“The Hemingway Hoax” by Joe Haldeman

The Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction is reading The Best of the Best, Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels edited by Gardner Dozois. This week’s discussion story is “The Hemingway Hoax” by Joe Haldeman which first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction (April 1990). I remember reading the story when it came out. I was around forty then, and I’m seventy now. I thought it might be interesting to explore how my attitudes toward “The Hemingway Hoax” have changed since I got old.

I was an English major in college and had read A Farewell to Arms (1929) and The Sun Also Rises (1926) and a handful of Hemingway’s short stories. Other than classroom discussion I knew little about Hemingway. I’ve read several biographies since then, and more of his fiction, but at the time I didn’t know about the central inspiration of “The Hemingway Hoax,” that Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife, had lost all his early manuscripts. At the time I thought that fascinating and probably encouraged me to go read about Hemingway.

“The Hemingway Hoax” focuses on John Baird, a Boston University professor specializing in Hemingway. Baird is a vet, wounded in Vietnam, who identifies with Hemingway’s war wounds, and eventually makes a list of all the things they share. He’s married to a much younger woman, Lena. They are vacationing in the Florida Keys, but are worried about their future. Baird’s trust fund is about to run out and they are used to living a rich lifestyle. Baird is afraid of how Lena will react to living within an academic’s salary. Then Baird meets Castle, a con man who suggests a scheme for Baird to forge a lost manuscript of Ernest Hemingway. Baird is not really interested, but think’s it is an amusing idea. Lena who married Baird for his money connives with Castle to force Baird into the caper. Along the way, Castle cons a woman named Pansy into the scheme too.

The magazine version of “The Hemingway Hoax” is a long novella, which Haldeman later expanded into a short 155-page novel. (Or did he cut it down for magazine publication?) The novella won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. See Mark R. Kelly’s blog for a comparison of the novella and novel. This long story follows three main plot threads:

  • The Hemingway Hoax – how to forge a Hemingway unpublished manuscript. I thought this was an A+ idea for a plot both at forty and seventy. Unfortunately, Haldeman doesn’t stick with this plot. A few years ago PBS had an episode of Secrets of the Dead that told of an effort to forge a book by Galileo. It was tremendously fascinating. Baird does do a bit of work on this plot, finding typewriters and paper Hemingway would have used and starting a couple of drafts that were interesting. The old me was quite disappointed when Haldeman didn’t finish this plot, but the younger me was more than happy when Haldeman introduced the science fiction.
  • The Baird Con – as a counterplot, when Lena and Castle plan to con Baird into doing something illegal it could have taken the story into noir territory. The older me loves film noir and was excited by that direction. This also could have been an A+ idea too, but it was mainly used for sex and violent scenes. When I was younger I liked sex and violent scenes, but the old me hates excessive violence, and graphic sex scenes only seem suitable for hot romance novels and porn. I could understand taking the noir route with the cheating wife, skipping the science fiction, and selling it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Better yet, I would have been even more impressed if Haldeman had skipped both the noir and the SF and gone the straight literary route like Possession by A. S. Byatt, another story about a literary mystery.
  • The Hemingway Demon – the story has one other character, a supernatural character that physically looks like Hemingway from different times in his life. I call it a demon because like Maxwell’s Demon, it guards the flow actualities between universes in a multiverse Haldeman calls the Omniverse. When I was young this was exciting stuff, but the old crotchety me considers multiverse plots much like time travel plots, easy to abuse. When anything can happen it spoils the story for me. I like my fictional universes to have limitations that reign in the plots. Haldeman goes wild with the universe hopping. That was fun at forty but tedious at seventy. It would have been mindblowing to me at thirteen if the story had been available for me to read in 1964.

You can’t expect a writer to write what you want. That’s completely unfair. But as a reader, every story creates anticipation. Stories are great when they fulfill that initial anticipation. In this reading, Haldeman got me excited about forging Hemingway and then didn’t complete the mission. I have to wonder if he felt compelled to add the science fiction thread because he’s a science fiction writer, and knows where to sell science fiction. I wonder if he would have even liked writing the story as mainstream fiction. When I was young I wanted everything to be science fiction, but as I’ve gotten older, my interests have widened. Not only do I not need everything to be science fiction, but when it is science fiction it needs to be reasonably realistic and down to Earth.

Getting old has done something to my reading tastes. My time in this life is dwindling, and my physical health also limits how much I can read. I now hate when stories are padded with extra scenes. I generally prefer science fiction at the short story or novelette length. Most novellas stretch out ideas too much. The older, impatient me, felt Haldeman was too ambitious with this story. What I really love is a story that has lots of realistic details, good characterization, a tight plot, and a compelling narrative style. But I want it focused. I don’t want any wasted words or scenes.

I’m afraid when reading “The Hemingway Hoax” Haldeman hooked me on the writing of a forged Hemingway manuscript and then distracted me with all the omniverse mumbo-jumbo. It allowed him to come up with a clever idea of what happened to the lost manuscripts, and it gave Haldeman a chance to write from Hemingway’s point of view as he lived his life backward. All that was interesting, but wasn’t part of the story that hooked me this time.

When I was young I found stories and novels that used real people as fictional characters to be neat and fun. But over a lifetime of reading biographies, I now see such a practice as exploitation – an easy way to get readers’ attention. Reading such books as The Paris Wife by Paula McLain produced a false idea of what Hadley and Hemingway were like. I wrote about this in my essay, “Why Did Ernest Hemingway Leave Hadley Out of The Sun Also Rises?

In recent years, we’ve seen more and more best sellers and movie blockbusters that fictionalize historical people, and I’ve realized that I don’t like this trend. That has tainted my rereading of “The Hemingway Hoax.” I thought John Baird was a great idea for a character, a wounded vet who identified with Hemingway in so many ways, including his war wounds. And I thought a fictional character who is a Hemingway scholar trying to forge a lost Hemingway manuscript was a legitimate use of Hemingway’s name in fiction. Creating a supernatural demon that monitors the influence of Hemingway across the multiverse is a fun science fictional idea, but not really significant or meaningful to me at 70.

When we’re young any far-out idea is fun. But now that I’m old, I like my speculation within the realm of realism. “The Hemingway Hoax” is a case where the story was five stars when I was young, but only three stars when I’m old.

James Wallace Harris, 8/15/22

Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee

I wonder if Alec Nevala-Lee will get a reputation as a visionary killer. After his book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Gold Age of Science Fiction came out, John W. Campbell’s name was removed from the award created to honor him, and the reputations of Asimov, Heinlein, Hubbard, and the science fiction Golden Age declined. As I read the first part of Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller Nevala-Lee made me strongly dislike Buckminster Fuller by carefully chronicling Fuller’s personal faults. But by the end of the book, I was willing to overlook them. Bucky never redeems himself, but Nevala-Lee’s excellent biography brings everything into perspective. It brings closure to some of my hippie and New Age fantasies.

Inventor of the Future is a remarkable book about a remarkable person. I was constantly impressed by Nevala-Lee’s writing and research as I read Inventor of the Future but I never could stop thinking about the problems biographers must have in these woke times. How do you present a remarkable person without also throwing them under the bus of moral condemnation? Nobody is without sin, so it’s best not to be throwing stones because it might inspire a stoning by the hordes. But a great biography will always tell it like it is.

After I finished the book I watched some older documentaries about Buckminster Fuller and they left out the negatives. Maybe they didn’t even know them. Alec Nevala-Lee could have done that too, but I’m glad he didn’t. I had an epiphany the other day. I had just finished reading a history book about the first Crusade and then caught a movie about the Crusades on TCM. The difference between what happened in history and how we remember it in Technicolor was striking. In history, the Knights of Christendom slaughtered all the citizens of Antioch and Jerusalem, men, women, and children. And instead of returning the territory to the Holy Roman Empire, the crusaders claimed it for themselves.

We constantly cover up history. My epiphany revealed that is why we don’t change.

We don’t like remembering ourselves as the bad guys, so we whitewash history. It’s why the conservatives fight to keep Critical Race Theory out of education and why liberals want to erase racists from our collective memories. We don’t want to remember that our ancestors were killers, slavers, and routinely committed genocide, or even that our parents and grandparents were racists, sexual predators, and misogynists.

I’m on the third volume of a three-volume history of the world by Susan Wise Bauer and it added to that epiphany. How can we stop being evil if we keep forgetting who we really were? Buckminster Fuller was not evil, but he had enough personal failings that in our woke times many will want to dismiss him. But if we choose to forget him for the darkness in his life, we also throw out the light, the visionary insights.

When I was growing up in the 1960s Buckminster Fuller was a counter-culture hero, especially to hippies who wanted to create communes. Stewart Brand popularized Fuller with his Whole Earth Catalog. We thought Fuller was a genius. We thought Bucky was a futurist, a visionary, a seer. We thought Fuller was a prophet who would lead us into a new society. Then for decades, he was forgotten until people like Steve Jobs started talking about Buckminister Fuller again.

Nevala-Lee’s last biography painted John W. Campbell, Jr. as a racist and crackpot, and he got tarred and feathered by the genre. Buckminster Fuller is not described as a racist, but Inventor of the Future portrays him as a crackpot who used a lot of other people’s money to build inventions that didn’t work. Nevala-Lee quotes Fuller bragging about patronizing over a thousand brothels in Chicago after he was married. Nevala-Lee also writes about several of his love affairs with younger women whom he promised to marry but never did. But I was most disturbed by Bucky’s lying, it reminded me too much of Donald Trump.

