What Does Classic Science Fiction Offer Young Women?

 

by James Wallace Harris – 6/16/18

Reprinted from Auxiliary Memory.

Does classic science fiction have anything to offer to young readers, especially young women? In recent years I’ve read reviewers providing trigger warnings about older SF having no women writers, almost no female characters, claiming stories were rife with sexism and misogyny. How true are those charges?

I just finished listening to the new audiobook editions of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B edited by Ben Bova. When the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) formed in 1965 they began giving out annual awards called Nebulas. Members decided to vote for their favorite stories to create a series of anthologies that recognize the classic works of older science fiction published before the award era.

Out of 48 stories in the first three volumes, only three women writers—C.L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Wilmar H. Shiras—were included. C.L. Moore’s stories were as a coauthor with her husband Henry Kuttner, so only two stories were just by women. Until recently, I thought only one, but then I learned that Shiras was a woman. Is this evidence that women were excluded from science fiction?

Partners-in-Wonder-Women-and-the-Birth-of-Science-Fiction-1926-1965-by-Eric-Leif-DavinEric Leif Davin in his 2006 book, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926–1965, makes a well-documented case that women were not excluded as writers, editors, artists, in fandom, or as readers, and in most cases were welcomed. Davin carefully examined science fiction magazines from 1926–1965, finding 203 women writers who had published almost a thousand stories. It’s far from equality but showed more women participating than anyone previously thought. He also studied editorials, letters to the editors, book reviews, biographies, fanzines, con programs, histories, looking for clues to how women were accepted. Davin says there were a few men who personally opposed women coming into the genre, but for the most part, they were shouted down by other males. He also found women writers that couldn’t break into writing until they tried science fiction. Overall, Davin was convinced the genre was open to women professionally and as fans, and that women slowly entered the field well before the 1960s, a time many readers felt was the opening decade for women writers.

Decade Women Writers Stories
1920s 6 17
1930s 25 62
1940s 47 209
1950s 154 634

Partners in Wonder is a fascinating history. Unfortunately, it’s a shame it’s so damn expensive: almost $50 for the paperback, and just a few dollars cheaper for the Kindle edition. Evidently, it’s meant for the academic market, so it should be available at most university libraries. I wish that the Kindle edition was priced like a novel because it’s a readable history that corrects many myths and misconceptions about women in the genre. (A significant portion of this book can be read at Google Books.)

Children-of-the-Atom-by-Wilmar-H.-ShirasWhile reading Davin’s history I also read “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras, which first appeared in the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. John W. Campbell, the conservative editor of Astounding, said this when “In Hiding” was voted 1st Place in the readers poll, “Wilmar H. Shiras sent in her first science fiction story, ‘In Hiding.’ I liked it and bought it at once. Evidently, I was not alone in liking it: it has made an exceptional showing in the Lab here—the sort of showing, in fact, that Bob Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and Lewis Padgett made with their first yarns. I have reason to believe we’ve found a new front-rank author.” Shiras wrote four more stories in the series to create a fix-up novel, Children of the Atom (1953 Gnome Press). Many older fans fondly remember that novel, even if they didn’t know Shiras was a woman. (I thought Wilmar was the male version of Wilma.) Shiras only wrote a handful of stories after that, and then disappeared. Why?

In Hiding” is about a school psychologist discovering a brilliant boy named Tim who hid behind his B-average grades. Thirteen-year-old Tim eventually reveals in confidence to the psychologist he has several secret identities, even making money publishing stories and essays, as well as completing several college correspondence degrees. Tim hid his intelligence because at three he learned that other people, young and old, resented people smarter than themselves. I wondered while reading this story if Wilmar Shiras was using her story as a metaphor for how women hid their intelligence from men. The second story, “Opening Doors,” features a young girl. She had to hide her intelligence by pretending to be insane.

Partners in Wonder convinced me that women writers were welcomed by the science fiction community. Most women were not interested in science fiction. But back then, most people weren’t interested in science fiction. It was not socially acceptable to read science fiction before Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977). It was a shunned subculture, considered geeky,  nerdy, uncool, and only pursued by social zeroes.

