Once again I’m gorging on post-apocalyptic novels where a few people survive a horrific civilization-destroying catastrophe. Usually, they hope to rebuild civilization. But not always. I recently finished The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff first published in 1939 which I’ve already reviewed. And I just finished The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson first published in 1936. This has gotten me to think about all the books, movies, and television shows I read or watched because of this theme. I’ve listed and rated all that I can remember in the table below. But what I want to talk about first is the appeal and common plot elements of this sub-genre of science fiction. I have written about this a number of times before and have linked to those essays at the end — just in case this essay got you interested. I do know that other science fiction fans love this theme too.
[HBO just started a new series based on this theme. It appears people never get tired of it.]
There are many kinds of post-apocalyptic novels. See the long comprehensive overview on Wikipedia on Post-Apocalyptic fiction The ones I like best are those that focus just on a few survivors. You might call this version of the theme the Robinson Crusoe Post-Apocalypse. Some people also call them Cozy Catastrophes — but the exact definition is often argued over. For example, I disagree with many of the choices in “Jane Rogers’s top 10 cozy catastrophes” from The Guardian.
Here are my favorite elements in a cozy catastrophe:
I like stories that follow just a few characters who survive the end of the world and try to rebuild. I would even enjoy it if it was just one person, which happens in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, but usually, these stories start with one survivor who eventually finds a few more.
How They Survive
I also love the details of how they survive, whether it’s raiding grocery stores, becoming a hunter, or starting a garden. I love seeing how people start over from scratch and accomplish all the things we depend on civilization to give us now. This appeals to my younger self who wanted to move back to nature and subscribed to Mother Earth News. I loved the idea of being self-sufficient on five acres.
I also love reading about how people get along. In American fiction written by men, the stories can get rather violent. American guys believe the collapse of civilization means no laws, grab your guns, and everyone out for themselves. Think Mad Max or The Postman. Female Americans see starting over as a lot less violent. Consider Station Eleven. English writers of either gender, see post-apocalyptic affairs as being much less violent.
I just read The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson, first published in 1936. D. E. is for Dorothy Emily, and her books were light romances aimed at shop girls. The Empty World did have some violence. Right after the catastrophe we are told two-thirds of the surviving group of men are civilized and one-third are not, and the civilized men must get the few surviving women away from the uncivilized. Stevenson seemed to enjoy showing how the brutish lower-class Englishmen would fight and kill to possess a woman. Stevenson’s early cozy catastrophe anticipated many of the common elements that would emerge in this sub-genre, but her focus seemed to be on the women finding the right husband. Her premise for how civilization was wiped out was mumbo-jumbo science but that didn’t seem to hurt the story. Jo Walton gives a short review of the novel in her Tor.com column. I wonder if Stevenson had read London’s The Scarlet Plague?
My all-time favorite novel of this theme, Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart tells about how Ish, the protagonist wants to educate the first generation after the collapse. He was a college professor who wanted to preserve knowledge but realized the vastness of human learning couldn’t be passed on. My favorite TV show that covers this theme, Survivors (1975 BBC) focuses on how a few people can work together to start a farm, and eventually, build coalitions between survivor groups. Survivors the TV show has an excellent novelization by Terry Nation. It’s currently for sale at Amazon for the Kindle for just $1.99. The complete series on DVD is just $22. But a warning, the production was low-budget and modern TV watchers might not like it. Episodes of the show are available in low-resolution on YouTube, but not streaming anywhere else.
How Would You Do It
Probably the most fun aspect of this genre is picturing myself in the same situation as in the story and fantasizing about how I would have dealt with it. I have to admit, those fantasies have changed over the years. When I was younger, I pictured a post-apocalyptic world as more of an adventure. As I got older, it became more about how to farm and take care of myself. Now that I’m old, I realize if I found myself becoming one of the last people on Earth, my solutions for how to live would be much different. I don’t have the strength to farm. I now see myself just hiding out, scrounging for preserved food, and reading books, while contemplating the end of the world.
Hope for the Future
Another thing I love about this theme is seeing how the characters hope to rebuild things. I believe part of the appeal of this genre comes from disliking the way things are now. And readers love to imagine a better society. One thing I was very impressed with in Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript is how he predicted that people don’t change and we’d just quickly go back to our bad ways. That’s depressing but I believe philosophically correct.
Some stories, like On the Beach by Nevil Shute and The Road by Cormac McCarthy imply there is no hope for mankind.
Misanthropic – A Subconscious Urge For Fewer People
I also believe these stories appeal to us because deep down we wish there were a lot fewer people on Earth. The question is how fewer? Would you want to be the last person? Just a few friends? A small community? Maybe a world where the total population is just ten million? And do we want to bring back civilization?
Post-Apocalyptic Stories I Remember
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
After London by Richard Jefferies
The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel
The Scarlet Plague by Jack London
Goslings by J. D. Beresford
The Empty World by D. E. Stevenson
The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
“A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Death of Grass by John Christopher
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
On the Beach U.S. film
The World, the Flesh, and the Devil MGM
The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard
Survivors by Terry Nation
The Postman by David Brin
The Quiet Earth New Zealand film
Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Survivors BBC remake
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Last Man On Earth Fox TV
Y: The Last Man FX on Hulu
Essays About Post-Apocalyptic Fiction I’ve Written Before
Short Review: If you loved George R. Stewart’s 1949 classic novel Earth Abides then there’s a good chance you’ll love to read R. C. Sherriff’s forgotten 1939 novel The Hopkins Manuscript.
I bought the new Scribner audiobook edition that came out on January 6, 2023, because of Alec Nevala-Lee’s review in The New York Times. Right now, the Scribner edition is only available as an ebook and audiobook edition. An older, 2018, Penguin trade paper edition is still for sale. This apocalyptic novel first appeared in 1939 and has been reprinted a number of times since, yet it’s never achieved much notice.
I listened to The Hopkins Manuscript and thought it a science fiction masterpiece. However, I’m reluctant to recommend you buy it because it does not have even one citation in our Classics of Science Fiction database. If I believe The Hopkins Manuscript is so incredible why wasn’t it cited by any of the dozens of sources we used to build the database, including recommended reading lists from science fiction writers, polls from fans voting for their favorite novels, or lists of books admired by critics and scholars?
I loved The Hopkins Manuscript and can’t understand why it isn’t a well-known classic of science fiction. See the scans below from various reviewers in the past. I’d love to read what Michael Moorcock said about The Hopkins Manuscript in the September 2005 issue of The New York Review of Books (#205) if anyone has a copy. But in Thrilling Wonder Stories, from January 1940, H. K. recommended readers put it on their “Must” list. But in the April 1940 issue of Astonishing Stories, Donald A. Wollheim concluded the novel conveyed nothing new, nothing hopeful, and nothing very real. I disagree completely. Avram Davidson in the January 1964 issue of F&SF said the novel was first-rate and ended with “Don’t just read it — buy it.” P. Schuyler Miller damns it with faint praise in the April 1964 issue of Analog, concluding “The book first came out in 1939 and lives well.” Finally, Neil Barron did not recommend The Hopkins Manuscript in his library resource book Anatomy of Wonder.
Nevala-Lee spends most of his review talking about cozy catastrophes, giving Sherriff’s biography, and describing the story. I felt he told too much, but then I consider almost everything in a story to be spoilers. Nevala-Lee’s most positive statement is “Reissued this month, this wonderful novel should powerfully resonate with readers whose consciences are troubled by inequality and climate change. As Aldiss wrote, ‘The essence of cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time … while everyone else is dying off.” I disagree with by Nevala-Lee and Aldiss. This novel isn’t just for the woke and poor Edgar Hopkins suffers tremendously.
The Hopkins Manuscript is my kind of science fiction. I deeply resonated with Edgar Hopkins’ story, even though he is stodgy, vain, and frequently seeking to prove his self-importance. His memoir gives us a quiet and personal account of what was almost the end of the world. And I love stories about a few people trying to survive a worldwide catastrophe. If you loved the 1970s British TV shows Survivors, you might to get this book. I recommend the audiobook because the narration is pitch-perfect for the story. If you loved The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, also consider reading The Hopkins Manuscript. (Survivors is available on YouTube for free in low resolution. It doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere. Amazon sells a complete series DVD set for $22. It’s one of my all-time favorite TV shows.)
The Hopkins Manuscript is what some call a cozy catastrophe – a first-person account of the end of the world. The story is set in rural Britain before WWII and imagines the fall of Western civilization due to impending celestial events. Edgar Hopkins, a never-married retired teacher who raises show hens describes a very personal account of the end of the world. What made his story great is he’s a flawed but very realistically drawn character, and Sherriff’s philosophical take on humanity follows my own philosophy – especially that we don’t change. And that’s the tragedy of the novel, we don’t change even when faced with epic incentives.
The novel opens with a Forward from The Imperial Research Press, Addis Ababa telling us how the Hopkins manuscript was discovered two years earlier by the Royal Society of Abyssinia. It is assumed to be over 700 years old. The Forward also tells us how Western Europe is a dead civilization and the Hopkins manuscript is one of the very few artifacts left of the English Empire. The others are an iron tablet that says KEEP OFF THE GRASS, and a stone inscribed with PECKHAM 3 Miles. Except for old Roman roads, the entire history of England is gone. Since I read a three-volume history of the world last year, this felt very real. Civilizations come and go and we can’t expect ours to last forever.
