Would Generation Ship Crews Ever Forget Their Mission?

Generation ships 1
Generation ships 2

Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations is running a series of reviews on generation ship stories. He even compiled a list of such SF tales. I’ve decided to read along. So far he’s covered “The Wind Blows Free” by Chad Oliver and “Spacebred Generations” by Clifford D. Simak (later renamed “Target Generations”). Joachim plans to do “Wish Upon a Star” by Judith Merril next. Science fiction has explored this theme often. Imagining a self-contained society that spends hundreds or thousands of years between the stars presents a wonderful challenge to writers.

I’ve loved the concept of generation ships since 1965 when I was 13 and read Orphans of the Sky (1963) by Robert A. Heinlein. This book was assembled from two magazine stories, “Universe” and “Common Sense” first published in 1941. At the time I thought Heinlein and science fiction must have invented the idea of generation ships, but I was wrong.  I highly recommend reading Wikipedia’s entry on the topic. Both the rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, and the space explorer theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky came up with the idea in America and Russia. And it was also described by J. D. Bernal in a 1929 nonfiction book speculating about the future, The World, The Flesh, & the Devil.

Because I’m going to discuss the ideas in the stories this essay will have spoilers.

Quite often in the early science fiction stories about generation ships, the crews forget they are on an interstellar mission. This makes for a sense-of-wonder climax based on characters experiencing what The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls a conceptual breakthrough. That’s an exciting plot device for the reader but would any generation ship crew ever forget their mission? Right from the beginning of the idea of generation ships in science fiction with “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years” (1940) by Don Wilcox writers have been intrigued by the idea that the passengers would forget.

The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox 1940

A generation ship is a spaceship that travels slower-than-light and takes many generations to reach its destination. Heinlein hit one into orbit by imagining the crew forgetting their mission. Their society collapses to the point where they believe the ship is their entire universe. Because the crew can’t see outside the ship they don’t know about the stars and the cosmos. This is such a delicious idea that Brian Aldiss reexamines it in his novel Starship (1958) (first called Non-Stop in the U.S.).

Now that I’m much older I find it very hard to believe the crew would forget they were on a generation ship. Such forgetting makes for a bang-up plot, but if you think about it, doesn’t make a lot of sense. To forget their mission would require a complete collapse of the ship’s society. Is that even possible? How could the ship continue to function? Writers tell us the ship is fully automatic, but I can’t believe that either.

Evidently, science fiction writers assume such forgetting is a powerful McGuffin to wow their readers. And I loved these plots when I first encountered them. However, I now believe such situations to be too contrived to be realistic. Such tricks by the writer are much like an O’Henry ending. The reader is set up from the get-go. Not that such storytelling shenanigans are bad, but I do think it gives readers the wrong impression about generation ships.

Of course, I haven’t read all science fiction stories about generation ships. Now that Joachim Boaz is systematically reading them for his blog, I’m wondering if any science fiction writer imagined a realistic generation ship. It’s fun discussing this at his site.

Slower-than-Light Travel

Even though Einstein has been validated time and again, science fiction writers have us zipping around the galaxy at several thousand times the speed of light (300,000 kph). The spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2, our only efforts to leave the solar system, poke along at 1/18,000th that speed. Some engineers have theorized we might achieve 1/10th to 1/5th lightspeed with our present and expected knowledge, however, even their ideas are extremely theoretical.

If we could travel at ten percent of the speed of light it would take a whole lifetime to get to the nearest star. Since it will probably take hundreds or thousands of years to travel the nearby stellar neighborhood we’d need the crew using suspended animation or build a ship where humans could live out several generations.

Suspended animation is probably no more realistic than faster-than-light travel.

Building an artificial world that is completely self-contained, self-sufficient, and can travel a significant fraction of the speed of life is not impossible but probably so. Still, it’s a very exciting idea to contemplate. Can we build a machine that works perfectly for 1,000 years? What is the optimal crew size? How do you design a society that can thrive in such a limited environment? How will this civilization get its energy? Will water and air leak out? Will the passengers find meaning in their lives? How would successive generations react when learning they have been forced into a limited role by their ancestors? What if you don’t like where you’re going?

The generation ship would have to contain a minimum viable population (MVP). We must assume it will be a colony ship. Any scientific exploration should be done by intelligent machines – why waste all those lives on just information? In my reading, I’ve seen MVP numbers ranging from 160-5,000. We often see stories now about sending frozen embryos or building machines that can sequence DNA from raw material but I’m going to assume frozen embryos can’t last 1,000 years, and building people from digital blueprints is a fantasy. If we could, it would invalidate the need for a generation ship. By the way, raising artificial children at the end of a long space voyage is a new theme science fiction writers are exploring.

Orphans in the Sky imagines a generation ship where the ship’s civilization collapses and the inhabitants forget they are on a spaceship. I love that idea as a science fiction story, but doubt it would happen. Crews on a generation ship would have lots of time on their hands and education would have a significant appeal. They would have a library of our entire history. They would be in contact with Earth. They would know everything about astronomy and cosmology. For Heinlein’s story to work the original passengers would have to be clueless dumbasses who didn’t care about anything intellectual and refused to teach their children. The original crew would be brilliant with a passionate hope for the mission. They would pass that on. For Heinlein and Wilcox to be right, their descendants would have de-evolve. How that could happen would make a great SF story. I wish Heinlein had written it before writing “Universe” and “Common Sense.”

Clifford Simak came up with a different idea in “Target Generations.” He tells us the original mission designers feared the crew would not psychologically survive knowing why they were on the ship, so hid the knowledge from them. That’s absolutely ridiculous if we think about it, but at least Simak’s realized Heinlein’s idea had problems. That’s what’s wonderful about science fiction, it evolves. It’s a dialog by writers over time.

Chad Oliver offers another twist in “The Wind Blows Free.” The passengers know they are on a spaceship but they haven’t been told it landed hundreds of years earlier. Selective crew members decide the generation ship’s inhabitants are too adapted to shipboard life to leave it. That’s a very compelling idea, but still not realistic. I don’t see how they could hide landing a ship, but more than that, it’s based on maintaining an absurd conspiracy theory. The practical solution to such a problem would be to land the ship and let people slowly migrate to the new world. I do buy that generation ship passengers might not want to leave the ship. I’m an old guy who has become very attached to my house. I wouldn’t want to start over either.

Too often science fiction ignores Occam’s razor to create a compelling plot. I’m hoping we’ll be reading stories where generation ships succeed, or if they fail, fail for realistic reasons. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson was an outstanding example of a space exploration failure that made sense.

Children of Time (2015) by Adrian Tchaikovsky did come up with a very real generation ship problem. Successive crew generations became resentful for having their lives committed to a project they didn’t choose. Some even want to abort the mission and return to Earth. This is the kind of realistic challenges I hope science fiction writers will imagine. There’s nothing wrong with coming up with a plot that wows the readers but ultimately makes no sense. A story is a story. But I like science fiction that imagines something that might be possible.

I like to think it’s science fiction’s job to consider all the possibilities before we actually build a generation ship. From early science fiction, we know not to create a society that will forget the mission. I also like the idea we have to worry about the resentment of the later generations. And we do have to worry about getting people comfortable living on a ship to living on a planet again.

We science fiction fans daydream of traveling in space. But can you imagine a future where children born in space wished they lived on Earth like us?

James Wallace Harris, 12/2/19

Ever Wonder Why You Read Science Fiction?

Angel's Egg by Edgar Pangborn

Ever psychoanalyze your own reading choices? Ever wonder about the unique appeal of science fiction? Ever wonder if your personal daydreams overlap with the authors’ own fantasies? Are stories just stories or do they the trigger synapses storing your hidden desires?

Every science fiction story has at least one weird idea in it. Some stories are subtle with one slight bit of strangeness. Others are overflowing with the fantastic. Each bit of added weirdness is like an ingredient in a recipe. Most of the ingredients are common off the science fiction spice rack. I’m developing a new theory. I’m realizing each writer brings their own special flavor of weirdness to the genre. Think about all your favorite science fiction writers, don’t their collective work leave a unique aftertaste in your mind? Just recall Philip K. Dick or Ursula K. Le Guin as examples.

To be completely holistic, we should consider our own weird interests and how we resonate with the pet themes of the writers. Most sense-of-wonder aspects of science fiction are not part of our everyday reality. What science fiction fans love are far-out concepts presented as mundane. We want reality to include our pet fantastic, weird, strange, and unbelievable concepts. If asked, we might say we’re only pretending, but I can’t help but believe that deep down we all want science fiction to come alive. And all of us are psychically drawn to our own hidden daydreams reflected in the fiction we read.

Maybe all readers are Walter Mittys, leaving writers to the hard work of generating fantasies. Books are VR machines powered by our own CPU-brains. If you start thinking about fiction this way, you become a connoisseur of hidden emotions.

I used to assume it was the science fictional tropes that shaped science fiction stories, the spaceship, the robot, the alien, but I’m now wondering if authors’ own inner obsessions and philosophies sculpt SF stories more, and the stories we love most are the ones that resonate with our own emotions. I’m even wondering if writers don’t go into science fiction because it offers the tools to promote their own weird hopes, desires, and fears better than any other literary form.

The story I’m going to discuss as my example is “Angel’s Egg” by Edgar Pangborn. Not because it’s special, but simply because it’s the last story I read and it’s stuck in my mind. “Angel’s Egg” was Pangborn’s first published science fiction story, appearing in the June 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Since Galaxy began publishing in October 1950, Pangborn was essentially a new SF writer for a new SF magazine, and “Angel’s Egg” is different from the SF norm Astounding Science-Fiction had established. Times were changing. Although, I do wonder if Pangborn had submitted “Angel’s Egg” to John W. Campbell first? Was it a reject, or had Pangborn been inspired by the new magazine H. L. Gold was publishing? It actually feels more like an F&SF story, a magazine that launched in 1949.

Another part of the flavor of science fiction is where and when it’s published. “Angel’s Egg” presents a kind of weirdness for America in 1951. People were still freaking out over atomic bombs, plus the flying saucer craze was stirring up the crazies in the late 1940s. The early 1950s were a boom time for science fiction with dozens of magazines, new hardback publishers, TV shows and movies. America and the world feared total annihilation. Earthlings dreaded invasion by superior beings. We thought the human race was being judged and we all knew we weren’t going to pass the test.

