“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny

I’ve been leading the group discussion of the stories in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg on the Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year. Tomorrow we start “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – the 26th and final story of the volume, and one of my all-time favorite science fiction stories. After that, we move on to volume 2A and 2B. We’re also just started discussing The Best Science Fiction of the Year edited by Terry Carr that came out in 1972 covering stories from 1971. (Follow the link if you want to join us.)

I feel like writing more about “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” than just a few comments on the Facebook group. What I’d really like to write is an exact explanation of why I love “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” so intensely. I’ve already written four essays that explain part of the why. A whole lot has to do with being at the right place at the right time, or maybe more precisely, growing up in a certain place and time.

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a story about Earthlings discovering Martians. Anyone who grew up reading “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, or any of the Heinlein novels featuring the Old Ones will know what I mean. Before NASA we hoped Mars would be an inhabited world, a world where humans could live without spacesuits and hang out with all the intelligent lifeforms from a myriad of inhabited planets and moons. Mars was going to be the most exotic and action-packed destination in the solar system. Mars was to Baby Boomers what Star Wars is to later generations.

After NASA Mars was toxic and lifeless, a bitterly cold planet that will always try to kill us. For a while in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when they called science fiction Scientific Romances we saw exploring space similar to the romantic adventures of the 17th and 18th centuries. What Zelazny did in 1963 with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” was to ignore science, ignore NASA, and write the kind of story about the Mars we really wanted.

I know what I’m writing is like a twelve-year-old kid morosely saying, “I sure wish that Santa Claus was real — I miss the magic.” And it’s obvious from the billion-dollar blockbuster movies we love to so much, that few of us want to grow up.

I’ve discussed “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” with younger readers and many of them don’t see the magic that I do. That has bothered me. Often they find the main character Gallinger offensive, and such an asshole that they reject the story. They know what the real Mars is like and can’t accept a silly unrealistic Mars we all wanted decades ago. Can I be so wrong about this story?

But here’s the thing, I consider “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” a model for writing great science fiction. Over the years I’ve slowly gathered a handful of stories I consider the ones to beat if I was going to write science fiction. “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” was Hugo finalist back in 1964 but I’m not sure if that would happen today.

Part of understanding why I love this story so much means learning why it is unappealing to others today, especially younger readers. And it’s not that Baby Boomers admired egotistical assholes, giving them a pass for their successes, but maybe we just accepted that assholes do exist in this world, and sometimes make for fascinating protagonists. Or maybe we liked stories where arrogance evolves into enlightenment. And, then there were the pulp fiction conventions. Zelazny writes with an admiration for the science fiction he grew up reading, and the heroes of old are different from the heroes of today. You can tell that in this opening if you’ve read enough pulp fiction.

I was busy translating one of my Madrigals Macabre into Martian on the morning I was found acceptable. The intercom had buzzed briefly, and I dropped my pencil and flipped on the toggle in a single motion. 

“Mister G,” piped Morton’s youthful contralto, “the old man says I should ‘get hold of that damned conceited rhymer’ right away, and send him to his cabin. Since there’s only one damned conceited rhymer …” 

“Let not ambition mock thy useful toil.” I cut him off. 

So, the Martians had finally made up their minds! I knocked an inch and a half of ash from a smoldering butt, and took my first drag since I had lit it. The entire month’s anticipation tried hard to crowd itself into the moment, but could not quite make it. I was frightened to walk those forty feet and hear Emory say the words I already knew he would say; and that feeling elbowed the other one into the background.

This isn’t literary writing and Gallinger isn’t a literary figure. Madrigals Macabre would be something Weird Tales would publish, something Lovecraft and Derleth would admire, and be reprinted by Arkham House. Gallinger is a pulp hero. He has a massive ego for a reason. He tells us:

I don’t remember what I had for lunch. I was nervous, but I knew instinctively that I wouldn’t muff it. My Boston publishers expected a Martian Idyll, or at least a Saint-Exupéry job on space flight. The National Science Association wanted a complete report on the Rise and Fall of the Martian Empire. 

They would both be pleased. I knew. 

That’s the reason everyone is jealous—why they hate me. I always come through, and I can come through better than anyone else.

And before that, his boss told him:

“You are undoubtedly the most antagonistic bastard I’ve ever had to work with!” he bellowed, like a belly-stung buffalo. “Why the hell don’t you act like a human being sometime and surprise everybody? I’m willing to admit you’re smart, maybe even a genius, but—oh, hell!”

Later on, this is what Gallinger says about a woman that admires him, and is a colleague:

Betty muttered the parting formalities, gave me a strange sidewise look, and was gone. She apparently had expected to stay and “assist” me. She wanted a piece of the glory, like everyone else. But I was the Schliemann at this Troy, and there would be only one name on the Association report!

I can see why modern readers are turned off, but Gallinger’s unlikability is just part of the story. Maybe what makes for a good story fifty years ago is having a protagonist who learns how to become a better person. In today’s stories, the main character is often already woken and fighting against inequality and injustice. That’s great to have such admirable characters to follow, but maybe part of storytelling is about overcoming obstacles, and often the best obstacles to explore in fiction are those within ourselves.

Ironically, I often argue the best science fiction adheres closest to science, yet here’s a story that sneers at what we know. There is so much to this story that I would criticize in a modern story, or even from another story back in the day. Evidently, telling a good story sometimes involves insulting your reader and taking chances.

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” goes on to tell a tale about a man falling in love with an alien culture, seduced into being part of their ancient prophecy. Zelazny makes Mars a place you want to visit. And I have to wonder how many people who hope to fly with Elon Musk to the red planet is expecting a Mars to be like Zelazny’s romantic world? It’s certainly why I wanted to go when I was a kid. The real Mars will be a Lovecraftian nightmare out to kill us. The Old Ones will be all the lethal aspects of Martian reality.

