What Motivated Heinlein to Write Science Fiction?

To get the most out of my rereading Heinlein project, I figure I need to hold up on reading the stories and get an idea of why Heinlein wanted to write. There are two schools of thought on studying literature. One holds that a work of fiction must stand on its own. I can buy that. But second, believes in knowing as much as possible about the context in which the work was created. And I can buy that too. For my rereading Heinlein project, I’ve decided to get to know as much about Heinlein as possible and to study what others have written about Heinlein.

This effort is going to be rather haphazard because I don’t plan to devote all my time to studying and reading Heinlein. Nor am I scholarly or disciplined enough to systematically collect and analyze data. I shall alternate between reading about Heinlein, reading a story by Heinlein, and writing about my reaction to the two. I will probably revise what I blog as I go along and learn more.

Over the years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with reading Heinlein. As a kid, I wanted to grow up and be like him, a science fiction writer. He was my hero. But, by the time I graduated high school and started college, I realized Heinlein was on the far side of the 1960s generation gap. He was now the enemy. Heinlein was pro-Vietnam war. I was against it. Heinlein was in the Old Wave of science fiction writers. I sided with the New Wave writers. When I was young, Heinlein felt like a liberator of thoughts, but by my late teens, he seemed like an oppressor. What really turned me off to Heinlein was I Will Fear No Evil which came out in 1970. He had changed. But then, so had I.

My father died in 1970 when I was 18. We often locked horns over the same social and political issues that turned me against Heinlein. When I got older, I often wondered what my dad was really like because I eventually realized I had never gotten to know him. I had rebelled against his older self, and one I judged too quickly because I was young and impatient. I had no clue about my dad’s younger self. The same was true for Heinlein. Now that I’m old myself, I believe I need to go back and figure out these men. What did they originally want? I don’t have much evidence for who my father was, but I do for Heinlein.

While reading Heinlein’s early stories I get the impression he wasn’t like the other science fiction writers. I assumed he had grown up reading science fiction and science fiction was the obvious choice when Heinlein decided to make money by writing. Samuel Johnson is famous for saying, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but that doesn’t explain what they choose to write about. I’m starting to doubt if Heinlein was a trufan of science fiction because he had so many other interests. I wondered if he considered writing in other genres or even writing nonfiction? I know Heinlein read science fiction, but he also read lots of other kinds of fiction and especially nonfiction. Heinlein had diverse interests, and even though he read and wrote science fiction, and occasionally interacted with fandom, I’m not sure if he really thought of himself as a science fiction fan and writer.

All the details I cite below about Heinlein’s life come from Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 by William H. Patterson.

From 1925 to 1934 Heinlein’s goal was to be a naval officer. In 1934 he was forced to retire because of TB. This military experience provided great knowledge for his later writing career, but I don’t think he would have become a writer while in the Navy. Although he did get experience writing for his ship’s newspaper. Heinlein trained as an engineer at Annapolis and became a ballistic officer with special training on a new computing machine. Heinlein like doing.

In the 1920s Heinlein started reading science fiction when The Skylark of Space was serialized in Amazing Stories. Over the years he read various SF magazines, but I don’t know how often. Heinlein was widely read in other areas. But most writers end up writing what they like to read, so I assume Heinlein had a science fiction addiction too.

In 1930 Heinlein became the 22nd member of The American Rocket Society. Right from the beginning, they were thinking about traveling to the Moon. Quite a few of Heinlein’s stories were set on the Moon.

In 1932 Heinlein met and married Leslyn MacDonald, who was 26, and he was 23. Leslyn had a master’s in philosophy, was very liberal politically, acted in local theatrical productions, directed workshops in experimental theater, was a published writer, had a job as Assistant Director of the Music Department at Columbia Pictures, and maybe even did some script doctoring for them. The Heinleins had an open marriage, and belong to nudist colonies in Colorado and California. Leslyn was an equal partner, even though she was probably better educated, smarter, and far more philosophical. And she probably had more worldly experience. Leslyn also had an interest in mystical and spiritual traditions, and her mother was a Theosophist. Heinlein read to her The Time Stream by John Taine which was being serialized in Science Wonder Stories (December 1931- March 1932). She got him to read Tertium Organum by P. D. Ouspensky, a student of George Gurdjieff. Leslyn had a tremendous impact on Heinlein becoming a science fiction writer, and even the subjects we wrote about. At the time both were left-leaning socialists who shared progressive political ideas and New Age and occult philosophies.

Heinlein’s ambition after leaving the Navy was to start on a master’s and work up to a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy at Caltech. Unfortunately, at the time he graduated from the Navy college at Annapolis, it didn’t confer bachelor’s degrees, so he couldn’t go directly into graduate school. If he could have followed this path he might have eventually become an SF writer on the side, but I tend to doubt it. Again, Heinlein’s drive was to do. However, the failure to become a scientist seems to be a common trait among science fiction writers.

