The Classics of Science Fiction Books

Science on the March 1952

The new version 5 of the Classics of Science Fiction is here:

      https://csfquery.com

We will maintain this version for reference.

Our goal is to identify science fiction books that are remembered over time. We call them the Classics of Science Fiction, even though the term classics is a loaded word for many, and defined in widely different ways. The term science fiction is also controversial and has never been adequately defined in a precise manner. Working on this project is leading us towards a deeper understanding of both terms. We limit the scope of this project to science fiction because we believe science fiction is a singular concept, even though it can’t be easily defined. Throughout the centuries writers have speculated about the future, distant worlds, alternate histories, time travel, unexplored territories, artificial life, robots, intelligent machines, non-human intelligent beings, and other concepts beyond the mundane that could be a part of our reality if we knew more.

Our technique is simple. We found 65 lists that recommend science fiction books and generated a cumulative list of books that include any title that had been on at least 10 of those lists. We call the resultant list when ordered by being on the highest percentage of lists, the Classics of Science Fiction. We also show that list ordered by title, author, and year.

This is version 4 of the Classics of Science Fiction. The first version appeared in the fanzine Lan’s Lantern in the 1980s. The second in the 1990s, the third in the 2000s. For version 1, the minimum cutoff was being on 3 of 9 lists, for version 2, it was 5 of 13, for version 3, it 7 of 28. For this new version 4, it is 10 of 65.

The most revealing table we produced is a comparison of Versions 1-4. Books in red are those titles that didn’t make it to Version 4. Books in blue are new to Version 4. But look for titles that span the lists with growing numbers. Those books might be the ones still read in fifty years.

Stats by decade shows the number of lists per decade, and what percentage of those lists the book was on. We had to use percentages because some books were not eligible for all lists (list created before the book was published, list for female writers, not eligible for an award, etc.)

Looking at a comparison of lists made in the 20th and 21st centuries show a shift from older books to new books, but it also reveals that some older books are still top favorites.

The Science Fiction by Women Writers list shows the popularity of SF books written by women. We use a cutoff of 4 lists to make a longer list. 28 titles were on the Classics of Science Fiction list. 8 of the 65 lists focused on women writers and 1 list on women and people of color, but they often showed more variety than consistency. We hope this list shows the most consistently remembered science fiction books written by women. If you click on the hyperlinked number of lists to look at the source listings, you’ll see the women writers lists did not affect the overall outcome significantly.

Using a cutoff of a minimum of 10 lists produces a final list of 140 books. That’s probably too many. If the cutoff had been 12, it would have produced a list of 101 titles, which is about perfect. Lists longer than 100 tend to wear out attention spans. But we want to remember as many books as possible. Readers of this list should make their own cutoff number. Scroll down the Rank list until you see books you don’t know. That might be your cutoff figure. I think any books that were on 20 or more lists (the first 45 titles), should be well known to any serious science fiction fan. The cruel reality is in 50-100 years, most of the books on this list will be forgotten by future fans.

These lists come from fan polls, award lists, recommended reading lists, reading lists used in schools, from library science books for collection building, from lists claiming to have the best all-time science fiction, and so on. Currently, we have 65 source lists.

This statistical method is effective but not perfect. We can’t claim you will love reading the most popular books. We can only say they are the most remembered books. However, there does seem to be a correlation between being remembered and the odds of readers liking a book. In the future, we hope to find additional methods to identify the classics.

We did not personally select the books. If your favorite book isn’t on the list it only means you love a book that isn’t popular with other readers. It can still be an outstanding novel. Most novels are forgotten right after they are published, including many excellent works. Popularity has never equaled quality, but the books our society calls classics are usually the books that have survived the test of time and are remembered. There are some books on the Classics of Science Fiction list that we don’t like, and some of our all-time favorite science fiction novels didn’t make the cut. Our lists contain books that we can statistically show are being remembered. That’s all. But we think that’s what defines the term classics.

In the past science fiction was written mostly by white males. That is changing. We have done our best to identify books written by women. With each version of the list, more books by women writers have appeared. We have tried to find as many current lists as possible to reflect these changes. Unfortunately, only about one-fifth of the titles from the main list are written by women. Again, the books on this list are not selected by us, but by the methodology we use. The trend it reveals is readers are reading more books by women, and in the future, the percentage of books by women writers will be greater. Version 5, should come out in the 2020s, but starting with this version, we will be updating the lists on a continual basis, as we find new lists to add to our database.

Our methods also reveal how books are forgotten over time. Not only have we worked to show current trends, we have also worked to help remember books that are being forgotten. In recent years I’ve been reading 19th and early 20th-century science fiction, and those books show that there have always been people thinking about science fictional concepts. These older books may feel dated, invalidated by newer science, but they still represent a yearning to speculate. Science fiction, even before it got its modern label, has always assumed there is more to reality than we can measure. Most fans of science fiction probably feel the current state of SF novels reflect cutting-edge science, but within a few decades, contemporary novels will seem as silly and quaint as old Doc Smith novels from the 1930s do to us today.

We feel studying science fiction as a distinct human effort reveals an aspect to our species that has always existed. We believe science fiction is a unique art form. It is distinctly different from fantasy. It is difficult to define science fiction and to classify books as being science fiction. However, once you comprehend the goals of science fictional speculation, the easier it gets to distinguish between science fiction and not science fiction. However, there are many books that don’t speculate that is called science fiction. Science fiction has become a huge entertainment genre, which essentially means there are two concepts which try to share the same label. If you read a book and are only entertained, and even though it might be called science fiction by everyone, it is not what we’re aiming here to identify as science fiction.

Science Fiction Logo

Can Science Fiction Books Become Classics?

We often think of classic books as:

  • the finest examples of the literary art form
  • timeless stories that continue to endure
  • works that should be studied as cultural literacy
  • confessions of the human heart in conflict with itself
  • times capsules for remembering the past

Yet, there is no agreement as to which books are classics. We hear people say “I study classic novels at the university,” or “I read classics for fun,” or “That book is a classic,” – but few of us think about what that means. We also hear, “Classics bore me,” or “Classics are arbitrary,” or “Classics maintain the status quo of the western white male.” The term can be controversial. Most readers assume being old makes a book a classic. Yet, reviewers often claim a new novel is an instant classic.

Can science fiction novels become classics in the same way scholars recognize literary classics? Some novels from the 19th century are science fiction. However, are the novels of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells held in the same literary regard as the best books by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens? Generally, it takes a century of literary survival of the fittest for a book to earn its reputation as a true classic. Is it possible to predict which younger books will be remembered in the future?

We have developed a quantitative method for analyzing book lists to spot the books being remembered over the past five decades. The Classics of Science Fiction produces a list of books that readers, critics, scholars, librarians, editors, writers have collectively remembered. We have no quantitative method for measuring quality. Can we assume a causal link between literary quality and survival?

For our purposes, when we use the word classics, we merely mean those books that are remembered over time. Of all the books published each year, few are remembered in December. The first step on the road to becoming a classic is when books are chosen for the “Best Books of the Year” lists. The next step is when they are nominated for awards in their second year of life. Some books get added to the public’s memory when they are made into a movie or television miniseries. Other books are kept alive by being studied in school, or promoted at a book club. Well loved books are shared with family and friends, or pushed onto children. Some of these books are remembered when fans vote for them in polls for all-time favorite books.

Books remembered 10, 25, or 50 years, deserve a distinctive label. Can we call them classics yet? Our statistical method also tracks books older than a century, and reveals if they are still being remembered. Since this is the fourth version of this system, we have seen how newer books get on the list, and older books fall off. One of the most interesting aspects of this work is discovering that only a handful of books from any given year are remembered.

Many books we now think of as great classics come from the 19th century. Let’s use a list of those books to study the nature of classic books. I will list the most famous literary survivors of the 1800s. In revising my original list I had to painfully remove a number of titles that once had many readers, but no longer do. Are books once considered classics, still classic when they lose their readers?

