“The Purple Death” by W. L. Alden

The Purple Death by W. L. Alden

“The Purple Death” by W. L. Auden first appeared in the January 1895 issue of Cassell’s Family Magazine. I read it in my copy of Science Fiction by the Rivals of H. G. Wells edited by Alan K. Russell, but I also own The Wordsworth Collection of Science Fiction edited by David Stuart Davies, the other anthology that ISFDB.org says contains the story. However, it is also available to read online.

In the last decade, I’ve come to admire science fiction from the 19th-century and collected a number of anthologies that mine that era for early tales of sense-of-wonder. I dip into these volumes now and then, often to discover ideas I thought original to the golden age of pulp SF magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. It makes me wonder if anthologists shouldn’t scout the 18th-century for even earlier examples of common science fiction themes.

“The Purple Death” is a quiet story about an Englishman vacationing in Italy who meets Professor Schwartz, a mad scientist from Germany living the cottage next door. Schwartz wants to help the poor and downtrodden by reducing their numbers. He believes overpopulation is the source of the planet’s problems. His has a solution, one we’d call terrorism today. In fact, the description of his bioweapons of mass destruction and how he would deploy them sounds exactly like possibilities we regularly hear on the nightly news.

Wikipedia has little to say about Alden, other than he was Consul General in Rome, Italy from 1885-1890, appointed by Grover Cleveland. He brought the sport of canoeing to the United States and was the founding member of the American Canoe Association. That I thought strange since I assumed native Americans invented the canoe.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is a bit more revealing, with a concise rundown of his other SF/F tales. Their themes support my idea that many of the famous science fictional ideas of the 20th-century had earlier versions in the 19th. To quote SFE:

Alden's sf and fantasy seems to date only from around 1890 or so, his first title of genuine genre interest seeming to be A Lost Soul: Being the Confession and Defence of Charles Lindsay (1892), narrated by a physician who re-animates the frozen body of an Italian countess (see Sleeper Awakes), only to find that she has retained the amoral ways (see Sex) that caused her husband to immolate her in the first place. Most of the stories in Among the Freaks (coll of linked stories 1896) are tall tales, narrated by the owner of a freak show (but see Monsters); The Mystery of Elias G Roebuck and Other Stories (coll 1896) includes several fantasies and sf tales, including an interesting Apes as Human tale, "A Darwinian Schooner" (August 1893 Pall Mall Magazine) and several tales involving Inventions, a topic more intensely (and humorously) deployed in the stories assembled as Van Wagener's Ways (coll of linked stories 1898), in which the eponymous professor's inventions, all of which go wrong but which are not hoaxes, end with his death in something like a nuclear explosion. Drewitt's Dream (1902) is partially set on an Island Utopia. Alden was prolific and fluent, and further exploration of his works may uncover more material of interest.

I think I’d like to give A Lost Soul (1892) a try. In his bibliography, SFE also mentions A New Robinson Crusoe (1888), which also intrigues me.

By the way, I highly recommend Science Fiction Rivals of H. G. Wells if you can find a copy. They are getting expensive on the used market. I only snagged a copy of one without its dust jacket, so in some ways, I hate to make this recommendation, because I’d still like to find a cheap copy in its wrapper. However, it’s a cool volume, reprinting Victorian era SF from the magazines and including their original illustrations. It’s a shame there is no ebook or audiobook edition.

James Wallace Harris, April 2, 2019

 

“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson

Utriusque-Cosmi

“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson was first published in The New Space Opera 2 edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan in 2009. It’s been reprinted a number of times, including Clarkesworld where you can read and listened to it online. It is the 12th story I’ve reviewed from The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois.

Utriusque Cosmi was a two-volume work by Robert Fludd published in 1617 and 1621. You can see a facsimile copy of this book at Archive.org. It is a work of occult philosophy.

“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson is a teleological science fiction story, or maybe a fantasy claiming a different intelligent designer other than God. Robert Charles Wilson thinks big when he writes science fiction, like his story Spin, a 2005 novel which won the Hugo award.

To say “Utriusque Cosmi” is epic in scope is an epic understatement. The story starts out simple, with a woman named Carlotta going back in time to haunt her sixteen-year-old self. I won’t tell you where it ends up. Let’s just say this is one of the most unique ghost stories ever written with a science fictional explanation that would impress Olaf Stapledon.

My goal of slowly reviewing the 38 stories in The Very Best of the Best is not to critique the stories, but to use them to contemplate the nature of science fiction. “Utriusque Cosmi” is a mixture of literary and science fictional writing. Young Carlotta’s narrative if separated from the science fiction feels like something I’d read in the annual Best American Short Stories. In fact, it could have been written as a traditional ghost story inside any other theological view of reality.

What Wilson has done is come up with a teleological argument using a science fictional intelligent design. That’s both clever and somewhat psychoanalytically revealing of our genre. Both theists and Sci-Fi fans want reality to be different from what it actually is. That’s why I often consider science fiction to be a substitute for religion. Science fiction keeps dreaming of ways to give humans everlasting life in heaven. Science fiction writers have just come up with far more complex explanations of how this might happen. Religion is really a belief in magical incantations. God creates with the power of the Word – but then so do science fiction writers. SF readers just believe that science and technology will one day make their words come true.

“Utriusque Cosmi” is a lovely story of faith.