American post-apocalyptic novels tend to involve a lot of violence and guns. British post-apocalyptic novels are genteel and quiet. If you’re looking for Mad Max, read elsewhere. The first half of the novel deals with how the British faced the coming doom. If you like stories about Britain between the wars, that’s another indicator you might want to buy The Hopkins Manuscript. That’s a big interest of mine. I’m not sure you need to be an Anglophile to enjoy this story but it might help. If you read Brian Stableford’s New Atlantis, a four-volume history of scientific romance, he shows how British science fiction evolved differently from American science fiction. I agree with him, and I’m partial to British science fiction. That’s probably another factor in explaining my love of The Hopkins Manuscript. Unfortunately, Stableford doesn’t cover The Hopkins Manuscript. That disappoints me. That’s just more evidence that my love of this novel might be unique to me. I hope not.
Even though The Hopkins Manuscript remains a mostly forgotten work, and has little critical support, I hope people rediscover it with the new Scribner edition. If you read it, please leave a comment below.
Only dumbasses, egotists, and the delusional think they can predict the future, although there are a number of professions that try. I do believe Robert A. Heinlein was smart and sane enough to know he couldn’t see beyond the horizon of the moment, but he wrote plenty of stories that tried. “Blowups Happen” is one that stands out. Heinlein’s 1940 novelette imagines the dangers of commercializing atomic energy in peacetime. That was five years before Hiroshima.
I grew up being taught that atomic research during the war was an extremely well-guarded secret. What I didn’t know, and I assume most other people didn’t either, was how much atomic energy was widely discussed before the war. John W. Campbell, Jr. liked to brag about how the FBI came to his offices in 1944 because of Cleve Cartmill’s story “Deadline,” implying the G-men thought it gave away some of the secrets of the atomic bomb. I thought Heinlein’s story felt far more knowledgeable. I now have to assume the well-educated public before WWII knew far more than I ever imagined regarding atomic physics.
“Blowup Happens” is set in the near future from 1940 in the Astounding Science Fiction magazine version, and from 1950 as it was rewritten for the collection, The Man Who Sold The Moon. Those two dates are important because the story is about atomic power, and the magazine version was written before Hiroshima and the book version afterward.
The setup of the story is the United States has come to depend on atomic power even though a breeder reactor in Arizona could theoretically destroy the country or even the planet. The General Superintendent of the plant, King, has to hire one psychiatrist for every three engineers to monitor their work with the reactor because engineers have nervous breakdowns after a short career and must be continually replaced. King brings in Dr. Lentz, one of the country’s top psychiatrists to find ways that allow engineers to handle the stress.
Later in the story, Superintendent King learns that mathematical models that previously showed the reaction in the breeder reactor is probably controlled are wrong. New mathematics prove the reactor could go into a runaway reaction that would destroy the planet. If they bring down the breeder reactor the country would lose a good portion of its industrial power and ruin the economy. King knows the corporation that owns the plant won’t accept the new research because it would be financial ruin for it.
The solution to the problem has been emerging all along in a tangential subplot about two engineers, Erickson and Harper, developing atomic power for rockets.
“Blowups Happen” has a great deal of infodumping where Heinlein tries to educate his readers about the science behind atomic energy. Reading those passages today is tedious unless you are researching early speculation about atomic energy. So, how do we judge “Blowups Happen” as a story in 2022?
We want science fiction that is visionary. We want the future to be exciting. Ultimately, most, if not all science fiction becomes historical curiosities. Time has a way of eroding our genre. I didn’t like “Blowups Happen” when I first read it as a teen back in the 1960s. It was already too dated. Now that I’m rereading it in my seventies in 2022 I have to admire Heinlein’s speculation. “Blowups Happen” is an ambitious story. I’m starting to think science fiction writers are at their most ambitious when they are working closest to the present.
In “Blowups Happen” Heinlein explores the impact of atomic energy before the world is startled by the reality of Hiroshima. Sure, the idea of atomic power had been around since Einstein’s most famous equation. The reason why the science fiction of the 1950s had been so exciting is it just preceded NASA of the 1960s. And the reason why cyberpunk was so exciting in the 1980s is that it just preceded the World Wide Web in the 1990s. Science fiction writers get the details wrong, but they still anticipate the wonder and the chaos. This thought makes me rethink Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land anticipation of the 1960s.
When we judge an old science fiction story for its visionary qualities I think it’s important to look at the story’s original publication. “Blowups Happen” was first published in September 1940. It was first reprinted in The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin in 1946, and then in 1950, it was rewritten for The Man Who Sold the Moon. However, for that edition, Heinlein rewrote the story to include the knowledge of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. By 1950 the public and science readers knew much more about atomic energy. I’m guessing “Blowups Happen” was already outdated even in 1950.
Ten years makes a lot of difference in a science fiction story, although I doubt anyone in 1940 could have imagined what the next five years would bring, much less ten. Science fiction writers do not and cannot predict the future, but we do have to admire Heinlein for imagining the political implications of a country having atomic energy in 1940, and what the dangers might be for developing peacetime uses of atomic power. He gets the details wrong, but what he gets right is the essence of great science fiction. By the way, in the 1940 version, the power plant is called a bomb, but in 1950 the label was changed to pile. I’m guessing Heinlein imagined the power plant as being a controlled explosion.
Within the 1940 version, Heinlein described a nuclear explosion as “forty million times as explosive as TNT. The figure was meaningless that way. He thought of it, instead, as a hundred million tons of high explosive, two hundred million aircraft bombs as big as the biggest ever used.” To give his readers a better picture, Heinlein has his character say to himself about ordinary big bombs, “He had once seen such a bomb dropped when he had been serving as a temperament analyst for army aircraft pilots. The bomb had left a hole big enough to hide an apartment house. He could not imagine the explosion of a thousand such bombs, much, much less a hundred million of them.”
Then in the 1950 version, the same character thinks of it as “a hundred million tons of high explosive, or as a thousand Hiroshimas.” Heinlein didn’t need to write anything more. By then, readers had seen films about atomic explosions. They knew exactly what that meant, but in 1940 I doubt readers could imagine anything close to reality.
Psychiatry and psychology are so commonly talked about today that we also forget that it was new at one time. I’m an old movie fan, and psychiatry became a hot subject matter for films after WWII and into the 1950s. I’m guessing Heinlein was doing just as much speculation about the future impact of psychiatry as he was doing for atomic energy in “Blowups Happen.” But how sophisticated his Heinlein’s expectations about the field? Heinlein loved popular scientific speculations published in popular books of the 1930s. But he also was a fan of many pseudo-scientific works too, stuff we’d consider New Age today. In his Future History stories, Heinlein seemed just as interested in the soft sciences as the hard sciences.
Heinlein describes Dr. Lentz, the top psychiatrist of the day this way:
Notwithstanding King’s confidence, Lentz did not show up until the next day. The superintendent was subconsciously a little surprised at his visitor’s appearance. He had pictured a master psychologist as wearing flowing hair, an imperial, and having piercing black eyes. But this man was not overly tall, was heavy in his framework, and fat—almost gross. He might have been a butcher. Little, piggy, faded-blue eyes peered merrily out from beneath shaggy blond brows. There was no hair anywhere else on the enormous skull, and the apelike jaw was smooth and pink. He was dressed in mussed pajamas of unbleached linen. A long cigarette holder jutted permanently from one corner of a wide mouth, widened still more by a smile which suggested non-malicious amusement at the worst that life, or men, could do. He had gusto.
Heinlein, Robert. The Man Who Sold the Moon and Orphans of the Sky (p. 131). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.
Is Heinlein serious about giving us a shrink that goes around in public in his pajamas? Is Heinlein just imagining a colorful future with odd fashions? Or is this satire? Would 1940 science fiction readers believe the fashions we see on TV today? Heinlein had his sociological speculations too. There is another scene at a bar where the atomic energy scientists go to unwind, that features a B-girl who is also a prostitute. Such women were common in the 1930s, but it was a lower-class thing. I got the feeling that Heinlein expected society would change its attitudes toward these women in the future.
But, we’re back to my original question. Is “Blowups Happen” a fun science fiction story to read in 2022? I don’t think so. Scientific lectures can slow a story, or even ruin it, but scientific lectures about out-of-date science are even harder to endure. Would “Blowups Happen” read better today if he had left out all the lectures? They weren’t needed for the story. Lester del Rey’s “Nerves” is another story about atomic energy from the 1940s that’s outdated, but it still works dramatically. It has problems with length, and some plotting, but overall, I remember it being a better story. I don’t know if Heinlein wanted to be educational, show off his knowledge, or provide evidence for his speculation, but I don’t think the story needed those infodumps.
“Blowups Happen” does offer one lesson for would-be science fiction writers. Speculating about the near future will have the greatest impact on current readers, but you risk writing a story with a limited shelf life. Most stories never become classics anyway, so I think Heinlein boosted his career significantly in 1940 by writing “Blowups Happen.” And there is a downside to writing far-future science fiction that’s pure storytelling. I find science fiction that feels like fantasy fiction far less appealing. Although “Blowups Happen” is now just a historical curiosity I still admire it for Heinlein’s ambition. I seldom find science fiction stories with that kind of ambition being written today.
Near-future SF stories with serious speculation do show up but are rare. I am impressed with The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler, and even though it just came out, I’ve already heard good things about it from several readers. There’s something exciting about science fiction that speculates about the near future with ideas that could come true.
“Misfit” (Astounding, Nov. 1939) was Heinlein’s second published story and his first about space travel. It’s also his first work of juvenile fiction, or what we call YA today. Heinlein renamed FDR’s New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) the Cosmic Construction Corps for this future space adventure. I thought that was a really neat idea. And Heinlein created one of his favorite characters, Andrew Jackson Libby, who would reappear in Methuselah’s Children in 1941, and yet again in four of Heinlein’s 1970s and 1980s novels. Eventually, Libby would become a woman, Elizabeth Andrew Jackson Libby, but we won’t get into that for a very long time. Some fans even consider Max Jones of Starman Jones a repackaging of the Libby character, but I don’t.
