What Anthology First Recognized the Science Fiction Genre?

The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction edited by Donald Wollheim

While growing up in the 1960’s I loved a certain kind of story. I did not know the terms “science fiction” or “genre” but I knew what I liked. I believe readers before the label “science fiction” was used in the 1930s felt the same way. I’m not sure when the general public began referring to science fiction stories as “science fiction” or book publishers began to market to its fans.

When Amazing Stories first appeared in April 1926 editor Hugo Gernsback and his readers already knew the kinds of stories they wanted – they just didn’t have a universal identifier to define them. Gernsback had been using “scientifiction” since 1916 but luckily that ugly word didn’t stick. The term “science fiction” had been occasionally used before then, but only accidentally. Sometime between ads using the phrase “science fiction” in Air Wonder Stories in the late 1920s and March 1938 when Astounding Stories became Astounding Science-Fiction did the label began to stick – at least with hardcore fans. I don’t know if the world at large realized there was a new genre. Stories using science fiction themes have been around for thousands of years. Hell, Noah’s Ark is about a generation ship and a post-apocalyptic world.

Also, I’m not sure if all the credit should go to the pulp magazines for creating our genre. Newspapers ran Buck Rogers and Flash Gordan comic strips, and those stories then moved to radio and movie serials. Comic books back then were full of science fictional plots. The play R.U.R. gave us the word robots premiered in 1920, and Metropolis the silent film about robots came out in 1927. The novels Brave New World and When Worlds Collide appeared in 1932 and 1933.

Why hadn’t book publishers spotted this trend and aimed at that market sooner?

Had any anthology editor before the 1920’s collected science fiction stories for the unnamed science fiction fans of the 19th-century or early 20th-century? General interest magazines, newspapers, dime novels, and pulp magazines had been publishing science fiction long before Amazing Stories. Had anyone tried to categorize or name these kinds of stories before Gernsback? Anthologies are seldom reprinted, so they are rare and hard to track down. I have found a few 19th-century anthologies that focused on weird, horror, and fantasy, but then ghost stories were a staple in that century.

Edgar Allan Poe helped develop the short story as a unique art form and wrote fiction that would eventually be classified as mystery, horror, detective, and science fiction. Poe had many imitators. When did readers decide they preferred stories about life on other planets, travels in space, artificial life, mechanical beings, time travel, invaders from other worlds, flying machines, etc?

Adventures to Come

There is a concise history of the science fiction anthology at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It suggests Adventures To Come (1937) edited by J. Berg Esenwein is the first science fiction anthology. It’s also the first SF original anthology, publishing stories written for that volume. But they were forgettable stories by unknown writers and that had no impact on the genre. The cover of Adventures To Come was obviously inspired by the 1929 Buck Rogers newspaper comic strip and the original Buck Rogers story from a 1928 issue of Amazing Stories.  We forget that daily comic strips were probably more popular than the pulp magazines. And Adventures to Come obviously looks like a children’s book. It may have been the first SF anthology aimed at young proto-SF fans, but it is so rare and so seldom remembered that I can’t think of it as important to the genre either. But it does show that publishers were seeing a new market.

The Other Worlds edited by Phil Stong

Next up is The Other Worlds (1941) edited by Phil Stong. I just got a copy of that one, and it collects stories from Weird Tales, Astounding Stories, Amazing Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories beside Esquire and Westminister Magazine. It features fiction by Lester del Rey, Ralph Milne Farley, Theodore Sturgeon, Murray Leinster, Harry Bates, Henry Kuttner, and Otto Binder. Authors remembered today as being science fiction writers. There are twenty-four writers in all, many of which I don’t know, probably because they came out of the horror genre.

I’ve only had time to read Stong’s introductions so far, but he shows a disdain for much of pre-1941 science fiction. For instance, Stong knocks War of the Worlds and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells and favors “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” as being more sensible. Stong uses the term “scientifiction” which was already a decade out of date and sneers at E. E. “Doc” Smith, the most popular SF writer at the time. The book’s introduction begins with two “true” stories of psychic premonition. I doubt Stong was a science fiction fan because none of the stories he collected has come down to us as classics. I’m guessing he liked borderline science fiction/weird tales that supported his metaphysical/philosophical interests. I think Stong realized there was a science fiction genre, but he didn’t like how it was shaping up. He picked stories he considered good from the genre but dismissed the rest as juvenile or crude. The Other Worlds didn’t hit the mark for me.