However, in the second half of the book, Nevala-Lee clearly shows us how Bucky became the inspiration to more than one generation. People considered him the Da Vinci of the 20th century. And he tirelessly traveled the world promoting his philosophy about saving Earth and making it a better place. He could hold audiences spellbound for hours with his off-the-cuff talks about how the universe works.

Buckminster Fuller became a New Age guru in a dark suit and tie. I first heard about Fuller when the Montreal Expo 67 was in the news. Right after that, I encountered him again in The Whole Earth Catalog. During the 1970s I followed all the New Age, Mother Earth News, and Intentional Community movements. Fuller was a prophet to them all. But then I got married, went to work, and forgot about all those dreams. Most of my hippie and New Age friends did too. Then in the 1980s, Fuller’s name would come up again with my computer heroes. Nevala-Lee biography begins with Bucky meeting Steve Jobs. Then I went for years without hearing much about Buckminster Fuller, until the discovery of buckminsterfullerenes. For the most part, though, I had forgotten all about Bucky.

I loved Nevala-Lee’s Astounding (see my review), even though he revealed personal aspects of my heroes that disappointed me. And I’m quite taken with Inventor of the Future, which fills in many details I didn’t know. Both are well-written biographies, and I happen to be partial to biographies.

The thing is, both books revealed things about myself. I’ve consumed a lot of crackpot ideas back in the 20th century as did the science fiction fans, hippies, and New Agers that were my friends. Buckminster Fuller, John W. Campbell, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and Isaac Asimov were all idealists about the future. We got so much hope from them, and those men inspired endless speculation. They are just the tip of the iceberg because there were so many other men and women with them that were also visionaries in the 20th century. Bucky knew many of them. And I’m pretty sure none of them were saints.

Those seers warned us about all the ways the sky was falling and the utopias we could build. They were our spiritual leaders, our prophets. Just because they got some details wrong, or they were assholes at times, or even psychopaths, doesn’t mean we didn’t resonate deeply with their dreams.

James Wallace Harris, 8/14/22

Why Did I Stop Reading New Science Fiction?

Early this morning, before it got light, I woke up and wondered when did I stop reading new science fiction? And why? I assume my unconscious mind had been mulling over the feeling that I’d lost touch with science fiction in the 21st century. (See yesterday’s essay.) Before I went to sleep last night, my conscious mind assumed it was natural to stop reading science fiction as one got older. Evidently, my unconscious mind objected to that assumption and I awoke with several other possibilities to consider.

I read many new science fiction books as they came out in the 1960s and 1970s because of the Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC). I was also aware of new SF books as they were published because I subscribed to the science fiction magazines and fanzines and loved reading reviews. I bought new SF paperbacks and read them because of those reviews. I think I stop regularly reading reviews back in the 1990s. That might be the main reason I got out of touch with the genre and new writers.

I got married in 1978 and started working full-time at a job I’d stay in for the next 35 years. In 1979 I became obsessed with microcomputers and shifted most of my reading to studying computers. Sometime during the 1980s, I canceled my membership with the SFBC, and let my magazine and fanzine subscriptions lapse.

However, Susan and I loved going to the bookstore at least once a week, and I always went through the science fiction section. During the second half of the 1980s and into the 1990s I’d get nostalgic for science fiction and resubscribe to the SFBC, F&SF, and Asimov’s. Sometimes I’d even subscribe to Locus Magazine, and for a short while, I wrote for Lan’s Lantern. During those periods I’d try and catch up with what was new.

When I did return to science fiction periodically, I realized science fiction had changed and changed quite a bit. Books were now bigger, often huge. And trilogies became common, or even longer series. And by the 1990s most of the writers I grew up reading had died. Long books and trilogies turned me off – I just didn’t want to make the commitment. I grew up reading SF books that were often less than 250 pages, with many with less than 200 pages. Now new novels were two and three times that size. And the thought of having to read three of them to complete a story seemed absurd.

And the SFBC kept changing too. I just didn’t know all the new authors, and the SFBC kept offering other kinds of books, fantasies, media tie-ins, gaming — books that just didn’t appeal to me, so I’d quit. For many decades the SFBC’s two monthly selections seem to zero in on the core SF books everyone was reading – and then it didn’t.

My guess is the boom in SF and fantasy gave us too many choices so it was no longer obvious what to read. At the bookstores, the SF/F section just grew and grew. It was like a tsunami of new titles and authors. Not only was it impossible to keep up with reading the popular titles it became impossible to even keep up with a sense of the genre. SF had gotten too big. There seemed to be hundreds of new writers and I just didn’t know who they were. Even reading Locus Magazine didn’t help.

When I retired in 2013 I came back to science fiction. But instead of trying to catch up on the new works, I jumped back in time to read the classics I missed the first time around. I focused mainly on books from 1950-1980. And then I got into short stories again and started my project of reading all the best-of-the-year SF anthologies from the 20th century. It was more rewarding to fill in my knowledge of a historical period than trying to keep current.

However, after years of gorging on classic science fiction, I’m back to craving new science fiction. The genre is even larger, and I’m still not interested in trilogies and book series. I read science fiction for its ideas. Following a character through endless obstacles book after book is just tedious to me. I hunger for standout standalone stories that convey a far-out concept. So far, I’ve had my best luck with Kim Stanley Robinson.

I believe one of the main reasons I don’t read new science fiction is because the genre is no longer based on new ideas. Quite often the first book in a trilogy or series will have a new idea and unique worldbuilding, but the sequels just grind that idea and setting into the ground. And sadly, I’m not sure there are that many new ideas anymore. Writers are having to rehash old themes. Sometimes they find fresh ways to present them, and that works, but all too often new stories just feel like slight variations on old tunes.

However, I haven’t given up. Breakthrough SF novels do come out. The problem is finding them. How I go about that will be a topic for my next essay.

James Wallace Harris, 8/10/22

How Many 21st Century SF Books Have You Read?

I’ve been watching a lot of science fiction book reviewers on YouTube and quite often they make me feel completely out of touch with current science fiction. It seems like there are a thousand new science fiction books published each year, and I seldom read what people are talking about.

I feel well-read in the genre before 1980, maybe even 1990, but after that, when I hear young people talking about new science fiction I feel like I’ve been left behind. To see how unread I am I use the list builder feature and CSFquery to find any SF book that had gotten at least 3 citations published during the years 2000-2022. I created the checklist below. I marked the ones I’ve read with an R and the ones I’ve bought hoping to read with an O.

I haven’t done too bad for those books that have gotten a lot of attention, but as their recognition has fallen off, so has my rate of reading. When I was young I read one or two dozen new SF books each year, but that’s been decades. I recently read Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, meaning I’m a year late. I don’t remember the last time I read an SF book just after it was published.

How well-read are you with 21st-century science fiction? Are you young or old? How many new SF books do you read each year? And what books do you recommend that are missing from the list?

Title Author Year Citations Read/Own
The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins 2008 17 R
The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi 2009 17

R
The Road Cormac McCarthy 2006 16

R
Altered Carbon Richard K. Morgan 2002 15

R
Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie 2013 15

R
The Martian Andy Weir 2012 13

R
Old Man’s War John Scalzi 2005 13

R
The Time Traveler’s Wife Audrey Niffenegger 2003 13

R
Anathem Neal Stephenson 2008 12

O
The City & The City China Miéville 2009 12

R
Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro 2005 12

R
Revelation Space Alastair Reynolds 2000 12

O
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War Max Brooks 2006 12

 
Cloud Atlas David Mitchell 2004 11

R
Embassytown China Miéville 2011 11

R
Little Brother Cory Doctorow 2008 11

R
Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood 2003 11

 
Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel 2014 11

R
Boneshaker Cherie Priest 2009 10

R
Passage Connie Willis 2001 10

 
Accelerando Charles Stross 2005 9

 
Pandora’s Star Peter F. Hamilton 2004 9

O
Ready Player One Ernest Cline 2011 9

R
The Speed of Dark Elizabeth Moon 2002 9

R
Spin Robert Charles Wilson 2005 9

R
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union Michael Chabon 2007 9