I never liked the way Heinlein reused his characters because he eventually turned characters I loved into characters I hated. But that’s another subject to deal with in future essays.
The plot of “Misfit” isn’t very complicated. Libby is a young man who we follow into space. Like many of the boys on the ship, Libby experiences space sickness at first but eventually adapts to living in free fall. His crew arrives at a small asteroid called HS-5388, or just Eighty-Eight. Their job is to build habitats and rocket engines into the rock. Their goal is to reposition the asteroid into an orbit between Earth and Mars to make it into an emergency shelter for space travelers.
There’s little conflict or drama in the story. The only surprise in the story is we learn that Libby has a savant’s ability for mathematics, and saves the day when their “computer” conks out. Heinlein calls Libby a lightning calculator and gives him the nickname “Slipstick” – a slang term for a slide rule. In this1939 story, the word computer was not used. They called their computer an “integral calculator.” Boy, wouldn’t Heinlein have wowed us today if he had imagined a handheld calculator instead of a slide rule? (I loved using my slide rule in my math classes back in the 1960s and 1970s. I wish I had kept it.)
This is why I said in my review of “Life-Line” that I thought “Life-Line” was a much better story than “Misfit.” In “Life-Line” Heinlein gets us hooked right away on whether or not Hugo Pinero’s invention is real, and the whole story focuses on that plotline. “Misfit” is a story where this happens, then this happens, and then another thing happens until we reach an end. It’s still a good story, but it doesn’t have a tight plot. Even the dramatic scene of Libby saving the day when putting the asteroid into its new orbit isn’t done with much drama. Still, the “Misfit” is readable and likable, but its deadpan style makes me think of the old TV show Dragnet.
Heinlein had a side to him that just enjoyed explaining how things worked. My favorite part of the story was Heinlein showing us what weightlessness would be like. I thought he got it very right for 1939. And I checked to see if he hadn’t updated the story later, but he hadn’t. I don’t know if any writer back then worked out what living in microgravity would be like. I was very impressed. They call Libby Pinky, I guessed because of his red hair and complexion.
The ship’s loudspeaker blatted out, “All hands! Free flight in ten minutes. Stand by to lose weight.” The Master-at-Arms supervised the rigging of grab-lines. All loose gear was made fast, and little cellulose bags were issued to each man. Hardly was this done when Libby felt himself get light on his feet—a sensation exactly like that experienced when an express elevator makes a quick stop on an upward trip, except that the sensation continued and became more intense. At first it was a pleasant novelty, then it rapidly became distressing. The blood pounded in his ears, and his feet were clammy and cold. His saliva secreted at an abnormal rate. He tried to swallow, choked, and coughed. Then his stomach shuddered and contracted with a violent, painful, convulsive reflex and he was suddenly, disastrously nauseated. After the first excruciating spasm, he heard McCoy’s voice shouting.
“Hey! Use your sick-kits like I told you. Don’t let that stuff get in the blowers.” Dimly Libby realized that the admonishment included him. He fumbled for his cellulose bag just as a second temblor shook him, but he managed to fit the bag over his mouth before the eruption occurred. When it subsided, he became aware that he was floating near the overhead and facing the door. The chief Master-at-Arms slithered in the door and spoke to McCoy.
“How are you making out?”
“Well enough. Some of the boys missed their kits.”
“Okay. Mop it up. You can use the starboard lock.” He swam out.
McCoy touched Libby’s arm. “Here, Pinkie, start catching them butterflies.” He handed him a handful of cotton waste, then took another handful himself and neatly dabbed up a globule of the slimy filth that floated about the compartment. “Be sure your sick-kit is on tight. When you get sick, just stop and wait until it’s over.” Libby imitated him as best as he could. In a few minutes the room was free of the worst of the sickening debris. McCoy looked it over, and spoke:
“Now peel off them dirty duds, and change your kits. Three or four of you bring everything along to the starboard lock.”
At the starboard spacelock, the kits were put in first, the inner door closed, and the outer opened. When the inner door was opened again the kits were gone—blown out into space by the escaping air. Pinkie addressed McCoy, “Do we have to throw away our dirty clothes too?”
“Huh uh, we’ll just give them a dose of vacuum. Take ’em into the lock and stop ’em to those hooks on the bulkheads. Tie ’em tight.”
This time the lock was left closed for about five minutes. When the lock was opened the garments were bone dry—all the moisture boiled out by the vacuum of space. All that remained of the unpleasant rejecta was a sterile powdery residue. McCoy viewed them with approval. “They’ll do. Take them back to the compartment. Then brush them—hard—in front of the exhaust blowers.”
The next few days were an eternity of misery. Homesickness was forgotten in the all-engrossing wretchedness of spacesickness. The Captain granted fifteen minutes of mild acceleration for each of the nine meal periods, but the respite accentuated the agony. Libby would go to a meal, weak and ravenously hungry. The meal would stay down until free flight was resumed, then the sickness would hit him all over again.
On the fourth day he was seated against a bulkhead, enjoying the luxury of a few remaining minutes of weight while the last shift ate, when McCoy walked in and sat down beside him. The gunner’s mate fitted a smoke filter over his face and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply and started to chat.
“How’s it going, bud?”
“All right, I guess. This spacesickness—Say, McCoy, how do you ever get used to it?”
“You get over it in time. Your body acquires new reflexes, so they tell me. Once you learn to swallow without choking, you’ll be all right. You even get so you like it. It’s restful and relaxing. Four hours sleep is as good as ten.”
Libby shook his head dolefully. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”
“Yes, you will. You’d better anyway. This here asteroid won’t have any surface gravity to speak of; the Chief Quartermaster says it won’t run over two per cent Earth normal. That ain’t enough to cure spacesickness. And there won’t be any way to accelerate for meals either.”
Libby shivered and held his head between his hands.
Heinlein, Robert A.. Revolt in 2100 (pp. 191-193). Spectrum Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
You can compare the current Kindle edition to the 1939 magazine edition:
This is pretty amazing when you think that most Americans at the time only knew science fiction from Buck Rogers and Flash Gorden newspaper comic strips, radio shows, and serials. But even in the hardcore science fiction of Astounding Science-Fiction, I just don’t remember reading anything from that era that dealt with this kind of realism. Over the years I’ve paid attention to illustrations of free fall in old science fiction magazines, and one of my favorites is the July 1941 cover of Cosmic Stories.
A fun essay to write for the future would be chronicling the history of how writers imagined weightlessness in space. I think even 19th-century writers knew about it, but I just don’t think any writer dealt with space sickness before. If you know otherwise, leave a comment.
Another example of Heinlein just explaining things is when he tells us how they found the asteroid:
Locating one asteroid among a couple of thousand is not as easy as finding Trafalgar Square in London—especially against the star-crowded backdrop of the galaxy. You take off from Terra with its orbital speed of about nineteen miles per second. You attempt to settle into a composite conoid curve that will not only intersect the orbit of the tiny fast-moving body, but also accomplish an exact rendezvous. Asteroid HS-5388, ‘Eighty-eight,’ lay about two and two-tenths astronomical units out from the sun, a little more than two hundred million miles; when the transport took off it lay beyond the sun better than three hundred million miles. Captain Doyle instructed the navigator to plot the basic ellipsoid to tack in free flight around the sun through an elapsed distance of some three hundred and forty million miles. The principle involved is the same as used by a hunter to wing a duck in flight by ‘leading’ the bird in flight. But suppose that you face directly into the sun as you shoot; suppose the bird can not be seen from where you stand, and you have nothing to aim by but some old reports as to how it was flying when last seen?
Heinlein, Robert A.. Revolt in 2100 (p. 193). Spectrum Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Where did Heinlein learn this? Were there popular science books that speculated on space travel back then? Or did he just imagine it? Later on in the story, when they are trying to position the asteroid in its new orbit, we get a lesson on celestial mechanics. I believe Heinlein was a ballistics officer when he was in the Navy, so that makes sense. And I believe he was an amateur astronomer. Heinlein loved to have his characters use mathematics, and I remember Heinlein in interviews telling how he and his wife would get out butcher paper and calculate orbits for his stories.
As a kid, Heinlein made me want to study math and science. I wished I could have been like Kip Russell in Have Space Suit–Will Travel who applied himself vigorously with disciplined self-study. I can say Heinlein made me wish that about myself, but I never did. I took a bunch of math classes, but I only applied myself in a half-ass fashion. I also bought a telescope and read popular science books, but I just never worked hard at learning what Heinlein expected of his characters. As I got older, I even wished I could live my life over so I could be more like the characters in Heinlein’s juveniles. When I retired, I even planned to study math again, and go back to college and get a master’s in computer science. I didn’t. I bought a bunch of math books and realized I had forgotten nearly everything I had once known about mathematics. I got onto the Khan Academy website and started over with third-grade math. By the time I got to six-grade math, I realized it just wasn’t going to happen. But that desire came from reading the Heinlein juveniles back in the 1960s.
“Misfit” came in dead last in the AnLab (Feb. 1940). But “Misfit” was in an issue with the Gray Lensmen serial. Evidently, the readers back then weren’t impressed with Heinlein’s speculations about space sickness like I am now. Maybe they never imagined space sickness and didn’t want to believe it. One reader in the letter column wrote to tell Campbell there were people who could math in their heads like Libby. But I didn’t find anyone else that got excited about the story.
Campbell does push Heinlein In Times To Come for his current serial If This Goes On—. That story might be considered Heinlein’s first novel, depending on its length in the magazine. When it was revised and slightly expanded for Revolt in 2100, it was considered a novel-length by ISFDB.