Year Titles
1811 Sense and Sensibility
1812 Swiss Family Robinson
1813 Pride and Prejudice
1814 Mansfield Park
1815 Emma
1817 Persuasion, Northanger Abbey
1818 Frankenstein
1819 Ivanhoe
1826 The Last of the Mohicans
1830 The Red and the Black
1831 The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
1838 Oliver Twist, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
1839 Nicholas Nickleby, The Charterhouse of Parma
1840 Two Years Before the Mast
1842 Dead Souls
1843 A Christmas Carol
1844 The Three Musketeers
1845 The Count of Monte Cristo
1847 Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre
1848 Vanity Fair
1849 David Copperfield
1850 The Scarlet Letter
1851 Moby Dick, Cranford, The House of Seven Gables
1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin
1853 Bleak House, Bartleby, the Scrivener
1857 Madame Bovary, Little Dorritt, Barchester Towers
1859 A Tale of Two Cities, Adam Bede
1860 The Mill on the Floss, The Woman in White
1861 Silas Marner, Great Expectations
1862 Les Misérables, Fathers and Sons
1864 Journey to the Center of the Earth, Notes from Underground
1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Our Mutual Friend, From the Earth to the Moon
1866 Crime and Punishment
1868 Little Women, The Moonstone
1869 War and Peace,The Idiot, Sentimental Education
1870 Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
1871 Middlemarch, Through the Looking-Glass
1872 Erewhon
1873 Around the World in 80 Days
1874 Far from the Madding Crowd
1875 The Way We Live Now
1876 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
1877 Anna Karenina, Black Beauty
1880 The Brothers Karamazov
1881 A Portrait of a Lady
1883 Treasure Island
1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Flatland
1885 King Solomon’s Mines
1886 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Bostonians, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Kidnapped
1887 She, A Study in Scarlet
1888 Looking Backward
1889 Three Men in a Boat, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
1890 The Sign of Four
1891 Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Picture of Dorian Gray
1894 The Jungle Books, The Prisoner of Zenda
1895 The Time Machine, Jude the Obscure, The Red Badge of Courage
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau
1897 Captains Courageous, Dracula, The Invisible Man
1898 The War of the Worlds, The Turn of the Screw
1899 The Awakening, Heart of Darkness

Our culture has remembered these books for 116-216 years.  How has that happened? What keeps them alive in current pop culture?

  • Very few books, if any, from any given year become a classic.
  • Classics are taught in schools, colleges and universities.
  • Most novels above have been made into movies.
  • Many have been seen on PBS Masterpiece.
  • They are constantly reprinted: in print, ebook, and audio.
  • Many readers love them, even without being forced to read them.
  • Generations of readers have written about them.
  • They inspire writers.
  • They are often imitated, parodied, and ripped off.
  • Some people feel classics are superior to newer books.

The list looks long, but notice how many years have no book, or how many years only have one novel. As a culture, we remember very little, but for most people who visualize the 19th century, these novels are how they do it.

When you look at the Classics of Science Fiction, ordered by year, notice how the density of books per year is very similar to the density of books per year above. The  progression of time is hard on novels. Any author hoping their novel will become a classic needs to know the odds are long. Books made into movies gain millions of new readers. Many of the books above have had the movie treatment over and over again. For the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list to stand the test of time, will they need a movie version to survive a century?

Only twelve novels above can be considered science fiction. Nine are on the Classics of Science Fiction list. Probably fewer than a dozen novels from the current Classics of Science Fiction list will be remembered among the greatest novels of the 20th century by readers in the 22nd century. One of the goals of this project is to guess which ones they might be.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is the most remembered book on our list. Next century, will Le Guin be remembered like H. G. Wells is remembered today? Will any science fiction writer be remembered like Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy or Charles Dickens?

Literary novels have once distinctive quality over science fiction novels – they capture a place and time in history. Because science fiction is about make-believe events, or imagined futures, we don’t use them to visualize the past. However, every science fiction novel is a time-capsule of how we speculated about reality way back when. They represent our ancestors hopes and fears about the future. In this way, they are very historical. Given enough time, The Left Hand of Darkness and Dune will be used to remember mid-20th century America in they same way Great Expectations is used to remember mid-19th century London.

Does Our Memory of Favorite Science Fiction Skew To Older Science Fiction?

James Patrick Kelly gives a plug for our Classics of Science Fiction database site (csfquery.com) in his column “On the Net” in the July-August 2022 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. He mentions us as a jumping-off point to talk about famous science fiction stories made into movies. In passing, Kelly says our v.5 list is skewed to older works. I’ve worried about that myself, and I’ve tried to come up with a system configuration that would promote newer works.

However, I’m starting to think that our memories naturally skew towards older books. Our lists are generated from a system. We’ve collected all the ways we can find where people remember books – awards, fan polls, recommended lists, anthologies, books used in schools, lists created by magazines and websites, etc. Each one we call a citation. There are two lists of citations, one for books and one for short stories. Older books have more citations than newer books because they’ve been around longer. Our citation lists go back to 1943, but most of them have been from the past 25 years. But even when we come up with systems to give newer books a little edge, older novels and stories still have more citations.

Pop culture has just found more ways to remember The Left Hand of Darkness since 1969 than Ancillary Justice since 2013. 49 ways to 13. Even when I limited citations from the 21st century it’s still 33 to 13. This makes me wonder if collectively we just remember older books better. Although, if we could get 1,000 college students to read The Left Hand of Darkness and Ancillary Justice would they still favor the book from 1969 over the 2013 novel?

At our site, we avoid saying books with more citations are better – because there’s no way to prove that. But what if some books are better than others at being remembered? The Left Hand of Darkness has never been one of my favorite SF novels, but it is one I admire for its ideas and writing, and maybe that’s why it’s remembered. Many English professors will tell you, that Ulysses by James Joyce is the #1 novel in the English language. I’ve tried to read it several times but never could finish it. But I’m willing to admit that it’s legendary.

A while back we came up with a solution to help people find newer novels and stories to read. We created the List Builder. If you want the most remembered SF novels published since 2000 just use that tool. Here’s a list of 51 21st Century SF Novels with at least 5 citations.

On the other hand, if you are in the mood for something from the fifties just put in 1950 to 1959. If you think our cutoffs are too stringent, lower them. I’m still thinking of adding a feature to the List Builder that would allow our users to delimit the citations by date. Would citation sources only from the 1990s pick different books from the 1940s than citation sources from the 1960s?

We’re trying to keep CSFquery as simple to use as possible yet offer the maximum flexibility for generating lists that users might want. Our v.5 and v.2 lists are just canned lists based on our cutoffs of 12 and 8 citations for novels and short stories. We chose those cuff-offs to produce lists of around 100 titles. The List Builder lets the user decide if they want more or less but pop culture has decided what to remember.

We’re open to suggestions. If you know of other citation sources that we don’t use, let us know.

James Wallace Harris, 6/12/22

The Problems with Classic Science Fiction

The first problem I face with assembling my Top 100 Science Fiction Short Stories list is that I’m partial to crusty old SF stories that younger readers will feel are badly dated. Our discussion group read “Rescue Party” by Arthur C. Clarke for today. Here’s my comment:

Some members of the group, and not always the younger ones, have pointed out how dated parts of this story are today, and that the characterization is rather poor. Clarke was never a particularly good writer when it came to characterization, but this story was on par for 1946. Most of our group are older fans, and we’re used to older stories, so even with them, this story might not be a great story. Generally, people liked it, rating it 3-4 stars, with one person giving it 2.

You can read “Rescue Party” for yourself if you want. Here is the story in the original publication, and here it is again at Escape Pod with both audio and text. The group read the story from The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction that came out in 1980. Evidently, Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg considered “Rescue Party” a modern classic 42 years ago even though most anthologies back then were remembering Arthur C. Clarke with “Nine Billion Names of God” and “The Star.” One of our members said Clarke might be remembered for “A Meeting with Medusa” which came out in the 1970s and is a much more polished story by contemporary standards.

“Rescue Party” was anthologized in The World Turned Upside Down edited by David Drake, Eric Flint, and Jim Baen in 2004, but that anthology was promoted as collecting stories that we old SF fans loved when we were growing up. That’s certainly true for me because it has many old science fiction stories I love that I use for my Top 100 list of SF short stories.

In other words, I can make a list of the short science fiction stories I love, but if younger readers read those stories would they be disappointed? First, do I care? It’s my list. Actually, I do. I don’t want to waste readers’ reading time. Nor am I interested in trying to be a teacher pushing young people to read the SF classics.

I realize there are two solutions for me to pursue. One is to find the stories that are great science fiction and are well written that aren’t dated. There’s certainly plenty to choose from. And I might do that. But I had a different idea when I started work on this list. I wanted to show the evolution of science fictional ideas and my evolution as a science fiction reader. It’s not about recognizing the best stories. I no longer believe in the best of anything. This world is too complex and multiplex to order in ranks and ratings. I’ve already bogged down trying to rank my favorites numerically.

