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

Winged Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, March 11, 2019

“Where the Golden Apples Grow” by Kage Baker

Where the Golden Apples Grow by Kage Baker

“Where the Golden Apples Grow” by Kage Baker is the 7th story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m reviewing its stories one-at-a-time not to judge them but to explore the current state of science fiction. Baker’s story is about colonizing Mars, which is my favorite theme in science fiction. Every story about a Mars colony is one writer’s idea of how humanity might build a civilization on the Red Planet. None have ever pictured it the way I imagined it, but that’s not a ding on their stories. The Very Best of the Best is 38 SF stories first published between 2002-2017.

“Where the Golden Apples Grow” is part of the late Kage Baker’s Mars Series. Like I said when reviewing the Robert Reed story, this anthology is getting me to read “newer” science fiction authors, taking me out of my mid-20th-century SF rut. I’ve read a few stories by Kage Baker before. Reading about these writers before writing the reviews shows me a much larger science fiction universe. That’s why I’m providing hyperlinks, in case you want to know more too.

Mars is the El Dorado of science fiction. It takes a furious amount of mouse-wheel scrolling to get through the lists of stories about Mars at Wikipedia. Colonizing Mars will be the fulfillment of one of science fiction’s oldest ambitions. Aren’t the efforts of every national space program driven by scientists who are stealth SF fans hoping to get to Mars?

When I started this project of reviewing these stories one-by-one, I said most of the stories in the anthology aren’t my kind of science fiction. This Kage Baker story is exactly my kind of SF. I was born in 1951. I started 1st grade just before Sputnik was launched, and graduate 12th grade just before Apollo 11. Science fiction has always been my Bible for space exploration religion. I thought for sure Mars would be colonized in my lifetime. I have a few years left, and I’m still hoping.

Science fiction can be about almost anything, and the stories in this anthology testify to that. But for me, science fiction has always been about what could happen from 1970-2100 in our solar system. Science fiction is a cognitive tool for speculation and extrapolation. Sure I love stories about interstellar exploration, time travel, utopias, dystopias, and the far future, but all those fictionalized speculations are too far out for me to believe might happen. I’ve always loved down-to-Mars science fiction.

I read science fiction because I wanted to know what might be the big possibilities in my lifetime, or what could happen in the decades after my death. I figured within the 1970-2100 timeframe, colonizing the Moon and Mars were about the limits of what I could realistically hope. I also assumed intelligent robots would evolve in that time period, and as a longshot, we might get lucky and make SETI contact. Exploring those themes are my kind of science fiction.

That being said, Kage Baker’s Mars is not my Mars. Every science fiction writer pictures Mars differently. Imagining how humans will settle on Mars is a kind of intellectual game. I figure Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars trilogy is the current champ to beat. Some writers ignore science and reality. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury’s Martian landscapes are like Oz for adults. Some writers try to guess what it might be like to start a colony, sort of like SimCity on another planet. Other writers like to begin their fiction after the colonies have been established. Baker imagines her Mars with truckers and farmers, capitalism and collectives, rich and poor, idealists and scientists, sort of like 1940s Americans with hi-tech on another planet.

Baker’s Mars seems to have evolved from science fiction ancestors she and I have in common, especially Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, and Farmer in the Sky. Kage Baker’s idea of how a Mars colony will develop might be closer to how Heinlein imagined it than Clarke, Bova, or Robinson.

Baker sets up her story by telling about the 2nd and 3rd boys born on Mars. Bill, is the son of a trucker, and he and his father haul ice back from the poles to a settlement at Mons Olympus. Ford, is the son of a farmer who works in a collective called Long Acres. Baker’s Mars is working class, settled by people from Earth who want freedom and opportunity, and who might be just a little bit crazy.

I’ve always wanted to write a story like “Where the Golden Apples Grow” because I’ve always wondered: What if the children of Mars and Moon colonists don’t see the High Frontier dream in the same way as their parents do? Would children growing up on Mars or the Moon fantasize about living on Earth like I fantasized about Mars? Can any child raised in 1/6th or 1/3rd gravity ever return to 1G? Bill and Ford don’t like their destinies, but what can they do?

I was quite moved by Baker’s story, and I have no quibbles with it as it stands as a story. However, she imagines three outcomes for a Mars colony that I don’t. First, she expects colonists to live and work on the surface. I’ve always figured there’s too much hard radiation raining down on Mars for that. I assumed colonists would have to live underground. Second, Baker imagines hordes of immigrants from Earth coming to Mars, with most of them doing hard-labor work. I imagined a few hundred highly-trained scientists seeding a Mars civilization with hordes of robot helpers. I don’t think it will ever be economically/environmentally practical to send too many rockets towards Mars. Third, Baker imagines capitalism will work on Mars. I think it will take centuries before Mars has a manufacturing or service economy. There will be no profit for Earth in colonizing Mars. Every dollar Earth spends on Mars will be a donation towards creating a space civilization, but that civilization will have to create a new kind of economy, and it will take centuries.

