What Was The Big Bang Beginning to Science Fiction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CABAL: “Little animals, eh?”

PASSWORTHY: “Little animals.”

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

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

The musical finale becomes dominant.

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/20/21

Deadly Serious Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 1/23/21

The Time Travelers Who Visit Jesus

Our Facebook book club has just read the 1966 novella version of “Behold the Man” by Michael Moorcock which has made me wonder about time traveling back to A.D. 29 to find Jesus. Wouldn’t it be marvelous is we could study history with a time machine? Actually, what we really need is a time viewer, which was featured in an earlier story the group read, “E for Effort” by T. L. Sherred. That would eliminate any problem with temporal paradoxes.

Moorcock later expanded his story into a 1969 novel that I hope to read someday. I was impressed with the novella this reading because of how much history Moorcock put into the story. When I first read the novella back in the 1960s I didn’t know that history, but since then I’ve read eight books by Bart D. Ehrman about uncovering the historical Jesus through scholarship and not theology. I’ve also read Zealot by Reza Aslan that uses historical studies about Jesus to create a novel-like narrative of his life. Reading these nonfiction books is about as close as we can come to visiting Jesus with a time machine – and that’s only speculation. But then we have science fiction, which is another kind of speculation, a fun kind.

Between the time “Behold the Man” was published in 1966 and Behold the Man in 1969 another science fiction novel appeared about traveling back in time to visit Jesus, The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd. This is pretty much a forgotten science fiction novel but one I keep remembering. What’s fascinating about reading these two stories is comparing Moorcock’s and Boyd’s science fictional approach to dealing with Jesus. However, I can’t tell you why without spoiling the story.

I wrote a long review for my personal blog back in 2012 that avoids spoilers up to a point, and then gives a warning not to read after that. I thought I’d just reprint it here. It might encourage people to try both books. I’m also curious how other science fiction writers used Jesus in a time travel tale. Post comments about the ones you’ve read.

Forgotten Science Fiction: The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd

Every year thousands of SF and fantasy books get published, but few are reviewed, not many more become popular, and damn few get remembered.  Ten years out, most books are out-of-print and forgotten.  How many books can you remember from 2002?  And if we’re talking fifty years down the timeline, well it’s almost a miracle for a book that old to still be read, much less remembered and loved.

I discovered science fiction in the 1960s, in my teens, and like most people reading their first hundred SF titles, they all seemed so damn far out!  Now decades later, I doubt my memories of those first impressions.  So, when I have a little extra reading time, I order a book from ABE Books based on those dying memories and reread it.  I’ve now reread many of my teenage classics and a majority of them don’t hold up.

Most memories are fleeting, and my memory of The Last Starship From Earth was next to nothing.  All I remembered was a favorable impact.  Just a lingering sense of it being a standout read for 1968 or 1969.  To test that memory I recently bought and reread The Last Starship From Earth.  Sad to say, it was a discard from the Columbus Public Library, a common practice for books that don’t get checked out.  Not a good sign.  The last English reprint of this novel was in 1978.  It’s last edition was in French, in 1995.

The-Last-Starship-From-Earth-by-John-Boyd

The Review

The Last Starship From Earth is a dystopian novel set in 1968 and 1969, but not the 1968 and 1969 that I remember, or lived through.  In the world of this story, Jesus did not die on the cross, but was killed leading an assault on Rome.  He was the Messiah that people expected.  The government of John Boyd’s world is a global government run by Christians along “scientific” lines, where psychologists and sociologists in conjunction with the Church and an AI Pope rule the world.  People marry and mate because of their genes, sort of like the film Gattaca, and the hero of our story is Haldane IV, M-5, 138270, 3/10/46, a math student of great promise, being the fourth in line of great mathematicians.  Unfortunately Haldane gets the hots for Helix, a mere poet.  By law and social custom Haldane is expected to have nothing to do with her, but as you’d expect he falls in love with her.

Haldane concocts a ruse to justify more meetings with Helix by studying Fairweather I, a 19th century mathematician who also wrote poetry.  Much of the first half of the book deals with pseudo-academic studies from this alternate history.  Boyd is creative in his steady flow of ideas and concepts, but there’s little emotion in the story.  It’s somewhat Heinlein-esque, in it’s attitude and world building, but lacks the charm of Heinlein’s best prose.