However, The Other Worlds fits my theory that there were science fiction fans before the term science fiction was widely used. There were readers, even literary readers, who loved weird stories that one day would be called science fiction. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia reports there were several anthologies from the 1800’s that collected fantasy and weird fiction. Did any of them have true science fiction in them? This matches my own research.  SF Encylopedia claims Popular Romances (1812) edited by Henry William Weber could be the first SF anthology, but it’s really an omnibus rather than an anthology, reprinting several famous novels about fantastic voyages (including Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe).

I want to believe there was at least one anthology published between 1800 and 1900 that included at least three stories we’d anthologize today as classics of the genre. Of course, this might be my Holy Grail that I shall never find. I’ve been using ISFDB.org with several anthologies published in recent decades that identify 19th-century science fiction hoping to spot an anthology from the 1800’s. Unfortunately, the Internet Science Fiction Database gets murky with data from that century.

I believe there were readers in the 1800’s that were drawn to themes we’ve come to attribute to science fiction. We know the novels of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells were popular. We know many other science fiction novels came out in that century. We know many shorter works of science fiction appeared in newspapers and magazines. That leads me to assume that fans existed, and they might have written letters to friends, letters to editors, essays, diary entries, or newspaper articles about their fondness for such stories. It’s hard to believe some editor didn’t capitalize on that interest.

For now, I consider The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction (1943) edited by Donald Wollheim the first anthology to collect stories that modern readers still read and think of as classics of science fiction. Five of his ten stories are still admired today:

  • “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) by Stephen Vincent Benet
  • “A Martian Odyssey” (1934) by Stanley G. Weinbaum
  • “Twilight” (1934) by John W. Campbell
  • “Microcosmic God” (1941) by Theodore Sturgeon
  • “–And He Built a Crooked House” (1941) by Robert A. Heinlein

The last four were included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (1970) edited by Robert Silverberg, which many still consider the best anthology of science fiction. Donald Wollheim was a super-fan in the 1930’s, began editing SF magazines in 1941, became a major editor for Ace Books in the 1950’s and eventually formed his own publishing company DAW Books. He was a major influence on the genre.

The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction was the first mass-market paperback of science fiction stories. It used the term science fiction in the title. It was sent overseas to the troops in WWII. I can’t help but believe that’s how the term science fiction really began to spread to readers outside of the pulp magazines.

1946-SF-Anthologies

In 1946 two hardback anthologies appeared: Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas and the Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin. Conklin even removed the hyphen in “science fiction.” McComas would co-found The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1949. Conklin would go on to edit many science fiction anthologies in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s that introduced classic short SF from the pulp era to Baby Boomers.

By the 1950’s science fiction should have been a well-known genre and term, but I’m not sure. There was an explosion of magazines, comics, television shows, and movies devoted to the genre. So it’s odd, as a kid in 1962 that I didn’t know the term science fiction. I was only ten, and I had been loving science fiction movies and television shows since 1955. I’m sure I heard the phrase frequently, but it didn’t stick with me. And it just didn’t occur to me that it defined a type of story at the library. I’d go up and down the school library shelves looking for books that were science fiction.

I wonder when other people my age realized there was a genre called science fiction? I wish my parents were still alive so I could ask them when they first remember hearing the term. I wished I had asked them in 1964 if they knew the phrase science fiction and could they describe it. They were born in 1916 and 1920 and grew up with science fiction in the 1930’s. Had they encountered it?

It wasn’t until 1964 when I was allowed into the adult area of the Homestead Air Force Base Library where they had a science fiction section. That’s when I realized there was a book category for the stories I loved. In 1965 I discovered Conklin’s anthologies at the public library and learned there were magazines devoted to science fiction, and had been for almost 40 years. Then I found Sam Moskowitz’s histories of science fiction and realized stories with science fictional themes were very old, they just weren’t called science fiction.