Now, these aren’t criticisms of this story. Most readers will read it, be entertained, and go on to their next read. But for some readers, a story like this is a proposed blueprint that begs to be discussed. Science fiction writers make a series of speculations as they tell their stories. When I was growing up my SF reading buddies and I would argue over those speculations. We stopped when we grew up, but I miss that. That’s what I want to bring back in these reviews.

For example, in “Where the Golden Apples Grow” the farmer buys a pair of boots for his son that has to be shipped from Earth. They would be very expensive. Mars has nothing to pay for those boots, nor does the farmer. See, this is where the fun of imagining how a colony on Mars would evolve. What is the best kind of boots to have on Mars? Plastic, leather, cloth, etc? Where does that material come from? Can it be made on Mars? How is the economy created to get everything made that people need to use? When you read “Where the Golden Apples Grow” think about that. What kind of engines and power sources do the long-haul truckers use on Mars? Where does the fuel come from? Mars or Earth? What are the roads made out of, and who built them? Can transparent panels be made to make walkways on Mars that shield residents from radiation? That’s what Baker implies. Where’s the factory that makes them? Where does all the machinery in it come from? Where do the raw materials come from? Can the Martian regolith be turned into fertile soil? Is there uranium on Mars?

Such questions are endless. And any good story about a Mars colony should try to answer some of them. But not in a lecturing way that would slow down the storytelling. Baker does this quite effectively. Her story is a moving dramatic tale, both in pace and emotion. I’ve often seen criticism for Robinson’s Mars trilogy because his speculation bogs down the story.

I consider Kage Baker’s “Where the Golden Apples Grow” to be as fun as one of Heinlein’s juveniles from the 1950s. That’s high praise from me.

James Wallace Harris, March 8, 2019

 

 

“Dead Men Walking” by Paul McAuley

Life-After-Wartime-by-Paul-McAuley

“Dead Men Walking” by Paul McAuley is the fourth story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m reviewing this anthology one story at a time while contemplating the nature of writing science fiction. “Dead Men Walking” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2006. In 2007 it was recognized as one of the best stories of the year by both the Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer annuals. In 2013 “Dead Men Walking” was reprinted in Clarkesworld (read/listen) and in Pual McAuley’s ebook collection, Life After Wartime, part of his Quiet War series.

“Dead Men Walking” is the first story in The Very Best of the Best that I thought of as traditional straight-ahead science fiction. The story is told in the first person by a man who is dying. He’s recording his last thoughts for whoever discovers his body. This immediately reminded me of the classic film D.O.A. – not the newer 1988 film, but the great 1949 version with Edmond O’Brien. It’s a highly specialized writing challenge to pull off a first-person account of a dying character. McAuley’s effort is tight and succeeds. However, by its very nature, a murder victim’s POV involves violence.

I’m not knocking “Dead Men Walking” but I’ve reached an age where violence in fiction is not the page-turning force it was when I was younger. I no longer care whodunit. However, I can still watch and read mysteries and thrillers for their settings and characters.  This story takes place on Ariel, the fourth-largest moon of Uranus. Ariel is a cryogenically cold world I doubt humans will ever settle, but Paul McAuley builds a prison there. However, because of the low gravity, McAuley makes it sound rather appealing place to live or read about:

I have a one-room treehouse. It’s not very big and plainly furnished, but you can sit on the porch of a morning, watch squirrel monkeys chase each other through the pines. I’m a member of Sweat Lodge #23. I breed singing crickets, have won several competitions with them. Mostly they’re hacked to sing fragments of Mozart, nothing fancy, but my line has good sustain and excellent timbre and pitch. I hope old Willy Gup keeps it going … I like to hike too, and climb freestyle. I once soloed the Broken Book route in Prospero Chasma on Miranda, twenty kilometres up a vertical face, in fifteen hours. Nowhere near the record, but pretty good for someone with a terminal illness. I’ve already had various bouts of cancer, but retroviruses dealt with those easily enough. What’s killing me—what just lost the race to kill me—is a general systematic failure something like lupus. I couldn’t get any treatment for it, of course, because the doctors would find out who I really am. What I really was. I suppose that I had a year or so left. Maybe two if I was really lucky. It wasn’t much of a life, but it was all my own.

Roy Bruce is about to die. He’s outside the habitat, lying in the cold with little oxygen to breath, and useless legs. This tale is how he got there. It’s a good story, one that would have trilled pulp readers in the 1940s and 1950s. I enjoyed listening to it, however, I would have preferred to know more about life on Ariel than about another casualty of war. Those treehouses and crickets piqued my interest. That’s the kind of details I love in science fiction.

