Empire Star and The Star Pit

A variation of this essay first appeared at Book Riot.

Empire Star by Samuel R DelanyEmpire Star and “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany are my favorite science fiction stories from the 1960s. When I first discovered science fiction in the early 1960s I was inspired by the 1950s science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein. But after The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Jefferson Airplane, when the 1960s became The Sixties, Samuel R. Delany became my science fiction guru. Those were crazy times to grow up, especially after Timothy Leary. Empire Star and “The Star Pit” help me make more sense of the chaos than anything else I read. Is it possible to learn from a science fiction book? I’ve always believed I learned more from these two stories than all the other thousands of science fiction stories I’ve read. But did I?

Can reading ever substitute for experience? Is there ever a time when book knowledge beats knowledge gained through living? Because it’s impossible to do everything in life, most of us live vicariously through reading. Can we ever learn about living from reading fictionalized experiences?

Book v. experience came up recently in an argument with my old friend Connell. We were talking about another friend Janis moving to Mexico, and I wondered if I would like living in Mexico. Connell said traveling to another country changes people in ways that are impossible to know without actually going. Since I’ve never traveled out of the country but often read books by people that do, I argued that we should be able to gain some sense of traveling from reading. Connell told me I was fooling myself.

I probably am but I want to believe books can convey a degree of actual experience. This got me thinking. My conclusion is experiencing comes in two kinds – what we feel and what we think about those feelings. I concur with Connell that books can’t recreate the feeling of an experience. On the other hand, I think it’s obvious that books can convey information we learn from our experiences. And, here’s my hypothesis: novels should be able to describe feelings in such a way that we can relate them to our own experiences and feelings.

Understanding this issue will teach us about the limitations of fiction and nonfiction. Fiction has always given us the illusion that we travel in space and time. Is knowledge gained from reading totally fiction, or can fiction convey truths about an experience?

Janis has been to Mexico many times and has even lived there for six months. She knows what it feels like. I bought her a book, A Better Life for Half the Price by Tim Leffel, a guy who writes about how to live abroad, and who lives in Mexico. His book, in 316 pages, distils Leffel’s experiences into useful knowledge that can be passed on in words. He also relates the experiences of many American expats living abroad.

Janis found his very useful. This kind of practical information based on experience is something nonfiction books do very well, but what about the feelings Connell was talking about? Can we read memoirs and novels that will prepare us for what emotions we might actually experience?

For example, can a book describe the frustration at failing to do normal social tasks because we don’t know the language? Or convey the loneliness that comes from being surrounded by people you can’t talk to? Or the cultural shock of being with people whose politics, pop culture, religion, sports, music, etc. have absolutely no overlap with your own?

How often have you felt that a novel transmitted a deep emotional insight about life? We often talk about books and movies in terms of emotional responses. Is this an illusion? Can fiction be a Rosetta stone for feelings?

Connell and I continually refer to one book we both read fifty years ago, Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. Delany was a child prodigy, and his early books reflect his experiences of exploring a larger, more exciting adult world filled with other prodigies, some more dazzling than he. Delany was hanging around Greenwich Village when Bob Dylan showed up. Delany was probably in the most exciting place on Earth (NYC) in his early twenties, and that was reflected in his 1960s science fiction. It’s why I considered Delany the most creative science fiction writer at the time.

Worlds of Tomorrow February 1967Delany was a decade older than Connell and me, so we used his books as guides to experiences that were out of our league. This was especially true for Empire Star/Babel-17, and “The Star Pit” (found in the collection Aye, and Gomorrah).

We feel Chip Delany wrote about important life-altering events in the 1960s he experienced in his mid-twenties that we translated and understood in our mid-teens. Is that possible? We didn’t even know at the time that Delany was African-American and gay. However, we felt his stories conveyed genuine emotional experiences that we could learn from.

The Motion of Light in WaterIn 1988 Delany published The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village a memoir about his life during the years he wrote his early science fiction. Delany just published In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume 1, 1957-1969. So we have both the fictionalized and nonfiction account of Delaney’s experiences. Connell and I have always believed Delany was giving us insight into his real-life experiences coded into fiction. Here’s what he says in Motion:

But no simple, sensory narrative can master what it purports—whether it be a hitchhiking trip to Texas or the memories that remain from such a trip twenty-five years later. That age-old philosophical chestnut, the Problem of Representation (in its twin forms, the Problem of Verification and the Problem of Exhaustiveness) makes mastery as such a non-problem, with no need of haute théorie. Theodore Sturgeon’s fine insight is perhaps germane here: the best writing does not reproduce—or represent—the writer’s experience at all. Rather it creates an experience that is entirely the reader’s, forged and fashioned wholly from her or his knowledge, of her or his memories, by her or his ideology and sensibility, and demonstrably different for each—but which (according to the writer’s skill) is merely as meaningful (though not necessarily meaningful in the same way) as the writer’s, merely as vivid.

In short, writing creates not a representation of the writer’s world but a model of the writer’s purport. (It creates a re-presentation, in a different form, of the reader’s world.)

This belief is reinforced because Delany had characters in different books have similar insights. I know I will never know what it’s like to be Samuel R. Delany. But can Delany transmit an emotional insight that I can recognize when I experience a similar situation in my life? Or can he describe a personal experience that I empathize enough to feel I’ve learned something?

Humans are not telepaths – but how much can we connect psychically in words? Is it ten percent? One percent? One thousandth of a percent? Just how much can a black gay man growing up in Harlem as a gifted teenager in the 1950s tell two straight teens growing up in white Miami in the 1960s that were C+ students? I think a great deal.

I admit Connell is right. To know what living in another country is like requires going there. But I want to believe books can give us something! I’m a lifelong bookworm. I have to believe books convey more than facts and figures, that they can create pseudo-emotions that trigger artificial experiences that can change us.

The next part of this essay is where it gets hard. I want to use one concept that Delaney used in Empire Star about simplex, complex, and multiplex, and try to prove my point. I believe Delany encoded a great deal of emotional experience into a cheap 1966 paperback science fiction book. Empire Star was a 102-page novella, one-half of an Ace Double. It wasn’t a prestigious literary novel from Charles Scribner’s Sons or an avant-garde work of art from Grove Press. It was a 45-cent paperback masterpiece.

Delany dealt with three reoccurring themes: naïve characters thrown into a complex world, characters being complexly confused by matching their experiences with others, and characters who are amazed by meeting wiser characters who apparently know the impossible. Delany called these mindsets simplex, complex, and multiplex (think multidimensionally complex). Connell and I have applied Delany’s insight from Empire Star in countless ways over the last half-century.

I can’t even explain this deep insight with so few words. You will need to read Empire Star. However, I do believe Delany’s observation of three mindsets and how they work can be applied anywhere without knowing how he specifically learned them. For example, once you get the hang of what he’s talking about, it makes understanding our bizarre politically polarized world easier.

In our argument, Connell asserts that travel is one of the primo methods for promoting multiplex thinking. This is exactly what Delany did in his stories. It’s also what Joseph Campbell describes The Hero With a Thousand Faces. What I tried to argue back that Connell didn’t believe, is reading can do this too. Connell said this was me rationalizing my self-consciousness over the lack of foreign travel. And that’s true, but it’s also true most of what we know about reality comes from reading.

