What Was The Big Bang Beginning to Science Fiction?

The feeling I get when I contemplate the origins of science fiction is similar to what I felt as a kid when I asked, “Then, who created God?” And whenever I read a very old science fiction story I wonder if its science fictional ideas were original to that story, or had an even earlier writer originated those concepts? So far, it’s been like the famous Carl Sagan story, it’s turtles all the way down. Was there ever a Big Bang beginning to the science fiction universe? Go read The Book of Genesis. Isn’t the story of Noah a post-apocalyptic tale of science fiction? Don’t the stories of the Garden of Eden feel like science fictional speculations?

People and writers have always pondered the past and future in ideas that are now considered the domain of science fiction. I used to believe that science fiction couldn’t have existed before science, but then when did science begin? I’m sure flint chipping took a lot of experiments, statistics, and testing to perfect, which makes me wonder about our cave dwelling ancestors and what they imagined.

When I read an older science fiction novel now I like to imagine how the readers of its time thought about the ideas used within the story. For example, I just finished The Clockwork Man by E. V. Odle, first published in 1923. The story is about a creature that appears suddenly at a cricket match. It looks human but acts strange. During the course of the story we learn its from eight thousand years in the future and it’s something we’d call an android or cyborg today.

From my Scribd subscription I listened to the HiloBrow audiobook edition of The Clockwork Man, part of their original Radium Age of Science Fiction Series. A Summer 2020 note to the site promised to new series from MIT Press beginning in 2022, but there are several editions on Amazon now.

The intro to 2013 edition by Annalee Newitz is here. However, the novel is in the public domain and can be read at Project Gutenberg. Below is a reproduction of the original dust jacket from the 1923 American edition from Doubleday.

At first, when we are introduced to the clockwork man, I believe most modern readers will wonder if he is a robot. But as the story goes on, we realize the people of the period see him as human looking, with an odd bulge on the back of his head, which he hides with a hat and wig. Readers eventually learn that bulge is a clockwork mechanism that controls his biological processes. Not only does it give him superhuman senses, but great physical power, and even the ability to transport itself in time, space, and other dimensions.

E. V. Odle evidently believed in 8,000 years a lot can happen to the human race. The story feels like a comedy of errors at the beginning when this strange creature interrupts the cricket match, but gets more serious and philosophical as the story progresses. By the end of the tale, we have two twentieth century men arguing over whether evolution and technological progress has gone too far.

The essence of science fiction is exploring certain types philosophical questions. However, in every age the current scientific knowledge limits that exploration because the analogies and metaphors to describe the future depend on current technology. In 1923 Odle’s future man is imagined with clockwork technology. This is long before computers. L. Frank Baum imagined a similar mechanical man in Tik-Tok of Oz in 1914. The concept of robots emerged in 1921 with R.U.R., a Czech play about androids, but the idea of a mechanical being soon followed in science fiction in the 1930s. The idea of human created beings goes way back, each using the best technology of the day to imagine its creation.

Today we would consider it silly to build an AI being with clockwork technology. In the 1950s Philip K. Dick imagined robots made with vacuum tubes and tape loops, which we now groan at. Nowadays, we imagine AI beings constructed with computer silicon circuits. Fifty years from now, readers might consider using silicon circuits just as silly as clockwork or vacuum tubes. Remember, God made man with dust, and Mary Shelley had Frankenstein assembled his creature from stolen body parts. Our speculation about the future is always tied to what we know at the time. Reading The Clockwork Man made me think about what E. V. Odle had to work with in 1923.

We’re all quite familiar with all the philosophical issues surrounding robots, AI, cyborgs, and androids since science fiction has dwelled on them our entire lifetime in books, television, movies, and other art forms. But can you imagine how someone in 1923 could have contemplated the concept? Odle imagines new beings emerging from human machine combinations, which we since defined as the territory of cyborgs.

Yet, The Clockwork Man goes well beyond that. This visitor from the future finds 20th century humans rather limited, stuck in one three-dimensional dimension, whereas it can travel in time, space, and through multiple dimensions at will. It sees reality as a multiplicity of states. This is hard for us to imagine, but science fiction has often considered such possibilities.

Reading The Clockwork Man I can feel E. V. Odle struggling to imagine the potential of humanity. The story itself ranges from quaint to quixotic. During the course of the story the visitor from the future is both admired, feared, and pitied. It’s only towards the end does Odle give us a larger vision of the future, one that’s even more science fictional, closer to Stapledon than Wells.

"But must you always be like this?" he began, with a suppressed crying note in his voice. "Is there no hope for you?"

"None," said the Clockwork man, and the word was boomed out on a hollow, brassy note. "We are made, you see. For us creation is finished. We can only improve ourselves very slowly, but we shall never quite escape the body of this death. We've only ourselves to blame. The makers gave us our chance. They are beings of infinite patience and forbearance. But they saw that we were determined to go on as we were, and so they devised this means of giving us our wish. You see, Life was a Vale of Tears, and men grew tired of the long journey. The makers said that if we persevered we should come to the end and know joys earth has not seen. But we could not wait, and we lost faith. It seemed to us that if we could do away with death and disease, with change and decay, then all our troubles would be over. So they did that for us, and we've stopped the same as we were, except that time and space no longer hinder us."

I wanted to know more about the Makers. For most of the novel we thought the clockwork man was the epitome of humanity from eight thousands years in the future, but now we learn there are other beings, even greater. I must assume Odle is warning us against taking the cybernetic path, and hints that a greater spiritual one is possible.

I’m not sure 21st century humans have such fears, because we’re racing as fast as we can to invent both creatures of silicon and to evolve ourselves into posthumans. This reminds me of the ending of the film Things to Come (1936) inspired by H. G. Wells:

PASSWORTHY: “My God! Is there never to be an age of happiness? Is there never to be rest?”

CABAL: “Rest enough for the individual man. Too much of it and too soon, and we call it death. But for MAN no rest and no ending. He must go on–conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time–still he will be beginning.”

PASSWORTHY: “But we are such little creatures. Poor humanity. So fragile–so weak.”

CABAL: “Little animals, eh?”

PASSWORTHY: “Little animals.”

CABAL: “If we are no more than animals–we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more–than all the other animals do–or have done.” (He points out at the stars.) “It is that–or this? All the universe–or nothingness…. Which shall it be, Passworthy?”

The two men fade out against the starry background until only the stars remain.

The musical finale becomes dominant.

CABAL’S voice is heard repeating through the music: “Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?”

I read The Clockwork Man because of reading Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books by Mike Ashley. British science fiction feels like it’s always been more philosophical than American science fiction, which has usually focused on the adventure and action side of Sci-Fi implications. Many of the books Ashley describes from the late 19th and early 20th century are ones I haven’t read. But Ashley shows those books explored science fictional concepts I thought originated in American science fiction during the 1940s and 1950s. I was wrong. I have to wonder, were those ideas original to the British in this earlier era of science fiction? I have another book that I haven’t read by Brian Stableford, The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds: The Evolution of French Roman Scientifique that explores French science fiction in the 1800s. Was France the Big Bang beginning of science fiction? Or will I find another turtle beneath the French?

James Wallace Harris, 4/20/21

“The Colonists” by Raymond F. Jones

Raymond F. Jones has now hit two homers for me this week, with “The Colonists” flying out of the park. I was quite impressed with “The Memory of Mars” which I wrote about recently but I can’t decide if it’s a 4-star or 5-star story. I’d definitely give “The Colonists” a full 5-stars. The story is sophisticated in plot and science fictional speculation and is quite dramatic. I can’t understand why it isn’t a more famous science fiction story. Why didn’t Bleiler and Dikty or Asimov and Greenberg anthologize these stories in their best of the year annuals? Why haven’t they been anthologized is some of the big retrospective anthologies?

