Chronology of Books About Science Fiction

Modern Science Fiction by James Gunn

After reading Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (2018) by Alec Nevala-Lee I reread The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence (1989) by Alexei and Cory Panshin. These two books form an interesting synergy. They are about science fiction’s Golden Age of the 1940s, written over a generation apart, that leaves two distinct impressions. After finishing the Panshins’ book I remembered that the blog MarzAat reviewed a master’s thesis on science fiction that James Gunn wrote back in 1951. I figured Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis would be a third view of SF’s Golden Age of the 1940s, and it was. It’s also one of the earliest scholarly examinations of science fiction.

Gunn divides his book into two parts, one that focuses on the philosophy of science fiction, and the other on categorizing plots. I can only recommend this work to people like me who enjoy reading about the history of science fiction. I doubt Modern Science Fiction will appeal to average SF readers because of its academic nature. However, it is a unique early perspective on the genre. The Panshins’ book is a more compelling read because they tie everything together with a single theory. The Nevala-Lee book is more readable because biographies have a great common appeal.  Gunn writes an aerial overview and is a quick introduction to the genre at a time when few people knew it existed. I enjoyed it mostly for the stories Gunn picked to discuss. Often they were the same classics we remember today, but sometimes not.

I’ve now read five books that covered Astounding Science-Fiction in the 1940s – including A Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers and Astounding Days by Arthur C. Clarke that I read the year before last. I also read The Great SF Stories 1-12 (1939-1950) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, so I’m familiar with many of the stories themselves. I’m slowly getting a feel for how science fiction developed chronologically. I’m currently reading short SF from 1951.

The one book I recommend for understanding the science fiction stories of the 1940s is The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. It was quite insightful. I realized how we think of science fiction now, or even when I started reading it in the 1960s, is quite different from how writers and readers thought of it in the 1940s. The subtitle of his book is Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence and back then I believe science fiction was seeking transcendence that echoes the Transcendentalists of the 1850s. Science fiction from 1939-1949 had a kind of excitement like the counter-culture did in the 1960s.

There’s a reason why Campbell, van Vogt, and others went ga-ga for Dianetics, and Astounding couldn’t run enough ESP/psionics stories in the 1950s. James Gunn saw some of that too in his book, but he called it philosophical. We now pity Campbell and van Vogt being caught up in L. Ron Hubbard’s scam, but Dianetics and Scientology in the 1950s promised to give SF fans the transcendental uplift they dreamed of from reading science fiction in the 1940s. If this seems like a digression from the history of science fiction, it’s not. I believe studying science fiction as it evolved over time is rewarding. I wish the Panshins had written a comprehensive book about science fiction in the 1950s for me to read next. So far I can’t find anything like The World Beyond the Hill for that decade. I’m guessing science fiction changes every decade or with each new generation of readers. I believe my best bet for the 1950s is Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines From 1950 to 1970 by Mike Ashley.

The long introduction by Modern Science Fiction’s editor Michael R. Page is a gem of an overview of books about science fiction. Page says Gunn’s 1951 book-length thesis is probably just the fourth book about science fiction after Pilgrims Through Space and Time (1947) by J. O. Bailey, The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction (1941) by Philip Gove’s, and Voyages to the Moon (1948) by Marjorie Nicolson. The latter two were really about proto-SF, and Bailey’s book barely mentions the Golden Age. So Gunn’s book could be the first about Campbell’s Golden Age Astounding. It was written at a time when the non-SF-reading public was just learning the term science fiction, and Gunn spends part of his time introducing the genre. (See my essay “When Mainstream American Discovered Science Fiction.”  I reprint a Life Magazine article from 1951 telling its readers all about the world of science fiction and fandom.)

Because Page mentions so many books he considers carrying on Gunn’s work exploring science fiction I thought I’d list them as a checklist to acquire. I’ve owned and read many of them over the years, but I thought it would be nice to make this a chronological list to remember and share. I’m anxious to get into the 1950s and 1960s, after gorging on books about the 1940s.

Here are the books Page mentions. I’ve put a plus by the ones I’ve already read/own. Most cover more than one decade of SF history. Someone needs to write a history of the first decade of F&SF, Galaxy, and the big boom in science fiction. (Maybe Ashley’s has done just that.)

  • 1941 – The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction by Philip Gove
  • 1947 + Pilgrims Through Space and Time by J. O. Bailey
  • 1947 – Of Worlds Beyond (symposium) edited by Lloyd Arthur Eschbach
  • 1948 – Voyages to the Moon by Marjorie Nicholson
  • 1951 + Modern Science Fiction by James Gunn (master’s thesis)
  • 1951 – Modern Science Fiction (essays) edited by Reginald Bretnor
  • 1955 – Inquiry into Science Fiction by Basil Davenport
  • 1956 + In Search of Wonder by Damon Knight
  • 1959 + The Science Fiction Novel (symposium)
  • 1960 + New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis
  • 1963 + Explorers of the Infinite by Sam Moskowitz
  • 1964 + The Issue at Hand by James Blish
  • 1966 + Future Perfect by H. Bruce Franklin
  • 1966 + In Search of Wonder by Damon Knight (expanded edition)
  • 1966 + Seekers of Tomorrow by Sam Moskowitz
  • 1966 – Voices Prophesying War by I. F. Clarke
  • 1967 – The Future as Nightmare by Hillegas
  • 1968 – Yesterday’s Tomorrows by Armytage
  • 1970 – Into the Unknown by Robert M. Philmus
  • 1970 + More Issues at Hand by James Blish
  • 1970 + The Universe Makers by Donald A. Wollheim
  • 1971 + SF: The Other Side of Realism (essays) edited by Thomas Clareson
  • 1971 + Science Fiction: What It’s All About by Sam Lundwall
  • 1973 + Billion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove
  • 1974 – Science Fiction Reader’s Guide by L. David Allen
  • 1974 – New Worlds for Old by David Ketterer
  • 1975 + Alternate Worlds by James Gunn
  • 1976 + Anatomy of Wonder by Neil Barron
  • 1976 + A Pictorial History of Science Fiction by David Kyle
  • 1977 + The Creation of Tomorrow by Paul A. Carter
  • 1977 – Science Fiction: History, Science Fiction by Eric S. Rabkin
  • 1977 + The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel R. Delany
  • 1979 – The Pattern of Expectation 1644-2001 by I. F. Clarke
  • 1979 – Metamorphoses of Science Fiction by Darko Suvin
  • 1979 – The Known and the Unknown by Gary K. Wolfe
  • 1979 + The Science Fiction Encyclopedia by Peter Nichols and John Clute
  • 1979 + The World of Science Fiction by Lester del Rey
  • 1980 – Aliens and Linguists by Walter E. Meyer
  • 1980 – The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction by Patricia Warrick
  • 1981 – Alien Encounters by Mark Rose
  • 1982 – Terminal Visions by W. Warren Wagar
  • 1985 – Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 by Brian Stableford
  • 1986 + Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove
  • 1987 – Foundations of Science Fiction by J. J. Pierce
  • 1987 – Great Themes in Science Fiction by J. J. Pierce
  • 1989 – Rationalizing Genius by John Huntington
  • 1989 – When World Views Collide by J. J. Pierce
  • 1989 + The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin
  • 1990 – Understanding American Science Fiction 1926-1970 by Thomas Clareson
  • 1993 – The Magic that Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response to Technology by Albert I. Berger
  • 1994 – Odd Genre by J. J. Pierce
  • 1998 + The Mechanics of Wonder by Gary Westfahl
  • 2008 – The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csciery-Ronay
  • 2012 – Astounding Wonder by John Cheng
  • 2017 – Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System by John Rieder

Books Page Didn’t Mention Which I Own:

  • 1964 + A Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers
  • 1975 + Hell’s Cartographers (essays) edited by Brian W. Aldiss, Harry Harrison
  • 1980 + SF in Dimension by Alexei and Cory Panshin (expanded edition)
  • 1982 + The Engines of the Night by Barry N. Malzberg
  • 1984 + Age of Wonders by David G. Hartwell
  • 1986 + Dimensions of Science Fiction by William Sims Bainbridge
  • 1986 + Galaxy Magazine by David L. Rosheim
  • 1999 + Back in the Spaceship Again by Karen Sands, Marietta Frank
  • 1999 + Pioneers of Wonder by Eric Leif Davin
  • 2000 + Critical Theory and Science Fiction by Carl Freedman
  • 2000 + The Time Machines by Mike Ashley
  • 2003 + The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (essays) edited by Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn
  • 2004 + The Gernsback Days by Mike Ashley, Robert A. W. Lowndes
  • 2005 + Different Engines by Mark L. Brake, Reverend Neil Hook
  • 2005 + On SF by Thomas M. Disch
  • 2005 + Transformations by Mike Ashley
  • 2007 + Gateways to Forever by Mike Ashley
  • 2007 + The Gospel According to Science Fiction by Gabriel McKee
  • 2009 + Science Fiction and Philosophy edited by Susan Schneider (essays)
  • 2014 + New Atlantis: v. 3: The Resurgence of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford
  • 2014 + New Atlantis: v. 4: The Decadence of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford
  • 2016 + The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts
  • 2016 + New Atlantis: v. 1: The Origins of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford
  • 2016 + New Atlantis: v. 2: The Emergence of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford

You’d think with so much written about science fiction it would be well defined with a precise well-interpreted history.

