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

“The Visitors” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #31 of 107: “The Visitors” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

“The Visitors” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky appears to have been written in 1958 according to ISFDB.org, but it gives no original Russian publication source. This older story feels like a trial run for the Strugatskys famous 1972 novel Roadside Picnic. However, the Wikipedia entry for that novel makes no mention of this earlier story about the visitors.

“The Visitors” is yet another first contact story. I’ve lost count of the number we’ve read so far in The Big Book of Science Fiction. “The Visitors” lacks the originality that we discover in Roadside Picnic, but is still a good story. It’s a matter-of-fact account by one observer, K. N. Sergeyev, an archaeologist, who tells a first person story of meeting an alien, and then later quotes from his boss’s diary left at the landing site which describes a close encounter of the third kind. His boss, Boris Yanovich Lozovsky, ultimately volunteers for an encounter of the fourth kind by becoming a storaway on the alien’s ship. “The Visitors” was written during the height of UFO mania, but the story structure and description of events reminds me of The War of the Worlds.

In “The Visitors” we have a very simple account of aliens landing and two humans observing them gather cars, sheep, cows, and other odd bits, before leaving. Boris Yanovich gets to interact with them, but there is no real communication. All their activities are a mystery. Boris thinks they are intelligent machines, but Sergeyev describes them as looking like dog size spiders. I couldn’t help but think of an eight-legged version of the Boston Dynamics robot called Spot.

I enjoy first contact stories, even after reading hundreds of them over the last sixty years. You’d think I’d be burnt out by now. It’s doubtful we’ll ever meet aliens, so science fiction will reimagine the first encounter an infinite number of times. In some ways that’s very frustrating.

Shouldn’t we examine our unquenching thirst for science fiction, especially regarding specific ideas like first contact? Once we thoroughly understand the concept of first contact wouldn’t it be more efficient if we got on with other things? There is so much to learn about reality, why waste all this time with repeating endless speculations on what is essentially is a one sense-of-wonder insight. I’ve often thought we should replace science fiction with a set of concise nonfiction books, each volume covering one science fictional concept, revised and updated every five or ten years.

I have my own ideas of how we’ll make first contact. Someday humans will make a SETI connection with alien beings, and eventually we’ll start sending each other selfies. It might take decades or centuries to even work out a common language and communication standards. I believe most science fiction is overly optimistic in first contact SETI novels by having us intercepting pictures or video right from the start, decoding strange messages in days. I doubt that will happen. I should write a novel about how I picture it happening.

There seems to be a resurgence in UFO interest. Many books were written in the 1950s and 1960s about first encounters, and ufologists worked through all the ideas that science fiction writers have done. I sense the Strugatsky brothers were into UFOs, or they knew about that subculture because “The Visitors” feel more like a UFO report than SF a story.

Evidently, many of us have a strong desire to know we’re not alone in the universe. I’d like to read a novel where the focus is on how human societies change when that finally happens. Any recommendations?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/19/21

“Sector General” by James White

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #30 of 107: “Sector General” by James White

“Sector General” was first published in the November 1957 issue of New Worlds, and is the first story in the long running Sector General series. James White would eventually produce enough short stories and novels about his galactic hospital service that would span twelve books. “Sector General” was reprinted in the first book, Hospital Station.

As far as I can remember, this is the only story I’ve read by James White. “Sector General” is long, episodic, and ends rather abruptly. Dr. Conway is an idealistic young doctor with too many preconceived notions. In the course of the story, he’s forced to change his mind several times.

Most of the story is infodumping because White wants to world build his setup. The setting is a giant space station that serves as a hospital for any kind of alien species. Doctors can quickly acquire the needed biological knowledge for each species via education tapes downloaded into their brain.

If you love Star Trek and Star Wars you’ll probably love the Sector General series, it’s another galactic civilization. The writing in “Sector General” reminded me of a Star Trek novel, where the fun seems to be learning about an ever growing fictional universe.

“Sector General” did not work for me, although the series sounds interesting. It reminds me of other doctors in space stories by Murray Leinster and Alan E. Nourse. I find the premise of human doctors working on alien patients to be unrealistic, but still a neat idea. White chased after too many squirrels in “Sector General.” He was obviously more excited about all the ideas that came to him rather than focusing on storytelling structure. There was content for two good stories in “Sector General” if they had been worked out properly.

Rating: ***

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James Wallace Harris, 10/16/21

“Stranger Station” by Damon Knight

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #29 of 107: “Stranger Station” by Damon Knight

“Stranger Station” by Damon Knight is not a story I’ve read before. It was first published in the December 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and was reprinted in Knight’s second collection, In Deep. It has also been reprinted in many significant anthologies. I own ten of them.

I’ve never read a novel by Knight, and I can count the number of short stories I remember reading by him on one hand: “To Serve Man,” “The Country of the Kind,” “Four in One,” “The Handler,” and now “Stranger Station.” I’ve been impressed with all of them except “To Serve Man.” It’s okay, but The Twilight Zone adaptation spoiled it for me. However, I feel a kind of kinship with Knight because he created the Clarion writers workshops, and I attended Clarion West in 2002. I mostly remember Knight because of his original anthology series Orbit.

“Stranger Station” is exactly the kind of story I was hoping to find in The Big Book of Science Fiction — something I haven’t read that I regret not having read. I bought the SF Gateway Omnibus of Knight’s four collections: Far Out, In Deep, Off Centre, and Turning On after I read “Four in One,” but I haven’t started reading it yet. “Stranger Station” makes me want to find the time.

As I read “Stranger Station” I kept thinking this 1956 story should have been in Harlan Ellison’s 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions. I thought it exceptionally disturbing. I don’t remember reading “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” Knight’s story that was in that famous anthology. I barely remember reading Dangerous Visions in 1968, but can’t remember the specifics to any of the stories.

I didn’t think “Stranger Station” was disturbing because of daring content, but found it unsettling in the way Knight brought us into story, with Paul Wesson descending into madness, and leaving us with horrifying assessment of humans. Not only is the story well told, but it pushes the limits of science fiction for 1956.

Remember, these essays are not reviews. They’re my discussion for our group reads. There will be spoilers.

“Stranger Station” touches on several major science fiction themes: first contact, communication with aliens, ethnocentrism/xenocentrism, cultural humility, cultural shock, cultural imperialism, artificial intelligence, artificial gravity, and more. Knight guesses human spaceflight will take us to Titan by 1987. Of course, that’s wrong, but it could have been right if we had continued with Apollo era funding of space exploration and had not quit in 1972. Knight’s design of space station with artificial gravity is also very impressive for 1956, as his imagination for picturing an AI that reminded me of an evolved Alexa. If Knight had guessed at digitizing media I would have thought he had access to a time machine.

One reason I’m late posting my comments for this story is I’ve read it twice trying to figure it out. Philosophically it seems to be the opposite of “The Country of the Kind” where society has apparently found an exceptional cruel way to deal with lawbreakers with kindness. In “Stranger Station” Knight suggests the solution to fight an alien invasion is hate. But are they really what he’s saying in both cases? The man who considers himself King of the World in “The Country of the Kind” makes a case that society’s rebels deserve compassion too. But Paul Wesson’s solution to the alien’s invasion plan is an act of hate like the character in “The Country of the Kind.”

Science fiction writers seldom try to deal with the problem of alien contact. Most SF stories present aliens like Star Trek and Star Wars. Some aliens are friends, some are enemies, but being around them is no big deal. Knight imagines aliens that drive us insane and we drive them insane. In his story, one human and one alien meet every twenty years at a specially designed space station. They do not meet face-to-face, and they aren’t even supposed to see each other via video. Just being near each other causes psychic distress.

Knight has set up a story about contact between an advanced society and a backward society. In this case, we’re the backward society. It reminds me of stories about cargo cults. We have latched onto a biological byproduct from the aliens’ body that produces longevity and make a fetish of it like a crudely designed model plane. We almost worship the golden fluid, and set up a highly ritualized meeting place where we encounter the aliens, kowtow to their wonders.

In the story, Paul Wesson discovers the aliens are preconditioning us with love so that when we finally do attain interstellar travel we won’t destroy their culture with hate. Wesson resists this and fights back with hate, causing the giant alien the writhe in so much pain that it shakes apart the space station and dies.

What is Knight telling us? Is it a very dark judgment of the human race? At the end we’re told that the computer, Aunt Jane, is also expressing love. My current guess is Knight believes we’ll destroy AI minds too with our hate because of resentment. I currently can’t tell if Knight goes beyond cynicism in this story to any higher judgments.

This is another story that has taught me there were far more great science fiction writers back in the day than I discovered growing up. In the 1960s I barely got beyond the Big Three (Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov) by discovering Delany-Zelazny-Ellison and a couple other writers like Brunner and PKD. I’m having BIG FUN in my old age discovering other writers from the 1950s and 1960s that I should have discovered way back then.

I doubt I’ve even begun to fathom this story. I will need to reread it several times, but as if now:

Rating: *****

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James Wallace Harris, 10/15/21

“The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #28 of 107: “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was obviously aiming to tell the tallest tall tale he could imagine when he wrote “The Last Question” for the November 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly. And what a whopper! No one has ever claimed to have caught a bigger fish. Hell, “The Last Question” is the most hubric statement ever made about mankind. Asimov was known for his ego, and he assumes our species is just as egotistical. But then, science fiction has never been timid about thinking big.

Asimov claimed “The Last Question” was his favorite story he ever wrote. See this quote I stole from Wikipedia:

Why is it my favorite? For one thing I got the idea all at once and didn't have to fiddle with it; and I wrote it in white-heat and scarcely had to change a word. This sort of thing endears any story to any writer. Then, too, it has had the strangest effect on my readers. Frequently someone writes to ask me if I can give them the name of a story, which they think I may have written, and tell them where to find it. They don't remember the title but when they describe the story it is invariably 'The Last Question'. This has reached the point where I recently received a long-distance phone call from a desperate man who began, "Dr. Asimov, there's a story I think you wrote, whose title I can't remember—" at which point I interrupted to tell him it was 'The Last Question' and when I described the plot it proved to be indeed the story he was after. I left him convinced I could read minds at a distance of a thousand miles.

“The Last Question” is stuffed full of science fictional ideas, and has often been dramatically presented at planetarium shows. At the ISFDB.org the story is also listed with quite a number of topic tags for such a short story. Unfortunately, the tag system hasn’t been widely implement yet. I’d love to know all the other SF stories that deal with “reboot” and “heat death of the universe.” I know Tau Zero by Poul Anderson was a reboot story, but it has a different topic tag for that concept – “big crunch.”

“The Last Question” reminds me of an old cartoon. Let’s see how well my memory works. The cartoon showed a giant mainframe computer and two men in lab coats in front of it. One scientist had typed in “Is there a God?” and on the printer the other scientist reads, “There is now.” I’ve always wondered if that cartoon inspired Asimov to write “The Last Question.” I can’t find a copy of that cartoon on the net, but if anyone has a copy please post a link in the comments. On the other hand, the cartoonist may have gotten their idea from the Asimov story.

“The Last Question” is very popular and there’s many audio versions on the net, including this one read by Leonard Nimoy.

In 1956 when this story was written, computers were huge machines that filled large rooms and were only getting bigger. Most people had not seen one, but they were often discussed in pop culture, frequently within jokes. People considered them thinking machines. 1956 was also around the time that artificial intelligence became an academic discipline.

I thought it amusing that Asimov imagines a “Microvac” computer, but even then his micro was quite large. Did science fiction writers ever imagine small personal computers before small personal computers were invented?

Overall, “The Last Question” is a gem of a story, and one that epitomizes the idea story in science fiction. Asimov quickly sketches in a series of characters at every temporal stage of the story, and even though they lack depth of characterization, they capture different stages of humanity that have been imagined before in science fiction. Jerrodd’s family reminds me of the family Stone in Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones. VJ-23X of Lameth was a common futuristic character type in 1930s science fiction, like the kind that Edmond Hamilton, Neil R. Jones, or Raymond Z. Gallun wrote, and Zee Prime recalls what Olaf Stapledon imagined in Last and First Men or Star Maker.

In other words, this is a very science fictional story. And to steal from Aldous Huxley, “The Last Question” reflects the Perennial Philosophy of Science Fiction, which believes humanity will go on no matter what. If our planet dies we’ll find another one. If we lose our star, we’ll build another one. If we outgrow this galaxy, we’ll take over all the rest. If the universe dies, we’ll create another. Nothing is going to stop us. It’s certainly a positive philosophy, but is it a healthy one?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/11/21

“The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #27 of 107: “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith

At first, I was disappointed to see “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was the next story in The Big Book of Science Fiction. I was hoping for a story new to me, instead of another reread. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” seemed too fresh in my mind and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it. But I have this thing about rereading stories. I’ve disciplined myself to always reread a work when encountering it again in another anthology. Experience has taught me it’s well worth the time and effort, and that was the case this time too.

Each time I forget why I love this story, but whenever I start rereading all the details I admired comes back to me. Cordwainer Smith has created a delicious tale for people who love cats and space travel, and I’m his perfect target audience.

I have to wonder why Smith wrote this story? It came out in the October 1955 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, just before the dawn of the Space Age. The story speculates we’ll eventually discover dangers in interstellar space that we can’t fathom consciously. Unknown threats that will drive us mad. Eventually in Smith’s fictional universe, we’ll discover that people with telepathic powers partnered with cats with telepathic powers can overcome those dangers. Humans perceive those unknowable attackers as dragons, and cats see them as rats.

In the 1950s there were countless stories about telepathy, ESP, psionics, and other psychic superpowers. There were a fair number of stories about humans having psychic bonds with cats, with other Earthly animals, as well as all kinds of alien space creatures. Did people in the 1950s really believe the space was going to be full of psychological barriers, that humans were going to develop psi-powers in the future, and we’d communicate with animals and aliens with our minds? Or were those the futures we wanted?

As a kid I thought science fiction was speculation about possibilities just around the corner, maybe within my lifetime, but now as an old person, I wonder if I ever really believed that? I think I did. Or at least, I think I hoped. Was I just a gullible kid who wanted to believe in science fictional theories. Had I put my own hopes for the future into the hands of writers who were only making shit up to tell a neat story? Or is there an inbetween position, where writers were making stuff up, but they also kind of believed their own bullshit?

Paul Linebarger, the real person behind the byline “Cordwainer Smith” was quite a serious and well-educated dude, even writing a textbook Psychological Warfare. Since “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was written in the middle of Cold War, when psychological warfare and brainwashing were topical topics, it’s easy to see the inspiration of the story. But why blend that heavy subject with sentimental fluff about cats? Imagine The Manchurian Candidate with several cute cat scenes.

Do stories need to make sense? Do stories about serious topics need to be serious and logical? “The Game of Rat and Dragon” has been reprinted extensively, including four of the giant doorstop SF retrospective anthologies of this century. Why is that?

Why do science fiction readers keep reading this story? Is it just our love of cats? Do we still hope people will become psychic? Or fear space might have psychological barriers? Or is it merely a story, well told, that entertains us for a few minutes?

The obvious answer is yes, it’s just a little story. But time and time again, I have to wonder why science fiction resonates with us. Science fiction has become immensely popular. As a society we have a vast appetite for fiction and an unquenchable thirst for novelty. Are we bored with reality and need all the books, movies, television shows, and video games we can consume which features interesting fictional realities? Why am I spending so much of my remaining life reading science fiction?

And what about the ending? Isn’t it questioning another normalcy? Doesn’t Underhill love the cat, Lady May, just a little too much? A nurse shows interest in him, and then feels rebuffed because Underhill can only ask about a cat. Should we wonder about Underhill rejecting human company for feline? Or does that line up with our own preference for pet companions? Or is it symbolic for our preference for fiction over life?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/10/21

“Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #26 of 107: “Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz

Science fiction fans usually discover the genre when young, enchanted by its sense of wonder, even becoming addicted to the fantastic for the rest of their lives. I can understand why I was captivated by tall tales in my adolescence but why didn’t I ever outgrow them? After forty years of adult reality, why do I still enjoy children’s fantasies?

This is my second reading of “Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz during the past year. Last July I read it in The Great SF Stories 17 (1955) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. “Grandpa” was first published in the February 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and it’s been well anthologized since. This was a great pick by the VanderMeers because “Grandpa” deserves preserving, and Schmitz deserves better recognition. And it allows me to bring up the topic of young adult (YA) literature in science fiction.

“Grandpa” has never been marketed as YA, but the protagonist is just 15. In 1955 there was quite a lot of YA science fiction being published. Literary critics considered the whole genre aimed at adolescents. Heinlein had his much-loved novels from Charles Scribner’s (the Heinlein Juveniles), Andre “Alice” Norton’s novels were popular, as were the Winston Science Fiction series, and Isaac Asimov had his Lucky Starr series. Plus quite a few SF writers were cranking out books intended for young readers. Most of the many SF magazines knew their audience ran young. The early days of television had a number of popular science fiction adventure shows aimed at kids. I’d say the 1950s and 1960s was a transition time for American childhood, as kids switched from dreaming of becoming cowboys when they grew up, to hoping to become spacemen. (I know I should say cowpeople and spacepeople but it just doesn’t sound right.)

YA lit is all about having young protagonists for young readers to identify. That’s why I call “Grandpa” YA fiction. “Grandpa” is an engaging adventure story that would be empowering to a teenage reader, the kind who cast themselves as action heros in their daydreaming. I’d also call Schmitz’s most famous story, “The Witches of Karres” YA too. And the Telzey Amberdon series is based on a female character who started out as a 15-year-old character.

“Grandpa” is part of The Hub series that ran mainly in Astounding and Analog, a science fiction magazine aimed at adults, but I believe most of its readers got hooked on it in their teens, I know I did. Grandpa, the title character, is a giant floating beast that’s usable as a watercraft. That’s incredibly cool. This world is full of strange symbiotic pairs, and that’s really neat too. And the biology and ecology of this world is rich and complicated and far from understood. Far out. Aren’t these elements the common denominator of science fiction? My favorite YA books of childhood were Heinlein’s juveniles, and they certainly had all these elements and more.

“Grandpa” has everything a teen reader loves about science fiction. Space explorers, colonists on an alien worlds, exotic animals that are both dangerous and pet worthy, freedom from parents, carrying a gun and getting to use it, life and death struggles, belonging to an elite organization while still being a rogue free thinker. This applies to most of the YA science fiction I read in junior high. It’s still the basis for many popular science fiction movies today.