The contrast is striking to read “Life-Line” right after reading and reviewingFor Us, The Living. Did Heinlein hitchhike over to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for the 1939 Spring semester? “Life-Line” is a well-structured short story told dramatically, attributes sorely lacking in his trunk novel. How did he make such a quantum leap in writing?
“Life-Line” has a simple plot. Dr. Hugo Pinero invents a device that can give the date of a person’s birth and death. It’s based on the idea that every being exists in time as one long 4th-dimensional organism. Scientists think Pinero is a crackpot. When his machine works and causes havoc with the insurance industry they take him to court to get an injunction from using it. Pinero proposes to the court a scientific test which the judge accepts. One insurance CEO ordered a contract killing on Pinero. But before he dies we see one tear-jerking scene where Pinero tests a young married couple. The wife is pregnant. He refuses to tell the couple their results claiming his machine has become misaligned. He tried to keep them from leaving, but they eventually do and are killed outside his office by a speeding car. The scientists finally admit that Pinero’s technique was real when they find he accurately predicted his own death, and they destroy all the test predictions based on their own lives.
Farah Mendlesohn in her book, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein suggests Heinlein modeled his writing on the movies. I can believe that. The dialog in “Life-Line” feels like MGM films from the mid-1930s. It’s easy to picture Hugo Pinero played by Edward G. Robinson. Robinson sometimes played ethnic characters with accents, and Dr. Pinero has the same bellicose pugnacity that Robinson did in his movies. The gangster Mr. Bidwell of Amalgamated Insurance hired to kill Pinero comes across just like Humphrey Bogart in Kid Gallahad, even though Heinlein gives the gangster character just a couple of lines and a few words of description.
“Life-Line” also has several scenes that also remind me of 1930s movies, and they might be a clue to where Heinlein got his Public Argument writing technique I keep seeing in his stories. The story begins with Pinero arguing with a committee from the Science Academy. Next, he banters around with a group of news reporters. This reminds me of more than one Frank Capra film. Next, we see Pinero argue his case with a judge and lawyer for the insurance companies in court. I can see why he uses the Public Argument technique, it provides drama because it’s often used in movies, especially old movies from the 1930s, ones Heinlein should have seen — and studied.
I know when I first read “Life-Line” because in 1966 I bought a little Ace paperback for 40 cents, The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. I got the story again in The Past Through Tomorrow in 1967. It was first collected in Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon in 1950, but that was the year before I was born. By the way, my Baen Kindle edition of The Man Who Sold the Moon / Orphans of the Sky copy has an important missing section, the one where Bidwell hires the gangster. This time I listened to the Brilliance Audio edition of The Man Who Sold the Moon narrated by Buck Schirner — he did a fantastic job with 1930s-style voicing and accents.
To check the August 1939 Astounding edition to the current edition, I listened to the audio version while eye-reading a digital scan of the magazine. For the most part, the story was the same. Heinlein tweaked a few paragraphs to read better, and he changed one date from 1939 to 1951. I’ll try to use this comparison technique whenever I can. I wished I had used it on the few stories I’ve already reviewed.
The first time I read “Life-Line” I didn’t like the story. In fact, I remember being disappointed. I was used to Heinlein juveniles from Scribners and Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land from Putnam. And I just didn’t like the idea of a machine that predicts when people would die — it didn’t seem scientific. However, over the years, whenever I’ve reread “Life-Line” the story has gotten better and better. And when I listened to the audio version, with the dramatic reading, I’ve been very impressed with how well-written the story is, and how dramatic Heinlein made the scenes. I also thought the dialog was impressive too because it reminded me of MGM movie dialog. “Life-Line” isn’t James Joyce or even Ernest Hemingway, but it’s pretty damn good 1939 pulp fiction.
I just discovered there’s a student film version of “Life-Line.” It’s just now being released. This suggests the story still has impact and validity. That’s great.
“Life-Line” shows Heinlein could write. And write better than the average writer for science fiction magazines at the time. I have to wonder how much editing John W. Campbell did on the story. It seems whenever Heinlein isn’t reigned in, he pontificates. “Life-Line” does have a few short infodumps, but they are legit, fitting within the story’s logic.
I can’t tell what kind of impact Heinlein made with Astounding readers with his first story. He came in second in the AnLab poll, to a Lester del Rey story. Campbell did not single Heinlein out for any special praise in the editorial content, although in the AnLab (Oct. 1939) he did say there were three first-published writers in the August issue. I found two readers in the letter columns that mention the story. One wished for more stories like “Life-Line,” and the other said the story was well-written and dramatic and wished it had been novel length.
Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg picked “Life-Line” to include in their The Great SF Stories 1 (1939), but that was decades later. Alexei Panshin was rather hard on the story in Heinlein in Dimension. Of Heinlein’s first two stories, he thought “Misfit” the better of the two, and “Life-Line” wasn’t particularly good. I just read “Misfit,” and disagree. It’s a good story, but I think “Life-Line” is much better. It’s more unified. “Misfit” is a bit episodic.
“Life-Line” is not a favorite in the retrospective anthologies, most editors and readers prefer other Heinlein stories. I’m curious if it holds up with young readers today. It has an average of 3.91 stars out of 5 on Goodreads, with 906 readers rating it. 268 gave it 5 stars, and 338 gave it 4 stars. Not bad.
Sixth Column first appeared in the January, February, and March 1941 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction. For it, Heinlein used the pseudonym of Anson MacDonald, so it’s not considered part of his Future History series. Sixth Column is generally thought of as one of Heinlein’s bottom-of-the-barrel novels. Critics sometimes try to defend Heinlein by pointing out he wrote Sixth Column based on a story given to him by John W. Campbell, Jr., thus transferring some of the blame for this stinker to his editor. Also, it’s often dismissed as a racist Yellow Peril novel that was common back in the 1930s. Even if you ignore the racism, the story itself is silly and unbelievable. The story’s sense of reality is equal to a comic book.
The basic plot is six American servicemen are the sole survivors of an overwhelming attack on the United States that completely destroys all our military. We are occupied by soldiers from an unnamed Asian country, that Heinlein refers to as Pan Asian. The six surviving soldiers were in a hidden mountain bunker doing secret scientific research, and one of them just happens to be smarter than Einstein who can churn out exotic weapons based on theoretical physics. The story is about how they conquered the invaders and freed America.
Heinlein’s Sixth Column falls into the category of invasion literature. These were an early form of science fiction that began in the last third of the 19th century and ran until WWI. In England, the common fear was Germany would take over. But every country had authors that wrote scary stories about invasions from other countries. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Well is considered inspired by the invasion literature genre.
Since Sixth Column was written in 1940, and Japan had been invading countries since 1931, I have to assume Heinlein meant Japan when he wrote Pan Asian. It’s a shame Heinlein just didn’t write Japan and Japanese instead as he typed. It would seem much less racist now, and probably a bit prophetic at the time. Were there legal issues back then?
The Pan Asians who occupied America in this story completely controlled every aspect of Americans’ lives. They only allowed one freedom – the freedom of religion. Heinlein’s six soldiers invent a religion to spread to all the major cities as a cover and then use secret super weapons to defeat the enemy.
Sixth Column is readable, but that’s about all I can say for it. I did think the idea of creating a fake religion was neat. In another serial Heinlein wrote in 1940, “If This Goes On—” he has the U.S. overthrown by a theocracy. I’m reading that one now. Heinlein sure did like to think big in his plotting. The idea of six men repelling an entire invasion was exciting stuff in 1941, at least to pulp magazine readers. Heinlein loved creating characters that were confident in their abilities and could essentially do anything. Heinlein plotted Sixth Column better than Methuselah’s Children, his second three-part serial of 1941. I think that was due to focusing on fewer characters and a smaller scale if you can envision six men fighting off millions being a smaller setting than the events in Methuselah’s Children. But I do since Heinlein’s imagination ran to even bigger whoppers to believe in that story.
But even with this faint praise, I can’t recommend reading Sixth Column, unless you’re like me and studying all of Heinlein’s work.
Why read an old science fiction novel? Maybe a friend recommended it. Or maybe you discovered an author you like and you’re reading all of their books. Or it was on a list of great science fiction novels. Or a YouTuber reviewed it. Maybe even, it was assigned in a class. In my case, and I think it’s true of most people my age, we’re rereading old SF novels we loved in our youth.
A better question to ask: Which old science fiction novels should we read? The obvious answer is the true classics. But what makes a book classic? I once calculated there were less than one hundred famous books from the 19th century that are regularly read today. Scholars and fans of 19th-century lit are familiar with more titles but I’m talking about the average bookworm. I’m going to assume as the 21st century progresses, we’ll collectively forget about most of the science fiction published in the 20th century.
I’m reading and rereading old science fiction because of nostalgia and to fill in the gaps in my knowledge about 20th-century science fiction. But as I do this I’m thinking about which books might survive long term. Doing that requires analyzing books for their various qualities. One way to do that is to recall what made me love a book then and try to figure out why it might be loved or hated today.
If I was thirteen years old today and read Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein which was first published in 1949, would I love it like I did when I read it at thirteen in 1964? I’m not sure I can answer that at 70 because my mind is clouded with nostalgia. Probably any 13-year-old today would laugh at Heinlein’s attitude toward women. But would kids today, especially those science-savvy kids, dismiss the book because Heinlein has Mars populated with life, even with beings more intelligent than humans? Or would they forgive him in the same way we forgive 19th-century writers like Jules Verne, and assume Heinlein was from some pre-scientific dark age and just didn’t know better?
Would the core story in this 1949 science fiction novel still be entertaining to any reader in 2022? People still find Journey to the Center of the Earth immensely entertaining even though they know Verne was full of lala regarding his science.