“The Colonists” was first published in the June 1954 issue of If. Follow the link to read it in a scan of the original magazine. Or you can read it various formats from Project Gutenberg. However, I highly recommend the excellent audio narrated version at YouTube.

I don’t want to say much about the story because I don’t want to spoil its surprises. The story examines the psychology of colonists immigrating to another world. Why would anyone give up everything on Earth to go live so far away? For a 1954 science fiction story, it considers the reality of space travel far more realistically than most of its peers.

Maybe this story impressed me because as a teenager I would have given anything to become a colonist on Mars. The idea of building a completely new society on the red planet was the most creative endeavor I could imagine for mankind. However, Jones suggests that most colonists in history were running away from something, and I have to admit that would have been true of my adolescent self.

I was also impressed with the complicated plotting in “The Colonists.” Jones does a great job, and I think this story would make an excellent film. It’s a novelette, and one hour and thirty-five minutes on audio, making it film length.

I wonder why Raymond F. Jones never made it big in the genre, or why he’s a mostly a forgotten SF writer? He gets a small write-up in Wikipedia that shows he was a prolific short story writer, but he did produce at least a dozen novels. I’m now anxious to read more of his work. I bought RAYMOND F. JONES RESURRECTED: SELECTED SCIENCE FICTION STORIES OF RAYMOND F. JONES after reading “The Memory of Mars.” (Kindle for $3.99 or paperback for $15.99)

ISFDB reveals I also need to track down two of his out-of-print collections, The Toymaker (1951), that collects stories from the 1940s, and The Non-Statistical Man (1964), that gathers stories from the 1950s. I have no idea if I’ll like those stories as much as the two I read this week.

I do remember discovering Raymond F. Jones before, back in the 1960s when I was a young teenager reading all the Heinlein and Winston Science Fiction novels marketed for juveniles. Heinlein was tops, but Jones made a very good impression. I reread Son of the Stars and The Year When Stardust Fell last year. They were both fun, but not great. They didn’t jump out at me like “The Memory of Mars” and “The Colonists” did this week. I have no understanding of my critical judgement. Did I get excited about these stories because they’re actually good, the kind of good that other readers would recognize too, or was I just in the right mood for them at this moment in my life?

James Wallace Harris, 2/6/21

Deadly Serious Science Fiction

What if we had a special streaming service that showed us television from the year 2050 so we could watch the future unfold on our HDTVs at night. Would we change the way we live in this present? Would we steer towards the news and shows we wanted to come true and away from those that frightened? And what if over time we could see the future change as we changed ourselves little by little. Wouldn’t that validate the reality of those 2050 TV shows from the future?

Hasn’t that been what we thought science fiction has been doing all along?

We avoid committing ourselves because half of us doubt any speculations about the future. What if there was no doubt? What if we knew the future for certain? Would we act decisively? I’m not sure we would. Then what’s the value of serious science fiction?

Science fiction has always encouraged us to rush towards sense-of-wonder tomorrows and run away from scary dystopias. However, most people don’t take science fiction all that seriously, and for that matter, most science fiction never tries to be serious. On the other hand, sometimes a science fiction writer cries wolf. Should we listen?

Back in 1968 John Brunner offered us the deadly serious science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar. I read it in 1969 when I was 17 and I loathed the future Brunner envisioned for 2010. I did not want to grow up to live in John Brunner’s extrapolated timeline. What he foresaw horrified me with its relentless political unrest, ecological catastrophes, but worst of all were the portrayals of constant worldwide terrorism. Brunner’s scenes of senseless violence repulsed me bitterly. I wanted exciting stories about colonizing Mars, so his future wasn’t one I wanted. By the time 2010 rolled around forty-two years later, we all realized just how brilliant John Brunner’s novel had been at speculating about things to come.

No science fiction writer claims to predict the future. No science fiction book has predicted the future. But rereading Stand on Zanzibar in 2010 was goddamn eerie.

The Ministry for the Future is Kim Stanley Robinson’s deadly serious 2020 science novel about our near future, and it reminds me so much of Zanzibar.

Both novels are hard to read on many levels even if you ignore their doom and gloom. Neither are traditionally structured fiction. Stand on Zanzibar offered a continuing narrative every fourth chapter, but between that narrative were imagined news programs, journals, bulletins, press releases, short stories, book quotes, and readings from a pop culture philosophy called The Hipcrime Vocab by one Chad C. Mulligan. Brunner coined a lot of slang to give his future a realistic flare, which required the reader to pick up the lingo as they read along. Stand on Zanzibar is 582 pages of dense reading. All this puts a strain on its page turning appeal. Nevertheless, this novel has always been the epitome of serious science fiction (at least to me). Now it has competition.

The Ministry for the Future is also hard to read because it does not read like a normal novel. I’d say about twenty percent is the ongoing storyline, while most of the 106 chapters are lessons/lectures in either monologues/soliloquies or Socratic dialogues. Robinson doesn’t try to create the barrage of future pop culture sources that Brunner did. Instead, he writes to educate his reader about the many dimensions of solving problems associated with climate change. It’s not thrilling action, but it is thought provoking. And Robinson works so hard to be optimistic. He wants us to believe we still have a chance.

Science fiction has always convinced its fans that it’s about the future, but it’s not. Science fiction is nearly always about escapism from the today, and sometimes, it gives the illusion that it’s saying something insightful about tomorrow. Every so often we get a SF writer who attempts to extrapolate today’s trends into tomorrow’s catastrophes or marvels. Brunner and Robinson are such writers. In both 1968 and 2020, Brunner and Robinson play Cassandra, warning us we’d better get our shit together because hell is on the horizon.

I want to recommend The Ministry for the Future to everyone, but I must be honest and admit it’s not a fun read. Science fiction has always had a problem with infodumping, and this book is mostly infodumps. I find them fascinating, but most readers won’t. There’s practically no story to this novel other than pondering how to change the world to avoid a climate apocalypse.

But here’s the thing. The first chapter, which is told in regular fiction style, was more effective at scaring me about climate change than anything I’ve ever read. You can read it here. I highly recommend you take the time to do so. If the entire novel had this emotional intensity maybe it would scare readers into changing their lives. Unfortunately, most of the chapters are like this one. Like in Zanzibar, we leave the plot narrative frequently. And when it does return, half the time, it’s more infodumping. The story does get more attention over time, just don’t expect it to entertain like The Expanse books or The Murderbot Diaries.

I am not trying to turn you off from buying and reading The Ministry of the Future, but I am trying to do an honest sales job. Stand on Zanzibar is extremely hard to read too, but I’ve read it twice and want to read it again. I believe both books are easier to listen to then read. Robinson’s book is read by multiple narrators. This helps make the infodumps more dramatic. And since many parts of Zanzibar is supposed to come from radio and TV audio, it’s more natural to hear them than to read them. See if your inner voice can handle this:

Don’t worry, Robinson’s prose isn’t like this, and neither is most of Brunner’s. But Brunner does make a valiant effort to simulate future dazzle. Robinson doesn’t. His work might be called a philosophical novel with lectures, maybe like Hermann Hesse. Thinking about both books I realize I have some questions about science fiction that challenge my lifelong assumptions about the genre.

First, should science fiction attempt to shape the future? Is it hubris to try? Back in the 1940s and 1950s true believers like Robert A. Heinlein wrote stories about the glories of space travel hoping they would inspire young people to grow up and build rockets that went to the Moon and Mars. Just because that happened doesn’t mean science fiction can claim it as a feather in its cap, but maybe it helped. I don’t know. But if you read memoirs by most rocket scientists you’ll find passages about growing up reading science fiction.

