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.

Useful Links:

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

The Best Science Fiction of the Year Anthologies

 

Best Science Fiction of the Year

Just how many great science fiction short stories are published every year? So far there are eight best-of-the-year volumes you can buy or order right now at Amazon, with the possibility of four more that had volumes last year.

At Amazon (some due soon):

  1. The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 4 – Neil Clarke
  2. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Thirteen – Jonathan Strahan
  3. The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 – Rich Horton
  4. The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019 – John Joseph Adams
  5. The Year’s Top AI and Robot Stories – Allan Kaster
  6. Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF 5 – David Afsharirad
  7. Nebula Awards Showcase 2019 – Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  8. Best of British Science Fiction 2018 – Donna Scott

Had volumes last year that might show up:

  1. The Long List Anthology: Volume 4 – David Steffen
  2. The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 10 – Allan Kaster
  3. The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 8 – Allan Kaster
  4. Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction – Steve Berman

Every year I hope all the best-of-the-year volumes will show up on audio. So far this year, only the Jonathan Strahan anthology is available as an audiobook. I love listening to short fiction read by a professional reader, so this is a disappointing year. In the years past the Allan Kaster anthologies were available at Audible.com, but not so far this year. I hope that changes. I was most anxious to hear The Year’s Top AI & Robot Stories.

Eight, and maybe twelve anthologies provide a lot of stories to read, but there is overlap in these anthologies which I’m tracking in a spreadsheet. My list isn’t completely up-to-date but currently has 92 stories.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

“The Saliva Tree” by Brian W. Aldiss

F&SF 1968-09

I wished F&SF had interior illustrations. This September 1965 cover for “The Saliva Tree” does not convey the story at all, other than abstract eerieness. Yet, it deserves a bunch of distinctive black-and-white illos. Of course, the monster in this story is invisible, and thus hard to illustrate. “The Saliva Tree” should have inspired a cover painting of Victorians set against the background of a bucolic English farm expressing fear over bizarre changes in plants and farm animals.

“The Saliva Tree” is Aldiss paying homage to H. G. Wells, but the story would have been a delight to readers of Weird Tales in the 1920s. It contains a horror from space. Aldiss won a Nebula award for “The Saliva Tree” and he deserved it. Sadly, finding this story will be difficult. It’s been reprinted often, but not in any famous anthologies you might have on your bookshelf. Maybe a good reason to order a used copy of the rare volume three of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. There’s a Kindle edition of The Saliva Tree; and Other Strange Growths. And it’s also available in audio at Audible.com as The Best SF Stories of Brian W. Aldiss. I listened to it two days ago, but I’m already enjoying a rereading in print. For stories I really love, I want to read with both my eyes and ears.

Gregory Rolles, a young man in his early twenties belongs to a class where he doesn’t work. He busies himself by writing letters to famous people and journals. He wants to write a book, The Socialist Naturalist. Gregory is a modern 19th-century man of science, a dreamer of utopias, one who hopes to join the ranks of the experienced advocates of free love. His hero is H. G. Wells. Gregory admires a local farmer Joseph Grendon for installing an electric generator on his farm. Gregory regularly visits the farm to learn about electricity with the father but falls in love with the farmer’s daughter, Nancy.

The story begins when Gregory and his friend Bruce Fox seeing a meteor streak across the sky looking like it might have landed somewhere out of town (Cottersall, East Anglia), maybe on Grendon’s farm. The next day Gregory goes to visit.

The Saliva Tree ebook coverFrom there the story leisurely unfolds. What makes Aldiss’ tale so delightful is he knows the Victorians didn’t comprehend the concepts of science fiction we do. Spaceships, UFOs, and alien invaders weren’t part of their consciousness, and they didn’t have the language to either describe their fantastic experiences or even the concepts to analyze. It takes the characters in this story a very long time to theorize why unnatural events are happening in their dull as dirt lives. They keep wanting to explain the unknown in terms they do know, thus unseeing what should be seen.

Another reason why this story is so much fun to read is Aldiss uses a lot of ideas from early H. G. Wells stories and novels. “The Saliva Tree” is logical, realistic, mundane, yet twisted by a Victorian kind of fantastic.

