The Great SF Stories 25 (1963)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below are my stories notes for the group discussion:

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

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

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

Rating: ***


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

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

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

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

Rating: ***+


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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ***+


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ***


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

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

Rating: ****+


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

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

Rating: ***


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

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

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

Rating: ***+


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

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

Rating: ***+


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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ****


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

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

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

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

Rating: ****+

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

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


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

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

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

Rating: ***+

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


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

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

Rating: *****


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

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

Rating: ****+

James Wallace Harris, 1/20/22

“Pots” by C. J. Cherryh

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #75 of 107: “Pots” by C. J. Cherryh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 1/18/22

“New Rose Hotel” by William Gibson

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #74 of 107: “New Rose Hotel” by William Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 1/17/22

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

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #73 of 107: “Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead” by S. N. Dyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 1/15/22

“Bloodchild” by Octavia E. Butler

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: 1/10/22

My comment to the group:

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

James Wallace Harris, 1/9/22

“Blood Music” by Greg Bear

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 1/8/22

“Mondocane” by Jacques Barbéri

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 1/7/22

“Swarm” by Bruce Sterling

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 1/5/22

“Reiko’s Universe Box” by Kajio Shinji

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #68 of 107: “Reiko’s Universe Box” by Kajio Shinji

“Reiko’s Universe Box” by Kajio Shinji is a slight story about newlyweds and a unique wedding gift. The special gift is a universe in a box, a cube of forty centimeters on each end, showing astronomical vistas. Reiko, the neglected wife becomes obsessed with the universe in a box, inspiring her to study astronomy, giving her something to fill in her lonely hours while her new husband works long hours as a company man in Japan.

I love science fiction stories about futuristic educational toys. That made this story somewhat charming, but the cliched marital issues were unimaginative. I know that VanderMeers wanted to expand the scope of the traditional science fiction anthology by including science fiction stories from around the world. That’s an admirable ambition. Unfortunately, the translated stories on average haven’t been that good. This subverts their purpose because it makes me think other countries never developed sophisticated science fiction.

Offhand, I quickly recall two science fiction stories dealing with educational toys, “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, and “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. In both cases, the toys were integrated into rich multilayered tales with complex characters. Sure, these stories had the advantage of length, but my point still counts.

Shinji should have made Reiko something more than a stereotypical lonely housewife, and come up with a resolution that wasn’t so nihilistic. Science fiction readers want a sense of wonder that invokes awe. “Reiko’s Universe Box” is too mundane, even with a wondrous gadget. Reiko and her husband Ikutarō come across as dreary losers.

The characters in “The Star Pit” are losers too, but dramatically fascinating losers. And more importantly, Vyme ultimately transcends his many failures, with the ecologarium being essential to his story. Shinji might have intended Reiko to have a positive experience with the last line telling us, “With a joyful shriek, she dived after her husband,” but what’s the point of chasing her abusive cheating husband into a black hole?

Reading through the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction is making me think hard about the value of old science fiction stories. The anthology remembers stories from across the 20th century, but most of the time it remembers stories I don’t consider memorable. Now, I fully admit, these stories are memorable to the VanderMeers, and readers who share their tastes, but I don’t think they are memorable to the average science fiction reader of my generation.

What’s an average science fiction reader anyhow? Here again, I have to admit that’s changing. In our Facebook group that focuses on science fiction short stories, it appears to be mostly older guys. In the much larger Facebook group devoted to science fiction novels, the group is split between older readers and younger ones, males and females. I’m guessing fans of science fiction changed in the 1990s as the readership became more diverse. Reading the comments in the novel group often reveals a shift in tastes.

For us old guys, the ones who grew up reading Astounding, Analog, F&SF, Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow, Amazing, Fantastic, New Worlds, Science Fantasy, and even the newer magazines like Asimov’s and Omni, we have a sense of what science fiction used to be. Many of the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction aren’t that kind of science fiction story.

When I bought The Big Book of Science Fiction I hoped it would be a giant book of my kind of science fiction, including more stories from around the world, and with more stories by women writers — but still my kind of science fiction. I thought the young editors would preserve a past I loved.

Instead, they found a different view of the past that fits their modern taste in science fiction. And that’s cool. Times change, and all that. Before reading this anthology I assumed the science fiction I loved would be preserved in the future because I believed it had inherent qualities that made it enduring. I’m now wondering if those admired qualities might depend on readers of certain generations and won’t be visible to later generations.

When generations die off, most of the pop culture they loved will die with them. That’s just another thing I’m learning from getting old. The science fiction of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells survived the 19th century, but how many works of science fiction from that century didn’t?

James Wallace Harris, 1/5/22

“The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” by Josephine Saxton

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #67 of 107: “The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” by Josephine Saxton

The VanderMeers present yet another horror science fiction story, although the horror in “The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” is very different from the recent stories we’ve been reading. The story I read did not feel like the story they promised in the introduction:

Roz Kaveney, editor of Saxton’s The Power of Time, described Saxton’s work as “a combination of surrealism, occultism, feminism and a sort of bloody-minded Midlands Englishness, and quite wonderful.” John Crowley was inspired by Saxton’s work to write a love story (“Exogamy”) with speculative elements—influenced in particular by The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith. 

“The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” (1981) is classic Saxton: a take-no-prisoners examination of biotech experimentation and the follies of capitalist societies in the grips of decadent extremes. It is sharp, incisive, darkly inventive, and an excellent example of the capabilities of this brilliant but underrated writer.

“The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” didn’t deal with feminism. The woman protagonist, Marvene, is evil and deranged, but then so are the other two main characters. Nor did I feel it was an attack on capitalistic societies in the grips of decadence. It might have been a bit surreal, but not really, and there was no occultism that I noticed, but that comment could have applied to other stories in the collection.

The story was dark. The setting is a future dystopia ruled by elites, that use scientists to control the unwanted population. The story is about three scientists, Selly, the lead researcher, and two assistants, Marvene and Janos. Those two schemes to dethrone Selly in his lab. This group invents ways to control the mass of humanity that is no longer needed by the elites. These three scientists hope their inventions will make them famous and wealthy. However, if you can imagine the inventions Donald Trump would come up with in this situation, then you’ve got the feel of this story. Their most brilliant gadget makes people act like animals, which they turn on each other. Selly becomes a cat, Janos a mouse, and Marvene, our main point-of-view character, a snake.

At first, I rooted for Marvene. I like a character I can root for, but before long she became so disgusting that I rooted for her demise instead. Not to spoil the ending, but I get my wish. Saxton does a good job developing these bad characters and does a satisfying job of storytelling, but “The Snake Who Had Read Chomsky” just left a nasty feeling in my head. I’m getting over Covid, and I associate how I feel physically with how the story made me feel emotionally. Why would someone write such a story?

I have to assume Saxton disliked 1981 England and America, although neither are mentioned. She also disliked science and scientists. And she disliked academic politics and competition. Young readers today love dystopian tales because their protagonists take a stand against the status quo. We love those characters because of their blows against the empire. In this story, Marvene basically wants to be the Joseph Mengele of her society, and become rich and famous for her cruel inventions.

By the way, I never got the Chomsky reference. I assume it’s just a 1981 version of clickbait.

James Wallace Harris, 1/1/22

“Wives” by Lisa Tuttle

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #66 of 107: “Wives” by Lisa Tuttle

“Wives” by Little Tuttle was first published in the December 1979 issue of F&SF, but over the years it’s been included in a number of anthologies, including two focusing on women fantasy writers.

“Wives” is a strange story. Set on an alien world where humans, and I assume only males, have mostly wiped out an alien civilization. Some of the aliens survive by being assimilated as wives to human husbands. They wear a skinsuit and makeup to hide their real shape and appear as women and adapt to human ways. Susie wants to rebel and return to the old ways, but the other wives want to survive.

Of course, I assume Tuttle’s story isn’t about aliens and alien worlds but about life on Earth, and how women must hide who they are and let themselves be subjugated by men. But I also thought about parallels to Europeans and Native Americans, and I imagine, any conquered people. This story could be a metaphor for any kind of imperialism — cultural, ethnic, racial, even species. Think about what we’ve done to animals. Can’t you see Susie and her kind in your dogs and cats?

Just how effective is using science fiction to analogize our current problems? Netflix has a new film out, Don’t Look Up that satirizes how society has ignored warnings of climate change. The film is full of great actors but the story has all kinds of problems. The only reason I admire it or recommend it to others is because of its message. Is that why we like “Wives” too? Just because of its message?

I believe we need to judge the story by the story too. So, how well does “Wives” hold up as a story? In that regard, I think very well. Even though it’s absurd, I found its science-fiction setup believable. I felt for Susie, but I understood Doris and Maggie’s positions too. The whole existential problem for Susie’s alien race was realistic within this story.

Rating: ****

James Wallace Harris, 12/29/21

“Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #65 of 107: “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin

This is the third time I’ve read “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin. It has 11 citations on The Classics of Science Fiction Short Fiction list. And it was made into an episode of The Outer Limits.

These are the stories “Sandkings” are tied with on our list for 7th place, all having 11 citations, all heavy-hitters.

This kind of success makes me wonder how such stories are written to make them so memorable. I’m familiar with all the above stories, and some (“Coming Attraction,” “The Country of the Kind,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” and “The Ugly Chickens”) are among my all-time favorites. To be honest, I put “Sandkings” in the second half of that list. But still, it’s a catchy tale.

In “Sandkings,” Simon Kress is a rich collector of violent pets. But not on Earth, on a planet named Baldur, so his pets can be quite exotic. He is offered sandkings, insect-like creatures, with hive intelligence. Kress buys them because he’s told they worship their owners and fight wars. He is also warned that there are certain conditions to be met to maintain safety, but then this story wouldn’t be the story it is if Kress minded those warnings. (I did wonder if Gremlins was an influence, but I checked and it came out five years later in 1984.)

“Sandkings” is another horror story in a science-fictional setting. The VanderMeers seem to have a penchant for those. Evidently, they have a macabre streak. Maybe they grew up reading Poe. “Sandkings” is a story old Edgar Allan would have admired. But I also catch whiffs of other literary influences.

First off, I wondered if Martin read Theodore Sturgeon’s 1941 classic, “Microcosmic God,” and thought, hey, this god of small things is a neat idea, I wonder if I could do something with it and make it more realistic? The protagonist for “Microcosmic God” was named Kidder, another K-name like Kress. Mercurio Rivera’s “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” (Asimov’s Jan-Feb 2020) also used the god of small things theme. I only know of these three stories that use the god of small things theme, so it appears writers can recycle it about every forty years. Does anybody know of other examples?

Like I said, I felt Poe was an influence. But I also wondered about Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. “Sandkings” has a gothic feel to it, and it’s about sensuality, decadence, and evil. The sandkings worship Kress. They build images of him in stone. Those images change over time, reflecting the corruption of Kress’s soul.

Reading “Sandkings” makes me wonder if more writers shouldn’t search out old forgotten SF themes and refashion them into new stories. It’s done all the time but usually at a superficial level to the most commonly used themes. The best example is the murder mystery. Why haven’t we gotten tired of that theme/plot?

James Wallace Harris, 12/28/21

“Sporting with the Chid” by Barrington J. Bayley

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #64 of 107: “Sporting with the Chid” by Barrington J. Bayley

“Sporting with the Chid” by Barrington J. Bayley is another story from the 1970s that I found disturbing. I’ve never understood why people like horror, especially the gory kind. The story first appeared in the collection The Seed of Evil, and I think that title tells us a lot. The VanderMeers in their introduction led me to believe Bayley would be experimental, creative, and New Wave. Instead, I thought “Sporting with the Chid” to be a straightforward old-fashioned science fiction tale but with a good bit of yuckiness. If you love your horror movies with loads of exposed body parts, then you’ll probably enjoy this story.

“Sporting with the Chid” felt like it was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and Philip Jose Farmer, especially Farmer’s porn books from Essex House. Not really my cup of tea. I wonder if Bayley grew up reading EC Comics? Now that I’m older Fredric Wertham seems less like a crank. I’m trying not to be too judgmental, but Bayley’s ghoulish fascination with vivisection makes me wonder about him. But then, I also find people’s fascination with video game violence just as questionable.

James Wallace Harris, 12/27/21

“The House of Compassionate Sharers” by Michael Bishop

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #63 of 107: “The House of Compassionate Sharers” by Michael Bishop

“The House of Compassionate Sharers” by Michael Bishop first appeared in the science fiction magazine Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy in May 1977. David Hartwell was the editor. This is a science fiction magazine I have no memory of ever seeing or reading. Although checking my digital files, I see I have all four issues. Bishop had stories in the first and last issues. (There is so much science fiction to read, and so much science fiction history to study.)

“The House of Compassionate Sharers” was selected for three best-of-the-year anthologies (Wollheim/Saha, Terry Carr, and Gardner Dozois). Meaning, this novelette was well admired in 1978. I’m not sure what to think of the story at the end of 2021.

Dorian Lorca is a monster to himself. After an accident, he is rebuilt with metal and plastic which alienates himself from his own body. I should sympathize with this posthuman man, but I never do until almost the end. The story is about compassion and transcendence, but it mostly struct me as decadent. It is creative, especially the made-up words and imagined far-future settings. But the story feels alien to me like Dorian feels about his body. Bishop could have intended this, but I’m not sure. Here’s how it starts:

In the Port Iranani Galenshall, I awoke in the room Diderits called the Black Pavilion. I was an engine, a system, a series of myoelectric and neuromechanical components, and the Accident responsible for this enamel-hard enfleshing lay two full M-years in the past. This morning was an anniversary of sorts. By now I should have adjusted. And I had. I had reached a full accommodation with myself. Narcissistic, one could say. Which was the trouble. 

“Dorian? Dorian Lorca?” 

The voice belonged to KommGalen Diderits, wet and breathy even though it came from a metal speaker to which the sable drapes of the dome were attached. I stared up into the ring of curtains. 

“Dorian, it’s target day. Answer, please.” 

“I’m here, my galen.” I arose, listening to the quasi-musical ratcheting that I make when I move, a sound like the concatenation of tiny bells or the purring of a stope-car. The sound echoes through the porcelain plates, metal vertebrae, and osteoid polymers holding me together, and no one else can hear it. 

“Rumai’s here, Dorian. May she enter?” 

“If I agreed, I suppose so.” 

“Damn it, Dorian, don’t feel you’re bound by honor to see her! We’ve spent the last several brace-weeks preparing you to resume normal human contact.” Diderits began to list: “Chameleodrene treatments, hologramic substitution, stimulus-response therapy. You ought to want Rumai to come in to you, Dorian.” 

Ought. My brain was—and remains—my own, but the body Diderits and the other kommgalens had given me had “instincts” and “tropisms” specific to itself, ones whose templates had a mechanical instead of a biological origin. What I ought to feel, in human terms, and what I felt as the occupant of a total prosthesis resembled each other about as much as blood and oil. 

“Do you want her to come in, Dorian?” 

“I do.” And I did. After all the biochemical and psychiatric preparation, I wanted to witness my own reaction. Still sluggish from a drug, I had no idea how Rumai’s arrival would affect me. 

At a parting of the pavilion’s draperies, two or three meters from my couch, Rumai Montieth, my wife, appeared. Her garment of overlapping latex scales, glossy black in color, was a hauberk revealing only her hands, face, and hair. Rumai’s dress was one of Diderits’s deceits, or “preparations”: he wanted me to see Rumai as little different from myself, a creature as well assembled and synapsed as the engine I had become. But her hands, face, and hair—well, nothing could disguise their primitive humanity, and revulsion swept over me like a tide. 

“Dorian?” And her voice: wet, breath-driven, expelled through moistened lips. 

I turned away. “No,” I said to the speaker overhead. “It hasn’t worked, my galen. Every part of me cries out against this.” 

Diderits said nothing. Was he still out there? Or had he tried to bestow on Rumai and me a privacy I didn’t want? 

“Disassemble me,” I urged him. “Link me to the control systems of a delta-state vessel and let me go out from Miroste for good. You don’t want a zombot among you, Diderits—an unhappy anproz. You’re all tormenting me!” 

“And you, us,” Rumai said. I faced her. “As you’re very aware, Dorian, as you’re very aware…Take my hand.” 

“No.” I didn’t shrink away, I merely refused. 

“Here. Take it.” Fighting my disgust, I seized her hand, twisted it over, and showed her its back. “Look.” 

“I see it, Dor.” I was hurting her. “Surfaces, that’s all you see. Look at this wen.” I pinched the growth. “That’s sebum, fatty matter. And the smell, if only you could—” 

Rumai drew back, and I sought to quell a mental nausea almost as profound as my regret….To venture out from Miroste seemed the only answer. Around me I wanted machinery—thrumming machinery—and the sterile, actinic emptiness of vacuum. I wanted to become the probeship Dorian Lorca, a clear step up from my position as prince consort to the governor of Miroste.

The Big Book of Science Fiction (pp. 637-638). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

This is a great setup, but Dorian is sent to Earth, to a rather strange place which is called the House of the Secret Sharers. The leads me to imagine the retreat is for transhuman beings who must integrate their old and new selves. But Bishop mystifies things, even suggesting that the house is also a bordello. Thus, the mood shifts to the kinky, and I wonder if the treatment is like sex therapy. Back in the 1970s, there were all kinds of strange therapies, encounter groups, psychological theories, so this story fits well with the times.

Bishop keeps showing us how disturbed Dorian thinks and feels.

My body was a trial. Diderits had long ago told me that it—that I—was still “sexually viable.” But this promise I had not tested, nor did I wish to. Tyrannized by vivid images of human viscera, human excreta, human decay, I’d been rebuilt of metal, porcelain, and plastic, as if from the substances—skin, bone, hair, cartilage—that these inorganic materials mocked. I was a contradiction, a quasi-immortal masquerading as one of the ephemera who’d delivered me from their own short-lived lot. Paradoxically, my aversion to the organic was another human (i.e., organic) emotion. So I fervently wanted out. For over a year and a half on Miroste, I’d hoped that Rumai and the others would see their mistake and exile me not only from themselves but also from the body continuously reminding me of my total estrangement.

Will this be how cyborgs will feel? Bishop assumes the replacement parts will make us loath our flesh, but I would think it would be the other way around.

Once Dorian meets his sharer, the story takes a bondage twist. And I’m afraid it gets a little too weird for me.

Yes, two light-sensing image-integrating units gazed at me from the sockets near which my thumbs probed, and even in this darkness the Sharer, its vision sharper than my own, could discern my blind face staring down, futilely trying to create an image out of the information that my hands had supplied. I opened my eyes and saw only shadows, but my thumbs felt the cold metal rings gripping the Sharer’s photosensitive orbs. 

