A Four Short Story Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 5/22/2020

Remembering Helen O’Loy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris 5/10/20

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1849-1938

1939-1951

1951-1955

1955-1963

JWH

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

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

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

A Martian Odyssey in 8 anthologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Tweels

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 5/5/20

 

Create Your Own Reading Checklist

* * *

You can now download the results of any List Builder search. This is great if you want to create a custom reading list, or to copy our data for your own research.

Just configure the List Builder page by:

  • Picking an author or leave blank for all
  • Leave the title blank unless you want titles with certain keywords
  • Put in a date range, or same year for both for a single year, or leave blank for all
  • Pick the number of citations. A one gets all, higher numbers limited the results
  • Pick whether you want just short stories, novels, or both
  • Hit the Search button

Listbuilder2

Then on your results page click on “Download Results” and you’ll get a comma-delimited file to save which you can load into a spreadsheet or database. I import my results into Google Sheets to have an online checklist to keep for handy reference.

James Wallace Harris, 5/2/20

Reading the Best Science Fiction Short Stories 1939-2019

You can view the spreadsheet here. Thank you, Piet!

My friend Piet Nel loves science fiction short stories. He also loves tracking his reading in Excel. Piet also knows I’m working my way through all the anthologies that collected the best science fiction short stories for a given year. I started with The Great SF Stories 1 (1939) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I just started The Great SF Stories 15 (1953). Things slowed down when I got to 1949 because Everett Bleiler and T. E. Dikty began their anthology series that year. My reading coverage will expand again in 1955 when Judith Merril’s anthologies join the pile. I’ve collected physical copies of most of these anthologies through 1990, and I have many of them from 1990 on in ebook, paper, and audiobook formats.

I didn’t know how big this project was until Piet offered to send me a spreadsheet with all the stories from those anthologies in one long list. There are 4,752 entries, but remember, some year’s stories were anthologized multiple times by different editors for their annual best-of volume. I’ve read at least 1,000 of these stories in recent years.

That’s one humongous pile of short stories to finish. I don’t know if I will live long enough. I will turn 69 this year. I was hoping to keep a year a month pace, but that’s hasn’t worked out. I’d at least like to maintain a decade a year pace. That would mean finishing the 1950s in 2020. After that it would be:

  • 2021 – 1960s (70)
  • 2022 – 1970s (71)
  • 2023 – 1980s (72)
  • 2024 – 1990s (73)
  • 2025 – 2000s (74)
  • 2026 – 2010s (75)
  • 2027 – 2020s (76)

Seen that way, the project actually seems manageable. Of course, I might go raving insane from reading science fiction long before can escape via dying. And that doesn’t consider the number of annual anthologies increases over time. Or that they expanded into giant 250,000-word monsters in the 1990s. But on the other hand, I’ve been keeping up with some of the new annual anthologies as they came out starting in 2017.

At first, my rule was to read every story, and if it was repeated in a second annual, to reread it. I have found some of the stories are worth rereading, but I’ve also discovered a lot of stories I don’t think are worth reading once. I’m not sure why they were collected as one of the bests-of-the-year. Of course, they might have been more relevant when they first were published, but the cruelty of time has made them slight, or silly, if not stupid.

If the project gets too burdensome, I might make a new rule that allows me to abandon any story that I find obviously a waste of time to read. I don’t really like that idea, because I’m anal enough to want to say I read them all. But my real goal is to find all the great stories, so why waste time on boring ones?

What I’ve already learned from this project that I love to find stories I want to reread. Some stories are so delicious they warrant multiple readings. That’s the highest praise I can give a story. And it’s inspiring me to work out a rating system that I might use in an added column on the spreadsheet. Here’s what I’m considering at the moment. I’m still refining it.

  • 5-stars (*****) – Stories I’m anxious to reread
  • 4-stars (****) – Stories I admired highly but once is enough
  • 3-stars (***) – Fun stories I know I’ll forget with hours
  • 2-stars (**) – Stories I had to make myself finish
  • 1-star (*) – Stories I couldn’t finish

I do read other things besides oldie-goldie sci-fi short stories. I’m currently reading/listening to War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Belgravia by Julian Fellowes. And I’m anxious to find time to read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. I do like to throw in an occasional SF novel, although I’ve reached an age where I just don’t like wasting time on novels. I recently read What Mad Universe and Martians, Go Home by Fredric Brown. I got turned on to Brown by reading his old stories in these anthologies.

