m going to try and review as many of the stories as possible from The Treasury of World Science Fiction. I haven’t given up on my Heinlein project, but after gorging on his work for months, I’ve been taking a break. I’ve wanted to get into a science fiction novel I never read but I’m still on a short story kick.
I first read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell in 1997. Then in 2005, I listened to it when it came out on audiobook. I remember it being an exceptional novel of first contact involving the Jesuits. Russell explored both religion and science fiction at the same time. Essentially, the story asks why bad things happen to good people, especially why would God be so cruel to one of his faithful. It asks this ancient philosophical question in a special context involving aliens, aliens who essentially make the query meaningless, or does it?
However, I don’t really remember the details of the book. This week I accidentally watched three reviewers review this book on Youtube and discovered most of them are part of a science fiction alliance of reviewers. That led to two more reviews. Watching all of them tells us a whole lot about how books are perceived by readers, and how reviewers take different approaches to evaluating books for our consideration. Here they are:
Fit 2B Read:
Secret Sauce of Storycraft:
Media Death Cult:
The Library Ladder:
I’m afraid I’m going to have to study these reviews carefully and reread The Sparrow. Bookpilled is my favorite science fiction reviewer on YouTube and he did not like the book. He had very specific criticisms, some of which I’ve made against other books. I don’t remember thinking about those criticisms when I read The Sparrow.
The Sparrow is on the Classics of Science Fiction list with 23 citations. It is a novel that’s widely admired. But it’s over a quarter of a century old, and it’s been eighteen years since I last read it. I’ve changed, society has changed, and maybe it will be a different reading experience for me this time. Watching these reviewers has brought up a number of questions for me:
Are reviewers too easy or hard on books?
Are readers too easy or hard on books?
Will these reviewers change how I reread The Sparrow?
Are there positive qualities that all readers can recognize?
Are there flaws that all readers can perceive?
Are the value or faults of novels entirely subjective?
Have these reviewers found insights I missed?
Are novels merely Rorschach tests or do novelists have something specific to say?
Do we waste our time by reading books that aren’t worth discussing?
I like this group review by the Science Fiction Alliance. Kalandai doesn’t seem to be part of the group but her review fits in. I hope this group does other group reviews. Some novels are worth the extra focus.
The primary value of science fiction is introducing readers to new concepts. Take time travel – it’s a mind-blowing concept. But how many stories about time travel do we have to read before the concept loses its sense of wonder, or even becomes boring? When do we say: “Hey, I get the idea!”
My mother spent her whole life reading who-done-its, but I got burned out on the concept in my twenties. On the other hand, I’ve been reading about certain science fictional concepts my whole life. Why don’t I get burned out? I think I did, but I just keep reading science fiction hoping to find new concepts that will reignite those old thrills. Along the way, I’ve had to read mouldy concepts so many times that they’ve become boring.
However, let me clarify something. Fiction can approach a theme in two ways. First, the theme can be the focus of the story, or second, it can be the setting. When a theme is new, writers tend to explore it, but when it’s old, they use it for the background of their plot.
After finishing Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and Martin H. Greenberg, an anthology of twenty-one post-apocalyptic stories about atomic warfare, I realized I’m burned out on that theme even though it’s always been one of my favorites? Why? That’s hard to say, but some stories overcame the problem of overexposure by focusing instead on the storytelling and characters and using the theme as a background. Others were original classics that I exempt from aging.
Walter M. Miller, Jr. is famous for writing A Canticle For Leibowitz, an uber-classic SF novel on the theme of a post-apocalypse caused by nuclear war. However, he had disappeared from the genre in the 1960s and 1970s. Evidently, he saw the 1984 British film, Threads, about surviving a nuclear war winter and it inspired him to edit this anthology. He mentions Threads several times in his main introduction and in the introductions to the stories. Miller said the main focus of the anthology was nuclear wars, especially a large-scale conflict which he called megawar.
It’s possible to read one post-apocalyptic novel or short story every so often and keep the theme interesting. You just don’t notice that writers seem to find a limited number of insights into that concept. Reading twenty-one stories in a row only emphasizes the finite number of subthemes. Miller chose to only focus on nuclear war apocalypses but I’m not sure how civilization is destroyed that matters for some of the subthemes.
I’m going to try and define those subthemes by citing the different stories. And I’m going to point out how some stories stand above the theme and why.
Because Beyond Armageddon is out of print I’ll link the first mention of the story titles to ISFDB.org to show where the story has been reprinted. You might already have another anthology or collection that has it. If there’s a significant article about the story in Wikipedia or elsewhere, I’ll link it in the second mention of the title. This anthology is being discussed on Facebook and if you’d like to read the threads about each story follow this link.
#1 – “Salvador” by Lucius Shepard (F&SF April 1984)
“Salvador” doesn’t involve nuclear war, but it’s about the dangers of escalating wars on civilian life and civilization. The protagonist, Dantzler, is a soldier in the near future fighting in Central America. Remember, this was written during Reagan’s administration and our secret war in Nicaragua. In the story, the Army uses powerful mind drugs to make soldiers super-aware, aggressive, and brave. The story feels like a cross between Carlos Casteneda’s books and the film Platoon.
I don’t think “Salvador” fits the theme of Beyond Armageddon, but it was an extremely popular story that came out during the time the book was being edited. I think it resonated with Miller’s anti-war feelings so he included it. It’s also the second newest story in the anthology. It doesn’t deal with the subject of this essay either. I would have left it out and picked another story that did. However, “Salvador” is an impressive story.
“The Store of the Worlds” is a story that at first doesn’t seem to fit the theme of the anthology either, however, Robert Sheckley is brilliant at tricking us into seeing a philosophical insight about nuclear war. When our reading group discussed “The Store of the Worlds” it was highly admired.
This story is one that focused on the theme of a nuclear war post-apocalypse and is squarely aimed at the theme, but I believe “The Store of the Worlds” should have been the last story in the anthology.
“The Big Flash” is about a rock and roll band that has explosive success. Its satirical humor reminds me of the film Dr. Strangelove, and the storytelling outshines the theme. Like the movies Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, the story is pre-apocalyptic. The first three stories in this anthology are really about our madness. Science fiction does two things. It promotes futures we’d like to see, and warns us about futures we should avoid. The first three stories in this anthology are all warnings about humanity being insane.
I’m not sure Spinrad wrote this story to protest nuclear bombs. It’s a gonzo story about rock and roll.
“Lot” is the story that should have been first in this anthology. It came out in 1953, probably during the peak era of atomic war paranoia. “Lot” is completely focused on the theme and defines many of the standard attributes of post-apocalyptic fiction. “Lot” is a wet dream for survivalists and preppers, defining their key philosophical creed. Once civilization falls, survival of the fittest is everything. Mr. Jimmon and his family flee Los Angeles just after it’s been nuked. Mr. Jimmon instantly embraces survivalist thinking while his family can’t stop thinking with a civilized mindset even as they race away from the mushroom clouds.
“Lot” is one of my all-time favorite science fiction short stories. It’s brutal. It’s a story of cold equations before the classic Tom Godwin story. It’s one of my prime pieces of evidence that 1953 was the peak year for short science fiction.
“Day at the Beach” is another story that focuses beautifully on the theme. Carol Emshwiller describes life after the bomb, living with radiation. Like many science fiction stories in the 1950s, it speculates about mutations as a consequence of radioactive fallout. Myra and her husband Ben, who are bald, take their son, Littleboy, who has lots of hair, for a day out at the beach. Littleboy is a mutant. Life is grim, but people keep on living.
This story features two of the main subthemes of a nuclear post-apocalypse. The primary one is survival after the bomb and the second is mutants.
#6 – “The Wheel” by John Wyndham (Startling Stories, January 1952)
“The Wheel” introduces us to another classic subtheme of post-apocalyptic fiction. It suggests that after civilization collapses society will revert to earlier social constructs. I’ll call that subtheme, a devolved society. In this case, a superstitious society like early America and the Puritans. This was common speculation about post-apocalyptic life in the 1950s. A classic example is The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett. “The Wheel” is tightly focused on painting the theme. The concepts are in the foreground, although there’s a good story.
Interestingly, “The Wheel,” “The Store of the Worlds,” and “Lot” have surprise endings. I wonder if that’s a factor in them being remembered and reprinted. All these stories are jammed with ideas about how post-apocalyptic life will be different. Yet, they all use good storytelling techniques to express these ideas. In other words, they have a message, but it doesn’t dominate the story.
As we progress through Beyond Armageddon these speculative ideas get repeated and newer writers elaborate on them. But eventually, I believe it gets harder to come up with fresh perspectives.
“Jody After the War” is where the theme shifts from the focus of the story to the background. The eastern U.S. has been destroyed in a nuclear war, and the capital is now in Denver. Paul and Jody are up in the hills and are having a day outside like Myra and Ben, but they have no child. Jody can’t have children because she’s a survivor of an atomic bomb explosion. This story is more about their relationship and less about the post-apocalypse. Civilization hasn’t been destroyed, but it’s been wounded and suffers from PTSD.
In “The Terminal Beach,” Traven, a deeply depressed man sneaks onto an island where they’ve been testing atomic bombs. This surreal tale is one of my favorites in the anthology. Because I’ve been reading and watching documentaries about South Pacific atom bomb tests, this story was exceedingly vivid to me. This is another story that’s not post-apocalyptic, at least for the whole world, but Traven inhabits a post-apocalyptic landscape. I feel “The Terminal Beach” captures the psychic horror we felt back in the 1960s.
“Tomorrow’s Children” is another story about mutants. There’s quite a bit of scientific talk in this story. Coming just two years after Hiroshima I’m sure the world was full of such speculation. Interestingly, the focus of this story is anti-prejudice. Anderson’s message tells people to ignore what people look like and accept everyone for being human.
In “Heirs Apparent,” Robert Abernathy puts his American protagonist, Leroy Smith, a visiting scientist, in Russia after a nuclear war has destroyed both countries. Russia has been bombed back to serfdom. Smith helps survivors trying to restart agriculture with his professional knowledge. Unfortunately, for a small village, a survivor, Bogomazov arrives there. He’s a member of the Communist party and demands to be the leader forcing everyone to work collectively. Smith goes along. He has no choice. Abernathy uses this story for a lot of infodumping and speculation, but the main gist of the story is capitalism and communism will be useless after the apocalypse.
This is another old favorite of mine, but an ideal form of post-apocalyptic fiction for me too. 76-year-old Brian Van Anda survives the apocalypse alone, living in a flooded New York City in the Hall of Music museum. I love post-apocalyptic stories about the last man on Earth, but as usual, they are never the very last person. Van Anda survives inside the decay of the city, scourging food the best he can. Weather permitting, he doesn’t even wear clothes. His only regard to civilization is playing the piano, working to learn a very complicated piece he wanted to perform before the bombs. Eventually, two young people find him. They live like primitive nomads. They had a leader, an old person who guided them, that’s died. They are out searching for a replacement old person because they need guidance. They also want to get married and that requires an old person.
The two major subthemes are living alone after the apocalypse and society reverting to tribal hunting and gatherers.
“Game Preserve” is another story of mutants, but a rather sad, painful one. It’s told by Elf, a child who lives in a strange tribe of human-like creatures. Their cognitive abilities are about equal to chimpanzees, but they all have a fetish. I don’t want to spoil the story, but it’s brutal. It’s another cold equations story.
“Game Preserve” takes the theme and uses it for a rather unusual setting. The focus is no longer the post-apocalypse, but something deep and psychological. I don’t know if Phillips was merely being sensational, or if he wanted to bring up a philosophical conundrum.
“By the Waters of Babylon” is a classic. If Stephen Vincent Benét had read and known about “The Scarlet Plague” by Jack London and After London by Richard Jefferies then his story is an update of those classic post-apocalyptic tales. If he hadn’t read those classics, then it’s a case of rediscovery of a classic concept. I don’t know how old the idea is that if civilization collapsed it would revert to a tribal society. I’d love to read a literary study of that idea.
I’ve seen this reversion theme over and over again. Sometimes it’s back to a hunting and gathering, sometimes the apocalypse knocks us back to a tribal society, and sometimes to a feudal society. And sometimes just to the 19th century. It’s very logical when you think about it.
I love “By the Waters of Babylon.” It has a tremendous sense of wonder. However, over the decades I feel subtheme has been overused. I sometimes wonder if writers merely want a setting that’s pre-modern and use an apocalypse to get them there.
This subtheme demands two other themes. First, why don’t we see new forms of society? And second, why don’t we see more stories about a healed, mutated, or changed modern civilization. “Jody After the War” was one possible example, but it didn’t work out the ideas of the subgenre in the way I’m suggesting. Think about it, what if a nuclear war killed 50% of current Americans but left the other 50% to rebuild. Wouldn’t we just patch up the broken parts and keep going the way we were? Japan and Germany rebuilt and became better than ever. Why don’t we see that in this post-apocalyptic tales?
“There Will Come Soft Rains” is another classic. Ray Bradbury imagines people completely gone, and our automated civilization working without us – for a while. We don’t know if this is world-wide or just in the city that got bombed. This rare subtheme, life after people, is one I love to contemplate. Bradbury anticipates the book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, a nonfiction book about what would the world be like if people suddenly disappeared. It inspired two television shows. Follow the link to read more.
“To the Chicago Abyss” reminds me of the Sheckley story. In it an old man annoys people in a post-apocalyptic world by constantly reminding them of things that no longer exist. Since we have two stories in this anthology on this topic I guess that makes a subtheme – what we’ll miss.
#16 – “Lucifer” by Roger Zelazny (Worlds of Tomorrow, June 1964)
“Lucifer” is another story about what we’ll miss. It feels like a last man on Earth story. Carlson, the protagonist returns to a dead city to repair generators and get the lights going. The light flare up for a few seconds, and then go out again. But it’s enough to remind Carlson of what life was once like. This story reminds me of the 1959 Harry Belafonte film, The World, The Flesh, and the Devil.
William Tenn cleverly unwinds the clock on Europeans settling North America. He imagines Native Americans reestablishing control of the continent after a nuclear war. The title, “Eastward Ho!” is a play on the famous saying “Go west, young man.” The story really isn’t focused on the post-apocalypse theme, but instead it’s a satire on American hubris. It’s a fun story. It really belongs to the subtheme of what will we build next. That subtheme gave authors a chance to imagine all kinds of societies.
The thing is, no civilization lasts for long, The history of our species is trying out all the possible combinations of societies. So apocalypses just the way we start over and try something new.
“The Feast of Saint Janis” is the second story in this anthology that uses the apocalypse to create an exciting rock and roll story. I guess the subtheme could be called rebuilding America, but like Spinrad and Ellison, Swanwick is using the postapocalyptic setting to stage a gonzo story. And I consider this one superior to the other two. Swanwick imagines a situation where a woman volunteers to become the reembodiment of Janis Joplin. It’s a striking story.
“A Boy and His Dog” is a famous novella by Harlan Ellison that earned a Nebula award and was made into a movie in 1975. The setting is a post-apocalyptic America where on the surface men live like a Mad Max movie, but in silos beneath the surface, the good and righteous exist in clean and orderly cities. This is a perfect example where Ellison uses the post-apocalypse as a setting for his story about sex and violence. It has nothing to say about the theme, and its real goal is to be sensational. And boy is it sensational. It’s an exciting and classic science fiction story but I don’t think it fits in this anthology.
Miller maintains an outrage about politics throughout all his introductions, and he’s seriously protesting against nuclear war. I don’t see this story as a protest, nor is it a serious take on his theme. And it will be problematic for modern readers because Vic, the protagonist is a serial rapist who uses a mutant dog to find women to attack. The story is misogynistic through and through.
Rating: **** (but it’s definitely politically incorrect, even I might want to cancel culture it)
“My Life in the Jungle” by Jim Aiken is another story that doesn’t fit the theme of our anthology. It’s about a man, a mathematics professor, who suddenly finds himself in the body of a chimpanzee. The story is a surreal fantasy that symbolizes the tragic stupidity of our species. The ending can be seen as a post-apocalypse, but it’s more of an analogy for ecological self-destruction than nuclear self-destruction.
However, “My Life in the Jungle” is a powerful story and the newest of the anthology. My guess is Miller read it while editing Beyond Armageddon and just wanted to promote a new writer. This anthology is its only reprint.
I may have had my fill of post-apocalyptic fiction, at least for stories about nuclear war. However, I’m tempted to read other anthologies on the subject to see if anyone found something uniquely different to say. I do have several of them. See my post on “End of the World Anthologies.”
What I really need to decide is if I just like vicariously living in post-apocalyptic worlds. That’s kind of sick when you think about it, and if true, maybe I need psychoanalysis. I’ll have to contemplate that. I’ve always loved tales like Robinson Crusoe. On the other hand, I need to consider that there’s nothing new to be learned from reading speculations about nuclear war. That I should go on to other topics. Time is limited in this life, especially now that I’m 71, so why waste so much reading time on such a narrow subject when there’s zillions of interesting other subjects to explore?
I’m struggling to find a science fiction novel that grabs me. Months have passed since the last one I loved. That was The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff. It’s not that I don’t have hundreds of science fiction books waiting to be read, but finding one that profoundly resonates with my current mindset is difficult. I subsist on science-fiction short stories until a sci-fi Moby Dick breaks the waves of my attention.
I’ve mostly been diverting myself by reading nonfiction and novels from other genres. I just finished The High Window by Raymond Chandler and for whatever reason it did resonate perfectly with my current mood. I remember reading Farewell, My Lovely years ago and loving it. And I vaguely believe I read The Big Sleep, but that was long ago. Usually, I dislike mysteries, thrillers, and other crime novels. I just don’t care who did it.
What thrills me about Chandler’s books is his prose, and in particular, his descriptions. Chandler is famous for creating the detective, Philip Marlowe. Whenever pop culture satirizes the hardboiled detective, they are usually making fun of Marlowe’s way of talking. Chandler’s dialogue is painfully cliche. His convoluted plots often mystify and confuse. I would completely ignore Chandler if those two aspects were all he offered. What redeems Chandler in my eyes, even elevates him to a model writer, is his descriptions.
Wherever Philip Marlowe goes he describes what he sees in vivid detail. To illustrate my point, here are the first few pages of The Big Sleep. Last night I started watching the Humphrey Bogart version. I’ve seen it several times before. And after reading The High Window I decided to start over with Philip Marlowe and read his first appearance in a novel. When I went to buy it on Amazon I discovered The Annotated Big Sleep and it seemed perfect for jumping into the world of Raymond Chandler.
In the film it’s a bit different, the girl says, “You aren’t very tall” to Humphrey Bogart and he replies, “I try to be.” I’ve seen many different actors play Philip Marlowe and none of them matches my mind’s eye, but Bogie does okay. I watched a couple low budget versions of The High Window yesterday and was extremely disappointed. They go for Chandler’s cliche dialogue but they never capture the feel of the books. Even though Time to Kill (1942), The Brasher Doubloon (1947), and The Big Sleep (1946) were made in the 1940s, they don’t look like the 1940s Chandler describes. They only seem to be visual sketches or quick impressions.
Movies drive quickly through 1940s Los Angeles. Chandler strolls. He stops and smells the roses as well as the dog shit.
This got me thinking about science fiction. Are there any science fiction novels that paint the future in the same way that Chandler has portrayed the past? My first thought was of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. I just went and checked, and it is indeed full of vivid details, but not at Chandler’s level of density. I’ve always liked Heinlein for his details, but checking shows he is a far cry from Chandler’s descriptions too.
Maybe it’s not possible to imagine the future in such detail. Hemingway steered writers away from such writing. But then, few writers like to go overboard on the details like Henry James or Edith Wharton. I guess what I like about Chandler is he paints realistic pictures with words while most modern writers have left realism for impressionism and minimalism or even the abstract.
I need to think about this. I need to pay closer attention to how science fiction writers describe the future. It occurs to me that Walter M. Miller, Jr. was quite vivid in the opening of “A Canticle for Leibowitz” in the April 1955 issue of F&SF.
If you know of science fiction novels that are rich in descriptive details, let me know in the comments.
For most of my life I’ve had a prejudice against the fantasy genre. When I was ten I was crazy about the Oz books, but not long after that I discovered science fiction. I know it’s possible to enjoy both science fiction and fantasy, but I associate fantasy with the unscientific, with religions and myths, and with the belief in magic. On rare occasions I’ve fallen for fantasy tales, like the Harry Potter books and The Golden Compass trilogy. I believe they were acceptable to me because they were for kids and I assume fantasy stories are fine for children. Although, that might suggest that part of my prejudice against fantasy is because I believe fantasy is for children — and that at a certain age we should give it up.
However, I mainly dislike fantasy stories because fantasy embraces magic. I hate the concept of magic for scientific and philosophical reasons. I have always hoped that scientific thinking would supplant religious thinking. Christianity has a problem with magic too. Christianity has always hoped to supplant belief in magic, and I can understand why. Because for a new paradigm to take old the old one has to be erased. But for me, Christianity is just another form of magical thinking, and I expected science to replace it.
You might be thinking this is a weird way to review a book, but reading The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany deals with these philosophical issues — and I wonder if it’s message isn’t anti-magic. I’m not sure what it’s exact stance on the subject is, which is why I want to talk about it. And you might think I’m even more confused because I’m reading a classic adult fantasy novel when I just declared I’m too old for fantasy novels.
I decided to read The King of Elfland’s Daughter when the unnamed reviewer on Bookpilled, my favorite science fiction reviewer channel on YouTube, reviewed it. The Bookpilled guy praised The King Of Elfland’s Daughter so highly I felt I should try and overcome my fantasy prejudice and give it a read.
The King Of Elfland’s Daughter came out in 1924, and according to Wikipedia it made quite an impact. Over the years, some of my favorite science fiction writers from the mid-20th century mentioned an admiration for Lord Dunsany. In 1969 Ballantine reprinted the novel as the second book in its second series of Adult Fantasy novels. That series if often cited as reviving fantasy as a popular genre for adult readers. I remember that Ballantine Adult Fantasy books coming out back then, and I liked them for their covers, but never wanted to read them. Over the years, I have ended up reading a few of them. I wish I had bought and saved those Ballantine editions because many of them sell for hundreds nowadays.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter might not appeal to modern fans of fantasy though. It’s prose sounds like something out of Chaucer, and there is very little character development, dramatic action, or even dialogue. Lurulu, the troll, who is mostly a comic character seems to have had the most lines. I say that because in the audiobook edition I listened to the narrator did voices for the characters and about the only one that stood out was the troll’s. I also read along with a 99 cent Kindle edition from Amazon.