James Wallace Harris, 11/17/19

Why Swallow Even One Porcupine?


2019-Sep-Oct F&SF

In the Sept/Oct 2019 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction science columnist Jerry Oltion wrote a piece called “Net Up or Net Down?” where he asks readers how scientifically accurate should science fiction stories be? For his first example, he uses The Martian by Andy Weir, which many readers consider good hard SF. The trouble is, the opening premise is not scientific at all. The story begins with a Martian lander taking off to avoid being blown over by a dust storm. But Oltion calculations predict the fastest recorded wind on Mars would feel like a 12mph breeze on Earth.

Now here’s the thing, I don’t know enough science in this situation to evaluate Oltion’s science. I wondered if gravity is 1/6th of that on Earth, does it mean things are easier to blow over? But then I remembered a 12mph breeze on Earth can make a kite fly, but not something metal like a garbage can. How many readers just accepted what Weir wrote as fact because it came from a science fiction story? Before science fiction became common, when it was considered trashy, kids would justify reading SF to their parents by claiming they learned science from reading science fiction. Does anyone really learn any kind of science from science fiction?

Oltion then mentions some other famous science fiction stories and their scientific problems. He goes on to say:

How scientifically accurate does a story have to be? Ever since Jules Verne, and probably before that, people have been arguing about that very question. Some people feel that the writer has to get every scientific detail correct or the story is flawed, while others feel that a writer can fudge a little for the sake of the story. A common rule of thumb is that the author gets one porcupine—i.e. the reader will swallow a porcupine for the sake of a good story, but they won’t swallow two.

But why should we have to swallow any porcupines? Why shouldn’t new science fiction stories be scientifically accurate as current scientific knowledge? I’m sure Weir could have found another reason to make Mark Watney a castaway on Mars.

It’s one thing to speculate beyond what science knows, but it’s another thing to ignore what it does.

Oltion also asks how we can love Star Wars which requires fans to swallow a pack of porcupines when we often reject other stories that are less fantastic as being unbelievable. His answer is we accept stories that have internal consistency. But I ask, why call that science fiction? Why not just call it fantasy? If we’re going to put science in the label, shouldn’t it mean something?

There is a story in this same issue, “Erase, Erase, Erase” by Elizabeth Bear that I find wonderful, compelling, and a great example of good writing. But it has neither fantasy or science fiction elements. It could have been published in a mundane literary magazine. I have no complaints that Bear’s story was published in F&SF, but that might not be true for everyone.

It feels like we’re reaching a stage where anything goes. In the SF/F genres, science fiction doesn’t have to be scientific, and fantasy doesn’t require fantasy. Of course, science fiction has never been scientific, even in the old days. Readers have been happily chowing down on porcupines forever and with great relish. Maybe I should just stop worrying about genre labels or literary standards. Stories are whatever we’re willing to read.

However, I think we all have our personal standards, they’re just not shared standards. Writers can write whatever they want and find an audience because readers are so different.

Personally, I want science fiction to be scientifically accurate to current science. That’s why I don’t enjoy space opera anymore, not with FTL ships. And the more I think about it, the more I doubt humans will ever colonize another world with an existing biosphere. As I become more skeptical about the science fiction I’ve consumed in the last 55 years, I’m thrilled when discovering science fiction that does feel realistic. I love it when a writer imagines something I think might be possible.

I guess I’m old and tired and I’ve had my fill of porcupines.

James Wallace Harris, 11/14/19





Does Science Fiction Have A Purpose?


1940-03 Astounding p122 bw

Norman Spinrad’s latest “On Books” column has caused some minor controversy, although I’m not sure why since everything in the column seems reasonable to me. Although I tend to like modern short science fiction more than he does. I do agree that the science fiction genre has been diluted with too much fantasy. I wish there were two completely separate genres. I’m also bothered by the fact that many younger readers don’t seem to distinguish between real science fiction and fantasy science fiction.

I found this statement by Spinrad the most interesting:

It tells us that fantasy has long since come to dominate SF. It tells us that many or perhaps even a majority of these SF writers do not have the education or indeed the inclination to learn the difference between science fiction and fantasy and to dish the result out to a populace that has more than enough confusion about the difference between reality and magic already.

It got me to thinking about the meaning of science fiction. To be able to distinguish science fiction from fantasy requires a precise definition of each. Too many have tried that for me to consider jumping into the fray. But I have thought of another angle of attack. What is the purpose of each?

Right now science fiction and fantasy seem to be fairy tales for older readers. And for these readers fantasy has a flavor of the past and science fiction has a flavor of the future. And if this is their sole purpose then it hardly matters if writers distinguish between the two. Especially if editors and readers are only looking for entertaining stories.

Since Spinrad is criticizing writers for not knowing the difference between science fiction and fantasy I must assume he believes there is a difference. I know I do, but are we deluding ourselves if no one else does?

There is an interesting aspect of this problem. The SF/F genre is the only genre where short fiction is thriving, still being bought by editors and read by readers. Would-be writers are attracted to its paying markets. What could be happening is hordes of writers looking to get published see this and have decided to its easier to get acceptance letters in our genre, and even get paid. They feel this market requires fantasy and science fiction elements in their stories so they add them. I’m guessing Spinrad feels these new writers don’t know the genre or its history and thus are just making stuff up that they believe is science fiction. Spinrad also feels they don’t know traditional storytelling techniques.

I’m an MFA dropout. Twenty years ago I took many creative writing courses and workshops but didn’t finish my degree. At the time my professors tried to steer us away from writing genre stories. The emphasis was on getting published in literary magazines. The MFA was a terminal degree for teaching in higher education, so the focus was on getting a job at a university. Being published in literary magazines counted towards an academic job. My courses promoted literary writing techniques, and these are different from genre story writing. I believe many SF/F writers in recent generations have taken MFA courses and that has influenced their writing style, and changed the genre.

There are practically no jobs for creative writing majors, even though the degree is promoted as a pathway into teaching. I’m guessing that’s why we’re seeing an influx of these writers into our genres. And for the most part, they didn’t grow up reading science fiction and fantasy magazines. However, that’s not their fault. Nor do I have any problem with them using our genre as an outlet for their creative hopes.

However, should science fiction be anything people want to write and call science fiction, or should it have a purpose? In 2004 DARPA created the Grand Challenge offering a million-dollar prize for the first autonomous vehicle to travel its predefined course. That was a very definite purpose. Science fiction doesn’t have such a highly focused purpose like DARPA’s, but does it at least have a vague purpose? One that goes beyond fairy tales for grown-ups.

I believe H. G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, and Robert A. Heinlein felt it did. Yet, describing that purpose is as difficult as defining science fiction. Science has the job of describing reality. But the term “science fiction” isn’t storytelling about describing reality. Ironically, that job belongs to literary fiction. Science fiction has taken on the job of trying to describe what science cannot yet describe but should eventually. To confuse the issue science fiction often speculates about possibilities that turn out to be impossible. Science fiction’s apparent purpose to explore territory science hasn’t but hopefully will. Fantasy doesn’t even go near this territory, nor does it try.

Good science fiction should be a cognitive tool for philosophically guessing what we might find in reality. Science fiction is fictionalized thought experiments. Whether science fiction is told using old-fashioned storytelling structures, or in newer MFA literary styles doesn’t matter. The real purpose of science fiction is to present philosophical insights into the event horizon between what is known and what is not.

The trouble is most “science fiction” writers, past or present, have taken these speculations and created fun fantasies. Star Wars is the perfect example. Star Wars has no extrapolation or speculation. Basically, Star Wars borrowed most of its themes and icons from Isaac Asimov, ones Asimov first created for speculative SF. Star Wars turned real science fiction into Disneyland fun science fiction. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It has a different purpose.

