Best Short Science Fiction 2018

Best Short Science Fiction 2018

1It’s the season for best-of-the-year anthologies. The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume Thirteen edited by Jonathan Strahan and The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 4 edited by Neil Clarke are already here, and Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 should be out next month. Sadly, Gardner Dozois died last year, so we won’t be seeing the Thirty-Sixth volume of his series. But we do have a new annual, The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories edited by Allan Kaster.

For years, Kaster has edited a best-of-the-year audiobook SF anthology at Audible.com, so I hope this new title is in addition, rather than replacing the old series. The Strahan and Kaster volumes are available at Audible.com now. I love hearing great short science fiction read by professional readers.

I’ve created a spreadsheet that tracks all the stories from the four anthologies and added information about the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for short stories and novelettes. I’ll add more stories and details as additional anthologies are published and awards are given. And if I get ambitious, I might even add links to those stories available online.

The most comprehensive guide to short science fiction for 2018 is Rocket Stack Rank’s “2818 Best SF/F.” My spreadsheet is more of a visual quick reference guide. I’m still learning to use all of RSR’s extensive features.

James Wallace Harris

“Contagion” by Katherine MacLean

Contagion by Katherine MacLean

“Contagion” by Katherine MacLean appeared in the very first issue of Galaxy Science Fiction in October of 1950. MacLean was in great company because the first issue also contained stories by Clifford Simak, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Fredric Brown, and Isaac Asimov. If you follow the link above you can read “Contagion” online, as well as the whole first issue of Galaxy. You can also listen to “Contagion” on YouTube from a LibriVox.org recording.

“Contagion” has been reprinted often, most notably in The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1951 edited by Bleiler and Dikty, Women of Wonder (1975) and the expanded Women of Wonder: The Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s (1995) both edited by Pamela Sargent, and most recently in The Future is Female! edited by Lisa Yaszek and published by the prestigious Library of America.

I just read “Contagion” in the Bleiler/Dikty volume as part of my project to read all the best-SF-of-the-year annuals in order starting with 1939. The story was not in The Great SF Stories 12 (1950) edited by Asimov and Greenberg. I wondered why. “Contagion” is not a great story, but it is a lot of fun, and is notable for a number of reasons. Back in 1950, there were damn few women SF writers, so Katherine MacLean stands out. But more importantly, MacLean deals with an idea that I’ve seldom seen other SF writers concern themselves with – can humans landing on other worlds survive their microscopic infections?

Kim Stanley Robinson dealt with this idea in Aurora just a few years ago. but at the moment these two examples are the only ones I can recall. Most SF yarns have their characters worry if they can breathe the air, drink the water, or eat the plants and animals.  However, most humans on Earth, if they were transported to a jungle in South America or Africa, would be at great risk of getting an infection. Why assume other planets are any less dangerous? KSM suggested it might be impossible to colonize any other world with an evolved biology, and I think he’s right. Visiting any other world with life might risk countless forms of dangerous infections like Ebola.

Little is known about Katherine MacLean. She seems to have been into hard science fiction and mostly wrote for Astounding/Analog, but that does include a lot of Psi-stories. I haven’t been able to find out much about her. She only produced three novels and three collections.

The Diploids by Katherine MacLeanThere are many benefits to my reading project. Not only do I get to watch science fiction evolve year by year, but I get to read a huge variety of stories by many authors I’ve never read before or even know about. There was an interview with Katherine MacLean in the July 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books I’d love to read. If anyone has a copy and could send me a scan it would be appreciated. I’m guessing that interview did help Andrew Liptak write “The Fantastic Foresight of Katherine MacLean” at Kirkus Review. That piece has the most information about MacLean I can currently find.

Joachim Boaz reviews her most famous book, Missing Man published in 1975 but based on her Nebula Award-winning 1971 story of the same name. Boaz rated it 5/5 (Near Masterpiece) which I’ve seldom seen him do. He says it’s one of the best sci-fi novels about telepathy ever. (Makes me want to buy a copy.)

<SPOILERS>

What makes “Contagion” so much fun to me is MacLean’s female perspective. The story is told in the third-person but follows June Walton closely. She is part of a team of human explorers landing on Minos that discover it had already been settled by human colonists when they come across a man named Patrick Mead in the jungle. Mead is a head taller than all the space explorers, is red-headed, wears only a loincloth, and has tremendous sexual magnetism. It’s fun as a male reader follow June as she observes Patrick’s impact on her fellow crew members, especially the women. June’s husband Max pales in comparison to Patrick and June feels bad she’s so attracted to the redheaded stranger.