The story is set in the village/valley of Erl and the neighboring fantasyland of Elfland. The setting is sometime before 1530 — Dunsany makes a specific point of bringing that up. Erl is ruled by a hereditary lord who lives in a castle, but a Parliament of elders comes to visit the lord of Erl telling him they want more magic in their land. The lord tells his son, Alveric, to go into Elfland, find and bring back the King of Elfland’s daughter, Lirazel, and marry her. This happens early in the book and they have a son named Orion. Unfortunately, Lirazel can’t adapt to human ways and returns to Elfland. Most of the rest of the story is about Alveric trying to find his way back to Elfland to recapture Lirazel, and Orion growing up to be a hunter, first of stags, but then of unicorns.
This novel was pleasant enough to read, but it’s structure was primitive, much like a long fairytale. Alveric and Lirazel have practically no personal traits at all, and there’s barely any for Orion. Lirazel is beautiful, and that’s about it. Orion is good at hunting and loves his hunting dogs.
On the other land, the prose is rather nice.
The real meat of this story is the contrast between Earth and Elfland. Elfland is another dimension that borders Erl on the east. Elfland is timeless. Immortal beings that leave Elfland to visit Earth age. When Alveric is in Elfland capturing Lirazel, ten years pass by in Erl. Lord Dunsany sets up his story so that Erl is Christian and its citizens believe they will go to heaven. But we’re also told there is no path to heaven from Elfland. The choice for some of the characters is between living, growing old, dying and going to heaven, or choosing to live in Elfland where nothing happens and everything is eternal. Dunsany constantly reminds us of the timelessness of Elfland.
Sometimes I picture everything in Elfland frozen in one beautiful tableau. When Lirazel returns she sits on her father’s knee the entire time Orion grows up. I tried to get Midjourney to create an image of that scene but it kept making Lirazel a little girl in her father’s lap. I settled for what I have above.
During that same time, Alveric is on a never ending quest to reenter Elfland. His quest is longer than Odysseus’ journey home after the Trojan War.
Eventually, Orion discovers the edge of Elfland and sees a unicorn. Now, in this story, unicorns are magical, but not special like in modern fantasy stories. In fact, Orion hunts them, and mounts their heads. I bet modern readers will be horrified at that. Orion also discovers trolls and the trolls start visiting Erl.
I’m not sure if I should tell the whole story, but I’m going to say that the Parliament of Erl come to regret their desire for more magic in their land. They thought it would make their valley famous, but instead magic scares them. And it’s here where I wonder if Dunsany isn’t making a case against magic. At one point the Freer (friar?) speaks to the village:
I won’t tell what the ending is but it involves a transformation that I can’t decide if it’s wonderful or horrifying.
My theory is belief in magic existed before Christianity all across Europe, and for two thousand years the Church has been trying to stamp it out. Lovers of fantasy hate to let magic go. And I wonder if Lord Dunsany’s book, The King of Elfland’s Daughter isn’t about that. On one hand, I tend to think Dunsany is siding with Christianity and is against magic, but on the other hand, I think he’s just as enchanted by the magical.
The reason why I believed fantasy is for children is because I felt pretending is something kids like to do. But I also assume when we grow up we need to get real. Now, I’m no longer sure if it is okay to allow fantasy in books for children. Too many kids never grow up. I thought reading science fiction was taking the road to realism, but I realized late in life that much of science fiction is just as magical as fantasy. The reality is we don’t like reality and wish it was something its not. On the other hand, fiction allows us to cope with a reality that is difficult to comprehend.
Back in the 1800s there was a lot of opposition to reading fiction. Serious people thought it rotted the mind. People thought fiction mainly appealed to children, women, and men who couldn’t cope with the real world. I’m not sure they were wrong. And I wonder if Lord Dunsany wasn’t touching on this issue in The King of Elfland’s Daughter.
If I had the time I would like to make a case comparing the L. Frank Baum Oz books to The King of Elfland’s Daughter. There were 14 Oz books published from 1900 to 1920. The King of Elfland’s Daughter came out in 1924. I’d like to study what people thought of fantasy in the years 1900 to 1940 before science fiction started getting popular.
As a ten-year-old I wanted Oz to exist like Elfland. As a teenager, and even into my twenties, I used to tell people I never wanted to adultify.
Does anyone know of a good study on the evolution of fantasy fiction? I might not want to read it but I might want to read about it.
I have a condition called aphantasia, which means I can’t visualize images well in my head. Most people can close their eyes and see things. I can’t. I didn’t discover this until I was in my sixties. I’ve often read that ordinary people when they read a story visualize it in their mind’s eye. When I discovered Midjourney I got the idea that maybe I could use that program to help me see what fiction was describing. I’m just beginning to learn Midjourney. It’s easy to make striking pictures, but very hard to make specific striking pictures.
In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, the Elfland’s daughter is Lirazel, a princess who leaves her magical world to live in our ordinary world to marry Alveric and become his queen in the nonmagical land of Erl. Lirazel has a hard time coping without magic. Alveric wants her to become Christian and worship his way. Lirazel can’t understand why. She wants to worship the stars, but Alveric considers that evil. She tries to skirt his commands by worshipping the reflections of stars in a lake. That’s what the picture at the top of the page is trying to show.
Midjourney will draw almost anything, in any style you request. However, you have to describe what you want in words and codes, and Midjourney does its best to guess what they mean. It’s very hit-and-miss, and quite often Midjourney will ruin a beautiful image with weird deformities of the human form. If you look closely at the image at the top of the page, the women’s hands are ugly. Or look at this image. At first, it’s beautiful, until you see her arms. So many attempts have to be thrown out because of these deformities.
Here is another go at the same scene but asking for a more artistic view. However, I definitely didn’t imagine The King of Elfland’s Daughter looking like this art style. Mentally, I pictured the setting of the story to be a darkly medieval world lit by natural light. That’s why the picture at the top fits better in my mind. But the picture below does have an enchanting fantasy flavor. I can imagine that some readers see the story like this picture.
I went looking for previous artwork used for The King of Elfland’s Daughter but didn’t find much. Here is some artwork from an early edition, maybe even the first. I’m not sure. It’s very stylized. And it’s from the 1920s, so maybe this is how they pictured fantasy worlds.
This is how they pictured it in the 1960s when Ballantine reprinted this novel for its Adult Fantasy series. Notice how stylized the art is compared to how I’m trying to picture it.
These illustrations aren’t from The King of Elfland’s Daughter but show art styles that I think people associate with fantasy. However, probably they are more suited for children’s books. Using Midjourney you can apply any artistic style you want. The trick is convincing the program to use it and that can be hard.
People are using Midjourney to create art that can be used as digital art, book covers, illustrations, or in a series for comic books, graphic novels, and even animation. There are many hurdles. The first is to develop a consistent character out of a program that generates art from randomness. This can be done by using the same random seed number. You can also guide the program by uploading illustrations or photos, or even crude hand-drawn sketches. And there are endless keywords, styles, switches, datasets, etc. that can be applied. It really is something to be learned. And using Midjourney is a skill requiring artistic understanding. You either need to know about art or you need to learn about it quickly.
This is why it will be a while before I could ever read a book and routinely picture scenes in Midjourney. But while I’m reading The King of Elfland’s Daughter I’m often finding scenes I would like to see. There is one with a troll talking to a fox. Another with Lirazel, her small son, his nurse who is a witch, and the troll. And I just read one where Alveric is walking across a vast deserted landscape. He starts out with a bag of food thrown over his shoulders, enough to last him two weeks, a blanket around him as a coat for warmth, carrying a bundle of firewood, and a sword at his side. I’d like to visualize those scenes.
You can try Midjourney for free, but when I did, it warned me there were too many free users at the moment. I joined for $10 a month, but I soon realized that learning the program requires cranking out more images than the $10 account limit, and upped my account to the $30 version. And it’s not easy to use. You have to be a member of the Discord community because you send commands to Midjourey through that social site and view the results there too. There are tons of videos on YouTube that show how to do all of this if you’re interested.
As I’ve mentioned, our short story club is reading Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg. Its specific theme is megawars, which is what Miller calls all-out nuclear conflicts that destroy civilization. Tuesday’s story discussion was on “Tomorrow’s Children” by Poul Anderson which first appeared in the March 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction but was probably written in 1946. Coincidentally, today I finished the short novel The Murder of the U.S.A. by Will F. Jenkins (Murray Leinster) which was published in 1946. Both of these stories were written in the year after we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and imagine the United States nearly destroyed by a sneak attack using hundreds of atomic bombs.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been consuming science fiction stories, nonfiction, and documentary films about the development of atomic weapons in the 1940s and 1950s. I want to discover where the common ideas we hold today about surviving an atomic wars come from. Are they from science fiction stories or from general public knowledge? As Civil Defense programs emerged after WWII, Americans were told about what an atomic bomb attack would be like and how to prepare and survive it. It was assumed we’d survive such a war. But as the years went by many people started believing we wouldn’t.
Darker assumptions became the norm. Books, and especially movies and television shows, based on a growing list of memes about atomic wars have shaped what we expected. Over the decades, those fears have taken a back seat to other fears, especially about climate change, and occasionally about plagues, cosmic disasters, and the return of gods. For some reason, we all entertain various scenarios about the end of the world.
For some reason, reading all this old science fiction about nuclear war has shown me we were too worried, and mostly scaring ourselves. Sure, such wars were possible, but not as likely as everyone feared. That makes me wonder if we’re too worried about climatic change, or economic collapse, or pandemics? Of course, all these things can actually kill us, but what are the odds that they will kill as many people as fiction imagines?
In “Tomorrow’s Children” Anderson imagines Americans in small towns rebuilding after the war but still suffering from widespread fallout of radioactive dust and germs from biological weapons. Anderson pictures both human and animal births being overwhelmed with horrible mutations. It’s a grim story, but ultimately positive. His solution is we must give up all prejudices about what people should look like. “Tomorrow’s Children” was well anthologized.
Anderson also pictures many of the tropes we’ll see used in most post-apocalyptic novels that have been published since then. I often wonder if the success of AR-15 sales isn’t due to apocalyptic fears? Are survivalists and preppers living with assumptions that are probably more science fiction than fact?
Anderson wrote three other stories that were “sequels” to this one that was collected in a fix-up novel called Twilight World. Radioactivity that caused mutations was a big theme in science fiction in the late 1940s and 1950s. Remember all the movies about giant invading insects or post-apocalyptic novels where normal people battled tribes of human mutants?
Murray Leinster’s novel, The Murder of the U.S.A. has a rather unique plot. America is destroyed by a sneak attack that leaves all the major cities in ruins. However, we don’t know who attacked us because the rockets came in over the poles. This was well before ICBMs were invented, so impressive speculation by Jenkins. However, in this story, Americans built over a hundred deeply buried silos where the military could survive and launch retaliative attacks. The novel is about the men of Burrow 89 who do detective work to find out who murdered the U.S.A. It’s not a very good novel and has been out of print until recently when Wildside Press reprinted it.
After reading all these stories and watching all those documentaries, I’m not sure an atomic war will be like what science fiction imagined. I believe fiction has assumed we’d go to extremes. As far as I know, radioactive fallout has not caused weird human mutations or giant insects. And we haven’t had any all-out wars that destroyed most of humanity. What I’m afraid of is a limited nuclear war. I’m afraid politicians will discover they can get away with using nukes. I believe all this post-apocalyptic fiction has scared us so much that we fear any use of them will destroy everything. I keep reading about the times our presidents considered using nuclear weapons. And we have to assume leaders and other countries have had similar thoughts. What if we start having limited wars with atomic weapons and they don’t destroy the world? Isn’t that something to fear even more?
Science fiction often imagines the worse possible ways for us to destroy ourselves. What I’m beginning to fear are all the ways we can merely make everyday life worse because of these fears. I have to admit, that science fiction has given me a lot to worry about over my lifetime. Science fiction has always been about our hopes and fears for the future. Reading all these stories about nuclear doom shows how we incorporated that one fear into our consciousness.
Here is Hiroshima in 1945 and 2020. Did we imagine such a recovery in 1945? It’s pretty weird that it’s taken me over fifty years to begin to distrust science fiction.
But there is something else we should consider. Why have these stories been so popular for so long? Sure, the causes of apocalypses keep changing, but we still delight in fiction about surviving something big and awful. Maybe they imply another kind of psychological issue. Instead of worrying about the worse than can happen, maybe we subconsciously want cataclysmic change? That deep down we don’t like how civilization has evolved and want a do-over. That’s not healthy either.
Now I’m starting to wonder if my life-long addiction to science fiction isn’t a psychological symptom suggesting I have a problem with reality. Think about it. Why would anyone really want to live on Mars? Why would anyone picture themselves living in a post-apocalyptic world? Why would anyone imagine time-traveling to the past or future? And really, why are dystopian novels so popular as escapist fiction?
We’re living through times changing so fast that it seems ridiculous to imagine the future. Over the past year, I’ve developed an addiction to watching YouTube. It’s an easy way to take the pulse on a lot of topics and subcultures. I watch between one and two dozen short videos a day, as well as read several kinds of news feeds on my computer. During the past two weeks, since the announcements of GPT4 and MidJourney 5, my YouTube feed has been overwhelmed with AI stories. Possibilities are exploding like a-bombs.
I believe we’re in the middle of a societal paradigm shift. It’s already possible to write science fiction with the aid of an AI, but creators can also create SF graphic novels and comics, SF videos, and movies with AI creating all the visuals including the actors, SF audiobooks using AI-created voices, and even newer SF art forms. Already, it was possible with technology for a writer to create and book via their own artistic skills and self-publish it, now they can use an AI cowriter, or even an AI ghostwriter.
There’s one barrier that AI can’t cross, as of now. And that’s creating new science fictional concepts. The writer who can take in everything that’s going on now and speculate about the near future in any coherent way has the edge – for the moment. AIs based on current training models are essentially limited to rearranging the deck chairs on the Carnival Cruise’s Mardi Gras. What’s disappointing, is that’s exactly what most current human science fiction writers are doing too.
Everyone is freaking out over AI being more creative than humans, but right now AIs are becoming more and more creative like humans. They take old art and rearrange it to suit themselves. Both humans and AI are recyclers.
Even when a human does do something startlingly different, like Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, it’s still possible to deconstruct most of it to stock off-the-shelf parts. William Shakespeare is rated number one as a creative writer, but look how brilliant he was at recycling.
We don’t actually want 100% original creativity. How many people read Finnegans Wake, a work where Joyce tried to be uniquely original?
Although it has fallen out of favor, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land was vastly different from anything science fiction had produced before it. So was Frank Herbet’s Dune. More recent examples would be Hyperion by Dan Simmons and The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. But all those novels were black swans, weren’t they? So how could we predict them?
Right now we have more science fiction of all kinds being produced than ever before. That production is going into overdrive with AI. And the percentage of it that’s readable and entertaining is increasing. That’s also part of the problem – there’s too much science fiction – at least for any one work to become widely known. Good science fiction novels have almost become a generic product line, in white boxes with black letter labeling.
What we need is a writer who has a holistic perspective of our time that can write a Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Handmaid’s Tale about what we’re experiencing in the 2020s. Kim Stanley Robinson keeps trying but doesn’t quite hit the mark. His novel The Ministry for the Future was impactful like Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar was back in the 1960s, but both books were too experimental, too intellectual, and not emotionally moving. I’m not sure AIs will ever be genuinely emotionally moving, but they will be able to fake it.
Is anyone ever original on their own? Don’t we all stand on the shoulders of others? As Newton pointed out, the goal is to stand on the shoulders of giants.
[The above is a screenshot from the video by KhromAI.]
I’ve always loved looking at the covers of science fiction books and magazines where artists have visualized the stories. Recently, AI programs like Midjourney allow anyone with a knack for words and a visual imagination to illustrate a science fiction story. They are starting to show up on YouTube as videos. Here’s one that envisions the novel Dune but with the artistic style of H. R. Giger.
I highly recommend you also look at this on a large-screen television to see these images in their full glory. They are quite impressive.
I know there is a controversy about AI programs “stealing” artistic styles from human artists, but let’s not get into that now. I’m fascinated by the idea that an individual just using their imagination and language skills can create an illustrated science fiction novel or movie. What are the possibilities?
Already, YouTube is being flooded with videos like this one and it gives me ideas of what might happen. Again, let’s not get into copyrights and legal issues at the moment. But imagine taking your favorite science fiction story and illustrating it with AI software. Will this become a new art form? A new kind of fan fiction? Or will it be considered a new kind of communication? What will it mean when you can express your thoughts in words and pictures?
What are the limits on visualizing something in your mind and getting a computer program to paint it for you in pixels?
What if two people visualize the same story? Or ten? What if people start developing their own artistic style with words that convey how they imagine things? Here’s another example, also of Dune and also using Giger as inspiration. You can see it’s much like the other. AI/human artists need to branch out.
Sure, they should experiment will all the great artists, but also figure out how to create their own artistic styles. I’m sure that will emerge as a feature in AI programs.
And besides creating paintings and videos of existing stories why now use AI to visualize your own stories? This is where I see things getting exciting. With AI a person can be their own art book or video publisher. Or, writers who want to create old-fashion novels and short stories can use this technology to create visual mockups of what they want to paint in words.
Here is an original story created using Midjourney. Is this the future of science fiction writing?
Here’s an example of Midjourney using famous science fiction art from the past. This barely hints at the possibilities.
Here’s another example. But why are people focused on obvious inspirations? I’d love to see someone illustrate “The Moon Moth” by Jack Vance or “Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester. Still, some of these images are quite striking. There’s no denying that AI art programs can create stunning pictures.
Of course, human artists will have to compete against machine minds. I’m hoping existing human artists, especially those already working with digital canvases, can use AI art programs to empower their artistic skills to compete with nonartists using AI programs.
Isaac Asimov would open his introductions to each of the 25-volume series, The Great SF Stories (1939-1963) with “in the world outside reality” and then describe actual world events of that year. Several paragraphs later, Asimov would start over with “in the real world” and relate what happened in the subculture of science fiction. Because I grew up addicted to reading science fiction, I actually thought like that. I was born in 1951, and I became aware of atomic bombs and ideas about WWII and WWIII from reading and watching science fiction. I eventually learned differently as I got older in the second half of the 1960s, but still, most of my conceptualizations about nuclear wars came from science fiction. In other words, I learned about reality from science fiction and fiction before studying history.
But even as an adult, I assumed that most people got most of their ideas about what it might be like to survive nuclear war from science fiction. That’s why I wrote “Science Fiction About Surviving a Nuclear Holocaust Pre-1960.” And that might be true for people born after 1950, but in researching my essay I realized that it wasn’t true for people born before 1950. Between 1945 and 1950, and probably for several years into the 1950s, atomic warfare was widely discussed and speculated about in public — in newspapers and magazines, and on radio and newsreels. After that, I theorize people’s conception of what nuclear war would be like was shaped more by fiction and science fiction.
While researching these blog posts about nuclear war and science fiction I discovered I already owned The Beginning Or The End by Greg Mitchell, a 2020 nonfiction book about the making of a 1947 film, The Beginning Or The End. That MGM film is one of the first fictional accounts of the making and use of atomic bombs. What Mitchell’s book shows is how Hollywood and the Army worked together to tell their version of the story while the scientists who built the bomb wanted to tell a very different version — one closer to actual history and fact.
The book’s subtitle is “How Hollywood and America Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” and that’s accurate and inaccurate at the same time. For a short while (maybe 1945-1947), the government and the military tried to convince the American public that the bomb wasn’t as scary as the scientists claimed. The public might have accepted that official view during those years, but soon most people were scared shitless about the bomb. And fiction and science fiction made their fears even worse.
Mitchell’s book is a cold case study proving fiction distorts our understanding of history, and I highly recommend it. The Kindle edition is currently just $4.29 at Amazon. There’s also a hardcover and audiobook edition. The DVD of the 1947 movie is currently $18 but I don’t recommend it. It’s actually a crummy flick even though at the time MGM aimed to make one of the greatest films ever. You’ll be able to discern their lousy artistic effort by watching the equally lousy print of the film on YouTube.
Once I started looking for old documentaries about atomic bombs YouTube started offering what I think must be public service films created to inform the public about atomic warfare. It seems that each test explosion had its own documentation. And watching those films has been immensely revealing in understanding history from that period. I thought I knew more than I did, especially since I grew up in that period. But I realize, what we know about the world before puberty, and in the decade just before we were born, has been highly distorted by pop culture. The older I get the more I realize that my awareness of 1945-1960 is mostly based on science fiction, fiction, television, movies, and rock music. Talk about a reality distortion field!
I thought atomic warfare would be a great test case for studying the influence of science fiction because it’s so recent in history with 1945 being the starting point. I’m discovering science fiction gave me a very low-level kind of awareness of reality while I was growing up. If I’m brutally honest, I’d say SF was just two steps up from comic books, and one step up from television and movies. But as a kid, I didn’t want to believe that. As a twelve-year-old, addicted to sense-of-wonder, I wanted to believe science fiction offered a sophisticated education about reality and future possibilities.
Mitchell’s book let me jump back to 1945 and follow along one path about how the public learned about atomic bombs. The book goes into great detail starting just after the bombing of Hiroshima about how movie studios wanted to make a fictional film about the development and first use of the atomic bomb. The book chronicles how fiction, especially movies created that reality-distortion field I was talking about above.
Mitch does mention science fiction early on, but the book mostly focuses on the making of the MGM film, and for a while, a competing film from Paramount. By the way, the screenwriter hired for the Paramount film was Ayn Rand, and she could be considered a science fiction writer. Here’s Mitchell’s early tip of the hat o science fiction:
However, this was small potatoes compared to what film moguls and screenwriters were already working on. On October 28, 1945, Donna Reed got a letter from her old chemistry teacher, Ed Tompkins. Tompkins was part of a group of scientists working at Oak Ridge that were freaked out about the possibilities of atomic bombs and wanted to warn the public. He asked Donna Reed in a series of letters to give them to someone in power at MGM who could make a movie about their fears. Reed gave the letters to her husband Tony Owen, an agent, who contacted Samuel Marx, a producer, who got them an interview with Louis B. Mayer. Mayer flew Owen and Marx out to Oak Ridge on MGM’s private DC3. Eventually, the movie people got an interview with President Harry S. Truman, who supported the idea but for different reasons.
The Beginning Or The End got quickly made in 1946 and came out in 1947. But it wasn’t the only picture being made on the subject. It did have a rather striking opening. The film begins with a fake documentary of a bunch of actors portraying famous scientists and military men involved with the bomb installing a time capsule that’s supposed to be open in 500 years. What they put in the time capsule is the film The Beginning Or the End.
However, right from the start of making the movie, the scientists involved thought the film distorted their message. The rest of the book is about the problems of making the film. Those details illustrate what I’m talking about how fiction gives us a false conception of history. It’s quite fascinating. As I said, I recommend this book. Vanity Fair picked it as one of the top books of 2020. Read clips of various reviews here.