To me, the reason why “The Saliva Tree” is such a pleasant diversion is that Aldiss focuses on his characters and not the science fiction. Pay attention when you read science fiction. What percentage of the wordage goes into the science fiction world-building and what percentage describe ordinary human experiences? Stories, where most of the words are about people, tend to be more engaging. There’s enough going on in this story that it could have left out the monster from space and still had plenty of plot to be a page-turner. Gregory slowly realizes he wants Nancy but encounters stiff resistance from a farmhand rival. And he’s baffled by the Grendon family considering him useless. They can’t comprehend how Gregory could become a good husband or son-in-law since he doesn’t work. Nancy sees him as a rich layabout and isn’t even attracted to his wealth. Gregory’s scientific ideas about progress only annoy Mr. Grendon’s practicality and independence.

The alien menace reminds me more of H. P. Lovecraft than H. G. Wells. Aldiss takes a very long time to fully reveal the monster which slowly alters the whole natural foundation of the Grendon farm. I don’t want to say too much, because this is a story you should let unfold without too much preconception.

Yet, I have to wonder what makes this retro-SF story so entertaining? Maybe this 1965 tale anticipates the charm of steampunk. When I was growing up we reviled the Victorians for being narrow-minded, but over the decades more and more people have become Anglophiles because of Masterpiece Theater. We now see Victorians as trailblazers for the 20th-century. Besides, most of us only understand science in a mechanical pre-Einsteinian way. “The Saliva Tree” has a gross-out monster that’s different, which is what made the film Tremors so much fun. Plus the story is self-referential to science fiction. I believe most science fiction fans love a good recursive SF story, I know I do. Like I said, I’m already rereading this story.

James Wallace Harris

 

Who Were the Korlevalulaw?

Brian W. Aldiss

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this essay. I sat down to review the short story “Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss. I thought I’d check Google before I started to see if I could find any history about the story. The first item returned was ‘“Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss‘ – a review of the story I had written back in 2009. I know my memory is deteriorating, but I found it hilarious that I had completely forgotten something I had written and I was about to write the very same thing then years later. I wish I had finished writing this new review before discovering my old review so I could have compared the two. I know I should be depressed over the existential holes in my memory, but nowadays, I just laugh at myself. I’m going to worry when I stop laughing.

Reading that forgotten review from a decade ago shows I damned the story with faint praise and use it for a jumping-off point to discuss the nature of science fiction. I will quote parts of it in this review. I liked “Appearance of Life” much better this time around. Most stories do get better with rereading. I’ve also learned since 2009, that the more I read works by a single author, the more I can map their range of abilities and interests. Back in the 1960s, Aldiss was among the Big Three of British SF writers: Aldiss, Ballard, and Clarke. His legacy has been fading in recent decades — but then so has most of the science fiction writers I grew up reading. I know I’ve pretty much forgotten about Aldiss since the end of the 1970s.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been gorging myself on science fiction short stories. I haven’t completely logged my 10,000 hours yet, but I’ve acquired a decent sense of the art form. Every SF short story must stand on its own, but it also competes with all other science fiction short stories. Science fiction by its nature is in conversation with itself. Science fiction is about ideas. The challenge to a creative SF writer is to come up with fresh insights to old ideas, and if they want to be cutting-edge, add a new idea to the genre’s repertoire.

Science fiction wants to be infinite in novelty but is often repetitious in routine, improvising on old melodies. Long term readers who have consumed a critical mass of science fiction will understand the genre recycles all the great concepts for each generation of young readers. Neophyte fans often feel they are experiencing a mind-blowing concept for the first time when reading current SF. They believe those ideas are new to them and original with the author they are reading. They can’t tell if the presentation is a brilliant revision or a tired retread. Nor do new SF readers understand that science fiction has evolved over time and gone through many revolutions in writing styles. It isn’t easy to spot the changing prose styles in science fiction as it is flipping through art history textbooks.

I’ve only read four novels by Aldiss, but only vaguely remember two, Hothouse and Non-Stop which I’ve read twice each. (Called The Long Afternoon of Earth and Starship when I read them in their first American editions back in the 1960s.) Over the decades I’ve only read a scattering of his short stories. I’m currently listening to The Best SF Stories by Brian W. Aldiss from Audible.com.

What got me interested in Aldiss again was Joachim Boaz’s review of The 1977 Annual World’s Best Science edited by Donald Wollheim. It contains “Appearance of Life” which Boaz rated 5/5 (Near Masterpiece). How could I resist that? Boaz said of the story, “It is powerful and mysterious. Aldiss at the height of his powers.”

