Science Fiction Writers in Conversation with Each Other

Imagine a world where science fiction had never been invented. Could you have written the first science fiction story? Be honest now, and think hard about yourself and what I’m asking. Before Galileo, did anyone think the Moon was a world that could be visited? Once people heard Galileo saw mountains on the Moon with his telescope they began to imagine going there. Science fiction needed certain kinds of seed ideas to begin. When the seeds come from reality I’ll call that Stage 1 science fiction. We don’t see a lot of that kind of science fiction anymore. Maybe The Martian by Andy Weir when he tried to realistically portray growing potatoes on Mars or when a writer extrapolates on current events like John Brunner did in Stand on Zanzibar back in 1968 or what Kim Stanley Robinson did in The Ministry for the Future in 2020.

Once the genre got rolling, science fiction seeded itself. One story about a trip to the Moon inspired an infinity. I call that Stage 2 science fiction. In Stage 2 writers try to stick to reality but work off the collective knowledge of the genre. Eventually, science fiction was making copies of copies, where the inspiration had no connection with reality. I’ll call that Stage 3 science fiction.

Early stories about traveling to the Moon were Stage 1 because it’s not likely the authors had read each other’s work. But when Verne and Wells wrote their novels of lunar exploration a lot of their inspiration was Stage 2. When John Varley wrote his stories about a lunar colony, most of the science-fictional concepts within those stories had been germinating for generations in the genre – Stage 3.

I believe science fiction writers have an ongoing conversation that never ends. To take part in this conversation, publish a story. It can be Stage 1, 2, or 3. To be heard and answered requires writing something in Stage 1 or 2, or a very creative Stage 3.

This is why I’ve become fascinated by the forgotten writer Walter F. Moudy. The 1950s and 1960s were a fertile time for Stage 1 and Stage 2 stories. By the second half of the 1960s and early 1970s writers who made themselves noticed were writing a baroque Stage 3 science fiction to attract attention. For example, the works of Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and Robert Silverberg were based on old SF ideas told with new writing styles. Unfortunately, Moudy wrote Stage 3 stories in the same prose style that the classics of Stage 2 were written. His 1964-65 stories feel like they were written in 1954. One reason the New Wave writers of the 1960s were so important is they recognized that retelling Stage 2 stories in the same way, would get them ignored. The reason why Heinlein blazed onto the scene in 1939 is that he wrote Stage 1 stories with a new writing style, making his stories stand out.

I enjoy reading Walter F. Moudy in 2022 because I doubt I could write any better than he did, and he was responding to the stories I admired back then. His writing ability and knowledge of the genre were just good enough to get five works published and then become forgotten. As a would-be science fiction writer, I greatly identify with that. He wanted to join the conversation and made the effort to have his say. He just wasn’t heard, but now after decades, I’m listening.

While reading Walter F. Moudy’s meager output of science fiction I kept feeling his stories were inspired by the science fiction he and I both read. They made me wonder what he was trying to say in the ongoing conversation.

Of the five science fiction stories, I’ve read by Walter F. Moudy, “The Search for Man” is my favorite, although if I reread “The Survivor” or No Man On Earth I might change my mind. All were good fun, old-fashion science fiction, the kind my nostalgia loves. As I read “The Search for Man,” I kept wondering what science fiction Moudy had read that inspired this story. I can’t say for sure but this story about robots speculating about long-dead or gone humans reminded me of City by Clifford Simak. That “The Search for Man” set hundreds of years into the future speculated about our times and turned us into a religion reminded me of A Canticle for Leibowitz. That both the protagonists of No Man On Earth and “The Search for Man” were about a super-human and a super-robot reminded me of The Hampdenshire Wonder, Slan, Odd John, Chocky, Stranger in a Strange Land, and all the other science fiction stories about next-stage beings. Reading those two Moudy stories made me think about how I would have written a story on that theme. How much could I base it on reality, and how much would be inspired by other science fiction?

“The Search for Man,” begins with a baby being born, but it’s a strange birth, a kind of decanting that made me think of Brave New World. Then we learn the baby will only have three senses, and it will be put into a robotic baby’s body, the first of four body types it will use.

Moudy sets up a good mystery for us. Humans died out hundreds of years earlier, with all other animal life. The humans had tried to travel to the stars, but it appears their three missions had failed. The robot brains have improved their brains with genetics found in 12 human brains that had been preserved. The robots have found long-dead humans in various kinds of chambers that tried to create suspended animation. Their hope is to find a chamber with a viable human to resurrect. There are classes of robots that are archeologists and others that are priests that teach a strange religion based on their theories about humans. All of that is a very appealing setup for a story, at least for me.

I’m not sure Walter F. Moudy would have written “The Search for Man” without reading a lot of science fiction. Part of the conversation science fiction writers have is about science fictional ideas, but the other part is about how to present those ideas in a story. I felt “The Search for Man” was Moudy’s reply to both but in the language of 1950s science fiction. I wonder if he had been more of a stylist would he have made a greater impact?

“The Search for Man” was published in an original anthology In The Wake of Man that’s never been reprinted. I’ve been trying to get a copy, but it’s expensive, starting at $75 used. I had found a $10 copy for sale, but my order was canceled a couple days after I ordered it. Right now the only source for this story is a copy of In The Wake of Man at Archive.org. If you are a member, which is free, you can check it out for an hour to read online. Thanks to Joachim Boaz for finding that link.

Joachim Boaz and Rich Horton have also been writing about Walter F. Moudy. Rich is planning to review all of Moudy’s work soon.