Eventually, Patrick infects all the male space travelers even though they have been extremely careful to avoid infections. They wear spacesuits and use many decontamination methods. Patrick gives the men the “melting disease.” The women eventually save most of the men with antibodies from Patrick, but all the men go through a transformation and end up looking like Patrick – tall, muscular, and redheaded. The women in the crew are freaked out at first but quickly decided that their husbands and boyfriends easily reveal their personalities even though they all look the same. (I don’t know why but many SF writers have a thing for redheads.)  But here’s the kicker. Patrick’s sister shows up and the space explorers realize she will infect the women in the spaceship and they will all end up looking like her. Patrick’s sister is quite a beauty, but all the Earth women refuse to lose their individual looks. Several say they’d rather die. But do they have a choice?

I wondered if MacLean was having fun with all the male science fiction readers of 1950. I’m sure they were just as geeky then as they are today. MacLean has her spacewomen claiming they love their brainy guys, but they go nuts over Patrick. But what is she saying about women in general by having the spacewomen preferring death to all looking alike?

Is MacLean satirizing women’s vanity, or is it another dig at men? Maybe, MacLean is saying women don’t all want to be redheaded sex goddesses, which like I said, is a common ideal in science fiction magazine stories written by men.

</SPOILERS>

I’m not sure it’s politically correct to say female writers have a uniquely different perspective than male writers, but it seems like MacLean does so here, and is specifically targetting that belief in her story. Most older Sci-Fi tales avoided sex and gender issues and usually presented the most common stereotypes. Science fiction writers sometimes would have a hot woman in the spaceship that all the guys went nuts over, but I can’t remember them ever writing a story with a spaceship where the women crew members all going nuts over a hot guy. First of all, very few stories had spaceships where half the crew were women.

In “Contagion” Katherine MacLean anticipates a future in 1950 that’s more like what’s hinted at in Star Trek of 1966, although half the U.S.S. Enterprise’s command crew was not female. In her story, there is great equality males and females, and everyone is a scientist.

Maybe I should reconsider my assessment of “Contagion” being just a light-weight fun story. Now that I think about it, maybe MacLean was saying a lot more than I thought on my first reading. That’s another thing I’m learning from this reading project. Most great stories need 2-4 readings before I can discern all their great attributes.

James Wallace Harris

The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1949

 

Years Best Short Science Fiction 1949

In 1950 Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty picked the following 1949 science fiction short stories for their second annual anthology The Best Science Fiction Stories – 1950:

  • Private Eye” by Henry Kuttner (Astounding, January 1949)
  • “Doomsday Deferred” by Will F. Jenkins (Saturday Evening Post, 9/24/49)
  • The Hurkle is a Happy Beast” by Theodore Sturgeon (The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949)
  • Eternity Lost” by Clifford Simak (Astounding, July 1949)
  • “Easter Eggs” by Robert Spencer Carr (Saturday Evening Post, 9/24/49)
  • “Opening Doors” by Wilmar H. Shiras (Astounding, March 1949)
  • “Five Years in the Marmalade” by Robert W. Krepps (Fantastic Adventures, July 1949)
  • “Dwellers in Silence” by Ray Bradbury (Planet Stories, Spring 1949)
  • “Mouse” by Fredric Brown (Wonder Stories, June 1949)
  • “Refuge for Tonight” by Robert Moore Williams (Blue Book Magazine, March 1949)
  • “The Life-Work of Professor Muntz” by Murray Leinster (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Jun 1949)
  • Flaw” by John D. MacDonald (Startling Stories,  January 1949)
  • “The Man” by Ray Bradbury (Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1949)

Astounding Science Fiction is no longer dominating. Why no stories from the Big 3 (Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke)? Robert A. Heinlein, probably the most popular science fiction writer at the time had five stories published in 1949 – “Our Fair City,” “Gulf,” “The Long Watch,” “Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon,” and “Delilah and the Space Rigger.” I’ve read the Heinlein wanted too much money to reprint his stories, or maybe Bleiler and Dikty just didn’t like Heinlein or felt he didn’t need the exposure.

