At one time I loved reading science fiction stories set anywhere in space and time, which would be all the squares on the chart below. At 70, my focus has narrowed to what I show in shades of green. The darker, the more interested I am in reading fiction or science fiction set in that space-time. I don’t hate stories set further afield, but I’m just not that into them anymore either.
One assumption deals with age. When I was young I was dazzled by any possibility. Galactic empires set in the far future had such a tremendous sense of wonder that I thought colonizing the galaxy was humanity’s reason for existing. I was also blown away by Olaf Stapledon’s stories of post-humans, and figured that was our destiny too.
Of course, I began my science fiction habit with a gateway drug of Heinlein’s juveniles, first with adventures about boys going to the Moon and Mars, then with stories that ranged over the solar system, and finally with tales that ventured into interstellar travel. I also embraced stories robots, time travel, alternate history, the multiverse, and other dimensions. I really wanted to believe we could go anywhere.
One of my all-time favorite SF stories, “The Star Pit” is set on the galaxy’s rim and is about the few special people who can travel to Andromeda and the impact their freedom had on the characters who couldn’t. As a kid, that story mirrored the frustration I felt not being able to leave Earth.
I still love “The Star Pit” but for nostalgic reasons. I still reread all my favorite SF stories set in any of the space-time locations above, but when it comes to reading new SF stories I prefer stories set in the near future set, especially on the Earth, but no further than the Moon, or Mars. To a lesser degree, I enjoy science fiction about machines exploring the asteroids and the outer system, or about SETI contact with nearby stars.
Why has aging narrowed my fictional horizons? When I was young I believed anything was possible. Now that I’m 70 I doubt humans will ever travel beyond the Moon and Mars. I believe intelligent machines will live out our big science fictional dreams. The more I’ve learned about the hostility of space on our biology, the more I’ve doubted people will live beyond Earth. As I’ve grown more practical and become less of a dreamer, I find it terribly hard to picture people actually wanting to live anywhere but Earth. I believe Elon Musk will get us to Mars, but we’ll discover we won’t like living there. Thus it’s become harder to enjoy stories set in far-ranging places of space and time.
But that’s me. What about you?
Where do you like your science fiction stories set? Has growing older affected the science fiction you love to read?
Today I read “it walks in beauty” by Chan Davis, first published in Star Science Fiction (January 1958) edited by Frederik Pohl. You can read the magazine version here. It was reprinted 9/3/3 in SciFiction at SciFi.com by Ellen Datlow who rediscovered the author’s original version. That version is in print in It Walks in Beauty, a collection of stories and essays by Chandler Davis edited by Josh Lukin. That collection was reviewed atThe New York Review of Science Fiction by Mark Rich, who also provides biographical background on the mysterious Chan Davis that I won’t repeat here. However, I learned from Rich’s essay that the version I read today was altered by Frederick Pohl, which Lukin explains in an introduction:
Only looking at the two versions quickly I felt Pohl improved the story. Especially, with the opening line:
“Harriet waved to Max from the end of its row, but Max’s thoughts were far away.”
I kept rereading it wondering why Harriet was being referred to as its. Was Harriet a robot I wondered? In the Davis version, the opening line is:
“I love Luana,” said Max dreamily, leaning against the ladder that ran up the towering vat of Number 73.”
That line did nothing for me.
“it walks in beauty” is not a great story except that it plays with pronouns. Sexually attractive females are shes, but women who work are its or careers. Because we’ve become a pronoun conscious society, this makes this science fiction story from 1958 very interesting in 2022.
Max is in love with Luana, an exotic dancer. Women who want sex and babies become star performers that men chase, which is why Davis originally called the story “The Star System.” These women do everything they can to appear sexually attractive to men. They are also the women men marry. The women who want careers wear their hair short like men, wear pants, don’t get married, and don’t have children. In this story, they are ignored by men, treated like coworkers, and referred to with the pronoun it, or collectively as careers rather than girls or shes.