It wasn’t until 2018 that I became fascinated with the history of science fiction anthologies. It boggles my mind that there was a time when people didn’t know science fiction existed even though it did. I eventually want to write about that, but my next essay will be about anthologies that collected short fiction from the 1800’s. It seems every new editor that works that century finds more science fiction to reprint. I want to find the first science fiction fans. The first popular film I can think of that has a character who loves science fiction is Back to the Future from 1985. I’m sure I’m wrong that George McFly is the first SF fan depicted in the movies. I keep hoping I’ll see one mentioned in an old MGM film from the 1930’s or 1940’s. But what I’d really love is to find an SF fan from the 1860’s who wrote about his favorite stories in a diary.

James Wallace Harris (9/19/18)

Why Anthologies Are Important to Science Fiction

1946-SF-Anthologies

If anthologies didn’t exist, the only science fiction short stories we’d read from the past are those by the most famous of writers. For example, from the 1940s we still read science fiction short stories by Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein because they gained enough readers over a lifetime to keep their short story collections in print.

Short story writing is the minor leagues where authors labor until they can break into the majors writing novels. There are fans of short stories, but most readers prefer novels. Short stories mostly appear in periodicals and online, although some lucky stories make their debut in an original hardback anthology.

Most short stories are never reprinted. Their original publication is their only publication. Since 1949, shorter works of science fiction got a second chance to find new readers when editors of annual best-of-the-year anthologies reprinted them. They got yet another chance to find new readers when they were reprinted in theme, retrospective, and textbook anthologies. Although, the best bet for a short story to stay in print is to be by a very famous author who stays in print.

Anthologies are books collecting short artistic works (short stories, poems, drawings, songs, essays) by a variety of authors. As far I can discover, they developed in the 19th-century when publishers wanted to promote artists who couldn’t sell a solo collection. I have searched hard to discover a 19-century anthology that collected science fiction. The best I could find were anthologies of horror and weird fiction that might have a single story we’d call science fiction today. I still believe an SF anthology from that century could exist, but it must be very rare, like El Dorado. I’d love to know if there were proto-science fiction fans in the 1800’s. Did cowboys riding the range discuss life on other planets while sitting around the campfire?

There are several anthologies published since the 1960’s that unearth 19th-century science fiction. I’m going to devote a future essay to them. My point is those stories wouldn’t be remembered without an anthology editor.

There were earlier science fiction anthologies, but in 1946 Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas was the Amazing Stories beginning of science fiction anthologies. It introduced hardback book buyers to the best pulp science fiction short stories of the 1930’s and 1940’s. However, it was Groff Conklin, in the same year, that began a career editing science fiction anthologies that rescued stories from the pulps for a generation of hardback and paperback readers.

I’ve met readers from my generation all over the internet who got their start reading science fiction by discovering Adventures in Time and Space and the Conklin anthologies at their public library in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Sadly, anthologies seldom stay in print. Every decade or generation new editors emerge to anthologize the best short science fiction of the previous year or redefine the best short science fiction for the genre’s history or illustrate the evolution of a science fiction theme with a series of shorter works. They keep short science fiction in our memories. Of course, newer editors will drop some older stories and discover newer stories for their generation of readers.

My plan is to write a series of essays about this process. As I collected anthologies for our Classics of Science Fiction Short Story lists, I began to notice that anthologies had a collective history. Few people notice this. Histories of books, magazines, and newspapers are common if you know where to look, but I’ve had a very hard time finding histories that recognize the importance of anthologies. For science fiction, I did find Bud Webster’s Anthopology 101 columns which were collected in his book, Anthopology 101: Reflections, Inspects and Dissections of SF Anthologies. But even those 336 pages don’t begin to cover the topic.

For hundreds of science fiction writers, their only chance of literary immortality are the anthologies that remember them. A great example of this are the dozens of women science fiction writers being rediscovered in recent anthologies devoted to them. We need to give more credit to anthologists who mine the past for writers with a sense of wonder. Reading those old stories can give new insights into the evolution of the genre. It also makes us change how we think about our great-grandparents’ generation, and theirs before them.