Which brings me back to my original question: What does classic science fiction have to offer young readers today, especially young women? Most bookworms prefer new stories and books. Classic science fiction is no more popular than classic literature with young readers. But classics have always appealed to some readers? Why?

In a popular Facebook group devoted to science fiction, I’ve read several accounts by young women listing their favorite books, and sometimes they are classic science fiction, even titles by authors who get trigger warnings about being sexist or misogynistic. I’ve asked them if they don’t have gender concerns, and some of them have told me not everything is about gender. And it is true, much of classic science fiction is about ideas, ignoring gender, sex, and romance. Modern science fiction stories by men and women writers can deal with gender and readily present female characters, but then gender is a popular subtext to all kinds of fiction today. Is it fair to single out SF’s past when other genres were just as sexist in their past? We’ve all changed, and we will all continue to change.

Astounding-Science-Fiction-March-1950-with-Shiras-getting-the-coverI believe one reason young people read old science fiction is to study those changes, and study how people in the past looked at their future, our present. It’s quite revealing to learn what doesn’t change and what does, and why. Another reason to read classic SF is to search for all those pioneer women writers who were hiding in plain sight. In a recent Book Riot essay, “Women Who Imagined the Future: Science Fiction Anthologies by Women” I listed six new and seven out-of-print books that collected stories by women writing science fiction. I don’t believe any of those anthologists discovered Wilmar H. Shiras, and I wonder just how many of Davin’s 203 women writers are yet to be rediscovered? Reading their stories will tell us how women of wonder imagined us, their future. Have we failed them, or lived up to their hopes?

Listening to all three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame showed me not all science fiction stories considered classic by science fiction writers in the 1960s are still classic today. I wonder if the SFWA voted today would they pick an entirely different lineup of the best SF stories of 1926–1964, and maybe include far more women writers. “In Hiding” was my favorite story from volume 2B, and I wrote about why at Worlds Without End. I hope it gets included in some future feminist SF anthology, and I hope Children of the Atom gets reprinted.

We should not ignore the past, even if it’s offensive, but study older pop culture to see how we’ve grown. We should continually search the past for the pioneers whose anticipated who we’d become, the one that resonates with our best humanistic beliefs. A great example of this is “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster. Not by a woman writer, or even a science fiction writer. But this 1909 story, featuring a woman protagonist who lives a life much like ours, living alone, but participating in a worldwide social network. She is essentially a blogger. Science fiction has never been about predicting the future, but about speculating about the fears we want to avoid, and the dreams we want to create in reality.

I wonder if the members of SFWA held a vote on classic stories in 2018 would any of the stories from the first three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame be selected? Time changes our view of what’s great about the past. What has fifty years taught us? Surely, we must see different classics today.

What we need are Hindsight Hugo and Nebula awards, where we give awards to stories that have stood the test of time. We could even have 100, 75, 50, 25-year trails, so in 2018 we’d reevaluate stories for 1918, 1943, 1968, 1993. If we had a 200-year trail, we could award a Hugo to Mary Shelley for Frankenstein.

Then every 25 years, the years would be reevaluated and we’d see what stories last, or which are rediscovered.

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The Fading Pulp Magazine Subculture

 

by James Wallace Harris

Reprinted from Book Riot – 6/14/18

My sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Saunders, read us A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle the year it was first published. I didn’t know it then, but that story set me on a path towards pulp magazines. It was 1962, I was eleven. L’Engle’s story infected me with the science fiction bug by passing on memes that first emerged in Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. As a sixth-grader, I did not know about genres, but I’d walk up and down the shelves at Air Base Elementary or the base library at Homestead Air Force Base looking for books about space travel.

By the eighth grade, I was a dedicated bookworm. I could now distinguish genres by cover art or the blurbs on dust jackets, but I was yet to know how genres emerged from the pulp magazine era. Fiction hasn’t always been pigeonholed into convenient categories allowing bookworms to binge-read their favorite kinds of stories.

