Science Fiction Writers in Conversation with Each Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 6/30/22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/27/22

What is Your Preferred Space-Time Setting for Science Fiction?

At one time I loved reading science fiction stories set anywhere in space and time, which would be all the squares on the chart below. At 70, my focus has narrowed to what I show in shades of green. The darker, the more interested I am in reading fiction or science fiction set in that space-time. I don’t hate stories set further afield, but I’m just not that into them anymore either.

One assumption deals with age. When I was young I was dazzled by any possibility. Galactic empires set in the far future had such a tremendous sense of wonder that I thought colonizing the galaxy was humanity’s reason for existing. I was also blown away by Olaf Stapledon’s stories of post-humans, and figured that was our destiny too.

Of course, I began my science fiction habit with a gateway drug of Heinlein’s juveniles, first with adventures about boys going to the Moon and Mars, then with stories that ranged over the solar system, and finally with tales that ventured into interstellar travel. I also embraced stories robots, time travel, alternate history, the multiverse, and other dimensions. I really wanted to believe we could go anywhere.

One of my all-time favorite SF stories, “The Star Pit” is set on the galaxy’s rim and is about the few special people who can travel to Andromeda and the impact their freedom had on the characters who couldn’t. As a kid, that story mirrored the frustration I felt not being able to leave Earth.

I still love “The Star Pit” but for nostalgic reasons. I still reread all my favorite SF stories set in any of the space-time locations above, but when it comes to reading new SF stories I prefer stories set in the near future set, especially on the Earth, but no further than the Moon, or Mars. To a lesser degree, I enjoy science fiction about machines exploring the asteroids and the outer system, or about SETI contact with nearby stars.

Why has aging narrowed my fictional horizons? When I was young I believed anything was possible. Now that I’m 70 I doubt humans will ever travel beyond the Moon and Mars. I believe intelligent machines will live out our big science fictional dreams. The more I’ve learned about the hostility of space on our biology, the more I’ve doubted people will live beyond Earth. As I’ve grown more practical and become less of a dreamer, I find it terribly hard to picture people actually wanting to live anywhere but Earth. I believe Elon Musk will get us to Mars, but we’ll discover we won’t like living there. Thus it’s become harder to enjoy stories set in far-ranging places of space and time.

But that’s me. What about you?

Where do you like your science fiction stories set? Has growing older affected the science fiction you love to read?

James Wallace Harris, 3/22/22

Improving the Internet for Researching Science Fiction

I wrote an long review of We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick for my personal blog. Normally, I would put my science fiction reviews here, but my goal is to review every book I read in 2022 at Auxiliary Memory. Go read the review if you’re interested in PKD, but what I want to do now is talk about how I researched that review. I found quite a few impressive sites devoted to Philip K. Dick, but I didn’t think Google was very good at helping me find them. I also assumed there are way more great sites out there that I’m not finding through Google.

Google is unfortunately geared at helping people sell stuff. It’s a shame it doesn’t offer us radio buttons or a pulldown menu near the search box where we could tell Google what kind of results we want. If the box “[ ] I’m Buying” isn’t checked, then don’t show us any site trying to sell us stuff. There is scholar.google.com to search, but its results come mainly from academic sites (often with content behind paywalls), and I want results from all sites. I believe search engines aren’t the solution.

Once upon a time I wanted to become a librarian, so I’m thinking of librarian type solutions. Remember the good old card catalog? I believe one way to separate the informational wheat from the chaff is to use a curated card catalog. And I believe one already exists – Wikipedia.

Here is Wikipedia’s entry for We Can Build You and the entry for Philip K. Dick. The first link in the Reference section is to the novel’s entry in ISFDB. Between those three web pages, most readers would learn about all they wanted about We Can Build You before reading it. Searching Wikipedia first was far more efficient than starting with Google.

What Do We Want From An Internet Search Tool?

  • Immediate access to the exact information we seek
  • Links to the most authoritative information
  • We want enduring sources that can be sited
  • We want accurate information
  • We want human curated information
  • We want cumulative history of the information
  • We want information organized into useful subcategories

Using my research for We Can Build You as an example, here’s what would be the ideal results, both in general, and specifically how I see Wikipedia providing it.