If Heinlein wasn’t the most popular science fiction writer in 1949, then Ray Bradbury might have been because two of his stories were selected, and in 1984, Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg picked another for their anthology The Great SF Stories 11 (1949):

  • “The Red Queen’s Race” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, January 1949)
  • Flaw” by John D. MacDonald (Startling Stories, January 1949)
  • Private Eye” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (Astounding, January 1949)
  • “Manna” by Peter Phillips (Astounding, February 1949)
  • “The Prisoner in the Skull” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (Astounding, February 1949)
  • “Alien Earth” by Edmond Hamilton (Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1949)
  • “History Lesson” by Arthur C. Clarke (Startling Stories, May 1949)
  • Eternity Lost” by Clifford D. Simak (Astounding, July 1949)
  • “The Only Thing We Learn” by C. M. Kornbluth (Startling Stories, July 1949)
  • “Private – Keep Out!” by Philip MacDonald (The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949)
  • The Hurkle is a Happy Beast” by Theodore Sturgeon (The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949)
  • “Kaleidoscope” by Ray Bradbury (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949)
  • “Defense Mechanism” by Katherine MacLean (Astounding, October 1949)
  • “Cold War” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949)
  • “The Witches of Karres” by James H. Schmitz (Astounding, December 1949)

I’ve bolded the four stories that both collections picked. Asimov/Greenberg did add an Asimov and Clarke, but no Heinlein. And our system found even another Ray Bradbury story and picked a Heinlein:

CSFSS-1949.

If you look close, only four stories have had citations from the 21st-century, and only two, “Gulf” by Heinlein, and “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” by Bradbury are remembered by fans recently. Our Classics of Science Fiction project shows how stories are slowly forgotten.

But what about how I felt reading these 1949 stories in 2019? To be honest, I’m struggling to retain them in memory. Most were just okay, even time-wasters. The story that really stuck out for me was “Alien Earth” by Edmond Hamilton, which I’ve already written about. Plus, Hamilton was writing about trees in 1949 that foresees such books as The Hidden Life of Trees (2015) by Peter Wohlleben and The Overstory (2019) by Richard Powers that just won the Pulitzer Prize.

The Ray Bradbury stories still work after all these years. In fact, my admiration for Bradbury is growing. His 1940s stories say so much about that decade and still, they seem relevant in the 2010s.

Most of the 1949 science fiction short stories were fun or clever but will probably offer little to modern readers.

One story, “Private Eye” by Kuttner and Moore, was very impressive but didn’t move me. Paul Fraser at SF Magazines really admired “Private Eye.” I want to reread it in the future because I think it will impress me more with a second reading. I wished someone would do an audiobook of Kuttner/Moore’s collected stories because they dominated the 1940s SF, yet I seldom enjoy their stories like I think I should. I’ve always loved “Vintage Season” but most of their stories seem to be more intellect than heart.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Opening Doors” by Wilmar Shiras, her sequel to “In Hiding” an all-time favorite of mine, but it didn’t have the impact of the first story and doesn’t stand on its own very well.

Nothing-Ever-Happens-on-the-Moon---Robert-A.-Heinlein

What Heinlein stories would I include. “Gulf” is a major story, but it’s subject major is something I find distasteful. I also found the novel Friday, which is a sequel to “Gulf” to be even more distasteful. I guess my favorite Heinlein for 1949 would be “Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon” – a two-part story from Boys Life. (Part 1, Part 2).

Bleiler and Dikty seem to have more stories from the first half of 1949, and Asimov and Greenberg more from the second half. Both looked at several magazines, getting away from Astounding is everything feeling. I’m not sure if I could find other stories worth anthologizing. Nor do I think I could pick enough 1949 SF stories to fill a whole book that’s I’d recommend to modern readers.

Starting last year I began reading the annual best-of-the-year SF anthologies in order. I began with the year 1939. Now that I’ve just finished 1949, it means I’ve covered the whole decade of the 1940s. I’m developing a sense that science fiction is evolving. But I will have to write about that at another time. I’ve started on the 1950 volumes, and the first four stories are already more exciting than any in 1949. My hunch is the 1950s will be the most exciting decade for science fiction.

James Wallace Harris, 6/12/19

“Alien Earth” by Edmond Hamilton

Alien-Earth-by-Edmond-Hamilton

“Alien Earth” by Edmond Hamilton first appeared in the April 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. It has seldom been reprinted. I just discovered it in an old copy of The Great SF Stories 11 (1949) which came out in 1984. In other words, this story is mostly forgotten. You can read it online at the Internet Archive.