About a year later I stumbled onto two old books in the dusty stacks of the Miami Public Library, worn down and rebound, that were early hardbacks of science fiction. One was Adventures in Time and Space(1946) edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas and the other was A Treasury of Science Fiction (1948) edited by Groff Conklin. These two pioneering works collected the best science fiction short stories from the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. I was getting very close to the source of the river we call science fiction.

Magazine-newsstand-1939

Then I found science fiction historian Sam Moskowitz and his books, Explorers of the Infinite (1963) and Seekers of Tomorrow (1965), that gave the history of both science fiction and pulp magazines, roughly 1900–1950. By this time, I was in ninth grade, making my own money with a paper route and mowing lawns and starting to buy books. I found a used bookstore that sold old digest size magazines that were the descendants of pulp magazines, including GalaxyIfAnalogAmazing StoriesFantastic, and F&SF. Only two of them still publish today, but you can find scans of some of the old pulps at the Internet Archive.

Before Star Trek premiered in September 1966 I knew no one else who read science fiction. These magazines proved there were others like me, but where were they? At the time I thought I had discovered a secret subculture.

In the science fiction digests, I’d read essays by science fiction writers about when they were growing up reading the pulps and how they had to hide their copy of Astounding Science Fiction in respectable books because reading pulp fiction was considered very low class and reading science fiction meant you believed in that crazy Buck Rogers stuff. In 1967 I finally found a friend who read science fiction, and we’ve been arguing ever since because we didn’t agree which stories and authors were best.

I still didn’t know about the real pulp magazine then, but when I moved to Memphis in the early 1970s I saw a letter to the editor in Amazing Stories from a guy who lived in town. I found his name in the phone book and called him up. He told me about the local science fiction club. That’s where I met two older men who had large collections of pulp magazines. They were Darrell Richardson and Claude Saxon. The first club meeting I attended was at Richardson’s house, and he gave us a tour of his extensive collection. I learned later he had one of the largest collection of pulps in America—and he was a Baptist preacher. I became friends with Saxon, who had a large, but not famous, collection. Claude inspired me to start buying old pulps and to get into silent movies. That’s the thing about the pulp fans, they also loved all kinds of old pop culture.

It was the early 1970s and I found fandom, fanzines, and conventions. I remember going to my first convention in Kansas City and thinking I had finally found my people. There were many buyers and sellers of pulps at the con. This is how I learn about older generations growing up reading the pulp magazines. Claude was a generation older than most of us in the science fiction club. His favorite pulp magazines were from the 1900s through the 1920s like All-StoryArgosyAdventureBlue Book, before the pulps broke into genre magazines.

We owe or can blame the pulp magazine publishers for dividing fiction into marketing categories. Pulp magazines were television before television, providing Americans with fictional escapism. Short stories were like half-hour TV shows, novelettes were like hour shows, and novellas and serialized novels were like mini-series. Before television became popular in the 1950s, pulp magazine was the main source of popular fiction. The pulps offered way more genres than television ever did. In the 1950s the book, television, and movie industries consolidated the genres into westerns, mysteries, thrillers, fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance, and a few others; before that, fans could subscribe to dedicate magazines devoted to single topic stories like airplane combat or spicy ranch romances.

If I had born earlier, I might not have spent a lifetime of reading mostly science fiction. Claude read all kinds of pulp magazines. He loved detective pulps, western pulps, railroad pulps, aviation pulps, and so on. Claude seemed much older than his actual years, living in the past that existed before he was born. He was a big guy and reminded me of Sidney Greenstreet. He read more books than any other person than I’ve ever met, then and since. He handed down a love of pulp magazines to countless folks.

