At our Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year, we’re reading anthologies. We’re currently discussing The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and The Best Science Fiction of the Year (1972) edited by Terry Carr. It’s Carr’s first volume of sixteen annual best-of-the-year anthologies he edited after parting as co-editor with Donald Wollheim for World’s Best Science Fiction (1965-1971).

The group has discussed almost fifty SF stories now and I’m wondering what common elements belong to the stories we like best. Most stories get mixed reactions, but some are almost universally loved, such as “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. We’re currently commenting on “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “… And Then There Were None” by Eric Frank Russell.

I’m learning all kinds of things through reading short stories for this group. One of the most important insights I’ve discovered is rereading stories is vital to truly understanding them. The great stories get better, but often stories I once disliked improve, or even become admired. There are many reasons why we don’t like a story. Sometimes they just aren’t very good, but sometimes we’re poor readers and don’t give them their proper due. We often blaze by bits that add great meaning. Some of these stories I’m reading for the third or fourth time over a lifetime of reading that started almost sixty years ago. They are blossoming in ways I never imagined. I realized now that one reading isn’t enough. One reading isn’t even fair to the story. Stories are like a favorite state park, you see more every time you visit, but you never see everything.

I’m also finding great pleasure in reading these SF stories for reasons not related to the stories themselves. The pandemic and politics have made 2020 an exceptionally depressing year, so reading SF short stories is a wonderful escape. But after a lifetime of reading mostly science fiction novels, focusing on short science fiction is giving me a better insight into the evolution of the genre. It’s also fun hearing from other fans of short SF from around the world. Finally, on a personal level, I’m really getting into short SF as an art form. Science fiction short stories are becoming my special interest for my retirement years. I no longer have the energy to persue genuine scholarship but I still have the curiosity of a kid willing to tear a clock apart to see how something works.

The Found and the LostTake for instance “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow.” It immediately grabbed me even though I’ve never been a big fan of Ursula K. Le Guin. I read The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven when they came out, but that was half a century ago when I mass-consumed SF without much contemplation. Her classic novels made little impression on me then because I read just too dang fast, but “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” intrigues me now that I read much slower. I liked it so much that I bought Le Guin’s collection The Found and the Lost on Audible so I could hear the story. I can’t help but wonder what was in that story that made me read it twice in three days.

First, I was fascinated by the few details about the Hainish worlds and that culture’s panspermia. That made me look up the Hainish Cycle on Wikipedia. Even though I had read two of Le Guin’s most famous novels set in her Hainish universe I had missed those details fifty years ago. And I remember recently trying Rocannon’s World and not getting into it. Reading “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” this week has made me want to try Rocannon’s World again, and reread The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.

Normally, I don’t like book series, or even sequels and trilogies, but I do like the idea of world-building and future histories. Le Guin seemed to be speculating about interstellar travel in a serious way, and that hooked me. Even though Le Guin is famous for her sociological and anthropological science fiction, I was admiring her hard science fiction because she designed a galactic culture based on Nearly as Fast as Light (NAFAL) travel. And she invented the Ansible, a device that can communicate instantaneously across light-years. That concept made me try to picture a conversation between two people, one of which is experiencing extreme time dilation. Heinlein did that in Time for the Stars where he used telepathic twins – one of a spaceship, and one left on Earth. Heinlein suggested that it would distort communication the closer the one twin got to the speed of light. Actually, I doubt an Ansible is possible, but NAFAL might be.

In “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” the crew of the Gum exists before the Ansible, so they are completely isolated from their galactic empire. They travel 256 light-years but only experience 10 hours and 29 minutes of travel time. I’m not sure, but that might be possible within the laws of Einstein, and such realism makes for compelling science fiction. Here Le Guin asks what kind of people would exile themselves from their own time period and go on a survey mission that will jump them over 500 years into their planet’s future by the time they return.

One aspect of science fiction that I’ve always loved, is it gives me a vague sense of what life on Earth might be like after I die. History teaches me what happened before I was born, and science fiction lets me guess at what could happen after I die. Will humans ever travel to the stars? Especially given we could exist as a species for a million years. Too many science fiction writers and readers have unlimited hope that anything is possible, but I don’t agree. I like science fiction writers who live within realistic constraints, and I believe Le Guin was doing that. That also made me want to read her Hainish stories.

Le Guin’s story doesn’t predict the future, but does does give tiny hints of speculation, especially about what kind of people will really want to travel to the stars?

In “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” Le Guin suggests only a crazy person would go on a mission that exiled them from everything and everyone they knew. The Gum is crewed by ten neurotic misfits. I thought that interesting too, especially after we read “No Direction Home” by Norman Spinrad about a future where psychedelic drugs are used to erase every kind of psychological problem. For some reason I liked Le Guin’s vision of the future better, where people are still neurotic. It’s not that I want people to suffer psychologically, but I find futures where everyone is beautiful and happy kind of creepy. (Watch the new version of Brave New World on Peacock TV.)