Red Planet was immensely appealing to me in 1964. It was about a boy, Jim Marlowe, and his friend Frank Sutton, living in a colony on Mars. Jim also had a pet Martian “rounder” that is somewhat intelligent and could speak some English. Because Mars is so cold the colonists must migrate between the south and north to avoid Martian winters. The plot involves Jim and Frank going away to boarding school and learning the corporation that owns the colony secretly wants to end the practice of migration to save money. Jim and Frank sneak away and travel across the Martian landscape to warn their parents, which eventually causes the colonists to revolt against the corporation. The plot also deals with the Martians and the conflict of intelligent species, so it’s very exciting.
In 1965 with the Mariner IV flyby probe we learned that Mars was much closer to being like the Moon than Earth and there would be no advanced life forms found there. Ever since then science fiction writers have been writing quite differently about Mars. Some readers felt NASA invalidated all the older science fiction about Mars, and some readers didn’t mind at all. I wonder what young readers growing up in the 21st century think when reading such stories. I know they are often quick to reject stories for woke reasons, and that’s understandable. I sometimes wonder if they ignore the less evolved attitudes of our ancestors, and the science we know about Mars, could older stories gain fans just because of their storytelling virtues?
I can overlook bad science and some lack of wokeness. I even wrote an essay – “I Miss Martians” because I get a kick out of stories where the solar system is full of life and intelligence. But I remember a time before NASA’s probes when many people hoped that would be true. Will readers growing up after that time feel the same way? Is The War of the Worlds still a popular book with young readers?
Books are like people, they survive death in the memories of folks who loved them. But as those people die, who will keep the memories going? History keeps the memory of significant people alive. For a book to keep being read requires a similar kind of historical significance.
Red Planet was the first Heinlein story I read. That was back in the autumn of 1964 just before I turned thirteen, and before Mariner IV. My eighth-grade English teacher required us to read three books for each six-weeks grading period. Red Planet was on her approved list, and maybe the only science fiction title. I wished I remembered her name because I’ve always been thankful to her for introducing me to Heinlein. By the end of 1965, I believe I had read all of Heinlein that had been published in paperback and hardback up to that time.
The Heinlein juveniles won library awards and were recommended for young adults. In the late 1940s when few science fiction writers got published in hardback, Heinlein sold his young adult novels to Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publisher of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. After WWII Heinlein also broke into slick magazines with several SF stories published in Saturday Evening Post, and he even had a Hollywood movie, Destination Moon, made in 1950. And I have met countless people on the web testifying how much they loved the Heinlein juveniles growing up. I think they are why those twelve books stay in print. But after they die, do those twelve books have any literary or historical significance to keep them in print?
Heinlein’s words had a certain amount of respect around the time I was born in 1951 but I’m not sure his same words would be respected today. While liberals shame-censor books with woke concerns and conservatives seek to actually have books banned from school and public libraries I’m not sure how the books I loved as a kid would be judged today.
Red Planet made a great impact on me as a kid. Conservatives today would probably completely approve of Red Planet — the only fault they might find in it is I grew up to be a liberal. I’m afraid my liberal friends would not approve of this novel because Heinlein had a completely 1940s attitude towards the role of women in society. But his attitudes didn’t rub off on me because I completely embraced feminism in the 1960s. I did wince at all of Heinlein’s patriarchal sentiments when I reread Red Planet this weekend. What’s strange is just a few years later, in the 1950s Heinlein changed his attitude completely toward what jobs women could hold. Wonder what made him change? And should we retroactively forgive him for his 1940s attitudes?
I’ve wondered if Heinlein’s third wife, Ginny, changed Heinlein’s mind about women. Or did his science fictional instincts make him ask: What if women had the freedom to be who they wanted? In the 1950s Heinlein made women rocket scientists, spaceship pilots, and combat soldiers. He put them in leadership positions. Did he think of that himself? Or were there feminists in the 1950s who changed his mind? Is a feminist change in SF significant enough historically to keep Heinlein’s 1950s books in print?
My favorite part of Red Planet is the Martians. They appear to be the same Martians Heinlein uses in his 1961 novel Strange in a Strange Land. However, they don’t seem to be the same Martians in his 1956 novel, Double Star. And there’s even a recursive SF joke in Red Planet. Willis turns out might be a princess of sorts, bringing in an Edgar Rice Burroughs allusion. In Red Planet, the Martians have a ceremony with water and call Jim their “water friend” but in Strange in a Strange Land, Mike undergoes the same water ceremony and is called a “water brother.”
In other words, I don’t care if the real Mars is lifeless, but it’s amusing to see how Heinlein gave Mars an intelligent species for his books. Alan Brown in his review of the novel said he thought Stranger was actually a prequel to Red Planet. If Stranger in a Strange Land stays in print, will it help Red Planet be remembered by science fiction scholars as a footnote?
Actually, many themes that Heinlein covered in other books are touched upon in Red Planet. Heinlein was a nudist, and the men in this novel only wear jockey shorts on the inside and describe women wearing what Earth women would wear to the beach. A lot of cheesy 1950s science fiction movies pictured such skimpy attire for the future. Will some science fiction books be remembered for their bad visions of fashion of the future? I doubt Red Planet has enough of those.
The revolution in Red Planet has a lot of similarities to the revolution in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Many of Heinlein’s stories involve revolutions or overthrowing some kind of tyranny. And they often have a big committee meeting where everyone argues and abuse Robert’s Rules of Order. And all these stories involve innocents being killed to ramp up the emotions and justify the revolutionaries using deadly force. Heinlein loved replaying the American revolution. I’m pretty sure MAGA people, and even preppers would find Red Planet appealing for its politics.
What’s funny is Jim Marlowe throws fits over minor school rules claiming it violates his freedom. Heinlein loved the Navy Academy and Jim would have been considered a whiner there. The way freedom is defined in Red Planet is the same kind as people who didn’t want to wear masks during the pandemic defined it. Heinlein also spends a fair amount of time promoting gun ownership in this book. He also promotes a kind of frontier justice that many conservatives today would love.
I was disappointed with this rereading of Red Planet because Heinlein failed to make his Martian colony realistic, or even spend much time on how a colony would be built. Heinlein saw Mars as a solution to Earth’s overpopulation and a place for people wanting to be free to be pioneers. Both are absolutely ridiculous assumptions.
The Martians in Red Planet have the same ability to make people disappear as Valentine Michael Smith did in Stranger in a Strange Land. I find that concept extremely unethical in the way Heinlein uses it. It gives his characters a god-like power which Heinlein assumes his characters know what’s right and wrong and can make god-like judgments. In more than one novel Heinlein has stated that bad manners should be a capital offense. Again, this will probably appeal to the MAGA crowd.
In recent decades I’ve developed a theory that Heinlein wanted to be another Ayn Rand, especially after the success of Atlas Shrugged. He switched from writing short YA novels to long preachy adult novels after Ayn Rand became famous. And Heinlein promoted a similar kind of political philosophy. Before he died, Heinlein said in many places he wanted to be remembered for three novels: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I see those as his Ayn Rand novels, but the same political sentiments exist in Red Planet. I believe Heinlein knew most of his novels would be forgotten in the 21st century, and he intended to winnow out the ones he wanted and why. I never liked Heinlein’s politics, so as I’ve gotten older, I jettison his 1960s and later novels too. I love a lot of his 1940s work, but I know they have woke problems. And from 1960 on, they have had political and literary problems. That leaves me with his 1950s work. And as I reread it, I might revise my opinions on those stories too.
Heinlein also likes writing stories about advanced aliens judging humanity. Red Planet parallels Have Space Suit-Will Travel in this regard. I’m not sure this theme is strong enough in Red Planet to ensure its long-term survival.
I still enjoyed reading Red Planet this weekend. I’ve read it several times over my lifetime. It’s a nostalgic favorite, but not a top favorite. It’s too quaint for modern readers, but I don’t think it offers enough historical or literary value to last. And I can see why it would offend many readers.
When I was young I loved Heinlein’s books so much that I thought they would become classics, but I doubt that now. I wanted Heinlein to be the H. G. Wells of 20th-century science fiction. I’m starting to think he might be remembered like Edward Page Mitchell.
Story #55 of 107: “Let Us Save the Universe” by Stanislaw Lem
“Let Us Save the Universe” by Stanislaw Lem was first published in The New Yorker. That’s rather prestigious. It’s currently in print from MIT Press in the collection Memoirs of a Space Traveler. Strangely, the paperback at Amazon is cheaper than the $13.99 Kindle edition, and that seems rather steep for a small ebook.
“Let Us Save the Universe” is a bit of humor about human tourists trashing the galaxy. It is lightly clever, and a bit amusing, but I found it only mildly entertaining. More and more, as I go through these stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, I realize there are all kinds of science fiction and all kinds of fans for each kind of science fiction. Probably, if I had read “Let Us Save the Universe” back in 1981 when it came out, I might have enjoyed it a lot more. I might have even praised it and recommended my friends read it. But now I’m old and crotchety and don’t have much patience for fluff.
At the Facebook group where we discuss these stories reaction to them is all over the place. We’ve read many anthologies and have discussed how well we like them. The evidence shows that it’s extremely difficult to assemble an anthology with a high hit rate for a majority of readers. Hell, it seems an impossible task to assemble an anthology that any two readers will agree on which are the best stories.
At this time in my life, I’m looking for great stories. I want to find the stories I love best, and then reread them. It’s beginning to annoy me to have to wade through so-so stories. But what I’m trying to say is “Let Us Save the Universe” didn’t push my buttons but it could push yours. It’s not a story I’ll add to my ultimate list of favorite SF stories.