James Wallace Harris (9/14/18)

Shelving My Science Fiction Anthologies

IMG_0899

Bookworms generally shelve their books by the author’s last name. That’s traditional and follows what they do in libraries and bookstores. But what about anthologies? They collect stories from many different writers. My public library files anthologies in the non-fiction area, organized by the Dewey decimal system. I’ve known bookstores that put all the SF anthologies at the beginning or end of the science fiction section alphabetized by the last name of the first editor. I’ve also been to bookstores where they filed the anthologies together with the other books so Isaac Asimov’s fiction would be right next to the anthologies he edited of other writers’ works.

I’ve been wondering what is the best way to shelve my anthologies so I can easily find a short story from memory. I now have five shelves of science fiction anthologies, which might cover as many as 2,000 short stories. I can always go to ISFDB.org and look up a story and it will tell me all the anthologies that have reprinted that story. But I like the idea of exercising my brain.

I’m terrible with short story titles. I’m better recalling authors, at least the major writers because I can recall authors by the feel of their stories. I’m even better at remembering a sense of what decade a story was written. I also have a vague sense of when various anthologies were published. Conklin in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Moskowitz and Knight in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and so on.

I’d love to shelve my anthologies by the years the stories were first published, and that would work if all anthologies were annual best of the year anthologies. Wouldn’t it be great to read all those years when Bleiler/Dikty, Merril, and Asimov/Greenberg overlapped (1956-1958)?

What I ended shelving the anthologies that collected 19th-century science fiction short stories first, and then books that had stories before 1939 when Asimov & Greenberg began their annual series. Then I shelved the other annual series in the rough order in which they first appeared. Unfortunately, most of the modern annuals I own are in my Kindle library.

Then I shelved the famous retrospective annuals that began appearing in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I put my small run of F&SF annuals together. Finally, I shelved the theme anthologies.

I haven’t gotten the order perfected yet.

My anthology collection is far from complete, and mostly odds and ends I’ve been able to snag here and there. I hate that many of the books have white labels from online booksellers or white labels on the library discards.

I’m guessing most of the 275 stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list are on these shelves. I’ve read 119 of the 275, so I have a long ways to go.

James Wallace Harris (9/12/18)

 

Remembering Forgotten Writers

This site is all about keeping books and writers alive in readers memory, so I was pleased to read, “Who Are the Forgotten Greats of Science Fiction?” by James Davis Nicoll at Tor.com yesterday. His piece opens with:

Time is nobody’s friend. Authors in particular can fall afoul of time—all it takes is a few years out of the limelight. Publishers will let their books fall out of print; readers will forget about them. Replace “years” with “decades” and authors can become very obscure indeed.

When I was young I was all about discovering new writers and books. Now that I’m living in the last third of my life, I’m all about remembering the best of what I discovered in the first third.

Who are the forgotten greats of science fiction by James Davis Nicoll

I remember reading most of the books that Nicoll remembers, and owned many the rest. His essay inspires me to read the ones waiting on my shelf, like A Mirror for Observers. If you’re old enough, I’m sure his thoughts will trigger reading desires in you too.

Be sure and read the comments below the essay. Many more forgotten writers are remembered. I’m especially glad someone mentioned Robert F. Young. I left a note about Wilson Tucker and John Boyd, two authors I wrote about when I was doing a forgotten science fiction series.

The hope is these writers will be rediscovered by younger readers, but I’m not so sure that will happen. The real psychological dynamic unfolding here is all the older readers finding they weren’t the only ones loving these obscure science fiction stories decades ago. When I was growing up I didn’t discover another science fiction fan until the 10th grade, and even after that, they were few and far between until I began attending SF conventions in the early 1970s. It’s great to discover on the internet that there were other readers excited by these odd paperbacks I once discovered on my own.

And I believe there is another element to what’s happening here that hasn’t been explored. Why were we drawn to these forgotten writers and their strange stories all those years ago?

James Wallace Harris (9/6/18)

“No Woman Born” by C. L. Moore

No-Woman-Born-by-C.-L.-Moore-from-Astounding-December-1944

No Woman Born” (pdf) first appeared in the December 1944 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction, a time when few women were writing science fiction. Catherine Lucille Moore did not use her initials to hide her gender, but to hide her writing career from her employer. I’m not sure when I first read “No Woman Born” but when I reread it this week in The Great SF Stories 6 (1944) it felt familiar. I could swear I’ve heard it on audio, but I can find no audiobooks that contain it. I ached to hear a talented reader perform this story.