Now, this quick summary is enticing, and I would like to report that The Last Starship From Earth is a forgotten classic, unfortunately, that’s probably not true.  I enjoyed the book, but only as a quick read.

Surfing the web I’ve found few other reviews of this novel, and although I’ve found people who claim it’s their favorite book, I also found people that thought it ho-hum.  Now, I’ve got to admit it has a humdinger of an ending, almost as startling as the film The Sixth Sense, but I’m not sure this last minute thrill pays for the reading the whole book.

I found the love affair of Haldane and Helix no more believable than Romeo and Juliet and far less exciting.  John Boyd does write well, but the plot is mostly intellectual, about the dystopian society, and its complications.  The book is only 182 pages, and the whole tale feels rushed.  Boyd staked out a solid gold claim but never mined it.

Analysis with Spoilers

The trouble with many SF novels, especially those written back in the 1950s and 1960s, was they were written very fast, and they were about ideas and not characters.  John Boyd has actually written a very ambitious novel by creating an alternative history of Jesus, but he never fleshes it out, and most of the story is a setup for the surprised ending.  The scope of the book is epic, the line by line writing reasonably entertaining, but the overall feel of the book is thin.

Haldane and Helix are discovered, and the middle part of the book is a trial that allows Boyd to work out the politics and legal system of this alternative reality, however, like the rest of this book, it’s rushed.  It’s padding.  That’s its downfall.  He has a big ending but it’s way bigger than the story.  To pad the story even more Haldane is sentence to exile on Pluto, which is called Hell.  There he meets Fairweather I and is reunited with Helix, who happens to be Fairweather’s granddaughter.  Fairweather needed a mathematician for his time machine, and Helix was sent to Earth to engineer the exile of a mathematician to pilot an experimental time machine.  In a very short time Fairweather makes Haldane immortal, tells him his new name is Judas Iscariot, and his mission is to go back in time to kill Christ.

Now if Boyd had spent a couple hundred pages recreating the Biblical world and shown how Haldane tracks down Jesus, we would have had a much better story.  But all of this was summed up in a short epilogue.  We are told Haldane captures Jesus and puts him in the time machine and sends him back, and the rest of the epilogue is about how he has relived the two thousand years to return to his own time and meet a girl that’s an awful lot like Helix, living in a future that’s much more like ours.  But did Haldane let Jesus die on the cross, or does he just disappear him from history?  Unless Haldane at least engineers a dying on the cross scene for history, we should not expect this timeline to be ours.

How do you plot a riveting novel with great characters based on the idea that Jesus didn’t die on the cross and the world became very different?  How do you tell the story twice?  Boyd really grabs a tiger by the tail and yells, “Look at me!”  And I think, “Cool!  Far out man!  But what are you going to do with him?”  He’s got to do more than just swing it around.  I’ll give Boyd a solid C for his world building, but they are only tantalizing sketches.

I really like this ending, but is it good enough to make The Last Starship From Earth a classic SF novel worth reading today?  I’ve linked several references to this book on the net and even though I can find fans of the book, I can find more people who think it sucks.  You’d think  Boyd Bradfield Upchurch, John Boyd’s real name, if he’s still alive, would arrange for his books to be reprinted as ebooks.  That certainly would make it easier for more readers to decide if The Last Starship From Earth is worth reading.

I’m afraid Boyd falls far short of classic standing.  The Last Starship from Earth is a good novel for science fiction historians to read, but it needed to be four or five times longer, more the size of Dune, to get the job done that Boyd outlined.  However, I’m not sure how he could have pulled off this big ambitious idea.

And is Boyd saying our history is the better timeline?  Why is his first timeline all that evil?  Is the freedom to fuck whoever you want the perfect ideal worth rewriting all of history?  Isn’t the more interesting story about a world where the promise of salvation and eternal life never happened?  Isn’t Boyd’s surprise ending really a cheat?

Time travel machines often ruins more stories than they’ve ever help.