Next, Heinlein and Leslyn threw themselves in the 1934 election for California’s governor. The Heinleins backed Upton Sinclair, the famous muck-raking writer and socialist turned democrat to run for governor of California. The Republicans launch an all-out smear campaign against Sinclair. This taught Heinlein a lot about dirty politics. After Sinclair lost, he pushed ahead with EPIC (End Poverty in California) and the Heinleins joined that crusade. They worked with Sinclair and got to know him, and Sinclair admired their dedication to the cause and put Heinlein in some higher-up positions. Heinlein got to work with Oakies and immigrants, as well as Hollywood star do-gooders. He saw the horrors of how the poor were treated. Heinlein even ran for a local position and lost, but learned a great deal about grassroots politics. All of this was grist for the meal of his first novel, For Us, The Living. Heinlein had gotten more writing experience working on EPIC publications. That experience was starting to add up.

The Heinleins had bought a small house in Laurel Canyon, but one they really couldn’t afford on just his military retirement paycheck. Heinlein’s health depended on a low-stress life, so he couldn’t handle regular work. This is when he decided to try writing for a living. He wrote For Us, The Living, but it failed to sell. That novel really wasn’t science fiction, even though it was about the future. It was Heinlein presenting ideas on how to create a better America. The novel promoted concepts like guaranteed incomes and psychiatric rehabilitation instead of prison for criminals. Heinlein could have become a nonfiction writer instead of a fiction writer. This explains why there is so much infodumping, lecturing, and even preaching in his books.

There was practically no science fiction being published in book form in the 1930s. Heinlein wanted to be a futurist, but they didn’t exist back then. Being an officer in the Navy, or a politician meant being a leader, a man of action, and a doer. I felt from the biographical material I’ve read, that Heinlein wanted to lead, influence, build, and especially, invent. However, he was out of options. Maybe he could at least be an influencer by writing.

All along, Heinlein had been reading science fiction, but I’m not sure how much. When he sold “Life-Line” to Astounding for $70, he discovered he had a platform for his progressive ideas and a way to pay his mortgage. John W. Campbell, Jr. had higher ambitions too. Both men wanted to do something real but found their niche in writing and publishing fantasies about the future.

As I reread Heinlein’s fiction I need to remember what Heinlein really wanted. I’m sure this bled out in his stories. Samuel Goldwyn is famous for a quote he probably didn’t say, “If you have a message, call Western Union.” Heinlein always had a message. Sometimes I’ve held that against him, but I realize now, all the best stories do have a message.

Some fiction is just a story. Something entertaining to occupy your time. But all the best writers have something to say. The true art of fiction is to communicate a great deal without the reader feeling they are being lectured.

In judging Heinlein’s stories as I read them, I need to decide how well he wove his message into his fiction. I need to come up with a method to evaluate stories on several levels at once. But that’s another essay.

James Wallace Harris, 10/8/22

“The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden

What if our pleasure in life is wallowing in the minutiae of our favorite subject? I follow a lot of YouTubers and most of their channels are about going deeper and deeper into a beloved special interest. When we are young we pursue pleasures of the flesh, but as we get older we follow our Alice of interest down a rabbit hole. This lets us find our true tribe, our people.

I feel like I’m among a few survivors of a tribe that is dying out. I lament that our culture and language are disappearing. My tribe is those beings who grew up reading science fiction magazines in the mid-20th century. I know that tribe was never very large and that all the various tribes of pop culture eventually fade from the collective memory of the present. But this sense of passing is why I find myself enjoying recursive science fiction so much now. Recursive science fiction is science fiction about science fiction, and quite often it remembers the genre’s past. And to enjoy such stories requires either a direct experience of the past or a good education about that past.

One of the funniest recursive science fiction stories I’ve ever read is one that seems to parody/remember more of the genre than any other recursive science fiction story I’ve read. The story is “The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden (Eric Pelletier 1899-1979). Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since this story has been reprinted, meaning if you want to legally read it, it will require tracking down a used copy of F&SF for September 1980, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction 24th Series edited by Edward L. Ferman in 1982, or Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories about SF edited by Mike Resnick in 1992. If you have a free account with the Internet Archive you can check out The Best of F&SF 24th for one hour. Since this story hasn’t been reprinted in 30 years, and its author has been dead for 43 years, I hope their heirs won’t mind me offering you a pdf copy. (If you do, let me know and I’ll take it down, but I doubt if six people will read it.)

Of course, not everyone will find this story funny or meaningful. It depends on you knowing a good deal about the genre’s history. I thought I’d review the story by providing links to the pertinent bits of history that knowing will let the reader appreciate the story.

The story is an exchange of letters between Oginga Nkabele, a young man from Africa studying in America, and Edward L. Ferman, the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF). Nkabele, from the tribe of Diolas in Senegal, Africa, was educated by French and Belgian missionaries who he refers to as the Holy Ghost Fathers. One of his teachers, Father Devlin brought three steamer trunks containing over five hundred pulp science fiction magazines from 1936-1952. Nkabele has read these magazines so thoroughly that he’s even memorized some of his favorite stories. Nkabele feels he’s an expert on science fiction and decides to become a rich science fiction writer while in America.

