I’m struggling to find a science fiction novel that grabs me. Months have passed since the last one I loved. That was The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff. It’s not that I don’t have hundreds of science fiction books waiting to be read, but finding one that profoundly resonates with my current mindset is difficult. I subsist on science-fiction short stories until a sci-fi Moby Dick breaks the waves of my attention.
I’ve mostly been diverting myself by reading nonfiction and novels from other genres. I just finished The High Window by Raymond Chandler and for whatever reason it did resonate perfectly with my current mood. I remember reading Farewell, My Lovely years ago and loving it. And I vaguely believe I read The Big Sleep, but that was long ago. Usually, I dislike mysteries, thrillers, and other crime novels. I just don’t care who did it.
What thrills me about Chandler’s books is his prose, and in particular, his descriptions. Chandler is famous for creating the detective, Philip Marlowe. Whenever pop culture satirizes the hardboiled detective, they are usually making fun of Marlowe’s way of talking. Chandler’s dialogue is painfully cliche. His convoluted plots often mystify and confuse. I would completely ignore Chandler if those two aspects were all he offered. What redeems Chandler in my eyes, even elevates him to a model writer, is his descriptions.
Wherever Philip Marlowe goes he describes what he sees in vivid detail. To illustrate my point, here are the first few pages of The Big Sleep. Last night I started watching the Humphrey Bogart version. I’ve seen it several times before. And after reading The High Window I decided to start over with Philip Marlowe and read his first appearance in a novel. When I went to buy it on Amazon I discovered The Annotated Big Sleep and it seemed perfect for jumping into the world of Raymond Chandler.
In the film it’s a bit different, the girl says, “You aren’t very tall” to Humphrey Bogart and he replies, “I try to be.” I’ve seen many different actors play Philip Marlowe and none of them matches my mind’s eye, but Bogie does okay. I watched a couple low budget versions of The High Window yesterday and was extremely disappointed. They go for Chandler’s cliche dialogue but they never capture the feel of the books. Even though Time to Kill (1942), The Brasher Doubloon (1947), and The Big Sleep (1946) were made in the 1940s, they don’t look like the 1940s Chandler describes. They only seem to be visual sketches or quick impressions.
Movies drive quickly through 1940s Los Angeles. Chandler strolls. He stops and smells the roses as well as the dog shit.
This got me thinking about science fiction. Are there any science fiction novels that paint the future in the same way that Chandler has portrayed the past? My first thought was of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. I just went and checked, and it is indeed full of vivid details, but not at Chandler’s level of density. I’ve always liked Heinlein for his details, but checking shows he is a far cry from Chandler’s descriptions too.
Maybe it’s not possible to imagine the future in such detail. Hemingway steered writers away from such writing. But then, few writers like to go overboard on the details like Henry James or Edith Wharton. I guess what I like about Chandler is he paints realistic pictures with words while most modern writers have left realism for impressionism and minimalism or even the abstract.
I need to think about this. I need to pay closer attention to how science fiction writers describe the future. It occurs to me that Walter M. Miller, Jr. was quite vivid in the opening of “A Canticle for Leibowitz” in the April 1955 issue of F&SF.
If you know of science fiction novels that are rich in descriptive details, let me know in the comments.
As I’ve mentioned, our short story club is reading Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg. Its specific theme is megawars, which is what Miller calls all-out nuclear conflicts that destroy civilization. Tuesday’s story discussion was on “Tomorrow’s Children” by Poul Anderson which first appeared in the March 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction but was probably written in 1946. Coincidentally, today I finished the short novel The Murder of the U.S.A. by Will F. Jenkins (Murray Leinster) which was published in 1946. Both of these stories were written in the year after we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and imagine the United States nearly destroyed by a sneak attack using hundreds of atomic bombs.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been consuming science fiction stories, nonfiction, and documentary films about the development of atomic weapons in the 1940s and 1950s. I want to discover where the common ideas we hold today about surviving an atomic wars come from. Are they from science fiction stories or from general public knowledge? As Civil Defense programs emerged after WWII, Americans were told about what an atomic bomb attack would be like and how to prepare and survive it. It was assumed we’d survive such a war. But as the years went by many people started believing we wouldn’t.
Darker assumptions became the norm. Books, and especially movies and television shows, based on a growing list of memes about atomic wars have shaped what we expected. Over the decades, those fears have taken a back seat to other fears, especially about climate change, and occasionally about plagues, cosmic disasters, and the return of gods. For some reason, we all entertain various scenarios about the end of the world.
For some reason, reading all this old science fiction about nuclear war has shown me we were too worried, and mostly scaring ourselves. Sure, such wars were possible, but not as likely as everyone feared. That makes me wonder if we’re too worried about climatic change, or economic collapse, or pandemics? Of course, all these things can actually kill us, but what are the odds that they will kill as many people as fiction imagines?
In “Tomorrow’s Children” Anderson imagines Americans in small towns rebuilding after the war but still suffering from widespread fallout of radioactive dust and germs from biological weapons. Anderson pictures both human and animal births being overwhelmed with horrible mutations. It’s a grim story, but ultimately positive. His solution is we must give up all prejudices about what people should look like. “Tomorrow’s Children” was well anthologized.
Anderson also pictures many of the tropes we’ll see used in most post-apocalyptic novels that have been published since then. I often wonder if the success of AR-15 sales isn’t due to apocalyptic fears? Are survivalists and preppers living with assumptions that are probably more science fiction than fact?
Anderson wrote three other stories that were “sequels” to this one that was collected in a fix-up novel called Twilight World. Radioactivity that caused mutations was a big theme in science fiction in the late 1940s and 1950s. Remember all the movies about giant invading insects or post-apocalyptic novels where normal people battled tribes of human mutants?
