Good Science Fiction Bad Science

Do you stop reading science fiction when you encounter bad science, dated beliefs, or foolish concepts? I do if I’m warned ahead of time – but not if I’ve already gotten sucked into a the story. “Beyond Bedlam” by Wyman Guin is one such story that I kept reading once I realized it’s basic premise was ridiculous. It was first published in the August 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. I read it because of a friend recommending it and I read Robert Silverberg’s Reflections column about “Beyond Bedlam” being a one-hit wonder for Wyman Guin.

Maybe I shouldn’t tell you the premise for “Beyond Bedlam” because it might keep you from reading it. It’s available to read for free by following the link to the Galaxy magazine above, or by following this link to Project Gutenberg. The story is a short novella, about 20,000 words, so it will take you a bit of time to consume. Silverberg liked it well enough to anthologize it twice. Check to see if you have the classic 1980 SF anthology The Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels.

“Beyond Bedlam” is about a future utopian America that we would rebel against, but Wyman Guin presents as making sense to the citizens of that era. Guin didn’t write much science fiction because he worked in the pharmacological industry. His story presents the 29th-century America running smoothly because everyone is required by law to take psychiatric drugs. The characters in the story refer to our times as a dangerous failure because we let our emotions get the best of us. This by the way, isn’t the crazy premise of the story. Other science fiction stories have predicted people in the future controlled by drugs, and people do take a lot of drugs today for the mental health.

Guin takes one extra step that pushes the story into unbelievability territory – but I won’t give that away. Hopefully, you’ll start reading and get sucked in. Or maybe you will even think it a cool idea. Some science fiction fans love wild ideas no matter how silly they might be. I completely reject Guin’s speculation but enjoyed the story.

I understood why Guin wrote this story. I read lots of old books and watch lots of old movies, and the 1940s and 1950s was a time when people were fascinated with psychiatry and psychological mysteries. What’s particularly fascinating, and I’m giving a hint here that older readers might understand, is the 1951 “Beyond Bedlam” was written well before the 1957 bestseller, The Three Faces of Eve.

The reason why I found “Beyond Bedlam” compelling is Guin’s storytelling. Silverberg said Guin wrote 80,000 words of rough draft before distilling his story down to 20,000 words. It’s tightly plotted, with vivid characterization and great worldbuilding. It’s also filled with emotions derived from five characters’ unique movitations. Plus, “Beyond Bedlam” is quite adult, which wasn’t typical of science fiction in 1951.

Wyman Guin’s low output and his crazy premise will probably doom this nifty tale to obscurity. That’s a shame. “Beyond Bedlam” is not a literary classic. It’s a nostalgic tidbit from the dregs of decomposing pop culture that old fans fondly recall as they wait to die.

James Wallace Harris, 10/29/20

Realism in Science Fiction

Our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction recently read “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” by Algis Budrys, originally published in the December 1961 issue of Galaxy Magazine. We’re group reading Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. Because of this I’ve been thinking about the legacy of Galaxy Magazine, science fiction from the 1950s and how realistically did science fiction fans see the future.

So far “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” hasn’t found many admirers in our group, although the anthologist Rich Horton considers it one of his all-time favorite stories. My taste in SF often overlaps with Rich. I found the story to be compelling, thought provoking, not quite a classic, but unbelievably unrealistic.

I’ve read many books about science fiction of the 1940s, which older fans call The Golden Age of Science Fiction. John W. Campbell, Jr. was given most of the credit for this golden age because as editor he discovered and nurtured Heinlein, Asimov, Van Vogt, Hubbard, and many other SF writers that became famous in the genre when Baby Boomers were growing up. Many young SF writers and readers today are rebelling against that era of science fiction, but I think even by the end of the 1940s the writers and readers of the day were also ready to change, and that’s why F&SF (1949) and Galaxy (1950) quickly became popular magazines. And I’ve been told by many readers of my Baby Boom generation that they considered the 1950s to be the real Golden Age of Science Fiction. Did science fiction become more realistic in that decade?

Even though “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” came out at the end of 1961, I’m considering it a reflection of 1950s science fiction. Like the two classic stories from 1950, “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith and “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber, they mark a new beginning by reacting to the previous decade.

I have written elsewhere that I felt 1940s science fiction could be characterized by a yearning for transcendence. Campbell, Heinlein, and others expected mankind to evolve in the future, gaining mental and psychic powers that would help them conquer the galaxy. Reading “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” provided a kind of epiphany for me. It was wild, full of vitality, but ultimately discomforting because its lack of realism. Handling the fantastic in the same way superhero comic books handle reality. Is that the real legacy of 1950s SF?