I want to start in the 19th century and progress to the 21st by reviewing the science fiction stories that evolved the genre. Contemporary readability or social correctness won’t matter. Figuring this out has given me a direction.

James Wallace Harris, 5/1/22

The Implications of Giving Comic Books Another Try

I’ve forgotten why, but I was Googling around and found the image above. I was quite taken with it. I did a Google image search and discovered it came from Weird Tales #14 (July-Aug 1952) and the artist was Wally Wood. I know as close to nothing about comics as is possible without knowing anything at all. I have run across some interior illustrations by Wood in Galaxy Science Fiction and admired them too. I’d love to have a big art book of his work.

I know a little bit about EC Comics, mainly from reading about the congressional hearings in the 1950s and the famous book by Fredric Wetherm, Seduction of the Innocent.

Back in 1963, when I was twelve, my grandmother subscribed to four comic books for me for my birthday. I believe they were to Superman, The Justice League of America, Wonder Woman, and The Flash. I read them as I got them, and carefully saved all the issues before my cousins Bobby and Timmy borrowed my complete library of comics. They never returned them. It didn’t bother me. I much preferred reading science fiction. And I forgot about comic books until the 1970s when I discovered underground comics in a headshop. I tried one by Vaughn Bode and another by Robert Crumb.

Over the years I’ve tried comics periodically but never could get into them. This month I’m giving them one more try because of that Wally Wood cover illustration. I went looking for a scan of #14 of Weird Science on the internet because I wanted to read the story that goes with the illustration. Evidently, the copyright holders of EC Comics keep a sharp watch on copyright violators because I couldn’t find a digital scan.

I then went to eBay, ABEbooks, and Amazon looking for a copy and discovered The EC Archives: Weird Science Volume 1 had just been released. The paperback was $18.18 and the Kindle edition was $13.99. It claimed to collect #12–#15 and #5–6. I was all ready to press the buy button when I saw a mention I should try a free 30-day trial version of Comixology. What the hell. I did. I’m going to give comics one more try.

I quickly loaded the Archives on my tablet only to discover #14 looked different.

It took a bit of research but I discovered there was a 1950 series and a 1951 series, and Archives Volume 1 had the 1950 #14. I was disappointed. Back to Google. I eventually found comics.org and this very informative page. From there I learned there was a 1994 Gemstone annual that reprinted the 1951 #14. I found the cheapest copy on eBay and ordered it. The internet is a wonderful tool! I’ve never used comics.org before but it’s as useful as isfdb.org.

While I wait for the Gemstone Weird Science Annual, I’ve been looking at The EC Archives: Weird Science Volume 1. I can’t say I’ve gotten hooked on comics. In fact, I’m somewhat shocked by what I discovered. The stories and art are very — I wanted to say crude but I don’t want to offend people. Is simplistic a better word? Unsophisticated?

I once took a graduate course in the English department on humor, and we were taught there are many levels of sophistication in humor, although I’m not sure the professor claimed any form was superior to another. Chaplin’s slapstick humor might be as brilliant as Shakespeare’s humorous wordplay.

The 1950s science fiction stories Weird Science are similar in ideas to what was being published in the pulps in the 1920s and 1930s. Now I’m not trying to be superior. My favorite kind of science fiction is novels and short stories from the 1950s. They might only be a step up from science fiction in comic books as comic books are a step up in believability over books like Dr. Seuss or Goodnight Moon. I’m not offended when brilliant literary writers complain that science fiction is adolescent, because I agree with them.

At 70, I’m fully aware that my favorite kind of fiction to read in 2022 is as sophisticated as my mind was in high school (1966-1969). I was an English major in college, and I still read the literary classics, but usually only one per year. When I say science fiction that appeared in the science fiction magazines of the 1950s was more sophisticated than the science fiction appearing in the comics or funny papers, or on the big or little screens of that decade, I’m not claiming it was superior. I’m only saying the stories were more complex and richer in detail.

For example, compare “I Created A Gargantua!” or “Lost in the Microcosm” in Weird Science to The Shrinking Man (1956) by Richard Matheson, the book version of the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, or The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). None of these stories are realistic, all of them are basically stupid, and all of them are on the level of comic book science fiction. I guess I should up the ante some and also throw in “The Drowned Giant” by J. G. Ballard, as a literary comparison. And even mention that Alice in Wonderland played around with the idea of changing size.

My point in mentioning all these stories is to support my argument that written science fiction in the 1950s was more sophisticated than comic books. Back in the 1950s comic books were aimed at kids who could read but probably didn’t read books. They were a step up from kids’ picture books. Galaxy Science Fiction was a step up from Amazing Stories, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction offered more adult reading than Astounding Science Fiction. And the 1957 science fiction novel, On the Beach by Nevil Shute, was aimed at an even more adult audience.

It’s all about being in the target audience. As I read those collected issues of Weird Science from EC Comics I felt I was regressing back to age twelve. Every time I tried comics again since I was twelve I rejected them as being too young for me and immediately quit reading them after a few pages. This time I kept reading. I even somewhat enjoyed myself. But that scared me. Getting old and being anxious over growing memory loss, made me fear that enjoying a comic book might be the first sign that I’m regressing.

I’ve always considered Charlie Gordon’s rise and fall of intelligence in Flowers for Algernon was modeled the arc of normal aging and decay. Reading Weird Science made me feel like Charlie Gordon when he realized he was on the downward slope of his IQ arc. I’ve noticed this before. I’m starting to struggle with nonfiction and more sophisticated novels.

I can picture myself getting older and reading the Oz books I loved in the 5th grade. The science fiction I love to read now is the same as I loved back in the 8th grade. However, I’m reading it with 70 years of wisdom I didn’t have then, and I’m admiring it more. I still enjoy Austen, Dickens, Trollope, Tolstoy, Lawrence, or even Joyce, but I’m slowly gravitating more and more to the fiction of my adolescence. That doesn’t upset me. I’m glad I have those stories to welcome me home.

I’m not ready yet to read comic books again, or even return to the Oz books, but I can imagine a time when I might be.

James Wallace Harris 3/8/22

More Books for PKDickheads

After reviewing We Can Build You and Dr. Bloodmoney on my personal blog, I thought I’d be through with PKD for a while. Nope, I’ve only fallen deeper into the PKDickian black hole. While shopping for deals on old PKD books on eBay I noticed The Other Side of Philip K. Dick (2016) by Maer Wilson, a biography I haven’t read. Turns out it was cheaper to buy new at Amazon. I got it and read it immediately. Wilson knew PKD from 1972 to 1982 – during the last decade of his life. Because I only vaguely remember reading Philip K. Dick: Remembering Firebright (2010) by Tessa B. Dick, his fifth and final wife, I decided to reread it. It’s still available at Amazon, so don’t pay inflated collector prices. Tessa Dick knew PKD over the same period of time, so we have two memoirs that remember PKD over the same time period.

Both books were published on CreateSpace, a self-publishing company owned by Amazon. Tessa Dick’s book is poorly edited and has a more basic layout, but it has more information about PKD. Wilson’s book looks better and is better written, but she spends more time talking about herself, so there’s less information about PKD. If you’re really into Philip K. Dick, you’ll want to read both. I’ve already written some about the major biographies on PKD, so I’m only going to focus on these two. I really need to do an in-depth comparison someday.

All the people writing about PKD tell a different story. Reading about PKD is like watching Rashômon. Besides the biographers that never knew PKD, there are several people that did who have written biographies, memoirs, and articles. My favorite of those is The Search for Philip K. Dick by Anne R. Dick, his third wife. She knew PKD while he was writing his mainstream novels and The Man in the High Castle. Tessa was married to PKD while he was writing A Scanner Darkly, VALIS, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer – all his last novels. Wilson knew him during the same time period but she writes little about him writing the novels. But Wilson went with him to see the early rushes of Blade Runner when Dick got to meet Ridley Scott. She also knew him before and after his marriage to Tessa. And she was supposed to go with him to Europe for five weeks and then see the premiere, but PKD died before all that. She was not his girlfriend, but just a friend. PKD was agoraphobic and depended on Wilson to keep him company and drive him places. PKD had several friends that helped him like this.