  1. A comprehensive history of the writing and publication of the book.
  2. A complete but concise summary of the plot with a listing of characters.
  3. A summary of the most common interpretations of the book
  4. A summary of how the book has been reviewed and judged.
  5. Links to the best online reviews/essays/academic papers
  6. Links to databases that contain information about the book
  7. Links to where I can buy/download the book
  8. Links to books/essays/academic articles about the book
  9. Bibliography of significant books/journal citations that aren’t online.

Wikipedia has already been moving in this direction. The entry for We Can Build You is a decent start. Dr. Bloodmoney has some improvements. But the entry for The Man in the High Castle gets much closer to what I’m wanting.

Google claims there are 53,800 pages with information about [“We Can Build You” by Philip K. Dick]. Just how many extensive reviews or scholarly papers on We Can Build You exist? Some might be on the 12th page of a Google results or the 153rd, or hidden behind a firewall protecting academic publications so they aren’t easily found. How many excellent articles on the book have been written? 8, 15, 172? What if human editors decided on the best 5-10 to list on the Wikipedia, especially if their full text was available online? At what point do we have enough information about any subject?

A Wikipedia entry doesn’t need to be a dissertation on the subject but it should be the start of one. It should provide all the links to start writing a dissertation.

ISFDB lists eight reviews, but not links to the actual reviews. Some of those reviews are on the internet, some are not. One of those reviews is also listed on Wikipedia but without a link, even though the full text of the magazine is available online. Read the Theodore Sturgeon’s review in the January 1973 issue of Galaxy, and it is summarized on the Wikipedia page. However, none of these links proved that useful to me, and I have to assume much better content has been written about We Can Build You in the last fifty years.

Wikipedia could link to all the academic contend behind paywalls. That would be a tremendous step forward. Better yet link to a service that would allow users to easily buy those articles with Paypal (and give Wikipedia a cut). Or if the publication was something for sale on Amazon, link to it and allow Wikipedia an affiliate cut. Here is the opening page to a book I found that has a chapter on We Can Build You that I discovered though scholar.google.com. It was on Amazon for $9.99 for the Kindle edition. The book is The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick: A Reading of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels by Umberto Rossi.

I found this first page of the introduction so exciting that I bought the book – and it has a chapter on We Can Build You. Because of my knowledge of Sheckley and PDK I know Rossi will have incredible insight. This book should have a link on Wikipedia.

All the scholarly opinions about We Can Build You would be too much for Wikipedia to summarize, but it should point to the best. That would certain be a better solution than Google. Google is finding information by machine indexing. Right now, Wikipedia is presenting information by human intelligence. I believe we need more human help in internet searches than brute force AI. Of course, AI will eventually be better than humans. Someday, an AI will write the perfect nonfiction book on any subject we request of it.

Scholar.google.com returned 47,700 results for the search [We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick]. Wikipedia could link to that search results, and it could list some of those citations that have been human verified by editors to be among the best. Wikipedia is written and edited by volunteers. New volunteers looking for something to contribute could curate the most important links.

While researching We Can Build You I found all kinds of web pages that offer useful information. At the site The World Dick Made they had user sortable listing of PKD’s novels with star ratings, giving the data written and date first published. Here are the books that get 5 and 4 star ratings. We Can Build You gets 4 stars from this site. This certainly would be a nice link for Wikipedia. The link for the novel takes us to a page with more good information, including a long list of characters within the story.

Our own citation listing shows We Can Build You wasn’t very popular on recommended lists and fan polls, but that Josh Glenn put it on the list “75 Best New Wave Sci-Fi (1964-1983) Novels.” That would be another worthy link to include at Wikipedia.

Ultimately, what we want from an internet search is knowledge. Most of us use Google to gather data so we can assemble that data into our own version of knowledge. That’s what my review ended up being. However, my take was highly idiosyncratic. Most people searching on We Can Build You would want facts. Wikipedia does a decent job now, and it’s getting better all the time. However, some researchers would want to know about or even want to read the most common idiosyncratic takes on the novel. Right now, we have to use Google to track those down but it’s very inefficient. Scholar.google is better, but still returns to many results. The right links added to Wikipedia would make it a far superior search tool.

In the future, I can picture the volunteer editors at Wikipedia adding more and more information to each entry, and it will get into helping its users find those idiosyncratic views. This will be much more efficient than Google.