Edgar Pangborn (1909-1976) got his first novel published in 1930, a mystery. His father and sister were also authors, and they all often wrote about the supernatural. All that went into the weird flavor of “Angel’s Egg.” If you follow the link you can read the story at Project Gutenberg. You can also read the story at the Internet Archive, in digital editions of the original June 1951 Galaxy Science Fiction magazine.

I wonder if H. L. Gold’s lead-in is how Gold really saw Pangborn’s story:

When adopting a pet, choose the species that
is most intelligent, obedient, loyal, fun to
play with, yet a shrewd, fearless protector.
For the best in pets—choose a human being!

If I had been Pangborn, I would have been pissed and insulted. Actually, I think it’s also insulting to the science fiction reader. Maybe “Angel’s Egg” was too weird for H. L. Gold, or maybe Gold just had a non-serious attitude towards science fiction. His mag was often filled with satire and humor. Yet, in some ways, it is hard to take Pangborn’s story seriously. “Angel’s Egg” is really about a savior from another world who asks one human to sacrifice life to save our species. That’s heavy. Pangborn is actually telling a spiritual story using the language of science fiction.

How serious should we take Pangborn? Is he inventing a weird story just to make a few bucks? How Freudian or Jungian is this story? Is “Angel’s Egg” a message from Pangborn’s unconscious mind about the state of humanity in 1951? If you haven’t read the story you have no idea what I’m talking about. I’ll try to include enough quotes to make sense, but you might want to read it first.

The story starts with a frame. A letter from an FBI agent to a local police captain who had asked the agency to investigate the death of a person named Dr. David Bannerman who died in 1951. Attached to the letter is a note from a librarian who found the letter in 1994. Included with the letter is Dr. Bannerman’s journal dated from June 1, 1951, to July 31, 1951.

The story is Bannerman’s journal extract. Writers use this kind of framework to give their tale a greater feel of authenticity. It’s also a trick to allow a first-person narrator to die in the story. Pangborn also wanted to use the first-person narrative to make the story feel as real as possible. But such techniques were also common in older, especially 19th-century science fiction. We know Pangborn came to science fiction rather late, so he might not have known the conventions of the genre.

How “Angel’s Egg” is told has a kind of archaic flavor that I enjoy. Pangborn leans toward the sentimental, more like Bradbury and Simak, his contemporaries. Here’s how the story begins and where the egg comes from in the title.

It must have been at least three weeks ago when we had that flying saucer flurry. Observers the other side of Katahdin saw it come down this side; observers this side saw it come down the other. Size anywhere from six inches to sixty feet in diameter (or was it cigar-shaped?) and speed whatever you please. Seem to recall that witnesses agreed on a rosy-pink light. There was the inevitable gobbledegookery of official explanation designed to leave everyone impressed, soothed and disappointed.

I paid scant attention to the excitement and less to the explanations—naturally, I thought it was just a flying saucer. But now Camilla has hatched out an angel.

I have eight hens, all yearlings except Camilla; this is her third spring. I boarded her two winters at my neighbor Steele's farm when I closed this shack and shuffled my chilly bones off to Florida, because even as a pullet she had a manner which overbore me. I could never have eaten Camilla. If she had looked at the ax with that same expression of rancid disapproval (and she would) I should have felt I was beheading a favorite aunt. Her only concession to sentiment is the annual rush of maternity to the brain—normal, for a case-hardened White Plymouth Rock.

This year she stole a nest successfully, in a tangle of blackberry. By the time I located it, I estimated I was about two weeks too late. I had to outwit her by watching from a window; she is far too acute to be openly trailed from feeding ground to nest. When I had bled and pruned my way to her hideout, she was sitting on nine eggs and hating my guts. They could not be fertile, since I keep no rooster, and I was about to rob her when I saw the ninth egg was not hers, nor any other chicken's.

Doesn’t this seem like a very strange way to begin a science fiction story? A mysterious ninth egg? Then Pangborn tells us:

That was ten days ago. I know I ought to have kept a record; I examined the blue egg every day, watching how some nameless life grew within it, until finally the angel chipped the shell deftly in two parts. This was evidently done with the aid of small horny out-growths on her elbows; these growths were sloughed off on the second day.

I wish I had seen her break the shell, but when I visited the blackberry tangle three days ago she was already out. She poked her exquisite head through Camilla's neck feather, smiled sleepily, and snuggled back into darkness to finish drying off. So what could I do, more than save the broken shell and wriggle my clumsy self out of there?

I had removed Camilla's own eggs the day before—Camilla was only moderately annoyed. I was nervous about disposing of them even though they were obviously Camilla's, but no harm was done. I cracked each one to be sure. Very frankly rotten eggs and nothing more.

In the evening of that day I thought of rats and weasels, as I should have earlier. I hastily prepared a box in the kitchen and brought the two in, the angel quiet in my closed hand. They are there now. I think they are comfortable.

Three days after hatching, the angel is the length of my fore-finger, say three inches tall, with about the relative proportions of a six-year-old girl. Except for head, hands, and probably the soles of her feet, she is clothed in feathery down the color of ivory. What can be seen of her skin is a glowing pink—I do mean glowing, like the inside of certain seashells. Just above the small of her back are two stubs which I take to be infantile wings. They do not suggest an extra pair of specialized forelimbs. I think they are wholly differentiated organs; perhaps they will be like the wings of an insect. Somehow I never thought of angels buzzing. Maybe she won't. I know very little about angels.

Angels? Really, in a science fiction story? Are we reading a tall tale, or is this science fiction? Where are the rockets and robots? Why does Pangborn couch his alien in religious garb?

I made no entry last night. The angel was talking to me, and when that was finished I drowsed off immediately on a cot which I have moved into the kitchen to be near them.

I had never been strongly impressed by the evidence for extrasensory perception. It is fortunate that my mind was able to accept the novelty, since to the angel it is clearly a matter of course. Her tiny mouth is most expressive, but moves only for that reason and for eating—not for speech. Probably she could speak to her own kind if she wished, but I dare say the sound would be above the range of my hearing as well as my understanding.

Last night after I brought the cot in and was about to finish my puttering bachelor supper, she climbed to the edge of the box and pointed, first at herself and then at the top of the kitchen table. Afraid to let my vast hand take hold of her, I held it out flat and she sat in my palm. Camilla was inclined to fuss, but the angel looked over her shoulder and Camilla subsided, watchful but no longer alarmed.

Now we have an angel that’s telepathic. What we quickly learn is the angel is really an alien from a very advanced civilization. But its physical form is more like Disney’s Tinkerbell than modern angels. In Biblical times angels were a non-human species that came from another realm to visit Earth. In modern times, angels are people who have died and gone to heaven. Why is Pangborn recasting a Biblical image?

Angel's Egg 2 by Edgar Pangborn

There is also a slight undercurrent of sexuality to Bannerman’s angel even though there is no possibility of sex. Bannerman is a lonely man, who is crippled from the war, living away from other people out in the country. The angel saves him.

I don’t know why Pangborn made his tiny alien into an angel. Maybe he considered an ordinary alien cruising around in a flying saucer too common and ugly. I’m also wondering if Pangborn has the same theory as I do, that science fiction is a modern replacement for religion? Instead of dying and going to heaven we build a rocket and fly up into the heavens to other planets and stars. Instead of God(s), we imagine super-intelligent aliens. Instead of being saved and given everlasting life, we develop scientific ways to achieve immortality. Instead of the power of prayer, we evolve telepathy.

Pangborn’s little alien with wings is really a wise being from an ancient civilization that wants to save humans from self-destruction. Her father and nine siblings came to Earth to uplift us. And she asks Bannerman to sacrifice himself to save all of us. This is a very Christian story. Pangborn’s second SF novel, A Mirror for Observers (1954) has pretty much the same theme. It won the International Fantasy Award in 1955. Pangborn isn’t well-remembered today, but he had a certain level of success in the 1950s and 1960s.

Reading “Angel’s Egg” and A Mirror for Observers are my only experiences with Edgar Pangborn’s work. I own three more of his novels, but they are unread. Yet, from this small sample, I detect a rather unique mind using science fiction for its philosophical purposes. I feel Pangborn yearning for humanity to be saved from itself, and that was a very common hope in science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s.

If you think about it, there are two ways to be saved. One is to be rescued, the other is to overcome. Christianity is all about being saved by a higher power. And it’s rather strange that so many science fiction stories in the 1940s and 1950s had humanity being rescued by a higher power, not God(s) but aliens. The most famous example is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke. But that story is really a retelling and refinement of his 1953 novel Childhood’s End.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of humanity being rescued by outsiders. I’m a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of guy. But after Hiroshima, many people felt humans were children with a dangerous toy they couldn’t handle. Remember the old film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)? It was saying we needed guardian robots. I admire the Prime Directive from Star Trek.

Pangborn imagines his aliens as gentle guiders of the uncivilized. But isn’t that still being uplifted? If we’re reshaped by an outside force are we really ourselves? I never understood the basic tenet of Christianity, that we should be forgiven of our sins. I believe we should overcome our sinful ways, not be saved.

You’d think I’d dislike this story because it conflicts with my personal philosophy. But I still loved “Angel’s Egg” even though it’s rather clunky with religious imaginary and I’m an atheist. Although I kept thinking of the little angel as a more sophisticated Tinkerbell. What I loved were Pangborn’s emotions. What I loved was Bannerman’s sacrifice and how it was made. But then memory is a pet theme of mine.

The angel offered him two choices.

I made plain that I would never willingly part company with her, which I am sure she already knew, and she gave me to understand that there are two alternatives for the remainder of my life. The choice, she says, is altogether mine, and I must take time to be sure of my decision.

I can live out my natural span, whatever it proves to be, and she will not leave me for long at any time. She will be there to advise, teach, help me in anything good I care to undertake. She says she would enjoy this; for some reason she is, as we'd say in our language, fond of me.

Lord, the books I could write! I fumble for words now, in the usual human way. Whatever I put on paper is a miserable fraction, of the potential; the words themselves are rarely the right ones. But under her guidance—

I could take a fair part in shaking the world. With words alone. I could preach to my own people. Before long, I would be heard.

I could study and explore. What small nibblings we have made at the sum of available knowledge! Suppose I brought in one leaf from outdoors, or one common little bug—in a few hours of studying it with her, I'd know more of my own specialty than a flood of the best textbooks could tell me.