I should also mention there’s a documentary on Curiosity Stream, The World of Philip K. Dick that interviews Tessa Dick. Dick’s three children, Laura, Isa, and Christopher manage a joint trust of his works and legacy, but Tessa might be the person that publically remembers him most. From reading the two books, I don’t think Tessa and Wilson liked each other, and their two memoirs contradict each other in places. Wilson believed PKD was far saner than he is often portrayed, but from reading the two books I get the feeling Wilson saw Dick when he was being his public self, and Tessa saw PKD when he was letting all his inner self hang out.

Wilson’s book has a forward by Tim Powers, and a note by James B. Blaylock, also friends of PKD during his last decade. Their comments seem to gently endorse Wilson’s view, but Tessa Dick’s memoir is far more intimate. She got to live and work with PKD.

I don’t want to get into the details here, because they can be endless, but Philip K. Dick is known for writing very strange science fiction, but he’s also known for believing a lot of strange ideas. Some people considered him bonkers, while others believed he was putting us all on. Reading Tessa’s book leaves me believing PKD was insane. Wilson’s book left me thinking he was sane, but with some mental problems, but not major ones.

The reason I love reading about PKD is I’m looking for clues about why he wrote his stories. Tessa’s book is most revealing about that. Wilson’s book is more illuminating about being a writer and dealing with the outside world. She would go with him to interviews and try to keep him from saying things that would generate bad PR. Neither book is a quality biography. Both memoirs add information and confusion about the mystery of Philip K. Dick.

I also bought Precious Artifacts and Precious Artifacts 2 from Amazon even though the same content is online at the Philip K. Dick Bookshelf. The first is a bibliography of his books, and the second covers his short stories. I don’t actually collect to collect, but my buddy Mike and I have gathered quite a bit of PKD material over the last forty years. We’re not completists, but I’m always looking out for stuff I haven’t read. And sometimes I like buying books because of their covers. Most of the information in these two books is available at the writers’ site, but also on ISFDB. However, I like holding these books. They are well illustrated with color images of the book and magazine covers.

James Wallace Harris, 2/23/22

Improving the Internet for Researching Science Fiction

I wrote an long review of We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick for my personal blog. Normally, I would put my science fiction reviews here, but my goal is to review every book I read in 2022 at Auxiliary Memory. Go read the review if you’re interested in PKD, but what I want to do now is talk about how I researched that review. I found quite a few impressive sites devoted to Philip K. Dick, but I didn’t think Google was very good at helping me find them. I also assumed there are way more great sites out there that I’m not finding through Google.

Google is unfortunately geared at helping people sell stuff. It’s a shame it doesn’t offer us radio buttons or a pulldown menu near the search box where we could tell Google what kind of results we want. If the box “[ ] I’m Buying” isn’t checked, then don’t show us any site trying to sell us stuff. There is scholar.google.com to search, but its results come mainly from academic sites (often with content behind paywalls), and I want results from all sites. I believe search engines aren’t the solution.

Once upon a time I wanted to become a librarian, so I’m thinking of librarian type solutions. Remember the good old card catalog? I believe one way to separate the informational wheat from the chaff is to use a curated card catalog. And I believe one already exists – Wikipedia.

Here is Wikipedia’s entry for We Can Build You and the entry for Philip K. Dick. The first link in the Reference section is to the novel’s entry in ISFDB. Between those three web pages, most readers would learn about all they wanted about We Can Build You before reading it. Searching Wikipedia first was far more efficient than starting with Google.

What Do We Want From An Internet Search Tool?

  • Immediate access to the exact information we seek
  • Links to the most authoritative information
  • We want enduring sources that can be sited
  • We want accurate information
  • We want human curated information
  • We want cumulative history of the information
  • We want information organized into useful subcategories

Using my research for We Can Build You as an example, here’s what would be the ideal results, both in general, and specifically how I see Wikipedia providing it.

  1. A comprehensive history of the writing and publication of the book.
  2. A complete but concise summary of the plot with a listing of characters.
  3. A summary of the most common interpretations of the book
  4. A summary of how the book has been reviewed and judged.
  5. Links to the best online reviews/essays/academic papers
  6. Links to databases that contain information about the book
  7. Links to where I can buy/download the book
  8. Links to books/essays/academic articles about the book
  9. Bibliography of significant books/journal citations that aren’t online.

Wikipedia has already been moving in this direction. The entry for We Can Build You is a decent start. Dr. Bloodmoney has some improvements. But the entry for The Man in the High Castle gets much closer to what I’m wanting.

Google claims there are 53,800 pages with information about [“We Can Build You” by Philip K. Dick]. Just how many extensive reviews or scholarly papers on We Can Build You exist? Some might be on the 12th page of a Google results or the 153rd, or hidden behind a firewall protecting academic publications so they aren’t easily found. How many excellent articles on the book have been written? 8, 15, 172? What if human editors decided on the best 5-10 to list on the Wikipedia, especially if their full text was available online? At what point do we have enough information about any subject?

A Wikipedia entry doesn’t need to be a dissertation on the subject but it should be the start of one. It should provide all the links to start writing a dissertation.

ISFDB lists eight reviews, but not links to the actual reviews. Some of those reviews are on the internet, some are not. One of those reviews is also listed on Wikipedia but without a link, even though the full text of the magazine is available online. Read the Theodore Sturgeon’s review in the January 1973 issue of Galaxy, and it is summarized on the Wikipedia page. However, none of these links proved that useful to me, and I have to assume much better content has been written about We Can Build You in the last fifty years.

Wikipedia could link to all the academic contend behind paywalls. That would be a tremendous step forward. Better yet link to a service that would allow users to easily buy those articles with Paypal (and give Wikipedia a cut). Or if the publication was something for sale on Amazon, link to it and allow Wikipedia an affiliate cut. Here is the opening page to a book I found that has a chapter on We Can Build You that I discovered though scholar.google.com. It was on Amazon for $9.99 for the Kindle edition. The book is The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick: A Reading of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels by Umberto Rossi.

I found this first page of the introduction so exciting that I bought the book – and it has a chapter on We Can Build You. Because of my knowledge of Sheckley and PDK I know Rossi will have incredible insight. This book should have a link on Wikipedia.

All the scholarly opinions about We Can Build You would be too much for Wikipedia to summarize, but it should point to the best. That would certain be a better solution than Google. Google is finding information by machine indexing. Right now, Wikipedia is presenting information by human intelligence. I believe we need more human help in internet searches than brute force AI. Of course, AI will eventually be better than humans. Someday, an AI will write the perfect nonfiction book on any subject we request of it.

Scholar.google.com returned 47,700 results for the search [We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick]. Wikipedia could link to that search results, and it could list some of those citations that have been human verified by editors to be among the best. Wikipedia is written and edited by volunteers. New volunteers looking for something to contribute could curate the most important links.

While researching We Can Build You I found all kinds of web pages that offer useful information. At the site The World Dick Made they had user sortable listing of PKD’s novels with star ratings, giving the data written and date first published. Here are the books that get 5 and 4 star ratings. We Can Build You gets 4 stars from this site. This certainly would be a nice link for Wikipedia. The link for the novel takes us to a page with more good information, including a long list of characters within the story.

Our own citation listing shows We Can Build You wasn’t very popular on recommended lists and fan polls, but that Josh Glenn put it on the list “75 Best New Wave Sci-Fi (1964-1983) Novels.” That would be another worthy link to include at Wikipedia.

Ultimately, what we want from an internet search is knowledge. Most of us use Google to gather data so we can assemble that data into our own version of knowledge. That’s what my review ended up being. However, my take was highly idiosyncratic. Most people searching on We Can Build You would want facts. Wikipedia does a decent job now, and it’s getting better all the time. However, some researchers would want to know about or even want to read the most common idiosyncratic takes on the novel. Right now, we have to use Google to track those down but it’s very inefficient. Scholar.google is better, but still returns to many results. The right links added to Wikipedia would make it a far superior search tool.

In the future, I can picture the volunteer editors at Wikipedia adding more and more information to each entry, and it will get into helping its users find those idiosyncratic views. This will be much more efficient than Google.

Right now I have several shelves of books about science fiction and its history. If I started with the main entry for Science Fiction in Wikipedia and pulled out all the content that is linked to it, I’d have the best book ever written on the subject, with the best illustrations. All the famous SF authors and their novels have entries in Wikipedia, as well as most of their famous short stories. Wikipedia also covers the editors, book publishers, and magazines. Eventually, Wikipedia could describe every SF stories ever written, and link to where they could be bought or read online, as well as links to everything we know about them. That’s why I believe Wikipedia should become the card catalog of the internet.