Fiction has always had a strange relationship with reality and realism. I suppose we could say fiction has different levels of realism. By the way, I don’t mean to imply any artistic criticism to these various levels – at least for now.

  • Level 1 – Greek myths, superhero comic books, Bible stories, talking animal stories
  • Level 2 – Young adult or adult fantasy, science fiction
  • Level 3 – Science fiction that tries to be scientific
  • Level 4 – Most mundane genre fiction
  • Level 5 – Serious literature that’s mimetic

Unfortunately, much of science fiction swings the needle towards Level 1 rather than towards Level 5, even though science is in its label. “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” slams the needle over to 1 on the gauge. Is this good or bad? The story is fun. It’s a thrill ride. Should we even worry about it’s over-the-top fantastic elements?

I should warn you, I read “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” just after reading “The Boys Is the End of the Superhero As We Know It. And it’s about time.” That essay begins with “After two seasons of The Boys, I can say with roughly 85 percent confidence that Dr. Fredric Wertham was right.” I’ve got to admit that my confidence level is even higher, but then I’m prejudice against superhero comics. If you don’t know who Fredric Wertham is, read this. For most of my life I’ve had to accept the studies that say fiction, especially violent fiction, has no impact on the development of children, even though I find such results hard to believe. However, the years 2016-2020 makes me strongly wonder if Fredric Wertham wasn’t right all along. But I go further than Wertham, and wonder if science fiction and fantasy is dangerous too.

“Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” opens in the skyscraper office of Rufus Sollenar, a entertainment business titan. He’s looking out a floor to ceiling window contemplating his success in life. He believes his new product, EmpaVid, will dominate the market and guarantee success and riches for the rest of his life. EmpaVid is a television system that manipulates the emotions of the viewers. Sollenar expects EmpaVid patents to allow him to dominate the entertainment industry.

Sollenar wears utilijem rings that allows him to operate everything in his office with a wave of his hand. Budrys describes the scene quite dramatically, with Sollenar conducting the machines of his office with simple hand gestures, like a magical superpower. Still, it’s technology, making the story science fiction. Sollenar is smug and feels like he dominates the world when looking out his window down on the city.

Eventually, a Mr. Ermine forces is way into Sollenar’s office. An ermine is a weasel, and even Mr. Ermine dresses in rust colored garments, the color of a weasel. This is rather obvious, too much like a comic book villain. Galaxy Magazine was aimed at adults, and from what Budrys says in his memoir of working there, Horace Gold wanted it to be read by a wider audience than just the average young science fiction fan. I feel this aspect of the story counters that goal. But maybe I’m being too harsh.

Mr. Ermine is from the IAB, the International Association of Broadcasters. At first you think of him as a toady but eventually we learn he’s far more powerful, like an enforcer for the mob. Over the course of the story the IAB becomes more sinister, and suggesting Budrys wants us to believe it’s a secret cabal that manipulates the entertainment business, and will go to any length to get what they want. Again, this is painting reality with comic book strokes. People who love conspiracies will love this aspect of the tale.

After some heavy-handed info-dumping we get down to the conflict of the story. Mr. Ermine tells Sollenar that Cortwright Burr, a competitor, has gone to Mars and had the Martian engineers make him a device. The implication being that the Sollenar corporation and IAB are threatened.

We next see Sollenar acting like Spiderman climbing on Cortwright Burr’s corporate skyscraper. We are given some razzle-dazzle about the machinery that allows Sollenar to do this, but once again the story falls into comic book mode. There were many SF stories in the 1950s and 1960s about titans of industry at war with one another. Alfred Bester aided his characters in The Demolished Man with psychic powers, and Philip K. Dick wrote many stories of business power figures battling with reality-bending drugs and technology. The most famous novel of this sub-type was The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth, first serialized in Galaxy.

In the early 1950s there were dozens of science fiction magazines on the market, and hordes of prolific writers to fill their pages. Business in America was booming, and like the ambitious said to one another, “The sky’s is the limit,” meaning nothing is impossible. Often it feels like these science fiction writers also felt there were no limits, and SF readers will believe anything. This is why critics of the genre claimed science fiction was for gullible young males. But on the other hand, the stories had an excitement and energy that fans loved.