Right now I have several shelves of books about science fiction and its history. If I started with the main entry for Science Fiction in Wikipedia and pulled out all the content that is linked to it, I’d have the best book ever written on the subject, with the best illustrations. All the famous SF authors and their novels have entries in Wikipedia, as well as most of their famous short stories. Wikipedia also covers the editors, book publishers, and magazines. Eventually, Wikipedia could describe every SF stories ever written, and link to where they could be bought or read online, as well as links to everything we know about them. That’s why I believe Wikipedia should become the card catalog of the internet.

Of course, the next problem is making this knowledge permanent.

James Wallace Harris, 2/11/22

Futures Past – Jim Emerson

There are millions of science fiction fans, but how many of those readers love to read about science fiction? Especially, about the history of science fiction way before they were born. I do, but maybe I’m an extreme outlier.

Back in the 1960s, I discovered Sam Moskowitz and loved reading his books about the history of science fiction. I also enjoyed his magazine columns profiling science fiction writers. Over the years I’ve read and collected several shelves of books about our genre. In the 1990s, I subscribed to a fanzine titled Futures Past. It was quarterly, and each issue covered one year in science fiction starting with 1926. It died after four issues and I was greatly disappointed.

Now the creator of that fanzine, Jim Emerson is back. He’s starting over again with 1926, but this time each issue has been expanded into a book (pdf, trade paper, and hardback). To keep costs down, Emerson doesn’t sell through Amazon or bookstores. He sells direct. I bought the first two volumes, 1926 and 1927 with Paypal, but there are other purchasing options. Order from this website. Emerson offers the first volume on pdf for free to give readers an idea of what the books will be like. However, the first volume is only 64 pages, and volume 2 is 144 pages, a much more impressive entry in the series. If you want to give the series a try after looking at the pdf of 1926, I’d buy the 1927 volume first. I plan to collect them all. The home page for Futures Past is here.

Emerson is still working full-time and figures he can only produce one volume a year. He writes all the content and does all the graphic layouts. Jim hopes when he retires to produce two or more volumes per year, and eventually cover 50 years of science fiction history (1926-1975). However, this time he plans to jump around and not go year by year after 1928. I’m glad to hear that. As much as I like reading about science fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, I really want to read about the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I vote for 1941, 1953, and 1968.

I’m very curious how many science fiction fans will be interested in these books. Each volume covers the science fiction magazines, books, and movies that came out during that year. What makes these books so much better than the old fanzines is the use of color printing. I’ve always loved the art on magazine and book covers and still photos and posters from movies. (I’m showing images below from 1927 because you can download the pdf to 1926 and look at it for yourself.)

Each book is a visual history, but there is also a great deal of reading content. Emerson is quite the historian of science fiction’s history, reminding me of Sam Moskowitz, Brian Stableford, and Mike Ashley. Pages 58-93 of the 1927 volume is devoted to the silent film Metropolis which I’ve seen three times over my lifetime, and look forward to seeing it again. About 80 pages of the 1927 volume are devoted to science fiction in silent films.

Both volumes spend many of their pages on science fiction in silent films, a topic I knew little about. I’ve seen fewer than 40 silent films and assumed there was just a handful of science fiction titles. Of course, Emerson includes fantasy and horror, but the number is far greater than I imagined. In one article he lists six pages of lost films.

My favorite section is Science Fiction Books of 1927 (pp.116-133). And my second favorite section is Magazines of 1927 (pp. 94-115. I especially love all the photos of the covers, but there is quite a lot to read about these forgotten books and magazines.

Here’s the table of contents for the 1927 volume.

The original fanzine covering 1926 inspired my interest in Lady Dorothy Mills, a forgotten travel writer from the 1920s who also wrote novels, including one science fiction title. I read about her SF novel Phoenix in the 1926 issue and spent years tracking down a copy. The one mention of a book has inspired thirty years of chasing her books and creating a website devoted to Lady Dorothy Mills. So thanks, Jim Emerson.

Like I said, I love reading about the history of the genre, but I wonder how many science fiction fans are like me? If you like to read about science fiction, leave a comment. I’ve been thinking about profiling some of my other history books on the subject.

