“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

“The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason

Asimovs-2002-09

The first story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois is “The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason. It originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction from 2002. This story is part of Arnason’s Hwarhath series of tales about a planet of intelligent fur-covered beings where homosexuality is the norm for relationships and heterosexuality is used for procreation. Eleanor Arnason stories explore the themes of art, anthropology, sociology, sexuality, and feminism by creating science fiction stories that feel like folk tales and allegories. The narrator of “The Potter of Bones” is from the planet’s present time, and she is telling stories that come down from early history, that could be closer to myths.

The heroine of this story is Tulwar Haik. Tulwar is a clan name, so her personal name is Haik. She has become a legendary figure on this alien planet. Haik was a potter who loved finding fossils and is known on her world for developing the theory of evolution. Haik’s story recapitulates Darwin’s discoveries on Earth. “The Potter of Bones” uses a richly drawn fantasy about aliens that sound human but look like furry animals to comment on human society, especially about gender and race.

Is this story science fiction? Eleanor Arnason’s stories often remind me of stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. They’re set on other worlds, which makes them science fiction, but they often feel like folk tales, which makes me think they’re fantasy. Their stories are intensely sociological and often come across as fables for grown-ups.

I am listening to The Very Best of the Best while thinking about the nature of science fiction and how it is written. Being the lead story in a collection of science fiction that claims to be the very best of the best, suggests that Gardner Dozois must have loved “The Potter of Bones” very much. He bought it for Asimov’s when he was the editor there, included it in his annual best-of collections for America and Great Britain and reprints it again here. I had read “The Potter of Bones” when it came out because I like Arnason’s stories about Hwarhath. I found it a compelling read, especially now that I got to listen to it, and thoroughly enjoyed the story, but to be honest, it’s not my kind of science fiction.

How can “The Potter of Bones” be science fiction that entertained me a great deal and not be my kind of science fiction? And how many kinds of science fiction are there? See, that’s why I want to review the stories in The Very Best of the Best. I’ve listened to the first three stories since yesterday (and two are novellas) and even though each is dazzling in their own way, none of them were my kind of science fiction.

I’ve always wanted to write science fiction. And I’ve tried. I’ve even attended Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, but my stories were never any good. I’m reading and listening to this anthology very closely to study what makes science fiction tick. “The Potter of Bones” stands out for its worldbuilding. Arnason has been writing Hwarhath stories since 1993. They were collected into Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens in 2016. I generally disliked science fiction series because my favorite aspect of science fiction is its ideas, so stories that constantly recycle its world-building ideas seem less impressive with each successive story.

However, I’m discovering why writers love writing stories in a series. It takes a tremendous mental effort to create new worlds for science fiction. The reason why the Harry Potter stories are the most successful on the planet today is that J. K. Rowling imagined such an incredibly detailed fictional world. Starting from scratch every time you sit down to write a story would give each story a costly overhead. If the writer can assume their readers already understand how the fictional world works they can get down to the storytelling quicker.

Reading the stories in The Very Best of the Best perfectly illustrates the importance of world-building to writing science fiction and fantasy. It often explains why stories get rated 5-stars at Rocket Stack Rank. It also tells me that if I want to write science fiction I’ve got to up the information density of my fiction to include an abundance of imagined details. Here’s the opening for “The Potter of Bones”:

The northeast coast of the Great Southern Continent is hilly and full of inlets. These make good harbors, their waters deep and protected from the wind by steep slopes and grey stone cliffs. Dark forests top the hills. Pebble beaches edge the harbors. There are many little towns. 

The climate would be tropical, except for a polar current which runs along the coast, bringing fish and rain. The local families prosper through fishing and the rich, semi-tropical forests that grow inland. Blackwood grows there, and iridescent greywood, as well as lovely ornamentals: night-blooming starflower, day-blooming skyflower and the matriarch of trees, crown-of-fire. The first two species are cut for lumber. The last three are gathered as saplings, potted and shipped to distant ports, where affluent families buy them for their courtyards. 

Nowadays, of course, it’s possible to raise the saplings in glass houses anywhere on the planet. But most folk still prefer trees gathered in their native forests. A plant grows better, if it’s been pollinated naturally by the fabulous flying bugs of the south, watered by the misty coastal rains and dug up by a forester who’s the heir to generations of diggers and potters. The most successful brands have names like “Coastal Rain” and emblems suggesting their authenticity: a forester holding a trowel, a night bug with broad furry wings floating over blossoms.

Can you even count every detail that Arnason thought up as she typed those sentences? And don’t confuse the technical term “world-building” used in science fiction to mean just describing how a fictionalized world works. In the next story in this anthology, Charles Stross describes Earth just a few decades into the future and it is overflowing with strangely different details, each of which had to be imagined by Stross. World-building can include any detail that paints the science fiction or fantasy of a story. Here’s how we learn that Haik got into fossils:

The young Tulwar, her playmates, found the topic boring. Who could possibly care about shells made of stone? “They don’t shimmer like living shells, and there’s nothing edible in them. Think about living shellfish, Haik! Or fish! Or trees like the ones that support our family!” 