If in the future we do avoid climate change, will we look back and say science fiction had a hand in getting us to act sooner? There is a sub-genre emerging out of science fiction called Cli-Fi, and once you study its nature you’ll see it has a long history. But is it effective? Is Kim Stanley Robinson succeeding at inspiring his readers to aim at a different future? By the way, he’s written other Cli-Fi novels, so he’s been working at this task for a long time.

One area where Robinson does succeed is defining the problem, but you have to read The Ministry of the Future to see how he does that. Then we need to reconvene in 2050 and discuss whether or not The Ministry for the Future got us to take different paths to get to that future.

But one last confession. I’ve read thousands of science fiction stories and novels, and it has changed how I think, but I’m not sure it ever changed how I act.

James Wallace Harris, 1/23/21

The SF Anthology Problem – Audiobooks

There are so few retrospective science fiction anthologies on audio that it’s not really practical to run Szymon’s program to solve for the SF Anthology Problem. I’ve decided to do the search manually.  Basically, I printed out the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list (ordered by author) and went looking for audiobook editions — mainly at Audible.com. For stories I couldn’t find there I tried online sources such as Escape Pod, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, StarShipSofa, YouTube, LibriVox, etc.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One is the one major anthology for SF short stories on audio, with 17 of the 101 Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories. Volumes 2A and 2B are also on audio, but they only get an additional three stories between them. I hope audiobook publishers will start producing more retrospective anthologies.

Stories by the same author grouped together are in the same collection/anthology.

“The Queen of Air and Darkness” Poul Anderson 1971
YouTube

“Nightfall” – Isaac Asimov (1941)
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“The Last Question” – Isaac Asimov (1956)
Robot Dreams

“The Bicentennial Man” – Isaac Asimov (1976)
Robot Visions

“The Voices of Time” – J. G. Ballard (1960)
The Complete Short Stories

“Blood Music” – Greg Bear (1983)
Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy

“Fondly Fahrenheit” – Alfred Bester (1954)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Bears Discover Fire” – Terry Bisson (1990)
Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories

“Surface Tension” – James Blish (1952)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“There Will Come Soft Rains” – Ray Bradbury (1950)
The Martian Chronicles

“Arena” – Fredric Brown (1944)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“The Mountains of Mourning” – Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Borders of Infinity

“Speech Sounds” – Octavia E. Butler (1983)
“Bloodchild” – Octavia E. Butler (1984)
Bloodchild and Other Stories

“Who Goes There?” – John W. Campbell, Jr. (1938)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A

“Story of Your Life” – Ted Chiang (1998)
“Hell Is the Absence of God” – Ted Chiang (2001)
Stories of Your Life and Others

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” – Ted Chiang (2007)
Exhalation

“The Sentinel” – Arthur C. Clarke (1951)
“The Nine Billion Names of God” – Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One
“The Star” = Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
“A Meeting with Medusa” – Arthur C. Clarke (1971)
The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke

“Snow” – John Crowley (1985)
StarShipSofa
Lightspeed

“Great Work of Time” – John Crowley (1989)

“Or All the Seas with Oysters” – Avram Davidson (1958)
Or All the Seas with Oysters

“The Star Pit” – Samuel R. Delany (1967)
1967 radio show

“Aye, and Gomorrah …” – Samuel R. Delany (1967)

“Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” – Samuel R. Delany (1968)

“Second Variety” – Philip K. Dick (1953)
“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” – Philip K. Dick (1966)
Minority Report and Other Stories

“”Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman” – Harlan Ellison (1965)
YouTube

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” – Harlan Ellison (1967)
YouTube

“Jeffty Is Five” – Harlan Ellison (1977)
The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the 20th Century

“A Boy and His Dog” – Harlan Ellison (1969)
The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World and Other Works

“Burning Chrome” – William Gibson (1982)
Burning Chrome

“The Cold Equations” – Tom Godwin (1954)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“All You Zombies—” – Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
All You Zombies (5 stories)
Escape Pod

“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” – Kij Johnson (2011)

“Think Like a Dinosaur” – James Patrick Kelly (1995)
“Think Like a Dinosaur”

“Flowers for Algernon” – Daniel Keyes (1959)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One
Escape Pod

“The Country of the Kind” – Damon Knight (1956)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“The Little Black Bag” – C. M. Kornbluth (1950)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Beggars in Spain” – Nancy Kress (1991)

“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore (1943)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Vintage Season” – C. L. Moore (1946)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A

“The Day Before the Revolution” – Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)

“Nine Lives” – Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
The Unreal and the Real: Volume One
The Unreal and the Real: Volume Two

“Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” – Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)
“Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” – Ursula K. Le Guin (1987)
The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin

“Coming Attraction” – Fritz Leiber (1950)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“First Contact” – Murray Leinster (1945)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“A Song for Lya” – George R. R. Martin (1974)

“Sandkings” – George R. R. Martin (1979)
YouTube

“The Way of Cross and Dragon” – George R. R. Martin (1979)
Lightspeed

“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” – Vonda N. McIntyre (1973)

“That Only a Mother” – Judith Merril (1948)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Rachel in Love” – Pat Murphy (1987)
Escape Pod

“Inconstant Moon” – Larry Niven (1971)

“Day Million” – Frederik Pohl (1966)
Drabblecast

“The Lucky Strike” – Kim Stanley Robinson (1984)
The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson

“When It Changed” – Joanna Russ (1972)

“Souls” – Joanna Russ (1982)

“Light of Other Days” – Bob Shaw (1966)
YouTube

“R & R” – Lucius Shepard (1986)

“Passengers” – Robert Silverberg (1968)
Escape Pod

“Born with the Dead” – Robert Silverberg (1974)

“Sailing to Byzantium” – Robert Silverberg (1985)
“Sailing to Byzantium”

“Desertion” – Clifford D. Simak (1944)
City

“Scanners Live in Vain” Cordwainer Smith (1950)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One
“The Game of Rat and Dragon” – Cordwainer Smith (1955)
The Best of Cordwainer Smith

“Swarm” – Bruce Sterling (1982)

“Lobsters” – Charles Stross 2001

“Microcosmic God” – Theodore Sturgeon (1941)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“Thunder and Roses” – Theodore Sturgeon (1947)

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” – Theodore Sturgeon (1959)
Escape Pod

“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1972)
“The Women Men Don’t See” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1973)
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1973)
“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1976)
“The Screwfly Solution” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1977)
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

“The Only Neat Thing to Do” – James Tiptree, Jr. (1985)

“The Moon Moth” – Jack Vance (1961)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B

“Black Destroyer” – A. E. van Vogt (1939)

“Air Raid” John Varley (1977)

“Press ENTER ■” – John Varley 1984
“Press ENTER ■”

“The Persistence of Vision” John Varley (1978)
“The Persistence of Vision”

“Harrison Bergeron” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1961)
Favorite Stories of Science Fiction v. 1

“The Ugly Chickens” – Howard Waldrop (1980)
Drabblecast

“The Island” – Peter Watts (2009)
StarShipSofa

“The Things” – Peter Watts (2010)
The Very Best of the Very Best edited by Gardner Dozois
Escape Pod
Clarkesworld

“A Martian Odyssey” – Stanley G. Weinbaum (1934)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“The Star” – H. G. Wells (1897)
Short Stories – Volume One

“Fire Watch” – Connie Willis (1982)
“The Last of the Winnebagos” – Connie Willis (1988)
“At the Rialto” – Connie Willis (1989)
Escape Pod
“Even the Queen” – Connie Willis (1992)
Escape Pod
The Best of Connie Willis (all 4)

“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” – Gene Wolfe (1972)

“The Death of Doctor Island” – Gene Wolfe (1973)

“Seven American Nights” – Gene Wolfe (1978)

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – Roger Zelazny (1963)
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One

“For a Breath I Tarry” – Roger Zelazny (1966)

I hope audiobook producers see this list and get inspired to record science fiction short stories. They especially need to pay attention to Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, and Gene Wolfe, but quite a few classic science fiction writers need short story collections on audio.