Reading “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” both annoyed and excited me. I’m torn by admiring Budrys flamboyant imagination and insulted that he thinks so little of my intelligence.

Sollenar enters Burr’s office like Neo in a scene from The Matrix, diving through a window with his pistol aimed, hitting the ground, and popping up. Sollenar fires and hits Burr with a blast of energy from his gun, throwing Burr’s body against the wall. Burr had been holding a golden ball when shot and had yelled a command at it just before he was hit. Burr, now a sack of broken bloody bones holds the sphere up and Sollenar blasts him again. Burr drops the ball and Sollenar goes after it but sees that Burr is still animated even though his face is blown away. Sollenar shoots him again. He then gathers up the ball, but seeing Burr still moving fires all his remaining charges into the body. Sollenar is so freaked out he leaves the ball. He then climbs out the window and gets into his spiderman suit, but sees Burr still trying to come after him.

Why didn’t Burr die. How could his body be so destroyed yet still move? Later Sollenar is back at his building with his girlfriend on the balcony, and the body of Burr shows up climbing the outside of the building. WTF? Sollenar crushes the gripping hand on the rim of the outside wall, and the body falls down to crash below.

This is like some supernatural horror film, or an EC Comic. It reminds me of the Marvel films of today, and why I don’t like them. I hate films that show extreme violence with the reality of The Three Stooges or Wile E. Coyote. But I keep reading. How can Budrys explain this to me?

The next scene has Sollenar going to the TTV Executives’ Costume Ball. Guess what, Curt Burr is there, dressed as a gallows bird. Not only does Budrys go for obvious symbolism, but he just flat out tells us. And guess how Sollenar is costumed? As a Medici. Is this story supposed to be a comedy? Is this story supposed to be a mad parody of the genre like the first version of Casino Royale made fun of James Bond movies? Have I been taking it too seriously, when it was meant to be a gag all along?

One reason I can’t stand superhero comics and movies is I can’t buy into their reality, I can’t suspend my disbelief to accept their obviously unreal premises. Is Budrys trying to get his readers to believe his story or is he satirizing the genre? Galaxy Magazine was known for its satire and human. Am I taking things to literal? Sarcasm often flies over my head, and satire often just seems stupid. Is Budrys secretly sneering at his reader?

If “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” was filmed it would look a Marvel film. Do fans of such film see them as satire? What are they poking fun of?

Sollenar now accuses Burr of buying immortality from the Martians. But what a horrifying kind of immortality, becoming a walking bag of broken bones and torn up flesh that can’t die.

Ermine now returns, also in costume, one which no one would take him for a man. Ermine even proves how inhuman he is, by showing Sollenar he has no feelings from his nerves. He feels no pain.

Sollenar learns that he must succeed or IAB will kill him. He takes a rocket to Mars. The trip must have lasted no more than what jet plane takes to get to a nearby city. More unreality. More comic book realism. And I should say, the realism level of Star Wars.

Sollenar violently ditches Ermine on Mars and heads out to find the Martian engineers. I did like the whole description of Mars, both the human and Martian cities and the Martians. Maybe that’s because I’ve always been a sucker for stories about Mars.

Sollener bargains to buy immortality like Burr, but it turns out Martians don’t have immortality to sell. What the Martians are selling is an illusion machine. It can make the irrational rational.

Now this would be hilarious if Budrys intended all along to make this a recursive science fiction story, poking fun at the genre. Judith Merril did that “The Deep Down Dragon” another story in the Galaxy anthology. But am I seeing SF humor too often? I get the feeling Budrys does want us to believe this wild adventure story just like Philip K. Dick often used techniques in his serious stories by having his characters confused by reality. I think, but not sure, that Budrys is pulling a PKD here. In a way, Cort Burr prefigures Palmer Eldritch. So maybe PKD 1960’s work was inspired by Budrys?

If I read this story right, Cort Burr was never shot. Sollenar just believed he was. And to escape Ermine who is waiting to shoot him, he buys a Martian machine to give Ermine the illusion that his nerves function again, and that he killed and buried Sollenar.

Ultimately, this is a fun story, even though it mainly works at Level 1 reality. And as long as we accept it as creative fun there is no harm in playing make believe. But we still have to consider the article about the danger of superhero stories. Has generations absorbing anti-reality fiction from comics, science fiction, television, movies, video games affected them? Would society be saner and wiser if its citizens only consumed Level 4 and Level 5 fiction?