James Wallace Harris, 6/30/22

Blowing Your Chance to Speak to the Future

Writers cherish the myth that their work will make their names immortal. And it is true we have remembered some authors for thousands of years. However, if you want to be heard across time, you have to write something timeless.

My friend Mike and I are fascinated by forgotten writers, especially forgotten science fiction writers. We can’t help but wonder why a writer quits after their initial success of selling a few stories or maybe a novel. Mike texted me the other day about such a writer he discovered in an interview with Geraldine Brooks in The New York Times.

It was part of their By the Book series, where all writers are asked the same standard questions. My favorite question: “What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?” Often this makes for an interesting title to chase down. Brooks said: “‘No Man on Earth,’ by Walter Moudy. The only other person I know who has read it is my son because I pressed it on him.”

So one well-regarded literary writer resurrects Walter F. Moudy 49 years after he died. That one little mention in the Times got me to read his novel. Maybe a few other people will too. And it’s a pretty good science fiction story for 1964. The question is, could it have been better? What would have made that novel stay in print? Is it worth reprinting? And do I recommend you read it?

You can read a pdf copy of No Man On Earth here.

It turns out that No Man On Earth is a forgotten science fiction novel by a forgotten science fiction writer, Walter F. Moudy (1929-1973). His ISFDB entry lists one novel and four short stories. This novel appeared in October of 1964, and then three of his four stories appeared in April and May of 1965, two in Fantastic and one in Amazing, both edited by Cele Lalli (Goldsmith). Moudy would have been in his mid-thirties. In 1966 he published another novel, The Ninth Commandment, probably not science fiction, and one I can’t track down. Finally, in 1975, after his death, Moudy had one more story, a novella, published in an original anthology, In the Wake of Man. The other two authors in that book were Gene Wolfe and R. A. Lafferty, pretty impressive company.

Besides No Man On Earth, I’ve read his three stories in Fantastic and Amazing, but it would cost me $75 to read his final story and that’s too much. For me, Walter F. Moudy’s science fiction legacy is that one novel, two short stories, and a novelette. Not much to go by, but still, I’m terribly envious since I’m a lifelong would-be science fiction writer. I’d give anything to have contributed even that much to the genre.

Why after his initial success in 1964-1966 did Moudy quit writing? And how did Roger Elwood get his last story? I guess Moudy tried one more time before he died to say something in print. But maybe Elwood had been holding it for years, and it was written in the mid-sixties. Reviewers haven’t been kind to it.

I was able to track down a few biographical details. Moudy was from Missouri, served in the Air Force from 1950 to 1953, got a degree in 1954, and then a law degree in 1957. He was Phi Beta Kappa. Moudy was married and had three children. In other words, he had a successful life and didn’t need to be a writer. Still, as I read his work over the last few days, I felt he had something to say. At least in No Man On Earth.

His three short stories were rather minor. The first, “The Dreamer,” was about a young man who wanted to get rich and famous as a space trader. The story was told like a fable. Its redeeming feature was a super-intelligent parrot. The second, “I Think They Love Me,” is about rock stars going to extreme lengths to survive hordes of screaming teenage girls. This was written a year after The Beatles hit America and was kind of cute, but not really worth remembering. The last, and the one most anthologized, is “The Survivor,” about a televised war game between America and Russia. It reminded me of The Hunger Games. This story came out in 1965 and was probably inspired by the 1964 Olympic games and the films Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe. “The Survivor” was gritty, detailed, and suggested each country sacrifice 100 men every four years in a fight to the death rather than risking total national annihilation.

Those three stories were somewhat entertaining, especially the last one, but they don’t leave the kind of impression that Moudy was making a statement. However, No Man On Earth does. Writers can make different kinds of statements. They can aim to write a better story than what’s written before. Or they can capture their times realistically in words. And common with science fiction writers, they can say something philosophical about reality. And there are so many other ways.

For example, I believe Robert Heinlein was influenced by the success of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand in 1957, and that’s why he aimed so high with Stranger in a Strange Land. In his later years, Heinlein repeatedly tried to convince fans that Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) were books that he wanted to be remembered for because they expressed his philosophy on freedom and responsibility.

My guess is Moudy was inspired by Stranger in a Strange Land when he wrote No Man On Earth. Heinlein’s main character Valentine Michael Smith is a human raised by Martians who taught him psychic powers. Moudy’s main character, Thad Stone, had a human mother and alien father and was a super-genius. Both novels are told with picaresque plotting. Both books comment on sex and society. Moudy has Stone tour many planets and visits many kinds of societies and civilizations. No Man On Earth ran 176 pages in its first publication, a slim paperback original to Stranger’s 408 pages in the G. P. Putnam’s Sons first-edition hardback. Heinlein was obviously trying to hit one out of the genre after over twenty years of being a big fish in a small pond. Frank Herbert also aimed sky high with Dune in 1965. It was also over 400 pages.

There are a lot of one-hit wonders in the book world but few writers struggle with their masterpieces like Harper Lee or John Kennedy Toole. My guess is Moudy knocked this novel out quickly and was probably paid around $750 for his paperback original and when it disappeared on the twirling wire racks after a couple of months felt his time was better spent being a lawyer. If he had written a 400-page monster and got it published by a major hardback publisher No Man On Earth might have had a better chance. He just didn’t aim high enough.

It would have also helped if he had written No Man On Earth in an innovative style that made the genre take notice, like Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land. Moudy’s story and writing reminded me a bit of Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955), Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror for Observers (1955), and Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), all books he could have read and could have inspired No Man On Earth.