Here is my original description of the story:

“Appearance of Life” can be found in these anthologies, but it’s not a very famous story.  I’m reading it because it’s the opening story from The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF edited by Donald A. Wollheim, a collection we’re reading in the Classic SciFi reading group.

The story opens with two sentences that sum up the story, “Something very large, something very small: a galactic museum, a dead love affair.  They came together under my gaze.”  The story immediately evokes the awe associated with tales about mysterious missing aliens who leave galactic ghost worlds behind, like the Krell that once lived on Altair IV in the film Forbidden Planet, or the strange civilization that once existed on Bronson Beta, from the novel After Worlds Collide. These were my first encounters with the sense of wonder brought on by discovering long dead alien cultures back in the 1960s, but it’s a very common cliché in science fiction that I see over and over again.  It’s odd what Aldiss does with this common idea.  His aliens are called the Korlevalulaw, a tongue-twisting name to say or think.

One cool idea in the story is the Korlevalulaw abandoned written writing, which is something our culture is doing now because of the Internet.  What will aliens discovering our civilization ever make of keyboards and LCD monitors?  Reading this short story also makes me wonder what if anything could be made of my life from the possessions I’ll leave behind.  Think about it.  Photographs tell more than anything else.  How long will this blog endure?

On the planet Norma, humans find a vast building that girdles the planet for sixteen thousand kilometers.  Humans have decided to use this alien construct that is impervious to the electro-magnetic spectrum as a museum to house the history of mankind.  Androids tirelessly store humanity’s artifacts, supervised by twenty human female staff members.  The narrator is a “Seeker” who gets to prowl the collection and develop theories.  The entire structure was left empty by the Korlevalulaw, and after ten centuries humans have filled several thousand hectares of space.

Seekers are specially trained people to intuit understanding from scant evidence, perfect for studying the junk left in this vast Smithsonian like attic a thousand light years away from Earth.  At the current rate it will take 15,500 years to fill the alien structure.  To the Seeker, the human artifacts are almost as alien to him as the Korlevalulaw is to us, because humans have been around for so long that they no longer look like 20th century people.  That’s a nice science fiction speculative concept to come up with, to be a far future anthropologist, and it’s not an uncommon idea.  H. G. Wells’ Time Traveler spent time in a far future human museum trying to figure out that changes that people experienced over 802 millennia.  So far, Aldiss hasn’t presented us with anything new in this story, yet.

The Seeker explores a spaceship from the time when humans were split 50-50 by gender and discovers a wedding ring.  In the Seeker’s time, gender population is 10 to 1 in favor of females.  We readers don’t know why, but it’s an interesting thing for Aldiss to throw out.  Eventually the Seeker discovers two cubes, from different spaceships, that were holographic recording devices.  By unbelievable luck, they are from a married couple that recorded messages to each other fifteen years apart, and were design to only respond to the face of their beloved, so the Seeker sets them together and lets the holograms chat out a long dead love affair in an out of sequence conversation of regret and love that is sixty-five thousand years old.

Jean and Chris’ love story takes a couple of pages to play out, but ultimately it seems completely mundane to me, even though they were separated by interstellar war.  I’m surprise Aldiss didn’t invent something new to add to marriage and love.

Now we come to the intent of the story, called the “secret of the universe” by the Seeker in his epiphany, “Like the images I had observed, the galactic human race was merely a projection.  The Korlevalulaw had created us – not as a genuine creation with free will, but as some sort of a reproduction.”  Then the Seeker decides his flash of intuition is nonsense, but we know that isn’t true by his final actions.

In the end the Seeker flees the world Norma to desperately seek out an isolated world to hide away from humanity, fearing that if he communicated his secret it would doom mankind.  And this is why I’m writing this review.  What is Aldiss really implying?  I think he’s saying something philosophical that’s more than making up a spooky SciFi story ending.  I feel Aldiss wants his story to be disturbing like those Mark Twain stories written in his collection Letters from the Earth, which featured Philip K. Dick paranoia about existence.

Experience SF readers will have read many stories about our species exploring the galaxy. Galactic empires are an over-explored territory. When considering intelligent life in the galaxy stories tend to fall into three camps: humans are the only intelligent beings (Foundation series by Asimov), intelligent beings show up infrequently (“Appearance of Life”) and the galaxy is teaming with life (Star Wars, Star Trek). One of the common assumptions of the infrequent model is intelligent beings evolve, spread through the galaxy, and then die out or evolve into a higher nonmaterial existence leaving the galaxy unoccupied again. Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey both take the evolution to a higher plane of existence route.