This essay might not be wise to post. Other older SF fans are also collecting and reading these old anthologies too. That’s running up the price of these rare books. Paul Fraser and I have a Facebook group devoted to the Best SF/F short stories and it currently has over 130 members. We also have a Groups.io email list that discusses old SF short stories for people who don’t like using Facebook. I’m also a member of Classic Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Stories. Finally, the Facebook group Science Fiction Book Club discusses one SF short story every week. If you love reading SF/F short stories you might check them out.

James Wallace Harris, 4/27/20

 

Has The Pandemic Affected Your Reading?

Back in the 1960s, when I was a clueless teenager reading Martians, Go Home by Fredric Brown, I thought the book was hilarious. My friend George had turned me onto the story by describing the wild antics of the invading Martians. Back then I focused on the comic elements. Fifty years later when rereading the book I identified with the victims of the Martian pranks, the humans, and the disruptions to their everyday life.

True, the book wasn’t funny today, but then neither is Gilligan’s Island. However, the book worked well on this new level because the plague of Martians brought about the same kinds of social disruptions as the coronavirus pandemic. The older me focused on the repercussions of the pandemic of little green men. Brown had extensively dealt with that aspect of the story, but I had missed it as a kid. The Martians put many people out of work and made gathering in large groups impossible. Because of our current situation, those threads in the story were elevated as perceptive writing. I have to wonder, though, if the current pandemic had not happened would rereading Martians, Go Home have impressed me so much?

Doesn’t real-life suffering make fictional suffering so much more vivid? Living through this pandemic has enhanced many of the books I’ve been reading and many of the shows I’m watching. Some of my friends are avoiding stories that remind them of the pandemic and seeking fictional escapes instead, but not me. I recently binge-watched an eight-part version of War and Peace, and the parallels were impressive. And what I really loved was the ending when the remaining characters found a new normal. That felt really good emotionally.

What’s ironic now, are stories about pandemics used to be a favorite theme of mine. I’m not sure I would enjoy them today, or if I did, not in the same way. One of my most loved books is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and one of my top DVD series is Survivors. In both stories, a pandemic wipes out 99.9% of the human race. Their appeal was starting society over. My younger self found that very exciting. This pandemic is hardly like those pandemics, but real life and fiction produce something in common — the desire for normal. Missing just a little bit of normal has taught me I really would have hated missing most of normal. Even though I thought I wanted to be a Robinson Crusoe rebuilding society, I probably would have gone catatonic losing the old one.

Experience is hard on fiction. Growing up I thought becoming an astronaut would be the pinnacle of all experiences. My junior high self would have sold his soul to fly on a Project Gemini mission. But I didn’t know myself. It took me years to realize I didn’t have the right stuff. My love of normal routines makes it impossible for me to have been an astronaut. Loving science fiction is one thing, being Neil Armstrong is something we’ll never see in any kind of fiction.

My experiences in life have taught me all about which characters I couldn’t have been, and which ones I could. But I didn’t know that in 1965, so I gorged myself on all kinds of books daydreaming I could become someone like the protagonist living their far-out adventures. Now, in 2020 when I read stories, I often see myself as one of the minor characters or identify with the faults of the main character.

Life has always cleared my rose-colored fantasies.

Mad Max Big Labowski

JWH

What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown

In this short 1949 science fiction novel, Keith Winton, the editor of pulp science fiction magazine Surprising Stories is on a weekend retreat at his publisher’s estate in the Catskills. He has fallen for Betty Hadley, the editor of Romantic Stories. Keith woos her to stay, but Betty has to get back to New York City. Keith stays, first going back to his room to edit the letter column for his next issue, but then going out to sit in the garden, hoping to see an experimental rocket hit the moon with flash that can be seen from the Earth. It is 1952, but not our 1952. Instead of impacting the moon, the rocket crashes onto the Catskill estate sending Keith Winton into another universe.

I don’t want to tell you too much about this other universe — there’s too much fun to spoil. Keith’s new reality is much like ours in every way, but their concept of science fiction is quite different. What Mad Universe is a cross between a nail-biting pulp thriller and a wild satire of science fiction and its fans.