James Wallace Harris, 2/9/22

Getting to Know PKD

I’ve written about the biographies of Philip K. Dick before. They each give a different view of PKD. Recently I discovered there were six volumes of his selected letters from Underwood-Miller/Underwood Books. I don’t know why I didn’t know about these before or think to search them out. I just didn’t. They are all currently out of print. I saw a quote from one letter recently and went to ABEbooks to buy it. Wowza. They were expensive. My buddy Mike who shares my interest in PKD and I bought five of the six volumes, but we just didn’t want to pay $350 for the first volume. What a mistake. I’ve seen four copies come up for sale lately, all over a $1,000, with two going for $1,500.

I’m not a book collector and won’t pay those prices. I just want to read them. The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick Volume One covers the years from 1938-1971. MIke is reading in 1972 and finding some good stuff. I started with the sixth volume, 1980-1982, the last. Reading PKD’s letters gives a whole different feel for the guy that I didn’t get from the biographies. Mike sent me one letter I found particularly intriguing.

After I read that I had to read “Who Shall Dwell” by H. C. Neal. According to ISFDB it originally appeared in the July 1962 issue of Playboy, and then was reprinted three times in anthologies from Playboy about science fiction (1966, 1968, 1971). Then it was reprinted in two other anthologies, Themes in Science Fiction (1972) edited by Leo P. Kelley (where PKD read the story), and Look Back on Tomorrow (1974) edited by John Osborne and David Paskow. ISFDB offered no biographical information on H. C. Neal. But I found this introduction in The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Searching Google didn’t come up with anything until I added “newspaper writer” to his name. I then found his obituary.

I love discovering forgotten science fiction authors. It appears H. C. Neal wrote one science fiction short story, for Playboy no less. It was liked enough to be reprinted in five anthologies, the last being in 1974. In 1972, Philip K. Dick wrote a rather gushing fan letter. Reading PKD’s letters shows you he was often very sentimental, often wanting to help people. Dick did have mental problems, and he did do some drugs, but nothing like his reputation.

Why did PKD feel so strongly about Neal’s story? What did he think it was one of the finest stories the science fiction genre produced. Well, I had to track down a copy. I found two copies of Themes in Science Fiction for sale and ordered one. However, I later was able to find it online.

I don’t know how to ask H. C. Neal’s heirs for permission to reprint this story, so I’m going to take a chance they won’t sue me. I’ll gladly take it down if someone notifies me (classicsofsciencefiction at gmail dot com). I’m hoping it is out of copyright because the story came out during the era when writers had to renew their copyright, and maybe Mr. Neal never got around to doing that. And I hope it’s not a big deal to reprint this here since I only have about a dozen readers. But I do want to reprint it because I think it’s important to understand PKD’s letter.

This isn’t the finest science fiction story ever written, but it’s pretty good. Stories about bomb shelters were common back in the 1950s and 1960s. I wonder if Neal was inspired by the September 9, 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Shelter” because the stories are very similar, except for the endings. To me, Neal seems to be speaking directly to the TZ ending, offering an alternative ending that’s positive about humanity.

I have to assume Philip K. Dick admired Neal’s story because it’s pro-humanity and PKD felt science fiction was too cynical. But like his explanation to Mr. Neal, Dick was sad because he lost touch with his wife and son, and here was a story about a man who sacrificed himself for his children and others. Maybe he admired the story because it made him feel guilty.

This one letter shows us PKD’s sentimental side. Mike said that’s common in the letters he’s reading. The letters I’m reading are more about the writing business, but they also include letters to pen pals. Dick is often generous, asking his agent to send gifts to people.

If you’re fascinated by Philip K. Dick and have read some of the biographies, I’m sure you’ll want to read his selected letters. Unfortunately, they are priced out of reach of most fans. Let’s hope they are reprinted soon and stay in print next time. If Kindle editions were available for a reasonable price I’d buy them again because my old eyes prefer ebooks.

James Wallace Harris. 12/7/21

“Surface Tension” by James Blish

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #19 of 107: “Surface Tension” by James Blish

“Surface Tension” by James Blish first appeared in the August 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. In 1957 it was published by Gnome Press as The Seedling Stars along with three other pantropy stories by Blish to make a fix-up novel. When the Nebula Awards were being created in the 1960s, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted for their favorite science fiction short stories published before the advent of the awards and “Surface Tension” was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One in 1970. It has been anthologized many times. The version of “Surface Tension” in The Big Book of Science Fiction is different from the one that appeared in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. It has “Sunken Universe” (Super Science Stories, May 1942) inserted into it after the introduction, which is the way it is in The Seedling Stars. However, the introduction had additional paragraphs not in the Hall of Fame version, and I expect a careful reading of the later sections should show changes too. H. L. Gold was known for editing stories and Blish was known for rewriting his stories, so we don’t know which happened. My guess is Blish came up with additional ideas to add to the story for the book version. I’ve read the slightly shorter version three times before over my lifetime, and a few paragraphs in this version stood out to me as new. Mainly they were about the original crew theorizing about their future pantropic existence.