Whether it’s from living or reading we all encounter new experiences going through the mental stages of simplex, complex and multiplex insights. A great writer can take us through them just like real world experiences can. Sure the gold standard of experience is real life. And for many people, real life and travel stay at the simplex level anyway. Complexity and multiplexity come from analyzing and abstracting our real world experiences.

No one today can travel to first century Rome. We will never know what it feels like to live in a city in the past. Yet, it’s my claim that reading a few books can tell us more about life then than most of its inhabitants ever knew while living.

Again, it’s abstractions versus feelings. But here’s the thing about being human, we only feel in the moment, in the eternal now, everything we remember feeling is an abstraction. And books can code that. But Connell’s argument included the fact that travel changes us. To make my rebuttal requires books being able to change us. Do they? How often have you said, or heard someone say, a book changed their life? I think they do. I won’t know what Connell thinks until he reads this essay.

Have you read books about life in other countries or visitors to them that you later verified by traveling yourself? Post a comment.

— James Wallace Harris


Star Maker: Science Fiction or Spiritual Woo-Woo?

Back in 1937, Olaf Stapledon walked up to the writer’s Homeplate and pointed to the sky. He heard the announcer say he was signaling to hit one into the stands. Olaf shook his head and pointed higher. The announcer claimed he was going to hit one out of the park. Olaf shook his head again and made a big circle with the end of the bat. The announcer laughed saying he was going to hit one into orbit. When the pitch came the ball disappeared. No one knew where it went. But Olaf had hit one out of the galaxy with Star Maker.

star-maker-first-editionYears earlier, in 1930, Stapledon had written Last and First Men, a “novel” that spanned two billion years and covered the evolution of 18 species of humans. That epic sweep of future history would be but a single vibration of an atomic clock within the scope of Star Maker. The unnamed narrator of Star Maker is really Olaf Stapledon as he travels through vast expanses multi-dimensional multiverses of spaces and times via what was once called astral projection.

It’s hard to believe science fiction readers embrace him as a pioneer of their genre. Stapledon is closer to the writers of the Vedas, William Blake, Dante, and John Milton than he is to Kim Stanley Robinson or Octavia Butler. But anyone who reads Star Maker will call it science fiction. That’s because many of the concepts science fiction owns today were first suggested in Star Maker. Once you read Stapledon you see where Arthur C. Clarke got his ideas for Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, those are just two obvious examples.

Olaf Stapledon strove to describe a spiritual reality. I use the word reality to mean everything – universe, multiverses, other dimensions, time, multiple-time streams, the infinity of many-world hypothesis, and anything we’ve yet to imagine. The Star Maker is what some would call God, but the label God is too small for Stapledon. Stapledon imagined the Star Maker being indifferent to his creations, using evolution as its artist’s brush to paint an endless infinity of cosmoses. Star Maker the novel imagines just what some of those creations would be like. This is where the science fiction comes in. Stapledon envisions life on other worlds produced through different paths taken by evolution and then scales it up to interplanetary travel, galactic civilizations, hive minds, terraforming, planetary and stellar engineering, artificial life, higher states of being, all the way up to the Star Maker.

Tragically, Olaf Stapledon is a writer known to damn few readers. Even his biographer, Robert Crossley, apologizes for writing Olaf Stapledon: Speaking for the Future in 1994 about an unknown person. Crossley had to learn to stop worrying about his obscure subject after hearing so many people reply to him, “Olaf who?” Stapledon should be remembered as a significant philosopher of the 20th century, but he’s not. He’s remembered by a small cadre of science fiction readers, and not many of those.

Anyone who studies science fiction will know why Star Maker is such an important novel in the history of the genre. Star Maker isn’t really a novel or science fiction but that’s where it’s been pigeonholed by history’s cleanup crew. Star Maker is a novel Hermann Hesse would have written if he had read Pierre Teilhard de Chardin after doing Ketamine with John C. Lilly in a sensory deprivation tank. Read Lilly’s Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer to fully understand that last sentence.

Out of the billions of individual our species produces we get a handful of visionaries who think larger than all the rest, like those who wrote The Vedas. (The universe of The Book of Genesis is tiny in comparison.) Stapledon saw reality in a truly cosmic way – but is his work science fiction or spiritual woo-woo? Stapledon was a philosopher who had a humanistic spiritual streak. Obviously, Stapledon wanted humans to have a purpose in this giant reality – but that’s wishful thinking if you truly understand evolution.

Creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design hate evolution because they instinctively understand evolution invalidates the need for a creator. Stapledon didn’t accept that and makes evolution the tool of the Star Maker (God). Spiritual people want to believe that humans have souls that will travel on after death. Star Maker is no different from Seth Material books by Jane Roberts or The Urantia Book. That’s why I compare him to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and John Lilly. These are all people who believe in a vast spiritual multiverse that has a workable cosmology like our universe.

The purpose of science fiction is to imagine aspects of reality in stories before science discovers and validates those aspects. Fantasy stories are either based on myths, religion, or fantasies that have no grounding in reality. For Star Maker to be science fiction we have to accept theories about spiritualism which Stapledon did but I don’t. If you understand science God, gods, vampires, ghosts, souls, angels, etc. don’t exist at all.


Stapledon probably didn’t believe in those things either but wanted a spiritual multiverse that co-existed with science. His work predicts that we will find spiritual states of being in the future via evolution. Is that any different from Arthur C. Clarke’s Starchild or Theodore Sturgeon’s hive mind in More than Human? Modern science fiction, for the most part, rejects these ideas as religious in nature, and thus not scientific. Modern science fiction imagines human minds being downloaded into artificial realities or robotic bodies. The goals are the same but the predicted methods differ. Whether or not these new hopes are validated by science are yet to be seen.

In Star Maker, Stapledon as the unnamed narrator astral travels to nearby stellar systems to study life on other planets. Eventually, he co-inhabits the mind of another being on a distant planet. Together they take off for other worlds, gathering other like-minded minds to form a gestalt intelligence. As they evolve they perceive greater intelligences in the galaxy and beyond, subsuming each along the way. This super-being travels up and down the time line and eventually meets with the Star Maker, who has no interest in them. The Star Maker is a God indifferent to the beings who have evolved out of his creations. The Star Maker is unknowable – all the beings of evolution can really see are small fraction of its infinite creations.

This all sounds both science fictional and woo-woo! Stapledon makes the same kind of observation about our species as Yuval Noah Harari makes in Sapiens and Homo Deus. This is why most science fiction readers have trouble reading his books, they really are philosophical speculations about the nature of homo sapiens rather than a novel. But I believe that anyone who wants to understand the heart of science fiction needs to read Stapledon. Jules Verne was the father of technological science fiction, H. G. Wells was the father of philosophical science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the father of adventure science fiction, and Olaf Stapledon was the father of spiritual science fiction. See Center for Future Consciousness for a real-world group that follows this philosophy.