This essay is getting too long. It’s always impossible to write one essay that explains why I love a story. There are just too many psychological threads to follow. Partly I am defending “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” from some recent comments I read that bothered me. But I’m also trying to understand why my generation loves one kind of story and the Worldcon membership now seems to love another kind of story.

And I’m not even sure I loved “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” as much as I do now back when I first read it in the 1960s. Maybe it now represents something I’ve lost back in the 1960s that I wish I could find again. Maybe it’s not the story per se, but the love of reading such stories? Back in the sixties, I had so much hope for humanity exploring space, especially colonizing Mars. Maybe now I’m really seeing myself for what I was back then. I loved reading science fiction of a certain type, and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” epitomizes that kind of science fiction.

Maybe what I really wanted was to grow up and be like Gallinger. Isn’t that a scary thought? That what I really want is to be an asshole adventurer on an unrealistic fantasy version of Mars. That I’m that kid once again wishing Santa Claus was real.

Ultimately, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” presents Mars the way I wanted Mars to really be. This story is a triple level romance — between Gallinger and Braxa, but it’s also a romance between the reader and Mars, and between the reader and science fiction.

Like I said, this essay is getting too long, and heading into psychological territory that would take too many words to psychoanalyze.

James Wallace Harris. 6/23/20

The Drawbacks of Collecting Paperbacks

Normally, I don’t buy paperbacks because I find hardbacks, ebooks, and audiobooks easier to read. Not long ago I saw an auction on eBay for a box old science fiction paperbacks, all anthologies. I love SF anthologies, and I love the covers of paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. Failing to resist the temptation, I made a small bid and eventually won. When they arrived, I was happy at first with my purchase. These old books were a  delight to hold and admire for their covers, but trying to read one was altogether something else.

Most of the thirty books looked unread. I assumed this because their outer spines were still firm and unwrinkled. They seemed in great shape for being 50-60 years old, and reading them would probably cause them to fall apart. The few that had been read, had places where you could see the inside of the spine, and I knew if I handled them too much more the pages would start falling out.

Paperbacks don’t have wide margins near the spine, so the spines need to bent to read. Hardbacks have wider inner margins plus they open flatter for easier reading because they have many signatures sewn and glued together. Paperbacks are a stack of trimmed paper glued to a cover to make the spine, something not meant to last.

I wondered if this was an intentional design flaw of paperbacks so they wouldn’t hold up to multiple readings and sharing. Or maybe publishers just wanted to save paper and related costs and assumed paperbacks were disposable like magazines and newspapers. They probably never imagined a person like me in the 21st-century caring about them.

All that is beside the point now that I have a bunch of paperbacks that I want to protect, which means not reading them. To complicate thing further, I really don’t want to be a collector. I love their covers and I want to read their stories, but I don’t want to be a curator of their care.

Collecting paperbacks 2

I’ve been scanning the covers at 600dpi. I like seeing them on my computer’s desktop background — which cycles every ten minutes. I could just read these old paperbacks and not worry about what happens to their condition. But haven’t they become artifacts of the past worth preserving? Shouldn’t I be putting them into plastic sleeves and protecting them from the environment? I’m sure avid collectors would freak out by the way I just shelve them with my books.

I could convert these paperbacks to digital editions via scanning, but that would be against the law. Making them into ebooks certainly would make them easier to read for other people, but would destroy them for collecting. But that would preserve them for the future if I could find libraries that would take the scans. But what if these paperbacks are valuable, if not just in dollars, but to a lover of old paperbacks? I’ve already acquired a number of Groff Conklin anthologies, the start of a collector’s set maybe.

All possessions present a burden. Think of all the crap humanity has thrown away that historians, museum curators, and rare object collectors would dream of acquiring. There is a history behind these SF paperbacks I bought, maybe not a worldly significant history, but a piece of everyday history from the 20th century that might amuse someone in the 26th-century for a reason we can’t fathom now.

Even if I carefully preserve these artifacts of our genre’s past, my wife will probably call Goodwill to have them hauled off when I die. It would be nicer if the copyright laws allowed for scanning them for a library. I could also donate the physical copies to a library, but most libraries don’t save unpopular books anymore. And physical books in special collections might be protected for a while. But it’s rather inconvenient for users to have to travel to remote libraries to read a few pages of an out-of-print volume.

I have scanned items for the Internet Archive, but it’s recently been under attack by publishers. That makes me wary of scanning more stuff. It’s a lot of work to scan a book or magazine and to make it look nice.

Finally, I have to admit that when my generation dies 99.99% of the interest in these old books will die with it. Still, I feel a responsibility to protect my tiny piece SF history.

James Wallace Harris, 6/19/20

 

The 2020 Hugo Award Finalists

It’s summertime again, that period in the calendar where its time to read the Hugo finalists before the awards are announced at the end of summer. I’ve been following the Hugo Awards since the 1960s, but I’ve never attended a Worldcon. I have assumed, if I had, I would have met my people. I’m not so sure anymore. In recent years, as I’ve read the finalists for the short fiction awards, it’s felt like that fandom has left me behind — maybe a long, long time ago.

I want to read science fiction. I don’t want to read fantasy. I have nothing against fantasy, and often the finalist stories that are fantasy are well-told and engaging. Maybe a better way to explain how I feel is by relating a personal experience. Before I got married I used to hang out at Susan’s family home with her parents and brothers. This was usually on the weekend, and they always had golf on the TV. The whole family loved to watch golf, to talk about the players, quibble over the shots, argue their favorite courses, and I had to sit there and watch and listen. I have no interest in golf. I don’t hate it. I’m just not interested. That’s how I feel about fantasy.