She has also let me know that when she and those who came with her have learned a little more about humanity, it should be possible to improve my health greatly, and probably my life expectancy. I don't imagine my back could ever straighten, but she thinks the pain might be cleared away, entirely without drugs. I could have a clearer mind, in a body that would neither fail nor torment me.

I think this is the choice we’d all jump at. But Pangborn wants to give us a science-fictional Christ. I might need to remind you that Camilla was the hen who sat on the angel egg.

Then there is the other alternative.

It seems they have developed a technique by means of which any unresisting living subject, whose brain is capable of memory at all, can experience total recall. It is a by-product, I understand, of their silent speech, and a very recent one. They have practiced it for only a few thousand years, and since their own understanding of the phenomenon is very incomplete, they classify it among their experimental techniques.

In a general way, it may somewhat resemble that reliving of the past which psychoanalysis can sometimes bring about in a limited way for therapeutic purposes. But you must imagine that sort of thing tremendously magnified and clarified, capable of including every detail which has ever registered on the subject's brain.

The purpose is not therapeutic, as we would understand it; quite the opposite. The end result is—death.

Whatever is recalled, by this process is transmitted to the receiving mind, which can retain it, and record any or all of it, if such a record is desired; but to the subject who recalls, it is a flowing away, without return. Thus it is not a true "remembering," but a giving. The mind is swept clear, naked of all its past, and, along with memory, life withdraws also. Very quietly.

At the end, I suppose it must be like standing without resistance in the engulfment of a flood tide, until finally the waters close over.

That, it seems, is how Camilla's life was "saved." When I finally grasped that, I laughed, and the angel of course caught the reason. I was thinking about my neighbor Steele, who boarded Camilla for me in his henhouse for a couple of winters.

Somewhere safe in the angelic records there must be a hen's-eye image of the patch in the seat of Steele's pants. And naturally Camilla's view of me too; not too unkind, I hope. She couldn't help the expression on her rigid little face, and I don't believe it ever meant anything.

At the other end of the scale is the saved life of my angel's father. Recall can be a long process, she says, depending on the intricacy and richness of the mind recalling; and in all but the last stages it can be halted at will. Her father's recall was begun when they were still far out in space and he knew that he could not long survive the journey.

When that journey ended, the recall had progressed so far that very little actual memory remained to him of his life on that other planet. He had what must be called a deductive memory—from the material of the years not yet given away, he could reconstruct what must have been, and I assume the other adult who survived the passage must have been able to shelter him from errors that loss of memory might involve. This, I infer, is why he could not show me a two-moon night.

I forgot to ask her whether the images he did send me were from actual or deductive memory. Deductive, I think, for there was a certain dimness about them not present when my angel gives me a picture of something seen with her own eyes.

Jade-green eyes, by the way. Were you wondering?

In the same fashion, my own life could be saved. Every aspect of existence that I ever touched, that ever touched me, could be transmitted to some perfect record—the nature of the written record is beyond me, but I have no doubt of its relative perfection. Nothing important, good or bad, would be lost. And they need a knowledge of humanity, if they are to carry out whatever it is they have in mind.

It would be difficult, she tells me, and sometimes painful. Most of the effort would be hers, but some of it would have to be mine. In her period of infantile education, she elected what we should call zoology as her life work; for that reason she was given intensive theoretical training in this technique. Right now I guess she knows more than anyone else on this planet not only about what makes a hen tick, but how it feels to be a hen.

Though a beginner, she is in all essentials already an expert. She can help me, she thinks, if I choose this alternative. At any rate, she could ease me over the toughest spots, keep my courage from flagging.

For it seems that this process of recall is painful to an advanced intellect—without condescension, she calls us very advanced—because, while all pretense and self-delusion are stripped away, there remains conscience, still functioning by whatever standards of good and bad the individual has developed in his lifetime. Our present knowledge of our own motives is such a pathetically small beginning! Hardly stronger than an infant's first effort to focus his eyes.

Of course, we know which one Bannerman chooses.  The rest of his journal is about forgetting as his memories are peeled away. In some ways, this part of the story reminds me of Charlie Gorden from Flowers for Algernon when Charlie was on his decline.

I have read science fiction my whole life. Often just for escapism and entertainment, but I must admit I wished reality was different and sometimes science fiction reflected an alternate reality I preferred. Pangborn’s dream isn’t mine, but I feel great sympathy for him. His story draws me back to how some people felt during the year I was born.

Galaxy June 1951

[The above illustrations are the ones that first appeared with the story in Galaxy Science Fiction.]

James Wallace Harris, 11/26/19

Why Swallow Even One Porcupine?

 

2019-Sep-Oct F&SF

In the Sept/Oct 2019 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction science columnist Jerry Oltion wrote a piece called “Net Up or Net Down?” where he asks readers how scientifically accurate should science fiction stories be? For his first example, he uses The Martian by Andy Weir, which many readers consider good hard SF. The trouble is, the opening premise is not scientific at all. The story begins with a Martian lander taking off to avoid being blown over by a dust storm. But Oltion calculations predict the fastest recorded wind on Mars would feel like a 12mph breeze on Earth.

Now here’s the thing, I don’t know enough science in this situation to evaluate Oltion’s science. I wondered if gravity is 1/6th of that on Earth, does it mean things are easier to blow over? But then I remembered a 12mph breeze on Earth can make a kite fly, but not something metal like a garbage can. How many readers just accepted what Weir wrote as fact because it came from a science fiction story? Before science fiction became common, when it was considered trashy, kids would justify reading SF to their parents by claiming they learned science from reading science fiction. Does anyone really learn any kind of science from science fiction?

Oltion then mentions some other famous science fiction stories and their scientific problems. He goes on to say:

How scientifically accurate does a story have to be? Ever since Jules Verne, and probably before that, people have been arguing about that very question. Some people feel that the writer has to get every scientific detail correct or the story is flawed, while others feel that a writer can fudge a little for the sake of the story. A common rule of thumb is that the author gets one porcupine—i.e. the reader will swallow a porcupine for the sake of a good story, but they won’t swallow two.

But why should we have to swallow any porcupines? Why shouldn’t new science fiction stories be scientifically accurate as current scientific knowledge? I’m sure Weir could have found another reason to make Mark Watney a castaway on Mars.

It’s one thing to speculate beyond what science knows, but it’s another thing to ignore what it does.

Oltion also asks how we can love Star Wars which requires fans to swallow a pack of porcupines when we often reject other stories that are less fantastic as being unbelievable. His answer is we accept stories that have internal consistency. But I ask, why call that science fiction? Why not just call it fantasy? If we’re going to put science in the label, shouldn’t it mean something?

There is a story in this same issue, “Erase, Erase, Erase” by Elizabeth Bear that I find wonderful, compelling, and a great example of good writing. But it has neither fantasy or science fiction elements. It could have been published in a mundane literary magazine. I have no complaints that Bear’s story was published in F&SF, but that might not be true for everyone.

It feels like we’re reaching a stage where anything goes. In the SF/F genres, science fiction doesn’t have to be scientific, and fantasy doesn’t require fantasy. Of course, science fiction has never been scientific, even in the old days. Readers have been happily chowing down on porcupines forever and with great relish. Maybe I should just stop worrying about genre labels or literary standards. Stories are whatever we’re willing to read.

However, I think we all have our personal standards, they’re just not shared standards. Writers can write whatever they want and find an audience because readers are so different.

Personally, I want science fiction to be scientifically accurate to current science. That’s why I don’t enjoy space opera anymore, not with FTL ships. And the more I think about it, the more I doubt humans will ever colonize another world with an existing biosphere. As I become more skeptical about the science fiction I’ve consumed in the last 55 years, I’m thrilled when discovering science fiction that does feel realistic. I love it when a writer imagines something I think might be possible.

I guess I’m old and tired and I’ve had my fill of porcupines.

James Wallace Harris, 11/14/19

 

 

 

 

Does Science Fiction Have A Purpose?

 

1940-03 Astounding p122 bw

Norman Spinrad’s latest “On Books” column has caused some minor controversy, although I’m not sure why since everything in the column seems reasonable to me. Although I tend to like modern short science fiction more than he does. I do agree that the science fiction genre has been diluted with too much fantasy. I wish there were two completely separate genres. I’m also bothered by the fact that many younger readers don’t seem to distinguish between real science fiction and fantasy science fiction.

I found this statement by Spinrad the most interesting:

It tells us that fantasy has long since come to dominate SF. It tells us that many or perhaps even a majority of these SF writers do not have the education or indeed the inclination to learn the difference between science fiction and fantasy and to dish the result out to a populace that has more than enough confusion about the difference between reality and magic already.

It got me to thinking about the meaning of science fiction. To be able to distinguish science fiction from fantasy requires a precise definition of each. Too many have tried that for me to consider jumping into the fray. But I have thought of another angle of attack. What is the purpose of each?

Right now science fiction and fantasy seem to be fairy tales for older readers. And for these readers fantasy has a flavor of the past and science fiction has a flavor of the future. And if this is their sole purpose then it hardly matters if writers distinguish between the two. Especially if editors and readers are only looking for entertaining stories.

Since Spinrad is criticizing writers for not knowing the difference between science fiction and fantasy I must assume he believes there is a difference. I know I do, but are we deluding ourselves if no one else does?

There is an interesting aspect of this problem. The SF/F genre is the only genre where short fiction is thriving, still being bought by editors and read by readers. Would-be writers are attracted to its paying markets. What could be happening is hordes of writers looking to get published see this and have decided to its easier to get acceptance letters in our genre, and even get paid. They feel this market requires fantasy and science fiction elements in their stories so they add them. I’m guessing Spinrad feels these new writers don’t know the genre or its history and thus are just making stuff up that they believe is science fiction. Spinrad also feels they don’t know traditional storytelling techniques.

I’m an MFA dropout. Twenty years ago I took many creative writing courses and workshops but didn’t finish my degree. At the time my professors tried to steer us away from writing genre stories. The emphasis was on getting published in literary magazines. The MFA was a terminal degree for teaching in higher education, so the focus was on getting a job at a university. Being published in literary magazines counted towards an academic job. My courses promoted literary writing techniques, and these are different from genre story writing. I believe many SF/F writers in recent generations have taken MFA courses and that has influenced their writing style, and changed the genre.