R
Air Geoff Ryman 2004 8

 
Blackout/All Clear Connie Willis 2010 8

O
Leviathan Wakes Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck 2011 8

R
Redshirts John Scalzi 2012 8

R
The Years of Rice and Salt Kim Stanley Robinson 2002 8

O
Among Others Jo Walton 2011 7

R
Ancillary Sword Ann Leckie 2014 7

 
Annihilation Jeff VanderMeer 2014 7

R
The Fifth Season N. K. Jemisin 2015 7

O
Ilium Dan Simmons 2003 7

 
Midnight Robber Nalo Hopkinson 2000 7

 
Mockingjay Suzanne Collins 2010 7

R
Rainbows End Vernor Vinge 2006 7

 
River of Gods Ian McDonald 2004 7

 
The Three-Body Problem Cixin Liu 2014 7

R
Wool Omnibus Hugh Howey 2012 7

O
Blindsight Peter Watts 2006 6

O
The Calculating Stars Mary Robinette Kowal 2018 6

R
Catching Fire Suzanne Collins 2009 6

R
The Dervish House Ian McDonald 2010 6

 
Hominids Robert J. Sawyer 2002 6

O
Light M. John Harrison 2002 6

 
The Scar China Miéville 2002 6

 
The Separation Christopher Priest 2002 6

 
All the Birds in the Sky Charlie Jane Anders 2016 5

R
Ash: A Secret History Mary Gentle 2000 5

 
The Chronoliths Robert Charles Wilson 2001 5

 
Ninefox Gambit Yoon Ha Lee 2016 5

 
Pattern Recognition William Gibson 2003 5

 
Red Rising Pierce Brown 2014 5

O
The Telling Ursula K. Le Guin 2000 5

 
Zoo City Lauren Beukes 2010 5

 
The Algebraist Iain M. Banks 2004 4

 
Ancillary Mercy Ann Leckie 2015 4

 
Bold as Love Gwyneth Jones 2001 4

 
Chasm City Alastair Reynolds 2001 4

 
The City We Became N. K. Jemisin 2020 4

 
Diplomatic Immunity Lois McMaster Bujold 2002 4

 
The Goblin Emperor Sarah Monette 2014 4

 
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe Charles Yu 2010 4

O
In War Times Kathleen Ann Goonan 2007 4

 
The Last Colony John Scalzi 2007 4

 
The Long Way to a Small, Angry, Planet Becky Chambers 2014 4

O
Look to Windward Iain M. Banks 2000 4

 
Matter Iain M. Banks 2008 4

 
A Memory Called Empire Arkady Martine 2019 4

 
Network Effect Martha Wells 2020 4

 
Piranesi Susanna Clarke 2020 4

 
The Plot Against America Philip Roth 2004 4

 
Seveneves Neal Stephenson 2015 4

R
Spinning Silver Naomi Novik 2018 4

 
The Year of the Flood Margaret Atwood 2009 4

 
11/22/63 Stephen King 2011 3

 
1Q84 Haruki Murakami 2011 3

O
2312 Kim Stanley Robinson 2012 3

R
Absolution Gap Alastair Reynolds 2003 3

 
All Systems Red Martha Wells 2017 3

R
Ancient, Ancient Kiini Ibura Salaam 2012 3

 
Black Sun Rebecca Roanhorse 2020 3

 
The Book of Phoenix Nnedi Okorafor 2015 3

 
Brasyl Ian McDonald 2007 3

 
Children of Time Adrian Tchaikovsky 2015 3

R
The City in the Middle of the Night Charlie Jane Anders 2019 3

 
The Collapsing Empire John Scalzi 2017 3

 
Crescent City Rhapsody Kathleen Ann Goonan 2000 3

 
Cryoburn Lois McMaster Bujold 2010 3

 
Daemon Daniel Suarez 2006 3

 
Death’s End Cixin Liu 2016 3

 
A Desolation Called Peace Arkady Martine 2021 3

 
Divergent Veronica Roth 2011 3

 
The Dreaming Void Peter F. Hamilton 2007 3

 
The Drowning Girl Caitlín R. Kiernan 2012 3

 
Dust Hugh Howey 2013 3

 
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Claire North 2014 3

O
Genesis Poul Anderson 2000 3

 
Gideon the Ninth Tamsyn Muir 2019 3

 
The Girl with All the Gifts M. R. Carey 2013 3

R
The Highest Frontier Joan Slonczewski 2011 3

 
The Host Stephenie Meyer 2008 3

 
House of Suns Alastair Reynolds 2008 3

 
The Islanders Christopher Priest 2011 3

 
Jack Glass Adam Roberts 2012 3

 
Jade City Fonda Lee 2017 3

 
The Kappa Child Hiromi Goto 2002 3

 
Life Gwyneth Jones 2004 3

 
Lilith’s Brood Octavia E. Butler 2000 3

 
The Long Earth Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter 2012 3

 
Mexican Gothic Silvia Moreno-Garcia 2020 3

 
The Mount Carol Emshwiller 2002 3

 
My Real Children Jo Walton 2014 3

 
The Obelisk Gate N. K. Jemisin 2016 3

 
Omega Jack McDevitt 2003 3

 
Perdido Street Station China Miéville 2000 3

 
The Prefect Alastair Reynolds 2007 3

 
Probability Space Nancy Kress 2002 3

 
Pushing Ice Alastair Reynolds 2005 3

O
The Quantum Rose Catherine Asaro 2000 3

R
The Quantum Thief Hannu Rajaniemi 2010 3

 
Quicksilver Neal Stephenson 2003 3

O
The Red: First Light Linda Nagata 2013 3

 
Redemption Ark Alastair Reynolds 2002 3

 
Rosewater Tade Thompson 2018 3

 
Shadow of the Hegemon Orson Scott Card 2001 3

 
Shift Hugh Howey 2013 3

 
Singularity Sky Charles Stross 2003 3

 
Six Wakes Mur Lafferty 2017 3

 
Song of Time Ian R. MacLeod 2008 3

 
Starshine G. S. Jennsen 2014 3

 
The Stone Sky N. K. Jemisin 2017 3

 
Stories of Your Life and Others Ted Chiang 2002 3

O
Strange Bodies Marcel Theroux 2013 3

 
Surface Detail Iain M. Banks 2010 3

 
Trail of Lightning Rebecca Roanhorse 2018 3

 
Uglies Scott Westerfeld 2005 3

O
Under the Dome Stephen King 2009 3

 
Valor’s Choice Tanya Huff 2000 3

 

James Wallace Harris, 8/9/22

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

All people crave romance and sex, accomplishments and adventures, possessions and travel. Most of us settle for marriage and work while living our fantasies out vicariously in fiction. We use books, TV shows, movies, video games, or VR as substitutes for our desires. When fiction fails to satisfy we dine out, party, exercise, or travel. What we really want is to live a different life.

Knowing this should enlighten us about the fiction we choose. Are the stories we love most the ones we wished we were living?

Andy Weir’s latest book Project Hail Mary, left my eyes watery and my nose runny while listening to the last chapter on audio. I loved it. Is that the life I wished I was living? At 70, I know it’s an absurd fantasy and should answer that question with no. But when I was a teenager I would have said yes with great enthusiasm.

Nowadays, few science fiction books move me like that. And, I have to ask myself why. Did Project Hail Mary impact me in the same way the Heinlein juveniles did in the 1960s when I was twelve? Getting close to the end of life, I’m not sure I have much of a sense of wonder left, at least not the kind I had when reading science fiction in that golden age of being young.

When I discovered science fiction sixty years ago almost every story blew my mind with far-out ideas, giving me a tremendous sense of hope for the future, especially for the possibilities for my personal potential. Now, that I’m living in the future, with what little potential I have left, I see science fiction from a different vantage.

Project Hail Mary is one hell of a hopeful book and I enjoyed the hell out of it. I highly recommend reading it. If I had read it in 1964, or if I was 12 years old today, it would have made me a true believer in the science fiction faith. This week I read Weir’s novel and forgot about the world we see every evening on the NBC Nightly News, and I entered into a wonderful virtual reality created by Andy Weir’s skillful worldbuilding with words.

The entire time I listen to Project Hail Mary I marveled at Weir’s storytelling skills. He blended many of my favorite SF themes into an enchanting first-person narrative. Weir obviously imagined his novel as a movie, creating a lovable hero that will save the Earth. For some reason, science fiction blockbusters always seem to put Earth in final jeopardy. And many of them love having an average guy overcome an endless series of obstacles. Kurt Vonnegut gave some famous advice to would-be writers. He said: create a likable character and then do mean things to them. Andy Weir gives Ryland Grace a long series of impossible problems to solve.

The story begins with Ryland waking up in a strange hospital bed, not knowing who he is, where he’s from, or where he’s at. This is a neat storytelling trick. The novel breaks down into two tracks: the now and the past. Amnesia is the perfect excuse for creating flashbacks. Normally, I hate flashbacks, but Weir’s gimmick made me look forward to them.

I don’t want to tell you much about the novel and I want to beg you to get the audiobook version. The narrator acts out each character with a different voice, including accents for different nationalities. For the alien, Rocky, who speaks in musical tones which the audiobook plays, the narrator creates a charming accent for his English. The audiobook should have way more impact than just reading with your eyes.

Looking at reviews on Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon, some readers loved this novel, while many others complain it’s too tedious. Weir tells this story in one long series of problems that Ryland Grace solves, many of which involve science. I assume the readers who love this story are problem solvers. If you’re not, this book might not be for you.

Ryland Grace is the ultimate competent man who can do everything. This character attribute is why I loved the Heinlein juveniles as a kid. It’s why I also loved the recent Bobiverse books. That’s one of my big personal fantasies, being a generalist that knows everything and can do anything. I’m not. I’m half-ass at doing a lot of things, and I vaguely know a little about a lot.

Ryland Grace is the modern manifestation of Tom Swift. That might be another clue for you if you’re thinking about reading this book.

Another fantasy Project Hail Mary tunes into is being alone in the world. I love the last man on Earth type stories, the Robinson Crusoe types. Ryland Grace is alone in space for a lot of this story. He even meets his Man Friday. (I hope I’m not giving too much away.)

Ryland Grace is the hero that saves Earth, and that’s one fantasy this book promotes that’s not mine. I don’t like attention. However, because of the way Andy Weir presents Ryland Grace’s achievements, I didn’t feel getting attention was a theme of this story. In flashbacks, we learn that Ryland Grace loved being a junior high school teacher who enjoyed promoting science with his students. That’s another theme that Heinlein and Weir are into that doesn’t resonate with me, but I imagine it will for teachers. Project Hail Mary would be a great book to teach in an English or science class.

Now to the negatives – which I just ignored because I was enjoying the story so much. Ryland Grace pulls a rabbit out of the hat every time, and his mental abilities are unrealistic. Plus, the invented science for this story is too good to be true. If people love Superman for his fantasy physical feats, Ryland Grace is a Superman of intellectual feats. In other words, the reality of this story is closer to a comic book than literary fiction.