Chan Davis characterized men as single-minded. They equate love with sex, accept career women as equals or even professional superiors, but they don’t think of them as women. Paula is a career that is friendly and encouraging to Max, helping him to advance at his job. Max asks Paula if she wants to come with him to Luana’s dance club. He expects her to be one of the guys who’d want to watch a stripper. Eventually, Paula reveals to Max that she has a sexual side but Max can’t accept that, even when she tricks him into seeing her with a wig and make-up. He’s horrified at her pretending to be a woman, and can’t accept it when Paula tells him that Luana wears and wig and dresses up too for the part. And it really blows Max’s mind when Paula tries to convince him that playing the sexy girl role is offensive to women.
There’s a lot to admire in this 1958 science fiction story. Why then, hasn’t it been reprinted in major science fiction anthologies? Maybe in the 1950s they never imagined society playing around with pronouns? Maybe they didn’t like the idea of women having careers or the suggestion that being a sex object was an act. In 2022 people might appreciate this story more.
It’s like the famous story, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster. It’s a great story for 1909, but it became a fantastic story after the internet became real.
I’m partial to 1950s science fiction, so the story might impress me in ways that modern readers will miss. I’m impressed that it stands out in hindsight. In 1958 I was seven, but if I had been ten years older, I still don’t think I would have picked up on the pronoun thing so quickly. The difference between the Pohl edit and Davis’ original is Pohl throws the reader into the pronoun thing and Davis waits to explain it. Pohl, as a skilled writer and editor, knew it was savvier to let the reader learn in context. He wanted to give the story teeth.
Chan Davis didn’t stick around the science fiction field for long. He was a social activist back in the 1950s so he had more important things to deal with. There’s an interview with Davis by Lukin in The Cascadia Subduction Zone v. 1 n. 1 (January 2011). This sidebar might tempt you to read it:
James Wallace Harris, 3/17/22
p.s. In case you’re wondering, I now use screenshots of quotes because my WordPress theme doesn’t word wrap in some browsers the preformatted mode I used for quotes.
After finishing “Craphound,” I decided to go ahead and read “The Slynx” by Tatyana Tolstaya and “Baby Doll” by Johanna Sinisalo and finish The Big Book of Science Fiction. That gave me a real sense of accomplishment because The Big Book of Science Fiction is probably the largest book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read War and Peace. I’m guessing TBBofSF is even longer than The Bible.
I don’t have any final assessment on this anthology. It’s just too damn big to judge as a whole. I did complain about many of the stories, but on the other hand, it has a massive amount of great science fiction too. The other day it was on sale for $2.99 for the Kindle edition at Amazon, and I thought what a wonderful bargain. I wished I hadn’t owned it already so I could get in on such a deal.
“The Slynx” was a good science fiction story, about Moscow in the far future after an atomic war where people only remember “The Blast.” The story is about civilization being thrown back into the Dark Ages. People live by myths and superstitions. Mutations are common. This kind of story was very popular in the 1950s, and Wikipedia refers to them as nuclear holocaust fiction. Among my favorites are A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett. What struck me most was how Tolstaya portrayed people’s thinking in this future much like how I imagined people thinking in prehistory.
I’ve read “Baby Doll” before, but I’m not sure where. I might have read it years ago when I first bought The Big Book of Science Fiction and tried a few stories from it. At the time, I never imagined I would read it from cover to cover. “Baby Doll” is a disturbing story about the near future where the main character is an eight-year-old girl who tries to be as sexualized as possible from the clues she gets from society and her peers. It came out in 2002 and imagined a near future where grade school children would emulate the dress styles, language, and behaviors they got from watching porn and adult reality shows. I can’t help but wonder how much of that is true today? Imagine if the MTV Awards show could be sent back in time to the people in the 1950s. What would they think?
My sister recently told me she tried to get her very young granddaughter to wear something less provocative to school and the kid got upset claiming her granny was slut shaming her. I doubt “Baby Doll” could be taught in a 7th grade English class, but I sure would love to hear what the students would say about it.