We should ask ourselves: Why does this formula appeal so to us? It’s often been observed how YA fiction finds ways to get young protagonists free of their parents. Cord is just fifteen in this story, and I expect a lot of fifteen-year-olds would love to be out on their own like him. But at that age we really don’t want to join the 9-to-5 mundane world of work. Space is our fairyland. Mars would be great, but we really want a world teaming with endless lifeforms, but not many humans. A few intelligent aliens might be fun, but not too many of those either. We want a world where we can roam and explore without too many responsibilities, and especially without adult supervision.

As adult readers, we still want this kind of adventure too. But at 70, how can I identify with a 15-year-old protagonist? Why is this story still fun? Why am I even nostalgic for this type of fiction? Which I am. And if I crave such adventures why not just go have real adventures? When I was a teen growing up in Miami I would sometimes visit my Uncle Jack out at the Conservation Club in the Everglades. I got to ride swamp buggies and airboats and see giant alligators and other wildlife — not too different from Cord’s fictional adventures. But I preferred saying home and reading science fiction. What’s that all about? My only adventures in nature today are when I visit the Botanic Gardens for a walk. Why do I prefer imaginary worlds to the real world? What’s in fiction adventures that keep us addicted to them our whole life?

Now it’s one thing for a teenager to read “Grandpa,” but it should be a whole different experience for a old guy like me to read. It wasn’t. It made me wish I was fifteen again, and living Cord’s adventure. When I was a teenager I hoped when I grew up space travel would be common and I could have such adventures. That’s why the recent SpaceX Inspiration4 mission was so exciting to people.

However, I have to wonder, what would be age appropriate science fiction for me to read at seventy? I guess that’s why people are so excited about 90-year-old William Shatner going into space in a couple of weeks, we never want to give up that dream about the final frontier.

James H. Schmitz was popular at Astounding/Analog and often got the cover, but he is seldom remembered today. He did write a lot of books, many still in print, but I seldom meet people who talk about them. I wonder if they appeal to girls because he often used female protagonists? (And did boys like having those girl characters?) I found this essay by Mercedes Lackey writing about Schmitz in the introduction to Agent of Vega and Other Stories. I don’t know if it’s cool or legal to quote so much, but I she expresses exactly how we get captured by science fiction when young:

There's a commercial on cable stations lately that talks about moments of epiphany—moments when you understand something that changes your life.  

I've had at least one of those moments—and when it was over, my life had been changed forever.  

It was when, when I was eleven or thereabouts, I went looking in the living room for something to read.  

Now, in my house, books were everywhere and there was very little my brother and I were forbidden to read. We both had library cards as soon as we got past "Run, Spot, run," and by the time I was nine I was coming home with armloads of books every week and still running out of things to read before the week was over. By the time I was ten, I had special permission to take books out of the adult section—yes, in those dark days, you needed a permission slip from your parents to read things that weren't in the children's section.  

Now, the peculiar thing here is that although I read anything that looked like a fairy-tale and every piece of historical fiction I could find, I hadn't discovered classic juvenile science fiction. I can't think why—unless it was because my library didn't have any. It was a very small branch library, and I hadn't yet learned that you could request anything that was in the card-catalog for the whole county-wide system. It might also have been because my branch library had helpfully segregated the juvenile section into "Boys" and "Girls," and I wasn't brave enough to cross the invisible line-of-death dividing the two. I do recall reading two little books called Space Cat and Space Cat Meets Mars and loving them—and also something called City Under the Back Steps about a kid who gets shrunk and joins an ant colony—but that was in a different library, before we moved, and perhaps the books hadn't been so helpfully segregated there. Be that as it may, although I was knee-deep in the historical novels of Anya Seton and Rosemary Sutcliff by then, I hadn't ventured into the adult Science Fiction section. I hadn't fallen headfirst into Andre Norton's myriad worlds, I hadn't joined Heinlein's resourceful heroes, I hadn't discovered Anderson, Asimov, Clarke, Nourse, Simak. . . .  

All that was about to change. Because my father had.   

My father was a science fiction reader; in our house, where library books were everywhere, it was my father who bought the paperbacks. They were divided pretty equally in thirds—suspense (including spy-novels), war, and science fiction.  

It was the start of summer vacation, I had already bored through my stack of nine books, and we weren't going back to the library for another two days. I was desperate. I ventured into the living room, and picked up James Schmidt's Agent of Vega.   

I'm not sure why. It certainly wasn't the cover—in those days, science fiction books were sporting rather odd abstract paintings—possibly trying to divorce themselves from the Bug Eyed Monsters of the pulp covers so that they could be taken Seriously. That wasn't going to happen, not in the Sixties, but you couldn't fault the editors for trying. It wasn't the title—I hadn't a clue what, or who, Vega was, and I wasn't interested in the James Bond books (yet) that featured the only other "agent" I knew of. Perhaps it was just desperation. I asked politely if I could read it, was granted permission, and trotted away to my room with my prize.  

Five minutes later, it was true love.  

It was an epiphany.  

Here was everything I had been looking for—exotic settings, thrills, adventure, heroines who were just as resourceful and brave as the heroes, and something more. There was a magic in the words, but there was more than that. It was imagination.   

No one, no one, since my fairy-tales, had written like this. This James Schmitz fellow seemed as familiar with androids and alien planets as I was with the ice-cream man and the streets of my hometown.  

And here, for the first time, I encountered psionics.   

Psi! There was even an abbreviation for it! Telepathy! Telekinesis! Teleportation! Empathy! Precognition!  

Oh, these were words to conjure with! Better than the magic of the fairy-tales, these were scientific which meant that someone, somewhere (oh let it be me! Me!) might find a way to get one of these powers for himself!  

Much has been made of the "sense of wonder" that science fiction evokes, and believe me, there was nothing to evoke that sense quite like the worlds of James Schmitz. Especially for someone who had never read anything like this before. The man had the right stuff; no doubt of it. By the time that I was done with that book, I was well and truly hooked.  And my life had just taken that irrevocable, epiphanal change.  

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James Wallace Harris, 10/7/21

“The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #25 of 107: “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke

“The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke appeared in the very first issue of Infinity Science Fiction in November 1955 and got top billing on the cover. Was Clarke famous in 1955? “The Star” won a Hugo for him in 1956, so did that make him famous? Clarke was quite prolific at writing short stories and getting them published in a wide variety of science fiction magazines since 1946. So when did Arthur C. Clarke become famous as a top science fiction writer? By 1955 he was known for “Nine Billion Names of God,” Against the Fall of Night, Childhood’s End, and for the nonfiction book, The Exploration of Space, which Wikipedia claims Wernher von Braun gave to John F. Kennedy to promote the idea of space exploration. I ponder all this because I recently read a query on Facebook asking when Clarke became famous enough to be considered integral to the Big Three of science fiction writers. (Although, a more interesting question might be: Who are the top three writers of science fiction in 2021? I could not even begin to answer that.)

I discovered Clarke in 1963 when I read Dolphin Island, first published that year. I then discovered Islands in the Sky (1953) around 1965. In March of 1967 I argued with my best friend over who was the greatest science fiction writer, me claiming Heinlein, but Connell claiming Clarke. So by the mid-1960s I knew who he was, but only vaguely. I believe I had also read The Exploration of Space by then. Still, I was only slightly familiar with Clarke, but Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov were already the Big Three of science fiction. I accepted that because it seemed so.

But when did Clarke become famous? When 2001: A Space Odyssey came out that seem to make him well known. In July 1969 he was interviewed on live television during the Apollo 11 moon launch and landing as if everyone knew him, not just SF fans. But when did he become a legendary science fiction writer to science fiction fans? Clarke was the Guest of Honor at the Worldcon in 1956, the year after Asimov. Heinlein was Guest of Honor in 1941, just two years after he began publishing, and again in 1961, 1976.

I bring all this up because I wonder if the success of stories is related to the success of their authors? How long does it take for a great story to be recognized as a classic? Members of the Worldcon voted “The Star” the best short story the year after it came out, but T. E. Dikty didn’t select it for his best of the year annual. Dikty did pick “The Game of Rat and Dragon” that competed with “The Star” for the Hugo.

Looking at the story’s ISFDB entry, we can see it’s been reprinted quite often. However, that ball didn’t start rolling until 1962 when “The Star” was included in The Hugo Winners edited by Isaac Asimov and A Century of Science Fiction edited by Damon Knight. Those two anthologies were often reprinted, and were selections for the SFBC. That spread the word far and wide. Plus “The Star” was included in Clarke’s third collection, The Other Side of the Sky that went through many editions. The list of reprints at ISFDB is quite long, and so is the list of languages its been translated into.

I’m surprised that the VanderMeers included “The Star” in The Big Book of Science Fiction, since they often seem to avoid the widely reprinted classics. I would have expected them to find a less famous Clarke to promote. They didn’t include a story by Heinlein because they couldn’t get the rights — and that omission really sticks out. The Asimov they picked was Asimov’s favorite I believe, but not mine. Both “The Star” and “The Last Question” are excellent stories, but not evidence that Clarke and Asimov were once part of a Big Three. Are there three stories that would stand as evidence?

When I go to bookstores I often check to see how many books are available by Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov. Where once each of their titles would fill a shelf or two, they now take up inches with a few titles. Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov are hardly the big three today. Will “The Star” survive if Clarke’s reputation doesn’t?

The story is rather slight, and can be read in 5-15 minutes, and I believe most people remember it because of its trick ending. Just to remind folks, I’m not reviewing stories, but discussing them, so I will spoil that surprise ending.

It’s rather interesting that Clarke’s two most famous short stories confirm the existence of God, and his two most famous novels, suggest that mankind will be resurrected into a higher state of being. That’s rather interesting since I believe Clarke was an atheist. Was he just going for a surprise ending, or was he making a philosophical statement. Maybe we should look closer at those two short stories.

In “Nine Billion Names of God,” the almighty dissolves the universe after Buddhist monks compile a list of all his possible names. In “The Star” God destroys a planet of advanced beings just to signal to our planet that his son had arrived. Was Clarke wanting his readers to consider that God is not nice? Or the ways of God are not fathomable by us? James Blish in A Case of Conscience and Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow also use science fiction to question the nature of God.

In my opinion, Clarke was going for the cheap gasp. In both stories, he setup the story nicely. In “The Star” he does some astronomical infodumping, and covers a couple classic science fiction themes, one of which is a favorite of mine. I love stories about exploring the remains of extinct alien civilizations. Clarke even throws in a nice Jesuit character that I was getting to like. Then WHAM – the surprise.

When I reread these stories, and I do reread them because I have a personal rule to reread stories when I encounter them again in another anthology, I know what’s coming so I try to look for interesting bits along the way to the ending. This time I liked the Jesuit, and that he has a copy of Ruben’s engraving of Loyola in his cabin.

On the other hand, is this enough to keep reprinting “The Star?” If science fiction is mostly neat ideas and surprise endings is that enough for us to keep reading it. Shouldn’t we want more? What did Clarke give the science fiction world to make him famous?

I fear most science fiction has little lasting value. That’s why we see all its themes recycled for each new generation reclothed in current fashions. I wonder if “The Star” survives because no later generation has come up with this same trick ending?

If I was anthologizing SF stories from the 20th century and wanted to include an Arthur C. Clarke story, I’d use “Rescue Party.” I’ve read that Clarke was annoyed by the number of people who told him their favorite story of his was “Rescue Party” because it meant his career had been going down since his first professional sale. “The Star” is much better written, but if we’re going for unique ideas, “Rescue Party” has more. A race of aliens come upon the Earth but there’s no sign of humanity. The aliens poke about our remains wondering who we were. This is the inverse of the theme I like so much. A very nice twist. We have abandoned the solar system like the beings of “The Star” should have. Near the end of the story, the aliens discover we’d left monitoring equipment to record the end of our world, and followed the direction in which it was beaming data. The story ends with them going off to find us.

The science fiction theme that humanity must leave the Earth and solar system to survive is a strong one. It’s part of the drive behind Elon Musk’s effort to colonize Mars. It promotes the belief that no matter what God or Nature throws at us, we will hang on. That’s a much more powerful message for Clarke to leave his readers.

To answer my original query I’m guessing Clarke became famous when a certain percentage of science fiction readers thought his ideas and stories were among the best. I’m guessing that happened between Childhood’s End (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956), maybe as late as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and definitely by Rendezvous with Rama (1973).

Update:

I found this quote in I, Asimov: A Memoir where Isaac Asimov claims Clarke was famous by 1949. But I find that hard to believe, because that was before any of his famous stories.

There was no question that by 1949 I was widely recognized as a major science fiction writer. Some felt I had joined Robert Heinlein and A. E. van Vogt as the three-legged stool on which science fiction now rested. 

As it happened, A. E. van Vogt virtually ceased writing in 1950, perhaps because he grew increasingly interested in Hubbard’s dianetics. In 1946, however, a British writer, Arthur C. Clarke, began to write for ASF, and he, like Heinlein and van Vogt (but unlike me), was an instant hit. 

By 1949, the first whisper of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov as “the Big Three” began to be heard. This kept up for some forty years, for we all stayed alive for decades and all remained in the science fiction field. In the end, we all three commanded large advances and found our books on the best-seller lists. (Who would have thought it in the 1940s?)

I, Asimov (pp. 140-141). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

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James Wallace Harris, 10/4/21

“Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #24 of 107: “Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver

Now that we’ve reached the 1950s in our group discussion of The Big Book of Science Fiction, I think we should try and remember the historical context that gave birth to our genre. Although science fiction was part of the pulp magazine tradition of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the American public at large hadn’t discovered science fiction yet. During WWII the atomic bomb and V-2 rockets opened their eyes. In the late 1940s the flying saucer mania got people thinking about invasions from space and aliens. Then around 1950 a flood of science fiction TV shows, movies, comics, paperbacks, magazines, and hardbacks hit pop culture causing the Baby Boomers to grow up with the genre. (I chronicled all this in “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”)

Science fiction writers were in the unique position to prepare America and the world for the future. John W. Campbell Jr. was the prophet for the space age urging his disciples to write positive fiction about the potential of the future. Not everyone was so optimistic, but their stories usually appeared in the dozens of new digest size magazines that were part of a publishing boom in science fiction, which competed with Astounding Science Fiction.

“Let Me Live in a House” first appeared in the March 1954 issue of Universe Science Fiction, from a group of low-budget magazines edited by Raymond A. Palmer, former editor of Amazing Stories, and creator of Fate Magazine. Ray Palmer was major promoter of UFO fiction and nonfiction, and a legendary nut-ball in the SF world. In other words, Palmer was what Philip K. Dick called a Crap Artist. People now consider John W. Campbell a nut, but we should remember back in the 1950s and 1960s all science fiction readers were consider geeky, nerdy, nutty, and social zeroes. One reason I’m reviewing the BBofSF is to retrace the steps of my philosophical development from reading science fiction. Back then, I was a crap artist much like Jack Isidore in PKD’s Confessions of a Crap Artist, which is my favorite work by Philip K. Dick.

“Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver is the kind of story I was hoping to find in The Big Book of Science Fiction — one that I hadn’t read and one that deserved to be rediscovered and preserved. Chad Oliver is an author I’ve been curious about lately. I read his The Mists of Dawn as a kid because it was part of the Winston Science Fiction series, and I reread that novel last year when I got nostalgic for those old YA SF novels. Recently, I was quite taken with his story “Transformer” and wrote about it in “From Let’s Pretend Literature.” Now with “Let Me Live in a House” I’m feeling a need to read more Oliver. Luckily, several of his novels and collections are available at Amazon for $1.99 each for the Kindle editions.

Chad Oliver is little known today, even Wikipedia doesn’t say much about him. Usually, when people mention him, they mention he was anthropologist. I did find this nice “Annotated Bibliography and Guide” to his work.

Oliver explores two major science-fictional themes in “Let Me Live in a House.” The first is about the brutality of space. This story was written well before Sputnik and the creation of NASA. I was impressed that Oliver predicted that only people with the Right Stuff would become astronauts. He also speculated that space would be psychologically hostile to humans, and the premise of this tale is astronauts will need to take their culture with them to survive. We’re shown four astronauts on Ganymede, living in twin track houses, with two married couples playing neighbors and best friends. This opening reminds me of the kind of stories Philip K. Dick was writing in the 1950s, where people live inside artificial delusions.

The two couples, Gordon and Helen Collier, and Bart and Mary Walters, have been conditioned to think they are living an ordinary suburban life of playing cards and watching TV. The men occasionally monitor conditions on Ganymede from a hidden room but they try not to think about where they are. Gordon is starting to crack, becoming aware that he’s pretending, becoming more and more paranoid. Then one night they hear a strange noise while playing cards:

Gordon Collier walked nervously out of the room, followed by Barton. He clenched his fists, feeling the clammy sweat in the palms of his hands, and fought to keep the fear from surging up within him. They walked into a small hall and Gordon pressed a button. A section of the wall slid smoothly back on oiled runners, and the two men walked into the white, brightly lighted equipment room. 

Gordon kept his hand steady and flipped on the outside scanners. He couldn’t see a thing. He tried the tracer screen, and it was blank. Barton tried the radio, on the off chance that someone was trying to contact them. There was silence. 

They checked the radar charts for the past hour. They were all quite normal—except the last one. That one had a streak on it, a very sharp and clear and unmistakable streak. It was in the shape of an arc, and it curved down in a grimly familiar way. It started far out in space and it ended. Outside—outside in the ice and the rocks and the cold. 

“Probably a meteor,” Barton suggested. 

“Probably,” Gordon agreed dubiously, and made a note to that effect in the permanent record. 

“Well, what else could it have been?” Barton challenged. 

“Nothing,” Gordon admitted. “It was a meteor.” 

They swung the wall shut again, covering the tubes and screen and coils with flowered wallpaper and Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. They returned to the living room, where their wives still sat around the card table waiting for them. The room was as comfortable as ever, and the tri-di set was on again. 

It was all just as they had left it, Gordon thought—but it was different. The room seemed smaller, constricted, isolated. The temperature had not changed, but it was colder. Millions and millions of miles flowed into the room and crawled around the walls…. 

“Just a meteor, I guess,” Gordon said. 

They went on with their game for another hour, and then Barton and Mary went home to bed. Before they left, they invited Gordon and Helen to visit them the next night.
 