“Dead Men Walking” works very well as a shorter work. It’s well plotted. It begins with a bang and ends with satisfaction. Even though I also greatly admired “The Potter of Bones” and  “The Little Goddess” with their highly creative world-building and textured details, they were both novellas that went on too long.  “Dead Men Walking” is a novelette, and for me personally, that’s about the perfect length for science fiction. I love science fiction at its shorter lengths, but usually, a short story is too short, and a novella is too long, and novelettes are just right.

However, short stories and novelettes need resolvable conflicts, and all too often in space adventures, that involves killing humans or aliens. One of the aspects of fiction I want to study while reading The Very Best of the Best is how often violence is used as the plot engine. Think about all the science fiction movies and television shows you watch. How many use war, crime, killers, invasions, etc to keep your interest? The conflict in “Rogue Farm” was resolved in death. Violence often tends to make science fiction feel like fodder for adolescent males. For example, how many successful video games aren’t shooters of some kind? By the way, the two novellas had little or no violence.

Like I said in an earlier essay about this anthology, these stories are great reads but usually, they aren’t my kind of science fiction. Creating non-violent conflict in stories is a challenge. Of course, the next story is all about violence.

James Wallace Harris, March 3, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, February 27, 2019

Audible Has A Fantastic Collection of Baby Boomer Science Fiction

The Fourth R by George O. Smith

For several years now (2017, 2016, 2015), I’ve created wish-lists of wanted audiobook editions of classic science fiction stories. My hope is publishers would see my lists and produce those titles on audio. I doubt they ever have, but every year a few more classic science fiction books show up at Audible.com. They have done a fantastic job. Almost any title I read as a kid is now available to read with my ears. Nearly every book on The Classics of Science Fiction and Worlds Without End Top-Listed Books of All-Time lists are available on audio. And I think that validates those stories.

Starting in 2002 when I joined Audible.com I’d scan the new releases daily always hoping to find my favorite science fiction stories from my Golden Age years, the books Baby Boomers now consider the classic of the genre.  Each year it gets harder to find titles that haven’t gotten the audiobook treatment. Here are some of the older science fiction titles that have shown up at Audible this past year:

  • Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan
  • Sleeping Planet (1965) by William R. Burkett, Jr.
  • The Troublemakers by George O. Smith
  • The Snail on the Slope by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
  • Triplanetary (1934) by Edward E. Smith (magazine version)
  • This World is Taboo by Murray Leinster
  • The Sensitive Man by Poul Anderson
  • Masters of Space by Edward E. Smith & E. Everett Evans
  • The Silent Invaders by Robert Silverberg
  • Mercenary by Mack Reynolds
  • Catseye by Andre Norton
  • Storm by George R. Stewart
  • The Land of Always Night (Doc Savage) by Kenneth Robeson
  • The Golden Man (Doc Savage) by Kenneth Robeson
  • Planet Stories – March 1953 (magazine)
  • Planet Stories – Fall 1941 (magazine)
  • Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Scarlett Plague by Jack London
  • With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling
  • As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling
  • 2 B R 0 2 B by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  • Sci-Fi Shorts volumes 1-6 (public domain)
  • Future Eves: Classic Science Fiction About Women by Women edited by Jean Marie Stine
  • Pink Winds, Green Cats, Radiant Rocks & Other Classics by the Forgotten Woman of Science Fiction’s Golden Age by Frances Deegan

As any diehard mid-century Sci-Fi fan knows, Audible is scraping the bottom of the barrel. They did (accidentally I’m sure) grant a few of my wishes from last year:

  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  • Rogue Moon By Algis Budrys
  • The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany
  • Grass by Sherri Tepper

Not very many, but they were heavy hitters that were overlooked. I realize now that many of my wishes were unrealistic because reprinting old anthologies on audio probably involve significant copyright problems. And I’m starting to doubt there’s a market for short fiction SF on audio anyway, but even then, I got to listen to the three-volume The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. That made 2018 a great year for science fiction on audio. The first volume is probably the most popular science fiction anthology of all-time.

The Long Loud Silence by Wilson Tucker

I’ve decided to make this the last year for wishing for old science fiction on audio. I’m going to make one last roundup of what I’d love to hear and then go off to listen to all the great SF books already sitting in my Audible library. I’ve purchased more than I can listen to in my expected remaining lifetime. This year I’m going to mostly aim for books that publishers should have an easier time acquiring the rights, either novels or single author collections.

I love hearing science fiction read to me by great narrators. And because I study the history of science fiction, there are many rare titles on I want to hear. But I doubt many others do. Sure, there a bunch of us old SF fans rereading our favorite science fiction from our formative years by listening to their audiobook editions, but I don’t know how big that market is, and in any case, we’re a dying audience. I believe Audible and its allied publishers have found pretty much all the old science fiction that was once popular before the year 2000.