So for the next several weeks, the Facebook group will be reading and discussing SF stories from the 1980s and 1990s, and 2021. If you’re interested and use Facebook drop by. I won’t be reviewing every one of these stories here, but I’ll probably write about the ones that impress me most.
“Craphound” by Cory Doctorow belongs to that wonderful sub-sub-sub-genre, nostalgia stories by science fiction writers. Other classics of that theme are “Jeffty is Five” by Harlan Ellison, “Travels With My Cats” by Mike Resnick, and “A Scent of Sarsaparilla” by Ray Bradbury. I belong to several online groups where old science fiction fans dwell on old science fiction, and many of them collect all kinds of crap from when they grew up. The novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline resonates so well with certain readers because of its nostalgia for the 1980s.
Over my lifetime I’ve known many collectors of science fiction and their collections usually included memorabilia crap from the past. Forrest J. Ackerman, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison were known for their huge nostalgic collections (much of it toys). Just pay attention to Harlan Ellison’s house in the documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth. A few glimpses can be had in this preview from YouTube.
All during my school and college years, I thought science fiction was about the future, but ever since then, science fiction has been about the nostalgic past. There’s an article at The Economist, “If you think sci-fi is about the future, think again” that I’d love to read but it’s behind a paywall. It’s subtitled “An exhibition in London shows how much of science fiction is fuelled by nostalgia.” If anyone is a subscriber and is willing, send me a copy.
Cory Doctorow has tuned into these nostalgic readers with a story about Jerry and his best friend known as Craphound, an alien from outer space. Both are professional hunters of old crap that they resell for big dollars to the addicts of nostalgia. Sadly, their friendship is shattered one day when they get into a bidding war over an old suitcase of cowboy clothes and toys at the East Muskoka Volunteer Fire Department Ladies’ Auxiliary sale.
Why would aliens want our old crap? Well, without Craphound (which Doctorow uses for his domain name) the story wouldn’t be science fiction, and Doctorow couldn’t have sold it to a science fiction market. Without Craphound the story would just be about a loser with arrested development making a living by going to garage sales and Goodwill stores. Without Craphound, the story would be about people like us. Just imagine if you’re yard sale copilot was an ET.
Nostalgic SF is closely related to Recursive SF. If I could remember better, I could cite a long list of stories where science fiction stories longingly look back to the past.
In recent years I’ve been collecting old science fiction anthologies and a fair amount of old science fiction magazines and fanzines. I was just looking at my wall of bookshelves and thinking about all the people that once held those books and magazines. There must have been thousands of folks like me. Mike Resnick was one since I bought some fanzines on eBay with mailing labels addressed to him. When I die my wife will liquidate my collection and it will go to new collectors. Some of my things would make garage sale craphounds very happy. Who knows, maybe one of them will be an alien.
Story #104 of 107: “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
Warning: Don’t read this essay if you haven’t read “Story of Your Life,” or at least seen Arrival. I want to explore how and why this story works and that means spoilers, and “Story of Your Life” is much too lovely to spoil for anyone. There are copies on the internet and it can be found in many anthologies, but it’s best to own a copy of Stories of Your Life and Others.
Today I read “Story of Your Life” for the third time, and watched Arrival for the second time. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang is the epitome of what science fiction strives to achieve. There were many stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction that I don’t believe deserve that label, but this story does. Science fiction is notoriously hard to define because everyone wants to define it differently, but I’d like to think “Story of Your Life” fits within everyone’s definition of science fiction.
For me, the best science fiction does two things, and the greatest does three. The best science fiction stories combine wonderful storytelling with a sense of wonder. Sense of wonder emerges when readers are taken from the edge of current science to the forefront of tomorrow’s science. What elevates a 4-star story into a 5-star story is when it emotionally, spiritually, and philosophically transcends. Ted Chiang is transcendent in “Story of Your Life.”