Unfortunately, the stories he submits to Ed Ferman are modeled on the writing styles that were heavily criticized for bad writing when they were new and are now so out of fashion as to be glaringly awful. Ferman is appalled by Nkabele’s stories and rejects them immediately. Nkabele feels the rejection letter is a mistake and keeps pestering Ferman with more letters. In fact, he never accepts any rejection and keeps trying to convince Ferman his stories are brilliant and will make him famous and promises they’ll help sell more copies of F&SF.

Through the exchange of letters, two fun plots emerged. One is a horror tale for SF magazine editors which is hilarious if you’re not an editor, and the other is about how the genre has changed drastically from its past which is still wistfully nostalgic for some.

First, it’s important to know the magazines Nkabele admires. It’s notable that Father Devlin did not subscribe to Astounding Science-Fiction, the magazine revered until recent decades (another irony of this tale). Nkabele’s favorites are:

Nkabele’s favorite writers are Richard Shaver, L. Ron Hubbard, and Stanley G. Weinbaum, but is also a fan of Robert Moore Williams, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Nelson Bond, Ray Cummings, Eric Frank Russell, P. Schuyler Miller, and Raymond Z. Gallum. Although not specific to this story, if you know about The Shaver Mystery you’ll have a sense of the kind of thinking fans of these magazines pursued.

Most telling of all is that Nkabele’s favorite editor is Raymond A. Palmer. That’s quite revealing. Young science fiction writers today want to erase the memory of John W. Campbell, but when I was growing up, science fiction fans wanted to forget Ray Palmer’s impact on the genre.

To understand Nkabele’s taste in science fiction, even more, is to know the names of the three stories he keeps submitting:

  • “Astrid of the Asteroids”
  • “Slime Slaves of G’Harn”
  • “Ursula of Uranus”

The magazines Nkabele loved were the ones that appealed most to adolescents featuring exotic interplanetary adventure stories told in purple prose. The exact kind of science fiction John W. Campbell was fighting against in our Golden Age of Science Fiction. But Nkabele considers his science fiction the actual Golden Age of Science Fiction. Over the decades, different generations have defined their own Golden Age of Science Fiction. Youth always reject the past. Nkabele can’t fathom why Ferman is rejecting his Golden Age.

It helps to know a little about Edward L. Ferman since he’s a major character, but it’s very important to know about Harlan Ellison. Ferman panics and gives Nkabele Ellison’s address and phone number to get rid of him. Ferman tells Nkabele about Ellison’s legendary SF anthology Dangerous Visions. Now Harlan Ellison starts writing letters and Eric Norden parodies Ellison’s writing style in an over-the-top style that wasn’t far from Ellison’s own. They even rope in Isaac Asimov. Norden does a great job of making each letter writer sound like a distinct personality. Sometimes the epistolary caricatures aren’t so flattering and it’s a wonder Norden didn’t get sued by Ellison who was known for his litigious wrath.

It also helps to know about BEMs – Bug Eye Monsters – especially SF covers that showed BEMs running off with mostly naked Earth women. BEMs in SF anticipated the whole abductee theme of UFO fanatics. And Ray Palmer turned his SF magazines into UFO fanaticism.

Parodying science fiction has been around for a long time, and Norden mentions a classic, Venus on a Half Shell by Kilgore Trout. Kilgore Trout is a character in many of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. But I’ll have more to say about such other fun novels and stories soon.

I’m not sure how many current SF readers will enjoy “The Curse of the Mhondoro Nkabele” by Eric Norden. Is the pop culture that it skewers too oldy moldy? I tend to think the people who will enjoy it most are the people of my tribe.

James Wallace Harris, 7/24/22

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies by Barry N. Malzberg

I’ve been reading recursive science fiction lately, and one of the most famous recursive science fiction stories is Barry N. Malzberg’s “A Galaxy Called Rome.” Recursive science fiction is science fiction about science fiction. Sometimes this is a story that mentions science fiction, sometimes it’s a story about science fiction writers, their fans, and science fiction conventions, and sometimes it’s in-jokes about the genre, other times recursive science fiction is about the writing of science fiction, and that’s the case with “A Galaxy Called Rome.”

“A Galaxy Called Rome” has been reprinted often you can find it in these anthologies and collections. I read it in the anthology Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories About SF edited by Mike Resnick in 1992. I highly recommend that volume if you can find it, but it was only published once by Avon. Probably the cheapest collection of Malzberg’s stories is The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg because the Kindle edition is only $4.99. However, Malzberg expanded “A Galaxy Called Rome” into a short novel, Galaxies, and it’s available for $1.99 for the Kindle edition at Amazon.

Malzberg is known for his recursive science fiction, especially since he seems to have experienced a great deal of existential angst over being a science fiction writer. NESFA even came out with a collection of his recursive SF called The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg.