James Wallace Harris, 8/13/20

“This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan

“This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan first appeared last year in the original anthology Mission Critical edited by Jonathan Strahan. I read it in The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster, which I believe was the first best-of-the-year SF anthology covering 2019 to be published in 2020. It will be reprinted again on 9/8/20 in Strahan’s new best-of-the-year anthology, The Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 1. Mission Critical was inspired by Strahan seeing The Martian at the movies, and thinking he could do a whole anthology of science-oriented problem-solving science fiction.

“This is Not the Way Home” was the opening story, and it indeed reminded me of The Martian, but more than that it reminded me of Kip Russell and Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel. Egan’s story involves a person from Earth winning a trip to the Moon and ends up racing across the lunar landscape in a struggle for survival while wearing a spacesuit with a small being nestled inside. If you know Heinlein’s story, this might be enough of a review to go read “This is Not the Way Home.”

From here on out, I’m going to leak spoilers. I don’t really like writing reviews, what I like I talking about the science fiction stories I read.

Basically, I read Egan’s story because Kaster was first out the gate with a 2019 best-of-the-year SF anthology. I don’t think many readers know about Kaster’s anthologies, but he started out doing audiobooks that I discovered on Audible.com. He did a series called The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 1-10 (2009-2018). I enjoyed them because at the time short SF on audio was not common, and I love short SF on audio. Then he started The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 1-9 (2011-2019). The audiobooks seem to have stopped, but he’s been doing Kindle best-of-the-year anthologies that include The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 1-4 (2017-2020) and The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories (2019). I’m guessing he’s zeroing in on a focus to distinguish his offerings from all the other best-of-the-year anthologists. However, seven of his fifteen stories were also anthologized by Strahan or Clarke. And interestingly this year, Strahan switched from collecting the best SF & F, to just SF. That makes me happy because I don’t really enjoy fantasy. But I digress.

I enjoyed reading “This is Not the Way Home” even though the ending annoyed me and I thought the scientific solution was wildly improbable. I have a hunger for good, old-fashioned science fiction, which is why I chase down the best-of-the-year anthologies every year, and why I’m excited about Kaster’s hard SF anthology, and that Strahan has switched to only collecting SF.

The trouble for me, is modern stories lack something, something I want to explore here, and “This is Not the Way Home” is a good case study.

Writing science fiction in the 21st-century must be hard, especially if the writer has read hundreds or even thousands of great SF short stories that came out in the 20th-century. The old stories had a sparkle that’s missing from the new stories. Egan’s tale about two tourists trapped on the Moon after the lunar base loses contact with Earth is an exciting premise. It’s even more compelling when the station’s crew grabs the only return vehicle and vamoose. Like The Martian, we have three people stranded off Earth with no way home, and no radio contact with Earth. Egan even ups the ante by having the main character, Aisha becoming pregnant. Wow, what a cliff-hanger.

I’ve read Have Space Suit–Will Travel many times, and I never get tired of reading about the technical details that face Kip and Peewee. And I loved all the details of Mark Watney growing potatoes. However, Egan didn’t quite make Aisha’s efforts as compelling. But I’m not sure if it’s Egan, or me that’s the problem. I’ve been reading science fiction for almost sixty years and maybe I’m just jaded. Just how many times can a writer make survival in space exciting?

On the other hand, I just finished The Best Science Fiction of the Year #1 edited by Terry Carr that covered stories from 1971, and I found a whole slew of them to love. Why wasn’t I too jaded to enjoy them?

I don’t mean to pick on Greg Egan or his story. Rocket Stack Rank gave it four stars and said it was stirring and exciting. I don’t want to be one of those old guys who complain that science fiction isn’t as good as it was in the old days — but maybe I am. And I know many other old guys who bellyache about new science fiction too. And don’t get me wrong, I liked “This is Not the Way Home” a whole lot better than many of the stories I read in Asimov’s and Analog.

My friend Mike claims modern SF often ignores the conventions of storytelling. He likes a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end structure, including a strong character development arc that ends with emotional insight or an epiphany. And maybe that’s what I miss too.

This story has what I call a retrograde opening. It begins way into the action, and then jumps back in time to explain what’s going on, and then picks back up where the action started. This is becoming a common plot technique — and I don’t like it. It’s generally leaves me befuddled at the beginning thinking: WTF is going on. I guess I’m a linear kind of reader when it comes to plotting.

And newer stories seem to like leaving things out. They don’t want to say something explicitly. I guess the writers want us to infer what’s happening, and that can be cool, but sometimes it leaves me puzzled or assuming false information. In this story I wondered if Aisha was on Mars at first when she glances up at Earth. And I didn’t realize Jingyi was dead or had committed suicide because of the way it was visually described. Describing what a character sees doesn’t always get interpreted correctly. When I reread the story it all made perfect sense, but not with the first reading.

But I also miss something else. I want novelty. I want some kind of new science-fictional concept or insight. Egan gives us a Skyhook but that’s too old and tired, and for me too unbelievable.

Egan sets up an intriguing problem for his story but disappoints me for two reasons. I didn’t buy the technological solution even though it might be theoretically sound — there were just too many lucky breaks lining up one after the other to be believable. But I was also disappointed we never found out why the moonbase lost contact with Earth. We’re not even positive the story has a happy ending. I wondered if it was a sketch that Egan wants to expand into a novel, but I often wonder that about many modern short SF stories. Where’s the rest is how I feel at the end of many stories today. I guess I need closure and modern storytellers prefer leaving the readers with things to ponder. Ambiguity in fiction is good in some places, but not all places. I wanted that landing like Sandra Bullock made in Gravity, and I wanted an explanation of why Earth stopped talking to its space explorers.

James Wallace Harris, 7/22/20

 

 

 

 

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny

I’ve been leading the group discussion of the stories in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg on the Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year. Tomorrow we start “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – the 26th and final story of the volume, and one of my all-time favorite science fiction stories. After that, we move on to volume 2A and 2B. We’re also just started discussing The Best Science Fiction of the Year edited by Terry Carr that came out in 1972 covering stories from 1971. (Follow the link if you want to join us.)

I feel like writing more about “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” than just a few comments on the Facebook group. What I’d really like to write is an exact explanation of why I love “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” so intensely. I’ve already written four essays that explain part of the why. A whole lot has to do with being at the right place at the right time, or maybe more precisely, growing up in a certain place and time.

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a story about Earthlings discovering Martians. Anyone who grew up reading “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, or any of the Heinlein novels featuring the Old Ones will know what I mean. Before NASA we hoped Mars would be an inhabited world, a world where humans could live without spacesuits and hang out with all the intelligent lifeforms from a myriad of inhabited planets and moons. Mars was going to be the most exotic and action-packed destination in the solar system. Mars was to Baby Boomers what Star Wars is to later generations.

After NASA Mars was toxic and lifeless, a bitterly cold planet that will always try to kill us. For a while in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when they called science fiction Scientific Romances we saw exploring space similar to the romantic adventures of the 17th and 18th centuries. What Zelazny did in 1963 with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” was to ignore science, ignore NASA, and write the kind of story about the Mars we really wanted.

