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-Astounding May 1952 page 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

 

The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson

The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson is not the kind of book you can recommend people rush out and buy. It is legendary for being difficult to read, and many consider it boring and tedious. However, The Night Land is one of those cult classics that have inspired a selective group of writers and readers. I had no trouble listening to an unabridged audiobook edition of the book that was just over eighteen hours long. I think hearing it rather than reading let me appreciate the archaic style Hodgson developed for telling his story. The Night Land is a tale told by an unnamed narrator who lived millions of years in the future on an Earth in the perpetual night after the sun dies. It’s all narrative, with no dialog.

Many scholars consider The Night Land the main inspiration for the Dying Earth subgenre of science fiction. One fascinating trait about science fictional themes and subgenres is the feeling from reading older works is that later writers think, “That’s cool! But I can do better.” I believe people still read The Night Land because it inspires new visions of the end of time. I can only recommend this book to readers who delight in reading obscure works. The Night Land is an impressive novel of the fantastic and William Hope Hodgson is quite ambitious in his literary effort. I think Joseph Campbell would have admired Hodgson’s novel since it feels like ancient mythology. Scholars of science fiction admire The Night Land because of its influence on the Dying Earth subgenre, and many science-fiction, fantasy, and horror writers cite it as inspiration for their strange stories.

Wikipedia has an excellent overview of the Dying Earth subgenre which I highly recommend reading. However, they only go back to the early 19th-century for the first influencers of the genre. I would say The Book of Revelations is an obvious precursor, and I’m sure any culture in prehistory that could imagine Earth having a beginning could also have imagined its end. Hodgson’s language reminds me of the Bible or The Epic of Gilgamesh. Many readers can’t get past this pseudo-ancient phrasing but I believe its essential to the story. Hodgson is telling us about people in the far future and they can’t sound like us or even make cultural references that we can easily identify. One way to pull this off is to make the narrative feel like the oldest narratives we have today.

The reason why I’m reading The Night Land is that it inspired H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and others. The Night Land is a significant novel from what some writers are now calling The Radium Age of Science Fiction (1904-1933). And it’s from a very special year, 1912, which gave us The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, A Princess of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey, making it an epic year for influential genre novels.

How I Came to Read The Night Land

Normally I’d never read a book like The Night Land. I don’t like fantasy novels, and many consider The Night Land an epic fantasy novel. After reading this story, I would call it science fiction, probably inspired by Wells’ The Time Machine. I first heard about it when reading reviews of the beautiful Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter. These books attracted me because of their stunning covers, but I assumed their content to be pure fantasy fiction. And I especially avoided The Night Land after reviewers said it was long, hard to read, and most people found it impenetrable.

Over the years I’ve read how H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and Robert E. Howard were influenced by Hodgson. I never read their stories but found essays about their literary cross-pollination of ideas fascinating. Then a couple years ago I saw the documentary Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams and became even more intrigued. It’s available to rent or buy at Amazon, Vimeo, and other outlets. I’ve known Lovecraft and Howard fans, and there’s a whole mythology surrounding those writers, which is ironic since they were obsessed with myths and myth telling. In a way, I avoided their stories because I was afraid I’d get sucked into a black hole of their worldbuilding.

Then recently I read a series about The Night Land at the blog MarzAat – Literary Recon into the Wilderness of Books. MarzAat called the series “Walking the Night Land” and began with the post “The Trip Begins.”

It was MarzAat’s second essay, “Awake in the Night Land” that made me finally want to read The Night Land. It reviews the 2014 book, Awake in the Night Land by John C. Wright, a highly intellectual sequel to the original novel composed of a series of stories that take place after events in The Night Land. Wright blends in ideas from other fans of The Night Land and his own. I’m really looking forward to this book, but sadly there is no audiobook edition, and that’s very important to me.

MarzAat’s series hooked me and I bought the audiobook.

Finding the Right Edition

Evidently, the full edition of The Night Land is 200,000 words. Many editions, including the Ballantine a two-volume edition, abridge the work. Editors keep trying to make The Night Land more accessible. When the book was first published Hodgson created a 20,000-word version called The Dream of X to protect his American copyright.

I don’t think I could eye read The Night Land and enjoy it because of its intentionally stilted style. However, I listened to the Dreamscape audiobook edition read by Drew Ariana and had no trouble with Hodgson’s artificial archaic prose. In fact, I enjoyed it. I always looked forward to getting back to the story. Listening changed it from a boring, tedious read into an audio page-turner. At least for me. Sometimes I also follow along with the Prometheus Classic ebook version I got at Amazon. There are many ebook versions, and I picked this 99 cent edition because of its beautiful typeface and layout.