If her kin could not answer her questions, she’d find answers herself. Haik continued her study. She was helped by the fact that the strata along the northeast coast had not buckled or been folded over. Top was new. Bottom was old. She could trace the history of the region’s life by climbing up. 

At first, she didn’t realize this. Instead, she got a hammer and began to break out fossils, taking them to one of the town’s many empty houses. There, through trial and error, she learned to clean the fossils and to open them. “Unfolding with a hammer,” she called the process. 

Nowadays we discourage this kind of ignorant experimentation, especially at important sites. Remember this story takes place in the distant past. There was no one on the planet able to teach Haik; and the fossils she destroyed would have been destroyed by erosion long before the science of paleontology came into existence. 

She began by collecting shells, laying them out on the tables left behind when the house was abandoned. Imagine her in a shadowy room, light slanting through the shutters. The floor is thick with dust. The paintings on the walls, fish and flowering trees, are peeling. Haik—a thin red adolescent in a tunic—bends over her shells, arranging them. She has discovered one of the great pleasures of intelligent life: organization or (as we call it now) taxonomy. 

This was not her invention. All people organize information. But most people organize information for which they can see an obvious use: varieties of fish and their habits, for example. Haik had discovered the pleasure of knowledge that has no evident use. Maybe, in the shadows, you should imagine an old woman with white fur, dressed in a roughly woven tunic. Her feet are bare and caked with dirt. She watches Haik with amusement. 

In time, Haik noticed there was a pattern to where she found her shells. The ones on the cliff tops were familiar. She could find similar or identical shells washed up on the Tulwar beaches. But as she descended, the creatures in the stone became increasingly strange. Also, and this puzzled her, certain strata were full of bones that obviously belonged to land animals. Had the ocean advanced, then retreated, then advanced again? How old were these objects? How much time had passed since they were alive, if they had ever been alive? Some of her senior kin believed they were mineral formations that bore an odd resemblance to the remains of animals. “The world is full of repetition and similarity,” they told Haik, “evidence the Goddess has little interest in originality.”

Now part of this world-building is character development. Notice how Arnason brings in human history to weave her story. Arnason needs to know geology and archeology to sculpt her theme. And taxonomy played a very important part in Darwin’s discovery of evolution.

“The Potter of Bones,” tells several stories about Haik. I won’t quote them all, but Haik has to become a potter. Eventually, she becomes a lover of a traveling actress, Dapple. Haik has children, which Arnason uses to explain mating customs. And Haik grows old. “The Potter of Bones” gathers the legends about Haik and Dapple that the narrator uses to understand their planet’s history, which lets Arnason comment on how we know what we know about our past. “The Potter of Bones” is also about the different forms of communicating history and story.

Eleanor Arnason uses her stories about furry aliens to analyze human society. Does that mean a good science fiction writer must also be a philosopher and cultural observer? If I just consider the three stories I’ve read so far in this anthology, then the answer is a definite yes.

I’ve always judged science fiction by the validity of its speculation about future technology or if extrapolated trends will actually unfold. With Arnason and writers like Le Guin, should I wonder if their imagined aliens and alien societies could possibly exist? Ultimately, isn’t the world-building in “The Potter of Bones” more akin to Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement or Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward than to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy?

Or, is Arnason’s world-building more like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, not meant to be speculation at all, but a deeply adult fairy tale? Gardner Dozois calls “The Potter of Bones” science fiction. The story is about geology, fossils, evolution, classification, taxonomy, so there is a lot of science in it. Of course, it could be a fantasy that uses science rather than magic as its unifying theme.

My kind of science fiction are stories that speculate and extrapolate about the future. There are all kinds of science fiction, and I read all kinds. But the kind I love most is the science fiction that teaches me about the future in the same way history helps me model the past. “The Potter of Bones” is not that kind of science fiction. Of course, it might be science fiction that teaches us about who we are now.

Recommended Reading

James Wallace Harris, 2/28/19

 

 

 

The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois

The-Very-Best-of-the-Best-edited-by-Gardner-Dozois

Yesterday Santa Claus came to visit me in February. Since 2002 when I joined Audible.com, I’ve wished for an audiobook edition of one of Gardner Dozois giant Year’s Best Science Fiction annuals. Sadly, Dozois died last May and none of the 35 volumes were ever produced on audio. But before he died, he created The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction and it’s out in hardcover, ebook and audiobook editions.

Unfortunately, the subtitle to this volume is flat out wrong. It only collects the best stories from 2002-2017, but that’s because Dozois had already published The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction back in 2005 and The Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels in 2007. I had hoped this new volume would have been Dozois legacy collection reflecting the full 35 years. But be that as it may, it’s still a giant collection of great science fiction and over 39 hours of science fiction short stories on audio, which is something I love. Vivienne Leheny and Will Damron do a fantastic job of narrating these stories, and my new wish is for someone to hire them to create audiobook editions of the earlier volumes.