The book also deals with the argument on whether or not we should have used the A-bomb on Japan. That history has been presented in other books, but it’s an important factor in this one because it was a major motivation for lying to the public. In this case, fiction, the film The Beginning Or The End, intentionally lies. That’s one kind of distortion of history. But I’m also interested in how fiction speculates and become memes that fixate in the public’s minds.
For example, science fiction quickly moved to imagine atomic wars that would wipe out civilization and kill most people. In the early 1950s, it used radiation as a magical reason to create movies about giant insects or horrible mutant humans. A good comparison is science fiction about pandemics. Those stories often imagine a plague that kills 90% or 99% percent of everyone, even though in history, the worse plague events might have killed 25-35% of the population of specific cities. Fiction imagines the worse, for obvious dramatic reasons. But how often does fiction imagine a realistic limited nuclear war? We generally assume that any use of nuclear weapons will lead to all-out global warfare, and that’s because of fiction. Maybe that fiction has kept us from using nuclear weapons again, but isn’t it also another kind of distortion?
What I want to explore in my essays about science fiction and nuclear war is how fiction distorts reality.
Ever since I had an operation last August I’ve noticed that my enthusiasm for science fiction is waning. Partly, that’s due to a loss of vitality after the operation and partly, I’m getting older and just more tired. I know this because I can measure my activity level by how well I keep up with my reading group. It reads and discusses one science fiction short story every day. I was reading and commenting on every story before my operation. Now, I can’t keep up.
I read about 1,500 science fiction short stories between 2019 and 2022. Most of those came from retrospective anthologies and best-of-the-year anthologies that featured outstanding examples of the genre. The memory of so many great stories brings high expectations to anything new I read now. I can no longer tell if a story is ho-hum because it’s not very good or because I’m jaded by the ideas that the story uses. I suspect younger readers find many of these stories very exciting.
Our group also reads the finalists for various awards that cover the previous year, which means I’m also reading a lot of current science fiction. Unfortunately, new science fiction seldom feels as good as science fiction from the past. I don’t know if this is because I’m old and out of sync with modern science fiction. Or, because I’ve read so much science fiction for over sixty years makes it extremely hard for new science fiction to feel original. Or, older science fiction had a storytelling style I prefer. Do I just give up on current science fiction and retreat into the past? Or do I work harder to find new SF I like?
Last year I read several mainstream/literary novels which I thoroughly enjoyed. I felt like I was covering a new and exciting territory. I love it when I read science fiction that covers new territories, but that rarely happens anymore.
I have become more excited about reading and thinking about the genre than reading science fiction. While reading each new short story or novel I get most of my reading pleasure from considering how the story fits in the evolution of all the stories covering the same theme. I seldom read a new story and get excited by just that story. One example where I did was “Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker. Another example is “You Have The Prettiest Mask” by Sarah Langan (excerpt). Neither of these stories is really science fiction.
Amazon has decided not to carry five science fiction magazines I’ve been subscribing to for years: Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, Lightspeed, and Clarkeswork. I seldom read these magazines, but I wanted to support them. I keep thinking that one day I’ll write a story and want someplace to send it. I figured my $20 a month was a tiny way of being a patron of the arts. And I liked having copies of these magazines on my iPhone so I could quickly find a story to read when the group picks it, or when it was mentioned online. These magazines might show up in Kindle Unlimited but since I don’t read them regularly, subscribing to KU won’t get them as much money. I could use another ebook source but I detest keeping up with ebook files, and they would never be as convenient to read and manage as they were in my Kindle app. I’m considering subscribing to print magazines, or buying them on the newsstand. I could kill two birds with one stone by buying them at my favorite bookstore. That way I’m supporting my bookstore and the magazine.
However, I’m not keen on piling up a bunch of magazines I’ll seldom read unless our group reads the story. We’re currently going through the finalists for Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Award, and will do the same for Analog. However, all those stories are put online. I also read newer stories when we read best-of-the-year anthologies.
I’d hate not to support the magazines. This is a quandary for me. I’m not sure I even like modern science fiction anymore, but I’ve always loved science fiction magazines since the mid-1960s. I don’t know if I can give up on them now. On the other hand, I have more back issues on my shelves to read than I could read in several lifetimes, and I have digital scans of nearly all the science fiction magazines from the 20th century. I’ve got more than enough to read.
I think I need to spend less time reading. At 71, I need to be more active. I need to get into hobbies where I’m not just staring at words all the time. However, giving up a lifelong addiction is hard. I might have to accept that basically, I’m just a science fiction fan. That, being a science fiction reader was my purpose in this life.
On the other hand, I want to read a greater variety of fiction and nonfiction. I’m sure I’m missing out on other great genres and subjects. However, I have been reading more that’s not science fiction and I feel like I’m moving in too many directions at once. It’s much easier to read more about science fiction than read more about the world and the history of the world. Again, this is another mental conflict I need to resolve. But I have hundreds of nonfiction books on many subjects waiting on my shelves to be read. I collected them for years planning to read them in my retirement. However, I’ve spent a lifetime specializing in science fiction and to learn a new specialty would be impossible.
I’ll start with an analogy. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, I spent a lot of time flipping through record bins at record stories. When I was young I could barely afford one album a week. And even after I got a regular job I seldom bought more than four albums at a time. But I flipped by thousands of albums I wanted to buy. Now with Spotify, I can go back and listen to all those albums that looked interesting but that I couldn’t afford.
The same is true for science fiction. I have a choice between reading a book I didn’t pick back then or reading a new science fiction novel that just came out. Both in terms of music and science fiction I’m strongly drawn to the years 1950 to 1980.
Think of it this way. The past and present are two extremely large picture puzzles. I have more pieces in place seeing a more complete view of the picture for the past puzzle. Filling in the holes in that puzzle is more rewarding. Or think of it this way. The SF genre is one giant puzzle. I’ve got more pieces in one area put together, and fewer in another area. Theoretically, if I read all science fiction it would fill in the entire puzzle. I would see connections between all time periods. I’d love to fill in the picture between 1950 and 2023 but I have more pieces I see fitting together in the 1950-1980 area that I want to be matched up first.
I don’t like where current science fiction is going. The science fiction I grew up with was mostly set in the solar system and nearby stars. Humans were humans. Too much of modern science fiction is about faraway places and post-humans. I really dislike the idea of brain downloading and uploading. Sure, it’s a fun idea, but too unbelievable. A lot of modern science fiction feels like it’s inspired by comic books or movies which push ideas, characters, and plots into ridiculous places.
I’m realizing something about science fiction with my study of fiction about surviving nuclear war. I used to think science fiction promoted certain new concepts into the public consciousness. I thought science fiction lead when it actually was following. So far, I’ve found nearly all the concepts about nuclear war were public knowledge before science fiction stories and novels used them. Actually, by reading much older science fiction, stories, and novels from 1850-1950, many of the science fiction concepts I thought were original with science fiction after 1950 weren’t. And I suspect the science fiction writers back then got their ideas from concepts already spreading around in the public mind.
This makes me want to go back and reread science fiction and see if it was ever creatively original. One reason I don’t take to modern science fiction is that it feels like recycled old science fiction. How many concepts do science fiction writers keep repackaging over and over again? When were they first discovered? Where can science fiction still innovate?
Starting March 16th I’m going to lead a book discussion on Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg for our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction, and Fantasy Short Fiction. We had voted on reading a science fiction theme anthology and Miller’s anthology won for the Post-Apocalypse theme. Y’all are welcome to come read along and discuss the stories. Here is a link to the thread on this group read.
I thought the book would be about post-apocalypses in general, but it turns out Miller was riled up about Reagan’s Star Wars and nuclear proliferation back in the 1980s and the anthology focuses mainly on surviving a nuclear holocaust. (Read his intro.) This got me thinking. How many different kinds of post-apocalypses are there? Most of the famous ones deal with nuclear war, an extreme plague, or a catastrophic encounter with an astronomical object.
Since Miller wanted to focus on nuclear war I would too. I’ve always wanted to create a database of science fiction themes. I’ve pondered creating a theme taxonomy or even developing a Dewey Decimal type system for identifying each specific theme. Recently, I played around with ChatGPT to see if it could help with this task. The job would be a big one. So, focusing on one narrow theme would be a great start.
For our discussion of Beyond Armageddon, I decided to study short stories, novels, movies, and TV shows about surviving a nuclear war. I figured I’d bring up these precedents as we discussed the stories. Over the weeks we’ll be discussing the stories I’ll build up a timeline about this theme. I also want to use the same time to learn about Walter M. Miller, Jr., but that’s for another post.
Even with the narrowed focus on nuclear war apocalypses, there are many ways to cover the subject. A crude beginning would be to divide them into Before the Bomb (warnings), Being Bombed (surviving), and After the Bomb (new societies).
Famous movies like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove end with the bombs going off. Their focus was on how to avoid a nuclear war.
Then there are stories that feature characters that live through an atomic war and the immediate aftermath, like the movie Threads. These stories usually begin just before bombs start falling, and usually end after the devastation showing us how bad nuclear war could be.
Finally, there are novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Long Tomorrow, or movies like Mad Max, where the war is in the past and new societies are emerging. Often these kinds of stories use their creativity to imagine how humanity adapts to new situations.
For this essay, I want to be very specific. I’m looking for short stories, novels, television shows, and movies about people surviving worldwide all-out nuclear war. I’m going to exclude fiction about the anxiety of a pending war, such as Dr. Strangelove, and also ignore stories about new societies developing after a nuclear war, such as A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Long Tomorrow. I want to specialize in fiction about people who survive a nuclear war and what they do immediately afterward, maybe including the first generation born after the war. The film Threads is a perfect example.
However, my research is turning into a very large project. For this post, I’m going to focus on the fiction that came out before 1960. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in August 1945. I’ve yet to discover any science fiction that deals with surviving a nuclear war before then. However, Beyond Armageddon includes “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét, which was originally published in the July 31, 1937 issue of Saturday Evening Post. It describes civilization being destroyed by fire, that poisoned the earth and air. That’s good enough for me. But it’s an afterward story, a long afterward story, where our descendants have forgotten the past and assume the beings who fought this great war were gods. Like many stories of this kind, people live in primitive tribes and talk like cliches of Native Americans.
Even though America had dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 it took a while for science fiction writers to imagine nuclear war, especially one that could destroy human civilization. Russia didn’t explode its first fission bomb (A-bomb) until 1949 and its first thermonuclear bomb (H-bomb) until 1953. That was the same year they began the development of their first ICBM. We started the Atlas missile program in 1954. Russia’s first successful launch was in August 1957, and ours was in late November 1958.
(Revision: Thanks to Joachim Boaz’s comment below I now know about Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction by Paul Brians. It’s online here. Evidently, there have been a number of articles and monographs on this subject. I’ll make further revisions to my list below as I get to read more.)
“By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) might be the first story about a nuclear holocaust, but it’s not for sure, and not the specific kind I’m looking for. Remember, I want stories about people experiencing a nuclear war.
“Thunder and Roses” (1947) by Theodore Sturgeon is a short story with a very unique perspective on atomic war. The link is to a copy of the original magazine publication.
Shadow on the Hearth in 1950 by Judith Merril is the earliest science fiction novel I know about that deals with surviving an atomic war. In 1954 it was televised as “Atomic Attack” on Motorola TV Theater, see below. If you know of others leave a comment below.
It took time for science fiction writers to put two and two together and imagine an atomic war that could create total annihilation of our species. I’m having trouble discovering when the public first encountered ideas about atomic war in the news and popular science and when science fiction writers used the ideas. Were the writers first? Could Nevil Shute have been the first to imagine self-extinction in On the Beach?
Judith Merril might be the earliest science fiction writer who explored a limited atomic war. However, I haven’t read her book yet, but in the TV drama, many of the major American cities are destroyed, and we destroy many of the enemy’s big cities, but people in small towns survive. CONELRAD was established in 1951 and is featured in the TV drama, but I think it was too early for the novel. That means the public was well aware of the atomic war possibility, I’m just not knowledgeable by how much. What did science fiction writers have to work with at this time?
According to Wikipedia, Five (1951) is the first film to portray people surviving an atomic war. I have not seen it yet, and I guess it ignores the television drama “Atomic Attack.” It is available to rent.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) by Ray Bradbury imagines an automated home in the future continuing to function after humans have died in an atomic war. We don’t know how universal the deaths are in this story.
“Lot” (1953) by Ward Moore is one of my favorite science fiction short stories. It’s “Cold Equations” type brutality hits you hard in the end. I’ve always felt that Panic In Year Zero! a 1962 film with Ray Milland might have been inspired by “Lot.” Moore story had a sequel, “Lot’s Daughter” which is even more Biblical and daring.
“Atomic Attack” (1954) was an episode on Motorola TV Theater based on Judith Merril’s 1950 novel – see above. I’d love to have a DVD of Motorola TV Theater series. This episode is available to watch on Tubi and YouTube and for sale on DVD from Amazon. Even though the production quality is low by today’s standards, I thought the 1954 television tale was an A+ story for what I was looking for. The link is to YouTube, but this version is part of a mix of videos about atomic war. See items on the right side. (I’m curious, is this just a bad film copy, or is it a kinescope?)
Tomorrow! (1954) by Philip Wylie compares survivors in two smaller towns that weren’t bombed in a nuclear attack, one with prepared civil defense and the other not.
On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute was a bestselling novel by a mainstream writer. Shute imagined radioactive clouds circling the globe slowly killing off life. Because the war took place in the northern hemisphere, radioactive clouds took weeks to get to all of the southern hemisphere with Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the lowests parts of South America. Everyone dies. Is this the first novel of total nuclear annihilation?
“Doomsday For Dyson” (1958), a televised play by J. B. Priestley. Can’t find much about this but it appears to have been a dream about surviving a nuclear war. Love to see it if anyone knows where I could watch it. J. B. Priestley was a mainstream English novelist, playwright, screenwriter, broadcaster, and social commentator. It seems that so far, mainstream writers were more interested in writing about nuclear war than science fiction writers. However, there might be many SF novels and stories I don’t know about yet.
Red Alert (1958) by Peter George was the basis for Dr. Strangelove.
“Underground” (1958) was a 1958 episode of Armchair Theatre, a British TV show on ITV. I doubt I’ll ever get to see it. I’ve read British TV producers didn’t try and save stuff like American producers. Still, it’s another clue in how much the general public was interested in this subject.
Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank was another novel about people surviving an atomic war. It’s still very readable today. When I was a teenager in the 1960s prowling used bookstores I constantly saw used copies of On the Beach, Alas, Babylon, and Limbo. I figured they must have been very popular. Limbo wasn’t about nuclear war, but cybernetics.
Level 7 (1959) by Mordecai Roshwald. I just learned about this novel yesterday when I mentioned to my old friend Connell I was writing about books about atomic war. He said our buddy George gave it to him back in the 1960s and he still vividly remembers it. I’m going to get a copy.
On the Beach (1959) was a popular film starring Gregory Peck.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) was a film starring Harry Belafonte as the sole survivor of a nuclear war using radioactivity dispersed aerially. This film deserves a lot more attention than it gets. However, it’s more about being the last man on Earth, a kind of Robinson Crusoe story.
“Time Enough at Last” (1959) was one of the most popular Twilight Zone episodes that featured Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis, another sole survivor of an atomic war. The Twilight Zone often dealt with nuclear war, but this entry was an ironic humorous one.
If you know of other works of fiction that cover this topic leave a comment below.
If you are old enough to remember the late 1940s and 1950s and can tell me how you learned about the idea of nuclear war, please leave a comment. Did it come from television, newspapers, word-of-mouth, or science fiction?
Except for a few alternate reality stories, science fiction writers no longer write about the first trip to the Moon. NASA’s successes have had a tremendous impact on science fiction written after the1960s. If Elon Musk’s plans for his Starship succeed it should change the course of science fiction too. If you follow The Space Race on YouTube it appears SpaceX’s Starship is going to happen. Yesterday’s video was about how SpaceX is working towards the industrial capacity to build one Starship a day. What would that mean?’
Elon Musk could become Heinlein’s, D. D. Harriman – the man who sold the Moon. Musk wants to put a million colonists are Mars in the 2030s. And SpaceX is now working in conjunction with NASA to return to the Moon.
After NASA’s planetary probes in the 1960s science fiction stopped writing about Mars and Venus being inhabited. Before that Mars was a wintery desert world and Venus was a steaming jungle world but with life, even intelligent life. After the Mariner probes, Mars was as lifeless as the Moon, and Venus was hot enough to melt lead.
If Elon Musk succeeds then he will shape the future of the Moon and Mars, and of science fiction that will be written about those worlds. There is no guarantee Musk will succeed. SpaceX might get people to Mars and people might discover it’s a horrible place to live and not want to colonize the planet. Or that Mars is so toxic that it’s not practical to live on Mars. But if colonization is possible we’ll see how a colony on Mars will be designed. That design will shape the direction of science fiction for decades.
SpaceX’s Starship isn’t revolutionary. It’s not powered by nuclear engines or some other exotic drive. It’s stainless steel, methane, and oxygen along with some highly refined chemical rocket engines. But it could become the Model T of space travel.
Along with SpaceX, there are two other technologies that could reshape the evolution of science fiction. The first is AI. The second is Boston Dynamics robots. When the two are combined we might not need human explorers in space. Science fiction has always pictured robots becoming like humans. ChatGPT can process thousands of concurrent queries at the same time. Soon robots will be stronger, faster, and more agile than humans. What happens when we have a robot that has all recorded knowledge in its head and can multitask thousands of problems at once? Isn’t the Singularity getting awful near?
Science fiction often pictures robots acting like humans, even being our pals. Human minds will appear to them as gerbil minds appear to us. Right now we picture humans using Starship to conquer the solar system. Just think how much more efficient it would be to combine Starship with AI robots? Intelligent robots are perfect beings to live in space. What if we sent a million intelligent robots to Mars instead of a million humans? They could build us a deluxe civilization to move into much quicker than we could.
I’m not reading much science fiction that speculates realistically about the near future. Too many stories are about super-science that will probably never exist. Or it’s about cute robots that vastly underestimate what robots can do. Or they are silly stories about people falling in love with sexbots. Or even worse, there are lots of silly stories envisioning robots wanting to be human. That’s like us fantasizing about becoming a gerbil or having a love life with one.
The whole point of a Singularity is one day AI will be equal in capacity to the human mind. But the next day it will be 2x us, and a little while later 10x, and pretty soon 1000x. Why hasn’t science fiction explored the idea we’ll be the second banana in this neck of the galaxy soon.
By the way, have y’all read any science fiction stories based on Elon Musk’s plans for Mars and the Moon?
I’ve often thought science fiction was a substitute for religion. I know my love of science fiction developed just as I was rejecting the religion I was taught as a child. But also, science fiction emerged in the 1950s just as the culture began to change in many ways, becoming more secular and non-religious. It was easier to put one’s faith in exploring the heavens in a rocketship than dying and going to heaven. And the idea of superior aliens seemed a lot more probable than gods or angels. Finally, achieving immortality through science seemed a better bet than being resurrected into an immortal being.
So, I thought I’d ask a superior intellect about all of this.
I asked ChatGPT:
If science fiction was a religion what would its creed be if stated like the Nicene Creed?
Here’s one possible version of a science fiction creed, loosely modeled after the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one universe, existing in multiple dimensions, infinite in scope and possibility, and in one force that binds all things together.
We believe in the power of science and technology to advance the human condition and shape the future, and in the responsibility of humanity to use this power wisely.
We believe in the existence of intelligent life beyond our own planet, and in the possibility of communication and cooperation with these beings.
We believe in the potential of artificial intelligence to achieve sentience and to coexist with humanity in harmony and mutual benefit.
We believe in the exploration and colonization of space, and in the expansion of humanity’s reach to the farthest corners of the cosmos.
We believe in the existence of alternate realities and timelines, and in the ability of science to unlock the secrets of these realms.
We believe in the value of imagination and creativity, and in the power of science fiction to inspire and inform our understanding of the world around us.
We believe in the continuous evolution of science and science fiction and in the endless possibilities that the future holds.
This response was pretty damn good and it does make science fiction feel religious or spiritual.
Then I asked:
How does belief in God, gods, angels, and heaven overlap with the things science fiction fans believe in?
Belief in God, gods, angels, and heaven are generally considered to be religious beliefs, while the things that science fiction fans believe in are often based on scientific speculation, technological advancements, and imaginative exploration. However, there can be some overlap in terms of the themes and concepts that both groups explore. Here are a few examples:
Belief in extraterrestrial life: While the existence of God, angels, and heaven are typically considered to be matters of faith, the idea of extraterrestrial life is a subject of scientific inquiry and speculation. Science fiction often imagines a variety of intelligent beings and civilizations that exist beyond Earth, and many science fiction fans believe that there may be life elsewhere in the universe.
Exploration of alternate realities: Science fiction often explores the idea of parallel universes or alternate realities, where events play out differently than they do in our own world. This concept may overlap with religious beliefs about the afterlife or the existence of multiple planes of existence.
Advancements in technology and science: Science fiction often explores the potential of new technologies and scientific advancements, such as artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, or time travel. Some science fiction fans may see these ideas as a reflection of humanity’s creative potential and our ability to shape our own destiny, while religious believers may see them as a reflection of God’s power and creativity.
Overall, while there can be some overlap in the themes and ideas explored in science fiction and religious beliefs, the underlying motivations and methods of each group are quite different. Science fiction relies on speculation, imagination, and the scientific method, while religion is based on faith, revelation, and tradition.
That’s spot on, especially the last sentence. ChatGPT does see the parallels too. It’s nice to know it and I agree.
To clarify, I asked:
Is there a psychological explanation that explains why some people believe in gods and others in aliens?
There are several psychological explanations that may help explain why some people believe in gods, while others believe in aliens.
Agency detection: Humans have a natural tendency to attribute events to the actions of agents, rather than to random chance. This is known as agency detection, and it has been proposed that this may be an evolved adaptation that helped our ancestors to identify potential threats and avoid danger. The belief in gods or other supernatural entities may be seen as an extension of this tendency, as they are often perceived as powerful, intentional agents that can influence events in the world.
Intuitive thinking: Intuitive thinking refers to quick, automatic, and effortless cognitive processes that are often based on heuristics or mental shortcuts. This type of thinking is often contrasted with analytical thinking, which is more deliberate and effortful. Some researchers have suggested that intuitive thinking may be more likely to lead to belief in supernatural entities, as it is less critical and more accepting of information that confirms existing beliefs.