As Gordon becomes undone we slowly learn how Oliver predicts living in space will be a psychic burden. This reminds me of the brilliant story by Edmond Hamilton, “What’s It Like Out There?” that came out in 1952, two years before this story. Joachim Boaz has a review of that story which is part of a series about SF that shows the brutality of living in space. The 1950s was a time when psychiatry was a popular topic at parties and in fiction, so this makes sense, and besides Oliver was an anthropologist. Space was still a huge unknown, so such stories are an obvious speculation. However, they weren’t common in the genre because most science fiction fans were gung-ho to explore space. These were not the kind of stories that John W. Campbell Jr. would publish.

I grew up in the 1960s readily accepting the faith of a high frontier, a true believer in SPACE. As a kid, I loved Heinlein’s 1950 novel about Ganymede, Farmer in the Sky. Heinlein saw space like Americans in the 19th century thought of the West. His novel starkly contrasts with “Let Me Live in a House,” and had all the positive sentimentality of Little House on the Prairie. I’m not sure I could I would have enjoyed reading “Let Me Live in a House” when I was a teen.

Oliver adds a second SF theme in “Let Me Live in a House,” that was far more common, that of first contact. He applies that same kind of fear and paranoia he did about exploring space to it. It turns out the noise Gordon and Bart hear is a spaceship, and a few nights later there is a knock on their door. This reminds me of the classic Fredric Brown story, “Knock,” based on the the idea of the last man on Earth sits in a room alone and hears a knock upon the door.

When Gordon opens the door a man that looks like the portrait of Bart’s grandfather comes in. Of course, it’s an alien, and we eventually learn it projects a human image because its physical features are two horrible for the humans to witness. Gordon must escape this illusion and overcome the alien in a battle of logic.

In my post about “Prott” by Margaret St. Clair, I talked about the problem SF writers have with first contact stories. Oliver deals with those problems in a number of ways. The alien obviously has great mental powers, even telepathy, and can communicate in English. And we don’t get to know the alien because it disguises itself as a human. Gordon does get to see what the alien really looks like, which is so gruesome that it drives him mad. Remember how Greek philosophers said if we could see the face of God we’d go mad?

Oliver is predicting we won’t be able to live in space, and that we really won’t be able to handle aliens — other than our tried and true method of dealing with xenophobia. Is the reason why this story isn’t well known because of its negative attitude towards space exploration? And did the VanderMeers anthologize it because of its contrarian take? What’s interesting is three of their stories, “Prott,” “Let Me Live in a House,” and “The Microscopic Giants” were first anthologized in Science Fiction Terror Tales edited by Groff Conklin. I wonder if they read that anthology? We have to give both Conklin and the VanderMeers credit for mining stories out of the lesser science fiction magazines. In 1954, Astounding, Galaxy, and F&SF were the big three, but there were a couple dozen other science fiction magazines coming out at that time. Have anthologists read them all?

The science fiction short stories that appeared in the 1950s were ones I read in old anthologies I checked out of libraries in the 1960s. From now on, as we progress through the BBofSF, we’ll be reading stories I consumed over the last sixty years, as well as ones I missed. It’s time to reevaluate everything that went into the evolution of my thinking.

Collectively, I’d say people still believe in the John W. Campbell view of the future. We’re still gung-ho on space exploration. But there’s still a chance for Chad Oliver’s speculation to be valid. We might not survive space psychologically or biologically. But we should also ask: Why do we want to go into space? Did the romance of science fiction impregnate those desires into us? We have a lot of stories to read that might help us answer those questions?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/3/21

“The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #23 of 107: “The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn

The Liberation of Earth” was first published in the May 1953 issue of Future Science Fiction. It hasn’t been widely reprinted, but it’s been in all the versions of Brian Aldiss’s The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus and it’s in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. I believe I’ve only read it once before, in The Great SF Stories 15 (1953) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I owned a copy Of All Possible Worlds back in the 1960s and might have first read it then, but just can’t remember. For a short time in my adolescence I was into William Tenn because I had found an old copy of Galaxy Science Fiction with “Time Waits for Winthrop,” and that amused me. I remember seeking out his stories, but don’t remember what I read. I recently read Of Men and Monsters and loved it. In my review I made a case that people should try to read Tenn’s only novel without encountering any spoilers — don’t even read the blurbs on the book cover.

I am less taken with “The Liberation of Earth.” Oh, it’s good enough, and fun, I’m just not keen on satire in my old age. However, it might be a problem with presentation. My inner reading voice is not very impressive, especially for sarcasm and other forms of comic snideness. Comedy depends heavily on presentation. “The Liberation of Earth” is a long monologue describing the invasions and liberations by two groups of aliens, the Dendi and the Troxxt, who use the Earth like the U.S. and Russia fought over third world countries for their client states.

If I could have heard “The Liberation of Earth” read by a professional narrator I might have been wowed by all the relevant satire. The VanderMeers really tout its greatness, especially as an antiwar work that was originally inspired by the Korean War. And I do imagine if the people of Afghanistan read this story today they could relate to the “joys” of being liberated time and again.

I think there is another target for Tenn’s satire in this story — science fiction — especially the cherished notion that humanity would be welcomed as an equal partner into a wise galactic federation. “The Liberation of Earth” came out after The Day the Earth Stood Still, so I wondered if it was also harpooning it?

However, there is another issue I should mention. I believe I’ve come to want a certain kind of storytelling, and this narrowing of my tastes leaves me a bit closeminded about other kinds of storytelling. I like stories with characters I can get to know and care about. I don’t have to like them, but they have to involve me. “The Liberation of Earth” only has an unnamed narrator, and not someone we get to know. When Australia is turned to ash it was only an abstraction. If there had been an Australian character we had come to care about, it might have mattered. Like the Australians in the novel On the Beach. The one William Tenn story I do remember well and love, is the novel Of Monsters and Men, and that was because of Eric the Only. I followed Eric through many adventures, and we solved the mysteries of his world together.

I recently listened to The Best of Walter M. Miller Jr. on audiobook. Many of the stories in that collection were exactly the kind I love, with captivating characters, dramatic plots, presented by a very talented professional narrator. I’ve been listening to the Miller stories over the same weeks I’ve been reading The Big Book of Science Fiction, and the contrast is stark. Too many of the stories in the BBofSF just depend on ideas and cleverness, and that’s not enough for me. And to be honest, I can’t believe it’s enough for any reader. However, that’s another thing I’m learning from group reading these stories on Facebook. Everyone likes different kinds of science fiction.

Miller stories are just the right kind for me, even though they aren’t particularly famous in science fiction history, and some of them are a bit weird and strange, even for science fiction. But gosh, they’re great stories, with great storytelling — again, at least for me. Since this collection isn’t even in print at the moment maybe they aren’t the right kind of storytelling for a lot of SF fans. The audiobook I listened to is new, but narrates a collection last published back in 1980. My absolute favorite is “The Darfsteller.” It was first published in the January 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. I believe it was the first novelette to win the Hugo Award even though it’s a novella. I’m guessing the magazine version was much shorter. After that three stories are tied for second place as my favorites: “The Lineman,” “Conditionally Human,” and “Dark Benediction.” Although if I listened to the book again I might pick other stories out of the 14 in this collection. And I should probably give a trigger warning that these stories might be offensive to modern readers who expect characters in the past to have 21st-century enlightened views.

I’d really wish the audiobook publishers of the Miller collection would do one for Tenn. In fact, there are many science fiction authors I love who mainly wrote short stories and there’s no audiobook editions of their work. Several of those authors are in print from NESFA Press, including William Tenn. Audible Studios has done one NESFA book that I know of, His Share of Glory by C. M. Kornbluth. I wish they’d do them all. With a good audio narrator I might even love “The Liberation of Earth.” I have found that audiobooks can often get me to enjoy books I don’t enjoy reading.

Many of the stories we’ve read in The Big Book of Science Fiction have been disappointing to some of our membership, but then others in the group have liked them. It’s really hard to judge fiction. It seems the VanderMeers prefer kinds of storytelling I don’t, but like I said, presentation matters. So does mood. I’ve changed my mind about stories because my mood had changed. And then there’s age. I think we resonate with stories differently depending on our age. I don’t remember if I read “The Liberation of Earth” back in the 1960s, but I’m pretty sure I would have liked it much better when I was young.

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James Wallace Harris, 10/2/21

“Prott” by Margaret St. Clair

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #22 of 107: “The Prott” by Margarett St. Clair

Prott” by Margaret St. Clair was first published in the January 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, and later anthologized by Groff Conklin in Science Fiction Terror Tales in the U.S. and by Edmund Crispin in Best SF in Great Britain. I don’t remember reading anything before by Margaret St. Clair, or by her pen name Iris Seabright, but I have seen both names enough over the years to know she was around. Wikipedia says she published over 130 stories. St. Clair only has one book in print at Amazon, a 2019 collection of 17 stories, The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales, but “Prott” isn’t included. James Nicolls reviews The Best of Margaret St. Clair edited by Martin H. Greenberg that came out in 1985. That collection did include “Prott.”

“Prott” is a first contact story, and St. Clair worked hard to make her aliens alien, which is something I admire. She also focused on the problem of communication, which is another theme I like. The story is told in a frame of two men having drinks and one of them gives the other a diary to read which is the story. It’s from an unnamed academic who had gone out beyond the asteroid belt to study the sex life of the Prott, an alien race who lives in space that looks roughly shaped like poached eggs. We learn of his frustrating effort to communicate with the aliens via telepathy and a threat to humanity. The story is slightly humorous in tone, and the threat is a distant cousin to what Fredric Brown described in Martians, Go Home. It even shares a bit of the puzzle we saw in Murray Leinster’s “First Contact.”

The problem with “Prott” is it suffers the fate of all first contact stories. Writers can describe their aliens in various ways so that they look very alien, and make them very difficult to talk to, but once any kind of communication is establish, it’s hard to wrap up the story without resorting to a gimmick to distract us from the fact we can’t ever know the alien. One of the best first contact stories is “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang filmed as Arrival. That story wraps ups with a time paradox gimmick that is very satisfying. In the Leinster story, the gimmick involves trading spaceships. In The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell we’re left with an spiritual conundrum of why would God do something so horrible to a Catholic priest. “Prott” leaves us with a bit of comic horror. Unfortunately, for me, it was an unsatisfying payoff.

St. Clair builds up a nice mystery about the Prott but leaves the ardent researcher with a frustrating problem he can’t solve. Readers are just as frustrated because we don’t know what —– the —- is either. The release of this up-to-now mostly serious story is to wrap things up with an O. Henry ending. That concluding gimmick wasn’t satisfying for me.

That’s the problem with first contact stories, it’s almost impossible to conclude them in a satisfying way. In the novel Contact by Carl Sagan there is a tremendously long build-up to create the mystery of the aliens until we’re finally dazzled by a show of their powers. In the end Ellie is returned to Earth at the same time she left with no evidence of the aliens’ existence. She’s like Dorothy waking up in the film version of The Wizard of Oz, or any Christian that must claim they know God exists because of their faith. In the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind we finally get to meet aliens, but before we learn anything real, Roy takes off with the aliens in their flying saucers. The gimmick is a sleight-of-hand bait and switch. We’re happy for Roy, but we’re left with nothing.

In fiction where we do get to know aliens they often become like us. In the novels Children of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky the spider-like alien characters discovered in the first volume become more human in the second volume. Tchaikovsky retries to introduce alienness with uplifted octopi, and a new alien race and ends the second book before we get too chummy with those alien characters. Tchaikovsky does a good job of creating a sense of alienness but the more time we spend with these new creatures the more we have to relate to them in human terms. I believe these novels are popular because his gimmick is to end the story at the right moment.

In “Prott” the less we know about the Prott the more alien they seem. Yet, we never learn what they are, how they evolved, what kind of environment and ecology they live in, how they find meaning, or anything about their social structure. The conclusion is they become pests to us, which is relatable to the reader, and the gimmick. What I wanted was our Margaret Meade like protagonist to observe more customs. We were promised sex. You have to give Philip Jose Farmer credit for being explicit for his stories of alien encounters..

We have always wondered if we’re alone in the multiverse, and if we’re not, what strange beings could exist that we can’t comprehend? It’s an impossible task for the science fiction writer to describe the indescribable. Just look at all the versions of Star Trek and all the aliens we’ve encountered in countless episodes over the decades. In the end, most of the stories are about Klingons and Vulcans who are all too much like us. One reason I believe H. P. Lovecraft was so popular is he invented so many horrible alien monstrosities that we only know from awe and horror. But doesn’t religion use the same gimmick?

“Prott” is another nice try at creating an alien, but really just a minor effort. The reason why “The Martian Odyssey” was so successful, and so well anthologized is Tweel was such a great alien character. Stanley G. Weinbaum hit that one out of the park. The Prott aren’t that interesting. Neither was the structure of how St. Clair told her story, which was closer in style to the 19th century than what was innovative in the 1950s. I know I keep harping on this, but the competition at that time was “Coming Attraction” and “Fondly Fahrenheit.” St. Clair is doing a pale imitation of Poe.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/30/21

“The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #21 of 107: “The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean

The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean first appeared in the September 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. It’s not a great story, but it’s not bad either. I believe other people must like it far more than I do because it’s been reprinted quite often.

This story has a problem that’s quite common in science fiction stories. Writers get a neat idea first, and then they invent a story to present their idea. Quite often the story is never as good as the idea. Superior science fiction stories have a great story with neat ideas that only decorate the story.

In this case MacLean wonders, what if we had a mathematically formula that could explain how an organization could grow at an exponential rate. What she imagines is a Ponzi scheme designed by a sociologist, and has two professors test it on a women’s sewing club. You can probably guess the ending. But can you guess how MacLean will dramatize this story with plot and characters?

If you’ve read much science fiction you might know where I’m going. Science fiction is full of stories that begin with two people talking about an idea, then we see the idea implemented in a cursory way, and finally, we have some kind of surprise ending. When done poorly, the story usually begins with two characters infodumping on the reader, and that’s the case here. Often such stories involves a contrived setup. In this case, an administrator is putting the screws to a sociology professor to justify his department’s existence. That’s still a relevant real-world problem in universities today, and not just for sociology departments. It’s actually a genuinely interesting problem that we should care about as readers – how do academic programs pay their way? Does society need their graduates? Is the program worth the cost to the university, state, and students? What does the discipline do for the community? I was hooked by this idea as a story problem, and I was anxious to read on.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t pleased with MacLean’s answer. She came up with a good setup, but she doesn’t have anything to say. I don’t mean a Western Union message. Good short stories elevate us with insights. At this point I’m expecting a dramatic story that shows me the value of sociology – something I can understand. We don’t get that. We neither get a true short story, or an understanding of sociology. What we get is a mildly pleasant joke.

Science fiction has produced countless stories like this. A pleasant setup to present a nifty idea. When I was younger being amused by an idea was enough, but I’m older and I don’t have much time left to live. I only want to read 5-star stories, or at least top-notch 4-star stories. “The Snowball Effect” is only a 3-star story. I believe it was perfectly fine for the September 1952 issue of Galaxy, but I’m surprised it was ever reprinted.

Maybe I can explain my harsh attitude with an analogy. I think of anthologies like a generation spaceship designed to save people from a dying Earth. Best-of-the-year annuals are constructed to rescue the best stories of the year. Retrospective anthologies are designed to save stories from specific periods. I believe the VanderMeers have a somewhat different approach. To them anthologies are like the starship Enterprise exploring the galaxy, looking for neat planets and interesting phenomena happening around the Milky Way. They want to make a wide survey that reveals the diversity of what’s going on. From my perspective only a few stories can be saved, so why not the best? For them, lets check out some interesting possibilities.

There’s a great SF story I can use here, “One in Three Hundred” by J. T. McIntosh. It first appeared in the February 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The setup has the world coming to an end and there’s only enough rockets to save one in three hundred people. Each rocket is assigned a person to pick those that will be saved. Bill Easson must decide who in his small town will go. He knows there are many personality factors to consider and he will make mistakes by picking people who won’t survive the mission, but he still has to pick.

For me, it’s important to pick science fiction stories that can survive the harsh climate of future readers. Like Bill picking people he feels has what it takes to survive on the new planet, anthologists pick stories that have qualities that make them survivalists. All the stories we’ve read so far in The Big Book of Science Fiction are still readable, I’m just that asshole we see in war movies that tell a squad member they don’t think they’ll make it.

I doubt many 20th-century science fiction stories will be loved by readers in the 22nd-century. I don’t believe “The Snowball Effect” will make it. It’s only marginal in 2021. What bothers me are the stories I believe have a better chance to survive the long haul that wasn’t pick by this anthology. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe I know any better than the VanderMeers. Nobody can predict the future – but we all keep trying.

It’s just there are stories I want to see saved, and to do that they need to be anthologized several more times before the year 2100. Every ship they miss reduces their chance to make it. To make matters more emotional for me, is the 1950s is my favorite decade for science fiction. The VanderMeers have chosen 20 stories from the 1950s, so they like that period too, unfortunately we only agree on two stories at the most. But I have to say I haven’t read all their selections so that number might go up. Four of those twenty stories were from 1952. Here are the 1950s SF stories from The Big Book of Science Fiction:

  • September 2005: The Martian • (1951) • short story by Ray Bradbury
  • Baby HP • short story by Juan José Arreola (trans. of Baby H. P. 1952)
  • Surface Tension • (1952) • novelette by James Blish
  • Beyond Lies the Wub • (1952) • short story by Philip K. Dick
  • The Snowball Effect • (1952) • short story by Katherine MacLean
  • Prott • (1953) • short story by Margaret St. Clair
  • The Liberation of Earth • (1953) • short story by William Tenn
  • Let Me Live in a House • (1954) • novelette by Chad Oliver
  • The Star • (1955) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Grandpa • (1955) • novelette by James H. Schmitz
  • The Game of Rat and Dragon • (1955) • short story by Cordwainer Smith
  • The Last Question • (1956) • short story by Isaac Asimov
  • Stranger Station • (1956) • novelette by Damon Knight
  • Sector General • (1957) • novelette by James White
  • The Visitors • novelette as by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky
  • Pelt • (1958) • short story by Carol Emshwiller
  • The Monster • (1965) • short story by Gérard Klein? (trans. of Le monstre 1958)
  • The Man Who Lost the Sea • (1959) • short story by Theodore Sturgeon
  • The Waves • short story by Silvina Ocampo (trans. of Las ondas 1959)
  • Plenitude • (1959) • short story by Will Mohler

Here are 18 SF stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list from the 1950s. These stories were selected because they were most cited by a meta-list system. The number at the end is the total citations the story received. The bolded stories are those that overlap with The Big Book of Science Fiction. By the way, the BBofSF was one of the citation sources.

