What Happened to Science Fiction?

Disclaimer: My definition of science fiction is not how others define it. Nor is my approach to Star Trek. I’m just psychoanalyzing myself to understand my emotional reaction to the new Star Trek: Picard. It has given me insight into how science fiction is changing.

Is science fiction always science fiction? The label is so broadly used that it’s almost meaningless. Hasn’t science fiction changed from generation to generation? Wasn’t science fiction different before Star Trek in 1966? And didn’t it change again in 1977 with Star Wars? Before 1966 the audience for science fiction was mainly readers of books and magazines. Star Trek brought in millions of new fans. Star Wars brought in tens of millions of new fans. Didn’t each new wave of fans redefine the genre?

Hasn’t every new decade starting in the 1930s, attract new writers that changed the genre? Wasn’t science fiction before NASA different than after NASA? Didn’t the influx of women writers change science fiction? Hasn’t the success of fantasy influence science fiction? Don’t you think the shift to writing long book series changes things again?

I felt Star Trek: Picard in 2020 works to do something very different than Star Trek in 1966. Can we still call it science fiction? Should a label be changed when the object it points to changes? Language has always been fluid, so we tend to recycle words, which can be confusing. I believe if we study all the different incarnations of Star Trek we’ll see that what we point to with the label science fiction has regularly changed.

Early science fiction was about real things we might invent or discover. Writers said someday we’ll go to the Moon and we did. Someday we’ll invent robots and we’re doing it. Then other writers came along and used those ideas to make up fun stories indifferent to what might happen in the future. They didn’t care what was really possible or not, they just loved the stories. Writers who were idea lovers wanting to speculate found it harder and harder to come up with new possible realist concepts so they switched speculating about fantastic possibilities. And the story lovers embraced those ideas too.

The original Star Trek had many episodes written by idea lovers. With each new Star Trek series the science fiction shifted more to the story lovers. Star Trek: Picard has no speculation at all. In fact, it seems primarily nostalgic and recursive. It even seems to suggest a new phase, character lovers. All the enchantment in this new series seems to come from connecting with old friends, old enemies, and old conflicts. Is that really science fiction?

Everyone has a different definition or concept to explain their love of science fiction. I’m enjoying the new Star Trek: Picard but I feel something is missing, and it’s taken me a while to figure out what. For me, science fiction is that sense-of-wonder rush I get when I encounter a new far-out speculative idea. Plenty of stories are called science fiction, but for me, the real McCoy always comes with a sense-of-wonder epiphany. What I’m realizing is earlier Star Trek series were different from recent series, and something has changed. I’m wondering if this new approach to Star Trek isn’t also a trend with other forms of science fiction. The nostalgic recursion is certainly true of Star Wars and the Marvel Universe.

The Star Trek universe is huge. It’s hundreds and hundreds of hours of television episodes and movies, plus a zillion pages of books and fan fiction. Sure, Star Trek is set in a science fictional framework, but 99.98% of Star Trek is mythos and not science fiction — not by my definition. After the original series, Star Trek is an ever-expanding mythology that seldom adds new science-fictional ideas. Star Trek is mainly Star Trek.

Star Trek: Picard is a chimera. Our senses are dazzled by its special effects while our heart melts with nostalgia, yet something is missing. During the summer of 1966, I began seeing commercials for a TV show aimed directly at me. I actually looked forward to going back to school that year because it meant Star Trek would premiere. That summer was a transition time for me because I was about to begin high school. I had spent my junior high years gorging on science fiction books and short stories, and I was full of sense of wonder and a true believer in science fiction.

There was little serious science fiction on television before Star Trek, notably The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. So it was with great anticipation and excitement that I tuned into to see the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap” shown on September 8, 1966. Maybe I had too much hope because a story about a shape-shifting alien seemed old hat. I may or may not have read Campbell’s classic story “Who Goes There?” by then, but I had read other SF stories about beings that could fool us into thinking they were human.

Yet, I was still excited about Star Trek. The concept of a five-year mission of a scientific vessel exploring the galaxy did instill a lot of hope. Knowing that every week Star Trek would present a new science fiction idea completely sold me on the show. Back then I and my buddies would always discuss a science fiction story by the ideas that wowed us. Good stories, no matter the genre, always have good characters, plots, dialogue, standard storytelling structure, but what made science fiction unique was its mind-blowing ideas.

The following week’s episode, “Charlie X” did generate a better sense of wonder high — the idea of a human kid being raised by aliens was far out to ponder on my own and discuss with friends at school. Sure, Heinlein had done a spectacular job with Stranger in a Strange Land, and “Charlie X” felt like a rip-off, but it still was cool — it was on television to see.

The following week’s show, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was even more sense of wonder provoking  — what if we meet aliens with godlike powers? Unfortunately, not all 79 episodes of Star Trek pushed my sense of wonder button. Many episodes were groan-worthy, especially after the first season. Remember the incredibly painful “Spock’s Brain?” Gosh-doggie, it was bad. There were many reasons to cancel that show in the third season despite fan rapture. Evidently, science fiction’s repertoire of far-out concepts is smaller than 79.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered it brought both hope and nostalgia. By then the writers had figured out they needed relationship stories within the crew, and outside threats to generate enough weekly plots to keep the series going. The series began to shift, aiming at story lovers over idea lovers. I followed the show for its entire first run. The original series was more like an anthology of short stories. For the most part, the Next Generation had self-contained episodes, but there was more continuity. I liked it for the mythos it was building more than its infrequent science fiction episodes.

Over the years, I’ve tried to rewatch Star Trek: The Next Generation and I’ve always failed. I like Picard better than Kirk, and even though I liked Spock better than Data, Data’s character actually provided a greater range of interesting stories. Star Trek: The Next Generation had 178 episodes. Very few of those episodes are memorable to me now. However, collectively the storytelling, the mythos, of the Next Generation was more memorable than the story arc of the original series. And I believe that’s why Star Trek: Picard is so compelling. Picard has no science fiction or sense-of-wonder that I can recall from the first five episodes. And it’s not really generating new content for story lovers — the series is aimed at character lovers.

Of course, people are going to scream at me. What about the spaceships, the androids, the holographic characters, the aliens, teleporters — those elements brand it as science fiction! Star Trek has been using those elements for so long that they have zip sense-of-wonder. We take them for granted. They are part of the mythos. My definition of science fiction, and it might be only mine, requires science fiction to be inventive, to speculate, extrapolate, to come up with something new, or at least, a neat twist on something old. Star Trek has stopped trying, and I don’t think Star Wars ever tried. Only stand-alone movies like Her or Gattaca or Moon even try to come up with a different take anymore. Ditto for books. Series, by their very nature target story lovers, and most of them run out of steam generating new stories and switch to character love.

I’m sure some new science fiction writers try hard to come up with new science-fictional concepts, but the genre has mostly switched to chewing on the old bones.

The reason we have more and more book series in science fiction is that fans have mutated from wanting ideas to stories to characters. Science fiction has become character and plot-driven, and for the most part, have given up being sense-of-wonder idea-driven. The standard set of mind-blowing elements of science fiction — space travel, aliens, robots, AI, end-of-the-world, time travel, are so common in society that most children accept them as dogma well before they even start school.

I think I was in the 5th or 6th grade before I encountered the idea of time travel by watching the 1960 version of The Time Machine. I was old enough for it to be a shocking concept — one that I relished. What a powerful sense-of-wonder rush. I then went and read the H. G. Wells original story. It’s jammed packed with science fictional ideas. But it doesn’t take reading too many time travel tales to get jaded.

Science fiction has a big problem with staleness. Which is probably why so many fans have switched to nostalgia.

In 1966, Star Trek still had a chance to present sense-of-wonder ideas to most viewers. By 1977, Star Wars was so cliche that it was big fun. Sure, little kids probably didn’t feel that way, but for most viewers, George Lucas was paying homage to a lot of old science fiction. Lucas and Spielberg repackaged science fiction for the masses, but it was about the story, the characters, the plot, and the special effects. It didn’t speculate.

I now have to read a ton of SF short stories to find a single one that surprises me with something new. Quite often now when I read Analog or Asimov’s I find stories that use science-fictional ideas I’ve seen time and time again. Some of the episodes of Black Mirror surprised me. The kind of idea-driven stories I love is usually found in magazines or anthologies, and not novels. You don’t often see a story like Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, or The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Modern television shows have a story arc. The best ones feel like watching a long novel. Star Trek: Picard season one is one long story so that each individual episode adds to the overall story. The plot is a thriller, not science fiction, although the setting is science fiction. We will not get a “City on the Edge of Forever” or “The Inner Light.” And after seeing five episodes of season one of Star Trek: Picard, I’m pretty sure its ten episodes will not equal the sense-of-wonder impact of either of those two individual episodes.

I’m enjoying Star Trek: Picard, but it’s definitely missing something, and to me, what it’s missing is science fiction. We have so much science fiction in the 21st-century that we’ve forgotten the essential nature of science fiction. Well, at least the kind of science fiction I grew up reading and watching in the 20th-century.

Action-oriented thrillers set in space may give the illusion of being science fiction, but they are not. I can understand why some fans claim Star Trek: Picard feels too much like Star Wars. Plots centered around political intrigue, crime, war, kidnapping, revenge, terrorism are about those topics. To be real science fiction the plot has to center around a novel science-fictional concept. All the best episodes in the Star Trek franchise derive their sense of wonder from a science fictional concept. And those standout episodes have become very infrequent.

I’m afraid in future years I won’t spend much time remembering Star Trek: Picard because there’s no cool idea to remember. I can remember more episodes from Star Trek than I can Star Trek: Next Generation even though the later show had more than twice as many episodes. That’s because the original Star Trek was like a collection of science fiction short stories, and Next Generation was more of an ensemble of characters in soap opera set in the future. Even more so for Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.

Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, were all very memorable but if you really examine the episodes, they had very little true characterization. They were caricatures where the writers constantly reinforced the same cliche traits. The focus of each episode was a science-fictional idea, sometimes good, often bad. There will be no “The Trouble With Tribbles” or “Shore Leave” episode in Picard. Fans will remember it as season one. And to me, reuniting old friends with old enemies is not science fiction no matter how many space ships you see.

James Wallace Harris, 2/25/20

Blows Against The Empire: Alfred Bester’s 1953 Critique of Science Fiction

Before the tempest in this teapot begins to blow, let me quote Alfred Bester’s conclusion to his severe attack on science fiction from his 1953 essay “The Trematode: A Critique of Modern Science-Fiction:”

The Trematode is a parasite which infests the mussel and either destroys it or forces it to form a pearl. Science-fiction has infested us and we are waiting to see what the result will be. But one thing is certain: the end must be the metamorphosis of science-fiction. Whether it turns to rot or is transformed into a pearl, it will not continue to exist as an isolated organism much longer. For my part, I welcome this end. For my part, I foresee the pearl.

Bester is looking back over what many have called the Golden Age of Science Fiction and burning it down with his blaster. I wish I could find the fan reaction to this essay from back in the 1950s, but Google only returns seven results. And for those who aren’t familiar with the name Alfred Bester, he wrote two books in the 1950s that became classics: The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man. At the time Bester had a reputation for being a writing stylist and innovator. So getting a dressing down from one of our own must have been painful.