Many of the ideas used in later science fiction stories are found in the Star Maker. Stapledon’s contemporaries writing in the same vein were E. E. “Doc” Smith and Edmond Hamilton, and their stories barely scratched the territory Stapledon covered in Star Maker. Smith and Hamilton were considered far-out thinkers to American pulp readers, however, Stapledon goes way beyond what they imagined. Stapledon thought of terraforming planets, intelligent suns, much bigger space battles, genetic engineering, all kinds of space drives, beings of endless variety, all kinds of weird alien sex, symbiotic telepathic relationships, galactic civilizations rising and falling, beings who develop technological longevity and beings who free themselves from physical reality – to list them all is exhausting and beyond the abilities of my memory.

When Bob Dylan wrote, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” he said, “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.” That’s how reading Star Maker feels. It’s one long narrative that could have been hundreds of science fiction stories and novels. I doubt Stapledon thought of himself as science fiction writer, but since no one else is claiming him, I think it’s fine for our genre to latch onto him.

Recommended Reading

Before the Golden Age — Old SF Online

Before_the_Golden_AgeVery few science fiction fans read science fiction from the 1930s anymore. Back in 1974, Isaac Asimov edited a wonderful anthology, Before the Golden Age, where he collected the stories he fondly remembered from that decade during his adolescence. Unfortunately, that anthology is long out-of-print. That’s a shame. The trouble with great anthologies is they are seldom reprinted. I assume because the editors only buy rights to reprint for a specific length of time. I’d love if Audible.com could do an audio book edition of Before the Golden Age (or other classic SF anthologies), but I think that would be impossible.

My online science fiction book club has decided to read one story a week from Before the Golden Age. A handful of us owns the anthology. A couple of people said they would try and get it from the library. But to encourage the other members to read the stories, we’re trying to find online reprints of the stories. Back in 2010, Johnny Pez found 7 of the 25 online. His blog post inspires me to see how many are available in 2017. Several of his links no longer work. I found 12.

Below is the table of contents for Before the Golden Age. I’m going to hyperlink the short story title to information about the story. I’ll link the author’s name to information about the author. In the last column, I’ll give links to any online reprints of the story first, second, a link to ISFDB to see where the story has been anthologized over the decades, or third will be a link to the cheapest edition I can find if there’s no free edition.

In the last few years, websites reprinting whole issues of old pulp magazines have been popping up. I think that’s a wonderful service. I assume anything I find in the first few pages of Google returns is legal. If not, let me know and I’ll take down the link.

Story Author Online Source or ISFDB
The Man Who Evolved Edmond Hamilton YouTube, PulpMags
The Jameson Satellite Neil R. Jones Gutenberg
“Submicroscopic” Capt. S. P. Meek ISFDB
“Awlo of Ulm” Capt. S. P. Meek ISFDB
“Tetrahedra of Space” P. Schuyler Miller Comic Book+
“The World of the Red Sun” Clifford D. Simak Comic Book+
Tumithak of the Corridors Charles R. Tanner 99 cent ebook
The Moon Era Jack Williamson Comic Book+
The Man Who Awoke Laurence Manning Comic Book+
“Tumithak in Shawm” Charles R. Tanner 99 cent ebook
“Colossus” Donald Wandrei ISFDB
“Born of the Sun” Jack Williamson ISFDB
Sidewise in Time Murray Leinster ISFDB
Old Faithful Raymond Z. Gallun ISFDB
The Parasite Planet Stanley G. Weinbaum Gutenberg
Proxima Centauri Murray Leinster ISFDB
“The Accursed Galaxy” Edmond Hamilton ISFDB
He Who Shrank Henry Hasse Johnny Pez
The Human Pets of Mars Leslie Frances Stone Archive.org
The Brain Stealers of Mars John W. Campbell, Jr. Archive.org
Devolution Edmond Hamilton SeaRider, ISFDB
Big Game Isaac Asimov ISFDB
“Other Eyes Watching” John W. Campbell, Jr. ISFDB
Minus Planet John D. Clark ISFDB
Past, Present, and Future Nat Schachner Gutenberg
The Men and the Mirror Ross Rocklynne ISFDB

Many stories from the early 1930s are out of copyright, which is why we see whole pulps from that era online. But that doesn’t explain all the pulps that are online from the 1950s. I hope those sites are legal and stay up because they are becoming the only way to read old science fiction stories. They are also cultural artifacts showing a history of a subculture.

If you look at the ISFDB links you’ll see most of these stories have not been reprinted often. Some only appeared in their original pulp magazine and Before the Golden Age.

Most of these stories are crudely told, which probably explains why modern readers don’t read them. However, they do have a vitality for science fictional ideas. I imagine back in the 1930s there were few Americans thinking about these concepts. Now, most of these ideas are mundane even for children’s books and television shows.

I enjoy reading these old stories because they give me a sense of how science fiction evolved. I’m reading New Atlantis, a four-volume history of the scientific romance by Brian Stableford, which chronicles science fiction older than that found in Before the Golden Age. Stableford is reviewing writers that inspired the writers that inspired Asimov. When you look at a bigger history of science fiction, these 1930s stories are important, even though most SF fans would find them unreadable today. Sure, the writing is clunky, and the storytelling unsophisticated, but give them a try. You might be surprised.

— James Wallace Harris (Auxiliary Memory)

Guest Reviews at Classics of Science Fiction

When Mike and I created this site last year I expected to start rereading the classics of science fiction and reviewing them here. I’m now writing for four sites and have learned that it will take more time than I thought to complete all my ambitions. (I do hope to review Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon fairly soon.)

However, the other day I got a comment on Auxiliary Memory from a blogger, Tony Stewart, mentioning his reviews of science fiction. I clicked over to his site to read his take on A Case of Conscience by James Blish. I liked he was an older SciFi fan finding a stash of packed-away SF paperbacks and rereading them. I also liked that Tony gave his honest appraisal of the story. Too often we assume classics are perfect books.

That gave me an idea. If I can’t always find the time to write reviews myself then maybe I could Tom Sawyer some other folks. Or at least ask for reprints in exchange for links back to their blogs. I wrote Tony and he liked the idea. The first review I read is now reprinted here.

Now I’m looking for other reviews to reprint, and maybe even new columnists too. For now, we want to stick with the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list, but that might change. I’m also open to reviews of what I call “Forgotten Science Fiction” – those old stories that were once popular but are only remembered fondly by few fans today.

I’m looking for two kinds of reviewers. First, I really enjoy reading what older fans think when they revisit a book that wowed them in their youth. Second, I’m curious what younger readers feel when reading classic science fiction for the first time. Do the stories still hold up? How to they compare to current science fiction?

If you’re interested, drop us a line at classicsofsciencefiction at outlook dot com.


[Wally Wood: Galaxy Art and Beyond]


A Case of Conscience by James Blish


Guest review by Tony Stewart. This essay first appeared at his blog, Breadtag Sagas.

A Case of Conscience by James Blish is #59 on the Classics of Science Fiction list.

I’ve been a keen science fiction reader most of my life, though less so in recent years as there seems to be less SciFi about. A box of my old books turned up out of a time warp and I’ve decided to re-read them.

The genre has been in decline for some time, perhaps because we’ve entered an age of ignorance about science. An age it seems where peer reviewed science can be debated as if there could be another side. (One can always drag up an extreme scientist or pseudo-scientist, not part of the mainstream, to help.) Creationism or anti-evolution and climate science are good examples.