Of course, the next problem is making this knowledge permanent.

James Wallace Harris, 2/11/22

You Won’t Love Every Work of Classic Science Fiction

Over the years a number of people have emailed me about how they use the Classics of Science Fiction list as a reading goal. Well, I’ve never had anyone tell me they’ve read through the entire list — until now.

There’s always been a misconception about books called classics. I think some people feel they are guaranteed great reads. Classics are only books that get remembered over time. Our list was assembled from many sources, including fan polls, awards, lists by critics, writers, and editors, and so on. Just because these books have been statistically remembered by our various sources doesn’t mean they will be loved by readers. I’ve always wondered how science fiction fans who do read from this list react to the books. Well, I’ve gotten one answer. His reaction is completely different from mine, but then I expected that. I expect everyone to love some books and hate others. And that’s okay to hate books called classics.

Lists are very popular on the web, but just how useful are they? Szymon Szott is the first person to tell me they’ve finished our list. This is his answer. Now Szymon admits he quit on some books, but he did try, and I think that’s good enough. I asked Szymon to write up his reaction and here it is:

Jim has asked me to share my thoughts after completing the Classics of Science Fiction v5.

The list is quite long (115 books) and I didn’t read them back-to-back. Some of them I read a long time ago and their plot remains a bit vague (Ubik) while others are among my all-time favorite novels and I’ve read them multiple times (Dune). In recent years, however, I’ve been trying to steadily chip away at the list. In mid-October I finished China Mountain Zhang and thus completed my quest, having read 36 books from the list this year. Overall, my average rating was 3.65 out of 5 stars and since I rarely give 5 stars to a book, it goes to show that I really enjoyed the experience.

My all-time favorite novels from the list are:

Ender's Game
Dune
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Red Mars
Snow Crash

No surprises there, my top three are the same as WWE’s Most Read Books of All-Time and the other two are acknowledged modern classics. However, I read the list to find books which would surprise me, so here are my top five unexpected hits with brief summaries to whet your appetite:

Mission of Gravity - a hard SF exploration of a cool idea: a planet where the gravity varies from 700 g at the poles to 3 g at the equator.

Flowers for Algernon - another exploration of an SF idea (increasing intelligence through surgery), but very human-focused, a moving tale.

Dreamsnake - a grand story set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it must have inspired the Fallout game series.

Ammonite - interesting planet exploration, where a virus alters the colonists.

The Windup Girl - near-future biopunk novel, which the author wrote during a SARS outbreak in Asia (making it unexpectedly relevant to current times).

I didn’t, however, find absolutely all the books amazing. In fact, I didn’t finish two of them: The Female Man and Synners. The former was just plain confusing while the latter had a combination of plot, characters, and prose style that didn't work for me. Out of the books that I did finish, here’s my bottom five:

Last and First Men
Star Maker
To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Dhalgren
Startide Rising

I read that the two Stapledon books were influential to many SF authors, but were just plain boring to read (having almost no plot or characters). The others aren’t terrible but have some element that put me off (sentient dolphins, a resurrected Göring, or all-combination sex).

Are there any books I think are missing from the list? Well, the arbitrary cutoff is at at 12 citations and here are some great books which I enjoyed that didn’t make it:

R.U.R.
On the Beach
Accelerando
The Stand
Perdido Street Station

They’re all quite different but at the heart of each is the exploration of SF concepts and all of them filled me with a sense of wonder.

Overall, I think the Classics of Science Fiction v5 list is a great resource. Should you read it from beginning to end like I did? Only if you’re either studying the history of SF or are an obsessive completist. Otherwise, treat the list as a recommendation of outstanding SF books and don’t fear to stop reading a book if it doesn’t meet your expectations. Life’s too short for books you don’t enjoy!

I believe Szymon’s finally recommendation is a good one. By the way, Szymon has written for us before:

James Wallace Harris, 10/22/21

The Tools of Science Fiction

What writers create with the tools of science fiction varies as tremendously what carpenters build with their tools. However, the consumers of science fiction, the editors and readers, tend to prefer specific products often by specific tools. In our short story club on Facebook, one reader noted that The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collected edited by Gardner Dozois which we just finished reading only had one story about spaceships. (I don’t know if it was just a curious observation or lament.)

If you expect science fiction writers to always use their tools to build spaceship stories you’ll be disappointed by how diverse science fiction stories have become. In the old days writers had fewer tools, mainly extrapolation (If this goes on…) and speculation (What if?), so they produced similar products.

Extrapolation was a great tool for creating stories about the near future that dealt with social and political change. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley used that tool to great success. Many SF writers cranked out stories based on the speculation tool: “What if we could travel to the planets?” “What if we could travel to the stars?” “What if we could travel in time?” “What if aliens invade the Earth?” and “What if we could build machines that act like humans?”

Over time, writers invented new tools to craft new kinds of science fiction stories. Take for instance alternate history or time looping or digital reality. If you look at the twenty-four stories collected in the Dozois anthology no two are really that much alike.

I discovered science fiction in the 1960s, so my concept of science fiction was shaped by the tools writers were using then. Even as a kid, I could tell that stories produced in the 1930s were different from those created in the 1940s or the 1950s. Writers in the 1960s were using new tools to create new kinds of science fiction that riled some older readers. Those oldsters claimed New Wave stories weren’t even science fiction, but I was young and loved that stuff. Now I’m old, and new waves are washing over me.

On social media I often see comments from science fiction readers bitterly bitching about contemporary science fiction. Does that mean what N. K. Jemisin produces isn’t science fiction? It’s true, what she’s building with the tools of science fiction in the 2010s doesn’t look like what Lois McMaster Bujold built in the 1990s, or Ursula K. Le Guin crafted in the 1970s, or Robert A. Heinlein hammered together in the 1950s. But isn’t all that work crafted with the same tools out of the SF toolbox?

The opening story in the Dozois anthology was “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard. It’s about a central American guy escaping into an Aztec reality. That doesn’t sound very science fictional. But is it any different from Harold Shea escaping into various western mythologies by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Platt? Sure, we can claim both stories were built with fantasy writing tools, but isn’t that missing the point?

The next story was “Dogfight” by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick, a What If story. What if we had technology that allowed people to mentally projects images into the air and make games out of them? This was a product of adding cyberpunk tools to the science fiction toolbox. I’ll assume most of our short story club members felt it was science fiction. “Snow” by John Crowley uses a slight variation of this tool. What if we had a tiny machine that followed us around like a wasp and filmed our life?

“Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling imagines a dinner party hundreds of years ago in the Arab world when Europe was in decline. This story feels like it was completely constructed by tools for writing historical fiction. It wasn’t the only such story that Dozois picked for his anthology of the best science fiction short fiction of 1985. Many in the group rebelled at his decision, claiming those stories weren’t science fiction. And to be honest, even though I liked these historical stories I thought it odd they were in an anthology labeled the best science fiction. In other words, even when I try to be broadminded there are walls of the box that I can’t think outside of.

The group is about to start reading The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. There are already grumbles that their view of science fiction isn’t science fiction. Not only do readers prefer science fiction built with specific tools, so do editors, and unfortunately, there’s also generational preferences.

This has interesting implications for our group. We vote for the anthologies we read. We’ve learned that Judith Merril saw the genre much differently than Donald Wollheim or Gardner Dozois or Terry Carr. I’m expecting the VanderMeers to have a very unique view too. I still say the various stories are constructed with the same tools, but what writers make with them varies, and that’s reflected in editor choices, or fan’s personal preferences. I can easily see our group balkanize into Facebook groups devoted to Dozois SF or Carr SF or 1950s SF, or Military SF. John W. Campbell, Jr. really did define a certain kind of science fiction, and I think we’re learning anthology editors have distinct views too.

There is no requirement or pressure in our group for people to read the stories. We expect members to read whatever they want. But there is a certain pressure to find anthologies that people will like. It is somewhat disappointing to hear too many complaints about disappointing stories. Although I don’t want people to stop criticizing stories. I believe we all like learning about each other’s tastes, and some stories are actually better than others. Maybe what I want is for people who love collies to not judge pugs by collie standards.

One reason we only have about a dozen members who regular read most of the stories out of over five hundred members, is the lurkers probably choose to read only what they like. It’s probably why most SF fans prefer novels over short stories, and books over magazines. There are very few readers who have eclectic tastes suited for enjoying the diversity of short stories.