Obviously, if Geraldine Brooks fondly remembers No Man On Earth in 2022 so it can’t be a stinker. I liked it quite a lot and rushed through it in two days because it was compelling in the old-fashion kind of science fiction I love. It’s great that Tevis’s 1963 novel is still remembered, and I think it’s a shame that Moudy’s book isn’t more remembered.

James Wallace Harris, 6/21/22

1971 WSFA-Analog Poll of Best SF Short Stories by Michael T. Shoemaker

With building our database, Classics of Science Fiction, we love to find data sources from the past so we can show how science fiction novels and short stories are remembered over time. We call each source a citation. It’s much harder to find data on the popularity of short stories, so I was very happy when Ken Papai posted to Facebook about P. Schuyler Miller’s discussion of a 1971 poll on the best SF short stories of all time. The poll was featured in Miller’s column, The Reference Library in the October and November 1971 issues of Analog Science Fiction. The poll was conducted for Miller by Michael Shoemaker for the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA). Ken found this mention while reading Wikipedia.

Ken’s post inspired a web hunt for me. Miller’s two essays summarized the poll, but I wanted to see Shoemaker’s results. I went to Google but it was no help. Then I went to Fanac.org, the archive of fanzines hoping to find a fanzine from that period that printed the results. I had no luck because it has so many fanzines from 1971. Then Dave Hook in our group thought of looking up Shoemaker in ISFDB.org and found that Shoemaker had published the results in the WSFA Journal #77 for June-July 1971. I then went back to Fanac.org and found that issue to read, and the article by Shoemaker. Then Piet Nel sent me a Word document with the results taken from an SFADB page he saw long ago. Finally, I think it was Dave who found the old SFADB listing on the Wayback Machine. The SFADB listing is the easiest to read. However, I have compiled Shoemaker’s WSFA article with Miller’s two articles into a pdf if you want to read the originals.

I write about all this to show the value of the internet, and especially tools like ISFDB, SFADB, and Fanac.org. But it also shows the value of making friends on Facebook and belonging to a group devoted to reading science fiction short stories. I love these internet treasure hunts for information.

I will add this citation source to the database. It will help reflect how readers in 1971 remembered the science fiction short stories they loved. That’s why I find fascinating about this work, how novels and stories are remembered and forgotten. I’ve been thinking about getting Mike to program our system so we can show what stories were popular for any given year. Right now our results are cumulative for all citation source years. You can use the List Builder feature to show what stories were popular up to 1971, but that reflects all the citation sources through now. What I think would be cool is to pick a year, or range of years, and show what people remembered for just that time period.

Mike Shoemaker’s article shows what short stories were remembered in 1971. You can pick any single citation source now to see what short stories were remembered for the year the citation was created. But it would be cool to compare what readers in 1972 remembered versus what readers in 2022 remembered.

By the way, even if you’re not interested in how I found this poll, you might find Shoemaker’s opinion of it interesting. He was distressed that certain stories were popular, stories I love. That’s the thing about polls and meta-lists. They don’t always reflect our opinions. Shoemaker also noted that the recent Science Fiction Hall of Fame probably had a lot of impact on the voting.

Finally, one last nod to Fanac.org. It has the fanzine Lan’s Lantern #30 that ran my article that was the origin of our Classics of Science Fiction database.

James Wallace Harris, 3/27/22

When is a Forgotten SF Story Worth Ressurecting?

Today I read “it walks in beauty” by Chan Davis, first published in Star Science Fiction (January 1958) edited by Frederik Pohl. You can read the magazine version here. It was reprinted 9/3/3 in SciFiction at SciFi.com by Ellen Datlow who rediscovered the author’s original version. That version is in print in It Walks in Beauty, a collection of stories and essays by Chandler Davis edited by Josh Lukin. That collection was reviewed at The New York Review of Science Fiction by Mark Rich, who also provides biographical background on the mysterious Chan Davis that I won’t repeat here. However, I learned from Rich’s essay that the version I read today was altered by Frederick Pohl, which Lukin explains in an introduction:

Only looking at the two versions quickly I felt Pohl improved the story. Especially, with the opening line:

“Harriet waved to Max from the end of its row, but Max’s thoughts were far away.”

I kept rereading it wondering why Harriet was being referred to as its. Was Harriet a robot I wondered? In the Davis version, the opening line is:

“I love Luana,” said Max dreamily, leaning against the ladder that ran up the towering vat of Number 73.”

That line did nothing for me.

“it walks in beauty” is not a great story except that it plays with pronouns. Sexually attractive females are shes, but women who work are its or careers. Because we’ve become a pronoun conscious society, this makes this science fiction story from 1958 very interesting in 2022.

Max is in love with Luana, an exotic dancer. Women who want sex and babies become star performers that men chase, which is why Davis originally called the story “The Star System.” These women do everything they can to appear sexually attractive to men. They are also the women men marry. The women who want careers wear their hair short like men, wear pants, don’t get married, and don’t have children. In this story, they are ignored by men, treated like coworkers, and referred to with the pronoun it, or collectively as careers rather than girls or shes.

Chan Davis characterized men as single-minded. They equate love with sex, accept career women as equals or even professional superiors, but they don’t think of them as women. Paula is a career that is friendly and encouraging to Max, helping him to advance at his job. Max asks Paula if she wants to come with him to Luana’s dance club. He expects her to be one of the guys who’d want to watch a stripper. Eventually, Paula reveals to Max that she has a sexual side but Max can’t accept that, even when she tricks him into seeing her with a wig and make-up. He’s horrified at her pretending to be a woman, and can’t accept it when Paula tells him that Luana wears and wig and dresses up too for the part. And it really blows Max’s mind when Paula tries to convince him that playing the sexy girl role is offensive to women.