JWH

Before there was Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, before there was Blogs, Forums, and Listserv, there was the Fanzine!

The Science Fiction Fanzine Reader

I’m not sure people who grew up after the internet can comprehend living before the computer era. They are used to instant communication with anyone around the world. They are used to finding their peeps in a Facebook group just by typing in a search phrase or battling tempests in a teacup with digital acquaintances they’ve never met on Twitter. The internet lets everyone easily locate like-minded members of their subculture or the foes of their philosophy. Anyone can have a world-wide distribution of their writing. But in the days before networked computers, most people only knew other people from meeting face-to-face. Writing letters were about the extent of distant communication, and generally, they were to Mom and Dad when you were at camp.

However, Amazing Stories in the 1920s inspired science fiction fans to communicate with other unmet fans through the letter columns, which led them to invent their own magazines, the fanzine. That allowed SF fans to express themselves and find other fans to share and argue over the mighty topic of science fiction. Instead of HTML, they used letterpresses, ditto machines, and the mighty Gestetner mimeograph to publish text and graphics.

Luis Ortiz has just come out with a new anthology of fanzine essays and artwork called The Science Fiction Fanzine Reader: Focal Points 1930-1960. He ties 400 pages of reprints with commentary and history. Sure this is a big book about a tiny subculture. Only 200 people attended the first Worldcon in New York City in 1939. Most science fiction fans lived in isolation, hungry for contact with their fellow fen.

In my recent essay about Hugo award-winning fanzines, I provided links to sites where you can read these classic zines. What Ortiz has done is give those archives a coherent overview and history. I don’t think many people will be buying this $30 book. The old science fiction fandom is dying out. It’s been completely overshadowed by social media. But I want to let those who remember to know that it exists. And maybe let those who don’t remember a chance to see how the ideology of science fiction was spread before the world knew the term science fiction.

I joined Spectator Amateur Press Society (SAPS) in 1971 and my cousin-in-law let me use his church’s Gestetner to run off my first zine called The Blue Bomber (named after my car). SAPS was an amateur press association (APA) where I shared my zine with 36 other people around the world. In 1974, Greg Bridges and Dennis McHaney and I purchased a Gestetner together. I helped Greg publish a genzine called Diversity for our local science fiction club, but we traded it for other zines in other states, and I think England, Canada, and Australia. Dennis published a zine devoted to Robert E. Howard. I used our mimeograph for publishing my SAPS and SFPA zines.

Communicating with distant people I’ve never met in the 1970s via zines prepared me for the BBS boom in the 1980s. I joined Prodigy, AOL, Genie. I had a 2-line BBS system to discuss science fiction. When I got access to the internet in 1987 I contacted other SF fans via email, forums, mailing lists, and USENET. I created the first version of The Classics of Science Fiction for a fanzine Lan’s Lantern. I reprinted it on a gopher server in the early 1990s, and right after the web was created I set up the first web version. This site is version 4.

I feel all of this communicating across the planet was a natural progression from publishing my first fanzine.

James Wallace Harris, March 27, 2019

 

“The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory

Unpossible and Other Stories by Daryl Gregory

“The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory is the 11th story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. It originally appeared in Eclipse 2 but has been reprinted a number of times. You can read or listen to it online at Clarkesworld. Daryl Gregory has published seven novels, numerous short stories, and a handful of comic books/graphic novels. I believe this is the first story I’ve read by Gregory.

The setup of “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” is quite simple – a small country is attacked by a much larger country. Gregory said he was inspired by the U.S. attacking Iraq. Now picture the United States invading a small country not with stealth fighters but with superheroes. The story opens:

The 22nd Invasion of Trovenia began with a streak of scarlet against a gray sky fast as the flick of a paintbrush. The red blur zipped across the length of the island, moving west to east, and shot out to sea. The sonic boom a moment later scattered the birds that wheeled above the fish processing plant and sent them squealing and plummeting.

Elena said, “Was that—it was, wasn’t it?”

“You’ve never seen a U-Man, Elena?” Jürgo said.

“Not in person.” At nineteen, Elena Pendareva was the youngest of the crew by at least two decades, and the only female. She and the other five members of the heavy plate welding unit were perched 110 meters in the air, taking their lunch upon the great steel shoulder of the Slaybot Prime. The giant robot, latest in a long series of ultimate weapons, was unfinished, its unpainted skin speckled with bird shit, its chest turrets empty, the open dome of its head covered only by a tarp.

Elena is our point-of-view character from which we see her city destroyed and watch citizens struggles to survive the aftermath. It’s a clever anti-war story that makes me feel for these imaginary foreign people. Trovenia is characterized like a cold war era eastern bloc country. Its citizens parrot the standard propaganda against America yet distrust their own leaders. America uses its superhero power advantage to bully smaller nations, while Trovenia’s leader, Lord Grimm, brags of having equal superpowers to fight back.

This story is not my kind of story because I’m bored to blazes with superheroes and their superpowers, but I imagine fans who love the DC/Marvel universes will be entertained.

Science fiction and fantasy writers face a constant challenge of competing with the successes of movie franchises that make billions dominating the pop culture landscape. Our society has reached the science fiction saturation point decades ago, so it’s hard to come up with anything new that will dissolve into our Pop Culture Kool-Aid.