There are practically no jobs for creative writing majors, even though the degree is promoted as a pathway into teaching. I’m guessing that’s why we’re seeing an influx of these writers into our genres. And for the most part, they didn’t grow up reading science fiction and fantasy magazines. However, that’s not their fault. Nor do I have any problem with them using our genre as an outlet for their creative hopes.

However, should science fiction be anything people want to write and call science fiction, or should it have a purpose? In 2004 DARPA created the Grand Challenge offering a million-dollar prize for the first autonomous vehicle to travel its predefined course. That was a very definite purpose. Science fiction doesn’t have such a highly focused purpose like DARPA’s, but does it at least have a vague purpose? One that goes beyond fairy tales for grown-ups.

I believe H. G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, and Robert A. Heinlein felt it did. Yet, describing that purpose is as difficult as defining science fiction. Science has the job of describing reality. But the term “science fiction” isn’t storytelling about describing reality. Ironically, that job belongs to literary fiction. Science fiction has taken on the job of trying to describe what science cannot yet describe but should eventually. To confuse the issue science fiction often speculates about possibilities that turn out to be impossible. Science fiction’s apparent purpose to explore territory science hasn’t but hopefully will. Fantasy doesn’t even go near this territory, nor does it try.

Good science fiction should be a cognitive tool for philosophically guessing what we might find in reality. Science fiction is fictionalized thought experiments. Whether science fiction is told using old-fashioned storytelling structures, or in newer MFA literary styles doesn’t matter. The real purpose of science fiction is to present philosophical insights into the event horizon between what is known and what is not.

The trouble is most “science fiction” writers, past or present, have taken these speculations and created fun fantasies. Star Wars is the perfect example. Star Wars has no extrapolation or speculation. Basically, Star Wars borrowed most of its themes and icons from Isaac Asimov, ones Asimov first created for speculative SF. Star Wars turned real science fiction into Disneyland fun science fiction. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It has a different purpose.

Part of the problem Spinrad complains about regarding not distinguishing science fiction from fantasy is most science fiction readers who read only fiction marketed as science fiction can’t distinguish serious science fiction from fun science fiction. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Anything that calls itself fantasy isn’t even part of this discussion. I am not worried that fantasy sells more than science fiction. It does bother me a little that fantasy is shelved with science fiction, but that’s only an inconvenience. It is more annoying that some magazines and anthologies want to package them together, so half the content I purchase isn’t wanted. But my real problem, and I think Spinrads’s too, is serious science fiction is being rejected by society totally embracing fun science fiction.

For most of its history, science fiction has had the reputation of being that silly Buck Rogers stuff. There were a few writers and editors that wanted science fiction to have more validity. Even today there are writers that use both science fiction and fantasy to express serious philosophical insights and worries. What’s even more ironic, is real serious science fiction often gets stripped of its label science fiction and reclassified at literature, such as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Handmaid’s Tale, and so on. Writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Harlan Ellison escaped the whole problem of defining science fiction by rejecting the label completely.

Like I said earlier, Spinrad and I might be suffering from a delusion, and so were Wells, Gernsback, Campbell, and Heinlein. That’s one reason why I’m reading and researching old science fiction. Were these guys on to something, or were they crazy, or boosting their egos with fantasies of self-importance? Alec Nevala-Lee’s book Astounding suggests they were egomaniacs using science fiction to make their lives significant. But I don’t know. In all those old pulp stories there’s a glint of gold. Was it fools gold or the real gold?

James Wallace Harris, 11/6/19

 

Let’s Try This Again, Explaining 1960s Science Fiction

Stranger in a Strange Land

In my last essay, I tried to explain my memory of science fiction from the 1960s by picking eight books I read back then that now gives me a singular feeling about that decade. I realize after several comments that I did not achieve my writing goal. I naively assumed that most SF fans would know these books and just the thought of them would trigger my personal impression of science fiction in the 1960s. I realize now that I can’t communicate by making connections to what I believe are common shared experiences. I must describe my POV in detail so it’s self-contained. That’s going to be difficult, to say the least.

Is it even possible to describe a decade to people who grew up after that decade? For that matter, are my perspectives on the 1960s anywhere close to anyone else’s living through that decade? I assumed if you read science fiction during the 1960s we might be close in our experiences, especially if you were reading the same books I did. But I am reminded of one of the most vivid lessons I experienced in the sixties. While on acid I had this realization, we were all essentially living on desert islands inside our heads and our best attempts to communicate where no better than putting messages into bottles and throwing them on the ocean hoping they’ll be found. We all want telepathy but must struggle to make Morse code do.

I picked Stranger in a Strange Land as my number one book not because it’s my favorite science fiction novel from the 1960s, but because I believe it captured the feel of the decade in science fiction for me. I was just 13 when I read Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in 1965. I came to the novel late, since it was first published in 1961, but I believe it was only the second novel I had read published in the 1960s. The first was A Wrinkle in Time in 1963.

Up till then, I had gorged on H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, the Oz books, the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift Jr. books, Heinlein’s juveniles, Andre Norton’s juveniles, and the Winston Science Fiction juveniles. Stranger in a Strange Land was my first adult novel, and it was a doozy to read at 13. But you have to understand the context in which I was reading it. In 1965 the Psychedelic Sixties hadn’t become trippy just yet. Life was mundane to the max. Going to school every day and thinking about growing up to a life of working in a factory or office wasn’t that exciting. I didn’t want to be my father or mother. Their lives seemed miserable and they fought all the time. I wanted a happier present and future, and I found that in science fiction.

In 1965 the black and white 1950s still held sway over most of the landscape. In 1964 The Beatles had landed with the British invasion on the AM radio shaking up my world. In the summer of 1965, I heard “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan and I realized I was nowhere hoping to go somewhere. Times really were a-changing. And it’s at that moment when I read Stranger in a Strange Land in the Avon paperback edition you see above.

I didn’t know it then but Heinlein had written a novel to reinvent himself and science fiction. I know this will drive some people crazy, but I believe Stranger in a Strange Land was the first New Wave science fiction novel of the 1960s. I’m sure this will also make Heinlein turn over in his grave, but his book really was different, experimental, and more literary than anything the genre science had produced before. Stranger in a Strange Land was colorful, although not quite as psychedelically dayglo as the 1960s would become. It had sex and nudity, which was different for SF, and titillating to my 13-year-old self. It also touted New Age like powers. And most of all, it represented a counter-culture. Not the counter-culture of the hippies, but still a counter-culture, which is why the hippies loved it.

During 1964-1966 I read all of Heinlein and a lot of lesser science fiction that was mostly from the 1950s. Then during 1967-1968, I started catching up with new SF books. I remember discovering both Dune and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep at the Coconut Grove Library in Miami, Florida. I remember pulling Dune off the shelf, and I was daunted away by its size. I think it was the biggest book I had read until then. Most science fiction novels usually came in around 200 pages or under. Stranger and Dune were big books. They were ambitious books. Heinlein and Herbert both aimed to hit one out of the solar system, and they did. Dune was mysterious, rich, dense, and hard for me to understand. I was only 16. It dealt with culture, ecology, and anthropology in strange and mysterious ways. I didn’t really understand it, but it felt epic, like the decade.

I can still picture in my head reaching up and pulling Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? down from the top shelf of the new 7-day books at the Coconut Grove Library. The cover was a strange pop-art collage that didn’t seem very science-fictional but I took it home and became hooked on Philip K. Dick. I mean, WTF!? I’m not sure when I first read The Man in the High Castle, but I listed it instead of Android for the 1960s because the idea of alternative history was so mind-blowing, and the 1960s were all about blowing our minds.

It was around this time I read Flowers for Algernon. I was now a senior in high school, and the turmoil of the 1960s was blazing away every night on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.  Even though Flowers was about Charlie Gordon, a guy who was born mentally slow, I felt I had started my teen years being slow and science fiction was speeding up my development. By then I was also dabbling in drugs and had taken my first trip. The idea of artificially improving oneself with chemistry and technology was the call of the Sirens, impossible to resist.

I wanted to go further and faster. I wanted to be stronger and smarter. I had grown up with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. We thought the future was so full of potential that everything could happen. I didn’t realize then, that like Charlie Gordon, I would come down from my high frontier high. Space travel was what astronauts with the right stuff got to do. That’s why reading Delany’s “The Star Pit” was so achingly beautiful while being exquisitely painful. That story made me realize the glass boundaries of the fish tank in which I lived. When I read Nova about dumbass young hippies like myself hitchhiking in space it launched me into orbit with its mind-expanding space opera. I was already hitchhiking around Dade county, meeting some of the dregs of society and I identified with Delany. I didn’t know he was black and gay, but I did feel he was young, which was so different from all the other science fiction authors at the time. He was less than a decade older than I.

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner scared the shit out of me in early 1969 when I was 17. This 1968 novel had all the impact of the nonfiction Future Shock, but that book would come out two years later in 1970, and become an international bestseller. It’s a shame Brunner’s book didn’t earn that fame. Science fiction imagines possibilities, but Stand on Zanzibar comes closest to any science fiction book of predicting the future that I’ve ever read. Brunner didn’t get the details right, but he imagined the world we live in now being dominated by terrorism, ecological collapse, political polarization, and information overload. Imagine if you were told about now fifty years ago. Would you want to grow up? That’s how powerful Stand on Zanzibar was to me back then.

Then there’s Mindswap by Robert Sheckley. The other SF novels I picked to define my view of 1960s science fiction are rather famous today, classics, even legendary. But few people remember Sheckley, and especially Mindswap. My all-time favorite science fiction novel when I was growing up was Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Heinlein. It’s a 1958 boys’ book that praises and parodies every science fictional fantasy we had back then. Clifford Russell wants to win a trip to the Moon by writing a bar soap jingle but ends up being captured by evil aliens in a flying saucer. Not only does he get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet in the Vega system and a lesser Magellanic cloud. Kip even got to time travel too.

In Mindswap Marvin Flynn gets to go a similar galactic adventure, but one more bizarre than any acid trip. Sheckley both delights and denigrates our childish desires for space adventures. Mindswap was a hip absurdity. But then the 1960s was incredibly absurd, among all the countless extreme adjectives that could be used to describe the decade. That’s why I picked these eight science fiction books to describe my fading impression of growing up in the 1960s.