Boyd has a three part story.  Life on Earth in an alternate timeline, life on Pluto, life on Earth in another timeline.  The story really isn’t about genetic breeding of humans like we see in Gattaca, or in Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon or Huxley’s Brave New World.  It’s about an oppressive government.  But does it deserve to be wiped out by time travel?

Here’s the thing, our 1968 was a horrible time for America, but should we send a man back in time to wipe it out?  Boyd wasn’t writing a protest novel like Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Nor did he write a novel that truly explored a timeline with a different Christ, which would have been ambitious enough.

Would The Last Starship From Earth been a better novel is it hadn’t used the time machine gimmick?  Not as it stands, but it potentially could have been.  I believe it’s a grave mistake for any alternate history novel is have a do-over.  Time travel is really a very dangerous concept to use in fiction.  Time travel is very hard to pull off.  The beauty of an alternative history novel is the alternative history.  Don’t add time travel.  This would take away Boyd’s surprise ending, but it would have meant he would have been forced to write a better novel.

I felt cheated when Helix shows up so easily on Pluto, in what at first appears to be a happy romantic ending, but then we’re thrown for another loop.  Haldane loses her again, only to find her again 2,000 years later.  Oh come on man, this horny-at-first-sight love isn’t believable.  Weren’t there no math babes for Haldane?  This really is a case of what you can’t have makes the heart grow fonder.  And neither Haldane nor Helix are all that interesting – if you want a great love story you have to have great lovers.

The powerful driving motive in Gattaca is that Vincent wants to go into space.  He wants to prove that he’s as good any genetically selected human.  The driving force of The Last Starship from Earth is Haldane wants to screw Helix.  Boyd doesn’t make it believable why his world outlaws sex, nor does he make it believable that Haldane and Helix are in big time love.  Hell, even the prosecutors of the story wink at him, and say why didn’t you use a condom and just screw her, implying this world does overlooks recreational sex, just not casual genetic mixing.  But then Boyd never explains why his world requires genetic  fidelity to specialties like mathematics and poetry.   In Gattaca we have the justification that their world doesn’t want naturals to pass on bad traits, but in Boyd’s world there is no reason to breed pure bred mathematicians.  Also, how many math geniuses does one world need?

John Boyd wrote just enough alternate history world-building to set up his surprise ending.  In essence The Last Starship From Earth is a O’Henry type story, and we now use those type stories as examples as how not to write a story.  However, The Last Starship From Earth suggests two possible storylines I’d love to read.  First, I’d love to read an alternate history where Christ was the Messiah that everyone was expecting.  Second, I’d love to read a time travel story about people having to learn what it takes to live in ancient Israel and track down Jesus.  Both would require a tremendous knowledge of real history.

JWH –5/28/12

JWH – 9/28/20

Tracking Down Pre-Fandom Science Fiction Readers

Ever since I’ve been reading 19th-century science fiction I’ve wondered what were the reactions to those stories by readers of the day. The term science fiction applied as a unique category of fiction didn’t exist before Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories in 1926, and even then it took a number of years to get the label we have today. At first, Gernsback called the type of stories he wanted for his magazine scientifiction, but within a few years it was changed to science-fiction, and then to science fiction. (See “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”)

Before that according to Brian Stableford in his 4-volume New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance, the French called stories like those written by Jules Verne roman scientifique, and the British called stories like those written by H. G. Wells scientific romances. I’ve yet to find what Americans called such stories. It’s doubtful in any country if the reading public thought those kind of stories represented a distinctive branch of literature.

During the 1930s American admirers of the science fiction story in pulp magazines began to communicate via letters, then meeting in person, eventually creating clubs and holding conventions. The first Worldcon was in 1939. Those organized science fiction readers called themselves fans, and collectively called their activities fandom. During the period 1930s-1950s is when the genre of science fiction slowly emerged — finally to be recognized by book publishers who marketed science fiction by that label, and libraries and bookstores began shelving it separately under that term too.

However, the kind of stories we now call science fiction existed well before the label, and I’m sure those stories resonated with a tiny segment of the reading public. How soon did those readers begin to seek out stories we call science fiction? We know this began for sure when Gernsback started publishing them together in a magazine, but when did publishers, editors, and readers recognize there was a type of fiction that wasn’t about what was but what could be? Stableford cites reviewers using the term scientific romances and roman scientifiques but how universal were those labels? Did readers intentionally track down those stories because of those descriptive phrases?