Part of the problem Spinrad complains about regarding not distinguishing science fiction from fantasy is most science fiction readers who read only fiction marketed as science fiction can’t distinguish serious science fiction from fun science fiction. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Anything that calls itself fantasy isn’t even part of this discussion. I am not worried that fantasy sells more than science fiction. It does bother me a little that fantasy is shelved with science fiction, but that’s only an inconvenience. It is more annoying that some magazines and anthologies want to package them together, so half the content I purchase isn’t wanted. But my real problem, and I think Spinrads’s too, is serious science fiction is being rejected by society totally embracing fun science fiction.

For most of its history, science fiction has had the reputation of being that silly Buck Rogers stuff. There were a few writers and editors that wanted science fiction to have more validity. Even today there are writers that use both science fiction and fantasy to express serious philosophical insights and worries. What’s even more ironic, is real serious science fiction often gets stripped of its label science fiction and reclassified at literature, such as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Handmaid’s Tale, and so on. Writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Harlan Ellison escaped the whole problem of defining science fiction by rejecting the label completely.

Like I said earlier, Spinrad and I might be suffering from a delusion, and so were Wells, Gernsback, Campbell, and Heinlein. That’s one reason why I’m reading and researching old science fiction. Were these guys on to something, or were they crazy, or boosting their egos with fantasies of self-importance? Alec Nevala-Lee’s book Astounding suggests they were egomaniacs using science fiction to make their lives significant. But I don’t know. In all those old pulp stories there’s a glint of gold. Was it fools gold or the real gold?

James Wallace Harris, 11/6/19


Heinlein’s Magazine Fiction

Heinlein first stories

I’m rereading The World Beyond the Hill (1989) by Alexei and Cory Panshin. It’s a brilliant, Hugo award-winning work (1990), that chronicles the Golden Age of Astounding Science-Fiction by focusing on John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and A. E. Van Vogt. If that sounds similar to Alec Nevala-Lee’s recent Hugo award-nominated book Astounding you’d be right. But each book tells a very different story covering the same history. Nevala-Lee felt L. Ron Hubbard was the big fourth rather than Van Vogt. The Panshins work to explain science fiction’s literary evolution in a historical context leaving you feeling their book is primary about science fiction. Whereas Nevala-Lee works to describe the psychology of the men who wrote this science fiction, leaving you feeling its a biography of these men. You need to read both books to get the big picture.

I’ve been a Heinlein fan since I was 12, but mostly for the work he wrote in the 1950s. Rereading The World Beyond the Hill inspires me to study Heinlein’s stories from the 1940s. The Panshins often point out there were contextual differences between the magazine publications and book publications, sometimes reflecting changes in Heinlein’s personal philosophy. The Panshins make a great case that Heinlein was doing truly groundbreaking SF writing in the 1940s that reshaped the genre. And they explain how John W. Campbell worked with Heinlein, Asimov, and Van Vogt to push science fiction in new directions.

I worry that the current attacks on Campbell’s many faults forget to consider his virtues. I believe anyone who vilifies Campbell because of the Nevala-Lee’s book should also give Campbell a fair shake by reading The World Beyond the Hill. I’m less concerned with the biographies of these men than how science fiction developed. After I finish rereading The World Beyond the Hill I plan to read The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein by Farah Mendlesohn.

The Panshins made a great case for how exciting science fiction was during the early years of Campbell’s editorship, especially regarding Heinlein. Their descriptions of Heinlein’s early stories reveal far more than I got when I read them. I’ve decided they deserve a close rereading.

The Panshins quote from Heinlein’s July 1941 Guest of Honor speech at the third Worldcon in Denver:

There won’t always be an England—nor a Germany, nor a United States, nor a Baptist Church, nor monogamy, nor the Democratic Party, nor the modesty tabu, nor the superiority of the white race, nor aeroplanes—they will go—nor automobiles—they’ll be gone, we’ll see them go. Any custom, technique, institution, belief, or social structure that we see around us today will change, will pass, and most of them we will see change and pass.

Heinlein worked to illustrate that in his early stories, especially the ones he called Future History stories. Later on Heinlein would admit his particular extrapolations were wrong, but I believe the essence of science fiction is the attempt to imagine such change.

As I read these books about Heinlein I want to study his development by rereading the stories as they were published. I looked around for a convenient list of them in chronological order but didn’t find any that I liked. So I made one.

Just looking at this list shows how productive Heinlein was in the 1940s, especially 1941.

Story Issue Magazine
“Life-Line” 1939-08 Astounding
“Misfit” 1939-11 Astounding
“Requiem” 1940-01 Astounding
“If This Goes On –” p1 1940-02 Astounding
“If This Goes On –” p2 1940-03 Astounding
“Successful Operation” 1940-Spring Futuria Fantasia as “Heil!”
“Let There Be Light” 1940-05 Super Science Stories
“The Roads Must Roll” 1940-06 Astounding
“Coventry” 1940-07 Astounding
“Blow-Ups Happen” 1940-09 Astounding
“Magic, Inc.” 1940-09 Unknown
“Sixth Column” p1 1941-01 Astounding
“Sixth Column” p2 1941-02 Astounding
“Sixth Column” p3 1941-03 Astounding
“–And He Built a Crooked House” 1941-02 Astounding
“Logic of Empire” 1941-03 Astounding
“Beyond Doubt” 1941-04 Astonishing Stories
“They” 1941-04 Unknown
“Solution Unsatisfactory” 1941-05 Astounding
“Universe” 1941-05 Astounding
“–We Also Walk Dogs” 1941-07 Astounding
“Methuselah’s Children” p1 1941-07 Astounding
“Methuselah’s Children” p2 1941-08 Astounding
“Methuselah’s Children” p3 1941-09 Astounding
“Lost Legacy” (excerpt) 1941-08 Super Science Novels Magazine
“Elsewhen” 1941-09 Astounding
“By His Bootstraps” 1941-10 Astounding
“Common Sense” 1941-10 Astounding
“Lost Legacy” 1941-11 Super Science Stories
“My Object All Sublime” 1942-02 Future combined with Science Fiction
“Goldfish Bowl” 1942-03 Astounding
“Pied Piper” 1942-03 Astonishing Stories
“Beyond This Horizon” p1 1942-04 Astounding
“Beyond This Horizon” p2 1942-05 Astounding
“Waldo” 1942-08 Astounding
“The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag 1942-10 Unknown Worlds
“The Green Hills of Earth” 1947-02-08 Saturday Evening Post
“Space Jockey” 1947-04-26 Saturday Evening Post
“Columbus Was a Dope” 1947-05 Startling Stories
“It’s Great to Be Back” 1947-07-26 Saturday Evening Post
“Jerry Was a Man” 1947-10 Thrilling Wonder Stories
“Water is for Washing” 1947-11 Argosy
“The Black Pits of Luna” 1948-01-10 Saturday Evening Post
“Gentlemen, Be Seated” 1948-05 Argosy Magazine
“Ordeal in Space” 1948-05 Town & Country
“Our Fair City” 1949-01 Weird Tales
“Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon” p1 1949-04 Boy’s Life
“Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon” p2 1949-05 Boy’s Life
“Gulf” p1 1949-11 Astounding
“Gulf” p2 1949-12 Astounding
“Delilah and the Space-Rigger” 1949-12 The Blue Book
“The Long Watch” 1949-12 The American Legion Magazine
“Farmer in the Sky” p1 1950-08 Boy’s Life
“Farmer in the Sky” p2 1950-09 Boy’s Life
“Farmer in the Sky” p3 1950-10 Boy’s Life
“Farmer in the Sky” p4 1950-11 Boy’s Life
“Between Planets” p1 1951-09 The Blue Book
“Between Planets” p2 1951-10 The Blue Book
“The Puppet Masters” p1 1951-09 Galaxy
“The Puppet Masters” p2 1951-10 Galaxy
“The Puppet Masters” p3 1951-11 Galaxy
“The Year of the Jackpot” 1952-03 Galaxy
“The Rolling Stones” p1 1952-09 Boy’s Life as “Tramp Space Ship”
“The Rolling Stones” p2 1952-10 Boy’s Life as “Tramp Space Ship”
“The Rolling Stones” p3 1952-11 Boy’s Life as “Tramp Space Ship”
“Project Nightmare” 1953-04/05 Amazing Stories
“Sky Lift” 1953-11 Imagination
“The Star Beast” p1 1954-05 F&SF
“The Star Beast” p2 1954-06 F&SF
“The Star Beast” p3 1954-07 F&SF
“Double Star” p1 1956-02 Astounding
“Double Star” p2 1956-03 Astounding
“Double Star” p3 1956-04 Astounding
“The Door Into Summer” p1 1956-10 F&SF
“The Door Into Summer” p2 1956-11 F&SF
“The Door Into Summer” p3 1956-12 F&SF
“The Menace from Earth” 1957-08 F&SF
“Citizen of the Galaxy” p1 1957-09 Astounding
“Citizen of the Galaxy” p2 1957-10 Astounding
“Citizen of the Galaxy” p3 1957-11 Astounding
“Citizen of the Galaxy” p4 1957-12 Astounding
“The Man Who Traveled in Elephants” 1957-10 Saturn
“Tenderfoot in Space” p1 1958-05 Boy’s Life
“Tenderfoot in Space” p2 1958-06 Boy’s Life
“Tenderfoot in Space” p3 1958-07 Boy’s Life
“Have Space Suit-Will Travel” p1 1958-08 F&SF
“Have Space Suit-Will Travel” p2 1958-09 F&SF
“Have Space Suit-Will Travel” p3 1958-10 F&SF
“All You Zombies …” 1959-03 F&SF
“Starship Troopers” p1 1959-10 F&SF
“Starship Troopers” p2 1959-11 F&SF
“Podkayne of Mars” p1 1962-11 If
“Podkayne of Mars” p2 1963-01 If
“Glory Road” p1 1963-07 F&SF
“Glory Road” p2 1963-08 F&SF
“Farnham’s Freehold” p1 1964-07 If
“Farnham’s Freehold” p2 1964-08 If
“Farmham’s Freehold” p3 1964-10 If
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” p1 1965-12 If
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” p2 1966-01 If
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” p3 1966-02 If
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” p4 1966-03 If
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” p5 1966-04 If
“I Will Fear No Evil” p1 1970-07 Galaxy
“I Will Fear No Evil” p2 1970-08/09 Galaxy
“I Will Fear No Evil” p3 1970-10/11 Galaxy
“I Will Fear No Evil” p4 1970-12 Galaxy

