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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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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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

The Psychic Flavor of 1960s Science Fiction

On November 5, 2019, the Library of America (LoA) will drop American Science Fiction: Eight Classics Novels of the 1960s edited by Gary K. Wolfe. This is a critical recognition for science fiction because LoA endeavors to provide deluxe editions of worthy American literature. This set is a followup to the 2012 set, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s. I must wonder, are these seventeen novels how the future readers will remember science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s? Wolfe had limitations in making his selections. I assume he couldn’t use SF/F/H authors that LoA had already recognized like Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kurt Vonnegut in their prestigious uniform Library of America series editions. And I imagined he was limited by length, availability, and other publishing issues, so I doubt even these 8 books Wolfe has selected for the 1960s are the exact ones he would pick for our descendants.

Now, I know this is going to sound rather woo-woo of me, but my mind conjures a certain psychic flavor when I think of the phrase ‘1960s science fiction.” Maybe Wolfe also has such a psychic feeling too, and we might be close in what we’re feeling and we might not.

It’s like this. When I say “Statue of Liberty” most people will picture the same object in the mind. It might be from a different angle or have a different hue, but we’re all pretty much thinking the same thing. Now if I ask everyone to think “Ford Mustang” you might think of a yellow 1964 original model, while I might picture a black 1968 sweptback model. We’re still close. And if I said think of a “dog” you might picture a graceful collie with a long snout, and I might imagine a cute ugly pug with a flat face. Now we’re moving further apart. So when I say picture “1960s science fiction” we might not even be close.

If you grew up in the 1960s reading science fiction you might have a psychic flavor in your head for what you read back then. But if you grew up in more recent decades you might not have any sense of 1960s SF at all, or maybe a faint lingering flavor from reading a couple odd novels. To make this problem of communication even more difficult some people think movies, television shows, and even comics when they hear the phrase science fiction. I imagine to most SF fans, 1960s science fiction is defined by feelings for Star Trek. And as much as I loved Star Trek back then, suggesting it was 1960s science fiction would be like proposing Li’l Abner belongs in the Literary Canon to Harold Bloom.

Gary K. Wolfe has picked eight science fiction novels to remember the Sixties:

I read The High Crusade in junior high and barely remember it. It was fun, but has a 1950s flavor. I have read Way Station, Flowers for Algernon, This Immortal, and Nova multiple times. I’ve tried to read Past Master and Picnic on Paradise but never got into them. And I’m totally unfamiliar with Emphyrio. If I had to pick eight novels as the ingredients to create the complex flavor of 1960s science fiction Way Station, Flowers for Algernon and Nova would almost certainly be on my list at first thought.

Past Master and Picnic on Paradise were part of Terry Carr’s highly regarded Ace Science Fiction Specials. So was The Left Hand of Darkness. I can understand why Wolfe selected them even though I never could enjoy them myself. This means Wolfe’s psychic flavor for 1960s SF is a bit different than mine, and probably yours too. Rite of Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin would have been my pick from the Ace Specials, but I’m not sure if it would make my final eight. It did beat Past Master to win the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo.

To me the six most memorable science fiction novels of the 1960s were Stranger in a Strange Land, The Man in the High CastleDune, Flowers for AlgernonStand on Zanzibar and The Left Hand of Darkness. The Left Hand of Darkness and Dune stand at the top of the Classics of Science Fiction list. That leaves me just two slots. As much as I love Clifford Simak, and Way Station, I’m afraid it has the flavor of 1950s science fiction.

And let me be perfectly clear, these aren’t my favorite SF novels of the 1960s, but the ones I think defined the decade.

I consider Samuel R. Delany the main ingredient of the 1960s science fiction flavor, but I’m having a problem picking his one representative novel. To me, his perfect work is the novella “The Star Pit.” And if Babel-17 and Empire Star could be considered one novel I’d pick it. Empire Star is a novel mentioned by the characters inside Babel-17. However, I might go along with Wolfe and pick Nova because it stands stronger as a singular work even though emotionally it comes in second with me.

That leaves one other novel. The obvious choice is Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, but Vonnegut bitched and moaned he wasn’t a science fiction writer. He didn’t want to get pigeonholed into the low paying genre of science fiction. And Slaughterhouse-Five is the heavyweight champion among the literati for science fiction for the 1960s.

Actually, I remember the 1960s science fiction being owned by Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny. Wolfe picks This Immortal, and that’s a major part of the flavor of 1960s science fiction, but I’m not sure it holds up as well as I loved it back when. The obvious choice from Zelazny is Lord of Light. It’s a very sixties SF novel. And it would be my eighth novel in the set if I was picking them for other people.