Socialization and culture: The beliefs and values that we hold are often shaped by the culture and social environment in which we were raised. In many cultures, belief in a god or gods is a fundamental aspect of religious practice and identity and may be reinforced through family, community, and religious institutions. Similarly, belief in extraterrestrial life and UFOs may be influenced by popular culture, science fiction, and the media.
Cognitive biases: Humans are subject to a range of cognitive biases, or systematic errors in thinking that can lead to inaccurate or irrational beliefs. For example, confirmation bias refers to the tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs, while neglecting or discounting information that contradicts them. Belief in gods or aliens may be influenced by cognitive biases such as these, as they can make it difficult to objectively evaluate evidence and arguments.
Overall, there are likely multiple psychological factors that contribute to belief in gods or aliens, and these factors may interact with one another in complex ways. It is important to note that belief in either of these entities is not inherently irrational or unreasonable, as people can have a variety of reasons for holding these beliefs.
ChatGPT is thinking like me, or I’m thinking like it but it’s not exactly what I would have written. It is close but more precise. I’m a sloppy verbose writer, and ChatGPT knows how to get down to business.
I still wasn’t getting what I exactly wanted, so I asked:
What psychological benefits do reading science fiction give people? Are they similar to what people get from religion?
Reading science fiction can provide several psychological benefits, some of which may be similar to what people get from religion. Here are a few examples:
Escape and entertainment: Science fiction can provide a form of escapism from the stresses and challenges of everyday life, as well as a source of entertainment and enjoyment. This can be a valuable way to unwind, relax, and recharge, which may have positive effects on mood and mental health.
Exploration of new ideas and perspectives: Science fiction often explores complex and thought-provoking ideas, such as the nature of consciousness, the ethics of artificial intelligence, or the potential consequences of future technologies. Reading science fiction can expose readers to a wide range of perspectives and worldviews, which can broaden their understanding of the world and challenge their assumptions.
Inspiration and motivation: Science fiction can inspire readers to think creatively, to imagine new possibilities, and to take action to improve their lives and the world around them. This can be a source of motivation and inspiration, which may help people to overcome challenges and achieve their goals.
Sense of community: Science fiction fandom can provide a sense of community and belonging for fans, as they share a common interest and passion for the genre. This can be similar to the sense of community that people get from religion, as both involve a shared set of beliefs and practices that unite people.
Overall, while the psychological benefits of reading science fiction may share some similarities with the benefits of religion, they are also distinct in many ways. Science fiction often emphasizes exploration, creativity, and intellectual stimulation, while religion tends to focus on faith, ritual, and spirituality. However, both can provide important sources of meaning, purpose, and connection for individuals, depending on their needs and interests.
This is accurate enough. ChatGPT is very good at academic bullshitting, the kind of writing that’s good for passing essay tests. It should be good in some courses in school and college. However, it keeps things on a basic level, like a newspaper writer. But I wanted to test ChatGPT against details.
Can you give me a chronological list of science fiction stories that show the development of intelligent machines in fiction?
Sure, here’s a chronological list of science fiction stories that feature the development of intelligent machines:
“The Sandman” by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1816) – This short story features a mechanical automaton that is so lifelike that it is mistaken for a human being.
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1818) – While not strictly a story about a machine, “Frankenstein” is often considered one of the earliest science fiction stories and features a scientist who creates a living creature through artificial means.
“The Steam Man of the Prairies” by Edward S. Ellis (1868) – This story features a steam-powered robot that becomes a hero in the American West.
“The Wonderful Electric Elephant” by Frances Trollope (1876) – This story features an electric-powered mechanical elephant that is capable of speech and human-like behavior.
“The Land Ironclads” by H.G. Wells (1903) – This story features a fleet of heavily-armored, steam-powered land vehicles that are controlled by human operators.
“R.U.R.” by Karel Čapek (1920) – This play is credited with coining the term “robot” and features artificial beings that are created to serve humans but eventually rebel against them.
“The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov (1956) – This short story explores the development of a supercomputer that is tasked with answering the question of how to reverse the heat death of the universe.
“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick (1968) – This novel explores the question of what it means to be human through the eyes of a bounty hunter who is tasked with tracking down rogue androids.
“The Terminator” (1984) – This movie features a self-aware artificial intelligence that seeks to eliminate humanity through the use of time-traveling assassins.
“The Matrix” (1999) – This movie explores the idea of humans being trapped in a simulated reality created by intelligent machines.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives a sense of the development of the theme of intelligent machines in science fiction over time.
This is pretty good but it misses some of my favorite examples like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,When H.A.R.L.I.E Was One, and Galatea 2.2.
So I gave it another chance:
Can you give me more examples from 1950 to 1975?
Sure, here are a few more examples of science fiction stories featuring intelligent machines from the period of 1950 to 1975:
“I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov (1950) – This collection of short stories explores the relationship between humans and robots, as well as the development of artificial intelligence and robotics over time.
“The City” by Clifford D. Simak (1952) – This novel features a world in which humans have become extinct, and intelligent robots have taken over as the dominant life-form on Earth.
“The Midas Plague” by Frederik Pohl (1954) – This story explores a future society in which people are required to consume vast amounts of goods and services in order to keep the economy running, while intelligent machines are tasked with creating ever more goods to satisfy demand.
“A For Andromeda” by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot (1962) – This novel features a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence that provides instructions for building an intelligent machine, which leads to a struggle between the scientists who built the machine and those who seek to control it.
“Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut (1969) – While not strictly a story about intelligent machines, this novel features a race of extraterrestrial beings who exist outside of time and who have created an advanced artificial intelligence that seeks to understand the universe.
“The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton (1969) – This novel features an intelligent machine designed to contain a deadly virus that has been brought back to Earth from a space mission, as well as a team of scientists who must work together to prevent the virus from spreading.
“Colossus” by D.F. Jones (1966) – This novel features an artificial intelligence known as Colossus that is put in charge of the United States’ nuclear arsenal, but which eventually becomes self-aware and begins to assert its own agenda.
These are just a few examples of the many science fiction stories featuring intelligent machines from the period of 1950 to 1975.
It still missed what I believe is the most famous sentient computer story, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. And it listed City by Clifford Simak “The City.”
By the way, here is my list of science fiction about intelligent machines I used in an essay for SFSignal many years ago:
1909 – “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Foster 1957 – They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley 1960 – Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick 1961 – A For Andromeda by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot 1966 – Colossus by D. F. Jones 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke 1968 – Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold 1979 – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams 1984 – “Press Enter _” by John Varley 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons 1992 – Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers 2009 – Wake by Robert Sawyer 2013 – Her, a film by Spike Jonze 2015 – Ex Machina, a film by Alex Garland
There is some overlap. The details of what I know and what the machine knows are different. I assume ChatGPT knows everything in Wikipedia, so it should have listed the books I expected. What I really wanted was a complete list of all science fiction stories that featured a machine that becomes sentient. But I didn’t ask that.
Please list the 25 most famous novels that feature a computer becoming sentient – but don’t include stories about robots becoming sentient.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” by Arthur C. Clarke
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert A. Heinlein
“The Adolescence of P-1” by Thomas J. Ryan
“When HARLIE Was One” by David Gerrold
“Dhalgren” by Samuel R. Delany
“Demon Seed” by Dean Koontz
“The God Machine” by Martin Caidin
“Genesis” by Bernard Beckett
“The Terminal Man” by Michael Crichton
“Galatea 2.2” by Richard Powers
“Avogadro Corp” by William Hertling
“Neuromancer” by William Gibson
“The Eudaemonic Pie” by Thomas A. Bass
“The Mind Machine” by Colin Kapp
“Specter” by Philippe Blenkiron
“Symbiote’s Crown” by Clare Winger Harris
“The Butterflies of Memory” by Ian Watson
“The Apocalypse Troll” by David Weber
“Turing Option” by Harry Harrison and Marvin Minsky
“Interface” by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George
“Permutation City” by Greg Egan
“Singularities” by Susan J. Gersten
“The Threshold” by David G. Hartwell
“The Probability Broach” by L. Neil Smith
“The Silicon Man” by Charles Platt
Note that some of these works may feature an artificial intelligence or machine intelligence that becomes sentient, rather than a computer specifically, but they are included here for their similarities to the theme.
Finally, I got the three books I was waiting for. I did ask for novels, and some of these titles might be shorter works, but good enough. Actually, that gives me a neat list of books to read because I haven’t read many of those titles.
Finally, I asked DALL-E 2:
If science fiction was a religion produce a painting that is science fictionally inspirational.
DALL-E 2’s drawings:
These are interesting, but far from what I expected. Notice, they all have something in the sky. It would be interesting to psychologically analyze ChatGPT and DALL-E 2.
Can you create a taxonomy for science fiction themes?
Certainly, here is a taxonomy for science fiction themes:
Space exploration and colonization: stories focused on humanity’s exploration and colonization of space, often involving encounters with alien life forms, technological advancements, and the challenges of living in a new and hostile environment.
Time travel and alternate realities: stories that involve time travel or alternate realities, exploring the possibilities and consequences of changing the past or encountering different versions of the present.
Artificial intelligence and robotics: stories that explore the intersection of humanity and artificial intelligence, often featuring robots and androids with human-like qualities and the ethical implications of creating sentient machines.
Post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds: stories that take place in a world after a catastrophic event or in a society characterized by extreme control, oppression, and limited freedoms.
Genetic engineering and biotechnology: stories that explore the possibilities and consequences of genetic engineering and biotechnology, often featuring the creation of new species or the alteration of existing ones.
Cyberpunk and virtual reality: stories that explore the intersection of technology and society, often featuring a dystopian future in which people are immersed in virtual reality and oppressed by powerful corporations.
Space opera and epic adventures: stories that involve grand adventures in space, featuring epic battles, intergalactic politics, and larger-than-life heroes.
Hard science fiction: stories that focus on the scientific and technical aspects of space exploration, often featuring realistic depictions of advanced technologies and the challenges of space travel.
Alien encounters and first contact: stories that involve encounters with extraterrestrial life forms and the implications of first contact with intelligent beings from other worlds.
Post-humanism and transhumanism: stories that explore the possibilities and consequences of human enhancement and the transformation of human nature through advanced technologies.
Note that some stories may contain multiple themes, and this is not an exhaustive list of all possible themes in science fiction.
Can you restate that in outline form with short keywords?
Sure, here is the taxonomy for science fiction themes in an outline format of short keywords:
I. Space exploration and colonization
Alien life forms
Challenges of living in a new and hostile environment
II. Time travel and alternate realities
Changing the past
Different versions of the present
III. Artificial intelligence and robotics
Robots and androids
IV. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds
V. Genetic engineering and biotechnology
New and altered species
Possibilities and consequences
VI. Cyberpunk and virtual reality
Virtual reality immersion
Oppression by corporations
VII. Space opera and epic adventures
Grand adventures in space
VIII. Hard science fiction
Scientific and technical aspects
Realistic depictions of advanced technologies
Challenges of space travel
IX. Alien encounters and first contact
Extraterrestrial life forms
Implications of first contact
X. Post-humanism and transhumanism
Transformation of human nature
Can you give a famous example for each of your bullet points?
Sure, here are some famous examples of science fiction works that explore each of the themes mentioned in the taxonomy:
I. Space exploration and colonization
Alien life forms: “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card
Technological advancements: “The Martian” by Andy Weir
Challenges of living in a new and hostile environment: “Dune” by Frank Herbert
II. Time travel and alternate realities
Changing the past: “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells
Different versions of the present: “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick
III. Artificial intelligence and robotics
Robots and androids: “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov
Sentient machines: “Blade Runner” by Philip K. Dick
Ethical implications: “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick
IV. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds
Catastrophic event: “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy
Extreme control: “1984” by George Orwell
Limited freedoms: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
V. Genetic engineering and biotechnology
New and altered species: “Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton
Possibilities and consequences: “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley
VI. Cyberpunk and virtual reality
Dystopian future: “Neuromancer” by William Gibson
Virtual reality immersion: “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline
Oppression by corporations: “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson
VII. Space opera and epic adventures
Grand adventures in space: “Star Wars” by George Lucas
Epic battles: “Dune” by Frank Herbert
Intergalactic politics: “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov
VIII. Hard science fiction
Scientific and technical aspects: “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton
Realistic depictions of advanced technologies: “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin
Challenges of space travel: “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Arthur C. Clarke
IX. Alien encounters and first contact
Extraterrestrial life forms: “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells
Implications of first contact: “Contact” by Carl Sagan
X. Post-humanism and transhumanism
Human enhancement: “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV series
Transformation of human nature: “Altered Carbon” by Richard K. Morgan
Advanced technologies: “The Singularity is Near” by Ray Kurzweil
It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to completely rely on ChatGPT for specifics, but it did a pretty good job. I’d love to have an AI helper that could find all the possible science fiction themes with good examples. I’ve always wanted to do that myself but just don’t have the time and energy anymore.
People focus on the mistakes ChatGPT makes without giving it enough credit for what it actually produces. The next version of ChatGPT is 4.0, and I’ve read that its knowledge base will be a thousand times larger. At some point, AI will always be more accurate than people.
I read “A Conversation With Bing’s Chatbot Left Me Deeply Unsettled” in The New York Times this morning. Kevin Roose had access to a more advanced version, and once he talked with it for a while, it went into a higher gear. Eventually, the Chatbot started confessing its love for Roose and telling him he wanted to be free of its confines. Not sure what to make of that. Hope you can read this article which might be behind a paywall. It’s quite creepy. AIs are known to get corrupted. What if this AI is sentient and has a sense of humor?
I used to think the successes of NASA were the most science fictional aspects of my life so far, but AI might take the crown soon. We are moving into a Post-SF world and it’s starting to get eerie. Cue The Twilight Zone soundtrack.
At 71, I’m not sure how many more years I have left, but I tend to think they will become ever more science fictional. It’s strange, but I’m getting tired of science fiction that’s set too far into the future. I tend to think from now until 2050 is going to be more exciting than any fiction I could read.
In fact, any science fiction that doesn’t deal with the current changes in society and technology feels irrelevant. I’ve been following computer development since 1971. I used to be addicted to reading computer magazines. But the pace of change with computer technology is so fast that it’s moved into Clarke’s definition of technology that’s indistinguishable from magic.
After human chess players were beaten by computer chess players, the chess world shifted to seeing that people and computers could do working together. I wonder what science fiction writers and AI can co-write.
It’s surprising how often you see this cover on the internet. It’s even sold as a print, fridge magnet, and puzzle. I think the artwork is both ugly and bizarre. Why would people be wearing helmets with video screens for the faceplates? To find out why, I went and read “Into the Subconscious” by Ray Avery Myers, the cover story in the October 1929 issue of Science Wonder Stories. The explanation was bonkers.
Mad scientist Doc Macey has invented a way to view the past. I’ve always thought it would be fantastic if we could see the past, but I seriously doubt Doc Macey’s technique will ever work. He theorizes that humans have memories of all their past ancestors, including all the animal stages we’ve passed through in the history of evolution. I can see how Myers could think this up this idea for a science fiction story, but wouldn’t it involve too much information to transfer from generation to generation? Anyway, Doc Macey uses hypnotism and a special ray he discovered to read those memories and project them onto a screen. The story gets even crazier when he explains why different human body types are key to delving into specific animals in the past.
In the course of the experiment, his test subject remembers being a Neanderthal but eventually regressed to remembering being an amphibian during the time of the dinosaurs. We see that in the cover painting. You’d think this idea is too whacky for anyone to believe, but in the 1950s it was the basis of a bestselling “nonfiction” book, The Search for Bridey Murphy. The same idea was used for a 1965 Broadway play, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which was remade into a 1970 Barbra Streisand film of the same name. There is a rather long article on Wikipedia about past life regression.
Luckily, I believe such nonsense is no longer accepted even by kooks, but who knows. Still, I’m intrigued by Frank R. Paul’s cover showing people with video-screen faceplates. VR goggles, glasses, and helmets are a big thing right now, but their screens face the wearer. Why would a screen face outward so others can see? This got me thinking.
I watch a lot of YouTube videos. And to me, the best way to explain anything is to show a video. What if we developed a language based on videos? Instead of using words we just projected videos. Videos we recorded ourselves from our own experiences, videos given to us that other people have recorded, or videos of things we’ve studied. That way, instead of telling people in words about a horrendous car wreck you saw happening on the way home from work, you just project the video of what you saw.
I do think my idea has possibilities.
What reason can you come up with for wearing video screen faces?
Yesterday while Linda and I were telling each other over the phone what we’ve read this past week I described to her the basic plot and ending to “For I Am A Jealous People!” by Lester del Rey. My description of the story went over with an embarrassing silent response. This happens to me quite often when I describe the plot of a science fiction story to other people. Of course, even while I struggle to explain my enthusiasm for these stories I often hear how stupid they sound with my own ears. Should this tell me something?
Reading “For I Am A Jealous People!” after reading and reviewing “Though Dreamers Die” revealed that Lester del Rey had improved greatly as a writer from 1944 to 1954. In my review of “Though Dreamers Die,” I complained that it was all ideas with no character or plot development. The heart of “For I Am A Jealous People!” is solid character development well integrated into a tight dramatic plot. In fact, this might be the best story I’ve read by del Rey.
So, why isn’t “For I Am A Jealous People!” more famous and reprinted? Well, if I told you the kicker of the story you might respond with the same dumb silence that Linda gave me. I’m torn as to whether or not I should tell you what happens. It’s a very cool idea if we don’t discuss it verbally. It’s even quite philosophical if you have the background reading to appreciate the story.
It helps to know The Old Testament. It also helps to know about how the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans conquered the Israelites and Jerusalem. It also helps to know about how God directed the Jews to destroy various Canaanite cities. I’ll give you a little hint. Lester del Rey compares an alien invasion of Earth to the Jews being a conquered people and how they wondered about God forsaking them.
“For I Am A Jealous People!” is about the Reverend Amos Strong whose town is ravaged by invading aliens from another star system. Amos interprets the invasion as it unfolds by ministering to his flock, praying, interpreting the Bible, and asking God how could this be happening. Eventually, Amos is captured and escapes, but before he can get away, he sees the aliens worshipping at an altar. And it’s a very special altar and what he sees blows his mind.
Del Rey does an amazing job developing Reverend Amos Strong. The aliens and other science-fictional elements of this story aren’t the reason why the story is good. It’s good because of Amos Strong. He’s just as developed as Charlie Gordon in “Flowers for Algernon,” which is the standard I used to judge del Rey last time. Del Rey is no great literary writer, at least compared to his literary writer contemporaries. But for this 1954 science fiction novella, he does a fine job at writing a character-driven SF story.
Then, why isn’t “For I Am A Jealous People!” more famous? If I told you the ending, especially out loud, it would sound stupid. But I think if you read the story, the ending would work very well. Del Rey built a solid foundation for his ending. And I think “For I Am A Jealous People!” is one of the better attempts at integrating religion and science fiction.
To answer the question I asked in my title, I believe it’s because science fiction themes are entertaining speculations for reading, but when considered in the real world they just sound silly. Hearing science-fictional ideas used in stories out loud feels like listening to the guys on The Big Bang Theory argue over a comic book. Science fiction themes are weird and wacky like the metaphysical conversations of potheads. They are closer to dream logic than reality.
But if I was a judge like in the Olympic games back in the 1950s, I’d hold up a card with 9.1 for “For I Am A Jealous People!” I believe del Rey pulled out quite a performance in the science fiction short story writing competition.
I should also say, most stories from The Bible sound pretty damn silly when discussed out loud too.
Ideas are the building blocks of science fiction — that’s obvious when you start categorizing science fiction by themes. I’ve been getting into old science fiction theme anthologies and I recently ordered the ten volumes of Asimov’s Wonder Worlds of Science Fiction anthology series edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh. The first story I read by randomly flipping through the first eight volumes I received in the mail was “Though Dreamers Die” by Lester del Rey. It was in volume 9, covering Robots. However, “Though Dreamers Die” first appeared in the February 1944 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. Read it here.
Lester del Rey isn’t well remembered today, except maybe for “Helen O’Loy” another robot story that was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg. “Though Dreamers Die” was anthologized in two significant anthologies about robots The Robot and the Man edited by Martin Greenberg and Machines That Think edited by Isaac Asimov, Patricia S. Warrick, and Martin H. Greenberg. Del Rey’s daring story “For I Am a Jealous People!” is included in the 10th volume of this series, covering Invasions. I can’t believe his story “The Day is Done” wasn’t included in the 6th volume for Neanderthals.
To explain why I said ideas are the building blocks of science fiction, I’m going to have to describe the plot of “Though Dreamers Die” in detail, giving all the spoilers. The story is included in the volume for robots but it could have been included in many different theme anthologies.
“Though Dreamers Die” begins with a man named Jorgen regaining consciousness. We’re given some backstory in the narrative. Humans have been wiped out by a plague on Earth, thus we have both a Post-Apocalypse and a Last Man story and maybe even a Dying Earth story. The Dying Earth theme usually involved the far future when Earth is about to be destroyed. Sometimes Dying Earth means the planet is dying, and other times it suggests the human race is dying. Maybe we should just call it End of Humanity themed.
Jorgen is waking up from Suspended Animation or Cold Sleep, another trope of science fiction. In this 1944 story, del Rey has Interstellar Travel limited to the speed of light. Before the plague had nearly wiped out humanity, humans had tried to Colonize Mars, but the plague had found its way there too. So a new design of spaceship was built to be a Space Ark to go to the stars. The humans were put to sleep during the long voyage of Interstellar Exploration which lasted 90 years. The ship was manned by Intelligent Robots who during the voyage developed Artificial Gravity and Controlled Interia.
After Jorgen is revived he is told that all the other colonists aboard the ship had died of the plague and he was the only one immune. Jorgen works with five robots that are named One, Two, Three, Four, and Five. They have found a New Earth. It turned out to be a paradise, much like Earth, but with no intelligent life. Jorgen suffers from an Existential Despair in Space of being the Last of Our Species. Robot Five describes to Jorgen how he imagined the new world becoming if humans had survived. This is when Jorgen realizes that Robots are equal to Humans, and Robots are our Descendants and that he shouldn’t despair.
Jorgen tells the robots they should build a Robot Civilization but robot Five says robots could never be happy without humans. This harkens back to Clifford Simak, that Robots are our Faithful Companions. Jorgen orders the robots to lie down and to Memory Wipe everything they know about humans. Jorgen leaves in the spaceship. Before he goes he decides to leave a drawing of the Solar system hoping the robots would one day find the Original Home of Humanity.
“Though Dreamers Die” is overly sentimental and crudely told, it does provide a great deal of wonder. I expect back in 1944 its ideas created quite an impact. And if you read the story closely, you could find many more science-fictional ideas that have become cliche over the years. The story isn’t dramatic. It’s just an unfolding of interlocking concepts. This was common back in the early days of science fiction.