That brings us back to my original psychobabble. Why do we choose the fiction we do? Why do we love some stories way better than others? Do the same themes appeal to us our whole life, or do they change as we age?

The Heinlein juveniles made the biggest impact on me of anything I read as a teen. That’s because I wanted to be like the characters in those books, and I wanted to grow up and live adventures similar to those in the stories. I wanted those fantasies to become real.

I can’t possibly believe that at 70. I’m a great deal more aware of reality now. I shouldn’t buy into anything in Project Hail Mary. I should be too old to enjoy it, but I did. A simple answer is I know too much about reality, and yet, I loved reading this book because it help me escape from reality that’s becoming all too harsh and hard. And that might have been the reason I loved science fiction as a kid too. The 1960s were tough times for anyone to grow up in, and I had feuding alcoholic parents who dragged me and my sister from state to state. That made things worse. Is it any wonder I wanted a science fictional fantasy to be real? Is it any different today?

Project Hail Mary is not a young adult novel, but it has that kind of appeal. As a kid, I knew science fiction was fantasy but reading science fiction made me hope that reality would become more like science fiction. It didn’t. We have science-fictional technology, but not science-fictional lives. That’s what we wanted. That’s what I wanted then, and now. And I can only find that life in books, books like Project Hail Mary.

James Wallace Harris, 8/7/22

The Challenge of Writing a Significant Time Travel Tale

My aim is to review a time travel novel, Time’s Last Gift, by Philip José Farmer, but I need to explain my attitude towards time travel stories before I can pass judgment. I bought Time’s Last Gift because I read on the cover blurb that four scientists from the year 2070 travel back to 12,000 BC to study the Magdalenian culture. Since I’ve recently read a number of books on prehistory that plot appealed to me. I even read a large book just on locating the origin of the people who produced the proto-Indo-European language.

Within Time’s Last Gift, one character, Robert von Billmann is obsessed with finding the people who created the Proto-Indo-Hittite language. If you’re not interested in pre-history or the origins of language you might not want to bother with Time’s Last Gift – unless another factor appeals to you, but I want to wait and mention that after the spoilers warning. Let’s just say that John Gribardson, who was made leader of the expedition at the last minute has a very interesting backstory.

Does Time’s Last Gift stand on its own as a solid story and as a good addition to the time travel theme despite any details related to actual history or literary plot gimmicks? To me, a worthy time travel story has to add something different to the theme, otherwise, it’s just a romance, thriller, or historical novel that jumps around in time.

There have been countless science fiction books about time travel, but for me, I find very few of them worthy of using the theme. Most throw their characters into the past or the future and develop a story about that new setting. What I love is a time travel adventure that also explores the wonder of time and time travel. H. G. Wells set the bar very high with The Time Machine in 1895. I’m not sure any work has ever surpassed it for its sense of wonder.

There are so many time travel stories that Michael Main has created The Internet Time Travel Database. Town & Country Magazine listed their top 35 time travel books but only three of my top favorites make their list. Read This Twice found 92 favorite time travel books, and they do list many of my favorites. About Great Books lists 30-time travel books they think are great, and seven of my favorites are there, but I don’t consider many of those books really time travel stories. But that brings up another issue.

What is time travel? Replay by Ken Grimwood is one of my all-time favorite novels, but does Jeff Winston time travel? He repeats his life over and over. I call such fiction time loop stories. Stories such as The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig are really time loop stories too, which I consider a different theme than time travel stories. I’ve written about it before.

Are such literary classics as The Time Traveler’s Wife, Kindred, Slaughterhouse-Five, A Christmas Carol, and Woman on the Edge of Time really about time travel? Don’t they just use the gimmick of time travel to reveal deep characterization or explore social issues in a clever way? These are great novels, but I don’t really want to lump them into the kind of science fiction novel I’m pointing to. Nor do I want to consider all the novels that use time travel to hook people up romantically.

Real science fiction about time travel should make us think about the nature of time travel. Time’s Last Gift does do this. Time travel has always been plagued by paradoxes, but I believe Farmer has found a neat way around them. If a time traveler goes into the past and changes the future, it’s already happened. Whatever exists now, whether affected by time travel or not, is what is. Speculations about what might be changed are no different from what was changed. If a time traveler shows up in 12,000 BCE there was never a 12,000 BCE without a time traveler. Of course, that means everything that happens is fixed. Or is it? Does this theory about time travel require predestination? It could mean everyone has free will, but whichever way history plays out it only plays out once.

Most of Time’s Last Gift is about living in 12,000 BCE. The four scientists immediately befriend a small tribe of humans and learn their language. John Gribardsun even wears their clothing and hunts with their weapons, although he often uses his rifle when necessary to help feed the tribe. The main conflict of the story deals with the two scientists who are married, Rachel and Drummond Silverstein, and their breakup. Farmer suggests that time travel has a psychological effect, like a larger case of jet lag, and it wears on three of the scientists. Gribardsun seems immune. In fact, he thrives in the past, and his vitality attracts both Rachel and the young women of the tribe. Much of the novel is about whether or not Drummond is out to kill Gribardsun because of jealousy. I didn’t care for this part of the story. It felt like a contrived conflict to move the novel along. However, the story is very readable and kept me reading.

Beyond Here Lie Spoilers

In the 1950s Philip José Farmer wrote some very innovative science fiction stories – “The Lovers,” “The Alley Man,” “Sail On! Sail On!” and others. Then he created two series that were fairly successful, the Riverworld series and The World of Tiers. Farmer won the Hugo award for best novel for the first Riverworld story, To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971). I loved that novel when it came out because the main character was Sir Richard Francis Burton, the 19th-century explorer, and translator. And I loved the second book, The Fabulous Riverboat (1971) because it featured Mark Twain. I had read biographies of both men and that made me partial to those Farmer’s novels.

Over the decades I have come to feel that using a famous historical person as a character in a novel is a cheat, a way to sell books. But I also consider writing book series as a crutch for writers. For the rest of his life Farmer mostly churned out books for various series, and they were just so-so. He later refined the famous person gimmick by switching to writing about famous fictional characters, and this is where Time’s Last Gift comes in. John Gribardsun is Tarzan. It’s never said within the novel, but I guess it fairly quickly. If you’ve ever read a Tarzan novel, Time’s Last Gift feels like one and could have been Tarzan’s Time Machine.

There’s nothing wrong with book series, they do help writers to pay bills, but each book feels like just another episode in a TV series to me. If you love a series, that’s great. But for me, usually, only stand-alone novels can be great.

I assume Farmer didn’t use the name Tarzan in the book because of being sued by the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, but ISFDB even lists Time’s Last Gift among the Tarzan novels. Philip José Farmer wasn’t the only writer to continue the character. More importantly, it’s part of Farmer’s Wold Newton series where he brings many famous characters from literature into the real world. If you really like this kind of publishing gimmick, then Time’s Last Gift might excite you.

I find the Wold Newton idea fascinating in conception, but lackluster in execution. It capitalizes on the readers’ love of famous books and characters and I consider that exploitation. Heinlein did the same thing in his later books bringing back his own favorite characters and tieing them into his favorite fictional worlds. The idea is neat, but again, the execution was horrible.

As a time travel novel, Time’s Last Gift is mediocre – readable and somewhat interesting. The plot moves along well enough. The John Gribardsun character is appealing but his adventures back in 12,000 BCE aren’t that significant. If you enjoy the idea that it’s an alternate origin story for Tarzan, and Farmer makes him immortal, then you might enjoy the book more.

I judge time travel stories by how creative they are at dealing with time travel. For example, Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—” uses time travel and gender reassignment in a unique way. David Gerrold uses The Man Who Folded Himself to allow a time traveler to really get to know himself. Jack Finney in Time and Again used historical photographs to enhance his novel. Kurt Vonnegut combined memoir and fiction brilliantly. Connie Willis has explored both drama and comedy in her time travel novels. Of course, Wells illustrated both evolution and cosmology to his 19th-century readers. Wells inspired the Dying Earth genre and the idea that humanity will spin off different new species. Olaf Stapledon ran away with that idea with his novel Last and First Men.

With time travel stories, writers need to go big or go home. Philip José Farmer knew this. This is why he tacked on the Wold Newton afterward in a 1977 later edition. If you think Wold Newton is cool, then that might make Time’s Last Gift a good time travel story. If not, you might want to pass on it.

Here's a list of my favorite time travel stories.