Still, there are books I want to hear, and there are science fiction authors from the past that never had anything reprinted in audio, such as Zenna Henderson or William Tenn, or other writers that have had little of their work represented. I still yearn to hear classic science fiction short stories, but I know copyright issues probably make them difficult to reprint. However, I still love to hear three SF anthologies that I believe would significantly cover the history of the science fiction short story if they were produced for audio: Adventures in Time and Space (1946) edited by Raymond J. Healy & J. Francis McComas, Dangerous Visions (1967) edited by Harlan Ellison, and The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. Links are to ISFDB.org to show their table of contents. But I doubt they will ever get an audio production now.

67 Books I Want to Hear In My 67th Year

  1. A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay
  2. The World of Null-A (1948) by A. E. Van Vogt
  3. The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) by A. E. Van Vogt
  4. The Legion of Time (1952) by Jack Williamson
  5. The Long Loud Silence (1952) by Wilson Tucker
  6. Marooned on Mars (1952) by Lester del Rey
  7. Bring the Jubilee (1953) by Ward Moore
  8. Children of the Atom (1953) Wilma H. Shiras
  9. A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn
  10. Mission of Gravity (1954) by Hal Clement
  11. Cities in Flight (1955) by James Blish
  12. Citizen in Space (1955) by Robert Sheckley
  13. Rocket to Limbo (1957) by Alan E. Nourse
  14. Wasp (1957) by Eric Frank Russell
  15. The Enemy Stars (1958) Poul Anderson
  16. The Lincoln Hunters (1958) by Wilson Tucker
  17. The Fourth “R” (1959) by George O. Smith
  18. The High Crusade (1960) by Poul Anderson
  19. Hothouse (1962) by Brian W. Aldiss
  20. Second Ending (1962) by James White
  21. Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn
  22. Simulacron-3 (1964) by Daniel Galouye
  23. Earthblood (1966) by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown
  24. Empire Star (1966)
  25. The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz
  26. Lords of the Starship (1967) by Mark S. Geston
  27. Camp Concentration (1968) by Thomas Disch
  28. Of Men and Monsters (1968) William Tenn
  29. Omnivore (1968) Piers Anthony
  30. Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty
  31. Space Chanty (1968) by R. A. Lafferty
  32. The Last Starship from Earth (1968) by John Boyd
  33. The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets (1968) by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
  34. Behold the Man (1969) by Michael Moorcock
  35. Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad
  36. Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony
  37. And Chaos Died (1970) by Joanna Russ
  38. The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) by Wilson Tucker
  39. The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth (1971) by Roger Zelazny
  40. The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) by Gene Wolfe
  41. The Listeners (1972) by James Gunn
  42. The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (The Unsleeping Eye) (1973) by D. G. Compton
  43. The Centauri Device (1974) by M. John Harrison
  44. Orbitsville (1975) by Bob Shaw
  45. The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ
  46. The Shockwave Rider (1975) by John Brunner
  47. Trouble on Triton (1976) by Samuel R. Delany
  48. On Wings of a Song (1979) by Thomas M. Disch
  49. Ridley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban
  50. No Enemy But Time (1982) by Michael Bishop
  51. Native Tongue (1984) by Suzette Haden Elgin
  52. Ancient of Days (1985) by Michael Bishop
  53. The Falling Woman (1986) by Pat Murphy
  54. Mindplayers (1988) by Pat Cadigan
  55. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990) by James Tiptree, Jr.
  56. A Woman of the Iron People (1991) by Eleanor Arnason
  57. Sarah Canary (1991) – Karen Joy Fowler
  58. Synners (1991) by Pat Cadigan
  59. China Mountain Zhang (1992) by Maureen F. McHugh
  60. Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith
  61. Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers
  62. Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson (1995)
  63. Holy Fire (1996) by Bruce Sterling
  64. The Book of the Long Sun (1993-96) by Gene Wolfe
  65. Aye, and Gomorrah (2003) by Samuel R. Delany
  66. Store of the Worlds (2012) by Robert Sheckley
  67. The Future is Female (2018) edited by Lisa Yaszek

The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd
— James Wallace Harris 11/15/18

In Praise of Mediocre Science Fiction

IF Magazine May 1954

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Science Fiction Stories

Volume 1 (2009)* – $10.95

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

Volume 2 (2010) – $10.95

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

Volume 3 (2011) – $10.95

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

Volume 4 (2012) – $10.95

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

Volume 5 (2012)* – $6.95

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

Volume 6 (2012)* – $6.95

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

Volume 7 (2013)* – $5.95

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

Volume 8 (2014)* – $6.95

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

Volume 9 (2016) – $6.95

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

Volume 10 (2018) – $6.95

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

 

– – James Wallace Harris (11/8/18)