However, I think I will use my last slot for a personal favorite and pick Mindswap by Robert Sheckley. The 1960s were known as the Psychedelic decade and Mindswap is psychedelic science fiction. So this is my recipe to create the science fiction flavor of the 1960s:

1960s SF

Of course, my 1960s were created with hundreds of science fiction novels. I could create a whole cookbook of flavors using different combinations of SF from the 1960s. And to be perfectly precise the ultimate recipe to understand 1960s science fiction is:

F&SF + Galaxy + If + Amazing + Fantastic + Analog + Worlds of Tomorrow

James Wallace Harris, October 25, 2019

 

I Guess Every Generation Needs An End-of-Civilization Novel

After finishing The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison it occurred to me that every generation might need its own end of civilization novel. One of my favorite books growing up was Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, about a disease that kills off most of humanity. It’s a great novel, so why does anyone need to write another novel about a disease that kills off most of humanity? Meg Elison’s novel is just as gripping as Earth Abides and leaves the same psychological taste in the mind, so in some ways, they are almost identical. But not quite.

Elison’s main character is a woman, and Elison gives a feminist view to the collapse of civilization that George R. Stewart could never have imagined back in 1949. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a last-woman-on-Earth novel for the #MeToo generation. (By the way, these books start off with the main character feeling they are the last person on Earth, but eventually find other people. I’d like to read one where the main character is really the last person on Earth.)

Science fiction has a set of standard concepts that every child eventually encounters. Space travel, aliens, time travel, and robots are the biggest science-fictional concepts kids learn about first, usually from television. The end of civilization and the post-apocalyptic new world does appear now and then in movies and television, but I believe many people don’t really grasp the idea fully until they read about it in a book. And I’m not sure how many people have read any end of civilization novels.

Everyone learns about Frankenstein but few people ever read Mary Shelley’s novel, which is a shame because the novel is so superior to the films. Fewer still know she wrote The Last Man, one of the earliest end of civilization novels. Ever since then such novels have come out infrequently but consistently. I’m wondering if every generation has one. When I was growing up in the 1950s we were afraid of The Bomb and WWIII, and read On the Beach by Neville Shute and Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. At the movies, we saw The World, The Flesh, and The Devil where Harry Belafonte was the last man on Earth until Inger Stevens showed up. I think it’s hard to convey the depth of loneliness in a film of believing you’re all alone in the world. A first-person novel is required.

Meg Elison trilogy

Like I said, science fiction has a set of defining concepts that the genre owns, and some are so popular that most people can’t remember when they first encountered them. Post-apocalyptic stories have become almost as common as space travel, but not quite. I don’t remember when I first encountered the idea. I can’t say if it was a book or movie, but I feel it was Earth Abides, which I read in my late teens. I’m wondering to fully get into the concept you have to read a book and be old enough to appreciate the idea. To grok the existential crisis of the collapse of society we need to understand civilization and imagine what it would be without it.

Meg Elison imagines being a woman without all the protections of law and order. In her story, women and children die off at a rate greater than men. Women are hidden or enslaved. Strong men take women away from weak men. They are raped and put on leashes, they are captured for group marriages, or they are aligned with men who are willing to kill and die for them. The unnamed midwife of this story is a woman who dresses as a man and hides from people. She is a loner traveling across the western states trying to survive while encountering many horrors. She feels the safest living alone but suffers from soul-crushing loneliness and boredom.

Elison’s story is not exactly a first-person point-of-view narrative. Her novel has a frame. It begins in the future, supposedly after civilization starts developing again, where boys are taught to copy the journals of the unnamed midwife. Part of Elison’s tale comes from journals, partly first-person, and part is an omniscient narrator. I wasn’t bothered by this mish-mash of techniques, but some reviewers have complained about it. It allows Elison to let us inside the head of the unnamed midwife – she actually goes by many aliases. But we also get to read the stories of other characters in their first-person voices, plus we get to hear what happens to people that the unnamed midwife never gets to know.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife has some similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale. I assume the boys are made to copy these journals so future men will be sensitive to women’s point of view. Elison also deals with patriarchal religions. And the framework suggests a new religion, which might be revealed in the later novels.

In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, the population is killed off by a mysterious flu-like illness. During the cold war era, nuclear holocaust and biological weapons were usually the cause of leaving few people alive. A couple decades later it was nuclear winter or comet impact. Writers have come up with all kinds of ways of reducing the population down to near zero. These end of the world stories have humans almost becoming extinct, but not quite. Their stories are always about how a few people start over.

I’ve read a lot of these stories. They nearly all follow the same basic plot. A protagonist discovers they are alone. They wander about wondering what happened. Eventually, the protagonist encounters a few other people, but they quickly learn that other people can be dangerous. The stories continue with the search for food and shelter in the ruins, and after a lot of violence, people start finding a way to rebuild. The point of these stories is to tell us what life without civilization would be like. They also get into the foundation of right and wrong, and why people bond. It’s a good sub-genre for being philosophical. It’s a way to criticize the existing civilization and theorized about a better one.