I don’t know why fantasy is handcuffed to science fiction. To me, the two are as different as westerns, mysteries, and romances. Why are they lumped together? Why isn’t there an SFWA and an FWA? Of course, SFWA now stands for Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and I have to accept that. So, why not give out Hugos to science fiction stories, and Hobbits to fantasy stories? When I read the finalists for short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels, it feels like apples and oranges are competing.

Maybe most fans are now omnigenre readers, but to me, it feels like rock songs are up against classical music. It could also be philosophical to me. I see fantasy as allied with the supernatural, and science fiction allied with science. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in the supernatural. But also, the two genres have different facing perspectives. Fantasy looks to the past, while science fiction looks to the future. Wouldn’t you say they each have different artistic goals? In that sense, isn’t putting them up for an award like haikus competing with sonnets?

Then there is the confusing issue of writers who blend fantasy and science fiction together. In the past couple of days, I’ve read two of these. The first, “The Quest for Saint Aquin” by Anthony Boucher which uses the faulty logic that if robots believe in God, shouldn’t that be proof for humans? The second was, “How Long the Shadows Cast” by Kenji Yanagawa, about a space explorer who falls in love before a trip that will cause a 250-year time rift between him and his lover. That’s a great science fictional subject, but it gets confusing when reincarnation is brought into the story.

The reason why Saint Aquin is science fiction is the religion is just a belief within the story, but Shadows is fantasy because the reader is asked to believe in reincarnation to make the story work. Fantasy fans will say its only a story, and the belief is only for within the story. As a hardcore science fiction fan, I say adherence to science in science fiction is like the rules for writing haikus and sonnets — following them is part of the art form.

We live in an age where people want to reject science. I see lumping science fiction and fantasy as being part and parcel with this trend to reject science. I’m sure most bookworms will be miffed with me, and say, “They’re only goddamn stories, don’t take em so seriously.” But look at what’s happened to science fiction itself — it’s given up on science too. Most SF fans now accept a dogma that given enough time science can invent anything. They feel that gives science fiction writers permission to imagine anything. That’s heretical to me because that’s the foundation of fantasy.

And to be honest, science fiction has never been that rigorous when it comes to science. But that’s no justification for allowing the art form to degenerate into fantasy.

I’m old, and maybe grumpy. Most readers will think I’m creating a tempest in a teapot. And maybe that’s true. All I know is its no longer fun to care who wins a Hugo. And it’s getting harder and harder to find stories I really admire, even in periodicals that claim to publish science fiction.

James Wallace Harris, 6/9/20

Why Peter Phillips and Mark Clifton?

Recently we offered a new feature on our Classics of Science Fiction database system, where we allowed query results to be saved when using the List Builder feature. On the results page at the top is a link “Download Results” that allows saving to a .csv file. Our log files show this feature has been used 314 times so far.

What baffles the hell out of us is 34 of those queries were for Peter Phillips and 33 for Mark Clifton. These two are not famous science fiction writers. Why the interest in them? Admittedly, it could be one person running these queries over and over. They are the same queries sorted in different ways but on different days. (By the way, these .csv files can be loaded into a spreadsheet which can be endlessly resorted.)

Mike and I are just curious why this is happening. Isaac Asimov and Brian Aldiss have their fans too. Other than that, Heinlein, Simak, and Ellison have had one query each saved. Plus a lot of queries have been saved for the year 1950.

Why? Why Phillips? Why Clifton? Why 1950? I did see that a Facebook page was created for Peter Phillips on April 9th, and a new collection of his work will be published from Wall Road Publishing. I’m looking forward to that. Phillip wrote a handful of exceptional stories a long time ago, however, I doubt many people will remember him today.

We’ve also wondered if some bot is crawling our system. Or maybe a hacker is looking for a hole. If you did these searches let us know why. We’re just curious.

James Wallace Harris, 6/9/20

The Science Fiction I’d Write at 68

When I was young, and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did not tell them the truth. I wanted to grow up to live in a reality much like the fictional realities of “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, or “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, or the young adult novels written by Robert A. Heinlein. Even as a teen I knew that was not going to happen, so I imagined instead becoming a science fiction writer and creating stories about how I wished to change my reality. By the way, I told people I wanted to be an astronomer.

Thirty years later, in the middle of my actual career in computers, I had a midlife crisis and wanted to become a science fiction writer again. I knew my childhood science-fiction fantasies were no more realistic than finding my way to Oz. The space program had been going no further than low earth orbit for decades, but I found new inspiration in Robert Zubrin’s book The Case for Mars (1996) and science fiction like Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Space exploration would never be like Star Trek or Star Wars, but it still might be practical to colonize the Moon and Mars.

Now at 68, I wish to try writing science fiction again. I now doubt that even manned exploration of the solar system is practical. Sure, I was overjoyed to see SpaceX launch the Dragon space capsule to the ISS, but it is only repeating the successes of the Gemini program back in the mid-1960s, just with spiffy flat screens and stylish spacesuits. We may even go back to the Moon and even to Mars, but we will not stay.

Humans are not designed to leave Earth and explore space, and I doubt we will adapt. The Moon and Mars are more naturally toxic than any superfund site we’ve created on Terra. Space is a perfect environment for robots and AI. The glamor of space travel will be destroyed once we try living on the Moon and Mars for any length of time.

What kind of science fiction can I write at 68 when I now feel space opera can never be any more realistic than heaven or Middle Earth? Young people want fantasies about the future like I did when I was young. Ones that excite hope. I no longer see any hope for the final frontier.

Science fiction is more popular than ever. It’s obvious that most citizens of Earth don’t want to believe we’re stuck on this planet until we become extinct. But what if that is exactly what will happen? What if existing on Earth for the lifetime of our species is all we ever have?

What if this world is our aquarium where we can only stare out? Given that restriction, can I write science fiction that generates senses of wonder for our possible realistic futures? Or will science fiction always be merely an existential escape?