There’s a lot to admire in this 1958 science fiction story. Why then, hasn’t it been reprinted in major science fiction anthologies? Maybe in the 1950s they never imagined society playing around with pronouns? Maybe they didn’t like the idea of women having careers or the suggestion that being a sex object was an act. In 2022 people might appreciate this story more.

It’s like the famous story, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster. It’s a great story for 1909, but it became a fantastic story after the internet became real.

I’m partial to 1950s science fiction, so the story might impress me in ways that modern readers will miss. I’m impressed that it stands out in hindsight. In 1958 I was seven, but if I had been ten years older, I still don’t think I would have picked up on the pronoun thing so quickly. The difference between the Pohl edit and Davis’ original is Pohl throws the reader into the pronoun thing and Davis waits to explain it. Pohl, as a skilled writer and editor, knew it was savvier to let the reader learn in context. He wanted to give the story teeth.

Chan Davis didn’t stick around the science fiction field for long. He was a social activist back in the 1950s so he had more important things to deal with. There’s an interview with Davis by Lukin in The Cascadia Subduction Zone v. 1 n. 1 (January 2011). This sidebar might tempt you to read it:

James Wallace Harris, 3/17/22

p.s. In case you’re wondering, I now use screenshots of quotes because my WordPress theme doesn’t word wrap in some browsers the preformatted mode I used for quotes.

“Reiko’s Universe Box” by Kajio Shinji

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #68 of 107: “Reiko’s Universe Box” by Kajio Shinji

“Reiko’s Universe Box” by Kajio Shinji is a slight story about newlyweds and a unique wedding gift. The special gift is a universe in a box, a cube of forty centimeters on each end, showing astronomical vistas. Reiko, the neglected wife becomes obsessed with the universe in a box, inspiring her to study astronomy, giving her something to fill in her lonely hours while her new husband works long hours as a company man in Japan.

I love science fiction stories about futuristic educational toys. That made this story somewhat charming, but the cliched marital issues were unimaginative. I know that VanderMeers wanted to expand the scope of the traditional science fiction anthology by including science fiction stories from around the world. That’s an admirable ambition. Unfortunately, the translated stories on average haven’t been that good. This subverts their purpose because it makes me think other countries never developed sophisticated science fiction.

Offhand, I quickly recall two science fiction stories dealing with educational toys, “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, and “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. In both cases, the toys were integrated into rich multilayered tales with complex characters. Sure, these stories had the advantage of length, but my point still counts.

Shinji should have made Reiko something more than a stereotypical lonely housewife, and come up with a resolution that wasn’t so nihilistic. Science fiction readers want a sense of wonder that invokes awe. “Reiko’s Universe Box” is too mundane, even with a wondrous gadget. Reiko and her husband Ikutarō come across as dreary losers.

The characters in “The Star Pit” are losers too, but dramatically fascinating losers. And more importantly, Vyme ultimately transcends his many failures, with the ecologarium being essential to his story. Shinji might have intended Reiko to have a positive experience with the last line telling us, “With a joyful shriek, she dived after her husband,” but what’s the point of chasing her abusive cheating husband into a black hole?

Reading through the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction is making me think hard about the value of old science fiction stories. The anthology remembers stories from across the 20th century, but most of the time it remembers stories I don’t consider memorable. Now, I fully admit, these stories are memorable to the VanderMeers, and readers who share their tastes, but I don’t think they are memorable to the average science fiction reader of my generation.

What’s an average science fiction reader anyhow? Here again, I have to admit that’s changing. In our Facebook group that focuses on science fiction short stories, it appears to be mostly older guys. In the much larger Facebook group devoted to science fiction novels, the group is split between older readers and younger ones, males and females. I’m guessing fans of science fiction changed in the 1990s as the readership became more diverse. Reading the comments in the novel group often reveals a shift in tastes.

For us old guys, the ones who grew up reading Astounding, Analog, F&SF, Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow, Amazing, Fantastic, New Worlds, Science Fantasy, and even the newer magazines like Asimov’s and Omni, we have a sense of what science fiction used to be. Many of the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction aren’t that kind of science fiction story.

When I bought The Big Book of Science Fiction I hoped it would be a giant book of my kind of science fiction, including more stories from around the world, and with more stories by women writers — but still my kind of science fiction. I thought the young editors would preserve a past I loved.

Instead, they found a different view of the past that fits their modern taste in science fiction. And that’s cool. Times change, and all that. Before reading this anthology I assumed the science fiction I loved would be preserved in the future because I believed it had inherent qualities that made it enduring. I’m now wondering if those admired qualities might depend on readers of certain generations and won’t be visible to later generations.

When generations die off, most of the pop culture they loved will die with them. That’s just another thing I’m learning from getting old. The science fiction of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells survived the 19th century, but how many works of science fiction from that century didn’t?

James Wallace Harris, 1/5/22

“The Star Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton

Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #10: “The Star Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton

It only took us to the tenth story in this giant retrospective science fiction anthology to get to the galactic civilization, probably the the most cherished of all science fiction concepts, and the destination fantasy of true fans. “The Star Stealers” anticipates both Star Trek and Star Wars. The galactic civilization is to science fiction what Middle-Earth is to fantasy.

“The Star Stealers” is the second of seven stories (1928-1930) in Hamilton’s early space opera series, Interstellar Patrol. Those stories are among the earliest science fiction about interstellar travel, and among the few to leave the galaxy. This story could have been the inspiration for Star Trek since it involved a Federation governing the galaxy, a captain commanding from a bridge of a Federation ship, and even a second officer who is a woman. Edmond Hamilton and E. E. “Doc” Smith were the pioneers of space opera.