Then in 1977, I had to grow up. I stopped going to the science fiction club, quit going to conventions, and sold my science fiction books and pulp magazine collection. I got married and started a job I stuck with for 36 years. Now that I’m retired I’ve returned to reading pulps. I’ve bought a few pulps again but decided they are too old, too expensive, and too fragile to collect any more. But I have discovered a subculture on the internet that shares digital scans of the old pulp magazines. If you’re curious, try these sites:

The Art of the Pulps edited by Ellis-Hulse-Weinberg

Over the years, beautiful coffee table books about the pulps appear, but quickly go out-of-print. The Art of the Pulps: An Illustrated History is the most recent history.

Even back in the early 1970s, the pulp magazine subculture was dying. Television killed off pulp magazines in the 1950s, though a handful of digest-sized magazines continue to publish. At one time, hundreds of pulp titles filled the newsstands. Half-a-century later, a tiny subculture collects, cherishes, and preserves them. They still hold pulp magazine conventions, but the fans are old, and the cons are smaller. Old pulp fans lament they can’t get their kids and grandkids interested. They worry about what will happen to their collections.

Once again, the internet is changing things. Some old pulp fans are scanning their pulps and putting them online. It’s not legal, but no one cares. No one cares because so damn few people read the pulp magazines anymore, even when they are free. Yet, these pulp scanners are doing a kind of volunteer librarian work, creating special collections for researchers and possibly future readers. At first, pulp scanners quickly scanned issues and uploaded them. Then a few scanners started taking more pride in their work. They bought better scanners, they learned Photoshop, they started removing stains, rust marks, fixing smudges, tears, staple holes, creases, and even whiting the acid browned paper. I recently saw a scan of an old 1927 Saturday Evening Post that looked pristine with bright new pages.

Pulp magazines were printed on cheap wood pulp paper that’s not archival or acid-free. Their pages turn darker brown every year, becoming brittle. If you try to bend a corner to bookmark a page, the corner will snap off. It’s almost impossible to safely read a pulp magazine today without harming it. The pulp scanners use CBR/CBZ comic book file formats or the universal PDF formats that will preserve pulps as long as we keep our digital civilization going.

Pulp scanning is a labor of love. Mostly old bookworms are preserving the pop culture of their youth. Will lovers of today’s fan fiction work as hard to preserve their pop culture when they get to their social security years? Will fans of Harry Potter and Hermione Granger preserve all the extensive pop culture artifacts they generate when they reach Dumbledore’s age?

Now that I’m retired I’ve returned to reading old pulp magazines. I am among the few of the baby boomer generation that still loves the pulps. I got that love from an older generation. I’d like to see younger generations take up that love, but I doubt it will happen. I remember being in my twenties and meeting very old men, and they were always men, who remembered and collected dime novels. In the 1960s, Sam Moskowitz wrote about the dying generation of dime novel collectors, like I’m writing about the dying pulp fans now.

Most people embrace the pop culture of their formative years. A small percentage of every generation try to keep up with succeeding waves of newer pop culture. And a small percentage of us work backward in time embracing older generations of pop culture. I was born in 1951 and I have moved both forward and backward in time. I’ve stretched my pop culture embrace from the 1920s through the 1980s, and know a bit of the pop culture three decades on either end of that range.

The pulp magazine subculture is fading away. Its fans are dying, and I tend to feel genre distinctions are beginning to fade too. Writers now must top each other by writing multi-genre novels. Maybe it’s time to stop segregating fiction by theme. But then, if bookworms keep reading by genre they’re at least carrying on a tradition that started with the pulp magazines.

The Pulps by Jess Nevins is an overview of pulp history that is quick to read and full of fascinating facts and figures.

The Pulps by Jess Nevins

Frankenstein Dreams

 

by James Wallace Harris

Frankenstein Dreams edited by Michael SimsMichael Sims has a new volume in his series Connoisseur’s Collection called Frankenstein Dreams. These anthologies are aimed at bookworms who love short stories from the 1800s, and this volume features science fiction that Charlotte Brontë or Charles Dickens might have read. Sims has now produced four of these Connoisseur’s Collections of Victorian fiction. The earlier ones were The Dead Witness for detective fiction, Dracula’s Guest for vampire stories, and The Phantom Coach for ghost stories. Michael Sims is probably most known for his 2011 book, The Story of Charlotte’s Web. Sims writes nonfiction on a variety of subjects, and the stories in Frankenstein Dreams are annotated by his scholarly insight that reveals a close psychic connection with the 19th century.

