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

 

 

“Good Mountain” by Robert Reed

Floating islands

Writers of fantastic fiction face a unique challenge when they sit down to write. They can imagine anything happening anywhere anytime. Their only limitation is making their story readable. One difference between science fiction and fantasy is science fiction implies its stories are not pure fantasy but something reality could have generated. Robert Reed’s story, “Good Mountain” I believe was intended for the realm of the believable, but it feels somewhat like The Bible, not meant to be the literal truth but nonetheless, a message we should interpret.

Robert Reed is a prolific author whose superpower is imagination. I’m not sure “Good Mountain” gets the admiration it deserves. The reason I’m writing about this story is  “Good Mountain” is included in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois, which I’m reviewing one story at a time. This story struck many 2006 reviewers as among the best in One Million A.D., an original anthology edited by Gardner Dozois. But some of those reviewers have gotten distracted by the giant worms that the characters ride and ignored the story’s other more fantastic elements.

Don’t let my enthusiasm for this story suggest it’s a masterpiece, it’s not, but it’s very good. I keep trying to ascertain what would put it over the top but that’s hard to put into words. The story is a third person account of Jopale, a refuge, who meets two significant characters on his fleeing journey, Brace the worm conductor, and Do-ane, a secretive woman with a large book. None of these figures have any literary depth to them, but they each stand for something like characters in a parable. “Good Mountain” is like an oracle, you can read anything into its message. I read it as a metaphor for climate change and the end of our civilization, but I think it will work with any end-of-the-something scenario.

I want to use the word “recapitulate” to describe “Good Mountain” in the same way I used it to review “The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason. Reed and Arnason use their stories of alien worlds to recapitulate what goes on in our world. They feel like fables or allegories. In “Good Mountain” the characters call themselves human, but we don’t know if they’re Homo sapiens. They do not know about space travel or Earth. In some ways, this story reminds me of Asimov’s “Nightfall.” Jopale’s planet is a strange one, comprised of floating islands that occasionally coalesce into continents long enough for civilizations to arise, but eventually come apart in cycles of natural catastrophes. Reed creates a beautiful biosystem of islands made of wood, with their roots dangling into the ocean, floating on a planetary sea that always faces its star, with a civilization built without metal. Fire and methane are what these people fear.

Arnason and Reed are plowing the same pasture in the science fiction landscape. They accept the challenge of writing the fantastic by creating whole worlds, but they aren’t the kind of worlds that true believers of the final frontier expect humans to colonize. Reed and Arnason aren’t science fiction writers working to scientifically imagine life on exoplanets. Their worlds are metaphorical. Their worlds aren’t NASA discoverable, but Impressionistic worlds of their imagination. Their stories remind me of N. K. Jemison’s recent work, the kind of science fiction that evolved out of Ursula K. Le Guin’s tales in the 1960s.

I get the feeling Robert Reed has much to say about our reality, but he speaks his mind in the language of science fiction. I’m not sure I can properly translate his communique because of its metaphorical nature. I can’t tell if he’s just telling us about a screwy dream, or if he wishes to be like an Old Testament prophet, preaching “The End is Near.” The story’s final twist would have given Philip K. Dick a Cheshire Cat smile.

“Good Mountain” is about Jopale fleeing fires racing across the continent. He rides a giant worm to a distant port, traveling with others hoping to escape to their collective doom. The escapees bring mockmen, their servant/slaves, who may or may not be human, but which give the story an extra twist that I can’t decipher. Along the way, this worm of fools hears a whispered tale, one that offers an enchanted sliver of hope, causing each to selfishly seek their own salvation at the expense of the others. Throughout this story, the citizens of this exotic land always act on self-interest without guilt, except for Brace, the worm handler. That’s why this story feels like a morality play.

One of the benefits of reading a science fiction anthology is learning about new authors and new types of science fiction. I’ve read a few stories by Robert Reed over the years but never researched into his background. For instance, I did not know about his Greatship series, of which “Good Mountain” somehow fits late in its cycle, so I’m now intrigued to find out more. Also, this story could be meta-fiction about science fiction, another avenue to pursue.

“A favorite science fiction writer of mine is William Faulkner!” Reed told Locus in an interview in 1998. That might be a clue to why I liked this story. It’s not my normal kind of science fiction. Both “Good Mountain” and “The Potter of Bones” are novellas and are my favorite stories of the six I’ve read so far in The Very Best of the Best. I’m just beginning my journey through this vast anthology. Reading and writing about it has become a course in science fiction. You can jump back to the beginning of my journey here and follow the links of the stories I’ve reviewed so far.