To counter creationism: Charles Darwin was a genius but he didn’t invent evolution. Darwin was wrong about several things because he didn’t have the knowledge at the time. The modern synthesis theory of evolution was formulated in the 1930s. It has never been challenged but has been built on by the revolution in molecular biology and computer technology. Most people are probably not abreast of recent developments. Take it from me anyone who doubts evolution now is on a hiding to nothing.

Spoiler warning

James Blish A Case of Conscience 1958 is an interesting example of the premise of faith versus science, but the contest never really happens in the book. I give a spoiler warning tongue-in-cheek, but if you really want to read the book maybe read it first before proceeding.

A Case of Conscience was the first book I re-read and I was underwhelmed. I did remember the Catholicism but the idea is not enough to save the book.

A Case of Conscience was originally written as a novella in 1953, then James Blish wrote the second part and it was published as a novel in 1958. It won a Hugo Award in 1959 and the original novella a belated Retrospective Hugo in 2004. In the 1958 Foreward James Blish describes how he had modified contemporary Catholic faith for the purposes of fiction in the future. He says he generally found support from within the Catholic Church for his book but acknowledges that he himself is agnostic.


The Story

Book 1

A Jesuit priest, who is also a world-class biologist, is part of the four-man team sent to explore the world of Lithia. The Lithians live in what seems to be a utopia, there’s no crime or war, they have a highly developed moral sense and yet they have no religion. One of the team wants to exploit the planet for its mineral wealth, but the priest feels they must place it in quarantine: the absence of God means it is the work of the devil. (Best SciFi Books)

Book 2

When they return to Earth the priest carries a fertilized egg as a special gift from a Lithian. The egg matures quickly and the juvenile Lithian Ambassador quickly apprehends most human information and knowledge. This is similar to L’Ingenue by Voltaire in 1767 and Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein in 1961 (‘The hippy bible’). Egtverchi (the hatched egg) is lonely and revolted by humanity his despair impels him to criticize society and to encourage riots amongst the mass of humans in the shelter cities. The UN Government decides to arrest him but he smuggles himself aboard a ship home, arriving just in time for Armageddon.

Meanwhile, ‘the priest’s own faith is tested as his commitment to Catholicism comes under question. But when, at the end, Lithia is destroyed, it is ambiguous whether this is the result of carelessness in the mineral extraction or because of the priest’s exorcism.’ (Best SciFi Books)


The book is typical of Classic SciFi in its appalling characterisation and inability to portray women. Robert Heinlein follows a similar trend at times but also can do better when he wants to. Podkayne of Mars 1963 one of my favourite Heinlein books is written in the voice of a feisty teenager Podkayne, with an appalling (to her) younger brother.

csocon1958The planet of Lithia and the alien race are poorly described. Cleaver’s refusal to communicate across the planet to the other two scientists is not credible. That they don’t do anything, until it is time to leave, also stretches belief. When the four planetary commissioners get together to decide the fate of the planet, they behave like schoolboys. Cleaver, besides, feels free to do a side deal with the UN Government unbeknownst to the others.

Cleaver the bad physicist, who wants to turn Lithia into a nuclear arsenal is too cardboard even for caricature. Cleaver apparently ends by blowing Lithia up through incautious hurry and a poorly conceived experimental process. A romance and marriage between Michelis (one of the four scientists) and Liu, who look after the development of Egtverchi, is risible. The behaviour of Liu as a woman is not credible.

Ruiz-Sanchez, the Jesuit priest, is a mixture of contrasts, but his act of conscience is not credible because it isn’t well enough described. Ruiz-Sanchez’s Jesuitical analysis of literature — another case of conscience — which he is puzzling over in terms of the complex human interdependencies and moral relationships in a book he has been studying for months, for which he finally defines an ethical solution on Lithia is interesting. The book turns out to be Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. I haven’t read Finnegan’s Wake and so with the majority of humanity don’t know if what Blish is saying makes sense or is merely an intellectual conceit.

Egtverchi the alien is quite interesting as he grows up, but his persona is not well explained. His motivations are handled merely as a plot device.

The genius Lucien Le Comte des Bois-d’Averoigne who seems to have invented all of Earth’s current useful technology, including the space drive, is also interesting, but perhaps only because he remains off-stage.

The Pope, a massive Norwegian, who acknowledges Ruiz-Sanchez’s Manichean heresy, encourages him to explore exorcism as a private endeavour. The Pope has promise as a character but his part is only a walk-on.

The best idea in the book is that of the shelter cities growing out of the nuclear confrontation on Earth. The shelter race is like an arms race — reminiscent of Dr Strangelove where the ultimate advantage over the Russians comes down to the mineshaft gap. The Corridor Riots of 1993 are also mentioned. I liked that the Italians were too fond of aboveground and their shelter city under Rome wasn’t nearly as deep or extensive as everywhere else in the world.

Humanity as government, elite and masses is not shown in a good light in the book, nor is Catholicism. Today, how kindly would we accept a Jesuit priest who wanted to annihilate an alien planet because it is a tool of the devil?

The end of the book is disappointing and doesn’t really bring everything together. Lithia and its population and the mad physicist Cleaver disappear in a nuclear conflagration, or is it an exorcism?


Look I’ve managed to convince myself through the process of analysis that A Case of Conscience isn’t completely hopeless. It deserves its place in the 1950s SciFi pantheon, but not the place it was given in the lists I found (as #18, 30 or 38) of the best SciFi books ever written. The fourth list does not place it in the top 200.

1950s SciFi books do not have to be as awkward and clumsy as A Case of Conscience is. Some are brilliant stories and novel showcases for ideas. I recently read Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank, which is one of the first apocalyptic novels of the nuclear age. It is set in a small town in mid-Florida and is almost as chilling now, as it must have seemed then. And, we no longer believe that nuclear Armageddon hangs over us on a daily basis.

I’ll leave the last word to Manny at Goodreads who summarises the equivocalness of James Blish (his review is longer and worth reading):

I discovered James Blish when I was about 10 (I believe the first one I read was The Star Dwellers), and I have returned to him many times throughout my life. I don’t think I know any author who is quite as frustrating an example of Kilgore Trout syndrome. Wonderful ideas, but in most cases terrible execution: for every novel or short story that succeeds, at least three are left butchered and bleeding by the side of the road….

So it should be no surprise that A Case of Conscience is more of the same. We have discovered a planet peopled by an apparently gentle and civilized race, the Lithians, who are gradually revealed as being literally a creation of the Devil, intended to delude and ensnare humanity. The protagonist, a Jesuit priest, too late recognizes the Lithian ambassador to Earth for what he is, and is powerless to oppose him; this scenario, it occurs to me now, is rather like that in Black Easter. And then, after what everyone here agrees is a fantastic buildup, the whole book falls apart, leaving the reader frustrated over yet another disappointment. It’s genuinely tragic.

Tony StewartDr. Tony Stewart is a scientist (biology) and analyst by training. He has also run a strategic market research company, been an R&D consultant and a late starting artist. More recently he has been a volunteer involved in efforts to stop a dam and with and with the general issue of the poor treatment of displaced people in India. He was also a board member and ex-chair of PhotoAccess a community access facility for photography and multimedia. He is also an avid fan of classic science fiction.