We’ve always had fantasy, but fantasy is fiction about events and places that could never be. When did readers start saying to themselves, “I like those stories about what could happen in the future?” Can I find published accounts of reader reactions to science fiction stories published before 1926. Starting in the 1930s fans of science fiction began publishing amateur magazines they called zines. There are several histories of these, and they do document how readers felt. What I’m looking for is pre-fandom documentation.

My first hunch was to wonder about book clubs. I found, “The evolution of American book clubs: A timeline” by Audra Otto that suggests Americans liked getting together to discuss books and have been for at least four hundred years. The kind of stories we call science fiction didn’t really begin to appear regularly until the 19th-century with tales like Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley and “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) by Washington Irving. Did any reader in those days claim they were a different kind of fiction? When did readers who liked those kind of stories start noticing they were different?

And when did readers start saying to one another “I want to read more stories about traveling in time” or “I want to read more stories about amazing inventions” or “I love stories about traveling to other worlds?” Wouldn’t that be the first seeds science fiction fandom? For example, we know hundreds of Nationalist clubs were formed over Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward. That represents a kind of fandom, and they also had a national magazine. Could other book clubs have formed for fans of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Fitz-James O’Brien, Edward Page Mitchell, or H. G. Wells?

What I would like is to find documentation of early interest in science fiction. I have no idea of how to go about it. Fanzines from the 1930s are the documented proof of fandom as we know it, but were there amateur publications before then that dealt with science fiction stories even though they didn’t have a universal label yet for those kinds of stories? There was amateur press associations in the 19th century, but can I find copies their publications online?

Conversations weren’t recorded in the 19th century, so letters and diaries should be the first kinds of lasting evidence. Did Jules Verne get fan letters? Are there any published diaries whose authors secretly wrote about their fondness for stories we’d now call science fiction? When did the letters to the editor columns begin? Did fans of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories ever write to the periodicals where his stories were published? I can’t believe readers of in 1895 couldn’t have been silent after having their minds blown with “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells.

Here’s my problem. There are vast reservoirs of 19th-century publications out there, even on the net, but I’m not ready to devote the rest of my life to systematically sifting through them to answer this one idle question that keeps intriguing me. First, I’m going to look for books, probably scholarly books, that document science fiction back then. By blogging this essay, I hope readers that might know of books or articles that cover this topic will post a comment.

I’ll use the New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford to outline the main works that should have generated reviews and then begin to search for those reviews. Maybe reviews inspired letters to the editor or even counter-reviews or essays. I’ll also see if any of those authors had collected letters, memoirs, autobiographies, or biographies. A lot of this depends on finding periodicals and books online from 1830-1930.

After that I have an anthology The Rivals of H. G. Wells that collected short stories similar to H. G. Wells published in magazines from late 1800s to early 1900s. If I can find scans of those magazines online, I’m going to see if I can find any reader responses in later issues. I’ll also use the list of stories I generated for my essay “19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories” as starting points for similar research.

This will be a long term project. It’s doubtful I’ll find much evidence, but I’ll keep a subprogram running in the back of my head to interrupt me for when I do. And if anyone reading this finds any, please post a comment.

James Wallace Harris, 8/24/20

Update: 8/24/20SFFAudio pointed me to Vril, a concept in a science fiction like novel The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that led to legions of fans, mostly occult, and its implications in novels and works of occult beliefs. This inspired some science fiction writers, even Heinlein had his occult moments. I’m thinking both the Bellamy and Bulwer-Lytton followers and their organized activities might have been precursors to 20th-century fandom.

Has The Pandemic Affected Your Reading?

Back in the 1960s, when I was a clueless teenager reading Martians, Go Home by Fredric Brown, I thought the book was hilarious. My friend George had turned me onto the story by describing the wild antics of the invading Martians. Back then I focused on the comic elements. Fifty years later when rereading the book I identified with the victims of the Martian pranks, the humans, and the disruptions to their everyday life.

