Yesterday while Linda and I were telling each other over the phone what we’ve read this past week I described to her the basic plot and ending to “For I Am A Jealous People!” by Lester del Rey. My description of the story went over with an embarrassing silent response. This happens to me quite often when I describe the plot of a science fiction story to other people. Of course, even while I struggle to explain my enthusiasm for these stories I often hear how stupid they sound with my own ears. Should this tell me something?
“For I Am A Jealous People!” first appeared in Star Short Novels edited by Frederik Pohl in 1954, but I read it in Isaac Asimov’s Wonderful Worlds of Science Fiction: Invasions edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh. Probably the cheapest way to read “For I Am A Jealous People!” is to buy The Ninth Science Fiction Megapack from Amazon for 99 cents. I don’t see it anywhere online to read.
Reading “For I Am A Jealous People!” after reading and reviewing “Though Dreamers Die” revealed that Lester del Rey had improved greatly as a writer from 1944 to 1954. In my review of “Though Dreamers Die,” I complained that it was all ideas with no character or plot development. The heart of “For I Am A Jealous People!” is solid character development well integrated into a tight dramatic plot. In fact, this might be the best story I’ve read by del Rey.
So, why isn’t “For I Am A Jealous People!” more famous and reprinted? Well, if I told you the kicker of the story you might respond with the same dumb silence that Linda gave me. I’m torn as to whether or not I should tell you what happens. It’s a very cool idea if we don’t discuss it verbally. It’s even quite philosophical if you have the background reading to appreciate the story.
It helps to know The Old Testament. It also helps to know about how the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans conquered the Israelites and Jerusalem. It also helps to know about how God directed the Jews to destroy various Canaanite cities. I’ll give you a little hint. Lester del Rey compares an alien invasion of Earth to the Jews being a conquered people and how they wondered about God forsaking them.
“For I Am A Jealous People!” is about the Reverend Amos Strong whose town is ravaged by invading aliens from another star system. Amos interprets the invasion as it unfolds by ministering to his flock, praying, interpreting the Bible, and asking God how could this be happening. Eventually, Amos is captured and escapes, but before he can get away, he sees the aliens worshipping at an altar. And it’s a very special altar and what he sees blows his mind.
Del Rey does an amazing job developing Reverend Amos Strong. The aliens and other science-fictional elements of this story aren’t the reason why the story is good. It’s good because of Amos Strong. He’s just as developed as Charlie Gordon in “Flowers for Algernon,” which is the standard I used to judge del Rey last time. Del Rey is no great literary writer, at least compared to his literary writer contemporaries. But for this 1954 science fiction novella, he does a fine job at writing a character-driven SF story.
Then, why isn’t “For I Am A Jealous People!” more famous? If I told you the ending, especially out loud, it would sound stupid. But I think if you read the story, the ending would work very well. Del Rey built a solid foundation for his ending. And I think “For I Am A Jealous People!” is one of the better attempts at integrating religion and science fiction.
To answer the question I asked in my title, I believe it’s because science fiction themes are entertaining speculations for reading, but when considered in the real world they just sound silly. Hearing science-fictional ideas used in stories out loud feels like listening to the guys on The Big Bang Theory argue over a comic book. Science fiction themes are weird and wacky like the metaphysical conversations of potheads. They are closer to dream logic than reality.
But if I was a judge like in the Olympic games back in the 1950s, I’d hold up a card with 9.1 for “For I Am A Jealous People!” I believe del Rey pulled out quite a performance in the science fiction short story writing competition.
I should also say, most stories from The Bible sound pretty damn silly when discussed out loud too.
James Wallace Harris, 2/13/23
One thought on “Why Do Science Fiction Stories Always Sound Stupid When I Try To Tell People About Them Out Loud?”
“They [science fiction ideas] are closer to dream logic than reality.” This is very true, Jim. (It may be especially true of some of Van Vogt’s stories.) Oddly enough, however, over the years I’ve read several written summaries of ideas in SFF stories that convey (to me) much of the power of the stories themselves.
I still remember my awed fascination when I read in high school the entry for Borges in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and their summaries of several of his stories. Maybe they sound more impressive in writing?