The stories of alien archaeology where humans only find the material remains of a vast civilization of disappeared inhabitants is one of my favorite themes. Often in these stories, the mystery is to solve why the ancient aliens disappeared. Characters usually feel that will lead to either of three outcomes. First, such as the works of Olaf Stapledon, show humans an evolutionary/spiritual purpose to follow. Second, they feel it’s some kind of test, a rite of passage, to joining the league of advanced beings. Third, there is a drive to acquire the knowledge and technology of these senior beings. I believe Aldiss was trying to come up with something different in “Appearance of Life.”

The famous science fiction editor John W. Campbell didn’t like the idea of humans being inferior to aliens, so we often see Homo sapiens as the top dog in the galaxy. I’d say most science fiction writers assume the galaxy is full of intelligent life, but humans will play a significant role, and no species will truly dominate. Most galactic empire stories are about the high tech potential of humans but fall short of becoming non-physical energy beings.

In “Appearance of Life” Aldiss opens with:

Something very large, something very small: a galactic museum, a dead love affair. They came together under my gaze.

The museum is very large. Less than a thousand light years from Earth, countless worlds bear constructions which are formidably ancient and inscrutable in purpose. The museum on Norma is such a construction.

We suppose that the museum was created by a species which once lorded it over the galaxy, the Korlevalulaw. The spectre of the Korlevalulaw has become part of the consciousness of the human race as it spreads from star-system to star-system. Sometimes the Korlevalulaw are pictured as demons, hiding somewhere in a dark nebula, awaiting the moment when they swoop down on mankind and wipe every last one of us out, in reprisal for having dared to invade their territory. Sometimes the Korlevalulaw are pictured as gods, riding with the awfulness and loneliness of gods through the deserts of space, potent and wise beyond our imagining.

The two opposed images of the Korlevalulaw are of course images emerging from the deepest pools of the human mind. The demon and the god remain with us still.

 

I believe that opening captures the routine reactions of most science fictions stories about missing ancient aliens. Humanity has spent thousands of years speculating what God and Satan, or gods and demons, are like. How is that any different than speculating about possible superior alien beings? There is an ineffable quality to that problem that we never tire of putting into words.

Most SF stories predict we will be able to communicate with any alien species we encounter. Aldiss has major doubts. In “The Failed Men” also from The Best SF Stories by Brian W. Aldiss Aldiss casts more doubts on our ability to communicate between vastly different cultures. In “Appearance of Life” Aldiss uses a clever analogy with the talking holographic heads of Jean and Chris to explain why humans will never understand the Korlevalulaw. Aldiss’ insight is we can’t talk to each other, so there will be no communication possible between humans and gods, or humans and advanced aliens, or even humans and average aliens.

The Seeker who narrates this story is trained to synthesize ideas and experiences. In the end, he claims to have an insight into the secrets of the universe. However, like his insight at the beginning of the story, it parallels ancient theology, that the Korlevalulaw created us as their art. How is that different from the Biblical idea that we’re created in God’s image?

In my original essay I concluded:

Aldiss doesn’t sell his idea to me.  Having humanity be the art of an alien culture is no more real to me than believing man was made in God’s image, although I find it fascinating that billions of humans desperately refashion their lives to fit three thousand year old writings that shaped the long lost twelve tribes of Israel.

The trouble with science fiction writers is they don’t believe their own ideas, they just like to churn out weird concepts to mess with our heads.  The best science fiction concepts are the ones we want to accept, like space travel and life extension, so I’m surprised this story has even gotten the attention it has.   I’m betting most people liked it for the setup, for the sense of wonder buildup, even though it wasn’t original, and the weird ending didn’t mean much to most readers, but I could be wrong.

Now for the second thoughts a decade later. 

With each science fiction story I read I ask myself a number of question:

  1. Do I want to read this story again?
  2. Is this story worth writing about?
  3. Should I recommend it?
  4. Is it on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list?
  5. Is it a story that contemporary readers will like?
  6. Is it a story that is essential in the history of science fiction?
  7. Would I put it on my all-time favorite SF short story list?

For this review, I read the story, then bought the audiobook collection so I could listen to it, and I’m even reading it again for writing this review because I find it pleasantly compelling. And I’m pretty sure I’ll come back to it again in the future, maybe many times.