“An animatronic construct,” I said, rocking back on my heels. “A soulless robot. Move your head if I’m right.” 

The Sharer continued motionless. 

“All right: a sentient creature whose eyes have been replaced with an artificial system. Lord, are we brothers then?” 

I had a sudden hunch that the Sharer was very old, a senescent being owing its life to prosthetics, transplants, organs of laminated silicon. Its life had been extended by these gizmos, not saved. I asked the Sharer about this hunch. It slowly moved the helmetlike skull housing its fake eyes and its aged compassionate mind. Uncharitably, I considered myself the victim of a deception, the Sharer’s or Wardress Kefa’s. Here, after all, lay a creature who had chosen to prolong its life rather than escape it, and who had willingly employed the same materials and methods that Diderits had used to save me. 

“You might have died,” I told it. “Go too far with these contrivances, Sharer, and you’ll forfeit suicide as an option.” Leaning forward again, I let my hands move from the Sharer’s bony face to its throat. Here a shield of cartilage graded upward into its jaw and downward into the silken plastic skin covering its body, internalizing all but the defiant skull: a death’s-head with the body of a man. 

I could take no more. I rose from the stove-bed, cinched my gown, and crossed to the room’s far side. It held no furniture but the bed, so I assumed a lotus position on the floor and sat thus all night, staving off dreams. Diderits had said that I needed to dream to sidestep both hallucination and madness. In the Port Iranani Galenshall, he had had drugs administered to me every day and my sleep period monitored by an ARC machine and a team of electroencephalographers. But my dreams veered into nightmares, descents into klieg-lit charnel houses. I infinitely preferred the risk of going psychotic. Someone might pity and then disassemble me, piece by loving piece. Also, I had now lasted two E-weeks on nothing but catnaps, and I still had gray matter upstairs, not chopped pâté.

The story continues along this path, into a deeper strangeness. We meet two clones who are sick and disturbed, but we want to gawk at their trainwreck lives. Thankfully, the story eventually becomes positive, and I forgive it for taking me through scenes I didn’t want to see.

Here’s the thing about science fiction. Writers can write about anything they can imagine. So, why did Michael Bishop imagine this? Was he just feeling in a Dangerous Visions mood? Ellison’s anthology had wowed me in 1969, but it was disturbing. That was often true of the New Wave fiction I tried.

The 1970s was an exciting time for me personally, but in many ways, it was a downer of a decade. Often when I watch movies from that era I find them distasteful. I enjoy gritty film noir from the 1940s and 1950s, but I find the dirtier aspects of the 1970s dreary and depressing to remember. The 1970s has an anti-nostalgic taint with me. It’s like watching the HBO series The Deuce. For me, the 1970s was classic rock and computers. Now that I’m going back and picking over the science fiction stories, I don’t remember any feel-good stories. Is it any wonder that The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was so popular.

But what’s the difference between “Fondly Fahrenheit” and “The House of Secret Sharers” when it comes to choosing between two disturbing works of science fiction? Why does Bester’s story leave me admiring the dazzle of science fiction, and Bishop’s story leaves me thinking science fiction is a bit grungy?

James Wallace Harris, 12/25/21

“The IWM 1000” by Alicia Yánez Cossío

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #62 of 107: “The IWM 1000” by Alicia Yánez Cossío

“The IWM 1000” by Alicia Yánez Cossío is a story from 1975 that imagines a device that answers users’ questions. Think of a talking, portable Google. It’s not much of a story, but it does imagine a lot of interactions that are similar to what we use the internet for today.

Alan Kay imagined the Dynabook in the 1968-1972 era. And science fiction has been imaging machines with knowledge as far back as “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster in 1909. But I knew about neither in 1975, and I doubt I could have thought up the human uses the way Cossio did. Computers, networks, and social networking just didn’t occur to me before they existed. But dang, they sure have changed our lives.

Science fiction writers often imagine cool new machines, but they don’t often imagine how society will be changed by them. I give Cossio credit for that kind of thinking. Unfortunately, she’s not much of a storyteller here. This “story” is very close to an essay.

I wish I had an AI that knew of all books, magazines, journals, newspapers, diaries, internet threads, etc., and could tell me how certain science-fictional ideas evolved. On the other hand, that’s what I wish I could do myself — have all knowledge so I could see the currents of ideas ripple through history.

I’ve gotten behind with our group discussions of the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction. I got distracted by reading the current issues of Analog and Asimov’s. Comparing the old SF stories with the new is quite a contrast. Forty-six years makes a big difference. 2021 is the future for the writers of 1975. We don’t have an IVM 1000, but we have things somewhat like it, and we use those things somewhat like she imagined. While I’m reading 2022 SF stories, I’ll have to think about what SF writers are imagining for 46 years into our future.

I also need to imagine what a future person like me will be, one who reads and thinks about science fiction. Will blogging exist in 2066? And if civilization collapses by then from climate change, mass extinctions, overwhelming pollution, and disappearing resources, will we still be reading science fiction? At my other blog, I wrote about reading in a post-doom world. In such a scenario, will we stop dreaming about the future, and fixate on the past?

James Wallace Harris, 12/24/21

Reviewing Analog Because I Want to Write Science Fiction

I haven’t read all the stories in a science fiction magazine in decades. I’ve always wanted to be a science fiction writer but I’ve never had what it takes. At seventy, I’m wondering if there’s any chance left of even getting even one short story published? I plan to read several different science fiction magazines to judge where short science fiction is at in 2022. I’m starting with Analog.

Reading and reviewing new science fiction is difficult for me. I have sixty years of reading science fiction and new fiction just doesn’t compete with all the classics I’ve discovered over my lifetime. I’m getting tired of reading average science fiction. Nor do I want to write it. Can I identify what makes a story anthology worthy, or award-winning worthy, but most of all, what makes a story successful over time? I’m afraid none of these stories were classics, and only a couple might deserve being collected in a best-of-the-year anthology. Although they all missed the magic I love to find in science fiction stories.

Several times over my life I’ve tried to write science fiction, including taking MFA writing courses and attending Clarion West. I’ve never been satisfied with my own work. When I read a story in a science fiction magazine, I think about the effort it took to write each story, so I hate to criticize them. On the other hand, if I’m going to use the last drops of my psychic energy to write a story, I don’t want to write anything that’s already been done over and over again. And that was always common in writing workshops.

Finally, the comments on the stories in the Jan-Feb issue of Analog below are my memory notes. I thought maybe others might be interested in my notes as I read through different science fiction magazines.

My notes are mainly to help me remember what the story was about and how I felt about it. I’m also working on improving my memory by writing notes. I’m still refining this process. I try to summarize each story as a way to remember it or to get others to read the story. I’m still experimenting with my note-taking style, so they aren’t consistent yet.

To be blunt, most of these stories lack a sense of wonder. They are about far-out concepts, never transcend into the magical. And even though I’ve written dozens of unpublished stories in the past, I’ve never felt any of them had that magic either. That’s why I’ve always given up.

What makes “Vintage Season” or “Flowers for Algernon” or “The Star Pit” work? I’m sure all new writers aim to hit one out of the park with each new story. I remember at Clarion West hurting one guy’s feelings. He came to me after class and asked me which story was the best one that week. I didn’t think and mention the one I thought was the obvious best. It wasn’t his. And then I realized, he thought his story was the best and wanted affirmation. So I said I thought his story was among the better ones that week, although I didn’t believe it. It’s almost impossible to judge one’s own work.

Reviewing fiction often involves telling people their babies are ugly. I don’t like doing that. On the other hand, do you want to really believe your baby is beautiful when it’s not? I’m going to try and be honest in my notes, but not vicious. Hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but I’m just as harsh with myself.

The hard, cold, reality is most science fiction stories are just average stories, and that’s being excessively generous by some critics. The hard, cold, reality is only a few stories truly stand out each year. The hard, cold, reality is most writers produce dozens or even hundreds of short stories over their career, but just a handful of their stories are remembered.

Often these stories remind me of older science fiction stories. After reading thousands of science fiction stories, it gets very hard to find something that feels new and different. And all too often when I’m reading new science fiction magazines, I feel the writers were inspired by TV shows and movies rather than reading classic science fiction stories. I think they would be better served if they read the classics.

Choosing the right length is also very important. If you stretch your story, you can try the patience of the reader. If you tell it too quickly, it will diminish its impact. Novellas must be exceptionally good to justify the time they ask the reader to give up. Short stories must be extra potent to make any kind of impact in their short space. Personally, I find novelette length the best length for short science fiction.

I used to believe that television and movie science fiction wasn’t as evolved as written science fiction, but that’s changed. I can understand why new writers are influenced by television and movies. Unfortunately, the popularity of science fiction on television is so pervasive that all science-fictional ideas have been done to death

Most science fiction stories are meant to be entertaining. Some stories speculate about the future, revealing the author’s hope or fears. Most science fiction stories dwell in a fantasyland created by the momentum of past science fictional fantasies. In the real world, we’re on course for global civilization collapse. It’s too late to avert drastic climate change, and capitalism is about to self-destruct. Damn few science fiction stories deal with the future in any realistic way, revealing a bankruptcy of creative potential. Science fiction has become so close to fantasy fiction that any genre distinctions no longer matter. Still, I’m always looking out for what I consider real science fiction.

"Communion" by Jay Werkheiser & Frank Wu

Thread 1: Sentient organism struggles to survive when separated from its hive. It communicates with biochemistry.

Thread 2: Nes Mason and his robot Alex crash onto an icy moon. They communicate with language.

For each to be saved they must discover each other's existence. The story has a lot of organic chemistry.

Pleasant enough tale hurt by its novella length and excessive science.

However, it's a neat idea and reminds me of The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.

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"The Lobster Pot" by Tony Ballantyne

"By His Bootstraps" meets GATEWAY and "Rogue Moon" wondering into THE MATRIX.

A fairly compelling tale. Four characters with no characterization other than different names.

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"Wind Gets Her Own Place" by Joe M. McDermott

Wind, a 17-year-old Tau Ceti colonist has a tough first year in this YA science fiction story. Her mother doesn't make it through cold sleep and Wind is forced to share a tiny room with her mother's boyfriend who she hates. The story is mostly teenage angst that could have been set on Earth. However, it's a well-told story.

One takeaway: colony life is dreary, although realistic. Few readers will fantasize about this adventure. I want to write something that's realistic, and maybe even deals with our depressing reality, but I want to add something new or transcendent. How can we make readers excited about the future when its so damn bleak? (Many writers in this issue try by writing essentially science fiction fantasies.)


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"Cloud Chaser" by Tom Jolly

Another story with twin storylines, but this one is the first in this issue to have any kind of storytelling finesse. It's a space opera but with a number of cliche elements, including space pirates, and feuding royal brothers. I enjoyed this one and it had fair degree of what's-going-happen tension in the second half. Yet, not quite good enough to believe I'll reread it.

One of my main measures of a better story is if after reading it I know I'll want to reread it in the future.


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"Splitting a Dollar" by Meghan Hyland

Amy and Brad are on the Moon in ancient spacesuits that have been in museums for two hundred years. Before our civilization collapsed, we left presents in a Lunar stockpile for the next civilization. This is Meghan Hyland’s first professionally published story, and the first I've read that's maybe anthology worthy. It's not a retread, and that impressed me. The title is based on the Ultimatum Game, a psychological experiment that makes a nice metaphor for the tale, unfortunately it's explained in the story. It shouldn't have beem. I think trying to make the title clever spoils the story. Just plot the story on the Ultimatum Game. The story has many weaknesses, even though I like the idea. Having Brad just be greedy for gold was too simplistic, making him a strawman. The story would have been better if Brad had a believable motivation. The lesson here is don't imagine routine scenes. Make each scene as good as the overall idea. 

===============

"Charioteer" by Ted Rabinowitz

Short, tightly written tale of survival during a solar sail race. Sadly, the story's driving conflict was tired and cliche. Why didn't she get a name?

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"By the Lake Where We First Loved" by Paul Starkey

Moira Cohen, nee Ishikawa is on Titan to perform a ceremony to commemorate her dead husband. She looks back over her life and realized her husband's success separated him from her, and diminished her own success.

Not a bad little tale, but the sentiment was strained for me. Again, the problem with such short works of fiction is we don't get to be with them long enough to care. It's like meeting an interesting person in line at the post office.

Lesson here is be wary of the short story length. Too much was said and not shown.

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"The Bumblebee and the Berry" by M. Bennardo

Axel is the governor of generation ship, a hollow asteroid that's been traveling for 630 years. They have reached another star system, but for three attempts they have failed to plot a correct path to their destination, and are now on their fourth attempt. Within this brief story Axel has an epiphany as to why.

I'm partial to generation ship stories. This story is almost a mood piece it's so short, but the character struggles to figure something out. It brings up the problem of story length. It's hard to create a really good story that's short, and even when a writer succeeds, it feels like getting one spoon from a bowl of ice cream.


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"The Way Back" by Jen Downes

I thought this was a lovely story, and it's the closest I've come thinking I'd reread a story in the future. But not quite. It's so hard to judge a story from one reading. Reading new stories are like seeing a new baby and wondering what it will be like when it grows up.

TJ Marshall, or Teej dreams of going into space from age 7. And in this short story, we get to see their dream come true. I'm not sure if Teej is male or female -- I'd need to reread the story closely. What I really liked was the details of Rocklea, Teej's hometown next to the spaceport. It was a very literary beginning. The writing in this story reminded me of early Delany. The rest of the story is kind of cliche but still well done. It also reminds me of Heinlein's STARMAN JONES.

One reason I resonated with this story is it reminds me of how I wanted to go into space as a kid. However, when Teej realizes he needs to return to Earth, it reminds me of how I feel now. Better characterization really helps a story.

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"Dix Dayton and the Miner From Mars" by Liz A. Vogel

Dix Dayton gets wins weird device in poker game in a bar on the asteroid Euphrosyne. While asleep the device causes hole in pressured habitat. Hole is fixed. End of story.

Bland space opera that seemed inspired by the Expanse series. Felt like possible chapter out of planned novel. Didn't work as a standalone story. I think readers want more than just a bit of space opera. Also, I just don't believe in this future. It's television's idea of life in the asteroids, with stereotype characters. Heinlein did asteroid life better in THE ROLLING STONES.

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"Doe No Harm" by Louis Evans

A John Doe arrives at the ER in this short story set in the future where privacy laws are encoded into all computerized medical equipment. The patient is unidentifyable and their embedded ID chip with medical records is destroyed, thus the doctors don't know how to contact next of kin, or have ID directed permission to use their AI driven computerized medical equipment. Every piece of routine equipment shuts down because of automatic privacy lock. Thus, the ER doctor and nurse resort to old fashion methods.

This has been the most entertaining story so far in the issue. Dramatically extrapolating on current medical trends.

Solid story, worthy of being anthologized. Still, it's problem solving over characterization. But that seems to be the way in Analog.

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"Yellow Boots" by Stephen L. Burns

Stude, a robot, and Louis, a human who has had better jobs, work for an organized crime syndicate selling fresh water in a city flooded by rising oceans. They discover their water has been adulterated with sea water by the syndicate and want to help their customers avoid dying without being eliminated themselves.

Few science fiction stories deal with our inevitable future. That makes me appreciate "Yellow Boots" even though the story isn't ultimately inspiring. It's a readable enough story, unfortunately, like many Analog stories, the focus is on the problem rather than the people.

I wish science fiction writers would give us stories of people finding ways to thrive in a doomed world. That's a lot to ask. Stude and Louis solve a problem but their solution doesn't offer hope, just survival. I don't expect Pollyannish fantasies, but more stuff like Kim Stanley Robinson is doing. And I downright loath abandoning Earth for Space stories.

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"A Living Planet" by Benjamin C. Kinney

Ethan misses his wife Liza, who is on a mission to Mars. Worse yet, communication with her spacecraft has been lost. But that's not what this story is about, even though it's enough of an idea for a story. Next, the story shifts to how Ethan doesn't get along with coworkers and boss at JPL because of the way he likes to joke around. Another good conflict for a short story. But even this isn't what "A Living Planet" is about. Ethan's job is to write code for a satellite that gathers up space junk. The real story begins here when Ethan discovers small alien spacecrafts that are light-sail-driven.

This story would have been better if it got right down to the main story. Actually, I was most interested in the missing wife story.

==============

"Patience" by David Cederstrom

When I started reading "Patience" I was delighted -- it read just like something from a 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The first POV character is Antal, an intelligent creature waiting for a warm-blooded animal to kill. Starting off, I thought it was a past or future primitive human. Either before civilization or post-apocalyptic. I love such stories. But then it mentions its rear set of eyes, so we know it's not human. Through Antal's stream of consciousness, we know it's desperate for food, for blood.

Then the POV changes to a human and we see things completely differently. This was a short but effective story that sucked me in. My only criticism is it was too short. Very nice first science fiction story.

Makes me wonder if I shouldn't pattern my writing on older SF.

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"The Middle of Nowhere" by Rachel S. Bernstein

Bernstein gives us a grim view of the future, one where transporters are replacing old forms of transportation. The only problem is data snafus where travelers end up in limbo. Less bloody than plane crashes. Stephanie works for the Border Patrol monitoring illegal transporter traffic into the U.S. She intentionally routes bad guys and illegal aliens into the bit bucket. Too close to a final solution. (Did I read this story right?)

This is another first story, and Bernstein does an effective job of storytelling but I'm appalled what appears to be happening.

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"A Fistful of Monopoles" by Raymund Eich

The 'Winona from Pomona' is an interstellar salvage ship crewed by Barnet and Faraday McCandless in 2572. They come across a billion-year-old derelict alien spacecraft they hope will have magnetic monopoles they can salvage. Reminded me a bit of RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. Decent, but a minor story with an ending that solves one of the main limitations of first-person narratives.

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"Soroboruo Harbormaster's Log" by David Whitaker

At a distant interstellar outpost, the harbormaster logs in a growing list of new ship arrivals and the number of immigrants. Uses the idea that FTL ships will overtake generation ships, and thus the harbormaster ends up logging in older and older ships. A minor story based on an idea I first read in TIME FOR THE STARS by Heinlein.

===============

"On the Rocks" by Ian Randal Strock

Flash fiction that mixes ideas from old science fiction stories and highly theoretical science that doesn't work. Mildly amusing way to recall Asimov and Heinlein, but the story is a groaner.