“A Galaxy Called Rome” is a novelette composed of 14 short chapters. It first appeared in the July 1975 issue of F&SF and has been anthologized a number of times. It is probably Malzberg’s most famous work of short science fiction. 

Malzberg expanded the same story into 49 chapters for a 1975 short novel version retitled Galaxies. Malzberg gained attention for a handful of science fiction novels in the first half of the 1970s. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Beyond Apollo but got a fair amount of recognition for Galaxies, The Falling Astronauts, and Herovit’s World. He went on to publish prolifically in and outside of the genre

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies are also works of what the literary world calls metafiction – fiction about fiction. I prefer the novelette version of the story because the novelette is my favorite length for science fiction. However, the longer version of the story, Galaxies, lets Malzberg dig deeper into the nature of writing science fiction.

I want to recommend this story, but with carefully considered restrictions. If you read science fiction for escape this story isn’t for you. Well, if you want to know why you read science fiction for escape, then you might want to read it. This story is for people who like to intellectually examine everything and take things apart. This story is for readers who love academic exercises in cleverness. This story is for readers who want to know how magic tricks work.

I alternated reading Galaxies with listening to Red Rising by Pierce Brown. It was an excellent contrast. Red Rising is exactly what most science fiction readers want to read. The story immediately sucks the reader into a fantasy reality. It’s designed for your mind to forget the real world and immerse yourself in a fantasy about Mars. The reader is expected to buy into its make-believe. Galaxies on the other hand constantly remind the reader of our reality while describing how a science fiction writer goes about their business of fooling the reader.

Reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” or Galaxies could ruin your love of science fiction. Or it could make you appreciate escapist literature all the more. I know when I would switch to Red Rising after reading a dozen chapters of Galaxies I felt like that guy in The Matrix, Cypher, who wanted to take the blue pill and enjoy the juicy steak. And that might be a good analogy. Reading Malzberg is like taking the red pill and seeing an ugly reality. It might be philosophically enlightening to know the realness of reality, but it’s still grim and gritty.

This is probably why Malzberg never became a popular sci-fi writer, he was too hung up on reality. Most of the recursive science fiction I read in Inside the Funhouse was big fun. Recursive science fiction comes in many flavors but they can be roughly divided into two kinds. One kind celebrates our addiction, and the other makes you feel like you’re withdrawing from heroin. Reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” is like learning about Santa Claus as a kid, it hurts but makes you feel grown up. Reading Galaxies can feel like the agony of soul searching before deciding on becoming an atheist.

I ended up highlighting almost ten percent of Galaxies when reading the Kindle version. I won’t show all these quotes because that would probably be a copyright violation, but I do want to show enough of them to give people a chance to understand what Malzberg is doing. Malzberg is very open and straightforward with his intentions as stated in this first section.

It’s rather interesting that Malzberg tells us how the idea of the story within a story came to him. Well, the idea for the story he’s going to use to discuss writing. In the course of reading a novel about writing a novel, we will develop a whole story with characters, setting, plot, and conflict. However, we won’t experience that story like we normally do. Imagine being served a meal and instead of enjoying eating it, we put it under scientific analysis.

One thing Malzberg doesn’t do is try to imagine what we readers think while reading all of this. We readers are also part of the process. As I read Galaxies I got the idea that Malzberg both loved and hated science fiction. I got the impression he wanted to be a respected writer of hard SF, but his sense of reality conflicted with the fantasy nature of writing escapist literature.

These early sections are quite seductive, but I must warn anyone considering buying Galaxies that the going will get tough. “A Galaxy Called Rome” is the light fluffy version to read for those who aren’t ready to climb a mountain. Even though Galaxies is only 154 pages long, it’s a Ph.D. dissertation on deconstructing science fiction novel writing.

The story within this novel is about Lena Thomas who is the only living crew member of an FTL spaceship, Skipstone, that carries a cargo of 515 dead people in cryonic suspension. The year is 3902. Like in Heinlein’s novel, The Door Into Summer, rich people with diseases invest their estates and freeze their bodies in the hopes of one day being revived and cured. Those estates pay for the development of interstellar travel. Those dead people will eventually communicate with Lena like the dead in PKD’s Ubik when Lena and the Skipstone get trapped in the black galaxy. This allows Malzberg to explore metaphysical and religious themes in writing a novel. The ship also has robots programmed with human minds that help Malzberg explore other science fictional themes. His story notes get more and more extensive while getting more and more complicated. This also allows Malzberg to show how worldbuilding and plotting are developed as a writer tells their story.

Malzberg uses all this exploration in writing a science fiction novel to also speculate about the future. He imagines our civilization collapsing and being completely forgotten and a new world civilization rising in the following nineteen centuries. Malzberg imagines we’ll face limitations we can’t overcome and wild possibilities that far exceed today’s limitations.