Five of the Interstellar Patrol stories were first published in book form in 1965 as Crashing Suns, the year before Star Trek premiered. All of them were republished in 2009 as The Star-Stealers: The Complete Adventures of The Interstellar Patrol, The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume Two, a collector’s edition from Haffner Press that’s now out of print and costs hundreds of dollars used, if you can find a copy. However, because it took decades for these stories to be reprinted suggests they weren’t fan favorites. Most of Hamilton’s early magazine work wasn’t published in book form until the late 1960s or 1970s. Edmond Hamilton is most famous for his Captain Future series, but even those fan favorite stories from the 1940s weren’t reprinted as books until 1969, and then as cheap Ace paperbacks. Hamilton’s appeal seems rather limited. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark and Lensman series vastly overshadowed Hamilton’s space operas.

I’m still trying to discern the VanderMeers’s methodology for the stories they collect in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Anthologies usually have a design behind them. The simplest approach is to bundle a bunch of stories you expect readers will enjoy. Because this anthology is a retrospective of 20th century science fiction I assume the stories showcase the genre. In the introduction the VanderMeers tell us they want to broadening the history of the genre by including women writers and foreign-language stories in translation. I thought that was an excellent ambition. But I assumed when they did include traditional SF stories, those stories would be the classics, and maybe the best example of each writer’s work.

This has happened some, but not to the degree I assumed. For example, “The Star Stealers” is not Edmond Hamilton’s best. Hamilton was never a good writer, and it shows in “The Star Stealers,” which is little better than a comic book without pictures. Hamilton wrote two stories, “The Man Who Evolved” and “What’s It Like Out There?” I believe belong in retrospective SF anthologies. The original use of the term space opera was as a put down for the kind of writing “The Star Stealers” epitomizes. I even wonder if Hugo Gernsback, who had no ear for prose, had turned down “The Star Stealers.” Weird Tales is a legendary magazine today, but it’s content was often amateurish. But Hamilton was practically a house writer for them, so he probably didn’t submit it to Amazing. This story was no more sophisticated than the illustration that went with “The Star Stealers” at the top of the page.

Still, there’s plenty to like about “The Star Stealers,” and it makes an interesting entry for the anthology. The plot parallels the story by Wells, “The Star,” which was about a rogue astronomical body flying through the solar system, swinging too close to Earth. In “The Star Stealers” a giant sun is detected coming from outside the galaxy that will swing too close to Earth. For this story, the object is traveling many multiple speeds of light and will reach the solar system in four months. This is ridiculous, but Hamilton’s Federation space cruisers can travel a thousand times the speed of light, so its no problem. (By the way, how do astronomers detect objects approaching Earth traveling faster than light in their telescopes?)

“The Star Stealers” was published the year before Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, and just five years after Edwin Hubble proved the existence of galaxies outside of the Milky Way, and less than two decades since Einstein explained that nothing could travel faster than light. Hamilton has his space cruiser traveling from Alpha Centauri to our system in twelve hours. This is almost as fast as they travel in Star Wars, but a good deal slower than what they can do in Star Trek. We might forgive Hamilton for breaking Einstein’s speed law in 1929, but even modern writers can’t let go of FTL.

In recent decades we’ve been seeing more stories following Einstein’s laws for interstellar travel, but for the most part writers keep coming up with theoretical gimmicks to go faster. Readers want science fiction where humans roam the galaxy at will, and we see this in “The Star Stealers.” However, the super-science of that story and other early space operas has been deemed excessive by modern fans. “The Star Stealers” feels as archaic today as a silent movie. At one time, “Doc” Smith had his characters hurling galaxies at each other, but nowadays, science fiction readers are happy with space opera that span just a few hundred light years. Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought series is the last science fiction I’ve read that covers the entire galaxy. The only other SF story I know that has characters traveling between galaxies is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. I should forgive Hamilton because “The Star Pit” is not ridiculous to me at all, in fact, it’s my all-time favorite SF novella.

But as I said, “The Star Stealers” is a fascinating choice for this anthology. It anticipates the ultimate setting of science fiction fans who want to dwell in a galactic civilization, with countless exotic worlds to visit, and plenty of exotic races of intelligent aliens to be friends and foes. Edmond Hamilton grasped the final frontier early, and the idea of a federation of star systems. “Doc” Smith’s first space opera, The Skylark of Space has a lone Elon Musk like inventor competing with a mad scientist, Blackie DuQuesne to explore the galaxy. Hamilton jumps ahead of Smith by imagining a civilized galaxy. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s prose was painful, and he never achieved the popularity of Smith. “Doc” Smith’s second space opera series, The Lensman series actually popularized the galactic civilization which eventually led to Star Trek. It was Asimov, with the Foundation series, that popularized the galactic empire, which led to Star Wars. I keep mentioning those two franchises because they represent the most loved examples of science fiction today, and these earlier stories represented how thousands of fans eventually turned into hundreds of millions of fans.

So, in that sense, the VanderMeers have made an exceptional pick. Unfortunately, “The Star Stealers” is also a perfect example of bad writing, even for old timey science fiction. First, the bad characterization.

The hero of this tale is Ran Rarak. We expect him to be dashing, but there is no supporting description, even though he’s the admiral of a mighty space fleet. We expect Ran to be heroic, but in the big fight he gets knocked out and is unconscious for ten weeks. We eventually see Ran duking it out with one alien, but it’s an ordinary non-superhero punch out. And the one problem he solves is by ramming the enemy’s pivotal machine with his space cruiser.