James Wallace Harris, 12/20/21

“Standing Woman” by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #61 of 107: “Standing Woman” by Yasutaka Tsutsui

“Standing Woman” by Yasutaka Tsutsui was first published in Japan in 1974. Since it’s a protest story about freedom of speech, I have to wonder what politics was like in Japan back then. The VanderMeers said in their introduction, that Tsutsui was Japan’s answer to the New Wave and compared his absurd stories to the writings of Sheckley, Spinrad, and Vonnegut. “Standing Woman” was more wistful than funny to me, although, a tale about people being converted into trees for complaining about the government might have been culturally amusing back in 1974 Japan. The tone of the translation reminded me more of Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian.”

This story still works as a gentle story about a sad man, a writer, who misses his wife after she’s been planted. He risks punishment himself by talking to the human trees. His wife warns him not to, but he can’t help himself.

However, the sting of Tsutsui’s protest is no longer there for me. Like the Bradbury story protesting not being able to stroll after supper in a world taken over by cars and highways, “Standing Woman” is no longer seems relevant. I imagine much of the satire of Saturday Night Live will be dissipated in fifty years too.

I’m beginning to have trouble with my rating system. Normally I’d rate “Standing Woman” with ***+, meaning an average story that I liked. But if I don’t keep explaining my code, people will interpret it in different ways. However, the code was mainly meant to help me remember. I’m torn between keeping it for myself, and wondering what confusion it might cause.

For an absurdist tale, “Standing Woman” was likable enough. But in terms of seeking stories from the past that I consider worthy of discovery, then no, this doesn’t work for me. I could say: Good, but unwanted. But that might sound harsh or unkind.

In the past, I’ve thought of only writing about stories I love. But then I started this project to review all the stories from The Big Book of Science Fiction for our Facebook group. I’ve decided that was a mistake. I’m going to finish what I’ve started, but my current belief is I shouldn’t mention a story I don’t love unless it inspires me to write about a specific issue it brings up.

For now, maybe I should just say: Good, but not loved. Or maybe: Liked, but not loved. And that might be closest to what I’ve been struggling to put into words for all these essays. I’m constantly searching for stories to love but seldom find them. Why waste time writing about stories I don’t love? Do readers of this blog really want to know that? When I read blogs and reviews I respond to ones that enthusiastically praise a story. That makes me go read them. Anything else said is quickly forgotten.

James Wallace Harris, 12/20/21

“Where Two Paths Cross” by Dmitri Bilenkin

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #60 of 107: “Where Two Paths Cross” by Dmitri Bilenkin

“Where Two Paths Cross” is a science fiction story from the old Soviet Union by Dmitri Bilenkin. Future cosmonauts exploring a new planet are captured by bushes and nothing the humans do seems to outsmart the plants. Coincidently, this story reminds me of a novella in the new issue of Analog (Jan-Feb 2022), “Communion” by Jay Werkheiser and Frank Wu. It’s an encounter between an intelligent organism that communicates with biochemistry and human explorers.

Both stories are about science. “Where Two Paths Cross” focuses on evolution and adaptation and how it relates to intelligence, and “Communion” deals with biochemistry and how it can be used for communication.

Both of these stories focus on how things work, rather than human wants and desires. We might call them hard science fiction, or we could call them scientific puzzle stories. In both stories, learning what’s being communicated is the clue to resolving the plot. The plot is essentially the same too. Humans are threatened by animals we normally don’t consider intelligent, and the organisms are threatened by beings they don’t understand in terms of how they understand their environment.

Both were readable stories but neither turned me on. Nope, I don’t mean sexually. I’m talking about storytelling arousal. That doesn’t mean I don’t recommend them, I’m just not the kind of reader who responses to such puzzle stories. I need protagonists I care about, and generally that means a human I can relate to in some way. However, as I write this essay and think about these two stories, I might reconsider how much I liked them.

While reading “Communion” I was reminded of “Surface Tension” by James Blish about humans who become microscopic creatures. Now, this might reveal the child in me, but I liked the non-human microscopic creatures in “Surface Tension” because to a degree Blish anthropomorphized them. Although Werkheiser and Wu have their organism speak to the reader in the first person, the authors worked hard to keep it from having human qualities. That creature thinks in terms of organic chemistry. This is more realistic than Blish’s creatures, but it’s not believable like fantasy’s talking animals nor as something really possible in reality.

Bilenkin also worked to keep us from thinking of his alien bushes in any kind of cute way. Basically, the bushes reacted to humans in the same way they reacted to their normal predators — through reflexes conditioned through their environmental experience.

Both of these stories remind me of three other science fiction books, The Forgotten Planet by Murray Leinster, Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, and Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward. They aren’t the same, but there are some similarities in flavor. All have unbelievable premises but we forget that because of the storytelling techniques used to make us believe. Werkheiser and Wu lay a lot of biochemistry on us to help us understand how communication works with organisms that communicate with chemicals. This biochemistry is fascinating, I really liked such details in the nonfiction book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, but there may have been a little too much of it in “Communion.” Unfortunately, Bilenkin probably didn’t know about such science when he wrote “Where Two Paths Cross,” but it would have added to his story.

My point of all this is my reader reaction depends more on storytelling than scientific accuracy or logical believability. I no longer think I should criticize a science fiction story for scientific accuracy or logic. I used to think that was important to science fiction story but I’ve come to realize that there are other qualities important to readers that override accuracy. Analog is known for presenting hard science fiction, but most of the stories I’ve read in the current could be severely trashed as unscientific, illogical, or just not believable. What really ignites a science fiction tale is not science, but what is it?

I’m waiting for others in the group to respond to these stories because I assume there will be readers who were turned on by them. I don’t want to say either of these stories are bad, but neither contained the magical ingredient that gets me high. They were interesting, they had ideas to think about, but they were missing something that would make them my kind of story.

I wish I could define the psychoactive element in fiction that pushes my buttons. We’ve still got plenty of stories in this anthology to read. Maybe it will be revealed.

James Wallace Harris, 12/16/21

“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” by James Tiptree Jr.

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #59 of 107: “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” by James Tiptree Jr

We’re now past the halfway point in The Big Book of Science Fiction, and I’ve written almost five dozen essays on science fiction, yet leaving so much unsaid. We’re at least six stories into the 1970s with “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” by James Tiptree Jr., first published in the March 1972 issue of F&SF, and we haven’t mentioned the changes in the decade. The seventies was a very distinctive time for science fiction, as was the sixties, fifties, forties, and thirties. Science fiction changes with the times, and has all the fashions of pop culture.

Our last story, “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ was about gender. This story was written by a woman posing as a man. This is much different from science fiction coming out in 1962 or 1952. After reading “When It Changed” I read a 1963 SF story by Joanna Russ. It was a bland mousy ghost story revealing nothing about the Joanna Russ of the 1970s. The nonfiction works of the second wave feminists had a great impact on the new wave of science fiction.

So Alice Sheldon writing as James Tiptree is quite revealing. And the POV of “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” to me was decidedly male. And reading about Sheldon’s life says a lot about gender and feminism too. But there were many other changes in the 1960s that allowed Seldon to write this story. There is content that would have been censored from mainstream magazines of the early 1960s much less the notoriously prudish science fiction magazines of that era. Philip José Farmer wrote graphic stories of humans having sex with aliens in the 1950s, but not with the language and frankness Tiptree uses in “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side.” But then humping aliens wasn’t Triptee’s point either.

In March 1972 readers didn’t know that James was Alice. But did Alice assume that one day readers would know that he was a she? Did she write in the voice of a male to authenticate her cover, or because she wanted to break out of the gender stereotypes imposed on women writers? Joanna Russ wrote, “I love my body dearly and yet I would copulate with a rhinoceros if I could become not-a-woman.” Was Sheldon using Tiptree to escape being a woman? Or had her own experience of being a world traveler and succeeding in many careers not deemed for women during those times meant she didn’t give a damn about imposed gender roles?

The sex addict addicted to sex with aliens interviewed in this story has an aggressive point-of-view of a world-weary male. But is that really a factor in this story? Tiptree captures a conversation between two males about lust for aliens, with one man warning another not to fall into his addiction. But he keeps alluding to cargo cults and Polynesians, places ruined by advanced societies. That’s one kind of ruin. Sheldon was sexually attracted to women at a time (the 1930s and 1940s) that led to another kind of ruin. How much of this story is science fiction and how much is veiled experience?

“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” is not just a story about aliens. It’s not just science fiction. It’s a complex coded message from a complex person hiding who they were. It’s working on all kinds of levels.

And that’s something we haven’t been talking about yet. Science fiction grows up in the 1970s. The genre had a long childhood. For decades science fiction appealed to the young and was mostly childish and adolescent. The reason Heinlein blazed on the scene in the early 1940s is that his work was more mature. Most of the best science fiction from the 1950s we remember today were from writers who tried to adultify the genre. Science fiction fans want young adult content, and that’s what it mostly gets. But if you look at the stories we’re reading from the 1970s, it’s the stories that deal with mature awakenings that we’re remembering. The VanderMeers love the stories that remember science fiction’s social conscious awakenings. But there were many other kinds of literary awakenings too. The VanderMeers follow in the footsteps of Judith Merril anthologizing certain kinds of science fiction. But Wollheim, Carr, Harrison, Aldiss, Dozois, Hartwell, would be anthologizing other types of science fiction that reflected a growing maturity too. Are the stories we’re remembering giving science fiction an imposed identity?

As the decades progress, SF evolves, and this anthology is only touching upon some of that evolution. The trouble is the topic is too big. It hurts my head to think about it. I read through the 1970s in my twenties, and it seems like there was so much more than these few stories. But my head hurts struggling to remember those times. I’d have to spend weeks or months digging through that past to recover those stories, and I just don’t have the energy anymore. We have another six stories from the 1970s, and then we’re on to the 1980s. In the back of my mind, it feels like there should have been a hundred great stories from the 1970s we should be remembering. Stories with different identities.

Don’t get me wrong, “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” is a 5-star story, a classic, one I admire. But all these stories from the 1970s in The Big Book of Science Fiction have a certain flavor, and I vaguely remember other flavors. Or is that a false memory? Could it be I remember a time before growing up that I long for?

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James Wallace Harris, 12/14/21

“When It Changed” by Joanna Russ

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #58 of 107: “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ

“When It Changed” by Joanna Russ is a classic. It’s tied for 3rd place on our Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list. It was on all four lists for Dave Hook’s Recommended Reading list for SF short stories. It won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story and was nominated for a Hugo award in 1973.

The setup for this story is quite simple. On the planet Whileaway, a plague killed off all the males. For many generations, the women survived and prospered by merging their ova to produce female offspring with DNA from both parents. The story takes place on the day when four men show up from Earth. Russ gives us endless fuel for contemplation in a very short story.

It’s very hard to write about this story. Whenever I read it I want a different ending. I want an ending a man would have written. I wanted the women to kill the men. And Russ lets us know that was a consideration, but she gave us a wiser conclusion, not just philosophically within the story, but as a writer. However, Russ wasn’t above using the ending I wanted in her other stories. She once said, “I am not for human liberation; I am for liberating women.”

The best thing to read after reading “When It Changed” is Joanna Russ’s afterward in Again, Dangerous Visions, where the story first appeared. And I’m tempted to just reprint it here, but I’m afraid of the litigious ghost of Harlan Ellison. But let’s see how much I can sneak in without being haunted by him.

I find it hard to say anything about this story. The first few paragraphs were dictated to me in a thoughtful, reasonable, whispering tone I had never heard before; and once the Daemon had vanished—they always do—I had to finish the thing by myself and in a voice not my own. 

The premise of the story needs either a book or silence. I’ll try to compromise. It seems to me (in the words of the narrator) that sexual equality has not yet been established on Earth and that (in the words of GBS) the only argument that can be made against it is that it has never been tried. I have read SF stories about manless worlds before; they are either full of busty girls in wisps of chiffon who slink about writhing with lust (Keith Laumer wrote a charming, funny one called “The War with the Yukks”), or the women have set up a static, beelike society in imitation of some presumed primitive matriarchy. These stories are written by men. Why women who have been alone for generations should “instinctively” turn their sexual desires toward persons of whom they have only intellectual knowledge, or why female people are presumed to have an innate preference for Byzantine rigidity I don’t know. “Progress” is one of the sacred cows of SF so perhaps the latter just goes to show that although women can run a society by themselves, it isn’t a good one. This is flattering to men, I suppose. Of SF attempts to depict real matriarchies (“He will be my concubine for tonight,” said the Empress of Zar coldly) it is better not to speak. I remember one very good post-bomb story by an English writer (another static society, with the Magna Mater literally and supernaturally in existence) but on the whole we had better just tiptoe past the subject.

Again, Dangerous Visions: Stories (p. 242). Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy. Kindle Edition. 

Like Russ says, this story needs a book or silence. I have to say something, but I’m not going to write a book, but I’m sure everyone who loves this story could write a book. And I love this story. It’s definitely a 5-star story. That was the first two paragraphs of her afterward. Get the anthology to read the essay, but here are the last two paragraphs.

Meanwhile, my story. It did not come from this lecture, of course, but vice versa. I had read a very fine SF novel, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, in which all the characters are humanoid hermaphrodites, and was wondering at the obduracy of the English language, in which everybody is “he” or “she” and “it” is reserved for typewriters. But how can one call a hermaphrodite “he,” as Miss Le Guin does? I tried (in my head) changing all the masculine pronouns to feminine ones, and marveled at the difference. And then I wondered why Miss Le Guin’s native “hero” is male in every important sexual encounter of his life except that with the human man in the book. Weeks later the Daemon suddenly whispered, “Katy drives like a maniac,” and I found myself on Whileaway, on a country road at night. I might add (for the benefit of both the bearded and unbearded sides of the reader’s cerebrum) that I never write to shock. I consider that as immoral as writing to please. Katharina and Janet are respectable, decent, even conventional people, and if they shock you, just think what a copy of Playboy or Cosmopolitan would do to them. Resentment of the opposite sex (Cosmo is worse) is something they have yet to learn, thank God.

Which is why I visit Whileaway—although I do not live there because there are no men there. And if you wonder about my sincerity in saying that, George-Georgina, I must just give you up as hopeless.

Again, Dangerous Visions: Stories (p. 243). Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy. Kindle Edition. 

Now, this bit hints at something else, which is nicely continued in this essay from the January 30, 2020 issue of The New Yorker entitled, “Joanna Russ, The Science-Fiction Writer Who Said No.” (Includes a nice audio version.) Hardcore SF fans interested in the genre’s history should read/listen to this essay. A half-century later, we’re still dealing with this story in intense conversations.

Joanna Russ caused controversy within the genre and as a feminist outside of the genre. I’m not sure we can begin to understand “When It Changed” without many readings and a study of Russ herself. Do not dismiss it quickly. Listen to the New Yorker essay.

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James Wallace Harris, 12/12/21

All the Ways I Can Read Analog and Asimov’s

This morning I tried reading the latest issue of Analog on my iPhone, iPad Mini, Fire HD 10, and 7th generation Kindle Paperwhite. However, I’ve yet to buy the paper copy, but I have the Nov-Dec issue to compare electronic reading versus old-school reading. In terms of the size of the text and ease of reading, the paper copy is very similar to the Fire HD 10. Below are screenshots. I’ve tried to resize each to its approximate reading size. Of course, these images will look different on the screen you’re reading this on. So just consider the relative size. I’ve put the screen size for each device.

I couldn’t resize the Paperwhite without making the font look fuzzy, so it should be slightly smaller. All the screenshots were taken at the formatting I used to read. Each device can be adjusted in various ways. On the tablets, you can pinch and spread the image to different magnifications, but that means sliding the image around to read the entire page. That’s inconvenient, and why a reading mode is valuable.

Fire HD 10 – 10 inches

iPad Mini – 8 inches

Kindle Paperwhite – 6 inches

iPhone 13 – 6 inches but long narrow screen

The Fire HD 10 doesn’t seem to allow me to put it in a reading mode, so I have to look at each page like it’s formatted for the magazine. It’s very tiring on my eyes to read the paper magazine or the Fire HD 10. The iPad Mini is a lot easier to read because it offers a reading mode. I made the background beige to help read it at night. However, I don’t really like the double-column mode. The Kindle Paperwhite and iPhone 13 are the most enjoyable devices to read the electronic versions of science fiction magazines. The Kindle’s background doesn’t look nearly as white as the screenshot. The background is gray, and the typeface isn’t dark black but gray. The iPhone 13 is actually the easiest to hold and read, but I wish the text wasn’t quite so narrow. I wonder what it looks like on the iPhone 13 Pro Max?

The progress bar on the Kindle is for the novella I’m reading, “Communion” by Jay Werkheiser and Frank Wu. That’s a nice touch. The Kindle is easy to hold, but not as easy to hold as the iPhone 13. I do most of my reading on the iPhone simply because it’s always near me. However, I might make a great effort to use the Kindle Paperwhite. I generally use the iPad Mini for CBR and PDF files. I got the Fire HD 10 on the cheap hoping it would be great for reading old pulp magazines. I see the pulp pages better on it, but it’s heavy and bulky to hold.

Not only are my eyes getting old, and seeing difficult, but it’s also getting uncomfortable to hold a heavy book or tablet. I love real books, but my aging body prefers ebooks and audiobooks. Ebook reading has come a long way since my first ebook reader, which was a Rocket eBook Reader.

James Wallace Harris 12/10/21

“Good News from the Vatican” by Robert Silverberg

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #57 of 107: “Good News from the Vatican” by Robert Silverberg

“Good News from the Vatican” by Robert Silverberg first appeared in Universe 1 edited by Terry Carr in 1971. The Universe series was the next big original anthology series after Damon Knights Orbit if I remember right. Original anthologies were just becoming a thing, and it seemed stories published in them were of a higher order than those that first appeared in the magazines. “Good News from the Vatican” also won the Nebula award for the best short story the following year. Oddly, Carr didn’t include it in his new best-of-the-year anthologies, Best Science Fiction of the Year, nor did Wollheim for The 1972 Annual World’s Best SF, but Lester del Rey did include it in his new best-of-the-year anthology series, Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year. 1972 was a big year for best-of-the-year volumes, and our Facebook group has read two of them.

This is a long roundabout way of wondering if “Good News from the Vatican” was the best SF short story from 1971. Why do we remember the stories we do? We just read another one, “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin. And 1971 was famous for Larry Niven’s “In Constant Moon.” Don’t get me wrong, I like “Good News from the Vatican.” Silverberg is a skilled writer with worldly experience and a lot of acquired knowledge and it shows in the story. “Good News from the Vatican” is just as literary as something Graham Greene would have written at the time.