I feel sorry for struggling young writers. I’d like to think this story is also Gregory’s way of responding to superhero oppression. Even though “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” isn’t my kind of story, I still found it enjoyable, and maybe I did so because the superheroes are portrayed like V-1 and V-2 bombs rocketing over London during WWII – powerful caped menaces streaking across the skies terrifying ordinary people.

There are whole armies of talented writers out there hoping to get noticed. Their only weapon is typing out words, but those black pixels on white backlights must compete with 3D Imax blockbusters. Even though I have some problems with the stories in Love, Death + Robots, I’m still excited to see science fiction writers getting their short stories produced for the HDTV screen. “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” could make a visually stylish short film.

And that might be another reason why Gregory features superheroes in his story – he imagined it being filmed as he wrote it.

James Wallace Harris, March 26, 2019 (Happy Anniversary Susan)

 

 

“Finisterra” by David Moles

Cory and Catska Ench Finnisterra

“Finisterra” by David Moles was first published in the December 2007 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It has been reprinted a number of times, including online at Clarkesworld where you can read and listen to the story. The cover painting (above) for the story is by Cory and Catska Ench. This is the 10th review in a series, following the stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois.

“Finisterra” is supposed to be science fiction, but it feels like a mini-epic fantasy. Storytellers always have to top previous stories of a similar kind, so this tale is about hunting for an animal bigger than city or county.

“Pictures don’t do them justice, do they?” he said.

Bianca went to the rail and follows the naturalist’s gaze. She did her best to maintain a certain stiff formality around Fry; from their first meeting aboard Transient Meridian she’d had the idea that it might not be good to let him get too familiar. But when she saw what Fry was looking at, the mask slipped for a moment, and she couldn’t help a sharp, quick intake of breath.

Fry chuckled. “To stand on the back of one,” he said, “to stand in a valley and look up at the hills and know that the ground under your feet is supported by the bones of a living creature—there’s nothing else like it.” He shook his head.

At this altitude they were above all but the highest-flying of the thousands of beasts that made up Septentrionalis Archipelago. Bianca’s eyes tried to make the herd (or flock, or school) of zaratanes into other things: a chain of islands, yes, if she concentrated on the colors, the greens and browns of forests and plains, the grays and whites of the snowy highlands; a fleet of ships, perhaps, if she instead focused on the individual shapes, the keel ridges, the long, translucent fins, ribbed like Chinese sails.

The zaratanes of the archipelago were more different from one another than the members of a flock of birds or a pod of whales, but still there was a symmetry, a regularity of form, the basic anatomical plan— equal parts fish and mountain—repeated throughout, in fractal detail from the great old shape of Zaratán Finisterra, a hundred kilometers along the dorsal ridge, down to the merely hill-sized bodies of the nameless younger beasts. When she took in the archipelago as a whole, it was impossible for Bianca not to see the zaratanes as living things.

“Nothing else like it,” Fry repeated.

It’s hard to imagine creatures this large and still be real. Look closer again at the cover illustration. There’s a larger creature there. And even it isn’t large enough to be the creature in the story.

“Finisterra” isn’t meant to be speculative science fiction. This is Planet Stories for the 21st-century. Oh sure, it has its moral compass with an anti-poaching message, but really it’s an adventure tale, the kind you wish you could see at an IMAX theater in 3D. David Moles has done some wonderful worldbuilding, as has the nine stories that came before it in The Very Best of the Best. If there’s one lesson for the would-be science fiction writer in this anthology, it’s to master the techniques of world-building.

It’s serendipitous that I read “Finisterra” just before I watched Love, Death + Robots on Netflix, a series of 18 mostly animated short SF/F stories. Many of its short films were based on original short stories by science fiction writers. Love, Death + Robots is a great proof of concept that short SF/F would be very successful on television, and “Finisterra” would make a beautifully animated film. Of course, Dust has been making such short films for years for internet viewers, and now they offer Dustx channel for Roku owners. I hope all these short SF films and anthology shows get more people to read science fiction short stories and subscribe to the magazines.

Even though I thoroughly enjoyed Love, Death + Robots, I felt the variety of science fiction themes in the 18 short films limited. Its stories mainly focused on sex and violence with a lot of profanity, the kind that would appeal to teenage boys. I hope the producers of this series mine more SF stories from current genre magazines and select stories like “Finisterra” or the others in The Very Best of the Best to film.

James Wallace Harris, March 23, 2019

How Many Hugo Award Winning Fanzines Can You Read Online?

 

Hugo winning fanzines

In the 1930s fans began publishing amateur magazines devoted to the science fiction genre. They were dubbed fanzines, as compared to prozines, where science fiction was published by professional writers and editors. Eventually, other pop culture fans created fanzines chronicling the subcultures of comics, horror movies, rock music, the counter-culture, etc.

In the 1950s when the Hugo awards began, a category for best fanzine was created. In recent years Retro Hugo voters looked back to the 1930s and 1940s, giving awards to now legendary titles that are almost impossible to find. Most fanzines had very small print runs. Reading them today reveals how readers of the past felt about science fiction, long before the genre became well known. Fanzines including gossip, feuds, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, art, letter columns, book reviews, and anything you’d read now on the web.

Since the advent of the internet, some fanzines have been digitized and put online. Fanac.org focuses on the fan history of the SF genre, especially fanzines from before 1980. eFanzines covers all kinds of zines, including current ones. The University of Iowa is digitizing 10,000 fanzines from Rusty Havelin’s collection. And ZineWiki is the encyclopedia of fanzine history. Fanzines chronicle the histories of subcultures. Fredric Wertham, M.D. who campaigned against comics in the 1950s as a negative influence on children, praised fanzines in the 1970s in his book The World of Fanzines, claiming they were a special form of creative communication.