James Wallace Harris, 11/5/19

“Then, When” by Eric Del Carlo

Asimovs SF Sep-Oct 2019

Mike, the guy who does the computer programming for this site, and I often talk about science fiction short stories. We both subscribe to Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF. Whenever one of us reads a story we like we tell the other to give it a try. To be honest, we don’t often find stories we really like, but when we do, we often like the same story. What’s rather fascinating when discovering a story you really love is assuming everyone will love it too, and discovering they don’t.

“Then, When” by Eric Del Carlo from Sept/Oct issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction was a big hit with both Mike and myself. I thought the story had a very clever science-fictional invention and Eri Del Carlo created a very moving story to showcase that idea. I thought the story so good that I wondered why it wasn’t the cover story, however, Carlo didn’t even get his name on the cover with the other authors.

Looking around the web “Then, When” is getting mixed reviews. Rocket Stack Rank called it an “Honorable Mention” but dinged the idea I thought so clever as being “pretty gross.” That made me consider the appeal I have to the idea. Sam Tomaino at SFRevue said “Really interesting idea and a great story.” Michelle Ristuccia over at Tangent Online  said, “Carlo expertly weaves Barrett’s first-person narrative to breathe new life into themes of self-actuation and introspection, bringing these existential questions down from the hypothetical heights of cloning and AIs to the personal connection of everyday decisions and our ability to redirect our own personal growth.”

I mention these different reviews not to justify my own opinion about the story, but to point out that stories aren’t good or bad, but whatever the beholder sees in them. It must be hard to be a magazine editor and try to guess what your readers will like. Or even see what your readers will see.

I love science fiction stories that have a cool imaginary invention in them. Eric Del Carlo imagines a fad in the future where a computer program can make a “mirror” of a person by observing their behavior. Think of a cross between Amazon’s Alexa and a deep fake video of yourself that talks and acts just like you on a computer or TV screen. In Carlo’s future, these mirrors have gone out of fashion. When Barrett, the main character, finds out his ex-girlfriend illegally made a mirror of him while they were together he’s annoyed. She kept it for companionship. Barrett at first thinks he will sell his mirror to a marketing research group but then decides to keep it. Of course, he is embarrassed to own what popular culture has decided is a narcissistic toy. This is probably why Greg Hullender thought it was a gross idea too. But I’m not so sure.

Wouldn’t hanging out with ourselves be enlightening? It’s very hard to know our own virtue and flaws. I’d probably be horrified talking to myself. I know if I had to listen to me make the stupid jokes my wife complains about I’d probably stop. Maybe I’d even learn how to pronounce all the words I stumble over. I’m a rather quiet person, so I’m not sure how much a mirror could learn from just watching me. Of course, if it read my blogs it would become a rather verbose bastard. If I had to listen to all the ideas I like to write about would I bore the crap out of myself?

What I really liked about the idea of mirrors is they are more realistic than mind downloading/uploading, which is a very popular concept in science fiction right now. I believe our minds are tightly integrated with our bodies and far too complex to ever be recorded. The idea of mind uploading is about as silly to me as when E. E. “Doc” Smith had his characters hurling galaxies at each other. But I can imagine an AI program studying people and imitating them so well that their speech and opinions would be very close to the original.

In the story, “Then, When” we are told that scientists don’t think the mirrors are sentient, but the ending leaves us thinking they might be. But like the mirror said, does it really matter if we can fool you into thinking we are?

Carlo comes up with a very nice emotional story where Barrett grows and changes by communicating with his mirror. However, I think the idea of mirrors is so good that I can imagine it catching on and other science fiction writers using the idea. Like I said, I think mirrors are a much better idea than mind-uploading and it seems zillions of stories are being written about that. Since reading, “Then, When” I’ve thought about a couple of ideas for stories using the concept of mirrors.

Think about how popular self-help books are today. Wouldn’t mirrors be instant feedback to how well a self-help book is working? Say, you’re a professor and you watch your mirror lecture would it inspire you to become a better lecturer? Or would people with low self-esteem be bummed out by their mirrors?

Brian Aldiss invented something similar to a mirror for his 1976 story “Appearance of Life.” In his far future people can create memory cubes to give to other people like letters. In the story, a man finds two memory cubes from a divorced couple who hadn’t seen each other in years. Both wanted to get back together. He set the memory cubes next to each other so they talked back and forth within the limits of their recorded ability. After a while, each began to subtly repeat itself in their expressions of regret, love, and memories.

I believe if we had mirrors we might all find that our personalities are rather shallow. I don’t think there’s that much mind to upload. Our personalities are really mirrors of culture, and mainly a collection of likes and dislikes. We don’t do that much original thinking. Really, what we are, is a sentient bubble of consciousness that reacts to our bodily experiences, the environment, and culture.

Couldn’t a mirror become a microscope that lets us look into our soul? Would we agree with ourselves? Or would a mirror help us spot our dumbass behaviors and beliefs? I am reminded of a Bob Dylan song, “Positively 4th Street” and its last refrain:

I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you

I wonder if Dylan ever imagined seeing himself.

James Wallace Harris, October 31, 2019

Let’s Try This Again, Explaining 1960s Science Fiction

Stranger in a Strange Land

In my last essay, I tried to explain my memory of science fiction from the 1960s by picking eight books I read back then that now gives me a singular feeling about that decade. I realize after several comments that I did not achieve my writing goal. I naively assumed that most SF fans would know these books and just the thought of them would trigger my personal impression of science fiction in the 1960s. I realize now that I can’t communicate by making connections to what I believe are common shared experiences. I must describe my POV in detail so it’s self-contained. That’s going to be difficult, to say the least.

Is it even possible to describe a decade to people who grew up after that decade? For that matter, are my perspectives on the 1960s anywhere close to anyone else’s living through that decade? I assumed if you read science fiction during the 1960s we might be close in our experiences, especially if you were reading the same books I did. But I am reminded of one of the most vivid lessons I experienced in the sixties. While on acid I had this realization, we were all essentially living on desert islands inside our heads and our best attempts to communicate where no better than putting messages into bottles and throwing them on the ocean hoping they’ll be found. We all want telepathy but must struggle to make Morse code do.

I picked Stranger in a Strange Land as my number one book not because it’s my favorite science fiction novel from the 1960s, but because I believe it captured the feel of the decade in science fiction for me. I was just 13 when I read Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in 1965. I came to the novel late, since it was first published in 1961, but I believe it was only the second novel I had read published in the 1960s. The first was A Wrinkle in Time in 1963.

