The Difference Between 5-star and 4-star Stories

At our SF short story reading group on Facebook we’ve been discussing story rating systems. Everyone has a slightly different way to review and rate stories but a 5-star system is common. However, several people expand that basic 5 levels into 10 levels with half-stars or pluses, or to 100 levels with tenths of a point refinements. Personally, I can’t distinguish that finely between stories to organize them into ten levels, much less one hundred. However, I can say subjectively I like one story better than another, and compare them relative to each other.

After reading 1,000-2,000 stories over the last four years I’m starting to get an intuition about their quality. Some stories just stand out above all the others, and the group essentially agrees that 5-stars should be reserved for those very best stories, the stories that have become recognized classics or feel will become classic in the future. And I say essentially because we never agree on anything precisely in our group. And this relative system of rating doesn’t mean one reader’s 5-star classic can’t be some other member’s 3-star it’s okay story.

We discuss one story a day, and maybe a handful of members out of a near 500 membership will read and comment on the story. Those comments are enlightening about how we each read stories, and what reading pleasures and displeasures trigger their responses. A few of us have started leaving star ratings and that’s beginning to become illuminating too.

I’m slowly getting a feel for the short story form, at least regarding science fiction stories. If you haven’t read that many SF short stories, even an average story can trigger a “far out” or “great” response. But once you’ve logged your ten thousand hours of reading time, you realize truly great stories are few and far between. My guess is less than six 5-star level stories are published each year, and probably less than two dozen 4-star level stories. Most stories are good solid stories but they must be classed as 3-stars if you consider them relative to the 5-star and 4-star stories.

In other words, a 4-star story is a story that breaks out from the crowd by a significant measure. It’s like the Magnitude scale for earthquakes, logarithmic. It just feels like a big jump from 3-stars to 4-stars, and that’s why so many in the group want to rate stories ***+ or 3.5-stars, or even 3.2 or 3.7, because they feel the story is better than average but not quite up to that 4-star level. When you’ve read a lot of stories it intuitively feels like a 4-star stories is a quantum leap above a 3-star story but few people can explain why in details. And there’s another another tremendous leap from 4-stars to 5-stars. When you think of stories like “Flowers for Algernon” or “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas” you know very few stories come close to their magnitude in power.

I think many people want to rate fiction (or movies, or albums) like people rate their purchases on Amazon where 5-stars means you have no complaints. Which is why for some products on Amazon you see 80% 5-star ratings. When it comes to the artistic, 5-stars has to be for artwork that is 1 in 100 to 1 in 1,000 in quality.

But how can we understand this at a gut-reaction level? An idea came to me today that I think might help, so I’m trying it out here. Take any author you’ve read many of their short stories. How many stand out as your very favorites? How many are almost as good? And if you count the rest, how large is that number in relation to the first two groups?

Take for example Ray Bradbury. I consider these his obvious 5-star stories:

  • “There Will Come Soft Rains”
  • “Mars is Heaven!”

I consider his 4-star stories to be:

  • “The Million-Year Picnic”
  • “The Veldt”
  • “A Sound of Thunder”
  • “The Pedestrian”

And the first two I’d probably rate ****+ or 4.5-stars.

There might be other stories that I haven’t read by Bradbury that I would rate with a 5-star or 4-star, but for the most part I’ve read dozens of his hundreds of stories and they go into a vague 3-star pile. If I studied his work thoroughly, I’d probably find several more stories I love, but for now, this is how I remember Ray Bradbury.

For all my favorite authors I can remember stories that stand out as classic, and some that I don’t feel are quite as good. For example, with Clifford Simak, as much as I love “The Big Front Yard,” it’s not on the the save level as “Huddling Place” or “Desertion.” As much as I love “The Year of the Jackpot” by Heinlein, it’s not on the same level as “The Menace From Earth,” or “Requiem,” or “Universe.”

Another difference between 4-star and 5-star stories is how many times I will reread them. I can enjoy a 3-star story quite a lot, but I know I’ll never want to reread them. Whereas, when I read a story for the first time and know I want to reread again someday, that tells me the story is a 4-star story. Stories that I have read many times are the ones I think of as 5-star stories. In fact, I might not know a story is a 5-star story until I’ve read it two or three times.

There is no way to objectively and quantitatively rate a work of art, but using a system based on relative impact is somewhat helpful, don’t you think?