The Radium Age Science Fiction Series edition from HiLoBooks has an introduction by Erik Davis. That intro is available to read online and I highly recommend reading it before buying whatever edition you choose. Davis said that HiLoBooks trimmed the novel by a third to make it more accessible to modern readers. He also talked about why Lin Carter trimmed the Adult Fantasy two-volume version. And many fans of the book recommend that new readers don’t read the first chapter set in the 17th-century. My version had that chapter and I thought it essential to the story. I will admit that The Night Land could have used a skillful editor, but I’m not sure if Hodgson didn’t intend for us to be overwhelmed by the repetitive details to make us feel the length of the epic journey and its trials and tribulations.

The story can be damaged by spoilers so I’m not sure how much to recommend that people read about The Night Land before trying it. I had to read a fair amount about the book before I got enthused enough to try. And I admit I mainly enjoyed the story as a subject of literary study. You can have a quick tryout with Project Gutenberg. Reading the Wikipedia entry will give a nice overview of some of the interesting aspects of the story with only some slight obvious spoilers.

There are websites devoted to the book and to the author. Plus, once you start looking you can find endless articles about Hodgson’s influence. Here’s an excellent essay by Dungeons & Dragons fans. William Hope Hodgson is very famous to a very few, which is quite cool.

There is also a free audiobook edition you can try. The Dreamscape audiobook edition I listened to is available at Audible.com and Scribd.com. There are many free ebook editions around the web.

I’m glad I read The Night Land. It’s given me a sense of scholarly accomplishment. I’ve now read several books from the Radium Age of Science Fiction and it been very illuminating to the history of the genre. And I can honestly say I enjoyed this story. It does worry me that I’m now drawn to try reading H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and Jack Vance. MarzAat is still reviewing books and stories related to The Night Land weeks after his review of The Night Land. I’m not sure he’s going to find a place to stop.

James Wallace Harris, 12/25/19

New Appreciation for Isaac Asimov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Useful Links:

James Wallace Harris, 12/3/19

 

Would Generation Ship Crews Ever Forget Their Mission?

Generation ships 1
Generation ships 2

Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations is running a series of reviews on generation ship stories. He even compiled a list of such SF tales. I’ve decided to read along. So far he’s covered “The Wind Blows Free” by Chad Oliver and “Spacebred Generations” by Clifford D. Simak (later renamed “Target Generations”). Joachim plans to do “Wish Upon a Star” by Judith Merril next. Science fiction has explored this theme often. Imagining a self-contained society that spends hundreds or thousands of years between the stars presents a wonderful challenge to writers.

I’ve loved the concept of generation ships since 1965 when I was 13 and read Orphans of the Sky (1963) by Robert A. Heinlein. This book was assembled from two magazine stories, “Universe” and “Common Sense” first published in 1941. At the time I thought Heinlein and science fiction must have invented the idea of generation ships, but I was wrong.  I highly recommend reading Wikipedia’s entry on the topic. Both the rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, and the space explorer theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky came up with the idea in America and Russia. And it was also described by J. D. Bernal in a 1929 nonfiction book speculating about the future, The World, The Flesh, & the Devil.

Because I’m going to discuss the ideas in the stories this essay will have spoilers.

Quite often in the early science fiction stories about generation ships, the crews forget they are on an interstellar mission. This makes for a sense-of-wonder climax based on characters experiencing what The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls a conceptual breakthrough. That’s an exciting plot device for the reader but would any generation ship crew ever forget their mission? Right from the beginning of the idea of generation ships in science fiction with “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years” (1940) by Don Wilcox writers have been intrigued by the idea that the passengers would forget.

The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox 1940

A generation ship is a spaceship that travels slower-than-light and takes many generations to reach its destination. Heinlein hit one into orbit by imagining the crew forgetting their mission. Their society collapses to the point where they believe the ship is their entire universe. Because the crew can’t see outside the ship they don’t know about the stars and the cosmos. This is such a delicious idea that Brian Aldiss reexamines it in his novel Starship (1958) (first called Non-Stop in the U.S.).

Now that I’m much older I find it very hard to believe the crew would forget they were on a generation ship. Such forgetting makes for a bang-up plot, but if you think about it, doesn’t make a lot of sense. To forget their mission would require a complete collapse of the ship’s society. Is that even possible? How could the ship continue to function? Writers tell us the ship is fully automatic, but I can’t believe that either.

Evidently, science fiction writers assume such forgetting is a powerful McGuffin to wow their readers. And I loved these plots when I first encountered them. However, I now believe such situations to be too contrived to be realistic. Such tricks by the writer are much like an O’Henry ending. The reader is set up from the get-go. Not that such storytelling shenanigans are bad, but I do think it gives readers the wrong impression about generation ships.