Up till then, I had gorged on H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, the Oz books, the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift Jr. books, Heinlein’s juveniles, Andre Norton’s juveniles, and the Winston Science Fiction juveniles. Stranger in a Strange Land was my first adult novel, and it was a doozy to read at 13. But you have to understand the context in which I was reading it. In 1965 the Psychedelic Sixties hadn’t become trippy just yet. Life was mundane to the max. Going to school every day and thinking about growing up to a life of working in a factory or office wasn’t that exciting. I didn’t want to be my father or mother. Their lives seemed miserable and they fought all the time. I wanted a happier present and future, and I found that in science fiction.

In 1965 the black and white 1950s still held sway over most of the landscape. In 1964 The Beatles had landed with the British invasion on the AM radio shaking up my world. In the summer of 1965, I heard “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan and I realized I was nowhere hoping to go somewhere. Times really were a-changing. And it’s at that moment when I read Stranger in a Strange Land in the Avon paperback edition you see above.

I didn’t know it then but Heinlein had written a novel to reinvent himself and science fiction. I know this will drive some people crazy, but I believe Stranger in a Strange Land was the first New Wave science fiction novel of the 1960s. I’m sure this will also make Heinlein turn over in his grave, but his book really was different, experimental, and more literary than anything the genre science had produced before. Stranger in a Strange Land was colorful, although not quite as psychedelically dayglo as the 1960s would become. It had sex and nudity, which was different for SF, and titillating to my 13-year-old self. It also touted New Age like powers. And most of all, it represented a counter-culture. Not the counter-culture of the hippies, but still a counter-culture, which is why the hippies loved it.

During 1964-1966 I read all of Heinlein and a lot of lesser science fiction that was mostly from the 1950s. Then during 1967-1968, I started catching up with new SF books. I remember discovering both Dune and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep at the Coconut Grove Library in Miami, Florida. I remember pulling Dune off the shelf, and I was daunted away by its size. I think it was the biggest book I had read until then. Most science fiction novels usually came in around 200 pages or under. Stranger and Dune were big books. They were ambitious books. Heinlein and Herbert both aimed to hit one out of the solar system, and they did. Dune was mysterious, rich, dense, and hard for me to understand. I was only 16. It dealt with culture, ecology, and anthropology in strange and mysterious ways. I didn’t really understand it, but it felt epic, like the decade.

I can still picture in my head reaching up and pulling Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? down from the top shelf of the new 7-day books at the Coconut Grove Library. The cover was a strange pop-art collage that didn’t seem very science-fictional but I took it home and became hooked on Philip K. Dick. I mean, WTF!? I’m not sure when I first read The Man in the High Castle, but I listed it instead of Android for the 1960s because the idea of alternative history was so mind-blowing, and the 1960s were all about blowing our minds.

It was around this time I read Flowers for Algernon. I was now a senior in high school, and the turmoil of the 1960s was blazing away every night on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.  Even though Flowers was about Charlie Gordon, a guy who was born mentally slow, I felt I had started my teen years being slow and science fiction was speeding up my development. By then I was also dabbling in drugs and had taken my first trip. The idea of artificially improving oneself with chemistry and technology was the call of the Sirens, impossible to resist.

I wanted to go further and faster. I wanted to be stronger and smarter. I had grown up with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. We thought the future was so full of potential that everything could happen. I didn’t realize then, that like Charlie Gordon, I would come down from my high frontier high. Space travel was what astronauts with the right stuff got to do. That’s why reading Delany’s “The Star Pit” was so achingly beautiful while being exquisitely painful. That story made me realize the glass boundaries of the fish tank in which I lived. When I read Nova about dumbass young hippies like myself hitchhiking in space it launched me into orbit with its mind-expanding space opera. I was already hitchhiking around Dade county, meeting some of the dregs of society and I identified with Delany. I didn’t know he was black and gay, but I did feel he was young, which was so different from all the other science fiction authors at the time. He was less than a decade older than I.

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner scared the shit out of me in early 1969 when I was 17. This 1968 novel had all the impact of the nonfiction Future Shock, but that book would come out two years later in 1970, and become an international bestseller. It’s a shame Brunner’s book didn’t earn that fame. Science fiction imagines possibilities, but Stand on Zanzibar comes closest to any science fiction book of predicting the future that I’ve ever read. Brunner didn’t get the details right, but he imagined the world we live in now being dominated by terrorism, ecological collapse, political polarization, and information overload. Imagine if you were told about now fifty years ago. Would you want to grow up? That’s how powerful Stand on Zanzibar was to me back then.

Then there’s Mindswap by Robert Sheckley. The other SF novels I picked to define my view of 1960s science fiction are rather famous today, classics, even legendary. But few people remember Sheckley, and especially Mindswap. My all-time favorite science fiction novel when I was growing up was Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Heinlein. It’s a 1958 boys’ book that praises and parodies every science fictional fantasy we had back then. Clifford Russell wants to win a trip to the Moon by writing a bar soap jingle but ends up being captured by evil aliens in a flying saucer. Not only does he get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet in the Vega system and a lesser Magellanic cloud. Kip even got to time travel too.

In Mindswap Marvin Flynn gets to go a similar galactic adventure, but one more bizarre than any acid trip. Sheckley both delights and denigrates our childish desires for space adventures. Mindswap was a hip absurdity. But then the 1960s was incredibly absurd, among all the countless extreme adjectives that could be used to describe the decade. That’s why I picked these eight science fiction books to describe my fading impression of growing up in the 1960s.

Now, the last book, that came towards the very end of the decade in 1969. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s significant that it’s by a woman writer. It’s serious and heavy, and it’s about gender. Her worldbuilding had a human society where people cycled back and forth from male and female. Didn’t see that one coming, even after reading plenty of Delany. Le Guin was saying to the boys of science fiction you haven’t seen anything yet — get ready and let me show you where science fiction can really go. In many ways, The Left hand of Darkness is the first science fiction book that defines the 1970s. (And I probably didn’t actually get to it until 1970.)

It’s hard for me to imagine, even impossible I’m sure, to picture kids growing up today reading these books that blew my mind over and over again back in the 1960s. They will seem so tame, so old fashioned, and even unenlightened offensive. Maybe in another fifty years, these kids will have their minds blown by decades of future shock, and then they might comprehend the transition I felt growing up a caterpillar in the 1950s and emerging from my cocoon in 1965 to take flight in the late 1960s. In the 21st-century it feels like kids are born butterflies never knowing what it’s like to crawl on the ground.

My intuition tells me the 2020s will be the new 1960s. It a sense I feel deep down. I’m feeling the same vibes I felt back in 1965.

Today people think of the 1950s in terms of Happy Days, Grease, and Back to the Future. Kids today hate books like Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, but they are closer to the real 1950s. For me, the book that best captures my memories of the 1950s is Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick. The 1950s had a black and white look to them, even though I remember its colors. The eight science fiction books I picked were those books I remember reading that reminds me of how the 1950s went from mundane B&W to widescreen Technicolor. It’s only an illusion though. Pop culture is what paints over the dull primer of our decades, and underneath that is another reality.

James Wallace Harris, October 29, 2019




The Psychic Flavor of 1960s Science Fiction

On November 5, 2019, the Library of America (LoA) will drop American Science Fiction: Eight Classics Novels of the 1960s edited by Gary K. Wolfe. This is a critical recognition for science fiction because LoA endeavors to provide deluxe editions of worthy American literature. This set is a followup to the 2012 set, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s. I must wonder, are these seventeen novels how the future readers will remember science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s? Wolfe had limitations in making his selections. I assume he couldn’t use SF/F/H authors that LoA had already recognized like Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kurt Vonnegut in their prestigious uniform Library of America series editions. And I imagined he was limited by length, availability, and other publishing issues, so I doubt even these 8 books Wolfe has selected for the 1960s are the exact ones he would pick for our descendants.

Now, I know this is going to sound rather woo-woo of me, but my mind conjures a certain psychic flavor when I think of the phrase ‘1960s science fiction.” Maybe Wolfe also has such a psychic feeling too, and we might be close in what we’re feeling and we might not.