The VanderMeers picked two stories from 1971 to remember. I liked both choices, but they were not the stories I recall for remembering 1971 science fiction. I think of “Inconstant Moon” and “A Meeting with Medusa” by Arthur C. Clarke. I’m not disagreeing with the VanderMeers’ choices. And I’m not even considering that different people have different tastes in stories.

No, I want to explore the idea that there are different flavors of science fiction. And there might be fans that strongly prefer one over the other. I’m not sure what to call these flavors, but I believe I see two in the stories from 1971.

To “Good News from the Vatican” I’d group “No Direction Home” by Norman Spinrad and “All the Last Wars at Once” by George Alec Effinger, and probably “Gehenna” by Barry Malzberg and “How Can We Sink When We Can Fly?” by Alexei Panshin.

To “Inconstant Moon” and “A Meeting With Medusa” I would add “The Queen of Air and Darkness” by Poul Anderson. Now you might guess I would add “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” but I’m not sure. It is a story involving outer space but it’s not quite the same, it’s more like the other group. Why?

If you’re familiar with the history of science fiction in 1971 you might say I’ve divided the stories up into New Wave and Old Wave. And that might be true, but I think my unconscious mind is getting at something else.

The first type allows the author to be clever, intellectual, opinionated, and philosophical. The plot or story takes a back seat, allowing the writer to become a commentator. The other type takes the reader on an adventure, giving them a virtual experience.

“Good News from the Vatican,” asks the reader: What would ordinary people, and religious professionals think about a robot being a spiritual leader? “Inconstant Moon,” asks the reader what they would do if they knew the world was about to end?

I don’t know if I’m conveying the insight I’m having, but it’s working for me. I’m zeroing in on why I like different stories and why.

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James Wallace Harris, 12/10/21

Getting to Know PKD

I’ve written about the biographies of Philip K. Dick before. They each give a different view of PKD. Recently I discovered there were six volumes of his selected letters from Underwood-Miller/Underwood Books. I don’t know why I didn’t know about these before or think to search them out. I just didn’t. They are all currently out of print. I saw a quote from one letter recently and went to ABEbooks to buy it. Wowza. They were expensive. My buddy Mike who shares my interest in PKD and I bought five of the six volumes, but we just didn’t want to pay $350 for the first volume. What a mistake. I’ve seen four copies come up for sale lately, all over a $1,000, with two going for $1,500.

I’m not a book collector and won’t pay those prices. I just want to read them. The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick Volume One covers the years from 1938-1971. MIke is reading in 1972 and finding some good stuff. I started with the sixth volume, 1980-1982, the last. Reading PKD’s letters gives a whole different feel for the guy that I didn’t get from the biographies. Mike sent me one letter I found particularly intriguing.

After I read that I had to read “Who Shall Dwell” by H. C. Neal. According to ISFDB it originally appeared in the July 1962 issue of Playboy, and then was reprinted three times in anthologies from Playboy about science fiction (1966, 1968, 1971). Then it was reprinted in two other anthologies, Themes in Science Fiction (1972) edited by Leo P. Kelley (where PKD read the story), and Look Back on Tomorrow (1974) edited by John Osborne and David Paskow. ISFDB offered no biographical information on H. C. Neal. But I found this introduction in The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Searching Google didn’t come up with anything until I added “newspaper writer” to his name. I then found his obituary.

I love discovering forgotten science fiction authors. It appears H. C. Neal wrote one science fiction short story, for Playboy no less. It was liked enough to be reprinted in five anthologies, the last being in 1974. In 1972, Philip K. Dick wrote a rather gushing fan letter. Reading PKD’s letters shows you he was often very sentimental, often wanting to help people. Dick did have mental problems, and he did do some drugs, but nothing like his reputation.

Why did PKD feel so strongly about Neal’s story? What did he think it was one of the finest stories the science fiction genre produced. Well, I had to track down a copy. I found two copies of Themes in Science Fiction for sale and ordered one. However, I later was able to find it online.

I don’t know how to ask H. C. Neal’s heirs for permission to reprint this story, so I’m going to take a chance they won’t sue me. I’ll gladly take it down if someone notifies me (classicsofsciencefiction at gmail dot com). I’m hoping it is out of copyright because the story came out during the era when writers had to renew their copyright, and maybe Mr. Neal never got around to doing that. And I hope it’s not a big deal to reprint this here since I only have about a dozen readers. But I do want to reprint it because I think it’s important to understand PKD’s letter.

This isn’t the finest science fiction story ever written, but it’s pretty good. Stories about bomb shelters were common back in the 1950s and 1960s. I wonder if Neal was inspired by the September 9, 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Shelter” because the stories are very similar, except for the endings. To me, Neal seems to be speaking directly to the TZ ending, offering an alternative ending that’s positive about humanity.

I have to assume Philip K. Dick admired Neal’s story because it’s pro-humanity and PKD felt science fiction was too cynical. But like his explanation to Mr. Neal, Dick was sad because he lost touch with his wife and son, and here was a story about a man who sacrificed himself for his children and others. Maybe he admired the story because it made him feel guilty.

This one letter shows us PKD’s sentimental side. Mike said that’s common in the letters he’s reading. The letters I’m reading are more about the writing business, but they also include letters to pen pals. Dick is often generous, asking his agent to send gifts to people.

If you’re fascinated by Philip K. Dick and have read some of the biographies, I’m sure you’ll want to read his selected letters. Unfortunately, they are priced out of reach of most fans. Let’s hope they are reprinted soon and stay in print next time. If Kindle editions were available for a reasonable price I’d buy them again because my old eyes prefer ebooks.

James Wallace Harris. 12/7/21

“Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #56 of 107: “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Our group has read this story before, and I reviewed it for my essay “What Makes a Great SF Short Story?” I had quite a lot to say, so I don’t see any reason to repeat myself. But I will say it’s a solid 5-star story and enjoyed rereading it. Again, it makes me want to read or reread Le Guin’s Hainish series of novels. I’m retired and I still can’t find time to read everything I want.

We’ve just passed the 50% counter on my Kindle edition of The Big Book of Science Fiction. What a long journey so far. What a long way to go. I’m no longer reading a short story a day for the group, but just reporting on stories every other day for this anthology. I’m taking that day off to read stories I find on my own.

Paul is doing Christmas-related science fiction stories on those alternate days. I feel bad about skipping out on his group read. However, after Christmas he wants me to lead the group read for The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg. I’m looking forward to that. I started reading The Great SF Stories 1 (1939) in 2018 and I’m currently up to The Great SF Stories 18 (1956). The group voted for volume 25, so I’ll jump ahead. Thus, I’ll be back to reading and reporting on a story a day for the group.

The Sinister Science blog just finished reading the Great SF series. That’s quite an accomplishment. George Kelley blogged about reading the series a couple years ago. If you’re into old science fiction and love short stories, The Great SF Stories is a fun reading project. Unfortunately, the books are out-of-print and they’re starting to get pricey on the used book market. All 25 are available in the pdf format on the web if you search around. I don’t link to them because that might cause a take-down. Here’s my list of the stories with links to ISFDB, and my review of The Great SF Stories 1 (1939). Austin Beeman is also reviewing the series.

I’m hoping our Facebook group will eventually discuss all 25 volumes.

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James Wallace Harris, 12/7/21

“Broad Dutty Water” by Nalo Hopkinson

“Broad Dutty Water” is set in the future after climate change has raised the ocean levels many feet leaving Caribbean islands mostly submerged. Jacquee lives on a floating artificial community but as the story begins is flying away from an atoll where she had snuck away to have a brain implant. Accompanying her on this adventure is an uplifted pig called Lickchop, who already had a brain implant. Jacquee is young and headstrong, ignoring her mentor’s advice, her doctor’s advice, and her friends’ advice getting herself and Lickchop nearly killed but having quite an adventure. “Broad Dutty Water” is the cover story in the latest issue of F&SF.

I read “Broad Dutty Water” because I wanted to read some recent science fiction since I’ve been gorging on old science fiction for months. This abrupt switch has given me an interesting perspective contrasting old SF with new SF. This also comes after I’ve been watching several videos on YouTube that list the best science fiction coming out on film and TV. There has been an overwhelming number of post-apocalyptic movies produced in the last few years. And quite a few movies and shows that people call dystopian. Watching all those previews made me feel folks don’t have much hope for the future.

Should we call “Broad Dutty Water” a post-apocalyptic story because it’s about surviving in a world much different from now? Has civilization collapsed or merely adapted? Jacquee lives on a floating community that looks for new ways to survive and thrive. It’s a positive portrayal. Its citizens are tech-savvy, printing parts for machines like an ultralight plane, and science-minded enough to exploit biological mutations in the climate changed ocean.

I’m currently addicted to watching YouTube and I’m seeing a lot of videos predicting the collapse of civilization. The future is very dark for many young people. Personally, I don’t believe we’ll stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere or correct the flaws of capitalism, so I expect the collapse of our current global civilization in the coming decades. But does that mean doom and gloom?

Isn’t Nalo Hopkinson giving us a positive view of the future in “Broad Dutty Water?” Sure, the story ignores all the suffering involved in a major paradigm shift, but isn’t that good? Don’t we need science fiction that imagines a post doom world with a positive perspective?

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, a great percentage of SF stories were about apocalypses. People thought the human race was about to blow itself up or wreck the environment. But there was also a lot of science fiction about bright shiny futures. Ever since An Inconvenient Truth I’ve worried that young people didn’t have much of a future. That the science fiction I read only seemed positive about the far future.

I think we need more science fiction like “Broad Dutty Water” that imagines thriving in a post-doom world. Yes, we’ve fucked the planet over big time, but that doesn’t mean we’re all heading into a Mad Max future. Stockpiling AR-15 ammo isn’t the best way to prep for the future.

One other comment on “Broad Dutty Water.” Hopkinson uses dialect in her story. Dialect is hard to read, and most writing teachers tell budding writers not to use it. However, I thought it was effective here. The story is set in the Caribbean and in the future, so people will sound different. Maybe writing teachers are wrong.

James Wallace Harris, 12/6/21

“Let Us Save the Universe” by Stanislaw Lem

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #55 of 107: “Let Us Save the Universe” by Stanislaw Lem

“Let Us Save the Universe” by Stanislaw Lem was first published in The New Yorker. That’s rather prestigious. It’s currently in print from MIT Press in the collection Memoirs of a Space Traveler. Strangely, the paperback at Amazon is cheaper than the $13.99 Kindle edition, and that seems rather steep for a small ebook.

“Let Us Save the Universe” is a bit of humor about human tourists trashing the galaxy. It is lightly clever, and a bit amusing, but I found it only mildly entertaining. More and more, as I go through these stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, I realize there are all kinds of science fiction and all kinds of fans for each kind of science fiction. Probably, if I had read “Let Us Save the Universe” back in 1981 when it came out, I might have enjoyed it a lot more. I might have even praised it and recommended my friends read it. But now I’m old and crotchety and don’t have much patience for fluff.

At the Facebook group where we discuss these stories reaction to them is all over the place. We’ve read many anthologies and have discussed how well we like them. The evidence shows that it’s extremely difficult to assemble an anthology with a high hit rate for a majority of readers. Hell, it seems an impossible task to assemble an anthology that any two readers will agree on which are the best stories.

At this time in my life, I’m looking for great stories. I want to find the stories I love best, and then reread them. It’s beginning to annoy me to have to wade through so-so stories. But what I’m trying to say is “Let Us Save the Universe” didn’t push my buttons but it could push yours. It’s not a story I’ll add to my ultimate list of favorite SF stories.

I wish Amazon would offer a feature like playlists in Spotify where we could assemble our own anthology of favorite stories. I’d want mine to be both a Kindle and an Audible book. And I understand I could only add stories from books, magazines, and audiobooks I own or purchased separately. Although, wouldn’t it be neat if there was a Spotify for short stories? You pay one monthly price and could read/listen to any short story. I wonder if people realize how cool short stories work for smartphones? I like rereading my favorite stories in the same way I like replaying my favorite tunes.

Piet Nel in the group mentioned he’s has a list of 150 science fiction stories he loves most. This made me think I should assemble my own list of favorites. I have a couple of tall Billy bookcases from Ikea stuffed with anthologies. That’s a lot of short stories. However, I probably only love maybe 100-200 of them at most, maybe less.

When I was young I rarely re-read fiction. I’d say 100% of my input was new. But as I’ve aged, I tend to reread old favorites more often, and that’s especially true for short stories. Being in this short story Facebook group we’re reading many whole anthologies and quite often I’m rereading stories. This has turned out to be a good thing. I’m learning that rereading is often better than new reading. That the experience of getting deeper into a story is superior to the excitement of reading a new story — unless that new story is great. It’s always wonderful to discover something great. Of course, that doesn’t happen often.

But to the point, I feel like I’m wasting my time reading so-so stories, or even merely very good stories. When I was young and it was exciting to try a lot of different kinds of stories, “Let Us Save the Universe,” would have been fun. Now it’s mildly entertaining, but mostly a waste of my time. I’m jaded. I’ve developed a tolerance for certain kinds of fiction. I need the hardcore great stories, the really good stuff to get off.

That’s why I’d like an anthology of my favorite stories — more often than not, to get the most out of my reading time, it’s a bigger thrill to reread something I know.

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James Wallace Harris, 12/5/21

Three From Moderan: David R. Bunch

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #52, 53, 54 of 107: Three From Modern by David R. Bunch

How and why do we read old science fiction stories and novels? Our Facebook group reading of The Big Book of Science Fiction is one explanation. The VanderMeers picked stories they want to save from obscurity and published them in this anthology. Their author introductions tempt us to read other stories and novels. Most people pick books that look interesting to them at the bookstore or read books friends or famous people on television recommend. A few readers might even read stories I write about on this blog. But sometimes readers pick books on specific themes or styles.

The past is full of great stories, but then new great stories are being published all the time. We’re torn between reading the latest versus the classic. Do you ever contemplate what you read and why? Or do you merely stumble upon your next read?

Our next three selections to discuss are three sections/stories from Moderan by David R. Bunch: “No Cracks or Sagging,” “New Kings Are Not For Laughing,” and “The Flesh Man From Far Wide.” The last appeared in the November 1959 issue of Amazing Stories, but the other two might have been written for the book, which first appeared in 1971. Evidently, Bunch was working on this weird theme for a very long time.

There is a new 2018 edition of Moderan from the prestigious New York Review of Books that contains an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer. That might explain why the VanderMeers chose to include three stories by Bunch for our anthology. It’s kind of significant that NYRB reprinted this book. Here’s their sales blurb for it:

Welcome to Moderan, world of the future. Here perpetual war is waged by furious masters fighting from Strongholds well stocked with “arsenals of fear” and everyone is enamored with hate. The devastated earth is coated by vast sheets of gray plastic, while humans vie to replace more and more of their own “soft parts” with steel. What need is there for nature when trees and flowers can be pushed up through holes in the plastic? Who requires human companionship when new-metal mistresses are waiting? But even a Stronghold master can doubt the catechism of Moderan. Wanderers, poets, and his own children pay visits, proving that another world is possible.

“As if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated,” wrote Brian Aldiss of David R. Bunch’s work. Originally published in science-fiction magazines in the 1960s and ’70s, these mordant stories, though passionately sought by collectors, have been unavailable in a single volume for close to half a century. Like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, Bunch coined a mind-bending new vocabulary. He sought not to divert readers from the horror of modernity but to make us face it squarely.

This volume includes eleven previously uncollected Moderan stories.

What’s kind of funny is while I was researching Moderan, I discovered I owned a Kindle copy of the NYRB edition, which I haven’t read, and probably picked up as a $1.99 bargain book. I wish I could reprint VanderMeer’s introduction. However, you can read it by going to the Look Inside feature at Amazon.

Obviously, some people think this book is special, but my reading of these three sections has only mildly interested me. Reading the hype and history of the book intrigues me more, so I might be tempted to read the entire fix-up novel. I’d be even more likely if there was an audiobook edition, but there’s not. I tend to get into iffy books easier when I’m listening and a good narrator is helping me out.

Moderan first appeared fifty years ago. It was quirky then, written for a quirky time. We live in a much different time and quirky in a much different way. We live in what’s some people are calling the Post Doom era. That catchphrase merely means civilization is on the decline, and we’re already suffering climate change. The advocates for this philosophy suggest instead of hoping society will change and do something to avoid climate catastrophes, that we should start adapting to the new reality. This is an interesting concept for science fiction readers. Instead of reading endless Max Max post-apocalyptic futures, or scenarios of escaping Earth into space, imagine futures where we hunker down and endure.

Moderan is a book about post-civilization, thus making it timely for today’s readers. But will it resonate with them? Unfortunately, I think not. It’s too far future-ish. It’s told in an almost allegorical style. And it’s not literary enough, in my opinion, to widely appeal to readers of eccentric works. I believe being so long out-of-print attests to that.

Moderan imagines a post-civilization of cyborgs and mechanical beings, but not a realistic one. It doesn’t work as science-fictional speculation or extrapolation, thus making it a kind of odd fantasy world. Thus I believe its appeal is going to be limited. I imagine readers who love outré fictional worlds, such as the novels by Mervyn Peake or the short stories of R. A. Lafferty could enjoy Moderan. That kind of fiction only works for me when I’m in rare strange reading moods.

Yet, thinking about this book makes me think about post-civilization novels. I’m afraid science fiction hasn’t done a very good job of imagining the real possibilities. The only works I can think of are recent novels by Kim Stanley Robinson, especially New York 2140 and The Ministry of the Future.

Because we’ve actually entered into a post-civilization phase I have to wonder how readers will react to all the old science fiction that imagined a much different post-civilization existence? Science fiction has produced endless speculations, but now that we opened Schrödinger’s box and reality is gelling on what will be, will science fiction change course?

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James Wallace Harris, 12/1/21

“Soft Clocks” by Yoshio Aramaki

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #51 of 107: “Soft Clocks” by Yoshio Aramaki

“Soft Clocks” by Yoshio Aramaki is an entertaining New Wave/experimental story told with traditional storytelling techniques that first appeared in English in the January-February 1989 issue of Interzone but originally appeared in Japanese in 1968. I don’t know how translations work, but “Soft Clocks” feels very English, like something from the Mod/New Wave 1960s. Strangely, it reminds me of “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, but then both are about a love story set on Mars.