Hamilton should get credit for introducing a female character in early SF. Dal Nara, pilot, second officer, is a woman who gets to be part of the story action but her only insight is to yell, “Hey, look!” warnings on a few occasions. Her only action is to use her long legs to grab a means of escape. And finally, her chosen reward for help saving the solar system is to visit a beauty parlor. But she’s not the love interest. Hamilton, we give you a gold star, but it doesn’t stick and falls off.

And like in Star Trek, characters are comically tossed around the bridge to show conflict in space. Only one named character in the story is killed, Nal Jak, but he does nothing, and we don’t even know the color of his shirt. Hurus Hol we’re told is the brilliant scientist, but we’re never shown him being brilliant. However, he does commit one of the cardinal sins of bad science fiction, he infodumps on Ran Rarak in a completely condescending way:

He was silent again for a moment, his eyes on mine, and then went on. “You know, Ran Rarak, that the universe itself is composed of infinite depths of space in which float great clusters of suns, star-clusters which are separated from each other by billions of light-years of space. You know, too, that our own cluster of suns, which we call the galaxy, is roughly disklike in shape, and that our own particular sun is situated at the very edge of this disk. Beyond lie only those inconceivable leagues of space which separate us from the neighboring star clusters, or island universes, depths of space never yet crossed by our own cruisers or by anything else of which we have record. 

“But now, at last, something has crossed those abysses, is crossing them; since over three weeks ago our astronomers discovered that a gigantic dark star is approaching our galaxy from the depths of infinite space—a titanic, dead sun which their instruments showed to be of a size incredible, since, dark and dead as it is, it is larger than the mightiest blazing suns in our own galaxy, larger than Canopus or Antares or Betelgeuse—a dark, dead star millions of times larger than our own fiery sun—a gigantic wanderer out of some far realm of infinite space, racing toward our galaxy at a velocity inconceivable! 

“The calculations of our scientists showed that this speeding dark star would not race into our galaxy but would speed past its edge, and out into infinite space again, passing no closer to our own sun, at the edge, than some fifteen billion miles. There was no possibility of collision or danger from it, therefore; and so though the approach of the dark star is known to all in the solar system, there is no idea of any peril connected with it. But there is something else which has been kept quite secret from the peoples of the solar system, something known only to a few astronomers and officials. And that is that during the last few weeks the path of this speeding dark star has changed from a straight path to a curving one, that it is curving inward toward the edge of our galaxy and will now pass our own sun, in less than twelve weeks, at a distance of less than three billion miles, instead of fifteen! And when this titanic dead sun passes that close to our own sun there can be but one result. Inevitably our own sun will be caught by the powerful gravitational grip of the giant dark star and carried out with all its planets into the depths of infinite space, never to return!” 

Hurus Hol paused, his face white and set, gazing past me with wide, unseeing eyes. My brain whirling beneath the stunning revelation, I sat rigid, silent, and in a moment he went on.
 

The plotting of the story is about at the level of old Buck Rogers serials, which were more primitive than the Flash Gordans. Humans detect a giant sun heading towards the Milky Way and calculate it will swing near enough to the Sun to capture Sol and pull it into intergalactic space. They quickly assemble a fleet of fifty Federation space cruisers and take off. When they reach the giant sun which turns out to be populated death star, their fleet is almost completely destroyed, and our heroes get immediately captured. Like so many episodes of Star Trek where Captain Kirk is confined by ropes, chains, jails, cells, dungeons, and sexy space-babes, the plot pivots on merely escaping confinement and performing one little act, thus saving the Earth, solar system, galaxy, or universe. It turns out not all the fleet was destroyed, and good old Federation cruiser Number Sixteen escaped to fetch back a fleet of 5,000 Federation ships in the nick of time. Hamilton couldn’t even be bothered to name his ships, even the one that saves the day.

Edmond Hamilton seems to know little about astronomy or physics. He keeps mentioning three billion miles like it’s a tremendous distance, yet that’s just a tiny fraction light travels in one year: 5,878,625,370,000 miles. His ships accelerate but never decelerate. And a Federation spaceship can suddenly stop or hover in relation to each other even though they’ve been traveling a thousand times the speed of light. Another foreshadowing of Star Trek and Star Wars.

Like I said, this story was written just a few years after Hubble made the measurements to calculate that other galaxies were outside the Milky Way. It appears that Hamilton thinks our galaxy and the universe is terribly tiny. Was that true for all people back in the 1920s? Maybe it was for teenage readers of SF.

Even though E. E. “Doc” Smith was far more famous than Edmond Hamilton, he wasn’t much better as a writer. “The Star Stealers” is typical for both storytelling and science back in the 1920s and 1930s. There’s a reason why John W. Campbell, Jr. is so famous, because he attracted both stories and writers that were a quantum leap in quality and talent. And it explains why it’s hard so hard to find good science fiction stories between H. G. Wells and Robert A. Heinlein. This brings us back to the anthology.

Should we remember the all the bad stories that helped evolve the genre? There is a kind of fun academic appeal to reading old clunkers like “The Star Stealers” but is that what most buyers of retrospective anthologies want? And I still wonder if there were truly good stories from back then that could be rescued.

Look at it this way. There was thousands and thousands of short stories published in the 19th century, but how many are still embraced by readers today? Is the number even greater than 25? Or 10? I’m talking by bookworms, not scholars.

When a century separates readers from the 20th century, how many of these SF stories will still be read? At what point should we let go? Just how big would The Big Book of Science Fiction be if it only reprinted four and five star stories? My definition of a four-star story is any story on reading the first time leaves you knowing you’ll want to reread it. My definition of a five-star story are stories which bookworms cherish and read many times over their lifetime.