Murray Leinster’s novel, The Murder of the U.S.A. has a rather unique plot. America is destroyed by a sneak attack that leaves all the major cities in ruins. However, we don’t know who attacked us because the rockets came in over the poles. This was well before ICBMs were invented, so impressive speculation by Jenkins. However, in this story, Americans built over a hundred deeply buried silos where the military could survive and launch retaliative attacks. The novel is about the men of Burrow 89 who do detective work to find out who murdered the U.S.A. It’s not a very good novel and has been out of print until recently when Wildside Press reprinted it.
After reading all these stories and watching all those documentaries, I’m not sure an atomic war will be like what science fiction imagined. I believe fiction has assumed we’d go to extremes. As far as I know, radioactive fallout has not caused weird human mutations or giant insects. And we haven’t had any all-out wars that destroyed most of humanity. What I’m afraid of is a limited nuclear war. I’m afraid politicians will discover they can get away with using nukes. I believe all this post-apocalyptic fiction has scared us so much that we fear any use of them will destroy everything. I keep reading about the times our presidents considered using nuclear weapons. And we have to assume leaders and other countries have had similar thoughts. What if we start having limited wars with atomic weapons and they don’t destroy the world? Isn’t that something to fear even more?
Science fiction often imagines the worse possible ways for us to destroy ourselves. What I’m beginning to fear are all the ways we can merely make everyday life worse because of these fears. I have to admit, that science fiction has given me a lot to worry about over my lifetime. Science fiction has always been about our hopes and fears for the future. Reading all these stories about nuclear doom shows how we incorporated that one fear into our consciousness.
Here is Hiroshima in 1945 and 2020. Did we imagine such a recovery in 1945? It’s pretty weird that it’s taken me over fifty years to begin to distrust science fiction.
But there is something else we should consider. Why have these stories been so popular for so long? Sure, the causes of apocalypses keep changing, but we still delight in fiction about surviving something big and awful. Maybe they imply another kind of psychological issue. Instead of worrying about the worse than can happen, maybe we subconsciously want cataclysmic change? That deep down we don’t like how civilization has evolved and want a do-over. That’s not healthy either.
Now I’m starting to wonder if my life-long addiction to science fiction isn’t a psychological symptom suggesting I have a problem with reality. Think about it. Why would anyone really want to live on Mars? Why would anyone picture themselves living in a post-apocalyptic world? Why would anyone imagine time-traveling to the past or future? And really, why are dystopian novels so popular as escapist fiction?
Starting March 16th I’m going to lead a book discussion on Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg for our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction, and Fantasy Short Fiction. We had voted on reading a science fiction theme anthology and Miller’s anthology won for the Post-Apocalypse theme. Y’all are welcome to come read along and discuss the stories. Here is a link to the thread on this group read.
I thought the book would be about post-apocalypses in general, but it turns out Miller was riled up about Reagan’s Star Wars and nuclear proliferation back in the 1980s and the anthology focuses mainly on surviving a nuclear holocaust. (Read his intro.) This got me thinking. How many different kinds of post-apocalypses are there? Most of the famous ones deal with nuclear war, an extreme plague, or a catastrophic encounter with an astronomical object.
Since Miller wanted to focus on nuclear war I would too. I’ve always wanted to create a database of science fiction themes. I’ve pondered creating a theme taxonomy or even developing a Dewey Decimal type system for identifying each specific theme. Recently, I played around with ChatGPT to see if it could help with this task. The job would be a big one. So, focusing on one narrow theme would be a great start.
For our discussion of Beyond Armageddon, I decided to study short stories, novels, movies, and TV shows about surviving a nuclear war. I figured I’d bring up these precedents as we discussed the stories. Over the weeks we’ll be discussing the stories I’ll build up a timeline about this theme. I also want to use the same time to learn about Walter M. Miller, Jr., but that’s for another post.
Even with the narrowed focus on nuclear war apocalypses, there are many ways to cover the subject. A crude beginning would be to divide them into Before the Bomb (warnings), Being Bombed (surviving), and After the Bomb (new societies).
Famous movies like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove end with the bombs going off. Their focus was on how to avoid a nuclear war.
Then there are stories that feature characters that live through an atomic war and the immediate aftermath, like the movie Threads. These stories usually begin just before bombs start falling, and usually end after the devastation showing us how bad nuclear war could be.
Finally, there are novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Long Tomorrow, or movies like Mad Max, where the war is in the past and new societies are emerging. Often these kinds of stories use their creativity to imagine how humanity adapts to new situations.
For this essay, I want to be very specific. I’m looking for short stories, novels, television shows, and movies about people surviving worldwide all-out nuclear war. I’m going to exclude fiction about the anxiety of a pending war, such as Dr. Strangelove, and also ignore stories about new societies developing after a nuclear war, such as A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Long Tomorrow. I want to specialize in fiction about people who survive a nuclear war and what they do immediately afterward, maybe including the first generation born after the war. The film Threads is a perfect example.
However, my research is turning into a very large project. For this post, I’m going to focus on the fiction that came out before 1960. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in August 1945. I’ve yet to discover any science fiction that deals with surviving a nuclear war before then. However, Beyond Armageddon includes “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét, which was originally published in the July 31, 1937 issue of Saturday Evening Post. It describes civilization being destroyed by fire, that poisoned the earth and air. That’s good enough for me. But it’s an afterward story, a long afterward story, where our descendants have forgotten the past and assume the beings who fought this great war were gods. Like many stories of this kind, people live in primitive tribes and talk like cliches of Native Americans.