Edmond Hamilton got his start in Weird Tales in the 1920s but eventually wrote extensively for many kinds of pulps and comics. Today he is mainly remembered, if he’s remembered at all, for his space opera, especially as the primary author of Captain Future. Because of this, when I turned the page of this anthology and saw it was by Edmond Hamilton I groaned inwardly. I wasn’t in the mood for a silly space opera. Instead, I got a contemporary adventure tale that grabbed me and I grabbed back.

I don’t know why “Alien Earth” is not better remembered because I found it very readable and compelling. Within a few paragraphs, I was thinking what a great writer Hamilton was, and impressed he could do something so different. The opening line was just right, “The dead man was standing in a little moonlit clearing in the jungle when Farris found him.” The dead man, described as a typical Laos tribesman, wasn’t entirely dead. I don’t know my 1949 geography, but I’m guessing this is French Indochina. So the story starts out as a jungle adventure in a science fiction magazine. It was both realistic and fantastic, and ultimately, wonderfully speculative.

I can’t describe much of the story without creating spoilers, but let’s say it reminds me of the stories of Carlos Castenada I read back in my New Age phase in the late 1970s. It deals with states of consciousness and could easily have been popular during the New Wave period of science fiction back in the 1960s, something J. G. Ballard could have written.

I have an ongoing fantasy about editing an anthology of forgotten science fiction stories. “Alien Earth” is a story I’d want to include. Read it, and let me know what you think. I fear I might love stories that few others would love too since so often the stories I’d want for my imaginary anthology are not ones many remember. Maybe I should call my anthology Forgotten Science Fiction for Readers Like Me. It might sell 17 copies.

Thrilling Wonder Stories April 1949

James Wallace Harris

The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1959

1959-SF-Magazines

Few people think about 1959 today – at least not consciously. Yet, 1959 hangs around. If you hear “So What” by Miles Davis or “Take Five” by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, that year creeps back into your mind. And if you play “Moanin’” by Art Blakey – now that’s 1959 down and dirty! 59′ also returns if you throw on the Blu-ray of Some Like it Hot, Ben-Hur, Anatomy of a Murder, or catch a rerun of The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Bonanza, or The Untouchables. Three novels dominated The New York Times bestsellers list in 1959 were Doctor Zhivago, Exodus, and Advise and Consent, although it might be more common to be reading A Separate Peace, A Canticle for Leibowitz, or Starship Troopers today.

I’ve become an aficionado of short science fiction, a particularly minor aspect of pop culture, but even here 1959 still matters. I’ve always wanted to pick a year and read all the science fiction magazines that came out that year. But I’m lazy. However, back in 2014, Gideon Marcus did just that for his blog Galactic Journey. This week I read all his columns covering 1959.

I’ve always wondered if anthologists have missed great stories. Are there a few classics still to be unearthed? In 1960 Judith Merril told us which stories she liked from 1959. Bold ones are the titles Marcus also liked.

  • “No Fire Burns” by Avram Davidson (Playboy)
  • No, No, Not Rogov!” by Cordwainer Smith (If)
  • “The Shoreline at Sunset” by Ray Bradbury (F&SF)
  • “The Dreamsman” by Gordon R. Dickson (Star Science Fiction No. 6)
  • “Multum in Parvo” by Jack Sharkey (The Gent)
  • Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (F&SF)
  • A Death in the House” by Clifford D. Simak (Galaxy)
  • “Mariana” by Fritz Leiber (Fantastic)
  • Day at the Beach” by Carol Emshwiller (F&SF)
  • “Plenitude” by Will Mohler (F&SF)
  • The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon (F&SF)
  • “Make a Prison” by Lawrence Block (Science Fiction Stories)
  • What Now, Little Man?” by Mark Clifton (F&SF)

Why did Merril miss “All You Zombies—” by Robert A. Heinlein that year? It was on her honorable mention list. I’ve read in later years Heinlein wanted too much to reprint his stories so it might have been true in 1960 too. Gideon Marcus didn’t read Fantastic, the 1959 men’s magazines, or original anthologies, so he gave no opinion on those stories.