If you love pulp fiction, you should love this story, especially if you’re an aficionado of 1950s Sci-Fi, and I am in a big way. This novel has often been reprinted, yet it’s not well known. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Jim Roberts (6 hours 48 minutes). It took me a bit to get used to the style, but I could never tell if the slight oddness was Brown’s or Robert’s. In the end, it didn’t matter, the audiobook made this story even better.

The story prefigures the work of both Philip K. Dick and Robert Sheckley. And if you know what recursive science fiction is, then that’s another tipple in its favor.

If you need to know more details, there’s an extensive synopsis on Wikipedia, but it’s full of spoilers. If you want to sample the story, you can read the novella version online from the September 1948 issue of Startling Stories (it’s severely cut down). There is a $2.99 Kindle version at Amazon, but if you think you want a whole lot of Fredric Brown What Mad Universe is also available with four other of Brown’s science fiction novels in the NESFA hardback collection Martians and Madness — the other stories are Martians, Go Home (1955), The Lights in the Sky Are Stars (1953), The Mind Thing (1961) and Rogue in Space (1957).

What Mad Universe - hardback 1st edition

Martians and Madness

JWH

A Philosophical Conversation Between Two Short Stories

This week at the Science Fiction Book Club on Facebook, we’re discussing two stories: “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (1973) by Ursula K. Le Guin and “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” (2018) by N. K. Jemisin. Le Guin’s Hugo award-winning short story is often taught in schools because it presents a brilliant philosophical Zen kōan. Jemisin’s story rejects Le Guin’s implied conclusion and offers an alternative answer by resetting the kōan. Both stories paint a tiny utopia with quick colorful strokes, each with a moral conundrum, and each with a solution to upset their readers.

Every so often in our genre, a science fiction writer will present a story that other writers want to reply to by writing another story. For example, it appears the novels The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card are part of a conversation with Robert A. Heinlein that he started with Starship Troopers. Sarah Pinsker’s story, “The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going” is also part of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” conversation too, but I haven’t read it, and there are no links for it on the web.

If you haven’t read Le Guin’s and Jemison’s stories, I hope you go off and read them now because this essay gives spoilers. Both are very short. The links to each story are above. I recommend listen to each story as you read along with the text. Both text and audio Jemisin’s story are at that link. Here is an audio version of Le Guin’s story.

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin offers an allegorical lesson about the nature of utopias. She intentionally speaks to you the reader, inviting participation in the creation of her utopian city, Omelas, because she wants you to believe it is indeed a perfect society. That’s the first part of the story, and quite lovely. The second part of her parable is when she describes the price of this utopia, which Le Guin later claims she got from William James. Omelas is a beautiful place to live because of the suffering of one child. All citizens know that suffering is part of their social contract. Le Guin describes the suffering child vividly so we feel the horrendous price the citizens of Omelas must accept. The third, and final part of this allegorical tale, is about the people who reject that contract and walk away from Omelas. It’s a powerful story, especially when you actively consider whether or not you the reader would stay or go.

Le Guin sets up her moral problem by presenting an artificial situation, much like the famous trolley problem in psychology. Most readers only consider it a story and a theoretical issue. I don’t. I see the story as a metaphor for our own existence. All the societies on Earth provide happiness to some based on the suffering of others. “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” is a perfect analogy for our own social contracts. Le Guin is telling us any happiness we gain comes at a terrible cost, and we’re complicit with the bargain.

Le Guin was theorizing about the nature of utopias. Even though humans have sought perfect societies since the dawn of time, we’ve come to believe that utopias are impossible. Le Guin knew her fictional problem was limited to her story, but I assume she also knew the guilt we’d feel reading it because it matches real life much too closely.

In the story, Le Guin, and I suppose readers are expected to admire the people who walk away from Omelas. But where do they go? There has been much speculation about that. Le Guin wrote a novel after this, The Dispossessed that explores a place, Anarres, that tries to imagine a place that those leaving places like Omelas might want to go.

Now we come to N. K. Jemisin. She didn’t admire the people who walked away and instead imagine people who stay and fight. Jemisin’s story also paints a picture of a tiny jewel-like utopia, Um-Helat. It’s a whole beautiful world but much like the city of Omelas. The differences are interesting too. We all imagine what we think utopia would be like, and both writers know this, offering their readers a chance to participate — an impressive writing technique.

