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