James Wallace Harris, 6/2/20

Pantsers vs. Plotters

Can readers guess how a story was plotted as they are reading it? Was the writer a pantser or a  plotter? Did the writer just sit down and start writing by the seat of their pants, or did they carefully work out the whole plot ahead of time, maybe in an outline, software, or just in their heads? Would be writers often argue over whether its better to be a pantser or a plotter — to let a muse whisper in your ear or work out the details in advance with logical precision.

My guess is most science fiction writers come up with a science fictional idea first, and then invent characters, setting, plot to showcase that idea. Quite often it feels like some writers get an idea, sit down and start writing towards presenting the idea fictionally, inventing everything needed on the go to get to a situation the presents the idea. Unfortunately, this often shows as lame characters, speaking crappy dialog, following mundane events which gives an overall impression of haste. This is fine for a first draft. A final draft should feel like everything in the story was there for a creative purpose. Personally, if I spot the seams, I feel I’m reading something too close to the seat of the pants draft. If a story feels polished I assume everything was carefully thought out and sculpted. However, I don’t know if my reading sixth-sense is accurate.

F&SF25An example of my thought tracks comes from just reading “Midsummer Century” by James Blish. The story  first appeared in the April 1972 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but I read it in The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction: A Special 25th Anniversary Anthology edited by Edward L. Ferman. This anthology had six stories from special issues devoted to Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, and James Blish. Besides a story, each author was given a short biography and bibliography. With such special fuss, you’d think the stories would have been an exceptional work. “Ship of Shadows” by Lieber and “The Queen of Air and Darkness” by Anderson were award-winning stories, quite ambitious, and impressive. Four of them were not.

Those four had various problems, and as I read them, I wondered how they were conceived. The Sturgeon felt like the beginning of a novel that had been abandoned, and then hastily fixed up for the F&SF editors. The Asimov felt like it had started out as one kind of story, hit a wall, set aside, and then fixed up with a trick solution. The Bradbury felt like Bradbury hadn’t written any SF in a while and was riffing on one of his old standard science fiction melodies — but he was out of practice. I really liked the start of both the Sturgeon and Asimov. They had been chugging along fine on inspiration but then ran out of steam. All three felt like they had been plotted on the go. The Lieber felt like another seat of the pants creation, but it worked. However, Leiber didn’t stick the ending. The Anderson felt like it was holistically conceived, but who knows, he could have written it scene by scene out of his unconscious.

midsummer-century-dawThe last story, “Midsummer Century” is the most interesting in trying to figure out how and why Blish wrote it. It’s so episodic that it really feels like he was flying by whatever ignited his mind during five long writing sessions, each time feeling a different kind of inspiration, each fascinated by a different far-out idea.

The story begins with radio astronomer John Martels moving from England to the United States. Blish uses this part to natter about the class system in England and the lack of one in America, despite the fact that Americans do oppress certain ethnic groups. This section ends with Martels repairing a radio telescope and falling to his apparent death. What a reading shock because I was all prepared to enjoy a story about a British astronomer working in America. Evidently, Blish got bored with that.

Next, we find Martels 25,000 years in the future cohabiting a computer with an immortal being named Qvant. I know it was quite common in the 19th-century to come up with innovative ways of getting your character into the future, but did Blish really expect us to believe that dying inside a radio telescope dish would project a soul ahead in time? It definitely was an odd way to solve a cliffhanger, but I went with the flow.

Blish then spends some time describing what reincarnated life in a future computer is like, with no bodily senses other than a security camera monitoring a decaying room in a far future museum. It turns out Qvant was created by the third form of humanity, reminding me of Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. Qvant has become an oracle god to the fourth form of humanity, who appears as naked savages but are quite noble, leading clean and tidy lives within a hothouse jungle that has taken over the entire Earth.

In this portion of the story, Blish seems interested in exploring reincarnation, and Zen meditative states, as well as new forms of communication. Qvant advises the primitives to solve their problems with rituals and dances which he tells Martels really do work. Blish was well known in the SF genre as a polymath, and here he tries to imagine an advanced non-technological society. This section is the longest part of the story, allowing Blish to work out several science-fictional ideas, but I can’t help but believe, most were on the fantasy end of the spectrum.

When I started wondering where Blish was going next with his story, he evidently, was wondering the same thing. Martels’ mind jumps into a human named Tlam. By now, I’m starting to wonder if Blish isn’t writing a picaresque, rather than a modern plotted story. At this point, it felt like Blish had written himself into a corner used this turn of events as a quick way to escape. That writing day, he obviously felt more interested in the primitive people and their society. Martels rides along in Tlam’s head observing the ways of the fourth form of humanity.

Blish doesn’t stick with this story angle for long. By now, it felt like he had decided on an ending, and wanted to get Martels there. But first, he needed Martels to visit the kingdom of the birds. Evolved birds were brought up in the second section, and I assumed Blish wanted to play with that idea for a while.

We knew from the second section that fourth-stage humans were competing with birds for dominance of the planet. The birds wanted to wipe out humanity and were succeeding. In this portion of the story, I wanted to find out more about our avian rivals, but Blish presents few ideas about bird civilization, not nearly enough for me. Tlam/Martels is captured by birds and taken to a skyscraper of wood and leather built by the bird civilization. Martels/Tham gets to meet the bird king, but nothing really happens.

Almost abruptly Blish decides its time for Tlam/Martels to escape and comes up with another cliffhanger escape, one with a fair amount of action and wonder, but one that felt rushed and somewhat half-hearted.

Finally, we reach the last section of the story, set in Antarctica, where a few third stage humans cling to existence allied with another powerful computer, the one Qvant wants to use to regain power. We only learn late in the last section that Qvant has been traveling along with Martels inside Tlam’s head, but Martels makes it inside the computer first, frustrating Qvant. This final section gives Blish an opportunity to explore telepathy, which almost feels like it was his original goal for the story. Much of the story is about the transmigration of human and machine souls and telepathy. After he explores those ideas, Blish tacks on a happy ending and quits.