Also, in 1960, fans voted the Hugo award for Best Short Fiction:

Winner:

  • “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (F&SF)

Runner-ups:

  • “The Alley Man” by Philip José Farmer (F&SF)
  • “The Pi Man” by Alfred Bester (F&SF)
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon (F&SF)
  • “Cat and Mouse” by Ralph Williams (Astounding)

Why wasn’t “All You Zombies—” among the top stories nominated for a Hugo? Fans loved three stories that Merril overlooked – “The Alley Man,” “The Pi Man” and “Cat and Mouse.” All three were on her honorable mention list, but it included over a hundred stories. Those three weren’t popular with Gideon Marcus either.

We never know if the stories anthologists published as the best of the year are their exact best of the year, or the stories they could get the rights to publish.

In 1990 Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg told us their favorite in The Great SF Stories 21 (1959). Stories in bold are those that Merril didn’t pick in 1960.

  • Make a Prison” by Lawrence Block (Science Fiction Stories)
  • The Wind People” by Marion Zimmer Bradley (If)
  • “No, No, Not Rogov!” by Cordwainer Smith (If)
  • What Rough Beast?” by Damon Knight (F&SF)
  • The Alley Man” by Philip José Farmer (F&SF)
  • “Day at the Beach” by Carol Emshwiller (F&SF)
  • The Malted Milk Monster” by William Tenn (Galaxy)
  • The World of Heart’s Desire” by Robert Sheckley (Playboy)
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon (F&SF)
  • “A Death in the House” by Clifford D. Simak (Galaxy)
  • The Pi Man” by Alfred Bester (F&SF)
  • “Multum in Parvo” by Jack Sharkey (The Gent)
  • “What Now, Little Man?” by Mark Clifton (F&SF)
  • Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chan Davis (The Expert Dreamers)

Asimov and Greenberg added 8 stories that Merril didn’t anthologize, while still ignoring “Cat and Mouse” but remembered “The Pi Man.” In the early years of their series, Asimov and Greenberg would give the Heinlein stories they wanted to include a placeholder page in their anthologies. It told readers they couldn’t get the rights to publish Heinlein’s story, but they would have included it as one of the best of the year stories. They stopped even that recognition after a while. I assumed “didn’t get the rights” meant they didn’t want to pay Heinlein’s price.

In 2014 Gideon Marcus identified his favorites at Galactic Journey. His is a longer list than the others. The stories below are Gideon’s 5-stars or highly recommended, or his Galactic Stars Awards recommendations. I’ve cobbled this list together from my reading notes, and they are in no order. I’ve bolded stories the others didn’t recognize.

  • “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (F&SF)
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon (F&SF)
  • “What Rough Beast” by Damon Knight (F&SF)
  • This Earth of Hours” by James Blish (F&SF)
  • To Fell a Tree” by Robert F. Young (F&SF)
  • The Good Work” by Theodore L. Thomas (If)
  • The City of Force” by Daniel Galouye (Galaxy)
  • The Sky People” by Poul Anderson (F&SF)
  • Cat and Mouse” by Ralph Williams (Astounding)
  • Seeling” by Katherine MacLean (Astounding)
  • Whatever Counts” by Frederik Pohl (Galaxy)
  • Return to Prodigal” by J. T. McIntosh (If)
  • “Death in the House” by Clifford D. Simak (Galaxy)
  • The Aliens” by Murray Leinster (Astounding)
  • Someone to Watch Over Me” by Christopher Grimm (Galaxy)
  • Operation Incubus” by Poul Anderson (F&SF)
  • “What Now, Little Man?” by Mark Clifton (F&SF)

Marcus finally confirms the Hugo nominated “Cat and Mouse.” Most of the previously unremembered stories that Marcus rediscovered were not on anybody else’s list. “The Aliens” was reprinted in The World Turned Upside Down, ed. Drake, Baen, and Flint, 2004, and “The Sky People” were on a list of all-time favorite stories by Gardner Dozois. My guess is these stories need to be reread and reevaluated, but they might be like Pohl’s “Whatever Counts” – just standout stories for the issue, and not all-time classics. I thought “Whatever Counts” was quite innovative – it opens with a dramatic scene of parents trying to burp a baby in freefall and eventually explores different states of consciousness. If I was doing an anthology of Forgotten 1950s SF Stories, I’d include it. But I can’t say it’s a classic like “So What” or “Take Five” are for 1959 jazz. SF’s version of those jazz classics would be “Flowers for Algernon” and “All You Zombies—”

Marcus didn’t say much about “All You Zombies—” but he did rate the March F&SF issue at 4 to 4.5 stars, meaning there must have been some 5-star stories in that issue. He never said which ones, and he did say that F&SF had eleven 5-star stories for 1959. I can only identify eight by reading the columns. Maybe “All You Zombies—” was one. Because Marcus didn’t gush over the obvious classics, maybe he was specifically trying to promote overlooked stories.