Now, the last book, that came towards the very end of the decade in 1969. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s significant that it’s by a woman writer. It’s serious and heavy, and it’s about gender. Her worldbuilding had a human society where people cycled back and forth from male and female. Didn’t see that one coming, even after reading plenty of Delany. Le Guin was saying to the boys of science fiction you haven’t seen anything yet — get ready and let me show you where science fiction can really go. In many ways, The Left hand of Darkness is the first science fiction book that defines the 1970s. (And I probably didn’t actually get to it until 1970.)

It’s hard for me to imagine, even impossible I’m sure, to picture kids growing up today reading these books that blew my mind over and over again back in the 1960s. They will seem so tame, so old fashioned, and even unenlightened offensive. Maybe in another fifty years, these kids will have their minds blown by decades of future shock, and then they might comprehend the transition I felt growing up a caterpillar in the 1950s and emerging from my cocoon in 1965 to take flight in the late 1960s. In the 21st-century it feels like kids are born butterflies never knowing what it’s like to crawl on the ground.

My intuition tells me the 2020s will be the new 1960s. It a sense I feel deep down. I’m feeling the same vibes I felt back in 1965.

Today people think of the 1950s in terms of Happy Days, Grease, and Back to the Future. Kids today hate books like Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, but they are closer to the real 1950s. For me, the book that best captures my memories of the 1950s is Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick. The 1950s had a black and white look to them, even though I remember its colors. The eight science fiction books I picked were those books I remember reading that reminds me of how the 1950s went from mundane B&W to widescreen Technicolor. It’s only an illusion though. Pop culture is what paints over the dull primer of our decades, and underneath that is another reality.

James Wallace Harris, October 29, 2019

 

 

 

The Psychic Flavor of 1960s Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1960s SF

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

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

James Wallace Harris, October 25, 2019

 

Science Fiction Themes: A Little Help?

Woman in front of Jupiter

[Found this image on Facebook. Does anyone know its source? What an amazing idea.]

I want to revamp this site. We created a new version of the database which users can customize. It’s located at https://csfquery.com/. But the old lists and essays are still here, so there are actually two versions of the Classics of Science Fiction lists on the web now: the old longer version 4 with lots of alternative list views and essays and the new dynamic shorter version 5 with a list generator and no essays. We want to consolidate and make one consistent site. It’s really a big mess. Part of the problem is WordPress limits how we can present text and data, so we might need to go back to a web site where we have complete programming control.

Mike and I are talking about starting the whole project over from scratch. I’m thinking about making this site just a blog about nattering about science fiction and moving the Classics of Science Fiction lists to a website that’s database-driven. Mike and I both think we need more than just lists, but I don’t think we need a lot of essays. The goal is to encourage people to read science fiction books. Our lists show which science fiction books and short stories have been the most popular over the decades and we assumed revealing their popularity might encourage readers. And we do get people telling us they printed our lists and use them as guides to book buying and reading. However, we figure just plain lists are boring to web surfers.

We want to create a site with more pizzaz. So I’m thinking about different ways to present our data. Since neither one of us are artists the only way we can spice up the site with visuals is by using book and magazine covers. And I’ve always wanted to do more with science fiction themes. Right now we present our results by title, author, and year, but I’m thinking by theme might be more appealing for encouraging reading. My current plan to test is to create a home page of book covers, each representing a theme. I figure I could have a grid of 5 x 5 covers, or 6 x 6. That means 25 or 36 themes. So I organized the 108 books on v. 5 of the Classics of Science Fiction list by theme:

  1. Alien Archeology
    • 1960 – Rogue Moon
    • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
    • 1977 – Gateway
  2. Aliens – First Contact
    • 1898 – War of the Worlds
    • 1963 – Way Station
    • 1970 – Solaris
    • 1972 – Roadside Picnic
    • 1973 – Rendezvous with Rama
    • 1974 – The Mote in God’s Eye
    • 1996 – The Sparrow
  3. Alternate History
    • 1941 – Lest Darkness Fall
    • 1962 – The Man in the High Castle
  4. Apocalypse / Post-Apocalypse
    • 1949 – Earth Abides
    • 1951 – The Day of the Triffids
    • 1954 – I Am Legend
    • 1962 – The Drowned World
    • 1966 – The Crystal World
    • 1967 – The Einstein Intersection
    • 1975 – Dhalgren
    • 1976 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
    • 1978 – Dreamsnake
    • 2006 – The Road
  5. Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Robots
    • 1950 – I, Robot
    • 1952 – City
    • 1954 – The Caves of Steel
    • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
    • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
    • 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
    • 1989 – Hyperion
    • 1990 – The Fall of Hyperion
    • 1995 – The Diamond Age
  6. Artificial Life / Clones
    • 1818 – Frankenstein
    • 1976 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
    • 1896 – The Island of Doctor Moreau
    • 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
    • 2009 – The Windup Girl
  7. Colonizing the Solar System
    • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Revolution
    • 1992 – Red Mars
  8. Cyberpunk
    • 1984 – Neuromancer
    • 1992 – Cyberpunk
    • 2002 – Altered Carbon
  9. Utopia/Dystopia
    • 1924 – We
    • 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four
    • 1962 – A Clockwork Orange
    • 1985 – The Handmaid’s Tale
    • 2008 – The Hunger Games
  10. Ecology
    • 1989 – Grass
    • 2009 – The Windup Girl
  11. Evolution
    • 1930 – First and Last Men
    • 1935 – Odd John
    • 1937 – Star Maker
    • 1946 – Slan
    • 1953 – Childhood’s End
    • 1953 – More Than Human
    • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
  12. Extrapolation – If This Goes On …
    • 1968 – Stand on Zanzibar
    • 2009 – The Windup Girl
  13. Extrasensory Perception – Psychic Powers
    • 1946 – Slan
    • 1952 – The Demolished Man
    • 1953 – Childhood’s End
    • 1953 – Fahrenheit 451
    • 1953 – More Than Human
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1968 – Dragonflight
    • 1969 – Ubik
    • 1972 – Dying Inside
  14. Fantastic Ideas
    • 1971 – The Lathe of Heaven
    • 1971 – To Your Scattered Bodies Go
  15. Far Future
    • 1895 – The Time Machine
    • 1930 – Last and First Men
    • 1937 – Star Maker
    • 1956 – The City and the Stars
    • 1980 – The Book of the New Sun
  16. Galactic Empires
    • 1951 – The Foundation series
    • 1980 – The Snow Queen
    • 1986 – Speaker for the Dead
    • 1988 – The Player of Games
    • 1989 – Hyperion
    • 1990 – The Fall of Hyperion
    • 1991 – Barrayar
  17. Gender
    • 1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness
    • 1975 – The Female Man
    • 1986 – A Door Into Ocean
    • 2013 – Ancillary Justice
  18. Humor / Satire
    • 1953 – The Space Merchants
    • 1959 – The Sirens of Titan
    • 1963 – Cat’s Cradle
    • 1979 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  19. Immortality
    • 2002 – Altered Carbon
  20. Mars
    • 1917 – A Princess of Mars
    • 1956 – Double Star
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1992 – Red Mars
  21. Matter Transmission
    • 1956 – The Stars My Destination
    • 1960 – Rogue Moon
  22. Military SF
    • 1959 – Starship Troopers
    • 1974 – The Mote in God’s Eye
    • 1985 – Ender’s Game
  23. Ocean Space
    • 1872 – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
    • 1986 – A Door Into Ocean
  24. Parallel Universes
    • 1972 – The Gods Themselves
  25. Political Speculation
    • 1992 – China Mountain Zhang
  26. Religion
    • 1958 – A Case of Conscience
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1962 – A Wrinkle in Time
    • 1989 – Hyperion
  27. Sexuality
    • 1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness
    • 1975 – Dhalgren
    • 1992 – Ammonite
    • 1992 – China Mountain Zhang
  28. Sociology
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1965 – Dune
    • 1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness
    • 1974 – The Dispossessed
    • 1975 – Dhalgren
    • 1978 – Dreamsnake
    • 1986 – A Door Into Ocean
  29. Space Opera
    • 1966 – Babel-17
    • 1967 – Lord of Light
    • 1968 – Dragonflight
    • 1970 – Tau Zero
    • 1974 – The Mote in God’s Eye
    • 1981 – Downbelow Station
    • 1982 – Startide Rising
    • 1988 – Cyteen
    • 1988 – The Player of Games
    • 1992 – A Fire Upon the Deep
    • 1992 – Ammonite
    • 1999 – A Deepness in the Sky
    • 2002 – Altered Carbon
    • 2013 – Ancillary Justice
  30. Space Travel: Interplanetary
    • 1938 – Out of the Silent Planet
    • 1950 – The Martian Chronicles
  31. Space Travel: Interstellar
    • 1970 – Tau Zero
  32. Super Science
    • 1954 – Mission of Gravity
    • 1970 – Ringworld
    • 1985 – Blood Music
    • 1995 – The Diamond Age
  33. Time Travel
    • 1895 – The Time Machine
    • 1962 – A Wrinkle in Time
    • 1969 – Slaughterhouse-Five
    • 1980 – Timescape
    • 1992 – Doomsday Book
  34. Unexplored Earth
    • 1864 – Journey to the Center of Earth
  35. Uplifting
    • 1966 – Flowers for Algernon
    • 1983 – Startide Rising

I figure clicking on a theme would take visitors to a page showing covers, titles, quotes from the book and about the book, along with useful links. The books and stories would be in order chronologically to show the evolution of a concept in science fiction. Our database would generate the list of the most popular stories and books for that theme to create the page. Using this visual approach we might expand the definition of classics. We try to keep the lists short, but a list of books for any particular theme would probably always be manageable – at least if we only include the most remembered titles. On Wikipedia, some SF themes have extremely long lists of titles. We’d only want to use the titles people are likely to enjoy reading.

The list of themes above is very close to a 6 x 6 grid, however, these aren’t the best theme labels. I’m wondering if I couldn’t consolidate them down to 25. I have Space Travel: Interplanetary and Space Travel: Interstellar. I could simplify with Space Travel that shows how science fiction imaged humans expanding away from Earth. But how is Space Travel different from Space Opera? Right now I’d say some SF books are about the efforts to explore, while others assume exploration is over and we’re busy living in space, colonizing, creating empires, developing new societies, fighting wars with each other and aliens.

I’d like a set of labels that immediately help readers find the kinds of science fiction books they want to read. Imagine going to Barnes & Noble’s science fiction section and seeing it subdivided by theme. (We focus just on science fiction, no fantasy.) I’d like if B&N did that, but would other people?

