Our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction recently read “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” by Algis Budrys, originally published in the December 1961 issue of Galaxy Magazine. We’re group reading Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. Because of this I’ve been thinking about the legacy of Galaxy Magazine, science fiction from the 1950s and how realistically did science fiction fans see the future.
So far “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” hasn’t found many admirers in our group, although the anthologist Rich Horton considers it one of his all-time favorite stories. My taste in SF often overlaps with Rich. I found the story to be compelling, thought provoking, not quite a classic, but unbelievably unrealistic.
I’ve read many books about science fiction of the 1940s, which older fans call The Golden Age of Science Fiction. John W. Campbell, Jr. was given most of the credit for this golden age because as editor he discovered and nurtured Heinlein, Asimov, Van Vogt, Hubbard, and many other SF writers that became famous in the genre when Baby Boomers were growing up. Many young SF writers and readers today are rebelling against that era of science fiction, but I think even by the end of the 1940s the writers and readers of the day were also ready to change, and that’s why F&SF (1949) and Galaxy (1950) quickly became popular magazines. And I’ve been told by many readers of my Baby Boom generation that they considered the 1950s to be the real Golden Age of Science Fiction. Did science fiction become more realistic in that decade?
Even though “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” came out at the end of 1961, I’m considering it a reflection of 1950s science fiction. Like the two classic stories from 1950, “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith and “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber, they mark a new beginning by reacting to the previous decade.
I have written elsewhere that I felt 1940s science fiction could be characterized by a yearning for transcendence. Campbell, Heinlein, and others expected mankind to evolve in the future, gaining mental and psychic powers that would help them conquer the galaxy. Reading “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” provided a kind of epiphany for me. It was wild, full of vitality, but ultimately discomforting because its lack of realism. Handling the fantastic in the same way superhero comic books handle reality. Is that the real legacy of 1950s SF?
Fiction has always had a strange relationship with reality and realism. I suppose we could say fiction has different levels of realism. By the way, I don’t mean to imply any artistic criticism to these various levels – at least for now.
- Level 1 – Greek myths, superhero comic books, Bible stories, talking animal stories
- Level 2 – Young adult or adult fantasy, science fiction
- Level 3 – Science fiction that tries to be scientific
- Level 4 – Most mundane genre fiction
- Level 5 – Serious literature that’s mimetic
Unfortunately, much of science fiction swings the needle towards Level 1 rather than towards Level 5, even though science is in its label. “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” slams the needle over to 1 on the gauge. Is this good or bad? The story is fun. It’s a thrill ride. Should we even worry about it’s over-the-top fantastic elements?
I should warn you, I read “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” just after reading “The Boys Is the End of the Superhero As We Know It. And it’s about time.” That essay begins with “After two seasons of The Boys, I can say with roughly 85 percent confidence that Dr. Fredric Wertham was right.” I’ve got to admit that my confidence level is even higher, but then I’m prejudice against superhero comics. If you don’t know who Fredric Wertham is, read this. For most of my life I’ve had to accept the studies that say fiction, especially violent fiction, has no impact on the development of children, even though I find such results hard to believe. However, the years 2016-2020 makes me strongly wonder if Fredric Wertham wasn’t right all along. But I go further than Wertham, and wonder if science fiction and fantasy is dangerous too.
“Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” opens in the skyscraper office of Rufus Sollenar, a entertainment business titan. He’s looking out a floor to ceiling window contemplating his success in life. He believes his new product, EmpaVid, will dominate the market and guarantee success and riches for the rest of his life. EmpaVid is a television system that manipulates the emotions of the viewers. Sollenar expects EmpaVid patents to allow him to dominate the entertainment industry.
Sollenar wears utilijem rings that allows him to operate everything in his office with a wave of his hand. Budrys describes the scene quite dramatically, with Sollenar conducting the machines of his office with simple hand gestures, like a magical superpower. Still, it’s technology, making the story science fiction. Sollenar is smug and feels like he dominates the world when looking out his window down on the city.
Eventually, a Mr. Ermine forces is way into Sollenar’s office. An ermine is a weasel, and even Mr. Ermine dresses in rust colored garments, the color of a weasel. This is rather obvious, too much like a comic book villain. Galaxy Magazine was aimed at adults, and from what Budrys says in his memoir of working there, Horace Gold wanted it to be read by a wider audience than just the average young science fiction fan. I feel this aspect of the story counters that goal. But maybe I’m being too harsh.