I know what I’m writing is like a twelve-year-old kid morosely saying, “I sure wish that Santa Claus was real — I miss the magic.” And it’s obvious from the billion-dollar blockbuster movies we love to so much, that few of us want to grow up.

I’ve discussed “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” with younger readers and many of them don’t see the magic that I do. That has bothered me. Often they find the main character Gallinger offensive, and such an asshole that they reject the story. They know what the real Mars is like and can’t accept a silly unrealistic Mars we all wanted decades ago. Can I be so wrong about this story?

But here’s the thing, I consider “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” a model for writing great science fiction. Over the years I’ve slowly gathered a handful of stories I consider the ones to beat if I was going to write science fiction. “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” was Hugo finalist back in 1964 but I’m not sure if that would happen today.

Part of understanding why I love this story so much means learning why it is unappealing to others today, especially younger readers. And it’s not that Baby Boomers admired egotistical assholes, giving them a pass for their successes, but maybe we just accepted that assholes do exist in this world, and sometimes make for fascinating protagonists. Or maybe we liked stories where arrogance evolves into enlightenment. And, then there were the pulp fiction conventions. Zelazny writes with an admiration for the science fiction he grew up reading, and the heroes of old are different from the heroes of today. You can tell that in this opening if you’ve read enough pulp fiction.

I was busy translating one of my Madrigals Macabre into Martian on the morning I was found acceptable. The intercom had buzzed briefly, and I dropped my pencil and flipped on the toggle in a single motion. 

“Mister G,” piped Morton’s youthful contralto, “the old man says I should ‘get hold of that damned conceited rhymer’ right away, and send him to his cabin. Since there’s only one damned conceited rhymer …” 

“Let not ambition mock thy useful toil.” I cut him off. 

So, the Martians had finally made up their minds! I knocked an inch and a half of ash from a smoldering butt, and took my first drag since I had lit it. The entire month’s anticipation tried hard to crowd itself into the moment, but could not quite make it. I was frightened to walk those forty feet and hear Emory say the words I already knew he would say; and that feeling elbowed the other one into the background.

This isn’t literary writing and Gallinger isn’t a literary figure. Madrigals Macabre would be something Weird Tales would publish, something Lovecraft and Derleth would admire, and be reprinted by Arkham House. Gallinger is a pulp hero. He has a massive ego for a reason. He tells us:

I don’t remember what I had for lunch. I was nervous, but I knew instinctively that I wouldn’t muff it. My Boston publishers expected a Martian Idyll, or at least a Saint-Exupéry job on space flight. The National Science Association wanted a complete report on the Rise and Fall of the Martian Empire. 

They would both be pleased. I knew. 

That’s the reason everyone is jealous—why they hate me. I always come through, and I can come through better than anyone else.

And before that, his boss told him:

“You are undoubtedly the most antagonistic bastard I’ve ever had to work with!” he bellowed, like a belly-stung buffalo. “Why the hell don’t you act like a human being sometime and surprise everybody? I’m willing to admit you’re smart, maybe even a genius, but—oh, hell!”

Later on, this is what Gallinger says about a woman that admires him, and is a colleague:

Betty muttered the parting formalities, gave me a strange sidewise look, and was gone. She apparently had expected to stay and “assist” me. She wanted a piece of the glory, like everyone else. But I was the Schliemann at this Troy, and there would be only one name on the Association report!

I can see why modern readers are turned off, but Gallinger’s unlikability is just part of the story. Maybe what makes for a good story fifty years ago is having a protagonist who learns how to become a better person. In today’s stories, the main character is often already woken and fighting against inequality and injustice. That’s great to have such admirable characters to follow, but maybe part of storytelling is about overcoming obstacles, and often the best obstacles to explore in fiction are those within ourselves.

Ironically, I often argue the best science fiction adheres closest to science, yet here’s a story that sneers at what we know. There is so much to this story that I would criticize in a modern story, or even from another story back in the day. Evidently, telling a good story sometimes involves insulting your reader and taking chances.

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” goes on to tell a tale about a man falling in love with an alien culture, seduced into being part of their ancient prophecy. Zelazny makes Mars a place you want to visit. And I have to wonder how many people who hope to fly with Elon Musk to the red planet is expecting a Mars to be like Zelazny’s romantic world? It’s certainly why I wanted to go when I was a kid. The real Mars will be a Lovecraftian nightmare out to kill us. The Old Ones will be all the lethal aspects of Martian reality.

This essay is getting too long. It’s always impossible to write one essay that explains why I love a story. There are just too many psychological threads to follow. Partly I am defending “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” from some recent comments I read that bothered me. But I’m also trying to understand why my generation loves one kind of story and the Worldcon membership now seems to love another kind of story.

And I’m not even sure I loved “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” as much as I do now back when I first read it in the 1960s. Maybe it now represents something I’ve lost back in the 1960s that I wish I could find again. Maybe it’s not the story per se, but the love of reading such stories? Back in the sixties, I had so much hope for humanity exploring space, especially colonizing Mars. Maybe now I’m really seeing myself for what I was back then. I loved reading science fiction of a certain type, and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” epitomizes that kind of science fiction.

Maybe what I really wanted was to grow up and be like Gallinger. Isn’t that a scary thought? That what I really want is to be an asshole adventurer on an unrealistic fantasy version of Mars. That I’m that kid once again wishing Santa Claus was real.

Ultimately, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” presents Mars the way I wanted Mars to really be. This story is a triple level romance — between Gallinger and Braxa, but it’s also a romance between the reader and Mars, and between the reader and science fiction.

Like I said, this essay is getting too long, and heading into psychological territory that would take too many words to psychoanalyze.

James Wallace Harris. 6/23/20

What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown

In this short 1949 science fiction novel, Keith Winton, the editor of pulp science fiction magazine Surprising Stories is on a weekend retreat at his publisher’s estate in the Catskills. He has fallen for Betty Hadley, the editor of Romantic Stories. Keith woos her to stay, but Betty has to get back to New York City. Keith stays, first going back to his room to edit the letter column for his next issue, but then going out to sit in the garden, hoping to see an experimental rocket hit the moon with flash that can be seen from the Earth. It is 1952, but not our 1952. Instead of impacting the moon, the rocket crashes onto the Catskill estate sending Keith Winton into another universe.

I don’t want to tell you too much about this other universe — there’s too much fun to spoil. Keith’s new reality is much like ours in every way, but their concept of science fiction is quite different. What Mad Universe is a cross between a nail-biting pulp thriller and a wild satire of science fiction and its fans.

If you love pulp fiction, you should love this story, especially if you’re an aficionado of 1950s Sci-Fi, and I am in a big way. This novel has often been reprinted, yet it’s not well known. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Jim Roberts (6 hours 48 minutes). It took me a bit to get used to the style, but I could never tell if the slight oddness was Brown’s or Robert’s. In the end, it didn’t matter, the audiobook made this story even better.

The story prefigures the work of both Philip K. Dick and Robert Sheckley. And if you know what recursive science fiction is, then that’s another tipple in its favor.

If you need to know more details, there’s an extensive synopsis on Wikipedia, but it’s full of spoilers. If you want to sample the story, you can read the novella version online from the September 1948 issue of Startling Stories (it’s severely cut down). There is a $2.99 Kindle version at Amazon, but if you think you want a whole lot of Fredric Brown What Mad Universe is also available with four other of Brown’s science fiction novels in the NESFA hardback collection Martians and Madness — the other stories are Martians, Go Home (1955), The Lights in the Sky Are Stars (1953), The Mind Thing (1961) and Rogue in Space (1957).