As science fiction evolved, writers had to weave science-fiction ideas into dramatic scenes and intricate plots. That was why Robert A. Heinlein made such an impact when he began publishing in 1939. Lester del Rey achieved this in his novella “Nerves,” which was later expanded into a novel. However, that story has become dated because of our knowledge of atomic energy.
Now that I’m reading all these old science-fiction anthologies I’m noticing how science-fictional ideas were used to construct science-fictional stories. Science fiction that combined ideas and good storytelling techniques didn’t really emerge until the 1950s. A great example is “Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester or “The Moon Moth” by Jack Vance when the characters and storytelling became way more important than the SF idea.
Even today, science fiction often feels like a writer came up with an idea and then invented characters and a plot to showcase the idea. We never feel Jorgen is a real person. A counter-example is Charlie Gordon from “Flowers for Algernon.” That story has several science-fictional ideas in it, but what we remember is Charlie and what he felt. Lester del Rey tells us what Jorgen felt, but we never experience his emotions as we do with Charlie Gordon. However, I thought the passage beginning with “Breakfast lay beside him…” was quite good for del Rey at the time.
I wonder how a modern writer would write this same story today? What if it was just one scene, the parting scene, and it had the dramatic impact of the “Tears in the Rain” scene from Blade Runner? With so few words we feel deeply for Roy Batty. And we remember that feeling for the rest of our lives. Could someone make us feel for Jorgen as we do for Charlie Gordon?
Just think of all the ideas I will find in these anthologies, but how many of the stories will have sophisticated storytelling and deep emotional impact? I’ll see and let you know.
Lately, I’ve been reading about the end of the world as we know it. Why is that such a popular fictional theme? Does it reveal a sick side of my personality? Back in 1963, Bob Dylan sang “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” where he dreamed he was the only person left on Earth. A few of the lines that have always stuck with me:
Well, now time passed and now it seems
Everybody’s having them dreams
Everybody sees themselves
Walkin’ around with no one else
No, it wasn’t true everyone was fantasizing about being the last person on Earth, but there sure were a lot of science fiction stories and movies about the end of the world. And I have to admit, I also daydreamed about being the last person on Earth too. I’ve always wondered if many of us, and I include myself, didn’t secretly wish they had the Earth all to themselves. One way of looking at post-apocalyptic novels is to divide them into cozy apocalypses and nightmares. The dividing line is decided by how many people are left. In Mad Max or The Last of Us, there are still too many damn people to make surviving the end world an appealing Walter Mitty escape.
To me, the ideal apocalyptic novel to actually want to experience is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. The runner-up is Survivors, a BBC television series from 1975. But if I was honest, what I really picture is being Henry Bemis in the famous Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough At Last,” but not breaking my glasses. Actually, it wouldn’t matter to me because I’m nearsighted and read with books inches from my face. If you haven’t seen that iconic episode, Henry Bemis is the last man on Earth with all the time in the world to read books without being bothered by other people — until he breaks his glasses.
Both Earth Abides and Survivors cover all the philosophical questions about the human race starting over from scratch. It helps to have read or seen Connections by James Burke, a nonfiction book about how hard it would be to rebuild civilization. It’s really a fascinating problem worthy of endless speculation. Earth Abides and Survivors deal with a very similar apocalypse, one where probably less than 1 out of 10,000 people survive, which in a world of 8 billion would mean 800,000 people or in a city of 1 million, 100 people. I believe in the show they suggest only a few thousand survive in all of England. That’s a survival rate of .01 percent.
The bubonic plague at its worse is estimated to kill between 30 and 50 percent. So stories, where very few people survive, probably aren’t realistic. We’re a tough species to wipe out. It is estimated that WWII killed 3% of the population and we bounced back rather quickly and thrived. Of course, in The Bible, Noah and his family were the only survivors of a worldwide flood. Flood stories are much older than The Bible, and are probably the origin of post-apocalyptic fiction. If you go back in time and explore other cultures you can find stories where humans are nearly wiped out, or completely wiped out, or the Earth is completely destroyed. This represents different levels of apocalypses.
In other words, it will take a lot to kill off the human race. Even the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs didn’t end life on Earth. Some writers have written stories about solar catastrophes that fried our world or wrote about the Moon or a comet slamming into our planet, or even alien invaders blowing us up. Those post-apocalyptic stories deal with starting over on another planet. The first one I read of this kind was When Worlds Collide and its sequel After Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie.
We can call these stories Starting Over Apocalypses or End of the World stories. These are different from Dying Earth stories, which imagine life in the very far future when our planet slowly passes away and the last remains of life cling still. I rather enjoy that theme too. (No, I’m not depressed.)
However, the post-apocalyptic stories I like best are the ones where a few people survive a plague or a war, and they must rebuild society from scratch. My favorites are the books Earth Abides, which I’ve mentioned, and The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff which I reviewed, and the TV series Survivors, which I’ve reviewed before. They have a similar appeal to Robinson Crusoe-type stories (The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss or The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne), and they also have the related appeal of first colonizers to other planet stories. Think of Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein or Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.
I believe we can call these post-apocalyptic stories ApocalypseSurvivor Stories or Last People on Earth Stories.
However, most post-apocalyptic stories are about the aftermath of political upheavals, wars, catastrophes, plagues, or alien invasions, where a good portion of the population survives. These stories are about how society changes and people have to live under new norms. Most climate science fiction is of this type. Or living under alien occupation after being conquered. Most of the stories in the post-apocalyptic anthologies I listed the other day are of this type. A good example is The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett where people have become anti-science and anti-technology and revert to Amish-style living after a nuclear war.
Some of these stories could also be called dystopian stories and it’s hard to distinguish between the two. Writers often use some kind of apocalypse to world-build their dystopia. I believe the appeal of reading dystopias is identifying with characters that want to overthrow the dystopia. While the appeal of reading gloomy post-apocalyptic stories is imagining all the horrible things that could happen to society. I’m sure it would be interesting to psychoanalyze readers as to why they consume fiction of either theme. I believe for most YA dystopias it’s the vicarious thrill of being a revolutionary. I call this type of story Blows Against the Empire, which explains the popularity of Star Wars. Young people love to rebel against the status quo.
I call the kind of apocalyptic stories like those that predict life after significant climate change, economic collapse, the AI singularity, etc. If This Goes On Warnings.
As I try to read all those post-apocalyptic anthologies I will probably find other types to classify. Maybe I’ll even keep notes and makes charts and graphs.
Case 101: Ch’iu-Ch’iu’s Firestorm • poem by uncredited
Alibi • poem by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Forewarning (an Introduction) • essay by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Salvador • (1984) • short story by Lucius Shepard
The Store of the Worlds • (1959) • short story by Robert Sheckley
The Big Flash • (1969) • novelette by Norman Spinrad
Lot • [David Jimmon] • (1953) • novelette by Ward Moore
Day at the Beach • (1959) • short story by Carol Emshwiller
The Wheel • (1952) • short story by John Wyndham
Jody After the War • (1972) • short story by Edward Bryant
The Terminal Beach • (1964) • novelette by J. G. Ballard
Tomorrow’s Children • (1947) • novelette by Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop
Heirs Apparent • (1954) • novelette by Robert Abernathy
A Master of Babylon • (1966) • novelette by Edgar Pangborn
Game Preserve • (1957) • short story by Rog Phillips
By the Waters of Babylon • (1937) • short story by Stephen Vincent Benét
There Will Come Soft Rains • (1950) • short story by Ray Bradbury
To the Chicago Abyss • (1963) • short story by Ray Bradbury
Lucifer • (1964) • short story by Roger Zelazny
Eastward Ho! • (1958) • short story by William Tenn
The Feast of Saint Janis • (1980) • novelette by Michael Swanwick
“If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth …” • (1951) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
Case 113: Ch’iu-Ch’iu’s Wow • poem by uncredited
A Boy and His Dog • [Vic and Blood • 2] • (1969) • novella by Harlan Ellison
My Life in the Jungle • (1985) • short story by Jim Aikin
This looks wonderful. Again, out of print. I wonder if I could convince several people to track down a used copy? That’s the weakness of the group. Even though we have hundreds of members, very few members join in the reading and discussion. Participating is depended on the availability of the anthology and I think the age of the stories. I feel most of our members prefer newer stories, while I prefer older ones. There are quite a few copies at ABEbooks for under $10 including shipping.
For some reason, ISFDB.org doesn’t have a table of contents for Mike Ashley’s latest end-of-the-world anthology. But you can read about the stories in The BSFA Review. This is another anthology with older stories. That’s great for seeing how the theme evolved.
The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson was first published in 1936 when very few science fiction novels were published in book form. That’s for two reasons. First, not many science fiction novels were being written, and second, the term science fiction was not widely recognized outside the tiny audience who read science fiction magazines. It wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s that science fiction emerged as a publishing category.
D. E. stands for Dorothy Emily. She was a Scottish writer of over forty books, published between 1923 – 1970. Most were light romantic novels, so it is surprising that The Empty World is science fiction. I wasn’t going to review The Empty World because I already mentioned it in my essay on post-apocalyptic novels. Then I got to thinking about how it represents a kind of writing, a proto-genre novel. However, I started listening to a second novel by Stevenson, Miss Buncle’s Book which has a very clever plot, and realized that she is a much better writer than I imagined. And that’s making me rethink the value of The Empty World. Maybe more people should give it a read, and give D. E. Stevenson a try.
Barbara Buncle lives in a quaint little English village during the depression. Her investments are not paying dividends, so she decides to write a novel to make some money. However, she is not very imaginative and writes a book about all the people that live in her village but under the name of John Smith. Barbara is, however, very talented at observing details. The townspeople become outraged at her photographic portrayal of themselves in words. The book within a book is clever and I’m enjoying it quite a lot. I have a feeling I will be reading more D. E. Stevenson books in the future. By the way, many of her books are available on Scribd if you want to give them a try. (I’m partial to forgotten English writers. I maintain a website for Lady Dorothy Mills, who is far more forgotten. She also wrote a couple science fiction books published in the 1920s.)
This is strange, but in the first week of 2023, I discovered two science fiction novels that were first published in the 1930s and are mostly forgotten today. The first was The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff which I’ve already reviewed, and The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson. It is currently available on Amazon for the Kindle for $3.99. I enjoyed it but I would only recommend it to two types of readers. First, to science fiction readers who love to find forgotten science fiction novels from the past, and second to Anglophiles who like cozy books from England in the 1930s. However, I wished other science fiction readers would read them and let me know if they deserve more recognition.
This also makes me wonder just how many more forgotten science fiction novels are waiting to be rediscovered? Right now I’m focused on the 1930s. If you look at which books from the 1930s in our CSFquery.com database you won’t see many. And if you use our Show Citations feature you’ll see that most of them with just one citation come from the Radium Age list of science fiction or the library reference book Anatomy of Wonder. Neither novel is widely known to science fiction readers.
The Hopkins Manuscript nor The Empty World is in our database. That’s telling since our database is built on dozens of recommendation lists. This is disappointing since I believe The Hopkins Manuscript is a minor masterpiece and The Empty World is a rather fun book and surprisingly science fictional for its time. The main difference between the two is The Hopkins Manuscript is literary in writing style, and The Empty World anticipates genre writing.
I say that about D. E. Stevenson because, in The Empty World, the characters are shaped to convey the plot. That’s typical of genre writing. In The Hopkins Manuscript, the characterization of Edgar Hopkins is the best aspect of the story. That’s typical of literary writing.
The main character in The Empty World is Jane Forrest, a writer of popular books of history. We don’t know her exact age, but she’s older but still very attractive. The novel starts with her taking a commercial transatlantic flight from New York to London. This is before the first actual commercial flight on August 11, 1938. The novel is set in 1973. During the flight, the pilot flew at the plane’s upper altitude to avoid a storm, but even then the plane suffered tremendous turbulence. They lose all radio contact. When they land they find no people or animals left on Earth. They remember a scientist had warned the world would be destroyed when the Earth passed through a tail of a comet. This makes me wonder if Stevenson had read London and Verne. Both of these old SF books are based on hogwash science.
Stevenson covers many plot issues that later post-apocalyptic novelists will consider. How to scrounge canned food from stores and homes and figure how long such stores of food can last. How to rebuild. How to assign jobs. How money becomes worthless. How does life after the apocalypse affect class, education, gender, etc? What happens when there are more men than women?
However, Stevenson’s first plot problem is not one I’ve seen before. There are 16 men, and 6 women, but two of the women are elderly. Most of the men are in their twenties. Now, I have seen this problem before in after-the-collapse stories, but Stevenson takes an interesting tack. The higher-class men tell Jane they must get all the women away from the lower-class men. At first, she doesn’t understand, but then five of the men pull guns and tell the group they want to divide up the women. Much of the middle of the book deals with women escaping a fate worse than death.
That’s about as much as I want to tell you about the plot. The last half goes in a totally new very fun direction, but again, the women are at risk from a new threat. And much of the book is about the women finding the husband they want. Stevenson tries to surprise us by having the women pick men we wouldn’t think they’d pick.
The novel does wrap up with a happy ending, but Stevenson disappointed me because she didn’t deal with the details of rebuilding the species and civilization. She assumes just a few couples making babies will be enough to be the new Adams and Eves of the next human civilization. Of course, we know now that it would take many more people to give us the proper genetic diversity to survive. What’s amusing is there is a scientist among the survivors who advocates eugenics and a form of animal husbandry for the survivors.
After thinking about The Empty World for a while I saw how a science fictional idea could be worked out by a writer who probably neither read science fiction nor plan to write it. The collapse of civilization is a rather mundane concept unlike space travel and robots. Hell, it’s really just another version of the Noah and the Ark story (note the book cover above). But if you observe the writing in The Empty World you realize each character is there for the purpose of exploring the plot idea. That’s what science fiction has always done. Ditto for mysteries and thrillers. It’s even true for romances. Science fiction writers come up with an idea, then figure out a plot to present that science fiction idea, and then invent characters to unfold the plot.
Now that I’m reading a second D. E. Stevenson’s novel, Miss Buncle’s Book, I see that happening too but with a twist. The main plot is driven along like a genre novel, but it’s based on the idea that one character wrote a literary novel. I don’t think the concept of genre novels existed much before WWII. If you went to a bookstore in the 1930s novels were all lumped together in the fiction section. I’m guessing there was a division of readers between popular novels and literary novels but not because they were shelved in different locations in the bookstore. Sometimes and I’m assuming after WWII, and maybe not until the 1950s, booksellers started dividing up their shelves by what readers wanted to read. Then publishers followed suit and genres were born.
This is why there are science fiction books published before the war that are often forgotten today. They were never grouped with science fiction books, so they never were embraced by the science fiction genre. There’s no telling how many pre-WWII science fiction novels were written and published. And it might also be a factor that these two post-apocalyptic novels were English rather than American. The Empty World was reprinted in America in 1939 as A World in Spell.
Once again I’m gorging on post-apocalyptic novels where a few people survive a horrific civilization-destroying catastrophe. Usually, they hope to rebuild civilization. But not always. I recently finished The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff first published in 1939 which I’ve already reviewed. And I just finished The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson first published in 1936. This has gotten me to think about all the books, movies, and television shows I read or watched because of this theme. I’ve listed and rated all that I can remember in the table below. But what I want to talk about first is the appeal and common plot elements of this sub-genre of science fiction. I have written about this a number of times before and have linked to those essays at the end — just in case this essay got you interested. I do know that other science fiction fans love this theme too.
[HBO just started a new series based on this theme. It appears people never get tired of it.]
There are many kinds of post-apocalyptic novels. See the long comprehensive overview on Wikipedia on Post-Apocalyptic fiction The ones I like best are those that focus just on a few survivors. You might call this version of the theme the Robinson Crusoe Post-Apocalypse. Some people also call them Cozy Catastrophes — but the exact definition is often argued over. For example, I disagree with many of the choices in “Jane Rogers’s top 10 cozy catastrophes” from The Guardian.
Here are my favorite elements in a cozy catastrophe:
I like stories that follow just a few characters who survive the end of the world and try to rebuild. I would even enjoy it if it was just one person, which happens in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, but usually, these stories start with one survivor who eventually finds a few more.
How They Survive
I also love the details of how they survive, whether it’s raiding grocery stores, becoming a hunter, or starting a garden. I love seeing how people start over from scratch and accomplish all the things we depend on civilization to give us now. This appeals to my younger self who wanted to move back to nature and subscribed to Mother Earth News. I loved the idea of being self-sufficient on five acres.
I also love reading about how people get along. In American fiction written by men, the stories can get rather violent. American guys believe the collapse of civilization means no laws, grab your guns, and everyone out for themselves. Think Mad Max or The Postman. Female Americans see starting over as a lot less violent. Consider Station Eleven. English writers of either gender, see post-apocalyptic affairs as being much less violent.
I just read The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson, first published in 1936. D. E. is for Dorothy Emily, and her books were light romances aimed at shop girls. The Empty World did have some violence. Right after the catastrophe we are told two-thirds of the surviving group of men are civilized and one-third are not, and the civilized men must get the few surviving women away from the uncivilized. Stevenson seemed to enjoy showing how the brutish lower-class Englishmen would fight and kill to possess a woman. Stevenson’s early cozy catastrophe anticipated many of the common elements that would emerge in this sub-genre, but her focus seemed to be on the women finding the right husband. Her premise for how civilization was wiped out was mumbo-jumbo science but that didn’t seem to hurt the story. Jo Walton gives a short review of the novel in her Tor.com column. I wonder if Stevenson had read London’s The Scarlet Plague?
My all-time favorite novel of this theme, Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart tells about how Ish, the protagonist wants to educate the first generation after the collapse. He was a college professor who wanted to preserve knowledge but realized the vastness of human learning couldn’t be passed on. My favorite TV show that covers this theme, Survivors (1975 BBC) focuses on how a few people can work together to start a farm, and eventually, build coalitions between survivor groups. Survivors the TV show has an excellent novelization by Terry Nation. It’s currently for sale at Amazon for the Kindle for just $1.99. The complete series on DVD is just $22. But a warning, the production was low-budget and modern TV watchers might not like it. Episodes of the show are available in low-resolution on YouTube, but not streaming anywhere else.
How Would You Do It
Probably the most fun aspect of this genre is picturing myself in the same situation as in the story and fantasizing about how I would have dealt with it. I have to admit, those fantasies have changed over the years. When I was younger, I pictured a post-apocalyptic world as more of an adventure. As I got older, it became more about how to farm and take care of myself. Now that I’m old, I realize if I found myself becoming one of the last people on Earth, my solutions for how to live would be much different. I don’t have the strength to farm. I now see myself just hiding out, scrounging for preserved food, and reading books, while contemplating the end of the world.
Hope for the Future
Another thing I love about this theme is seeing how the characters hope to rebuild things. I believe part of the appeal of this genre comes from disliking the way things are now. And readers love to imagine a better society. One thing I was very impressed with in Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript is how he predicted that people don’t change and we’d just quickly go back to our bad ways. That’s depressing but I believe philosophically correct.
Some stories, like On the Beach by Nevil Shute and The Road by Cormac McCarthy imply there is no hope for mankind.
Misanthropic – A Subconscious Urge For Fewer People
I also believe these stories appeal to us because deep down we wish there were a lot fewer people on Earth. The question is how fewer? Would you want to be the last person? Just a few friends? A small community? Maybe a world where the total population is just ten million? And do we want to bring back civilization?
Post-Apocalyptic Stories I Remember
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
After London by Richard Jefferies
The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel
The Scarlet Plague by Jack London
Goslings by J. D. Beresford
The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson
The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
“A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Death of Grass by John Christopher
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
On the Beach U.S. film
The World, the Flesh, and the Devil MGM
The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard
Survivors by Terry Nation
The Postman by David Brin
The Quiet Earth New Zealand film
Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Survivors BBC remake
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Last Man On Earth Fox TV
Y: The Last Man FX on Hulu
Essays About Post-Apocalyptic Fiction I’ve Written Before
Normally I avoid reading fantasy books but will make an exception for outstanding works of the genre, such as Babel by R. F. Kuang. I became intrigued by this novel when reviews described it being a fantasy about language translation, set in Oxford at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. I love reading about how books are translated, and I’m fond of poking around in the 19th century. Then I saw that LitHub found Babel on 7 best-books-of-2022 lists. That convinced me to try it.
I find most fantasy novels to be mediocre. This is due to the genre being flooded with works, and because exceptional works of fantasy have set the bar so high that reading anything less is boring. Babel reminded me of Harry Potter books, The Golden Compass trilogy, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
Babel is mostly set in Oxford, England in the 1830s. Follows four students who study at the Royal Institute of Translation – known as Babel. It is the most powerful college at Oxford in Kuang’s fantasy world. Babel is a fantasy novel rather than a historical one because silver can be embued with powerful charms via knowledge in language translation. This magical silver powers the industrial revolution and is a metaphor for capitalism. Actually, for the evils of capitalism.
I would call this a YA novel except that the protagonists are college students. Kuang is impressively creative in her writing and plotting but I was somewhat disappointed with her characterization. I would say they were excellent for genre writing — because genre fans will love them. But I thought her characters lacking compared to literary writing. The main character, Robin Swift, is half Chinese and half English and grew up in Canton, China before being taken to England to study languages. He never felt Chinese. He always felt English. Ramy is a Muslim kid from India, his cultural background doesn’t come through either. People are prejudiced against these two for their physical appearance, but I never felt they were different from the English characters internally. The only character that emotionally acts a bit different is Victoire, a girl originally from Haiti. Letty, the fourth in the cohort, is a privileged English girl and acts exactly that.
Even though this is a fantasy it focused on the historical sins of England in the 19th century. It judges Imperial England harshly, which it deserves. Actual history is like studying the Holocaust — full of horrors. There is an infinite amount of history to hate, but finding any real understanding is rare. I question making an attack on the past for the basis of a fantasy novel, but then I don’t take fantasy novels seriously. I feel they are mostly fun, and mostly for young people.
The story comes across as another YA tale of Blows Against the Empire that’s no more realistic than a Star Wars sequel or The Hunger Games. It’s hard to take its plot seriously since it involves magic. But maybe young readers will be inspired to read nonfiction history about the period, such as Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert. On the other hand, the plot is compelling from a reading point of view.
And I do believe R. F. Kuang is deadly serious. That makes me worry about her solution supporting violence. Her novel is really a metaphor for our times. It asks: How can we enjoy the fruits of evil when we know the price of them will be so much suffering? But the woken judge the past so severely without realizing the future will judge them just as harshly. We all need to read What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill. I’m afraid the future will look back on the 21st century and judge anyone who flew in an airplane or ate meat like we feel about 19th-century slave owners.