It’s like this. When I say “Statue of Liberty” most people will picture the same object in the mind. It might be from a different angle or have a different hue, but we’re all pretty much thinking the same thing. Now if I ask everyone to think “Ford Mustang” you might think of a yellow 1964 original model, while I might picture a black 1968 sweptback model. We’re still close. And if I said think of a “dog” you might picture a graceful collie with a long snout, and I might imagine a cute ugly pug with a flat face. Now we’re moving further apart. So when I say picture “1960s science fiction” we might not even be close.

If you grew up in the 1960s reading science fiction you might have a psychic flavor in your head for what you read back then. But if you grew up in more recent decades you might not have any sense of 1960s SF at all, or maybe a faint lingering flavor from reading a couple odd novels. To make this problem of communication even more difficult some people think movies, television shows, and even comics when they hear the phrase science fiction. I imagine to most SF fans, 1960s science fiction is defined by feelings for Star Trek. And as much as I loved Star Trek back then, suggesting it was 1960s science fiction would be like proposing Li’l Abner belongs in the Literary Canon to Harold Bloom.

Gary K. Wolfe has picked eight science fiction novels to remember the Sixties:

I read The High Crusade in junior high and barely remember it. It was fun, but has a 1950s flavor. I have read Way Station, Flowers for Algernon, This Immortal, and Nova multiple times. I’ve tried to read Past Master and Picnic on Paradise but never got into them. And I’m totally unfamiliar with Emphyrio. If I had to pick eight novels as the ingredients to create the complex flavor of 1960s science fiction Way Station, Flowers for Algernon and Nova would almost certainly be on my list at first thought.

Past Master and Picnic on Paradise were part of Terry Carr’s highly regarded Ace Science Fiction Specials. So was The Left Hand of Darkness. I can understand why Wolfe selected them even though I never could enjoy them myself. This means Wolfe’s psychic flavor for 1960s SF is a bit different than mine, and probably yours too. Rite of Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin would have been my pick from the Ace Specials, but I’m not sure if it would make my final eight. It did beat Past Master to win the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo.

To me the six most memorable science fiction novels of the 1960s were Stranger in a Strange Land, The Man in the High CastleDune, Flowers for AlgernonStand on Zanzibar and The Left Hand of Darkness. The Left Hand of Darkness and Dune stand at the top of the Classics of Science Fiction list. That leaves me just two slots. As much as I love Clifford Simak, and Way Station, I’m afraid it has the flavor of 1950s science fiction.

And let me be perfectly clear, these aren’t my favorite SF novels of the 1960s, but the ones I think defined the decade.

I consider Samuel R. Delany the main ingredient of the 1960s science fiction flavor, but I’m having a problem picking his one representative novel. To me, his perfect work is the novella “The Star Pit.” And if Babel-17 and Empire Star could be considered one novel I’d pick it. Empire Star is a novel mentioned by the characters inside Babel-17. However, I might go along with Wolfe and pick Nova because it stands stronger as a singular work even though emotionally it comes in second with me.

That leaves one other novel. The obvious choice is Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, but Vonnegut bitched and moaned he wasn’t a science fiction writer. He didn’t want to get pigeonholed into the low paying genre of science fiction. And Slaughterhouse-Five is the heavyweight champion among the literati for science fiction for the 1960s.

Actually, I remember the 1960s science fiction being owned by Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny. Wolfe picks This Immortal, and that’s a major part of the flavor of 1960s science fiction, but I’m not sure it holds up as well as I loved it back when. The obvious choice from Zelazny is Lord of Light. It’s a very sixties SF novel. And it would be my eighth novel in the set if I was picking them for other people.

However, I think I will use my last slot for a personal favorite and pick Mindswap by Robert Sheckley. The 1960s were known as the Psychedelic decade and Mindswap is psychedelic science fiction. So this is my recipe to create the science fiction flavor of the 1960s:

1960s SF

Of course, my 1960s were created with hundreds of science fiction novels. I could create a whole cookbook of flavors using different combinations of SF from the 1960s. And to be perfectly precise the ultimate recipe to understand 1960s science fiction is:

F&SF + Galaxy + If + Amazing + Fantastic + Analog + Worlds of Tomorrow

James Wallace Harris, October 25, 2019


Science Fiction Themes: A Little Help?

Woman in front of Jupiter

[Found this image on Facebook. Does anyone know its source? What an amazing idea.]

I want to revamp this site. We created a new version of the database which users can customize. It’s located at But the old lists and essays are still here, so there are actually two versions of the Classics of Science Fiction lists on the web now: the old longer version 4 with lots of alternative list views and essays and the new dynamic shorter version 5 with a list generator and no essays. We want to consolidate and make one consistent site. It’s really a big mess. Part of the problem is WordPress limits how we can present text and data, so we might need to go back to a web site where we have complete programming control.

Mike and I are talking about starting the whole project over from scratch. I’m thinking about making this site just a blog about nattering about science fiction and moving the Classics of Science Fiction lists to a website that’s database-driven. Mike and I both think we need more than just lists, but I don’t think we need a lot of essays. The goal is to encourage people to read science fiction books. Our lists show which science fiction books and short stories have been the most popular over the decades and we assumed revealing their popularity might encourage readers. And we do get people telling us they printed our lists and use them as guides to book buying and reading. However, we figure just plain lists are boring to web surfers.

We want to create a site with more pizzaz. So I’m thinking about different ways to present our data. Since neither one of us are artists the only way we can spice up the site with visuals is by using book and magazine covers. And I’ve always wanted to do more with science fiction themes. Right now we present our results by title, author, and year, but I’m thinking by theme might be more appealing for encouraging reading. My current plan to test is to create a home page of book covers, each representing a theme. I figure I could have a grid of 5 x 5 covers, or 6 x 6. That means 25 or 36 themes. So I organized the 108 books on v. 5 of the Classics of Science Fiction list by theme:

  1. Alien Archeology
    • 1960 – Rogue Moon
    • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
    • 1977 – Gateway
  2. Aliens – First Contact
    • 1898 – War of the Worlds
    • 1963 – Way Station
    • 1970 – Solaris
    • 1972 – Roadside Picnic
    • 1973 – Rendezvous with Rama
    • 1974 – The Mote in God’s Eye
    • 1996 – The Sparrow
  3. Alternate History
    • 1941 – Lest Darkness Fall
    • 1962 – The Man in the High Castle
  4. Apocalypse / Post-Apocalypse
    • 1949 – Earth Abides
    • 1951 – The Day of the Triffids
    • 1954 – I Am Legend
    • 1962 – The Drowned World
    • 1966 – The Crystal World
    • 1967 – The Einstein Intersection
    • 1975 – Dhalgren
    • 1976 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
    • 1978 – Dreamsnake
    • 2006 – The Road
  5. Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Robots
    • 1950 – I, Robot
    • 1952 – City
    • 1954 – The Caves of Steel
    • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
    • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
    • 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
    • 1989 – Hyperion
    • 1990 – The Fall of Hyperion
    • 1995 – The Diamond Age
  6. Artificial Life / Clones
    • 1818 – Frankenstein
    • 1976 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
    • 1896 – The Island of Doctor Moreau
    • 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
    • 2009 – The Windup Girl
  7. Colonizing the Solar System
    • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Revolution
    • 1992 – Red Mars
  8. Cyberpunk
    • 1984 – Neuromancer
    • 1992 – Cyberpunk
    • 2002 – Altered Carbon
  9. Utopia/Dystopia
    • 1924 – We
    • 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four
    • 1962 – A Clockwork Orange
    • 1985 – The Handmaid’s Tale
    • 2008 – The Hunger Games
  10. Ecology
    • 1989 – Grass
    • 2009 – The Windup Girl
  11. Evolution
    • 1930 – First and Last Men
    • 1935 – Odd John
    • 1937 – Star Maker
    • 1946 – Slan
    • 1953 – Childhood’s End
    • 1953 – More Than Human
    • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
  12. Extrapolation – If This Goes On …
    • 1968 – Stand on Zanzibar
    • 2009 – The Windup Girl
  13. Extrasensory Perception – Psychic Powers
    • 1946 – Slan
    • 1952 – The Demolished Man
    • 1953 – Childhood’s End
    • 1953 – Fahrenheit 451
    • 1953 – More Than Human
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1968 – Dragonflight
    • 1969 – Ubik
    • 1972 – Dying Inside
  14. Fantastic Ideas
    • 1971 – The Lathe of Heaven
    • 1971 – To Your Scattered Bodies Go
  15. Far Future
    • 1895 – The Time Machine
    • 1930 – Last and First Men
    • 1937 – Star Maker
    • 1956 – The City and the Stars
    • 1980 – The Book of the New Sun
  16. Galactic Empires
    • 1951 – The Foundation series
    • 1980 – The Snow Queen
    • 1986 – Speaker for the Dead
    • 1988 – The Player of Games
    • 1989 – Hyperion
    • 1990 – The Fall of Hyperion
    • 1991 – Barrayar
  17. Gender
    • 1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness
    • 1975 – The Female Man
    • 1986 – A Door Into Ocean
    • 2013 – Ancillary Justice
  18. Humor / Satire
    • 1953 – The Space Merchants
    • 1959 – The Sirens of Titan
    • 1963 – Cat’s Cradle
    • 1979 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  19. Immortality
    • 2002 – Altered Carbon
  20. Mars
    • 1917 – A Princess of Mars
    • 1956 – Double Star
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1992 – Red Mars
  21. Matter Transmission
    • 1956 – The Stars My Destination
    • 1960 – Rogue Moon
  22. Military SF
    • 1959 – Starship Troopers
    • 1974 – The Mote in God’s Eye
    • 1985 – Ender’s Game
  23. Ocean Space
    • 1872 – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
    • 1986 – A Door Into Ocean
  24. Parallel Universes
    • 1972 – The Gods Themselves
  25. Political Speculation
    • 1992 – China Mountain Zhang
  26. Religion
    • 1958 – A Case of Conscience
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1962 – A Wrinkle in Time
    • 1989 – Hyperion
  27. Sexuality
    • 1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness
    • 1975 – Dhalgren
    • 1992 – Ammonite
    • 1992 – China Mountain Zhang
  28. Sociology
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1965 – Dune
    • 1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness
    • 1974 – The Dispossessed
    • 1975 – Dhalgren
    • 1978 – Dreamsnake
    • 1986 – A Door Into Ocean
  29. Space Opera
    • 1966 – Babel-17
    • 1967 – Lord of Light
    • 1968 – Dragonflight
    • 1970 – Tau Zero
    • 1974 – The Mote in God’s Eye
    • 1981 – Downbelow Station
    • 1982 – Startide Rising
    • 1988 – Cyteen
    • 1988 – The Player of Games
    • 1992 – A Fire Upon the Deep
    • 1992 – Ammonite
    • 1999 – A Deepness in the Sky
    • 2002 – Altered Carbon
    • 2013 – Ancillary Justice
  30. Space Travel: Interplanetary
    • 1938 – Out of the Silent Planet
    • 1950 – The Martian Chronicles
  31. Space Travel: Interstellar
    • 1970 – Tau Zero
  32. Super Science
    • 1954 – Mission of Gravity
    • 1970 – Ringworld
    • 1985 – Blood Music
    • 1995 – The Diamond Age
  33. Time Travel
    • 1895 – The Time Machine
    • 1962 – A Wrinkle in Time
    • 1969 – Slaughterhouse-Five
    • 1980 – Timescape
    • 1992 – Doomsday Book
  34. Unexplored Earth
    • 1864 – Journey to the Center of Earth
  35. Uplifting
    • 1966 – Flowers for Algernon
    • 1983 – Startide Rising

I figure clicking on a theme would take visitors to a page showing covers, titles, quotes from the book and about the book, along with useful links. The books and stories would be in order chronologically to show the evolution of a concept in science fiction. Our database would generate the list of the most popular stories and books for that theme to create the page. Using this visual approach we might expand the definition of classics. We try to keep the lists short, but a list of books for any particular theme would probably always be manageable – at least if we only include the most remembered titles. On Wikipedia, some SF themes have extremely long lists of titles. We’d only want to use the titles people are likely to enjoy reading.

The list of themes above is very close to a 6 x 6 grid, however, these aren’t the best theme labels. I’m wondering if I couldn’t consolidate them down to 25. I have Space Travel: Interplanetary and Space Travel: Interstellar. I could simplify with Space Travel that shows how science fiction imaged humans expanding away from Earth. But how is Space Travel different from Space Opera? Right now I’d say some SF books are about the efforts to explore, while others assume exploration is over and we’re busy living in space, colonizing, creating empires, developing new societies, fighting wars with each other and aliens.

I’d like a set of labels that immediately help readers find the kinds of science fiction books they want to read. Imagine going to Barnes & Noble’s science fiction section and seeing it subdivided by theme. (We focus just on science fiction, no fantasy.) I’d like if B&N did that, but would other people?

First all, does the science fiction genre neatly break down into definite sub-genres? I had trouble, which is why some books are under multiple themes. I do know readers who strongly prefer Alternate History and Military SF. But I also think of themes as a fascinating way of studying science fiction’s history. What was the first story about the end of the world or artificial intelligence? How did later writers expand and handle the theme? How often do readers encounter a theme, say Time Travel in the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and then want to read another time travel book? And do writers wanting to work a particular theme go back and see how other writers have explored it?

So I’m asking folks: What are your favorite SF themes and sub-genres? And if you’ve got the time, how would you categorize our genre’s main sub-genres?

Here’s an older effort I made to organize SF. If you like mind maps or any other visual tool, you’re welcome to show us them too in the comments.

SF Themes

James Wallace Harris, 10/18/19


Why Isn’t There An Audiobook Of The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov?

Asimovs Robots

It all started when I saw an ad for The Prelude to Foundation on sale for the Kindle. I had read the Foundation trilogy back when I was a kid and I wondered if I read the Foundation series now should I read them in publication order or internal chronological order. I did some research and found these recommendations. Then a guy in my book club recommended a variation of those recommendations which included books not written by Asimov:

  1. The Complete Robot (no audiobook)
  2. Caves of Steel
  3. Naked Sun
  4. Robots of Dawn
  5. Robots and Empire
  6. The Stars, Like Dust
  7. Currents of Space
  8. Pebble in the Sky
  9. Prelude to Foundation
  10. Forward the Foundation
  11. Foundation’s Fear by Gregory Benford (no audiobook)
  12. Foundation and Chaos by Greg Bear (no audiobook)
  13. Foundation’s Triumph by David Brin (no audiobook)
  14. Foundation
  15. Foundation and Empire
  16. Second Foundation
  17. Foundation’s Edge
  18. Foundation and Earth

I love to listen to science fiction, so I was disappointed that the first book wasn’t on audio. However, there are three audiobooks available of Asimov’s short stories, I, Robot, Robot Dreams, and Robot Visions. I’m still going to have to read twelve short stories and the essays out of The Complete Robot, but it’s nice to know I can listen to 18 of them. Plus, Robot Dreams (1986) and Robot Visions (1990) have a handful of robot stories not in The Complete Robot (1982). Robot Dreams and Robot Visions have misleading titles. You’d think they’d be two collections all about robots, but they’re really collections of some of Asimov’s more popular stories and essays that feature a handful of robot stories.

The stories in The Complete Robot In the Audiobook
“A Boy’s Best Friend” (1975)
“Sally” (1953) Robot Dreams
“Someday” (1956) Robot Visions
“Point of View” (1975)
“Think!” (1977) Robot Visions
“True Love” (1977) Robot Dreams
“Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” (1942)
“Victory Unintentional” (1942)
“Stranger in Paradise” (1974)
“Light Verse” (1973)
“Segregationist” (1967) Robot Visions
“Robbie” (1940) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Let’s Get Together” (1957)
“Mirror Image” (1972) Robot Visions
“The Tercentenary Incident” (1976)
“First Law” (1956)
“Runaround” (1942) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Reason” (1941) I, Robot
“Catch that Rabbit” (1944) I, Robot
“Liar!” (1941) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Satisfaction Guaranteed” (1951)
“Lenny” (1958) Robot Visions
“Galley Slave” (1957) Robot Visions
“Little Lost Robot” (1947) I, Robot, Robot Dreams
“Risk” (1955)
“Escape!” (1945) I, Robot
“Evidence” (1946) I, Robot
“The Evitable Conflict” (1950) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Feminine Intuition” (1969) Robot Visions
“—That Thou Art Mindful of Him!” (1974)
“The Bicentennial Man” (1976) Robot Visions

According to Wikipedia, these six robot stories were not in The Complete Robot:

  • “Robot Dreams” (found in Robot Dreams)
  • “Robot Visions” (found in Robot Visions)
  • “Too Bad!” (found in Robot Visions)
  • “Christmas Without Rodney” (found in Robot Visions)
  • “Cal” (found in Gold)
  • “Kid Brother” (found in Gold)

What has started as an idle whim thinking about reading Foundation series, has turned into a project to read all the Robot series. I really wish I could get The Complete Robot with all the stories and essays in an audiobook. Who makes the decisions about which older books get put on audio — do they have a suggestion box? Evidently, short story collections aren’t big sellers. I’ve been hoping for years to see the shorter works of Samuel R. Delany, but no luck so far. If I think about it, I can rattle off a whole list of SF authors whose short stories I’d like to listen to. The first three to come to mind are William Tenn, Zenna Henderson, and Robert F. Young.