I don’t know if the novella “Midsummer Century” was expanded when published as a 106-page hardback book. ISFDB calls it a chapbook. I’m tempted to get it to see if Blish rewrote and expanded the story. However, I’m hesitant because I’m afraid he didn’t.

The science fiction in this story felt like something out of the 1930s or 1940s, maybe inspired by The Time Machine, or Campbell’s “Twilight” or even Stapledon’s stories. Blish wanted us to think about the far future and what we might evolve into. And that’s a cool SF theme I love. Getting Martels into this future is rather clunky. Does the story really need a man from the past? Couldn’t it just have been about the third and fourth stage humans and the birds?

“Midsummer Century” is full of fascinating concepts, but the plotting is haphazard. It makes me wonder how budding writers could even consider pantsing practical. I imagine any story written entirely from daily inspiration should be rewritten thoroughly after a careful analysis. Science fiction writers often have to make a living by pounding out the pages, and not every unconscious mind is working behind the conscious mind of the writer to guide the plot so every scene tightly integrates with the whole. I assume some writers might have such a superpower for plotting on the go, but doubt many.

I love science fiction for its ideas, but just throwing out a series of marvelous musings doesn’t make for storytelling. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a science fiction novel set in the far future that was thematically holistic in its construction. I think the theme inclines writers to spit-ball the concepts. I need to reread Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, it might have been more artistic, but I can’t remember.

On the other hand, “The Queen of Air and Darkness” by Poul Anderson felt like it was designed like a three-dimensional wooden puzzle. And that might explain why it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards.

James Wallace Harris, 5/28/20

F&SF25 Special Issues

 

A Four Short Story Day

On most days I read one short story — for my Facebook short story discussion group. For some reason, I read four today — two on audio through my iPhone, one from a hardback, and one from a magazine scan on my iPad. The covers above are from their original publications and the stories were:

  • “Installment Plan” by Clifford D. Simak
  • “Ship of Shadows” by Fritz Leiber
  • “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” by Clifford D. Simak
  • “The Keeper” by H. Beam Piper

The two Simak stories came from the new audiobook edition of I Am Crying Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Stories of Clifford D. Simak Volume One. So far there have been twelve volumes of The Complete Stories of Clifford D. Simak, and Audible.com has recently released the first three volumes on audio. Currently, ten of the twelve volumes are on sale at Amazon for the Kindle priced at $1.99 or $2.99. I have all twelve. Audible will sell the audiobook editions for $7.49 if you own the Kindle edition. I’ve been really getting into Simak lately, so that’s why I listened to two of his stories today. The narration was excellent.

I was pushed to read the second Simak story, “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” because it was intended for the never-published anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison, and that was being discussed on two Facebook groups today. I squeezed it in. I wouldn’t say it was a dangerous vision, but it was very dark, about a man Charlie Tierney who has a personality similar to Donald Trump who intended to commercialize a planet by exploiting the inhabitants but the local intelligent life had other plans.

The first Simak story, “Installment Plan” was also about exploiting a planet and its natives, but it was much sunnier and funnier. Again, the local intelligent life has different plans. This story reminded me of Simak’s classic “The Big Front Yard” about an American farmer trying to do business with aliens whose world intersects his farm through some kind of dimension collision. Simak evidently had a thing for interstellar commerce. “Installment Plan” also has robots like those found in the City stories. Simak was also big on robots.

“Ship of Shadows” was a tour de force of weird space fiction, even winning a Hugo Award for Best Novella of 1970 (beating out “A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison). “Ship of Shadows” was worthy of that special F&SF issue devoted to Leiber. The story begins with Spar awakening from a drunk hallucinating, but after his head begins to clear, the world he perceives is very strange indeed. Cats talk, people fear vampires, others are addicted to moonmist but where the heck are we? The characters in this story float as if they are in free-fall, but the action is set in a bar called the Bat Rack. The story took work to read but paid off nicely.

My last read of the day was “The Keeper” by H. Beam Piper for another online short story group. It’s a rather straight forward adventure set on another planet. Good, but not as impressive as Piper’s “Omnilingual.”

All this short story reading is making me appreciate many new authors, especially Simak, Leiber, and Piper.

I’ve been reading a short story a day and discussing it online for a few weeks now, and it’s turned out to be very rewarding. Cramming four stories in one day is overindulging. I prefer listening to stories if I can find an audio version. Short stories usually run less than an hour, with novelettes running 1-2 hours, and novellas 2-4 hours. I can read them a great deal faster than that, but I enjoy them far more at the slow pace of speech. I can listen to stories when I do my physical therapy exercises, walk, cook, eat, wash dishes, or pursue other physical activities that don’t require thinking. Audiobook narration has been evolving as an art form, and productions from recent years have been outstanding.

I ached to hear “Ship of Shadows” today but could find no audio edition. My inner reading voice is just pitiful. Most bookworms prefer to read to themselves, but I feel I get way more out of fiction when I let a professional read to me. And when I do read with my eyes, I try to imagine how an audiobook narrator would perform the story. I can’t do what they do, but if I read slow enough, I can recall the kinds of techniques they use.

Tomorrow’s discussion story is “Arena” by Fredric Brown. I think it will be the fourth time I’ve read it over the last fifty years. That’s another thing I’m learning — stories improve significantly with rereading. Some stories I didn’t like or thought dull on first reading eventually become stunning works of art on the fourth reading.

All the stories I read today were first readings. I’ve learned something else by reading so many short stories. The highest rating or compliment I can give any story is to say I want to read it again. “Ship of Shadows” is a story I rate that highly.