Um-Helat, unlike Omelas, would be near perfect and without evil if it wasn’t for our world. Um-Helat exists in another dimension, and is our world perfected after much struggle. Unfortunately, some of the citizens of Um-Helat have discovered a way to observe our world, and our hate and beliefs in inequality are corrupting theirs. I wondered if this wasn’t partly a specific metaphor for the internet and wondered if Jemisin isn’t asking what we should do about people who pollute the online world with their evil perspectives.

Some of the citizens of Um-Helat have come up with a solution to this problem. They don’t walk away. They seek out and kill those citizens that are spreading corruption from our world. I doubt Jemisin sees this as a literal solution. Isn’t this the flaw of her stories to inspire readers to think and discuss?

I buy neither solution. We can’t walk away. There’s no place we can go that doesn’t have the same social contract of trading suffering for happiness. Nor can we fight inequality and hatred by killing its perpetrators. And it is impractical to create a whole new society. Neither solution works in the real world, but the real world still demands a solution.

If we only consider these two stories to be about the theoretical problem of creating a fictional utopia then we can talk all we want and then walk away just like the characters who walked away from Omelas. If this is only fiction, we can say, “Kill the bad guys.”

If we consider these stories metaphors for our society, we can’t walk away, and we can’t kill. Yet, we can’t forget these stories because we can’t forget all the real downtrodden or all the real people infecting everyone with hate.

Reading these stories create existential angst. We might have given up on utopias in fiction, but we can’t give up on improving this world. Maybe we can’t reach 100% utopian perfection, but we can achieve a lot more happiness and equality. Studying the past shows us how much worse societies were, so we know we can improve. But what is the maximum utopian efficiency we can achieve? 75%? 90%? 99%

We also have a social contract. Success and happiness in this world come from the failure and suffering of other people. Hatred and misery in this world come from inequality. We’re all like those citizens of Omelas who willingly accept the torture of a child, and we’re like the citizens of Um-Helat who spread inequality. Why? Because we all want to climb the ladder of prosperity and social position. We just tune out all those tortured people and hatred to get what we want.

Yes, these are only stories, but they are revealing stories. If we don’t realize that we’re part of an evil social contract we’re not walking away, but running away.

[The photo of N. K. Jemison above is by photographer Laura Hanifin, copyright 2015.]

James Wallace Harris, 4/10/20

 

 

 

 

 

Star Trek Lovers Don’t Read This

I’m serious about my trigger warning title. If you love Star Trek don’t read this. It’s not worth the aggravation. I’m aiming this at old farts like me who wish science fiction was more scientific, and there ain’t that many of us. I expect maybe five readers. I finished watching Star Trek: Picard and have some things I want to talk about, but I don’t want to rile any fans. Overall, I thought the show was fun. It was also a pleasant excursion down memory land. However, I have some quibbles, some specifically about the show, and others about science fiction in general. My complaints probably aren’t fair anyway, just my personal pet peeves for things to be different in science fiction.

And maybe I’m being too literal in wanting Star Trek to be more scientifically realistic. Maybe all Kirsten Beyer, Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, and Alex Kurtzman wanted was to present a metaphorical story about how paranoid conservatives (Romulans) are infiltrating all levels of the federal government (Federation) so they can fight illegal immigration (synthetics) and keep America pure (humanoid).

At that level, it makes the show a feel-good experience. Yet, I feel the need to bellyache.

My first quibble with the show deals with superscience. It appears anything that can be imagined is possible within the Star Trek universe. For example, if they can have instantaneous communication with 3D holographic images, why not just teleport everyone anywhere in the universe and forget starships? Wait, they did that. Star Trek allows for any magical wands and fantasy portals. Wasn’t that doohicky given by the synthetics in the last episode really just a magical wand? Are wormholes in Star Trek any different than a magical wardrobe to Naria? Just another fantasy portal to get you to another world?

I’m beginning to wonder if Fredric Wertham wasn’t right the evils of comic books. Doesn’t it feel like all the comic book movies have corrupted science fiction movies with superhero characters and nonsense science? Star Trek: Picard was no more challenging in the understanding of reality than belief in Santa Claus or Superman. Have we all become children again? Picard is always able to find a chimney to descend.