What Mad Universe - hardback 1st edition

Martians and Madness

JWH

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I first read Brave New World in high school back in the sixties. Rereading it again in 2020 reveals that it was entirely over my teenage head. I doubt I got even 5-10% of Aldous Huxley’s satire. Although I expect high school and college students of today have both the education and pop-culture savvy to understand it better than I did, it’s really a novel to read after acquiring a lifetime of experience. When I first read Brave New World I was already mass consuming science fiction so it was competing with shiny gosh-wow sense-of-wonder science fiction. I remember liking Brave New World in places, especially the free sex and Soma, but I thought the story somewhat boring and clunky.

This time I discovered why it’s a masterpiece. Listening to Michael York’s wonderful audiobook narration also revealed innovative prose that I would have missed with my tone-deaf inner voice. I can’t recommend the audiobook edition highly enough. York also revealed places where Huxley was experimenting with quick scene cuts, maybe influenced by the recent talkies when he was writing in 1931.

There’s no reason to summarize Brave New World because Wikipedia has done a superb job. What we need to explore is why this literary science fiction story is still worth reading after 88-years, when nearly every other science fiction novel from the 1930s is almost forgotten today. Looking at the Classics of Science Fiction list shows only five books from the 1930s making our list, and all five were from England:

  • 1930 – Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
  • 1932 – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • 1935 – Odd John by Olaf Stapledon
  • 1937 – Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
  • 1938 – Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis

Of course, damn few science fiction books had hardback editions in the 1930s. Brave New World had 30 citations we considered assembling the list:

  1. 1949 – The Seventeen Basic SF Titles – Arkham Sampler
  2. 1952 – Astounding Magazine, the Twenty-Eight All-Time Best SF Books
  3. 1956 – Astounding Magazine, The Twenty-Six All-Time Best SF Books
  4. 1974 – Modern Science Fiction edited by Norman Spinrad
  5. 1976 – The World of Science Fiction by Lester Del Rey
  6. 1976 – Anatomy of Wonder, 1st Edition by Neil Barron
  7. 1977 – “A Basic Science-Fiction Library” from The Road to Science Fiction by James Gunn
  8. 1984 – The Science Fiction Source Book edited by David Wingrove
  9. 1987 – Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, 3rd Edition by Neil Barron
  10. 1994 – The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction by David Pringle
  11. 1996 – “North American College Courses in Science Fiction, Utopian Literature, and Fantasy” edited by Arthur B. Evans
  12. 2002 – Strictly Science Fiction: A Guide to Reading Interests by Diana Tixier Herald and Bonnie Kunzel
  13. 2003 – The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn
  14. 2004 – Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, 5th Edition by Neil Barron
  15. 2009 – 1000 novels everyone must read (science fiction section)
  16. 2011 – NPR Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books
  17. 2011 – Internet Top 100 SF/Fantasy List
  18. 2012 – Locus Poll Best 20th Century Science Fiction Novels
  19. 2012 – AbeBooks: 50 Essential Science Fiction Books
  20. 2016 – Radium Age Sci-Fi: 100 Best Novels of 1904-1933 by Josh Glenn
  21. 2016 – Goodreads Best Science Fiction 100
  22. 2016 – Ranker: The Greatest Science Fiction Novels of All Time
  23. 2016 – Amazon: 100 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime
  24. 2016 – Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction: A Basic Science Fiction Library
  25. 2016 – Goodreads Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 200
  26. 2016 – Best-Sci-Fi-Books: 31 Best Literary Science Fiction Books
  27. 2016 – Sci-Fi Lists Top 200 – the novel
  28. 2019 – Worlds Without End: Most Read Books of All-Time
  29. 2019 – The Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time – Penguin Random House
  30. 2019 – 100 Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time – Reedsydiscovery

Brave New World is also considered among the top literary novels of the 20th-century. The Greatest Books site calculates it’s the 67th greatest book of all-time from using these lists:

  1. 5th on The Modern Library | 100 Best Novels (Modern Library)
  2. – 15th on Waterstone’s Books of the Century (LibraryThing)
  3. – 16th on Radcliffe’s 100 Best Novels (Radcliffe Publishing Course)
  4. – 21st on Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century (Le Monde)
  5. – 24th on Koen Book Distributors Top 100 Books of the Past Century (themodernnovel.com)
  6. – 31st on 50 Books to Read Before You Die (Complex)
  7. – 32nd on 100 Essential Books (Bravo! Magazine)
  8. – 44th on 20th Century’s Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction (Larry McCaffery)
  9. – 53rd on The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time: The List (The Observer)
  10. – The 100 Best Books in the World (AbeBooks.de (in German))
  11. – 100 Best Novels Written in English (The Guardian)
  12. – 50 Books to Read Before You Die (Barnes and Noble)
  13. – The College Board: 101 Great Books Recommended for College-Bound Readers (http://www.uhlibrary.net/pdf/college_board_recommended_books.pdf)
  14. – 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (The Book)
  15. – 100 Novels That Shaped Our World (BBC)
  16. – The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century (New York Public Library)
  17. – 110 Best Books: The Perfect Library (The Telegraph)
  18. – The New Lifetime Reading Plan (The New Lifetime Reading Plan)
  19. – The Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics (Book)
  20. – From Zero to Well-Read in 100 Books (Jeff O’Neal at Bookriot.com)
  21. – The Graphic Canon (Book)
  22. – 50 Books That Changed the World (Open Education Database)
  23. – The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written (Easton Press)
  24. – Select 100 (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

Okay, so it’s made it to a lot of best-books lists, why is it great? Brave New World is still very readable, very relevant, and a classic example of a dystopian (anti-utopian) novel. But it’s tricky. Where Nineteen Eighty-Four is about a world where people are cruelly treated by the government, in Huxley’s story the government tries to do everything possible to make people happy.

Brave New World is about three men who aren’t happy, Benard Marx, Helmholtz Watson, and John, also called “the Savage.” They should be happy because what they want is offered, they just won’t accept it. In the World State of 2540AD (632AF – after Ford) everyone is either given what they want or conditioned to want what they have. Huxley takes the free love movement of the early 20th-century and has people conditioned from birth to have lots of sex without feeling guilty or the need to be possessive. Every class is eugenically conditioned to like their job. Any kind of unhappiness, anxiety, or depression is quickly fixed. Regular participation in orgies and encounter groups is expected for normal mental health. And a recreational drug with no side-effects is socially acceptable and encouraged. Each class is rewarded with all kinds of stimulating activities and vacations. Work hours are short but long enough to give people purpose, and free time is generous.

In other words, it’s easy to be deceived while reading this book. It’s like in The Matrix when you have the choice between the blue and red pill. The steak tastes just as juicy and delicious in the delusional reality, so why not take the blue pill?

The ending of the novel is horrifyingly tragic but I’m guessing most readers will think that wouldn’t happen to them. But here’s the kicker, it should. Huxley felt we were all being seduced by the technological world and scientific success. In the late 1950s, he wrote Brave New World Revisited where he said the future he feared was arriving much quicker than he expected. I can only imagine his reaction to 2020.

Aldous Huxley and Brave New World are hard to decode. If Huxley was defending traditional values he certainly didn’t live them. Regarding sex and drugs, he lived like his characters in Brave New World. The World State in this story has solved all the political problems we face today, so it’s weird to read it as a dystopia. And Mustapha Mond sounds like a wise and compassionate leader. We have to worry that Brave New World is a Siren’s call.

I remember thinking when I first read this book as a teenager that it was too clinical and antiseptic. Babies were born in bottles, and everyone wore matching clothes to identify their class. And people learned pop jingles that taught them social values. It was scary to think everyone was brainwashed to be happy. But the actual story is much more subtle and sophisticated.