“Soft Clocks” blends the imagery of Salvador Dalí with science fiction and psychiatry to create an antic avant-garde science fiction tale. The setup for the story is DALI OF MARS, a rich artist living on the Red Planet, hires a psychiatrist from Earth to select the best suiter for his granddaughter, Vivi. Vivi has many suitors, either because of her money, or her beauty, but probably not her personality. She is anorexic and has been treated by the first-person narrator from Earth when Vivi is 18 and visiting Tokyo. This psychiatrist referred to as Doctor, has come to Mars to interview Vivi’s many suitors. She is now 21. The Doctor is also in love with Vivi but considers it unprofessional to vie for her. He interviews several strange men who want Vivi, hoping to find a man who can handle her fragile personality. Vivi is technophobic, creating several problems for the story.

“Soft Clocks” comes across as a collaboration of the weirdness of Philip K. Dick and the silliness of Robert Sheckley. I would never have guessed it was written by a Japanese science fiction writer. Soft clocks are an invention of professor Isherwood, mechanical devices made from rheoprotein. They are editable and look like the floppy timepiece in the famous Salvador Dalí painting.

This story was entertaining, but not great. “Soft Clocks” has tasty ingredients. It has decent characters, a decent plot, a good setting, and zany imagery, but doesn’t quite bake into a delicious dessert. I never cared for Vivi, who is the object of desire for many of the characters. Actually, I was more drawn to Carmen, a kleptomaniac prostitute, a minor character. Humor in science fiction is hard to pull off. On another day, this story might have tickled my funny bone, but not today. “Soft Clocks” reprint history suggests it was never a popular story.

This not quite working was often true for Sheckley’s funny science fiction stories. However, Sheckley’s stories sometimes transcended their silliness. That’s what’s missing from “Soft Clocks” for me.

Rating: *** (close, but no cigar)

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James Wallace Harris, 11/27/21

“Rite of Passage” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

I was reading The Great SF Stories 18 (1956) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg when I got diverted by the group reading of The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I had left off at the beginning of “Rite of Passage” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. The story originally appeared in the May 1956 issue of F&SF and might be Kuttner’s last SF magazine publication before he died in 1958. It was the last story that Asimov and Greenberg ran in their Great SF series by the husband and wife team.

I’ve been reading The Great SF Stories 1-25 (1939-1963) in order since 2018 and want to get back to that series and finish it. This really is a great anthology series but they’re out of print. That’s a shame. You can find them on ABEbooks and eBay but they are going up in price every year. There are pdf copies on the net if you look around. I wish DAW would reprint them and get someone to continue the series. Robert Silverberg did do #26 (1964) with Greenberg for NESFA Press which connects nicely into Wollheim/Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction anthology series that began in 1965. However, I like how Asimov and Greenberg were reevaluating SF stories for each year decades after the fact.

I can’t say I agree with all their choices. “Rite of Passage” is a well-written tale full of ideas but little emotion, something I’ve been talking about lately. Lloyd Cole is the Black President for the Communications Corporation. Kuttner and Moore have imagined a future where people believe in magic, and Cole is the president of black magic. Corporations also have white presidents.

Here’s the kicker, magic isn’t real, but everyone believes in it. Cole’s job is to cast evil spells under contract for his clients. “Rite of Passage” is about how Cole wants to get revenge on a man who stole his wife by appearing to kill him for a client, thus providing a cover-up for his own intentions.

“Rite of Passage” is rather long, a novelette that feels like a novella. Most of the content is world-building Kuttner and Moore use to flesh out the background of the story. I only enjoyed two pages of the story, which I believe is the inspiration that Kuttner and Moore used for writing the story:

Evidently, the stress of 20th-century life made people lose their critical thinking abilities embracing magic, with corporations exploiting that vulnerability. This is a neat idea. It’s even somewhat prophetic, but political parties are exploiting peoples’ irrationalities. This neat idea is not enough to give this story a heart. Lloyd Cole is not a nice guy, so we’re not sympathetic for his devious efforts to get his wife back. It’s somewhat ironic that others use magic against Cole, and he succumbs even though he knows magic is not real.

“Rite of Passage” is a case where the story is dominated by ideas, appealing only to our intellect. I’m sure some readers will find it amusing and even entertaining. Obviously, Asimov and Greenberg did, but I didn’t. If I had felt for Lloyd’s love for Lila, I might have cared more. Lila drives Lloyd’s revenge, but she’s only an idea, not a real character. It’s a shame that “Rite of Passage” didn’t have the depths of emotions shown in “Vintage Season.” They both seem to have the same amount of world-building.

The classic science fiction story from 1956 that Asimov and Greenberg did include having powerful emotions is “The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight. It’s doubly impressive because the protagonist is truly unlikable. Yet Knight eventually gets us to sympathize with him.

Probably the most remembered SF story today from 1956 is “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov. It’s another intellectual story, but it has a tremendous sense of wonder, the favorite emotion of science fiction readers.

James W. Harris, 11/27/21

“The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #50 of 107: “The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones

“The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones was so uninteresting to me that I wasn’t going to write about it. Then I got to thinking about the comments posted by Joachim Boaz for the last story. He didn’t like my statement “And fiction works best when it’s not intellectual.” Besides disagreeing with it, he thought I was being too absolute. I should have clarified things by saying, “For me, fiction works best when it’s not solely intellectual.”

There’s nothing emotional in “The Hall of Machines” and it has generated lackluster support on our discussion of it. But Austin Beeman commented, “Since so much of Sf is setting, story and characters are not always necessary. Found this story beautiful and haunting. Really enjoyed it.” Evidently, stories without emotions do have their fans.

I could have amended my original statement to say, “Since I’ve gotten older, fiction works best when it’s not only intellectual” because I can remember a time when I liked stories just for their neat ideas. But even then, none of those stories would rank in my list of favorite stories.

I remember trying to read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. It’s a novel with many fans and critical support. However, I thought Pynchon was only being clever and just couldn’t find anything to love about the characters or plot and quit reading. My guess is fiction that focuses on intellectual entertainment has admirers and that’s why Joachim was so annoyed with my statement. But I still assume most readers want an emotional connection with fiction. That doesn’t mean those same books can’t have intellectual value, I’m just saying it’s the emotional connection that makes readers love a story.

If you look at any list of best novels or short stories, most, if not all, succeed because of their emotional impact. “The Hall of Machines” has nothing for the reader who wants a character to care about. I was surprised by how little I could find on Langdon Jones. Wikipedia redirects queries on his name to the entry on New Worlds magazine. I could only find one photo of him on Google. I haven’t read anything else by Jones, but if “The Hall of Machines” is typical for his fiction, I can understand why he’s not remembered.

Evidently, the VanderMeers do like stories with an intellectual focus. It explains why I haven’t liked several of these stories we’ve already read. I should be less critical of their inclusion because I’m guessing from Joachim’s complaint such stories do have their admirers. I apologize.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/27/21

“Aye, and Gomorrah” by Samuel R. Delany

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #50 of 107: “Aye, and Gomorrah” by Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany was my favorite young SF writer I discovered back in the 1960s when I was growing up. I started out reading Verne, Wells, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, but they were all old writers who had been around for years. Delany, Le Guin, and Zelazny were a new generation, SF writers who began publishing in the 1960s as I began to read new science fiction as it came out. They felt exciting and different from the old writers I loved. My all-time favorite short work of science fiction is still “The Star Pit.” But looking back, I realized I only liked a very few works by Delany: “The Star Pit,” Empire Star, Babel-17, Nova, and Dhalgren. I bought his collections, Driftglass (1971), Distant Stars (1981), and Aye, and Gomorrah (2003) as they came out, but I never got into his short works, or later novels like those stories I first read in high school.

I’ve read “Aye, and Gomorrah” several times over the years and I think it’s an impressive work, especially when you consider it’s Delany’s first published story, and was the closing story in the legendary Dangerous Visions anthology edited by Harlan Ellison. However, it doesn’t excite me like my favorite Delany stories. And when I think about that, I think it’s because I resonated with Delany’s colorful space opera at a time when I was an immature teenager daydreaming of space adventure. Later on, in the late 1970s I read Dhalgren, and I was impressed with its adultness and size. Actually, I was impressed that I finished such a large novel. It was full of vivid imagery but not thrilling action, like my favorites.

Most of the stories in Driftglass except “The Star Pit,” but including “Aye, And Gomorrah” are interesting to me intellectually because I’ve read some of Delany’s nonfiction books, and they hint that his short stories were somewhat autobiographical. Delany was traveling during those years and he put his life experiences into his science fiction stories. I’ve been wanting to find the time to read In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume 1, 1957-1969 to see if that hunch is true. Delany does appeal to my literary side and there are times I want to study his early work by delving into his biographical information, and literary criticism. But that’s a whole different kind of fun than just reading a science fiction story for science fiction fun.

“Aye, and Gomorrah” uses science fiction to explore sexuality and gender, but it feels more literary than science fiction. That isn’t a criticism, but a way to explain why I like it less than Delany’s space opera. And I must also admit, sexuality and gender have never been important themes in my fiction reading. If you’re part of the lowest common denominator in any group, then understanding unique members is via abstractions. I do a lot of nonfiction reading about sexuality and gender in hopes of achieving insight, but it’s always intellectual. And fiction works best when it’s not intellectual.

Maybe here’s another angle of explanation. I love the music of Bob Dylan. I’ve bought most of his albums over my lifetime as they came out. But I favor Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde way above all the other periods of Dylan’s career. There are times I’m into his folk period, and other times I’m into his Christian albums, and other times I’m into Blood on the Tracks and Desire, but nothing compares to his 1965-1966 period to me. I’m the same way with Delany. I can get into his other periods, but I’m really hung up on “The Star Pit,” Empire Star, Babel-17, and Nova.

I’m sure artists hate when their fans fixate on a period. I bet Le Guin got tired of everyone talking about The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven and not reading her many later novels. And Heinlein probably got sick of all his fans who couldn’t get beyond his 1950s novels.

When I read “Aye, and Gomorrah,” I want to analyze it like an English assignment. And that has its fun aspects, but it’s not why I read science fiction. And I believe this line of thinking explains why the VanderMeers included so many stories I don’t like. They get excited about literary aspects of science fiction that I don’t. And that’s cool.

Rating: ****

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James Wallace Harris, 11/23/21

“Student Body” by F. L. Wallace

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #49 of 107: “Student Body” by F. L. Wallace

I’m curious why the VanderMeers jumped back to 1953 with “Student Body” by F. L. Wallace? Our last story, “Day Million” was from 1966, and we’ve been going pretty much in year order. And even though “Student Body” has a small level of popularity, it is a big step backward. Project Gutenberg reprints “Student Body” online probably because the copyright wasn’t renewed for the March 1953 publication in Galaxy Science Fiction.

F. L. Wallace, according to ISFDB, produced science Fiction from 1951 to 1961, mostly short stories in the magazines, with only one novel to his name, Address: Centauri, published by Gnome Press in 1955. F. L. Wallace is essentially a forgotten SF writer. ISFDB doesn’t even have a photo for him. Nine of his stories were reprinted in one of those cheap megapacks on Amazon, again probably from copyright neglect.

In their introduction to the story, the VanderMeers writes:

“Student Body” (Galaxy, 1953) showcases Wallace’s adroit handling of environmental issues in a manner more sophisticated than that of most writers of the era other than Frank Herbert (at novel length). Complex issues involving both alien contact and the impact of invasive species are housed within a tense plot. Although “Student Body” received no particular accolades upon publication, it endures as an example of a work ahead of its time—a future classic.

I’m sorry, but I didn’t find the story adroitly handling environmental issues or being more sophisticated on the topic than other writers. Neither is the plot tense or first contact complex. “Student Body” is a nice little magazine story based on a somewhat interesting idea. Like many SF stories from that era, Wallace gets an idea and clobbers together a minimal plot and characters to present the idea. Just compare it to “Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz, a story we read earlier from 1955. That story was no great shake of a story but deals with alien ecology far more adroitly, with more tension, complexity, and characterization.

“Student Body” has been reprinted in some decent anthologies, so it does have its fans, but I’m not one. The problem of the story, a constant threat of new animal life on the colony planet is somewhat interesting, unfortunately, its solution is unbelievable. Undermining what charm “Student Body” does offer, is spoiled by a plodding narrative structure. My hunch is Wallace was inspired by stories by Eric Frank Russell, especially “… And Then There Was None” from 1951, but “Student Body” lacks its charm and sophistication in dealing with an alien world.

I will admit the story starts out promising a load of fun. The colonists sleep outside the ship on the first night and wake up naked. That’s a promising premise for a potential funny story. Unfortunately, Wallace abandons that tack quickly, asking us to believe a small rodent-like creature gnawed the clothing off the people while they slept, and no one notices or woke up. If Wallace had solved that mystery in a different clever way, this could have been a fun story. But it’s like that old advice to writers, don’t show a gun unless you use it in the plot. Don’t titillate the reader with mass nudity unless you have a funny plot solution.

Rating: **+

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James Wallace Harris, 11/21/21

“Day Million” by Frederik Pohl

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #47 of 107: “Day Million” by Frederik Pohl

“Day Million” by Frederik Pohl comes in at #25 on Dave Hook’s 125 Top SF Stories list. That’s pretty good for a story that appeared in a third-rate men’s magazine back in 1966. I was 14, so I wasn’t buying Rogue at the time, although I would have been mightily excited to have any men’s magazine back then. (Full nostalgic disclosure – I wouldn’t have read “Day Million” or any of the printed matter.) I did read World’s Best Science Fiction: 1967 edited by Wollheim and Carr, which reprinted the story, but I don’t remember reading “Day Million.” When I reread that anthology last year I remembered most of the stories, but not that one. Either I didn’t like it and skipped it, or it was so over my head that it made no impression.

When I finally got around to reading “Day Million” a few years ago I was impressed. And I’m still impressed. Pohl’s speculation about the far future and post-humans is quite nifty, and I think his philosophical points are still valid today. However, I’m not so sure it’s a short story. If the table of contents had listed it as nonfiction, and the editor introduced it as a speculative essay about future sex and romance I wouldn’t have quibbled.

Pohl tells us about Dora and Don in this hipster-voice that’s 50% of the entertainment value of the story. Of course, I don’t know if hipster would have been the right word for 1966. Playboy, the famous competitor of Rogue, promoted itself as the sophisticated guide for the swinging male, AKA, The Playboy Philosophy. I wonder if Pohl originally submitted “Day Million” hoping it would run right after the centerfold.

I thought Pohl’s idea of imagining day million was brilliant, although I’m not so sure humans will be around for our millionth day, and if we are, be that different. A lot of science fiction written since “Day Million” seems to assume we will — does that mean Pohl set the trend? Many modern stories have post-humans like those in “Day Million.” And Pohl seems pre-enlightened for our emerging acceptance of transexuals.

I’m not really attacking this story when I quibble about it sounding like an essay. Pohl knows how to tell a real story. Pohl is jazzing out by rifting on the structure of storytelling, but I also think he’s cheating. I’m talking about the old rule of show, don’t tell. Infodumping is telling a story. And this story is all infodumping. Pohl tells us that Dora and Don have a genuine relationship. It would have been masterful storytelling if Pohl have shown Dora and Don being in love so we truly felt and understood it, and not just told to us by a smart-alec narrator begging us to disbelieve him.

Pohl should have taken the time to give us The Crying Game, but revealing Dora’s lack of X-chromosome in some less crude but clever science-fictional way. And as we’ve already learned way sooner than day million, that a beautiful transexual female isn’t hard to accept. It would actually be much harder to make his readers believe an amphibious post-human would be attracted to cyborg post-human. Even harder to make believable, is showing people in the future being emotionally satisfied with a virtual mate.

Remember, Pohl only tells us these things will be true. Intellectually, we might want to believe the future will offer all these possibilities, but when it comes down to it, Pohl never even offers us any intellectual evidence, much less triggers emotional resonance through showing us dramatic evidence.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/19/21

“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” by R. A. Lafferty

If my memory serves me right, and more and more I suspect it seldom does, “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” was the first story I ever read by R. A. Lafferty. I’m pretty sure I read it in World’s Best Science Fiction 1967. The last scenes. where Ceran Swicegood is winding his way down into the hill seeing smaller and smaller grandmothers is what stuck with me. I vaguely remember being somewhat charmed and feeling somewhat WTF. This was weird science fiction, but it was amusing. The next thing I read by Lafferty, was half of an Ace Double called Space Chantey. I passed this book to my friend Connell and George and the three of us got a lot of laughs out of it. After that, I read Lafferty’s stories but none of them were as much fun as these two. I often wanted to like them, and sometimes I was mildly amused or even somewhat impressed but never entirely loved.

This time when I read “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” I was far more taken with the story than any of the other times. Maybe it was because I was listening to When You See Yourself by the Kings of Leon and they were putting me into a receptive state. Music sometimes does that for me when I’m reading. Or maybe the story fairy sprinkled magic reading dust on me. Who knows, but this time I enjoyed “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. That’s always wonderful when it happens.

Check out these opening paragraphs to see if you’re charmed by Lafferty’s words:

Ceran Swicegood was a promising young Special Aspects Man. But, like all Special Aspects, he had one irritating habit. He was forever asking the question: How Did It All Begin? 

They all had tough names except Ceran. Manbreaker Crag, Heave Huckle, Blast Berg, George Blood, Move Manion (when Move says “Move,” you move), Trouble Trent. They were supposed to be tough, and they had taken tough names at the naming. Only Ceran kept his own—to the disgust of his commander, Manbreaker. 

“Nobody can be a hero with a name like Ceran Swicegood!” Manbreaker would thunder. “Why don’t you take Storm Shannon? That’s good. Or Gutboy Barrelhouse or Slash Slagle or Nevel Knife? You barely glanced at the suggested list.” 

“I’ll keep my own,” Ceran always said, and that is where he made his mistake. A new name will sometimes bring out a new personality. It had done so for George Blood. Though the hair on George’s chest was a graft job, yet that and his new name had turned him from a boy into a man. Had Ceran assumed the heroic name of Gutboy Barrelhouse he might have been capable of rousing endeavors and man-sized angers rather than his tittering indecisions and flouncy furies.

The Big Book of Science Fiction (p. 502). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

There are times in my life when I also tried to contemplate how it all began so I can’t help but identify with Ceran Swicegood’s quest. I’ve always thought there should be nothing — our existence should be impossible. I wish Lafferty could have given us the explanation. I’ve always concluded that because we’re here, that means never-existing-nothingness is an impossible state. From that assumption, I assume reality is the unfolding of every possible state of being. And that includes a dimension where a guy name Ceran Swicegood visits a planet where there’s an infinite number of grandmothers that might know the real reason.