Chiang asks, what if we meet aliens that perceive reality differently from us? What if we see reality linearly, and they see it holistically — could we communicate? Science fiction, for the most part, has always assumed we’ll bridge the language divide with aliens quickly. Chiang’s story asks, “Wait, what if that’s not true?” It’s one thing to question the possibility, it’s another thing altogether to show how the difficulties could unfold. It’s even greater when the writer takes us through the process so we see why too.
Time and again, Chiang presents us with an idea and the evidence to support the idea. For example when Louise Banks, the linguist in the story, realizes that the Heptapods’ written language was not patterned on its spoken language. That’s kind of mindblowing until Chiang reminds us that there have been written languages in human cultures that didn’t follow the structure of their spoken languages. Would we have ever deciphered ancient Eygptian hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone?
According to Wikipedia, Chiang spent five years studying linguistics before writing this story.
“Story of Your Life” is actually twin narratives, two stories. The first is a third-person narrative relating Louise’s and Gary Donnelly’s work with the Heptapods to learn their language. The other story is a second-person narrative of Louise talking to her daughter.
The twin narratives represent a linear story and a holistic story. One is how humans think, and the other is how Heptapods perceive. From our perspective, they know the future. When Louise begins to understand that this might be possible she struggles to understand how and what are its implications. Louise imagines someone having the Book of Ages where everything that’s ever happened is written down. Humans perceive reality as if reading such a book word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, but the Heptapods know it all at once.
This is the great leap forward that science fiction makes to inspire a sense of wonder. This explains how the second-person narrative of the story works.
“Story of Your Life” also presents science facts too. Unfortunately, these are often perceived as infodumps by science fiction readers. Infodumps can burden a tale. In this story, I was quite entertained by them, especially Fermat’s Principle. It’s very hard to teach science within a science fiction story. I took many science courses in high school and college and read hundreds of popular science books, but my science knowledge is rather flimsy and fading. This is the first time I’ve encountered Fermat’s Principle, even even though it wasn’t entirely mind-blowing, it hurt my head to contemplate. Who sticks things like this into science fiction and gets away with it? Not many writers. Ted Chiang does.
Ted Chiang is basically performing a magic trick upon his readers. He uses real science several times as a diversion so we will believe in the science fiction illusion he creates. I do not believe there is any being that comprehends reality holistically like the Heptapods. Theists claim God can but I’m an atheist. But for the sake of this story, I suspend my disbelief and let it be true. Science fiction doesn’t have to be realistic, it just has to feel within the realm of reality.
Louise learns just enough of the Heptapod’s written language to start thinking in it, and that affects her dreams. She can’t consciously perceive holistically like they do, but her unconscious mind can, its perceptions leaking out in dreams and visions creating the second-person story.
My mind aches while trying to imagine how Ted Chiang constructed this intricate story. There are certain stories I consider writing models that new science fiction writers need to beat. “Story of Your Life” set the pace in 1998. It’s definitely a 5-star story, but it’s more than that. A few great science fiction stories are also philosophical, and they go beyond great storytelling.
In the end, we know that Louise has been talking to her daughter in dream sequences. The daughter was born after the Heptapods left after the story ends. She died young. On first reading or first viewing of Arrival, we assumed her daughter died before the story starts. Louise learns during the story, and before we do, that she is seeing the future. Sadly, she also knows her daughter’s life will be brief, and when and how she will die. For us who live linear lives, we know what a tremendous burden such knowledge would be. Yet, Louise fully embraces her tragic future. She accepts the ecstasy and the agony.
As far as I can find, Chiang never gives the daughter a name, but in the movie, they make a special point to let us know it’s Hannah. I wonder why for each case. The screenwriters also change the name of the aliens from Flapper and Raspberry to Abbott and Costello. In this case, I prefer the screenwriters’ choice.
What Chiang tells us if we perceived reality holistically, if we’re omniscient, we’d still choose to follow our paths. This questions the whole idea of free will. It’s Buddhism versus Christianity. But we don’t get so technical when we experience this story, it evokes an epiphany in Louise, but one that we should resonate with emotionally.