There’s a chance I first read it as a kid in the sixties when reading old rebound copies of Groff Conklin’s anthologies from the Miami public library. It’s been reprinted in many anthologies I’ve own, so it’s no telling. It just bothers me I can’t remember because I feel very sure I’ve read it recently. I guess it’s just the kind of story that sticks in your head.

I’m not sure I appreciated “No Woman Born” the first time I read it. When young I loved stories with lots of action revealed in the dialog. I tended to speed read over the narrative. “No Woman Born” is a dramatic story, but it’s beauty today comes from Moore’s 1944 speculation about what it’s like to be a cyborg, and that’s in the narrative. There were earlier science fiction tales of brains being put into mechanical bodies, like the Professor Jameson series, but their authors didn’t spend as much time exploring what it means. I give C. L. Moore a lot of credit for examining ideas that are still valid today.

There are three characters in this story, Deirdre, a singer, dancer, actress, Harris her manager who loves her, and Maltzer, her Frankenstein/Pygmalion savior/creator.

Deirdre nearly dies in a theater fire, but Maltzer transfers her brain into a mechanical body and spends a year bringing her back to life from total sensory deprivation. Maltzer created a new body for Deirdre and teaches her how to use it with thought control. Much of Moore’s tale is about what this means.

It’s not fair to call Deirdre’s new body robotic since Moore imagines far more than the average mechanical man. Deirdre’s head is a modern art sculpture of femininity, while her body is golden concentric rings held together by magnetism moving with fluidity and grace. Deirdre only has two senses, vision and hearing, which Moore philosophizes are the intellectual ones while smell, taste, and touch are our animalistic emotional senses. Again, this is still valid speculation today.

The plot is rather simple. Deirdre wants to perform again on television. She believes she’ll be accepted as a person. Maltzer thinks she’s wildly optimistic about her acceptance and reunites her with Harris hoping he’ll convince her otherwise. Deirdre is headstrong and insists she knows how she’ll be received.

The Best of C. L. Moore

Not to give away spoilers, “No Woman Born” features a beautiful description of Deirdre dancing and singing on a majestic Ziegfeld-like stage. Moore also takes us further than the average tale of robots and cyborgs, into the psychological impact of being reborn. Moore touches on spiritual evolution and transhumanism, a concept I don’t think existed in 1944, although Olaf Stapledon was covering some of the same territories in the 1930s.

“No Woman Born” is one of the best stories in The Great SF Stories 6 (1944), which means it’s one of the best science fiction stories of that year if Asimov and Greenberg found all the best SF stories for 1944. Moore’s competition is Clifford Simak’s “Desertion” because it covers the same territory of what it means to be human when we stop looking human. Emotionally, I love “Desertion” more than “No Woman Born,” but Moore brought up more philosophical issues. In science fiction, there’s always a fine balance between storytelling and science fiction speculation. Simak was able to draw out far more emotion, even though there are three good dramatic scenes in “No Woman Born.”

Moore collaborated constantly with her husband Henry Kuttner. We know very little about Moore, most of which is summed up in “The Many Names of Catherine Lucille Moore” by Andrew Liptak. I’ve often read that readers can’t tell who wrote what, and even the stories with their solo bylines are still collaborations. I feel Moore did write most, if not all, of “No Woman Born” because it feels like her work before marrying Kuttner.* Her stories always had a philosophical bent to them, while Henry’s stories have more action, often comic, drunken, zany, or pulp fiction. I believe Catherine was the philosopher of the family, and Henry was the hack pulp writer who could churn out all kinds of stories but with a lot less contemplation.

I enjoyed “Desertion” more as a story than “No Woman Born” because Simak is superior at evoking emotions in readers. I greatly admired “No Woman Born” for its science fictional ideas. Moore is too wordy in places, which slows down the drama. “No Woman Born” isn’t as haunting as “Desertion.” Yet, I still love it. I wished Moore could have been more atmospheric like her “Vintage Season.”