We’re a short story club, and like book clubs it’s very hard to find consensus, even more so because of the nature of anthologies. I’m looking forward to the VanderMeer anthology and I’m trying to be open to what they present, however I fear a backlash. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve complained myself about reading stories I didn’t like. On the other hand, I’m getting tired of younger generations complaining about older works and writers, and older generations complaining about newer works and writers. That’s driving me to expand my reading consciousness. It doesn’t mean I don’t prefer living in the past with 1950s and 1960s science fiction, but I’m trying not to be my dad who always screamed “Turn off that goddamn noise” when I played The Beatles.

I believe our Facebook group offers an interesting chance to try out a lot of different kinds of science fiction built with many different tools over many generations. It’s both rewarding and enlightening.

James Wallace Harris, 8/17/21

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

Even though I bought all 35 volumes of The Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois as they came out, I never read one from cover to cover until now. Their size was just too daunting. I finally overcame my fear of giant anthologies when I listened to The Very Best of the Best from beginning to end, and then again when the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction voted it in as a group read. For summer 2021 we read The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection. This is the first of the annuals I’ve finished. Reading and discussing a short story every other day is a great way to read an anthology, and I expect someday to read the other 34 volumes – with or without the group.

Since I’ve joined this Facebook group, I’ve been reading at least one short story a day. We keep two group reads going concurrently. Because I also read stories on my own I’ll read over four hundred short stories this year, maybe as many as five hundred. For the three years before joining the group, I read at least two to three hundred short stories each year. I’m slowly getting a feel for the form, since I’ve probably gotten my ten thousand hours in. However, it wasn’t dedicated study.

For this post I thought I’d reprint my Facebook comments on the twenty-four stories in this anthology. If I find time, I’ll write separate reviews of the stories I liked best. Here’s my rating system. One and two stars usually only show up in magazines.

*Writing level of a fiction workshop or amateur publication
**Writing level of semi-pro magazine, or lesser pro magazine story
***Solid story from a professional magazine, should be minimum level for an annual anthology
***+Solid story that I found particularly entertaining
****An exceptional story I know I’ll want to reread someday, or have already read many times
****+An exceptional story that’s almost a classic, something I’d anthologize
*****A classic that’s well anthologized and remembered
My Rating System

01 of 24 – “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard
F&SF (May 1985)

“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard is not science fiction, but magic realism that claims we can return to an past reality destroyed by modernity. The setting appears to be current day Honduras and the plot focuses on Esteban Caax, 44, a farmer, probably a descendent of the Azetecs. Esteban loves living in the country, and pursuing a simple life. However, his life is complicated when his wife Incarnación, 41, buys a battery powered TV on credit from Onofrio Esteves. Incarnación wants to move to town and take up modern ways.

Onofrio sold the TV to Incarnación to force Esteban into debt so he has to return to jaguar hunting. There is a rare black jaguar that’s keeping a tourist resort from being built, one that Onofrio and his son want to develop.

When Esteban goes hunting the jaguar he finds a beautiful woman, Miranda, in the jungle who suduces him. He eventually learns she is the black jaguar and she wants Esteban to return to an older, magical reality, part of his real heritage. At first Esteban refuses, but ultimately, he’s forced to follow Miranda into an ancient alternate existence.

Shepard’s writing is amazing and beautiful, and this story reminds me of “The Woman Who Rode Away” by D. H. Lawrence, another story about finding a way back to an older reality of the Aztecs, and one of my all-time favorite stories.

I’ve seen this theme enough times to wonder if people really do believe there are ancient ways to rediscover. I got to meet Shepard at Clarion West 2002. It’s a shame his work hasn’t stayed in print. The collection, THE BEST OF LUCIUS SHEPARD is available for the Kindle for $2.99. He has nothing on Audible. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucius_Shepard

Rating: ****+

02 of 24 – “Dogfight” by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick
Omni (July 1985)

You’ve heard of unreliable narrators, well, Deke is an unlikeable narrator. “Dogfight” by Michael Swanwick and William Gibson is now considered a Cyberpunk classic, and it brings back memories of all the excitement that literary movement generated in the 1980s. Many cyberpunk stories embraced a noirish quality of dark settings, involving criminal activities, and “Dogfight” fits the stereotype. Deke is a petty thief that finds his calling in a game of Spads & Fokkers. In a rundown bus stop, Tidewater Station, Deke discovers a crippled vet named Tiny playing out the role of Minnesota Fats with the game of Spads & Fokkers, and Deke decides to steal Tiny’s throne by becoming the Fast Eddie of the game.

Along the way Deke befriends a college girl with her own ambitions named Nance. Ultimately, Deke uses Nance, and brutually steals her dream and crushes Tiny’s purpose for being. Deke is elated to finally be good at something, ignoring the cost of his success the others paid.

The neat thing about “Dogfight” is the idea we’ll being able to jack into hardware and project 3D images that others can see. There is no explanation for how this works at all. We’re just told people can imagine tiny WWI planes and people will see them flying around the room fighting in aerial dogfights. That was the problem with most cyberpunk stories, they imagined computer technology doing things it will never do.

Rating: ****

03 of 24 – “Fermi and Frost” by Frederik Pohl
Asimov’s (January 1985)

This is the third reread for me, so I’m wonder if I didn’t read part or all of this anthology back when it came out. “Fermi and Frost” is barely a short story. It’s more of a meditation by Pohl on nuclear winter.

The story begins in the chaos of people trying to fly out of JFK knowing that the missiles are coming to hit New York. Harry Malibert lucks out and gets a flight to Iceland and rescues a nine-year-old boy named Timmy. Iceland barely survives the nuclear winter, and Harry becomes Timmy’s father. Pohl tells us they could have a happy ending or a bad one. I’m sure most readers picture the happy ending, where humanity survives.

I liked this story because I always liked stories about the last humans on Earth, but this one is barely a sketch on the subject.

Rating: ***

04 of 24 – “Green Days in Brunei” by Bruce Sterling
Asimov’s (October 1985)

“Green Days in Brunei” was a finalist for the novella Nebula, but it lost to the 800-pound gorilla “Sailing to Byzantium,” also in this anthology, as is “Green Mars” by KSM, another heavyweight.

The pacing of “Green Days in Brunei” felt like an condensed novel rather than a stretched short story. I believe it’s really hard to pull off a novella that feels perfect for its length. In this case, I was wanting more, not less. The plot of the story is rather sparse, a techie, Turner Choi, takes job in a country that’s fighting technology, Brunei, falls in love with a princess, and has to choose between East and West worlds. Sort of a reverse King and I.

Turner is an interesting creation set in the middle of a fascinating political/philosophical situation. Sterling has done a good job creating a computer geek trying to make it in a repressive society. Seria, the princess and love interest, is also interesting, but more contrived. I wished her character could have been fleshed out, and it would have been if this story had been a novel. Jimmy Brooke, the corrupt and aged rock star almost steals the story. He feels somewhat like a J. G. Ballard character. Moratuwa, the political prisoner, and Buddhist is another character needing more onpage time.

This 1985 near future cyberpunk story missed the internet but scored hits on the social changes. The reason this story is so interesting to read is all the details of the Brunai society, which tries to repress western technology but still wants to succeeed at finding work for its people. That’s a valid philosophical problem today.

Like most cyberpunk writers, Sterling vastly oversimplifies programming robots. In many ways, SF writers expected too much from computers, but often imagined too little.

Rating: ***+

05 of 24 – “Snow” by John Crowley
Omni (November 1985)

John Crowley was one of our teachers for the week at Clarion West 2002. I had not read anything by him at the time. I wish I had read “Snow” before I met him. What a beautiful story – but then I resonated with “Snow” because of my lifelong obsession with memory. I wanted wasp technology starting back in the 1950s. But I wouldn’t use it for remembering dead people. I’d want it for remembering my own life. I especially loved the randomness of the memories. “Snow” reminds me of one of my all-time favorite stories, “Appearance of Life” by Brian Aldiss.

Rating: *****

06 of 24 – “The Fringe” by Orson Scott Card
F&SF (October 1985)

Orson Scott Card continues the winning streak of great stories with “The Fringe.” Timothy Carpenter, is a wheelchair-bound teacher in a post-apocalyptic farming community who like Stephen Hawking speaks through a computer-generated voice. Because this 1985 story was probably before Hawking was famous I wonder if he was Card’s inspiration? And the use of the computer for speech synthesis and networks suggests Card could see into the future.