Read other reviews of “Good Mountain” at:

James Wallace Harris, March 6, 2019

“Tin Marsh” by Michael Swanwick

Venus

When is it appropriate to call bullshit on the science fiction in science fiction? Michael Swanick’s story, “Tin Marsh” is set on Venus. It’s about a woman and man who team up to prospect for metal on Venus but who come to intensely hate each other. The story is a compelling read that makes turning the pages easy, but its setup is completely unbelievable to me.

Since we’re reviewing the stories in The Very Best of the Best, an anthology of science fiction first published between 2002 and 2017, I think the title challenges us to ask: What is great science fiction and are these stories the very best examples of the art.

The basic formula for writing science fiction is to think up a far-out idea and then contrive a plot to embed that idea into a story. The very best science fiction will push the limits of our imagination by speculating on just what might be possible. The very best science fiction is in the box with Schroedinger’s cat. Science fiction has to wait for science to open the box.

Early science fiction wondered if humans could go to the Moon or Mars in a time when we knew little about the solar system. In what I call Pre-NASA Science Fiction, writers imagined Venus and Mars to be habitable worlds that often included intelligent life. Post-NASA science fiction has had to live with what its space probes discovered. Modern science fiction still tries to imagine us living on almost any piece of real estate in the solar system, but is that realistic? I believe science fiction should be judged on scientific realism, and readers need to call bullshit when they see it.

“Tin Marsh” has us believing humans could work on Venus and make a profit. Swanwick has his characters living in power suits that withstand the heat, pressure, and corrosive atmosphere of Venus. I call bullshit on this idea for two reasons. I don’t believe such suits could ever be engineered, nor will mining metal on Venus ever be profitable. No one will invest trillions to earn billions.

Now the plot of “Tin Marsh” is more believable. Two people working closely come to hate each other. Simple enough. Happens all the time. “Tin Marsh” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2006. 20th-century science fiction has been much criticized for the lack of female characters, so in this 21st-century story, gender is balanced with one male (MacArthur) and one female (Patang). The trouble is the gender equality ends there. Patang has driven MacArthur to murder.

The story has MacArthur chasing Patang across the surface of Venus to kill her slowly. MacArthur wants to torture Patang as much as possible before she dies. He hates her that much. And the reasons why MacArthur hates Patang are all the clichéd reasons men hate women. Of course, the reverse is also true. Is the story about Patang trying to survive being murdered, or is it really about why working with women on Venus would drive a man crazy? Because we’re told the story from Patang’s POV, we feel it’s about violence against women. But some male readers are going to identify with MacArthur. And what does the ending say about who is right?

Relying on violence as a plot driver is the core problem of this story, the same as the last story I reviewed, “Dead Men Walking” by Paul McAuley. McAuley’s story also featured a female character in a role that would have been previously given to a male. In both cases, the female role is contrived and connected with violence. In the McAuley story, the woman is given the equal opportunity to play a sadistic Jack-the-Ripper type killer, while Patang is just a sharped tongue woman who ends up torturing her partner in madness.

Is this story the very best of the best? It depends on the rules of judgment. Is it well-written and readable by SF standards? Yes. Is it full of action? Yes. Is it set in an exotic locale? Yes. Will it push emotional buttons? Yes. Does it stand out against its competition? Yes.

Is it scientific? No. Does it offer any ideas about how humans could actually work on Venus? No? Does it expand the frontiers of science fiction? No. Does it say anything about the heart in conflict with itself? Not really. Is it politically correct? You decide.

I have to wonder if Gardner Dozois assumes the very best of science fiction only requires certain writing features but not others? Although science fiction is hugely popular in our society, it’s not a popular reading category, especially for short stories. Writers have to produce a product that editors will buy, and editors have to buy stories that readers will read. For decades science fiction short stories were a product mostly consumed by adolescent males, but that’s changing. Is this 2006 story already PC dated in 2019? Doesn’t society change faster than science fiction imagines it?

Short stories also have to compete with novels, television shows, video games, movies and other kinds of modern entertainment. Short stories were at their peak of popularity before 1950, and they’ve been in decline ever since. Gardner Dozois was the most successful editor of short science fiction since John W. Campbell Jr. He should have the pulse of readers of short science fiction.