I wonder what I would have thought if I read and understood this essay in 1962 when I first began reading science fiction. Science fiction wasn’t popular then like it is today. Science fiction was one step up from comic books, and you were called retarded (their word back then) by your peers if you read comics. I remembered also being called a geek and zero for reading SF. Back then those terms were the social kiss of death. I had two buddies that read science fiction in high school and I remember being very hurt by George’s mother when she sat is down one day and gave us a serious talk about evils of reading science fiction. George’s mother was a sophisticated, well-educated, widely traveled woman, and I was always impressed with her thoughts, so it really hurt when she tried to convince us we were reading trash. She implied reading SF was a sign we were emotionally and intellectually immature. We thought we were Slans.

Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a great civil war within the science fiction genre, a war between the Old Wave and New Wave. If I had read Bester’s essay then I would have felt self-righteous because I was on the side of the New Wave and its attacks on the Old Wave were much like his attacks on SF in 1953. It was a painful time that mirrored the Generation Gap and the violent unrest between the folks for the Vietnam war and against it.

Today another civil war/generational divide seems to be emerging in our genre. I often see attacks on old science fiction and old science fiction writers. However, this time I feel like I’m surfing the Old Wave. Of course, I’m 68. I guess every so often science fiction rebels against itself. The Old Empire is attacked by the Young Turks. Probably one reason Star Wars has been so freakin’ popular is the merry band of pirates battling the evil empire motif resonates so well with the young in all ages. And once again the young feel so righteous, like the early Christians planning to overthrow Rome.

Science fiction has often suffered the slings and arrows of self-righteous critics, both from within and without. Civil wars are always the most painful, and I wonder if the current rebellion attempting to overthrow the Sci-Fi Empire will become as contentious as the New Way/Old Wave rebellion of the 1960s? Literary critics and scholars have periodically published attacks on the genre, but even though they rile the SF masses eventually they are ignored. What angers the true fans more than generation conflicts are traders to the cause, the Judas to the genre. On SF by Thomas M Disch offers a more recent attack on SF from a 21st-century book, and some fan opinions of Disch aren’t very nice. His publishers described On SF as “A last judgment on the genre from science fiction’s foremost critic.” Unfortunately, Disch was never very well known.

Bester and Disch say much in common. In fact, all the rockets launched against the empire have similar targets. These attacks generally cause flame wars but do they change anything? Sure, science fiction has become more politically correct over time, but then so has the rest of society.

I found Bester’s “The Trematode: A Critique of Modern Science Fiction” in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1953 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, first published in September of 1953. It’s doubtful you’ll be able to find a copy of this anthology. I’m hoping it’s out of copyright because I plan to quote all of it here. The reason why I’m paying particular attention to what Bester says is because of his opening paragraphs:

I HATE science-fiction for what it has been; I love it for what it will be. I am ashamed of science-fiction’s past, as I’m ashamed of the childhood that led me to it. I look to its future with hope, as I look with hope toward my own future development and maturity. I believe I do not speak for myself alone, but for all of us; for we are all alike in our sins and in our hopes.

When I was a boy I was blessed with a boy’s vivid curiosity about life and cursed with a boy’s timidity about facing life. I yearned for many things and could not face the reality of achieving them. I wanted to be a scientist. I received a micro¬scope for Christmas and spent interminable hours peering at drops of swamp water, but I never applied myself to zoology. I never could face the hard work, the study and discipline it re-quired. I merely peered through the microscope and imagined I was making great discoveries.

I wanted to be an astronomer. I read books on astronomy and gazed for hours at the illustrations, but I never learned the stars or even the constellations. I could not face the work. I was content to dream about space. I wanted to be a great chess player. I learned the moves but never applied myself to learn the game. I wanted to be a physician, an adventurer, a fullback, a composer—all the things that all boys want to be—and never became any of them because the reality of accomplishment was so much less glamorous than the dreams.

I don’t hate old science fiction, but there are those who do. Nor am I ashamed for science fiction’s past, although there are many who are. But I do agree with Bester, that all science fiction fans seek hope in what they read.

Because Bester’s judgment of himself is extremely similar to my own life, I figured his criticisms of SF might also resonate. I always had big ambitions but never made the effort. There is that old saying, “Those who can do, and those who can’t, teach.” Evidently, the ambitious who can’t even teach write science fiction, and those who can’t write science fiction read it.

Science fiction reflects extreme forms of hope, fears, ambition, and destruction. It deals with desires so out there they are often indistinguishable from fantasy. For me, science fiction was a consolation prize — reality wasn’t what I wanted so I chose alternates fantasies that I preferred.

Shouldn’t we also consider Bester’s attacks on science fiction to also be personal attacks on our ability to deal with reality? I know I’m taking it personally because of how close I am to Bester’s own psychology.

And I was so naturally led to science-fiction, for that form of literature provided me with the fulfillment of my dreams at no more cost than a pleasant hour’s reading. I could read about the paradoxes of physics, the complexities of chemistry, the puz­zles of the social sciences. I could enjoy speculations and guesses and other men’s dreams; and after saturating myself with these stories, I could believe that I was a physicist, a chemist, a phi­losopher. I could delude myself into believing that I had ac­quired knowledge. I could feel superior to the boy who was a real life fullback but didn’t read stories about Relativity. I could feel superior to the rest of the world.

That was my escape from hard reality. It was the escape of most fans. Were you flunking a course in physics? Pooh! Read a story about time travel and be a physicist. Were you flunking math? Read about light years and feel superior to quadratic equations. Were you incapable of making friends? Dating girls? Getting along with your family? Escape into a story about the social problems on Centaurus. Read science-fiction and escape. That sentence is science-fiction’s past, and from that past we have inherited the vestigial remnants—the Three Immaturi­ties that are plaguing us today, intellectually, emotionally and technically.

If I had read this in high school or college, I would have heard the Twilight Zone music in the background. Bazinga – Bester burnt adolescent me to a crisp. I took physics, astronomy, and computers when I began college, but I just didn’t want to do the work, so I switched majors to English after two years. I’ve always wanted to be a scientist because I read science fiction. But for every science book I read, I probably read a hundred science fiction novels.

Intellectually, science-fiction is guilty of the naivete of the child and the over-simplification of the child. Its naiveté leads it to adopt fads, believe in nostrums, and discuss disci­plines of which it has only the most superficial understanding. I need mention no names. The followers of the “Bacon Wrote Shakespeare” cult and the interpreters of the Great Cipher have their blood brothers in science-fiction, as have the lunatic mem­bers of Gulliver’s Grand Academy of Lagado.

The political and sociological theorizing in science-fiction is puerile. Philosophic thought is absurdly commonplace. Serious discussions are generally on the level of a bull session of high school sophomores who are all rather pleased with themselves and snobbish toward the rest of the world—toward “The Mere,” as Ste. Daisy Ashford put it. There have been many ex­ceptions to this, of course; and there will be many exceptions to the rest of my analysis; but I am discussing the average.

It’s true that you will occasionally find fragments of good sense in science-fiction, but at best they are only parts of a whole which is not understood—tags and tatters of learning like the Latin aphorisms that every schoolboy remembers with ease but translates with difficulty. One result is that science-fiction makes no attempt to use the disciplines as tools. It cannot. It does not know how to handle them professionally. It peers through the microscope and dreams. Another result is distor­tion of idea development leading to false conclusions. The most serious result is a childish tendency to generalize. Lacking de­tailed knowledge and understanding of its subjects, failing to realize that speculation is not for amateurs, science-fiction takes refuge in simplification.

Oh, this is painful. And yes, I can remember all those epics arguments we had over such insanely stupid concepts — science fiction and otherwise. And of course, my generation was mixing science fiction, rock music, drugs, and New Age philosophy together by the 1970s. Baby Boomers just didn’t want to adultify. Our 1960s political revolution was also simplistic and childish. I can easily see why critics claim science fiction is fairytales for adults who refused to grow up.

Yes, we were taking refuge in simplification — but let’s be fair. Are fans of mysteries, westerns, romances, historicals, any more realistic and sophisticated. And we must ask: Does our choice in reading equal our approach to reality in everyday life?

Also in our defense, the reality we were trying to escape in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was epically bleak back then. We were going through multiple tsunamis of social change. Alvin Toffler even coined a term for it – Future Shock. But Bester was mainly talking about the 1930s and 1940s, and remember the shocks those folks went through. I’ve just read several books about science fiction in the 1940s and much of it was seeking transcendental change. And wasn’t the whole 1950s Dianetics/Scientology thing very much like the New Age stuff we were embracing in the 1970s?

Over-simplification might better be discussed as an aspect of science-fiction’s technical immaturity and inability to handle human beings. Let me consider it here, however, since that sec­tion will have more than enough to cover. The naive quality of the morality play in science-fiction stories is the best example of over-simplification. A reading of “Everyman” with its cast of Fellowship, Good Deeds, Knowledge, Beauty, Five Wits, etc., produces a strange effect. You recognize the startling similarity to science-fiction with its Martinet Generals, Industrial Ty­coons (divided into the Good Guys and the Bad Guys), Mis­understood Scientists, Inexplicable Aliens (who usually conceal Superior Powers under a Pastoral Culture), Callous Conquer­ors and Patriots in Revolt.

It is interesting to note that although science-fiction has be­come self-conscious about the naive simplicity of its cast, it has not attempted to remedy this by deeper characterization. It has clung to the morality characters but attempted to deceive the eye with quick shuffles. With a swift twist in the final para­graph, the Martinet turns out to be the Scientist at heart. The Wicked Politician is revealed as a Patriot. The Scientist is un­masked as an Industrial Tycoon (Bad Guys Division) and so on.

The morality play simplification of science-fiction is also re­vealed in its plots, and I wonder how many people have noticed that most science-fiction stories end at exactly the point where they should begin. This is a deadly sin in the arts and one of the standards by which you separate the men from the boys. What the stories amount to, as a rule, is an artificially masked exposition of a situation. When the situation is finally revealed, the story ends. The great classics of science-fiction have been the exceptions to this rule—stories which have courageously and imaginatively tackled problems, no matter how difficult. But in general, science-fiction is afraid to come to grips with its situations. It is afraid of complexities.

Okay, fans of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, as well as many fantasy classics should feel that jab here too. And should science fiction take all the hits when our current pop culture has so thoroughly embraced comic books and comic book movies?

We have to ask: Doesn’t Bester’s 1953 criticism apply to most of our current pop culture? Science fiction concepts have spread throughout our society. The fantastic has seeped into almost all forms of fiction. But just read on…

This reflects the childish yearning for a simple world. It re­flects the immature desire to find simple yes-no solutions for complicated problems. Let me cite one more example of this over-simplification. The story in which the protagonist solves a complex problem which has been baffling experts by turning up one simple factor which has been overlooked or ignored. In part this is merely the Dreams Of Glory of our youth, but more importantly, it is a childish refusal to accept the complexity of reality and the complex response demanded by reality. And out of this refusal arises the emotional immaturity of science ­fiction.

Science-fiction is terrified by life. Like the child who is fright­ened and depressed when he looks ahead at the dangers and responsibilities of adult life, science-fiction is panicky when it looks ahead at the dangers and responsibilities of the future. Its stories show this by their universal gloom. Man is doomed to various fates, none of them pleasant. There is no hope. There is no future. And out of this pretentious morbidity, science ­fiction manufactures an apology for its own inadequacy.