True, the book wasn’t funny today, but then neither is Gilligan’s Island. However, the book worked well on this new level because the plague of Martians brought about the same kinds of social disruptions as the coronavirus pandemic. The older me focused on the repercussions of the pandemic of little green men. Brown had extensively dealt with that aspect of the story, but I had missed it as a kid. The Martians put many people out of work and made gathering in large groups impossible. Because of our current situation, those threads in the story were elevated as perceptive writing. I have to wonder, though, if the current pandemic had not happened would rereading Martians, Go Home have impressed me so much?

Doesn’t real-life suffering make fictional suffering so much more vivid? Living through this pandemic has enhanced many of the books I’ve been reading and many of the shows I’m watching. Some of my friends are avoiding stories that remind them of the pandemic and seeking fictional escapes instead, but not me. I recently binge-watched an eight-part version of War and Peace, and the parallels were impressive. And what I really loved was the ending when the remaining characters found a new normal. That felt really good emotionally.

What’s ironic now, are stories about pandemics used to be a favorite theme of mine. I’m not sure I would enjoy them today, or if I did, not in the same way. One of my most loved books is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and one of my top DVD series is Survivors. In both stories, a pandemic wipes out 99.9% of the human race. Their appeal was starting society over. My younger self found that very exciting. This pandemic is hardly like those pandemics, but real life and fiction produce something in common — the desire for normal. Missing just a little bit of normal has taught me I really would have hated missing most of normal. Even though I thought I wanted to be a Robinson Crusoe rebuilding society, I probably would have gone catatonic losing the old one.

Experience is hard on fiction. Growing up I thought becoming an astronaut would be the pinnacle of all experiences. My junior high self would have sold his soul to fly on a Project Gemini mission. But I didn’t know myself. It took me years to realize I didn’t have the right stuff. My love of normal routines makes it impossible for me to have been an astronaut. Loving science fiction is one thing, being Neil Armstrong is something we’ll never see in any kind of fiction.

My experiences in life have taught me all about which characters I couldn’t have been, and which ones I could. But I didn’t know that in 1965, so I gorged myself on all kinds of books daydreaming I could become someone like the protagonist living their far-out adventures. Now, in 2020 when I read stories, I often see myself as one of the minor characters or identify with the faults of the main character.

Life has always cleared my rose-colored fantasies.

Mad Max Big Labowski

JWH

What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown

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

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

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

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

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

What Mad Universe - hardback 1st edition

Martians and Madness

JWH

One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh

One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh is a fix-up novel that was published in hardback in 1954 but was first serialized as three stories in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Feb 1953, Jan 1954, Sep 1954). That was quite common back in the 1950s, to assemble a novel from a series of shorter works written first for the magazines. For example, Foundation, More Than Human, A Case of Conscience, A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc. were all fix-up novels.

One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntoshI had discovered the novelette “One in Three Hundred,” in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1954 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty. I thought it a ripping tale and immediately looked it up on ISFDB.org. That’s when I found out there was also a novel by the same title, and it was based on three stories:

My first inclination was to order a copy of the novel. I was anxious to keep reading to find out what happens. It is currently in print but sold as three separate ebooks for $3.99 each, reprinting the individual stories. I really wanted a copy of the original Doubleday edition because of its dust jacket. A first edition can run in the hundreds, but book club editions aren’t too expensive. However, I have the magazines and decided to just read the story in its original serial form.

1

I’m not sure Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas knew what they had with the first story because it wasn’t given cover like parts two and three. “One in Three Hundred” was mentioned on the cover, but it was listed last. However, they introduced the story with:

Intro 1

The story begins with 28-year-old Bill Easson walking around the small town of Simsville, (population 3,261) oddly judging people in his thoughts. What slowly unfolds is the world will end soon and Bill will pilot one of 700,000 cheaply built rockets that can each take ten passengers to Mars. Only 1 in 300 Earthlings will get a chance to survive, and Bill’s job to pick the right people. This story reminds me of a movie I just reviewed, Abandon Ship where Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power) has to choose who lives and dies on a lifeboat.

Bill is very conscientious about his assignment. He doesn’t want the obvious morally best people, but people he thinks are up to the challenge and one who could make something out of their new life on Mars. Of course, most people in this town try to con, barter or force themselves onto his list. It’s a compelling story, and fairly adult for a genre targetted to youths. Most of the story is about Bill’s logic, and how he argues with different people who can’t see his way of thinking.