1895 - THE TIME MACHINE by H. G. Wells
1934 - "Twilight" by John W. Campbell
1935 - "Night" by John W. Campbell
1941 - "Time Wants a Skeleton" by Ross Rocklynne
1941 - "By His Bootstraps" by Robert A. Heinlein
1943 - "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
1946 - "Vintage Season" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore 
1951 - "I'm Scared" by Jack Finney
1952 - "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury
1952 - "Hobson's Choice" by Alfred Bester
1953 - "Who's Cribbing" by Jack Lewis
1956 - "A Gun for Dinosaur" by L. Sprague de Camp
1956 - "The Man Who Came Early" by Poul Anderson
1957 - THE DOOR INTO SUMMER by Robert A. Heinlein 
1957 - "Soldier from Tomorrow" by Harlan Ellison
1958 - THE TIME TRADERS by Andre Norton
1958 - "Poor Little Warrior!" by Brian Aldiss
1958 - "The Ugly Little Boy by Isaac Asimov
1958 - "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" by Alfred Bester
1959 - "All You Zombies---" by Robert A. Heinlein
1964 - FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD by Robert A. Heinlein
1964 - "When Time Was New" by Robert F. Young
1965 - "Traveller's Rest" by David I. Masson
1966 - "Behold the Man" by Michael Moorcock and BEHOLD THE MAN (1969)
1967 - "Hawksbill Station" by Robert Silverberg
1968 - THE LAST STARSHIP FROM EARTH by John Boyd
1969 - SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
1970 - TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney
1970 - THE YEAR OF THE QUIET SUN by Wilson Tucker
1971 - DINOSAUR BEACH by Keith Laumer
1973 - THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF by David Gerrold
1976 - "The Hertford Manuscript" by Richard Cowper
1967 - "Infinite Summer" by Christopher Priest
1980 - TIMESCAPE by Gregory Benford
1982 - "Firewatch" by Connie Willis
1985 - "Sailing to Byzantium" by Robert Silverberg
1988 - "Ripples in the Dirac Sea" by Geoffrey A. Landis
1992 - DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis
1995 - THE TIME SHIPS by Stephen Baxter
1995 - FROM TIME TO TIME by Jack Finney
1998 - TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis
2003 - THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger

Time Travel Anthologies

The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF and The Time Travel MEGAPACK is currently 99 cents at Amazon for the Kindle edition.

James Wallace Harris, 7/30/22

“The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden

What if our pleasure in life is wallowing in the minutiae of our favorite subject? I follow a lot of YouTubers and most of their channels are about going deeper and deeper into a beloved special interest. When we are young we pursue pleasures of the flesh, but as we get older we follow our Alice of interest down a rabbit hole. This lets us find our true tribe, our people.

I feel like I’m among a few survivors of a tribe that is dying out. I lament that our culture and language are disappearing. My tribe is those beings who grew up reading science fiction magazines in the mid-20th century. I know that tribe was never very large and that all the various tribes of pop culture eventually fade from the collective memory of the present. But this sense of passing is why I find myself enjoying recursive science fiction so much now. Recursive science fiction is science fiction about science fiction, and quite often it remembers the genre’s past. And to enjoy such stories requires either a direct experience of the past or a good education about that past.

One of the funniest recursive science fiction stories I’ve ever read is one that seems to parody/remember more of the genre than any other recursive science fiction story I’ve read. The story is “The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden (Eric Pelletier 1899-1979). Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since this story has been reprinted, meaning if you want to legally read it, it will require tracking down a used copy of F&SF for September 1980, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction 24th Series edited by Edward L. Ferman in 1982, or Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories about SF edited by Mike Resnick in 1992. If you have a free account with the Internet Archive you can check out The Best of F&SF 24th for one hour. Since this story hasn’t been reprinted in 30 years, and its author has been dead for 43 years, I hope their heirs won’t mind me offering you a pdf copy. (If you do, let me know and I’ll take it down, but I doubt if six people will read it.)

Of course, not everyone will find this story funny or meaningful. It depends on you knowing a good deal about the genre’s history. I thought I’d review the story by providing links to the pertinent bits of history that knowing will let the reader appreciate the story.

The story is an exchange of letters between Oginga Nkabele, a young man from Africa studying in America, and Edward L. Ferman, the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF). Nkabele, from the tribe of Diolas in Senegal, Africa, was educated by French and Belgian missionaries who he refers to as the Holy Ghost Fathers. One of his teachers, Father Devlin brought three steamer trunks containing over five hundred pulp science fiction magazines from 1936-1952. Nkabele has read these magazines so thoroughly that he’s even memorized some of his favorite stories. Nkabele feels he’s an expert on science fiction and decides to become a rich science fiction writer while in America.

Unfortunately, the stories he submits to Ed Ferman are modeled on the writing styles that were heavily criticized for bad writing when they were new and are now so out of fashion as to be glaringly awful. Ferman is appalled by Nkabele’s stories and rejects them immediately. Nkabele feels the rejection letter is a mistake and keeps pestering Ferman with more letters. In fact, he never accepts any rejection and keeps trying to convince Ferman his stories are brilliant and will make him famous and promises they’ll help sell more copies of F&SF.

Through the exchange of letters, two fun plots emerged. One is a horror tale for SF magazine editors which is hilarious if you’re not an editor, and the other is about how the genre has changed drastically from its past which is still wistfully nostalgic for some.

First, it’s important to know the magazines Nkabele admires. It’s notable that Father Devlin did not subscribe to Astounding Science-Fiction, the magazine revered until recent decades (another irony of this tale). Nkabele’s favorites are:

Nkabele’s favorite writers are Richard Shaver, L. Ron Hubbard, and Stanley G. Weinbaum, but is also a fan of Robert Moore Williams, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Nelson Bond, Ray Cummings, Eric Frank Russell, P. Schuyler Miller, and Raymond Z. Gallum. Although not specific to this story, if you know about The Shaver Mystery you’ll have a sense of the kind of thinking fans of these magazines pursued.

Most telling of all is that Nkabele’s favorite editor is Raymond A. Palmer. That’s quite revealing. Young science fiction writers today want to erase the memory of John W. Campbell, but when I was growing up, science fiction fans wanted to forget Ray Palmer’s impact on the genre.

To understand Nkabele’s taste in science fiction, even more, is to know the names of the three stories he keeps submitting:

  • “Astrid of the Asteroids”
  • “Slime Slaves of G’Harn”
  • “Ursula of Uranus”

The magazines Nkabele loved were the ones that appealed most to adolescents featuring exotic interplanetary adventure stories told in purple prose. The exact kind of science fiction John W. Campbell was fighting against in our Golden Age of Science Fiction. But Nkabele considers his science fiction the actual Golden Age of Science Fiction. Over the decades, different generations have defined their own Golden Age of Science Fiction. Youth always reject the past. Nkabele can’t fathom why Ferman is rejecting his Golden Age.

It helps to know a little about Edward L. Ferman since he’s a major character, but it’s very important to know about Harlan Ellison. Ferman panics and gives Nkabele Ellison’s address and phone number to get rid of him. Ferman tells Nkabele about Ellison’s legendary SF anthology Dangerous Visions. Now Harlan Ellison starts writing letters and Eric Norden parodies Ellison’s writing style in an over-the-top style that wasn’t far from Ellison’s own. They even rope in Isaac Asimov. Norden does a great job of making each letter writer sound like a distinct personality. Sometimes the epistolary caricatures aren’t so flattering and it’s a wonder Norden didn’t get sued by Ellison who was known for his litigious wrath.

It also helps to know about BEMs – Bug Eye Monsters – especially SF covers that showed BEMs running off with mostly naked Earth women. BEMs in SF anticipated the whole abductee theme of UFO fanatics. And Ray Palmer turned his SF magazines into UFO fanaticism.

Parodying science fiction has been around for a long time, and Norden mentions a classic, Venus on a Half Shell by Kilgore Trout. Kilgore Trout is a character in many of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. But I’ll have more to say about such other fun novels and stories soon.

I’m not sure how many current SF readers will enjoy “The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden. Is the pop culture that it skewers too oldy moldy? I tend to think the people who will enjoy it most are the people of my tribe.

James Wallace Harris, 7/24/22

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies by Barry N. Malzberg

I’ve been reading recursive science fiction lately, and one of the most famous recursive science fiction stories is Barry N. Malzberg’s “A Galaxy Called Rome.” Recursive science fiction is science fiction about science fiction. Sometimes this is a story that mentions science fiction, sometimes it’s a story about science fiction writers, their fans, and science fiction conventions, and sometimes it’s in-jokes about the genre, other times recursive science fiction is about the writing of science fiction, and that’s the case with “A Galaxy Called Rome.”

“A Galaxy Called Rome” has been reprinted often you can find it in these anthologies and collections. I read it in the anthology Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories About SF edited by Mike Resnick in 1992. I highly recommend that volume if you can find it, but it was only published once by Avon. Probably the cheapest collection of Malzberg’s stories is The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg because the Kindle edition is only $4.99. However, Malzberg expanded “A Galaxy Called Rome” into a short novel, Galaxies, and it’s available for $1.99 for the Kindle edition at Amazon.

Malzberg is known for his recursive science fiction, especially since he seems to have experienced a great deal of existential angst over being a science fiction writer. NESFA even came out with a collection of his recursive SF called The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg.

“A Galaxy Called Rome” is a novelette composed of 14 short chapters. It first appeared in the July 1975 issue of F&SF and has been anthologized a number of times. It is probably Malzberg’s most famous work of short science fiction. 

Malzberg expanded the same story into 49 chapters for a 1975 short novel version retitled Galaxies. Malzberg gained attention for a handful of science fiction novels in the first half of the 1970s. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Beyond Apollo but got a fair amount of recognition for Galaxies, The Falling Astronauts, and Herovit’s World. He went on to publish prolifically in and outside of the genre

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies are also works of what the literary world calls metafiction – fiction about fiction. I prefer the novelette version of the story because the novelette is my favorite length for science fiction. However, the longer version of the story, Galaxies, lets Malzberg dig deeper into the nature of writing science fiction.

I want to recommend this story, but with carefully considered restrictions. If you read science fiction for escape this story isn’t for you. Well, if you want to know why you read science fiction for escape, then you might want to read it. This story is for people who like to intellectually examine everything and take things apart. This story is for readers who love academic exercises in cleverness. This story is for readers who want to know how magic tricks work.