  • Coming Attraction by Fritz Leiber (1950) 11
  • The Little Black Bag by C. M. Kornbluth (1950) 8
  • Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith (1950) 9
  • There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury (1950) 8
  • The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke (1951) 9
  • Surface Tension by James Blish (1952) 9
  • The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953) 12
  • Second Variety by Philip K. Dick (1953) 8
  • The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin (1954) 12
  • Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester (1954) 13
  • The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith (1955) 14
  • The Star by Arthur C. Clarke (1955) 16
  • The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight (1956) 11
  • The Last Question by Isaac Asimov (1956) 8

This list is closer to my tastes, but probably far from my final list. Below are the 1950s stories from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One that the SFWA membership remembered. Notice only one story, “Surface Tension” is remembered on all three lists. It would probably be on mine too.

  • Scanners Live in Vain • (1950) • novelette by Cordwainer Smith
  • The Little Black Bag • (1950) • novelette by C. M. Kornbluth
  • Born of Man and Woman • (1950) • short story by Richard Matheson
  • Coming Attraction • (1950) • short story by Fritz Leiber
  • The Quest for Saint Aquin • (1951) • novelette by Anthony Boucher
  • Surface Tension • (1952) • novelette by James Blish
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • (1953) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
  • It’s a Good Life • (1953) • short story by Jerome Bixby
  • The Cold Equations • (1954) • novelette by Tom Godwin
  • Fondly Fahrenheit • (1954) • novelette by Alfred Bester
  • The Country of the Kind • (1956) • short story by Damon Knight
  • Flowers for Algernon • (1959) • novelette by Daniel Keyes

These Hall of Fame stories are much closer in agreement with the CSFquery list.

I’m not ready to compose my list of favorite 1950s science fiction stories. I’m still reading. But there is one problem with my focus on the 1950s. I’m discovering stories that I love that currently aren’t well remembered. That’s a bad sign for the survivability. There’s a good chance I could pick 20 stories that few people would even enjoy reading today, much less in 79 years.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/28/21

“Beyond Lies the Wub” by Philip K. Dick

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #20 of 107: “Beyond Lies the Wub” by Philip K. Dick

“Beyond Lies the Wub” is Philip K. Dick’s first publish story and we can already see hints of what’s to come in his future writing. It’s a fun little story with a cheeky horror twist. The wub is a gentle creature who loves to enjoy itself, indulging in food, conversation, and philosophy. I wonder if PKD saw himself as the wub? In the end Captain Franco kills the wub and eats it — and we’re shocked to learn that the wub takes over his mind. I wonder if PKD saw himself in this too, because we read his stories, putting them inside us, and we write and talk about them becoming a little bit like PKD.

Yesterday I wrote about my lifelong addiction to science fiction at my personal blog. I was lamenting that I wasn’t challenging myself much by reading science fiction short stories which I felt were only a couple steps up from comic books. Comments were left defending comic books, but I wasn’t attacking them. What I was implying is art represents different levels of complexity to create and takes different levels of effort to consume. Art is anti-entropic. I was saying science fiction short stories on average require more complexity to create and consume than comic book stories. (I wasn’t considering the comic art in the comparison.) The average science fiction novel takes more work to create and read than the average science fiction short story. But I also believe the best literary novels and short stories are more complex on average than most of the best science fiction novels and short stories.

Take for example the Jorge Luis Borges story we read. Borges was far more ambitious in that story than any of the other stories we read so far. It took more cognitive effort to write, and it takes us far more cognitive effort to read. I was criticizing myself for indulging in mostly consuming science fiction in my lifetime rather than pursuing more active activities, or even consuming more complex art.

But the thing is I enjoyed “Beyond Lies the Wub” more than I did “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” even though the PKD is much closer to comic book writing, and the Borges is far more complex than average science fiction short story writing. I shouldn’t though. “Beyond Lies the Wub” is junk food, and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is haute cuisine, relatively speaking. But who’s to say which is superior?

In past years, I believe the average level of complexity of the short stories of The Best American Short Stories annuals were greater than the complexity of science fiction short stories in their annual best of the year volumes for the same years. I would say that if we compared the 2021 annuals from this year, science fiction is approaching the complexity of literary writing, but hasn’t quite caught up.

I also feel that the complexity of the science fiction stories we’re reading in The Big Book of Science Fiction from each period doesn’t always match the highest level of complexity from other stories that could have been chosen. “Surface Tension” is definitely far more complex than “Beyond Lies the Wub” for a 1952 science fiction story, but it is far less sophisticated than “Baby Is Three” by Theodore Sturgeon.

“Beyond Lies the Wub” is a fun story, but it’s far from PKD’s best. Why is it here when there is much better SF from that era? Why did the VanderMeers skip over “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber and “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith both from 1950? These were dazzling stories that began the decade for science fiction and showed a quantum leap over the what was being written in the 1940s. If we had to have a PKD story from the 1950s, why not “Second Variety?” And is the 1950s the right decade for using our one PKD story?

I can think of a lot of science fiction stories from the 1950s that are far more complex and challenging than the ones we’re getting in this anthology. But was that the goal of the book? “Beyond Lies the Wub” is fun, and quite often I prefer reading just for fun, so I can’t blame the VanderMeers for their choice if that’s the case.

In my essay yesterday I was basically lamenting I could have done more with my life than read all that science fiction. But it is the art form I chose to admire and become part of my life. And in my retirement years I’ve been focusing on science fiction short stories. And I’m learning that some science fiction stories are way better than others – in my subjective view. However, if we use complexity to measure them, isn’t that less subjective and more objective?

“Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester and “The Moon Moth” by Jack Vance are far more complex than the stories we’re getting in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Why weren’t they chosen? Bester and Vance were dazzling in their writing. If we’re given a collection of stories that claim to be the ultimate science fiction short stories of the 20th century, shouldn’t they be the most ambitious, challenging, and complex examples? I don’t know. I’m just wondering?

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James Wallace Harris, 9/27/21

“Surface Tension” by James Blish

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #19 of 107: “Surface Tension” by James Blish

“Surface Tension” by James Blish first appeared in the August 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. In 1957 it was published by Gnome Press as The Seedling Stars along with three other pantropy stories by Blish to make a fix-up novel. When the Nebula Awards were being created in the 1960s, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted for their favorite science fiction short stories published before the advent of the awards and “Surface Tension” was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One in 1970. It has been anthologized many times. The version of “Surface Tension” in The Big Book of Science Fiction is different from the one that appeared in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. It has “Sunken Universe” (Super Science Stories, May 1942) inserted into it after the introduction, which is the way it is in The Seedling Stars. However, the introduction had additional paragraphs not in the Hall of Fame version, and I expect a careful reading of the later sections should show changes too. H. L. Gold was known for editing stories and Blish was known for rewriting his stories, so we don’t know which happened. My guess is Blish came up with additional ideas to add to the story for the book version. I’ve read the slightly shorter version three times before over my lifetime, and a few paragraphs in this version stood out to me as new. Mainly they were about the original crew theorizing about their future pantropic existence.

Lately I’ve been writing about why I disliked a story, but for “Surface Tension” I need to explain why I love a story, and that might be even harder to do. Every once in a while, a science fiction writer will come up with an idea that’s so different that it lights up our brains. Wells did it with “The Time Machine.” Heinlein did it with his story “Universe.” Brian Aldiss did it with his fix-up novel Hothouse. Robert Charles Wilson did it with his novel Spin. “Surface Tension” is one of those stories. It has tremendous sense of wonder.

I’m torn between explaining everything that happens and not saying anything. These posts are all about making comments to our short story club where everyone is supposed to have read the story and we don’t worry about spoilers. I recently read Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn and it was so delicious learning every plot element as it unfolded that I didn’t want to spoil anything for first time readers. I tried to explain why in my spoiler-free review. But I need to talk about “Surface Tension,” so if you haven’t read it, please go away and do so.

As I’ve said before about great short stories, they have a setup that allows the author to say something interesting – not a message, but an insight. The setup for “Surface Tension” is five men and two women have crashed on the planet Hydrot that orbits Tau Ceti. Their spaceship can’t be repaired, their communication system was destroyed, and they don’t have enough food to survive. However, their ship is one of a swarm of seed ships spreading across the galaxy that colonizes each planet with customized humans adapted for each unique environment. This is called pantropy, also representing a kind of panspermia, and anticipates the idea of transhumanism. In other words, Blish has a lot to say with this story.

Because no large organisms can survive in the current stage of Hydrot’s development, the crew decide to seed it with intelligent microorganisms. The seven will die, but each of their genes will be used to fashion a new species of roughly humanoid shape creatures that can coexist with the existing microorganisms of the freshwater puddles on Hydrot. They won’t have their memories, but they will have ancestral abilities. The crew creates these creatures and inscribe their history on tiny metal tablets they hope will be discovered one day by their tiny replacements.

From here the story jumps to the underwater world of the microorganisms and we see several periods of their history unfold. Blish used his education in biology to recreate several concentric analogies of discoveries that parallel our history in his puddle world of tiny microorganisms. The wee humanoids form alliances with other intelligent microorganisms in wars to conquer their new environment. Then they begin an age of exploration that eventually parallels our era of early space exploration. But you can also think of it paralleling when life first emerged from the sea to conquer the land.

One reason this story means so much to me is Blish makes characters out of various types of eukaryotic microorganisms and that reminds me of when I was in the fourth grade and our teacher asked us to bring a bottle of lake water to class. That day we saw another world through the eyepiece of a microscope. Blish made that world on a microscope slide into a fantasy world where paramecium becomes a character named Para who is intelligent and part of a hive mind that works with the transhumans. Their enemies are various kinds of rotifers. However, I know little of biology and don’t know what the Proto, Dicran, Noc, Didin, Flosc characters are based on.

The main transhuman characters are Lavon and Shar who’s personalities are preserved over generations. I wondered if the seven original human explorers (Dr. Chatvieux, Paul la Ventura, Philip Strasvogel, Saltonstall, Eleftherios Venezuelos, Eunice Wagner, and Joan Heath) were archetypes for the microscopic transhuman characters? Blish suggests that in the opening scene:

They take human germ-cells—in this case, our own, since our bank was wiped out in the crash—and modify them genetically toward those of creatures who can live in any reasonable environment. The result will be manlike, and intelligent. It usually shows the donors’ personality patterns, too, since the modifications are usually made mostly in the morphology, not so much in the mind, of the resulting individual.

...

“That’s right. In the present situation we’ll probably make our colonists haploid, so that some of them, perhaps many, will have a heredity traceable to you alone. There may be just the faintest of residuums of identity—pantropy’s given us some data to support the old Jungian notion of ancestral memory. But we’re all going to die on Hydrot, Paul, as self-conscious persons. There’s no avoiding that. Somewhere we’ll leave behind people who behave as we would, think and feel as we would, but who won’t remember la Ventura, or Dr. Chatvieux, or Joan Heath, or the Earth.”

However, I never could decipher who Lavon and Shar were. Each time I reread this story I notice more details, and more analogies. “Surface Tension” is both simple and complex. At a simple level its just a space adventure tale about exploration and survival. But in creating a fantasy ecology, Blish hints at the deeper complexity of a writer becoming a worldbuilder. And Blish is also philosophical about the future of mankind, reminding me of Olaf Stapledon. This is the kind of story that can blow adolescent minds.

“Surface Tension” would make a wonderful video game, or a beautiful animated film.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/25/21

“Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #18 of 107: “Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola

“Baby HP” by Juan José Arreola is a short piece of satire on household products, but it’s not really a short story. Arreola imagines a device for children to wear that converts their kinetic energy into stored electricity for later household use. I’m terribly sorry that the VanderMeers have included all these historical curiosities at the beginning of their anthology because I worry it will turn off readers from finishing the book. I swear, there are really good stories to come. I’ve talked a lot of people into buying this book, and I fear many of them are thinking, “Harris, you owe me $25 plus tax.”

“Baby HP” was mildly interesting filler but only for a lesser literary magazine that couldn’t acquire better content. “Baby HP” represents a science fictional idea without a story. It’s like the kind of thing writers hate when they meet fans who tell them, “I’ve got a great idea for a story, you write it and we’ll split the money 50-50.” An idea for a story is not a story. Let me illustrate what I mean:

The Algernon Corporation offers a unique product to American consumers. Have you ever wanted to do something significant with your life but lacked the intelligence and talent? Here’s your chance to write that bestselling sci-fi novel, invent that new gadget everyone thinks they need but don't, or maybe finally discover a cure for overactive bladders, or even compose the last great rock album, or work on any other dream ambition that takes the intense concentration and vast intelligence you don't have.

We offer a series of treatments that will triple your IQ within one year. You’ll have three years to burn bright, before returning to your normal self in the fifth year. We feel so confident that you'll succeed that the only cost for this treatment is the promise of sharing the proceeds of your success 50-50 with us.

If you compare the above to Daniel Keyes brilliant novelette, “Flowers for Algernon,” you’ll know what I mean when I say “Baby HP” isn’t a real short story. Clever ideas and philosophical insights don’t make good short fiction. Readers want short stories to have the impact of a novel in a quick read. Not a summary. Short stories run in size from flash fiction to novellas, but for each length there is an appropriate amount of dramatic action required. Stories need to evoke emotions, from the silliest comedy to gut wrenching tragedy. It’s possible to do without human characters, but readers really love characters to care about. All the best short stories capture a moment when someone evolves and the reader shares that insight. You can’t just tell the reader. The short story is a trigger that causes readers to resonate emotionally. The very best stories will fill you eyes with tears, either from laughing or crying.

What Makes a Great Science Fiction Retrospective Anthology?

The membership in our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction, has been getting a bit restless with The Big Book of Science Fiction. Participation has fallen off. I don’t know if that’s because people don’t like the stories, or because the relentless pace of reading a short story every other day is wearing them out. Also, I sense many of our members might not enjoy older SF. I hope enthusiasm picks back up as we get further into the anthology, and into modern times. I know there are some truly great short stories to come.

This makes me ask: What makes a great science fiction retrospective anthology?

The group has read many anthologies together in the past year, and some books have succeeded better than others. A few have even stood out, and I’d say that’s because they had a higher concentration of popular stories. We vote on stories when we finish a book. If only a handful of stories get a majority of votes, we usually see more complaints about the number of disappointing stories. But if the votes are scattered over half the table of contents, the generally feeling is the anthology was a good one.

How readers rate an anthology is very subjective. For me, a handful of great stories can leave an overall positive reaction to the anthology. On the other hand, too many bad stories can taint my whole impression.

I tend to think the group is partial to newer SF, and prefer longer stories, since novelettes and sometimes novellas are the stories that get the most votes. However, a long story that doesn’t work well generates lots of negative comments. My guess is the novelette length is optimal if the content is good or better. It seems it takes exceptional content to make a short story or novella work. Often a short story doesn’t have the length of runway to take off, to catch the readers minds on fire. And frequently a novella stretches an idea too thin, thus provoking boredom.

My hunch is our membership prefers stories from the 1980s on because that’s what they’ve grown up with, and stylistically, stories within the past 40-50 years feel modern. Anything older is often tainted with quaintness, too much simplicity, or sometimes dated by changes in social consciousness.

This puts an anthology like The Big Book of Science Fiction at a disadvantage because it’s mostly filled with shorter works, and a lot of the content is older. It is a challenge for any editor to cover short science fiction over the entire 20th century.

Another factor that makes readers love an anthology is when it contains stories they’ve previously read and loved. There is a feeling of affinity with the editor for sharing an admiration for a favorite story. An editor put themselves at risk if they go out of their way to find obscure, rare, and unknown stories, unless those stories convince the reader they’ve found undiscovered gems. Anthology readers love finding buried treasure. But that’s getting exceedingly hard to do. The territory has been covered countless times, and time is eroding older stories faster and faster.

Not many science fiction fans love short stories, it’s a specialized reading audience that’s fading away. Our SF short story club on Facebook has 566 members, whereas the SF book club has 8,800 members. And only a tiny fraction of our membership actively participate in any particular group reading.

At one time, SF anthologies were very popular, but their popularity has waned along with the SF magazine reader. Original anthologies are still somewhat popular, and annual best-of-the-year anthologies remain somewhat popular. I think this is true because they publish current work. But theme and retrospective anthologies aren’t very common anymore. I wonder if that’s because readers have been burned by too many anthologies that had too many duds? I’ve had friends that told me they tried the SF magazines but didn’t renew because they seldom found enough good stories in each issue. That might be true of theme/retrospective anthologies.

Thus a great retrospective SF anthology is one with a high percentage of impressive stories. But what is that percentage? For me, 25% has to be 5-star stories, and another 25% of 4-star stories. The rest can be 3-stars. But reading too many stories that felt like a waste of time can ruin the whole vibe of an anthology. Of course, this is just me, but from the comments we see, I don’t think I’m alone. By the way, I rate stories I believe worthy of several readings over lifetime as 5-star stories. And any story I read and immediately feel I’m looking forward to rereading it is a 4-star story. 3-star stories are good solid stories I feel no need to reread.

I require less for an annual anthology or original anthology to like them. I’d say only one to four 5-star SF stories come out each year. Thus I only expect to see one or maybe two in any annual anthology. The odds are against even one to appear in an original anthology.

By my reckoning, I felt there are three 5-star stories in the first 20 stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction: “A Martian Odyssey,” “Desertion,” and “Surface Tension.” That’s low for a retrospective anthology claiming to be the ultimate collection. We’ll be voting on the first 20 stories soon, so I’ll see how the others feel. I’ve already seen reviews by some of the younger readers who only gave “A Martian Odyssey” and “Desertion” three stars. That’s another piece of evidence that members prefer newer stories.