Using this relative system to read new stories, especially by authors I don’t know, can be troublesome. I have to rate the story against all the other stories I know by other writers. So if I’m reading a new story from the latest issue of Lightspeed Magazine it has to complete with all the 5-star and 4-star stories I’ve discovered over my lifetime.

Is that fair? Would it be fair to do otherwise?

SF Short Story Rating Systems I Admire

James Wallace Harris 6/10/21

Lords of the Psychon by Daniel F. Galouye

Daniel F. Galouye (1920-1976) was never a famous science fiction writer, but back in the 1950s and 1960s his shorter work appeared regularly in many of the SF magazines with the notable exception of Astounding/Analog. Galouye published five novels, three of which made it to my list of SF novels of the 1960s (Dark Universe, Lords of the Psychon, and Simulacron-3). Over the years, I’ve seen several mentions of his work and have meant to read them, but it hasn’t been until I got Lords of the Psychon in a batch of old paperbacks from eBay that I’ve had a chance. Galouye’s books aren’t rare, but they aren’t widely known either. Dark Universe and Simulacron-3 are currently in print, and Dark Universe is even available on Audible.com. Simulacron-3 inspired both a TV miniseries (World on a Wire) and a movie (The Thirteenth Floor), and some have called it an early cyberpunk novel. Not a bad legacy for a writer who is mostly forgotten.

Lords of the Psychon was a lot of fun to read, but not as much fun as I had with Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn, the SF book I read before it. Both of these 1960s novels deal with alien invasion. Both novels are set years after the aliens have conquered Earth. Both novels deal with a small group of humans hoping to overthrow the aliens. Both novels have a unique take on showing the alienness of the invaders.

Don’t read beyond this point if you hate any kind of spoilers.

In this section I’ll give you a bit more of the details but still try to avoid all plot spoilers. The 1950s was a time when many science fiction stories, especially in Astounding Science Fiction, explored psychic powers, ESP, or sometimes called psionics. I’ve always thought Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) was the pinnacle of that trend which quickly faded from popularity. I now see that Daniel F. Galouye had something more to add in 1963 with Lords of the Psychon. Actually, I feel the novel was inspired by Heinlein, and even feels somewhat like a 1950s Heinlein novel in tone. Galouye was a test pilot during WWII, so he also has a military background like Heinlein.

The setup for Lords of the Psychon is the speculation that the fundamental subatomic building blocks of reality can be controlled by thought, and this 1963 novel predates such woo-woo physics books as The Tao of Physics (1975) by Fritjof Capra and The Dancing Wu Li Masters (1979) by Gary Zukav. Basically, Galouye tortunes quantum mechanics to come up with a fun science fictional idea. Instead of swinging East like Capra and Zukav, Galouye keeps a western view of psychic powers.

Today, we think of such psionic themes as malarky, but I believe Galouye worked hard to pull off his speculative fiction. Eventually, the story moves towards Theodore Sturgeon and gestalt minds. In other words, I give Galouye credit for producing an evolutionary science fictional work.

I won’t go into plot details because I really don’t like any such spoilers myself, but I will reprint two reviews from 1963 that do, so read them at your own risk. The first is from Analog, November 1963 by P. Schuyler Miller.

I love reading reviews of books from when they first came out to see how my reaction is different. Miller praises Lords of the Psychon but claims Galouye’s first novel, Dark Universe, is the real standout. That means I need to read it soon.

S. E. Cotts reviews the novel in the August 1963 issue of Amazing Stories. I know nothing about Cotts, but I like her review. If you know anything about S. E. Cotts, leave a comment.

Cotts also gives away way too much of the plot for my taste. I’m still figuring out how to review fiction. I like the details of a story to unfold as the author intended. Both Miller and Cotts reveal things I prefer to learn for myself. However, I suppose they believe that a certain amount of plot details need to be given to hook the reader into buying the novel.

Rosemary Benton writing for Galactic Journey gives this novel 4.5 stars. Her 2018 review pretends to have been written in 1963. She also gives away quite a few plot points. Unlike Miller and Cotts, Benton seems to prefer Psychon over Dark Universe.

I believe Lords of the Psychon is a 4-star out of 5-star novel for those readers who delight in reading science fiction novels from the 1960s. I admire Galouye’s speculation even though I don’t think it’s scientific. I feel the novel is plotted tighter than modern SF novels, and is told with far fewer words, which is one of the reasons why I prefer older science fiction. Hopefully, that’s enough information for people who don’t like spoilers, but if it’s not, just read the three reviews above.