Since I’m writing about it, that answers question #2. I do recommend it, but the chance of readers finding a copy is damn small unless they own one of these old anthologies, or is willing to buy it on audio. I can’t find any print or ebook editions for sale.

“Appearance of Life” did not make it to the final Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. It only got 2 citations, one for the Wollheim anthology, and one for the Gunn anthology, The Road to Science Fiction Volume 5: The British Way. Currently, the minimum number of citations to get on the list is 8, and that grows over time. It’s extremely doubtful “Appearance of Life” will become a classic, either for our list or with science fiction fans.

Would young new readers of science fiction like the story today? My one data point is Joachim Boaz who is in his early thirties. But Boaz isn’t like most fans, he’s a historian, and also loves the history of science fiction.

Compared to other classic SF short stories, it’s doubtful many will consider “Appearance of Life” significant in the history of science fiction. Part of the problem is it came out in an obscure original anthology, and then it’s never been reprinted in an enduring retrospective anthology. Another factor in hiding its light under a bushel is the Aldiss star is fading.

Two of the definitive retrospective anthologies from recent years  The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer and Sense of Wonder (2011) by Leigh Grossman had a large percentage of stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. Huge anthologies like these come out every few years and help keep SF short stories alive in the minds of new readers. Between them and fan polls, it’s about the only way older stories are remembered. But who knows, maybe between Joachim Boaz and myself we can get more people to read “Appearance of Life.”

Finally, I am considering putting “Appearance of Life” on my all-time favorite SF short story list I’m constructing. However, that list is limited. If I was creating 1,000 Science Fiction Short Stories to Read Before You Die it would be on it. Even if I was creating something like Billboard’s Top 100 All-Time Great SF Stories I might include it. However, I’m not sure if it will fit on my Jim Harris’ Top 40 playlist.

My Top 40 playlist is the science fiction stories I want to keep rereading as I get old and approach checking out. The ones I want to remember as my mind fades away. But what makes a story worth cherishing in your fading memory tontine? Before my friend John Williamson died, he got down to loving only two things: the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. My favorites list is growing now, still below 50 titles, and it might eventually reach 100 before my mind pushes me to start thinning it out.

What ultimately matters with a short story or even a novel, is what lingers in the mind. With “Appearance of Life” the images of a giant museum, two memory cubes of lovers in an endless loop of conversation, and the Seeker running away to find absolute solitude. That ending keeps reminding me of the ending to ” Press Enter ▮” by John Varley.

Isn’t getting old and approaching death also a withdrawal into solitude? Do we keep the stories we understand best, and throw out the rest? Or do we keep the stories we don’t understand, and winnow out those that become obvious? I don’t know what my last novel will be, the one I’ll keep reading to the end. But I do know the short story that will win the tontine, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. “Appearance of Life” is still in the rotation for now.

I do believe Brian W. Aldiss had a personal epiphany writing “Appearance of Life.” I’m not sure how well he expressed it, or how well I’m perceiving it. Like the story suggests, communication is not possible. But don’t we always keep trying? This is my second attempt to communicate my reaction to “Appearance of Life.” I don’t know if I’ve done a better job or not.

James Wallace Harris

Best Short Science Fiction 2018

Best Short Science Fiction 2018

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris

“In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras

[This is reprinted from Worlds Without End – originally published 5/11/18]

“In Hiding” originally appeared in the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. You can read it online at the Internet Archive. You can also find this story in these books, which include:

Warning: This column contains mild spoilers

I just finished listening to the new audiobook edition of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B. “In Hiding” turned out to be my favorite story in the collection. I don’t think I’ve read it before, although it feels vaguely familiar. And I had no memory of ever encountering the author, Wilmar H. Shiras, before. It turns out Wilmar was a woman, making her only the third woman writer in the first three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

“In Hiding” is a quiet story about a boy who is so smart that he has to hide his intelligence from other kids and grown-ups. I thought it a remarkable story, and so did the readers of Astounding Science-Fiction back in November 1948. “In Hiding” scored first place in “The Analytical Laboratory,” with an average score of 1.54, meaning most readers put it at the top of their list. That doesn’t happen often. John W. Campbell, the editor had this to say:

Wilmar H. Shiras sent in her first science fiction story, “In Hiding.” I liked it and bought it at once. Evidently, I was not alone in liking it: it has made an exceptional showing in the Lab here—the sort of showing, in fact, that Bob Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, and Lewis Padgett made with their first yarns. I have reason to believe we’ve found a new front-rank author. Incidentally, there’s a sequel to “In Hiding” coming up in the March issue.