Contemplate all the news stories you’ve encountered in 2020. Too much of it feels like people are trying to live Level 1 reality as being real. Think about those men who planned to kidnap a governor believing they were freedom fighters. Think about Qanon believers. Think about all the crap stories people believe today. Did science fiction contribute to the current climate of anti-science? We aren’t living in a satire although it sure feels like one. And that’s painful!

Does consuming Level 1 fiction create a Level 1 society? We can claim Bible stories and Greek mythology proves we’ve been consuming such fiction for thousands of years. Would going cold turkey on such fiction help? Or do we consume Level 1 fiction because the average human can only comprehend reality with Level 1 thinking?

This is a lot of philosophical navel gazing to get from one minor SF story from 1961. But, I’ve got nothing better to do. It is 2020, you know.

Additional Reading

James Wallace Harris, 10/12/20

The Time Travelers Who Visit Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Review

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis with Spoilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH –5/28/12

JWH – 9/28/20

Tracking Down Pre-Fandom Science Fiction Readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 8/24/20

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

Why Peter Phillips and Mark Clifton?

Recently we offered a new feature on our Classics of Science Fiction database system, where we allowed query results to be saved when using the List Builder feature. On the results page at the top is a link “Download Results” that allows saving to a .csv file. Our log files show this feature has been used 314 times so far.

What baffles the hell out of us is 34 of those queries were for Peter Phillips and 33 for Mark Clifton. These two are not famous science fiction writers. Why the interest in them? Admittedly, it could be one person running these queries over and over. They are the same queries sorted in different ways but on different days. (By the way, these .csv files can be loaded into a spreadsheet which can be endlessly resorted.)

Mike and I are just curious why this is happening. Isaac Asimov and Brian Aldiss have their fans too. Other than that, Heinlein, Simak, and Ellison have had one query each saved. Plus a lot of queries have been saved for the year 1950.

Why? Why Phillips? Why Clifton? Why 1950? I did see that a Facebook page was created for Peter Phillips on April 9th, and a new collection of his work will be published from Wall Road Publishing. I’m looking forward to that. Phillip wrote a handful of exceptional stories a long time ago, however, I doubt many people will remember him today.

We’ve also wondered if some bot is crawling our system. Or maybe a hacker is looking for a hole. If you did these searches let us know why. We’re just curious.

James Wallace Harris, 6/9/20

Remembering Helen O’Loy

Most short stories never get published. Of those that do, most are never reprinted. So, it is quite fascinating to study a story that does. My Facebook group is discussing “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey that first appeared in print in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. Using its record at the ISFDB.org we can track when it’s been reprinted over the years. It has also been translated into at least six languages. Here’s the timeline of major reprints:

  • 1948 – … And Some Were Human by Lester del Rey (collection)
  • 1952 – Beyond Human Ken edited by Judith Merril
  • 1954 – Assignment in Tomorrow edited by Frederik Pohl
  • 1960 – S-Fマガジン – v. 1 n. 1 (Japan)
  • 1963 – The Coming of the Robots edited by Sam Moskowitz
  • 1965 – Science-Fiction-Cocktail: Band I (German anthology)
  • 1966 – Master’s Choice edited by Laurence M. Janifer
  • 1970 – The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 1971 – 18 Greatest Science Fiction Stories edited by Laurence M. Janifer
  • 1972 – 3000 Years of Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by L. Sprague and Catherine de Camp
  • 1974 – Modern Science Fiction edited by Norman Spinrad
  • 1974 – Histoires de robots (French anthology)
  • 1975 – In Dreams Awake edited by Leslie A. Fiedler
  • 1977 – Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Fred Obrecht
  • 1977 – Souls in Metal edited by Mike Ashley
  • 1978 – Robots, Robots, Robots edited by Geduid and Gottesman
  • 1978 – The Best of Lester del Rey
  • 1981 – Science Fiction: Masters of Today edited by Arthur Liebman
  • 1982 – Analog: Reader’s Choice
  • 1983 – The Best of Omni Science Fiction No. 5
  • 1985 – Histoires de robots (French anthology)
  • 1990 – Friends, Robots, Countrymen edited by Asimov and Greenberg
  • 2010 – Robots and Magic by Lester del Rey
  • 2017 – The Robot Megapack ebook anthology

This leaves off the many reprint editions of the above volumes, plus some obscure anthologies, and other collections of Lester del Rey. For example, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One seems to stay in print and is currently available in paper, ebook, and audiobook editions. It’s the volume my Facebook group is reading.