Last year the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame came out on audio. That means I can listen to some of the most remembered science fiction short stories from 1926-1964. This is why I had hoped this new audiobook would have given me the best short science fiction from 1984-2017 to listen to, but that hasn’t happened. I’m not complaining. This new book is great in both quality and quantity, and I’m quite appreciative of all the wonderful stories I’m getting to hear for the first time. I’m just greedy and want more. I want audiobook publishers to produce more anthologies of great short science fiction, and I’m now particularly anxious to hear the best short fiction from 1965-2001.

And, there’s even another problem for me, other readers, editors, and publishers. No one reader, no matter how experienced, can identify all the best stories for all readers. Tastes just vary too much. If you look at our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories by Year list, which has the citations listed for each story, you can see which stories Gardner picked as his favorite, and which ones he didn’t. Or if you use our CSF Query program to look at stories for 2002-2017 you’ll see only one story Gardner picked for The Very Best of the Best on our list.

The 38 stories from The Very Best of the Best covering 2002-2017 with links to my reviews are:

  • The Potter of Bones by Eleanor Arnason
  • Rogue Farm by Charles Stross
  • The Little Goddess by Ian McDonald
  • Dead Men Walking by Paul McAuley
  • Tin Marsh by Michael Swanwick
  • Good Mountain by Robert Reed
  • Where the Golden Apples Grow by Kage Baker
  • The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter by Alastair Reynolds
  • Glory by Greg Egan
  • Finisterra by David Moles
  • The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm by Daryl Gregory
  • Utrinsque Cosmi by Robert Charles Wilson
  • Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance by John Kessel
  • Useless Things by Maureen McHugh
  • Mongoose by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
  • Hair by Adam Roberts
  • The Things by Peter Watts
  • The Emperor of Mars by Allen M. Steele
  • Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain by Yoon Ha Lee
  • Martian Heart by John Barnes
  • The Invasion of Venus by Stephen Baxter
  • Weep For Day by Indrapramit Das
  • The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi by Pat Cadigan
  • The Memcordist by Lavie Tidhar
  • The Best We Can by Carrie Vaughn
  • The Discovered Country by Ian R. MacLeod
  • Pathways by Nancy Kress
  • The Hand Is Quicker… by Elizabeth Bear
  • Someday by James Patrick Kelly
  • The Long Haul, From the Annals of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009 by Ken Liu
  • Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight by Aliette De Bodard
  • Calved by Sam J. Miller
  • Emergence by Gwyneth Jones
  • Rates of Change by James S.A. Corey
  • Jonas and the Fox by Rich Larson
  • KIT: Some Assembly Required by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz
  • Winter Timeshare by Ray Nayler
  • My English Name by R.S. Benedict

Our meta-list system recognized 37 stories from the same period:

  • Breathmoss by Ian R. MacLeod
  • The Cookie Monster by Vernor Vinge
  • The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford
  • The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker
  • Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan
  • The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Voluntary State by Christopher Rowe
  • Little Faces by Vonda N. McIntyre
  • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
  • The Calorie Man by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Little Goddess by Ian McDonald
  • The House Beyond Your Sky by Benjamin Rosenbaum
  • Yellow Card Man by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang
  • 26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss by Kij Johnson
  • Exhalation by Ted Chiang
  • The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Ray-Gun: A Love Story by James Alan Gardner
  • Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky
  • Spar by Kij Johnson
  • The Island by Peter Watts
  • The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky
  • The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis
  • The Things by Peter Watts
  • Under the Moons of Venus by Damien Broderick
  • The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson
  • The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu
  • Close Encounters by Andy Duncan
  • Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan by Ian McDonald
  • The Game of Smash and Recovery by Kelly Link
  • Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar
  • The Visitor from Taured by Ian R. MacLeod
  • Things with Beards by Sam J. Miller
  • Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman
  • A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
  • The Martian Obelisk by Linda Nagata
  • The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer

Practically no overlap. Why? If The Very Best of the Best is actually what it says it is, why don’t we see more overlap with the stories our system identified by means of tracking popularity? An easy answer is there’s a lot of great SF short stories, more than enough for every editor to pick different favorites. But what if there are other motives besides claimed quality that go into selecting a story for a best-of anthology?

For example, the first story in The Very Best of the Best is “The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason. It’s a beautiful tale that was nominated for a Nebula but has only been reprinted in anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois or Arnason’s own collection. I don’t know if Gardner intentionally selected stories that hadn’t been reprinted often, or if Gardner has a very unique taste in science fiction. My guess, it’s a little of both. An honest title for this collection might be Gardner Dozois’ Favorite Science Fiction from 2002-2017 That He Believes Deserves More Attention.