I really enjoy older SF, and I was hoping the VanderMeers would have found more older gems I hadn’t read. My guess, as time goes buy, it’s going to get harder and harder to assemble retrospective SF anthologies that cover the entire 20th century because there are fewer old farts like myself that enjoy SF from the entire century.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/21/21

“September 2005: The Martian” by Ray Bradbury

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #17 of 107: “September 2005: The Martian” by Ray Bradbury

The quick take on this story is I wonder why an average work by Ray Bradbury who is famous for many other exceptional stories is included in this anthology. By now, if you’ve been following this series of reviews on the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, you’ll know it’s going to be another self-psychoanalysis session of why I’ve been reading science fiction for sixty years.

I have a love-hate relationship with Ray Bradbury. Mostly love, but after churning out tons of science fiction stories in the 1940s and early 1950s, he seem to abandon the genre. I hated that. And the fact he never quite wrote real science fiction, I also hated that. I love The Martian Chronicles even though Bradbury never took Mars seriously, which I did, so I hated that too. “September 2005: The Martian” was originally published as “Impossible” in the November 1949 issue of Super Science Stories. It was retitled and embedded into a chronology for The Martian Chronicles. Later editions changed the title to “September 2036: The Martian.” I assume once we get to the 2030s it will be retitled again, then maybe not, if Elon Musk colonizes the planet before then.

“The Martian” is an emotional story about an elderly couple living on Mars who painfully miss their dead son. Tom died as a teen back on Earth before they immigrated. Then one morning Tom shows up at their house on Mars. We know from previous stories in The Martian Chronicles that Mars was once inhabited, and the Martians have shapeshifting capabilities. This shapeshifting theme was used to perfection in the 1948 story “Mars is Heaven!” I found it less effective in this story, “The Martian.” The lone Martian gets trapped into a human shape whenever it gets near a human because of their need to see a lost loved one. I always considered shapeshifting a fantasy theme, but John W. Campbell used it for his SF famous story, “Who Goes There?” and it was used in the first episode of Star Trek when it premiered in 1966, “The Man Trap.”

Shapeshifting is a very ancient theme in storytelling and fiction. I’m not sure Bradbury’s use of it in this story is very original. Bradbury plays up the emotion by having the Martian appear as dead children to two different couples. Although Bradbury keeps telling us how old and elderly LaFarge and Anna are, but they are just fifty-five and sixty, and that seems funny now. Probably when I read this story the first time in my teens, 55 and 60 were ancient.

Even though I enjoyed “The Martian,” I was also annoyed at it. You get the feeling the Martian colony is clone of some small midwestern town from Bradbury’s youth of the 1930s. Bradbury even admits inspiration from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, another fixup novel of short stories. My theory was Bradbury wanted to be a literary writer all along, but started out in science fiction because of fan friends, and because the genre was easier to break into. Once he achieved fame he moved on to the larger literary world. And who can blame him for not staying bottled up in one small genre? Because Bradbury had a thing for fantasy and horror, his science fiction never quite felt futuristic. He was never a Campbell writer, and “The Martian” feels more inspired by Poe or Collier, than the science fiction of his day.

Don’t get me wrong, “The Martian” is a solid story that is sentimental and moving, with a touch of horror and grotesque, just set on Mars. My situation in reviewing it is compounded by three concerns. First, why is this story in The Big Book of Science Fiction? I still can’t figure out if this anthology is the VanderMeers’ view of the best of 20th century science fiction, or the best of 20th century science fiction after a 21st century reevaluation, or the best stories that aren’t already in in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame which has stayed in print since 1970? This anthology only has three stories from the 1940s, and only one from Astounding (“Desertion”). The 1940s was considered the Golden Age of Science Fiction. I guess its not now. The Bradbury is from a minor magazine, and the other story is by Jorge Louis Borges, who was never part of the science fiction world. Is this a snub of John W. Campbell?

My second conflict is with Ray Bradbury, but I’ve already covered that love-hate relationship. “The Martian” is average-good Bradbury, but far from great. Why not pick one of his standout stories? To me, the obvious choice is “There Will Come Soft Rains.” Maybe I’m putting too much importance on The Big Book of Science Fiction. Maybe it’s just a collection of stories that the VanderMeers liked, and not the important short SF from the 20th century anthology that I expected it to be. I guess I lament that large SF anthologies just don’t come around very often anymore, and the ones that do I put all my hope for preserving the great SF short stories of the past that I love and want to be remembered.

My third conflict is between the fantasy of space travel in fiction and the reality of space travel in real life. This gets especially complicated because my expectations when young are so much different from my beliefs in old age. Let’s say when I was young science fiction was my Bible and I had unwavering faith of the final frontier. Now that I’m old, I’m skeptical about the final frontier, and science fiction is my fantasy escape from an ever harsher reality. When I was young I look down on Bradbury for writing fantasy flavored science fiction, but now that I’m old I admire Bradbury for his quaint sentimental space fantasies, and just ignore their unrealistic and unscientific aspects. In fact, I ache to read The Martian Chronicles: The Complete Edition (2009) that includes all of Bradbury’s Martian stories. Unfortunately, that limited $300/900 edition is out of print and costs thousands of dollars to acquire used.

Maybe I can explain my problem in another way, although I’m afraid my analogy might offend some people. I recently followed SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission to orbit with four ordinary people getting to play astronaut for three days. Don’t get what I’m about to say wrong. I admire what the private space companies are achieving, and that three day mission was very impressive. But I’m against space tourism. Space is very costly on so many levels, including to the environment. To see the colonization of space has been my lifelong dream, but I’ve changed my mind. If space travel is going to be yet one more way we’re destroying the Earth then any mission should be vital. Turning space into a playground for the rich is obscene. On the days the news followed the Inspiration4 mission, it also showed scenes of 15,000 desperate Haitians huddling under a Texas bridge. The contrast was philosophically heavy.

At first I was very excited about this space mission. When I was young I dreamed of going into space and I envied those two men and two women. But my mind was completed changed when I saw them being interviewed in orbit. This is probably just me, but ordinary people just don’t look like they belong in space, which is the exact opposite of what SpaceX wants us to think. The people from Earth in “The Martian” never looked like they belonged on Mars.

Now that I’m old, I’m not sure if humans are meant for space. Space is perfect for robots, which seem right at home in the extreme environments of outer space and on other planets. I can accept highly trained astronauts who travel into space with a purpose machines can’t yet solve, like repairing the Hubble telescope. But watching ordinary folk goofing off in zero-g and gawking at Earth seem way too frivolous. It trivializes what some humans train for years to do.

There are some Ray Bradbury science fiction stories I love dearly, but there are others I feel took science fiction too lightly, like he was never a true believer in the final frontier. This really shouldn’t bother me now that I’m no longer a true believer myself, but I guess I’m still holding onto earlier resentments.

Reading science fiction at this time in my life and this moment in history feels like playing the fiddle while Rome burns. But it’s my way of reevaluating my life, my 1960s expectations for the future that we’re now living in, the contrast between what science fiction was and what it will become, and the relationship between science fiction and reality.

The collective desire for the space program to get to Mars today was partly inspired by Ray Bradbury and other science fiction writers. It’s the ultimate goal for many people and nations. I think we seriously need to psychoanalyze that desire.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/21/21

“Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #16 of 107: “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak

“Desertion” and its sequel “Paradise” are from the 1940s, the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction. They are also the middle stories from the classic science fiction fix-up novel City. “Desertion” was published in the November 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and “Paradise” in the June 1946 issue. If you haven’t read the stories please go read them now because I need to write about the details of each to make my point and that will give away major spoilers.

“Desertion” is the perfect story to make my case that 1940s science fiction was often about the next evolutionary step for our species. In a way, John W. Campbell, Jr. could be considered the Ralph Waldo Emerson of a 20th century transcendentalism, but we call it science fiction. I say that because many science fiction stories from the 1940s and 1950s were about breaking on through to the next stage of human existence. Maybe this desire was inspired by the actual horrors of WWII or the dreaded fears of Doomsday felt during the Cold War. Was science fiction our collective unconscious merely telling us we need to change before we destroyed ourselves and the planet? Or was it just another theme the science fiction muse has always entertained?

The VanderMeers did say in their introduction, “City was written out of disillusion…seeking after a fantasy world that would serve as a counterbalance to the brutality through which the world was passing.” That might be the realistic take on science fiction, that it offers fictional escape from reality, but growing up I believed science fiction’s purpose was to inspire us to create the futures we wanted to build, and divert us away from the futures we feared. In my old age science fiction has become my escape, my comfort food, but when I was young I believed in the potentials it promised. I have to wonder if young readers today find the genre a fiction of escape or hope? But even the one utopian Star Trek is now is about endless conflicts.

In “Desertion,” Kent Fowler has sent many men to their apparent death trying to colonize Jupiter by downloading their brains into genetically engineered creatures modeled on Jovian lifeforms that can survive the harsh conditions of Jupiter. The idea of adapting the human form to an alien environment is called pantropy, and “Desertion” is one of the early examples of the idea being used in science fiction. However, Simak takes the idea even further when Kent Fowler and his dog Towser are converted into the Jovian Lopers. Fowler just couldn’t ask another man to volunteer, so he underwent the process himself and taking his old dog with him. As Lopers, Fowler discovers that Towser is more intelligent than he ever imagined when they begin telepathic communication. The reasons his men never returned to the dome after being converted to Lopers was their minds expanded into a new stage of awareness and they couldn’t stand downgrading into human form again.

Five years later, Fowler does return to the dome in the story “Paradise.” He feels its essential that he let his fellow humans know about this greater stage of consciousness. In this story though, we also learn humanity is facing another crisis point in their development. Superior humans called mutants also exist, as do uplifted dogs, and intelligent robots. When Fowler tries to spread the word that paradise can be found on Jupiter, his message is suppressed by Tyler Webster who wants humans to stay human. Webster pleads with Fowler to withhold knowledge of the heaven on Jupiter because he fears all humans will rush to attain instant resurrection (my words).

“But I want you to think this over: A million years ago man first came into being—just an animal. Since that time he had inched his way up a cultural ladder. Bit by painful bit he has developed a way of life, a philosophy, a way of doing things. His progress has been geometrical. Today he does much more than he did yesterday. Tomorrow he’ll do even more than he did today. For the first time in human history, Man is really beginning to hit the ball. He’s just got a good start, the first stride, you might say. He’s going a lot farther in a lot less time than he’s come already. 

“Maybe it isn’t as pleasant as Jupiter, maybe not the same at all. Maybe humankind is drab compared with the life forms of Jupiter. But it’s man’s life. It’s the thing he’s fought for. It’s the thing he’s made himself. It’s a destiny he has shaped. 

“I hate to think, Fowler, that just when we’re going good we’ll swap our destiny for one we don’t know about, for one we can’t be sure about.” 

“I’ll wait,” said Fowler. “Just a day or two. But I’m warning you. You can’t put me off. You can’t change my mind.” 

“That’s all I ask,” said Webster. He rose and held out his hand. “Shake on it?” he asked.

Simak, Clifford D.. The Shipshape Miracle: And Other Stories (The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak Book 10) (pp. 83-84). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. 

“Desertion” is also an early example of mind uploading, a very popular theme in science fiction today. “Desertion” and “Paradise” also assume there would be life, even intelligent life on every planet of the solar system. The City stories are extremely positive about human potential. The collected motif of the City stories is humans have left the solar system and only intelligent dogs and robots remain to remember them, to tell their story. Childhood’s End used that theme too, about humanity leaving Earth for a new stage of evolution.

“Paradise” is also an early story about mutants. After Hiroshima, people feared radiation would create mutations that were either monsters or an evolutionary superior species. In “Paradise,” the mutants are that superior species, ones who are waiting for normal humans to get their act together. Mutants arrange for Tyler Webster to get a kaleidoscope that will trick his brain into opening its higher functionality. The kaleidoscope is like the toys from the future in “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” that trigger evolution in normal human children. Also within the same story is the idea that Martians had developed a philosophy that could trigger evolutionary uplift. Heinlein also worked this theme in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Sturgeon’s classic fix-up novel, More Than Human (1953) deals with mutants with wild talents, and the evolution of a gestalt mind. But this theme was repeated countless times in 1940s and 1950s science fiction.

In other words, “Desertion” is one of the bellwether stories our genre.

There used to be a common pseudo-science belief that humans only used 10% of their brains and we have the potential to unlock the mysterious 90%. This was a common myth in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and probably went back decades and decades. I just checked Wikipedia and found they had an entry on “The Ten Percent Brain Myth” that even mentions John W. Campbell.

A likely origin for the "ten percent myth" is the reserve energy theories of Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis who, in the 1890s, tested the theory in the accelerated raising of child prodigy William Sidis. Thereafter, James told lecture audiences that people only meet a fraction of their full mental potential, which is considered a plausible claim.[5] The concept gained currency by circulating within the self-help movement of the 1920s; for example, the book Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain includes a chapter on the ten percent myth that shows a self-help advertisement from the 1929 World Almanac with the line "There is NO LIMIT to what the human brain can accomplish. Scientists and psychologists tell us we use only about TEN PERCENT of our brain power."[6] This became a particular "pet idea"[7] of science fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell, who wrote in a 1932 short story that "no man in all history ever used even half of the thinking part of his brain".[8] In 1936, American writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas popularized the idea—in a foreword to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People—by including the falsely precise percentage: "Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability".[9]

The belief was based on the logic that feats of human endurance and mental powers have been displayed by Indian fakirs, hypnotists, yogis, mystics, tantric masters, psychics, shamans and other outliers with esoteric knowledge, and that proves we had all untapped potential. Science has since shown that we use 100% of our brains, and disproved all those pseudo-scientific claims.

Yet, back in the 1940s science fiction writers and readers, and especially John W. Campbell, Jr. believed humanity was on the verge to metamorphizing into Human 2.0 beings. That’s what “Desertion” and “Paradise” is about, and you see that same hope in so many other stories from the 1940s and 1950s. It’s also why John W. Campbell, Jr. and A. E. van Vogt went gaga over Dianetics in 1950. Please read Campbell’s editorial and L. Ron Hubbard’s article on the subject in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. We look down on Campbell today for believing in this malarkey, but Dianetics reflected the promise of all the stories he had been publishing. Campbell was desperate to quit promoting fairytales for adults and find an actual portal into the future then and now.

Sure, science fiction is fun stories set in the future, often about space travel, aliens, robots, and posthumans, but it also connects to real hopes and fears. The belief humans could transcend their present nature is a fundamental hope within the genre. A modern example is The Force in Star Wars, or the discipline of Vulcans in Star Trek. Clifford Simak spent his entire career writing stories about people who transcend our ordinary consciousness. And is this so weird and far out? We Baby Boomers dropped acid in the 1960s chasing higher states on consciousness, then in the 1970s we pursued all kinds of New Age therapies and ancient spiritual practices. Of course, since the Reagan years of the 1980s we’ve come down to Earth accepting human nature for what it is. We’ve stopped looking for transcendence and scientific utopias, accepting our normal Human 1.0 selves that pursue wealth, power, conquest, war, and commercialization of space and the future.

Reading the best science fiction stories of the 20th is a kind of psychoanalysis of our expectations about the future, both good and bad.

The anthology which up till now has been the gold standard for identifying the best science fiction of the 1895-1964 era is The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One which contains short stories, and the supplemental volumes Two A and Two B which contain novelettes and novellas. Volume One holds the top spot at “Best Science Fiction Anthologies” at Listopia/Goodreads. The stories were selected by members of Science Fiction Writers of America in the 1960s to recognize science fiction published before the Nebula Awards began in 1965.

In recent decades I’ve encountered many a science fiction fan who wondered what the table of contents would be to an updated Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume for 20th century science fiction if SF writers voted today. Any retrospective SF anthology that covers the 20th century is essentially competing with that wish. “Huddling Place” another story from Simak’s City was chosen for The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, but I’ve known many fans who thought they should have picked “Desertion.” Events in “Huddling Place” are referenced in “Paradise.” But if you look at the table of contents for the volumes One, Two A, and Two B, you’ll see several stories about next stage humans.

  • “Mimsy Were The Borogoves” (1944) – Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
  • “Huddling Place” (1944) – Clifford D. Simak
  • “That Only A Mother” (1948) – Judith Merril
  • “In Hiding” (1948) – Wilmar H. Shiras
  • “The Witches of Karres” (1949) – James H. Schmitz
  • “The Little Black Bag” (1950) – C. M. Kornbltuh
  • “Surface Tension” (1952) – James Blish
  • “Baby is Three” (1953) – Theodore Sturgeon
  • “Call Me Joe” (1957) – Poul Anderson
  • “Flowers for Algernon” (1959) – Daniel Keyes
  • “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (1962) – Cordwainer Smith

The Big Book of Science Fiction covers the same territory as The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volumes, and there is some overlap of contents, but I think it features less of the transcendental science fiction I’m talking about here. Maybe it’s stories are more realistic, but we have many stories to read before we know. But the acceptance of our existing human nature is understandable, because we don’t believe in those kinds of hidden talents anymore. Well, at least most scientifically minded adults. Wild talents and mutants have become the staple of comic book fiction. We have demoted those hopes to the level of children’s power fantasies.

I’ve often said science fiction beliefs replaced religious beliefs in the mid-20th century, and maybe now we’ve become atheists to science fiction too. If you doubt my assertion the SF replaced religion just think of Fowler as Jesus. He had died and was resurrected into a new life in heaven, and his soul has been expanded with great spirituality.

I even wonder if the VanderMeers included “Desertion” and “Surface Tension” for their use of the pantropy theme rather than psychic potential theme? Science fiction has given up on quickly evolved humans, and instead promotes technical transhumanism and genetically engineered Human 2.0 beings.

“Desertion” was probably a Top Ten story when I was young, and it’s still a 5-star favorite in my old age. But I now know there is no life on Jupiter and Mars, and I will never find the kind of transcendence that Fowler and Towser found. NASA probes have shown the solar system is sterile rocks, and nothing like what Simak imagined. Oh, we still hold out for life on Titan or some other moon’s deep ocean, but I doubt we’ll find it when we get there. Thus “Desertion” has become a fond fantasy from my youth, sort of like Santa Claus.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/18/21

Update: I remember people saying we only use 5% of our brains, but research shows the figure used was 10%, so I made that change. I also found the quote from Wikipedia attributing Campbell to promoting the idea.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #15 of 107: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges is not science fiction. Some might call it fantasy, but I don’t think it belongs to that genre either. Oh, it’s a story F&SF could publish, but I doubt it’s eerie enough that Rod Sterling would have used it for The Twilight Zone. By accident, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” speculates about what science fiction does, as if Borges’s story is about a man who stumbles upon the possibility of science fiction and science fiction writers in a world where they never existed.