However, why wasn’t it collected in Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy and McComas or The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin? Those two giant anthologies from 1946 set the standard for science fiction anthologies for a generation. Nor has “Helen O’Loy” been anthologized in any of the recent super-giant retrospective anthologies like The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer  or one of the teaching anthologies like Sense of Wonder edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman

In truth, “Helen O’Loy” is a minor story, and problematic if you analyze it psychologically, especially with how it treats women. It hasn’t appeared in a significant SF anthology in over forty years. NESFA Press remembers Lester del Rey with Robots and Magic, but they are a fan press that remembers the old greats of the genre. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame stays in print because it does exactly what it was designed to do, remember the legendary shorter works of science fiction published before the creation of the Nebula Awards. “Helen O’Loy” was up for a Retro Hugo award but came in second, losing to “How We Went to Mars” by Arthur C. Clarke.

Anthologists who attempt to present a historical overview of the genre constantly shift through the past looking for older SF stories that are relevant to present-day readers. Each new anthology tends to forget more of the older stories. The Big Book of Science Fiction has 29 stories from 1934-1963 where The Science Fiction Hall of Fame has 26 in volume one, and another 22 in volumes 2A and 2B.  Sense of Wonder has 46 stories from 1934-1963, twelve of which were in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. There are only two stories – “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum and “Surface Tension” by James Blish appearing in all three anthologies.

Of course, Sense of Wonder has an unfair advantage, it has over 200+ short stories, and is so big that it’s only practical to own as an ebook. However, among my friends, we’ve often wondered if members of the SFWA voted today for the best short stories from 1926-1963 what would they be? So I just paused writing this essay to write about that.

Would modern science fiction writers still pick “Helen O’Loy” as a classic science fiction short story from that era before 1964? I don’t think so. Surely, the current younger generations would see the story much differently than those writers who grew up reading science fiction in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

On a very simple level, “Helen O’Loy” tries to ask a very simple question: “Could a robot ever be considered human?” Science fiction stories, novels, television shows, and movies are still exploring this very simple question. And there is a growing industry seeking to actually build realistic sexbots. Why wouldn’t “Helen O’Loy” remain a classic? For any man lusting after a woman made to order, they’d probably not see anything wrong with the story.

Lester del Rey wrote “Helen O’Loy” before the world knew about digital computers and programming. The technology for imagining how a robot could work in 1938 would be clockwork mechanics, radio electronics, and wire recorders. They had little reason to assume we could build a machine that could see, hear, think, and talk. Del Rey had the myths of Pygmalion and the Golem, and stories about mechanical men for inspiration, but that’s about all. In 1938, on a technical level this story is a pure fantasy.

Then, how does the story hold up for psychological realism? Why would Phil and Dave in the story give up two real life girls, the unnamed twins, for a mechanical girl? One twin wanted to see a movie the boys didn’t so they dumped both girls? Are we really going to believe that biological humans will ever accept pseudo-humans as soulmates?

The main problem with “Helen O’Loy” today is how little respect it gives women. Basically, it says if a machine could be built that looks like a beautiful woman, and if that machine serves the man in all his needs and wishes, then that’s all men need from women. (Why didn’t femfans of the day howl back then?) “Helen O’Loy” assumes women have no wishes, desires, wants, ambitions of their own, that a woman’s only purpose is to fulfill a man’s needs. Are there men and women who would be satisfied with a visually appealing machine that serves their fantasies?

I say the heart of this story doesn’t beat — then or now. Sure, “Helen O’Loy” is an amusing little tale if you don’t think about it. So why has it been remembered and reprinted more than most other science fiction stories? I have to assume it resonates with adolescent male fantasies, or with people who feel challenged to build AI robots.

All along, science fiction has loved robots. And building a robot equal to a human has been the gold medal goal. But it’s here when I personally feel science fiction has always failed miserably with a total lack of logic and vision. Humans are emotional creatures, and emotions come from biology and chemistry. AI minds will be digital. The only emotion I can imagine a robot having might be curiosity. Why has science fiction failed to understand that no matter how much a robot might look like us it will never think or feel like us? And why has science fiction for so long wanted to see robots that are so like us that a Turing test would include physically passing for human?

To many science fiction fans, Isaac Asimov owns the robot story. He didn’t expect them to pass for human, or to think like us. But I don’t think Asimov ever extrapolated very far with the possibilities of intelligent machines. His stories certainly invalidated stories like “Helen O’Loy” but why haven’t other science fiction writers gone further?