Much of this novel is about being a writer, and specifically a writer of science fiction. You get hints along the way that Malzberg might be jealous of famous literary writers like Cheever and Updike, at other times you might feel his resentment at not being more successful at being a science fiction writer. But Malzberg is confident of his own gifts too.

In some of the actual passages of the novel, the dialog reminds me of Sheckley or Adams, or maybe even PKD, and even then Malzberg keeps making digs at science fiction.

Over time, the conflicts Malzberg provides for Lena’s story become repetitious. He knows he’s padding this novel, and even talks about how writers do pad their novels. The second half of Lena’s story becomes one long dark night of her soul struggling to escape the black galaxy. I have to wonder if such soul searching also plagues Malzberg.

Eventually, you wonder if Malzberg can find an ending to Lena’s story. Chapter after chapter he tortures the poor woman, and we can’t imagine any possible happy ending. Yet, Malzberg gives us a very strange ending that I was quite happy to read. I guess he took pity on us.

Reading Galaxies makes me doubt reading science fiction, but then I’ve doubted my addiction to our genre for decades. As a young person back in the 1960s and 1970s I thought science fiction was a wonderful tool for thinking about all the possibilities of the future, both good and bad. But after living to the year 2022, which was a very futuristic sounding year back in 1965, I know the future is everything we never imagined.

Contrasting Galaxies with Red Rising it’s quite obvious that science fiction’s purpose is escape. And the genius of writing science fiction is creating stories set in fictional worlds that are so compelling we forget this one. By Malzberg intruding into his novel and telling us everything only shows we don’t want the author intruding into our stories. Some philosophers have speculated that God invented our reality and walked away from his creation and that’s a great thing. That knowing God’s intention would ruin his/her/its art. I always felt Heinlein destroyed his career after he started poking his nose into his stories.

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies were written as the New Wave in science fiction was fading and postmodernism fiction in the literary world was becoming old hat. It was an impressive experiment of the times, but as far as I know, readers have lost interest in such experiments. The Post Moderns of our times demand wokeness in fiction but not the metafictional kind. If anything, modern SF readers want longer voyages of fictional escape with far greater feats of worldbuilding.

It would be interesting to see someone write a version of Galaxies today that reveals what today’s SF writers go through to entertain their readers in the 2020s.

James Wallace Harris, 7/23/22

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

Why Did I Like This Story?

Have you ever spent time thinking about why you like a particular story, movie, television show, song, photograph, painting, etc.? I believe most of us assume the critical ingredient is in the artwork itself. What if that’s not altogether true? What if our admiration also depends on what’s inside ourselves too?

I just read “Minla’s Flowers” by Alastair Reynolds in The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. It was the eleventh story in the anthology and the first one that grabbed me. The other ten were well-told tales, but they just didn’t resonate with my Sci-Fi soul. And that’s a hint at what I’m talking about. “Minla’s Flowers” pushed my buttons, but which buttons, and where did they come from?

People turn to genealogy when they want to know how their body got here, but it doesn’t explain the programming that went into creating their personality. What if we use the Butterfly Effect to explain the lineage of our personality and show where all beliefs, opinions, likes, dislikes, prejudices, loves, hates, fears, etc. that went into making who we think we are. What if the Big Bang origin of all our traits can be traced back to specific triggers, whether huge emotional explosions or tiny seeds of inspiration? Can we ever trace specific emotions back to the first flutter of butterfly wings?

This theory started taking form a few years ago when I realized I didn’t enjoy modern science fiction short stories as much as I loved older SF stories. Had I changed, or science fiction? It’s been sixty years since I started reading SF. It seems obvious that both myself and the genre have changed, but have we? The macro aspects of my personality and the genre haven’t I don’t think. But how many micro details reveal any real change? Both are complex system not easily understood, so my Freudian-like analysis will only be guesswork.

One hypothesis I’ve considered deals with information density. I know a lot more in 2021 than I did in 1962, and so does science fiction. My mind reads with a greater density of relatable knowledge, and modern SF prose is often written with a greater density of information and science fictional speculation. Yet science fiction themes don’t seem to change over time. About the only new themes to emerge during my lifetime is digital worlds and brain downloading/uploading, and both probably had precursors if I researched it enough. Last night I watched the 2019 British miniseries of The War of the World, and then started rereading the novel. It only reminds me of how I’ve been seeing shadows of Wells my whole life.

When I grew up SF stories had basic plots that exposed ordinary humans to usually one far-out bit of speculation. Now SF stories are written with a Phil Spector-like Wall of Speculation approach, embedding the plot and far-from-ordinary-humans into narratives of greater information density, especially the New Space Opera stories about the far future.