James Wallace Harris, 5/31/21

Ever Been Chased by Giants in Your Dreams?

The most read essay on my personal blog is “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” Evidently, I’m not the only person who runs from dinosaurs in their dreams, because 25-50 people daily find my essay on Google. I recently realized that I sometimes run from both human giants as well as giant space aliens in my dreams too. This obviously reveals my personal philosophy about the big dangers of life – keep a low profile. In my dreams the solution to avoiding being killed is to be quiet and hide from all the big monsters.

Warning: Don’t read this review. Just go read the book below to have the maximum fun. Don’t even read the blurbs on the cover. However, if you need more convincing, keep reading, I’ve kept the spoilers to the bare minimum.

Keeping a low profile is exactly what Eric the Only doesn’t do in Of Men and Monsters, a classic science fiction novel by William Tenn. It’s an expansion of Tenn’s October 1963 story for Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, “The Men in the Walls.” I vaguely remember reading the novel back in the early 1970s, but decided to reread it yesterday because of reviews by Joachim Boaz and MarzAat. Luckily, I didn’t read their entire reviews ahead of time because they both have spoilers. I just got caught up with MarzAat’s enthusiasm responding to Joachim’s review, and grabbed my copy of book and started reading. In fact, it’s the first novel in decades that I’ve read in less than a day. Just fun, good old fashion science fiction. Joachim gives it four stars out of five, and that’s what my initial assessment was too, however…

Of Men and Monsters has a simple backstory. Giant aliens from space have conquered Earth and humans are thrown into a kind of dark age, living in the walls of alien buildings. The story is well told, and surprisingly engaging for such a simple premise. Eric the Only, is a member of one of many tribes trying to survive by stealing food from the aliens they call monsters. Each tribe has a competing philosophy about existence, and Eric the Only is a bright young man trying to figure out reality from many contradictory beliefs.

Think about giants in the Bible, or “Jack and the Beanstalk,” or the big and little episodes in Gulliver’s Travels, or “Giant Killer” by A. Bertram Chandler, or J. G. Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” (now animated for season 2 of Love, Death & Robots). And if you remember, the 1968 TV show Land of the Giants. I wonder if Willian Tenn was given any credit or money for his idea? He probably wasn’t as pugnacious and litigatious as Harlan Ellison. Well, the Land of the Giants is somewhat different, with castaway humans on the planet of giant aliens. Anyway, giants make up a tiny sub-sub-sub-genre that I believe triggers a certain psychological appeal. For some reason, pop culture returns to it fairly often.

Of Men and Monsters also reeks of another minor motif I’ve seen in science fiction, and that’s about life in the corridors. I remember reading the “Tumithak of the Corridors” stories in Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov, an anthology of his favorite science fiction stories he loved reading growing up in the 1930s. But life in the corridors was also the setting in Heinlein’s Orphans in the Sky (1963), a fixup novel based on “Universe” and “Common Sense” first published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1941, and in Brian Aldiss’ 1958 novel Non-Stop (called Starship in the U.S.). This motif often connects to the theme of forgotten civilization which we find in many science fiction and fantasy stories about the far future. Not only do we love stories about running from big beings like dinosaurs, King Kong, 50-foot high women, and giant space aliens, but we also love stories about forgetting who we were as a society.

The corridor motif also runs parallel with the back to the primitive theme in post apocalyptic stories of the 1950s. Science fiction writers have suggested in both books and movies that after a nuclear war civilization could be reduced to living like hunters and gathers again. Writers imagine our descendents forgetting the past, and picture these future humans like cavemen or 19th century native Americans. I vaguely remember some Andre Norton novels like this. Eric the Only wears just a leather jock strap, and the women of his tribe only wear their hair, but very long. His tribe use spears for weapons and live by rigid customs created by superstitions. Some readers might consider this aspect of the story satire on humanity, but I didn’t. It just felt logical to the plot.

I’ve tried very hard not to give the details here to Of Men and Monsters because I thoroughly enjoyed how the story unfolded. I wouldn’t have told you about the monsters being aliens but that tends to be in all reviews and on the cover blurbs. I will give one tiny spoiler that I found fascinating. The tunnels the humans live in are the air spaces of the insulation used by aliens in their buildings. That should give you an idea of relative size. All the cover art on the many book editions gets this wrong drawing the aliens only three or four times the size of humans. The aliens are immensely larger.