I think we will forget “Helen O’Loy” partly because of its affront to feminism, but also it’s ideas about robotics are too primative and silly today. Of course, any anthology that tries to show the evolution of fictional thinking about robots will include it. And to be honest, I still enjoyed the story, and admired the way del Rey told it. I had to wince many places at the sexism, and groan at the idea of vacuum tube robots with memory coils, but ultimately I liked the story.

James Wallace Harris 5/10/20

 

What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown

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

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

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

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

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

What Mad Universe - hardback 1st edition

Martians and Madness

JWH

Science Fiction Times They Are a-Changin’

 

Change 2

I’ve been looking at lists of people’s favorite science fiction stories since I started reading science fiction in the 1960s. Sometimes I agree with their choices, other times I don’t. The interesting thing about these lists is they change over the generations. Just study all the lists we use as our citation sources for the Classics of Science Fiction. The oldest list we use is from a 1949 issue of the Arkham Sampler. (Full article reprinted below or read the entire issue here.) One of the top titles was Out of the Silence (1925) by Earle Cox, a title I haven’t even heard of before, much less seen or read. Of course, people back in 1949 couldn’t have voted for The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, but if you study the list, they also didn’t vote for very many books recent to 1949 either. Our favorite books tend to be slightly older books.

It’s my theory that each generation bonds with certain science fiction books in the same way people bond with the pop music they grow up with during their teens and early twenties. However, there is a slight time lag for books. We don’t discover books as timely as we do hit songs. We seem to find them by word-of-mouth, awards, film adaptions, etc. So new books can be from this year, this decade, or even a little before that.

It’s not that each new generation doesn’t discover the favorite reads from older generations or eventually read books from younger generations, but there’s a time-span lump of books we claim for our generation. The Catcher in the Rye is a good example.  Like Baby Boomers favoring Classic Rock, I favor Classic Science Fiction from the 1950s and 1960s. In my generation, Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov were The Beatles of science fiction, but they’re no longer the Big Three for Sci-Fi readers today.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve watched later generations grow up and imprint on different science fiction. Sure, some of their parents might have influenced them to read Classic Science Fiction, but for the most part, each new generation embraces its own books to represent the concept of science fiction. The current generation of science fiction fans seems particularly rebellious against my generation and earlier.

The other day I caught a video on YouTube that made me think it was a Gen-X list of science fiction classics. (If you don’t want to watch the video the list of books is in the comments.)

The creator of this video goes by the handle of Moid Moidelhoff and is 45, making him a Gen-Xer. I’ve read 52 of his Top 100 books, and many of those are my favorites too, and classics to my generation. Moid loves books I haven’t read by authors I haven’t tried – Banks, Reynolds, and Hamilton. I liked his list enough to add it to our citation sources. (By the way, it ended up being only 99 because we list The Foundation Trilogy as a single book and he selected two of the volumes.) His Top 100 list pushed two books onto the Classics of Science Fiction list – Consider Phlebas (1987) by Iain M. Banks and The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) by Audrey Niffenegger.

It currently takes 12 citations to get on our final classics list, and these two titles only had 11 citations before I added his Top 100. Over time we up the minimum number of citations required to get on the final list, which pushes some books off the list. If you look at this table you’ll see how titles fall out of favor over time.

I can see from this YouTube list a generation shift. If I could find a list by millennials I believe I’d see an even greater shift away from the SF books my generation call classics. From watching this YouTube video I am inspired to catch up. 40 of his books came from the 21st century, and 60 since 1980, but his newest titles stop in 2013. Millennials would pick even newer titles, but I’m not sure they’ve had enough reading time to decide on their classics yet.

In that issue of Arkham Sampler I mentioned above, the feature article was “A Basic Science-Fiction Library.” I feel it was composed by The Greatest Generation SF readers (born before 1924) and maybe some of the older folks from the younger Silent Generation readers (1925-1945). Reading this article will capture a different science fiction generation. Note the stories we still read today as well as the stories that have become forgotten over time. Science fiction generations have changed several times since this 1949 article. In my old age, I love to study the previous generations, but I also marvel at the changes later generations are making. Even though I feel out of touch with the current generation of science fiction fans, I still find the science fiction they love fascinating for how different it is compared to the books I grew up loving.

I feel this article captures a past generation’s science fiction. It’s excellent evidence for my case that science fiction changes with the generations. And I don’t mean just the different book titles, but the focus, feel, and style of science fiction.