Fanzines were the precursors to blogs and home pages. Fanzines allowed people to inter-network using postal services around the world. Access to a school ditto machine or an office Gestetner gave fans publishing power. The web, for the most part, killed off the fanzine because HTML serves the same purpose as the mimeograph, but cheaper and more efficiently.

A complete list of Hugo nominated fanzines and winners can be found at Wikipedia. Below are the fanzines that won the Hugo Awards. This is the smallest drop in the bucket compared to what was published. I’ve tried to find the best link possible to sample issues. In recent times the award for fanzines has gone to websites. The art of writing, editing, illustrating, and printing an amateur magazine is disappearing. Fanzines are still remembered by collectors who buy them on eBay and discussed on Facebook. However, they are disappearing quickly. Booksellers often refer to them as ephemera. I have been scanning a few issues of old zines and putting them on the Internet Archive, a library system that hopes to preserve everything that can be digitized. If you have old fanzines you might consider scanning them for IA. Especially if you believe your spouse will toss your collection in the recycle bin when you leave this world.

Retro Hugos

Hugos

  • 1955 – Fantasy Times (James V. Taurasi, Sr. and Ray Van Houten)
  • 1956 – Inside (Ron Smith), Science Fiction Advertiser (Ron Smith)
  • 1957 – Science-Fiction Times (James V. Taurasi, Sr., Ray Van Houten and Frank R. Prieto, Jr.)
  • 1959 – Fanac (Terry Carr, Ron Ellik)
  • 1960 – Cry of the Nameless (F. M. Busby, Elinor Busby, Burnett Toskey and Wally Weber)
  • 1961 – Who Killed Science Fiction? (Earl Kemp)
  • 1962 – Warhoon (Richard Bergeron)
  • 1963 – Xero (Richard and Pat Lupoff)
  • 1964 – Amra (George H. Scithers)
  • 1965 – Yandro (Robert and Juanita Coulson)
  • 1966 – ERB-dom (Camille Cazedessus, Jr.)
  • 1967 – Niekas (Edmund R. Meskys and Felice Rolfe)
  • 1968 – Amra (see 1965)
  • 1969 – Science Fiction Review (Richard E. Geis)
  • 1970 – Science Fiction Review (see 1968)
  • 1971 – Locus (Charles and Dena Brown)
  • 1972 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1973 – Energumen (Michael Glicksohn and Susan Wood)
  • 1974 – The Alien Critic (Richard E. Geis)
  • 1975 – The Alien Critic (see 1974)
  • 1976 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1977 – Science Fiction Review (see 1968)
  • 1978 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1979 – Science Fiction Review (see 1968)
  • 1980 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1981 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1982 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1983 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1984 – File 770 (Mike Glyer)
  • 1985 – File 770 (see 1984)
  • 1986 – Lan’s Lantern (George “Lan” Laskowski)
  • 1987 – Ansible (David Langford)
  • 1988 – Texas SF Inquirer (Pat Mueller)
  • 1989 – File 770 (see 1984)
  • 1990 – The Mad 3 Party (Leslie Turek)
  • 1991 – Lan’s Lantern (see 1986)
  • 1992 – Mimosa (Richard Lynch and Nicki Lynch)
  • 1993 – Mimosa (see 1992)
  • 1994 – Mimosa (see 1992)
  • 1995 – Ansible (see 1987)
  • 1996 – Ansible (see 1987)
  • 1997 – Mimosa (see 1992)
  • 1998 – Mimosa (see 1992)
  • 1999 – Ansible (see 1987)
  • 2000 – File 770 (see 1984)
  • 2001 – File 770 (see 1984)
  • 2002 – Ansible (see 1987)
  • 2003 – Mimosa (see 1992)
  • 2004 – Emerald City (Cheryl Morgan)
  • 2005 – Plokta (Alison Scott, Steve Davies, and Mike Scott)
  • 2006 – Plokta (see 2005)
  • 2007 – Science-Fiction Five-Yearly (Lee Hoffman, Geri Sullivan, and Randy Byers)
  • 2008 – File 770 (see 1984)
  • 2009 – Electric Velocipede (John Klima)
  • 2010 – StarShipSofa (Tony C. Smith)
  • 2011 – The Drink Tank (Christopher Garcia and James Bacon)
  • 2012 – SF Signal (John DeNardo)
  • 2013 – SF Signal (John DeNardo, JP Frantz, and Patrick Hester)
  • 2014 – A Dribble of Ink (Aidan Moher)
  • 2015 – Journey Planet (James Bacon, Christopher J Garcia, Colin Harris, Alissa McKersie, and Helen J. Montgomery)
  • 2016 – File 770 (see 1984)
  • 2017 – Lady Business (Clare, Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay, and Susan)
  • 2018 – File 770 (see 1984)

James Wallace Harris, March 22, 2019

“Glory” by Greg Egan

exoplanet

Glory” by Greg Egan first appeared in The New Space Opera (2007) edited by Gardner Dozois. This is the 9th story discussed from The Very Best of the Best (2019) also edited by Gardner Dozois.