Even though America had dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 it took a while for science fiction writers to imagine nuclear war, especially one that could destroy human civilization. Russia didn’t explode its first fission bomb (A-bomb) until 1949 and its first thermonuclear bomb (H-bomb) until 1953. That was the same year they began the development of their first ICBM. We started the Atlas missile program in 1954. Russia’s first successful launch was in August 1957, and ours was in late November 1958.
(Revision: Thanks to Joachim Boaz’s comment below I now know about Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction by Paul Brians. It’s online here. Evidently, there have been a number of articles and monographs on this subject. I’ll make further revisions to my list below as I get to read more.)
“By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) might be the first story about a nuclear holocaust, but it’s not for sure, and not the specific kind I’m looking for. Remember, I want stories about people experiencing a nuclear war.
“Thunder and Roses” (1947) by Theodore Sturgeon is a short story with a very unique perspective on atomic war. The link is to a copy of the original magazine publication.
Shadow on the Hearth in 1950 by Judith Merril is the earliest science fiction novel I know about that deals with surviving an atomic war. In 1954 it was televised as “Atomic Attack” on Motorola TV Theater, see below. If you know of others leave a comment below.
It took time for science fiction writers to put two and two together and imagine an atomic war that could create total annihilation of our species. I’m having trouble discovering when the public first encountered ideas about atomic war in the news and popular science and when science fiction writers used the ideas. Were the writers first? Could Nevil Shute have been the first to imagine self-extinction in On the Beach?
Judith Merril might be the earliest science fiction writer who explored a limited atomic war. However, I haven’t read her book yet, but in the TV drama, many of the major American cities are destroyed, and we destroy many of the enemy’s big cities, but people in small towns survive. CONELRAD was established in 1951 and is featured in the TV drama, but I think it was too early for the novel. That means the public was well aware of the atomic war possibility, I’m just not knowledgeable by how much. What did science fiction writers have to work with at this time?
According to Wikipedia, Five (1951) is the first film to portray people surviving an atomic war. I have not seen it yet, and I guess it ignores the television drama “Atomic Attack.” It is available to rent.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) by Ray Bradbury imagines an automated home in the future continuing to function after humans have died in an atomic war. We don’t know how universal the deaths are in this story.
“Lot” (1953) by Ward Moore is one of my favorite science fiction short stories. It’s “Cold Equations” type brutality hits you hard in the end. I’ve always felt that Panic In Year Zero! a 1962 film with Ray Milland might have been inspired by “Lot.” Moore story had a sequel, “Lot’s Daughter” which is even more Biblical and daring.
“Atomic Attack” (1954) was an episode on Motorola TV Theater based on Judith Merril’s 1950 novel – see above. I’d love to have a DVD of Motorola TV Theater series. This episode is available to watch on Tubi and YouTube and for sale on DVD from Amazon. Even though the production quality is low by today’s standards, I thought the 1954 television tale was an A+ story for what I was looking for. The link is to YouTube, but this version is part of a mix of videos about atomic war. See items on the right side. (I’m curious, is this just a bad film copy, or is it a kinescope?)
Tomorrow! (1954) by Philip Wylie compares survivors in two smaller towns that weren’t bombed in a nuclear attack, one with prepared civil defense and the other not.
On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute was a bestselling novel by a mainstream writer. Shute imagined radioactive clouds circling the globe slowly killing off life. Because the war took place in the northern hemisphere, radioactive clouds took weeks to get to all of the southern hemisphere with Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the lowests parts of South America. Everyone dies. Is this the first novel of total nuclear annihilation?
“Doomsday For Dyson” (1958), a televised play by J. B. Priestley. Can’t find much about this but it appears to have been a dream about surviving a nuclear war. Love to see it if anyone knows where I could watch it. J. B. Priestley was a mainstream English novelist, playwright, screenwriter, broadcaster, and social commentator. It seems that so far, mainstream writers were more interested in writing about nuclear war than science fiction writers. However, there might be many SF novels and stories I don’t know about yet.
Red Alert (1958) by Peter George was the basis for Dr. Strangelove.
“Underground” (1958) was a 1958 episode of Armchair Theatre, a British TV show on ITV. I doubt I’ll ever get to see it. I’ve read British TV producers didn’t try and save stuff like American producers. Still, it’s another clue in how much the general public was interested in this subject.
Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank was another novel about people surviving an atomic war. It’s still very readable today. When I was a teenager in the 1960s prowling used bookstores I constantly saw used copies of On the Beach, Alas, Babylon, and Limbo. I figured they must have been very popular. Limbo wasn’t about nuclear war, but cybernetics.
Level 7 (1959) by Mordecai Roshwald. I just learned about this novel yesterday when I mentioned to my old friend Connell I was writing about books about atomic war. He said our buddy George gave it to him back in the 1960s and he still vividly remembers it. I’m going to get a copy.
On the Beach (1959) was a popular film starring Gregory Peck.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) was a film starring Harry Belafonte as the sole survivor of a nuclear war using radioactivity dispersed aerially. This film deserves a lot more attention than it gets. However, it’s more about being the last man on Earth, a kind of Robinson Crusoe story.
“Time Enough at Last” (1959) was one of the most popular Twilight Zone episodes that featured Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis, another sole survivor of an atomic war. The Twilight Zone often dealt with nuclear war, but this entry was an ironic humorous one.
If you know of other works of fiction that cover this topic leave a comment below.
If you are old enough to remember the late 1940s and 1950s and can tell me how you learned about the idea of nuclear war, please leave a comment. Did it come from television, newspapers, word-of-mouth, or science fiction?