First all, does the science fiction genre neatly break down into definite sub-genres? I had trouble, which is why some books are under multiple themes. I do know readers who strongly prefer Alternate History and Military SF. But I also think of themes as a fascinating way of studying science fiction’s history. What was the first story about the end of the world or artificial intelligence? How did later writers expand and handle the theme? How often do readers encounter a theme, say Time Travel in the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and then want to read another time travel book? And do writers wanting to work a particular theme go back and see how other writers have explored it?

So I’m asking folks: What are your favorite SF themes and sub-genres? And if you’ve got the time, how would you categorize our genre’s main sub-genres?

Here’s an older effort I made to organize SF. If you like mind maps or any other visual tool, you’re welcome to show us them too in the comments.

SF Themes

James Wallace Harris, 10/18/19

 

Why Isn’t There An Audiobook Of The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov?

Asimovs Robots

It all started when I saw an ad for The Prelude to Foundation on sale for the Kindle. I had read the Foundation trilogy back when I was a kid and I wondered if I read the Foundation series now should I read them in publication order or internal chronological order. I did some research and found these recommendations. Then a guy in my book club recommended a variation of those recommendations which included books not written by Asimov:

  1. The Complete Robot (no audiobook)
  2. Caves of Steel
  3. Naked Sun
  4. Robots of Dawn
  5. Robots and Empire
  6. The Stars, Like Dust
  7. Currents of Space
  8. Pebble in the Sky
  9. Prelude to Foundation
  10. Forward the Foundation
  11. Foundation’s Fear by Gregory Benford (no audiobook)
  12. Foundation and Chaos by Greg Bear (no audiobook)
  13. Foundation’s Triumph by David Brin (no audiobook)
  14. Foundation
  15. Foundation and Empire
  16. Second Foundation
  17. Foundation’s Edge
  18. Foundation and Earth

I love to listen to science fiction, so I was disappointed that the first book wasn’t on audio. However, there are three audiobooks available of Asimov’s short stories, I, Robot, Robot Dreams, and Robot Visions. I’m still going to have to read twelve short stories and the essays out of The Complete Robot, but it’s nice to know I can listen to 18 of them. Plus, Robot Dreams (1986) and Robot Visions (1990) have a handful of robot stories not in The Complete Robot (1982). Robot Dreams and Robot Visions have misleading titles. You’d think they’d be two collections all about robots, but they’re really collections of some of Asimov’s more popular stories and essays that feature a handful of robot stories.

The stories in The Complete Robot In the Audiobook
“A Boy’s Best Friend” (1975)
“Sally” (1953) Robot Dreams
“Someday” (1956) Robot Visions
“Point of View” (1975)
“Think!” (1977) Robot Visions
“True Love” (1977) Robot Dreams
“Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” (1942)
“Victory Unintentional” (1942)
“Stranger in Paradise” (1974)
“Light Verse” (1973)
“Segregationist” (1967) Robot Visions
“Robbie” (1940) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Let’s Get Together” (1957)
“Mirror Image” (1972) Robot Visions
“The Tercentenary Incident” (1976)
“First Law” (1956)
“Runaround” (1942) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Reason” (1941) I, Robot
“Catch that Rabbit” (1944) I, Robot
“Liar!” (1941) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Satisfaction Guaranteed” (1951)
“Lenny” (1958) Robot Visions
“Galley Slave” (1957) Robot Visions
“Little Lost Robot” (1947) I, Robot, Robot Dreams
“Risk” (1955)
“Escape!” (1945) I, Robot
“Evidence” (1946) I, Robot
“The Evitable Conflict” (1950) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Feminine Intuition” (1969) Robot Visions
“—That Thou Art Mindful of Him!” (1974)
“The Bicentennial Man” (1976) Robot Visions

According to Wikipedia, these six robot stories were not in The Complete Robot:

  • “Robot Dreams” (found in Robot Dreams)
  • “Robot Visions” (found in Robot Visions)
  • “Too Bad!” (found in Robot Visions)
  • “Christmas Without Rodney” (found in Robot Visions)
  • “Cal” (found in Gold)
  • “Kid Brother” (found in Gold)

What has started as an idle whim thinking about reading Foundation series, has turned into a project to read all the Robot series. I really wish I could get The Complete Robot with all the stories and essays in an audiobook. Who makes the decisions about which older books get put on audio — do they have a suggestion box? Evidently, short story collections aren’t big sellers. I’ve been hoping for years to see the shorter works of Samuel R. Delany, but no luck so far. If I think about it, I can rattle off a whole list of SF authors whose short stories I’d like to listen to. The first three to come to mind are William Tenn, Zenna Henderson, and Robert F. Young.

It’s rather fascinating that Isaac Asimov’s science fiction career focuses so much on these two series. I’ve always thought space travel, aliens, and robots were the core of science fiction, so it’s odd that Asimov pretty much ignores aliens, although not completely. He said he did this earlier in his career so as not to conflict with John W. Campbell’s editorial belief in human superiority. And this is especially ironic since Asimov was a professor of biochemistry and probably could have produced some great hard science fiction about alien lifeforms.

My gut tells me the new Anthropocene will quickly be supplanted by an age of robots. I’d bet sometimes before the end of this century we will have self-aware robots that are much smarter than us. For many years Asimov’s stories about robots dominated the sub-genre. So I think it’s a good time to read and think about them. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing Asimov will be completely wrong in his speculations about intelligent machines. Asimov is famous for formulating his Three Laws of Robotics, but I doubt we will ever be able to implement them into sentient AI. The three laws made a great structure for fiction though.

Asimov along with Patricia S. Warrick and Martin H. Greenberg also edited Machines That Think: The Best Science Fiction Stories About Robots & Computers. I wish that anthology was also on audiobook, but alas such classic anthologies seldom get produced with professional narration.

Asimov - Machines That Think

It’s odd. I opened my email this morning, found an ad for The Prelude to Foundation, and by the end of the day, have been sidetracked into a reading plan that might take a year to finish.

By the way, there’s a new edition of The Complete Robot that came out in 2018. Unfortunately, it’s only available in paper, no ebook or audio.

The Complete Robot (2018)

Asimov’s Robot Stories in order of publication:

  1. (1940) “Robbie”
  2. (1941) “Liar!”
  3. (1941) “Reason”
  4. (1942) “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray”
  5. (1942) “Runaround”
  6. (1942) “Victory Unintentional”
  7. (1944) “Catch That Rabbit!”
  8. (1945) “Escape!”
  9. (1946) “Evidence”
  10. (1947) “Little Lost Robot”
  11. (1950) “The Evitable Conflict”
  12. (1951) “Satisfaction Guaranteed”
  13. (1953) “Sally”
  14. (1954) The Caves of Steel
  15. (1955) “Risk”
  16. (1956) “First Law”
  17. (1956) “Someday”
  18. (1957) “Galley Slave”
  19. (1957) “Let’s Get Together”
  20. (1957) The Naked Sun
  21. (1958) “Lenny”
  22. (1967) “Segregationist”
  23. (1969) “Feminine Intuition”
  24. (1972) “Mirror Image”
  25. (1973) “Light Verse”
  26. (1974) “Stranger in Paradise”
  27. (1974) “. . . That Thou Art Mindful of Him”
  28. (1975) “A Boy’s Best Friend”
  29. (1975) “Point of View”
  30. (1976) “The Bicentennial Man”
  31. (1976) “The Tercentenary Incident”
  32. (1977) “Think!”
  33. (1977) “True Love”
  34. (1983) The Robots of Dawn
  35. (1985) Robots and Empire
  36. (1986) “Robot Dreams”
  37. (1988) “Christmas Without Rodney”
  38. (1989) “Too Bad!”
  39. (1990) “Kid Brother”
  40. (1990) “Robot Visions”
  41. (1991) “Cal”

This shows Isaac Asimov never stopped thinking about robots. Asimov died in 1992.

James Wallace Harris

OA (Older Adult) Science Fiction

Man in His Time by Brian W. Aldiss

Science fiction is youthful literature. Its bestsellers are often YA titles. Overall SF fans are mostly young, as are the protagonists in SF. My hunch is most science fiction readers discover science fiction early in life and eventually put it away for other interests as they get older. There’s a certain percentage of SF fans that stay loyal their whole life, but often they stick with the kind of science fiction they grew up reading. We just don’t see much science fiction aimed at readers in their last third of life, or feature lead characters in their waning years. There’s a reason for this – science fiction is future-oriented, and old readers don’t have much of a future.

Last year I started reading anthologies that collect the best SF of the year. Annual best-of-the-year anthologies first appeared in 1949, but Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg produced a retrospective annual series starting with 1939. So far, I’ve read the best stories for 1939-1950, a time period often referred to as The Golden Age of science fiction when John W. Campbell reigned as supreme editor of the genre with his magazine Astounding Science-Fiction. I feel less than a quarter of these stories still work in 2019 and for a reader my age. For the most part, the genre was youthful, the writers youthful, and the readers were youthful. There was an abundance of optimism back then.

After a lifetime of reading science fiction, I feel the genre has a problem with maturity. However, that might be because I’m 67 and I’m having trouble finding science fiction that’s relevant in my waning years. Science fiction doesn’t want to grow up. Even when science fiction deals with a serious subject the treatment is often YA. In the past, I guess the editors and writers knew most of their readers were under 25. Campbell was acclaimed in the 1940s for producing a science fiction magazine for adults. Well, at least readers in their twenties and thirties.

The genre matured in the 1950s when The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction appeared, and the major New York publishers began publishing science fiction in hardback. The New Wave in the 1960s pushed the genre even further into growing up. Then in the 1970s academics started teaching about the genre, boosting the maturity a bit more. On average, science fiction books have gotten larger, more ambitious, better written, and a bit more adult. The genre left the young adult stage, but most adult science fiction today is still aimed at readers in their restless twenties or maturing thirties. I seldom find SF books that reflect the maturity of middle-age, much less old age.

Since 1977 science fiction has been taken over by movies and television, and readership for the magazines has dwindled. At one time Analog had 130,000 paying readers, but now it’s one-sixth or one-seventh of that. Star Wars has lowered the maturity of science fiction, and science fiction based on comics reduces its concepts to childishness. There is little movie science fiction that appeals to the mature mind. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Star Wars or superhero movies, but from my age perspective, they are for children. Too much of science fiction suffers from arrested development, especially the films and television SF. I have to admit that I didn’t tire of being a YA until my forties.