Shiras wrote two more stories for Campbell, “Opening Doors” (March 1949) and “New Foundations” (March 1950). In 1953 Shiras came out with Children of the Atom from Gnome Press by including the three Astounding stories and writing two more to create a collection. Although this book has been reprinted many times over the years, it’s not well-known, and Wilmar H. Shiras only wrote a handful of other stories, including three for Ted White’s Fantastic in the early 1970s. It’s a shame that Campbell was wrong about her, and she didn’t become a major science fiction writer. Wikipedia has damn little about Shiras. She got married at 18, had two boys and three girls. Children of the Atom is the main reason she is remembered, and only by a few old fans.

In Hiding

I found “In Hiding” to be a philosophically insightful science fiction story because of how Shiras dealt with the human mutant theme. There are some who claim (without documentation) that Children of the Atom inspired Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to create X-men comics. After the atomic bomb in 1945, radiation was used for all kinds of miracle mutations in comics, pulps, books, television shows, and movies. Radiation caused insects to grow as big as dinosaurs and for people to develop superpowers. Shiras took a quieter approach. Parents working at an atomic plant conceived mutant children with very high IQs. Normal looking, but very smart. I found that much more appealing than silly stories of oddities with superpowers.

I don’t know why, but science fiction has a long history of imagining Humans 2.0, and they invariably give our replacements telepathy and other psychic powers. I just don’t see that happening. Psi-powers are obviously borrowed from stories of gods, angels, and other magical beings in myths. Isn’t prayer telepathy with God? Don’t angels and demons teleport? Aren’t god-like beings always using telekinesis to act powerfully? I find it psychologically lame that SF writers assume evolution will lead to such talents. Superpowers appeal to the child in us. We want reality to be magical — it’s not.

Shiras takes a different approach, one I feel is more adult. Radiation can cause mutations. Sadly, most would be unwanted physical changes. But, Shiras suggests just a bump in smarts. Not god-like super-knowledge, but children smarter than average. In her stories, it’s implied the orphan children of the atomic plant workers have IQs greater than 150. They are orphans because the plant blows up.

“In Hiding” is about Tim, a boy a school psychologist discovers is a lot smarter than his B average grades imply. Over time the psychologist gains the confidence of the boy and learns Tim pretends to be a normal kid because he discovered at a very early age that other people, young or old, resents intelligence greater than theirs. Tim hides. He is raised by his grandparents who expect him to be well-behaved and quiet, and when he is, allows Tim to have privacy and a workshop in an old barn. By using the mail, and pseudonyms, Tim creates secret personalities that pursue various hobbies, conducts science experiments, breeds cats, completes college correspondence courses, sells stories to magazines, and writes articles for journals.

Science fiction has speculated about Homo superior or superior aliens since the 19th century. Almost always they imagine big heads and ESP. I think evolution is obviously working towards increased intelligence and self-awareness. I believe AI machines will be the next rung on the evolutionary ladder, but I also assume it is possible humans could undergo mutations that will lead to a new and improved biological species. But what is better? Marvel Comics mutants appeal to the child in us. What improvements would rational adults hope for? What new species of humans would have better adaptations for our current reality?

I’d say a species that is smart enough to live in cooperation with nature, one that doesn’t cause endless wars, mass extinctions and poisons the ecosystem. Science fiction and comic books can’t seem to conceive of that. If Wilmar H. Shiras had continued with her series, she might have. Science fiction shines at imagining dystopias but fails at speculating about utopias. Billions plan to go to heaven, but the most complete description of heaven in The Bible sounds like hell to me.

It’s sadly ironic, but Wilmar H. Shiras has been in hiding all these years.

James Wallace Harris

p.s. I found the picture of Children of the Atom on Google. Later I ordered the book from ABEbooks.com – and ended up with that exact copy.

Serious Science Fiction

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers (1995)

I first read Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers back when it came out in 1995. I still have the first edition hardback (I wonder if it’s worth more now because Powers just won the Pulitzer Prize for his latest novel, The Overstory). I’ve been wishing for decades to hear an audiobook production of Galatea 2.2 and one finally came out in April (4/10/19), probably due to Richard Powers’ recent recognition. Galatea 2.2 is a literary science fiction novel of the highest order, although I doubt Powers or his publishers would want that said about it. And it’s doubtful that most science fiction fans will find it fun reading.