Science-fiction is afraid of the dark. Like the child who screams bloody murder when he’s locked up in a closet, science-fiction screams bloody murder whenever it takes a timid step into the unknown. What visions of horror does a child con­jure up out of the dark? Ghostly hands clawing it. Ferocious monsters assailing it. The very earth opening up and swallow­ing it. What visions of horror does science-fiction conjure up out of its insecurity? Ghastly plagues from laboratories. Ferocious monsters from space. The very earth falling apart in atomic disintegration.

Think about all the kinds of movies and television shows this applies to, and how widespread their popularity. Aren’t we terrified of life, of reality? If we aren’t, why do we spend so many hours every day immersed in fiction, and often fiction that’s science-fictional or fantasy?

But let’s go on. Bester’s psychoanalysis for science fiction before 1953 is very specific to a very tiny piece of the pop culture back then. People today have no idea how unknown science fiction was before 1950. The term “science-fiction” had to be explained to the general public in Life Magazine in the early 1950s. Back then the words were hyphenated, which meant the phrase was new. Hyphens are dropped from compound words when they become commonly used.

I know science fiction wasn’t the only source of immature thinking back in 1953. I grew up in the 1950s and remember people embracing UFOs, Edgar Cayce, Jean Dixon, nudism, Bridey Murphy, ESP, all kinds of quack medicine, endless wacky conspiracy theories, John Birch Society, building fallout shelters, a list that goes on and on.

This gloomy satisfaction with assured disaster and this ter­ror of the unknown are not the result of mature understanding and judgment, no matter how speciously science-fiction may ar­gue. They are emotional immaturity. They are the terror of the child who dreads what he does not understand and sees catastrophe lurking behind any closed door. They are a shock­ing admission that while science-fiction prattles about extra­polation, it is only shaking a bogey and frightening itself to death.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is science-fiction’s con­spiracy complex, which is an aspect of childish paranoia. The child, in its terror of what it does not understand, cannot fathom its relationship to the unknown. Viewing the universe with infantile egocentricity, it imagines that every phenomenon relates directly to itself. If the weather is good, it’s because the child has deserved it. If the weather is bad, it’s because the child is being punished. If the child has a success, it’s because the world is its friend and wishes it well. If the child has a failure, it’s because the world is its enemy and wishes it harm. To the mind of the child it is inconceivable that any event can take place without the fate of the child as its ultimate object. Mark Twain describes this attitude vividly in Chapter 54 of Life on the Mississippi.

It is astonishing how many science-fiction stories display this conspiracy complex, this tendency to regard man as the ulti­mate object of all phenomena. The grosser forms are familiar to all of us. We harbor secret enemies in our bosom who manip­ulate nature to own us, deceive us, exploit us, conspire against (and rarely for) us. We are unwitting members of a galactic organization which guides us, tests us, judges us, conspires against (and sometimes for) us. We are always the focal point of a conspiracy, malign or benign. Science-fiction rarely musters the emotional maturity to accept the fact that the universe is most probably entirely indifferent to our aims, ideals and fears, to our virtues and sins; and, what is more, should be.

Now, this next criticism surely isn’t specific to science fiction fans. Everything from comic books to religion, to political fanaticism, has to take some responsibility.

Another aspect of emotional immaturity is the Superman syndrome of science-fiction which is linked with the “One Man with the One Invention” symptom. I will discuss supermanism and the childish desire for the deus ex machina below. Here let me arraign the “One Man” who also belongs to the Pat- Solution Division of over-simplification. Science-fiction readers know him well. He is the one man responsible for saving the earth, destroying the earth, leading us to the light, leading us to doom, etc. Thoughtful people will recognize in him their old childhood inability to understand that the course of history is rarely diverted by single men or single incidents—that, in other words, an Adolph Hitler does not lead a country to Nazism, but rather, powerful economic forces of vast complexity create a totalitarian wave which crests in a Hitler but which might easily have crested in any one of a hundred men.

Similarly, the child (and often science-fiction) imagines that had one certain man not been born, then his one great inven­tion would have been lost to the world forever. This is saying that had Leverrier not discovered Neptune, then Adams and the score of other mathematicians working on the same prob­lem would not have either. This is saying that had Bell not in­vented the telephone, then Gray, Dolbear and Drawbaugh (with whom he battled for years to establish priority) would not have invented it too. This is a childish refusal to recognize the brutal statistical truth of history, that the tail has never wagged the dog, that the stream of life produces incident, and not vice versa.

Supermanism (or supermachinism) is a common escape mechanism of the young. It may be roughly divided into the father complex and the talisman complex. When the child is in difficulties he either wishes for Daddy to come and rescue him or else he dreams about finding a magic amulet or a magic machine which will turn him into a superman and enable him to rescue himself. In neither case is the child prepared to meet the crisis on realistic terms. Similarly, science-fiction is not prepared to meet the present or the future on realistic terms. Either it dreams about Daddy Superman who will come along and rescue the world, or it dreams about the superman’s phy­lactery which, like a fairy’s wand, will be waved over the trou­ble and banish it.

The other side of supermanism is popular villainism. During World War II, the entertainment business fell into the habit of making the Nazi the villain. Whenever a writer was in doubt, he pinned the evil on a Nazi. Actors who specialized in German dialects had fat years. Today, of course, the Rus­sian dialecticians are popular. Radio, television and the motion pictures may indulge in such convenient practices without shame. They are frankly commercial and pretend to be no bet­ter than they are. But science-fiction has also been guilty, and science-fiction has no excuse. It has always preened itself, either openly or by implication, as advanced literature for the advanced intellect. And yet in times when cool thinking and sound judgment were vital, it has helped confuse the world picture as recklessly as any propagandist, politician or tabloid newspaper.

The next jab is rightly targetted to science fiction, and the one many literary critics use when attacking the genre.

But to my mind the most serious aspect of science-fiction’s emotional immaturity is its inability to understand human be­ings on an adult level. Like the “One Man” symptom, this is a part of the over-simplification tendency. The child classifies people according to his understanding of them. Since his un­derstanding is meager, his categories are simple. Consequently, the complex behavior of adults is a constant source of bewil­derment to him. It is also a constant source of bewilderment to science-fiction and is directly responsible for its technical im­maturity.

Science-fiction is like the boy who is afraid of people and takes refuge in his Chem-O set. Similarly, science-fiction has taken refuge in science to the detriment of its fiction. In the past this was no problem. The field had the charm of novelty. There were so many fascinating physical avenues to explore— space, time, dimensions, environments—that there was no need for understanding and development of human character. Un­fortunately, the novelty is fading today and there is a rising demand for mature character handling. But while science ­fiction keeps pace with the explorations of science, its aspects of character exploration have hardly been touched. The boy graduates to larger and larger Chem-O sets, but he refuses to come out of the nursery.

Consequently most science-fiction stories are peopled by mar­ionettes who jerk about on conventional strings and rarely carry conviction. Science-fiction can tell the reader the melting point of a solid on Mercury, the freezing point of a gas on Neptune, the explosion point of a nova in Andromeda, but it has no idea of the melting point, the freezing point and the explosion point of a human being. Yet surely we will all agree that the deter­mination of these points must be the object of all fiction.

A reader must be able to identify himself with the characters in a story. He must feel with them, suffer with them, win or lose with them. He cannot identify himself with them unless he be­lieves in them. He will not believe in them unless they are real. Because of the technical immaturity of science-fiction, characters have very rarely been real. Science-fiction is an extraordinary form of literature and has an extraordinary technical problem to overcome. It demands extra-powerful depth and realism of character to offset the strangeness of outre backgrounds and un­usual ideas. Let me explore this a little further.

A contemporary story in a contemporary magazine is usu­ally a picture of the life we all know. This is the essential ad­vantage of ordinary fiction over science-fiction. It always has the support of the contemporary scene to bolster it. If the characters are unbelievable, at least the scenes are real and recognizable. If the author has written an improbable story about unbeliev­able characters, he can camouflage this by using a contemporary background.

The reader will recognize the reality of the background, and often the background will impart its reality to the characters and the story. This misdirection is an old trick of the enter­tainment business. A very famous director achieved an enviable reputation for the realism of his plays by insisting that every­thing on stage be genuine. His doors were real doors with knobs and locks. His windows had real glass. The books could be read. The wine could be drunk. Everything about his produc­tions was real except the plays themselves. They were as arti­ficial as ever, but the public lost sight of the fact in the face of the overwhelming realism surrounding them.

This is an advantage science-fiction does not possess, and this is the technical pitfall into which it has fallen. Science-fiction’s stories are usually projected into the future, into space, often both. It has no reality of contemporary scene to support it. It must manufacture its locales as well as its characters; and what if the characters are unbelievable? Then the story is destroyed, for there is no familiar scene from which the characters can take color and acquire the semblance of reality. In science­fiction, characters must be extra strong, extra real, for they have no other support; in fact, as I pointed out before, they are in a worse position. They have the burden of outre backgrounds to carry in addition to the responsibility for themselves. And this is where science-fiction most often fails. Its characters rarely can carry themselves, let alone their locales.

Science fiction has improved tremendously since 1953 when dealing with characterization, but I still feel it is seldom close to the world of literary fiction. I’m currently listening to The Best American Short Stories 2019 and its stories are starkly different from the best stories in anthologies of science fiction. When I read literary fiction I feel like I’m reading fictionalize biography or autobiography. Literary fiction is very close to being inside people’s minds. Often the characters seem like hyper-realistic paintings of people, whereas science fiction characters usually feel like they are drawn like cartoons or caricatures — quick sketches, and sure some are even beautiful, but not the finely produced oil paintings like we see it the best literary fiction.

Next, Bester calls us out on our weird hopes for robots. Boy, he had no idea how big robots would become.

As a result, science-fiction has developed a style amounting to reportorial writing—so much so that I almost think it should change its name to science reportage. A great many stories con­tent themselves with the creation of a tool, device or mechanism which is described at great length. The customary conflict is a crisis in the operation of the gadget. The resolution is invariably the mechanical solution; but, I might add, in science­-fiction’s customary vein. Optimistic solutions—20%. Pessimistic —80%.

The inability to understand or handle human beings also is responsible for science-fiction’s predilection for robots and other anthropomorphic thinking devices. They are the easiest substitutes for people. I do not deny that such devices are an important aspect of the future, but does science-fiction realize how strangely it has handled them? They are never treated as tools. They are always transformed into members of society and treated with emotional implications.

It is as if a nineteenth century man were to write love stories about the twentieth century electronic devices which surely would seem as remarkable to him as the robot seems to us. But we don’t feel anything toward our tools today. We simply use them. Those of you who remember Mauldin’s cartoon of the weeping GI shooting his wrecked jeep will understand what I mean, and understand how ludicrously science-fiction has been behaving.

Just think of all the television shows with robots, androids, and sexbots. But it goes well beyond robots and computers. Just think of our relationships with our phones, cars, or toys.

Next Bester compares science fiction to children’s stories and fairy tales. I see that, but I also see science fiction is also a substitute for religion. Science fiction has a lot in common with famous Bible stories. God and angels are aliens. Heaven is outer space and other dimensions. Prayer is telepathy. Miracles are like superpowers. Isn’t the primary symbolism of religion to cast us as children of God?