James Wallace Harris, 5/22/2020

Remembering Helen O’Loy

Most short stories never get published. Of those that do, most are never reprinted. So, it is quite fascinating to study a story that does. My Facebook group is discussing “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey that first appeared in print in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. Using its record at the ISFDB.org we can track when it’s been reprinted over the years. It has also been translated into at least six languages. Here’s the timeline of major reprints:

  • 1948 – … And Some Were Human by Lester del Rey (collection)
  • 1952 – Beyond Human Ken edited by Judith Merril
  • 1954 – Assignment in Tomorrow edited by Frederik Pohl
  • 1960 – S-Fマガジン – v. 1 n. 1 (Japan)
  • 1963 – The Coming of the Robots edited by Sam Moskowitz
  • 1965 – Science-Fiction-Cocktail: Band I (German anthology)
  • 1966 – Master’s Choice edited by Laurence M. Janifer
  • 1970 – The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 1971 – 18 Greatest Science Fiction Stories edited by Laurence M. Janifer
  • 1972 – 3000 Years of Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by L. Sprague and Catherine de Camp
  • 1974 – Modern Science Fiction edited by Norman Spinrad
  • 1974 – Histoires de robots (French anthology)
  • 1975 – In Dreams Awake edited by Leslie A. Fiedler
  • 1977 – Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Fred Obrecht
  • 1977 – Souls in Metal edited by Mike Ashley
  • 1978 – Robots, Robots, Robots edited by Geduid and Gottesman
  • 1978 – The Best of Lester del Rey
  • 1981 – Science Fiction: Masters of Today edited by Arthur Liebman
  • 1982 – Analog: Reader’s Choice
  • 1983 – The Best of Omni Science Fiction No. 5
  • 1985 – Histoires de robots (French anthology)
  • 1990 – Friends, Robots, Countrymen edited by Asimov and Greenberg
  • 2010 – Robots and Magic by Lester del Rey
  • 2017 – The Robot Megapack ebook anthology

This leaves off the many reprint editions of the above volumes, plus some obscure anthologies, and other collections of Lester del Rey. For example, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One seems to stay in print and is currently available in paper, ebook, and audiobook editions. It’s the volume my Facebook group is reading.

However, why wasn’t it collected in Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy and McComas or The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin? Those two giant anthologies from 1946 set the standard for science fiction anthologies for a generation. Nor has “Helen O’Loy” been anthologized in any of the recent super-giant retrospective anthologies like The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer  or one of the teaching anthologies like Sense of Wonder edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman

In truth, “Helen O’Loy” is a minor story, and problematic if you analyze it psychologically, especially with how it treats women. It hasn’t appeared in a significant SF anthology in over forty years. NESFA Press remembers Lester del Rey with Robots and Magic, but they are a fan press that remembers the old greats of the genre. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame stays in print because it does exactly what it was designed to do, remember the legendary shorter works of science fiction published before the creation of the Nebula Awards. “Helen O’Loy” was up for a Retro Hugo award but came in second, losing to “How We Went to Mars” by Arthur C. Clarke.

Anthologists who attempt to present a historical overview of the genre constantly shift through the past looking for older SF stories that are relevant to present-day readers. Each new anthology tends to forget more of the older stories. The Big Book of Science Fiction has 29 stories from 1934-1963 where The Science Fiction Hall of Fame has 26 in volume one, and another 22 in volumes 2A and 2B.  Sense of Wonder has 46 stories from 1934-1963, twelve of which were in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. There are only two stories – “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum and “Surface Tension” by James Blish appearing in all three anthologies.

Of course, Sense of Wonder has an unfair advantage, it has over 200+ short stories, and is so big that it’s only practical to own as an ebook. However, among my friends, we’ve often wondered if members of the SFWA voted today for the best short stories from 1926-1963 what would they be? So I just paused writing this essay to write about that.

Would modern science fiction writers still pick “Helen O’Loy” as a classic science fiction short story from that era before 1964? I don’t think so. Surely, the current younger generations would see the story much differently than those writers who grew up reading science fiction in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

On a very simple level, “Helen O’Loy” tries to ask a very simple question: “Could a robot ever be considered human?” Science fiction stories, novels, television shows, and movies are still exploring this very simple question. And there is a growing industry seeking to actually build realistic sexbots. Why wouldn’t “Helen O’Loy” remain a classic? For any man lusting after a woman made to order, they’d probably not see anything wrong with the story.

Lester del Rey wrote “Helen O’Loy” before the world knew about digital computers and programming. The technology for imagining how a robot could work in 1938 would be clockwork mechanics, radio electronics, and wire recorders. They had little reason to assume we could build a machine that could see, hear, think, and talk. Del Rey had the myths of Pygmalion and the Golem, and stories about mechanical men for inspiration, but that’s about all. In 1938, on a technical level this story is a pure fantasy.

Then, how does the story hold up for psychological realism? Why would Phil and Dave in the story give up two real life girls, the unnamed twins, for a mechanical girl? One twin wanted to see a movie the boys didn’t so they dumped both girls? Are we really going to believe that biological humans will ever accept pseudo-humans as soulmates?

The main problem with “Helen O’Loy” today is how little respect it gives women. Basically, it says if a machine could be built that looks like a beautiful woman, and if that machine serves the man in all his needs and wishes, then that’s all men need from women. (Why didn’t femfans of the day howl back then?) “Helen O’Loy” assumes women have no wishes, desires, wants, ambitions of their own, that a woman’s only purpose is to fulfill a man’s needs. Are there men and women who would be satisfied with a visually appealing machine that serves their fantasies?

I say the heart of this story doesn’t beat — then or now. Sure, “Helen O’Loy” is an amusing little tale if you don’t think about it. So why has it been remembered and reprinted more than most other science fiction stories? I have to assume it resonates with adolescent male fantasies, or with people who feel challenged to build AI robots.