First off, I didn’t feel “Minla’s Flowers” was a five-star story, but I did feel it deserved a solid four-stars, mainly because I knew I’d want to reread it someday. In fact, I’ve already reread parts of it to compose my comment for our reading group at Facebook. That’s when I realized something. I liked “Minla’s Flowers” because it reminded me of so many other science fiction stories. Here’s my comment to the group:

Alastair Reynolds begins "Minla's Flowers" with a lone adventurer, Merlin, and his AI spaceship, Tyrant, falling out of subspace, Waynet, to make repairs on a planet, Lecythus, only to discover it inhabited by humans who had colonized it thousands of years ago and are currently at war, where he befriends an old scientist, Malkoha, and his daughter Minla.

I have to say all this triggered memories of Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers, Dr. Zarkov/Dr. Huer, and Dale Arden/Wilma Deering. "Minla's Flowers" is the first story in this collection that feels like Old Space Opera, and it was a lot of fun.

I thought for sure Reynolds was going to arrange for Merlin and Minla to become lovers ala cold sleep (think THE DOOR INTO SUMMER), but that didn't happen. Minla became his rival, even the antagonist of the story. Eventually, the plot of "Minla's Flowers" turns into the plot of WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, escaping a doomed planet by building a spacefaring nation in seventy years.

Since Merlin is needed for a future adventure by Reynolds, he undergoes a series of cold sleep timeouts, and only ages a few months during this story, while Minla reaches 80. That should remind me of several SF stories, but I can't recall any at the moment. (INTERSTELLAR?)

Reynolds extends this story time and again through philosophical and ethical issues of helping a civilization speed up its development. In this regard, Merlin's and Tyrant's roles remind me of Klaatu and Gort from the film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.

Because Reynolds embeds so much of the science fiction mythos into his story it caused the science fiction region of my soul to resonate with it. I know I will reread this story in the future, and it might even resonate more, but for now...

Rating: ****

Science fiction speculates on a limited number of subjects. One of the reasons I didn’t enjoy many of the ten stories before this one in The New Space Opera is because they speculated about topics I either discount, or I believe are too overused. Many of the stories in this anthology assume in the far future humans will have colonized the galaxy, and we’ll share it with aliens, intelligent robots, androids that look like us, cyborgs, humans that have achieve immortality, posthumans, transhumans, and downloaded humans. Decades ago it was common to see one of these elements as the basis of a science fiction story, but now it seems science fiction writers assume they will all coexist in the future, and somehow they must all be mentioned whenever writing a story about the far future. Actually, I’d find it a reading thrill for a writer to challenge these assumptions. It’s why I loved Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

New science fiction writers have to recycle old themes because developing new ones are next to impossible. And as a reader, at least for me, if I encounter too many stories using the same concepts, I get bored with them. I should probably avoid theme anthologies like The New Space Opera. Yet, I responded positively to “Minla’s Flowers” because it caused me to resonate with old SF I loved in adolescence. Freud was a big explorer of our subconscious mind, but did he ever suggest early sense of wonder experiences would create chimes in our personality that would ring in later years if we encounter similar wonders on the same wavelength?

Of course, I might need to be careful with line of self-analysis, or I might find out that everything I love and believe originated in old science fiction stories I first encountered in youth. I’ve often thought science fiction was my substitute for religion when it didn’t take when I was a kid.

“Minla’s Flowers” has one human, one AI spaceship, and an alien world populated by humans that colonized the planet so long ago they’ve forgotten how they got there. This simplicity of story elements reminds me of Old Space Opera. (Although Reynolds does keep trying to cram in even more science fictional elements I felt diluted the story.)

At the plot’s core, “Minla’s Flowers” is about a civilization that needs to flee its home planet to find a new world because their sun will be destroyed in seventy years. One of the first SF books I read with this theme was the omnibus When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide by by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. Has that story I read at age twelve shaped my response to future fiction? All my life I’ve thought humanity should colonize space to protect itself from extinction. Did that too come from Balmer and Wylie? Thinking about it now, I’m not sure it’s a practical or realistic idea. We were evolved for living on Earth, and all our space exploring fantasies may just be that.

Merlin fits the archetype for the science fiction hero, as does his sidekick. Where Reynolds took his story in an anti-tradition was with Minla, and that also thrilled me too. Is the right mixture for entertaining new science fiction a good bit of the tried and true, with a touch of the contrary?

Fiction is still magical. I don’t know how it works its spells. But now that I’m much older, and have consumed vast quantities of the genre, I sense patterns that my unconscious mind likes. It’s almost as if my unconscious mind learns and evolves, and maybe even has its own logic. I’m old and tired, and have a difficult time finding stories I still love, but every once in a while, something clicks. It’s a weird unexplainable experience.

James Wallace Harris, 6/19/21

Surviving Childhood By Reading Science Fiction

I love when I discover a short story that pushes all my buttons. I regret that I didn’t discover such wonderful tales when they were first published, but I do have the consolation as an old jaded reader of finding a story that still thrills me. “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” by Gene Wolfe is one such story that I just read. It’s about a boy, Tackman Babcock, who survives a troubled “family life” by reading science fiction. Since I survived my bumpy upbringing by reading science fiction, I immediately bonded with Tackie.