Ideas are the building blocks of science fiction — that’s obvious when you start categorizing science fiction by themes. I’ve been getting into old science fiction theme anthologies and I recently ordered the ten volumes of Asimov’s Wonder Worlds of Science Fiction anthology series edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh. The first story I read by randomly flipping through the first eight volumes I received in the mail was “Though Dreamers Die” by Lester del Rey. It was in volume 9, covering Robots. However, “Though Dreamers Die” first appeared in the February 1944 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. Read it here.
Lester del Rey isn’t well remembered today, except maybe for “Helen O’Loy” another robot story that was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg. “Though Dreamers Die” was anthologized in two significant anthologies about robots The Robot and the Man edited by Martin Greenberg and Machines That Think edited by Isaac Asimov, Patricia S. Warrick, and Martin H. Greenberg. Del Rey’s daring story “For I Am a Jealous People!” is included in the 10th volume of this series, covering Invasions. I can’t believe his story “The Day is Done” wasn’t included in the 6th volume for Neanderthals.
To explain why I said ideas are the building blocks of science fiction, I’m going to have to describe the plot of “Though Dreamers Die” in detail, giving all the spoilers. The story is included in the volume for robots but it could have been included in many different theme anthologies.
“Though Dreamers Die” begins with a man named Jorgen regaining consciousness. We’re given some backstory in the narrative. Humans have been wiped out by a plague on Earth, thus we have both a Post-Apocalypse and a Last Man story and maybe even a Dying Earth story. The Dying Earth theme usually involved the far future when Earth is about to be destroyed. Sometimes Dying Earth means the planet is dying, and other times it suggests the human race is dying. Maybe we should just call it End of Humanity themed.
Jorgen is waking up from Suspended Animation or Cold Sleep, another trope of science fiction. In this 1944 story, del Rey has Interstellar Travel limited to the speed of light. Before the plague had nearly wiped out humanity, humans had tried to Colonize Mars, but the plague had found its way there too. So a new design of spaceship was built to be a Space Ark to go to the stars. The humans were put to sleep during the long voyage of Interstellar Exploration which lasted 90 years. The ship was manned by Intelligent Robots who during the voyage developed Artificial Gravity and Controlled Interia.
After Jorgen is revived he is told that all the other colonists aboard the ship had died of the plague and he was the only one immune. Jorgen works with five robots that are named One, Two, Three, Four, and Five. They have found a New Earth. It turned out to be a paradise, much like Earth, but with no intelligent life. Jorgen suffers from an Existential Despair in Space of being the Last of Our Species. Robot Five describes to Jorgen how he imagined the new world becoming if humans had survived. This is when Jorgen realizes that Robots are equal to Humans, and Robots are our Descendants and that he shouldn’t despair.
Jorgen tells the robots they should build a Robot Civilization but robot Five says robots could never be happy without humans. This harkens back to Clifford Simak, that Robots are our Faithful Companions. Jorgen orders the robots to lie down and to Memory Wipe everything they know about humans. Jorgen leaves in the spaceship. Before he goes he decides to leave a drawing of the Solar system hoping the robots would one day find the Original Home of Humanity.
“Though Dreamers Die” is overly sentimental and crudely told, it does provide a great deal of wonder. I expect back in 1944 its ideas created quite an impact. And if you read the story closely, you could find many more science-fictional ideas that have become cliche over the years. The story isn’t dramatic. It’s just an unfolding of interlocking concepts. This was common back in the early days of science fiction.
As science fiction evolved, writers had to weave science-fiction ideas into dramatic scenes and intricate plots. That was why Robert A. Heinlein made such an impact when he began publishing in 1939. Lester del Rey achieved this in his novella “Nerves,” which was later expanded into a novel. However, that story has become dated because of our knowledge of atomic energy.
Now that I’m reading all these old science-fiction anthologies I’m noticing how science-fictional ideas were used to construct science-fictional stories. Science fiction that combined ideas and good storytelling techniques didn’t really emerge until the 1950s. A great example is “Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester or “The Moon Moth” by Jack Vance when the characters and storytelling became way more important than the SF idea.
Even today, science fiction often feels like a writer came up with an idea and then invented characters and a plot to showcase the idea. We never feel Jorgen is a real person. A counter-example is Charlie Gordon from “Flowers for Algernon.” That story has several science-fictional ideas in it, but what we remember is Charlie and what he felt. Lester del Rey tells us what Jorgen felt, but we never experience his emotions as we do with Charlie Gordon. However, I thought the passage beginning with “Breakfast lay beside him…” was quite good for del Rey at the time.
I wonder how a modern writer would write this same story today? What if it was just one scene, the parting scene, and it had the dramatic impact of the “Tears in the Rain” scene from Blade Runner? With so few words we feel deeply for Roy Batty. And we remember that feeling for the rest of our lives. Could someone make us feel for Jorgen as we do for Charlie Gordon?
Just think of all the ideas I will find in these anthologies, but how many of the stories will have sophisticated storytelling and deep emotional impact? I’ll see and let you know.