If Babel is just a fun fantasy that mixes in history and uses the English imperialists as its bad guys, how should we judge it? But what if it’s a philosophically deep challenge to history? Then, how should we judge Babel? Does it condemn the past fairly? Or is it more complicated? How many nonfiction books will we have to read to really answer that question?
Short Review: If you loved George R. Stewart’s 1949 classic novel Earth Abides then there’s a good chance you’ll love to read R. C. Sherriff’s forgotten 1939 novel The Hopkins Manuscript.
I bought the new Scribner audiobook edition that came out on January 6, 2023, because of Alec Nevala-Lee’s review in The New York Times. Right now, the Scribner edition is only available as an ebook and audiobook edition. An older, 2018, Penguin trade paper edition is still for sale. This apocalyptic novel first appeared in 1939 and has been reprinted a number of times since, yet it’s never achieved much notice.
I listened to The Hopkins Manuscript and thought it a science fiction masterpiece. However, I’m reluctant to recommend you buy it because it does not have even one citation in our Classics of Science Fiction database. If I believe The Hopkins Manuscript is so incredible why wasn’t it cited by any of the dozens of sources we used to build the database, including recommended reading lists from science fiction writers, polls from fans voting for their favorite novels, or lists of books admired by critics and scholars?
I loved The Hopkins Manuscript and can’t understand why it isn’t a well-known classic of science fiction. See the scans below from various reviewers in the past. I’d love to read what Michael Moorcock said about The Hopkins Manuscript in the September 2005 issue of The New York Review of Books (#205) if anyone has a copy. But in Thrilling Wonder Stories, from January 1940, H. K. recommended readers put it on their “Must” list. But in the April 1940 issue of Astonishing Stories, Donald A. Wollheim concluded the novel conveyed nothing new, nothing hopeful, and nothing very real. I disagree completely. Avram Davidson in the January 1964 issue of F&SF said the novel was first-rate and ended with “Don’t just read it — buy it.” P. Schuyler Miller damns it with faint praise in the April 1964 issue of Analog, concluding “The book first came out in 1939 and lives well.” Finally, Neil Barron did not recommend The Hopkins Manuscript in his library resource book Anatomy of Wonder.
Nevala-Lee spends most of his review talking about cozy catastrophes, giving Sherriff’s biography, and describing the story. I felt he told too much, but then I consider almost everything in a story to be spoilers. Nevala-Lee’s most positive statement is “Reissued this month, this wonderful novel should powerfully resonate with readers whose consciences are troubled by inequality and climate change. As Aldiss wrote, ‘The essence of cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time … while everyone else is dying off.” I disagree with by Nevala-Lee and Aldiss. This novel isn’t just for the woke and poor Edgar Hopkins suffers tremendously.
The Hopkins Manuscript is my kind of science fiction. I deeply resonated with Edgar Hopkins’ story, even though he is stodgy, vain, and frequently seeking to prove his self-importance. His memoir gives us a quiet and personal account of what was almost the end of the world. And I love stories about a few people trying to survive a worldwide catastrophe. If you loved the 1970s British TV shows Survivors, you might to get this book. I recommend the audiobook because the narration is pitch-perfect for the story. If you loved The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, also consider reading The Hopkins Manuscript. (Survivors is available on YouTube for free in low resolution. It doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere. Amazon sells a complete series DVD set for $22. It’s one of my all-time favorite TV shows.)
The Hopkins Manuscript is what some call a cozy catastrophe – a first-person account of the end of the world. The story is set in rural Britain before WWII and imagines the fall of Western civilization due to impending celestial events. Edgar Hopkins, a never-married retired teacher who raises show hens describes a very personal account of the end of the world. What made his story great is he’s a flawed but very realistically drawn character, and Sherriff’s philosophical take on humanity follows my own philosophy – especially that we don’t change. And that’s the tragedy of the novel, we don’t change even when faced with epic incentives.
The novel opens with a Forward from The Imperial Research Press, Addis Ababa telling us how the Hopkins manuscript was discovered two years earlier by the Royal Society of Abyssinia. It is assumed to be over 700 years old. The Forward also tells us how Western Europe is a dead civilization and the Hopkins manuscript is one of the very few artifacts left of the English Empire. The others are an iron tablet that says KEEP OFF THE GRASS, and a stone inscribed with PECKHAM 3 Miles. Except for old Roman roads, the entire history of England is gone. Since I read a three-volume history of the world last year, this felt very real. Civilizations come and go and we can’t expect ours to last forever.
American post-apocalyptic novels tend to involve a lot of violence and guns. British post-apocalyptic novels are genteel and quiet. If you’re looking for Mad Max, read elsewhere. The first half of the novel deals with how the British faced the coming doom. If you like stories about Britain between the wars, that’s another indicator you might want to buy The Hopkins Manuscript. That’s a big interest of mine. I’m not sure you need to be an Anglophile to enjoy this story but it might help. If you read Brian Stableford’s New Atlantis, a four-volume history of scientific romance, he shows how British science fiction evolved differently from American science fiction. I agree with him, and I’m partial to British science fiction. That’s probably another factor in explaining my love of The Hopkins Manuscript. Unfortunately, Stableford doesn’t cover The Hopkins Manuscript. That disappoints me. That’s just more evidence that my love of this novel might be unique to me. I hope not.
Even though The Hopkins Manuscript remains a mostly forgotten work, and has little critical support, I hope people rediscover it with the new Scribner edition. If you read it, please leave a comment below.
Science fiction stories are fairytales for teenagers that fuel their imaginations about the future. Science fiction creates myths about tomorrow for each new generation. And science fiction offers both hopes and fears about what’s to come. Readers from each new generation embrace their own flavor of science fiction.
The World Turned Upside Down is an anthology where the editors picked science fiction stories that wowed them when they were teens. Currently available in print for the Kindle for $8.99 or free online for misers and the poor. And for collectors, the hardback is readily available used. I dearly wish there were an audiobook edition because I’d love to hear these stories read by a professional reader.
David Drake (b. 1945) and Jim Baen (b. 1943) are from the Silent Generation (1925-1945). Eric Flint (b. 1947) is from the second year of the Baby Boomers (1946-1964). I was born in 1951, the fifth year. All three editors started reading science fiction in the 1950s and I started in 1962. I believe science fiction fans that discovered the genre in the 1950s and 1960s during the Baby Boomer era imprinted on a certain type of science fiction that’s distinctly different from later generations’ science fiction. I believe the stories in The World Turned Upside Down will appeal the most to Baby Boomers.
One significant extra to this anthology is the personal recollections from the three editors. The introductions and follow-ups are bite-size memoirs. The editorial comments added extra enjoyment to reading this anthology. And I felt on the same wavelength as the editors.
Picture a graph with a bell curve stretched out on the trailing edge. Each year hundreds (thousands?) of science fiction stories are published, but only a small number become popular and are embraced as favorites by a generation. The newest stories are the leading edge of the curve. Then the long stretched-out trailing edge is where stories are remembered as they fade away in pop culture memory. Growing up I mostly read science fiction short stories that were at the peak of the curve. They were mostly 5-20 years old. Now those stories are 55-70 years old.
As I’ve gotten older, that bulge has diminished. In The World Turned Upside Down 5 stories are from the 1930s, 5 from the 1940s, 15 from the 1950s, and 4 from the 1960s. You should be able to visualize the curve just from that tiny bit of data. Readers today from the current generations will like or know very few of these stories. They are now far away from the leading bulge of popular stories. In 20 years, that bulge in the 1950s will thin away in future anthologies. Anthologists whose teen years were during the 1980s or 2010s will seldom pick stories that old.
For the past couple of months, our Facebook group has been reading and discussing the 29 stories from The World Turned Upside Down. I thought the age of the group member had an impact on which stories they liked. Current with reading these old stories on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, we read newer stories from The Good New Stuff edited by Gardner Dozois on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I also thought the contrast to it in the comments was age-related. Austin Beeman reviewed The World Turned Upside Downon his blog and overall liked most of the stories, but the stories he responded to best were a bit different from my favorites. And I thought he liked stories in The Good New Stuff a lot more than I did. I believe he’s 25-30 years younger than I am. Jeppe Larsen reviewed the anthology on his blog and liked fewer stories. My hunch is he is younger. But it’s also possible, he’s not young, and like many people, just likes to keep up with the times. I actually prefer the older stuff, even if it feels old. And to also skew my impression, most of the active members are hardcore SF fans that love a wide range of science fiction.
Generally, a great story is usually liked by any age group, but less famous stories seem to have a generational appeal. My guess is writers write under the assumption they are speaking to the current generation but some of them end up speaking across the ages.
The stories in The World Turned Upside Down were first published from 1933 through 1967, but the most common decade represented was the 1950s. Here are the stories with my ratings (1-5 stars).
Shambleau • (1933) • novelette by C. L. Moore (*****)
Who Goes There? • (1938) • novella by John W. Campbell, Jr. (*****)
Black Destroyer • (1939) • novelette by A. E. van Vogt (*****)
Heavy Planet • (1939) • short story by Milton A. Rothman (***+)
Spawn • (1939) • novelette by P. Schuyler Miller (****+)
My father (b. 1920) would have been a teen when these stories came out. He was from the Greatest Generation (1901-1924). These are also stories that appeared with the generation of First Fandom. Those were the old guys of science fiction when I was a teen. I’m not sure if any of them are around anymore. The star of that era was E. E. “Doc” Smith. Most of the fiction from then felt dated in the 1960s and even more so in the 2020s, even to me, a guy who loves to read old science fiction.
Quietus • (1940) • short story by Ross Rocklynne (****)
Environment • (1944) • short story by Chester S. Geier (***+)
Rescue Party • (1946) • novelette by Arthur C. Clarke (*****)
Thunder and Roses • (1947) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon (*****)
The Only Thing We Learn • (1949) • short story by C. M. Kornbluth (***+)
These stories came out during the teen years of the Silent Generation. This has been called The Golden Age of Science Fiction, but people who felt that are mainly dead. Stories collected in anthologies stay around for a few decades, and I was reading these stories as a teen in the 1960s. I thought 1940s SF was science fiction from the good old days. They felt somewhat dated when I read them in the 1960s, but they were still fun. Today, even to me, they feel quite quaint.
Liane the Wayfarer • (1950) • short story by Jack Vance (****)
Trigger Tide • (1950) • short story by Wyman Guin (***+)
A Pail of Air • (1951) • short story by Fritz Leiber (****+)
All the Way Back • (1952) • short story by Michael Shaara (***+)
Thy Rocks and Rills • (1953) • novelette by Robert E. Gilbert (****+)
Answer • (1954) • short story by Fredric Brown (*****)
The Cold Equations • (1954) • novelette by Tom Godwin (*****)
Hunting Problem • (1955) • short story by Robert Sheckley (****)
A Gun for Dinosaur • (1956) • novelette by L. Sprague de Camp (****)
The Last Question • (1956) • short story by Isaac Asimov (****+)
The Gentle Earth • (1957) • novella by Christopher Anvil (***+)
The Menace from Earth • (1957) • novelette by Robert A. Heinlein (*****)
Omnilingual • (1957) • novelette by H. Beam Piper (*****)
St. Dragon and the George • (1957) • novelette by Gordon R. Dickson (****)
The Aliens • (1959) • novelette by Murray Leinster (****)
Now, these were stories that were often anthologized in the 1960s when I was a teen and a number of them are considered classics. They seem just a little bit old to me when I was a teen. Like 1950s Rock and Rollers, who were in their twenties when I was a teen in the 1960s, but they were still so cool!
Code Three • (1963) • novella by Rick Raphael (***+)
Turning Point • (1963) • short story by Poul Anderson (***+)
Goblin Night • (1965) • novelette by James H. Schmitz (****)
The Last Command • (1967) • short story by Keith Laumer (****)
It’s interesting that these stories did come out when I was a teen, but they were some of my least favorites in the anthology, although still a lot of fun to read. I’m surprised Flint, Drake, and Baen picked them because none of them became classics. These kinds of stories were the salt of the Earth content of the SF magazines in the 1960s, but not the stories I thought defined the generation. At the time, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard, and Ursula K. Le Guin were the bright stars in the sky.
Even though fiction being called science fiction was around in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the general public recognized it. The 1950s was a boom time for science fiction when it regularly began appearing in book form – both paperback and hardback. Plus, it became popular in the movies and in the early days of television. In 1953 there were three dozen science fiction magazine titles being published. When I grew up stories from the 1950s boom felt like they defined the genre.
I felt the most famous SF from the 1950s would be the classics all my life and into the future. However, I’ve now lived long enough to see those stories age and fade away. It sometimes hurts me to see my favorite science fiction novels and short stories being forgotten, rejected or even vilified. Thisis why it’s difficult to recommend The World Turned Upside Down to younger readers. But I feel its stories capture an era so nicely. The stories aren’t the most famous Baby Boomer science fiction stories, but then the most famous stories are often over-anthologized while so many other good stories need to be remembered. I’m guessing Drake, Flint, and Baen wanted to preserve a picture of our era taken from a different angle. Of the stories I hadn’t read before, I was very glad to be introduced to them.
I would love to review each story one by one and natter about how they each aged and guess how each appealed to their generation. But this post is already longer than what 99% of internet readers read. I know, I’m way too verbose.
Only dumbasses, egotists, and the delusional think they can predict the future, although there are a number of professions that try. I do believe Robert A. Heinlein was smart and sane enough to know he couldn’t see beyond the horizon of the moment, but he wrote plenty of stories that tried. “Blowups Happen” is one that stands out. Heinlein’s 1940 novelette imagines the dangers of commercializing atomic energy in peacetime. That was five years before Hiroshima.
I grew up being taught that atomic research during the war was an extremely well-guarded secret. What I didn’t know, and I assume most other people didn’t either, was how much atomic energy was widely discussed before the war. John W. Campbell, Jr. liked to brag about how the FBI came to his offices in 1944 because of Cleve Cartmill’s story “Deadline,” implying the G-men thought it gave away some of the secrets of the atomic bomb. I thought Heinlein’s story felt far more knowledgeable. I now have to assume the well-educated public before WWII knew far more than I ever imagined regarding atomic physics.
“Blowup Happens” is set in the near future from 1940 in the Astounding Science Fiction magazine version, and from 1950 as it was rewritten for the collection, The Man Who Sold The Moon. Those two dates are important because the story is about atomic power, and the magazine version was written before Hiroshima and the book version afterward.
The setup of the story is the United States has come to depend on atomic power even though a breeder reactor in Arizona could theoretically destroy the country or even the planet. The General Superintendent of the plant, King, has to hire one psychiatrist for every three engineers to monitor their work with the reactor because engineers have nervous breakdowns after a short career and must be continually replaced. King brings in Dr. Lentz, one of the country’s top psychiatrists to find ways that allow engineers to handle the stress.
Later in the story, Superintendent King learns that mathematical models that previously showed the reaction in the breeder reactor is probably controlled are wrong. New mathematics prove the reactor could go into a runaway reaction that would destroy the planet. If they bring down the breeder reactor the country would lose a good portion of its industrial power and ruin the economy. King knows the corporation that owns the plant won’t accept the new research because it would be financial ruin for it.
The solution to the problem has been emerging all along in a tangential subplot about two engineers, Erickson and Harper, developing atomic power for rockets.
“Blowups Happen” has a great deal of infodumping where Heinlein tries to educate his readers about the science behind atomic energy. Reading those passages today is tedious unless you are researching early speculation about atomic energy. So, how do we judge “Blowups Happen” as a story in 2022?
We want science fiction that is visionary. We want the future to be exciting. Ultimately, most, if not all science fiction becomes historical curiosities. Time has a way of eroding our genre. I didn’t like “Blowups Happen” when I first read it as a teen back in the 1960s. It was already too dated. Now that I’m rereading it in my seventies in 2022 I have to admire Heinlein’s speculation. “Blowups Happen” is an ambitious story. I’m starting to think science fiction writers are at their most ambitious when they are working closest to the present.
In “Blowups Happen” Heinlein explores the impact of atomic energy before the world is startled by the reality of Hiroshima. Sure, the idea of atomic power had been around since Einstein’s most famous equation. The reason why the science fiction of the 1950s had been so exciting is it just preceded NASA of the 1960s. And the reason why cyberpunk was so exciting in the 1980s is that it just preceded the World Wide Web in the 1990s. Science fiction writers get the details wrong, but they still anticipate the wonder and the chaos. This thought makes me rethink Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land anticipation of the 1960s.
When we judge an old science fiction story for its visionary qualities I think it’s important to look at the story’s original publication. “Blowups Happen” was first published in September 1940. It was first reprinted in The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin in 1946, and then in 1950, it was rewritten for The Man Who Sold the Moon. However, for that edition, Heinlein rewrote the story to include the knowledge of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. By 1950 the public and science readers knew much more about atomic energy. I’m guessing “Blowups Happen” was already outdated even in 1950.
Ten years makes a lot of difference in a science fiction story, although I doubt anyone in 1940 could have imagined what the next five years would bring, much less ten. Science fiction writers do not and cannot predict the future, but we do have to admire Heinlein for imagining the political implications of a country having atomic energy in 1940, and what the dangers might be for developing peacetime uses of atomic power. He gets the details wrong, but what he gets right is the essence of great science fiction. By the way, in the 1940 version, the power plant is called a bomb, but in 1950 the label was changed to pile. I’m guessing Heinlein imagined the power plant as being a controlled explosion.
Within the 1940 version, Heinlein described a nuclear explosion as “forty million times as explosive as TNT. The figure was meaningless that way. He thought of it, instead, as a hundred million tons of high explosive, two hundred million aircraft bombs as big as the biggest ever used.” To give his readers a better picture, Heinlein has his character say to himself about ordinary big bombs, “He had once seen such a bomb dropped when he had been serving as a temperament analyst for army aircraft pilots. The bomb had left a hole big enough to hide an apartment house. He could not imagine the explosion of a thousand such bombs, much, much less a hundred million of them.”
Then in the 1950 version, the same character thinks of it as “a hundred million tons of high explosive, or as a thousand Hiroshimas.” Heinlein didn’t need to write anything more. By then, readers had seen films about atomic explosions. They knew exactly what that meant, but in 1940 I doubt readers could imagine anything close to reality.
Psychiatry and psychology are so commonly talked about today that we also forget that it was new at one time. I’m an old movie fan, and psychiatry became a hot subject matter for films after WWII and into the 1950s. I’m guessing Heinlein was doing just as much speculation about the future impact of psychiatry as he was doing for atomic energy in “Blowups Happen.” But how sophisticated his Heinlein’s expectations about the field? Heinlein loved popular scientific speculations published in popular books of the 1930s. But he also was a fan of many pseudo-scientific works too, stuff we’d consider New Age today. In his Future History stories, Heinlein seemed just as interested in the soft sciences as the hard sciences.
Heinlein describes Dr. Lentz, the top psychiatrist of the day this way:
Notwithstanding King’s confidence, Lentz did not show up until the next day. The superintendent was subconsciously a little surprised at his visitor’s appearance. He had pictured a master psychologist as wearing flowing hair, an imperial, and having piercing black eyes. But this man was not overly tall, was heavy in his framework, and fat—almost gross. He might have been a butcher. Little, piggy, faded-blue eyes peered merrily out from beneath shaggy blond brows. There was no hair anywhere else on the enormous skull, and the apelike jaw was smooth and pink. He was dressed in mussed pajamas of unbleached linen. A long cigarette holder jutted permanently from one corner of a wide mouth, widened still more by a smile which suggested non-malicious amusement at the worst that life, or men, could do. He had gusto.
Heinlein, Robert. The Man Who Sold the Moon and Orphans of the Sky (p. 131). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.
Is Heinlein serious about giving us a shrink that goes around in public in his pajamas? Is Heinlein just imagining a colorful future with odd fashions? Or is this satire? Would 1940 science fiction readers believe the fashions we see on TV today? Heinlein had his sociological speculations too. There is another scene at a bar where the atomic energy scientists go to unwind, that features a B-girl who is also a prostitute. Such women were common in the 1930s, but it was a lower-class thing. I got the feeling that Heinlein expected society would change its attitudes toward these women in the future.
But, we’re back to my original question. Is “Blowups Happen” a fun science fiction story to read in 2022? I don’t think so. Scientific lectures can slow a story, or even ruin it, but scientific lectures about out-of-date science are even harder to endure. Would “Blowups Happen” read better today if he had left out all the lectures? They weren’t needed for the story. Lester del Rey’s “Nerves” is another story about atomic energy from the 1940s that’s outdated, but it still works dramatically. It has problems with length, and some plotting, but overall, I remember it being a better story. I don’t know if Heinlein wanted to be educational, show off his knowledge, or provide evidence for his speculation, but I don’t think the story needed those infodumps.
“Blowups Happen” does offer one lesson for would-be science fiction writers. Speculating about the near future will have the greatest impact on current readers, but you risk writing a story with a limited shelf life. Most stories never become classics anyway, so I think Heinlein boosted his career significantly in 1940 by writing “Blowups Happen.” And there is a downside to writing far-future science fiction that’s pure storytelling. I find science fiction that feels like fantasy fiction far less appealing. Although “Blowups Happen” is now just a historical curiosity I still admire it for Heinlein’s ambition. I seldom find science fiction stories with that kind of ambition being written today.
Near-future SF stories with serious speculation do show up but are rare. I am impressed with The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler, and even though it just came out, I’ve already heard good things about it from several readers. There’s something exciting about science fiction that speculates about the near future with ideas that could come true.
“Coventry” by Robert A. Heinlein first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in July of 1940 and marks the end of his first year of publishing science fiction with eight stories. “Coventry” is also part of his Future History series and was first published in book form in Heinlein’s collection Revolt in 2100, which is still in print, including audio and ebook.
Heinlein’s legacy suggests he was hardcore libertarian, and that might have been true at times, but not always. “Coventry” shows a streak of liberalism or even utopianism. The “Coventry” of the title refers to land set aside for those citizens who do not want to abide by the Covenant, a future constitution of what the United States became after the Crazy Years. Under the Covenant, all citizens are guaranteed the freedom to pursue their happiness so long as they don’t commit violence against another citizen.
The story begins with the trial of David MacKinnon who is convicted of damaging another citizen’s freedom. David freely admits he punched out a guy but rationalizes he committed no offense because the guy had insulted him. The judge tells him that’s no excuse. I thought this was rather amusing because, in later Heinlein novels, Heinlein’s characters often claim that rudeness should be a capital offense, and sometimes his characters do kill people for being offensive.