On the other hand, the second story “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross, has been included in at least seven anthologies. That seems to disqualify my theory, but I’m not sure.

A troublesome paradigm shift is going on in publishing short science fiction right now. The short stories that get the most attention, especially for awards, are those that are published online where people can read them for free. And it’s becoming more common for online publishers to include both a text and an audio edition. Free online stories compete for readers with stories that are published in magazines or original anthologies behind another kind of paywall. The old print magazines, Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF have dwindling readerships. The prestige of getting published used to be seeing your work in print. But I wonder if short story writers now prefer online publications because they get more readers.

I could speculate endlessly about what are the best SF short stories or how they are identified by editors and discovered by readers, but the bottom line is I’m very happy with The Very Best of the Best. I hope thousands of SF fans buy and listen to it because that should encourage audiobook publishers to produce more SF anthologies on audio. But if you don’t like audiobooks, there are print and ebook editions.

Finally, there are two tributes to Gardner by Robert Silverberg and James Patrick Kelly that I want to recommend. They just appeared in the new issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction but are available to read online. I got to study with Gardner when he spent a week as our resident instructor for the Clarion West workshop I took in 2002. He was a man I will remember and I’ll always be grateful for his encouragement and writing lessons.

James Wallace Harris, February 27, 2019

In Praise of Mediocre Science Fiction

IF Magazine May 1954

The word “mediocre” usually presents a negative connotation. But the word can mean ordinary, average, middle-of-the-road which if you think about it, is true for most things in our lives. Not everything in life can be exceptional. Statistically, most aspects must be run-of-mill common. We don’t like to believe this, but most of us lead mediocre lives. We wish our time on Earth could be as important as a classic novel, but we’re goddamn lucky if we can say we’ve had a good average life.

This essay was originally going to be called “Favorite Science Fiction Stories Volumes 1-10 Table of Contents.” I love Audible.com, but it often annoys me by selling anthologies without listing their individual entries. I recently stumbled upon this series and thought I’d provide a public service by listing the contents of all ten volumes. I was hesitant to even try these audiobooks because the so few stories I saw listed were famous.

I couldn’t find much about the publisher, Jimcin. It’s web page merely states its products are for sale at Audible.com, although these anthologies are also listed at Amazon and iTunes. They appear to be collections of out-of-copyright stories, which means they are older than the 1920’s or the authors or author’s heirs never bothered to renew the original copyright. In other words, they might be the dregs of the genre. The ten volumes do contain a few big-name-authors, and a handful of classic science fiction stories like “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster, “The Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum, and “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith. Those three stories also appear in the legendary Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology series which came out in audio this past year. But for the most part, these stories were the common, run-of-the-mill stories that filled the science fiction digests in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

There’s a certain fun quality to science fiction that doesn’t require literary greatness. In the middle of last century, hack writers churned out Sci-Fi tales to survive. Many of them could hammer out a story in a few days that could both excite geeky fans and pay the rent. All they had to do was come up with an idea that 12-year-old know-it-alls had never encountered. Hardcore science fiction lovers thought of themselves as Slans but often blowing their minds only took one hit on the science fiction bong.

I avoided buying these Jimcin anthologies for years because I thought they’d be crappy, but then four volumes went on sale and I took a chance. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Yes, they are mediocre, but they also have a unique entertainment quality. Just my kind of fun. If you love episodes of the old Twilight Zone TV series, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy these stories too.

I crave science fiction short stories on audio. Somehow, short stories come alive for me when I listen, especially when they’re read by a narrator who adds dramatic voices. Oh, I still love to read, but I admit I’m a poor reader compared to these hired guns. It’s the narrators who add the extra dimension. And these ten volumes are a time capsule of what it’s like to have been a kid back in the 1950’s and 1960’s who loved science fiction.

My goal here is to promote more audio productions of short science fiction. I need to get more people buying audiobook science fiction anthologies so publishers will feel the demand and publish more of them. Most of you will not rush out and buy one of these Favorite Science Fiction Stories anthologies, especially after I called them mediocre, but I wanted to be as honest as possible.

I’m going to list the table of contents to all ten volumes and provide links to some of the stories I’ve found on YouTube, so you can hear what I’m talking about. These are public domain stories you can find online for free, especially at places like Project Gutenberg and YouTube. I don’t think the audio versions below are the same as the ones in the anthologies, but I’ve only tested a handful of stories. I’m not trying to ruin Jimcin’s sales but promote them. It’s far more convenient to listen to them on your smartphone than to listen to them on YouTube. But try a few to see why you should buy a whole anthology.

There are many public domain science fiction stories in audio available on the web. Often, they are from LibriVox, which use volunteer readers. LibriVox readers are good and provide a great public service, but they don’t usually provide the kind of dramatic narration I’m talking about. The stories I link to below have at least a basic level of professionalism, and some of them are excellent. I don’t know if these recordings are from copyrighted productions or if they’re productions by would-be audiobook narrators hoping to prove they can be professional.