Galatea 2.2 is about a character named Richard Powers who is a writer spending a year in residence at a university named U working with computer scientists. Richard Powers the man attended and taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and for a time he was an adjunct member in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. Within the story, the character Richard Powers talks about writing books with titles that were the same as the real-life Richard Powers wrote. In fact, it’s very hard not to think of Galatea 2.2 as an autobiographical novel. The only trouble is readers don’t know where the line between fiction and fact lies.

Where Galatea 2.2 becomes serious science fiction is when Richard Powers the character is challenged by computer scientists to help them create a computer program that could pass the Master’s comp in literature, the same one Richard Powers the character and the human passed for their MA.

Is Richard Powers the character an AI version of Richard Powers the writer?

Most science fiction novels just tell us computers and robots are intelligent and sentient. They might do some sleight-of-hand waving and give us a few presto-chango words expecting us readers to believe what they say will be possible in the future. Galatea 2.2 is full of then-current scientific details about human cognition, language, and computer science. Powers the real writer builds up his story slowly while using an allegorical tale of his own life as an analogy to explain the complexity of human intelligence. Galatea 2.2 was written during the heyday of neural nets just as machine learning was taking its first baby steps. Why it’s science fiction is because Powers goes well beyond what science is capable of doing even today.

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers audiobook cover 2019

In many ways, Galatea 2.2 is closer to the film Her than Ex Machina because it’s so quiet and dry. The story is far more realistic and serious than most popular science fiction books and movies about sentient machines. This novel is about educating its readers of the real challenges of teaching a machine to understand fiction, but also revealing that humans aren’t the miracles our faiths claim. Often what we call brilliant intellect is a trick of the brain. Time and again Galatea 2.2 points out our own delusions and faults. At one point within the novel, several characters criticize the fictional Richard Powers for writing grim novels, advising him he’d sell more books by being upbeat. Powers the character has to explain that his writing goal is not to entertain them but to see a sense of truth in personal revelations. I assume that’s also true for the flesh and blood Powers writing this book. Galatea 2.2 is also meta-fiction.

Galatea 2.2 has a lot to say in the same way The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four have to say. It uses science fiction techniques for serious speculation. Science fiction fans often feel their genre is a serious matter, but all too often science fiction stories aren’t that serious. Science fiction fans are often insulted when literary writers claim they don’t write science fiction when their novels clearly use science fictional techniques. There is a reason why writers like Margaret Atwood or Ian McEwan avoid the label of science fiction – science fiction isn’t taken seriously by serious readers. The label science fiction is slapped on all kinds of books and is often a marketing sorting category for anything far out and not serious. Sorry fellow SF fans, but we’re seen as kooky.

Now writers within the genre have written books they wanted to be taken seriously. Dune by Frank Herbert and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin are two. Robert A. Heinlein tried to leave the genre when he wrote Strangers in a Strange Land but never achieved escape velocity. Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut were able to make their escape, but the man who bellowed the loudest against the label, Harlan Ellison never did.

There are countless novels written by authors who shun the label “science fiction” writer that write perfectly wonderful science fiction novels. For example, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. I doubt many people have ever asserted it was science fiction even though the science fiction genre has been writing about uplifted apes for decades.

Few people will call Galatea 2.2 a science fiction novel even though it’s about an AI that becomes self-aware, clearly the territory of science fiction. What’s the difference between a literary science fiction novel and a genre science fiction novel?

Science fiction fans are especially insulted when people claim it’s the quality of writing. And that’s not my answer, but often it’s true. No, my answer is the difference is often due to the level of characterization. My guess is most science fiction fans will feel most of Galatea 2.2 is boring. Genre science fiction tends to be action-oriented. Literary science fiction tends to contain biographical character detail that overwhelms the science fiction elements.

I often tell friends they can spot literary works because they feel like an autobiography when in the first person, and biography when in the third. Probably most science fiction fans will complain that too much of Galatea 2.2 is about Richard Powers and not enough is about Helen, the AI. And that will also be true of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, where the story is more about Charlie the human and not about Adam the machine. The reason why The Handmaid’s Tale is literary science fiction is that the story is more about Offred than Gilead. Genre science fiction writers would have focused more on the robots or the details of the theocracy using dramatic action and adventure. For contrast, compare with the characterization of Katniss Everdeen and the society of Panem in The Hunger Games.