Many will ask, why did Louise agree to have a baby when she knew her daughter would die from a horrible disease? With the Heptapod’s way of perceiving choice isn’t a factor. Acceptance is a path in Eastern philosophy.
I should mention that Arrival tacks on some extra storylines. It often appears that moviemakers believe that science fiction audiences want their heroes to save the world. “Story of Your Life” is quiet and personal. Arrival ramps up the politics and adds in a save the world plot. I have to wonder if the general population would have admired the film just as much without it?
James Wallace Harris, 3/12/22
p.s. I’ve been reading but not reviewing some of the last stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction. If I don’t have anything new to say after I’ve already oversaid everything, I decided just not to say anything.
Story #101 of 107: “Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” by Geoffrey Maloney
“Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” by Geoffrey Maloney is about aliens who have come to the Earth and leave. Their motives are mysterious. They leave behind crypto machines that look like large teletypes that print on ancient-looking paper. In the story, an unnamed narrator travels with his girlfriend who hopes to meet one of the last aliens before they leave. The narrator becomes petty and jealous for being ignored. Ultimately he finds out that his girlfriend has learned about what the aliens have said about us and it’s not very nice, but true.
The mood of this story reminds me of the Strugatsky brother’s novel, Roadside Picnic. The aliens in that story are completely unknowable. In Maloney’s story, we knew the aliens were here and got to know them some, but they and their mission were always a mystery. Back in the 1950s, there were two famous science fiction stories where aliens judged humanity, the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the novel Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. But the theme is reasonably common.
Quite often in science fiction, we hope aliens will save us from ourselves, a Christ-like role. But every so often, science fiction writes about aliens who judge us, an Old Testament God-like role. In this story, the aliens are more like Margaret Mead coming to live with us for a while. At the end of this short story, we learn one question that horrifies the aliens about us. The narrator worries that the aliens will be sending an executioner, but I get the feeling these aliens are more gentle, so they would probably only put up signs – Warning! Insane Creatures.
“Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” is a nice science fiction story. Not great, but does the job and creates a neat mood. It’s part of a larger work called Tales from the Crypto-System. I’m slightly tempted to try the book, except that it’s too expensive at Amazon, and there is no Kindle edition. A $2.99 Kindle edition might rescue it from obscurity. Infinity Plus gave it a nice review back in 2005. Some of it can be read from Google Books, and I might try more of it when I have time.
I’ve forgotten why, but I was Googling around and found the image above. I was quite taken with it. I did a Google image search and discovered it came from Weird Tales #14 (July-Aug 1952) and the artist was Wally Wood. I know as close to nothing about comics as is possible without knowing anything at all. I have run across some interior illustrations by Wood in Galaxy Science Fiction and admired them too. I’d love to have a big art book of his work.
Back in 1963, when I was twelve, my grandmother subscribed to four comic books for me for my birthday. I believe they were to Superman, The Justice League of America, Wonder Woman, and The Flash. I read them as I got them, and carefully saved all the issues before my cousins Bobby and Timmy borrowed my complete library of comics. They never returned them. It didn’t bother me. I much preferred reading science fiction. And I forgot about comic books until the 1970s when I discovered underground comics in a headshop. I tried one by Vaughn Bode and another by Robert Crumb.
Over the years I’ve tried comics periodically but never could get into them. This month I’m giving them one more try because of that Wally Wood cover illustration. I went looking for a scan of #14 of Weird Science on the internet because I wanted to read the story that goes with the illustration. Evidently, the copyright holders of EC Comics keep a sharp watch on copyright violators because I couldn’t find a digital scan.
I then went to eBay, ABEbooks, and Amazon looking for a copy and discovered The EC Archives: Weird Science Volume 1 had just been released. The paperback was $18.18 and the Kindle edition was $13.99. It claimed to collect #12–#15 and #5–6. I was all ready to press the buy button when I saw a mention I should try a free 30-day trial version of Comixology. What the hell. I did. I’m going to give comics one more try.