My goal is to promote audio productions of short science fiction by expanding the audience. I want to see more anthologies of older science fiction for sale. Try some of these audio short stories to see if you get hooked, and if you do, then try one of the anthologies. 1 credit or $7-$10 is not that much for 15-20 hours of entertainment.

If you want to know more about audio science fiction, check out SFFAudio.com. They track and review both print and audio productions of public domain genre stories, as well as review professional productions of new and old stories.

I’ve bought 5 of the 10 volumes so far – see *. I’m getting a big kick out of listening to these stories. Yes, they are mediocre, but they capture a certain science fictional flavor from mid-20th-century. Be sure and read “The History of Science Fiction, and Why it Matters” by Allen Steele in the Nov-Dec 2018 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction which just came out. Steele wonderfully explains why it’s important to read old science fiction.

Prices listed are from Amazon. Audible members might get a discount. These Favorite Sci-Fi Stories have been around for a decade, but I don’t know if they get much attention. These anthologies are not listed in ISFDB.org as far as I can tell. I wish they were. I’ve published this list of contents because I had a hard time finding this information.

Favorite Science Fiction Stories

Volume 1 (2009)* – $10.95

  1. The Gifts of Asti“ by Andre Norton
  2. The Defenders” by Philip K. Dick
  3. “Earthmen Bearing Gifts” by Fredric Brown
  4. A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum
  5. This is Klon Calling” by Walter Sheldon
  6. Security” by Poul Anderson
  7. “The Perfectionists” by Arnold Castle
  8. “The Day Time Stopped Moving” by Bradner Buckner
  9. Image of the Gods” by Alan E. Nourse
  10. “Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper
  11. “The World Called Crimson” by Darius John Granger
  12. “Postmark Ganymede” by Robert Silverberg
  13. The Stars, My Brothers” by Edmond Hamilton
  14. 2 B R 0 2 B” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  15. “Belly Laugh” by Ivar Jorgensen
  16. Year of the Big Thaw” by Marion Zimmer Bradley
  17. The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster
  18. “Pandemic” by J. F. Bone
  19. Bread Overhead” by Fritz Leiber
  20. “The Day of the Boomer Dukes” by Frederik Pohl
  21. Beyond Lies the Wub” by Philip K. Dick

Volume 2 (2010) – $10.95

  1. The Coffin Cure” by Alan Edward Nourse
  2. Cat and Mouse” by Ralph Williams
  3. The Blue Tower” by Evelyn E. Smith
  4. The Gift Bearer” by Charles Fontenay
  5. “History Repeats” by George Oliver Smith
  6. The Altar at Midnight” by C. M. Kornbluth
  7. Hall of Mirrors” by Fredric Brown
  8. The Answer” by H. Beam Piper
  9. “The Calm Man” by Frank Belknap Long
  10. The Next Logical Step” by Ben Bova
  11. Operation Haystack” by Frank Herbert
  12. Foundling on Venus” by John and Dorothy DeCourcy
  13. The Repairman” by Harry Harrison
  14. The Beast of Space” by F. E. Hardart
  15. The Big Trip Up Yonder” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  16. Where There’s Hope” by Jerome Bixby
  17. The Success Machine” by Henry Slesar
  18. Pythias” by Poul Anderson
  19. Two Plus Two Makes Crazy” by Walt Sheldon
  20. “Alien Offer” by Al Sevcik
  21. All Cats Are Gray” by Andre Norton
  22. Zen” by Jerome Bixby
  23. “The Unspecialist” by Murray Yaco
  24. The Sargasso of Space” by Edmond Hamilton
  25. “Flamedown” by H. B. Fyfe
  26. “Grove of the Unborn” by Lyn Vanable
  27. What Is He Doing in There?” by Fritz Leiber
  28. “The 4D Doodler” by Grapy Waldyte
  29. “Bad Medicine” by Robert Sheckley
  30. Dead Ringer” by Lester del Rey
  31. I’ll Kill You Tomorrow” by Helen Hubert