I first encountered Greg Egan when I read his novel Quarantine (1992). It impressed me greatly, yet, I have not followed his career closely. There is just a tremendous amount of good science fiction to read. I have read the reviews of his following novels and read a few of his shorter stories in the best-of-the-year annuals. Egan writes hard science fiction of the super-science variety, projecting humanity into the far future. Egan is far more hopeful for the potential of our species than I am.

“Glory” is about Joan and Anne, galactic citizens of the Amalgam, visiting a world that has not yet developed interstellar travel. Their adventure begins with two ingots of metallic hydrogen, one made of matter and the other anti-matter. These ingots are sculpted with neutrons and antineutrons until they are compressed into a needle one micron wide. I’ll quote Egan to give you a sample of his imagination:

The needle was structured like a meticulously crafted firework, and its outer layers ignited first. No external casing could have channeled this blast, but the pattern of tensions woven into the needle’s construction favored one direction for the debris to be expelled. Particles streamed backward; the needle moved forward. The shock of acceleration could not have been borne by anything built from atomic-scale matter, but the pressure bearing down on the core of the needle prolonged its life, delaying the inevitable. 

Layer after layer burned itself away, blasting the dwindling remnant forward ever faster. By the time the needle had shrunk to a tenth of its original size, it was moving at ninety-eight percent of light speed; to a bystander, this could scarcely have been improved upon, but from the needle’s perspective, there was still room to slash its journey’s duration by orders of magnitude. 

When just one thousandth of the needle remained, its time, compared to the neighboring stars, was passing five hundred times more slowly. Still the layers kept burning, the protective clusters unraveling as the pressure on them was released. The needle could only reach close enough to light speed to slow down time as much as it required if it could sacrifice a large enough proportion of its remaining mass. The core of the needle could only survive for a few trillionths of a second, while its journey would take two hundred million seconds as judged by the stars. The proportions had been carefully matched, though: out of the two kilograms of matter and antimatter that had been woven together at the launch, only a few million neutrons were needed as the final payload. 

By one measure, seven years passed. For the needle, its last trillionths of a second unwound, its final layers of fuel blew away, and at the moment its core was ready to explode, it reached its destination, plunging from the near-vacuum of space straight into the heart of a star. 

Even here, the density of matter was insufficient to stabilize the core, yet far too high to allow it to pass unhindered. The core was torn apart. But it did not go quietly, and the shock waves it carved through the fusing plasma endured for a million kilometers: all the way through to the cooler outer layers on the opposite side of the star. These shock waves were shaped by the payload that had formed them, and though the initial pattern imprinted on them by the disintegrating cluster of neutrons was enlarged and blurred by its journey, on an atomic scale it remained sharply defined. Like a mold stamped into the seething plasma, it encouraged ionized molecular fragments to slip into the troughs and furrows that matched their shape, and then brought them together to react in ways that the plasma’s random collisions would never have allowed. In effect, the shock waves formed a web of catalysts, carefully laid out in both time and space, briefly transforming a small corner of the star into a chemical factory operating on a nanometer scale. 

The products of this factory sprayed out of the star, riding the last traces of the shock wave’s momentum: a few nanograms of elaborate, carbon-rich molecules, sheathed in a protective fullerene weave. Traveling at seven hundred kilometers per second, a fraction below the velocity needed to escape from the star completely, they climbed out of its gravity well, slowing as they ascended. 

Four years passed, but the molecules were stable against the ravages of space. By the time they’d traveled a billion kilometers, they had almost come to a halt, and they would have fallen back to die in the fires of the star that had forged them if their journey had not been timed so that the star’s third planet, a gas giant, was waiting to urge them forward. As they fell toward it, the giant’s third moon moved across their path. Eleven years after the needle’s launch, its molecular offspring rained down on to the methane snow.

This is not the science fiction I grew up reading. I want to quote the whole opening that explains how Joan and Anne get to their destination, but that would involve quoting too much. I strongly recommend reading the story online just to experience the dazzling science fictional thinking of Greg Egan. I have no idea if any of his razzle-dazzling sleight of hand is scientifically possible, but Egan is a convincing preacher of the faith, of the faith that humanity has no limits in this universe.

However, once Egan gets Joan and Anne to the planet of Tira and Ghahar, two rival nations of beings call Noudah, the story slows down and becomes almost mundane in its plot. Joan and Anne are evidently what humans become in the far future, and they can download their essence (mind, soul?) into any machine or being. They appear to the Tiran and Ghahari in Noudah bodies. Joan and Anne each arrange to be intercepted by the two warring nations. Their stated and honest goal is to study the Niah, a race of sentient beings that had existed prior to the Noudah on this planet, and who were premiere mathematicians of the galaxy. The Niah existed for three million years but had disappeared over a million years earlier, leaving only tablets with their mathematical insights carved into them. Joan and Anne somehow know that the Noudah are building dams on Niah sites and want to excavate them before they are lost.

The real purpose of the story I believe is for Egan to present the idea of Seekers and Spreaders. The Niah are a race of seekers of knowledge. The Noudah are spreaders, wanting to conquer and colonize the galaxy. They are paranoid, fearing Joan and Anne are from another race of spreaders. Joan and Anne are really seekers though, just wanting to understand Niah math, so they have to do everything possible not to appear as spreaders.

Obviously, Homo sapiens will be spreaders. Our species is a cancerous growth spreading to every nook and cranny of Earth, and if we travel to other stellar systems, we’ll spread across those worlds too. (Hint to the title of Egan’s novel, Quarantine.)