R. A. Lafferty knows the pain of contemplating our existential origins and considers it a big joke.

“Tell me,” he pleaded in agony. “All my life I’ve tried to find out how it began, how anything began. And you know!” 

“We know. Oh, it was so funny how it began. So joke! So fool, so clown, so grotesque thing! Nobody could guess, nobody could believe.” 

“Tell me! Tell me!” Ceran was ashen and hysterical. 

“No, no, you are no child of mine,” chortled the ultimate grandmother. “Is too joke a joke to tell a stranger. We could not insult a stranger to tell so funny, so unbelieve. Strangers can die. Shall I have it on conscience that a stranger died laughing?” 

“Tell me! Insult me! Let me die laughing!” But Ceran nearly died crying from the frustration that ate him up as a million bee-sized things laughed and hooted and giggled: 

“Oh, it was so funny the way it began!” 

And they laughed. And laughed. And went on laughing…until Ceran Swicegood wept and laughed together, and crept away, and returned to the ship still laughing. On his next voyage he changed his name to Blaze Bolt and ruled for ninety-seven days as king of a sweet sea island in M-81, but that is another and much more unpleasant story.

The Big Book of Science Fiction (p. 507). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

I was only sixteen during this period in my life when I first read these stories. I attended Coral Gables High School in Miami, Florida, and worked at the Coconut Grove Kwik Chek bagging groceries. I was into science fiction, rock music, space exploration, and the counter culture. It was a time when I was discovering new science fiction as it was published after several years of reading old science fiction books I got from various libraries. Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov were my big three during the 1964-1966 years. My next big three were Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, and Roger Zelazny. Plus I was discovering all kinds of new writers in the annual anthologies edited by Donald Wollheim and Judith Merril. It was during this period, I began subscribing to F&SF, Galaxy, and Analog, and joined the Science Fiction Book Club. By then I was a science fiction addict.

For over forty stories I’ve been waiting to reach this period in the VanderMeers’ anthology. And in just a few stories we’re going to zip right past this time period I love so much. I wish we could stay much longer. Plus, there are some other stories from 1966-1967 that people really should know:

  • “The Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw
  • “Behold the Man” by Michael Moorcock
  • “For a Breath I Tarry” by Roger Zelazny
  • “The Keys to December” by Roger Zelazny
  • “The Last Castle” by Jack Vance
  • “Neutron Star” by Larry Niven
  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick
  • “Faith in Our Fathers” by Philip K. Dick
  • “Gonna Roll the Bones” by Fritiz Leiber
  • “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany

And that’s not counting the memorable novels from those two years:

  • Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
  • Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
  • The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard
  • The Dream Master by Roger Zelazny
  • Mindswap by Robert Sheckley
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Roberg A. Heinlein
  • Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison
  • This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Using Lafferty’s idea from this story, I wish humans made a little copy of themselves from each year of life. I’d love to have a shelf of little Jims that perfectly remembered each year. That way I could ask my former selves what really happened.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/16/21

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #45 of 107: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison is #3 out of 125 on Dave Hook’s Recommended Reading List of SF short stories. That’s pretty impressive since Hook’s list is a meta-list generated from several lists. And we’ve finally reached the time period in The Big Book of Science Fiction when I began reading stories as they came out in the magazines. However, I didn’t catch this Ellison in the December 1965 issue of Galaxy, but in Wollheim’s World’s Best Science Fiction: 1966. (I did buy that issue of Galaxy a year or so later in a used bookstore, probably for about 10 cents. That’s when I first learn to love science fiction magazines.)

If you noticed, Ellison wasn’t mentioned on either cover nor did the story get any interior illustrations. Evidently, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” wasn’t immediately recognized as a future classic. But it didn’t take long to become one of the most anthologized SF stories ever.

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1966.

But I don’t know why. Ellison’s razzle-dazzle prose to me is merely yelling, “Look at me! Look at me!” Sure, it’s a fun anti-establishment story from the 1960s. And I liked it a lot better back then. But now, I find its over-the-top wordy antics felt just like I felt watching the first episode of Batman back in 1966 — campy to the point of being embarrassing.

Like I said, when I was young Ellison’s stories impressed me with all their screaming and sneering and self-righteousness. Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary were cool too, in the sixties. But looking back through decades of hard-earned maturity, they now only look like clowns.

I got to see Ellison lecture twice, and both times I hung around afterward when young people tried to disagree with him. He was the fast draw that all the gunslingers wanted to take on. You didn’t want to be standing too close to them either because Ellison would roast them with his fire-breathing dragon replies. When I was young I enjoyed seeing Ellison’s skill with words, especially when he used his sharpest wit. Now, not so much.

That doesn’t mean I dislike this story or dislike Ellison. I will always love the guy who wrote: “Jeffty is Five.” I’m just burned out on all his famous pyromaniac-prose stories. I need to read through his collections and find some quiet tales suitable for my old age.

Besides, I like being on time and I get irked at having to wait for people that aren’t.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/15/21

“Darkness” by André Carneiro

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #44 of 107: “Darkness” by André Carneiro

The VanderMeers made my reading expectations too high when they quoted A. E. van Vogt saying that “Darkness” by André Carneiro was one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written. It was good, very good indeed, but not great. Also, they misled me by saying it was a “depiction of a world where people are suddenly blind.” It is a story about everyone not being able to see, but they do not go blind. I read the story twice trying to discern exactly what happens and the best I can tell, light stopped working. The people could still see, but light from the sun slowly dimished, as did light from flashlights, matches, stoves, fires, etc. The world is thrown into darkness.

This is a disaster story with its usual plot arc. A man, Waldas comes home and begins saving water and gathering foodstuffs when he realizes that all sources of light are beginning to fade. Finally, when no one can see anything, people outside his apartment begin yelling for help. Waldas decides to share his resources with his neighbors with children but ignores all other pleas from other apartments and outside on the street. Eventually, Waldas realizes he must go out and search for food and plans to steal it from a nearby market, but when he gets there finds the shelves empty. On his way home be becomes lost and his finally rescued by a blind person, Vasco. Vasco is already skilled at getting around the city and takes Waldas back to the Institute for the Blind. Members there are helping a few people, and agree to help Waldas and his adopted family in exchange for water Waldas had saved in his bathtub. They bring back the water and family and live at the Institute until they realize the food is running out. The group then decides to go to a farm owned by the Institute, and the blind people lead the non-seeing people out of town. Eighteen days later light begins to seep out of light sources again, within a day or two, light returns to normal. Waldas returns to town to see how people have survived and found more people living than he assumed.

Near the end, we are told:

But, as their eager eyes took in every color, shade, and movement, they gave little thought to the mysterious magnitude of their universe, and even less to the plight of their brothers, their saviors, who still walked in darkness.

What is Carneiro telling us? Is he saying people are blind to the wonders of reality, even after they’ve been given a great object lesson? Is he saying people just adapt to any situation without wondering about the why of things? Maybe I’m taking this story too much for granted like Waldas and the people of his world took light for granted. Maybe I’ll appreciate this story more in the future.

Rating: ****

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James Wallace Harris, 11/15/21

“The Hands” by John Baxter

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #43 of 107: “The Hands” by John Baxter

“The Hands” by John Baxter is a unique alien invasion story. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Not that’s it’s experimental or strange, quite the contrary, it’s very readable and vivid. It is a horror story and kind of gross, but it’s also true blue science fiction.

The VanderMeers tag the story as New Wave, but I’m not sure why. Maybe because it originally appeared in New Writings in S-F 6 edited by Ted Carnell which came out in 1965. That’s two years before Judith Merril came up with The New Thing in a 1967 issue of F&SF, during the era when she anthologized a lot of British science fiction, but really before the term New Wave was popular with fans.

Back then I thought I knew what New Wave stories were on sight, but not anymore. The Tempest in Teapot fan wars over the New Wave was more real than any literary movement in our genre. There is nothing experimental or cutting edge about “The Hands” at all. It’s beautifully written for what it does, but what it does isn’t that much other than its trick idea for an alien invasion. Baxter’s prose and story idea remind me a lot of what Theodore Sturgeon wrote years earlier. I admired the prose and the way Baxter presented the story the whole time I was reading it. Good job. Not great. Rating: ***+

I’ll quote the first two paragraphs just to give y’all a taste of what the story was like.

They let Vitti go first because he was the one with two heads, and it seemed to the rest that if there was to be anything of sympathy or honour or love for them, then Vitti should have the first and best of it. After he had walked down the ramp, they followed him. Sloane with his third and fourth legs folded like the furled wings of a butterfly on his back; Tanizaki, still quiet, unreadable, Asiatic, despite the bulge inside his belly that made him look like a woman eight months gone with child; and the rest of them. Seven earth men who had been tortured by the Outsiders. 

When the crowd saw Vitti, they shouted, because that was what they had gathered there to do. Ten thousand sets of lungs emptied themselves in one automatic, unthinking cry. The sound was a wave breaking over them, a torrent of sound that made them want to fall on the ground and wait for its passing. But there was only one shout. By the time the cry was half over, the people had seen Vitti and the rest of them, and when their lungs were empty they had neither the will nor the ability to draw them full for another shout. There were some who did; a few standing at the back. But their shouts were like the cries of seabirds along the edge of the ocean. From the others, there was no sound but the susurrus of whispers like the melting of sea foam after a wave has receded. Nobody had anything to say. At that moment, Alfred Binns realized for the first time that he was a monster.

The Big Book of Science Fiction (p. 479). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

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James Wallace Harris, 11/13/21 (Happy Birthday Becky)

Dave Hook’s Recommended Reading List – Short Fiction 2.0

Click Here to See the List

Dave Hook thought it would be revealing to combine four lists that identify the most remembered science fiction short stories to see which stories are on the most lists. Be sure and review the tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet for different versions of the data, links to the original lists, and a sheet where you can track your reading. Just save a copy of the spreadsheet to your own Google Drive, or download a copy in your preferred format if you want to track your reading history.

125 stories were on all four lists (Classics, Locus, SFADB, SciFi). Dave is a moderator for the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction group on Facebook and he also provides links to where the group has already discussed the story. Those stories have been read because the group has read over two dozen anthologies together. That’s just another validation of the popularity of these science fiction short stories.

Of course, we’re the creator of one of the lists, The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories found at CSFquery. We know it’s dangerous to claim such lists reveal the best stories because tastes are so subjective. Most people look at lists on the internet to see what they’ve read and what stories they love that aren’t on the list. Quite often they accuse the list maker of making poor choices. None of these lists were chosen by their creators. Two were created through statistical analysis and two were created by fan polls. That’s why I like to say these lists track the most remembered stories. Claiming any kind of quality leads to trouble.

However, I will say that statistically, you have a better chance of liking these stories more than from any other method of identifying short fiction. I have read a large percentage of these stories and most of my favorite science fiction short stories are on this list. However, there are many stories I love that are missed by these lists. For example, my favorite Robert A. Heinlein short work is “The Menace From Earth.” It’s not here. Lists, no matter what the methodology used to create them, are never perfect. But I like Dave’s list. It’s a solid piece of work.

What’s even more interesting, is the number of stories that are on all four lists outnumber the stories that are only on three lists. That suggests the popularity of these 125 stories is quite significant.

If you look at the four lists Dave used to create his list you’ll see the stories are ranked, but the rankings differ from one list to the next. Dave used a statistical method to compare the rankings and produce a Top 20 list. I wish he had gone beyond 20, maybe 50. But even his rankings don’t match the rankings of the four original lists. There’s just no agreement for what are the best science fiction short stories to read.

One flaw in these methods is newer stories have had less opportunity to get recognized and remembered. That’s just how things work, but it does mean when a story from the last twenty years does show up it means it really stood out from the rest. Ted Chiang is a wonder.

James Wallace Harris, 11/10/21

“Day of Wrath” by Sever Gansovsky

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #42 of 107: “Day of Wrath” by Sever Gansovsky

Even though “Day of Wrath” is translated from Russian, it sounded completely American. The story is about two men riding on horseback into a backcountry settled by folks who work the land, live in cabins, and who fear people they don’t consider humans. I don’t know if Gansovsky intentionally wanted us to think of Native Americans but I did. There is one scene that reminds me of The Searchers.

“Day of Wrath” reminded me of stories I read in old issues of Astounding, Analog, or Galaxy from the 1950s and 1960s. Stories like those written by Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, or Jack Vance. Stories that began with two riders, sometimes on horses, and sometimes on strange alien mounts, with one rider who knows the country, and one rider who doesn’t. That setup lets us the reader learn the backstory with the newcomer. I assume we’re on Earth, but that might not be true.

The two characters are Meller, the forester, and Betly, the journalist. Betly wants to find out what people think of the otarks, superintelligent creatures that escape from a science lab years ago and are now populating that rural area. They are pushing out the humans. The city people have heard about the otarks and are fascinated by the fact they know advanced mathematics. But the local people only know the otarks as killers, and consider them inhuman. Gansovsky also tells us this society has intelligent machines but doesn’t make much of them.

“Day of Wrath” wants us to consider the old question: What is human? That’s a favorite science-fictional theme I enjoy. Like the androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, we’re told the otarks have no empathy, no compassion. They do have brilliant analytical minds that do higher mathematics and understand the Theory of Relativity. But the otarks also kill wantonly. To portray them as the ultimate evil, Gansovsky has them eat humans and even each other. Does he do this so we’ll think they are worth exterminating? But then, does he tell us they understand Einstein as a reason to save them?

Gansovsky brings us these issues, but the ending suggests he’s on the side of extermination. I assume the ending is the day of wrath. That’s an interesting word to use since we usually associate it with God. We are the gods of the otarks, and it’s our wrath that will destroy them. It’s telling that Gansovsky begins his tale with this quote from a hearing:

The key to the story is deciding if humans have qualities the otarks don’t. This is my first reading of “Day of Wrath” and I expect to reread it because I believe it’s a deeper story than possible to understand from one reading.

But I have a question for Gansovsky: Does killing make us inhuman? Humans kill all the time. Sometimes we’re even cannibals. Maybe we lack that divine spark we think we see in ourselves. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick does advocate extermination because the androids lack empathy. His novel focuses on what makes us inhuman. But the film version Blade Runner focuses on what makes the Replicants human. I tend to feel, that Gansovsky is positioning himself closer to PKD here, and not seeing the otarks as a Roy Batty who gives us a “Tears in the Rain” speech. But when I reread this story in the future I might change my mind.

Rating: ****

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James Wallace Harris, 11/10/21

“A Modest Genius” by Vadim Shefner

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #41 of 107: “A Modest Genius” by Vadim Shefner

“A Modest Genius” by Vadim Shefner is another story in The Big Book of Science Fiction that I wouldn’t consider science fiction. Yes, it has an inventor of science-fictional gadgets, but those inventions are used as a fantasy writer would use them, not science fiction. “A Modest Genius” is told in a fable or parable-like style about a man and three women he’s interested in. I don’t know what to call this style, but it involves more telling than showing. We’ve seen this mode of storytelling mostly in the translated stories in this anthology. I wonder if it’s just a popular narrative approach in other countries?

Maybe this style of writing should be called the oral storytelling mode because it sounds like what you’d hear if the narrator was telling us the story out loud. Oral storytellers usually don’t have a lot of dialogs — probably because it would make them sound like they had multiple personalities. This technique is more common in fantasy stories because it conveys an old-timey feel. Unfortunately, I don’t like its use in science fiction, probably because it reminds me of 19th-century fiction, and I like to think of SF as future-oriented.

“A Modest Genius” is still a pleasant little tale but one I would never choose to anthologize. The story’s core insights are about picking the right kind of spouse for your personality. That’s hardly science-fictional. The crazy inventions just gives Sergei the patina of being an oddball, or add a bit of humor.

This disappoints me because I was looking forward to reading Soviet science fiction. I was hoping the translated stories would give us insights into the traditional themes of science fiction with unique perspectives from other cultures. All too often they’ve been about mundane topics with some science-fictional elements.

Science fiction is notoriously hard to define. Everyone has their own definition. But for me, it’s essential that the story is science-fiction at heart. “A Modest Genius” is about a lonely man trying to find the right woman. If the story had centered on his future vision gadget to solve his romance conundrum I would have considered it science fiction, but that idea was only tossed out and ignored.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/8/21

“2 B R 0 2 B” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #40 of 107: “2 B R 0 2 B” Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I believe we should talk about context — the context of when and why we read science fiction. I became addicted to science fiction during the 7th (63/64) and 8th (64/65) grades because I went to four different junior high schools during those two years. My parents’ marriage was coming apart, and my father had a heart attack, and we just kept having to move. It was a very stressful time and reading science fiction was how I coped. If my life had been stable I’m not sure I would have read so much. I would have been more involved with the real world. My consumption of sci-fi would have been moderate, maybe even casual.

I’m reading a lot of science fiction now because that’s about all I physically feel like doing. I turn 70 this month. Being retired, and discussing science fiction on the internet is something enjoyable to do, somewhat social, letting me interact with folks with a similar reading interest.

When I read a science fiction story today it has to mean something in my current context of life. I’ve been trying to explain that context as I’ve reviewed the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction.

2 B R 0 2 B” by Kurt Vonnegut is a famous short story that’s often taught in schools. It’s fun. It’s slick. It’s entertaining. It has a surprise ending. However, I thought the story thin and expected more from the famous Kurt Vonnegut. Of course, when this story was published it was when he was selling to the science fiction magazines, and before he disavowed being a science fiction writer to become a major literary writer. That’s a kind of context too.

In one of my recent reviews, I talk about how I enjoyed a story because I was in the right mood. I had read the story just after getting up in the morning. That’s when I’m at my best. I read “2 B R 0 2 B” while feeling uncomfortable from an overactive bladder and a cranky prostate, while feeling pains in my ass from a recent flareup of the piles, and a stuffy head from the side effects of the drugs I have to take that makes it hard to think clearly. Maybe I would have liked “2 B R 0 2 B” more if I had felt better when I read it?

However, I felt just as bad when I raced through twenty hours of To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, enjoying every minute of it. That book made me forget that I felt crappy. As soon as I finished that novel I started listening to Crossroads, the new novel by Jonathan Frazen, which is twenty-six hours on audio. I’m just as delighted with it, and it helps me to forget my yucky physical situation too. However, I tried reading Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, a book considered one of the funniest from the 19th century and the book that inspired Willis to write To Say Nothing of the Dog. Jerome K. Jerome didn’t work. It’s just a series of humorous sketches that aren’t that compelling as a page-turning novel.