Case 101: Ch’iu-Ch’iu’s Firestorm • poem by uncredited
Alibi • poem by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Forewarning (an Introduction) • essay by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Salvador • (1984) • short story by Lucius Shepard
The Store of the Worlds • (1959) • short story by Robert Sheckley
The Big Flash • (1969) • novelette by Norman Spinrad
Lot • [David Jimmon] • (1953) • novelette by Ward Moore
Day at the Beach • (1959) • short story by Carol Emshwiller
The Wheel • (1952) • short story by John Wyndham
Jody After the War • (1972) • short story by Edward Bryant
The Terminal Beach • (1964) • novelette by J. G. Ballard
Tomorrow’s Children • (1947) • novelette by Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop
Heirs Apparent • (1954) • novelette by Robert Abernathy
A Master of Babylon • (1966) • novelette by Edgar Pangborn
Game Preserve • (1957) • short story by Rog Phillips
By the Waters of Babylon • (1937) • short story by Stephen Vincent Benét
There Will Come Soft Rains • (1950) • short story by Ray Bradbury
To the Chicago Abyss • (1963) • short story by Ray Bradbury
Lucifer • (1964) • short story by Roger Zelazny
Eastward Ho! • (1958) • short story by William Tenn
The Feast of Saint Janis • (1980) • novelette by Michael Swanwick
“If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth …” • (1951) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
Case 113: Ch’iu-Ch’iu’s Wow • poem by uncredited
A Boy and His Dog • [Vic and Blood • 2] • (1969) • novella by Harlan Ellison
My Life in the Jungle • (1985) • short story by Jim Aikin
This looks wonderful. Again, out of print. I wonder if I could convince several people to track down a used copy? That’s the weakness of the group. Even though we have hundreds of members, very few members join in the reading and discussion. Participating is depended on the availability of the anthology and I think the age of the stories. I feel most of our members prefer newer stories, while I prefer older ones. There are quite a few copies at ABEbooks for under $10 including shipping.
For some reason, ISFDB.org doesn’t have a table of contents for Mike Ashley’s latest end-of-the-world anthology. But you can read about the stories in The BSFA Review. This is another anthology with older stories. That’s great for seeing how the theme evolved.
Science fiction stories are fairytales for teenagers that fuel their imaginations about the future. Science fiction creates myths about tomorrow for each new generation. And science fiction offers both hopes and fears about what’s to come. Readers from each new generation embrace their own flavor of science fiction.
The World Turned Upside Down is an anthology where the editors picked science fiction stories that wowed them when they were teens. Currently available in print for the Kindle for $8.99 or free online for misers and the poor. And for collectors, the hardback is readily available used. I dearly wish there were an audiobook edition because I’d love to hear these stories read by a professional reader.
David Drake (b. 1945) and Jim Baen (b. 1943) are from the Silent Generation (1925-1945). Eric Flint (b. 1947) is from the second year of the Baby Boomers (1946-1964). I was born in 1951, the fifth year. All three editors started reading science fiction in the 1950s and I started in 1962. I believe science fiction fans that discovered the genre in the 1950s and 1960s during the Baby Boomer era imprinted on a certain type of science fiction that’s distinctly different from later generations’ science fiction. I believe the stories in The World Turned Upside Down will appeal the most to Baby Boomers.
One significant extra to this anthology is the personal recollections from the three editors. The introductions and follow-ups are bite-size memoirs. The editorial comments added extra enjoyment to reading this anthology. And I felt on the same wavelength as the editors.
Picture a graph with a bell curve stretched out on the trailing edge. Each year hundreds (thousands?) of science fiction stories are published, but only a small number become popular and are embraced as favorites by a generation. The newest stories are the leading edge of the curve. Then the long stretched-out trailing edge is where stories are remembered as they fade away in pop culture memory. Growing up I mostly read science fiction short stories that were at the peak of the curve. They were mostly 5-20 years old. Now those stories are 55-70 years old.
As I’ve gotten older, that bulge has diminished. In The World Turned Upside Down 5 stories are from the 1930s, 5 from the 1940s, 15 from the 1950s, and 4 from the 1960s. You should be able to visualize the curve just from that tiny bit of data. Readers today from the current generations will like or know very few of these stories. They are now far away from the leading bulge of popular stories. In 20 years, that bulge in the 1950s will thin away in future anthologies. Anthologists whose teen years were during the 1980s or 2010s will seldom pick stories that old.
For the past couple of months, our Facebook group has been reading and discussing the 29 stories from The World Turned Upside Down. I thought the age of the group member had an impact on which stories they liked. Current with reading these old stories on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, we read newer stories from The Good New Stuff edited by Gardner Dozois on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I also thought the contrast to it in the comments was age-related. Austin Beeman reviewed The World Turned Upside Downon his blog and overall liked most of the stories, but the stories he responded to best were a bit different from my favorites. And I thought he liked stories in The Good New Stuff a lot more than I did. I believe he’s 25-30 years younger than I am. Jeppe Larsen reviewed the anthology on his blog and liked fewer stories. My hunch is he is younger. But it’s also possible, he’s not young, and like many people, just likes to keep up with the times. I actually prefer the older stuff, even if it feels old. And to also skew my impression, most of the active members are hardcore SF fans that love a wide range of science fiction.
Generally, a great story is usually liked by any age group, but less famous stories seem to have a generational appeal. My guess is writers write under the assumption they are speaking to the current generation but some of them end up speaking across the ages.
The stories in The World Turned Upside Down were first published from 1933 through 1967, but the most common decade represented was the 1950s. Here are the stories with my ratings (1-5 stars).
Shambleau • (1933) • novelette by C. L. Moore (*****)
Who Goes There? • (1938) • novella by John W. Campbell, Jr. (*****)
Black Destroyer • (1939) • novelette by A. E. van Vogt (*****)
Heavy Planet • (1939) • short story by Milton A. Rothman (***+)
Spawn • (1939) • novelette by P. Schuyler Miller (****+)
My father (b. 1920) would have been a teen when these stories came out. He was from the Greatest Generation (1901-1924). These are also stories that appeared with the generation of First Fandom. Those were the old guys of science fiction when I was a teen. I’m not sure if any of them are around anymore. The star of that era was E. E. “Doc” Smith. Most of the fiction from then felt dated in the 1960s and even more so in the 2020s, even to me, a guy who loves to read old science fiction.