I quickly loaded the Archives on my tablet only to discover #14 looked different.
It took a bit of research but I discovered there was a 1950 series and a 1951 series, and Archives Volume 1 had the 1950 #14. I was disappointed. Back to Google. I eventually found comics.org and this very informative page. From there I learned there was a 1994 Gemstone annual that reprinted the 1951 #14. I found the cheapest copy on eBay and ordered it. The internet is a wonderful tool! I’ve never used comics.org before but it’s as useful as isfdb.org.
While I wait for the Gemstone Weird Science Annual, I’ve been looking at The EC Archives: Weird Science Volume 1. I can’t say I’ve gotten hooked on comics. In fact, I’m somewhat shocked by what I discovered. The stories and art are very — I wanted to say crude but I don’t want to offend people. Is simplistic a better word? Unsophisticated?
I once took a graduate course in the English department on humor, and we were taught there are many levels of sophistication in humor, although I’m not sure the professor claimed any form was superior to another. Chaplin’s slapstick humor might be as brilliant as Shakespeare’s humorous wordplay.
The 1950s science fiction stories Weird Science are similar in ideas to what was being published in the pulps in the 1920s and 1930s. Now I’m not trying to be superior. My favorite kind of science fiction is novels and short stories from the 1950s. They might only be a step up from science fiction in comic books as comic books are a step up in believability over books like Dr. Seuss or Goodnight Moon. I’m not offended when brilliant literary writers complain that science fiction is adolescent, because I agree with them.
At 70, I’m fully aware that my favorite kind of fiction to read in 2022 is as sophisticated as my mind was in high school (1966-1969). I was an English major in college, and I still read the literary classics, but usually only one per year. When I say science fiction that appeared in the science fiction magazines of the 1950s was more sophisticated than the science fiction appearing in the comics or funny papers, or on the big or little screens of that decade, I’m not claiming it was superior. I’m only saying the stories were more complex and richer in detail.
For example, compare “I Created A Gargantua!” or “Lost in the Microcosm” in Weird Science to The Shrinking Man (1956) by Richard Matheson, the book version of the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man, or The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). None of these stories are realistic, all of them are basically stupid, and all of them are on the level of comic book science fiction. I guess I should up the ante some and also throw in “The Drowned Giant” by J. G. Ballard, as a literary comparison. And even mention that Alice in Wonderland played around with the idea of changing size.
My point in mentioning all these stories is to support my argument that written science fiction in the 1950s was more sophisticated than comic books. Back in the 1950s comic books were aimed at kids who could read but probably didn’t read books. They were a step up from kids’ picture books. Galaxy Science Fiction was a step up from Amazing Stories, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction offered more adult reading than Astounding Science Fiction. And the 1957 science fiction novel, On the Beach by Nevil Shute, was aimed at an even more adult audience.
It’s all about being in the target audience. As I read those collected issues of Weird Science from EC Comics I felt I was regressing back to age twelve. Every time I tried comics again since I was twelve I rejected them as being too young for me and immediately quit reading them after a few pages. This time I kept reading. I even somewhat enjoyed myself. But that scared me. Getting old and being anxious over growing memory loss, made me fear that enjoying a comic book might be the first sign that I’m regressing.
I’ve always considered Charlie Gordon’s rise and fall of intelligence in Flowers for Algernon was modeled the arc of normal aging and decay. Reading Weird Science made me feel like Charlie Gordon when he realized he was on the downward slope of his IQ arc. I’ve noticed this before. I’m starting to struggle with nonfiction and more sophisticated novels.
I can picture myself getting older and reading the Oz books I loved in the 5th grade. The science fiction I love to read now is the same as I loved back in the 8th grade. However, I’m reading it with 70 years of wisdom I didn’t have then, and I’m admiring it more. I still enjoy Austen, Dickens, Trollope, Tolstoy, Lawrence, or even Joyce, but I’m slowly gravitating more and more to the fiction of my adolescence. That doesn’t upset me. I’m glad I have those stories to welcome me home.