Probably reading Of Men and Monsters was so entertaining for me because I need some escapism. I had a CT scan Friday and I’m waiting the results. In other words I’m hiding from a big monster. But I also loved this book because it is so 1950s science fictional. It’s a retreat into my childhood and contained so many themes, ideas, motifs, and speculations that I loved when first discovering science fiction. Because of that I’ll give it 5-stars when I rate it for Goodreads. I’m sure a reader less prejudiced by nostalgia wouldn’t be so generous.

One last thing. Towards the end of the story William Tenn intrudes in the novel by allowing one of the characters to philosophize about humanity. That character says we’re kin to rats and roaches and we’ve not been kind to each other or to the other species we share the planet. I agree with what Tenn is preaching, but I felt this bit of philosophy dumping marred the story. The story itself had already inspired me to think of these things without being told. If this novel has a flaw it’s how modern knowledge that should have been forgotten was worked into the story. Either that, or Tenn should have developed the backstory of the Aaron tribe to explain how they could have retained that knowledge.

James Wallace Harris, 5/23/21

All Is Ineffable, But Some Writers Try Anyway

I divide fiction into two types: stories about reality, and stories that are make believe. Words are not cameras, but some writers use words to paint what they see. Most writers use words to trigger artificial realities in our mind’s eye. Their stories might feel reality based, but they are not. Some writers use such fantasies as analogies to comment on real world, which can be confusing. We never can distinguish the unreal from any slight implications about reality.

What do you do when you encounter an absurd story that feels like it has something to say about life but is impossible to decipher? Do you stick with it, hoping understanding will come? Do you study critical works hoping for insight? Do you take notes and ponder the possibilities? Or do you get disgusted and throw the book against the wall? One Goodreads reviewer claimed that’s what he did with Past Master by R. A. Lafferty. I thought about it.

The title, Past Master, can be interpreted in a number of ways. One approach is to accept how it’s used in the story. Thomas More is retrieved from the past to become the president of a colony planet in the future, a decaying utopia. The characters in the story call More the past master and hope he will save their society. Throughout the novel, we get many allusions to literary past masters because their words encrust Lafferty’s prose like barnacles. Third, and maybe finally, or maybe not, we sense that Lafferty himself is the past master. His soul is swollen with past experiences he recasts onto clean typewritten pages like Jackson Pollard throwing paint at a canvas.

As a reader I ache to make sense of Lafferty’s first novel. I hope it has a point, because swimming across a lake of his Baroque prose I can’t tell if Past Master is a shallow tall-tale, or The Divine Comedy. I find Lafferty’s voice not much fun to read, but I do perceive his work as creative and unique. I keep reading because I’ve been pushing myself to read more science fiction by admired writers I ignored because I didn’t like them.

Past Master was selected by the Library of America as one of the significant science fiction novels of the 1960s. It was a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards. And over the years Lafferty has had many champions promoting his work, including: Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Michael Dirda, Nancy Kress, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, etc.

It would be helpful if I knew more about R. A. Lafferty. He’s sometimes referred to as an engineer, but he never finished college. After serving in the South Pacific in WWII, he worked as a salesperson in an engineering supply house until 1980 when his writing could support him instead. He never married, supposedly lived with his sister, and was a Catholic who went to daily communion. Lafferty was very prolific, publishing many novels, hundreds of short stories, and leaving a tall stack of unpublished novels and stories at his death. He probably leaned towards the conservative politically, but not completely.

Because of Lafferty’s prose, especially his word choices, I assume he was widely read, probably from old books. The narrative voice in many of his stories often feels like some translations of Homer or even writers from Elizabethan England. His characters lack an inner landscape like those in classical literature, and are often presented as archetypes. Yet, Lafferty writes science fiction, even though it sometimes feels as it was written by Virgil, Apuleius, or Petronius.

Past Master is a story about a utopia, but one set five hundred years from now on the planet Astrobe. Lafferty claims civilization is recreated every five hundred years, and Astrobe is the third great attempt at creating a utopia after the failures in the Old World in Europe, and the New World in the Americas. Near the beginning of Past Master we learn:

The three men gathered in the building were large physically, they were important and powerful, they were intelligent and interesting. There was a peculiar linkage between them: each believed that he controlled the other two, that he was the puppeteer and they were the puppets. And each was partly right in this belief. It made them an interlocking nexus, taut and resilient, the most intricate on Astrobe. 