Evidently, having an addictive plot is what I need. And Vonnegut’s little story about a man whose wife is having triplets in a world where the population is severely controlled doesn’t last very long or isn’t very diverting. But I’m not sure if the length is a necessity. “The Voices of Time” by J. G. Ballard drew me deeply into it.

There are aspects of “2 B R 0 2 B” that were more important back in the 1960s. Even before The Population Bomb (1968) and The Limits of Growth (1972) science fiction magazines ran essays and stories about the dangers of overpopulation. It was a popular topic for Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, and Harry Harrison wrote a vivid 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! about the problem. Vonnegut’s facetious treatment of the idea is a quick bit of satire, that really ignores the seriousness of the problem just to get a sick laugh. That’s another context. Now, almost sixty years later, overpopulation is a major factor in climate change, and it’s even more serious of an issue. Shooting people is not a very funny solution because we now live in a world where too many people are whipping out guns and shooting other people. That’s another context.

As a classic story “2 B R 0 2 B” probably desires 4-stars, but as a pleasant trifle, I feel like only giving it 3-stars. And each of those is a different context.

I’ve got 67 more stories to read and review in The Big Book of Science Fiction. The context of reading so much science fiction weighs on each story I read. After forty stories it’s getting harder and harder to impress me.

Supposedly, all the stories in the collection are exceptional. But reading them together shows something different. If I was in the 8th grade and “2 B R 0 2 B” was my only reading assignment, I would probably consider “2 B R 0 2 B” a really good story. It was easy to read and funny. It would also be easy to talk about in class, or a snap to write a paper on. In that context, I would have thought English class that day wasn’t the drag it usually is. Compared to the other 39 stories we’ve read so far, it would rank maybe 28.

But in my present context of annoying bodily sensations and having to read this story because I set my goal to review all the stories in a giant anthology, Vonnegut’s story was barely a blip.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/7/21

“The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink” by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #39 of 107: “The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink” by Adolfo Bioy Casares

“The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink” by Adolfo Bioy Casares is a nice enough little tale, but it really didn’t do much for me. It’s another story about an alien that comes to Earth to save humanity from itself and protect outer space from us crazy people who have the bomb. We never get to meet the alien, and the story is told in a rather roundabout comic tone. I’m not even sure the alien is the important aspect of this story, but since we’re science fiction readers we zero in on it. I wonder if we were just ordinary fiction readers living in Argentina at the time if the focus of the story wasn’t the teacher and the small-town characters.

The narrative structure, style, and voice felt like other Hispanic stories I’ve read. Since I haven’t read a lot of Spanish-translated stories I don’t know if I’m missing out on literary allusions that might make the story more impressive to people that do. For example, I just finished To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. It’s a comedy of manners that riffs off of many classic English novels. Since I am familiar with those novels, it made Willis’ style an important part of the story.

Since I don’t have that experience with Hispanic novels I could be missing something very delightful in “The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink.”

Like I said above, the science-fictional elements of this story were already tired by 1962 when this story first came out. Maybe those ideas were new and novel in Argentina at the time. The idea behind this story reminds me of The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis from 1963. It takes the old idea and gives it deeper pathos. Do not think you know the Tevis novel if you’ve only seen the horrible film version with David Bowie. It’s a beautifully poignant story of a Martian who comes to Earth to save his world and ours but painfully fails. Casares’ SF idea also reminds me of the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still and the 1954 novel A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn.

Casares only hinted at the theme, but having an alien from space that comes to save us in a Christ-like role is a good idea though. Maybe it’s even time to resurrect that idea. I do like that the alien fails and some of the town’s people didn’t feel humans were worth saving.

“With my hand on my heart,” Aldini murmured, “I say to you that the traveler did not lie. Sooner or later we’ll blow ourselves up with the atomic bomb. There’s no way past it.” 

As if he were speaking to himself, Badaracco said: 

“Don’t tell me that these old people have destroyed our last hope.” 

“Don Juan doesn’t want to change his way of living,” the Spaniard proposed. “He would rather that the world blew up than that salvation came from outside. I suppose it is a way of loving mankind.” 

“Disgust in the face of things you don’t know,” I said. “Obscurantism.” 

They say that fear makes one’s mind run more clearly. The truth is that there was something strange in the bar that night and we all brought our ideas to the discussion. 

“Come on, fellows, let’s do something,” Badaracco said. “For the love of humanity.” 

“Señor Badaracco, why do you have so much love for humanity?” the Spaniard asked. 

Badaracco blushed and stammered: 

“I don’t know. We all know.” 

“What do we know, Señor Badaracco? If you think about men, do you think them admirable? I think the exact opposite: they are stupid, and cruel, and mean and envious,” Villaroel declared. 

“Whenever there are elections,” Chazarreta agreed, “then your beautiful humanity stands revealed naked, just as it really is. It’s always the worst ones who win.” 

“So love of humanity is just an empty phrase, then?” 

“No, my dear teacher,” Villaroel replied. “Let us call love of humanity the compassion for other people’s pain and the veneration we have for the works of our great minds, for the Immortal Cripple’s Quixote, for the paintings of Velázquez and Murillo. In no sense does this love serve as an argument to delay the end of the world. These works only exist for humans to experience, and after the end of the world—and the day will come, whether brought by the bomb or by natural causes—they will have no justification or support, believe you me. As for compassion, it will disappear as the end approaches….As no one can escape death, let it come quickly, for everyone, so the sum of pain will be as small as possible!”

The Big Book of Science Fiction (p. 444). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

I feel there is humorous cynicism throughout this story, but I can’t be sure. I sense that Casares is poking fun at people who live in small towns, but again I’m not sure. The way the characters address and talk to each other seems like it’s meant to be humorous, but I’m behind both a language and cultural barrier, and Casares might have intended no quaint humor at all. Because the alien figures so little in this story, I’m not sure if the story isn’t mostly poking fun at small-town characters.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/3/21

“The Astronaut” by Valentina Zhuravlyova

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #38 of 107: “The Astronaut” by Valentina Zhuravlyova

The thing about getting old is running down. I have good days and bad days. Actually, I have good hours and bad hours. This morning started off nice. I woke up early this morning to the sound Messenger makes to notify me of a new message. It was still dark outside, just a bit after six. Piet Nel has sent me a link to John O’Neill’s review of Modern Classic Novels of Short Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois. That’s an anthology I’ve wished the group would pick to read, especially because it has my all-time favorite science fiction novella in it, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delaney. Reading O’Neill’s review and comments put me in the mood to read science fiction.

Ozzy the cat was sleeping soundly on my legs, so I decided not to bother him. Instead of getting up to start my day, I tapped on the Kindle app to read “The Astronaut” by Valentina Zhuravlyova. The VanderMeers introduction got me interested in the story right away when they gave away the part about the astronauts having to reduce the weight of the spaceship to make the return voyage back to Earth. That same idea is used in Destination Moon (1950). I’ve always used that idea about jettison mass to minimize the weight to take off as a metaphor for succeeding at efforts in life. Often I’m weighted down by too many desires, so to get something done I have to toss out everything but the one thing I want to accomplish.

As soon as I started reading the story I liked it. The narrative was simple and engaging. I often write about why we like or dislike a story. In our group discussions, I’m amused by how some of us praise a story while others dismiss it. It’s so easy to get annoyed by a story, to fail at enjoying it. This morning while still snug under my covers and cat, and having just finished an upbeat essay about the joys of great science fiction, and still fresh from a night’s sleep, I got into this story in a big way.

“The Astronaut” is the kind of story I wanted to find when we voted to read The Big Book of Science Fiction. I hoped to find stories I loved as much as the stories I loved in the classic anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. I wanted to read stories I had never read and were unknown to all the famous SF anthologists. I have no memory of Valentina Zhuravlyova, and I’m quite certain I will soon forget her name. And I’ll probably even forget the name of this story, but I will remember three things about this tale.

I will remember a story about astronauts needing to throw out equipment so they could take off because I often remember Destination Moon. I now will remember two stories that used that idea.

I will remember I’ve read a story where the space administration decided it was important for astronauts to have hobbies for their long space voyages. I’m surprised I haven’t seen this idea before.

And I will remember I read a story about a lone stranded astronaut who put his soul into two paintings. Valentina Zhuravlyova has put a bit of her soul into “The Astronaut.” She is dead now, but she coded part of herself into this story.

I have another metaphor I often use to explain the limitations of communication. I compare all our efforts to speak across the void between conscious minds as throwing a message in a bottle upon the ocean hoping someone will find it. The astronaut Zarubin threw two paintings upon the void hoping to express himself, and “The Astronaut” is Valentina’s message in a bottle to us.

This is the second time I tried to write this essay. After I read “The Astronaut” I drained away the rest of my night’s store of energy by doing the exercises that keep my aches and pains away. I tried to write this later this morning, but I was too weary. I had to even nap to feel like eating lunch. And then I had to nap again. But that gave me time to think about this story and what to write. Getting old means running out of energy. I have to jettison many things I want to do just to accomplish one thing during my day. This was it. For the rest of the day, I will store up energy by napping or listening to books.

I’m alternating between two novels right now, To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis and Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. Both provide psychic food that gives me the energy to think. Exercise and proper eating give me physical energy. The thing about being old is my batteries drain so damn quickly. Napping and reading are my ways of recharging. But I need a quality reading diet to generate psychic energy. “The Astronaut” gave me that.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/2/21

“The Voices of Time” by J. G. Ballard

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #37 of 107: “The Voices of Time” by J. G. Ballard

Whenever I read stories by J. G. Ballard I feel like I’m reading science fiction for grownups. This is my second reading of “The Voices of Time” and it has very adult vibes. Sure, the story ideas are the same old science-fictional bullshit, but they feel literary and serious. Maybe because the theme is death and decay. That’s very heavy. There’s a mature acceptance of death in this story. Youthful science fiction is always about rejecting and defying mortality. However, J. G. Ballard was only around thirty when he wrote “The Voices of Time.” Could Ballard’s upbringing under the conditions described in the autobiographical Empire of The Sun explain his wiser-than-his-years outlook?

Is it me, or do Ballard’s stories from the 1960s focus on decay and decline? Was that just a schtick he developed or personal philosophy? Or should we tag that as his entropic period? When I was young I didn’t dig Ballard that much. I admired him, especially the Vermillion Sands stories, but his end-of-the-world novels didn’t have the violence and excitement as American end-of-the-world novels. They felt decadent. I also associated them with how I imagined the British felt about the decline of their empire. Now that I’m older, Ballard’s stories resonate with my current moods. One of those moods is the belief that the American empire is in decline.

The story begins with a doctor named Powers contemplating the suicide of a colleague who had spent his last days carving a giant symbol at the bottom of an empty pool. Powers knows he’s about to die too and has his own compulsions to leave a message. Powers knows he’s been infected with a plague that makes people comatose. He is sleeping more each day and plots his remaining hours of consciousness to wrap up his affairs. This lets us readers observe a world undergoing bizarre changes. Earth is experiencing a rise in radiation from space, and animals are starting to mutate and adapt, including some plants and animals absorbing lead to produce protective shielding.

Initially, however, Powers was too preoccupied with completing his work at the Clinic and planning his own final withdrawal. After the first frantic weeks of panic he had managed to accept an uneasy compromise that allowed him to view his predicament with the detached fatalism he had previously reserved for his patients. Fortunately he was moving down the physical and mental gradients simultaneously—lethargy and inertia blunted his anxieties, a slackening metabolism made it necessary to concentrate to produce a connected thought-train. In fact, the lengthening intervals of dreamless sleep were almost restful. He found himself beginning to look forward to them, and made no effort to wake earlier than was essential.

“The Voices of Time” is a 4-star story for me that I look forward to reading, again and again, it might even become a 5-star story if I can ever decipher what Ballard is doing. I can’t yet tell if Ballard has accidentally included enough elements to make this story into a philosophical mystery, or if it was intentional. It’s the kind of story that college students analyze and write papers about.

There is a beautiful epic passage towards the end that explains the title.

Like an endless river, so broad that its banks were below the horizons, it flowed steadily towards him, a vast course of time that spread outwards to fill the sky and the universe, enveloping everything within them. Moving slowly, the forward direction of its majestic current almost imperceptible, Powers knew that its source was the source of the cosmos itself. As it passed him, he felt its massive magnetic pull, let himself be drawn into it, borne gently on its powerful back. Quietly it carried him away, and he rotated slowly, facing the direction of the tide. Around him the outlines of the hills and the lake had faded, but the image of the mandala, like a cosmic clock, remained fixed before his eyes, illuminating the broad surface of the stream. Watching it constantly, he felt his body gradually dissolving, its physical dimensions melting into the vast continuum of the current, which bore him out into the centre of the great channel, sweeping him onward, beyond hope but at last at rest, down the broadening reaches of the river of eternity.

Why did Ballard imagine this immense view of time? Was he smoking dope or meditating and this vision appeared to him? Or did some classic poem or writer inspire it? For whatever reason, he worked it into a lovely science fiction story. It justifies creating a dying character, even a dying Earth.

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James Wallace Harris, 10/31/21

“Plenitude” by Will Worthington

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #36 of 107: “Plenitude” by Will Worthington

[I’ve gotten a complaint about my hyperlinks being hard to see. I’m going to bold them to see if that helps. Let me know what you think.]

Who the hell was Will Worthington? According to ISFDB.org, he was the pen name for Will Mohler, and they list just twelve short stories by him, published in the SF magazines from 1958-1963. His name only appeared on a cover twice, and according to the VanderMeers in the introduction of “Plenitude” Mohler’s identity is still quite a mystery. But ISFDB is full of people like Mohler, would-be writers who had a few publications and then disappeared. Forgotten writers intrigue me. I even maintain a webpage for Lady Dorothy Mills, a forgotten writer from the 1920s. Most days, that site gets no hits.

Plenitude” appeared in the November 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and then was reprinted by Judith Merril twice, first in her annual for 1959, and then again in her The Best of the Best, which was her favorite stories from the first five years of the annual. For some reason, it was reprinted in two different forgotten anthologies in 1974. Four of his other stories were reprinted, but none of them ever made it into a major anthology until The Big Book of Science Fiction. And I’m not sure it belongs there. Evidently, the VanderMeers like forgotten writers too.

“Plenitude” is a pretty good SF story, but not a classic. It’s the second time I’ve read it. The VanderMeers reprint twenty stories from the 1950s and none of them were about post-apocalyptic times after the bomb, a very favorite theme from that decade. However, Mohler’s story is about a family, a dad, a wife, and two kids living out in the woods after a major change in society — so it’s kind of post-apocalyptic.

Actually, it’s anti-utopian, or post-technology. The dad has moved his family back to nature to escape the modern life of living in a pod jacked into artificial reality. I picture this future somewhat like The Matrix, but the inhabitants know what they are doing, and can still see the real world if needed.

Mohler was doing exactly what Silvina Ocampo was doing in “The Waves,” protesting a future designed by science and technology. However, Mohler took the time to work up a real story with decent characterization. The dad in this story comes across like a proto-hippy or 20th-century Luddite. He makes his family work hard at farming and is proud of his son for being a good bow hunter. This family is part of a small mountain community that has rejected techno-life. I pictured these people being the kind who joined communes in the 1960s and 1970s and read Mother Earth News, CoEvolution Quarterly, Communities, and the Whole Earth Catalog. Oh wait, I read those mags. I guess that’s why I feel a kinship with Mohler. Mohler was ahead of his time in 1959, but maybe not, because there are back-to-nature folks in every era. But he predates the back to the land movement of the 1960s.

The F&SF editorial blurb that introduced “Plenitude” said of Mohler, “As of this writing, Will Worthington is living on a wild island off the coast of Maine, where he is leading a Thoreau-like existence which will inspire him, it is to be hoped, to more stories like the following.” I’m tempted to read Mohler’s other eleven stories to see if I can guess more about what he might have been like. A few years later, another blurb says he’s living in Washington, DC.

Since I don’t have time to read those other stories I thought I’d post the first page of each of them to see if they give any more clues about Mohler. But I’m also posting links to where you can read the stories online, just in case you’re like me and wonder about forgotten authors.


If, December 1958


Fantastic, June 1959


The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 1959


Fantastic, January 1960


The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1960


The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 1960


The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 1960


The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 1961


Science Fantasy, August 1961


The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 1963


Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1963

I can’t say any of these beginnings grabbed my interest, nor was much revealed about Mohler. When I get time I want to read all the stories. I’m curious about Mohler. He seemed to disappear just as the 1960s got going. Did he drop out, or begin his real career? I bet he loved the 1960s though, at least from the vibes I get from reading “Plenitude.”

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James Wallace Harris, 10/28/21

“The Waves” by Silvina Ocampo

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #35 of 107: “The Waves” by Silvina Ocampo

Silvina Ocampo might be an impressive writer but I couldn’t tell that from reading “The Waves.” Great writing is the accumulation of significant details, and “The Waves” was too vague and ethereal to convey any kind of greatness. To include this story because of Ocampo’s reputation, her gender, her nationality does not extend her literary legacy or expand the significance of science fiction in this anthology.

“The Waves” does imagine a science-fictional future, but it’s hardly a story. It could have been a story, but it hasn’t been fleshed out. There is no real characterization, no drama, no scenes, no settings, no details, it’s all telling and no showing. As it is, it’s just a sketch. Ocampo imagines that science will classify people by their wavelengths and separate two lovers. They falsify documents to be together, and when they are discovered they are separated, one to live on the Earth, and the other exiled to the Moon.

Ocampo imagines science will produce a dystopia and this little sketch is a protest against scientific progress. That’s the heart of many science fiction stories. Since I haven’t read anything else by Ocampo I don’t know her range in storytelling complexity. Is all her work so vague and slight? I remember reading stories like “The Waves” in fiction writing workshops. Those kinds of stories feel like they were written by people who want to be writers who don’t understand the current techniques for writing fiction. If this story was submitted by a 7th grader we would have considered her precocious. If an adult friend had given it to me, I would have been encouraging. But if I was told Jonathan Franzen had written it, I would have thought it was notes for a story he planned to write.

I’m curious now, what is Ocampo’s good stuff like? I could be completely wrong, and “The Waves” is typical of her writing, and its style is reflective of the style she established for herself. If that’s the case, she’s not for me.

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James Wallace Harris, 10/25/21

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #34 of 107: “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

Why do we read science fiction? Maybe that’s too big of a question to answer. Why do we love the stories that we do? What’s qualities does a story have that pushes our buttons? That might be getting closer to where I want to go. The last lines of “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon misted my eyes as I read them. But it wasn’t because our unnamed narrator was dying. I wasn’t moved either in our last story, “The Monster” when Marion and Bernard were about to die.