“The Star Stealers” fits neither definition for me. My definition for three-star stories are solid well-written stories that deserve to be published in a professional periodical, and might even deserve to be reprinted in an annual best-of-the-year anthology. It’s hard to judge the quality of “The Star Stealers” today by whether it deserved a magazine editor’s acceptance. But I’m guessing Farnsworth Wright was excited about the ideas in “The Star Stealer” and knew Hamilton wasn’t much of a writer. Wright and Gernsback knew their readers weren’t mature or educated, just enthusiastic. Even in 1929 I probably would have considered it a 2-star story, but I probably would have bought it if I was a magazine editor. It was different.

I enjoyed reading and writing about “The Star Stealers” because I’m an autodidactic scholar of science fiction, but I have to wonder what the average science fiction fan today will think of it.

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 9/5/21

“Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

“Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction (November 1952) and was retitled in 1965 to “Anybody Else Like Me?” for Miller’s second collection The View from The Stars. This was my third reading of the story. Previously read in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1953 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, and The Great Sf Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I just listened to the story in The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. that was released on audio two weeks ago (June 2021).

Imagine you’re a science fiction writer and want to tell a story about a person who feels they are different from other people and one day they discover they’re a telepath when they finally meet someone like themselves. How would you plot such a story? I wouldn’t have done it like Walter M. Miller, Jr. did in “Command Performance,” and neither would you, but I was quite impressed with how he envisioned such an encounter playing out. Miller had an interesting take on how telepathy might work, and like many science fiction stories from the 1950s, it’s very psychological.

Most writers picture telepathy as people talking to each other without speaking aloud. Miller takes the concept much further. He has his characters, Lisa Waverly and Kenneth Grearly sharing thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, fantasies, and inputs from all five senses. Much like that old saying about walking in someone else’s shoes.

I wish “Command Performance”/”Anybody Else Like Me?” was a novel instead of a short story, and Miller had worked out Lisa’s and Kenneth’s relationship at length. However, it appears Miller never finished a fully completed published novel. Miller’s most famous book, A Canticle for Leibowitz was a fix-up novel based on three previously published stories. ISFDB only lists one story in the novel section, “The Reluctant Traitor,” probably a novella, that appeared in the January 1952 issue of Amazing Stories. Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was a novel he almost completed before committing suicide, was finished by Terry Bisson, and published after his death.

According to ISFDB, Walter M. Miller, Jr. published 41 works of short fiction in the 1950s, and one in 1997, so evidently writing novels wasn’t his thing. I found this essay by Terry Bisson, “A CANTICLE FOR MILLER; or, How I Met Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman but not Walter M. Miller, Jr.” to be quite interesting, revealing a few more tidbits about Miller. And now that I’m listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. that just came out in audio, I’m finding each story makes me want to know more about Miller as a person. As Bisson points out, Miller did not want to meet people, and never even met his agent. That makes me even more curious about him.

I believe stories reveals details about their writers, even when writers desperately try to stay hidden. I’m only on the fourth story in this audiobook, and I’m guessing there will only be fourteen total if it’s based on the 1980 edition of the book of the same name. (Why hasn’t his other stories been collected?)

I can’t find much on Miller except his entries in Wikipedia and SF Encyclopedia. But at the beginning of his career he wrote this profile about himself for the September 1951 issue of Fantastic Adventures:

I believe this provides us with a few additional clues. Miller became a recluse making himself enigmatic. I don’t think Miller was telepathic, but he might have felt himself different from other people. But as I listen to his stories I can’t help but wonder about the man who wrote them. They are a strange take on science fiction, focusing on humans, and less about aliens and spaceships. Miller seemed more interested in psychology, philosophy, religion and aspects about mundane life. One reason why I’m so fond of science fiction of the 1950s is because the characters were often ordinary, just ones who encountered the fantastic in strange little ways.

I’m really enjoying this collection and looking forward to hearing all 22 hours. I then hope to reread A Canticle for Leibowitz before trying Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.

James Wallace Harris, 7/8/21

Update:

A friend sent me a chapter from Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl Weary where Merril recounts her affair with Walter M. Miller, Jr. while married to Frederik Pohl. It added many more puzzle pieces to my growing mental picture of Miller. I went to buy the book on Amazon and Amazon informed me I already had a copy. Now I need to read it.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a table of contents for the audiobook version of The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. but I’m hoping it’s the same as the 1980 hardback edition. That book seemed to combine the two previous paperback collections, Conditionally Human (1962) (3 novellas) and The View from the Future (1965) (9 stories and novelettes) and added two other stories for a total of 14. That leaves 27 stories uncollected. There were other collections of Miller’s stories, but they all seem to reprint from that same list of 14. Maybe they were all dogs, and not worth reprinting, but sometime I hope to read them too.

How The 21st Century Remembers Old Science Fiction Short Stories

I know the short story is an obscure art form on the wane, and the minority of readers who still enjoy reading short stories mostly read new ones as they come out in online periodicals, but I’m concerned with remembering the best science fiction short stories from the past. Old novels, movies, and television shows have massive support systems for being remembered and introduced to new potential fans. Have you ever seen a book 1,001 Short Stories to Read Before You Die? YouTube is overrun with YouTubers devoted to their favorite books, movies, albums, and television shows, but has YouTube every offered to show you one devoted to short stories? And how often do you see a Top 100 list of all-time best short stories on the web where they live and die by Top 100 lists? Or even the equivalent of the Billboard Hot 100 for current short fiction releases?