Falling Off the Classics of Science Fiction List

Whenever we create a new version of the Classics of Science Fiction some titles get added and others dropped. My main reason for producing the list is to track how books are discovered and forgotten over time. Most books pass from public memory soon after they are printed, so to get on a best-of-the-best list and stay on it for years means a huge number of readers are recalling those titles decade after decade. Just study the List of Lists to see the 65 ways these books were remembered from 1949 – 2016. (Read the Introduction for our overall methodology.)

When books fall of the list, it doesn’t mean those books are no longer worthy of reading, but those titles have slipped from the minds of older readers and newer readers have never encountered them. Sometimes books are rediscovered, especially if they get new editions, produced as audio books, or made into films or television shows. Generally, books slide into obscurity. Old readers die off and younger readers never know what they missed.

Virgil Finley -Jackpot- Galaxy 1956-10

Many of the titles that dropped off version 4 of the Classics of Science Fiction were books published before 1950. For version 3, we used several lists for library collection development, or critical histories of science fiction. For version 4, we had more fan polls. Version 3 had many short stories collections and anthologies that didn’t make it to version 4. Plus, many classic titles from 1950-1975 fell off. I assume newer readers aren’t discovering those books.

I feel version 4 is a better list than version 3. Most of the second half of version 3 didn’t make it to version 4. Which makes me wonder if the bottom half of version 4 will disappear when we create version 5 in ten years.

Here are the titles that fell of the list this time. The ones in red are books I’ve reread in the recent years and personally believe should be on version 4. There are plenty of books on the list below I still plan to reread. And there are stories below I have reread recently that don’t belong on the list. I won’t say which.

  • 334 (1972) by Thomas Disch
  • The Absolute at Large (1927) by Karel Čapek
  • Across the Zodiac (1880) by Percy Greg
  • Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) edited by Harlan Ellison
  • Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell
  • Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (1952) edited by John W. Campbell
  • Back to Methuselah (1921) by George Bernard Shaw
  • The Battle of Dorking (1871) by Sir George Chesney
  • Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov
  • Behold the Man (1969) by Michael Moorcock
  • The Best of C. L. Moore (1975) by C. L. Moore
  • The Best of C. M. Kornbluth by C. M. Kornbluth
  • The Best of Henry Kuttner (1975) by Henry Kuttner
  • The Best of Science Fiction (1946) edited by Groff Conklin
  • Beyond Apollo (1972) by Barry N. Malzberg
  • The Big Time (1961) by Fritz Leiber
  • The Black Cloud (1957) by Fred Hoyle
  • Brain Wave (1954) by Poul Anderson
  • Bring the Jubilee (1953) by Ward Moore
  • Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad
  • Casey Agonistes (1973) by Richard McKenna
  • Chronopolis and Other Stories (1971) by J. G. Ballard
  • The Chrysalids (1955) by John Wyndham
  • The Clockwork Man (1923) by E. V. Odle
  • The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer Lytton
  • Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn
  • The Death of Grass (1956) by John Christopher
  • Deathbird Stories (1975) by Harlan Ellison
  • Deathworld (1960) by Harry Harrison
  • Deluge (1927) by S. Fowler Wright
  • The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth and Other Stories (1971) by Roger Zelazny
  • Dorsai (1976) by Gordon Dickson
  • Downward to the Earth (1970) by Robert Silverberg
  • The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny
  • The Dying Earth (1950) by Jack Vance
  • E Pluribus Unicorn (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon
  • The Embedding (1973) by Ian Watson
  • Engine Summer (1979) by John Crowley
  • Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler
  • Final Blackout (1948) L. Ron Hubbard
  • The Girl in the Golden Atom (1922) by Ray Cummings
  • Gray Lensman (1951) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift
  • The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) by J. D. Beresford
  • Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • The Iron Dream (1972) by Norman Spinrad
  • Islands in the Net (1988) by Bruce Sterling
  • The Lensman Series (1948) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • The Listeners (1972) by James Gunn
  • The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett
  • Looking Backward (1880) by Edward Bellamy
  • The Lost World (1912) by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Lovers (1961) by Philip José Farmer
  • The Machine Stops and Other Stories (1909) by E. M. Forster
  • Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison
  • Man Plus (1976) by Frederik Pohl
  • A Martian Odyssey and Other Science Fiction Tales (1975) by Stanley G. Weinbaum
  • The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) by John Wyndham
  • A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn
  • Norstrillia (1975) by Cordwainer Smith
  • Nova (1968) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Of All Possible Worlds (1955) by William Tenn
  • On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute
  • On the Wings of Song (1979) by Thomas Disch
  • The Past Through Tomorrow (1967) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Perelandra (1943) by C. S. Lewis
  • The Persistence of Vision (1978) by John Varley
  • Play Piano (1952) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Poison Belt (1913) by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (1970) edited by Robert Silverberg
  • The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (1976) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Science Fiction of Jack London (1975) by Jack London
  • She (1886) by H. Rider Haggard
  • The Sheep Look Up (1972) by John Brunner
  • The Short Stories of H. G. Wells (1927) by H. G. Wells
  • Sirius (1944) by Olaf Stapledon
  • The Skylark of Space (1946) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Lewis Stevenson
  • That Hideous Strength (1945) by C. S. Lewis
  • To-Morrow’s Yesterday (1932) by John Gloag
  • Under Pressure (1956) by Frank Herbert
  • Untouched by Human Hands (1954) by Robert Sheckley
  • A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay
  • The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber
  • War of the Newts (1936) by Karel Čapek
  • The Weigher of Souls (1931) by Andrew Maurois
  • Who Goes There? (1948) by John W. Campbell
  • The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz
  • Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) Marge Piercy
  • The World Below (1930) by S. Fowler Wright

James Wallace Harris – slightly revised from Worlds Without End.

The Genesis of Science Fiction

If the genesis of the knife, gun, and the missile is the obsidian blade, thrown rock and spear, what then is the genesis of science fiction? Years ago Brian Aldiss, in his book The Trillion Year Spree, made a good case that science fiction began with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Recently, Mark L. Brake and Neil Hook, in Different Engines, suggested science fiction evolved from Johannes Kepler’s 1634 story, Somnium (The Dream), inspired by the Copernican revolution. Numerous writers have claimed stories from ancient Greece and Rome dealt with science fictional concepts long before the age of science. I think we can go back further still, to The Book of Genesis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Vedas, even the earliest of ancient literature, and assume that science fictional stories were always told in prehistory.


Most ancient literature is religious, and I don’t mean to disrespect anyone’s faith, but if we can read these works not through sacred hopes, or secular scholarship, but through the eyes of creative storytelling, we’ll see these tales as dazzling adventures, full of wonder and excitement, like any summer blockbuster. Wouldn’t these same stories told today, using modern writing techniques, be published as science fiction and fantasy? This idea occurred to me while reading several science novels last year when I kept noticing their Biblical themes.