No, I’m moved because our astronaut protagonist says: “‘God,’ he cries, dying on Mars, ‘God, we made it!'”

That’s one reason I love this story. I believe many of us who read science fiction have an affinity for Mars, and a desire to go there. And subset of those readers would even be happy to die there. Sturgeon knew that and hooked us.

But Sturgeon couldn’t have written just that last line to win us over. There is a long build up that makes that last line work. The dying astronaut is visited by hallucinations of his younger selves. One is a boy playing with a model, a boy like many of us who used to play with models. Those of us who love this story can remember being young and pestering older folks with our enthusiasm for newly acquired knowledge.

The dying astronaut has a vivid memory of skin diving and nearly drowning. I admire the story even more because I can remember skin diving a couple of times when I thought I was drowning. I was always a terrible swimmer and shouldn’t have even been trying the things I did. I remember the first time I used a snorkel, mask, and fins, and how I also swallowed water and thrashed in the water. I can remember trying to swim further than I was capable. I remember what it felt like to make it back to the beach, the relief. Those experiences resonated with Sturgeon’s character, and I imagined they were based on his own experiences. Such embedded connections make a story succeed.

However, we don’t have to have shared experiences with Sturgeon and his fictional character. We all wonder what it’s like to die. Maybe we’ve even been sick enough to think we’re dying. There is something special about that last moment, a moment we wait our whole life to experience. How will we handle it?

The first work of fiction I remember from childhood is about a man’s last thoughts when dying. I didn’t know that then. I was seeing the movie version of High Barbaree when I was about six. Later on, I learned it was based on a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. In the movie, Alec doesn’t die. In the book he does. But I’ve been intrigued by the idea of last thoughts my whole life. That also makes me love “The Man Who Lost the Sea.”

This is the second time this year that I’ve written about “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” I had already forgotten that. I had to use the search feature on my blog to check. The story was even better this second time. I’m not about to die, but I’m old enough that I think about it often. Because I’ve spent so much of my life reading science fiction my last thoughts might be haunted by science-fictional themes. My last thoughts could recall all those far-out ideas I loved by reading science fiction. I might even judge my time on Earth by how many became real?

I do know as I age, what I value in a science fiction story changes. Reading through the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction is revealing what I still care about and what I don’t. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” still resonates, but so many of the stories don’t. If I was sitting across the table from the stories I’m breaking up with I should tell them, “It’s me, not you.”

I had a friend who died in middle age. His name was Williamson, and before he died he kept rejecting things he once loved. Towards the end, he only cared about two things in life, the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. This dwindling of interests before death I call the Williamson Effect. As I progress through my seventies, and maybe beyond, I imagine I’ll reject most of the science fiction stories I once loved. They will just stop working. I tend to think “The Man Who Lost the Sea” will continue to work for a long time, maybe not to the bitter end, but close.

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James Wallace Harris, 10/25/21

“The Monster” by Gérard Klein

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #33 of 107: “The Monster” by Gérard Klein

“The Monster” by French writer Gérard Klein was first published in October 1958 in Fiction #59, but later translated and reprinted in the September 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Later on it was collected in Thirteen French Science-Fiction Stories edited by Damon Knight. According to the VanderMeers in their introduction to the story in The Big Book of Science Fiction, Klein is quite a prolific science fiction writer in France. ISFDB lists five translations and a decent number of reprints for “The Monster.”

I found “The Monster” a compelling story until the ending. Marion, the stay-at-home wife of Bernard anxiously awaits her husband return from work. When she hears that an alien from space has been cornered in the park she begins to fret because she knows Bernard walks home through that park. The story tightens by Marion listening to radio broadcasts, and then by her efforts to get into the park which has been cordoned off by the police. The tension Klein builds is quite effective. We slowly learn that Bernard has been the one viction of the alien, and now the alien keeps calling out “Marion” in the voice Marion knows as Bernard’s.

The buildup for this story was quite nice, but the resolution was disappointing. We are shown how Marion has always been dependent on Bernard, but in the end we’re also told that too. The story isn’t about the alien, but Marion. I’m going to quote a significant part of the story from near the ending to explain my disappointment, and to discuss the nature of reading science fiction.

“I’m coming, Bernard,” said Marion, and she dropped the microphone and threw herself forward. She dodged the hands that tried to stop her and began running down the graveled path. She leaped over the copper-meshed web and passed between the gleaming tongues of the flamethrowers. 

“It’s a trap,” called a deep voice behind her. “Come back. The creature has absorbed some of your husband’s knowledge—it’s using it as a lure. Come back. That isn’t human. It has no face.” 

But no one followed her. When she turned her head, she saw the men standing up, grasping their lances and looking at her, horrified, their eyes and teeth gleaming with the same metallic light as the buttons of their uniforms. 

She rounded the pond. Her feet struck the cement pavement with soft, dull sounds, then they felt the cool, caressing touch of the grass again. 

She wondered even as she ran what was going to happen, what would become of her, but she told herself that Bernard would know for her, that he had always known, and that it was best that way. He was waiting for her beyond that black doorway through which his voice came with so much difficulty, and she was about to be with him. 

A memory came suddenly into her mind. A sentence read or heard, an idea harvested and stored away, to be milled and tasted now. It was something like this: men are nothing but empty shells, sometimes cold and deserted like abandoned houses, and sometimes inhabited, haunted by the beings we call life, jealousy, joy, fear, hope, and so many others. Then there was no more loneliness. 

And as she ran, exhaling a warm breath that condensed into a thin plume of vapor, looking back at the pale, contracted faces of the soldiers, dwindling at every step, she began to think that this creature had crossed space and searched for a new world because it felt itself desperately hollow and useless in its own, because none of those intangible beings would haunt it, and that she and Bernard would perhaps live in the center of its mind, just as confidence and anxiety, silence and boredom live in the hearts and minds of men. And she hoped that they would bring it peace, that they would be two quiet little lights, illuminating the honeycombed depths of its enormous, unknown brain. 

She shuddered and laughed. “What does it feel like to be eaten?” she asked herself. 

She tried to imagine a spoonful of ice cream melting between her lips, running cool down her throat, lying in the little dark warmth of her stomach. 

“Bernard,” she cried. “I’ve come.” She heard the men shouting behind her. “Marion,” said the monster with Bernard’s voice, “you took so long.” 

She closed her eyes and threw herself forward. She felt the cold slip down her skin and leave her like a discarded garment. She felt herself being transformed. Her body was dissolving, her fingers threading out, she was expanding inside that huge sphere, moist and warm, comfortable, and, she understood now, good and kind. 

“Bernard,” she said, “they’re coming after us to kill us.” 

“I know,” said the voice, very near now and reassuring. 

“Can’t we do anything—run away?” 

“It’s up to him,” he said. “I’m just beginning to know him. I told him to wait for you. I don’t know exactly what he’s going to do. Go back out into space, maybe? Listen.”

This is almost the end of the story, yet not the complete ending, but the part that’s worth discussing. The ending could be interpreted in several ways, but that’s true of most good stories. But I’m not particularly concerned about that at the moment. What I want to talk about is the difference between story and metaphor.

Story is the artificial world created by the writer. Metaphor is what the writer wants you to contemplate. I’m not against metaphor, but what I really love is story. As I read “The Monster” I got caught up in Marion’s worry for her husband, and wondering what kind of alien was trapped in the park. I assumed it was a real alien. At least a real story alien. What I got was a metaphor alien. And that disappointed me.

Klein had set up realistic situation and turned it into a page-turning story. But he didn’t give me a realistic story ending. This is the only story I’ve read by Gérard Klein. I have no idea what his work is like. But for my purposes I’m going to use “The Monster” as my example for science fiction in general.

Most science fiction writers are just storytellers. They might also include philosophical insights, metaphors, political messages, religious preaching, satire, etc., but their main goal is to tell a story. Think of it this way. We create all kinds of lies to convince children to believe that Santa Claus is real. That’s storytelling. But if we sat a kid down and said, Santa Claus is a metaphor to teach you about the goodness of giving I believe most kids will say, “Cut the crap. I knew you were lying to me. I loved the lies. Don’t spoil them now with some cheesy moral lesson.”

I wanted a real alien at the end of “The Monster.” Marion felt real. The story felt real up to the end. Why didn’t I get a real alien? All I got was some cheesy metaphor. I can accept Marion is dependent on Bernard. I can accept that people are hollow and lonely shells without other people. I can even accept that some belief, philosophy, religion will provide a shell to bind lonely people together. And I can even accept that Klein uses the alien to present his meaningful messages. I can even accept such messages don’t have to be true for the story to work. But where’s my fucking monster from space? How did it get here? What’s it like? How does it survive? What kind of environment does it need to live? What kind of technology does it use? Why would the police want to kill such a unique being? Where’s its spaceship? Why isn’t the alien as real as Marion?

In my old age I’ve come to love science fiction that immerses me into a fully-developed fictional world. Metaphors bridge fiction worlds with reality, and that’s fine if you like that kind of thing. But story comes first. And I want a whole story. Don’t lead me up to a point and yell, “Surprise!” Don’t break the goddamn fourth wall (unless it integrated into a much deeper story).

I know, I’m getting to be a grumpy all guy whining for his 100% science fiction stories.

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James Wallace Harris, 10/22/21

arris 10/22/21

You Won’t Love Every Work of Classic Science Fiction

Over the years a number of people have emailed me about how they use the Classics of Science Fiction list as a reading goal. Well, I’ve never had anyone tell me they’ve read through the entire list — until now.

There’s always been a misconception about books called classics. I think some people feel they are guaranteed great reads. Classics are only books that get remembered over time. Our list was assembled from many sources, including fan polls, awards, lists by critics, writers, and editors, and so on. Just because these books have been statistically remembered by our various sources doesn’t mean they will be loved by readers. I’ve always wondered how science fiction fans who do read from this list react to the books. Well, I’ve gotten one answer. His reaction is completely different from mine, but then I expected that. I expect everyone to love some books and hate others. And that’s okay to hate books called classics.

Lists are very popular on the web, but just how useful are they? Szymon Szott is the first person to tell me they’ve finished our list. This is his answer. Now Szymon admits he quit on some books, but he did try, and I think that’s good enough. I asked Szymon to write up his reaction and here it is:

Jim has asked me to share my thoughts after completing the Classics of Science Fiction v5.

The list is quite long (115 books) and I didn’t read them back-to-back. Some of them I read a long time ago and their plot remains a bit vague (Ubik) while others are among my all-time favorite novels and I’ve read them multiple times (Dune). In recent years, however, I’ve been trying to steadily chip away at the list. In mid-October I finished China Mountain Zhang and thus completed my quest, having read 36 books from the list this year. Overall, my average rating was 3.65 out of 5 stars and since I rarely give 5 stars to a book, it goes to show that I really enjoyed the experience.

My all-time favorite novels from the list are:

Ender's Game
Dune
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Red Mars
Snow Crash

No surprises there, my top three are the same as WWE’s Most Read Books of All-Time and the other two are acknowledged modern classics. However, I read the list to find books which would surprise me, so here are my top five unexpected hits with brief summaries to whet your appetite:

Mission of Gravity - a hard SF exploration of a cool idea: a planet where the gravity varies from 700 g at the poles to 3 g at the equator.

Flowers for Algernon - another exploration of an SF idea (increasing intelligence through surgery), but very human-focused, a moving tale.

Dreamsnake - a grand story set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it must have inspired the Fallout game series.

Ammonite - interesting planet exploration, where a virus alters the colonists.

The Windup Girl - near-future biopunk novel, which the author wrote during a SARS outbreak in Asia (making it unexpectedly relevant to current times).

I didn’t, however, find absolutely all the books amazing. In fact, I didn’t finish two of them: The Female Man and Synners. The former was just plain confusing while the latter had a combination of plot, characters, and prose style that didn't work for me. Out of the books that I did finish, here’s my bottom five:

Last and First Men
Star Maker
To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Dhalgren
Startide Rising

I read that the two Stapledon books were influential to many SF authors, but were just plain boring to read (having almost no plot or characters). The others aren’t terrible but have some element that put me off (sentient dolphins, a resurrected Göring, or all-combination sex).

Are there any books I think are missing from the list? Well, the arbitrary cutoff is at at 12 citations and here are some great books which I enjoyed that didn’t make it:

R.U.R.
On the Beach
Accelerando
The Stand
Perdido Street Station

They’re all quite different but at the heart of each is the exploration of SF concepts and all of them filled me with a sense of wonder.

Overall, I think the Classics of Science Fiction v5 list is a great resource. Should you read it from beginning to end like I did? Only if you’re either studying the history of SF or are an obsessive completist. Otherwise, treat the list as a recommendation of outstanding SF books and don’t fear to stop reading a book if it doesn’t meet your expectations. Life’s too short for books you don’t enjoy!

I believe Szymon’s finally recommendation is a good one. By the way, Szymon has written for us before:

James Wallace Harris, 10/22/21

“Pelt” by Carol Emshwiller

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #32 of 107: “Pelt” by Carol Emshwiller

“Pelt” first appeared in the November 1958 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. However, it was more recently recognized in the Library of America’s anthology, The Future is Female. LOA has a web page about Carol Emshwiller and a copy of the story to read online. Judith Merril included “Pelt” in her 1959 volume of the best SF stories of 1958, and again in her Best of the Best volume that collected her favorite stories from the first five years of her annual anthologies. However, “Pelt” only has a modest history of being reprinted.

“Pelt” is another variation of the first contact story, but with a nice twist. The story is told from the point of view of a dog, a companion to a human hunter on a new planet, Jaxa, hoping to make a killing in fur trading. I enjoyed watching how Emshwiller presented the dog’s point of view, but overall I didn’t really enjoy the story. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t sparkle. The insight of the story, its moral compass you might say, points to the evil we humans do. It felt modeled on mountain men from out west in the 1830s who were fur trappers and traders. Instead of killing a native American, the hunter kills a native Jaxan.

Like I said, seeing how a writer presents a dog’s POV was fun. I don’t think Emshwiller intended for her doggy protagonist to be uplifted or enhanced even though we’re shown a stream-of-conscience observation of events by the dog. The man is known to the dog as the master, and she is called many endearing names, including the Queen, and Aloora.

Emshwiller has the problem of revealing both the thoughts of the dog and alien to us.

The thing spoke to her then, and its voice was a deep lullaby sound of buzzing cellos. It gestured with a thick, fur-backed hand. It promised, offered, and asked; and she listened, knowing and not knowing.

The words came slowly. This…is…world. 

—

Here is the sky, the earth, the ice. The heavy arms moved. The hands pointed. 

We have watched you, little slave. What have you done that is free today? Take the liberty. Here is the earth for your four shoed feet, the sky of stars, the ice to drink. Do something free today. Do, do. 

Nice voice, she thought, nice thing. It gives and gives…something. 

Her ears pointed forward, then to the sides, one and then the other, and then forward again. She cocked her head, but the real meaning would not come clear. She poked at the air with her nose. Say that again, her whole body said. I almost have it. I feel it. Say it once more and maybe then the sense of it will come. 

But the creature turned and started away quickly, very quickly for such a big thing, and disappeared behind the trees and bushes. It seemed to shimmer itself away until the glitter was only the glitter of the ice and the black was only the thick, flat branches.


The alien even sounds like he could be Chief Joseph. Aloora knows the being is intelligent before the human, or at least that’s how it appears. But the human does see that the alien is holding something. Animals don’t usually hold objects in the wild.

The tiger thing held a small packet in one hand and was peering into it and pulling at the opening in it with a blunt finger. Suddenly there was a sweep of motion beside her and five fast, frantic shots sounded sharp in her ear. Two came after the honey-fat man had already fallen and lay like a huge decorated sack. 

The master ran forward and she came at his heels. They stopped, not too close, and she watched the master looking at the big, dead tiger head with the terrible eye. The master was breathing hard and seemed hot. His face was red and puffy looking, but his lips made a hard whitish line. He didn’t whistle or talk. After a time he took out his knife. He tested the blade, making a small, bloody thread of a mark on his left thumb. Then he walked closer and she stood and watched him and whispered a questioning whine. 

He stooped by the honey-fat man and it was that small, partly opened packet that he cut viciously through the center. Small round chunks fell out, bite-sized chunks of dried meat and a cheesy substance and some broken bits of clear, bluish ice. 

The master kicked at them. His face was not red anymore, but olive-pale. His thin mouth was open in a grin that was not a grin. He went about the skinning then. 

He did not keep the flat-faced, heavy head nor the blunt-fingered hands.

The master skins the alien but doesn’t take the head or hands, which has meaning in the ending. The hunter leaves the meat like buffalo hunters did in the old west. Why is Emshwiller telling us this story? Is she saying humans don’t change. That they will always exploit every frontier they conquer?

I have mentioned this before. But I believe some stories are good enough for a magazine publication. Then a few of them are worth republishing in an annual best-of-the-year collection, and then a fewer still are worthy of being remembered in a retrospective anthology. For me, “Pelt” is a 3-star story that I would have been happy to read in a magazine, but would have been disappointed to find in Merril’s annual anthology.

I think the story was well told, but I’m disappointed with its message and speculation. Even though the story is protesting awful aspects of humanity, it also assumes those aspects will be a part of us in the future. I believe much of the world has already turned against killing for fur, colonialism, and exploiting indigenous people. Sure, it still goes on, but we have changed a lot since 1958.

I’m not for censorship or cancel culture, but we need to think why we remember stories. It has often been said that science fiction isn’t about the future, but the present. And to a degree that’s true. But remembered science fiction is also a message from the past to the future, our present. And in that regard, I find “Pelt” a bit depressing, and even insulting. Emshwiller is suggesting that humans don’t change, that 19th century attitudes will exist in the future when interstellar space travel is possible. One of the reasons I dislike The Expanse series on television because it assumes we’ll carry 20th century attitudes towards war and diplomacy into the age of interplanetary travel.

Now I understand storytellers need conflict for their stories, but I’m disappointed when they use outdated conflicts, and I think this is the case in “Pelt.” I want to believe in the future we’ll no longer be killing for furs, or murdering indigenous beings, but who knows, maybe Emshwiller will be right. More than likely, Emshwiller modeled her conflict without thinking much about it, and I’m making too much out of it. In other words, it was just a little story she knocked out for F&SF, and I should just read it as such. But still, it was depressing. Imagine reading a story where humans enslave aliens, wouldn’t you find that offensive and depressing?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/21/21

“Variation on a Man” by Pat Cadigan

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Wallace Harris, 1/11/22