Between retired life and the restrictions of the current pandemic I feel I’m living the life of a contemplative. A half-century ago in Ram Das’s book Be Here Now, I read how old age is the perfect time to go on a spiritual quest. But instead of studying the Upanishads or The Dark Night of the Soul, I read science fiction short stories to fuel my navel gazing.
My day always feels uplifted after I’ve read an exceptional SF short story. Not every story works to revs up my consciousness, but the ones that do have a special quality. And those special qualities aren’t usually found in stories outside of science fiction. I don’t know what to call those extra ingredients that peps up my day, but I wish I had a handy handle for them. All fiction have shared qualities of storytelling, characterization, plot, etc., but science fiction has clever bits of extra fun that I admire for their wild inventiveness. Usually, I just call them far-out ideas.
Because exploring why I love these stories will give away plot points, I should warn you these confessions will have spoilers. I’ll try to gently introduce each tale with a spoiler free hook, before giving away the good details. This should give you time to decide if you want to run off, and read the story instead.
Yesterday I read “Aristotle OS” by Tony Ballantyne, first published in 2007 in the original anthology Fast Forward 1 edited by Lou Anders, and reprinted in Year’s Best SF 13 edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. By the way, the Kindle version of the Year’s Best SF 13 is currently on sale at Amazon for $1.99. Many of the 17 others in the series are also on sale too.
“Aristotle OS” is about two brothers. Jon, the first person narrator always needing help with his computer, and Ken, his alcoholic sibling who spends most of his day in pubs yet has managed to retained enough brain cells to be a computer whiz. The science fiction of this story is Ken installs a series of new operating systems on Jon’s computer each named after a famous philosopher. With each upgrade, Jon must relearn how to use his computer because his files have been converted philosophically by the OS.
It helps to know a tiny bit about philosophy to understand this story, but I’m clueless about Kant. I can only speculate about the philosophical implications of Kant 2.0 OS. What we learn through reading the story is Jon has a lot of personal regrets. He also wishes Ken had taken a different path. The kicker to this story, which brought a few tears to my eyes, was when we see a utopian view of reality when Kant 2.0 OS converts the files on Jon’s computer, and filters those from the internet. Jon wonders why people couldn’t have acted differently to create that Kantian world, but Ken just asks for more brandy in his coffee, knowing humans can’t live up to the ideal of philosophers.
The theme of regret is very common in literature, but I found Ballantyne’s creation of philosophical operating systems to illustrate the theme very entertaining. By the way, I’m reading a new fantasy novel, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig who also uses a neat gimmick to explore regret. Nora, his protagonist, is consumed with regret and kills herself, but on the way to oblivion is offered the opportunity to explore the many alternate paths she could have taken.
Another creative science fiction story that was cocaine for my contemplations is “Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory. It first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction (9/2005), but was reprinted at Clarkesworld where you can read and listen to it online. Have you ever encountered the scientific and philosophical arguments claiming that consciousness is an illusion? I’ve run into a number of them over the years, and this story carefully entertains that argument and other psychological studies from recent years that suggests who we feel we are isn’t quite who we actually are.
Terry, our first person narrator is a young woman being released from a psychiatric hospital. She is being transferred into the care of Alice and Mitch, who claim to be her parents, but Terry refuses to accept that. Terry looks just like their daughter, Therese, a young woman who took an overdose of a new drug called Zen. Instead of killing Therese physically, it erased her identity, her ego, her sense of self. Terry is the personality that has grown back into Therese’s body. Terry is nothing like Therese.
Now this is a delicious story about the illusions of self. In recent decades I’ve become more aware of my unconscious mind through dreams, meditation, studying psychology books, and observing my writing. I’m quite sure I sometimes write things my conscious mind couldn’t. Read the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
I suppose it would be much wiser to pursue spiritual wisdom with nonfiction books instead of science fiction. And I do, but for some reason I love the inventiveness of science fiction. I also love the subculture of science fiction I grew up with back in the 1960s. I read a story this week, “The Emperor of Mars” by Allen Steele that was a tribute to that subculture and upbringing. “The Emperor of Mars” was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction (6/2010) but was reprinted at Clarkesworld where you can read and listen to it online.
The story is about Jeff Halbert, a man working on Mars who gets bad news radioed from Earth. He falls to pieces. I really don’t want to spoil any of this story, but I will say if you love science fiction, especially all those stories about Mars, then you should read “The Emperor of Mars.” It’s a tribute to Mars fiction and the people who grew up loving it, and I was one for sure. To further endorse this story, let me say I had so many tears in my eyes by the end of “The Emperor of Mars” that I had to get up and go blow my nose. Sometimes we find stories about exactly who we are.
Another story I (re)read this week was “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. I don’t know how many times I’ve reread this story since I first read it in 1968. And I’ve written about it many times before including this long essay at Worlds Without End, one long one on this blog, and an entry at my personal blog, “The Limits of Limitations.” I read “The Star Pit” again for my Facebook group because it was up for discussion. That group is why I’m reading so many of these stories, and it’s my favorite past time right now.
“The Star Pit” is about a man named Vyme who made a lot of mistakes in life and tries to make up for it by helping young people. The story is also about how we are all fish in an aquarium butting out heads against the glass trying to go further. What’s most painful is knowing other fish that can. Delany during this period loved writing about the circular nature of life, and this story tells about circles within circles. Delany during this period also loved writing about prodigies who run into even younger prodigies.
I could go on with countless examples of why I crave consuming an intense SF story every day, but I hope you’ve gotten the point by now.
At my personal blog I’m reviewing the 20 stories in The Best American Short Stories 2020. I guess I’ve become consumed by short stories. Literary fiction is a whole different trip.
James Wallace Harris, 11/21/20