Of course, I haven’t read all science fiction stories about generation ships. Now that Joachim Boaz is systematically reading them for his blog, I’m wondering if any science fiction writer imagined a realistic generation ship. It’s fun discussing this at his site.

Slower-than-Light Travel

Even though Einstein has been validated time and again, science fiction writers have us zipping around the galaxy at several thousand times the speed of light (300,000 kph). The spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2, our only efforts to leave the solar system, poke along at 1/18,000th that speed. Some engineers have theorized we might achieve 1/10th to 1/5th lightspeed with our present and expected knowledge, however, even their ideas are extremely theoretical.

If we could travel at ten percent of the speed of light it would take a whole lifetime to get to the nearest star. Since it will probably take hundreds or thousands of years to travel the nearby stellar neighborhood we’d need the crew using suspended animation or build a ship where humans could live out several generations.

Suspended animation is probably no more realistic than faster-than-light travel.

Building an artificial world that is completely self-contained, self-sufficient, and can travel a significant fraction of the speed of life is not impossible but probably so. Still, it’s a very exciting idea to contemplate. Can we build a machine that works perfectly for 1,000 years? What is the optimal crew size? How do you design a society that can thrive in such a limited environment? How will this civilization get its energy? Will water and air leak out? Will the passengers find meaning in their lives? How would successive generations react when learning they have been forced into a limited role by their ancestors? What if you don’t like where you’re going?

The generation ship would have to contain a minimum viable population (MVP). We must assume it will be a colony ship. Any scientific exploration should be done by intelligent machines – why waste all those lives on just information? In my reading, I’ve seen MVP numbers ranging from 160-5,000. We often see stories now about sending frozen embryos or building machines that can sequence DNA from raw material but I’m going to assume frozen embryos can’t last 1,000 years, and building people from digital blueprints is a fantasy. If we could, it would invalidate the need for a generation ship. By the way, raising artificial children at the end of a long space voyage is a new theme science fiction writers are exploring.

Orphans in the Sky imagines a generation ship where the ship’s civilization collapses and the inhabitants forget they are on a spaceship. I love that idea as a science fiction story, but doubt it would happen. Crews on a generation ship would have lots of time on their hands and education would have a significant appeal. They would have a library of our entire history. They would be in contact with Earth. They would know everything about astronomy and cosmology. For Heinlein’s story to work the original passengers would have to be clueless dumbasses who didn’t care about anything intellectual and refused to teach their children. The original crew would be brilliant with a passionate hope for the mission. They would pass that on. For Heinlein and Wilcox to be right, their descendants would have de-evolve. How that could happen would make a great SF story. I wish Heinlein had written it before writing “Universe” and “Common Sense.”

Clifford Simak came up with a different idea in “Target Generations.” He tells us the original mission designers feared the crew would not psychologically survive knowing why they were on the ship, so hid the knowledge from them. That’s absolutely ridiculous if we think about it, but at least Simak’s realized Heinlein’s idea had problems. That’s what’s wonderful about science fiction, it evolves. It’s a dialog by writers over time.

Chad Oliver offers another twist in “The Wind Blows Free.” The passengers know they are on a spaceship but they haven’t been told it landed hundreds of years earlier. Selective crew members decide the generation ship’s inhabitants are too adapted to shipboard life to leave it. That’s a very compelling idea, but still not realistic. I don’t see how they could hide landing a ship, but more than that, it’s based on maintaining an absurd conspiracy theory. The practical solution to such a problem would be to land the ship and let people slowly migrate to the new world. I do buy that generation ship passengers might not want to leave the ship. I’m an old guy who has become very attached to my house. I wouldn’t want to start over either.

Too often science fiction ignores Occam’s razor to create a compelling plot. I’m hoping we’ll be reading stories where generation ships succeed, or if they fail, fail for realistic reasons. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson was an outstanding example of a space exploration failure that made sense.

Children of Time (2015) by Adrian Tchaikovsky did come up with a very real generation ship problem. Successive crew generations became resentful for having their lives committed to a project they didn’t choose. Some even want to abort the mission and return to Earth. This is the kind of realistic challenges I hope science fiction writers will imagine. There’s nothing wrong with coming up with a plot that wows the readers but ultimately makes no sense. A story is a story. But I like science fiction that imagines something that might be possible.

I like to think it’s science fiction’s job to consider all the possibilities before we actually build a generation ship. From early science fiction, we know not to create a society that will forget the mission. I also like the idea we have to worry about the resentment of the later generations. And we do have to worry about getting people comfortable living on a ship to living on a planet again.

We science fiction fans daydream of traveling in space. But can you imagine a future where children born in space wished they lived on Earth like us?

James Wallace Harris, 12/2/19