All along, science fiction has loved robots. And building a robot equal to a human has been the gold medal goal. But it’s here when I personally feel science fiction has always failed miserably with a total lack of logic and vision. Humans are emotional creatures, and emotions come from biology and chemistry. AI minds will be digital. The only emotion I can imagine a robot having might be curiosity. Why has science fiction failed to understand that no matter how much a robot might look like us it will never think or feel like us? And why has science fiction for so long wanted to see robots that are so like us that a Turing test would include physically passing for human?

To many science fiction fans, Isaac Asimov owns the robot story. He didn’t expect them to pass for human, or to think like us. But I don’t think Asimov ever extrapolated very far with the possibilities of intelligent machines. His stories certainly invalidated stories like “Helen O’Loy” but why haven’t other science fiction writers gone further?

I think we will forget “Helen O’Loy” partly because of its affront to feminism, but also it’s ideas about robotics are too primative and silly today. Of course, any anthology that tries to show the evolution of fictional thinking about robots will include it. And to be honest, I still enjoyed the story, and admired the way del Rey told it. I had to wince many places at the sexism, and groan at the idea of vacuum tube robots with memory coils, but ultimately I liked the story.

James Wallace Harris 5/10/20

 

What if SFWA Revoted on the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2020?

The original volume one of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Robert Silverberg came out in 1970 — 50 years ago. It contained 26 stories that the SFWA members voted on as the best short stories before the Nebula Awards were created in 1964. In 1973 The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volumes 2A and 2B edited by Ben Bova added 22 additional novelettes and novellas.

Times have changed. New generations have replaced older generations. What would the current SFWA members pick as their favorite science fiction stories before 1964? Well, we won’t know unless they conduct a new poll and published the results, but that doesn’t keep me from trying to guess. I can’t help but think that the younger generations of writers discovered different old science fiction stories growing up in the last fifty years. How many old Hall of Fame classics are still considered classics? How many Hall of Fame classics are now problematic for some reason? Are there stories that past generations overlooked that younger generations have rediscovered?

I’ve created a spreadsheet (see images below) that contains the original Science Fiction Hall of Fame stories highlighted in gray. I’ve added stories published before 1964 from our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories that had eight or more citations (column labeled “CSF”). Our database system collects stories from best-of-year anthologies, retrospective anthologies, teaching anthologies, fan polls, award winners, and expert opinions. We call each source a citation. You can query our database here.

I’ve also added the stories in Sense of Wonder edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman that came out before 1964. This huge 2011 book was designed to be a textbook to teach science fiction (column labeled “Sense”). I also added the stories published before 1964 that were in The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer which came out in 2016 (column labeled “Big”). I felt these two were the latest retrospective anthologies of the genre that might reveal what younger generations are admiring from older times.

Finally, I bolded any story that was listed in at least three of the four columns. Only two stories were in all four columns, “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum and “Surface Tension” by James Blish. This shows an agreement between the past and the present.

If you study the stories from the Grossman and VanderMeer books you can see how they have tried to find stories that haven’t been recognized as a classic before. It also feels like the VanderMeers made an extra effort to identify women and foreign writers that have gone unrecognized. Would modern members of SFWA vote for them in 2020? I don’t know, but I do believe there’s an effort to identify forgotten stories and writers who deserve new attention, or find writers whose creativity wasn’t recognized in their day but we can see with hindsight that should have been.

If you study the spreadsheet reproduced below in images, I think there are stories that were thought classics in 1970 that probably wouldn’t be in 2020. Two examples, “Twilight” by John W. Campbell and “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey. I have to wonder if any story that only has a 1970 or 1973 in the SFWA column and nothing in the CSF, Sense, or Big columns might not be voted into 2020 Hall of Fame volumes.

Are the new stories introduced by the VanderMeers or Grossman worthy of being considered a classic now? Classic literature has always shifted with the times. Usually, it’s much easier to fall out of favor than to be rediscovered, but it happens. To a minor degree the Retro Hugo awards are reconsidering forgotten stories. And I’m surprised that Grossman and the VanderMeers ignored some then classic stories, especially “The Machine Stops” which has become so revelent and brilliant in our internet age.

Finally, Grossman and the VanderMeers were not setting out to pick classics. I believe Grossman was picking stories to show the evolution of the genre, and the VanderMeers were picking stories to show that the genre was wider and more diverse than we thought. The stories the newly formed SFWA members voted on were stories they loved reading growing up during the years 1926-1963. Current generations don’t have that connection with the past, so classics take on a whole new meaning. And there’s a good chance that younger generations of science fiction readers and writers have no reading experience with most of the stories listed here. To them, classic science fiction short stories came out in the 1980s or 1990s. That could mean the three-volume Science Fiction Hall of Fame could be reduced to two or even one volume today.

I got the idea to write this essay because this Facebook group is reading and discussing the stories in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volumes.

1849-1938

1939-1951

1951-1955

1955-1963

JWH

Rereading “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum 50 Years Later

I love “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum. The first time I read it was when I bought The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929-1964 from the SFBC in the summer of 1970. I wish I had discovered it sooner, during that golden age of science fiction when we’re twelve. Instead, I was a college freshman. I was a bit older, a bit more knowledgable, a bit more cynical, but it still clinging to my dreams of finding a way to the red planet. Fifty years later, I know better, that Mars is not for me. Yet, I still daydream my science fictional fantasies, not just to forget the pandemic or economic collapse, or even to ignore the nagging pains of my aging body, but to recall something that made me happy a half-century ago. Something that inspired me.