But does this 1944 story still hold up? I wish Goodreads was designed to handle short stories because I’d love to read reader reviews of classic SF stories. I don’t think we’ll ever put a brain in a robot body. Nor do I believe we could build a robotic body like Maltzer created. Today we talk about brain downloading, meaning we’d record all the information in a human brain digitally, and transfer it to a computer, or a cloned body. There are millions of people hoping this will actually be possible, so “No Woman Born” might have an audience today as a precedent story.

Maltzer doesn’t believe Dierdre will ever survive psychologically, and Moore makes a dramatic case for this in the story. The ending, which I don’t want to give away, is satisfying but unbelievable, or at least for me. It offers too much hope that humans can become something I don’t think we can.

* In 1975 Moore wrote an extremely short, but very revealing afterward to The Best of C. L. Moore stating that “Vintage Season” and “No Woman Born” were written before she married Kuttner and were not collaborations.

James Wallace Harris (9/6/18)

 

Unbound Worlds Claims These are the Best SF Books of All Time

Website Unbound Worlds offers a new list of the 100 best science fiction books to read according to a poll of their staff. Their list is solid but still, will cause arguments. It’s  impossible to get people to agree on anything like the best science fiction of all time. Such efforts are always fun though. I like seeing how the titles change over the years. We used 65 such lists from 1949 to 2016 to create our list here.

The important slant to Unbound World’s list is its youthfulness. Sure, there are old classics, but their list has many titles first published in this century. Plus it’s diverse with novels written by women and writers of color. Still, their 100 all-time best SF books are overwhelmingly American.

Of course, the list is really designed to make affiliate sales. Since there’s no real effort to be historical they should have dropped some of the moldier classics and promoted other works that deserve more eyeballs. I would have replaced The World of the Worlds with A Women of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason and Foundation with Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. But hey, it’s their list, and I admire many of their choices.

A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor ArnasonAurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

JWH

James Davis Nicoll Remembers the Classics of Science Fiction

Over at Tor.com James Davis Nicoll remembers one of my all-time favorite paperback series, Ballantine’s Classic Library of Science Fiction in his “A Survey of Some of the Best Science Fiction Ever Published (Thanks to Judy-Lynn Del Rey).

I expect there will be another run on these at AbeBooks.com and eBay. Be sure and read the comment section to see all the other folks like us who are overcome with nostalgia.

Once you see the covers illustrating the essay, you’ll remember them too. Here’s a hint.

Best-PKD

JWH

An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton

An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 20, 2018

Researching the most remembered short stories, novelettes, and novellas of science fiction for this site was one way of learning about science fiction history. Another way is to read An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton, at least for the years 1953-2000. It’s just out in hardback and Kindle editions. Many readers are asking why they should buy this book when it’s culled from Walton’s column at Tor.com. I got the Kindle edition because it’s easier to read and I can highlight all the stories I want to track down. When I’m through my Kindle will provide a “shopping list” stories I want to study, and maybe remember.

This book is for avid science fiction fans who are scholars or historians of the genre or wish to become one. If you’ve followed the Hugos for decades, it will also trigger a lot of great memories.

Walton’s book chapters on each year are somewhat different than just reading the columns online because she inserts her longer book reviews (also published at Tor) in the chapter year and selective reader comments each column received. I recommend following the link to the Tor.com site to test drive a few columns before you buy the book. Be sure and read the comments below each column, because Gardner Dozois, Rich Horton, and many others fans, writers, and editors contribute their memories, knowledge, and feelings about the stories.

Walton warns that she has not read all the novels and stories nominated for the Hugos. That would be a tremendous project. I accepted that hasn’t read everything. However, I was still disappointed by this stance sometimes. For example, They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, the novel that won the 1955 Hugo. Walton tells about how this novel is considered the worst novel ever to win the award, and I ached to know her opinion. This occurs time and again. I understand she has her own novels and stories to write, but still, I hungered for her reaction quite often on the most famous stories. It goes to show you that even the most wide-read science fiction fans can’t read everything that common wisdom considers must reading.

Part of what Walton is doing is deciding if a story holds up over time. She judges this by whether it’s in print, at her library, or if people still talk about it. And that’s fine most of the time, but there are places in her narrative that I wished Walton had read a new book or story and given her us her thoughts. Luckily, her readers have, and their opinions from the site’s comment section help to satisfy my curiosity when Walton can’t. Still, I need to go read They’d Rather Be Right to find out why it’s so bad.