The $64,000 question is why is this old science fiction novel so successful, respected, and remembered when the 1930s science fiction of Edmond Hamilton, “Doc” Smith, John W. Campbell, Jack Williamson faded away? Their space operas spoke to a very tiny readership. Huxley’s book is about universal human problems, the same problems we face today. When I was young space fantasies were important to me, but they mean little today. Now I worry about climate change and Donald Trump and try to imagine a government that will save us from conservative selfishness. How we live, and how we’re governed will always be a universal interest to readers.

Reading Brave New World, or any of the books considered the Top 100 Books of All Time should be of special interest to would-be writers. What percentage of the population does your story speak to?

James Wallace Harris, 1/10/2020

 

 

New Appreciation for Isaac Asimov

I just finished Robot Dreams by Isaac Asimov. I first thought this would be another repackaging of his robot stories, but it was really another best of Isaac Asimov volume, including many of his most famous short stories except “Nightfall.” I’ve always thought of Asimov as an entertaining but mediocre writer. While listening to Robot Dreams, I realized my impression of Asimov came mostly from I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy, stories he wrote when he was very young in the 1940s, and I read as a teenager in the 1960s. After reading a handful of his books back then I mostly ignored Asimov except for his nonfiction, which I liked a lot.

Several years ago I reread The Naked Sun and really admired it. I had read it and The Caves of Steel in the SFBC edition of The Rest of the Robots and hadn’t particularly liked them. I’m not a fan of mysteries. But when I reread The Naked Sun I really got into it, not for the murder mystery, but for the tale of agoraphobia, something I could relate to in my old age. Now that I just finished a huge book of short stories and novelettes I realize I was wrong about Asimov being a bad writer. Several of these stories showed a good deal of storytelling finesse.

It was George Guidall, the narrator of the audiobook edition of Robot Dreams that really helped me see Asimov in a new light. I always felt Asimov was an idea writer who avoided writing emotional scenes, but Guidall’s reading revealed the feelings in these tales. I thought Asimov was a tone-deaf stylist, but Guidall showed me Asimov did have a sense of drama (sometimes). I now have to assume that Asimov was not a bad writer, but I was a bad reader. That’s not to say Asimov didn’t write a lot of forgettable science fiction. Logic tells us, not all of Asimov’s zillions of short stories are gems.

I still believe Isaac Asimov will never be considered a literary writer except that I came across “My Five Star Books.” It’s a long list of books from a lifetime of reading by a very serious reader. The Foundation Trilogy is on it. And it’s not a list of SF books. The list feels like a list of books that Harold Bloom would recommend, most of them were once part of Great Books collections. I guess I really need to reread the trilogy.

The Foundation Trilogy Everymans LibraryThen last year when PBS had it’s Great American Read The Foundation Trilogy was one of the few science fiction books that America voted in. It came in at #49 of the top 100 books. Even for a popular vote, not many genre science fiction titles made the list. Dune was #35. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was #39.

The Foundation Trilogy has even gotten an Everyman’s Library edition. But it’s kind of expensive at Amazon. Barnes and Nobel also have a similar priced deluxe hardback version. Amazon does have a Kindle edition of the trilogy on sale for $4.95 right now.

One problem with Asimov was he was so damn prolific. He wrote hundreds of books and hundreds of short stories, and I imagine thousands of essays. It’s very hard to pick out his best work, or even read through all his work to find the best. Actually, it’s painful to just read his bibliography.

Yesterday I was discussing with my online friend Piet about which books were Asimov’s best. What would we recommend to new readers? We came up with the idea of the minimum set of books needed to showcase Asimov’s work. What’s the smallest number of volumes needed to convey Asimov’s best work.

Another problem with recommending Asimov is I doubt young readers will like a lot of his stories because they feel too old fashioned. Which novels and stories do you think have lasting value that resonates with the youngest generations? Leave a comment.

The first book we both recommend is a one-volume edition of The Foundation Trilogy. That used to be one of the main enticements to the old Science Fiction Book Club. I reread the first book, Foundation a few years ago and was very disappointed. After discovering so much positive press I want to give the trilogy another chance. However, the Foundation series is huge. I assume only Asimov’s most fanatical fans will read all of it.

After the trilogy, Piet recommended The Complete Robot next. It’s a one-volume of all the robot short stories but lacks the two classic robot novels. I’m reading through that volume now. I wished I had an audio edition, but no such luck. I’m not so sure I’d recommend it to new readers anyhow because it’s a very large collection with too many stories that aren’t Asimov’s best. However, it is considered the first book to read if you want to read the entire merged Robot/Foundation series.

But I’m thinking more about a volume to give people that would convince readers that Asimov was a better writer than his reputation suggests. Being prolific is a significant distinction, but not one when it comes to quality. Asimov had many collections of short stories, several labeled his best, but none were the right mix of stories, and often they were Costco pallets of stories that would overwhelm new readers

Our CSFquery list-builder tells me Asimov had 54 stories from all our citation sources. Only three made it to our Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list: “Nightfall,” “The Bicentennial Man” and “The Last Question.” One of my favorites, “The Ugly Little Boy” was popular with fans being on the 1999 Locus All-Time Poll, 2012 Locus All Centuries Poll, ISFDB Most Viewed Short Stories, and Sci-Fi List Top 200 Stories. Other popular stories were “Reason,” “Robbie,” and “Liar!” his famous older robot stories, as well as “Robot Dreams” a newer robot story and his most remembered space story, “The Martian Way.”

Readers would get most of Asimov’s most admired stories if they bought Robot Dreams and Robot Visions. Links are to Wikipedia that has lists of their contents and links to essays about each short story. They are available as ebooks and audiobooks. They have more stories than most readers need, but they contain almost all of Asimov’s best stories except “Nightfall.”

I’ve read that Asimov considered “The Last Question” his best story, and “The Ugly Little Boy” his second and third best story. “The Last Question” is a total idea story, and even though it’s far out, it doesn’t have much heart. “Nightfall” is Asimov’s most famous story but I’ve read it so many times I can’t judge it anymore. Again, it’s an idea story. I’d pick “The Ugly Little Boy” as Asimov’s top story. It does have emotional impact, almost too much.

The reason why I admire “The Ugly Little Boy” so much is how brilliantly Asimov sets up the ending. I could feel it coming from his careful groundwork and he cut us off perfectly leaving readers with a great deal to ponder. I think Asimov’s best stories were the ones where he put his characters through much suffering, even to the point of being cruel or evil. Timmie and Edith’s fate is particularly horrific.

I also thought “Lest We Remember” had an emotional wallop too. In it John Heath, an average guy is given a drug that improves his memory and he becomes exceptional. Susan Collins his fiancée who was smarter than John doesn’t like the new John, and neither does John’s co-workers and employers. The story has some nice dramatic twists I didn’t expect from Asimov.

I believe it is when Asimov plots a dramatic story with emotional realism that I feel he’s a much better writer. And some of these stories prove he has that skill. That’s why I like his story “Hostess” about an alien invasion with a horrifying twist. These three stories have strong women characters. In the early days of his career, Asimov was known for leaving women out of his stories. When Asimov was a teen he even wrote fan letters to Astounding advocating a no girls allowed policy in science fiction. (See Partners in Wonder by Eric Leif Davin as the source of this juicy bit of info.) So it’s ironic that the mature Asimov discovered feminine empowerment.

Asimov did create Susan Calvin for his robot stories, and she was a fascinating character, but I was shocked by Susan Calvin in “Robot Dreams” where she’s “Cold Equations” murderous.

Rereading Asimov’s short stories make me think about his literary legacy. I feel The Foundation Trilogy will last a while longer, but I don’t know about Asimov’s short stories. For a man who wrote almost 500 books, I’m finding it very hard to pick which works that will have lasting power. I haven’t read The Gods Themselves, so I can’t say anything about it yet, but it’s probably Asimov’s most popular standalone novel.