I don’t know why Egan thinks we’ll become seekers in the future. Are Joan and Anne still Homo sapiens? Their minds can be copied and backed up, but are their minds like ours? I believe as long as our minds are tied to our biology we’ll be spreaders. But if we’re digitized maybe we could become seekers.

Here’s the thing about me and contemporary science fiction. I just don’t buy the concept of brain downloading. It’s as believable as everlasting life. We like to think we’re the Crown of Creation, but what happens when we discover we’re no more important to the universe than naked mole rats? The urge to spread is just a way to existentially define meaning to ourselves by the amount of territory we can cover. We might be sentient, but we’re no more significant than nitrogen to reality.

Science fiction writers are often philosophers. Science fiction often promotes the manifest destiny of the final frontier. Greg Egan obviously knows that spreading is pointless. But isn’t seeking equally pointless? The universe doesn’t care what we do. So does it matter if we or any other sentient beings spread or seek? And are those really the only choices for how to keep busy while existing in reality? What about art or hedonism? Sports and games? What about the Zen of just being?

“Glory” is a fun story. Most readers will just accept it as a story. I think of it as a kind of religious fantasy, showing faith in a different kind of heaven. As I read the 38 stories in this anthology, I experience them as stories, but also experience them as fears and hopes for the future.

James Wallace Harris, March 20, 2019

 

“Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper

Time-and-Time-Again-by-H.-Beam-Piper

Have you ever thought of an idea for a science fiction story, but before you could use it discovered the idea has already been used in another story? Last night I read “Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper and it uses an idea I’ve already tried in several story attempts. The idea is not really science fiction, but a fantasy version of “if I knew then what I know now,” but Piper throws in some pseudo-science gobbledygook and tries to pass it off as science fiction. Of course, in 1947, science fiction writers were ramping up for the 1950s, the SF Decade of Psi-Powers.

“Time and Time Again” originally appeared in the April 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It was reprinted in the classic retrospective anthology, A Treasury of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin in 1948. In 1956 it was made into an episode of X-Minus One radio show. I read just it in The Great SF Stories 9 (1947) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. The story is also available at Project Gutenberg. This was H. Beam Piper’s first published story.

I’m taking a short break from reading 21st-century SF to jump back to 1940s science fiction. I’ve discovered yet another way of classifying science fiction short stories. Sometimes I read SF magazines. Sometimes I read best-of-the-year annuals. Sometimes I read retrospective anthologies that claim to culled the very best short stories of the genre. They can be new or old magazines, annuals, or anthologies. This gives me three levels of quality and from past and current perspectives.

Reading science fiction magazines reveals that most stories aren’t that good. They’re good enough to get published, but most won’t make it into the best-of-last-year anthologies the following year. I’m reading a best-of-1947 volume, which contains these stories:

  • “Little Lost Robot” by Isaac Asimov
  • “Tomorrow’s Children” by Poul Anderson
  • “Child’s Play” by William Tenn
  • “Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper
  • “Tiny and the Monster” by Theodore Sturgeon
  • “E for Effort” by T. L. Sherred
  • “Letter to Ellen” by Chan Davis
  • “The Figure” by Edward Grendon
  • “With Folded Hands…” by Jack Williamson
  • “The Fires Within” by Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Zero Hour” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Hobbyist” by Eric Frank Russell
  • “Exit the Professor” by Lewis Padgett
  • “Thunder and Roses” by Theodore Sturgeon

Time has not been kind of science fiction. Only the very well-read in science fiction will know any of these titles. “E for Effort” and “With Folded Hands…” made it into volume 2 of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. “Little Lost Robot” became part of I, Robot. And “Thunder and Roses” is one of Theodore Sturgeon’s most famous tales. I doubt many science fiction fans born after 1990 will know these stories.

“Time and Time Again” uses an idea that’s a daydreaming fantasy of mine and one that I’ve tried to work into a story several times. (I did use a variation of it for my blog, “I Wish I Had A Time Machine To Save My Dad.”) Allan Hartley, age 43, dies and wakes back up in his 13-year-old body, but remembers everything that will happen to him for the next thirty years. Replay (1986) by Ken Grimwood was the first work I read that used this idea of reincarnating into one’s own life.

Is “Time and Time Again” a good story? In the July 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, “Time and Time Again” came in 1st in The Analytical Laboratory with a score of 3.11 out of 5 stories. Readers rank stories so a score of 1.0 would have meant every reader would have placed it first on their list. A score of 3.11 means it wasn’t a standout. “Time and Time Again” was good enough to get into Conklin’s big anthology, get produced as a radio show, and to be picked as one of the best SF stories of 1947 by Asimov and Greenberg. But on the whole, it’s not that good. Well, yes and no. If you have a fondness for 1940s science fiction, it has its charms, but if you read with a critical eye, the story is not that polished.

“Time and Time Again” did excite me, but only because it uses my pet idea. Have you ever fantasized about reincarnating into your younger self so you could relive your life knowing what you know now? Sometimes a far-out idea is all a story needs to make it likable. However, Piper really didn’t use the idea effectively, essentially throwing it away on a clunky plot. That’s one of the big faults of science fiction. Writers come up with a cool concept, but often cobble together any old plot to showcase their spiffy insight.