I don’t think our genre can claim all forms of speculation, even when it speculates about other worlds, other realities, and weird possibilities that are the territory that science fiction has long claimed. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is not genre, but a literary work. Literary writers sometimes accidently wander into our territory, and some even intentionally write a science fiction story, such Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood. But in the case of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” I don’t believe Borges has trespassed on our property.

Sure, maybe I’m splitting hairs, but it points to a distinction I’d like to make. Literary works are aimed at everyone, science fiction is aimed at science fiction fans. That’s why it’s a genre. Ishiguro and Attwood expect everyone to read their books, not just science fiction fans. And although science fiction writers wished that everyone read their books, they got to know they’re writing for a specific audience. Science fiction is a term used to shelve books separately in libraries and bookstores, to make it easier for its readers to find them. Science fiction is the term printed on books to assure science fiction readers they’ll be buying what they want to read. Branding something science fiction that’s not meant to be science fiction is unfair to both the writer and reader.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a story science fiction readers should like because it’s about playing around with reality, which is what science fiction does, but I’m pretty sure Borges never intended it to be science fiction. It’s almost as if he separately co-invented the concept, but his story is still not quite the same.

By the way, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” reminds me of a charming episode of Nova I saw decades ago about physicist Richard Feynman and friends making an expedition to an obscure unknown country, Tannu Tuva.

Borges is playing on the idea of obscure knowledge and hidden wisdom. His story also reminds me of Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East. We all want reality to be more than the mundane reality that bores us. We all want to find a hidden clue to esoteric possibilities. If anything, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is another kind of SF – spiritual fiction because it alludes to the magic of the mystical.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/16/21

“The Microscopic Giants” by Paul Ernst

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #14 of 107: “The Microscopic Giants” by Paul Ernst

The VanderMeers didn’t have to go far to find “The Microscopic Giants.” It was in the same October 1936 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories that the last story we just read had been reprinted (“The Last Poet and the Robots” retitled as “Rhythm of the Spheres”) . I’ve often wondered why anthologists focused so much on Astounding Science Fiction, but these two stories suggest that there was a good reason – science fiction stories in the other pulp magazines just wasn’t as good. The whole time I was reading “The Last Poet and the Robots” I wondered why the VanderMeers hadn’t picked Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” instead. It featured the same kind of monomaniacal megalomaniac mad scientist acting like a god, but in a much better developed tale.

However, “The Microscopic Giants” is a somewhat better story than Merritt’s. It’s still a crappy story by modern storytelling conventions, but it has several good SF speculations in it. I’ve always liked the idea of humans existing in the far past where geological changes hides any evidence of them. Unfortunately, that theory isn’t the solution to the mystery within this story. The introduction sets us up for a hollow Earth story, but it’s not that either. “The Microscopic Giants” is about lifeforms that are much denser than rock, existing deep within the Earth, who can move through ordinary matter. That’s a keen idea, but it was handled in the most basic way. First contact is simplistic and xenophobic, and the humans are left hoping never to encounter this new superior species again. Rather a chickenshit resolution.

Finding better undiscovered stories is the challenge to assembling any retrospective anthology that covers science fiction in the 20th century, especially if you have reasons not to reprint the fan favorites. All the old pulps have been mined time and time again. I’m sure new editors want to discover previously unrecognized stories whose enlightened qualities could only be recognized by contemporary readers. These two stories were duds in that regards. Like I said, the current champ for a SF story about a monomaniacal megalomaniac mad scientist acting like a god is Kidder in “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon.

If I was going to offer a substitute for “Microscopic Giants” using the hollow Earth theme it would be “DP!” by Jack Vance from the April 1953 issue of Avon Science Fiction and Fantasy Reader. It’s about the world being overrun with refugees from the hollow Earth and how countries of the surface world try to deal with the crisis. I read it during the Syrian refugee crisis which gave “DP!” depth. “Microscopic Giants” offer no insights to modern readers and it’s really not worth saving.

However, I can’t think of any short stories that deal with super-dense beings living and moving around inside the Earth. The Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark” featured a creature called the Horta that could move through rock. And I also thought of the classic comedy-horror film Tremors (1990). I do vaguely remember stories that used the emptiness of matter to allow characters to move through solids, but my old brain can’t dredge any titles up right now.

Reading The Big Book of Science Fiction has been interesting, but so far few of the fourteen stories we’ve read have been quality stories by modern reading standards. Too many have been intellectual/historical curiosities. I keep hoping the VanderMeers will find gems I haven’t read before. So far, their best find new to me is “The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois. I thought his story was well-told for 1920, and Du Bois nicely finessed the point he wanted to get across. So far the other stories have done little finessing.

Paul Ernst had several ideas he wanted to explore, but he didn’t know how to put them into a story. His solution was a minimalist frame with cliché conflict. That’s common for our genre. I’m also listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. and with every story I’m amazed by how Miller sets up his story with an excellent dramatic conflict. Well, at least the later stories. I’m hoping to see more of that skill as we progress through this anthology.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/13/21

“The Last Poet and the Robots” by A. Merritt

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #13: “The Last Poet and the Robots” by A. Merritt

The Last Poet and the Robots” by Abraham Merritt has a rather interesting publication history. It was part of a round-robin novel first published in the April 1934 issue of Fantasy Magazine, a fanzine. The website The Cosmos Project gives the history of the story and reprints the novel written chapter-by-chapter by 18 famous SF writers from the early 1930s. Besides Merritt, John W. Campbell, E. E. “Doc” Smith, and Edmond Hamilton contributed, as well as many authors whose names aren’t familiar today. “The Last Poet and the Robots” was chapter 11, and many consider it the best chapter. It was the only chapter to be reprinted as a story in a professional magazine (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1934). In 1949 it was published in book form in the collection The Fox Woman.

What’s notable about “The Last Poet and the Robots” is it’s a very early story about robots, especially mechanical robots with conscious minds. We get the word “robot” from the 1921 Czech play, R.U.R., that was first translated into English in 1923. It’s amazing how fast this word was embraced around the world. Mechanical men and other android like beings had existed before. In the play, the robots are slave workers that have a biological basis, closer to the replicants in Blade Runner. In the 1920s and 1930s the idea of mechanical robots came into being but they weren’t sentient at first. And the term “artificial intelligence” emerged from computer science in the 1950s. So Merritt might get some credit here with this 1934 story. It would be interesting to trace the history of sentient machines in science fiction.

The story also presents a number of common science fiction themes from that era such as the mad scientist, evolved humans, immortality, robot overlords, a subterranean world, and super-science technology. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the story particularly interesting or memorable. It was somewhat forward thinking that the super-beings are multiracial, but aren’t they really monsters? Narodny, the Russian mad scientist and poet, and ruler of the renegade super-humans, feels no qualms at killing normal humans when needed, even when trying to save humanity from the robots. That was a common aspect to superior beings in SF back then, they had god-like attitude regarding life and death. Merritt describes him like van Vogt’s evolved beings in his novel Slan.

Narodny did not hate mechanization. He was indifferent to it. Being truly intelligent he hated nothing, Also he was indifferent to the whole civilization man had developed and into which he had been born. He had no feeling of kinship to humanity. Outwardly, in body, he belonged to the species. Not so in mind. Like Loeb, a thousand years before, he considered mankind a race of crazy half-monkeys, intent upon suicide. Now and then, out of the sea of lunatic mediocrity, a wave uplifted that held for a moment a light from the sun of truth—but soon it sank back and the light was gone. Quenched in the sea of stupidity. He knew that he was one of those waves.

Later on Merritt continues his characterization of Narodny as a superman.

All were one with Narodny in indifference to the world; each with him in his viewpoint on life; and each and all lived in his or her own Eden among the hundred caverns except when it interested them to work with each other. Time meant nothing to them. Their researches and discoveries were solely for their own uses and enjoyments. If they had given them to the outer world they would have only been ammunition for warfare either between men upon Earth or men against some other planet. Why hasten humanity's suicide? Not that they would have felt regret at the eclipse of humanity. But why trouble to expedite it? Time meant nothing to them because they could live as long as they desired—barring accident. And while there was rock in the world, Narodny could convert it into energy to maintain his Paradise—or to create others.

This kind of evolved human is something science fiction presented time and again in roughly the same way. After van Vogt’s book came out, some science fiction fans called themselves slans. And L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950) promised to be a kind a pseudo-science guide to creating such a being. John W. Campbell, Jr. and A. E. van Vogt went nuts over it. These superior being characters are especially repugnant when we remember the 1920s and 1930s was the time of eugenics, KKK, and National Socialists. Robert A. Heinlein used a similar superior being in his novella “Gulf” in 1949, which was a test flight for Stranger in a Strange Land.

I’m kind of surprised that the VanderMeers used this story, since their selection process attempts to show science fiction’s past in a better light than its current reputation for sexism and racism. Merritt does present Narodny as a poet/artist/creator though, so I’m sure he didn’t think of his character as being repugnant like I do. This description of Narodny’s creations and interests makes him epic and god-like, but his portrayal as a monomaniacal megalomaniac worries me.

But deep down in earth, within the caverns, were music and song and mirth and beauty. Gossamer nymphs circled under the little moons. Pan piped. There was revelry of antique harvesters under the small suns. Grapes grew and ripened, were pressed, and red and purple wine was drunk by Bacchantes who fell at last asleep in the arms of fauns and satyrs. Oreads danced under the pale moon-bows and sometimes Centaurs wheeled and trod archaic measures beneath them to the drums of their hoofs upon the mossy floor. The old Earth lived again.

Narodny listened to drunken Alexander raving to Thais among the splendors of conquered Persepolis; and he heard the crackling of the flames that at the whim of the courtesan destroyed it. He watched the siege of Troy and counted with Homer the Achaean ships drawn up on the strand before Troy's walls; or saw with Herodotus the tribes that marched behind Xerxes—the Caspians in their cloaks of skin with their bows of cane; the Ethiopians in the skins of leopards with spears of antelope horns; the Libyans in their dress of leather with javelins made hard by fire; the Thracians with the heads of foxes upon their heads; the Moschians who wore helmets made of wood and the Cabalians who wore the skulls of men. For him the Eleusinian and the Osirian mysteries were re-enacted, and he watched the women of Thrace tear to fragments Orpheus, the first great musician. At his will, he could see the rise and fall of the Empire of the Aztecs, the Empire of the Incas; or beloved Caesar slain in Rome's Senate; or the archers at Agincourt; or the Americans in Belleau Wood. Whatever man had written—whether poets, historians, philosophers or scientists—his strangely shaped mechanisms could bring before him, changing the words into phantoms real as though living.

He was the last and greatest of the poets—but also he was the last and greatest of the musicians. He could bring back the songs of ancient Egypt, or the chants of more ancient Ur. The songs that came from Moussorgsky's soul of Mother-earth, the harmonies of Beethoven's deaf ear, or the chants and rhapsodies from the heart of Chopin. He could do more than restore the music of the past. He was master of sound. To him, the music of the spheres was real. He could take the rays of the stars and planets and weave them into symphonies. Or convert the sun's rays into golden tones no earthly orchestras had ever expressed. And the silver music of the moon —the sweet music of the moon of spring, the full-throated music of the harvest moon, the brittle crystalling music of the winter moon with its arpeggios of meteors—he could weave into strains such as no human ears had ever heard.

So Narodny, the last and greatest of poets, the last and greatest of musicians, the last and greatest of artists—and in his inhuman way, the greatest of scientists—lived with the ten of his choosing in his caverns. And, with them, he consigned the surface of earth and all who dwelt upon it to a negative Hell—Unless something happening there might imperil his Paradise!

I’m not really familiar with Merritt’s work. I’ve read quite a bit about his popularity, but not his famous novels, which are now mostly forgotten. From what the VanderMeers say in their introduction, he was a lot more successful than I knew. Merritt’s biography at Wikipedia is quite fascination. It says he was a major influence on H. P. Lovecraft and Richard Shaver. That combination right there makes me wonder though. He even influenced the creators of the game Dungeons and Dragons.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/13/21

“A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #12: “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum

This is the fifth time I’ve read “A Martian Odyssey” and the third time reading “The Valley of Dreams,” the lesser known second part of the story. It’s a shame the Mars of that story isn’t the Mars that NASA’s rovers explore. Humans have been piddling around in LEO since 1972 when all along we’ve known that Mars is our real destination. Maybe we haven’t gone because we know the Mars out there isn’t the Mars of Stanley Weinbaum or Ray Bradbury.

I’m watching For All Mankind on Apple TV+. It’s an alternate history story that begins in 1969 when the Russians become the first nation to land men on the Moon. Our failure spurs us to build a permanent base on the Moon, and from then on, history keeps changing. I call this kind of story a “I could of been a contender” tale after the Marlon Brando character in On the Waterfront. Ever since Apollo 17 space enthusiasts have wondered what could have been if we’d kept going. This show soothes those regrets. I’m seeing more science fiction that retells recent history but with better results. Mary Robinette Kowal is doing the same thing with her Lady Astronaut series.

The alternate history I’d want to relive would be where “A Martian Odyssey” was incorporated into our reality, and not fiction. My favorite era of science fiction is from “A Martian Odyssey” from 1934 to “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny in 1963. Those two stories are the alpha and omega in the table of contents for The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg. That’s where I first read “A Martian Odyssey” over fifty years ago.

What can I say about “A Martian Odyssey” that hasn’t been said before? If you haven’t read it and its sequel “Valley of Dreams” from the November 1934 issue of Wonder Stories, then go read them here and here. And if you don’t want to do that, here’s an excellent summary of “A Martian Odyssey” at Wikipedia.

What I want to write about is the legacy of the story. “A Martian Odyssey” was first published in Wonder Stories, July 1934, and then reprinted just five years later in Startling Stories, in the November 1939 issue. Then in 1943, Donald Wollheim reprinted it in The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, a book some consider the first real SF anthology. But the next jump is a big one, when members of SFWA voted it into The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One in 1970. Why hadn’t Groff Conklin, or any of the other classic anthology editors of the 1950s and 1960s reprinted it? Did they feel that everyone had a copy of Wollheim’s 1943 paperback, or bought the 1949 hardback, A Martian Odyssey and Others from Fantasy Press (or its Lancer paperback reprint in the 1960s)? After that big gap from 1943-1970, “A Martian Odyssey” has been regularly reprinted almost every year or two since.

“A Martian Odyssey” is now considered a classic. This novelette epitomizes science fiction about Mars. But is it really about Mars? Well, not the Mars NASA explores. Martians aren’t quite as well known in literature as ghosts, goblins, fairies, elves, wee folk, and other imagined creatures of fantasy, but almost. Mars has always been our best hope for another planet for humanity, one where our sense of wonder runs rampant. Once all of Earth had been explored in the early 20th century, Mars became the location for lost civilizations and exotic lands.

“A Martian Odyssey” is a first contact story and all it involves. Tweel is everybody’s favorite alien. “A Martian Odyssey” anticipates both ET and Arrival. And I think that’s the heart of what I’m trying to get at in these essays. The best science fiction stories are those that come closest to the ideal forms of science fiction. And, like I said before, I believe the ideal forms of our genre are not very many. Mars has become the ideal planet, but the ideal doesn’t have to be Mars. Like Tweel is the ideal first contact with an alien, but the ideal doesn’t have to be Tweel.

Then why isn’t “The Conquest of Gola” remembered as well? Why don’t we remember Venus and the first contact with Golans from that story like we do Mars and Tweel from “A Martian Odyssey?” Even though the females from Gola are described as being very interesting beings, they weren’t likable. And their world, Venus wasn’t appealing either.

Dick Jarvis, the human that befriends Tweel has a great adventure on Mars, seeing many wonderous things and beings. Mars is as magical as Oz. “The Conquest of Gola” reminds us of the battle of the sexes on Earth. It reminds us that humans exploit other lands and peoples for profit. It reminds us we’re violent, intolerant, and can’t communicate.

If you want to write an enduring science fiction classic be positive. Make the humans, aliens, and planet appealing. We want enchantment more than scolding. I first fell in love with Mars when I read The Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein in 1964. I was twelve. It had Willis and the Old Ones, mysterious Martians, and Mars was full of exciting adventures for Jim and Frank. However, Heinlein’s bad guys, the bureaucrats from Earth contrasted the bad old ways of Earth against the good life of pioneers on the red planet. That worked. Leslie F. Stone just didn’t inspire us to colonize Venus.

Finally, I don’t know why “Valley of Dreams” isn’t nearly as popular as “A Martian Odyssey since it continues the same story.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/11/21

“The Conquest of Gola” by Leslie F. Stone

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #11: “The Conquest of Gola” by Leslie F. Stone

“The Conquest of Gola” first appeared in the April, 1931 issue of Wonder Stories, but more importantly, it was reprinted in The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin, one of two giant retrospective anthologies published in 1946, the other being Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy & McComas. Those two volumes were widely acquired for library collections. Over the next three decades, baby boomers would discover those anthologies and others, learning about the history of the science fiction magazines, and expand the growing population of science fiction fans. Conklin was the John the Baptist of the genre, editing over forty anthologies from 1946-1968. I loved his anthologies growing up, always searching for them when I went to a library. (See “Why Anthologies are Important to Science Fiction.”)

In recent years “The Conquest of Gola” has been reprinted many times in both genre retrospectives and anthologies showcasing women science fiction writers. Beside being written by a woman in the early days of pulp science fiction, it’s also about a matriarchal society on Venus. Story #11 is the second tale featuring a female dominated utopia. However, in both stories, it was a dystopia for the males.

In “The Conquest of Gola,” Gola is the planet Venus, which is ruled by female super-beings. Males are considered gentle consorts, kept for pleasurable companionship. When two ships from Earth arrive, crewed only by men who want to exploit Venus by promoting trade and tourism, the female rulers of Venus are annoyed. They see males from our planet as vastly inferior. They assume the females of Earth have allowed their males extra freedom and gave them spaceships as playthings. When the rulers of Gola discover the Earthmen are the dominant gender from our planet, that blows their minds. After repeatedly being told to leave, the Earthmen turn to violence, destroying the capital, and conquering the other cities. Earthmen then start convincing the males of Gola to join them. Finally, the females of Gola have enough, kill all the humans, and put their males back in their old roles, and live happily ever after.