I have to assume Dozois knew his market. But I’m not sure if I’m in that market. Science fiction means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The psychological common denominator of science fiction’s appeal is hope and fears about the future. But do we evaluate our possible futures with science fiction, or just use the genre to escape the present? That’s something I have to ask while reviewing these stories.

Believing humans will ever work on Venus is a fantasy. It makes me wonder if science fiction even tries to be realistic anymore? Are writers of science fiction merely using highly imaginative but contrived ideas to sell stories?

I believe we have to ask if our science fiction writers are Baron Munchausen or H. G. Wells?

James Wallace Harris, March 4, 2019

 

“Dead Men Walking” by Paul McAuley

Life-After-Wartime-by-Paul-McAuley

“Dead Men Walking” by Paul McAuley is the fourth story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m reviewing this anthology one story at a time while contemplating the nature of writing science fiction. “Dead Men Walking” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2006. In 2007 it was recognized as one of the best stories of the year by both the Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer annuals. In 2013 “Dead Men Walking” was reprinted in Clarkesworld (read/listen) and in Pual McAuley’s ebook collection, Life After Wartime, part of his Quiet War series.

“Dead Men Walking” is the first story in The Very Best of the Best that I thought of as traditional straight-ahead science fiction. The story is told in the first person by a man who is dying. He’s recording his last thoughts for whoever discovers his body. This immediately reminded me of the classic film D.O.A. – not the newer 1988 film, but the great 1949 version with Edmond O’Brien. It’s a highly specialized writing challenge to pull off a first-person account of a dying character. McAuley’s effort is tight and succeeds. However, by its very nature, a murder victim’s POV involves violence.

I’m not knocking “Dead Men Walking” but I’ve reached an age where violence in fiction is not the page-turning force it was when I was younger. I no longer care whodunit. However, I can still watch and read mysteries and thrillers for their settings and characters.  This story takes place on Ariel, the fourth-largest moon of Uranus. Ariel is a cryogenically cold world I doubt humans will ever settle, but Paul McAuley builds a prison there. However, because of the low gravity, McAuley makes it sound rather appealing place to live or read about:

I have a one-room treehouse. It’s not very big and plainly furnished, but you can sit on the porch of a morning, watch squirrel monkeys chase each other through the pines. I’m a member of Sweat Lodge #23. I breed singing crickets, have won several competitions with them. Mostly they’re hacked to sing fragments of Mozart, nothing fancy, but my line has good sustain and excellent timbre and pitch. I hope old Willy Gup keeps it going … I like to hike too, and climb freestyle. I once soloed the Broken Book route in Prospero Chasma on Miranda, twenty kilometres up a vertical face, in fifteen hours. Nowhere near the record, but pretty good for someone with a terminal illness. I’ve already had various bouts of cancer, but retroviruses dealt with those easily enough. What’s killing me—what just lost the race to kill me—is a general systematic failure something like lupus. I couldn’t get any treatment for it, of course, because the doctors would find out who I really am. What I really was. I suppose that I had a year or so left. Maybe two if I was really lucky. It wasn’t much of a life, but it was all my own.

Roy Bruce is about to die. He’s outside the habitat, lying in the cold with little oxygen to breath, and useless legs. This tale is how he got there. It’s a good story, one that would have trilled pulp readers in the 1940s and 1950s. I enjoyed listening to it, however, I would have preferred to know more about life on Ariel than about another casualty of war. Those treehouses and crickets piqued my interest. That’s the kind of details I love in science fiction.

“Dead Men Walking” works very well as a shorter work. It’s well plotted. It begins with a bang and ends with satisfaction. Even though I also greatly admired “The Potter of Bones” and  “The Little Goddess” with their highly creative world-building and textured details, they were both novellas that went on too long.  “Dead Men Walking” is a novelette, and for me personally, that’s about the perfect length for science fiction. I love science fiction at its shorter lengths, but usually, a short story is too short, and a novella is too long, and novelettes are just right.

However, short stories and novelettes need resolvable conflicts, and all too often in space adventures, that involves killing humans or aliens. One of the aspects of fiction I want to study while reading The Very Best of the Best is how often violence is used as the plot engine. Think about all the science fiction movies and television shows you watch. How many use war, crime, killers, invasions, etc to keep your interest? The conflict in “Rogue Farm” was resolved in death. Violence often tends to make science fiction feel like fodder for adolescent males. For example, how many successful video games aren’t shooters of some kind? By the way, the two novellas had little or no violence.