In 2018 we created The Classics of Short Science Fiction that identified just four stories from 1959. They each had five or more citations – the requirement to make the list. They were:

  • “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (12)
  • “All You Zombies—” by Robert A. Heinlein (11)
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea by Theodore Sturgeon (7)
  • “The Pi Man” by Alfred Bester (5)

If Merril and Asimov/Greenberg anthologies had included “All You Zombies—” it would have gotten 14 citations, making it the most remembered SF story of 1959. It’s interesting that both “All You Zombies—” and “Flowers for Algernon” have been made into movies.

If you add in stories that got at least three citations the list would expand to:

  • “The Wind People” by Marion Zimmer Bradley (4)
  • “The Store of the Worlds” by Robert Sheckley (3)
  • “No, No, Not Rogov!” by Cordwainer Smith (3)
  • “The Alley Man” by Philip José Farmer (3)

When we do version 2.0 of The Classics of Short Science Fiction these four stories might get more citations, especially if I use Gideon’s picks as a citation source – that would at least put “The Wind People” on The Classics of Short Fiction list (unless I up the minimum citation requirement – now at 5).

If someone in 2019 created a new anthology series for the best short SF of the year, what should it contain? After 60 years have the classic short SF finally been identified? And if an anthologist in 2059 collected The Best Short SF of 1959 would they see the same classics we do today? Are there still SF stories from 1959 that haven’t revealed their genius yet?

And as Paul Fraser pointed out the stories above are mostly American and that Marcus didn’t read the British SF magazines New Worlds, Science Fantasy or Science Fiction Adventures. And the above lists ignore the rest of the world. We know Merril knew about Russian science fiction because she edited an anthology of Russian SF. Hopefully, by 2059 we’ll know more about the best 1959 SF short stories from around the world.

You can play with our database to create lists of best stories of the year lists.

James Wallace Harris, May 4, 2019

“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 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

“Where the Golden Apples Grow” by Kage Baker

Where the Golden Apples Grow by Kage Baker

“Where the Golden Apples Grow” by Kage Baker is the 7th story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m reviewing its stories one-at-a-time not to judge them but to explore the current state of science fiction. Baker’s story is about colonizing Mars, which is my favorite theme in science fiction. Every story about a Mars colony is one writer’s idea of how humanity might build a civilization on the Red Planet. None have ever pictured it the way I imagined it, but that’s not a ding on their stories. The Very Best of the Best is 38 SF stories first published between 2002-2017.

“Where the Golden Apples Grow” is part of the late Kage Baker’s Mars Series. Like I said when reviewing the Robert Reed story, this anthology is getting me to read “newer” science fiction authors, taking me out of my mid-20th-century SF rut. I’ve read a few stories by Kage Baker before. Reading about these writers before writing the reviews shows me a much larger science fiction universe. That’s why I’m providing hyperlinks, in case you want to know more too.

Mars is the El Dorado of science fiction. It takes a furious amount of mouse-wheel scrolling to get through the lists of stories about Mars at Wikipedia. Colonizing Mars will be the fulfillment of one of science fiction’s oldest ambitions. Aren’t the efforts of every national space program driven by scientists who are stealth SF fans hoping to get to Mars?

When I started this project of reviewing these stories one-by-one, I said most of the stories in the anthology aren’t my kind of science fiction. This Kage Baker story is exactly my kind of SF. I was born in 1951. I started 1st grade just before Sputnik was launched, and graduate 12th grade just before Apollo 11. Science fiction has always been my Bible for space exploration religion. I thought for sure Mars would be colonized in my lifetime. I have a few years left, and I’m still hoping.

Science fiction can be about almost anything, and the stories in this anthology testify to that. But for me, science fiction has always been about what could happen from 1970-2100 in our solar system. Science fiction is a cognitive tool for speculation and extrapolation. Sure I love stories about interstellar exploration, time travel, utopias, dystopias, and the far future, but all those fictionalized speculations are too far out for me to believe might happen. I’ve always loved down-to-Mars science fiction.