Cosmos Kingmaker, who was too rich. The Heraldic Lion. 

Peter Proctor, who was too lucky. The Sleek Fox. 

Fabian Foreman, who was too smart. The Worried Hawk. 

“This is Mankind’s third chance,” said Kingmaker. “Ah, they’re breaking the doors down again. How can we talk with it all going on?” 

He took the speaking tube. “Colonel,” he called out. “You have sufficient human guards. It is imperative that you disperse the riot. It is absolutely forbidden that they murder this man at this time and place. He is with us and is one of us as he has always been.” 

“The colonel is dead,” a voice came back. “I am Captain John Chezem the Third, next in command.” 

“You be Colonel Chezem now,” Kingmaker said. “Call out what reinforcements you need and prevent this thing.” 

“Foreman,” said Peter Proctor softly within the room. “Whatever you are thinking this day, do not think it so strongly. I’ve never seen the things so avid for your life.” 

“It is Mankind’s third chance we have been throwing away here,” Kingmaker intoned to the other two in the room, speaking with great serenity considering the siege they were under. Even when he spoke quietly, Kingmaker was imposing. He had the head that should be on gold coins or on Great Seals. They called him the lion, but there were no lions on Astrobe except as statuary. He was a carven lion, cut out of the Golden Travertine, the fine yellow marble of Astrobe. He had a voice of such depth that it set up echoes even when he whispered. It was part of the aura of power that he set up about himself.

Lafferty, R. A.. Past Master (pp. 14-15). Library of America. Kindle Edition. 

These three decide to send someone back in time to fetch Thomas More. They want to run him for president of Astrobe as the only solution to save themselves and their utopian society. To get a bit more of the flavor of this story, let me quote the beginning of chapter two.

THE PILOT chosen by Fabian Foreman to bring Thomas More from Earth to Astrobe was named Paul. Paul was two meters of walking irony, a long, strong, swift man, and short of speech. His voice was much softer than would be expected from his appearance, and had only a slight rough edge to it. What seemed to be a perpetual crooked grin was partly the scar of an old fight. He was a compassionate man with a cruel and crooked face. From his height, his rough red hair and ruddy face, and his glittering eyes he was sometimes called The Beacon. 

For a record of irregular doings, classified as criminal, Paul had had his surname and his citizenship taken away from him. Such a person loses all protection and sanction. He is at the mercy of the Programmed Persons and their Killers, and mercy was never programmed into them. 

The Programmed Killers are inhibited from killing a human citizen of Astrobe, though often they do so by contrived accident. But an offender who has had his citizenship withdrawn is prey to them. He has to be very smart to survive, and Paul had survived for a year. For that long he had evaded the remorseless stiff-gaited Killers who follow their game relentlessly with their peculiar stride. Paul had lived as a poor man in the Barrio, and in the ten thousand kilometers of alleys in Cathead. He had been running and hiding for a year, and quite a bit of money had been bet on him. There is always interest in seeing how long these condemned can find a way to live under their peculiar sentence, and Paul had lived with it longer than any of them could remember. And he was ahead of those stiff killers. He had killed a dozen of them in their brushes, and not one of them had ever killed him. 

An ansel named Rimrock, an acquaintance of both of them, had got in touch with Paul for Fabian Foreman. And Paul arrived now, remarkably uncowed by his term as fugitive. He arrived quite early in the morning, and he already had an idea from the ansel of what the mission was. 

“You sent for me, Hawk-Face?” he asked Foreman. “I’m an irregular man. Why should you send me on a mission? Send a qualified citizen pilot, and keep yourself clean.” 

“We want a man capable of irregular doings, Paul,” Foreman said. “You’ve been hunted, and you’ve become smart. There will be danger. There shouldn’t be, since this was decided on by the Inner Circle of the Masters, but there will be.” 

“What’s in it for me?” 

“Nothing. Nothing at all. You’ve been living in the meanest circumstances on the planet. You are intelligent. You must have seen what is wrong with Astrobe.” 

“No, I don’t know what is wrong with our world, Inner Circle Foreman, nor how to set it right. I know that things are very wrong; and that those who use words to mean their opposites are delighted about the whole thing. You yourself are a great deal in the company of the subverters. I don’t trust you a lot. But you are hunted by the killers. You slipped them yesterday by a fox trick that nobody understands, so you enter the legendary of the high hunted. There must be something right about a man they hate so much.” 