I write this because I just listened to The Best SF of Brian W. Aldiss from Audible, which I believe is based on the collection Man in His Time: The Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian W. Aldiss which came out in 1988. These stories have completely derailed me from my best-of-the-year reading project. His stories have grabbed my attention because they are different and for the most part serious and adult. I read a couple of Aldiss novels and a handful of short stories way back when but have mostly forgotten about him and his work. In researching Brian W. Aldiss, I think most SF fans have forgotten him too. Three of the books I bought were library discards and they had date-due paper glued in their back. None of them seem to have ever been checked out.

If you look at the entry for Brian W. Aldiss in Wikipedia, most of his bibliography has no separate linked entries, and the content for those that do are often skimpy. That implies that he doesn’t have the fans to keep his work alive, which is a terrible shame. If you look at the bibliography for Robert A. Heinlein at Wikipedia nearly every last novel and short story has a link to its own entry in the encyclopedia, and often they are extensive.

Part of the problem is Aldiss is English, and English science fiction writers other than Arthur C. Clarke have never been hugely popular in the United States. Aldiss and J. G. Ballard achieved a certain level of success. And readers have always loved the odd novel from John Wyndham or John Christopher, but for the most part, I don’t see these names mentioned when people state their favorite SF writers today. Sure, some of the New Space Opera writers from Great Britain have gained a swelling of new fans in the last two decades, but I really don’t know how big their fanbase is compared to American SF writers.

1I assume part of my attraction for Aldiss right now is he’s both serious and British. I’ve gotten into Aldiss so much that I bought and read his memoir about writing, Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith’s. Aldiss does a lot of name dropping in that book, referring to British science fiction and literary writers, and to be honest, I know of only a small percentage of those supposedly famous people. It’s like an alternate universe of science fiction. I’m incredibly thankful for pulp scanners because I can now look up works in New Worlds, Science Fantasy, and Interzone.

Brian Aldiss isn’t OA, but he is MA (Middle Adult Science Fiction), and his stories feel like they are more serious and adult than most SF that was written by his American contemporaries. The stories I listened to were:

  • “Outside” (1955)
  • “The Failed Man” (1956)
  • “All the World’s Tears” (1957)
  • “Poor Little Warrior!” (1958)
  • “Who Can Replace a Man?” (1958)
  • “Man on Bridge” (1964)
  • “The Girl and the Robot with Flowers” (1965)
  • “The Saliva Tree” (1965)
  • “Man in His Time” (1965)
  • “Heresies of a Huge God” (1966)
  • “Confluence” (1967)
  • “Working in the Spaceship Yards” (1969)
  • “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” (1969)
  • “Sober Noises of Morning in a Marginal Land” (1971)
  • “The Dark Soul of the Night” (1976)
  • “Appearance of Life” (1976)
  • “Last Orders” (1976)
  • “Door Slams in Fourth World” (1982)
  • “The Gods in Flight” (1984)
  • “My Country ‘Tis Not Only of Thee” (1986)
  • “Infestation” (1986)
  • “The Difficulties Involved in Photographing Nix Olympica” (1986)

Aldiss published over 300 short stories, and his collected short stories run 5 volumes just for the 1950s and 1960s. Except for “The Saliva Tree” which won a Nebula, and “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” which was the inspiration for Spielberg’s film A.I., these tales aren’t that well known, at least with American readers and anthologies. Aldiss has 41 short stories in our database with at least one citation, but none of them made it to our list Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories which required a minimum of 8 citations.

This is an exciting change for me and reading science fiction, I’m really digging Aldiss. I even bought Apertures: A Study of the Writings of Brian W. Aldiss by Brian Griffin and David Wingrove. Aldiss says in his memoir that they did a good job covering his work. My copy is also a library discard and no one had ever checked it out either.

Of these stories I wish “Appearance of Life” which I’ve written about twice already, and “The Saliva Tree” were on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. I’ve also written about “The Saliva Tree.”

There’s a story in The Best SF Science Fiction of Brian W. Aldiss that divides his work, “The Girl and the Robot with Flowers” from 1965. In this story, a character named Brian W. Aldiss is talking to his wife about his struggle to write his latest science fiction story. He tells his wife the plot and she said it sounded like a pretty good run-of-the-mill SF story, but it also felt like something from Poul Anderson, and Brian replies, it also sounded like something from an anthology edited by Harry Harrison. Brian the character tells his wife that he’s pretty sure Michael Moorcock at New Worlds or Fred Pohl at Galaxy would buy it. Then the Brain W. Aldiss character goes on to narrate to the reader why he didn’t want to write anymore 1950s kind of science fiction. All that interplanetary stuff wasn’t about real-life or his life.

Could this be Aldiss’ conversion to the New Wave? Could this have been when Aldiss decided to become a grown-up SF writer? Of course, his novels after that seem to have lost readers in America. It wasn’t until his Helliconia Trilogy in the 1980s did he make a comeback, and even then only with limited popularity among the average American SF fan.

Science fiction has gotten more exciting in the last two decades as it has gotten more diverse writers and readers. It is taken seriously. I believe The Calculating Stars which just won the Hugo is a serious novel that has an adult appeal. But its heroine Elma York is just in her twenties. I loved her story. Yet, it’s about an alternate past that I wished had happened (except for the reason the world changes) that might appeal to people my age. But it’s POV still focuses on the very young. Philosophically it asks why we didn’t go to Mars. That’s what I asked too when I was young. Now I ask, why did so many of us have that Mars fantasy?

I’m looking for science fiction aimed at people in their seventh decade of life that takes reality deadly serious and explores realistic possibilities. Modern science fiction books like The Calculating Stars still work well for me, but I still want something different. Something philosophically deeper. I might need to leave the genre, but for now, I’m picking up the trail where Brian Aldiss and J. G. Ballard diverged in the 1960s.

James Wallace Harris, 9/11/19

Be sure and read MarzAat’s review of this book, “Man in His Time; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax,” which gives each story its own review. That’s what I sat down to do when I started writing this essay. But my memory forgets stories almost as fast as I read them, so it’s a real struggle for me to review anthologies and collections. I wish I could have reviewed <i>Man in His Time</i> like MarzAat.

Who Were the Korlevalulaw?

Brian W. Aldiss

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this essay. I sat down to review the short story “Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss. I thought I’d check Google before I started to see if I could find any history about the story. The first item returned was ‘“Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss‘ – a review of the story I had written back in 2009. I know my memory is deteriorating, but I found it hilarious that I had completely forgotten something I had written and I was about to write the very same thing then years later. I wish I had finished writing this new review before discovering my old review so I could have compared the two. I know I should be depressed over the existential holes in my memory, but nowadays, I just laugh at myself. I’m going to worry when I stop laughing.

Reading that forgotten review from a decade ago shows I damned the story with faint praise and use it for a jumping-off point to discuss the nature of science fiction. I will quote parts of it in this review. I liked “Appearance of Life” much better this time around. Most stories do get better with rereading. I’ve also learned since 2009, that the more I read works by a single author, the more I can map their range of abilities and interests. Back in the 1960s, Aldiss was among the Big Three of British SF writers: Aldiss, Ballard, and Clarke. His legacy has been fading in recent decades — but then so has most of the science fiction writers I grew up reading. I know I’ve pretty much forgotten about Aldiss since the end of the 1970s.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been gorging myself on science fiction short stories. I haven’t completely logged my 10,000 hours yet, but I’ve acquired a decent sense of the art form. Every SF short story must stand on its own, but it also competes with all other science fiction short stories. Science fiction by its nature is in conversation with itself. Science fiction is about ideas. The challenge to a creative SF writer is to come up with fresh insights to old ideas, and if they want to be cutting-edge, add a new idea to the genre’s repertoire.

Science fiction wants to be infinite in novelty but is often repetitious in routine, improvising on old melodies. Long term readers who have consumed a critical mass of science fiction will understand the genre recycles all the great concepts for each generation of young readers. Neophyte fans often feel they are experiencing a mind-blowing concept for the first time when reading current SF. They believe those ideas are new to them and original with the author they are reading. They can’t tell if the presentation is a brilliant revision or a tired retread. Nor do new SF readers understand that science fiction has evolved over time and gone through many revolutions in writing styles. It isn’t easy to spot the changing prose styles in science fiction as it is flipping through art history textbooks.

I’ve only read four novels by Aldiss, but only vaguely remember two, Hothouse and Non-Stop which I’ve read twice each. (Called The Long Afternoon of Earth and Starship when I read them in their first American editions back in the 1960s.) Over the decades I’ve only read a scattering of his short stories. I’m currently listening to The Best SF Stories by Brian W. Aldiss from Audible.com.

What got me interested in Aldiss again was Joachim Boaz’s review of The 1977 Annual World’s Best Science edited by Donald Wollheim. It contains “Appearance of Life” which Boaz rated 5/5 (Near Masterpiece). How could I resist that? Boaz said of the story, “It is powerful and mysterious. Aldiss at the height of his powers.”

Here is my original description of the story:

“Appearance of Life” can be found in these anthologies, but it’s not a very famous story.  I’m reading it because it’s the opening story from The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF edited by Donald A. Wollheim, a collection we’re reading in the Classic SciFi reading group.

The story opens with two sentences that sum up the story, “Something very large, something very small: a galactic museum, a dead love affair.  They came together under my gaze.”  The story immediately evokes the awe associated with tales about mysterious missing aliens who leave galactic ghost worlds behind, like the Krell that once lived on Altair IV in the film Forbidden Planet, or the strange civilization that once existed on Bronson Beta, from the novel After Worlds Collide. These were my first encounters with the sense of wonder brought on by discovering long dead alien cultures back in the 1960s, but it’s a very common cliché in science fiction that I see over and over again.  It’s odd what Aldiss does with this common idea.  His aliens are called the Korlevalulaw, a tongue-twisting name to say or think.

One cool idea in the story is the Korlevalulaw abandoned written writing, which is something our culture is doing now because of the Internet.  What will aliens discovering our civilization ever make of keyboards and LCD monitors?  Reading this short story also makes me wonder what if anything could be made of my life from the possessions I’ll leave behind.  Think about it.  Photographs tell more than anything else.  How long will this blog endure?