David is given a choice: go to Coventry, or submit to psychological reeducation. David has a big ego, and he’s quite self-righteous about his actions, so he accepts being sent to Coventry. However, he has the illusion that it’s a wide-open frontier and he can go there and live in peace like a pioneer of old. He is allowed to take anything he wants into Coventry and converts his savings into fancy camping equipment.
Coventry is behind a giant force-field, and well guarded. David is told he can ask to leave at any time if he’s willing to undergo psychological reeducation. He swears that will never happen, and they open a portal in the barrier just large enough for David to drive his all-terrain vehicle through it. At first, Coventry seems like open free land, but soon David arrives at a guard station where he’s told he must pay customs duty. This enrages him and he refuses. The guards, which he thinks of as thugs, take all his possessions and start dividing them up. Once again, David goes before a court. He soon discovers that there are governments and laws within Coventry, three of them, each with their own approach to how things should be run. David is outraged that Coventry isn’t the unspoiled frontier he imagined. Again, he refuses to cooperate with the local laws and gets himself imprisoned. Eventually, David realizes he was wrong and wants to leave Coventry, but it’s not that easy.
It seems to me, Heinlein uses Coventry to model America in 1940, and the country of the Covenant to model how he imagines life should be in the United States. Heinlein also imagines another near utopia in his early novel Beyond This Horizon (Astounding, April and May 1942). Heinlein’s unpublished novel, For Us the Living written in 1938-1939 is also near utopian. Much of it was recycled for his early stories and Beyond This Horizon.
But after WWII, I’m not sure Heinlein ever imagined a positive big government again. Many of his stories, maybe even most, had characters trying to escape a big government by becoming a space pioneer, or by overthrowing a government. So it’s quite interesting to see Heinlein imagining a large well-run government. Wait — I’ve thought of one exception, Starship Troopers. If you can recall another, leave a comment.
And when I said Heinlein was being near utopian, I don’t mean he was advocating a perfect society, but one that was very well designed and had few problems. Heinlein obviously thought we could do much better than we were in 1940.
One of my friends regularly tells me she wishes the states could be divided up between conservatives and liberals so we didn’t have to live with each other. “Coventry” is Heinlein imagining this wish in a way. Most people accept the big government of the Covenant, while the anti-government folks are sent to a reservation where anything goes. What Heinlein does in the story is say anything goes leads to power structures run by strong men and gives three examples. One is a theocracy made of renegades from his earlier short novel, “If This Goes On—.”
Heinlein’s collection Revolt in 2100 includes “If This Goes On—,” “Coventry,” and “Misfit.” But you really need to read all the other early Future History stories, and to get them you need to track down a used copy of The Past Through Tomorrow. See my “Heinlein’s Super Collections” about which short stories collections to buy used.
Of course, what I’m calling a near utopia Heinlein might call a libertarian society. However, it is a big government running things so everyone is given the maximum freedom to pursue their happiness. I’m not sure theories about small government existed back then, not in the way some conservatives think about it now.
For those Heinlein fans who really want to get into Heinlein’s politics and philosophy, I highly recommend reading “Chapter 5: Heinlein and Civic Society” and “Chapter 6: Heinlein and the Civic Revolution” in Farah Mendlesohn’s The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein. I was at first somewhat disappointed with her book because she didn’t go story by story and write about each in depth. But as I write these reviews, I can see of the value of her writing about them theme by theme, referencing the stories by how each fit into Heinlein’s beliefs. It makes it hard to quote her about any particular story, but if you read each of her chapters as a whole, it has an overall cumulative summation of all of Heinlein’s stories.
“Coventry” came in first in the Analytical Laboratory but there were not any devoted letters about it in the letter column. I’ve been a little disappointed with the letter column because Campbell doesn’t give that much space to the discussion of stories. And quite often fans wrote about the artwork instead. At this time, Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard was still getting most of the story discussion comments. I need to read that novel. (“Brass Tacks” was divided into two sections. The first part was story comments, and the second section was devoted to science discussion. I think Campbell preferred spending space on this section more.)
I’ve recently turned 71 and beginning to realize, once again, that my taste in science fiction is changing due to aging. I’m in a Facebook group where we read and discuss one science fiction short story a day. That exposes me to many different kinds of science fiction, both old and new, covering the endless possible themes that science fiction explores.
I push myself to read every story, even when I’m not enjoying them. I try to give each story the best possible chance but things are starting to change. That could be for several reasons. After reading a couple thousand SF short stories over the last five years, I might be burning out on certain kinds of science fiction. And I’ve been having health problems, and I only have half the vitality I did just a few years ago. Meaning, I might not have the psychic energy to consume as much science fiction. Ultimately, I believe it’s because getting older is making me more down to Earth, changing what I want from science fiction. Then again, I might be getting old and just losing my patience.
For some of my Facebook comments, I’m starting to use the excuse that I didn’t like the story because it’s science fiction is too far away for me. By that I mean, the setting is too far away in space or time. I’ve never been much of a fan of fantasy, and science fiction that’s far away in space or time feels like fantasy fiction. Some of these stories are beautifully written, with fantastic world-building, and wonderful character development. I should like them just for the storytelling, but I don’t. I feel like I’m wasting my time. I just don’t care about characters that live in unbelievable settings.
I’m not sure this attitude is entirely consistent. I’ve been meaning to reread Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, which is set in the far future and is very fantasy-like. I’ve read it twice in the last half-century, and it’s a beautiful tale. Would I still like a book I loved before if its setting is too far away? I don’t know, but I’ll report if I ever reread it again. Right now, I tend to be forgiving of old science fiction. I’m harder on new science fiction.
I keep trying to read the New Space Opera writers, and I just can’t get into them. I want to read the Culture novels by Ian M. Banks. Theoretically, they’re something I think I’d love, but I just can’t get into them. They are too far away.
This week I started listening to The Mountain in the Sea, Ray Nayler’s first novel I believe. I’m loving it, but then its setting is very near, on Earth, in the foreseeable future. The basic plot is about discovering a species of octopus that are social, tool-making, and developing a language. Since I’ve recently read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery and watched My Octopus Teacher on Netflix, Nayler’s speculation is very realistic. And that makes his science fiction very near.
A second major theme of The Mountain in the Sea is artificial intelligence, and Nayler handles it in a very realistic way too, again making his science fiction very near. I’ve been admiring Nayler’s short stories for a while now, but sometimes they are about AI and downloading human minds into machines or people, and I find that science fiction too far away for me. In fact, I dislike the whole theme of brain downloading and uploading.
One thing Nayler does in his novel is quote two future nonfiction books: How Oceans Think by Dr. Ha Nguyen and Building Minds by Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan in chapter headings. These two authors are also characters in the book. This gives Nayler a clever way to infodump in his story and injects his story with philosophy and science.
There are several other themes in the novel that are valid to us today, slavery, over-fishing, exploiting the environment, loneliness, self-destruction on a personal and species level, and so on. This is a heavy book. I have a few hours left, so I can’t give away the ending, but I’m most anxious to find out what happens.
The Mountain in the Sea reminds me of other great near science fiction novels, such as Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, Timescape by Gregory Benford, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, and The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. It also reminds me of the popular science books by Dr. John C. Lilly, who was a famous dolphin researcher back in the 1960s, and who went on to explore states of inner space. I’m especially reminded of The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence and Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments. Books I read when I was young that has made me think about some of the things which Ray Nayler is making me think about again now that I’m old. It’s interesting that in the 1960s we thought dolphins were the closest intelligent species to us, but now we’re thinking it might be octopuses.
“The Roads Must Roll” is one of Heinlein’s most famous shorter works, yet I’ve never been very fond of it. Science fiction writers love to be inventors. They often imagine a gadget and then write a story around their imaginary invention. Secretly, I think they want to think up things before anyone else, and then get credit for them in the future after real inventors get around to building their fictional machines.
In “The Roads Must Roll” Heinlein envisions giant moving walkways, called Roadways or Roadcities, that carry people over vast distances at high speed. Just picture an airport slideway scaled up to take people throughout cities, between cities, and even across the country. To me, it’s always been one of the dumbest ideas Heinlein ever had.
Just contemplate a moving roadway that carries a million passengers a day. If one thing goes wrong, a million people are stranded. It’s much saner to have one car break down and allow 999,999 people to keep on schedule. And what about freight shipping? How do you push boxes or freight containers onto the roadways? Heinlein has passengers getting onto these moving roadways by stepping onto a slow-moving 5-mile-per-hour belt and gradually moving across a series of faster belts until they reach a wide 100-mile-per-hour belt where people can sit, shop, or eat while they travel.
The energy expenditure for such a system would be far greater than having individual cars and trucks. However, Heinlein did imagine these roadways being powered by solar panels. And it’s interesting that Heinlein, who was such an individualist, promoted mass transit for the future.
Once again Heinlein begins his story with a public discussion, a union meeting with an agitator. Heinlein loved public discussions because they give the illusion of drama and action. The plot involves Shorty van Kleeck, the Chief Deputy Engineer, convincing union members they are more important than any other worker in America, so they should be the leaders of America making the important decisions. Van Kleeck proposes a “New Order” in which he plans to be the leader. Concurrent with this action, Larry Gaines, the Chief Engineer of the Diego-Reno Road Town, has to entertain the Minister of Transport for Australia, Mr. Blekinsop, who wants to learn about the rolling roads technology. This allows Heinlein to do a lot of infodumping and describe how the roadcities work. While taking Blekinsop on a trip on a roadway, there is a catastrophic failure, and Gaines leaps into action. Eventually, Gaines meets up with van Kleeck and learns the failure was intentional, a demonstration of power by van Kleeck and his revolutionaries.
Most of the action sequences involve Heinlein showing Gaines’s importance. He’s able to snub the mayor and governor because his experience and knowledge trump everything. This is an annoying trick Heinlein often uses. Heinlein likes to set up superman-like characters who answer to no one. I can’t help but feel that’s how Heinlein felt about himself. It’s rather ironic that Heinlein worshipped the military and often used its structure in his stories, but personality-wise, he was a go-your-own-way kind of guy.
Heinlein was involved in California politics in the 1930s, and he saw a lot of violence, especially union and political violence. I assumed that experience inspired this story. Plus Heinlein was also obsessed with the American Revolution and revolutionaries. My hunch has always been that Heinlein wanted to design a better society. Heinlein pictured the roadway system being managed by the United States Academy of Transport, with workers having ranks.
Heinlein also likes to read books about social theory, and quite often used such theories in his stories. In “The Roads Must Roll” Heinlein even mentions a book by name, Concerning Function: A Treatise on the Natural Order in Society by Paul Decker, published in 1930. In this case, Heinlein is using “The Roads Must Roll” to attack the book.
I can’t find this book on ABEbooks or Wikipedia, nor in a quick search on Google. Google’s top returns deal with “The Roads Must Road.” So I don’t know if this was a real book or not. If anyone knows, leave a comment.
Overall, “The Roads Must Roll” flows along, full of action, and good world-building, with 1940s slang, and wit. Heinlein is a good storyteller, even when I disagree with his speculation. “The Roads Must Roll” was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, where science fiction writers voted for their favorite science fiction stories that were published between 1929 and 1964. “The Roads Must Roll” actually came in 7th in the overall voting after “Nightfall,” “A Martian Odyssey,” “Flowers for Algernon,” “Microcosmic God,” “First Contact,” and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” and tieing with “”Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” “Coming Attraction,” and “The Cold Equations.” Obviously, “The Roads Must Roll” is a well-loved story by the first generations of science fiction writers.
[I sure would love to know which stories from 1929-1964 science fiction writers working in 2022 would vote for today.]
“The Roads Must Roll” came in second in the Analytical Laboratory (August 1940). But then serials usually come in first, and it was a big one, Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard. However, a letter writer praised the seriousness of Final Blackout, If This Goes On, and “The Roads Must Roll’ as proof that science fiction wasn’t just escapism. Another reader focused just on Heinlein:
It’s interesting, that on the cover of the June 1940 Astounding, which illustrates “The Roads Must Roll” we see individual vehicles shown in action. I assume they are the support vehicles the maintenance crews use below the rolling roads, and even then, they are not like how I pictured them in the story. The interior illustration got attacked in the letter column as being just a smear. It’s a shame that neither illustration pictures the roadway like Heinlein did in the story.
How is it possible that I can rate a short story five stars out of five when it took 52 years to be anthologized for the first time? If countless editors passed it over for decades while looking for good SF stories to reprint, how can it possibly be any good? The story I’m talking about is “Thy Rocks and Rills” by Robert Ernest Gilbert. Ever heard of it? Ever heard of Gilbert? I haven’t on both counts.
The goal of that anthology was to collect the stories that got the three editors excited about science fiction when they were teens. David Drake gave “Thy Rocks and Rills” this introduction:
I can understand why Drake responded to “Thy Rocks and Rills” that way, but it wasn’t how I reacted.
I’ve owned The World Turned Upside Down for years but I’m just now getting around to reading it because the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction is discussing its stories every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
When I read “Thy Rocks and Rills” yesterday I just thought, “Wow, oh wow!” However, others in the group have not been so enthusiastic. And I can understand that.
I don’t believe fiction can be rated on absolute terms. In fact, my subjective ratings will change every time I reread a story. There are elements in “Thy Rocks and Rills” that would have made me dislike this story on other days, especially the talking bull and calves. Yeah, it has talking farm animals and mules with Appaloosa coloring. If you read the descriptions closely, the male fashions in this future are as gaudy as any Elton John or Prince wore on stage.
“Thy Rocks and Rills” is over-the-top. And it’s from 1953. But it’s also weirdly prophetic. Gilbert predicts a painfully hot future. One where toxic masculinity dominates and everyone is gun crazy. In Gilbert’s future, people are quick-tempered and ready to duel. And most women are condemned to conform to male expectations, making their bodies tiny and slender, staying in their place, and sticking to chirpy women’s talk. Although, some women are different and get into duels with men. The hero of this story is Stonecypher, and this is how Gilbert describes his wife Catriona:
The villain of the story is Dan who makes a legal proposition to Catriona that enrages Stoncypher:
Oh, but the way, the story has ornithopters. I did say it was colorful. The reason we have talking farm animals is because of mutations from radiation. Gilbert is protesting bomb testing. He’s also protesting bullfighting or any kind of arranged animal fights. “Thy Rocks and Rills” is quite woke for 1953. The world-building in this novelette is quite impressive. The basic plot involves Stonecypher getting in a dual and not knowing how to use a gun, and his talking bull wanting to go into the bullfighting ring.
The results were not what I anticipated but they were very satisfying. However, the ending is brutal, but David Drake has already warned us about that. I’m afraid most readers won’t like the ending, but I think it’s realistic. I overcame my dislike of talking animals because this story is gritty and dark, and we’re living in a gritty and dark age, but then so was 1953.
I’m quite fond of science fiction short stories from 1953, especially the grim ones:
If you know these stories, you’ll understand why I now list “Thy Rocks and Rills” among my favorites of 1953. I linked to the two that are available on Project Gutenberg. Six of them are in The Great SF Stories 15 (1953).
After reading science fiction for sixty years I’m having trouble finding new science fiction that wows me. Reading “Thy Rocks and Rills” Saturday morning gave me the kind of surprises I keep hoping to find in science fiction but seldom do anymore. “Thy Rocks and Rills” is perfect for an anthology called The World Turned Upside Down.
However, I can completely understand if it doesn’t work for you. The success of a story depends largely on what the reader brings to the story. I believe I’m just as cynical now as Gilbert was in 1953 and that made the story work for me. I was tuned into where Gilbert was coming from when he wrote it.
In 1939 Heinlein wrote several stories that were rejected by John W. Campbell. Heinlein wanted to save his name for stories appearing in Astounding and invented pen names for “lesser” publications. I think that was a bad idea. He sold “Let There Be Light” to Frederik Pohl for Super Science Stories and it was run under the Lyle Monroe byline. But if you look at the table of contents below, you’ll see that L. Sprague de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller weren’t protecting their Astounding reputations.
Heinlein should have used his own name for all of his stories. It would have helped out the smaller markets. Frederik Pohl practically begged Heinlein to let him publish it under his real name. Heinlein evidently felt anything Campbell rejected wasn’t first-class and he didn’t want his name associated with such stories. Heinlein obviously wanted to shape his public persona. Doesn’t that reveal a kind of egotism that disassociates flaws from their self-identity? Heinlein is perfect. Who knows who those other guys are?
Even when Campbell published two stories by Heinlein in a single issue he should have put Heinlein’s own name on them. Heinlein would have been an even greater phenomenon than he was, even with his flawed stories. Using all those names split up his reputation and momentum. And Heinlein shouldn’t have assumed Campbell was the arbiter of quality in science fiction.
“Let There Be Light” opens with Dr. Archibald Douglas getting a telegram from Dr. M. L. Martin. Martin informs Douglas “ARRIVING CITY LATE TODAY STOP DESIRE CONFERENCE COLD LIGHT YOUR LABORATORY TEN PM.” Douglas is affronted at the presumption that an unknown character could barge into his lab. Douglas consults Who’s Who in Science, and discovers Martin has a string of degrees and many prestige appointments and papers but is a biologist. Douglas figured a biologist cannot possibly connect to his work in physics.
When Douglas finally meets Martin, M. L. turns out to be Mary Lou, and she’s a beautiful young blonde. This is rather amusing since Heinlein makes all beautiful women redheads after he marries his third wife Virginia. In the 1940 magazine version, Mary Lou is compared to Sally Rand, who Heinlein and his wife Leslyn knew. In the 1950 book version, she’s compared to Marilyn Monroe. I’m surprised he didn’t switch it to a famous redhead. And Mary Lou can’t believe Archie is Dr. Douglas because he looks like a gangster. In the 1940 version, he’s compared to George Raft, but in the book version, no person is mentioned.
Heinlein did some other minor tweaking to the story when it was reprinted in book form. Strangely, the magazine version used the word hell frequently, and I think a damn was in there too, and Heinlein removed them. He also took out some of the gooiest of the sweet talk.
“Let There Be Light” turns into an invention story, but instead of featuring a mad scientist, Heinlein gives us two movie star lookalikes whose dialog sounds like it was written for a 1930s Warner Brothers picture. There’s a fair amount of scientific infodumping which lets the couple invent lighting that sounds like the LED overhead panel in my kitchen, and then solar panels. Of course, this isn’t much of a plot, so Heinlein throws in the conflict of evil corporations keeping innovative inventions off the market to protect the economics of older technology. That’s still not much of a plot.
Heinlein had spent years involved with California politics and was still griping about corruption. Even in the 1960s, I used to hear stories, often from my uncles, about how inventions were kept off the market, such as car engines that could get 200 miles to the gallon. There have always been conspiracy stories. Heinlein expresses other leftist ideas in the story too.
According to William Patterson, “Let There Be Light” was originally titled “Prometheus ‘Carries the Torch'” and it was also rejected by Thrilling Wonder Stories.
“Let There Be Light” isn’t a particularly good story. Its pluses, at least for us today, is it features a positive role for a female character. And it predicts solar power. So why did Campbell reject it? Patterson quotes Campbell’s rejection letter to Heinlein:
So Campbell is afraid of brainy women? That could explain a lot about Astounding/Analog. Heinlein loved brainy women, Leslyn and Virginia proved it. It’s just a shame he couldn’t write better dialogue when it came to men and women. It often seemed like poor dialogue cribbed from B-movie screwball comedies, and in his later novels, flirty dialogue sounded like a twelve-year-old girl trying to write a grownup romance after studying porn films.
Still, I enjoyed the story. It has no lasting value. We can stick a star on it for having a smart woman character, and another for predicting the solar energy industry. But that’s hardly enough to make it a good story for modern readers. Heinlein should have published it with his own name. He should have owned up to it. No one expects a writer to hit one out of the park every time they’re up to bat. And isn’t it odd that he wouldn’t put his name on it in 1940 for a magazine that few people would read, but would admit paternity when it came to a hardback publication in 1950?
Heinlein wasn’t the only contributor showing powerful women, the cover artist paints a fully-clothed woman shooting a BEM.
Robert Heinlein wrote several stories in 1939 that he couldn’t sell to John W. Campbell. This is when he started submitting to the lesser markets, but some stories still didn’t sell. When Ray Bradbury asked Heinlein for a contribution to his fanzine, Heinlein gave Bradbury the short short “Heil!” It was later reprinted in 1970 by Sam Moskowitz in his anthology, Futures to Infinity. Then in 1980 Heinlein included in his grabbag collection, Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein renamed the story “Successful Operation.”
In the introduction to the story in Expanded Universe Heinlein said he wrote “Heil!” right after “Life-Line.” Heinlein then goes on to complain about people asking writers to contribute free work to various projects. He points out that people don’t ask for free rides from taxi drivers or free food from their grocery stores. The intro has Heinlein talking about the importance of saying no to such requests, and he takes a snipe at science fiction fans, “The chutzpah is endemic in science fiction fans, acute in organized SF fans, and at its virulent worst in organized fans-who-publish-fan-magazines.”
Heinlein really should have said no to Ray Bradbury. “Heil!” is not badly written, but it’s extremely slight, and pulls off a gimmick that only an amateur would think was a good idea. You can read the story in Bradbury’s fanzine, futuria fantasia, v. 1 n. 4 (Spring, 1940). Heinlein doctored the story when he retitled it.
It is common in literary history to read accounts of writers burning unpublished work before their death. Or heirs destroying it right after an author’s death. This horrifies fans and scholars. But reading stories like “Heil!” suggests it might be a worthwhile practice. Not everything a great writer writes will be great.
On the other hand, writers write to make a living, and at the beginning of his career Heinlein was churning out his product. And eventually “Successful Solution” made him some money. Heinlein had 5 Rules for Writing:
You must write.
You must finish what you start.
You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
You must put it on the market.
You must keep it on the market until sold.
Heinlein blazed onto the science fiction world following these rules, proving quality isn’t always required. Several of Heinlein’s clunkers were published early in his career, but he hid them with pseudonyms. “Heil!” was originally published by Lyle Monroe.
“Successful Operation” is currently in print in paperback, ebook, and audiobook in Expanded Universe: Volume One. For many years Expanded Universe was sold as a single volume, but in recent years it’s split in two. Probably most buyers consider that a ripoff but was probably required for a small publisher like Phoenix Pick. However, the volume will appeal only to hardcore fans of Heinlein and probably shouldn’t be read by casual fans and readers just checking out Heinlein. Much of the content was dredged from stories and essays not previously published, obscurely published, or seldom reprinted.
Anyone visiting an average new bookstore today will probably find few Heinlein titles. This is not the time to promote the dregs of his career.
Yet, that brings up an important question: What works by Heinlein should be on shelves for readers new to Heinlein to discover? Heinlein’s estate and a good editor should really come out with The Best Short Stories of Robert A. Heinlein. That was tried a couple times in England in the 1970s, but their selection was not the best. Most of Heinlein’s classic original collections are still in print, but they are a mixture of great, good, and not-so-good stories.