We eventually learn what the editors thought of the story in their introduction to the second part, “One in a Thousand.”

Intro 2

I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to learn that Bill and the ten do make it off Earth because the second episode is about surviving the journey in space. And the editor’s lets you know about as much as you need to know. I like the second part, but it wasn’t as original as the first story. However, McIntosh does provide some very realistic problems for his characters so solve, much more real than most space adventures of the time. 1954 was pre-NASA and although McIntosh doesn’t lay a bunch of technical jargon on us, he does cover all the scientific basics for traveling to Mars. Most science fiction at the time, or even later, seldom bother with these kinds of details.

Again, this might be a spoiler, but it’s probably obvious that in the third installment, they do make it to Mars but face a whole host of new survival problems colonizing Mars. By now the editors know how big of a hit they have.

Intro 3

One in Three Hundred is a forgotten novel of science fiction. It appears to have made a minor splash at the time. Groff Conklin said it was “A distinguished tale” in his January 1955 review in Galaxy. But it was the last book he reviewed in that column and didn’t say much other than describing the three parts like I have above.

P. Schuyler Miller in the February 1955 “Reference Library” damns the story with faint praise.

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On the other hand, Damon Knight savages the story in the February 1955 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly. Who is right, Boucher and McComas and the readers of F&SF, or Damon Knight, who became one of the first literary critics of the genre? Knight makes me feel stupid for liking the story.

Science Fiction Quarterly 1955-02-0075

Science Fiction Quarterly 1955-02-0076

And Henry Hull in his review from Imagination April 1955 makes me wonder how could  have I liked the story at all:

Imag55-04 0063_1L

Galaxy reviews the One in a Hundred again when it was republished as an Ace Double. This time Floyd C. Gale calls it excellent and compares it to When Worlds Collide.

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Finally, we have Leslie Flood’s review from New Worlds #47. His 1956 take is closer to my 2020 opinion.

New Worlds No 047 0127

New Worlds No 047 0128

I have to admit that One in Three Hundred isn’t a great book, but I find it fun reading. But then, I love discovering old forgotten science fiction worth remembering. I’m mining the past for the kind of science fiction I enjoy — the ones I missed the first time around. Of course, that means anything I like and recommend must be taken with a grain of salt if you’re only used to reading modern science fiction.

I recently read The Death of Grass by John Christopher from the same time period and will say it is a classic, a true novel of artistic quality, one a modern reader should admire. McIntosh doesn’t come close to Christopher’s writing skills. However, does that mean I shouldn’t recommend One in Three Hundred? Damon Knight was famous for vivisecting SF novels, and he does make this novel seem silly — but I could do that to all my favorite books. Sure, it is unrealistic to believe that we’d ever build 700,000 cheap spaceships. I doubt McIntosh believed it either. McIntosh sat down to write about one man picking ten people to survive the apocalypse. That’s the primary hook. The second and third parts are about how well he chose.

Of course, McIntosh gets everything wrong about Mars, but then so does all the other science fiction writers of that time, including Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov. I remember seeing the name J. T. McIntosh on books when I was growing up, but they never appealed enough to me to buy and read them. Now I wish I had. I assumed he was among the countless hack writers of genre and that might be what he eventually became. However, it appears his early books from the 1950s were more promising. Some of his books are in print today as ebooks, but I don’t know if they are his best work or hack work. If we have any J. T. McIntosh fans out there who can vouch for his better novels, leave a comment.

James Wallace Harris, 3/16/20

The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1952

1953 - short science fiction

Here are the stories Bleiler and Dikty picked in 1953 for the best of 1952:

  • “Ararat” by Zenna Henderson *****
  • “Category Phoenix” by Boyd Ellanby ***
  • “Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. ****
  • “Conditionally Human” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. *****
  • “The Conqueror” by Mark Clifton ***
  • “Counter Transference by William F. Temple ***
  • “The Dreamer” by Alfred Coppel **
  • “Fast Falls the Eventide” by Eric Frank Russell *****
  • “Firewater” by William Tenn ****
  • “The Fly” by Arthur Porges ***
  • “The Gadget Had a Ghost” by Murray Leinster ****
  • “Game for Blondes” by John D. MacDonald ***
  • “The Girls From Earth” by Frank M. Robinson ****
  • “I Am Nothing” by Eric Frank Russell ****
  • “Lover, When You’re Near Me” by Richard Matheson ****
  • “Machine” by John W. Jakes **
  • “The Middle of the Week After Next” by Murray Leinster ***
  • “The Moon is Green” by Fritz Leiber ****
  • “Surface Tension” by James Blish *****
  • “Survival” by John Wyndham ****

Then in 1986 Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg picked these stories as the best short SF of 1952 (overlapping stories are in bold):

  • “The Altair at Midnight” by C. M. Kornbluth ***
  • “The Business, As Usual” by Mack Reynolds **
  • “Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. ****
  • “Cost of Living” by Robert Sheckley ***
  • “Delay in Transit” by F. L. Wallace *****
  • “Fast Falls the Eventide” by Eric Frank Russell *****
  • “Game for Blondes” by John D. MacDonald ***
  • “Hobson’s Choice” by Alfred Bester ***
  • “The Impacted Man” by Robert Sheckley ***
  • “Lost Memory” by Peter Phillips ***
  • “The Martian Way” by Isaac Asimov ****
  • “The Moon is Green” by Fritz Leiber ****
  • “The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury ***
  • “Sail On! Sail On!” by Philip Jose Farmer ****
  • “The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean **
  • “The Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury ****
  • “What Have I Done?” by Mark Clifton ****
  • “What’s It Like Out There?” by Edmond Hamilton *****
  • “Yesterday’s House” by Fritz Leiber ****

I’m always amazed at the different lineups between Bleiler/Dikty and Asimov/Greenberg. For 1951 they only have one story in common, so having four in 1952 is rather interesting. Using our 2020 CSFquery tool here are the most cited stories in our database for 1952:

1953 best SF stories csfquery

Remember, the Bleiler/Dikty and Asimov/Greenberg anthologies are three of the citations used in our database. For example, here are the citations for “Surface Tension,” the most cited SF short story of 1952. Why didn’t Asimov/Greenberg include it in their collection?

Surface Tension citations

I’m extremely fond of “Surface Tension” but my very favorite short read for 1952 was “Fast Falls the Eventide” by Eric Frank Russell, and it only received two citations. That implies citations are not the best way to recognize a good story. Who knows, there might be several stories from 1952 that never got any recognition after their first publication that I would enjoy reading today. There were dozens of magazines back in 1952 publishing science fiction.

“The Year of the Jackpot” is one of my top favorite Heinlein short stories, but it wasn’t picked for either anthology. “Baby is Three” by Theodore Sturgeon is a tremendous tale. I wonder why Bleiler/Dikty didn’t pick it for Year’s Best Short Novels 1953 (it was too long for the other two anthologies). I guess it was already being recognized as being part of More Than Human. I wished both Bleiler/Dikty and Asimov/Greenberg would list the stories they wanted to anthologize but couldn’t. For a while, they left a blank page for the Heinlein stories, but they soon stopped that.

The two Ray Bradbury stories, “Sound of Thunder” and “The Pedestrian” are often taught in schools, well, at least when I was going to school. However, they didn’t impress me as much as when I first read them over a half-century ago when I had to read them in school. Still good stories, but their fame has dimmed their brightness.

I thought “Delay in Transit” by F. L. Wallace was an exceptional story, but it seems to have been forgotten. Ditto for “Ararat” by Zenna Henderson. It’s a shame that her stories of The People are fading away from the genre’s memory.

I got a big kick out of reading these 1952 stories. When I started this project, beginning with the SF stories of 1939, I expected the famous Golden Age SF stories of the 1940s to be the outstanding stories of the past. But I was disappointed. Overall, the 1940s weren’t particularly golden for me. Things started picking up in the late 1940s, and the 1950s are now producing the kind of stories I’d call a Golden Age. I’m sure it’s a matter of generational perspective. There is also the possibility that each decade will be better than the one before it. In that case, I’m really looking forward to the 1960s.