By Le Guin having ten characters with different mental problems it gave her a chance to explore ten different ways of viewing reality. Mr. Osden’s affliction of too much empathy made for a challenging plot problem. And the discovery of a sentient plant kingdom that was only aware of itself was a truly fascinating concept. I love meditating on the fact that most of the universe is probably not intelligent or self-aware, yet evolution makes countless beings that perceive reality differently.

Finally, why did Le Guin change the beginning of the story? I read “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” first in the Terry Carr’s 1972 annual anthology, but listened to a version that had been rewritten years later. The earlier version begins:

You’re looking at a clock. It has hands, and figures arranged in a circle. The hands move. You can’t tell if they move at the same rate, or if one moves faster than the other. What does than mean? There is a relationship between the hands and the circle of figures, and the name of this relationship is on the tip of your tongue; the hands are . . . something-or-other, at the figures. Or is it the figures that ... at the hands? What does at mean? They are figures — your vocabulary hasn’t shrunk at all — and of course you can count, one two three four etc., but the trouble is you can’t tell which one is one. Each one is one: itself. Where do you begin? Each one being one, there is no, what’s the word, I had it just now, something-ship, between the ones. There is no between. There is only here and here, one and one. There is no there. Maya has fallen. All is here now one.

But if all is now and all here and one all, there is no end. It did not begin so it cannot end. Oh God, here now One get me out of this—

I’m trying to describe the sensations of the average person in NAFAL flight. It can be much worse than this for some, whose time-sense is acute. For others it is restful, like a drughaze freeing the mind from the tyranny of hours. And for a few the experience is certainly mystical; the collapse of time and relation leading them directly to intuition of the eternal. But the mystic is a rare bird, and the nearest most people get to God in paradoxical time is by inarticulate and anguished prayer for release.

They used to drug people for the long jumps, but stopped the practice when they realized its effects. What happens to a drugged, or ill, or wounded person during near-lightspeed flight is, of course, indeterminable. A jump of ten lightyears should logically make no difference to a victim of measles or gunshot. The body ages only a few minutes; why is the measles patient carried out of the ship a leper, and the wounded man a corpse? Nobody knows, except perhaps the body, which keeps the logic of the flesh, and knows it has lain festering, bleeding, or drugged into mindlessness, for ten years. Many imbeciles having been produced, the Fisher King Effect was established as fact, and they stopped using drugs and transporting the ill, the damaged, and the pregnant. You have to be in common health to go NAFAL, and you have to take it straight.

But you don’t have to be sane.

It was only during the earliest decades of the League that Earthmen, perhaps trying to bolster their battered collective ego, sent out ships on enormously long voyages, beyond the pale, over the stars and far away. They were seeking for worlds that had not, like all the known worlds, been settled or seeded by the Founders on Hain, truly alien worlds; and all the crews of these Extreme Surveys were of unsound mind. Who else would go out to collect information that wouldn’t be received for four, or five, or six centuries? Received by whom? This was before the invention of the instantaneous communicator; they would be isolated both in space and time. No sane person who has experienced timeslippage of even a few decades between near worlds would volunteer for a round trip of a half millennium. The Surveyors were escapists; misfits; nuts.

But the newer version begins

It was only during the earliest decades of the League that the Earth sent ships out on the enormously long voyages, beyond the pale, over the stars and far away. They were seeking for worlds which had not been seeded or settled by the Founders on Hain, truly alien worlds. All the Known Worlds went back to the Hainish Origin, and the Terrans, having been not only founded but salvaged by the Hainish, resented this. They wanted to get away from the family. They wanted to find somebody new. The Hainish, like tiresomely understanding parents, supported their explorations, and contributed ships and volunteers, as did several other worlds of the League. 

All these volunteers to the Extreme Survey crews shared one peculiarity: they were of unsound mind. 

What sane person, after all, would go out to collect information that would not be received for five or ten centuries? Cosmic mass interference had not yet been eliminated from the operation of the ansible, and so instantaneous communication was reliable only within a range of 120 light-years. The explorers would be quite isolated. And of course they had no idea what they might come back to, if they came back. No normal human being who had experienced time-slippage of even a few decades between League worlds would volunteer for a round trip of centuries. The Surveyors were escapists, misfits. They were nuts.

Did Le Guin rewrite so this early Hainish story fit in better with later stories? Or did Le Guin decide the opening information wasn’t needed? Does anyone know where Le Guin wrote about rewriting her stories?

I could go on in even more details, but this essay is already over two thousand words long and few people read anything that long online. If you’re still reading and want to join our discussion follow the link at the top of the page.

James Wallace Harris 7/19/20

 

3 thoughts on “What Makes a Great SF Short Story?

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