“The Conquest of Gola” is a pretty good yarn, a bit clunky sounding today because of the typical writing quality common to SF pulps back then. Yet, it has many interesting bits of speculation. First, and this was common for the time, was the idea that superior beings possessed telepathy and other extrasensory powers. “The Man Who Evolved” was in the same issue of Wonder Stories. That’s another SF theme I’d like to trace over time. Second, is the focus on gender. Like in “Sultana’s Dream,” males are considered stupid and violent, whereas females are peaceful and intelligent, the obvious gender to be lead society. But I don’t think that originated in science fiction. People have long speculated what it would be like if women ruled the world. Another idea in the story I’ve seen in other SF stories, is the belief that once a species reaches a certain level of maturity, it will become less materialistic. The inhabitants of Gola had spaceships long ago but gave them up.

Reading this story has me thinking about building a subject database for the science fiction stories I read. I struggle with memory. First, I’m getting old, and my recall is flaky, but second, I’ve read thousand of science fiction stories. Often, I only vaguely remember a story by a particular topic, and can’t remember the title or author. I’d love to have a database that would allow me to retrieve stories by themes, topics, or subjects. For example, list all stories about societies ruled by women. That query should help me remember “Sultana’s Dream” and “The Conquest of Gola.”

I showed a spreadsheet sample for remembering subjects when I reviewed “The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois. That was a quick and dirty solution, but to really get the job done would require a relational database because I’d want each story to be able to have unlimited subjects attached to it.

And is subject the right word? Should it be theme? Or concept, or idea? What is the right word for describing what a science fiction story is about? For “The Conquest of Gola” there are several keywords I’d like to link with the story so when I want a list of stories that deal with a specific subject, it would add “The Conquest of Gola” to the listing. For this story I’d link it to these subjects:

  • Aliens
  • Venus
  • Gender
  • Superior Being
  • Utopia
  • Female
  • Feminism
  • Telepathy
  • ESP
  • Conquest

You can probably see how this gets tricky fast. Why do I need Gender and Female? Or even Feminism? What if I wanted to list all SF stories that deal with gender roles in society? (Think The Left Hand of Darkness.) But another time, wanted a list of all stories where females are the dominate gender? Will all such stories be about feminism? What if I wanted just a list of stories that promoted feminism? Is “The Conquest of Gola” really about feminism? I’m not sure. It’s often used as an example for women writing science fiction, but does that fact make it about feminism? The Handmaid’s Tale is obvious a work I’d tag with feminism in the subject field. I’d put feminism in “Sultana’s Dream” subject field for sure, but I don’t think I would for “The Conquest of Gola.”

See why creating a subject database for science fiction stories is tricky? It’s probably why we don’t see any. ISFDB started the “Tag” field, and if you search for “Feminism” it brings up only 13 entries. My guess is they gave up on that project, suggesting it I might be waste my time.

However, as I review the 107 stories of The Big Book of Science Fiction I might build a test database. It sure would help me to remember SF stories if I had a database with a carefully designed subject field. Each title could have any number of subjects tagged to it, but does that mean the number of subjects would be unlimited? Would it help manage complexity if I used two fields: Theme and Subject? We’ll see.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/9/21

“The Star Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton

Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #10: “The Star Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton

It only took us to the tenth story in this giant retrospective science fiction anthology to get to the galactic civilization, probably the the most cherished of all science fiction concepts, and the destination fantasy of true fans. “The Star Stealers” anticipates both Star Trek and Star Wars. The galactic civilization is to science fiction what Middle-Earth is to fantasy.

“The Star Stealers” is the second of seven stories (1928-1930) in Hamilton’s early space opera series, Interstellar Patrol. Those stories are among the earliest science fiction about interstellar travel, and among the few to leave the galaxy. This story could have been the inspiration for Star Trek since it involved a Federation governing the galaxy, a captain commanding from a bridge of a Federation ship, and even a second officer who is a woman. Edmond Hamilton and E. E. “Doc” Smith were the pioneers of space opera.

Five of the Interstellar Patrol stories were first published in book form in 1965 as Crashing Suns, the year before Star Trek premiered. All of them were republished in 2009 as The Star-Stealers: The Complete Adventures of The Interstellar Patrol, The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume Two, a collector’s edition from Haffner Press that’s now out of print and costs hundreds of dollars used, if you can find a copy. However, because it took decades for these stories to be reprinted suggests they weren’t fan favorites. Most of Hamilton’s early magazine work wasn’t published in book form until the late 1960s or 1970s. Edmond Hamilton is most famous for his Captain Future series, but even those fan favorite stories from the 1940s weren’t reprinted as books until 1969, and then as cheap Ace paperbacks. Hamilton’s appeal seems rather limited. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark and Lensman series vastly overshadowed Hamilton’s space operas.

I’m still trying to discern the VanderMeers’s methodology for the stories they collect in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Anthologies usually have a design behind them. The simplest approach is to bundle a bunch of stories you expect readers will enjoy. Because this anthology is a retrospective of 20th century science fiction I assume the stories showcase the genre. In the introduction the VanderMeers tell us they want to broadening the history of the genre by including women writers and foreign-language stories in translation. I thought that was an excellent ambition. But I assumed when they did include traditional SF stories, those stories would be the classics, and maybe the best example of each writer’s work.

This has happened some, but not to the degree I assumed. For example, “The Star Stealers” is not Edmond Hamilton’s best. Hamilton was never a good writer, and it shows in “The Star Stealers,” which is little better than a comic book without pictures. Hamilton wrote two stories, “The Man Who Evolved” and “What’s It Like Out There?” I believe belong in retrospective SF anthologies. The original use of the term space opera was as a put down for the kind of writing “The Star Stealers” epitomizes. I even wonder if Hugo Gernsback, who had no ear for prose, had turned down “The Star Stealers.” Weird Tales is a legendary magazine today, but it’s content was often amateurish. But Hamilton was practically a house writer for them, so he probably didn’t submit it to Amazing. This story was no more sophisticated than the illustration that went with “The Star Stealers” at the top of the page.

Still, there’s plenty to like about “The Star Stealers,” and it makes an interesting entry for the anthology. The plot parallels the story by Wells, “The Star,” which was about a rogue astronomical body flying through the solar system, swinging too close to Earth. In “The Star Stealers” a giant sun is detected coming from outside the galaxy that will swing too close to Earth. For this story, the object is traveling many multiple speeds of light and will reach the solar system in four months. This is ridiculous, but Hamilton’s Federation space cruisers can travel a thousand times the speed of light, so its no problem. (By the way, how do astronomers detect objects approaching Earth traveling faster than light in their telescopes?)

“The Star Stealers” was published the year before Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, and just five years after Edwin Hubble proved the existence of galaxies outside of the Milky Way, and less than two decades since Einstein explained that nothing could travel faster than light. Hamilton has his space cruiser traveling from Alpha Centauri to our system in twelve hours. This is almost as fast as they travel in Star Wars, but a good deal slower than what they can do in Star Trek. We might forgive Hamilton for breaking Einstein’s speed law in 1929, but even modern writers can’t let go of FTL.

In recent decades we’ve been seeing more stories following Einstein’s laws for interstellar travel, but for the most part writers keep coming up with theoretical gimmicks to go faster. Readers want science fiction where humans roam the galaxy at will, and we see this in “The Star Stealers.” However, the super-science of that story and other early space operas has been deemed excessive by modern fans. “The Star Stealers” feels as archaic today as a silent movie. At one time, “Doc” Smith had his characters hurling galaxies at each other, but nowadays, science fiction readers are happy with space opera that span just a few hundred light years. Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought series is the last science fiction I’ve read that covers the entire galaxy. The only other SF story I know that has characters traveling between galaxies is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. I should forgive Hamilton because “The Star Pit” is not ridiculous to me at all, in fact, it’s my all-time favorite SF novella.

But as I said, “The Star Stealers” is a fascinating choice for this anthology. It anticipates the ultimate setting of science fiction fans who want to dwell in a galactic civilization, with countless exotic worlds to visit, and plenty of exotic races of intelligent aliens to be friends and foes. Edmond Hamilton grasped the final frontier early, and the idea of a federation of star systems. “Doc” Smith’s first space opera, The Skylark of Space has a lone Elon Musk like inventor competing with a mad scientist, Blackie DuQuesne to explore the galaxy. Hamilton jumps ahead of Smith by imagining a civilized galaxy. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s prose was painful, and he never achieved the popularity of Smith. “Doc” Smith’s second space opera series, The Lensman series actually popularized the galactic civilization which eventually led to Star Trek. It was Asimov, with the Foundation series, that popularized the galactic empire, which led to Star Wars. I keep mentioning those two franchises because they represent the most loved examples of science fiction today, and these earlier stories represented how thousands of fans eventually turned into hundreds of millions of fans.

So, in that sense, the VanderMeers have made an exceptional pick. Unfortunately, “The Star Stealers” is also a perfect example of bad writing, even for old timey science fiction. First, the bad characterization.

The hero of this tale is Ran Rarak. We expect him to be dashing, but there is no supporting description, even though he’s the admiral of a mighty space fleet. We expect Ran to be heroic, but in the big fight he gets knocked out and is unconscious for ten weeks. We eventually see Ran duking it out with one alien, but it’s an ordinary non-superhero punch out. And the one problem he solves is by ramming the enemy’s pivotal machine with his space cruiser.

Hamilton should get credit for introducing a female character in early SF. Dal Nara, pilot, second officer, is a woman who gets to be part of the story action but her only insight is to yell, “Hey, look!” warnings on a few occasions. Her only action is to use her long legs to grab a means of escape. And finally, her chosen reward for help saving the solar system is to visit a beauty parlor. But she’s not the love interest. Hamilton, we give you a gold star, but it doesn’t stick and falls off.

And like in Star Trek, characters are comically tossed around the bridge to show conflict in space. Only one named character in the story is killed, Nal Jak, but he does nothing, and we don’t even know the color of his shirt. Hurus Hol we’re told is the brilliant scientist, but we’re never shown him being brilliant. However, he does commit one of the cardinal sins of bad science fiction, he infodumps on Ran Rarak in a completely condescending way:

He was silent again for a moment, his eyes on mine, and then went on. “You know, Ran Rarak, that the universe itself is composed of infinite depths of space in which float great clusters of suns, star-clusters which are separated from each other by billions of light-years of space. You know, too, that our own cluster of suns, which we call the galaxy, is roughly disklike in shape, and that our own particular sun is situated at the very edge of this disk. Beyond lie only those inconceivable leagues of space which separate us from the neighboring star clusters, or island universes, depths of space never yet crossed by our own cruisers or by anything else of which we have record. 

“But now, at last, something has crossed those abysses, is crossing them; since over three weeks ago our astronomers discovered that a gigantic dark star is approaching our galaxy from the depths of infinite space—a titanic, dead sun which their instruments showed to be of a size incredible, since, dark and dead as it is, it is larger than the mightiest blazing suns in our own galaxy, larger than Canopus or Antares or Betelgeuse—a dark, dead star millions of times larger than our own fiery sun—a gigantic wanderer out of some far realm of infinite space, racing toward our galaxy at a velocity inconceivable! 

“The calculations of our scientists showed that this speeding dark star would not race into our galaxy but would speed past its edge, and out into infinite space again, passing no closer to our own sun, at the edge, than some fifteen billion miles. There was no possibility of collision or danger from it, therefore; and so though the approach of the dark star is known to all in the solar system, there is no idea of any peril connected with it. But there is something else which has been kept quite secret from the peoples of the solar system, something known only to a few astronomers and officials. And that is that during the last few weeks the path of this speeding dark star has changed from a straight path to a curving one, that it is curving inward toward the edge of our galaxy and will now pass our own sun, in less than twelve weeks, at a distance of less than three billion miles, instead of fifteen! And when this titanic dead sun passes that close to our own sun there can be but one result. Inevitably our own sun will be caught by the powerful gravitational grip of the giant dark star and carried out with all its planets into the depths of infinite space, never to return!” 

Hurus Hol paused, his face white and set, gazing past me with wide, unseeing eyes. My brain whirling beneath the stunning revelation, I sat rigid, silent, and in a moment he went on.
 

The plotting of the story is about at the level of old Buck Rogers serials, which were more primitive than the Flash Gordans. Humans detect a giant sun heading towards the Milky Way and calculate it will swing near enough to the Sun to capture Sol and pull it into intergalactic space. They quickly assemble a fleet of fifty Federation space cruisers and take off. When they reach the giant sun which turns out to be populated death star, their fleet is almost completely destroyed, and our heroes get immediately captured. Like so many episodes of Star Trek where Captain Kirk is confined by ropes, chains, jails, cells, dungeons, and sexy space-babes, the plot pivots on merely escaping confinement and performing one little act, thus saving the Earth, solar system, galaxy, or universe. It turns out not all the fleet was destroyed, and good old Federation cruiser Number Sixteen escaped to fetch back a fleet of 5,000 Federation ships in the nick of time. Hamilton couldn’t even be bothered to name his ships, even the one that saves the day.

Edmond Hamilton seems to know little about astronomy or physics. He keeps mentioning three billion miles like it’s a tremendous distance, yet that’s just a tiny fraction light travels in one year: 5,878,625,370,000 miles. His ships accelerate but never decelerate. And a Federation spaceship can suddenly stop or hover in relation to each other even though they’ve been traveling a thousand times the speed of light. Another foreshadowing of Star Trek and Star Wars.

Like I said, this story was written just a few years after Hubble made the measurements to calculate that other galaxies were outside the Milky Way. It appears that Hamilton thinks our galaxy and the universe is terribly tiny. Was that true for all people back in the 1920s? Maybe it was for teenage readers of SF.

Even though E. E. “Doc” Smith was far more famous than Edmond Hamilton, he wasn’t much better as a writer. “The Star Stealers” is typical for both storytelling and science back in the 1920s and 1930s. There’s a reason why John W. Campbell, Jr. is so famous, because he attracted both stories and writers that were a quantum leap in quality and talent. And it explains why it’s hard so hard to find good science fiction stories between H. G. Wells and Robert A. Heinlein. This brings us back to the anthology.

Should we remember the all the bad stories that helped evolve the genre? There is a kind of fun academic appeal to reading old clunkers like “The Star Stealers” but is that what most buyers of retrospective anthologies want? And I still wonder if there were truly good stories from back then that could be rescued.

Look at it this way. There was thousands and thousands of short stories published in the 19th century, but how many are still embraced by readers today? Is the number even greater than 25? Or 10? I’m talking by bookworms, not scholars.

When a century separates readers from the 20th century, how many of these SF stories will still be read? At what point should we let go? Just how big would The Big Book of Science Fiction be if it only reprinted four and five star stories? My definition of a four-star story is any story on reading the first time leaves you knowing you’ll want to reread it. My definition of a five-star story are stories which bookworms cherish and read many times over their lifetime.

“The Star Stealers” fits neither definition for me. My definition for three-star stories are solid well-written stories that deserve to be published in a professional periodical, and might even deserve to be reprinted in an annual best-of-the-year anthology. It’s hard to judge the quality of “The Star Stealers” today by whether it deserved a magazine editor’s acceptance. But I’m guessing Farnsworth Wright was excited about the ideas in “The Star Stealer” and knew Hamilton wasn’t much of a writer. Wright and Gernsback knew their readers weren’t mature or educated, just enthusiastic. Even in 1929 I probably would have considered it a 2-star story, but I probably would have bought it if I was a magazine editor. It was different.

I enjoyed reading and writing about “The Star Stealers” because I’m an autodidactic scholar of science fiction, but I have to wonder what the average science fiction fan today will think of it.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/5/21

“The Fate of the Poseidonia” by Clare Winger Harris

With the ninth story of The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, we’ve finally reached the land of science fiction. In our group discussions many have questioned whether the earlier stories were truly science fiction. With “The Fate of the Poseidonia” by Clare Winger Harris from the June 1927 issue of Amazing Stories we’ve finally reached the era of pulp science fiction magazines. If anything defined the concept, it was the science fiction magazines.

Clare Winger Harris images a much different winter of 1994-95. George Gregory discovers his girlfriend Margaret has taken up with another guy, a Mr. Martell. Martell looks odd, and acts suspicious. George tells Margaret of his worries, but she defends Martell and dumps Gregory. Mr. Gregory starts spying on Mr. Martell out of jealousy, and learns that Martell is a Martian spy. Unfortunately, no one will believe him, and he’s committed to a mental hospital.

Is “The Fate of the Poseidonia” the earliest example of Martians living amongst us stories? My two favorites of that theme are A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis. Both of these novels have a quiet beauty you don’t often find in science fiction. This theme was also used on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. The idea of Martians passing for humans is very entertaining to me which caused me to like “The Fate of the Poseidonia” more than it probably deserves. It’s a decent story, mainly suffering from an unskilled writer, but Harris did win third prize for it at Amazing Stories.

What makes this story so distinctive among those we’ve read so far is how the reader in thrown into the future. This isn’t a dream, or an experiment in storytelling, a political allegory, or philosophical musing. This story contains the real essence of science fiction. The setting is science fictional, and the intent of the story is science fictional. Clare Winger Harris asks us to believe that there are intelligent beings on Mars who come to Earth to steal our water. Their planet has dried up and they have the technology to lower ocean levels by many feet. Harris has created an entertaining example of “What if …?”

In 1927 it was widely assumed there could be life elsewhere in the solar system, especially Mars and Venus. Until Mariner 4 flew by Mars in July of 1965, hope was held out for life on Mars, even intelligent life. I’m not sure people growing today can understand how it was almost a common assumption that Mars and Venus could actually be inhabited. Sure, most scientists held little hope, but the public did, and it was reflected in Pre-NASA science fiction. From H. G. Wells to Roger Zelazny there were endless science fictional speculations about Martians. I loved the idea of Martians as a kid, and even wrote an essay, “I Miss Martians.”

I also grew up with NASA, so I quickly gave up all hope for finding any kind of life within our solar system. The more I read popular science, the more skeptical I became about science fiction. Eventually, I doubted most of what science fiction hoped. But in my old age I realized I still love the old unscientific science fiction. (I’m really digging listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr.)