Meg Elison covers all the bases. Her book has two sequels that are set in the same universe, but The Book of the Unnamed Midwife can stand alone just fine. I recommend it to any connoisseurs of end of civilization novels, or to any male that doesn’t fully comprehend the importance of the #MeToo movement. However, I should warn readers who like light and uplifting tales that this one is heavy and painful. I admire these kinds of books because they really make me think hard about existence, but I finish them psychologically worn out.

James Wallace Harris, October 8, 2019

Should I Review Stories I Don’t Like?

Anthologies - 2 shelves

Whenever I read a story I want to write about it. The impulse is not to review but to crystallize my thoughts. If I publish what I write, it will be considered a review. If I don’t like aspects of a story, my readers will think I’m telling them to avoid the story. In actuality, I’m only describing my personal reactions. It doesn’t mean other people reading the story won’t enjoy it or have different reactions altogether.

I’ve been disturbed lately by reading essays by young people dismissing older books and authors because those books and writers don’t meet their modern moral standards. I recently wrote an essay about this, “The Uneducated Unkindness of Youth Censoring the Past.” I’ve been thinking about why they do this, and why critics write about fiction they don’t like. At one level its a kind of censorship. The young are saying don’t read these stories because the author is morally suspect, or the characters express repugnant beliefs, or that the theme of the story is objectionable. Ordinary critics when they pan a story are merely helping their readers save money, or helping the writer by pointing out flaws that need fixing. These good intentions have the same censorship effect.

Stories need readers and the best way to get readers is by positive reviews and word-of-mouth praise. Protests by young writers often feel like they are implying, don’t read old stories, read our new stories. However, they seldom offer substitutes for the stories they protest against. Reviewers might think by warning their readers against poor stories their readers will find superior stories to buy instead, but again, they usually don’t offer superior alternatives. Of course, offering substitutes is hard. If you protest a 1950s novel, you should suggest another 1950s novel covering the same thematic territory that does meet your standards. If your review rips up a new novel, you might suggest another contemporary novel that tackles the same subject without those faults.

I’m wondering if I should only write about stories I believe worthy of reading. The real goal should be to promote stories I love, and not gossip about stories I hate. I realize now in popular culture there are two kinds of people out there – promoters and protesters. But it gets very complicated. Take climate change. I’m against it, and I’m all for the protesters who are also against it. But the problem isn’t pro v. anti regarding climate change. It’s really capitalism v. stable weather, a healthy environment, preserving species. It’s positive v. positive. This is why the issue of climate change is so divisive, it’s a fight over two positives. If fixing climate change didn’t involve dismantling capitalism, most people would be for fixing the problem.

We all have limited reading time. We don’t want to waste it on bad books. The real choice should be between all the great stories we could be reading. This makes me think when I mention a book it should be a book worthy of recommending. There are thousands of science fiction novels and short stories published each year. Reading about bad stories is only wasting your reading time – time you could be actually be reading good stories. It also wastes my writing time.

I don’t know if I can break my habit of writing about stories I don’t like. I think there is a strong drive in everyone to criticize what annoys them. I read a story yesterday that annoyed the crap out of me. I kept waiting for it to get to its point thinking the author would redeem a bad beginning with a good ending. He didn’t. I then wanted to write about my feelings of reading outrage. But why should you care about my reading meltdown? Other than people who think, “If Harris hates it, I’ll love it” there are no upsides.

There are still problems with only writing about stories I love. Stories aren’t always good or bad. Sometimes they are almost excellent except for a few flaws. Should I promote those books? I recently read an award-winning novel that I thought extremely creative. Yet, it left me emotionally empty in the end because it never developed a heart. It was a fireworks display of ideas and dazzling writing, but the characters were blah. Of course, other readers might have felt more for those characters and the book would be 100% satisfying for them. However, should I review it and say take a risk of steering you wrong? Ultimately, I decided if I can’t completely back a story I shouldn’t mention it.

Finally, there’s the problem of me loving a story but it fails to be loved by my readers. I can’t guarantee you’ll love the stories I do. I believe I have two choices. When dealing with fiction I can either write about what I love and hope you love it too, or I can give up writing about fiction and try to write fiction instead. I’d rather do the latter, but I can’t right now. But if I did get my fiction published how would I feel about people writing about it?

I’ve taken a lot of writing classics and workshops and criticism is very important. Critiques are a kind of marketing data for writers. Pure praise is useless, other than encouraging the ego. Complete criticism makes you want to stop writing. What is helpful are critiques that say these parts made me want to keep reading, and these parts made me want to stop reading. I wonder if this approach would also work for reviewing stories? It might be helpful to writers, but I don’t know if potential readers care.

Of the two approaches, which do you prefer? Only read reviews of stories worthy of reading, or read reviews which lists the highs and lows? Do you really want to run out and read a flawed book?

James Wallace Harris, 9/28/19