Mr. Ermine is from the IAB, the International Association of Broadcasters. At first you think of him as a toady but eventually we learn he’s far more powerful, like an enforcer for the mob. Over the course of the story the IAB becomes more sinister, and suggesting Budrys wants us to believe it’s a secret cabal that manipulates the entertainment business, and will go to any length to get what they want. Again, this is painting reality with comic book strokes. People who love conspiracies will love this aspect of the tale.
After some heavy-handed info-dumping we get down to the conflict of the story. Mr. Ermine tells Sollenar that Cortwright Burr, a competitor, has gone to Mars and had the Martian engineers make him a device. The implication being that the Sollenar corporation and IAB are threatened.
We next see Sollenar acting like Spiderman climbing on Cortwright Burr’s corporate skyscraper. We are given some razzle-dazzle about the machinery that allows Sollenar to do this, but once again the story falls into comic book mode. There were many SF stories in the 1950s and 1960s about titans of industry at war with one another. Alfred Bester aided his characters in The Demolished Man with psychic powers, and Philip K. Dick wrote many stories of business power figures battling with reality-bending drugs and technology. The most famous novel of this sub-type was The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth, first serialized in Galaxy.
In the early 1950s there were dozens of science fiction magazines on the market, and hordes of prolific writers to fill their pages. Business in America was booming, and like the ambitious said to one another, “The sky’s is the limit,” meaning nothing is impossible. Often it feels like these science fiction writers also felt there were no limits, and SF readers will believe anything. This is why critics of the genre claimed science fiction was for gullible young males. But on the other hand, the stories had an excitement and energy that fans loved.
Reading “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” both annoyed and excited me. I’m torn by admiring Budrys flamboyant imagination and insulted that he thinks so little of my intelligence.
Sollenar enters Burr’s office like Neo in a scene from The Matrix, diving through a window with his pistol aimed, hitting the ground, and popping up. Sollenar fires and hits Burr with a blast of energy from his gun, throwing Burr’s body against the wall. Burr had been holding a golden ball when shot and had yelled a command at it just before he was hit. Burr, now a sack of broken bloody bones holds the sphere up and Sollenar blasts him again. Burr drops the ball and Sollenar goes after it but sees that Burr is still animated even though his face is blown away. Sollenar shoots him again. He then gathers up the ball, but seeing Burr still moving fires all his remaining charges into the body. Sollenar is so freaked out he leaves the ball. He then climbs out the window and gets into his spiderman suit, but sees Burr still trying to come after him.
Why didn’t Burr die. How could his body be so destroyed yet still move? Later Sollenar is back at his building with his girlfriend on the balcony, and the body of Burr shows up climbing the outside of the building. WTF? Sollenar crushes the gripping hand on the rim of the outside wall, and the body falls down to crash below.
This is like some supernatural horror film, or an EC Comic. It reminds me of the Marvel films of today, and why I don’t like them. I hate films that show extreme violence with the reality of The Three Stooges or Wile E. Coyote. But I keep reading. How can Budrys explain this to me?
The next scene has Sollenar going to the TTV Executives’ Costume Ball. Guess what, Curt Burr is there, dressed as a gallows bird. Not only does Budrys go for obvious symbolism, but he just flat out tells us. And guess how Sollenar is costumed? As a Medici. Is this story supposed to be a comedy? Is this story supposed to be a mad parody of the genre like the first version of Casino Royale made fun of James Bond movies? Have I been taking it too seriously, when it was meant to be a gag all along?
One reason I can’t stand superhero comics and movies is I can’t buy into their reality, I can’t suspend my disbelief to accept their obviously unreal premises. Is Budrys trying to get his readers to believe his story or is he satirizing the genre? Galaxy Magazine was known for its satire and human. Am I taking things to literal? Sarcasm often flies over my head, and satire often just seems stupid. Is Budrys secretly sneering at his reader?
If “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” was filmed it would look a Marvel film. Do fans of such film see them as satire? What are they poking fun of?
Sollenar now accuses Burr of buying immortality from the Martians. But what a horrifying kind of immortality, becoming a walking bag of broken bones and torn up flesh that can’t die.