I alternated reading Galaxies with listening to Red Rising by Pierce Brown. It was an excellent contrast. Red Rising is exactly what most science fiction readers want to read. The story immediately sucks the reader into a fantasy reality. It’s designed for your mind to forget the real world and immerse yourself in a fantasy about Mars. The reader is expected to buy into its make-believe. Galaxies on the other hand constantly remind the reader of our reality while describing how a science fiction writer goes about their business of fooling the reader.

Reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” or Galaxies could ruin your love of science fiction. Or it could make you appreciate escapist literature all the more. I know when I would switch to Red Rising after reading a dozen chapters of Galaxies I felt like that guy in The Matrix, Cypher, who wanted to take the blue pill and enjoy the juicy steak. And that might be a good analogy. Reading Malzberg is like taking the red pill and seeing an ugly reality. It might be philosophically enlightening to know the realness of reality, but it’s still grim and gritty.

This is probably why Malzberg never became a popular sci-fi writer, he was too hung up on reality. Most of the recursive science fiction I read in Inside the Funhouse was big fun. Recursive science fiction comes in many flavors but they can be roughly divided into two kinds. One kind celebrates our addiction, and the other makes you feel like you’re withdrawing from heroin. Reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” is like learning about Santa Claus as a kid, it hurts but makes you feel grown up. Reading Galaxies can feel like the agony of soul searching before deciding on becoming an atheist.

I ended up highlighting almost ten percent of Galaxies when reading the Kindle version. I won’t show all these quotes because that would probably be a copyright violation, but I do want to show enough of them to give people a chance to understand what Malzberg is doing. Malzberg is very open and straightforward with his intentions as stated in this first section.

It’s rather interesting that Malzberg tells us how the idea of the story within a story came to him. Well, the idea for the story he’s going to use to discuss writing. In the course of reading a novel about writing a novel, we will develop a whole story with characters, setting, plot, and conflict. However, we won’t experience that story like we normally do. Imagine being served a meal and instead of enjoying eating it, we put it under scientific analysis.

One thing Malzberg doesn’t do is try to imagine what we readers think while reading all of this. We readers are also part of the process. As I read Galaxies I got the idea that Malzberg both loved and hated science fiction. I got the impression he wanted to be a respected writer of hard SF, but his sense of reality conflicted with the fantasy nature of writing escapist literature.

These early sections are quite seductive, but I must warn anyone considering buying Galaxies that the going will get tough. “A Galaxy Called Rome” is the light fluffy version to read for those who aren’t ready to climb a mountain. Even though Galaxies is only 154 pages long, it’s a Ph.D. dissertation on deconstructing science fiction novel writing.

The story within this novel is about Lena Thomas who is the only living crew member of an FTL spaceship, Skipstone, that carries a cargo of 515 dead people in cryonic suspension. The year is 3902. Like in Heinlein’s novel, The Door Into Summer, rich people with diseases invest their estates and freeze their bodies in the hopes of one day being revived and cured. Those estates pay for the development of interstellar travel. Those dead people will eventually communicate with Lena like the dead in PKD’s Ubik when Lena and the Skipstone get trapped in the black galaxy. This allows Malzberg to explore metaphysical and religious themes in writing a novel. The ship also has robots programmed with human minds that help Malzberg explore other science fictional themes. His story notes get more and more extensive while getting more and more complicated. This also allows Malzberg to show how worldbuilding and plotting are developed as a writer tells their story.

Malzberg uses all this exploration in writing a science fiction novel to also speculate about the future. He imagines our civilization collapsing and being completely forgotten and a new world civilization rising in the following nineteen centuries. Malzberg imagines we’ll face limitations we can’t overcome and wild possibilities that far exceed today’s limitations.

Much of this novel is about being a writer, and specifically a writer of science fiction. You get hints along the way that Malzberg might be jealous of famous literary writers like Cheever and Updike, at other times you might feel his resentment at not being more successful at being a science fiction writer. But Malzberg is confident of his own gifts too.

In some of the actual passages of the novel, the dialog reminds me of Sheckley or Adams, or maybe even PKD, and even then Malzberg keeps making digs at science fiction.

Over time, the conflicts Malzberg provides for Lena’s story become repetitious. He knows he’s padding this novel, and even talks about how writers do pad their novels. The second half of Lena’s story becomes one long dark night of her soul struggling to escape the black galaxy. I have to wonder if such soul searching also plagues Malzberg.

Eventually, you wonder if Malzberg can find an ending to Lena’s story. Chapter after chapter he tortures the poor woman, and we can’t imagine any possible happy ending. Yet, Malzberg gives us a very strange ending that I was quite happy to read. I guess he took pity on us.

Reading Galaxies makes me doubt reading science fiction, but then I’ve doubted my addiction to our genre for decades. As a young person back in the 1960s and 1970s I thought science fiction was a wonderful tool for thinking about all the possibilities of the future, both good and bad. But after living to the year 2022, which was a very futuristic sounding year back in 1965, I know the future is everything we never imagined.

Contrasting Galaxies with Red Rising it’s quite obvious that science fiction’s purpose is escape. And the genius of writing science fiction is creating stories set in fictional worlds that are so compelling we forget this one. By Malzberg intruding into his novel and telling us everything only shows we don’t want the author intruding into our stories. Some philosophers have speculated that God invented our reality and walked away from his creation and that’s a great thing. That knowing God’s intention would ruin his/her/its art. I always felt Heinlein destroyed his career after he started poking his nose into his stories.

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies were written as the New Wave in science fiction was fading and postmodernism fiction in the literary world was becoming old hat. It was an impressive experiment of the times, but as far as I know, readers have lost interest in such experiments. The Post Moderns of our times demand wokeness in fiction but not the metafictional kind. If anything, modern SF readers want longer voyages of fictional escape with far greater feats of worldbuilding.

It would be interesting to see someone write a version of Galaxies today that reveals what today’s SF writers go through to entertain their readers in the 2020s.

James Wallace Harris, 7/23/22

Mainstream Science Fiction

Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility is straight-ahead science fiction but it doesn’t feel like a genre novel. Explaining why will be hard. Science fiction has always avoided clear definition and trying to discern the difference between hardcore genre science fiction and literary science fiction might prove equally elusive. For most readers, it doesn’t even matter.

Sea of Tranquility was both entertaining and well-written. I liked it quite a lot. Many readers at Goodreads loved this short novel and gave the story five stars. However, the story was missing something for me. It lacked the intense impact I get from classic genre science fiction I love, even ones not as well told as Sea of Tranquility.

Most modern science fiction aims to be as dashing as Hans Solo but Sea of Tranquility was as mundane as a computer programmer. I considered that a positive but I have to admit the story had a certain blandness even though it dealt with many big science fictional concepts.

I do not want to tell you about those concepts because the way Mandel rolls them out makes it fun to explore the plot clue by clue. If you don’t want to read the novel but want to know a precise summary, Wikipedia has a blow-by-blow overview. However, I do want to tell you enough to want to read it. In the year 2401 Gaspery-Jacques learns about three anomalies in history. In the years 1912 a man named Edwin, in 2020 a woman named Mirella, and in 2203 a woman named Olive had the same bizarre experience that they’ve recorded in various ways in their own times. Historians in the 25th century find those records and decide they might be clues to an amazing hypothesis. Gaspery-Jacques decides he wants to be the person that solves the mystery even though he’s only an uneducated house detective for a hotel in a colony on the Moon. Lucky for Gaspery-Jacques, his sister is a brilliant scientist with connections.

BEWARE – Spoilers Ahead

To get into my discussion of mainstream science fiction versus genre science fiction will require giving away the story. The structure of Sea of Tranquility is much like another mainstream science fiction novel, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas was far richer and more intense than Sea of Tranquility, more like a genre novel. Both deal with epic concepts, but only Cloud Atlas felt epic in the storytelling. Mandel gives us a much quieter story and that’s often a trait of mainstream science fiction. Its tone is like two other recent mainstream science fiction novels, Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro and Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan.

Sea of Tranquility explores the idea that our reality is a simulation. In the 25th century, scientists have a very carefully controlled type of time travel. They theorize the anomalies experienced by Edwin, Mirella, and Olive might be glitches in the simulation software. After five years of training, they send Gaspery-Jacques back to interview each of these people. We don’t know that right away, because Mandel at first tells each of their stories chronologically in time. I’m thinking of reading the book again to see if knowing that they are being interviewed by a time traveler changes how I experience the story. I guessed this might be happening because loose-lips by some reviewers said the book is a time travel novel. It would have been more fun not knowing that.

That’s another difference between mainstream science fiction and genre science fiction. Their stories often begin ordinarily and feel mundane and the science-fictional concepts creep into the tale. Genre science fiction often begins like the opening of a heavy metal concert, while mainstream science fiction begins with a quiet chamber quartet before a cerebral symphony.

Genre science fiction writers love to crank the volume to 11 and keep it there, while mainstream science fiction unfolds gently at volume 4 and politely increases to 6 or 7 at carefully chosen moments. If you compare Hyperion by Dan Simmons to Sea of Tranquility you’ll know what I mean.

Sea of Tranquility is science fiction for PBS Masterpiece. Station Eleven was Mandel’s polar opposite of Mad Max: Fury Road. Even though Sea of Tranquility explores such a deafening concept as the simulation hypothesis it does so in a whisper. A genre novelist writing the same story would have had epic rents in the fabric of reality, killing millions while its heroes save the universe at the last minute. Mandel’s hero eerily validates the hypothesis with a kind of “Ummm, that’s weird.”