It’s hard to make a case for science fiction existing before science, but is science really the core of what we call science fiction? Aren’t science fiction fans drawn to fantastic possibilities? Wouldn’t any story about travel to other worlds be science fiction? Isn’t Heaven in the same direction as Mars or Alpha Centauri? Wouldn’t any story about a superior being visiting Earth be shelved in the SF/F section today? How is God different from an ancient, all-powerful alien? Aren’t all gods, non-human invaders? Aren’t angels, aliens from the skies? Don’t celestial realms sound like other dimensions? Aren’t all the powers of gods just telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, psychokinesis and matter transmission? Aren’t all the ancient religious works from thousands of years ago really tales of fantastic adventures? Think about it—doesn’t Greek mythology sound exactly like superhero comics?

Yuval Noah Harari, in his international bestseller, Sapiens, psychoanalyzes our species, marking three giant milestones in our development: the Scientific Revolution 500 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago, and the Cognitive Revolution 17,000 years ago. We’ve probably been making up science fictional tales for 17,000 years.

My referencing The Bible is not meant to claim science fiction is religious or religion is science fiction, but to suggest the origins of science fiction go back further than we imagined. I’m saying our love of far-out concepts began as soon as we tried to understand reality and make up explanations—two aspects of the Cognitive Revolution. Since we didn’t begin to write things down until 5,000 years ago, that leaves 12,000 years of oral storytelling. My bet is extrapolation and speculation began with Harari’s Cognitive Revolution. It’s not hard to imagine Neolithic folk sitting around the fire speculating about all kinds of possibilities that later became the myths and religions of prehistory.

Three of the top science fiction novels from 2015 feel like retellings of Bible stories. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, is a modern variant of Noah’s Ark from The Book of Genesis (which has even older forms), as well as updating Adam and Eve (this time with seven Eves). Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, Aurora, is about a generation space ship, and if you think about it, Noah’s ark was a generation ship. Robinson’s story could also be a retelling of Exodus and the search for a promised land. And in The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi plays a Prophet warning us about a Biblical-sized doom to come.

Folks living in the 21st century love to believe we’re the crown of creation. We assume we’re at the pinnacle of evolutionary development, and superior to our ancestors. Yet, how much of our psychology stays the same from one generation to the next? One way to know is by reading the earliest forms of writing, like The Bible, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and The Odyssey, stories composed in prehistory and written down at the dawn of writing. Reading these stories connect us to Neolithic minds and thoughts. What if those stories weren’t sacred or secular, but speculation? And isn’t that the heart of science fiction?

What if the writer of the Noah myth was the Steven Spielberg of his day, inspired by the same thoughts that inspired Neal Stephenson to write Seveneves? Didn’t the story of Noah make an epic disaster flick? What if the same story was told for the same reasons thousands of years ago? Haven’t we always had end-of-the-world stories? Is the invention of gods and heavens significantly different from imagining aliens and distant planets? Our long ago ancestors didn’t know about other worlds, so they had powerful beings coming from the sky, mountain tops, under the ocean, or deep underground. If they had known about cosmology, wouldn’t their gods come from the stars, or had God come from outside the Universe?

If we start looking at our species in a holistic way, like Yuval Noah Harari, we’ve changed far less in the last 17,000 years than our hubris fools us. If we study ancient stories we can see there are aspects of fiction that we constantly repeat, both in history and prehistory. I believe the early books from antiquity, like The Book of Genesis, come out of oral storytelling traditions that reflect ideas descended from the deepest prehistory. If we compare the oldest writings from the past to the newest stories about the future, we’ll see how little we’ve changed.

Think about The Game of Thrones – when and where is it set? Does it matter? Doesn’t it have a timeless quality? George R. R. Martin’s success is based on universal themes that could be prehistory or a post-history apocalypse. Aren’t most epic fantasies set in a rich potentiality of prehistory? And why do so many galactic empire stories feature an aristocracy? Why does the future often seem like the past? Star Wars is set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Remember what happened in Battlestar Galactica?

One of the oldest stories we have, “The Shipwrecked Sailor,” is from 2200 BCE. Not as exciting as Robinson Crusoe or The Martian, but still based on the same idea. How far back in time do stories about sole survivors enthrall our kind? How far in the future will we continue to use the same plot?

One of the startling lessons of anthropology is Neanderthals made the same stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years with few signs of innovation. Compared to the constant “progress” of our species, that’s kind of sad. Homo erectus spent two million years doing essentially the same thing. We’ve very proud of our quick ascension above the animals. Yet, just admiring change creates a delusion. If we look at fiction, we can see we’ve been working the same themes for seventeen thousand years, just like the Neanderthals worked the same stone scrapers for all their existence.

Science fiction glories in the growth of science and technology. But do our thoughts and emotions reflect the same evolutionary progress as our inventions? Shouldn’t we attribute our marvels to culture, and not individuals? Our technological culture is fast changing and innovative, but are we? If we read ancient literature, we’ll see the same human motivations in our ancestors that compel us to read science fiction today. Don’t we really see that the cultural landscape is changing, with people staying the same? Wouldn’t our science fiction and fantasy, if transported and translated back in time, have the same appeal to our ancient ancestors?

I assume the writers of The Book of Genesis worked to explain reality with the concepts they had at hand. Is it significantly different from how we explain reality today, either with science or science fiction? Doesn’t the story about the Garden of Eden, where humans once lived among the animals without clothes and acquired language, ring familiar to what anthropology tells us?  And isn’t the story about the tree of knowledge of good and evil just a metaphor of explaining how we become self-aware? Do neuroscientists have better explanations?

And isn’t every story about a spaceship landing on a new world, another story of Genesis? Isn’t the desire to terraform Mars copying what God did for Earth in The Book of Genesis? Isn’t the fashioning of Adam from dust, and the Gollum from clay, similar to our desire to fashion robots from silicon? Doesn’t the idea of reincarnation sound like brain downloading? Does it matter if we find immortality through afterlife or medicine?

Which would be more thrilling: going to heaven or shipping out on the USS Enterprise?

– James Wallace Harris (reprinted from Book Riot)

Framework for Science Fiction Criticism

Most reviewers work to identify books worthy of becoming bestsellers. Here at Classics of Science Fiction we work to identify the science fiction books worthy of calling classics. Bestsellers are new books everyone wants to read. Classics are old books readers don’t want to forget. Are the qualities that make a bestseller succeed when new the same as those that make a classic unforgettable when old?

frpaul_01_amazquar_1929win_ralph124cMike and I have been reading and rereading many of the books on the Classics of Science Fiction by Rank and to be honest, we don’t think some of them are very good. We wonder if books that excited readers fifty years ago will still excite new readers today? 94 of the 193 books on version 3 of the Classics of Science Fiction fell off the list when creating version 4. As I point out in my essay “Can Science Fiction Books Become Classics” for 19th-century literary classics, barely one book a year is popularly remembered. It’s doubtful that science fiction titles will even come close to that average. About one tenth of those 19th-century books could be called science fiction.

If you look at the Classics of Science Fiction by Year list, it’s pretty obvious that remembered books thin out over time. For example, only five science fiction books are remembered for the 1930s and only one (Brave New World) by the public at large. There are seven for the 1940s, with again, only one (Nineteen Eighty-Four) remembered widely outside of science fiction. There are 23 titles for the 1950s. None are famous in the mainstream, although six have been made into movies, and three of them (The Day of the Triffids, I Am Legend, Starship Troopers) have been filmed more than once. There are 28 titles for the 1960s, with eight made into films. The most famous are A Wrinkle in Time, The Man in the High Castle, Dune, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as Blade Runner, and Slaughterhouse-Five. Are there aspects shared by these eleven titles from 1930-1969 that could consistently identify a classic book?