The plot of “The Fringe” is told in a straightforward narrative yet suggests complexity and layers. Carpenter, a hero of a rebuilding civilization because of his ideas on crop rotation, chooses to teach farm children on the fringe of that recovering civilization. The conflict of the story is between Carpenter and the students who hate him for turning in their fathers for their black market activities that undermine a community whose survival depends on interdependence. The story is surprisingly dramatic throughout, although Carpenter’s rescue is almost too good to believe possible.

Rating: ****+

07 of 24 – “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” by Karen Joy Fowler
Asimov’s (October 1985) 2nd story from this issue

Miranda suffers from lifelong guilt for dumping Daniel who then volunteered for the army during the Vietnam War and was killed. Decades later she encounters him again several times during lucid dream psychotherapy. At first, Daniel is a realistic mental projection, the same age as Miranda as if he had continued to live, but as the sessions progress, he becomes younger, and eventually Miranda witnesses Daniel kill a child, one Daniel shot thinking he has a grenade. Miranda becomes obsessed she’s learning details about Daniel’s real life that she couldn’t possibly know.

At the beginning of the story, the idea of lucid dreaming therapy sounds practical, but as the story progresses the encounters in the lucid dream world suggest that Miranda is somehow communicating with an afterlife Daniel, making the story into a supernatural fantasy. However, we are restrained by the title. Is Miranda just looking at a lake of artificial things?

This is another story I read back then that I couldn’t tell you anything about before rereading it, but as I read it came back to me, with the scene with Daniel killing the kid triggering a memory of horror I felt reading it the first time. I thought this story was quite effective and wonder how Paul can consider it mediocre.

Rating: ****

08 of 24 – “Sailing to Byzantium” by Robert Silverberg
Asimov’s SF (February 1985)

“Sailing to Byzantium” is not my all-time favorite SF story, but it should be. It’s an epic work of imagination that only a few science fiction stories surpass. I know it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “The Time Machine,” but it might equal the haunting mood of “The Vintage Season.” I still have a greater personal attachment to “The Star Pit.” Obviously, the Muse was with Silverberg when he wrote: “Sailing to Byzantium.”

Many science fiction writers have tried their hand at far-future stories, but “Sailing to Byzantium” comes closest at conveying what we can never know. What Silverberg works to do in this story is to explain to us what Phillips tries to convey to Willoughby.

Rating: *****

09 of 24 – “Solstice” by James Patrick Kelly
Asimov’s SF (June 1985)

“Solstice” is a horrifying examination of the sexual abuse of a clone. Tony Cage, who is a wealthy superstar drug designer has himself cloned, but in the cloning process had the clone made female. Cage raised the clone as Wynne who everyone thinks of as his daughter, but Cage sees as a version of himself. There are two other stories I know about that explore sex with the self theme, “All You Zombies—” by Heinlein, and David Gerrold’s THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF. Both of these stories used time travel to hook up a person with themselves, but Kelly uses cloning, so it’s not quite the same, but I think it’s meant to be.

Tony Cage is an egomaniac of the first order who doesn’t see Wynne as herself, but the perfect companion he is creating over time. Cage is educating Wynne to be him and is troubled when Wynne goes in her own direction. Cage even uses cold sleep to even out the years between them as Heinlein did in THE DOOR INTO SUMMER for his unrelated characters. As the story unfolds we see Cage’s obsession with Wynne grow and only get hints of what’s happening to Wynne, but in the climax of the story, we learn that Wynne suffered from deep psychological damage because she saw herself as a daughter of Cage.

The common belief is clones will be duplicates of a person, but they won’t be, and I believe Kelly’s insight is right, they will be our children.

This story is actually two stories, the one described above, and the story of Stonehenge. I was fascinated by all the infodumping about Stonehenge Kelly presented, and I assume it’s true, but I believe it diluted and damaged the main story. The dramatic conclusion of Tony and Wynne’s tale happens at a solstice event at Stonehenge and evidently, Kelly wanted to make that more impactful. For me, the blending of the two stories was clunky, and I would give this story a lower rating, but the other part is too powerful.

Rating: ****

10 of 24 – “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” by Avram Davidson
Amazing Stories (May 1985)

Cosimo Damiano, the King of the Single Sicily is aided by Dr. Engelbert Eszterhazy to ward off the attacks of Mr. Melanchthon Mudge who wants to steal Cosimo’s only possession of value, Duke Pasquale’s ring.

Avram Davidson’s charming prose is due to his creative use of names and nouns, and a lot of knowledge about old literature and history. However, why is this fantasy story in an anthology devoted to science fiction?

And “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” doesn’t even contain fantastical fantasy, it’s really a very gentle fantasy about what feels like medieval times when people believed in magic. This story reminds me of the Thomas Burnett Swann story we read. Both Swann and Davidson are enchanted by the past, by arcane mysteries and myths.

Not sure how to rate this story. It’s beautiful writing, but the story is all cotton candy, it expresses very little emotion or philosophy, other than the kindness of Eszterhazy for the poor deluded Cosimo. For now, I’ll say ***+ because I have no desire to read it again, although I can imagine fans of Davidson frequently returning to his kind of storytelling. It’s a very delicate form of escapism.

11 of 24 – “More Than the Sum of His Parts” by Joe Haldeman
Playboy

Joe Haldeman seems to suggest in “More Than the Sum of His Parts” that becoming a cyborg will go to our heads and make us into monsters, like a variation of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or maybe the moral was better bodies don’t make for better minds. I thought this was the weakest story in the collection so far, but it’s still pretty good. I did wonder if Playboy would have bought this story without the cyborg penis and description of its use?

Rating: ***+

12 of 24 – “Out of All Them Bright Stars” by Nancy Kress
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (March 1985)

Sally Gourley, a waitress, waits on a blue alien named John who her boss Charles demands she not serve. This story won the Nebula and was included in two textbooks devoted to science fiction, so it’s bound to be an important story, however it’s short and somewhat mysterious. Sally doesn’t feel the prejudice and hatred towards the alien, but then in the end she thinks: “And all at once I’m furious at John, furiously mad, as furious as I’ve ever been in my life.”

Why. I’ve read this story before, and I read it twice in a row tonight trying to figure out why Sally is furious at John. My guess is Sally doesn’t want to know there are better beings in the universe because she had to live with humans. In the last lines she’s responding to something John said:

“I make so little difference,” he says. Yeah. Sure.

Not only do humans look bad in comparison, Sally knows we aren’t going to change, even when we encounter Christ-like figures. I wonder if Kress was saying this to herself regarding her efforts to write enlightening stories?

Rating: ****

13 of 24 – “Side Effects” by Walter Jon Williams
F&SF (June 1985)

“Side Effects” is something that could have run in THE NEW YORKER because it was so well-written, and whatever mild science fiction it contained was minimal and slipstream.

I was quite impressed with this story and tried to imagine all the intellectual work that Walter Jon Williams had to put into it. It’s also still very relevant. Even after 35 years, it works as a near-future tale. Since I’m old, I’m having to take a lot of drugs, some of which doctors give me as samples. I often wonder if I’m a guinea pig. And they frequently cause side effects.

Rating: ****+

14 of 24 – “The Only Neat Thing to Do” by James Tiptree, Jr.
F&SF (October 1985) (2nd story from this issue)

I didn’t know Tiptree wrote space opera, although “The Only Neat Thing to Do” feels slightly familiar. As does most of the stories we’ve read from this anthology. It’s weird to think what my brain might retain after thirty-five years.

While reading this story I wondered about how Tiptree wrote it. Was she a fan of space opera beforehand? Had she read “The Cold Equations?” To write space opera requires thinking about interstellar travel and other space travel fiction. Tiptree’s sense of space travel feels like it came from Star Wars or Edmond Hamilton (in other words, not hard SF). And Coati Cass reminds me a lot of Heinlein’s title character in PODKAYNE OF MARS. Not only is Triptree writing space opera, but it’s also YA.

Overall, I loved this story, but it had some problems. The communication pipes don’t make sense. What’s their propulsion system? How do they navigate? How long do they take to get where they are going? Even with cold sleep, how long has Coati been gone?

Dozois sure could pick them this year. Four of the six finalists for the Nebula award for the novella are in this anthology. We have one more to read, “Green Mars.”