An Informal History of the Hugos is only going to appeal to a limited audience. I became aware of the SF digests, fandom, and Hugos in the mid-1960s, so reading Walton’s book is a wonderful stroll down memory lane. I’d say I remember something about all the novels and at least bit about two-thirds of all the stories. Like Walton, I haven’t read everything that was nominated or even won, but I have read a lot. Also, two of Walton’s favorite writers were Heinlein and Delany, and they were my favorites in the 1960s. So I resonate with many of her opinions about most of the stories. But she hates Philip K. Dick, who is one of my big favs, so that irks me at times. She tried a few PKD novels and now adamantly refuses to try any others. I can understand her reasons, but I still think she should read The Man in the High Castle.

Walton’s comments about awards contain a lot of fan gossip and history, as do comments from the people who posted replies to the columns. I’d expect younger readers who aren’t familiar with SF history from 1953-2000 will find this book a long litany of boring titles and names.

I suppose younger readers who want to study science fiction history could use this book as a guide for selecting what to read. But it will be slow reading. To give each year it’s proper due would require reading between 500,000 and 1,000,000 words, or maybe just a 100,000 if they’re only covering the shorter works.

This is definitely a book where you have to have some skin in the game to enjoy it.

JWH

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Science Fiction?

 

by James Wallace Harris – 6/27/18

Reprinted from Book Riot.

To encourage discourse at the online science fiction book club I moderate, I began thinking about what we talk about when we talk about science fiction. At the broadest level, we talk about storytelling and writing, which is part of all fiction. At the next level, we discuss how we felt about experiencing a book. Essentially, this level is about entertainment value and doesn’t directly deal with science fiction either. At the third level, we compare the science fictional elements in the story to science fiction we’ve read in the past. Most science fictional concepts are unoriginal, recursive, and depend on previous science fiction. At the final level, the level where we actually talk about science fiction is where we examine the original science fictional speculation in a story.

It’s rather hard to write original science fiction after H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon, even though I’m quite sure they cribbed their inspiration from others, too. If you read enough science fiction, you’ll discover most science fictional concepts have been around for a long time. Many go back at least a hundred years, some for hundreds of years, and few for thousands. If you compare science fiction, fantasy, and religion you’ll find many overlapping core questions about reality. Eventually, you’ll see how science fiction evolved out of myths, religion, and fantasy. Science fiction’s current claim to distinction is it explores far-out concepts that might be possible with the aid of science and technology.

What we talk about when we talk about science fiction is the possibility of making changes to reality. Science fiction is a sliding window of speculation. Once upon a time, science fiction theorized how humans could build flying machines. Now that we have American Airlines it’s no longer science fiction. It’s hard to write a new story about the first humans to land on the Moon after Armstrong and Aldrin left their footprints there.

Once I began thinking about what we talk about when we talk about science fiction, I realized it involved a very limited number of topics explored in infinite variations. What differentiates our science fictional hopes from the desires reflected in religion and fantasy is the belief that we can make our dreams come true using brain power rather than depending on the miracles of God or the magic of the paranormal. Science fiction is all about hubris.

When we talk about science fiction we’re mainly talking about these subjects:

  • The possibility of other worlds
  • Life on those worlds
  • Travel between worlds
  • Other intelligent beings like us
  • Are some aliens superior to us
  • Making ourselves immortal
  • How humans can evolve to be different
  • How we can reprogram ourselves (genetics, cyborgs)
  • Creating intelligent life (robots, AI, artificial life)
  • Creating a utopian society (or failing at one)
  • New inventions and their impact
  • Travel in time
  • Alternate histories

Astronomers are discovering new extrasolar worlds every day. So that’s becoming less science fictional. It’s still within the realm of science fiction to speculate what those worlds might contain. Mathematically, we assume life is possible on many of them. We’ve been theorizing about other worlds and other life forms at least since the ancient Greeks and probably earlier. Aren’t stories about gods, angels, and other metaphysical beings of religions and myths just historical residue of speculations about intelligent life from off-Earth worlds from the far past?