In my discussion of over-simplification, I have already touched on the endings of science-fiction stories. Here I would like to discuss their beginnings and their technical resemblance to the fantasies of childhood. Like the child, science-fiction says to itself: Let’s pretend . . . and it’s off on the trail of make-believe. I suggest that the reader go through past and current publications and note how few stories are inspired by ideas about human behavior and how many are inspired by the gim­micks of Let’s Pretend.

Let’s pretend there are thinking machines which ----- Let’s pretend there is time-travel, so -----let’s pretend there is over­drive, faster than the speed of light, and ----- Let’s pretend there are robots, with which men delight to go to bed, but The gimmicks of Let’s Pretend are legion, and through them science-fiction makes the leap from reality to make-believe, building up its make-believe world with logic and care, fas­cinated by the chemistry and mechanics of this world, indiffer­ent to the human beings who inhabit it. The gimmicks are not there to illuminate the humans; the humans are there to dis­play the gimmicks—like mannikins in a store window.

Upon occasion, science-fiction creates a Pretend that is so novel and eye-catching that an entire trend is established, and a tradition is built up. This is much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula which blazed the trail for vampires in the nineteenth century and made such a profound impression on the Let’s Pretend school of fantasy writers that we have been afflicted with it ever since.

Now there are two very bad results from Let’s Pretendism. The first, and most obvious, is the divorce from reality which often takes the devout science-fiction reader out of this world and maroons him in the next or the coexistent. His real life suffers. I have been present at gatherings in times when the newspapers have been full of the most vital and controversial news, only to be entertained by the spectacle of two science­fiction faithful in passionate debate (to the exclusion of all else) about the best design for the robot. They almost came to blows.

The second result of Let’s Pretendism is the inbreeding of science-fiction. The tradition of a particular Pretend is built up so rapidly that before long science-fiction presumes that its read­ers have the necessary background to understand the ultimate developments and variations on the theme. Consequently, science-fiction begins to lose touch with itself, and becomes cryptic and incomprehensible to anybody except the faithful who, like our high school sophomores, become smug and pleased with themselves because they don’t need a score-card to follow today’s game, with the name and number of every gimmick.

You have to admit, we do an awful lot of let’s pretend in modern society. And it’s more than what we’re watching on television, seeing at the theater, or playing in video games. Aren’t conservatives engaging in let’s pretend climate change doesn’t exist? Aren’t liberals playing let’s pretend the government can solve all our social ills? There’s a deep psychological reason why science is rejected by this society.

This next part, including his conclusion really only relates to 1953, but it is ironic when we consider how popular science fiction has become in society.

This technical failure accounts for the comparative slowness of the general public in adopting science-fiction. It has been driven to it in recent years by the penetration of science into the everyday life of the everyday man, but the general public will not embrace science-fiction for long if science-fiction contin­ues on its old childish path. The public demands many things —mature thought for guidance, mature conflicts for emotional reassurance, mature technique so that it can identify, believe and be moved. Unless science-fiction can provide these, it will go the way of the detective story which it is now largely sup­planting.

We must face the fact that science-fiction can no longer con­tinue as a form of intellectual titillation for the childish, the neurotic, the lame, the halt and the blind. In recent years it has coasted on its waning novelty, entertaining the general pub­lic with its old tricks and puzzles while the maturing fans, who already know the devices, have waited impatiently for the rest of the world to catch up with them. Now we are all caught up and ready to move forward. There is only one direction. Science­fiction, henceforth, must deal with genuine human beings in genuine human conflicts.

You may argue that what I urge is impossible. What, you may say, if a writer sets a story two thousand years from now? Will man be the same? Will his conflicts be the same? To this I answer with an emphatic yes. I do not believe man has changed, basically, from what he was in Christ’s time. The Bible bears me out. I do not believe he will be changed twenty centuries from now. He may know more or less. His symbols rnay vary. His speech and customs may alter; but he will be the same complex creature, suffering in the same basic con­flicts, fighting, loving, hating, searching for the answers to him­self and his place in the Universe.

Literature, it is said, must hold the mirror up to nature and enable man to understand himself. Science-fiction, let us say, must hold the mirror up to the future and enable man to fore­see himself. But the mirror of science-fiction must be as plane as mature judgment can make, as bright as courage can polish, as large as imagination can reach. No more of those Coney Is­land distortions, please. They’re for the amusement of children only. Science-fiction must come out of the nursery; it must emerge from its childish isolation and enter the universe of which it prattles but fears to join.

The Trematode is a parasite which infests the mussel and either destroys it or forces it to form a pearl. Science-fiction has infested us and we are waiting to see what the result will be. But one thing is certain: the end must be the metamorphosis of science-fiction. Whether it turns to rot or is transformed into a pearl, it will not continue to exist as an isolated organism much longer. For my part, I welcome this end. For my part, I foresee the pearl.

Has science fiction become a pearl? Or, in 2020, is Bester’s criticisms still on target? Over the years I’ve seen many blows against the empire, but it never collapses. Are the targets of Bester’s attacks on SF really just common aspects of human nature? Haven’t we always been that way, and won’t we always will be? Humans just love to make shit up. We love to pretend. We love to believe. We love to hope. We love to rationalize.

I have been an atheist most of my life. When people attack me for my atheism I tell them if there are 1,000 religions out there, you’d be an atheist to 999 of them. Maybe I felt smug being a 100% pure atheist and rejecting all 1,000 religions. But I’ve forgotten my own theory, that science fiction is a substitute for religion. So I’m also only an atheist to 999 religions and still have faith in 1, science fiction.

But why? How can I still believe when I know enough science to disprove most science fiction. I have to wonder if many older religious believers are like me, hanging on to my childish beliefs because I don’t want to be left with nothing. How many of the faithful don’t really believe in God and heaven on the inside, but just keep up with their religion because it’s nice to have something? And how many conservatives reject science because it would mean giving up a philosophy they’ve always cherished? Maybe I should be more sympathetic to climate change deniers. Maybe we’re all clinging to irrationality because it helps us get through the day.

Bester’s essay really hit home with me. I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to do real things in reality. And I did, to a degree. I spent 35 years working with computers. But the whole time I kept these fantasies going that never became real. And I kept reading the sacred literature my beliefs, science fiction.

Since I identify so well with what Bester said, I wonder if he felt other things I felt? Or did he break away? Bester did stop writing SF for a long time but eventually came back to the genre. I need to go search for essays he might have written before he died about his life in science fiction.

Last night I read “Ararat” by Zenna Henderson from 1952. It’s a science fiction story that has no science. In fact, it has ideas about superpowers and ESP that I detest. It’s part of her People series and I’ve read “Ararat” twice before over the years. It’s a lovely, gentle story that always brings tears to my eyes. I think it epitomizes why we prefer SF/F to reality. At 68 I find comfort and pleasure in reading such stories. I wonder what Alfred Bester was reading in his last years?

Bester knew right where to touch us where it hurts. He was good at playing psychoanalysis. I don’t think it’s wise to reject his insight. It’s something we should contemplate. It’s all grist for the mill, as Ram Das used to say. But he might have missed something. Maybe the faults aren’t in what we read.

James Wallace Harris, 2/15/20

Reevaluating the Three Methods of Reading Short Science Fiction

A few years ago I wrote about three ways to read science fiction short stories to get the best historical overview of the genre. They were:

  • Read the original magazines (thousands of magazines)
  • Read the annual anthologies (100-200 volumes)
  • Read the very best retrospective anthologies (2-25 volumes)

Of course, the same approach can be applied to keeping up with current science fiction. You can read the magazines as they come out, or the best-of-the-year annuals the following year, or the occasional anthology that collect the best SF of recent years, like Gardner Dozois’ The Very Best of the Best that covered 2002-2017.

At the time I didn’t have runs of the magazines or a collection of the annual anthologies, but I did have a decent number of great retrospective anthologies. Now I have thousands of magazines, and well over a hundred annual anthologies. I’ve read the annual anthologies for the years 1939-1952, 2016-2018. I’ve also dipped into the magazines whenever I’ve read a reference to them. Finally, I also subscribe to Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed. Unfortunately, I only finish about one story per new issue of a magazine.

Last year I read over 300 science fiction short stories. It’s given me a tremendous feel for the genre. I believe I have a strong sense of the 1940s and early 1950s, and the late 2010s and a vague sense for the other years, including the 19th century.

For the average person, I still think they could gain much of that experience merely by reading one volume, The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Which reiterates my conclusion from the original essay that reading a handful of great retrospective SF anthologies is the practical way to go.

However, I have to say after two years of plowing through seventeen years of the best-SF-of-the-year anthologies there is a much deeper insight into the evolution of science fiction to be found. The time and effort have been very rewarding and I plan to push on through the years. There is one major drawback. I’m spending most of my reading time living in a world of science fiction from sixty years ago.

I’m developing a great appreciation of the past at the cost of letting the present become vaguer and vaguer. In 2019 I read two giant anthologies of 2018 science fiction short stories, and I read a smattering of stories from the 2019 magazines. I’ve been thinking about taking a year off from the past and devoting it completely to reading 2020 science fiction as it comes out. But so far I haven’t been able to do that.

The best retrospective anthologies are distillations of the very best of short science fiction. I don’t like every story, but they are almost uniformly very good to great. Annuals usually have 2-4 great stories, a few very good stories, and several moderately good filler. What I’ve learned is on average, each year only produced 2-4 great SF stories.

Magazines seldom have a great story, and usually have one or two good stories — sometimes a very good one, and then mostly stories I find hard to finish. However, magazines are rewarding because reading them is like taking the pulse of the genre. Between the editorials, essays, book reviews, and ads, there is a sense of now, especially when controversies are brewing and I’m also reading Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and Feedly. Seeing new authors emerge is also very appealing, even if their stories aren’t that good.

I used to read science fiction magazines because I dreamed of writing for them. At 68, I’m not sure it’s realistic to dream that dream anymore. However, reading science fiction has always given me a great deal of pleasure. When I read a wonderful new story it gives the illusion I’m living on the cutting edge of the genre. When I read a great old story, it feels like I’m admiring a lasting work of art, a communique from the past with a message to the future.

Sadly, most new stories in the magazines struggle just to be a publishable story. It often feels like the editor must be fighting to fill out the issue. The stories are usually readable, and adequately written but they often lack sparkle. What I love about reading the old magazines and annual anthologies is discovering forgotten stories by unknown writers that still sparkle after all these decades.

And even the forgotten gems I find are far from perfect. I’m probably just in the right mood reading them at the right time for them to work so well. Read “Delay in Transit” by F. L. Wallace. Will it be as much fun for you as it was for me? Or will it be a clunky oddity from the past? There are no absolutes when judging a story.

I always hunger for a masterpiece, and statistically, those are found in the best retrospective anthologies. But if we don’t support the current magazines we won’t have masterpieces to read in the future. The other day I briefly scanned an article challenging old fans to read new science fiction accusing us of being out of touch, and claiming current science fiction wasn’t the same anymore. I meant to go back and study that essay but I can’t remember where I saw it. (If you think you’ve seen it post a link in the comments.)