Rating: ****

15 of 24 – “Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling
Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985)

“Dinner in Audoghast” is an odd story to appear in a science fiction magazine. I try to imagine why Bruce Sterling wrote it. Picturing a long-forgotten African-Arab city is an interesting choice. I assume because William Gibson had made Japanese culture famous Sterling thought he might try it with Arab culture. George Alec Effinger also used Arab culture in a cyberpunk novel two years later in WHEN GRAVITY FAILS.

Audoghast was the western terminus of a trans-Saharan caravan system during a time when Arab culture was waxing and European culture was waning. It’s a fascinating time period to set a historical novel. Maybe Sterling wanted to write such a historical piece and added the leprous fortune-teller into the story to give it some reason for an SF magazine to publish it. Sterling certainly had to do the work of a historical fiction writer to write this story, and he found a wealth of details to paint a colorful setting.

Rating: ****

I don’t know if cyberpunk writers started this or not, but in the coming decades coopting foreign and historical cultures became big in science fiction. It’s led up to today’s World SF stories.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aoudaghost

16 of 24 – “Under Siege” by George R. R. Martin
Omni (October 1985)

On one hand, “Under Siege” is not the kind of story I enjoy. I’m not fond of alternate history. On the other hand, this is an impressive story. It showcases the kind of writing skills George R. R. Martin had before writing The Song of Ice and Fire books.

Again, we’re treated to another bit of history. Was this a fad back then for SF writers? I looked up the Siege of Sveaborg to see what Martin was working with. It seems like a rather esoteric point in time to pivot the future of the U.S.S.R.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Sveaborg

I admired what Martin was doing in the 1808 scenes, but I felt nothing for those characters. However, the narrator, the killer geek mutant narrating the story did grab me. Was his name ever given? I felt for him.

Rating: ***+

17 of 24 – “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” by Howard Waldrop
Omni (January 1985)

Reading “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” made me order THINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME: SELECT SHORT FICTION 1980-2005 by Howard Waldrop. I’ve read this story before, and a few other Waldrop stories and always loved him. Don’t know why I haven’t tried to read more from the guy. I’m amazed that Waldrop comes from Houston, Mississippi, because my mother’s folks are from that part of the country, and I’ve briefly lived in two small northern Mississippi towns and know what kind of upbringing Waldrop would have had. It’s not the kind that would produce these stories. Houston is not far from Oxford, the stomping grounds of William Faulkner.

“Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” is another nostalgia-driven story about a time I fondly remember. I started listening to the radio in the 1958-1963 era when many of the songs in the story first appeared. I even lived in Philadelphia in 1959 for a few months. I loved that glorious Doo-Wop music before it was shut out by the British Invasion in 1964-1965, it’s like imprinted on my soul. I also remember AM radio having Oldie-Goldie weekends. All the songs mentioned in the story push my nostalgia buttons like crazy. Even the UFO book Leroy was reading was probably one I read, because for a short while I gorged on UFO books, however, I mainly remember the crazy George Adamski.

The battle of the bands between Leroy and Kool-Tones and Bobby and the Bombers on November 9, 1965, that knocked out the lights of the northeast USA was one cool story.

Rating: *****

18 of 24 – “A Spanish Lesson” by Lucius Shepard
F&SF (December 1985)

Lucius Shepard creates a fake Roman à clef about his 17-year-old self vagabonding in Europe in 1964 and meeting two escaped clones from an alternate reality spawned by the evil soul of Hitler. This story is rather schizoid, mixing an On The Road memory with Nazi occult horror, where Adolf is a Lovecraftian elder god. Fictionalizing Nazis is dangerous artistic territory because it generally makes any work trivial in comparison to reality. Shepard would have been better off stealing from Lovecraft. Yet, there is a lot to admire in “A Spanish Lesson.”

The trouble with being an SF/F writer is needing to add the fantastic to every story so it can be sold to an SF/F market. The start of this story and the ending is far better than its SF/F elements. It’s too bad Shepard didn’t stick with straight Kerouac, with maybe a dash of Ballard. I really liked the dynamics of Shepard being the youngest member of an ex-pat community trying to earn some respect from the older cats that he thought were cooler, but were just pretenders.

Rating: ***+

19 of 24 – “Roadside Rescue” by Pat Cadigan
Omni (July 1985) – 2nd story from this issue

“Roadside Rescue” was a wham, bam, thank you ma’am kind of story, for us and the protagonist.

Rating: ****

20 of 24 – “Paper Dragons” by James P. Blaylock
Imaginary Lands

“Paper Dragons” is a story about the intersection of reality, fantasy, and science fiction. The narrator exists sometimes in the real world of ordinariness, sometimes in a fantasyland, and sometimes in a steampunk-like continuum. There were glittering aspects to this story, but it was often murky to me. I did relate to it in a couple of weird ways though. When I lived in south Florida there would be invasions of crabs. Millions of them would suddenly travel through our neighborhood. And I once found a furry caterpillar and put it in a gallon jar with branches from the bush I found it on. It made a cacoon and eventually emerged as a moth. I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t a butterfly.

Sorry, but I thought this was another story not suited for this anthology because it wasn’t science fiction. A slight case could be made that since Filby could assemble a dragon from pieces of metal that it’s science fiction, but it never felt science-fictional. Its tone was always a lament that fantasy was fading from the world.

Rating: ***+

21 of 24 – “Magazine Section” by R. A. Lafferty
Amazing Stories (July 1985)

I admired Lafferty’s writing and wild imagination in this tall tale but it’s another story that doesn’t belong in this collection. Lafferty does use the word “clone” but the cloning in this story is not the least bit science fiction.

What’s interesting about Lafferty is trying to categorize his writing. I wonder what he was like in person? Was he always pulling people’s legs and telling his tall tales to other people? He’s a kind of literary leprechaun, a class clown with print. He was capable of writing science fiction, PAST MASTER is an example, but for the most part, his stories aren’t science fiction in intent. Nor do they have the flavor of fantasy. His stories are fantastic, but not genre fantastical. It’s a shame the literary world didn’t embrace him because stories like his do appear in literary magazines.

Rating: ***+

22 of 24 – “The War at Home” by Lewis Shiner
Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985) (2nd story from this issue)

“The War at Home” is a punch in the gut. The Vietnam war comes to haunt America’s reality like a bad dream we can’t escape. Although the Safeway bit made me think of our times. Shiner’s story suggests chickens do come home to roost. But I wonder why he wrote it in 1985? That was ten years after the war ended. If civilizations suffer Karmic retribution, then we’re in for some bad shit, much worse than what’s going on now.

My overactive bladder means I never sleep long, so I wake up dreaming many times a night. The intensity of the opening dream sequence resonated with me. Like I said, this very short story was a punch in the gut. Hope it doesn’t give me bad dreams tonight.

Rating: ****+

23 of 24 – “Rockabye Baby” by S. C. Sykes
Analog Science Fiction (Mid-December 1985)

“Rockabye Baby” feels like another one of those literary stories with an embedded fantastic element so it’s salable to a genre market. I thought the first part was excellent. The van crash, the hospital, the group home, the pursuit of drawing, all felt very realistic. Even the part of Sharkey chasing after an experimental treatment. But memories don’t equal a personality, so I don’t buy the fantastic element of the story.

I believe if the real focus of the story was the experimental treatment, the story should have started with Cody trying to rebuild his personality with cassette tapes. Now that would have been a great story too. This could have been a novel, but ISFDB doesn’t show that. Sykes has one other story and one novel listed in their database.

24 of 24 – “Green Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson
Asimov’s Science Fiction (September 1985)

“Green Mars” is a hard story to describe and rate. 70% of this long novella is about rock climbing, something I’m not particularly interested in. 20% is about terraforming Mars and the conflict between Red Mars and Green Mars philosophy, something I’m very interested in. And finally, 10% of the story is about Roger and Eileen, and issues with living 300 years, another aspect of the story I loved.

Even though I’m not interested in rock climbing, Robinson did some impressive writing in presenting this part of the story. I have read memoirs of mountain climbers with the details of rock climbing, and I think KSM gives more blow-by-blow details of climbing than those memoirs. Is KSM a rock climber himself?

I admire KSM’s books for their ideas. However, he seldom produces an emotional story for me, but by the end of “Green Mars” I was feeling this story emotionally.

Rating: ****+

James Wallace Harris, 4/16/21