I know, it has a confusing title. I’ve seen it collected in anthologies for years, and it always sounds like a collection of short stories by the author. When Gene Wolfe created his first short story collection the title became The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, as you can see above in the first edition, a 1980 paperback from Pocket Books. The 1997 edition is still available from Amazon. The original story, “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” was first published in Orbit 7 (1970) edited by Damon Knight has been reprinted many times, so you might already own a copy. However, if you just want to quickly enjoy the story right now, it’s available online for free as an audio podcast from PodCastle, episode 171. Just click and take forty-five minutes to hear the story, it has wonderful narration.

Maybe now you’ll understand the confusing title, but you’re probably wondering what book Tackie was reading? If you’d like to read speculation about possible books read the entry for this story at a wiki devoted to Gene Wolfe. I tend to think Wolfe was trying to capture the feel of many novels, stories, and famous characters so readers would imagine the ones they have read. I definitely thought of The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells, but I also thought of famous pulp stories, horror films, and cliff-hanging serials.

Wait, you didn’t go listen to the story? Or read it? Or remember reading it, and now you’re confused?

Tackie Babcock lives with his drug addicted mother in an old resort hotel. He isn’t supervised or well cared for, but his mother’s predatory boyfriend Jason, and a couple of aunts (May and Julie) keep an indifferent eye on him. We learn about Tackie’s inner life when Jason steals a paperback book that Tackie asked him to buy. The book has a lurid cover of a muscle bound man in rags battling a horrible half ape-half human creature. For the rest of the story, reality is interrupted by flashes from this novel. Captain Phillip Ransom adrift at sea for nine days arrives at a mysterious island and his captured by the mad Dr. Death, and his experimental creations. Eventually, we learn about other characters from Tackie’s real and imaginary world, including a beautiful native girl, Talar of the Long Eyes that Cpt. Ransom rescues from a fate worse than death. As the story progresses fiction and reality mix, so do who is good and who is bad.

If that doesn’t get you hooked, I don’t know what will. My parents were alcoholics, and we moved around a lot. From the time I started reading science fiction in the 5th grade until graduating, I attended nine different schools in three states. I forgot how many houses I lived in during that period, and I forgot how many times my parents split up. I’ve also forgotten how many drunken parental brawls I had to watch and hear, or how many times I was chauffeured around by drunk drivers. I survived all of that, and remember them as good times because I read science fiction. Without science fiction I’m not sure I would have had a happy childhood. I felt like Robert A. Heinlein was my father figure, Samuel R. Delany was my big brother, and Robert Sheckley was my crazy uncle.

I completely identified with Tackie Babcock. I wish I had read his story in 1970, but I’m thankful I finally found it in 2021.

James Wallace Harris, 3/5/21

p.s. Many of Gene Wolfe’s books including this one are available through Scribd.com, a subscription library. I mention it because I hope Scribd gets enough subscribers to survive. Think of it as Netflix for ebooks and audiobooks.

Poking Fun at Science Fiction

I’ve been thinking about humor in science fiction. Generally, when we think of funny science fiction we think of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or stories by Robert Sheckley, R. A. Lafferty, or sometimes John Scalzi. But that’s science fiction having fun, what about when the genre is the butt of the humor? For example, westerns were skewered hilariously in Blazing Saddles. Galaxy Quest comes to mind, but then that film was roasting the genre out of fondness. I don’t think Blazing Saddles was an actual tribute to westerns in the same way Galaxy Quest was to science fiction. And what about self-deprecating humor in science fiction. I love recursive science fiction, but most of it celebrates the love of science fiction. I’m curious, do many recursive science fiction stories satirize the genre? I’m not going to answer that extensively in this essay, so don’t get your hopes up. But keep reading for an example of where I’m going.

My problem is sarcasm, satire, and subtle jabs go right over my head (my lady friends take advantage of this). I’ve always seen science fiction as mostly straight stories, well, at least I did. I’ve been reading hundreds of short stories lately, and I’m starting to get suspicious. Every once in a while I wonder if the author has both a pen and pin in hand. As a reader, I felt it was my job to suspend disbelief and let the writer put the story over. Now that I’m writing more about what I read, I’m wondering if I should always look below the surface for different motives the writer might have had for writing their story.

Take this story by Judith Merril, “The Deep Down Dragon.” I read it in Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. What’s unique about this anthology is each story is prefaced with the author’s memory of writing it.

Study that Emsh (Ed Emshwiller) painting above. At first I thought it a clever way to suggest action – a woman had been abducted from a space colony. But then I thought of something, and it became funny, But how could it possibly comic? Obviously a woman has been kidnapped by an alien on a colony world – that’s tragic. But if you know the history of science fiction magazines, and the cliches about covers with BEMs carrying off a scantily clad women, then you might think Emsh is playing around. In case you don’t know the lingo, BEM stands for bug eyed monster. Sex sells, even for science fiction magazines. Why did Emsh leave off the sexy woman and lower the sales of that issue? Because we expected a naked woman he thought might be funny to disappoint us. Sure, the painting is of a serious action scene, a man is running to rescue a woman. Maybe even the editor told him, “No babes.” But I like to think Emsh is also poking fun at science fiction (See the section below, Sex, Nudity, and Prudity in Science Fiction.)