Quietus • (1940) • short story by Ross Rocklynne (****)
Environment • (1944) • short story by Chester S. Geier (***+)
Rescue Party • (1946) • novelette by Arthur C. Clarke (*****)
Thunder and Roses • (1947) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon (*****)
The Only Thing We Learn • (1949) • short story by C. M. Kornbluth (***+)
These stories came out during the teen years of the Silent Generation. This has been called The Golden Age of Science Fiction, but people who felt that are mainly dead. Stories collected in anthologies stay around for a few decades, and I was reading these stories as a teen in the 1960s. I thought 1940s SF was science fiction from the good old days. They felt somewhat dated when I read them in the 1960s, but they were still fun. Today, even to me, they feel quite quaint.
Liane the Wayfarer • (1950) • short story by Jack Vance (****)
Trigger Tide • (1950) • short story by Wyman Guin (***+)
A Pail of Air • (1951) • short story by Fritz Leiber (****+)
All the Way Back • (1952) • short story by Michael Shaara (***+)
Thy Rocks and Rills • (1953) • novelette by Robert E. Gilbert (****+)
Answer • (1954) • short story by Fredric Brown (*****)
The Cold Equations • (1954) • novelette by Tom Godwin (*****)
Hunting Problem • (1955) • short story by Robert Sheckley (****)
A Gun for Dinosaur • (1956) • novelette by L. Sprague de Camp (****)
The Last Question • (1956) • short story by Isaac Asimov (****+)
The Gentle Earth • (1957) • novella by Christopher Anvil (***+)
The Menace from Earth • (1957) • novelette by Robert A. Heinlein (*****)
Omnilingual • (1957) • novelette by H. Beam Piper (*****)
St. Dragon and the George • (1957) • novelette by Gordon R. Dickson (****)
The Aliens • (1959) • novelette by Murray Leinster (****)
Now, these were stories that were often anthologized in the 1960s when I was a teen and a number of them are considered classics. They seem just a little bit old to me when I was a teen. Like 1950s Rock and Rollers, who were in their twenties when I was a teen in the 1960s, but they were still so cool!
Code Three • (1963) • novella by Rick Raphael (***+)
Turning Point • (1963) • short story by Poul Anderson (***+)
Goblin Night • (1965) • novelette by James H. Schmitz (****)
The Last Command • (1967) • short story by Keith Laumer (****)
It’s interesting that these stories did come out when I was a teen, but they were some of my least favorites in the anthology, although still a lot of fun to read. I’m surprised Flint, Drake, and Baen picked them because none of them became classics. These kinds of stories were the salt of the Earth content of the SF magazines in the 1960s, but not the stories I thought defined the generation. At the time, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard, and Ursula K. Le Guin were the bright stars in the sky.
Even though fiction being called science fiction was around in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the general public recognized it. The 1950s was a boom time for science fiction when it regularly began appearing in book form – both paperback and hardback. Plus, it became popular in the movies and in the early days of television. In 1953 there were three dozen science fiction magazine titles being published. When I grew up stories from the 1950s boom felt like they defined the genre.
I felt the most famous SF from the 1950s would be the classics all my life and into the future. However, I’ve now lived long enough to see those stories age and fade away. It sometimes hurts me to see my favorite science fiction novels and short stories being forgotten, rejected or even vilified. Thisis why it’s difficult to recommend The World Turned Upside Down to younger readers. But I feel its stories capture an era so nicely. The stories aren’t the most famous Baby Boomer science fiction stories, but then the most famous stories are often over-anthologized while so many other good stories need to be remembered. I’m guessing Drake, Flint, and Baen wanted to preserve a picture of our era taken from a different angle. Of the stories I hadn’t read before, I was very glad to be introduced to them.
I would love to review each story one by one and natter about how they each aged and guess how each appealed to their generation. But this post is already longer than what 99% of internet readers read. I know, I’m way too verbose.
How is it possible that I can rate a short story five stars out of five when it took 52 years to be anthologized for the first time? If countless editors passed it over for decades while looking for good SF stories to reprint, how can it possibly be any good? The story I’m talking about is “Thy Rocks and Rills” by Robert Ernest Gilbert. Ever heard of it? Ever heard of Gilbert? I haven’t on both counts.
The goal of that anthology was to collect the stories that got the three editors excited about science fiction when they were teens. David Drake gave “Thy Rocks and Rills” this introduction:
I can understand why Drake responded to “Thy Rocks and Rills” that way, but it wasn’t how I reacted.
I’ve owned The World Turned Upside Down for years but I’m just now getting around to reading it because the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction is discussing its stories every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
When I read “Thy Rocks and Rills” yesterday I just thought, “Wow, oh wow!” However, others in the group have not been so enthusiastic. And I can understand that.
I don’t believe fiction can be rated on absolute terms. In fact, my subjective ratings will change every time I reread a story. There are elements in “Thy Rocks and Rills” that would have made me dislike this story on other days, especially the talking bull and calves. Yeah, it has talking farm animals and mules with Appaloosa coloring. If you read the descriptions closely, the male fashions in this future are as gaudy as any Elton John or Prince wore on stage.