Sea of Tranquility is also a pandemic novel about a writer writing a novel about a pandemic just before a pandemic hits. Olive Llewellyn is a novelist who lives on the Moon but tells of her publicity tour on Earth just before a brutal plague spreads across Earth in 2203. I assume Olive’s details and feelings about promoting a book came from Mandel’s own experience. Some of the characters in this novel were in Mandel’s previous novel, The Glass Hotel, and Edwin’s full name is Edwin St. John St. Andrew. Since he shares a middle name with Mandel I have to wonder if he was an ancestor of hers? Now I have to read The Glass Hotel. One of my favorite writers, Larry McMurty liked to recycle characters in other novels.

Finally, I wonder if fans of science fiction by Margaret Atwood, Hilary St. John Mandel, or Kazuo Ishiguro would also be fans of Dan Simmons, Iain M. Banks, and James S. A. Corey? Or vice versa? Let me know how you feel.

James Wallace Harris, 7/4/22

Science Fiction Writers in Conversation with Each Other

Imagine a world where science fiction had never been invented. Could you have written the first science fiction story? Be honest now, and think hard about yourself and what I’m asking. Before Galileo, did anyone think the Moon was a world that could be visited? Once people heard Galileo saw mountains on the Moon with his telescope they began to imagine going there. Science fiction needed certain kinds of seed ideas to begin. When the seeds come from reality I’ll call that Stage 1 science fiction. We don’t see a lot of that kind of science fiction anymore. Maybe The Martian by Andy Weir when he tried to realistically portray growing potatoes on Mars or when a writer extrapolates on current events like John Brunner did in Stand on Zanzibar back in 1968 or what Kim Stanley Robinson did in The Ministry for the Future in 2020.

Once the genre got rolling, science fiction seeded itself. One story about a trip to the Moon inspired an infinity. I call that Stage 2 science fiction. In Stage 2 writers try to stick to reality but work off the collective knowledge of the genre. Eventually, science fiction was making copies of copies, where the inspiration had no connection with reality. I’ll call that Stage 3 science fiction.

Early stories about traveling to the Moon were Stage 1 because it’s not likely the authors had read each other’s work. But when Verne and Wells wrote their novels of lunar exploration a lot of their inspiration was Stage 2. When John Varley wrote his stories about a lunar colony, most of the science-fictional concepts within those stories had been germinating for generations in the genre – Stage 3.

I believe science fiction writers have an ongoing conversation that never ends. To take part in this conversation, publish a story. It can be Stage 1, 2, or 3. To be heard and answered requires writing something in Stage 1 or 2, or a very creative Stage 3.

This is why I’ve become fascinated by the forgotten writer Walter F. Moudy. The 1950s and 1960s were a fertile time for Stage 1 and Stage 2 stories. By the second half of the 1960s and early 1970s writers who made themselves noticed were writing a baroque Stage 3 science fiction to attract attention. For example, the works of Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and Robert Silverberg were based on old SF ideas told with new writing styles. Unfortunately, Moudy wrote Stage 3 stories in the same prose style that the classics of Stage 2 were written. His 1964-65 stories feel like they were written in 1954. One reason the New Wave writers of the 1960s were so important is they recognized that retelling Stage 2 stories in the same way, would get them ignored. The reason why Heinlein blazed onto the scene in 1939 is that he wrote Stage 1 stories with a new writing style, making his stories stand out.

I enjoy reading Walter F. Moudy in 2022 because I doubt I could write any better than he did, and he was responding to the stories I admired back then. His writing ability and knowledge of the genre were just good enough to get five works published and then become forgotten. As a would-be science fiction writer, I greatly identify with that. He wanted to join the conversation and made the effort to have his say. He just wasn’t heard, but now after decades, I’m listening.

While reading Walter F. Moudy’s meager output of science fiction I kept feeling his stories were inspired by the science fiction he and I both read. They made me wonder what he was trying to say in the ongoing conversation.

Of the five science fiction stories, I’ve read by Walter F. Moudy, “The Search for Man” is my favorite, although if I reread “The Survivor” or No Man On Earth I might change my mind. All were good fun, old-fashion science fiction, the kind my nostalgia loves. As I read “The Search for Man,” I kept wondering what science fiction Moudy had read that inspired this story. I can’t say for sure but this story about robots speculating about long-dead or gone humans reminded me of City by Clifford Simak. That “The Search for Man” set hundreds of years into the future speculated about our times and turned us into a religion reminded me of A Canticle for Leibowitz. That both the protagonists of No Man On Earth and “The Search for Man” were about a super-human and a super-robot reminded me of The Hampdenshire Wonder, Slan, Odd John, Chocky, Stranger in a Strange Land, and all the other science fiction stories about next-stage beings. Reading those two Moudy stories made me think about how I would have written a story on that theme. How much could I base it on reality, and how much would be inspired by other science fiction?

“The Search for Man,” begins with a baby being born, but it’s a strange birth, a kind of decanting that made me think of Brave New World. Then we learn the baby will only have three senses, and it will be put into a robotic baby’s body, the first of four body types it will use.

Moudy sets up a good mystery for us. Humans died out hundreds of years earlier, with all other animal life. The humans had tried to travel to the stars, but it appears their three missions had failed. The robot brains have improved their brains with genetics found in 12 human brains that had been preserved. The robots have found long-dead humans in various kinds of chambers that tried to create suspended animation. Their hope is to find a chamber with a viable human to resurrect. There are classes of robots that are archeologists and others that are priests that teach a strange religion based on their theories about humans. All of that is a very appealing setup for a story, at least for me.

I’m not sure Walter F. Moudy would have written “The Search for Man” without reading a lot of science fiction. Part of the conversation science fiction writers have is about science fictional ideas, but the other part is about how to present those ideas in a story. I felt “The Search for Man” was Moudy’s reply to both but in the language of 1950s science fiction. I wonder if he had been more of a stylist would he have made a greater impact?

“The Search for Man” was published in an original anthology In The Wake of Man that’s never been reprinted. I’ve been trying to get a copy, but it’s expensive, starting at $75 used. I had found a $10 copy for sale, but my order was canceled a couple days after I ordered it. Right now the only source for this story is a copy of In The Wake of Man at Archive.org. If you are a member, which is free, you can check it out for an hour to read online. Thanks to Joachim Boaz for finding that link.

Joachim Boaz and Rich Horton have also been writing about Walter F. Moudy. Rich is planning to review all of Moudy’s work soon.

James Wallace Harris, 6/30/22

Blowing Your Chance to Speak to the Future

Writers cherish the myth that their work will make their names immortal. And it is true we have remembered some authors for thousands of years. However, if you want to be heard across time, you have to write something timeless.

My friend Mike and I are fascinated by forgotten writers, especially forgotten science fiction writers. We can’t help but wonder why a writer quits after their initial success of selling a few stories or maybe a novel. Mike texted me the other day about such a writer he discovered in an interview with Geraldine Brooks in The New York Times.

It was part of their By the Book series, where all writers are asked the same standard questions. My favorite question: “What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?” Often this makes for an interesting title to chase down. Brooks said: “‘No Man on Earth,’ by Walter Moudy. The only other person I know who has read it is my son because I pressed it on him.”

So one well-regarded literary writer resurrects Walter F. Moudy 49 years after he died. That one little mention in the Times got me to read his novel. Maybe a few other people will too. And it’s a pretty good science fiction story for 1964. The question is, could it have been better? What would have made that novel stay in print? Is it worth reprinting? And do I recommend you read it?

You can read a pdf copy of No Man On Earth here.

It turns out that No Man On Earth is a forgotten science fiction novel by a forgotten science fiction writer, Walter F. Moudy (1929-1973). His ISFDB entry lists one novel and four short stories. This novel appeared in October of 1964, and then three of his four stories appeared in April and May of 1965, two in Fantastic and one in Amazing, both edited by Cele Lalli (Goldsmith). Moudy would have been in his mid-thirties. In 1966 he published another novel, The Ninth Commandment, probably not science fiction, and one I can’t track down. Finally, in 1975, after his death, Moudy had one more story, a novella, published in an original anthology, In the Wake of Man. The other two authors in that book were Gene Wolfe and R. A. Lafferty, pretty impressive company.

Besides No Man On Earth, I’ve read his three stories in Fantastic and Amazing, but it would cost me $75 to read his final story and that’s too much. For me, Walter F. Moudy’s science fiction legacy is that one novel, two short stories, and a novelette. Not much to go by, but still, I’m terribly envious since I’m a lifelong would-be science fiction writer. I’d give anything to have contributed even that much to the genre.

Why after his initial success in 1964-1966 did Moudy quit writing? And how did Roger Elwood get his last story? I guess Moudy tried one more time before he died to say something in print. But maybe Elwood had been holding it for years, and it was written in the mid-sixties. Reviewers haven’t been kind to it.

I was able to track down a few biographical details. Moudy was from Missouri, served in the Air Force from 1950 to 1953, got a degree in 1954, and then a law degree in 1957. He was Phi Beta Kappa. Moudy was married and had three children. In other words, he had a successful life and didn’t need to be a writer. Still, as I read his work over the last few days, I felt he had something to say. At least in No Man On Earth.