Volume 3 (2011) – $10.95

  1. “The Missing Link” by Frank Herbert
  2. Arm of the Law” by Harry Harrison
  3. No Moving Parts” by Murray F. Yaco
  4. The Hills of Home” by Alfred Coppell
  5. The Measure of a Man” by Gordon Randall Garrett
  6. The Hated” by Frederick Pohl
  7. “Salvage in Space” by Jack Williamson
  8. The Burning Bridge” by Poul Anderson
  9. The Crystal Crypt” by Philip K. Dick
  10. The Hour of Battle” by Robert Sheckley
  11. The Mathematicians” by Arthur Feldman
  12. “Crossroads of Destiny” by H. Beam Piper
  13. Homesick” by Lynn Venable
  14. “The Eyes Have it” by James McKimmey, Jr.
  15. “They Twinkled Like Jewels” by Philip Jose Farmer
  16. Old Rambling House” by Frank Herbert
  17. Youth” by Isaac Asimov
  18. “Navy Day” by Harry Harrison
  19. “Service with a Smile” by Charles Louis Fontenay
  20. “The Cosmic Express” by John Stewart Williamson
  21. The Moon is Green” by Fritz Leiber
  22. “Stopover Planet” by Robert E. Gilbert
  23. “Watchbird” by Robert Sheckley
  24. “Probability” by Louis Trimble
  25. “The Doorway” by Evelyn E. Smith
  26. The Stroke of the Sun” by Arthur C. Clarke
  27. The Velvet Glove” by Harry Harrison
  28. “The House from Nowhere” by Arthur Stangland
  29. The Tunnel Under the World” – Frederik Pohl

Volume 4 (2012) – $10.95

  1. Arena” by Fredric Brown
  2. “Mate in Two Moves” by Winston Marks
  3. Love Story” by Irving E. Cox
  4. “The Golden Man” by Philip K. Dick
  5. Advanced Chemistry” by Jack G. Huekels
  6. The Dueling Machine” by Ben Bova
  7. Time Enough at Last” by Lyn Venable
  8. “Sorry, Wrong Dimension” by Ross Rocklynne
  9. Duel on Syrtis” by Poul Anderson
  10. “The Gostak and the Doshes” by Miles J. Breuer
  11. Keep Your Shape” by Robert Sheckley
  12. “Home Is Where You Left It” by Stephen Marlowe
  13. “Planet of Dreams” by James McKimmer, Jr.
  14. Blessed Are the Meek” by G. C. Edmonson
  15. Incident on Route 12” by James Schmitz
  16. The Invader” by Alfred Coppel
  17. “Monkey on His Back” by Charles DeVet
  18. “Robots of the World Arise” by Mari Wolf
  19. A Woman’s Place” by Mark Clifton
  20. The K-Factor” by Harry Harrison
  21. The Hanging Stranger” by Philip K. Dick.

Volume 5 (2012)* – $6.95

  1. The Skull” by Phlip K. Dick
  2. Sam, This Is You” by Murray Leinster
  3. “Manners of the Age” by Horace Brown Fyfe
  4. Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper
  5. “Heist Job on Theiser” by Gordan Randall Jarrett
  6. The Yillian Way” by Keith Laumer
  7. “The Ultimate Vice” by A. Bertram Chandler
  8. “Backlash” by Winston Marks
  9. “Adolescents Only” by Irving Cox
  10. Project Mastodon” by Clifford Simak
  11. “Sargasso of Lost Starships” by Poul Anderson
  12. The Dictator” by Milton Lesser
  13. The Misplaced Battleship” by Harry Harrison
  14. A Pail of Air” by Fritz Leiber
  15. “The Vilbar Party” by Evelyn E. Smith
  16. “The Servant Problem” by Robert F. Young

Volume 6 (2012)* – $6.95

  1. Perchance to Dream” by Richard Stockham
  2. “Father Image” by Robert Silverberg
  3. Tree, Spare That Woodman” by Dave Dryfoos
  4. “Disaster Revisited” by Darius John Granger
  5. Subversive” by Mack Reynolds
  6. “The Stutterer” by R. R. Merliss
  7. Infinite Intruder” by Alan E. Nourse
  8. “A Bottle of Old Wine” by Richard O. Lewis
  9. “B12’s Moon Glow” by Charles A. Sterns
  10. “A Logic Named Joe” by Murray Leinster
  11. No Strings Attached” by Lester del Rey
  12. The Street That Wasn’t There” by Clifford D. Simak
  13. “Regeneration” by Charley Dye
  14. “Wheels Within” by Charles V. Devett
  15. “The Lonely Ones”, by Edward W. Ludwig
  16. “The God in the Box” by Sewell Peaslee Wright
  17. “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith
  18. “New Hire” by Dave Dryfoos
  19. “The Enormous Room” by H.L.Gold and Robert Kreps
  20. Turnover Point” by Alfred Coppel
  21. “Breeder Reaction” by Winston Marks

Volume 7 (2013)* – $5.95

  1. “The Ties That Bind” by Walter Miller, Jr.
  2. Toy Shop” by Harry Harrison
  3. Beyond the Walls of Sleep” by H. P. Lovecraft
  4. Victory” by Lester del Rey
  5. Accidental Death” by Peter Bailey
  6. The Color Out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft
  7. “Cully” by Jack Eagan
  8. “The Statue” by Mari Wolf
  9. “Police Operation” by H. Beam Piper
  10. “See” by Edward G. Robles, Jr.
  11. “Thing of Beauty” by Damon Knight
  12. “A Scientist Rises” by Desmond Hall
  13. “The Small World of M-75” by Ed M. Clinton, Jr.
  14. “Two-Face” by Frank Belknap Long
  15. “Creature from Cleveland Depths” by Fritz Leiber