About the best a short story can hope for is getting anthologized, and even then, damn few anthologies stay in print. Anthologies that reprinted science fiction short stories were common on twirling book racks in the drugstores of the 1950s through the 1970s, but they’ve about disappeared today. Of course, the science fiction magazines that published the stories originally, have faded into obscurity only loved by the last 10,000 subscribers. The internet has brought about a renaissance of online publication of short stories, and that’s reflected in the annual awards which pretty much ignore the printed magazines nowadays.

Science fiction short stories published in periodicals go back at least two hundred years, and there are fans who still read them too, just not that many. And those fans are dying off. There’s barely enough storyworms to keep the memory of classic short SF alive. (Which probably explains why so few anthologies are for sale.)

Last night I read “The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight for the fourth time this century. And it wasn’t because the mood struck me to read it again. I’m reading The Great SF Stories 18 (1956) (1988) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg and it’s included in that anthology. It was also included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (1970) edited by Robert Silverberg which I listened to when it came out on audio in 2017, and then listened to again when the book club I’m in read it last year. I first read The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology back in the 1970s when it came out. I also read “The Country of the Kind” recently in Science Fiction of the Fifties (1979) edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph Orlander.

I have this self-imposed rule that I don’t skip short stories I’ve read before when reading anthologies. I’ve discovered it takes multiple readings to fully appreciate a short story. “The Country of the Kind” has gotten better on every rereading.

This got me to thinking. How do average science fiction fans stumbleupon old science fiction short stories to read? I figure it’s the same way I discover older SF short stories, by reading anthologies. But like I said, anthologies aren’t as common as they once were. How often do young science fiction fans buy a SF anthology? Or a collection? Do they even know the difference between an anthology and collection? Many people selling them on eBay don’t. The collection is a book of short stories by a single author, and I believe this is the most common way that bookworms still read short stories today. It’s when they decide to consume everything by their favorite author that they finally turn to the short story.

An anthology is a book of short stories by multiple authors. Most readers today see them as annual best-of-the-year volumes that collect the top short stories from the previous year. About every five years a large retrospective anthology comes out that presents the best of the genre’s past. I hardly ever see them anymore, but some theme anthologies reprint short stories with similar subjects are still being published. Baen used to do this, but I haven’t seen any in a while. One exciting new anthology that just came out is The Best of World SF: Volume 1 edited by Lavie Tidhar.

Yesterday I went looking for 21st-century anthologies that look back on science fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries. Here’s what I found currently in print. A few of these titles are aimed at the textbook market, reminding me that school reading is another way young readers encounter old SF stories.

Hyperlinks in the titles below are to the CSF database were you can see their table of contents by story in order by year published. That page also has additional links for more information about all the stories. If you don’t want to lose your place here, do a right-click and select Open in New Window, and then close that window after you’ve poked around.

Here’s how these anthologies remember short stories by decades. Like I said, science fiction short stories have been around a very long time. But looking at the numbers below makes it look like something happened in the 1930s. Amazing Stories began in 1926, which some claim was the start of the genre, but others think it really began when John W. Campbell, Jr. became editor of Astounding Science-Fiction in the late 1930s. (See my essay “19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories” for an overview of a baker’s dozen of anthologies that remember that century.)

It’s interesting to see the distribution of stories by decades. Both The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and The Big Book of Science Fiction have something from every decade. In terms of totals, the 1950s win, with the 1980s coming in second. The so-called Golden Age of the 1940s seems to be fading.

If you want to read some of the classics of SF anthologies, check out Mark R. Kelly’s Anthology page.

The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list, which is set to a minimum of 8 citations produces a list of 97 stories. It remembers stories from 1934-2010, which is a kind of a moving memory bubble. The entire database contains 4,554 stories from 1809-2010 with at least 1 citation. We currently believe that 7-8 citations represent a certain level of popularity or remembrance.

“The Country of the Kind” is reprinted in the Sense of Wonder (2011) anthology, so it’s still being remembered. Here’s the history of where it’s been anthologized since its original publication in 1956. The last major anthology it was in was The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 (2014) edited by Gordon Van Gelder.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note “The Country of the Kind” gets reprinted every few years in an anthology. That’s how Damon Knight’s little classic stays alive. I doubt many young readers today read anthologies, so it’s probably just barely hanging on in our collective memory.

When I researched this story on Google, I did notice that several sites devoted to writing school papers offered an analysis of the story for a fee. Being taught in school is another way for a short story to survive. There are other ways. Getting made into a movie or TV show sometimes happens, but that mostly seems to happen to stories by Philip K. Dick. Several episodes of Love, Death & Robots were based on recently published SF stories. I’m also in a Facebook group that helps.

Speaking of reading science fiction short stories in school, I can tell from my stat pages that some are probably popular with teachers. I doubt that many Googlers would be searching on these stories unless they were forced to by a school assignment. Another indicator they are assigned reading is they get hits only during the school year.

It’s rather telling that “The Country of the Kind,” “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin seem to be very popular in the classroom. And each of those stories deal with a particular incidence of violence. It’s almost as if controversial nastiness makes for teachability.

Finally, I’ve thought of one other new way that short stories are presented to help them be remembered: audiobooks. Both audiobook publishers and podcasters present audio productions short stories. For example, here’s one for “The Country of the Kind.” I noticed yesterday that Audible came out with The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. in June with over 20 hours of readings of Miller’s short stories. That made me very happy. Audible has some SF anthologies, but not many. The best way to find audio productions of short stories is to look for collections by your favorite author. For example, they have The Complete Short Stories by J. G. Ballard that runs over 63 hours, or five volumes of The Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick.

James Wallace Harris, 7/6/21

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

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