On the planet Norma, humans find a vast building that girdles the planet for sixteen thousand kilometers.  Humans have decided to use this alien construct that is impervious to the electro-magnetic spectrum as a museum to house the history of mankind.  Androids tirelessly store humanity’s artifacts, supervised by twenty human female staff members.  The narrator is a “Seeker” who gets to prowl the collection and develop theories.  The entire structure was left empty by the Korlevalulaw, and after ten centuries humans have filled several thousand hectares of space.

Seekers are specially trained people to intuit understanding from scant evidence, perfect for studying the junk left in this vast Smithsonian like attic a thousand light years away from Earth.  At the current rate it will take 15,500 years to fill the alien structure.  To the Seeker, the human artifacts are almost as alien to him as the Korlevalulaw is to us, because humans have been around for so long that they no longer look like 20th century people.  That’s a nice science fiction speculative concept to come up with, to be a far future anthropologist, and it’s not an uncommon idea.  H. G. Wells’ Time Traveler spent time in a far future human museum trying to figure out that changes that people experienced over 802 millennia.  So far, Aldiss hasn’t presented us with anything new in this story, yet.

The Seeker explores a spaceship from the time when humans were split 50-50 by gender and discovers a wedding ring.  In the Seeker’s time, gender population is 10 to 1 in favor of females.  We readers don’t know why, but it’s an interesting thing for Aldiss to throw out.  Eventually the Seeker discovers two cubes, from different spaceships, that were holographic recording devices.  By unbelievable luck, they are from a married couple that recorded messages to each other fifteen years apart, and were design to only respond to the face of their beloved, so the Seeker sets them together and lets the holograms chat out a long dead love affair in an out of sequence conversation of regret and love that is sixty-five thousand years old.

Jean and Chris’ love story takes a couple of pages to play out, but ultimately it seems completely mundane to me, even though they were separated by interstellar war.  I’m surprise Aldiss didn’t invent something new to add to marriage and love.

Now we come to the intent of the story, called the “secret of the universe” by the Seeker in his epiphany, “Like the images I had observed, the galactic human race was merely a projection.  The Korlevalulaw had created us – not as a genuine creation with free will, but as some sort of a reproduction.”  Then the Seeker decides his flash of intuition is nonsense, but we know that isn’t true by his final actions.

In the end the Seeker flees the world Norma to desperately seek out an isolated world to hide away from humanity, fearing that if he communicated his secret it would doom mankind.  And this is why I’m writing this review.  What is Aldiss really implying?  I think he’s saying something philosophical that’s more than making up a spooky SciFi story ending.  I feel Aldiss wants his story to be disturbing like those Mark Twain stories written in his collection Letters from the Earth, which featured Philip K. Dick paranoia about existence.

Experience SF readers will have read many stories about our species exploring the galaxy. Galactic empires are an over-explored territory. When considering intelligent life in the galaxy stories tend to fall into three camps: humans are the only intelligent beings (Foundation series by Asimov), intelligent beings show up infrequently (“Appearance of Life”) and the galaxy is teaming with life (Star Wars, Star Trek). One of the common assumptions of the infrequent model is intelligent beings evolve, spread through the galaxy, and then die out or evolve into a higher nonmaterial existence leaving the galaxy unoccupied again. Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey both take the evolution to a higher plane of existence route.

The stories of alien archaeology where humans only find the material remains of a vast civilization of disappeared inhabitants is one of my favorite themes. Often in these stories, the mystery is to solve why the ancient aliens disappeared. Characters usually feel that will lead to either of three outcomes. First, such as the works of Olaf Stapledon, show humans an evolutionary/spiritual purpose to follow. Second, they feel it’s some kind of test, a rite of passage, to joining the league of advanced beings. Third, there is a drive to acquire the knowledge and technology of these senior beings. I believe Aldiss was trying to come up with something different in “Appearance of Life.”

The famous science fiction editor John W. Campbell didn’t like the idea of humans being inferior to aliens, so we often see Homo sapiens as the top dog in the galaxy. I’d say most science fiction writers assume the galaxy is full of intelligent life, but humans will play a significant role, and no species will truly dominate. Most galactic empire stories are about the high tech potential of humans but fall short of becoming non-physical energy beings.

In “Appearance of Life” Aldiss opens with:

Something very large, something very small: a galactic museum, a dead love affair. They came together under my gaze.

The museum is very large. Less than a thousand light years from Earth, countless worlds bear constructions which are formidably ancient and inscrutable in purpose. The museum on Norma is such a construction.

We suppose that the museum was created by a species which once lorded it over the galaxy, the Korlevalulaw. The spectre of the Korlevalulaw has become part of the consciousness of the human race as it spreads from star-system to star-system. Sometimes the Korlevalulaw are pictured as demons, hiding somewhere in a dark nebula, awaiting the moment when they swoop down on mankind and wipe every last one of us out, in reprisal for having dared to invade their territory. Sometimes the Korlevalulaw are pictured as gods, riding with the awfulness and loneliness of gods through the deserts of space, potent and wise beyond our imagining.

The two opposed images of the Korlevalulaw are of course images emerging from the deepest pools of the human mind. The demon and the god remain with us still.

 

I believe that opening captures the routine reactions of most science fictions stories about missing ancient aliens. Humanity has spent thousands of years speculating what God and Satan, or gods and demons, are like. How is that any different than speculating about possible superior alien beings? There is an ineffable quality to that problem that we never tire of putting into words.

Most SF stories predict we will be able to communicate with any alien species we encounter. Aldiss has major doubts. In “The Failed Men” also from The Best SF Stories by Brian W. Aldiss Aldiss casts more doubts on our ability to communicate between vastly different cultures. In “Appearance of Life” Aldiss uses a clever analogy with the talking holographic heads of Jean and Chris to explain why humans will never understand the Korlevalulaw. Aldiss’ insight is we can’t talk to each other, so there will be no communication possible between humans and gods, or humans and advanced aliens, or even humans and average aliens.

The Seeker who narrates this story is trained to synthesize ideas and experiences. In the end, he claims to have an insight into the secrets of the universe. However, like his insight at the beginning of the story, it parallels ancient theology, that the Korlevalulaw created us as their art. How is that different from the Biblical idea that we’re created in God’s image?

In my original essay I concluded:

Aldiss doesn’t sell his idea to me.  Having humanity be the art of an alien culture is no more real to me than believing man was made in God’s image, although I find it fascinating that billions of humans desperately refashion their lives to fit three thousand year old writings that shaped the long lost twelve tribes of Israel.

The trouble with science fiction writers is they don’t believe their own ideas, they just like to churn out weird concepts to mess with our heads.  The best science fiction concepts are the ones we want to accept, like space travel and life extension, so I’m surprised this story has even gotten the attention it has.   I’m betting most people liked it for the setup, for the sense of wonder buildup, even though it wasn’t original, and the weird ending didn’t mean much to most readers, but I could be wrong.

Now for the second thoughts a decade later. 

With each science fiction story I read I ask myself a number of question:

  1. Do I want to read this story again?
  2. Is this story worth writing about?
  3. Should I recommend it?
  4. Is it on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list?
  5. Is it a story that contemporary readers will like?
  6. Is it a story that is essential in the history of science fiction?
  7. Would I put it on my all-time favorite SF short story list?

For this review, I read the story, then bought the audiobook collection so I could listen to it, and I’m even reading it again for writing this review because I find it pleasantly compelling. And I’m pretty sure I’ll come back to it again in the future, maybe many times.

Since I’m writing about it, that answers question #2. I do recommend it, but the chance of readers finding a copy is damn small unless they own one of these old anthologies, or is willing to buy it on audio. I can’t find any print or ebook editions for sale.

“Appearance of Life” did not make it to the final Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. It only got 2 citations, one for the Wollheim anthology, and one for the Gunn anthology, The Road to Science Fiction Volume 5: The British Way. Currently, the minimum number of citations to get on the list is 8, and that grows over time. It’s extremely doubtful “Appearance of Life” will become a classic, either for our list or with science fiction fans.

Would young new readers of science fiction like the story today? My one data point is Joachim Boaz who is in his early thirties. But Boaz isn’t like most fans, he’s a historian, and also loves the history of science fiction.

Compared to other classic SF short stories, it’s doubtful many will consider “Appearance of Life” significant in the history of science fiction. Part of the problem is it came out in an obscure original anthology, and then it’s never been reprinted in an enduring retrospective anthology. Another factor in hiding its light under a bushel is the Aldiss star is fading.

Two of the definitive retrospective anthologies from recent years  The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer and Sense of Wonder (2011) by Leigh Grossman had a large percentage of stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. Huge anthologies like these come out every few years and help keep SF short stories alive in the minds of new readers. Between them and fan polls, it’s about the only way older stories are remembered. But who knows, maybe between Joachim Boaz and myself we can get more people to read “Appearance of Life.”

Finally, I am considering putting “Appearance of Life” on my all-time favorite SF short story list I’m constructing. However, that list is limited. If I was creating 1,000 Science Fiction Short Stories to Read Before You Die it would be on it. Even if I was creating something like Billboard’s Top 100 All-Time Great SF Stories I might include it. However, I’m not sure if it will fit on my Jim Harris’ Top 40 playlist.

My Top 40 playlist is the science fiction stories I want to keep rereading as I get old and approach checking out. The ones I want to remember as my mind fades away. But what makes a story worth cherishing in your fading memory tontine? Before my friend John Williamson died, he got down to loving only two things: the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. My favorites list is growing now, still below 50 titles, and it might eventually reach 100 before my mind pushes me to start thinning it out.

What ultimately matters with a short story or even a novel, is what lingers in the mind. With “Appearance of Life” the images of a giant museum, two memory cubes of lovers in an endless loop of conversation, and the Seeker running away to find absolute solitude. That ending keeps reminding me of the ending to ” Press Enter ▮” by John Varley.

Isn’t getting old and approaching death also a withdrawal into solitude? Do we keep the stories we understand best, and throw out the rest? Or do we keep the stories we don’t understand, and winnow out those that become obvious? I don’t know what my last novel will be, the one I’ll keep reading to the end. But I do know the short story that will win the tontine, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. “Appearance of Life” is still in the rotation for now.

I do believe Brian W. Aldiss had a personal epiphany writing “Appearance of Life.” I’m not sure how well he expressed it, or how well I’m perceiving it. Like the story suggests, communication is not possible. But don’t we always keep trying? This is my second attempt to communicate my reaction to “Appearance of Life.” I don’t know if I’ve done a better job or not.

James Wallace Harris