Ermine now returns, also in costume, one which no one would take him for a man. Ermine even proves how inhuman he is, by showing Sollenar he has no feelings from his nerves. He feels no pain.
Sollenar learns that he must succeed or IAB will kill him. He takes a rocket to Mars. The trip must have lasted no more than what jet plane takes to get to a nearby city. More unreality. More comic book realism. And I should say, the realism level of Star Wars.
Sollenar violently ditches Ermine on Mars and heads out to find the Martian engineers. I did like the whole description of Mars, both the human and Martian cities and the Martians. Maybe that’s because I’ve always been a sucker for stories about Mars.
Sollener bargains to buy immortality like Burr, but it turns out Martians don’t have immortality to sell. What the Martians are selling is an illusion machine. It can make the irrational rational.
Now this would be hilarious if Budrys intended all along to make this a recursive science fiction story, poking fun at the genre. Judith Merril did that “The Deep Down Dragon” another story in the Galaxy anthology. But am I seeing SF humor too often? I get the feeling Budrys does want us to believe this wild adventure story just like Philip K. Dick often used techniques in his serious stories by having his characters confused by reality. I think, but not sure, that Budrys is pulling a PKD here. In a way, Cort Burr prefigures Palmer Eldritch. So maybe PKD 1960’s work was inspired by Budrys?
If I read this story right, Cort Burr was never shot. Sollenar just believed he was. And to escape Ermine who is waiting to shoot him, he buys a Martian machine to give Ermine the illusion that his nerves function again, and that he killed and buried Sollenar.
Ultimately, this is a fun story, even though it mainly works at Level 1 reality. And as long as we accept it as creative fun there is no harm in playing make believe. But we still have to consider the article about the danger of superhero stories. Has generations absorbing anti-reality fiction from comics, science fiction, television, movies, video games affected them? Would society be saner and wiser if its citizens only consumed Level 4 and Level 5 fiction?
Contemplate all the news stories you’ve encountered in 2020. Too much of it feels like people are trying to live Level 1 reality as being real. Think about those men who planned to kidnap a governor believing they were freedom fighters. Think about Qanon believers. Think about all the crap stories people believe today. Did science fiction contribute to the current climate of anti-science? We aren’t living in a satire although it sure feels like one. And that’s painful!
Does consuming Level 1 fiction create a Level 1 society? We can claim Bible stories and Greek mythology proves we’ve been consuming such fiction for thousands of years. Would going cold turkey on such fiction help? Or do we consume Level 1 fiction because the average human can only comprehend reality with Level 1 thinking?
This is a lot of philosophical navel gazing to get from one minor SF story from 1961. But, I’ve got nothing better to do. It is 2020, you know.
- The Dangers of Cynical Sci-Fi Disaster Stories by Cory Doctorow
James Wallace Harris, 10/12/20
6 thoughts on “Realism in Science Fiction”
Hmm . . . why blame SF?
We have a much more visible culprit at all levels of society and cultures.
I mean, what do the majority of Americans learn from the first few years of life? Belief in magic and magical beings. Sure, some call it religion, but step outside the hordes of believers in this or that religion, examine religious people objectively, and you see people who are prepared to (and so often do) dismiss reality, science, hard data, even their own experience, in favor of a constructed reality.
Why is it difficult accepting there wouldn’t be some (a lot) of overlap of that kind of thinking into other areas of everyday life? In fact, isn’t there sufficient historical evidence for it being so for as long as human memory has been recording such matters?
I always saw SF as an escape from superstition and ignorance, but even then, I never assumed it would be immune to the pull of human nature’s thirst for things grander than themselves and grander than the bounds of reality. Certainly, I willingly suspend a lot of belief so I can enjoy even the hardest of science fiction (it is, after all, fiction).
. . . could it be that what you are reading isn’t a contributor/cause, but the end result of what is now and always has been a human fascination?
For that matter, aren’t dieties the ultimate superheroes? Why isn’t what we learn about gods and their deeds (and dark desires) the ultimate in doing harm to the human psyche (in both the young and adults)?