Like I said in an earlier essay about this anthology, these stories are great reads but usually, they aren’t my kind of science fiction. Creating non-violent conflict in stories is a challenge. Of course, the next story is all about violence.

James Wallace Harris, March 3, 2019

“Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross

Rogue Farm by Charles Stross

Stories by Charles Stross often have a gonzo-tech view of the future. The illustration above shows a farmer with a semi-automatic shotgun and his wife in a battle-suit defending the farm they are squatting on against a roving “farm” that is a collective of post-humans hoping to leave Earth for Jupiter. “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross is the second story in Gardner Dozois’ The Very Best of the Best, an anthology of short science fiction published from 2002-2017.

Yesterday I began my contemplation of writing science fiction by reviewing the first story, “The Potter of Bones.” My conclusion was great science fiction requires a richness of world-building. In “Rogue Farm” Charles Stross looks into the near future, after the technological singularity, to see our lives transformed. The fictional world Stross builds is our current society in savage decline as it metamorphizes into a new society infected by intelligent machines. There’s a civil war between humans and post-humans, and readers aren’t sure which side to take.

Stross accepts the inevitability of technological singularity, feeling sorry for the vanquished, but not condemning the usurpers. The rogue farm of the story is a 21st-century Frankenstein we feel sympathy for while rooting for the farmer who wants to destroy it. “Rogue Farm” is a much more successful story than “The Potter of Bones” being reprinted at least 7 times, performed for Escape Pod and made into a short film.

By all the yardsticks but one, I believe “Rogue Farm” should be measured as excellent short science fiction. It’s well written, it’s cutting edge science fiction, it’s entertaining, it has a high density of science fictional ideas, it’s very damn creative, and it’s delightfully weird, a modern-day Alice in Wonderland. My only criticism is I disagree with Stross on how the technological singularity will unfold in the future. I don’t doubt we’ll have sentient machines, but I do doubt we’ll ever have a brain-machine interface that will allow us to integrate with machines like Stross imagines.

My personal speculation is humans will be left behind. We will not be uplifted by becoming cyborgs or transformed by nanobots, or re-engineered by gene manipulation into post-human greatly different from what we are now, or have our minds downloaded into clones, robots or virtual realities. Maybe this is Luddite thinking on my part, but I don’t think there is any science to support digitizing our soul.

Some readers will believe that Stross is extrapolating a possible future, but I don’t. That means I have to accept “Rogue Farm” as a clever fantasy, and not science fiction. I know I have a rather extreme and strict definition of science fiction that doesn’t jive with commonly accepted definitions. And if I’m wrong and science can create a mind-machine interface between cell and circuit, this story will fit my definition.

Since “Rogue Farm” is in an anthology of science fiction short stories labeled the very best of the best, I have to assume its state-of-the-art science fiction. And I believe that’s perfectly true by the common definition of science fiction. But by my definition, I assume writers and readers of science fiction are playing a very precise game. The goal of this game is to speculate about the future using extrapolation based on all the science we currently know.

Science fiction makes assumptions that are often disproven. H. G. Wells theorized that we could time travel by suggesting time was just the fourth dimension. We have learned a lot more about the nature of time since then, and time travel is probably impossible. Science fiction writers have been imagining faster-than-light travel for about a century, even though Einstein disproved it before they started.

I think the future intelligence of computers is almost unlimited. And I believe Homo sapiens can be intentionally improved and redesigned. I just don’t think our minds can be transferred to machines, or even interfaced with them. I believe our bodies can be supplemented with machines, but I just can’t see how my thoughts can be augmented by digital minds. Like I said, I could be wrong, so science fiction is the perfect place to speculate about the possibilities. We can make muscle-machine interfaces, and we can make the pattern recognition abilities of our current physical senses interface with electronic devices, and we’re even working on brain scanning technology that can carefully discern the activity of our brains, but I just can’t see how we’re going to bridge that last mile between chemical thoughts and digital thoughts.

Of course, isn’t this the exact territory of the science fiction event horizon? The science fiction stories I fantasize writing deal with this exact issue. And maybe that’s why I’m skeptical of the world-building of Charles Stross – I would just build it somewhat differently.

James Wallace Harris, March 1, 2019