Volume 8 (2014)* – $6.95

  1. “The Last Days of Earth” by George C. Wallace
  2. “Contamination Crew” by Alan E. Nourse
  3. “The Memory of Mars” by Raymond F. Jones
  4. “A Traveler in Time” by August Derleth
  5. “The Colonists” by Raymond F. Jones
  6. “Doubletake” by Richard Wilson
  7. “Stamped Caution” by Raymond Z. Gallon
  8. “Success Story” by Robert Turner
  9. “Disqualified” by Charles L. Fauntenay
  10. “Say Hello for Me” by Frank W. Coggins
  11. “Witch of the Demon Seas” by Poul Anderson
  12. “The Last Two Alive” by Alfred Coppell
  13. “The Old Die Rich” by H. L. Gold
  14. “Ministry of Disturbance” by H. Beam Piper

Volume 9 (2016) – $6.95

  1. “The Concrete Mixer” by Ray Bradbury
  2. “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates
  3. “Bedside Manner” by William Morrison
  4. “The Inferiors” by Mari Wolf
  5. “The Aggravation of Elmer” by Robert Arthur
  6. “Conquest over Time” by Michael Shara
  7. “The Virgin of Valkarion” by Poul Anderson
  8. “No Charge for Alterations” by H. L. Gold
  9. “Greylorn” by Keith Laumer
  10. “The Other Now” by Murray Leinster
  11. “The Ambulance Made Two Trips” by Murray Leinster
  12. “The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov
  13. “Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester
  14. “A Matter of Importance” by Murray Leinster

Volume 10 (2018) – $6.95

  1. “Adjustment Team” by Philip K. Dick
  2. “The Keeper” by H. Beam Piper
  3. “The Amazing Mrs. Mimms” by David C. Knight
  4. “The Girls from Earth” by Frank N. Robinson
  5. “The Man the Martians Made” by Frank Long
  6. “Pet Farm” by Roger Dee
  7. “A World of Talent” by Philip K. Dick
  8. “Shock Treatment” by Stanley Mullen
  9. “The Variable Man” by Philip K. Dick
  10. “The Players” by Everett Cole
  11. “Common Denominator” by John D. MacDonald
  12. “Survey Team” by Philip K. Dick
  13. “Medal of Honor” by Dallas McCord Reynolds
  14. “The Highest Treason” by Randall Garrett

 

– – James Wallace Harris (11/8/18)

 

 

 

 

19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories

 

19th century science fiction

Over the years several anthologies have reprinted science fiction short stories from the 1800’s. These tales are fascinating to read on many levels. Way before the establishment of the science fiction genre, writers were telling science fictional stories. Even without modern technology, they explored the same SF possibilities we do today. Ideas I thought original with Golden Age science fiction writers turn out to be much older. Reading these stories reveals universals about human nature that you don’t get from history books.

The Anthologies

The Stories

Here are all the stories from the above anthologies. You can see the editors have done a good job of finding stories the other editors haven’t, although there are stories loved by more than one editor. Where I can, I’ve linked to an online version of the story. If one isn’t available, I’ll link to an essay about the story. For some stories, you’ll need to get the anthology. Actually, reading the anthologies are much more convenient.