Isn’t any discussion about God or gods really a discussion about intelligent aliens? All science fiction has done is to relocate theories of Heaven to more realistic sites in the galaxy. Religion has been speculating how it might be possible for our lives to go on existing after we die. Aren’t all the ideas about scientific immortality in science fiction just a continuation of those speculations?

When we talk about becoming immortal using science fiction and we dream of copying our brains to robot or clone bodies, aren’t we just participating in the latest speculation of how life-after-death could happen? Hasn’t that speculation been going on since our species began to think and talk? Could it have been science fiction when the authors of the Old Testament theorized that a powerful alien being would reanimate our bodies after the end of time? Aren’t myths and religious beliefs really science fiction that’s gone stale from learning too much about how reality really works?

Once you realize that what we talk about when we talk about science fiction is a discussion of our hopes and fears about the future and how we might change reality for better or worse? Hasn’t such speculation always existed? Why is old speculation called myths and new speculation called science fiction? Will 20th-century science fiction one day be remembered as myths?

Most science fiction stories we talk about today are really adventure stories set in older science fictional speculations. For example, Star Wars, probably the most famous of all science fiction stories, has no original speculation about reality. Star Wars uses science fictional speculations from the 1940s and 1950s to create a sprawling setting for conventional tales of adventure, romance, empire, rebellion, war, and aristocracy.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin LiuAurora by Kim Stanley Robinson and The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin are examples of current science fictional speculation about the possibilities of humans traveling to other stellar systems or aliens from other stellar systems coming to visit us. Infomocracy by Malka Older is science fictional speculation about creating a new kind of democracy.

What we talk about when we talk about science fiction is whether or not the author has imagined something that could be made possible that doesn’t currently exist. Either good or bad. To be original the author must come up with something new or a new twist on an old idea. I thought Charlie Jane Anders had something new to say about the nature of science fiction and fantasy in All the Birds in the Sky (which just won the Nebula Award and is up for the Hugo this summer). Isn’t fantasy v. science fiction really magic v. science, and isn’t that deeply psychological? How much of our polarized society is due to a split between believers in magic and science?

Isn’t what we talk about when we talk about science fiction really a psychological reflection of our own desires and fears for the future? Most bookworms read to escape. They want to immerse their minds in an old-fashion form of virtual reality. I believe the hardcore science fiction fan is a reader seeking new ideas about what might be possible in reality. They expect writers to imagine possible futures that no one has imagined before.

As readers and book club members we want to talk about those possibilities.

JWH

Women Who Imagined the Future

 

by James Wallace Harris – 6/20/18

Reprinted from Book Riot.

The Future is Female edited by Lisa YaszekScience fiction has a reputation for excluding women writers, but recent science fiction anthologies suggest that wasn’t always true. Library of America (LOA) is taking pre-orders for The Future Is Female!: 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin edited by Lisa Yaszek. Being published by LOA is literary recognition, see “Library of America Recognizes Ursula K. Le Guin (and Science Fiction)” to understand why.

But if you don’t want to wait until September 25, 2018, there’s are several retrospective science fiction anthologies that focus on women writers you can read now, including another co-edited by Lisa Yaszek.

OUT-OF-PRINT SCIENCE FICTION ANTHOLOGIES

Sadly, science fiction anthologies go out of print quickly – I assume because editors only buy limited rights. Since the following books are out-of-print I’m going to list them with links to the Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB.org) so you can read their table of contents. If you click on the story title link, you’ll be taken to the story’s publication history. That will show you when and where the story was first published, and how often it was collected in other anthologies.

Women of Wonder - The Classic Years edited by Pamela SargentThis is very useful for discovering the popularity of a story. For example, just look at all the places “That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril has been reprinted. If you study these listings, you’ll also see how often some stories are repeatedly used, or even if the story has never been reprinted before.

Pamela Sargent edited a series of groundbreaking anthologies on women science fiction writers starting with Women of Wonderback in 1974 and updated them in 1995 to the two-volume Women of Wonder: The Classic Years and Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years. These are well worth searching for on the used market. It’s a shame they haven’t stayed in print, and I’d love to hear them on audio. (Hint, hint, Audible.)