My second main quibble with Star Trek: Picard was the synthetics’ outpost on Coppelius. We had eight episodes building us up to what magnificent creatures these AI beings are, and what a tremendous threat they are to all humanoid life in the galaxy, and what are we given? A society that looked like a small commune of 1960s flower children. In fact, they reminded me mostly of the hapless Eloi in the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. I was expecting a far-out civilization, with imposing architecture and technology. We are eventually thrown one bone, with that ESP-driven multi-tool, but wasn’t it really plot-fixing abracadabra. I hate when science fiction equates advanced beings with ESP magical mumbo-jumbo powers. Psionics ruined 1950s’ Astounding.

My last quibble, and really the largest, but one that applies to all recent science fiction, both in books and movies, is imagining AI beings that look like us. And especially why do most recent AI beings in science fiction look like beautiful young women? What a pathetic lack of creative thinking. Sure, I know, it’s a great role for young actresses, but can’t they make a decent robot that can act?

Are all those billions we’re pouring into artificial intelligence just a secret tech-race to develop sexbots? Are there guys out there dreaming about becoming the first trillionaire by marketing a Wowza iWoman?

First, we need to do some deep psychoanalysis on why we think AI beings will look like us. Are we so vain to think we have the perfect form? Also, in most science fiction where the story tries to convince AI beings shouldn’t be destroyed as evil threats, making them look human, even beautiful, is a fantastically huge storytelling cheat. It’s too easy to be empathetic to beings that already look like us, especially beautiful young women.

If Dahj and Soji had looked like six-foot-tall metallic spiders, with dozens of eyes that could see into all wavelengths of the EM spectrum, capable of thinking a thousand times faster than human, free from all oppressive programming of biology, who saw us as extremely limited wetware creatures confused by our passions and urges, would we have thought of them as equals to be protected with by our human rights, laws, and our ethical considerations? Would Picard champion their existence? And be honest, would you have feared and hated them?

Science fiction sells both good and evil robots. Isn’t it rather Freudian that good robots are hot babes and bad robots are evil machines? Okay, I admit there are some counterexamples to my claim. We do have Number Five and WALL-E who were good and machines, and Number Six who was evil and a lovely woman in a red dress. Give those story creators an A+.

We confuse the whole problem of machine intelligence by considering synthetic humans. We will never need to create synthetic humans, but we will create AI minds that exist in bodies of fantastic designs of extreme utility.

The whole arc of season one of Star Trek: Picard was about fearing the children of the singularity. But it never dealt with the issue with any intellectual validity. It remained at a level of primitive movie SF philosophy that existed in 1966 when the original Star Trek premiered. Heinlein did a superior job that year with the SF book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

I’ve always loved Star Trek, but it’s not evolving. It’s just becoming more and more recursive nostalgia. And, at that level Star Trek: Picard was satisfying.  But thinking about it made me worry that neither Star Trek nor science fiction is ever going to grow up. If fact, it seems to be regressing, at least on television and in the theater. Is that just because it’s trying to reach the lowest common denominator to make the most money?

The trouble is, the original vision of Star Trek was intended to be a positive (liberal) view of the future. Back then we truly hoped the destiny of humanity was so spread across the galaxy. Star Trek made us believe it could happen. We’ve learned a lot in the half-century since then, but it’s not reflected in the newer shows. What we learned is Star Trek/Star Wars visions of interstellar travel is a fantasy no different than the magical make-believe universes of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. At first, science fiction offered realistic possibilities that replaced the old dreams about reality based on God(s), angels, and heaven, but now science fiction is just becoming another fantasy dogma.

What we need is a science fiction television series where interstellar travel is nearly impossible, where we coexist with intelligent machines many times smarter than our IQ, and maybe even communicate with alien species that look nothing like humans, or anything we ever imagined. We need a high frontier that isn’t a substitute for colonialism, yet fulfills our deepest existential needs. Science fiction on the level of comic book superheroes is no more sophisticated than the thinking of 2,500 years ago when the ancient Greeks imagined the shenanigans of their gods and goddesses.

Of course, that might be expecting too much. Humans haven’t changed significantly in their 200,000-year existence, so why expect them to change now? But haven’t we reached a stage in our development where we could see out of the loop we’re trapped in? Is it too much to ask that we cut back on the fantasy and explore the realistic possibilities of existence in a genre with the word science in its label?

James Wallace Harris, 4/3/20