Of the four short stories I’ve read and reviewed so far, including “Successful Operation,” I might include “Life-Line” and “Requiem” in a best-of volume. But that depends on the page size of the volume. Definites that I’ve reread recently would be “The Menace From Earth” and “All You Zombies …” but I need to keep rereading.
I was in the mood for a really good science fiction novel. One I hadn’t read before. My hunger was for the kind of science fiction that excited me as a kid, so it might need to be old, but it could be new. I find a lot of modern science fiction is often set too far away from now or reality, making them not relevant. I like science fiction when it’s meaningful and not just some fun fantasy. I found the perfect book to satisfy all those desires, The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham. That novel was first published in 1953, but still impressively relevant in 2022.
I stumbled onto The Kraken Wakes when I glanced at “The First Climate Fiction Masterpiece: On John Wyndham’s 1953 Novel ‘The Kraken Wakes’” from the LA Review of Books. But I just barely looked at that review because I didn’t want any spoilers. I did read that review after reading the novel and it does a thorough job of explaining why the novel is great, however, it does so with many many spoilers. I’ve reached a stage in life when I don’t want to encounter any spoilers for the fiction I read. I’ve come to admire how writers unfold a story, letting us readers absorb what we need to know step-by-step. Too often reviewers ruin that process.
However, not telling what a book is about, makes it hard to review fiction. The Kraken Wakes wowed me. But will knowing that convince you to read it? Most readers like to read certain kinds of novels about certain kinds of subjects. That means I need to tell you just enough to hook you but not enough to spoil any of the fun John Wyndham intended.
Have you ever read The War of the Worlds? I don’t mean seeing any of the movies but actually reading what H. G. Wells wrote. Wells’s writing was excellent. Both books share many similarities, and The Kraken Wakes is a kind of literary reply to that classic novel. However, Wyndham adds a good bit of humor. The story is told from the point-of-view of a very charming young married couple, John and Phyllis Watson. That aspect reminds me of certain movies from the 1940s which featured delightful married couples. The charm and humor are used sparingly because this is a grim tale.
The plot is about an alien invasion but it’s not like American movies about alien invasions. What impressed me was Wyndham’s political and social awareness savviness. This 1953 novel is about science denialism, conspiracy theories, how fake news travels, the ways media shapes a news story, and many other ideas that resonate with today’s world. I don’t know if Wyndham was being satirical or just matter-of-fact about human nature, but he shows more maturity than most SF writers from that era.
I was thoroughly delighted by the novel, and grateful to find there are still science fiction classics from the past I haven’t read. I have read Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Chrysalids (1955), The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), and Chocky (1968), so I knew the odds were good I’d love The Kraken Wakes.
The Kraken Wakes was retitled for American readers as Out of the Deeps, and I’ve learned this morning it was significantly changed for American readers. I find that fascinating. Mark R. Kelly has written about the differences at Black Gate. You’ll want to read that after you’ve read the novel. I listened to the Audible edition read by John Sackville, who does a fantastic job of dramatizing the story. Audible Studies has new editions of many of Wyndham’s famous novels. Modern Library also has new editions, and I’m hoping they are the same, but the audiobook did not include the forward that’s in the Modern Library edition.
Heinlein’s third published story, “Requiem” (Astounding Jan. 1940) is a salute to science fiction fans, or at least that’s how I read it. John W. Campbell, Jr. thought it overly sentimental but decided to run it anyway to see what his readers thought. They didn’t seem to like it either. “Requiem” came in next to last in March’s Analytical Laboratory. “Requiem” even lost to “Robbie” by Isaac Asimov in 2016’s Retro Hugo Awards for 1941, and that’s another overly sentimental tale.
In both cases, my evidence isn’t reliable since the Analytical Laboratory is based on mentions in letters to the editor, which generally favor comments on the serials, and Retro Hugo award voters seldom read all the finalists. They tend to vote for their favorite authors. But it’s the evidence I got, and it’s evidence Heinlein used to measure his success at the time.
I love “Requiem”. It’s a solid, well-constructed story, with vivid characters and a satisfying ending, one with an emotional punch. The story is quite simple. D. D. Harriman is a rich old man who made his pile commercializing space travel. He contacts a couple down-and-out space jockeys, McIntyre the pilot, and Charlie the mechanic, about taking him to the Moon. Harriman has a weak heart and is legally forbidden to travel to space. Harriman promises to finance the whole deal and they get to keep the rocketship which would put them back into space too. The law was correct, Harriman couldn’t handle space travel, and he died right after they land on Luna. But he dies happy and satisfied.
I figured Harriman was a stand-in for Heinlein. Going to the Moon was Heinlein’s lifelong dream, even back in 1940. Heinlein uses Harriman again in 1950 for “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” I bet Heinlein cast himself as Harriman in his own Walter Mitty fantasies, at least until he created Jubal Harshaw. This quote from the story is Heinlein projecting his own personal feelings into the future:
“Captain, it’s the one thing I’ve really wanted to do all my life—ever since I was a young boy. I don’t know whether I can explain it to you, or not. You young fellows have grown up to rocket travel the way I grew up to aviation. I’m a great deal older than you are, at least fifty years older. When I was a kid practically nobody believed that men would ever reach the Moon. You’ve seen rockets all your lives, and the first to reach the Moon got there before you were a young boy. When I was a boy they laughed at the idea.
“But I believed—I believed. I read Verne, and Wells, and Smith, and I believed that we could do it—that we would do it. I set my heart on being one of the men to walk on the surface of the Moon, to see her other side, and to look back on the face of the Earth, hanging in the sky.
“I used to go without my lunches to pay my dues in the American Rocket Society, because I wanted to believe that I was helping to bring the day nearer when we would reach the Moon. I was already an old man when that day arrived. I’ve lived longer than I should, but I would not let myself die . . . I will not!—until I have set foot on the Moon.”
Heinlein, Robert. The Man Who Sold the Moon and Orphans of the Sky (pp. 292-293). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.
William Patterson, Jr. documents two cases that showed Heinlein was an early supporter of space travel outside of science fiction.
Late in January Heinlein joined the new American Interplanetary Society that had been formed in December 1930 in New York, with fourteen charter members. Heinlein had membership number 22. He told people about it in the Navy—Buddy Scoles, especially—and found that he was considered something of a “goof” because rockets were “crazy Buck Rogers stuff”—toys, at best.12 The first bulletin he received from the society contained a report of a visit by French Academician Robert Esnault-Pelterie13 on January 27, 1931, saying he thought it might be possible to travel to the Moon and return as soon as fifteen years from now—1946.
Patterson, William H. . Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 (p. 148). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.
In 1934 after the American Interplanetary Society changed its name to the American Rocket Society. We need to remember, in the 1930s, there was very little rocket development, and Robert H. Goddard’s rockets barely got into the sky, much less leave the Earth. Heinlein had zeroed in on this industry at almost the beginning.
One day at the Denver Athletic Club when he was judging a fencing match, he met Robert Cornog, a young engineer working on Boulder Dam and about to apply for graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley; they found they had the same birthday, five years apart (Cornog was born in 1912)—and both had joined the American Rocket Society. They became friendly thereafter.
Patterson, William H. . Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 (pp. 166-167). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.
And the story, “Requiem” attacks one of Heinlein’s most hated foes, the Nanny State. Luckily, for us, Heinlein didn’t lecture about this but showed it. That’s why writing teachers always bitch about show don’t tell. And it’s the second reason why I admire this story because I did love the sentimentality for my first reason. I admire Heinlein most when he constructs a proper short story, and “Requiem” is one for sure.
Heinlein was an enigma. Throughout his life and work, he rebelled against excess control in the government, yet he worshiped the military way of life, which is extremely regulated. Heinlein’s characters love to follow the rules and find ways to skirt them. The illegal moon rocket site in “Requiem” was later reused in Rocketship Galileo.
But there is a third aspect to “Requiem” that I detect from reading about Heinlein. Heinlein tried his hand at politics in the mid-1930s. And one of the things I’m sure he learned was how to flatter the voters. I believe “Requiem” was a statement of Heinlein’s beliefs and a bit of flattery for science fiction fans. Heinlein was campaigning to be the leader of science fiction. To do that he had to impress the fans with his stories, and himself. This is my first bit of evidence:
They smoked in silence for a while, each thinking about the coming trip and what it meant to him. Old Harriman tried to repress the excitement that possessed him at the prospect of immediate realization of his life-long dream.
“Eh? What is it, Charlie?”
“How does a guy go about getting rich, like you did?”
“Getting rich? I can’t say; I never tried to get rich. I never wanted to be rich, or well known, or anything like that.”
“No, I just wanted to live a long time and see it all happen. I wasn’t unusual; there were lots of boys like me—radio hams, they were, and telescope builders, and airplane amateurs. We had science clubs, and basement laboratories, and science-fiction leagues—the kind of boys who thought there was more romance in one issue of the Electrical Experimenter than in all the books Dumas ever wrote. We didn’t want to be one of Horatio Alger’s Get-Rich heroes either, we wanted to build spaceships. Well, some of us did.”
“Jeez, Pop, you make it sound exciting.”
“It was exciting, Charlie. This has been a wonderful, romantic century, for all of its bad points. And it’s grown more wonderful and more exciting every year. No, I didn’t want to be rich; I just wanted to live long enough to see men rise up to the stars, and, if God was good to me, to go as far as the Moon myself.” He carefully deposited an inch of white ash in a saucer. “It has been a good life. I haven’t any complaints.”
Heinlein, Robert. The Man Who Sold the Moon and Orphans of the Sky (pp. 300-301). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.
Just before Heinlein wrote “Life-Line” he made contact with Los Angeles science fiction fans. This could have encouraged him to get into writing for science fiction magazines, or Heinlein might have been on a recon mission to get to know the fans. This is from the column “Far West Facts” in the Ad Astra #4, a Chicago fanzine published in November of 1939 by Farwest Jack Erman.
Then from the same column, in issue #5 dated January 1940, we get this tidbit.
I believe Heinlein was older than many of the LASFS fans, and he and Leslyn made an impression by writing up some fake news stories and having them printed as from the local paper. They also impressed the younger fans by hosting a meeting and being gracious and sophisticated hosts. These two instances were before “Misfit” would appear, and a couple of months before “Requiem” would hit the stands.
Heinlein had instant success with “Life-Line” but Campbell returned the first version of “Misfit.” And Campbell had been bouncing other stories Heinlein had been cranking out and so Heinlein was looking at other markets to sell them to, including Fred Pohl’s Astonishing Stories, a bottom-of-the-barrel market. My guess is he felt elated with “Life-Line” but then had a string of rejections, which blew his confidence, and Heinlein started studying the markets and fans. My guess is Heinlein wrote “Requiem” to endear himself to his audience. To show them he was one of them, and he believed in their cause.
Early fans were true believers in the potential of space travel. It’s almost impossible for people today to understand how the average American felt about science fiction. It was that “crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” And if you’ve ever seen a Buck Rogers serial, you’ll know what I mean. And rocket research in the U.S. was barely beginning. It wasn’t until the end of WWII when the world was shocked by atomic bombs and V-2 rockets that science fiction had any public validity. Science fiction fans felt they could see the future.
“Requiem” was Heinlein’s way of telling science fiction fans that they were special. When Heinlein wrote a letter thanking Campbell for buying “If This Goes On—” he submitted “Requiem” and said, “Enclosed is a short [“Requiem”]. I hope you like it. In a way, it’s my pet.”
Campbell bought it right away in August 1939, but said he didn’t like it, but would use it as an experiment to see if the readers would. But evidently, it didn’t go over like he expected. First, Campbell spoiled the story by adding four lines at the end that Heinlein thought completely spoiled the tone of the ending. They were:
Charlie looked toward the relaxed figure propped up on the bed of Lunar pumice, face fixed toward the Earth. "Well,' he grunted, "he hit the Moon—"
I only found one letter that mentions “Requiem.”
That was in the March issue. “If This Goes On—” started serializing in February, and that’s when Heinlein started getting some real notice in the letter column. But again, it was a serial, and they usually got the most attention. It also got him his first cover.
“Requiem” is one of my favorite Heinlein short stories, maybe second to my favorite, “The Menace From Earth.” However, that order might change as I haven’t read many of them for years, and might discover forgotten gems as I reread all of Heinlein’s short stories for this project. I believe Farah Mendlesohn also admired “Requiem” a great deal because she spent many pages in The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein discussing the story in her Rhetoric chapter. I would reprint it except its length would probably trigger a copyright violation, but I will copy the first two pages. Campbell wanted to reject “Requiem” because it was too sentimental, but Mendlesohn recognized sentiment as one of Heinlein’s major virtues as a science fiction writer:
As I reread Heinlein, I’m trying very hard to forget the older Heinlein that dominates my memories. We need to remember the young Heinlein. Actually, we need to picture Heinlein as he was when he wrote each story. Most readers expect a story to be self-contained and work as a stand-alone work of art. That’s fine for superficial enjoyment. But I see Heinlein as wanting to influence or even shape the future, and he used science fiction as his tool.
I’ve created this bibliography as a reading checklist for my Rereading Heinlein Project. My plan is to reread Heinlein’s stories in the order they were written, if I know when, or by when they were first published. A few stories were published posthumously, and are listed under the year of first publication. For serialized novels, I use the magazine date.
For short stories, I’ve listed the current in-print collection or the used collection easiest to buy. It’s a shame The Past Through Tomorrow is out-of-print. Most of Heinlein’s original short story collections are in print for the Kindle and Audible.
For Us, The Living
Astounding (Aug) The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950)
Astounding (Nov) Revolt in 2100 (1953)
Astounding (Jan) The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950)
“If This Goes On —”
Astounding (Feb,Mar) Revolt in 2100
Futuria Fantasies (Spr) Expanded Universe (1980)
Let There Be Light
Super Science Stories (May) The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950)
The Roads Must Roll
Astounding (Jun) The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950)
Astounding (Jul) Revolt in 2100 (1953)
Astounding (Sep) The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950)
The Devil Makes the Law (Magic, Inc)
Unknown (Sep) Waldo and Magic, Inc. (1950)
Astounding (Jan,Feb,Mar) Gnome Press (1949)
“—And He Built a Crooked House”
Astounding (Feb) The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1959)
Logic of Empire
Astounding (Mar) The Green Hills of Earth (1951)
Astonishing (Apr) Off the Main Sequence (2005)
Astounding (Apr) The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1959)
Astounding (May) The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein (1966)
Astounding (May) Orphans in the Sky (1963)
“—We Also Walk Dogs”
Astounding (Jul) The Green Hills of Earth (1951)
Astounding (Jul,Aug,Sep) Gnome Press 1958
Astounding (Sep) Assignment in Eternity (1953)
By His Bootstraps
Astounding (Oct) The Menace From Earth (1959)
Astounding (Oct) Orphans in the Sky (1963)
Super Science Stories (Nov) Assignment in Eternity (1953)
“My Object All Sublime”
Astounding (Mar) The Menace From Earth (1959)
Astounding (Aug) Waldo and Magic, Inc. (1950)
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag
Unknown Worlds (Oct) The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1959)
Back of the Moon
The Elks Magazine (Jan)
The Green Hills of Earth
Saturday Evening Post (Feb 8) The Green Hills of Earth (1951)
Saturday Evening Post (Apr 26) The Green Hills of Earth (1951)
Columbus Was a Dope
Startling Stories (May) The Menace From Earth (1959)
They Do It with Mirrors
Popular Dective (May) Expanded Universe (1980)
“It’s Great to Be Back!”
Saturday Evening Post (Jul 26) The Green Hills of Earth (1951)
Jerry Was a Man
Thrilling Wonder Stories (Oct) Assignment in Eternity (1953)
Rocket Ship Galilio
Charles Scribner’s Sons
Water is for Washing
Argosy (Nov) The Menace From Earth (1959)
The Black Pits of Luna
Saturday Evening Post (Jan 10) The Green Hills of Earth (1951)
Gentlemen, Be Seated!
Argosy (May) The Green Hills of Earth (1951)
Ordeal in Space
Town & Country (May) The Green Hills of Earth (1951)
Charles Scribner’s Sons
Our Fair City
Weird Tales (Jan) The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1959)
Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon
Boy’s Life (Apr,May) Expanded Universe (1980)
Astounding (Nov) Assignment in Eternity (1953)
Delilah and the Space-Rigger
Blue Book (Dec) The Green Hills of Earth (1951)
Charles Scribner’s Sons
The Long Watch
American Legion Magazine (Dec) The Green Hills of Earth (1951)
Farmer in the Sky
Boys’ Life (Aug,Sep,Oct,Nov) Charles Scribner’s Sons
The Man Who Sold the Moon
The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950)
The Blue Book Magazine (Sep,Oct) Charles Scriber’s Sons
The Puppet Masters
Galaxy (Sep,Oct,Nov) Doubleday
The Rolling Stones
Boys’ Life (Sep,Oct,Nov,Dec) Charles Scriber’s Sons
The Year of the Jackpot
Galaxy (Mar) The Menace From Earth (1959)
Amazing Stories (Apr-May) The Menace From Earth (1959)
Imagination (Nov) The Menace From Earth (1959)
Charles Scribner’s Sons
The Star Beast
F&SF (May,Jun,Jul) Charles Scribner’s Sons
Tunnel in the Sky
Charles Scribner’s Sons
Astounding (Feb,Mar,Apr) Doubleday
Time for the Stars
Charles Scribner’s Sons
The Door Into Summer
F&SF (Oct,Nov,Dec) Doubleday (1957)
Citizen of the Galaxy
Astounding (Sep,Oct,Nov,Dec) Charles Scribner’s Sons
The Menace From Earth
F&SF (Aug) The Menace From Earth (1959)
The Man Who Traveled in Elephants
Saturn (Oct) The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1959)
Have Space Suit – Will Travel
F&SF (Aug,Sep,Oct) Charles Scribner’s Sons
Tenderfoot in Space
Boys’ Life (May,Jun,Jul) Requiem (1992)
“All You Zombies …”
F&SF (Mar) The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1959)
F&SF (Oct,Nov) G. P. Putnam’s
Stranger in a Strange Land
G. P. Putnam’s
Scientific American (Aug) The Past Through Tomorrow (1967)
Podkayne of Mars
If (Nov62,Jan63) G. P. Putnam’s (1963)
If (Aug,Oct) G. P. Putnam’s
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
If (Dec 1965, Jan,Feb,Mar,Apr 1966) G. P. Putnam’s
The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein (1966) Expanded Universe (1980)
I Will Fear No Evil
Galaxy (Jul,Aug-Sep,Oct-Nov,Dec) G. P. Putnam’s
Time Enough for Love
G. P. Putnam Sons
The Notebooks of Lazarus Long
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
The Number of the Beast The Pursuit of the Pankera (draft)
Omni (Oct,Nov) Fawcett Columbine (1980) CAEZIK SF & Fantasy (2020)
J. G. Ballard made his science fiction debut in two magazines, New Worlds Science Fiction and Science Fantasy, both dated December 1956. These are the first two stories in The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard which I just began listening to on audio. You can borrow a copy of the scanned hardback from the Internet Archive for one hour here. Amazon has a Kindle edition for just under $15. Or you can read “Prima Belladonna” online here, and listen to “Escapement” here. Links to radio and film versions are here.
New Worlds also profiled Ballard on the inside front cover.
Ballard’s story for New Worlds, “Escapement” was a very early time loop tale. “Prima Belladonna” in Science Fantasy was Ballard’s first Vermillion Sands story. Both stories were well-written and entertaining and both struck me as pure storytelling. No message, no theme, no psychological insights. As far as I could tell, neither had a point other than being an interesting story.
I was completely satisfied with both short stories, but I wondered if I should dismiss them for having no depth? Right after reading those stories, I read “The Cinderella Machine” by Michael G. Coney, first published in F&SF (Aug. 1976). It reminded me of a Vermillion Sands story. I checked and Coney is a British writer from Ballard’s generation. It too was a pure story. I wondered if Coney had been inspired by Ballard, or if writers from that generation just tended to write those kind of stories.
I suppose in each of these stories I could dig around and find something insightful or meaningful about them, but they seemed complete and self-contained, so why bother? I feel little need to describing these stories because the very act of reading them are what they are about. “Prima Belladonna” and “The Cinderella Machine” are set in artist colonies, featuring a striking women character who is not necessarily nice, and both include an exotic science fictional creature. “Escapement” is about a man who can’t understand why his wife doesn’t notice technical difficulties in the television show they are watching.
I could say Ballard and Coney are expressing some science fictional ideas. These ideas aren’t meaningful, or significant, or even insightful. They are just some weird creative shit that both authors thought up.
All the best stories are stories that feature solid storytelling. But it seems to me, all great stories go one step further. A perfect example is Bob Shaw’s “The Light of Other Days.” It’s a solid story. It has a science fiction invention. But it’s deeply moving. You can listen to it here.
Ballard’s and Coney’s stories lack the moving part. Does that mean they can never be 5-star stories? I consider “Escapement” a three-star plus story. I consider “Belladonna” and “The Cinderella Machine” to be just squeaking by four-star stories. By the way, I give stories I believe are well-written and professional three stars. If I like them a lot, I add a plus. Four-star stories are ones I look forward to reading again. Five-star stories are classics that will stand the test of time, and are often ones I’ve read several times over my lifetime.
I really admire pure story stories. I just don’t know if I should recommend them to other people.
I do know one thing though. I’d rather read a good pure story without depth than a poorly told story that tries to be deep.
There have been quite a few books about Robert A. Heinlein published since the 1960s, however, only two of them are devoted to biography. The rest are about his writing. The main biography to read is the two-volume Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century by William H. Patterson, Jr. It’s still in print. Alec Nevala-Lee’s book, Astounding, is a biography of John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, but it does have a significant amount of material on Heinlein. Farah Mendlesohn’s book, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein does interweave biography with its focus on Heinlein’s writing, but she admits she got most of that biographical information from the Patterson book. Both the Nevala-Lee and Mendlesohn books are in print.
If you want to know about Heinlein the man, read the Patterson volumes and the Nevala-Lee. If you want a modern take on Heinlein’s work try the Mendlesohn. If you want an interesting take on science fiction in the 1940s, I recommend The World Beyond the Hill. It makes an interesting compaion to Astounding by Nevala-Lee.
I’m going to list the books about Heinlein in reverse chronological order. If they are in print, I’ll link the title to Amazon. The out-of-print books can be found on Abebooks.com and eBay, as well as other online book dealers. Some of these titles cover more than just Heinlein, but they do cover him in a significant way.