“Time and Time Again” is the earliest version of this theme that I know, and H. Beam Piper does come up with many of the same consequences that later writers have:

  1. Am I crazy?
  2. Can I pull off acting like a kid?
  3. Do I have to repeat what I’ve done before?
  4. Can I tell anyone?
  5. How can I make my own money?

Ken Grimwood covers all of this in the first replay of Jeff Winston’s life. Strangely, Winston dies at 43 too. Could that have been a homage to Piper? Actually, Piper’s ending does have other parallels to Replay. Where Grimwood gets brilliant is when he has Winston relive his life over and over again, each time feeling the need to do something different. Knowing the other possibilities that Grimwood explores made me feel less impressed with Piper’s story. And I guess that’s not fair – it might be the first to use this idea.

I wish someone would create an anthology of stories using this theme. I don’t know of any short stories that use this specific idea, but I bet they’re out there. If you know of any, please leave a comment.

Piper starts the story off by showing what happens to Allan, but eventually, he just has Allan lecturing and speculating. It’s a shame he couldn’t have come up with a fully dramatized plot.

Within “Time and Time Again” Allan mentions a 1923 fantasy novel, The High Place, by James Branch Campbell, and says the idea was also in Jurgen by the same author. But I don’t know what the specific idea he’s referring to. Allan also says Dunne’s Experiment With Time explores precognition. So I don’t know if Piper is more concerned with precognition and less with reincarnation into one’s own life. Piper could have used Allan Hartley wake up in his 13-year-old body just to give us a reason for his precognition, and not as a life do-over tale.

This story was written just after Hiroshima, and already science fiction is attributing magical events to atomic explosions. In the years to come, A-bombs would produce countless mutants with superpowers and portals to other dimensions.

Hartley wants to change history. That seems egotistical to me. It also seems comic bookish and juvenile too. Why would the universe give us a chance to relive our life? At a spiritual level, taking it beyond science and science fiction, wouldn’t such an opportunity be telling us to do a better job this time around and change ourselves, not the world? One common trend in science fiction from this era is the power fantasy, where one hero can save the world, solar, system, galaxy or universe. I think H. Beam Piper matured as a writer by the time he wrote his masterpiece, Little Fuzzy.

James Wallace Harris, March 13, 2019

 

 

“The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” by Alastair Reynolds

Winged Woman

8th in a series: The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois

Although science fiction writers can write about anything, if you read enough science fiction you’ll discover a limited number of themes repeated in endless variations. The challenge to the writer is to tell an old story in a new way. In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” Alastair Reynolds uses the theme of a primitive society that barely remembers its former technological glory. There is a great sense of wonder to that idea. One of the earliest examples I can remember reading is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. In that story, our current world civilization had collapsed and a rather medieval one had taken its place. Characters marveled and wondered about artifacts from our time creating endless speculation about us with wrong assumptions.

In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” we’re again thrown back in time, or so we think. It feels like a 17th-century English town, but I’m not even sure we’re on Earth. Reynolds is famous for telling stories of the very far future. We do learn that their past had space travel and intelligent robots, but the people of this time have no understanding of that history, just shadowy myths. The story is about a 16-year-old girl, Kathrin Lynch, who is the daughter of the sledge maker trying to walk home without being sexually assaulted. She has in the past and knows it will happen again.

In the world of this story, whether far future Earth or a planet we settled that has forgotten that, knowledge is mostly based on superstition. This is a common aspect of our forgotten past theme. For example, the robots of their past are now the “jangling men” – a supernatural threat to scare children from straying too far.

Understanding the building blocks of this theme is not really important for enjoying this story. You can read or listen to it online. “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a wonderful tale because of how it’s told. Since I listened to it on the audiobook edition of The Very Best of the Best, the professional narration showcases Reynolds’ skills at conveying drama and emotion. By the way, I consider audio narration to be a magnifier, one that makes good and bad writing stand out. This might be true because audio converts printed words to something like watching a movie, allowing our ears to better judge the dialog.

I’m reading and reviewing these stories as writing lessons. From “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” I’m learning how Reynolds took an old theme and made it fresh. It involves a number of challenges. First, the setting of the story is old – even if it’s in our far future. Think about watching Game of Thrones on HBO. Is it set on Earth? Is it in the past or the future? How to capture those details without anachronisms?  Reynolds sets “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” in a time that feels like old England to me, where people still believed in witches, and towns are ruled by sheriffs. He overlays this with myths that feel even older, yet we learn were founded on our future.

The basic plot of this story could be set in any time. In fact, it could have been written in the 17th-century or today. What makes it good is the storytelling. The writing is simple. Reynolds explains little. But much happens in the one hour it takes to narrate the audio version. It’s rich in vivid details.

I do have one quibble with this tale, but I’m not sure if I can bring it up without spoiling it for some readers. But I will since these essays are about story construction. The solution to Kathrin’s problem is a powerful weapon. This works in fantasy or science fiction, but would it be politically correct in a contemporary literary story? If we read a New Yorker story about a young girl telling an older woman about how’s she’s being sexually preyed upon and the older woman gave her a 9mm to keep in her purse as a solution, would we accept that story?

I know many Americans would answer yes. But that’s not what I want to get into. This is about writing, and the question it poses is: Should stories offer plot solutions with dangerous implications? I’m a lifelong fan of westerns. One of the major themes of westerns is violence is the solution. Do we accept this only for fiction and video games, or psychologically too?