Lately I’ve been writing about why I disliked a story, but for “Surface Tension” I need to explain why I love a story, and that might be even harder to do. Every once in a while, a science fiction writer will come up with an idea that’s so different that it lights up our brains. Wells did it with “The Time Machine.” Heinlein did it with his story “Universe.” Brian Aldiss did it with his fix-up novel Hothouse. Robert Charles Wilson did it with his novel Spin. “Surface Tension” is one of those stories. It has tremendous sense of wonder.

I’m torn between explaining everything that happens and not saying anything. These posts are all about making comments to our short story club where everyone is supposed to have read the story and we don’t worry about spoilers. I recently read Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn and it was so delicious learning every plot element as it unfolded that I didn’t want to spoil anything for first time readers. I tried to explain why in my spoiler-free review. But I need to talk about “Surface Tension,” so if you haven’t read it, please go away and do so.

As I’ve said before about great short stories, they have a setup that allows the author to say something interesting – not a message, but an insight. The setup for “Surface Tension” is five men and two women have crashed on the planet Hydrot that orbits Tau Ceti. Their spaceship can’t be repaired, their communication system was destroyed, and they don’t have enough food to survive. However, their ship is one of a swarm of seed ships spreading across the galaxy that colonizes each planet with customized humans adapted for each unique environment. This is called pantropy, also representing a kind of panspermia, and anticipates the idea of transhumanism. In other words, Blish has a lot to say with this story.

Because no large organisms can survive in the current stage of Hydrot’s development, the crew decide to seed it with intelligent microorganisms. The seven will die, but each of their genes will be used to fashion a new species of roughly humanoid shape creatures that can coexist with the existing microorganisms of the freshwater puddles on Hydrot. They won’t have their memories, but they will have ancestral abilities. The crew creates these creatures and inscribe their history on tiny metal tablets they hope will be discovered one day by their tiny replacements.

From here the story jumps to the underwater world of the microorganisms and we see several periods of their history unfold. Blish used his education in biology to recreate several concentric analogies of discoveries that parallel our history in his puddle world of tiny microorganisms. The wee humanoids form alliances with other intelligent microorganisms in wars to conquer their new environment. Then they begin an age of exploration that eventually parallels our era of early space exploration. But you can also think of it paralleling when life first emerged from the sea to conquer the land.

One reason this story means so much to me is Blish makes characters out of various types of eukaryotic microorganisms and that reminds me of when I was in the fourth grade and our teacher asked us to bring a bottle of lake water to class. That day we saw another world through the eyepiece of a microscope. Blish made that world on a microscope slide into a fantasy world where paramecium becomes a character named Para who is intelligent and part of a hive mind that works with the transhumans. Their enemies are various kinds of rotifers. However, I know little of biology and don’t know what the Proto, Dicran, Noc, Didin, Flosc characters are based on.

The main transhuman characters are Lavon and Shar who’s personalities are preserved over generations. I wondered if the seven original human explorers (Dr. Chatvieux, Paul la Ventura, Philip Strasvogel, Saltonstall, Eleftherios Venezuelos, Eunice Wagner, and Joan Heath) were archetypes for the microscopic transhuman characters? Blish suggests that in the opening scene:

They take human germ-cells—in this case, our own, since our bank was wiped out in the crash—and modify them genetically toward those of creatures who can live in any reasonable environment. The result will be manlike, and intelligent. It usually shows the donors’ personality patterns, too, since the modifications are usually made mostly in the morphology, not so much in the mind, of the resulting individual.

...

“That’s right. In the present situation we’ll probably make our colonists haploid, so that some of them, perhaps many, will have a heredity traceable to you alone. There may be just the faintest of residuums of identity—pantropy’s given us some data to support the old Jungian notion of ancestral memory. But we’re all going to die on Hydrot, Paul, as self-conscious persons. There’s no avoiding that. Somewhere we’ll leave behind people who behave as we would, think and feel as we would, but who won’t remember la Ventura, or Dr. Chatvieux, or Joan Heath, or the Earth.”