Year Title Author Editor
1809 The Conquest of the Earth by the Moon Washington Irving Franklin
1833 The Mortal Immortal Mary Shelley Asimov, Moskowitz
1835 The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Phall Edgar Allan Poe Moskowitz
1835 The Great Moon Hoax Richard A. Locke Lester, Sims
1839 The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion Edgar Allan Poe Kuebler
1840 A Heavenward Voyage Samuel-Henry Berthoud Stableford
1844 A Tale of the Ragged Mountains Edgar Allan Poe Franklin
1844 Rappaccini’s Daughter Nathaniel Hawthorne Franklin, Asimov, Gunn
1844 The Artist of the Beautiful Nathaniel Hawthorne Franklin, Stableford
1844 The Sandman E. T. A. Hoffman Asimov
1845 The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar Edgar Allan Poe Sims
1849 Mellonta Tauta Edgar Allan Poe Franklin, Gunn
1852 A Descent Into the Maelstrom Edgar Allan Poe Asimov
1854 The Birthmark Nathaniel Hawthorne Franklin
1855 The Bell-Tower Herman Melville Franklin
1858 The Diamond Lens Fitz-James O’Brien Franklin, Gunn, Lester
1859 The Wondersmith Fitz-James O’Brien Moskowitz
1859 What Was It? Fitz-James O’Brien Stableford
1860 The Atoms of Chladni J. D. Whelpley Franklin
1863 Darwin Among the Machines Samuel Butler Lester
1870 Annie Denton Cridge Franklin
1872 The Brick Moon Edward Everett Hale Moskowitz
1872 The End of the World Eugène Mouton Stableford
1873 The Automaton Ear Florence McLandburgh Sims
1874 The Tachypomp Edward Page Mitchell Davies
1875 The Soul Spectroscope Edward Page Mitchell Davies
1875 The Story of the Deluge Edward Page Mitchell Davies
1876 The Inside of the Earth Edward Page Mitchell Davies
1876 The Telescope Eye William Henry Rhodes Sims
1877 The Age of Science Frances Power Cobbe Lester
1877 The Man Without a Body Edward Page Mitchell Davies
1879 A Paradoxical Ode (After Shelley) James Clerk Maxwell Stableford
1879 A Psychological Shipwreck Ambrose Bierce Franklin
1879 The Ablest Man in the World Edward Page Mitchell Davies, Stableford
1879 The Facts in the Ratcliff Case Edward Page Mitchell Davies
1879 The Senator’s Daughter Edward Page Mitchell Davies, Sims
1880 From Mizora: A Prophecy Mary E. Bradley Lane Franklin
1880 The Professor’s Experiment Edward Page Mitchell Davies
1881 The Clock That Went Backwards Edward Page Mitchell Asimov, Davies, Sims
1881 The Crystal Man Edward Page Mitchell Davies
1882 Into the Sun Robert Duncan Milne Asimov, Davies
1882 Josuah Electricmann Ernest d’Hervilly Stableford
1884 A Tale of Negative Gravity Frank R. Stockton Asimov, Davies
1884 The Child of the Phalanstery Grant Allen Stableford
1885 Old Squids and Little Speller Edward Page Mitchell Davies
1885 The Great Keinplatz Experiment Arthur Conan Doyle Asimov, Davies
1886 The Blindman’s World Edward Bellamy Franklin
1886 The Monarch of Dreams Thomas Wentworth Higginson Franklin, Sims
1887 Christmas 200,000 B.C. Stanley Waterloo Franklin
1887 The Horla, or Modern Ghosts Guy de Maupassant Asimov
1887 The Shapes (Les Xipéhuz)  J. H. Rosny aîné Asimov
1888 An Express of the Future Jules Verne Moskowitz
1888 Tornadres J. H. Rosny aîné Stableford
1889 Our Second Voyage to Mars W. S. Lach-Szyrma Evans
1889 To Whom This May Come Edward Bellamy Asimov, Davies
1890 Dr. Materialismus Frederic Jesup Stimson Franklin
1890 In the Year Ten Thousand Edgar Fawcett Stableford
1890 Professor’s Bakermann’s Microbe Charles Epheyre Stableford
1891 Old Doctor Rutherford D. F. Hannigan Moskowitz
1891 The Revolt of the Machines Emile Goudeau Stableford
1891 The Salvation of Nature John Davidson Stableford
1892 In the Year Ten Thousand Will N. Harben Franklin
1892 The Doom of London Robert Barr Moskowitz
1892 The Los Amigos Fiasco Arthur Conan Doyle Moskowitz
1892 The Philosophy of Relative Existence Frank R. Stockton Stableford
1893 June, 1993 Julian Hawthorne Stableford
1893 Mysterious Disappearances Ambrose Bierce Sims
1893 The Damned Thing Ambrose Bierce Gunn, Kuebler
1895 A Wife Manufactured to Order Alice W. Fuller Sims
1895 Lost in a Comet’s Tale Frank Reade, Jr. Moskowitz
1895 The Purple Death W. L. Alden Davies, Russell
1896 Citizen 504 Charles H. Palmer Moskowitz
1896 In the Abyss H. G. Wells Asimov
1896 In the Deep of Time
George Parsons Lathrop, Thomas A. Edison
Locke
1896 London’s Danger
C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne
Evans, Russell
1897 The Aeriel Brickfield John Mills Evans
1897 The Crystal Egg H. G. Wells Knight
1897 The Microbe of Death Rudolph De Cordova Russell
1897 The Star H. G. Wells Kuebler, Stableford
1897 The Thames Valley Catastrophe Grant Allen
Asimov, Davies, Evans, Moskowitz, Russell, Sims
1898 A Corner in Lightning George Griffith Evans, Moskowitz, Stableford
1898 From the “London Times” of 1904 Mark Twain Franklin, Knight
1898 The Lizard C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne Asimov, Evans, Russell
1898 Where the Air Quivered L. T. Meade, Robert Eustace Moskowitz
1899 A Thousand Deaths Jack London Asimov, Davies, Franklin
1899 Moxon’s Master Ambrose Bierce Knight
1899 The Master of the Octopus Edward Olin Weeks Russell
1899 The Monster of Lake LaMetrie Wardon Allan Curtis Moskowitz, Russell, Sims
1899 The Purple Terror Fred M. White Davies, Evans, Moskowitz, Russell
1899 The Wheels of Dr. Ginochio Gyves Ellsworth Douglass, Edwin Pallander Locke, Russell

James Wallace Harris (9/20/18)