In a sense, I agree. Current science fiction is different. Sure it’s more woken but I also think it’s written differently. In some ways, I think modern science fiction writers are more sophisticated with their writing, but it also feels more wordy, more baroque. New science fiction feels plot and character-driven, as opposed to the idea-driven stories of yore. However, much of modern SF doesn’t feel like science fiction to me but fantasy. It feels like an MFA graduate trying to sell their work by adding a touch of the fantastic. My friend Mike who regularly reads Analog and Asimov’s, claims modern stories don’t follow the old traditional techniques of structuring a story with a beginning, middle, and end. He says they are especially weak at creating satisfying endings. An example of an old-fashion story we both admired is “Lot” by Ward Moore from May of 1953.

I do have to admit that I’m not giving current SF a proper defense in this essay. My memory has become quite faulty, and I just can’t remember any of the stories from 2018 or 2019 that stood out. I know there were many, but I just can’t remember them. I recently finished three anthologies of 1952 stories, and even they are barely clinging to my aging neurons.

I wish I was a robot that could keep everything perfectly in memory for exact analysis. I disturbs me that I spend so much time and effort finding short stories to love only to forget them in a couple of days. I’ve been wondering if I kept a list of the very best and regularly reread them would they stick to my mind? However, the failures of my aging brain is a topic for another essay.

James Wallace Harris, 2/14/20

 

 

 

 

 

How Do Stories Work Their Magic?

Ever wonder why a particular story hooks you?

Just finished “Yesterday House” by Fritz Leiber. Follow the link if you want to read it before I give away spoilers. It has been included in a few anthologies, but not many. I read it in The Great SF Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. For some reason, I’m enjoying these old science fiction stories more and more. Maybe it’s practice. After reading the best SF stories from 1939-1951, I’ve trained myself to consume short stories with more skill. Or, maybe science fiction is evolving, becoming more sophisticated.

“Yesterday House” is not a great story but it did grab me. Why? I read over three hundred science fiction short stories last year. Why do only some light my fire?

By the way, 1952 had a particularly good crop of great science fiction short stories.

“Yesterday House” begins with Jack Barr, a graduate student studying marine biology taking a small sailboat off the New England coast heading for a little island. This triggered three memories in me. One, of rowing a small boat to a tiny island in Biscayne Bay near Miami by myself. But more deeply by a memory of reading The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson when I was living in Charleston, Mississippi in 1966. Her description of New England tidewater life enchanted me so that I’ve always been attracted to any TV show, movie, article, or story about New England shore life. And third, wanting to become a marine biologist for a short while when I was in high school.

Does resonating with a story make a story more enchanting for the reader? I can remember being instantly captivated with The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman which was uniquely unlike anything I’ve experienced. Are reading sparks thrown when we encounter extremes, either identifying deeply or discovering total novelty.

After Jack lands, he starts tramping around the island. This triggered memories of all the times I’ve been out in the woods, walking across fields, visiting islands, or just exploring. At first, Jack hopes he’s the first person to step on this island. I remember when I was little, boating with my dad, we’d stop on these microscopic islands and I’d wonder if I was the first on them too. However, Jack comes to an eight-foot fence topped with barbed wire. Jack does something I was usually too chicken to do by myself when I encountered private fields with No Trespassing signs. He climbs a tree, crosses a branch, and jumps down into the forbidden field. I have often gone where I wasn’t supposed to go, especially if I was part of a group with braver boys, and I remember what a creepy feeling it produced knowing I could get caught.

But Jack wasn’t afraid. I remember all the times I had been nearly caught or caught being places I wasn’t supposed to be. Especially that feeling of electricity shooting down my dick. As I read on I worried for Jack.

Soon, Jack came across a Cape Cod house with an antenna wire stretched across the top of the roof. That sparked another memory, of a kidhood buddy who was into tuning distant radio stations to collect QSL cards. He had a horizontal wire across his roof. I had thought about getting my dad to help me put one on our roof so I could pursue that hobby too.

The house also had a gravel driveway and a car parked out front. I wondered why a small island would have a car and how it got there. This reminded me of reading Hardy Boys books, with their small everyday mysteries. As Jack watched, an old woman leaves the house, gets in the car and drives away. Then a young woman comes outside. Beautiful girls always spice up a story. But I’m surprised that Jack just goes over and introduces himself. Doesn’t he know he’s not supposed to be there? Can’t he imagine how much he will scare the poor young woman?

Here’s where the story gets iffy for me. Things happen too fast. Jack starts chatting with the girl, and she quickly becomes friendly. Jack soon learns the girl’s name is Mary Alice Pope and is seventeen, but everything she says is old sounding. She talks about silent movie stars, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charles Lindbergh. Miss Pope tells Jack she has never met a man before, and she was born in 1916 (which happens to be the year my mother was born).

Jack realizes something very weird is going on. He tells her it’s 1951 (the year I was born), She argues it’s 1933 and has an old yellowed newspaper to prove it. She even has a radio playing that is reporting on the round the world flight of Wiley Post. Jack tells her the paper is obviously old because it’s yellow. Mary Alice says all newspapers are yellow. Jack tries to argue that she is being deceived, but the young woman tells him to go, that it would be bad for her if she’s caught with him. He leaves and sails back to the mainland.

Jack gets back to the house of Martin Kesserich, a renowned marine biology professor Jack is studying with that summer. He tells about his adventure with Mrs. Kesserich. She is the one who told him not to sail to the farthest island. She then explains Mary Alice Pope was a young woman that Martin was to marry in 1933 and shows Jack a picture. It’s the same girl.

Here’s where the story moves really too fast, and everything becomes too convenient. However, Fritz Leiber has created an amazing science fiction explanation for 1951. Professor Kesserich clones Mary Alice Pope, and uses his young woman lab assistant for a host mother, and then he marries her. So Mrs. Kesserich is Mary Alice’s birth mother, but not her biological mother. This is well before the concept of cloning, but what Leiber imagines is cloning. The Professor retrieves an egg from the dead Mary Alice Pope and quickens it in such a way that it’s a DNA duplicate of the young dead woman.

Asimov claimed this story was the first example of cloning in science fiction. This is why “Yesterday House” is included in The Best Science Fiction Firsts, an anthology of science fiction stories about the first uses of various concepts. However, there are earlier examples of parthenogenesis in science fiction. Hadn’t Asimov read Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? Written in 1915, first published as a book in 1979. Of course, in that story, each pregnant woman experiences spontaneous parthenogenesis of her own egg, not really the same as cloning.

But Fritz Leiber understood the concept of cloning better than most people today. A clone will not be the same person. Professor Kesserich raised Mary Alice Pope 2.0 in isolation on the island and attempted to program her with the same education and pop culture Mary Alice Pope 1.0 experienced.

Leiber provides us with two sparkly science fictional concepts. Obviously, Leiber doesn’t know the future science of cloning, but he imagines the possibility. But even more fun is trying to imagine how to make a duplicate personality. Growing up, we used to often argue about nature v. nurture. Leiber makes a really good stab at an answer.

Of course, by now, Jack is in love with Mary Alice and wants to rescue her from her weird fate. The last scenes of the story are Professor Kesserich coming to collect his bride and Jack trying to convince her to run away with him. I won’t give away everything, but I will say I liked the ending because it ran counter to the emotions of the story.

Summing up, I have to wonder if great stories are those that we have reasons to resonate with personally, and/or stories that wow us with ideas that are either pet topics we already love, or with novel ideas that totally surprise us.

And thinking about other recent stories that I love, I wonder if we also admire stories that have a bit of “Cold Equations” in them. By that, I’m referring to the Tom Godwin 1954 story about having to space a teenage girl to save a rescue mission. Aren’t we thrilled by characters who have to make hard choices, or as readers, be put into a situation where we have to make a hard emotional choice about the story?

James Wallace Harris, 2/8/20

 

 

 

 

“What Have I Done?” by Mark Clifton

What Have I Done by Mark CliftonOne of the side-effects of reading through all the annual best-science-fiction-of-the-year anthologies is discovering new writers. Well, new to me. I believe all the writers I’ve encountered so far from 1939-1952 are now dead. Often this spurs me to research these forgotten SF authors, which tends to lead to learning more about the history of the genre.

I keep stumbling over little forgotten classics of short science fiction. Today I read “What Have I Done?” by Mark Clifton in The Great SF Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. This oft reprinted story first appeared in the May 1952 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It May of 2020, it will be reprinted in What Have I Done? – The Stories of Mark Clifton. You can read the title story by itself here.

Clifton died in 1963, so his career in science fiction was just over a decade. In 1955, he did win a Hugo for best novel that he co-wrote with Frank Riley, They’d Rather Be Right. It is probably the least known, often the most disliked of all the Hugo winning novels, and somewhat controversial – see Miles Schneiderman’s “They’d Rather Be Right: Getting it Wrong.” Evidently, some fans felt the novel won because of a pro-Scientologist vote.

“What Have I Done?” is the only story by Mark Clifton I remember reading, although I once bought a copy of Eight Keys to Eden but didn’t get into it. I now feel I need to try it again. Since it’s available at LibriVox I’ll give it a listen.

“What Have I Done?” is a fine little story that tickled my sense of science fiction, interesting enough to write about, and to make me want to read more Mark Clifton. For such an unknown writer Clifton did get eight works into our citation database. Clifton’s claim to fame was the psychological insight into characters he got from being a personnel manager. Clifton claimed to have interviewed over 200,000 people. (I find that hard to believe – let’s say a 20-year career, meaning 10,000 people per year, divided by a work-year containing 250 days, means 40 people a day. That’s too many to handle.)

I also have a problem writing about these old stories. To explain why I find them worthy of recommending means revealing spoilers. Odds are, most readers reading this essay won’t track a story down unless I make them sound uber-enticing, but to do that I have to give away details.

The basic setup in “What Have I Done?” involves an unnamed psychologist for an employment office interviewing a man whom he quickly decides is not human. Notice how Clifton’s biography works into the story. When his fictional alter-ego confronts the guy the alien asks:

"Where did I fail in my test?" he asked. His lips formed a smile which was not a smile—a carefully painted-on-canvas sort of smile.

Well, I'd had my answer. I'd explored something unique, all right. Sitting there before me, I had no way of determining whether he was benign or evil. No way of knowing his motive. No way of judging—anything. When it takes a lifetime of learning how to judge even our own kind, what standards have we for judging an entity from another star system?

At that moment I would like to have been one.. of those space-opera heroes who, in similar circumstances, laugh casually and say, "What ho! So you're from Arcturus. Well, well. It's a small universe after all, isn't it?" And then with linked arms they head for the nearest bar, bosom pals.

I had the almost hysterical thought, but carefully suppressed, that I didn't know if this fellow would like beer or not. I will not go through the intermuscular and visceral reactions I ex­perienced. I kept my seat and maintained a polite expression. Even with humans, I know when to walk carefully.

"I couldn't feel anything about you," I answered his ques­tion. "I couldn't feel anything but blankness."

He looked blank. His eyes were nice blue marble again. I liked them better that way.

There should be a million questions to be asked, but I must have been bothered by the feeling that I held a loaded bomb in my hands. And not knowing what might set it off, or how, or when. I could think of only the most trivial.

"How long have you been on Earth?" I asked. Sort of a when did you get back in town, Joe, kind of triviality.

"For several of your weeks," he was answering. "But this is my first time out among humans."

"Where have you been in the meantime?" I asked. "Training." His answers were getting short and his muscles began to fidget again.

"And where do you train?" I kept boring in.