However, I never could decipher who Lavon and Shar were. Each time I reread this story I notice more details, and more analogies. “Surface Tension” is both simple and complex. At a simple level its just a space adventure tale about exploration and survival. But in creating a fantasy ecology, Blish hints at the deeper complexity of a writer becoming a worldbuilder. And Blish is also philosophical about the future of mankind, reminding me of Olaf Stapledon. This is the kind of story that can blow adolescent minds.

“Surface Tension” would make a wonderful video game, or a beautiful animated film.

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 9/25/21

“The Star Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton

Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 9/5/21

The Short Story Club

Most people have heard of book clubs, but we have a short story club devoted to science fiction. It’s a Facebook group. Anyone can join even though it’s a private group. Just answer the two questions. However, many people don’t like Facebook, and that’s cool. Because we’re about to read and discuss The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, I thought I’d post my thoughts on each story here so those people who don’t use Facebook can participate via the comment section.

The Big Book of Science Fiction has over one-hundred short stories. We’ll read and discuss a story every other day. This is a huge book and a major commitment to read. I’ve owned it for years and have been too intimidated by its size to try reading it. What I hope is the discipline of the short story club will push me to climb this Mt. Everest of anthologies. Because it’s a recent retrospective anthology it aims to give a contemporary overview of the history of science fiction by including more women writers and foreign stories, I expect reading its stories will be a graduate course in science fiction literature.

If you don’t already own this book and are tempted to join the group or buy it to read along with the discussion here, I should warn you about its size – it’s a monster. Like the size of a large city phone book back in the day, and also printed on thin paper. Reading the Kindle edition is the practical way to go. If you want the paper edition, you might check it out at Barnes & Noble first. I’d hate to recommend people to buy this dingus and not be able to read it because they don’t have weight-lifter arms.

Many of the stories will be in old anthologies, so you don’t have to buy the book if you want to read along from you own library. However, about two dozen stories are foreign translations commissioned for this anthology and won’t be available elsewhere.

I should also warn anyone who is thinking about buying this book that if you prefer the traditional classics of science fiction this book skips over many of them. No Heinlein, no Bester, etc. Some older fans have complained they didn’t like a lot of the stories. I’m reading it because I want to see a new view of old science fiction. I have read about a quarter of the stories before, and some of them are among my favorites.

We start discussion August 20th, beginning with “The Star” by H. G. Wells. The group will discuss a story every other day until March 20, 2022. The links below are to my reviews. Here are other group member’s online reviews:

Here is the table of contents:

The Star – H. G. Wells
Sultana’s Dream – Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein
The New Overworld – Paul Scheerbart
The Triumph of Mechanics – Karl Hans Strobl
Elements of Pataphysics – Alfred Jarry
Mechanopolis – Miguel de Unamuno
The Doom of Principal City – Yefim Zozulya
The Comet – W. E. B. Du Bois
The Fate of the Poseidonia – Clare Winger Harris
The Star Stealers – Edmond Hamilton
The Conquest of Gola – Leslie F. Stone
A Martian Odyssey – Stanley G. Weinbaum
The Last Poet and the Robots – A. Merritt
The Microscopic Giants – Paul Ernst
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius – Jorge Luis Borges
Desertion – Clifford D. Simak
September 2005: The Martian – Ray Bradbury
Baby HP – Juan José Arreola
Surface Tension – James Blish
Beyond Lies the Wub – Philip K. Dick
The Snowball Effect – Katherine MacLean
Prott – Margaret St. Clair
The Liberation of Earth – William Tenn
Let Me Live in a House – Chad Oliver
The Star – Arthur C. Clarke
Grandpa – James H. Schmitz
The Game of Rat and Dragon – Cordwainer Smith
The Last Question – Isaac Asimov
Stranger Station – Damon Knight
Sector General – James White
The Visitors – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Pelt – Carol Emshwiller
The Monster – Gérard Klein
The Man Who Lost the Sea – Theodore Sturgeon
The Waves – Silvina Ocampo
Plenitude – Will Worthington
The Voices of Time – J. G. Ballard
The Astronaut – Valentina Zhuravlyova
The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink – Adolfo Bioy Casares
2 B R 0 2 B – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
A Modest Genius – Vadim Shefner
Day of Wrath – Sever Gansovsky
The Hands – John Baxter
Darkness – André Carneiro
“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman – Harlan Ellison
Nine Hundred Grandmothers – R. A. Lafferty
Day Million – Frederik Pohl
Student Body – F. L. Wallace
Aye, and Gomorrah – Samuel R. Delany
The Hall of Machines – Langdon Jones
Soft Clocks – Yoshio Aramaki
Three from Moderan – David R. Bunch
Let Us Save the Universe – Stanisław Lem
Vaster Than Empires and More Slow – Ursula K. Le Guin
Good News from the Vatican – Robert Silverberg
When It Changed – Joanna Russ
And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side – James Tiptree Jr.
Where Two Paths Cross – Dmitri Bilenkin
Standing Woman – Yasutaka Tsutsui
The IWM 1000 – Alicia Yánez Cossío
The House of Compassionate Sharers – Michael Bishop
Sporting with the Chid – Barrington J. Bayley
Sandkings – George R. R. Martin
Wives – Lisa Tuttle
The Snake That Read Chomsky – Josephine Saxton
Reiko’s Universe Box – Kajio Shinji
Swarm – Bruce Sterling
Mondocane – Jacques Barbéri
Blood Music – Greg Bear
Bloodchild – Octavia E. Butler
Variation on a Man – Pat Cadigan
Passing as a Flower in the City of the Dead – S. N. Dyer
New Rose Hotel – William Gibson
Pots – C. J. Cherryh
Snow – John Crowley
The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things – Karen Joy Fowler
The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets – Angélica Gorodischer
The Owl of Bear Island – Jon Bing
Readers of the Lost Art – Élisabeth Vonarburg
A Gift from the Culture – Iain M. Banks
Paranamanco – Jean-Claude Dunyach
Crying in the Rain – Tanith Lee
The Frozen Cardinal – Michael Moorcock
Rachel in Love – Pat Murphy
Sharing Air – Manjula Padmanabhan
Schwarzschild Radius – Connie Willis
All the Hues of Hell – Gene Wolfe
Vacuum States – Geoffrey A. Landis
Two Small Birds – Han Song
Burning Sky – Rachel Pollack
Before I Wake – Kim Stanley Robinson
Death Is Static Death Is Movement – Misha Nogha
The Brains of Rats – Michael Blumlein
Gorgonoids – Leena Krohn
Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ – Kojo Laing
The Universe of Things – Gwyneth Jones
The Remoras – Robert Reed
The Ghost Standard – William Tenn
Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System – Geoffrey Maloney
How Alex Became a Machine – Stepan Chapman
The Poetry Cloud – Cixin Liu
Story of Your Life – Ted Chiang
Craphound – Cory Doctorow
The Slynx – Tatyana Tolstaya
Baby Doll – Johanna Sinisalo

James Wallace Harris, 8/19/21

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

Has any science fiction writer from the 20th or 21st centuries ever done a better job exploring the science fictional themes than H. G. Wells covered in the 19th century? Has any novel or film ever gone any deeper into the idea of invaders from outer space than The War of the Worlds? Haven’t we been recycling the same speculations that H. G. Wells began way back then?

This is the third time I’ve read The War of the Worlds by H. G. wells since 1963. The first time I was in the seventh grade. I was too young to understand the novel and read too fast to really appreciate anything other than the basic plot. Back in 2005 I listened to an audiobook edition. I realized then that The War of the Worlds was far better than what I remembered, or any film or TV version I had seen over my lifetime. Reading it again this week, after rewatching the 1953 film, and seeing the 2019 British TV miniseries, I understand why we’re still reading this 1898 novel, and why people keep making filmed versions of it. There were three in 2005 and two in 2019. The War of the Worlds is truly a five-star classic.

I’m not sure young readers know how much credit we should be giving H. G. Wells for his contributions to science fiction. In one sense, the novels he published from 1895 to 1900 can almost be considered the foundation of the genre. Wells covered many of the main science fictional themes that writers are still tilling today. The trouble is, I haven’t read widely enough in earlier literature to know how much Wells borrowed and how much he created.