I read science fiction because I wanted to know what might be the big possibilities in my lifetime, or what could happen in the decades after my death. I figured within the 1970-2100 timeframe, colonizing the Moon and Mars were about the limits of what I could realistically hope. I also assumed intelligent robots would evolve in that time period, and as a longshot, we might get lucky and make SETI contact. Exploring those themes are my kind of science fiction.

That being said, Kage Baker’s Mars is not my Mars. Every science fiction writer pictures Mars differently. Imagining how humans will settle on Mars is a kind of intellectual game. I figure Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars trilogy is the current champ to beat. Some writers ignore science and reality. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury’s Martian landscapes are like Oz for adults. Some writers try to guess what it might be like to start a colony, sort of like SimCity on another planet. Other writers like to begin their fiction after the colonies have been established. Baker imagines her Mars with truckers and farmers, capitalism and collectives, rich and poor, idealists and scientists, sort of like 1940s Americans with hi-tech on another planet.

Baker’s Mars seems to have evolved from science fiction ancestors she and I have in common, especially Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, and Farmer in the Sky. Kage Baker’s idea of how a Mars colony will develop might be closer to how Heinlein imagined it than Clarke, Bova, or Robinson.

Baker sets up her story by telling about the 2nd and 3rd boys born on Mars. Bill, is the son of a trucker, and he and his father haul ice back from the poles to a settlement at Mons Olympus. Ford, is the son of a farmer who works in a collective called Long Acres. Baker’s Mars is working class, settled by people from Earth who want freedom and opportunity, and who might be just a little bit crazy.

I’ve always wanted to write a story like “Where the Golden Apples Grow” because I’ve always wondered: What if the children of Mars and Moon colonists don’t see the High Frontier dream in the same way as their parents do? Would children growing up on Mars or the Moon fantasize about living on Earth like I fantasized about Mars? Can any child raised in 1/6th or 1/3rd gravity ever return to 1G? Bill and Ford don’t like their destinies, but what can they do?

I was quite moved by Baker’s story, and I have no quibbles with it as it stands as a story. However, she imagines three outcomes for a Mars colony that I don’t. First, she expects colonists to live and work on the surface. I’ve always figured there’s too much hard radiation raining down on Mars for that. I assumed colonists would have to live underground. Second, Baker imagines hordes of immigrants from Earth coming to Mars, with most of them doing hard-labor work. I imagined a few hundred highly-trained scientists seeding a Mars civilization with hordes of robot helpers. I don’t think it will ever be economically/environmentally practical to send too many rockets towards Mars. Third, Baker imagines capitalism will work on Mars. I think it will take centuries before Mars has a manufacturing or service economy. There will be no profit for Earth in colonizing Mars. Every dollar Earth spends on Mars will be a donation towards creating a space civilization, but that civilization will have to create a new kind of economy, and it will take centuries.

Now, these aren’t criticisms of this story. Most readers will read it, be entertained, and go on to their next read. But for some readers, a story like this is a proposed blueprint that begs to be discussed. Science fiction writers make a series of speculations as they tell their stories. When I was growing up my SF reading buddies and I would argue over those speculations. We stopped when we grew up, but I miss that. That’s what I want to bring back in these reviews.

For example, in “Where the Golden Apples Grow” the farmer buys a pair of boots for his son that has to be shipped from Earth. They would be very expensive. Mars has nothing to pay for those boots, nor does the farmer. See, this is where the fun of imagining how a colony on Mars would evolve. What is the best kind of boots to have on Mars? Plastic, leather, cloth, etc? Where does that material come from? Can it be made on Mars? How is the economy created to get everything made that people need to use? When you read “Where the Golden Apples Grow” think about that. What kind of engines and power sources do the long-haul truckers use on Mars? Where does the fuel come from? Mars or Earth? What are the roads made out of, and who built them? Can transparent panels be made to make walkways on Mars that shield residents from radiation? That’s what Baker implies. Where’s the factory that makes them? Where does all the machinery in it come from? Where do the raw materials come from? Can the Martian regolith be turned into fertile soil? Is there uranium on Mars?

Such questions are endless. And any good story about a Mars colony should try to answer some of them. But not in a lecturing way that would slow down the storytelling. Baker does this quite effectively. Her story is a moving dramatic tale, both in pace and emotion. I’ve often seen criticism for Robinson’s Mars trilogy because his speculation bogs down the story.

I consider Kage Baker’s “Where the Golden Apples Grow” to be as fun as one of Heinlein’s juveniles from the 1950s. That’s high praise from me.

James Wallace Harris, March 8, 2019