It’s rather fascinating that Isaac Asimov’s science fiction career focuses so much on these two series. I’ve always thought space travel, aliens, and robots were the core of science fiction, so it’s odd that Asimov pretty much ignores aliens, although not completely. He said he did this earlier in his career so as not to conflict with John W. Campbell’s editorial belief in human superiority. And this is especially ironic since Asimov was a professor of biochemistry and probably could have produced some great hard science fiction about alien lifeforms.

My gut tells me the new Anthropocene will quickly be supplanted by an age of robots. I’d bet sometimes before the end of this century we will have self-aware robots that are much smarter than us. For many years Asimov’s stories about robots dominated the sub-genre. So I think it’s a good time to read and think about them. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing Asimov will be completely wrong in his speculations about intelligent machines. Asimov is famous for formulating his Three Laws of Robotics, but I doubt we will ever be able to implement them into sentient AI. The three laws made a great structure for fiction though.

Asimov along with Patricia S. Warrick and Martin H. Greenberg also edited Machines That Think: The Best Science Fiction Stories About Robots & Computers. I wish that anthology was also on audiobook, but alas such classic anthologies seldom get produced with professional narration.

Asimov - Machines That Think

It’s odd. I opened my email this morning, found an ad for The Prelude to Foundation, and by the end of the day, have been sidetracked into a reading plan that might take a year to finish.

By the way, there’s a new edition of The Complete Robot that came out in 2018. Unfortunately, it’s only available in paper, no ebook or audio.

The Complete Robot (2018)

Asimov’s Robot Stories in order of publication:

  1. (1940) “Robbie”
  2. (1941) “Liar!”
  3. (1941) “Reason”
  4. (1942) “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray”
  5. (1942) “Runaround”
  6. (1942) “Victory Unintentional”
  7. (1944) “Catch That Rabbit!”
  8. (1945) “Escape!”
  9. (1946) “Evidence”
  10. (1947) “Little Lost Robot”
  11. (1950) “The Evitable Conflict”
  12. (1951) “Satisfaction Guaranteed”
  13. (1953) “Sally”
  14. (1954) The Caves of Steel
  15. (1955) “Risk”
  16. (1956) “First Law”
  17. (1956) “Someday”
  18. (1957) “Galley Slave”
  19. (1957) “Let’s Get Together”
  20. (1957) The Naked Sun
  21. (1958) “Lenny”
  22. (1967) “Segregationist”
  23. (1969) “Feminine Intuition”
  24. (1972) “Mirror Image”
  25. (1973) “Light Verse”
  26. (1974) “Stranger in Paradise”
  27. (1974) “. . . That Thou Art Mindful of Him”
  28. (1975) “A Boy’s Best Friend”
  29. (1975) “Point of View”
  30. (1976) “The Bicentennial Man”
  31. (1976) “The Tercentenary Incident”
  32. (1977) “Think!”
  33. (1977) “True Love”
  34. (1983) The Robots of Dawn
  35. (1985) Robots and Empire
  36. (1986) “Robot Dreams”
  37. (1988) “Christmas Without Rodney”
  38. (1989) “Too Bad!”
  39. (1990) “Kid Brother”
  40. (1990) “Robot Visions”
  41. (1991) “Cal”

This shows Isaac Asimov never stopped thinking about robots. Asimov died in 1992.

James Wallace Harris

I Guess Every Generation Needs An End-of-Civilization Novel

After finishing The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison it occurred to me that every generation might need its own end of civilization novel. One of my favorite books growing up was Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, about a disease that kills off most of humanity. It’s a great novel, so why does anyone need to write another novel about a disease that kills off most of humanity? Meg Elison’s novel is just as gripping as Earth Abides and leaves the same psychological taste in the mind, so in some ways, they are almost identical. But not quite.

Elison’s main character is a woman, and Elison gives a feminist view to the collapse of civilization that George R. Stewart could never have imagined back in 1949. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a last-woman-on-Earth novel for the #MeToo generation. (By the way, these books start off with the main character feeling they are the last person on Earth, but eventually find other people. I’d like to read one where the main character is really the last person on Earth.)

Science fiction has a set of standard concepts that every child eventually encounters. Space travel, aliens, time travel, and robots are the biggest science-fictional concepts kids learn about first, usually from television. The end of civilization and the post-apocalyptic new world does appear now and then in movies and television, but I believe many people don’t really grasp the idea fully until they read about it in a book. And I’m not sure how many people have read any end of civilization novels.

Everyone learns about Frankenstein but few people ever read Mary Shelley’s novel, which is a shame because the novel is so superior to the films. Fewer still know she wrote The Last Man, one of the earliest end of civilization novels. Ever since then such novels have come out infrequently but consistently. I’m wondering if every generation has one. When I was growing up in the 1950s we were afraid of The Bomb and WWIII, and read On the Beach by Neville Shute and Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. At the movies, we saw The World, The Flesh, and The Devil where Harry Belafonte was the last man on Earth until Inger Stevens showed up. I think it’s hard to convey the depth of loneliness in a film of believing you’re all alone in the world. A first-person novel is required.

Meg Elison trilogy

Like I said, science fiction has a set of defining concepts that the genre owns, and some are so popular that most people can’t remember when they first encountered them. Post-apocalyptic stories have become almost as common as space travel, but not quite. I don’t remember when I first encountered the idea. I can’t say if it was a book or movie, but I feel it was Earth Abides, which I read in my late teens. I’m wondering to fully get into the concept you have to read a book and be old enough to appreciate the idea. To grok the existential crisis of the collapse of society we need to understand civilization and imagine what it would be without it.

Meg Elison imagines being a woman without all the protections of law and order. In her story, women and children die off at a rate greater than men. Women are hidden or enslaved. Strong men take women away from weak men. They are raped and put on leashes, they are captured for group marriages, or they are aligned with men who are willing to kill and die for them. The unnamed midwife of this story is a woman who dresses as a man and hides from people. She is a loner traveling across the western states trying to survive while encountering many horrors. She feels the safest living alone but suffers from soul-crushing loneliness and boredom.

Elison’s story is not exactly a first-person point-of-view narrative. Her novel has a frame. It begins in the future, supposedly after civilization starts developing again, where boys are taught to copy the journals of the unnamed midwife. Part of Elison’s tale comes from journals, partly first-person, and part is an omniscient narrator. I wasn’t bothered by this mish-mash of techniques, but some reviewers have complained about it. It allows Elison to let us inside the head of the unnamed midwife – she actually goes by many aliases. But we also get to read the stories of other characters in their first-person voices, plus we get to hear what happens to people that the unnamed midwife never gets to know.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife has some similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale. I assume the boys are made to copy these journals so future men will be sensitive to women’s point of view. Elison also deals with patriarchal religions. And the framework suggests a new religion, which might be revealed in the later novels.

In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, the population is killed off by a mysterious flu-like illness. During the cold war era, nuclear holocaust and biological weapons were usually the cause of leaving few people alive. A couple decades later it was nuclear winter or comet impact. Writers have come up with all kinds of ways of reducing the population down to near zero. These end of the world stories have humans almost becoming extinct, but not quite. Their stories are always about how a few people start over.

I’ve read a lot of these stories. They nearly all follow the same basic plot. A protagonist discovers they are alone. They wander about wondering what happened. Eventually, the protagonist encounters a few other people, but they quickly learn that other people can be dangerous. The stories continue with the search for food and shelter in the ruins, and after a lot of violence, people start finding a way to rebuild. The point of these stories is to tell us what life without civilization would be like. They also get into the foundation of right and wrong, and why people bond. It’s a good sub-genre for being philosophical. It’s a way to criticize the existing civilization and theorized about a better one.

Meg Elison covers all the bases. Her book has two sequels that are set in the same universe, but The Book of the Unnamed Midwife can stand alone just fine. I recommend it to any connoisseurs of end of civilization novels, or to any male that doesn’t fully comprehend the importance of the #MeToo movement. However, I should warn readers who like light and uplifting tales that this one is heavy and painful. I admire these kinds of books because they really make me think hard about existence, but I finish them psychologically worn out.

James Wallace Harris, October 8, 2019