I’m not ready yet to read comic books again, or even return to the Oz books, but I can imagine a time when I might be.
“The Remoras” by Robert Reed was first published in the May 1994 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and has been reprinted a number of times since then. “The Remoras” is set in the far future, on a spaceship as large as a planet, crewed by immortal humans and aliens, who are taking a grand tour around the Milky Way.
The story is part of Reed’s The Great Ship Universe series, but I’ve only read a few of its many entries. My favorite was “Good Mountain,” but it wasn’t set on the Great Ship. I’ve Googled around hoping to find an overview of the Great Ship stories but couldn’t find one. It includes the novels Marrow and The Well of Stars, as well as the collection The Great Ship, but there are other books in the series according to GoodReads.
“The Remoras” is a Quee Lee story, she is a passenger on the Great Ship that is on a 500,000-year voyage that will make one orbit of the Milky Way. This story imagines the far future, when posthumans live lives we can’t imagine.
We have to assume Reed’s goal with this story is to speculate about immortality and posthuman societies, yet the story starts off with a very contemporary-sounding situation. Quee Lee is lounging around in her luxury apartment when a person name Orleans comes to her door wanting 52,000 credits her husband Perri owes. That sounds like a 1940s film noir beginning. I have a pet peeve against plots that use cliche pulp fiction plot conflicts.
We are told we’re in a giant spaceship but we don’t feel it – yet. The person at the door is a man, but not like anyone now in existence. Orleans is a Remora, humans that have mutated themselves by exposure to radiation from working on the outside of the ship. They were tagged with the name Remoras after the fish that follow sharks and feed off their skin. The Remoras are also immortal, but to normal humans look grossly disfigured by cancers. For example, Orleans has an eye that looks like a sea anemone.
At first, Quee Lee mistrusts Orleans and tells him she will tell her husband and he will have to deal with his debt. All of this first part of the story disappointed me. I find the idea of a ship as big as a planet taking passengers on a half-million-year orbit of the Milky Way to be too unbelievable. I also find the idea of longevity extending to hundreds of thousands of years to be unbelievable. And I felt nothing Reed gave us helped me see the possibilities.
But in the second half of the story, when Quee Lee goes to visit Orleans and decides she wants to temporarily experience being a Remora, the story got good. For some reason, I could buy the idea that humans could mutate themselves by consciously directing cancers and genetic alterations. It’s not that I believe such actions are possible in our reality, but Reed made them believable in his story, and that’s what counts.
And to make his story even more fun, he takes us through several plot twists. There is a scene when Quee Lee is on the surface of the ship describing a tremendous light show of lasers destroying comets before they could hit the ship that reminded me of the “Tears in the Rain” speech by Roy Batty in Blade Runner. It goes like this: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain… Time to die.”
What Quee Lee saw wasn’t so eloquently and succinctly stated, but the imagery was just as impressive, like an experience Roy Batty would have seen in his short lifetime.
Reed’s story is super-science on a vast scale. Many writers of modern space opera try to imagine such far futures, but for me, they fail. I can imagine humans living for hundreds of years, but not hundreds of thousands of years. I can imagine humans traveling across the galaxy, but not in ships as big as planets. The Great Ship stories push the boundaries for what I consider credible science fiction. However, once this story zeroed in on one relationship that involves a very short period of time involving exact details I got into it.
“Gorgonoids” by Leena Krohn is not science fiction but a science fictional meditation on artificial life. If you are familiar with John Conway’s Game of Life then you might appreciate Krohn’s story even more. The title characters are an artificial lifeform created in a computer, and the narrator of the story philosophizes about them and other artificial life forms. Artificial life and cellular automaton are fascinating subjects in the real world that are very science-fictional in nature. Krohn’s narrator is really speculating about real artificial life in a fictional essay, not creating a fictional world about artificial life.
Ann VanderMeer obviously admires surreal literary stories that are philosophical and speculative but I don’t consider “Gorgonoids” science fiction. It is a great fictional essay, but to explain what I mean why it’s not science fiction, read “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” by Mercurio D. Rivera. That story takes the idea of artificial life into the realm of science fiction.