As an answer he stood up and held out his hand, all quite correctly. "I must go now," he said. "Naturally you can cancel my application for employment. Obviously we have more to learn."

I raised an eyebrow. "And I'm supposed to just pass over the whole thing? A thing like this?"

He smiled again. The contrived smile which was a symbol to indicate courtesy. "I believe your custom on this planet is to turn your problems over to your police. You might try that." I could not tell whether it was ironic or logic.

At that moment I could think of nothing else to say. He walked out of my door while I stood beside my desk and watched him go.

Well, what was I supposed to do? Follow him?

I followed him.

This isn’t a major idea for a science fiction story, not in 1952, but it gets better. For one thing, the psychologist reads science fiction. That has a recursive feel that delights me. Second, it’s important to remember that 1952 was during the early days of the flying saucer craze. If people believe aliens were hot-rodding around the skies, why not wonder if they were applying for jobs. Plus, this is Clifton’s first science fiction story, and he sold it to the legendary John W. Campbell. Campbell loved to discover new writers, but he also wanted to shape them to follow his personal philosophy. Campbell was a species-ist. He believed his writers should not show aliens being superior to humans. And Clifton’s aliens were way superior to us. How can Clifton pull off an ending that pleased Campbell? He does, but the icing on the cake is how Clifton ultimately outwits Campbell too (I think). Explaining the ending will be up to you. Are humans really superior?

This might be far-fetched, but I wonder if “What Have I Done?” also applies to Clifton letting himself be coopted by Campbell. Or is that some bullshit I’m giving out to get you to read the story?

JWH

 

 

 

The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1951

1951

It’s been almost six months since I covered the science fiction short stories for 1950. Bleiler and Dikty added a new annual for 1951, Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels — but by that, they mean novellas. It took me a while to track down all three volumes and read them. These annuals are getting expensive on the used market. The Bleiler/Dikty volumes are running $40-75 in the low range with a dust jacket, and the Asimov/Greenberg paperbacks $10-20. I get the feeling there are more old SF fans like me going back and rereading these old best-of-the-year anthologies.

Here are the stories Bleiler and Dikty picked in 1952 for the best of 1951:

  • “. . . And Then There Were None” – Eric Frank Russell
  • “Appointment in Tomorrow” – Fritz Leiber
  • “At No Extra Cost” – Peter Phillips
  • “Balance” – John Christopher
  • “Brightness Falls From The Air” – Idris Seabright
  • “Dark Interlude” Mack Reynolds & Fredric Brown
  • “Extending the Holdings” – David Grinnell
  • “Flight to Forever” – Poul Anderson
  • “Generation of Noah” – William Tenn
  • “The Hunting Season” – Frank M. Robinson
  • “Izzard and the Membrane” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • “The Marching Morons” – C. M. Kornbluth
  • “Men of the Ten Books” – Jack Vance
  • “Nine Finger Jack” – Anthony Boucher
  • “Of Time and Third Avenue” – Alfred Bester
  • “The Other Side” – Walter Kubilius
  • “A Peculiar People” – Betsy Curtis
  • “The Pedestrian” – Ray Bradbury
  • “The Rats” – Arthur Porges
  • “Seeker of the Sphinx” – Arthur C. Clarke
  • “The Tourist Trade” – Wilson Tucker
  • “The Two Shadows” – William F. Temple
  • “Witch War” – Richard Matheson

Then in 1985 Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg picked these stories as the best of 1951:

  • “A Pail of Air” – Fritz Leiber
  • “Angel’s Egg” – Edgar Pangborn
  • “Breeds There a Man–” – Isaac Asimov
  • “Dune Roller” – Julian May
  • “The Fire Balloons” – Ray Bradbury
  • “I’m Scared” – Jack Finney
  • “The Marching Morons” – C. M. Kornbluth
  • “Null-P” – William Tenn
  • “Pictures Don’t Lie” – Katherine MacLean
  • “The Quest for St. Aquin” – Anthony Boucher
  • “The Sentinel” – Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Superiority” – Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Tiger by the Tail” – Alan E. Nourse
  • “The Weapon” – Fredric Brown
  • “With These Hands” – C. M. Kornbluth

I’ve bolded the single overlap, “The Marching Morons.” Then the current 2020 version of The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list only has one story having a minimum of 8 citations to make the list: “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke. But here’s all the stories in our database with at least 2 citations:

Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories 1951

1951 didn’t produce a lot of famous science fiction short stories. Many are familiar to me, but I don’t know about modern, younger science fiction fans. “The Quest for St. Aquin” was voted into the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. And “The Marching Morons” and “… And Then There Were None” were voted into The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A that was for novellas. And “The Sentinel” is famous because it was the original seed for 2001: A Space Odessy.

Last year I listened to “… And Then There Was None” by Eric Frank Russell when the audiobook of Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A came out. I thought it okay. At the time it triggered a fond memory. I had two science fiction reading buddies in high school, Jim and George. I remember a day when George told us two Jims about this humorous science fiction story. He was very excited about it and wanted us to read it. Well, it took over fifty years for me to bump into “… And Then There Was None.” This year, when I reread it, it was a good deal funnier. I’m finally getting why George was so amused. It would make a great film because of how colorful Russell had his characters dress and act. And Eric Frank Russell is growing on me.

Each year, I’m becoming more and more impressed with Fritz Leiber. I liked rereading “The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury, but it wasn’t as good as I remembered it when I first read it in high school. I was so taken with Peter Phillips “At No Extra Cost” that I reviewed and reprinted it. I was also very impressed by “Angel Egg” by Edgar Pangborn and started collecting his books. And of course, “The Quest for St. Aquin” is a masterpiece that deserves to be remember as a classic. And I liked “Izzard and the Membrane” so much that I gave it its own review.

That’s the thing about all these stories, they are being forgotten, and that makes me sad.

I started reading science fiction short stories systematically with 1939 and I had looked forward to getting to 1951 because that was the year I was born. I had hoped to discover it was a spectacular year for science fiction. It didn’t produce many notable novels either, except for The Day of the Triffids, The Illustrated Man, and Foundation.

The Classics of Science Fiction 1951

Here’s a list of all the short stories and novels in our database with at least one citation for 1951. Short stories are in double-quotes, and novels are in italics.

The early 1950s was a boom time for magazine science fiction. I believed the boom peaked in 1953 with some forty SF titles on the newsstands. Here are some of the covers to remember 1951 by:

Astounding 1951

F+SF 1951

Galaxy 1951

Startling Stories 1951

New Worlds 1951

Super Science Stories 1951

Thrilling Wonder Stories 1951

Imagination 1951

I was disappointed that my birth year 1951 wasn’t a giant year in science fiction, but I get the feeling times are improving and the 1950s are going to produce some great stories. The variety of writing styles and themes have been expanding since the late 1940s. I’m not sure why the 1940s are considered the Golden Age of Science Fiction and the 1950s the Silver Age. As I read through each year it feels like science fiction is getting better and better.

James Wallace Harris, 1/29/20

 

Can Science Fiction Predict the Future?

“Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. first appeared in the May 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Follow the link to read the story online because it’s unlikely you’ll have access to it in an anthology. What a shame. I read it in Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1952 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, but that anthology is rather hard to find. I can’t believe “Izzard and the Membrane” hasn’t been reprinted more often. In his review, Alec Nevala-Lee says it’s one of his ten favorite science fiction stories of all-time.

I thought “Izzard and the Membrane” a top story for 1951, but not necessarily a classic. I don’t want to describe any of its plot details because of spoilers. The reason why the story grabbed my attention is it’s an early tale of an emergent AI, downloading consciousness, and maybe even artificial reality. As Nevala-Lee points out, very few science fiction stories predicted the impact of computers or the internet. Izzard is an intelligent being inside a cold war military computer. I was born in 1951 and that was the first year that commercial computers were sold. It was also the year that Alan Turing imagined the Turing Test. Wikipedia says artificial intelligence was founded as an academic discipline in 1956, but I don’t know how early people were talking about the concept. 1951 was also the year Nimrod, an early computer game was shown to the public. (See photo at top.) (Computer games were imagined in SF even less than AI.)

I suppose Miller could have been a widely-read man who knew about computers. Evidently, Miller was trained as an engineer, and during WWII a radioman and a tail gunner. He got into writing and screenwriting in the 1950s. Is it that hard to imagine intelligence emerging out of computers? I don’t think so. I think its a much bigger jump to imagine our minds being recorded into computers, especially in 1951. There are two other far-out creations in “Izzard and the Membrane” that I don’t want to spoil the story. I found them less exciting because they were too far out for me, even though one of them has gotten very popular in science fiction in recent years.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. was never a prolific writer but wrote a number of SF stories in the 1950s, three of which were made into his famous fix-up novel A Canticle for Liebowitz. David N. Samuelson has a good overview of Miller and his work in Science Fiction Studies.

What I want to explore is Miller’s effort to imagine the future. We know science fiction writers can’t predict the future. That they aren’t seers with crystal balls. But some science fiction writers can close their eyes, take what they know, and extrapolate ideas into a story that years later feels like some kind of insight into the future. Most early science fiction was about space travel. I’d say the second most popular theme was either robots or utopias/dystopias. Computers have shown up regularly but mostly after they were invented, but not before. At least as far as I know — except for one surprising exception — “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster. This 1909 novelette imagined a world run by a machine, with people using it to communicate with each other. It essentially imagines blogging, networking, Wikipedia, among other aspects of our cyberworld. It’s very eerie to read today.

A Logic Named Joe” by Murray Leinster also feels like a prophecy. With “The Machine Stops” and “A Logic Named Joe” readers didn’t hear The Twilight Zone theme music until the internet was created. If I had read “Izzard and the Membrane” in the 1960s when I first started reading science fiction I wouldn’t have thought much about it. Of course, if I had read it after reading Heinlein’s 1966 novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I would have thought Miller had beat Heinlein to the punch and been impressed. But Izzard was never the charming character as Mike.

“Izzard and the Membrane” only becomes really fascinating when it’s placed within the context of science fiction that explores the same theme. It makes me believe we’re asking the wrong question and should ask: “Can science fiction predict future science fiction?”

  • 1909 – “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Foster
  • 1946 – “A Logic Named Joe” by Murray Leinster
  • 1951 – “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. 
  • 1957 – They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
  • 1960 – Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick
  • 1961 – A For Andromeda by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot
  • 1966 – Colossus by D. F. Jones
  • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  • 1968 – Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
  • 1979 – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • 1981 – “True Name” by Vernor Vinge
  • 1984 – “Press Enter _” by John Varley
  • 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • 1992 – Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
  • 2009 – Wake by Robert Sawyer
  • 2013 – Her, a film by Spike Jonze
  • 2015 – Ex Machina, a film by Alex Garland
  • 2016 – We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor

These are the other science fiction stories I’ve read over my lifetime that dealt with computers that could think, or people downloaded into computers. I’m sure there are others I’ve read, but I can’t remember them for now, and even more, than I haven’t.

When you know all these stories, Miller’s story becomes more impressive. “Izzard and the Membrane” came in first in the August’s Analytical Laboratory, but Campbell reports the second-place story had more first-place votes. If it had been a major story with readers it would have had a score closer to 1.00.

Analytical Labortory

I couldn’t find any letters in Brass Tacks that praised the story, and there’s very little about it on the internet today. The story was never collected into one of Miller’s short story collections. It does appear to be Miller’s second published SF story, so maybe he didn’t think it very good.