When I think about writing fiction I seldom think of stories that involve violence. But pay attention to how often violence is integrated all the forms of fiction we consume. If I had written this story I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to create a rape scene. Nor would I have wanted the past technology to be symbolized by a weapon. I’m trying to imagine using this theme in a new way of my own making. What myths might our civilization give people thousands of years from now? What if in two hundred years climate change has totally wiped out our technological civilization? How will future people imagine our love of social media and computers? See, got a story idea already. But ideas are a penny a million. It’s the storytelling that counts, and “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a good lesson in that.

James Wallace Harris, March 11, 2019

“Second Quarter and Counting” by James Van Pelt

Analog Mar-Apr 2019

“Second Quarter and Counting” by James Van Pelt from the March-April 2019 issue of Analog is a story about rejuvenation. Todd has just turned 70 and is overjoyed to be swimming in the 70-74 age group, where he’ll be the youngest competing with the oldest. Todd tells Grace he’s tired of constantly losing to 65-year-olds in the 65-69 age group.

This simple short story is about wanting to be young again. The two characters, Todd and Grace, have known each other since high school. Even though they married other people, they have stayed in touch at swimming meets. Todd has always chased any therapy, supplement, regimen, exercise, diet, that would have kept him young and in shape. At the swim race, he tells Grace he won’t see her for a couple of years because he’s undergoing a process called Backspin that will rejuvenate his body. He warns her he might lose memories in the process, but the rewards will be starting over with a twenty-something body.

This story struck a chord with me for several reasons. First, I’m 67 so I can identify with Todd. Second, and more importantly, the theme of rejuvenation is central to Phoenix by Lady Dorothy Mills, a forgotten novel from 1926 that I discovered in the early 1990s and have been obsessed with since. Phoenix is about an elderly woman who undergoes a process of becoming twenty-looking again. The same plot is also used for Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling in 1996, fifty years later. I find it fascinating how often this idea shows up in science fiction.

I’m sure the idea of an older person being transformed into a younger person has been used in countless tales since pre-history. Myths about the Fountain of Youth go deep into our dark collective mind. Plus, for centuries science has actually dreamed of achieving rejuvenation.

“Second Quarter and Counting” is a simple story whose main virtue is the backstory about a lifelong involvement in swimming competitions. At Rocket Stack Rank James Van Pelt tells Greg Hullender the reviewer about his own real-life swimming experience, and it turns out that Greg is also a competitive swimmer. Both men are slightly younger than I am, so I assume we all know well what aging does to a person. That makes the story work well for us older readers, but what about younger ones?

The reason I feel compelled to write about this story is the theme of rejuvenation. Todd and Grace’s commitment to a long painful procedure tells readers just how willing they are for a second chance in life. Unfortunately, this is a short story and we don’t learn what life is like after becoming young again. In both Phoenix and Holy Fire, it gets complicated.

I have to wonder something else too. Is being young again a complete fantasy, or could science actually reset our clocks? I divide science fiction themes into two kinds. Those that promote an idea we’re going to make real, and those that are just far out fantasies. I’m 99.9999999% sure that time travel is just a fun idea for fiction. I’m about 99.9% sure that faster-than-light travel will always remain fictional. However, I’m about 50% convinced that humans will one day colonize Mars and about 75% sure that we’ll create self-aware sentient machines. I’m not sure at all where to place the odds on rejuvenation. I guess it’s still in the box with Schroedinger’s cat.

Much of the science fictional alchemy to convert old into young involves magic-tech incantations. The current word that goes with the wand-waving, is nanobots. Google offers 105 scholarly results on a search for “nanobots and telomeres.” The specific theme of rejuvenation isn’t as common as science fiction’s other theme of battling old age – life extension. Immortals and near-immortals show up regularly in science fiction. Plus, the new hot SF trend in recent decades is brain downloading, a kind of high-tech reincarnation.

I would say rejuvenation is not as popular as space travel, time travel, robots, aliens, and various kinds of utopias, dystopias, and apocalypses, but speculations on how not to die is a solid theme in science fiction. I’m not sure if it’s ever been worked out realistically in fiction. The typical approach is seen in Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, where transformed old people act young, stupid, and randy.

Is that how it would be? Phoenix (1926) by Lady Dorothy Mills and John Frankenheimer film Seconds (1966) starring Rock Hudson suggest there will be some distinctive downsides to being an old mind in a young body. I wish James Van Pelt would extend his short story into a novel and explore that. In “Second Quarter and Counting” Backspin technology does claim to erase a lot of the mind so it might not be an issue.

I’m not sure I’d want to be rejuvenated if I end up with a 20-something mind. It took me 67 years to evolve this mind, I’d hate to have to start over. Nor am I sure I’d want to have a 70-something mind in a 20-something body. I think all those hormones would feel more like possessive demons than alluring desires. But it might be different for most people, who’d love to be 20-something again, even at the cost of being immature, stupid, and horny all the time.

There’s a second moral in this tale though. Todd and Grace work hard at staying healthy, which also means youthful. Shouldn’t we work to be good at being old? The story made me want to get into better shape. I know many young people who are addicted to exercise. We have a youth-obsessed culture and I’m pretty sure if rejuvenation is ever invented it will be used. But if it’s not, isn’t seeking to optimize what we have the real alternative?

James Wallace Harris, March 10, 2019