The New Yorker did a profile on this Finnish writer, “Cracking the Codes of Leena Krohn,” by Peter Bebergal. If you enjoyed reading “Gorgonoids,” in The Big Book of Science Fiction then I recommend reading the essay about Krohn. In it Krohn is quoted about the science fiction label:
I like what Krohn is doing in “Gorgonoids,” because it inspires me to study more about artificial life. Her fictional essay involves all the questions people have when contemplating the subject of artificial life, but it lacks a story. Interestingly, her narrator takes the idea into extreme realms that science fiction explores, but only as idle navel-gazing. What makes science fiction science fiction is when a story brings those wild ideas alive in a conventional fictional structure. Science fiction can use experimental fiction techniques, but it still needs to convey a real fictional story.
Saying I don’t consider “Gorgonoids” science fiction isn’t knocking it. The VanderMeers are slowly wearing me down with all these quasi-SF stories. They need an anthology of their own – The Big Book of Experimental Fiction. That way readers could see all the ways writers push the boundaries of conventional fiction and science fiction.
You might not notice our new feature since it’s rather subtle, but we’ve added a column with links to reviews. If you look at the Classics of Science Fiction list (or related lists), you’ll see a new column: Reviews. Click on the number beside a title you’re interested in and we’ll show you the reviews we’ve found just for that title. Or if you want to see the reviews for all the titles, click on Show Reviews at the top. Click again and they will disappear. Clicking on a review will take you to the review. (I like to right-click links and choose “Show in new window” so I won’t lose my place in the list.)
It’s going to take Mike and me a long time to add reviews to all the titles in the database. We’re working on the titles in the main lists first. Mike is currently working on novels, and I’m working on short stories.
We’ve both discovered that searching for reviews to link is quite illuminating in many ways. The first revelation is one we already knew because it inspired the new feature in the first place. Google is terrible at finding good reviews. Actually searching for reviews to add to the database only reinforces this impression. Google is geared to selling stuff, and not necessarily to help you to find what you want to know. Google does offer the wonderful service scholar.google.com that indexes academic journals. A search using it will find exactly the kind of reviews I want to read, but sadly most of that content is behind paywalls.
Reviews of books and short stories on Google are limited mostly to professional publications that offer their content for free or content from bloggers. We try to find substantial and quality reviews, but that’s not always possible. We do include reviews from sites with paywalls if they offer a certain number of free reads. By the way, you can extend that number of free reads by switching computers or browsers. If you have a computer, tablet, and smartphone, each with two browsers, you can extend 4 free reads to 24.
What has been personally rewarding to us while gathering links is discovering the kind of reviews available. We don’t have time to read all of them closely, but we do read over them enough to judge them. That makes us both want to go back and just read reviews. It’s quite fascinating how one novel can inspire so many reactions, often opposing. Reading the reviews makes us want to read the stories. And reading the reviews of stories we’ve already read makes us want to reread some stories to look for the new perspectives we’ve found in the reviews.
Searching for these links is also revealing the junkiness of the internet. Most pages are horrors of graphical layouts. For a good portion of them, you’d think they were designed to discourage reading, especially those pages with tiny typefaces. Even more painfully revealing, is it’s all too obvious that in most cases sites are throwing up a little content just to get you to them. They want your clicks. They want you to click on their ads.
We’re also learning about the quality of reviewing. It makes me ask: What makes a great review? It also makes me ask: Are my reviews worth reading? And: What could I add to my reviews to make them more useful?
We hope we’re providing a service by helping readers find reviews of the stories we list by wading through all that internet crap for you. But more importantly, we want to help you decide on things to read. Offering lists of recommended books and short stories has its uses, but looking at lists can be dull. We thought of providing graphics and illustrations to spice up our site, but such eye candy is only a distraction. Mike came up with the idea of adding links to reviews, and I believe that will be truly helpful – a great addition.