I’d bet in a hundred years only three will be widely remembered: Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Slaughterhouse-Five. Interestingly, none deal with space travel. So, my guess is what makes a bestseller is not what makes a classic. And if Mike and I develop a framework of criticism for identifying classic science fiction, it will be different than one for reviewing new books.

Because science fiction can be so many things to so many people it’s difficult to judge books in a way that people will agree. For some readers, science fiction is thrilling adventure fiction that might have little or no scientific speculation. Are such stories poor science fiction because they lack science? For most readers, a book like The Martian by Andy Weir earns both an A+ for storytelling and A+ for science. If we compared it to a book like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which I would give an A+ for storytelling and an A+ for 1980s nostalgia, but an N/A for science speculation. Is it science fiction? And how should I review an old novel from the 1970s, where the storytelling is average for back then, but would be considered inadequate by modern standards?

voyage-dans-la-luneShould we even review bad books? Maybe that should be rephrased to: Should we review books we don’t like? This site is about identifying the books that are remembered, but consequently, it also spots those being forgotten. If we identify the qualities that make a book lasting, shouldn’t we also identify the qualities that make it forgettable?

Neither one of us wants to bad-mouth books, especially if the author is still alive. We could just write about books we admire, but does that give the whole picture? I am currently reading Time is the Simplest Thing (1961) by Clifford D. Simak. It’s not one of his best. The story is about a future where humans learn that it’s too dangerous for our bodies to space travel, so we explore the galaxy with soul projection, telepathy, and teleportation. The storytelling was adequate for when it was written, but probably creaky to young readers of today.

However, for readers with great nostalgia for 1950s science fiction, Time is the Simplest Thing might be big fun. I doubt today’s young readers will enjoy this book, and it won’t be remembered in the next century as a classic. But is it worth writing about and analyzing? Science fiction feels like it’s about the future, but every story is really about the author, and when he wrote it. And that’s the key for identifying books that have the potential to be future classics. The qualities I love in books by Jane Austen or Mary Shelley are ones that are meaningful to me two hundred years down the timestream.

Bestsellers tell us about our times. Classics tell us about their times and our times. Which might explain why books fall off the list. Quite often fifty-year-old books make us wince. Reading books that old can show us how politically incorrect we’ve become in a half-century. Reading even older books, such as E. E. Smith space opera, can make us laugh at how silly we thought about space travel in the 1920s and 1930s. Book reviews back then didn’t know their science was naive, but we do now.

There are aspects of fiction that should be considered for both bestsellers, potential classics, and actual classics. Storytelling, characterization, plotting and writing are essential. For science fiction, we need to add extrapolation, speculation, science, and world-building. For example, in this regard, speculation about psychic abilities is what condemns Time is the Simplest Thing to the dustheap. Simak created a modest speculative idea with minor characterization, little details of setting, so-so plot, and only barely adequate storytelling skills for 1961 paperback writing. His theme of prejudice is strong, but its vehicle is weak.

I also recently read The Stars Are Ours! (1954) and Star Born (1957) by Andre Norton. The first book is about a future America oppressed by a religious government that hunts down scientists and suppresses science and technology. Scientists flee to the stars. The second book takes place generations later, where a spaceship from a more enlightened America finds the colonists of the first mission. The two stories were fun for me, but then I like old science fiction. If I was honest, I don’t think they hold up. They are barely remembered today, so it’s doubtful they will become classics in the future. Is there any point in writing about them? If our critical framework included the history of science fiction and its ideas, it might.

However, if our goal is to find and understand why books are remembered over time, there’s little value in studying books that don’t work. Just because I have an affection for these orphans, and feel pained because they are dying, doesn’t mean they deserve a lot of our time.

Which bring me back to writing about the best books and developing criteria for spotting why they might last. I haven’t discovered those criteria yet. I don’t know why books last. We’ve developed a statistical method for tracking the books that are hanging in there, but we have no explanations as to why they are lasting.



Why Did Arthur C. Clarke Write 2001: A Space Odyssey?

When we read 19th century science fiction novels, like Frankenstein, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or The Time Machine, we don’t think those books accurately describe the past. We read them as timeless stories and disregard when they were written. Most readers consider them standalone works of art. However, readers with inclinations to literary sleuthing will study why Mary Shelley, Jules Verne or H. G. Wells wrote their stories. Even though those tales weren’t about actual events in the 1800s, those stories tell us a great deal about when they were written. Writers react to their local space and time, revealing their own psychological history, even when they are imagining life in the future.


When recently rereading 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, I tried to imagine how people in 2116 would remember Clarke, and the year 1968. I assumed future readers will look back on the 1960s in the same way I wonder about the 1860s while reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I first read 2001: A Space Odyssey months after I saw Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Back then, I saw it as a story about the future. Looking back from 2016, I realize it’s a story about the 1960s, and Arthur C. Clarke.

2001: A Space Odyssey works a number of science fictional themes common for its time:

  • Ancient aliens nudged the cognitive evolution of early humans
  • Humans travel to the Moon and planets in the near future
  • Ancient aliens put device on the Moon to let them know when we leave Earth
  • Humans will invent artificial intelligence that surpasses our own
  • AI can be a threat and our successors
  • Earth will be horribly overpopulated by the 21st century
  • Ancient aliens left an interstellar subway for humans to use
  • The goal of evolution is pure disembodied intelligence
  • The Omega point of evolution is indistinguishable from God

When 2001: A Space Odyssey first premiered in theaters, film goers and critics were blown away. Many, if not most, were baffled by the ending. I’m not sure younger generations realize what an event 2001: A Space Odyssey was when it first came out. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on Miami Beach, when it opened as a “road show” – we had to buy advanced tickets for reserved seats. Science fiction up till then had been books and magazines that geeky introverts read, and science fiction films and television shows were aimed at adolescents (although many adults watched them). Science fiction fandom was a tiny subculture. 2001: A Space Odyssey gave science fiction recognition and class. Unfortunately, much of it’s audience left the show baffled, babbling about the trippy light-show, and the weird ending.

The novel 2001: A Space Odyssey was written concurrent with the film, and is not a novelization of the movie. 2001: A Space Odyssey did not appear on versions 1-3 of the Classics of Science Fiction, but recently popped up on version 4, with 17 citation lists. It was on 46% of the lists it could have been on. If you look at those lists you’ll see the story is gaining in popularity. Why? I have to assume that’s partly due to the lasting impact of the Stanley Kubrick film, but since I just reread the novel, I think it might be because of the novel itself. It does hold up. And it does explain the mysteries in the movie.

However, I’m wondering why Arthur C. Clarke wrote this story, and why it appeals to so many more people today. Would you want to be Dr. David Bowman? Did Clarke? This is his second novel where humans transcend their bodily form. I’ve always thought of Clarke as an engineer, but in Childhood’s End (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), he’s a mystic. Of course, Clarke’s first novel, Against the Fall of Night, is about humanity ten billion years in the future. It makes me wonder if Clarke was discontent with his era, and his puny physical form. Did Clarke secretly want god-like powers? Don’t all kids who read superhero comics?