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Of the books recommended in the 1949 Arkham Sampler article that I have not read but still sound compelling, I want to read:

  • The Food of the Gods by H. G. Wells
  • When the Sleeper Wakes by H. G. Wells
  • The Short Stories of H. G. Wells
  • The World Below by S. Fowler Wright
  • The Second Deluge by Garrett P. Service
  • To Walk the Night by William Sloane
  • Before the Dawn by John Taine
  • Gladiator by Philip Wylie
  • The New Adam by Stanley Weinbaum
  • The Moon Pool by A. Merritt
  • The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel
  • Darkness and Dawn by George Allan England
  • Out of Space and Time by Clark Ashton Smith

From the YouTube video, these are the books I haven’t read but now feel I should try to read soon.

  • Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
  • The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
  • Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton
  • Wool by Hugh Howey
  • The Children of Men by P. D. James
  • Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
  • World War Z by Max Brooks
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts

James Wallace Harris, 3/29/20

 

 

 

Why Review A Book You Can’t Buy?

Years Best Science-Fiction Novels 1953

Not only is there little chance of finding a copy of Bleiler and Dikty’s Year’s Best Science-Fiction Novels 1953, but the title is completely deceptive. It contains five novelettes and novellas, not novels, and they were first published in 1952. So why review such a book? Well, the internet will allow fans of old science fiction to still read these stories if they want. The ISFDB link will tell you if you already own an anthology with the story. Or you can read it in the original magazine at the Internet Archive or from Project Gutenberg.

“Firewater” by William Tenn – 4 stars
Businessman, Algernon Hebster, barters for alien technology from humans driven insane by contact with strange Earth invaders. Aliens occupy our planet but merely observe us. We can’t communicate with them, and the people who try, become mystical idiots. Algernon Hebster wants to wheel and deal but if he gets too close could lose his mind too. Internet Archive. ISFDB.

“Category Phoenix” by Boyd Ellanby – 3 stars
Dr. David Wong lives in an oppressive society where privacy is illegal. Wong has developed a medical treatment that could give the dictator overwhelming power, so he works to secretly create a revolution. Internet Archive. ISFDB. Project Gutenberg.

“Surface Tension” by James Blish – 5 stars
Humans crash land on planet Hydrot with no chance of surviving, so they genetically engineer microscopic lifeforms that they hope will have ancestral memory. Wonderfully imaginative. This story has become a classic and is anthologized in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One. Internet Archive. ISFDB.

“The Gadget Had a Ghost” by Murray Leinster – 4 stars
David Coghlan, a physics professor at the American College, is visited by Lieutenant Ghalil of the Istanbul Police and M. Duval, a French scholar. They ask David if he’s been to the 13th century? It turns out the M. Duval has found a 700-year-old book printed in Byzantine Greek with an ancient annotation handwritten in English with Coghlan’s name and address. It also has inky fingerprints. They test them against Coghlan’s and the fingerprints match. So how did David get to the 13th-century to inscribe the book? A different kind of time travel tale. Internet Archive. ISFDB.

“Conditionally Human” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. – 5 stars
A disturbing story about a future overpopulated Earth where there’s strict control over who can have children. As a substitute people have turned to genetically engineered exotic pets, some of which have been designed to have human-like traits that trigger strong maternalistic and paternalistic emotions in their owners. Terry Norris has been ordered to repossess some of these beloved creatures because they might have unwanted mutations. Internet Archive. ISFDB. Project Gutenberg.

Without the internet, these stories would be completely forgotten. Even with the internet, I wonder just how many of these stories will find new readers?

James Wallace Harris, 3/6/20

“What Have I Done?” by Mark Clifton

What Have I Done by Mark CliftonOne of the side-effects of reading through all the annual best-science-fiction-of-the-year anthologies is discovering new writers. Well, new to me. I believe all the writers I’ve encountered so far from 1939-1952 are now dead. Often this spurs me to research these forgotten SF authors, which tends to lead to learning more about the history of the genre.

I keep stumbling over little forgotten classics of short science fiction. Today I read “What Have I Done?” by Mark Clifton in The Great SF Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. This oft reprinted story first appeared in the May 1952 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It May of 2020, it will be reprinted in What Have I Done? – The Stories of Mark Clifton. You can read the title story by itself here.

Clifton died in 1963, so his career in science fiction was just over a decade. In 1955, he did win a Hugo for best novel that he co-wrote with Frank Riley, They’d Rather Be Right. It is probably the least known, often the most disliked of all the Hugo winning novels, and somewhat controversial – see Miles Schneiderman’s “They’d Rather Be Right: Getting it Wrong.” Evidently, some fans felt the novel won because of a pro-Scientologist vote.