I don’t think science fiction ever comes close to predicting the future. Look at this news clipping. Sounds very prophetic, doesn’t it?

2020-01-21 07.35.55

Well, here’s a 1952 newsreel about Dick Tracy’s wrist radio. How much imagination does it take to imagine what Mark R. Sullivan imagines above?

Was the 1966 communicator in Star Trek really that far out? What science fiction stories had Walter M. Miller read that inspired “Izzard and the Membrane?” Where did Chester Gould get his idea for a wrist radio? The more I study the past, the most I see the present in it. If we read about a cellphone in Shakespeare we would think him a time traveler. Before Marconi, was anyone talking about radio communication? There are powerful seers in this world, but they don’t see into the future but into the nature of reality.

If I wrote a story about life in 2100 and readers found it to be much like their times, it would not be a prediction or a lucky accident. Whatever I wrote that resonates with the future would have to exist right now. If my story was about the collapse of the United States due to climate change and many of the story elements become similar to what will happen it could only be because I could see those elements happening now. Even if I imagined an alien coming to Earth and saving us from ourselves and that really happened, could I claim any more credit than Jesus or Klaatu?

If science fiction didn’t exist, we still would have gone to the Moon. If AI emerges out of complex computers it won’t be because of science fiction. I’m beginning to wonder just how much science fiction intersects with reality. I used to think science-fictional ideas were seeds that grew. Now I’m wondering if science fiction isn’t just weird holographic reflections of reality.

James Wallace Harris, 1/25/20

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I first read Brave New World in high school back in the sixties. Rereading it again in 2020 reveals that it was entirely over my teenage head. I doubt I got even 5-10% of Aldous Huxley’s satire. Although I expect high school and college students of today have both the education and pop-culture savvy to understand it better than I did, it’s really a novel to read after acquiring a lifetime of experience. When I first read Brave New World I was already mass consuming science fiction so it was competing with shiny gosh-wow sense-of-wonder science fiction. I remember liking Brave New World in places, especially the free sex and Soma, but I thought the story somewhat boring and clunky.

This time I discovered why it’s a masterpiece. Listening to Michael York’s wonderful audiobook narration also revealed innovative prose that I would have missed with my tone-deaf inner voice. I can’t recommend the audiobook edition highly enough. York also revealed places where Huxley was experimenting with quick scene cuts, maybe influenced by the recent talkies when he was writing in 1931.

There’s no reason to summarize Brave New World because Wikipedia has done a superb job. What we need to explore is why this literary science fiction story is still worth reading after 88-years, when nearly every other science fiction novel from the 1930s is almost forgotten today. Looking at the Classics of Science Fiction list shows only five books from the 1930s making our list, and all five were from England:

  • 1930 – Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
  • 1932 – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • 1935 – Odd John by Olaf Stapledon
  • 1937 – Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
  • 1938 – Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis

Of course, damn few science fiction books had hardback editions in the 1930s. Brave New World had 30 citations we considered assembling the list:

  1. 1949 – The Seventeen Basic SF Titles – Arkham Sampler
  2. 1952 – Astounding Magazine, the Twenty-Eight All-Time Best SF Books
  3. 1956 – Astounding Magazine, The Twenty-Six All-Time Best SF Books
  4. 1974 – Modern Science Fiction edited by Norman Spinrad
  5. 1976 – The World of Science Fiction by Lester Del Rey
  6. 1976 – Anatomy of Wonder, 1st Edition by Neil Barron
  7. 1977 – “A Basic Science-Fiction Library” from The Road to Science Fiction by James Gunn
  8. 1984 – The Science Fiction Source Book edited by David Wingrove
  9. 1987 – Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, 3rd Edition by Neil Barron
  10. 1994 – The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction by David Pringle
  11. 1996 – “North American College Courses in Science Fiction, Utopian Literature, and Fantasy” edited by Arthur B. Evans
  12. 2002 – Strictly Science Fiction: A Guide to Reading Interests by Diana Tixier Herald and Bonnie Kunzel
  13. 2003 – The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn
  14. 2004 – Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, 5th Edition by Neil Barron
  15. 2009 – 1000 novels everyone must read (science fiction section)
  16. 2011 – NPR Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books
  17. 2011 – Internet Top 100 SF/Fantasy List
  18. 2012 – Locus Poll Best 20th Century Science Fiction Novels
  19. 2012 – AbeBooks: 50 Essential Science Fiction Books
  20. 2016 – Radium Age Sci-Fi: 100 Best Novels of 1904-1933 by Josh Glenn
  21. 2016 – Goodreads Best Science Fiction 100
  22. 2016 – Ranker: The Greatest Science Fiction Novels of All Time
  23. 2016 – Amazon: 100 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime
  24. 2016 – Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction: A Basic Science Fiction Library
  25. 2016 – Goodreads Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 200
  26. 2016 – Best-Sci-Fi-Books: 31 Best Literary Science Fiction Books
  27. 2016 – Sci-Fi Lists Top 200 – the novel
  28. 2019 – Worlds Without End: Most Read Books of All-Time
  29. 2019 – The Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time – Penguin Random House
  30. 2019 – 100 Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time – Reedsydiscovery

Brave New World is also considered among the top literary novels of the 20th-century. The Greatest Books site calculates it’s the 67th greatest book of all-time from using these lists:

  1. 5th on The Modern Library | 100 Best Novels (Modern Library)
  2. – 15th on Waterstone’s Books of the Century (LibraryThing)
  3. – 16th on Radcliffe’s 100 Best Novels (Radcliffe Publishing Course)
  4. – 21st on Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century (Le Monde)
  5. – 24th on Koen Book Distributors Top 100 Books of the Past Century (themodernnovel.com)
  6. – 31st on 50 Books to Read Before You Die (Complex)
  7. – 32nd on 100 Essential Books (Bravo! Magazine)
  8. – 44th on 20th Century’s Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction (Larry McCaffery)
  9. – 53rd on The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time: The List (The Observer)
  10. – The 100 Best Books in the World (AbeBooks.de (in German))
  11. – 100 Best Novels Written in English (The Guardian)
  12. – 50 Books to Read Before You Die (Barnes and Noble)
  13. – The College Board: 101 Great Books Recommended for College-Bound Readers (http://www.uhlibrary.net/pdf/college_board_recommended_books.pdf)
  14. – 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (The Book)
  15. – 100 Novels That Shaped Our World (BBC)
  16. – The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century (New York Public Library)
  17. – 110 Best Books: The Perfect Library (The Telegraph)
  18. – The New Lifetime Reading Plan (The New Lifetime Reading Plan)
  19. – The Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics (Book)
  20. – From Zero to Well-Read in 100 Books (Jeff O’Neal at Bookriot.com)
  21. – The Graphic Canon (Book)
  22. – 50 Books That Changed the World (Open Education Database)
  23. – The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written (Easton Press)
  24. – Select 100 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

Okay, so it’s made it to a lot of best-books lists, why is it great? Brave New World is still very readable, very relevant, and a classic example of a dystopian (anti-utopian) novel. But it’s tricky. Where Nineteen Eighty-Four is about a world where people are cruelly treated by the government, in Huxley’s story the government tries to do everything possible to make people happy.

Brave New World is about three men who aren’t happy, Benard Marx, Helmholtz Watson, and John, also called “the Savage.” They should be happy because what they want is offered, they just won’t accept it. In the World State of 2540AD (632AF – after Ford) everyone is either given what they want or conditioned to want what they have. Huxley takes the free love movement of the early 20th-century and has people conditioned from birth to have lots of sex without feeling guilty or the need to be possessive. Every class is eugenically conditioned to like their job. Any kind of unhappiness, anxiety, or depression is quickly fixed. Regular participation in orgies and encounter groups is expected for normal mental health. And a recreational drug with no side-effects is socially acceptable and encouraged. Each class is rewarded with all kinds of stimulating activities and vacations. Work hours are short but long enough to give people purpose, and free time is generous.

In other words, it’s easy to be deceived while reading this book. It’s like in The Matrix when you have the choice between the blue and red pill. The steak tastes just as juicy and delicious in the delusional reality, so why not take the blue pill?

The ending of the novel is horrifyingly tragic but I’m guessing most readers will think that wouldn’t happen to them. But here’s the kicker, it should. Huxley felt we were all being seduced by the technological world and scientific success. In the late 1950s, he wrote Brave New World Revisited where he said the future he feared was arriving much quicker than he expected. I can only imagine his reaction to 2020.

Aldous Huxley and Brave New World are hard to decode. If Huxley was defending traditional values he certainly didn’t live them. Regarding sex and drugs, he lived like his characters in Brave New World. The World State in this story has solved all the political problems we face today, so it’s weird to read it as a dystopia. And Mustapha Mond sounds like a wise and compassionate leader. We have to worry that Brave New World is a Siren’s call.

I remember thinking when I first read this book as a teenager that it was too clinical and antiseptic. Babies were born in bottles, and everyone wore matching clothes to identify their class. And people learned pop jingles that taught them social values. It was scary to think everyone was brainwashed to be happy. But the actual story is much more subtle and sophisticated.

The $64,000 question is why is this old science fiction novel so successful, respected, and remembered when the 1930s science fiction of Edmond Hamilton, “Doc” Smith, John W. Campbell, Jack Williamson faded away? Their space operas spoke to a very tiny readership. Huxley’s book is about universal human problems, the same problems we face today. When I was young space fantasies were important to me, but they mean little today. Now I worry about climate change and Donald Trump and try to imagine a government that will save us from conservative selfishness. How we live, and how we’re governed will always be a universal interest to readers.

Reading Brave New World, or any of the books considered the Top 100 Books of All Time should be of special interest to would-be writers. What percentage of the population does your story speak to?

James Wallace Harris, 1/10/2020

 

 

“Centaurus II” by A. E. van Vogt

Centaurus II by A. E. van Vogt - cover Astounding June 1947

Let’s try to imagine what the average person thought about space travel in 1947 when “Centaurus II” first appeared in the June issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It’s author, A. E. van Vogt was one of the top science fiction writers of that day. The term science fiction wasn’t wildly known in the 1940s, and only a microscopic portion of the population read it. Science fiction had a small place in the funny papers, comics, radio, and movie serials, but the average American thought of space travel as that “Crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” And if you’ve ever seen a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon serial you’d know most people would have thought it pretty damn silly. Science fiction was not taken seriously, and older fans talked about hiding their science fiction magazines so no one would see them.

By 1947, most people knew about the V-2 rockets launched against London during the war. A few might have known about the American rocket scientist Robert Goddard and the captured German rocket scientist Werner von Braun. It was still years before popular magazines in the 1950s would present plans to travel to the Moon and Mars for the general public to consider, and another decade before Sputnik and the creation of NASA.

For the most part, it was only the Astounding Science Fiction readers who really believed in the final frontier. The other science fiction magazines of the 1940s published mostly space fantasies for teenage males, on par with Buck Rogers and the comics. They were 100% fantasy and 0% scientific. John W. Campbell Jr. and some of his writers were true believers in space exploration. Campbell wanted his writers to imagine realistic possibilities, and in that sense, “Centaurus II” is a worthy consideration.