I know several people that admire the Foundation stories a great deal, plus I’ve been reading a lot about it in recent months. I figure I need to really give The Foundation Trilogy another chance and read it carefully. I believe after I read Robot Visions I’ll be finished with Asimov’s stories. I will have read maybe three dozen out of more than 200. I don’t think I’ll need to be a completest.

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James Wallace Harris, 12/3/19

 

Why Isn’t There An Audiobook Of The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov?

Asimovs Robots

It all started when I saw an ad for The Prelude to Foundation on sale for the Kindle. I had read the Foundation trilogy back when I was a kid and I wondered if I read the Foundation series now should I read them in publication order or internal chronological order. I did some research and found these recommendations. Then a guy in my book club recommended a variation of those recommendations which included books not written by Asimov:

  1. The Complete Robot (no audiobook)
  2. Caves of Steel
  3. Naked Sun
  4. Robots of Dawn
  5. Robots and Empire
  6. The Stars, Like Dust
  7. Currents of Space
  8. Pebble in the Sky
  9. Prelude to Foundation
  10. Forward the Foundation
  11. Foundation’s Fear by Gregory Benford (no audiobook)
  12. Foundation and Chaos by Greg Bear (no audiobook)
  13. Foundation’s Triumph by David Brin (no audiobook)
  14. Foundation
  15. Foundation and Empire
  16. Second Foundation
  17. Foundation’s Edge
  18. Foundation and Earth

I love to listen to science fiction, so I was disappointed that the first book wasn’t on audio. However, there are three audiobooks available of Asimov’s short stories, I, Robot, Robot Dreams, and Robot Visions. I’m still going to have to read twelve short stories and the essays out of The Complete Robot, but it’s nice to know I can listen to 18 of them. Plus, Robot Dreams (1986) and Robot Visions (1990) have a handful of robot stories not in The Complete Robot (1982). Robot Dreams and Robot Visions have misleading titles. You’d think they’d be two collections all about robots, but they’re really collections of some of Asimov’s more popular stories and essays that feature a handful of robot stories.

The stories in The Complete Robot In the Audiobook
“A Boy’s Best Friend” (1975)
“Sally” (1953) Robot Dreams
“Someday” (1956) Robot Visions
“Point of View” (1975)
“Think!” (1977) Robot Visions
“True Love” (1977) Robot Dreams
“Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” (1942)
“Victory Unintentional” (1942)
“Stranger in Paradise” (1974)
“Light Verse” (1973)
“Segregationist” (1967) Robot Visions
“Robbie” (1940) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Let’s Get Together” (1957)
“Mirror Image” (1972) Robot Visions
“The Tercentenary Incident” (1976)
“First Law” (1956)
“Runaround” (1942) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Reason” (1941) I, Robot
“Catch that Rabbit” (1944) I, Robot
“Liar!” (1941) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Satisfaction Guaranteed” (1951)
“Lenny” (1958) Robot Visions
“Galley Slave” (1957) Robot Visions
“Little Lost Robot” (1947) I, Robot, Robot Dreams
“Risk” (1955)
“Escape!” (1945) I, Robot
“Evidence” (1946) I, Robot
“The Evitable Conflict” (1950) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Feminine Intuition” (1969) Robot Visions
“—That Thou Art Mindful of Him!” (1974)
“The Bicentennial Man” (1976) Robot Visions

According to Wikipedia, these six robot stories were not in The Complete Robot:

  • “Robot Dreams” (found in Robot Dreams)
  • “Robot Visions” (found in Robot Visions)
  • “Too Bad!” (found in Robot Visions)
  • “Christmas Without Rodney” (found in Robot Visions)
  • “Cal” (found in Gold)
  • “Kid Brother” (found in Gold)

What has started as an idle whim thinking about reading Foundation series, has turned into a project to read all the Robot series. I really wish I could get The Complete Robot with all the stories and essays in an audiobook. Who makes the decisions about which older books get put on audio — do they have a suggestion box? Evidently, short story collections aren’t big sellers. I’ve been hoping for years to see the shorter works of Samuel R. Delany, but no luck so far. If I think about it, I can rattle off a whole list of SF authors whose short stories I’d like to listen to. The first three to come to mind are William Tenn, Zenna Henderson, and Robert F. Young.

It’s rather fascinating that Isaac Asimov’s science fiction career focuses so much on these two series. I’ve always thought space travel, aliens, and robots were the core of science fiction, so it’s odd that Asimov pretty much ignores aliens, although not completely. He said he did this earlier in his career so as not to conflict with John W. Campbell’s editorial belief in human superiority. And this is especially ironic since Asimov was a professor of biochemistry and probably could have produced some great hard science fiction about alien lifeforms.

My gut tells me the new Anthropocene will quickly be supplanted by an age of robots. I’d bet sometimes before the end of this century we will have self-aware robots that are much smarter than us. For many years Asimov’s stories about robots dominated the sub-genre. So I think it’s a good time to read and think about them. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing Asimov will be completely wrong in his speculations about intelligent machines. Asimov is famous for formulating his Three Laws of Robotics, but I doubt we will ever be able to implement them into sentient AI. The three laws made a great structure for fiction though.

Asimov along with Patricia S. Warrick and Martin H. Greenberg also edited Machines That Think: The Best Science Fiction Stories About Robots & Computers. I wish that anthology was also on audiobook, but alas such classic anthologies seldom get produced with professional narration.

Asimov - Machines That Think

It’s odd. I opened my email this morning, found an ad for The Prelude to Foundation, and by the end of the day, have been sidetracked into a reading plan that might take a year to finish.

By the way, there’s a new edition of The Complete Robot that came out in 2018. Unfortunately, it’s only available in paper, no ebook or audio.

The Complete Robot (2018)

Asimov’s Robot Stories in order of publication:

  1. (1940) “Robbie”
  2. (1941) “Liar!”
  3. (1941) “Reason”
  4. (1942) “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray”
  5. (1942) “Runaround”
  6. (1942) “Victory Unintentional”
  7. (1944) “Catch That Rabbit!”
  8. (1945) “Escape!”
  9. (1946) “Evidence”
  10. (1947) “Little Lost Robot”
  11. (1950) “The Evitable Conflict”
  12. (1951) “Satisfaction Guaranteed”
  13. (1953) “Sally”
  14. (1954) The Caves of Steel
  15. (1955) “Risk”
  16. (1956) “First Law”
  17. (1956) “Someday”
  18. (1957) “Galley Slave”
  19. (1957) “Let’s Get Together”
  20. (1957) The Naked Sun
  21. (1958) “Lenny”
  22. (1967) “Segregationist”
  23. (1969) “Feminine Intuition”
  24. (1972) “Mirror Image”
  25. (1973) “Light Verse”
  26. (1974) “Stranger in Paradise”
  27. (1974) “. . . That Thou Art Mindful of Him”
  28. (1975) “A Boy’s Best Friend”
  29. (1975) “Point of View”
  30. (1976) “The Bicentennial Man”
  31. (1976) “The Tercentenary Incident”
  32. (1977) “Think!”
  33. (1977) “True Love”
  34. (1983) The Robots of Dawn
  35. (1985) Robots and Empire
  36. (1986) “Robot Dreams”
  37. (1988) “Christmas Without Rodney”
  38. (1989) “Too Bad!”
  39. (1990) “Kid Brother”
  40. (1990) “Robot Visions”
  41. (1991) “Cal”

This shows Isaac Asimov never stopped thinking about robots. Asimov died in 1992.

James Wallace Harris