Thrilling Wonder

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001-001-001-Galaxy v03n06 (1952-03) 001

001-Astounding May 1952 page 001

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001-001-001-Galaxy v05n02 (1952-11) 001

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JWH

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 1/10/2020

 

 

Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov

I wanted to “read” The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov but it wasn’t available on audio (my preferred format for consuming old science fiction). However, Audible.com had three anthologies of Asimov’s stories, I, Robot, Robot Dreams, and Robot Visions. So I wrote out a list of all the stories in The Complete Robot and marked which stories were available on audio in these three audiobooks. After listening to Robot Dreams I had a new appreciation for Isaac Asimov. Now that I’ve finished Robot Visions I have even more appreciation. But boy, I sure am sick of hearing the Three Laws of Robotics being restated.

Robot Visions (1990) has 18 short stories about robots and computers, and 17 essays about writing about robots and computers. Listening to these two volumes you realize just how much of Asimov’s life was devoted to thinking about robots. These stories cover 48 years – from “Robbie” (1940) to “Christmas With Rodney” (1988). Asimov died in 1992, so that’s pretty much his entire writing life.

I read I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy back in the 1960s when I was a kid, and for most of my life, I’ve pigeon-holed Asimov by this experience. I thought of Asimov as a so-so writer of sentimental tales about robots and a creator of a galactic empire epic I didn’t really buy into. During those other decades, I read a lot of Asimov’s nonfiction, and I thought of him as a great explainer. Giving Asimov’s fiction another try this year has made me realize just how wrong I was about his fiction. He’s a very good storyteller. Sure, he’s not literary or stylistic, but he can tell an entertaining story with engaging characters with drama and humor.

I do believe I’m now seeing the best in Asimov because I’m listening to his stories read by professional narrators. Susan Calvin, the famous robopsychologist of his stories revealed many complex dimensions of her personality when I listened to the stories, including murderous rage (“Liar!”) and cold-blood killer (“Robot Dreams” in the previous collection). And I could tell Asimov loved his robot creations, especially in “The Bicentennial Man” and “Robot Visions.”

Of course, what Asimov loved most was creating the Three Laws of Robotics. That gave him a lifetime of plot challenges. Most of these stories involved Susan Calvin or Mike Donovan solving a mystery by using the unerring logic of the three laws. These stories are fun, and often clever, but they usually didn’t have the sentimental charm of stories like “Robbie” or “Sally” which don’t involve the logic of the laws. Robot Dreams also had several of Asimov’s classic short stories not involving robots. So the two volumes make nice Best of Asimov set.

Reading the 17 essays about writing robot stories, you can tell Asimov was quite proud of coining the term robotics and inventing the three laws. And I got the feeling Asimov believes robots will eventually have the three laws incorporated into their programming. I don’t.

Here’s the thing, as much as I enjoy Asimov’s robot stories I believe he failed to imagine what real intelligent robots will be like or how we’ll coexist with them. I got the feeling from his essays that Asimov felt his writing legacy has a lock on robot science fiction. Thirty years after his last robot story I feel that legacy is fading away.

Asimov felt he conquered the robot tale because previous writers mainly used the robot as a threat, and he imagined them as friends and faithful servants. Since then writers have created even more beloved robot characters, even robots humans have sex with. Personally, I don’t think science fiction has come anywhere near what the reality of intelligent robots will be or anticipated our future relationships. I wish I had the energy and skills to write fiction because I see this as a wide-open theme.

I believe intelligent machines won’t be programmed by us but will evolve through techniques like machine learning. This means coding the three laws of robotics will probably be impossible. As AI evolves it will become part of its own evolution in a recursive way that we will never understand.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this collection of stories and essays. They perfectly encapsulate an era of science fiction. I think of science fiction written before real space travel as pre-NASA SF. I believe this book will be a classic of pre-Singularity SF one day.

One last note. I found it interesting that the short stories held up better than the essays. The essays are still worth reading, but they seemed more dated. I wished the publisher had interspersed the essays with the stories instead of leaving them as a clump at the end. I believe Asimov wrote almost 500 books, mostly nonfiction, but eventually, I predict he will be remembered for just The Foundation Trilogy and maybe for the robot stories.

James Wallace Harris, 12/29/19