I listened to Frankenstein Dreams, narrated marvelously by Tim Campbell. I find hearing 19th-century literature far more rewarding when read by a professional because my inner reading voice always sounds too modern. The real value of this book is time traveling back to the nineteenth century to learn how science fictional ideas we believe originated in the twentieth century are older than we thought. That’s enlightening on many levels.

Take for instance the 1895 story, “A Wife Manufactured to Order” by Alice W. Fuller, about a man who buys a mechanical bride because he fears a real wife will crimp his routine. How many stories, movies, and television shows have dealt with this idea since? Was Alice Fuller’s story the first? Or is the idea even older, and we don’t know it because of collective forgetfulness?

Have you seen Blade Runner 2049? What exactly are replicants? Aren’t they closer to Frankenstein’s monster than robots? Mary Shelley came up with that idea in 1818. Two other stories in the collection also deal with creating artificial people with biology rather than mechanics.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Man-Bats on the Moon” by Richard Adams Locke excerpted from a series of six fake news articles published in 1835. Today this is known as the Great Moon Hoax, and it was as much of a sensation in its day as Orson Welles fooling people with H. G. Wells. Of course, if you are young enough you might not know about the famous 1938 radio broadcast.  Frankenstein Dreams constantly reveals how most pop culture is lost in time.

Sims collects fifteen short stories and five excerpts from classic novels to illustrate a broad selection of science fictional ideas imagined long before the term science fiction was coined. Most of the short story authors are unknown today, which is a shame because their stories reveal what wonderful imaginations they had.

However, Edward Page Mitchell might merit literary rediscovery, because he was a prolific writer who wrote about many ideas that Verne and Wells are currently remembered for. You can find five of his stories here, two of which were used in Frankenstein Dreams. My favorite was “The Senator’s Daughter” which was first published in 1879 and must have been mindblowing to readers of its day. Mitchell imagined a future 1935 America conquered by the Chinese. It includes a political party based on vegetarianism, with radicals in the party who worry about plant consciousness and eat only artificially produced pills. Citizens of Mitchell’s imaginary future travel by what sounds like a hyperloop train, and he describes a prison system that uses suspended animation instead of jail. “The Senator’s Daughter” also deals with race and gender issues very advanced for its era.

I was thoroughly delighted by Frankenstein Dream, listening to it every morning while exercising, or in the afternoons on my bike ride. My knowledge of the 19th century is mostly shaped by a couple dozen classic novels, many of which were written by just two authors, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Listening to the stories by these forgotten women and men broaden my perspective on that century.

I realized folks in the past thought about fantastic possibilities and imaginary futures just as much as we do today. It makes me wonder if our science fiction will be forgotten by future generations and we will only be remembered for our realistic fiction. I wonder if the readers of tomorrow will believe their science fictional speculations original because their pop culture will have forgotten ours?

Reprinted from Book Riot – 6/14/18

Empire Star and The Star Pit

A variation of this essay first appeared at Book Riot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— James Wallace Harris

Star Maker: Science Fiction or Spiritual Woo-Woo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2001-Starchild-and-Earth

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Reading

Before the Golden Age — Old SF Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— James Wallace Harris (Auxiliary Memory)

Guest Reviews at Classics of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wally-Wood-Galaxy-Oct-1958

[Wally Wood: Galaxy Art and Beyond]

 

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

 

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

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

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

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

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


Spoiler warning

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

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

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

case_of_conscience_if


The Story

Book 1

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

Book 2

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

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


Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falling Off the Classics of Science Fiction List

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

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

Virgil Finley -Jackpot- Galaxy 1956-10

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris – slightly revised from Worlds Without End.

The Genesis of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– James Wallace Harris (reprinted from Book Riot)