Modern science fiction writers have moved more towards the literary by building up their characters, while literary writers are experimenting more with science fictional techniques in their stories. Two examples of meeting in the middle are The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger or The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. I think both literary and science fiction fans could love each of these stories.

I tend to doubt that most science fiction fans will enjoy Galatea 2.2 but I think they should give it a chance, especially the new audiobook edition, which is wonderfully narrated by David Aaron Baker. It was worth the wait for me.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

“The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” by Alastair Reynolds

Winged Woman

8th in a series: The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois

Although science fiction writers can write about anything, if you read enough science fiction you’ll discover a limited number of themes repeated in endless variations. The challenge to the writer is to tell an old story in a new way. In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” Alastair Reynolds uses the theme of a primitive society that barely remembers its former technological glory. There is a great sense of wonder to that idea. One of the earliest examples I can remember reading is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. In that story, our current world civilization had collapsed and a rather medieval one had taken its place. Characters marveled and wondered about artifacts from our time creating endless speculation about us with wrong assumptions.

In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” we’re again thrown back in time, or so we think. It feels like a 17th-century English town, but I’m not even sure we’re on Earth. Reynolds is famous for telling stories of the very far future. We do learn that their past had space travel and intelligent robots, but the people of this time have no understanding of that history, just shadowy myths. The story is about a 16-year-old girl, Kathrin Lynch, who is the daughter of the sledge maker trying to walk home without being sexually assaulted. She has in the past and knows it will happen again.

In the world of this story, whether far future Earth or a planet we settled that has forgotten that, knowledge is mostly based on superstition. This is a common aspect of our forgotten past theme. For example, the robots of their past are now the “jangling men” – a supernatural threat to scare children from straying too far.

Understanding the building blocks of this theme is not really important for enjoying this story. You can read or listen to it online. “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a wonderful tale because of how it’s told. Since I listened to it on the audiobook edition of The Very Best of the Best, the professional narration showcases Reynolds’ skills at conveying drama and emotion. By the way, I consider audio narration to be a magnifier, one that makes good and bad writing stand out. This might be true because audio converts printed words to something like watching a movie, allowing our ears to better judge the dialog.

I’m reading and reviewing these stories as writing lessons. From “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” I’m learning how Reynolds took an old theme and made it fresh. It involves a number of challenges. First, the setting of the story is old – even if it’s in our far future. Think about watching Game of Thrones on HBO. Is it set on Earth? Is it in the past or the future? How to capture those details without anachronisms?  Reynolds sets “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” in a time that feels like old England to me, where people still believed in witches, and towns are ruled by sheriffs. He overlays this with myths that feel even older, yet we learn were founded on our future.

The basic plot of this story could be set in any time. In fact, it could have been written in the 17th-century or today. What makes it good is the storytelling. The writing is simple. Reynolds explains little. But much happens in the one hour it takes to narrate the audio version. It’s rich in vivid details.

I do have one quibble with this tale, but I’m not sure if I can bring it up without spoiling it for some readers. But I will since these essays are about story construction. The solution to Kathrin’s problem is a powerful weapon. This works in fantasy or science fiction, but would it be politically correct in a contemporary literary story? If we read a New Yorker story about a young girl telling an older woman about how’s she’s being sexually preyed upon and the older woman gave her a 9mm to keep in her purse as a solution, would we accept that story?

I know many Americans would answer yes. But that’s not what I want to get into. This is about writing, and the question it poses is: Should stories offer plot solutions with dangerous implications? I’m a lifelong fan of westerns. One of the major themes of westerns is violence is the solution. Do we accept this only for fiction and video games, or psychologically too?

When I think about writing fiction I seldom think of stories that involve violence. But pay attention to how often violence is integrated all the forms of fiction we consume. If I had written this story I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to create a rape scene. Nor would I have wanted the past technology to be symbolized by a weapon. I’m trying to imagine using this theme in a new way of my own making. What myths might our civilization give people thousands of years from now? What if in two hundred years climate change has totally wiped out our technological civilization? How will future people imagine our love of social media and computers? See, got a story idea already. But ideas are a penny a million. It’s the storytelling that counts, and “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a good lesson in that.

James Wallace Harris, March 11, 2019