I wish Amazon would offer a feature like playlists in Spotify where we could assemble our own anthology of favorite stories. I’d want mine to be both a Kindle and an Audible book. And I understand I could only add stories from books, magazines, and audiobooks I own or purchased separately. Although, wouldn’t it be neat if there was a Spotify for short stories? You pay one monthly price and could read/listen to any short story. I wonder if people realize how cool short stories work for smartphones? I like rereading my favorite stories in the same way I like replaying my favorite tunes.
Piet Nel in the group mentioned he’s has a list of 150 science fiction stories he loves most. This made me think I should assemble my own list of favorites. I have a couple of tall Billy bookcases from Ikea stuffed with anthologies. That’s a lot of short stories. However, I probably only love maybe 100-200 of them at most, maybe less.
When I was young I rarely re-read fiction. I’d say 100% of my input was new. But as I’ve aged, I tend to reread old favorites more often, and that’s especially true for short stories. Being in this short story Facebook group we’re reading many whole anthologies and quite often I’m rereading stories. This has turned out to be a good thing. I’m learning that rereading is often better than new reading. That the experience of getting deeper into a story is superior to the excitement of reading a new story — unless that new story is great. It’s always wonderful to discover something great. Of course, that doesn’t happen often.
But to the point, I feel like I’m wasting my time reading so-so stories, or even merely very good stories. When I was young and it was exciting to try a lot of different kinds of stories, “Let Us Save the Universe,” would have been fun. Now it’s mildly entertaining, but mostly a waste of my time. I’m jaded. I’ve developed a tolerance for certain kinds of fiction. I need the hardcore great stories, the really good stuff to get off.
That’s why I’d like an anthology of my favorite stories — more often than not, to get the most out of my reading time, it’s a bigger thrill to reread something I know.
Even though I bought all 35 volumes of The Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois as they came out, I never read one from cover to cover until now. Their size was just too daunting. I finally overcame my fear of giant anthologies when I listened to The Very Best of the Best from beginning to end, and then again when the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction voted it in as a group read. For summer 2021 we read The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection. This is the first of the annuals I’ve finished. Reading and discussing a short story every other day is a great way to read an anthology, and I expect someday to read the other 34 volumes – with or without the group.
Since I’ve joined this Facebook group, I’ve been reading at least one short story a day. We keep two group reads going concurrently. Because I also read stories on my own I’ll read over four hundred short stories this year, maybe as many as five hundred. For the three years before joining the group, I read at least two to three hundred short stories each year. I’m slowly getting a feel for the form, since I’ve probably gotten my ten thousand hours in. However, it wasn’t dedicated study.
For this post I thought I’d reprint my Facebook comments on the twenty-four stories in this anthology. If I find time, I’ll write separate reviews of the stories I liked best. Here’s my rating system. One and two stars usually only show up in magazines.
Writing level of a fiction workshop or amateur publication
Writing level of semi-pro magazine, or lesser pro magazine story
Solid story from a professional magazine, should be minimum level for an annual anthology
Solid story that I found particularly entertaining
An exceptional story I know I’ll want to reread someday, or have already read many times
An exceptional story that’s almost a classic, something I’d anthologize
A classic that’s well anthologized and remembered
My Rating System
01 of 24 – “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard F&SF (May 1985)
“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard is not science fiction, but magic realism that claims we can return to an past reality destroyed by modernity. The setting appears to be current day Honduras and the plot focuses on Esteban Caax, 44, a farmer, probably a descendent of the Azetecs. Esteban loves living in the country, and pursuing a simple life. However, his life is complicated when his wife Incarnación, 41, buys a battery powered TV on credit from Onofrio Esteves. Incarnación wants to move to town and take up modern ways.
Onofrio sold the TV to Incarnación to force Esteban into debt so he has to return to jaguar hunting. There is a rare black jaguar that’s keeping a tourist resort from being built, one that Onofrio and his son want to develop.
When Esteban goes hunting the jaguar he finds a beautiful woman, Miranda, in the jungle who suduces him. He eventually learns she is the black jaguar and she wants Esteban to return to an older, magical reality, part of his real heritage. At first Esteban refuses, but ultimately, he’s forced to follow Miranda into an ancient alternate existence.
Shepard’s writing is amazing and beautiful, and this story reminds me of “The Woman Who Rode Away” by D. H. Lawrence, another story about finding a way back to an older reality of the Aztecs, and one of my all-time favorite stories.
I’ve seen this theme enough times to wonder if people really do believe there are ancient ways to rediscover. I got to meet Shepard at Clarion West 2002. It’s a shame his work hasn’t stayed in print. The collection, THE BEST OF LUCIUS SHEPARD is available for the Kindle for $2.99. He has nothing on Audible. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucius_Shepard
02 of 24 – “Dogfight” by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick Omni (July 1985)
You’ve heard of unreliable narrators, well, Deke is an unlikeable narrator. “Dogfight” by Michael Swanwick and William Gibson is now considered a Cyberpunk classic, and it brings back memories of all the excitement that literary movement generated in the 1980s. Many cyberpunk stories embraced a noirish quality of dark settings, involving criminal activities, and “Dogfight” fits the stereotype. Deke is a petty thief that finds his calling in a game of Spads & Fokkers. In a rundown bus stop, Tidewater Station, Deke discovers a crippled vet named Tiny playing out the role of Minnesota Fats with the game of Spads & Fokkers, and Deke decides to steal Tiny’s throne by becoming the Fast Eddie of the game.
Along the way Deke befriends a college girl with her own ambitions named Nance. Ultimately, Deke uses Nance, and brutually steals her dream and crushes Tiny’s purpose for being. Deke is elated to finally be good at something, ignoring the cost of his success the others paid.
The neat thing about “Dogfight” is the idea we’ll being able to jack into hardware and project 3D images that others can see. There is no explanation for how this works at all. We’re just told people can imagine tiny WWI planes and people will see them flying around the room fighting in aerial dogfights. That was the problem with most cyberpunk stories, they imagined computer technology doing things it will never do.
03 of 24 – “Fermi and Frost” by Frederik Pohl Asimov’s (January 1985)
This is the third reread for me, so I’m wonder if I didn’t read part or all of this anthology back when it came out. “Fermi and Frost” is barely a short story. It’s more of a meditation by Pohl on nuclear winter.
The story begins in the chaos of people trying to fly out of JFK knowing that the missiles are coming to hit New York. Harry Malibert lucks out and gets a flight to Iceland and rescues a nine-year-old boy named Timmy. Iceland barely survives the nuclear winter, and Harry becomes Timmy’s father. Pohl tells us they could have a happy ending or a bad one. I’m sure most readers picture the happy ending, where humanity survives.
I liked this story because I always liked stories about the last humans on Earth, but this one is barely a sketch on the subject.
04 of 24 – “Green Days in Brunei” by Bruce Sterling Asimov’s (October 1985)
“Green Days in Brunei” was a finalist for the novella Nebula, but it lost to the 800-pound gorilla “Sailing to Byzantium,” also in this anthology, as is “Green Mars” by KSM, another heavyweight.
The pacing of “Green Days in Brunei” felt like an condensed novel rather than a stretched short story. I believe it’s really hard to pull off a novella that feels perfect for its length. In this case, I was wanting more, not less. The plot of the story is rather sparse, a techie, Turner Choi, takes job in a country that’s fighting technology, Brunei, falls in love with a princess, and has to choose between East and West worlds. Sort of a reverse King and I.
Turner is an interesting creation set in the middle of a fascinating political/philosophical situation. Sterling has done a good job creating a computer geek trying to make it in a repressive society. Seria, the princess and love interest, is also interesting, but more contrived. I wished her character could have been fleshed out, and it would have been if this story had been a novel. Jimmy Brooke, the corrupt and aged rock star almost steals the story. He feels somewhat like a J. G. Ballard character. Moratuwa, the political prisoner, and Buddhist is another character needing more onpage time.
This 1985 near future cyberpunk story missed the internet but scored hits on the social changes. The reason this story is so interesting to read is all the details of the Brunai society, which tries to repress western technology but still wants to succeeed at finding work for its people. That’s a valid philosophical problem today.
Like most cyberpunk writers, Sterling vastly oversimplifies programming robots. In many ways, SF writers expected too much from computers, but often imagined too little.
05 of 24 – “Snow” by John Crowley Omni (November 1985)
John Crowley was one of our teachers for the week at Clarion West 2002. I had not read anything by him at the time. I wish I had read “Snow” before I met him. What a beautiful story – but then I resonated with “Snow” because of my lifelong obsession with memory. I wanted wasp technology starting back in the 1950s. But I wouldn’t use it for remembering dead people. I’d want it for remembering my own life. I especially loved the randomness of the memories. “Snow” reminds me of one of my all-time favorite stories, “Appearance of Life” by Brian Aldiss.
06 of 24 – “The Fringe” by Orson Scott Card F&SF (October 1985)
Orson Scott Card continues the winning streak of great stories with “The Fringe.” Timothy Carpenter, is a wheelchair-bound teacher in a post-apocalyptic farming community who like Stephen Hawking speaks through a computer-generated voice. Because this 1985 story was probably before Hawking was famous I wonder if he was Card’s inspiration? And the use of the computer for speech synthesis and networks suggests Card could see into the future.
The plot of “The Fringe” is told in a straightforward narrative yet suggests complexity and layers. Carpenter, a hero of a rebuilding civilization because of his ideas on crop rotation, chooses to teach farm children on the fringe of that recovering civilization. The conflict of the story is between Carpenter and the students who hate him for turning in their fathers for their black market activities that undermine a community whose survival depends on interdependence. The story is surprisingly dramatic throughout, although Carpenter’s rescue is almost too good to believe possible.