I wasn’t blaming just science fiction but questioning all unrealistic fiction, and that includes religion. Notice the examples in Level 1. I agree the antics of gods are very similar to the antics of superheroes. I’ve written about that before. And yes, I did consider the problem part of who we are. The real question is, can we change ourselves? I love science fiction, I love that it gives us hope about the future, or warns us not to keep following a particular path. And it’s fun. I’m just wondering if statistical studies that say that fun escapism, especially based on violence, hate, or faulty thinking doesn’t corrupt us, especially when we’re young. I’m an old computer programmer and we believed in GIGO – Garbage In Garbage Out.
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GIGO is a great concept for structured systems and systems that rigidly follow rules without consideration of intent or the possibility the programmer made a mistake.
That’s not the case for humans.
I agree about SF and some might even point to concepts explored in SF that have come to pass . . . and that’s one of the reasons I like the genre . . . but even then, rarely have those concepts originated in SF (especially when dealing with social order/issues). Phylosophy and the history of human thinking girds the support structure of most fiction.
As far as studies . . . we either accept what they tell us or we are no better than them who would reject reality for personal beliefs. There are studies supporting various levels of influence from/by observing violence, but that’s the rub . . . we don’t have universal behavior and there are many more counter-factual well-run studies.
At the base of it all, I can point to observational examples where similarly exposed individuals are markedly different in behavior, values, empathy, etc.
I’ve always liked violence (admitedly, retributive violence) in fiction (books and movies) and to this day, I prefer violent resolution in taking out bad guys to civilized action (Batman, to my mind, is at much at fault for all the innocent people the Joker and other villains hurt as the villains themselves). Other people don’t seem to share my draconian tendencies (that a whole other discussion).
A huge criticism I got from some beta readers of one of my books (unpublished, I am) was they couldn’t understand the heroine’s motivation for taking out bad guys. My answer is “Duh! Bad guys!”
But, my enjoyment of fictional violence has never caused me to act in a violent manner toward anyone in real life. Yes, that’s me . . . but I know many, many people like me, just as I know people I cannot understand precisely because they have no restraint when it comes to being violent toward others, even loved ones, and there’s no obvious cause why they are so wired.
Yes, it’s human nature to look for “obvious” solution but, again, what good is science if we don’t accept what it tells us. It may yet be that science will reverse itself (the beauty of science is that it’s self-correcting), but one thing is in favor of it being on the right track . . . as a species, we are a lot less violent than we were 30 years ago (but one might question that fact because they watch the news).
That’s data, but it doesn’t support the narrative, so people dismiss it.
I’ve always enjoyed violence in fiction too. Science fiction is my favorite book genre, but westerns are my favorite movie genre, and the essential philosophy of westerns is violence is the answer and the gun is the tool. What’s rather fascinating is the real west was never as violent as the western. We civilized the west rather quickly. One of the first laws enacted as towns developed was gun control. What’s ironic, was gun control was a Republican Party philosophy.
Jane Tompkins in her book West of Everything said the west was civilized by the introduction of women and Christianity. That suggests fiction can change a society. Maybe our society is becoming more violent because it’s becoming less Christian, that a new philosophy of violence is replacing it. Most Christians aren’t very Christian anymore. It’s impossible to own a gun for self-protection and claim to be a Christian. By the way, I’m an atheist, so I consider Christianity a philosophy and not a metaphysical belief system. Americans seem more swayed by Old Testament philosophy than the New Testament.
The trouble with the kind of fiction we’re talking about is it needs a bad guy. Our society has embraced the idea of the bad guy and see them everywhere. This is a dangerous mental state. We may fight fewer wars than we used to, and crime is down, but I believe our minds are more preoccupied with violence. Movies, TV shows, books, video games have practically made the gun an object of worship.
We have more free time and we occupy it with fiction. By the way, when I used the word fiction I mean books, TV shows, plays, movies, video games, religion, conspiracy theories, comics, fantasies — everything that’s make-believe.
Not disagreeing, but cautioning about simple answers to complex issues.
Studies in children (before exposure to media, and especially violent media) offer insight in the nature or nurture argument, and current thinking points to somewhat equal proportions.
The reason I even commented is that the picture of unaware helpless humans being conditioned to act violently doesn’t sit well with me. And, it’s not explained by observations.
I agree there is a preoccupation with violence, but even there, the issue I worry more about is people being made afraid by unrealistic representation of reality.
Besides, fiction in all forms reflects what people want to consume. It’s not like there aren’t alternatives to violent content; it’s that they aren’t as popular. Are we being conditioned or did we condition the market to give us what we want?