We think science fiction is about the future, but that’s not really true. Science fiction is always about the present. In 1953, when Childhood’s End was first published, the Doomsday Clock was at just 2 minutes to midnight. Is it any wonder that Clarke believed we needed to throw everything away on planet Earth and start over? In the 1950s, even the most hard-science SF magazine, Astounding Stories, had embraced ESP and psychic research. By the time 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, we were living in the Age of Aquarius, and the pop culture had become psychedelic. The Doomsday Clock had moved back to 7 minutes to midnight. Did space travel and New Age philosophies give us hope?

By 1991 the Doomsday Clock had eased back to 17 minutes to midnight. I think during all those years 2001: A Space Odyssey had lesser appeal. In 2015, the clock was moved up to 3 minutes till midnight. I expect it will go to 2 minutes soon. I’m wondering if renewed interest in this novel is due to dire times? Certainly the 2016 election makes everyone feel humanity is too stupid to survive without help from higher powers. But how many people would really want ancient aliens to provide our salvation? Personally, I find the idea insulting, and wondered why Clarke embraced such notions. Then again, I recently wrote “Rejecting Some Science Fictional Ideas” suggesting that Clarke’s novel parallels our desire for religion.

Although it’s not perfectly clear in the movie, the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, explains how an ancient alien intelligence interferes with the evolutionary development of prehuman hominids. Isn’t the opening of the film and novel really another version of the Garden of Eden myth? Instead of a Sky God creating Adam and Eve, a Sky God implants knowledge into the minds of our distant ancestors who live among the animals. It causes them to leave Eden. And if you think about, aren’t the endings of both stories the same – humans are transformed into spiritual beings, leaving Earth to dwell in the heavens with the Sky God?

Now, did Arthur C. Clarke believe this himself, or did he feel as a writer that if he tapped into an archetypal theme it would sell more books? Isn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey a perfect story for apocalyptic times? Does this not explain why Childhood’s End was recently made into a television mini-series? When I was growing up everyone felt WWIII was imminent, believing we’d all be blown to smithereens, with civilization devolving into The Flintstones. We’re now living with the threat of the collapse of civilization again, and AR-15s are selling like comic books. On the intellectual stock market, religion is up, rational thinking is down.

Would 2001: A Space Odyssey or Childhood’s End be appealing stories if times were good? Both tales abandoned Earth. Maybe they appeal to us now because we think Earth is quickly becoming used up, and we need some place to go. It might also explain the rising appeal of dystopian novels.

How else does 2001: A Space Odyssey recall the 1960s? Aren’t the themes I listed above common in many 1960s science fiction novels? Didn’t Heinlein’s 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, set the stage for 1960s and science fiction? It was also about superior aliens uplifting humans and transcending the body. It introduced a space-age religion. Doesn’t Way Station by Clifford Simak from 1963 hint at the interstellar highway system Dave Bowman travels? Are the computers in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Colossus: The Forbin Project, The God Machine, and They’d Rather Be Right brothers and sisters to HAL 9000?

Doesn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey seem to crib themes from The Phenomenon of Man, the 1959 philosophical work by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, about his theory of human evolution and the Omega Point?

But will many modern readers even know about those influences? If the only book from 1968 to be remembered in 2116 is 2001: A Space Odyssey, how could they? I doubt it will be – but isn’t that how we remember the past? What other books do we remember from 1818 but Frankenstein? Aren’t most folks mental models of history from surviving novels, without any other existing historical context? If you look at other 1968 novels, do any of them portray an accurate portrait of that year? Airport by Arthur Hailey, Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer, and Couples by John Updike might be more realistic paintings of mundane existence. I remember 1968, and on the surface, they are close. But novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Stand on Zanzibar and 2001: A Space Odyssey remind me of a psychological view of 1968. They were the most popular novels from that year that ended up on the Classics of Science Fiction list. Do I remember 1968 that way because I read those novels back then, or because that’s also how I felt in 1968?

I doubt Arthur C. Clarke believed ancient aliens monkeyed with our ancestors, or wait for us up in the sky. Maybe he thought they were fun ideas, or even hoped such things were true on his bad days. Most of Clarke’s stories are about about humans engineering their own future.

That’s the science fictional past I remember. As I reread the other Classics of Science Fiction novels in my social security years, I no longer dream of the future, but struggle to remember my science fictional past.

James Wallace Harris
Auxiliary Memory

Who Were Jules Verne’s Favorite Science Fiction Writers?

I began my lifelong love of science fiction in 1963, when I discovered books by Madeleine L’Engle, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. I was twelve. The genre probably imprinted on me because of movies and television I had seen as a child during the 1950s. I saw The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Twilight Zone before I understood the concept of science fiction. If you read interviews, memoirs and biographies of science fiction writers, they often relate their wonder at discovering science fiction in their formative years. It seems there is a legacy to science fiction – we have to inherit it.

For example, Robert Heinlein often wrote about his early love of H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, David Lindsay, and Olaf Stapledon. Those writers lived during my parents and grandparents lifetimes. What if we go further back?

jules_verne_1892_colored_portraitWere there science fiction writers that inspired Jules Verne as a child? Verne was born in 1828, a time we assume produced little science fiction. Verne is often called the Father of Science Fiction, which suggests he got the genre rolling. Did he? Many scholars who write about the history of science fiction like to think the genre began in 1818, with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Could Verne have read it?

What frustrates my efforts to understand the history of science fiction is society forgets popular culture quickly, and history seldom focuses on such small events. We do know that Verne was sent off to boarding school where his teacher believed her long missing husband was stranded on an island like Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe, the 1719 novel inspired a whole sub-genre called Robinsonades. Verne wrote three of those, the most famous of which was The Mysterious Island. I read it in 1964, and ever since had a passion for stories about people stranded on islands or distant planets. Science fiction has embraced the Robinsonade whole wholeheartedly. The immensely popular book and film, The Martian by Andy Weir, is a Robinsonade. For a history of the literary impact of Daniel Defoe’s classic tale, read In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin.

Trying to discover which popular books and magazines Jules Verne might have read in France during the 1840s is difficult. Besides the distance of time, I’m blocked by the language barrier. What did young Verne read in his early teens that led him to write his Voyages extraordinaires? Did he read Le Dernier Homme by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville, published in 1805? It’s a poem about the last man and a dying Earth. It probably inspired Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, who also wrote about the theme. Then what books inspired de Grainville?

The more we read of the History of Science Fiction, the more we discover the stories we call science fiction today have been told for centuries, long before the label was established. Creating the Classics of Science Fiction list shows our cultural memory is a bubble in a sea of forgotten knowledge. As we move forward through time, we forget what previously inspired us, so it feels like we’re constantly discovering new ideas. That’s an illusion. So many far-out ideas we think of as original to 20th century science fiction were pondered centuries ago. The deeper I look, the more I realize humans haven’t changed all that much. Our technology changes, but do we?

In earlier versions of the Classics of Science Fiction lists, there were many more novels that were published from 1850-1950 that have dropped off the latest version of the list. We are forgetting the books that inspired the writers who wrote the 1950s science fiction novels we now think of as the classics of our genre. Just study the table Versions 1-4 and look for the titles in red.