Most short stories never get published. Of those that do, most are never reprinted. So, it is quite fascinating to study a story that does. My Facebook group is discussing “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey that first appeared in print in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. Using its record at the ISFDB.org we can track when it’s been reprinted over the years. It has also been translated into at least six languages. Here’s the timeline of major reprints:

  • 1948 – … And Some Were Human by Lester del Rey (collection)
  • 1952 – Beyond Human Ken edited by Judith Merril
  • 1954 – Assignment in Tomorrow edited by Frederik Pohl
  • 1960 – S-Fマガジン – v. 1 n. 1 (Japan)
  • 1963 – The Coming of the Robots edited by Sam Moskowitz
  • 1965 – Science-Fiction-Cocktail: Band I (German anthology)
  • 1966 – Master’s Choice edited by Laurence M. Janifer
  • 1970 – The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 1971 – 18 Greatest Science Fiction Stories edited by Laurence M. Janifer
  • 1972 – 3000 Years of Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by L. Sprague and Catherine de Camp
  • 1974 – Modern Science Fiction edited by Norman Spinrad
  • 1974 – Histoires de robots (French anthology)
  • 1975 – In Dreams Awake edited by Leslie A. Fiedler
  • 1977 – Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Fred Obrecht
  • 1977 – Souls in Metal edited by Mike Ashley
  • 1978 – Robots, Robots, Robots edited by Geduid and Gottesman
  • 1978 – The Best of Lester del Rey
  • 1981 – Science Fiction: Masters of Today edited by Arthur Liebman
  • 1982 – Analog: Reader’s Choice
  • 1983 – The Best of Omni Science Fiction No. 5
  • 1985 – Histoires de robots (French anthology)
  • 1990 – Friends, Robots, Countrymen edited by Asimov and Greenberg
  • 2010 – Robots and Magic by Lester del Rey
  • 2017 – The Robot Megapack ebook anthology

This leaves off the many reprint editions of the above volumes, plus some obscure anthologies, and other collections of Lester del Rey. For example, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One seems to stay in print and is currently available in paper, ebook, and audiobook editions. It’s the volume my Facebook group is reading.

However, why wasn’t it collected in Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy and McComas or The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin? Those two giant anthologies from 1946 set the standard for science fiction anthologies for a generation. Nor has “Helen O’Loy” been anthologized in any of the recent super-giant retrospective anthologies like The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer  or one of the teaching anthologies like Sense of Wonder edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman

In truth, “Helen O’Loy” is a minor story, and problematic if you analyze it psychologically, especially with how it treats women. It hasn’t appeared in a significant SF anthology in over forty years. NESFA Press remembers Lester del Rey with Robots and Magic, but they are a fan press that remembers the old greats of the genre. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame stays in print because it does exactly what it was designed to do, remember the legendary shorter works of science fiction published before the creation of the Nebula Awards. “Helen O’Loy” was up for a Retro Hugo award but came in second, losing to “How We Went to Mars” by Arthur C. Clarke.

Anthologists who attempt to present a historical overview of the genre constantly shift through the past looking for older SF stories that are relevant to present-day readers. Each new anthology tends to forget more of the older stories. The Big Book of Science Fiction has 29 stories from 1934-1963 where The Science Fiction Hall of Fame has 26 in volume one, and another 22 in volumes 2A and 2B.  Sense of Wonder has 46 stories from 1934-1963, twelve of which were in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. There are only two stories – “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum and “Surface Tension” by James Blish appearing in all three anthologies.

Of course, Sense of Wonder has an unfair advantage, it has over 200+ short stories, and is so big that it’s only practical to own as an ebook. However, among my friends, we’ve often wondered if members of the SFWA voted today for the best short stories from 1926-1963 what would they be? So I just paused writing this essay to write about that.

Would modern science fiction writers still pick “Helen O’Loy” as a classic science fiction short story from that era before 1964? I don’t think so. Surely, the current younger generations would see the story much differently than those writers who grew up reading science fiction in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

On a very simple level, “Helen O’Loy” tries to ask a very simple question: “Could a robot ever be considered human?” Science fiction stories, novels, television shows, and movies are still exploring this very simple question. And there is a growing industry seeking to actually build realistic sexbots. Why wouldn’t “Helen O’Loy” remain a classic? For any man lusting after a woman made to order, they’d probably not see anything wrong with the story.

Lester del Rey wrote “Helen O’Loy” before the world knew about digital computers and programming. The technology for imagining how a robot could work in 1938 would be clockwork mechanics, radio electronics, and wire recorders. They had little reason to assume we could build a machine that could see, hear, think, and talk. Del Rey had the myths of Pygmalion and the Golem, and stories about mechanical men for inspiration, but that’s about all. In 1938, on a technical level this story is a pure fantasy.

Then, how does the story hold up for psychological realism? Why would Phil and Dave in the story give up two real life girls, the unnamed twins, for a mechanical girl? One twin wanted to see a movie the boys didn’t so they dumped both girls? Are we really going to believe that biological humans will ever accept pseudo-humans as soulmates?

The main problem with “Helen O’Loy” today is how little respect it gives women. Basically, it says if a machine could be built that looks like a beautiful woman, and if that machine serves the man in all his needs and wishes, then that’s all men need from women. (Why didn’t femfans of the day howl back then?) “Helen O’Loy” assumes women have no wishes, desires, wants, ambitions of their own, that a woman’s only purpose is to fulfill a man’s needs. Are there men and women who would be satisfied with a visually appealing machine that serves their fantasies?

I say the heart of this story doesn’t beat — then or now. Sure, “Helen O’Loy” is an amusing little tale if you don’t think about it. So why has it been remembered and reprinted more than most other science fiction stories? I have to assume it resonates with adolescent male fantasies, or with people who feel challenged to build AI robots.

All along, science fiction has loved robots. And building a robot equal to a human has been the gold medal goal. But it’s here when I personally feel science fiction has always failed miserably with a total lack of logic and vision. Humans are emotional creatures, and emotions come from biology and chemistry. AI minds will be digital. The only emotion I can imagine a robot having might be curiosity. Why has science fiction failed to understand that no matter how much a robot might look like us it will never think or feel like us? And why has science fiction for so long wanted to see robots that are so like us that a Turing test would include physically passing for human?

To many science fiction fans, Isaac Asimov owns the robot story. He didn’t expect them to pass for human, or to think like us. But I don’t think Asimov ever extrapolated very far with the possibilities of intelligent machines. His stories certainly invalidated stories like “Helen O’Loy” but why haven’t other science fiction writers gone further?

I think we will forget “Helen O’Loy” partly because of its affront to feminism, but also it’s ideas about robotics are too primative and silly today. Of course, any anthology that tries to show the evolution of fictional thinking about robots will include it. And to be honest, I still enjoyed the story, and admired the way del Rey told it. I had to wince many places at the sexism, and groan at the idea of vacuum tube robots with memory coils, but ultimately I liked the story.

James Wallace Harris 5/10/20

 

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