“We are trying to find a new sort of leader who can slow, even reverse, the break-up, Paul. We’ve selected a man from the Earth Past, Thomas More. We will present him to the people only as the Thomas, or perhaps, to be more fanciful, as the Past Master. You know of him?” 

“Yes, I know him as to time and place and reputation.”

Lafferty, R. A.. Past Master (pp. 23-24). Library of America. Kindle Edition. 

The program killers are robots, maybe androids. In Lafferty everything is mythical, so people can be a product of human and machine, or animal and human, etc. You get the feeling that Lafferty dreads the coming technological changes, and the social transformations he’s experiencing in the mid-1960s. Lafferty’s science fiction might even be anti-SF.

Astrobe is only partly utopian, where its citizens can have anything. Yet, many people are leaving the utopian cities, choosing to live instead in outlaw territories, even when forced to work as slaves or worst. In the chapters where Thomas More is studying Astrobe, we encounter many strange places and people. These picaresque parts of the novel feels like something out of Lewis Carroll or L. Frank Baum. In the later chapters, where More is running for president and then ruling, the story becomes more metaphysical and surreal. It’s about fate and who really rules reality. In the last chapters, Lafferty becomes philosophical, but in a religious/spiritual way.

What is Lafferty saying about reality? We know Lafferty was devoutly Catholic, and the story strongly mirrors Christ and the crucifixion. At one point Thomas More asks to attend Mass on Astrobe, but he’s shown a horrible mechanical freak show. Another time he gets to meet the Pope, who is barely alive. Lafferty began Past Master around 1964 or earlier, during the changes of the Vatican II Council. Lafferty hated the new direction the church was taking. I’m guessing that Lafferty didn’t like the way the world at large was going either, and Past Master is his commentary on those upheavals. The novel essentially predicts a reboot of society, something some crazy people desire today.

On one level, Past Master feels like the humor of Robert Sheckley or Avram Davidson. Lafferty is just writing weird shit to amuse science fiction readers who are mostly adolescents. On the other hand, Lafferty is a mature man writing what will become his first novel published when he’s in his early fifties. I’m not sure, but he may be an old white guy with something to say.

Just how sophisticated is Lafferty’s novel? Is he no better than a Qanon reposter or something closer to Gore Vidal? If we’re to believe the Library of America, Neil Gaiman, or Andrew Ferguson, Lafferty is a literary wonder. Go to Amazon and read Gaiman’s introduction to The Best of R. A. Lafferty or Ferguson’s introduction to Past Master in the “Look inside” feature. On the other hand, just reexamine the quotes above.

I can’t decide. Since the 1960s I’ve read three of Lafferty’s novels, and maybe a couple dozen short stories. Sometimes I’m amused, sometimes I’m annoyed. If Past Master is commentary on the mid-20th century by a grumpy old Catholic guy from Tulsa, then I’m kind of impressed. But if it’s just an absurd play for the theater of our minds, I’m mostly unimpressed.

There’s another way to judge this story. We learn next to nothing about Thomas More or his Utopia, or utopias in general. Nor do we learn anything significant about Catholicism or Christianity. Past Master is satire, but not very sophisticated, closer to SNL. Sometimes it’s amusing like “More Cowbell” but other times it’s moronic like the Bassomatic. All too often science fiction takes a half-ass approach to its philosophizing. The level of humor in Past Master is closer to Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, two comic SF novels I enjoyed. However, Lafferty uses an archaic voice for his humor which I didn’t enjoy. Because Lafferty is riffing on many serious subjects, we get the whiff of serious literature. But is it? To tell the truth, I don’t know. I think not, but Lafferty’s out of print books are now rare, expensive, and hard to find because of his faithful fans.

I do believe R. A. Lafferty was protesting reality by writing Past Master back in the 1960s, but his fiction is ineffable, giving us only hints at what he really thought. And you know what’s funny? Reading Past Master makes me want to read a memoir by Lafferty, or a good biography. Lafferty fiction can be entertaining, but I actually wish I knew what he actually thought and experienced, and that’s easier to come by in nonfiction. Satire sometimes feels like its from a superior intellect, but just as often, I get the feeling it hides a lack of knowledge, or is just anger and snideness.

James Wallace Harris, 5/22/21

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