“Thy Rocks and Rills” is over-the-top. And it’s from 1953. But it’s also weirdly prophetic. Gilbert predicts a painfully hot future. One where toxic masculinity dominates and everyone is gun crazy. In Gilbert’s future, people are quick-tempered and ready to duel. And most women are condemned to conform to male expectations, making their bodies tiny and slender, staying in their place, and sticking to chirpy women’s talk. Although, some women are different and get into duels with men. The hero of this story is Stonecypher, and this is how Gilbert describes his wife Catriona:
The villain of the story is Dan who makes a legal proposition to Catriona that enrages Stoncypher:
Oh, but the way, the story has ornithopters. I did say it was colorful. The reason we have talking farm animals is because of mutations from radiation. Gilbert is protesting bomb testing. He’s also protesting bullfighting or any kind of arranged animal fights. “Thy Rocks and Rills” is quite woke for 1953. The world-building in this novelette is quite impressive. The basic plot involves Stonecypher getting in a dual and not knowing how to use a gun, and his talking bull wanting to go into the bullfighting ring.
The results were not what I anticipated but they were very satisfying. However, the ending is brutal, but David Drake has already warned us about that. I’m afraid most readers won’t like the ending, but I think it’s realistic. I overcame my dislike of talking animals because this story is gritty and dark, and we’re living in a gritty and dark age, but then so was 1953.
I’m quite fond of science fiction short stories from 1953, especially the grim ones:
If you know these stories, you’ll understand why I now list “Thy Rocks and Rills” among my favorites of 1953. I linked to the two that are available on Project Gutenberg. Six of them are in The Great SF Stories 15 (1953).
After reading science fiction for sixty years I’m having trouble finding new science fiction that wows me. Reading “Thy Rocks and Rills” Saturday morning gave me the kind of surprises I keep hoping to find in science fiction but seldom do anymore. “Thy Rocks and Rills” is perfect for an anthology called The World Turned Upside Down.
However, I can completely understand if it doesn’t work for you. The success of a story depends largely on what the reader brings to the story. I believe I’m just as cynical now as Gilbert was in 1953 and that made the story work for me. I was tuned into where Gilbert was coming from when he wrote it.
I was an English major in college and had read A Farewell to Arms (1929) and The Sun Also Rises (1926) and a handful of Hemingway’s short stories. Other than classroom discussion I knew little about Hemingway. I’ve read several biographies since then, and more of his fiction, but at the time I didn’t know about the central inspiration of “The Hemingway Hoax,” that Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife, had lost all his early manuscripts. At the time I thought that fascinating and probably encouraged me to go read about Hemingway.
“The Hemingway Hoax” focuses on John Baird, a Boston University professor specializing in Hemingway. Baird is a vet, wounded in Vietnam, who identifies with Hemingway’s war wounds, and eventually makes a list of all the things they share. He’s married to a much younger woman, Lena. They are vacationing in the Florida Keys, but are worried about their future. Baird’s trust fund is about to run out and they are used to living a rich lifestyle. Baird is afraid of how Lena will react to living within an academic’s salary. Then Baird meets Castle, a con man who suggests a scheme for Baird to forge a lost manuscript of Ernest Hemingway. Baird is not really interested, but think’s it is an amusing idea. Lena who married Baird for his money connives with Castle to force Baird into the caper. Along the way, Castle cons a woman named Pansy into the scheme too.
The magazine version of “The Hemingway Hoax” is a long novella, which Haldeman later expanded into a short 155-page novel. (Or did he cut it down for magazine publication?) The novella won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. See Mark R. Kelly’s blog for a comparison of the novella and novel. This long story follows three main plot threads:
The Hemingway Hoax – how to forge a Hemingway unpublished manuscript. I thought this was an A+ idea for a plot both at forty and seventy. Unfortunately, Haldeman doesn’t stick with this plot. A few years ago PBS had an episode of Secrets of the Dead that told of an effort to forge a book by Galileo. It was tremendously fascinating. Baird does do a bit of work on this plot, finding typewriters and paper Hemingway would have used and starting a couple of drafts that were interesting. The old me was quite disappointed when Haldeman didn’t finish this plot, but the younger me was more than happy when Haldeman introduced the science fiction.
The Baird Con – as a counterplot, when Lena and Castle plan to con Baird into doing something illegal it could have taken the story into noir territory. The older me loves film noir and was excited by that direction. This also could have been an A+ idea too, but it was mainly used for sex and violent scenes. When I was younger I liked sex and violent scenes, but the old me hates excessive violence, and graphic sex scenes only seem suitable for hot romance novels and porn. I could understand taking the noir route with the cheating wife, skipping the science fiction, and selling it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Better yet, I would have been even more impressed if Haldeman had skipped both the noir and the SF and gone the straight literary route like Possession by A. S. Byatt, another story about a literary mystery.
The Hemingway Demon – the story has one other character, a supernatural character that physically looks like Hemingway from different times in his life. I call it a demon because like Maxwell’s Demon, it guards the flow actualities between universes in a multiverse Haldeman calls the Omniverse. When I was young this was exciting stuff, but the old crotchety me considers multiverse plots much like time travel plots, easy to abuse. When anything can happen it spoils the story for me. I like my fictional universes to have limitations that reign in the plots. Haldeman goes wild with the universe hopping. That was fun at forty but tedious at seventy. It would have been mindblowing to me at thirteen if the story had been available for me to read in 1964.
You can’t expect a writer to write what you want. That’s completely unfair. But as a reader, every story creates anticipation. Stories are great when they fulfill that initial anticipation. In this reading, Haldeman got me excited about forging Hemingway and then didn’t complete the mission. I have to wonder if he felt compelled to add the science fiction thread because he’s a science fiction writer, and knows where to sell science fiction. I wonder if he would have even liked writing the story as mainstream fiction. When I was young I wanted everything to be science fiction, but as I’ve gotten older, my interests have widened. Not only do I not need everything to be science fiction, but when it is science fiction it needs to be reasonably realistic and down to Earth.