But the ribbing of SF doesn’t end there. Judith Merril tells a serious story about a man rescuing a woman, but it’s a story within a story. In the tale psychologists are showing potential space colonists a scene they’re supposed to react to like an inkblot test. Essentially, the characters are reacting to an animated version of Emsh painting. First, we hear from the woman as she tried to explain why she wasn’t clothed, and why she was wearing high heels in a space habitat. Then we hear a man’s version of the story about how he carefully tracks down the woman and fleeing alien – but he’s obviously an intellectual who over prepares, over thinks, and is not a brawny action-oriented kind of guy. You get the feeling Judith is making fun of SF by having the woman be the stereotype of the woman on SF covers, and the man be the stereotype of SF readers – the ninety-pound weakling/egghead.

Now it’s completely possible to read this story straight, but I found it more fun to think Emshwiller and Merril were poking fun at science fiction. And I found the story I reviewed last time, “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” by Algis Budrys more admirable when I assume Budrys wasn’t completely serious either. That he was creating something over the top he knew fans would love. But I have to wonder, was Merril and Budrys also looking down on their readers? Or the genre? I imagine some writers do. And is knowing that important to the story? Sometimes the story is better when we’re in on the laugh.

Most humor is in good fun. For example, take these two covers I found when looking for the BEM covers. They play against type.

But when you start looking at covers on science fiction magazines, most of them are deadly serious sense of wonder scenes, or at least heroic action scenes. Generally, when we have humor in our genre, we’re still suppose to take the story seriously, or mostly serious. And by serious, I mean close to realistic. For example, the Little Fuzzy stories by H. Beam Piper have a realistic side, but Poul Anderson’s Hoka stories are just for fun.

As I breezed past hundreds of covers I was disappointed I didn’t find more clever satire. One of my favorites was for “The Pirates of Erastz” by Murray Leinster.

My all-time favorite SF novel is Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. I’ve always taken it completely straight, but the title is proof enough it’s a spoof and Heinlein was having fun. We science fiction true believers want our fantasies to be possible. No matter how absurd the situation gets in novels like Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. On one level I still take Sheckley’s story as something that’s possible in our infinite universe. But that requires some major suspension of disbelief.

When a book is obviously funny, we know we shouldn’t take it seriously. But do we always know when we’re reading is something serious? What if it’s sometimes supposed to be funny in places? Or just slyly satirical? I confess here I have been sorely lacking in the ability to spot humor in SF. But now that I’m thinking about it, I’m on the lookout.

Sex, Nudity and Prudity in Science Fiction

While researching this post I also encountered protests against the skimpily dressed women on covers. Over the years I’ve read memoirs by SF writers and readers about how the covers were so embarrassing that they had to hide their SF magazines. Some even tore the covers off them afraid their parents would see them.

Most fans loved sexy (sexist) covers (hey they were adolescent boys), but some didn’t. Here’s a few quotes given to me by a Mr. Lock regarding Weird Tales.

Oct 1933:
Here is a word about our covers, from Lionel Dilbeck, of Wichita, Kansas: “But whatever you do, do not continue to disgrace the magazine with naked women as you did in the June and July issues. If you think that the readers want them, have them vote on it. Personally I prefer any kind of monster that it is possible to think of rather than the sexy covers you have been having. And I really hate to tear the covers off the magazine, as that also spoils the looks of them.”

March 1934:
Clara L. Heyne, of St. Paul, writes to the Eyrie: “But when I take the magazine to work for reading at noon, I take the cover off because I know how the pictures of nude women affect those who don’t know WT.”

May 1934:
Joseph H. Heil, of New York, writes: “Why the nudes? I have noticed that the majority of your readers have resented your cheap-looking covers, and I wish to add my emphatic vote against the continuance of these trashy covers. Looking back on the old issues of WT, I find that they contained none of the nudism of your present-day frontispieces, but, notwithstanding, they were much more interesting, and illustrated the stories much more vividly than today. I was first attracted to your publication (several years ago) by an exciting cover depicting some weird plants over-running the earth. Many people are, I am sure, attracted likewise; but how can you expect to attract the attention of a lover of the weird by the portrayal of a wide-eyed nude, gracefully reclining on stones or silks, as the case may be? Why make your readers tear off your covers in order to take the magazine anywhere, outside the privacy of one’s own home, and even there one has to be careful not to let it lie around where it might be noticed.”

Here’s a quote sent to me by Paul Fraser from Marian Cox in Startling Stories, September 1951.

By the 1950s most SF magazines moved away from the damsel in distress in space. It’s rather amusing though, because those covers are now favorites on Facebook groups devoted to science fiction art.

James Wallace Harris. 10/16/20