His three short stories were rather minor. The first, “The Dreamer,” was about a young man who wanted to get rich and famous as a space trader. The story was told like a fable. Its redeeming feature was a super-intelligent parrot. The second, “I Think They Love Me,” is about rock stars going to extreme lengths to survive hordes of screaming teenage girls. This was written a year after The Beatles hit America and was kind of cute, but not really worth remembering. The last, and the one most anthologized, is “The Survivor,” about a televised war game between America and Russia. It reminded me of The Hunger Games. This story came out in 1965 and was probably inspired by the 1964 Olympic games and the films Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe. “The Survivor” was gritty, detailed, and suggested each country sacrifice 100 men every four years in a fight to the death rather than risking total national annihilation.

Those three stories were somewhat entertaining, especially the last one, but they don’t leave the kind of impression that Moudy was making a statement. However, No Man On Earth does. Writers can make different kinds of statements. They can aim to write a better story than what’s written before. Or they can capture their times realistically in words. And common with science fiction writers, they can say something philosophical about reality. And there are so many other ways.

For example, I believe Robert Heinlein was influenced by the success of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand in 1957, and that’s why he aimed so high with Stranger in a Strange Land. In his later years, Heinlein repeatedly tried to convince fans that Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) were books that he wanted to be remembered for because they expressed his philosophy on freedom and responsibility.

My guess is Moudy was inspired by Stranger in a Strange Land when he wrote No Man On Earth. Heinlein’s main character Valentine Michael Smith is a human raised by Martians who taught him psychic powers. Moudy’s main character, Thad Stone, had a human mother and alien father and was a super-genius. Both novels are told with picaresque plotting. Both books comment on sex and society. Moudy has Stone tour many planets and visits many kinds of societies and civilizations. No Man On Earth ran 176 pages in its first publication, a slim paperback original to Stranger’s 408 pages in the G. P. Putnam’s Sons first-edition hardback. Heinlein was obviously trying to hit one out of the genre after over twenty years of being a big fish in a small pond. Frank Herbert also aimed sky high with Dune in 1965. It was also over 400 pages.

There are a lot of one-hit wonders in the book world but few writers struggle with their masterpieces like Harper Lee or John Kennedy Toole. My guess is Moudy knocked this novel out quickly and was probably paid around $750 for his paperback original and when it disappeared on the twirling wire racks after a couple of months felt his time was better spent being a lawyer. If he had written a 400-page monster and got it published by a major hardback publisher No Man On Earth might have had a better chance. He just didn’t aim high enough.

It would have also helped if he had written No Man On Earth in an innovative style that made the genre take notice, like Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land. Moudy’s story and writing reminded me a bit of Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955), Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror for Observers (1955), and Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), all books he could have read and could have inspired No Man On Earth.

Obviously, if Geraldine Brooks fondly remembers No Man On Earth in 2022 so it can’t be a stinker. I liked it quite a lot and rushed through it in two days because it was compelling in the old-fashion kind of science fiction I love. It’s great that Tevis’s 1963 novel is still remembered, and I think it’s a shame that Moudy’s book isn’t more remembered.

James Wallace Harris, 6/21/22

Does Our Memory of Favorite Science Fiction Skew To Older Science Fiction?

James Patrick Kelly gives a plug for our Classics of Science Fiction database site (csfquery.com) in his column “On the Net” in the July-August 2022 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. He mentions us as a jumping-off point to talk about famous science fiction stories made into movies. In passing, Kelly says our v.5 list is skewed to older works. I’ve worried about that myself, and I’ve tried to come up with a system configuration that would promote newer works.

However, I’m starting to think that our memories naturally skew towards older books. Our lists are generated from a system. We’ve collected all the ways we can find where people remember books – awards, fan polls, recommended lists, anthologies, books used in schools, lists created by magazines and websites, etc. Each one we call a citation. There are two lists of citations, one for books and one for short stories. Older books have more citations than newer books because they’ve been around longer. Our citation lists go back to 1943, but most of them have been from the past 25 years. But even when we come up with systems to give newer books a little edge, older novels and stories still have more citations.

Pop culture has just found more ways to remember The Left Hand of Darkness since 1969 than Ancillary Justice since 2013. 49 ways to 13. Even when I limited citations from the 21st century it’s still 33 to 13. This makes me wonder if collectively we just remember older books better. Although, if we could get 1,000 college students to read The Left Hand of Darkness and Ancillary Justice would they still favor the book from 1969 over the 2013 novel?

At our site, we avoid saying books with more citations are better – because there’s no way to prove that. But what if some books are better than others at being remembered? The Left Hand of Darkness has never been one of my favorite SF novels, but it is one I admire for its ideas and writing, and maybe that’s why it’s remembered. Many English professors will tell you, that Ulysses by James Joyce is the #1 novel in the English language. I’ve tried to read it several times but never could finish it. But I’m willing to admit that it’s legendary.

A while back we came up with a solution to help people find newer novels and stories to read. We created the List Builder. If you want the most remembered SF novels published since 2000 just use that tool. Here’s a list of 51 21st Century SF Novels with at least 5 citations.

On the other hand, if you are in the mood for something from the fifties just put in 1950 to 1959. If you think our cutoffs are too stringent, lower them. I’m still thinking of adding a feature to the List Builder that would allow our users to delimit the citations by date. Would citation sources only from the 1990s pick different books from the 1940s than citation sources from the 1960s?

We’re trying to keep CSFquery as simple to use as possible yet offer the maximum flexibility for generating lists that users might want. Our v.5 and v.2 lists are just canned lists based on our cutoffs of 12 and 8 citations for novels and short stories. We chose those cuff-offs to produce lists of around 100 titles. The List Builder lets the user decide if they want more or less but pop culture has decided what to remember.

We’re open to suggestions. If you know of other citation sources that we don’t use, let us know.

James Wallace Harris, 6/12/22

Interruptions

Several health issues have kept me from blogging and that’s annoying. I’ve gotten old and can’t do a lot of what I once could do, but I didn’t expect to be shut out of blogging. I have back problems and sometimes it keeps me from sitting at the computer. I’m writing this in a recliner on an old Chromebook. I’m also taking a drug that makes me feel out of it. However, I don’t want to give up. This post is a test to see how well I can work reclining using different equipment and tools. I’ve spent years getting my software tools just right, and now I must start over.

Luckily, WordPress is web-based. And my default browser on my Windows 11 machine is Chrome. However, I have no idea how to edit photos on a Chromebook — at least for now. I also used Notepad++ as my temporary memory. That’s where I keep ideas, and lists, and do my thinking by typing before I move over to WordPress. I’ve been contemplating getting a new machine for writing in bed and I’m considering Windows, Mac, and Chromebook.

I’m still participating in my daily science fiction short story discussion on Facebook but quite often I encounter stories I want to write about here. And there are topics I’d like to research and write about but don’t feel well enough to do it. For example, we’ve been reading SF stories from 2020 speculating about the effects of climate change on the future, and even though I’ve been thinking SF writers should write more about that topic, I’m starting to feel it’s a poor theme for science fiction.

It’s very hard not to be gloom and doomy in a story about our future. And if it’s upbeat, it often comes across as Pollyannish. There’s nothing gosh-wow or sensawonderish about adapting to climate change. I’m even been theorizing that science fiction has never been about reality anyway.

Well, my back is protesting too much…

James Wallace Harris, 5/27/22

The 1953 SF&F Magazine Boom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 5/13/22

Update: Thanks to John Boston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/14/22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

James Wallace Harris, 5/8/22

The Problems with Classic Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 5/1/22

Assembling a List of My Favorite Science Fiction Short Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Top Favorites For Now

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/30/22

Science Fiction Can’t Save Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/26/22

Old and New Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boobs” by Suzy McKee Charnas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/13/22

Is There Any New Territory for Science Fiction to Explore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

Does Too Much Suspension of Disbelief Ruin a Story?

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

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

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

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

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

Speedbump #1

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

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

Speedbump #2

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

Great Idea #1

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

Speedbump #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expectation #1

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

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

Speedbump #4

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

Speedbump #5

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

Speedbump #6

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

Great Idea #2

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

I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

And just for that one moment

I could be you


Yes, I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

You’d know what a drag it is

To see you

Expectation #2

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

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

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

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

But this story didn’t follow my expectation.

Speedbump #7 and #8

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

Conclusion

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/1/22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/27/22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s me. What about you?

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/22/22

When is a Forgotten SF Story Worth Ressurecting?

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

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

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

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

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

That line did nothing for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/17/22

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

Finishing The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/15/22

“Craphound” by Cory Doctorow

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 3/15/22

“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/12/22

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

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

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 3/6/22

The Implications of Giving Comic Books Another Try

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris 3/8/22

“The Remoras” by Robert Reed

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 3/6/22

“Gorgonoids” by Leena Krohn

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 3/1/22

New Feature At CSFquery

In Praise of Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/1/22

“The Brains of Rats” by Michael Blumlein

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 2/24/22

More Books for PKDickheads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 2/23/22

“Death is Static Death is Movement” by Misha Nogha

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 2/22/22

“Before I Wake” Kim Stanley Robinson

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 2/20/22

“Burning Sky” by Rachel Pollack

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 2/18/22

“Two Small Birds” by Han Song

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 2/15/22

“Vacuum States” by Geoffrey A. Landis

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

I suppose I should say more.

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 2/14/22

“All the Hues of Hell” by Gene Wolfe

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 2/12/22

“Schwarzschild Radius” by Connie Willis

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 2/12/22

Improving the Internet for Researching Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

What Do We Want From An Internet Search Tool?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 2/11/22

Futures Past – Jim Emerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 2/9/22

“Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 2/7/22

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

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 2/1/22

“Readers of the Lost Art” by Élisabeth Vonarburg

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 1/29/22

“The Owl of Bear Island” by Jon Bing

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 1/27/22