Getting old has done something to my reading tastes. My time in this life is dwindling, and my physical health also limits how much I can read. I now hate when stories are padded with extra scenes. I generally prefer science fiction at the short story or novelette length. Most novellas stretch out ideas too much. The older, impatient me, felt Haldeman was too ambitious with this story. What I really love is a story that has lots of realistic details, good characterization, a tight plot, and a compelling narrative style. But I want it focused. I don’t want any wasted words or scenes.
I’m afraid when reading “The Hemingway Hoax” Haldeman hooked me on the writing of a forged Hemingway manuscript and then distracted me with all the omniverse mumbo-jumbo. It allowed him to come up with a clever idea of what happened to the lost manuscripts, and it gave Haldeman a chance to write from Hemingway’s point of view as he lived his life backward. All that was interesting, but wasn’t part of the story that hooked me this time.
When I was young I found stories and novels that used real people as fictional characters to be neat and fun. But over a lifetime of reading biographies, I now see such a practice as exploitation – an easy way to get readers’ attention. Reading such books as The Paris Wife by Paula McLain produced a false idea of what Hadley and Hemingway were like. I wrote about this in my essay, “Why Did Ernest Hemingway Leave Hadley Out of The Sun Also Rises?“
In recent years, we’ve seen more and more best sellers and movie blockbusters that fictionalize historical people, and I’ve realized that I don’t like this trend. That has tainted my rereading of “The Hemingway Hoax.” I thought John Baird was a great idea for a character, a wounded vet who identified with Hemingway in so many ways, including his war wounds. And I thought a fictional character who is a Hemingway scholar trying to forge a lost Hemingway manuscript was a legitimate use of Hemingway’s name in fiction. Creating a supernatural demon that monitors the influence of Hemingway across the multiverse is a fun science fictional idea, but not really significant or meaningful to me at 70.
When we’re young any far-out idea is fun. But now that I’m old, I like my speculation within the realm of realism. “The Hemingway Hoax” is a case where the story was five stars when I was young, but only three stars when I’m old.
Silverberg and Greenberg compared their anthology to the two classic SF anthologies from 1946: The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin, and Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas. For decades, readers found those two anthologies in their libraries and were standards for introducing readers to short science fiction. They hoped The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction would cover 1946-1979 like those two classic anthologies did for science fiction before 1946.
Now that I’m regularly reading old and new science fiction short stories I’m learning how both science fiction and writing science fiction are evolving. Part of my daily routine is reading the next day’s story, and then thinking about it when I’m going to sleep at night so that in the morning I can type up a short review for the group when I start my day. Belonging to this Facebook group has been a real education, kind of a graduate course in science fiction literature. More than that, it’s been a meditation on my lifelong relationship with science fiction. I’ll try to write longer reviews for this blog for those stories that really inspire me.
I hope Silverberg and Greenberg won’t mind me reprinting their short introduction because it says so much about remembering science fiction short stories. 75 years later, the CSFSS list only recalls one story from the Conklin anthology and four from the Healy/McComas book. 42 years later, the list remembers 10 from the stories Silverberg and Greenberg picked out. But how many of those 10 will remain in another 33 years?
After finishing “Craphound,” I decided to go ahead and read “The Slynx” by Tatyana Tolstaya and “Baby Doll” by Johanna Sinisalo and finish The Big Book of Science Fiction. That gave me a real sense of accomplishment because The Big Book of Science Fiction is probably the largest book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read War and Peace. I’m guessing TBBofSF is even longer than The Bible.
I don’t have any final assessment on this anthology. It’s just too damn big to judge as a whole. I did complain about many of the stories, but on the other hand, it has a massive amount of great science fiction too. The other day it was on sale for $2.99 for the Kindle edition at Amazon, and I thought what a wonderful bargain. I wished I hadn’t owned it already so I could get in on such a deal.
“The Slynx” was a good science fiction story, about Moscow in the far future after an atomic war where people only remember “The Blast.” The story is about civilization being thrown back into the Dark Ages. People live by myths and superstitions. Mutations are common. This kind of story was very popular in the 1950s, and Wikipedia refers to them as nuclear holocaust fiction. Among my favorites are A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett. What struck me most was how Tolstaya portrayed people’s thinking in this future much like how I imagined people thinking in prehistory.
I’ve read “Baby Doll” before, but I’m not sure where. I might have read it years ago when I first bought The Big Book of Science Fiction and tried a few stories from it. At the time, I never imagined I would read it from cover to cover. “Baby Doll” is a disturbing story about the near future where the main character is an eight-year-old girl who tries to be as sexualized as possible from the clues she gets from society and her peers. It came out in 2002 and imagined a near future where grade school children would emulate the dress styles, language, and behaviors they got from watching porn and adult reality shows. I can’t help but wonder how much of that is true today? Imagine if the MTV Awards show could be sent back in time to the people in the 1950s. What would they think?
My sister recently told me she tried to get her very young granddaughter to wear something less provocative to school and the kid got upset claiming her granny was slut shaming her. I doubt “Baby Doll” could be taught in a 7th grade English class, but I sure would love to hear what the students would say about it.
So for the next several weeks, the Facebook group will be reading and discussing SF stories from the 1980s and 1990s, and 2021. If you’re interested and use Facebook drop by. I won’t be reviewing every one of these stories here, but I’ll probably write about the ones that impress me most.