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
10 thoughts on “Science Fiction Writers in Conversation with Each Other”
I just finished “The Search for Man” this morning. I was really loving it, but then kind of tripped over the pretty absurd science towards the end — the reason the men were gone, the conditions on Mars … I think you can ignore those issues and still admire the power of the them behind it, but I think if Moudy had had the time to work a little more on the story, those issues could have been finessed a bit. But Moudy died in 1973, I assume very shortly after the story was sent to Elwood.
The other two stories in IN THE WAKE OF MAN are intriguing in themselves, but also in conversation with each other. Lafferty’s story has men being supplanted by weird unexplained creatures — in a way it reminded me of Delany’s THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION. Wolfe’s story — a classic — has man being supplanted (sort of) by uplifted animals. And then Moudy’s with the robots. The whole anthology (which I’ll write about soon) really works as a unified theme anthology, and I wonder if Roger Elwood commissioned the stories to be written to that theme.
I like the comparison with CITY. I’ve mentioned THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION — I could also mention James White’s SECOND ENDING (1961) and a much later novel, Charles Harness’s DRUNKARD’S ENDGAME — both of which have robots supplanting humans. Also the Aldiss short story “Who Can Replace a Man?”.
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I still liked the ending and didn’t have a problem with it. It vaguely reminds me of other SF stories that I can’t remember. More famous science fiction has been built on sillier ideas. And I also like the extra twist at the end.
Your comments have given me more stories to track down. I haven’t read Second Ending or Drunkard’s Endgame.
I’m looking forward to reading your overview of Moudy’s work. Since you are an anthologist, have you considered creating an anthology of forgotten SF works?
I thought about making a pdf of “The Search for Man” to allow more people to read it, but I don’t know about copyright laws. The story has been out-of-print and ignored for fifty years.
An anthology of forgotten SF would be something of a dream project for me but at this time it doesn’t seem there’s a market. (I mean, among publishers.)
For the record, I don’t think Drunkard’s Endgame is all that good, and I say that as an admirer of Harness.
The idea of producing a collection of a writer like Moudy is intriguing — NO MAN ON EARTH plus his four SF shorts would make a tidy sized volume. (I don’t know that I’d add THE NINTH COMMANDMENT.)
One would have to track down his heirs. I don’t know much about him. From the evidence of his fiction (including THE NINTH COMMANDMENT) I assume he very possibly grew up in western Missouri, or at least lived in Kansas City for some time. (THE NINTH COMMANDMENT mentions at its opening the main character driving on 39th Street. Hey, I’ve driven on that street!)
For what it’s worth, there are at least two anthologies of supposedly forgotten stories: NEGLECTED VISIONS ed. by Barry N. Malzberg et al. (Doubleday 1979) and UNCOLLECTED STARS ed. by Piers Anthony et al. (one of the al. being Malzberg) (Avon 1986). Whether there’s still a market among publishers for such, I don’t claim to know. But once there was.
Yes, I have both NEGLECTED VISIONS and UNCOLLECTED STARS. The trick (besides deciding whether to call it UNCOLLECTED VISIONS or NEGLECTED STARS) would be to find the stories Barry missed. (And Piers et. al. but I can see Barry’s footprints over both … though some good Kris Neville stories remain!) SCIENCE FICTION OF THE FIFTIES (Greenberg and Olander) also reprints some worthwhile little known stuff (MacLean’s “Feedback” for instance.)
I do have stories in mind, but enought to make a saleable anthology?
I have a copy of NEGLECTED VISIONS but not UNCOLLECTED STARS. However, looking at their contents, both books had mostly authors I knew. I’m guessing they have overlooked stories, but not necessarily, by forgotten writers. I’ll have to read both and see if there are any forgotten gems.
I just got in 101 SCIENCE FICTION STORIES which includes stories by many of the same authors in those two anthologies. Maybe I’ll find some gems in it too.
Your comment also reminds me of another project I’d like to create – a database of themes used in science fiction stories. Not sure how to go about it, but I’ve always wanted access to such a database.
And, doh! — I checked the SF Encyclopedia, and, indeed, Moudy was born in Cassville, MO; and died in Kansas City.
I have a friend who grew up in Cassville. (She got out!) It’s in Southwest MO, near the Arkansas border. WINTER’S BONE country, if you saw that movie.
Rich, you should crowd-source your anthology idea. Here are a couple to check out: Neville’s “Casting Office,” as by Henderson Starke, ASTOUNDING 1952 or ’52: all the world’s a stage, and the actors are about to walk out because the script is so terrible. Never reprinted to my knowledge. A. Bertram Chandler’s “Familiar Pattern,” ASTOUNDING 8/59: technologically superior aliens plop down in the ocean near Australia, colonial scenario starts to work itself out inexorably with sardonic commentary by a Maori character. Reprinted by Ellen Datlow in the on-line SCI.FICT. or whatever it was called at my suggestion, but never in print to my knowledge. And another one that I don’t remember as well, Frank M. Robinson’s “Untitled Story” (ASTOUNDING 1951). I just remember that I enjoyed it quite a bit and was disappointed it didn’t show up in his only collection. (The story of the title is that he couldn’t think of one, sent it in expecting Campbell to come up with a title, but Campbell didn’t.)
Thanks … I’ve read “Casting Office”. In general Neville is a writer worthy of additional attention. I’ll check out the Chandler and Robinson stories. (I’ve ready so many of Chandler’s Grimes stories, compentently done but prone to silliness, and generally lazy in execution, that I fail to remember sometimes that he could be much better at shorter lengths when he tried.)