I’ve mentioned this before, but I grew up reading Oz books before I discovered science fiction. At the beginning of the 20th century L. Frank Baum produced a series of children’s books about a fictional location that existed somewhere on Earth, but in a geography that had eluded all explorers. Over the series, the Land of Oz became richly complex. As a gullible nine-year-old in 1962 I wanted Oz to actually exist. I knew it didn’t, but I wanted it to be a real place. Hell, it was crushing to lose Santa Claus at 6, then Oz at 9, and Christianity at 12. So I turned to science fiction. My 69-year-old self realizes that for most of my lifetime, science fiction was my replacement for Oz and religion. I always rationalized that reading science fiction prepared me for the future, and inspired me to learn about science, but in reality, it was my way to escape the mundane.

This is very different from my middle-age self who wanted science fiction to be scientific. Now I see very little difference between science fiction and fantasy. Both are fairytales for readers who have left childhood. Both are about world building fictional universes. There seems to be some differences because some readers show preferences for one over the other. Maybe science fiction are those tales that seem more realistic. However, in 2021 how realistic is “The Fate of the Poseidonia” then? It’s far from scientific. In 1927 it was thought to be more realistic, but not if you were properly educated.

I’m using these essays reviewing the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction to understand the evolution of the genre, but also to psychoanalyze myself. Why do I love science fiction so much? I want to define the term science fiction because it seems to point to exactly something that pushes my buttons. A good deal of pop culture is now science fiction, so I’m not alone in my attraction. Maybe we should all analyze this fixation?

We could say science fiction is fiction set is the future. That might be the one telling trait that defines science fiction for me, but maybe not everyone. Fantasies are set in the past, present, or never-never land. When they are set in the future, like Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, I want to call them science fiction. This lets us file steampunk and alternate history in the fantasy bin. I like that, because neither of those types of stories feel like science fiction to me. We could split the difference on time travel stories. If characters head to the past, it’s fantasy, but if they go forward, it’s science fiction. But there’s a problem. All those stories about visiting dinosaurs are definitely science fiction to me.

What if someone today wrote a story set in the future where we discover an ancient dying civilization on Mars, something that’s been proven to be impossible? I can amend my definition by saying even fantasies set in the future belong in the science fiction bin too. In fact, older unscientific SF has become my favorite kind of science fiction in recent years. And I’ve notice a trend for writers to produce alternate history science fiction, like the novel The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, or the Apple TV+ series For All Mankind. I might not be the only person nostalgic for what science fiction used to be.

As I read and review the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, and our Facebook group discusses them, I’m trying to find a reason to keep the term science fiction. I swing back and forth from wanting to throw out all genre labels, to finding a practical meaning for the term science fiction that most people can agree on.

Right now my working definition is “Science fiction is fiction set in the future.” That leaves a lot of holes, but then we have almost a hundred stories yet to consider.

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James W. Harris, 9/4/21

“The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois

The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois is the first story we’ve read in The Big Book of Science Fiction that reads like a modern short story, and feels like modern science fiction. Is there a name for the form of fiction we now consider the standard model? All the stories we’ve read so far felt quaint, experimental, philosophical, pretentious, or unnatural. “The Star” by H. G. Wells was the closest to normal, but it did feel old fashioned, like other stories from the 19th century. Du Bois story is from 1920, yet felt more polished and modern than most science fiction from the 1920s, 1930s, and into the 1940s.

I know I’m not being very precise here when trying to talk about writing styles or forms. I just don’t have the terminology. I’m trying to describe something I’ve observed from personal experience that might have precise labels among academics. The prose of Charles Dickens, Henry James, or Edith Wharton has a quality that makes them feel old to me, but they are still very readable. Then in the 1920s, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and other writers made their prose more streamlined, and thus created what I think of as the modern form of fiction. Modern fiction has a greater percentage of dialog, and that dialog rings more natural. In the 19th century, the narrative part of fiction was quite wordy, especially with writers like Henry James. H. G. Wells was long on narrative and short on dialog, and his characters sounded Victorian.

The prose in 1920s Amazing Stories and early 1930s Astounding feels oldy too, and has a clunky quality of bad writing. Science fiction has always had the extra burden of explaining the science fictional aspects. This is called info-dumping, and is comparable to 19th descriptive narration that would spend paragraphs describing a mantelpiece.

“The Comet” feels more like Fitzgerald in its storytelling techniques, which are more advanced than the first decades of science fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. A large part of Heinlein’s success when he made a splash in the early 1940s was his use of modern streamline writing. The focus was on dramatic dialog, while minimizing the infodumping and narrative descriptions. Heinlein’s prose sounds snappy, even breezy compared to his predecessors. Heinlein’s style immerses the reader into the fantastic with the minimum of fuss and notice.

In other words, I’m quite impressed with W. E. B. Du Bois writing in “The Comet.” It’s a shame he didn’t become a genre writer during the pulp era. “The Comet” is pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic, as was “The Star” by Wells. The difference was Wells was narrating a ponderous worldwide overview, while Du Bois used the POV of one person.

Both are good stories, but “The Comet” points the way to the future. As we progress through the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we’re seeing both science fiction themes evolve, as well as the techniques of fiction writing.

I would love if I could quantify these two progressions. I have no idea how to track changes in fiction writing. For science fiction themes I picture myself building a database of theme examples. Designing the structure of such a database will take considerable thought. Most science fiction stories have multiple themes. For example:

Notice that Earth Abides and The World, The Flesh, and The Devil do away with Pre-Apocalyptic and Apocalyptic phases of the story, jumping immediately into the Post-Apocalyptic phase. The direction of storytelling is towards getting into a tale quicker, and when there, conveying the action in prose that is speedier to read. Modern bestsellers are very easy to read, dominated by near realistic dialog. Older fiction have archaic dialog, sometimes sounding like lectures, that slow the story.

Written fiction, novels and short stories, can convey the inner world of thoughts and opinions, that media fiction, movies and television shows, seldom attempt to express. But written fiction seems to be moving away from this unique attribute in favor of speed. But it would be a shame to abandon it entirely. (As an aside, some modern written fiction comes across like the young writers were inspired by movies rather than books.)

All stories have a setup and something to say. In “The Comet” Du Bois wants to say things about race, using the setup of a science fiction theme to express himself. The collapse of civilization allows Jim Davis, a black man from 1910s New York City to connect with Julia, a white woman. This connection was impossible before the apocalypse. Like Rod Sterling talking about a character entering the twilight zone, science fiction allowed Du Bois to put Jim Davis in a setting to show how race is an artificial construct of society.

Because Du Bois’ goal was to change readers’ minds about race, can “The Comet” still be science fiction? In an earlier essay, I said science fiction are those stories set within specific themes, like the future, traveling in space, or after the collapse of civilization. Racism is a universal theme that SF can’t claim. Science fiction is the setup of “The Comet,” but the story was written to say things about racism.

This brings us to an interesting question: Do both the setup and the intent of the story have to be science fictional to make the story science fiction? Eventually, in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we’ll reach such stories. I expect that will be soon, maybe with “The Star Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton. Both Earth Abides by George R. Stewart and The World, the Flesh, and The Devil use both science fiction as a setup, and to say things about living in a post-apocalyptic world. Sure, they also say things about us and our society, but the purpose of these stories is to speculate about life after the apocalypse, in that territory of the future belonging to science fiction.

Because W. E. B. Du Bois brings back civilization at the end of “The Comet,” we’re not really in the future. “The Comet” feels like science fiction, even great science fiction, until the end, that is. We’re jerked back to the present like in the earlier story “Sultana’s Dream.” Du Bois ventured into the shadows of the twilight zone, but didn’t stay.

On one hand, does the label science fiction really matter? “The Comet” is an excellent short story. The literary world has had several major writers rejecting the science fiction label on their work. They have good reason to reject the label. On the other hand, if a literary writer strays into science fiction’s territory, using science fictional techniques for their story’s setup, and especially when what they have to say is science fictional, shouldn’t the work be called science fiction? On our third hand, if the term science fiction isn’t precise, isn’t it unfair to use the label on those who don’t want it? And if science fiction is just a marketing term, shouldn’t it be restricted to genre fiction? “The Comet” is literary fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four are literary fiction and science fiction by my definition. But I can understand why literary writers wouldn’t want the science fiction label if its also equated with genre writing.

I believe we’re still on the road to science fiction, but we haven’t gotten there yet. But I’m starting to wonder whether or not I’m painting myself into a corner. I do not know our ultimate destination, but my intuition tells me I’m going to define science fiction in way that only I use. Most people will gladly accept “The Comet” as a perfectly good example of science fiction. I’m sure old Hugo Gernsback would have reprinted this story in Amazing Stories if he had known about it.

What would W. E. B. Du Bois think? 1920 was well before the term science fiction existed, but Du Bois lived until 1963. Did anyone ever ask him, “Were you writing science fiction when you wrote ‘The Comet?'” I believe he had a very clever idea for a story setup to express significant insights about racism. I’m not familiar with his work, but did he ever write a story about the future where racism didn’t exist? “The Comet” almost goes there. Such a story would be fully within my definition of science fiction.

Didn’t Du Bois pull back at the last moment because he knew most of his readers couldn’t go all the way? My point is science fiction is about going places we haven’t thought about going before. Du Bois got so very close. I’d like to even imagine he wanted to write that story.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/3/21

“The Doom of Principal City” by Yefim Zozulya

Reading The Big Book of Science Fiction is causing me to reevaluate my relationship with science fiction. For most of my life I wanted science fiction to be serious speculation about the future. I considered ideas the pinnacle of science fiction’s virtues. But after reading a couple thousand science fiction short stories over the last decade, I realize storytelling is the primary consideration. Insights and ideas are secondary. Anyone can have a cool idea, it’s how they’re presented that determines the success of a story.

“The Doom of Principal City” by Yefim Zozulya reeks of Western Union. It might be an interesting example of an early dystopia, but that’s all it has, academic appeal. The reason why Nineteen Eighty-Four is still read and why its still so damn readable, is because we care about Winston Smith. The next reason we read Nineteen Eighty-Four is the marvelously crafted world building. We don’t have a character to care about in “The Doom of Principal City” and the setting only feels didactic. I’ve come to really dislike satire. Too often satire is buckshot broadsides, whereas beautiful storytelling uses precisely placed bullets. Of course, when I was young, satire was easy to love because it made us feel grown up and superior, but now that I’m old satire feels childish and snooty. “The Doom of Principal City” came across as vague cleverness, but then the writer might have feared political reprisals.

I should give Zozulya credit for the context in which was written, but I can’t. There was a certain level of cleverness in having the city conquered by peaceful means that turn oppressive, but the solution is the same old violence and destruction. I should give Zozulya credit because the story is still topical. Principal City could be Kabul. Think about it. Reread the story. But like I said, real art is about specifics. Its easy to be vaguely clever, but much harder to be vividly detailed.

Which gets me back to my new realization of what I love about science fiction. Storytelling is becoming everything. Science fiction only grabs me now with how the story is told. It can be simplistic or sophisticated, but its got to suck me in. Philosophical fiction, satire, social protest, experimental fiction just doesn’t dance anymore. I can admire writers for what they’re trying to do intellectually, but not as science fiction that moves me emotionally.

And I think this is due to aging. When I was young, I was easily amused, and easily impressed. “The Doom of Principal City” might have struct me as clever, or meaningful. Now, not so much. And partly that’s due to its narrative style. It feels like a parable, or allegory, rather than modern fiction. It’s setup reminds me of “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory about a small country under attack by a powerful country with a superhero military force. I’m not fond of superhero stories, but Gregory’s storytelling was vivid and rich. That’s what’s missing from “The Doom of Principal City.” I have to wonder if writers back in 1910s didn’t have such abilities, or we’re just getting the weak examples of what they could do. I don’t think its the translation. “The Dead” by James Joyce was from that decade, so we do know what’s possible, although it might be fairer to use Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Rice Burroughs to compare, since they were genre writers.

I worry that the poor storytelling examples we’ve had at the beginning of The Big Book of Science Fiction is because the genre lacked for better ones. Or, are the VanderMeers more impressed with ideas?

Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker is a recent example of what I consider captivating storytelling. It does have plenty of sparkly ideas, but what really sparkles is how they’re presented.

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James Wallace Harris, 9/1/21

“Mechanopolis” by Miguel de Unamuno

In his very first sentence in “Mechanoplis,” Miguel de Unamuno, lets us know his story was inspired by reading Erewhon by Samuel Butler. That 1872 novel is considered one of the first books to imagine artificial intelligence. Butler extended Charles Darwin’s recent ideas on natural selection to apply to the machines of the industrial revolution. Could machines develop consciousness and become self-replicating? This makes it hard not to consider Erewhon a major science fiction novel of the 19th century. However, I’m still on the fence about whether or not genre science fiction can claim utopian literature. My current thought is those old utopian novels inspired the birth of genre science fiction by getting people to think about the future. But along the way there was a fork in the road. Some science fiction has continued to worry about the future, like the recent novel The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. But most genre SF has made the future into a Disneyland of thrills, adventures, and fun. The future becomes a place we want to visit.

It’s hard to trace the evolution of ideas in utopian novels and proto-SF stories of the 19th century to mid-20th century genre science fiction. Butler used the future to comment on Victorian society with satire closer to Jonathan Swift’s 18th century work than how Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov used the future in the 20th century science fiction. But I do see stepping stones, from story to story.

Reading “Mechanopolis” by Miguel de Unamuno in The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer provided an immediate sense of déjà vu. I can’t remember if I read this 1913 story from the Spanish writer Unamuno in another anthology, or because it feels so much like other science fiction stories I’ve read, especially, “Twilight” by John W. Campbell, Jr. from 1934.

“Mechanopolis” begins with an unnamed narrator lost in a desert, nearly dead, who happens upon an oasis where he finds an automated railway system that takes him into a deserted city where machines maintain an automated society long after humanity has left. The forgotten cafeterias allow our narrator to eat. That was true in the Campbell story too. However, in this story the narrator goes mad as he realizes the machines have souls, and even write about his activities in their daily newspaper, spooking the hell out of him. The abandoned cities in “Twilight” still functioning by self-repairing machines, but they inspire a great sense of wonder, not fear.

In the end of “Mechanopolis,” the narrator escapes the city and returns to the desert. He encounters Bedouins who save him. When the narrator returns home he works to stay as far away from machinery as possible. Of course, this reminds me of the ending to the 1984 classic SF story “Press Enter ▮” by John Varley. I’ve written about it before. Victor Apfel, in the Varley story becomes so afraid of machines he rips the wiring out of his house.

“Mechanopolis” is a rather brief expression of a theme that shows up time and again in science fiction. We are definitely on the road to science fiction with this story. Unamuno completely ignores how his narrator finds his way to the mechanical city. In “Twilight,” Campbell has his story told to a man of our times by a wayward time traveler he picks up hitchhiking.

This reveals an interesting aspect to the evolution of science fiction. Writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries had a difficult time setting their story in the future. Often, those early tales about the future have people from the present stumble into some kind of suspended animation. In 1819 Washington Irving has his title character in “Rip van Wrinkle” fall asleep for twenty years. In 1888 Edward Bellamy has his character, Julian West, go under a hypnotic sleep for 113 years to get to the future described in Looking Backward. Of course, the most famous solution was by H. G. Wells in 1895, when he sent his character into the future via a time machine. But then in 1928 Buck Rogers returns to the old method getting to 2419 by being trapped in a cave in where radioactive gas puts him into suspended animation.

All these writers evidently felt there must be some connection between the present day and the future. Maybe they thought we needed a POV like ourselves to react to the future. However, Ray Bradbury did away with the human viewer altogether in “There Will Come Soft Rains” where he describes an automated house working after the humans are gone, and we assume extinct because of WWIII. It’s a beautiful story. However, the machines aren’t sentient, and we don’t fear them. We’re just wistful to see them working without us.

Unamuno has his character take a strange train ride. Does his narrator ever realize he’s in the future? Or is it possible that this mechanical city is somewhere on Earth like the land of Oz, in current time but having a quite divergent development from the rest of the world? Or is Mechanopolis in another dimension? I’m not sure we know. The train is a portal, but not much else is explained. I’m assuming Mechanopolis is in the future. Art the narrator sees in the machine’s museums he feels are the originals might imply the narrator was in the future. But he also wondered if our museums held perfect forgeries. That could imply Mechanoplis was not in the future.

One of the surprising aspects to the 1909 story, “The Machine Stops,” is E. M. Forster just puts his readers into the future. That approach eventually becomes the standard for science fiction. We read science fiction so we can jump into the future. Any comparison to the present is at an unconscious level.

“Mechanopolis” anticipates automated cities in future stories like The Dying Earth by Jack Vance or The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. In those two the humans aren’t quite gone but our species is fading away. I just remembered, The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson from 1912. He took his readers to the far future too, where the remaining humans survive in the remnants of a technological civilization. Hodgson got his readers there with a reincarnated character from our times. Some editions of that book lop off that introductory section, and jump immediately to the future. Evidently, those editors felts modern readers didn’t need the connection with the present day.

Another story where the humans are gone but the machines remain is the connecting filler to the fix-up novel City by Clifford Simak. We are told humans have left and only intelligent machines and uplifted dogs remain. The gimmick of the fix-up is the robots and dogs are telling tales about humans, which are just reprints of Simak short stories. With Simak, we love the machines.

“Moxon’s Master” the 1899 story by Ambrose Bierce features a chess playing machine killing a human. We have a long history of anthropomorphizing animals and objects, so when did the idea of sentient machines first develop in science fiction? Unamuno’s 1913 story is way before computers, or even the concept of robots were developed. That was even more true of Erewhon. Why does Butler or Unamuno imagine machines will become aware? It’s one thing to assume automated machinery will keep running, or could even be made self-servicing. It’s a whole other concept to imagine that machines could observe people, and in this story, feel concern for the narrator’s state of mind. Evolving machines was quite a leap for Butler, but Darwin inspired all kinds of fears about evolution. A great case could be made that Darwin is really the father of science fiction.

In this very short story, Unamuno comes up with automated cities, the extinction of humans, cities that keep functioning without humans, self-aware machines, and even machine inheriting the Earth. He also comes up with the fear or paranoia of intelligent machines. It’s doubtful many English writers and readers knew about Unamuno’s story. Could there have been any chance of Campbell reading it? I wonder what Spanish writers Unamuno influenced with science fictional ideas?

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James Wallace Harris, 8/30/21