Centaurus II - p32-33

Van Vogt assumed faster-than-light travel was not possible for “Centaurus II,” so he used the idea of a generation ship to get to the stars. Nor did he consider suspended animation. Actually, he had already written the classic “Far Centaurus” in 1944 which imagined slower-than-light travel using suspended animation, with the kicker of faster-than-light spaceships being invented after the slower-than-light ship left for Centaurus so that when it arrived it met a colony of evolved humans.

“Centaurus II” is much more realistic and I wonder why? Did the atomic bombs and V-2s sober van Vogt up to consider interstellar travel without the fantastic super-science of older science fiction? Every story has to have conflict and most of the conflicts in the generation ship stories we’ve been discussing involve fantastic plot twists. “Centaurus II” stays down-to-Earth all the way to the stars.

Here’s our reading list with links to the stories we’ve read so far:

There have been seven decades and four generations since the 1940s, and science fiction seems to have changed in every decade, and the expectations of the future have changed with each new generation. Readers reading “Centaurus II” today will probably feel it as silly as an old Buck Rogers serial, but if you squint at this story just right, you’ll realize that van Vogt took his speculative fiction deadly seriously.

Centaurus II - p11

One of the benefits of focusing our reading on a single theme is discovering how a science-fictional theme evolves and changes. “Universe” from Robert A. Heinlein in 1941, which we haven’t read yet, is probably the most famous generation ship story. In it, the crew forgets the mission and believes the entire universe is the ship. Van Vogt has his crew always remember the mission, and the plot conflict is about how the captaincy is passed on.

Van Vogt does something else that’s very realistic. His ship arrives at star after star only to discover their planets are either uninhabitable or occupied. Each captain must ruthlessly push on against mutineers who want to return to Earth. In nearly all the generation ship stories we’ve read, those born in transit often rebel against their predefined role in life. They can’t understand why they weren’t born on Earth, an obvious place for humans, and they resent their crew assignments.

Generation ship stories written in the last decade would have crews knowing their planetary conditions because of our growing knowledge of exoplanets. Science fiction writers in the 2020s will probably imagine a future where all the nearby planets are well studied, maybe even by early robotic probes, before sending a generation ship to visit them. When I was growing up in the 1960s we never imagined we could detect exoplanets, so science fiction still pictured space explorers only learning about distant solar systems after they arrived.

In “Centaurus II” van Vogt has crew work positions handed down from father to son, this creates several of the story’s conflicts. Sadly, van Vogt wasn’t visionary enough to imagine women having significant roles in a starship. I didn’t understand why the jobs weren’t shared. Wouldn’t it be wise if everyone knew something about every shipboard task in case something happens to any of the crew? Plus, they had all the time in the world to learn stuff. By the 1950s John Brunner imagined a woman in command of the generation ship, and women crew members having equal opportunity. It’s a shame van Vogt couldn’t imagine generation ships with more enlightened gender roles and class structures.

What I really liked about “Centaurus II” are the first contacts. Van Vogt imagines alien aliens, with the human explorers barely comprehending their close encounters. In system after system, the crew finds exotic planetary environments unsuitable for human habitation, and sometimes those unearthly worlds produce weird aliens. But their captains don’t make first contacts like Kirk or Picard who open a channel and immediately converses with strange new life forms. Van Vogt has his humans meet up aliens only at a distance without using language. This made me imagine European explorers dealing with Native Americans for the first time.

Another interesting aspect of van Vogt’s story is it doesn’t involve a Prime Directive. But in all the cases the humans worried the aliens were the British and they were the Australian aborigines. In the 1940s van Vogt, Heinlein, and other science fiction writers often feared running into advanced aliens. In Heinlein’s first interstellar novel, Methuselah’s Children, he has his humans encountering aliens so advanced that meeting them in person drove men insane. His ship turned around to run back to Earth with its tail tuck between its fins. Editor John W. Campbell didn’t like the idea of superior aliens, so by the 1950s humans were running all over the galaxy and winning all their king-of-the-hill fights. Heinlein started claiming Homo sapiens were the toughest species in the galaxy, but just a decade earlier he wasn’t so cocky.

It’s interesting how for a while in the 1940s science fiction writers did consider we’d meet aliens that outclassed us intellectually. It’s also interesting that the UFO fad started in the late 1940s. The public, for the most part, wasn’t thinking about humans going to the stars, but a growing number of Earthlings feared being invaded from space. And quite often they thought the aliens would have godlike powers.

Science fiction has always been an inconsequential form of entertainment that sometimes took itself seriously. Would we have ever gone to the Moon if science fiction had not existed? That’s hard to say. The concept of generation spaceships was invented by scientists in the 1920s who read Jules Verne. So which came first, science fiction or science?

For most of my life, I believed we could build a generation ship if we tried. Obviously, van Vogt and all the later science fiction writers believed that too. With every science fiction story, a different consideration about generation ships was considered. However, in 2020 I’m having my doubts. Collectively, we lack the will to get to Mars. No one wants to pony up the money. Sure, Elon Musk claims he will, and I hope he succeeds, but I have my doubts. And I’m not sure going to Mars is the right next step.

How many rockets did it take to build the International Space Station? Certainly, a generation ship would have to be at least a 1,000 times more complex, maybe even a 1,000,000 times. Launching all those rockets from Earth won’t be practical. To me, the only practical solution for building a space-faring economy is to create a self-sustaining colony on the Moon. The Moon should become the shipyards for spaceships.

All the generation ship stories we read so far suggest that Earth built them. In 2020, I’m trying to think ahead like van Vogt did in 1947. I assume in the next 30 years we’ll have Earth and spaced based telescopes that will discover all the nearby planets, and we’ll be able to analyze their atmospheres. Any generation ship we send out will know a whole lot about its destination before it even launches. That solves half the fictional problems van Vogt imagines. I also assume we’ll send probes ahead of human crewed missions. It’s funny, but science fiction never spent much time speculating on unmanned probes and satellites.

In 2020 I assume future interplanetary and interstellar probes would contain AI minds or AI robots. Because of such speculation, the need for generation ships dwindles. We’re now seeing science fiction stories that imagine robotic probes that build humans from DNA printers when they reach a suitable destination. That would also invalidate the need for generation ships. However, I don’t know if such DNA printers are really possible. Science fiction has a habit of inventing super-science technology that turns out to be fantasy, like FTL spaceships.

Anyone writing science fiction in the 2020s should consider the fate of van Vogt’s story in light of seventy years of real science. Why didn’t science fiction writers in the 1940s imagine giant telescopes? Or women’s equality? Or the breakdown of social classes. In all the generation ship stories we’ve read so far, none of them stay in communication with Earth. Why?

“Centaurus II” has two sequels and all three were combined to create the fix-up novel, Rogue Ship.

I’m looking forward to reading generation ship stories from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. I’m hoping for some real surprises. To read our past reviews see Generation Ships in Science Fiction.

Centaurus II - p18

James Wallace Harris, 1/9/2020

 

Ascension – Generation Ship TV

I am very late to this science fiction mini-series about a generation ship, but this isn’t a TV review. I’m one of several bloggers who are reviewing science fiction short stories about generation ships. Because Ascension falls into this subgenre, I thought I’d discuss it too, comparing it to what we’ve been reading. For links to our previous short story reviews, see:

Generation Ship in Science Fiction

Warning, I’m going to give spoilers. Ascension first appeared in the U.S. on SyFy in 2014 and only lasted six 43-minute episodes. I had to buy it on Amazon Prime for $7.99, where it’s sold/viewed in three double-episodes. The show is no longer being streamed anywhere I can find. I don’t recommend buying it unless you’re like me and want to see how the series handles the generation ship concept. It includes all the common issues of a generation ship story. It could have been a great series, but they spoil it with a bunch of crappy conflicts and pitiful plot twists. But I still enjoy watching it.

I sprang for Ascension because it promised to be about a spaceship built around 1963, so the original crew members were stuck in that pop-culture milieu. I figured it would be Mrs. Maisel in space. Unfortunately, except for very few tech items, such as a couple of 1950s TV sets showing old TV shows, the people dressed and acted like modern fantasy Americans. The plot starts out about the first murder after voyaging 50 years but quickly develops into standard soap-opera of powerplays and sex between beautiful Hollywood-humans. I will give Ascension credit, it does go through many of the basic ideas we’ve been reading about in generation ship short stories.

Of the stories we’ve read, some have the crew forgetting they are on a starship, and with other stories, they know, but they have been brainwashed for various reasons to adapt to the long voyage. In Ascension, everyone knows about the mission. And like several of the stories we’ve read, the ship born crew resent being forced into a role they didn’t select. In this miniseries, young people go through a psychological breakdown akin to a mid-life crisis in their teens when they realize what they missed from living on Earth, and learning they probably won’t live to see a new world. The murder is related to a terrorist resenting their lack of future.

Like several of the old pulp stories, Ascension breaks ship-board society into classes. Workers live on the lower decks, and the elites live on the upper decks in luxury. I thought this was totally bogus. The premise is in the Kennedy Whitehouse era scientists feared the total destruction of the Earth by atomic war so they built a spaceship base on Project Orion. This is a way-cool idea. All the crew should have been fighter pilot astronauts and the best and the brightest scientists. Unfortunately, in 1963 the women would have been wives and mothers. However, the creators of Ascension ruin this show with too much modern technology and anachronistic humans. Some of it is disguised, like really thick tablet computers, but much of what the characters do in the show wasn’t anything like 1963 people, their speech, their habits, their fashion, their make-up, their furniture, or their gadgets. People from 1963 would have been racist, sexist, and homophobic, and that’s not the case in the show. Girls are used as shipboard spies, where one woman controls power with their sexual favors, and that’s definitely 1963 sexist.

I wonder if Hollywood feels the need to make TV shows with standard chords like pop music creators feel compelled to always use the same four chords to get hit sounds. Ascension feels like too many other TV shows. Watch this video to see what I mean.

I have to wonder if the screenwriters of  Ascension had read “Thirteen to Centaurus” by J. G. Ballard because the first big plot twist is the generation ship has never left Earth. The crew believes they’ve been traveling for fifty years on what they believe is a one-hundred-year voyage to Alpha Centauri. Instead, they’re part of a giant psychological experiment. Unfortunately, Ascension doesn’t have a clever spy aboard the ship that leaves every night like Ballard had, and it’s child genius isn’t as good either. Well, it does have the spy but he isn’t that essential to the plot.

I wished that Ascension had been Mrs. Maisel/Mad Men in space, and the show was actually about fifty years into a real space mission using 1963 technology. That’s the one porcupine I was willing to swallow. The crew would not have had videos to watch, and maybe not even video cameras. They certainly wouldn’t have had MRI scans or tablet computers. Realistically, they would have been all WASPs, probably hung-up on Christianity, and the women would have had limited job roles in their society.

Actually, it would have been an interesting tale philosophically if Ascension had used the fake starship plot, but everyone in the ship acted like 1963 Americans, while their handlers were 21st-century Americans. It would have been a reverse Star Trek. Morality plays about how we differ from ourselves 55 years ago.

I’m still waiting for a generation ship story to really get it right. For some reason, they all have a gimmick, and Ascension was no different. They all hint at the problems crews would face living on such a long-term mission, but they never get into those problems, at least not with finesse and real characterization. I guess I wish Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood would write a human interest story about life on a generation ship with the realism of NASA space science.

James Wallace Harris, 1/1/20