“What Have I Done?” is the only story by Mark Clifton I remember reading, although I once bought a copy of Eight Keys to Eden but didn’t get into it. I now feel I need to try it again. Since it’s available at LibriVox I’ll give it a listen.

“What Have I Done?” is a fine little story that tickled my sense of science fiction, interesting enough to write about, and to make me want to read more Mark Clifton. For such an unknown writer Clifton did get eight works into our citation database. Clifton’s claim to fame was the psychological insight into characters he got from being a personnel manager. Clifton claimed to have interviewed over 200,000 people. (I find that hard to believe – let’s say a 20-year career, meaning 10,000 people per year, divided by a work-year containing 250 days, means 40 people a day. That’s too many to handle.)

I also have a problem writing about these old stories. To explain why I find them worthy of recommending means revealing spoilers. Odds are, most readers reading this essay won’t track a story down unless I make them sound uber-enticing, but to do that I have to give away details.

The basic setup in “What Have I Done?” involves an unnamed psychologist for an employment office interviewing a man whom he quickly decides is not human. Notice how Clifton’s biography works into the story. When his fictional alter-ego confronts the guy the alien asks:

"Where did I fail in my test?" he asked. His lips formed a smile which was not a smile—a carefully painted-on-canvas sort of smile.

Well, I'd had my answer. I'd explored something unique, all right. Sitting there before me, I had no way of determining whether he was benign or evil. No way of knowing his motive. No way of judging—anything. When it takes a lifetime of learning how to judge even our own kind, what standards have we for judging an entity from another star system?

At that moment I would like to have been one.. of those space-opera heroes who, in similar circumstances, laugh casually and say, "What ho! So you're from Arcturus. Well, well. It's a small universe after all, isn't it?" And then with linked arms they head for the nearest bar, bosom pals.

I had the almost hysterical thought, but carefully suppressed, that I didn't know if this fellow would like beer or not. I will not go through the intermuscular and visceral reactions I ex­perienced. I kept my seat and maintained a polite expression. Even with humans, I know when to walk carefully.

"I couldn't feel anything about you," I answered his ques­tion. "I couldn't feel anything but blankness."

He looked blank. His eyes were nice blue marble again. I liked them better that way.

There should be a million questions to be asked, but I must have been bothered by the feeling that I held a loaded bomb in my hands. And not knowing what might set it off, or how, or when. I could think of only the most trivial.

"How long have you been on Earth?" I asked. Sort of a when did you get back in town, Joe, kind of triviality.

"For several of your weeks," he was answering. "But this is my first time out among humans."

"Where have you been in the meantime?" I asked. "Training." His answers were getting short and his muscles began to fidget again.

"And where do you train?" I kept boring in.

As an answer he stood up and held out his hand, all quite correctly. "I must go now," he said. "Naturally you can cancel my application for employment. Obviously we have more to learn."

I raised an eyebrow. "And I'm supposed to just pass over the whole thing? A thing like this?"

He smiled again. The contrived smile which was a symbol to indicate courtesy. "I believe your custom on this planet is to turn your problems over to your police. You might try that." I could not tell whether it was ironic or logic.

At that moment I could think of nothing else to say. He walked out of my door while I stood beside my desk and watched him go.

Well, what was I supposed to do? Follow him?

I followed him.

This isn’t a major idea for a science fiction story, not in 1952, but it gets better. For one thing, the psychologist reads science fiction. That has a recursive feel that delights me. Second, it’s important to remember that 1952 was during the early days of the flying saucer craze. If people believe aliens were hot-rodding around the skies, why not wonder if they were applying for jobs. Plus, this is Clifton’s first science fiction story, and he sold it to the legendary John W. Campbell. Campbell loved to discover new writers, but he also wanted to shape them to follow his personal philosophy. Campbell was a species-ist. He believed his writers should not show aliens being superior to humans. And Clifton’s aliens were way superior to us. How can Clifton pull off an ending that pleased Campbell? He does, but the icing on the cake is how Clifton ultimately outwits Campbell too (I think). Explaining the ending will be up to you. Are humans really superior?

This might be far-fetched, but I wonder if “What Have I Done?” also applies to Clifton letting himself be coopted by Campbell. Or is that some bullshit I’m giving out to get you to read the story?

JWH