07 of 24 – “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” by Karen Joy Fowler Asimov’s (October 1985) 2nd story from this issue
Miranda suffers from lifelong guilt for dumping Daniel who then volunteered for the army during the Vietnam War and was killed. Decades later she encounters him again several times during lucid dream psychotherapy. At first, Daniel is a realistic mental projection, the same age as Miranda as if he had continued to live, but as the sessions progress, he becomes younger, and eventually Miranda witnesses Daniel kill a child, one Daniel shot thinking he has a grenade. Miranda becomes obsessed she’s learning details about Daniel’s real life that she couldn’t possibly know.
At the beginning of the story, the idea of lucid dreaming therapy sounds practical, but as the story progresses the encounters in the lucid dream world suggest that Miranda is somehow communicating with an afterlife Daniel, making the story into a supernatural fantasy. However, we are restrained by the title. Is Miranda just looking at a lake of artificial things?
This is another story I read back then that I couldn’t tell you anything about before rereading it, but as I read it came back to me, with the scene with Daniel killing the kid triggering a memory of horror I felt reading it the first time. I thought this story was quite effective and wonder how Paul can consider it mediocre.
08 of 24 – “Sailing to Byzantium” by Robert Silverberg Asimov’s SF (February 1985)
“Sailing to Byzantium” is not my all-time favorite SF story, but it should be. It’s an epic work of imagination that only a few science fiction stories surpass. I know it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “The Time Machine,” but it might equal the haunting mood of “The Vintage Season.” I still have a greater personal attachment to “The Star Pit.” Obviously, the Muse was with Silverberg when he wrote: “Sailing to Byzantium.”
Many science fiction writers have tried their hand at far-future stories, but “Sailing to Byzantium” comes closest at conveying what we can never know. What Silverberg works to do in this story is to explain to us what Phillips tries to convey to Willoughby.
09 of 24 – “Solstice” by James Patrick Kelly Asimov’s SF (June 1985)
“Solstice” is a horrifying examination of the sexual abuse of a clone. Tony Cage, who is a wealthy superstar drug designer has himself cloned, but in the cloning process had the clone made female. Cage raised the clone as Wynne who everyone thinks of as his daughter, but Cage sees as a version of himself. There are two other stories I know about that explore sex with the self theme, “All You Zombies—” by Heinlein, and David Gerrold’s THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF. Both of these stories used time travel to hook up a person with themselves, but Kelly uses cloning, so it’s not quite the same, but I think it’s meant to be.
Tony Cage is an egomaniac of the first order who doesn’t see Wynne as herself, but the perfect companion he is creating over time. Cage is educating Wynne to be him and is troubled when Wynne goes in her own direction. Cage even uses cold sleep to even out the years between them as Heinlein did in THE DOOR INTO SUMMER for his unrelated characters. As the story unfolds we see Cage’s obsession with Wynne grow and only get hints of what’s happening to Wynne, but in the climax of the story, we learn that Wynne suffered from deep psychological damage because she saw herself as a daughter of Cage.
The common belief is clones will be duplicates of a person, but they won’t be, and I believe Kelly’s insight is right, they will be our children.
This story is actually two stories, the one described above, and the story of Stonehenge. I was fascinated by all the infodumping about Stonehenge Kelly presented, and I assume it’s true, but I believe it diluted and damaged the main story. The dramatic conclusion of Tony and Wynne’s tale happens at a solstice event at Stonehenge and evidently, Kelly wanted to make that more impactful. For me, the blending of the two stories was clunky, and I would give this story a lower rating, but the other part is too powerful.
10 of 24 – “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” by Avram Davidson Amazing Stories (May 1985)
Cosimo Damiano, the King of the Single Sicily is aided by Dr. Engelbert Eszterhazy to ward off the attacks of Mr. Melanchthon Mudge who wants to steal Cosimo’s only possession of value, Duke Pasquale’s ring.
Avram Davidson’s charming prose is due to his creative use of names and nouns, and a lot of knowledge about old literature and history. However, why is this fantasy story in an anthology devoted to science fiction?
And “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” doesn’t even contain fantastical fantasy, it’s really a very gentle fantasy about what feels like medieval times when people believed in magic. This story reminds me of the Thomas Burnett Swann story we read. Both Swann and Davidson are enchanted by the past, by arcane mysteries and myths.
Not sure how to rate this story. It’s beautiful writing, but the story is all cotton candy, it expresses very little emotion or philosophy, other than the kindness of Eszterhazy for the poor deluded Cosimo. For now, I’ll say ***+ because I have no desire to read it again, although I can imagine fans of Davidson frequently returning to his kind of storytelling. It’s a very delicate form of escapism.
11 of 24 – “More Than the Sum of His Parts” by Joe Haldeman Playboy
Joe Haldeman seems to suggest in “More Than the Sum of His Parts” that becoming a cyborg will go to our heads and make us into monsters, like a variation of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or maybe the moral was better bodies don’t make for better minds. I thought this was the weakest story in the collection so far, but it’s still pretty good. I did wonder if Playboy would have bought this story without the cyborg penis and description of its use?
12 of 24 – “Out of All Them Bright Stars” by Nancy Kress The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (March 1985)
Sally Gourley, a waitress, waits on a blue alien named John who her boss Charles demands she not serve. This story won the Nebula and was included in two textbooks devoted to science fiction, so it’s bound to be an important story, however it’s short and somewhat mysterious. Sally doesn’t feel the prejudice and hatred towards the alien, but then in the end she thinks: “And all at once I’m furious at John, furiously mad, as furious as I’ve ever been in my life.”
Why. I’ve read this story before, and I read it twice in a row tonight trying to figure out why Sally is furious at John. My guess is Sally doesn’t want to know there are better beings in the universe because she had to live with humans. In the last lines she’s responding to something John said:
“I make so little difference,” he says. Yeah. Sure.
Not only do humans look bad in comparison, Sally knows we aren’t going to change, even when we encounter Christ-like figures. I wonder if Kress was saying this to herself regarding her efforts to write enlightening stories?
13 of 24 – “Side Effects” by Walter Jon Williams F&SF (June 1985)
“Side Effects” is something that could have run in THE NEW YORKER because it was so well-written, and whatever mild science fiction it contained was minimal and slipstream.
I was quite impressed with this story and tried to imagine all the intellectual work that Walter Jon Williams had to put into it. It’s also still very relevant. Even after 35 years, it works as a near-future tale. Since I’m old, I’m having to take a lot of drugs, some of which doctors give me as samples. I often wonder if I’m a guinea pig. And they frequently cause side effects.
14 of 24 – “The Only Neat Thing to Do” by James Tiptree, Jr. F&SF (October 1985) (2nd story from this issue)
I didn’t know Tiptree wrote space opera, although “The Only Neat Thing to Do” feels slightly familiar. As does most of the stories we’ve read from this anthology. It’s weird to think what my brain might retain after thirty-five years.
While reading this story I wondered about how Tiptree wrote it. Was she a fan of space opera beforehand? Had she read “The Cold Equations?” To write space opera requires thinking about interstellar travel and other space travel fiction. Tiptree’s sense of space travel feels like it came from Star Wars or Edmond Hamilton (in other words, not hard SF). And Coati Cass reminds me a lot of Heinlein’s title character in PODKAYNE OF MARS. Not only is Triptree writing space opera, but it’s also YA.
Overall, I loved this story, but it had some problems. The communication pipes don’t make sense. What’s their propulsion system? How do they navigate? How long do they take to get where they are going? Even with cold sleep, how long has Coati been gone?
Dozois sure could pick them this year. Four of the six finalists for the Nebula award for the novella are in this anthology. We have one more to read, “Green Mars.”
15 of 24 – “Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985)
“Dinner in Audoghast” is an odd story to appear in a science fiction magazine. I try to imagine why Bruce Sterling wrote it. Picturing a long-forgotten African-Arab city is an interesting choice. I assume because William Gibson had made Japanese culture famous Sterling thought he might try it with Arab culture. George Alec Effinger also used Arab culture in a cyberpunk novel two years later in WHEN GRAVITY FAILS.
Audoghast was the western terminus of a trans-Saharan caravan system during a time when Arab culture was waxing and European culture was waning. It’s a fascinating time period to set a historical novel. Maybe Sterling wanted to write such a historical piece and added the leprous fortune-teller into the story to give it some reason for an SF magazine to publish it. Sterling certainly had to do the work of a historical fiction writer to write this story, and he found a wealth of details to paint a colorful setting.
I don’t know if cyberpunk writers started this or not, but in the coming decades coopting foreign and historical cultures became big in science fiction. It’s led up to today’s World SF stories.
16 of 24 – “Under Siege” by George R. R. Martin Omni (October 1985)
On one hand, “Under Siege” is not the kind of story I enjoy. I’m not fond of alternate history. On the other hand, this is an impressive story. It showcases the kind of writing skills George R. R. Martin had before writing The Song of Ice and Fire books.
Again, we’re treated to another bit of history. Was this a fad back then for SF writers? I looked up the Siege of Sveaborg to see what Martin was working with. It seems like a rather esoteric point in time to pivot the future of the U.S.S.R.
I admired what Martin was doing in the 1808 scenes, but I felt nothing for those characters. However, the narrator, the killer geek mutant narrating the story did grab me. Was his name ever given? I felt for him.
17 of 24 – “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” by Howard Waldrop Omni (January 1985)
Reading “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” made me order THINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME: SELECT SHORT FICTION 1980-2005 by Howard Waldrop. I’ve read this story before, and a few other Waldrop stories and always loved him. Don’t know why I haven’t tried to read more from the guy. I’m amazed that Waldrop comes from Houston, Mississippi, because my mother’s folks are from that part of the country, and I’ve briefly lived in two small northern Mississippi towns and know what kind of upbringing Waldrop would have had. It’s not the kind that would produce these stories. Houston is not far from Oxford, the stomping grounds of William Faulkner.
“Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” is another nostalgia-driven story about a time I fondly remember. I started listening to the radio in the 1958-1963 era when many of the songs in the story first appeared. I even lived in Philadelphia in 1959 for a few months. I loved that glorious Doo-Wop music before it was shut out by the British Invasion in 1964-1965, it’s like imprinted on my soul. I also remember AM radio having Oldie-Goldie weekends. All the songs mentioned in the story push my nostalgia buttons like crazy. Even the UFO book Leroy was reading was probably one I read, because for a short while I gorged on UFO books, however, I mainly remember the crazy George Adamski.
The battle of the bands between Leroy and Kool-Tones and Bobby and the Bombers on November 9, 1965, that knocked out the lights of the northeast USA was one cool story.
18 of 24 – “A Spanish Lesson” by Lucius Shepard F&SF (December 1985)
Lucius Shepard creates a fake Roman à clef about his 17-year-old self vagabonding in Europe in 1964 and meeting two escaped clones from an alternate reality spawned by the evil soul of Hitler. This story is rather schizoid, mixing an On The Road memory with Nazi occult horror, where Adolf is a Lovecraftian elder god. Fictionalizing Nazis is dangerous artistic territory because it generally makes any work trivial in comparison to reality. Shepard would have been better off stealing from Lovecraft. Yet, there is a lot to admire in “A Spanish Lesson.”
The trouble with being an SF/F writer is needing to add the fantastic to every story so it can be sold to an SF/F market. The start of this story and the ending is far better than its SF/F elements. It’s too bad Shepard didn’t stick with straight Kerouac, with maybe a dash of Ballard. I really liked the dynamics of Shepard being the youngest member of an ex-pat community trying to earn some respect from the older cats that he thought were cooler, but were just pretenders.
19 of 24 – “Roadside Rescue” by Pat Cadigan Omni (July 1985) – 2nd story from this issue
“Roadside Rescue” was a wham, bam, thank you ma’am kind of story, for us and the protagonist.
20 of 24 – “Paper Dragons” by James P. Blaylock Imaginary Lands
“Paper Dragons” is a story about the intersection of reality, fantasy, and science fiction. The narrator exists sometimes in the real world of ordinariness, sometimes in a fantasyland, and sometimes in a steampunk-like continuum. There were glittering aspects to this story, but it was often murky to me. I did relate to it in a couple of weird ways though. When I lived in south Florida there would be invasions of crabs. Millions of them would suddenly travel through our neighborhood. And I once found a furry caterpillar and put it in a gallon jar with branches from the bush I found it on. It made a cacoon and eventually emerged as a moth. I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t a butterfly.
Sorry, but I thought this was another story not suited for this anthology because it wasn’t science fiction. A slight case could be made that since Filby could assemble a dragon from pieces of metal that it’s science fiction, but it never felt science-fictional. Its tone was always a lament that fantasy was fading from the world.
21 of 24 – “Magazine Section” by R. A. Lafferty Amazing Stories (July 1985)
I admired Lafferty’s writing and wild imagination in this tall tale but it’s another story that doesn’t belong in this collection. Lafferty does use the word “clone” but the cloning in this story is not the least bit science fiction.
What’s interesting about Lafferty is trying to categorize his writing. I wonder what he was like in person? Was he always pulling people’s legs and telling his tall tales to other people? He’s a kind of literary leprechaun, a class clown with print. He was capable of writing science fiction, PAST MASTER is an example, but for the most part, his stories aren’t science fiction in intent. Nor do they have the flavor of fantasy. His stories are fantastic, but not genre fantastical. It’s a shame the literary world didn’t embrace him because stories like his do appear in literary magazines.
22 of 24 – “The War at Home” by Lewis Shiner Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985) (2nd story from this issue)
“The War at Home” is a punch in the gut. The Vietnam war comes to haunt America’s reality like a bad dream we can’t escape. Although the Safeway bit made me think of our times. Shiner’s story suggests chickens do come home to roost. But I wonder why he wrote it in 1985? That was ten years after the war ended. If civilizations suffer Karmic retribution, then we’re in for some bad shit, much worse than what’s going on now.
My overactive bladder means I never sleep long, so I wake up dreaming many times a night. The intensity of the opening dream sequence resonated with me. Like I said, this very short story was a punch in the gut. Hope it doesn’t give me bad dreams tonight.
23 of 24 – “Rockabye Baby” by S. C. Sykes Analog Science Fiction (Mid-December 1985)
“Rockabye Baby” feels like another one of those literary stories with an embedded fantastic element so it’s salable to a genre market. I thought the first part was excellent. The van crash, the hospital, the group home, the pursuit of drawing, all felt very realistic. Even the part of Sharkey chasing after an experimental treatment. But memories don’t equal a personality, so I don’t buy the fantastic element of the story.
I believe if the real focus of the story was the experimental treatment, the story should have started with Cody trying to rebuild his personality with cassette tapes. Now that would have been a great story too. This could have been a novel, but ISFDB doesn’t show that. Sykes has one other story and one novel listed in their database.
24 of 24 – “Green Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson Asimov’s Science Fiction (September 1985)
“Green Mars” is a hard story to describe and rate. 70% of this long novella is about rock climbing, something I’m not particularly interested in. 20% is about terraforming Mars and the conflict between Red Mars and Green Mars philosophy, something I’m very interested in. And finally, 10% of the story is about Roger and Eileen, and issues with living 300 years, another aspect of the story I loved.
Even though I’m not interested in rock climbing, Robinson did some impressive writing in presenting this part of the story. I have read memoirs of mountain climbers with the details of rock climbing, and I think KSM gives more blow-by-blow details of climbing than those memoirs. Is KSM a rock climber himself?
I admire KSM’s books for their ideas. However, he seldom produces an emotional story for me, but by the end of “Green Mars” I was feeling this story emotionally.
“Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction (November 1952) and was retitled in 1965 to “Anybody Else Like Me?” for Miller’s second collection The View from The Stars. This was my third reading of the story. Previously read in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1953 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, and The Great Sf Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I just listened to the story in The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. that was released on audio two weeks ago (June 2021).
Imagine you’re a science fiction writer and want to tell a story about a person who feels they are different from other people and one day they discover they’re a telepath when they finally meet someone like themselves. How would you plot such a story? I wouldn’t have done it like Walter M. Miller, Jr. did in “Command Performance,” and neither would you, but I was quite impressed with how he envisioned such an encounter playing out. Miller had an interesting take on how telepathy might work, and like many science fiction stories from the 1950s, it’s very psychological.
Most writers picture telepathy as people talking to each other without speaking aloud. Miller takes the concept much further. He has his characters, Lisa Waverly and Kenneth Grearly sharing thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, fantasies, and inputs from all five senses. Much like that old saying about walking in someone else’s shoes.
I wish “Command Performance”/”Anybody Else Like Me?” was a novel instead of a short story, and Miller had worked out Lisa’s and Kenneth’s relationship at length. However, it appears Miller never finished a fully completed published novel. Miller’s most famous book, A Canticle for Leibowitz was a fix-up novel based on three previously published stories. ISFDB only lists one story in the novel section, “The Reluctant Traitor,” probably a novella, that appeared in the January 1952 issue of Amazing Stories. Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was a novel he almost completed before committing suicide, was finished by Terry Bisson, and published after his death.
According to ISFDB, Walter M. Miller, Jr. published 41 works of short fiction in the 1950s, and one in 1997, so evidently writing novels wasn’t his thing. I found this essay by Terry Bisson, “A CANTICLE FOR MILLER; or, How I Met Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman but not Walter M. Miller, Jr.” to be quite interesting, revealing a few more tidbits about Miller. And now that I’m listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. that just came out in audio, I’m finding each story makes me want to know more about Miller as a person. As Bisson points out, Miller did not want to meet people, and never even met his agent. That makes me even more curious about him.
I believe stories reveals details about their writers, even when writers desperately try to stay hidden. I’m only on the fourth story in this audiobook, and I’m guessing there will only be fourteen total if it’s based on the 1980 edition of the book of the same name. (Why hasn’t his other stories been collected?)
I can’t find much on Miller except his entries in Wikipedia and SF Encyclopedia. But at the beginning of his career he wrote this profile about himself for the September 1951 issue of Fantastic Adventures:
I believe this provides us with a few additional clues. Miller became a recluse making himself enigmatic. I don’t think Miller was telepathic, but he might have felt himself different from other people. But as I listen to his stories I can’t help but wonder about the man who wrote them. They are a strange take on science fiction, focusing on humans, and less about aliens and spaceships. Miller seemed more interested in psychology, philosophy, religion and aspects about mundane life. One reason why I’m so fond of science fiction of the 1950s is because the characters were often ordinary, just ones who encountered the fantastic in strange little ways.
I’m really enjoying this collection and looking forward to hearing all 22 hours. I then hope to reread A Canticle for Leibowitz before trying Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.
James Wallace Harris, 7/8/21
A friend sent me a chapter from Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl Weary where Merril recounts her affair with Walter M. Miller, Jr. while married to Frederik Pohl. It added many more puzzle pieces to my growing mental picture of Miller. I went to buy the book on Amazon and Amazon informed me I already had a copy. Now I need to read it.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a table of contents for the audiobook version of The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. but I’m hoping it’s the same as the 1980 hardback edition. That book seemed to combine the two previous paperback collections, Conditionally Human (1962) (3 novellas) and The View from the Future (1965) (9 stories and novelettes) and added two other stories for a total of 14. That leaves 27 stories uncollected. There were other collections of Miller’s stories, but they all seem to reprint from that same list of 14. Maybe they were all dogs, and not worth reprinting, but sometime I hope to read them too.