If Donald Wollheim had not snagged “A Martian Odyssey” for his 1943 groundbreaking paperback anthology, The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, I’m pretty sure I would have read “A Martian Odyssey” at twelve or thirteen. Obviously, Healy and McComas, or Groff Conklin would have grabbed it for Adventures in Time and Space or The Best of Science Fiction in 1946. Those two enduring hardback anthologies were still haunting libraries in my early teen years in the 1960s. Unfortunately, I never stumbled upon any Weinbaum collection or later anthology that contained “A Martian Odyssey” before I bought The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Would 12-year-old kids today discovering this classic in the many anthologies that have published since then feel the kind of sense of wonder I could have felt if I had read “A Martian Odyssey” in 1963? And would my 1970 sense of wonder even be a fifth of what overwhelmed readers who discovered Weinbaum’s first story in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories? I can’t say my 2020 pleasure in rereading “A Martian Odyssey” is anything other than just wistful nostalgia. Yet, I did recognize several triggers in that story that made me love science fiction way back when.

A Martian Odyssey in 8 anthologies

I also wish I had read “A Martian Odyssey” before Mariner 4’s flyby of Mars in July 1965. Like I said, 1963 would have been the perfect year, especially if I could have read “A Martian Odyssey” one day and then “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny the next. That’s the last story in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and it was first published in 1963. I consider those two stories perfect bookends for an era in science fiction.

When Mariner 4 flew by Mars in July of 1965 we discovered the planet was a cold cratered world much like the Moon. We had finally opened the lid on the Schrodinger’s Cat of Mars speculation. It was dead! We discovered Mars wasn’t like fiction at all. Before Mariner 4 I had a deep faith in our genre and loved Pre-NASA Science Fiction. I wanted Mars to be like Heinlein’s Mars of Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, Double Star, and Stranger in a Strange Land — and Heinlein wanted Mars to be like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Stanley G. Weinbaum’s stories.

I see “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” as a beautiful farewell salute to Pre-NASA Science Fiction. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame is probably the greatest single science fiction anthology of all time — at least the readers at Goodreads voted it so. We’ve decided to read and discuss the stories from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame at the Facegroup I’m in. You’re welcome to join. “A Martian Odyssey” is our first story. I’m hoping to hear from other Weinbaum fans and learn about how they first discovered “A Martian Odyssey” too.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read Weinbaum’s classic since 1970. I was overjoyed a couple years ago when The Science Fiction Hall of Fame came out on audiobook. Its audio production of “A Martian Odyssey” is pitch-perfect. My inner reading voice couldn’t compete with third-grade actors in a school play. I consider the narration to sound just like how men talked back in the 1930s when “A Martian Odyssey” first appeared in Wonder Stories.

Stanley_G._WeinbaumStanley Weinbaum’s writing career was quite short — his first story came out in 1934 and he died at the end of 1935. Yet, in that short period, a dozen of his stories were published in Astounding Stories and Wonder Stories. A short biography and bibliography can be read at Wikipedia. He had been writing since the 1920s, finishing four works published as novels after his death. However, few people outside his hardcore fans ever read anything other than “A Martian Odyssey.” Even that story’s direct sequel, “Valley of Dreams” from the November issue of Wonder Stories has never been reprinted in a significant retrospective anthology.

If you love “A Martian Odyssey” do yourself a favor and read or listen to “Valley of Dreams.” It picks up where the first story left off and gives us more details about the exotic Martian life Weinbaum introduced in the first story.

Two Tweels

Here are the two stories in audio from YouTube. I’ll give you a chance to listen to them because I will talk about the details, and maybe spoil them for you.

Weinbaum wrote science fiction before the general public even knew the term science fiction. Interplanetary tales have been around for a long time, but Weinbaum tried to imagine Mars with the science of his day. Dick Jarvis is part of a four-man mission to Mars when he is stranded in a crash of a survey flyer. Jarvis must cross hundreds of miles to get back to the rocket. Weinbaum tells us Mars has an extremely thin atmosphere in which the Earthmen can be trained to breathe. Humans are protected from eighty-degrees below zero temperature by special suits. Because the gravity is only one-third of Earth, Jarvis is able to make twenty miles a day crossing the Martian landscape. Along the way, he observes several bizarre life-forms and meets an intelligent being called Tweel. They travel together, saving each’s other’s life, becoming fast friends even though their ability to communicate in words is almost non-existent.

Modern readers might find Weinbaum’s prose a bit on the quaint side, and the plot rather simplistic by current-day standards. Jarvis tells the story to his human pals after he is rescued.  This framing device was common in stories from that era and earlier. Readers weren’t used to the immediacy of television reporting, so stories of true adventures were told after they happened. The same framing technique is also used in “Valley of Dreams” where Jarvis gets to meet Tweel again and visit an ancient Martian city.

One of the toughest things science fiction writers have to do is convey alienness. We’re used to movies and television shows where aliens are humans with make-up and costumes. Weinbaum wanted his readers to feel the alienness of aliens and he succeeds, both with non-intelligent lifeforms and a couple different types of intelligent beings. Tweel looks somewhat like an ostrich with arms and hands and can jump a hundred feet into the air and land on its beak. Tweel can mimic some Earth words, and with those few words convey some abstract concepts. Jarvis is unable to learn any of Tweel’s language.

Weinbaum gives us both a first contact story, and a story about alien anthropology and linguistics. I get one of my biggest sense of wonder rushes from stories about humans walking through dead alien cities, and that’s part of “Valley of Dreams.” I first discovered this rush from reading After Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie when I was in the 7th grade. Weinbaum also throws in a lifeform based on silicon, maybe the earliest I’ve seen of this idea. And he comes up with the idea that some intelligent beings might not use the same logic/math we do.

Probably, all these exciting sense-of-wonder ideas have been discovered by most children today before they start school. I’m old enough to remember the world without all the standard science-fictional ideas that kids now get as soon as they can think. I doubt they can comprehend how delicious “A Martian Odyssey” was to minds before every exciting science-fictional idea was beaten into dullness by pop culture.

James Wallace Harris, 5/5/20