I do feel Wells brought new speculations and what ifs to the genre. We credit Wells for starting the space alien invasion theme, but Wells only took invasion literature that began in 1871 with The Battle of Dorking in a new direction. Instead of worrying about invaders from Germany or France, Wells asked, “What if invaders didn’t come from Earth?”

Once he proposed that one question, it generated all kinds of possible SF speculation. What if beings from other worlds were more advanced than us? Science fiction has explored that question over and other, but I’m not sure we’ve ever psychologically accepted any being could be superior to ourselves. Reading The War of the Worlds this time made me noticed just how much Wells thought about it. I would love to find reviews of his book published at the end of the 19th century to see if his readers significantly pondered Wells’ ideas. Here are some quotes:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

...

Yet so vain is man, and so blinded by his vanity, that no writer, up to the very end of the nineteenth century, expressed any idea that intelligent life might have developed there far, or indeed at all, beyond its earthly level. Nor was it generally understood that since Mars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of the superficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time’s beginning but nearer its end.

...

And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us.

...

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

...

In three other points their physiology differed strangely from ours. Their organisms did not sleep, any more than the heart of man sleeps. Since they had no extensive muscular mechanism to recuperate, that periodical extinction was unknown to them. They had little or no sense of fatigue, it would seem. On earth they could never have moved without effort, yet even to the last they kept in action. In twenty-four hours they did twenty-four hours of work, as even on earth is perhaps the case with the ants.

...

“This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.”

...

I learned nothing fresh except that already in one week the examination of the Martian mechanisms had yielded astonishing results. Among other things, the article assured me what I did not believe at the time, that the “ Secret of Flying,” was discovered.

...

It may be that in the larger design of the universe this invasion from Mars is not without its ultimate benefit for men; it has robbed us of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence, the gifts to human science it has brought are enormous, and it has done much to promote the conception of the commonweal of mankind.

...

If the Martians can reach Venus, there is no reason to suppose that the thing is impossible for men, and when the slow cooling of the sun makes this earth uninhabitable, as at last it must do, it may be that the thread of life that has begun here will have streamed out and caught our sister planet within its toils.

...

Dim and wonderful is the vision I have conjured up in my mind of life spreading slowly from this little seedbed of the solar system throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space. But that is a remote dream. It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.

Can we really imagine meeting a being that is as far above us as we’re above a dog? What if the gap is as large as between people and ants, another comparison Wells makes in the book. Actually, in several places, we’re no more important to the Martians than bacteria are to us under the microscope. Wells can imagine this possibility and he tries to illustrate it in the story, but I don’t think he really succeeds because it’s something impossible to imagine. But Wells, and science fiction written since have tried. Consider Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

We have to remember how Wells portrays the Martians and how readers of Pearson’s Magazine in 1897 imagined them. The Martians had weapons that used heat, light, gas, and biological agents that quickly dispatched the greatest military in the world. London, the most advanced city on the planet was quickly overrun, and millions had to flee. This is impressive, but does it really mean the Martians are intellectually superior to us? They are more advanced technologically. And that’s been the most common thread in alien invasion stories since, even though we keep gaining in our own technological prowess.

Martians treated us like animals. In fact, they treated us like cows or pigs, and used humans for food. Does this mean they’re superior? We assume we’re superior to farm animals, but we’ve never been a cow and can’t imagine what cows think of us.

The Martians invaded Earth like England invaded other countries, and the English felt superior because they could get away with it. But does it make them superior? Over and over again science fiction has tried to portray superior aliens. Usually, writers give them advance technology like Wells did in his novel. Writers often give aliens telepathy or other psychic powers to suggest a higher state of being, and at one point Wells speculated about this. Often, advanced aliens are described like gods in old religious texts. But just how realistic is that? Isn’t it really a lack of imagination? I’m not faulting Wells, because he did try, but I think he hit a wall, and so has every other SF writer since.

Notice that Wells gave the Martians the same power that Nancy Kress did in her story Beggars in Spain. Not needing sleep would indeed be a plus, but does it make a being superior? It is a very nice specific attribute. What other attributes make a superior being?

Are we incapable of imagining a realistic being more developed than humans? We consider ourselves superior to animals because we have language. In recent years, many science fiction stories have explored the idea of communication with beings from other stellar systems. The film Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” does suggest a possibility. What if a language isn’t based on linear time, and the structure of the sentence isn’t depended on word order? That’s a wonderful theory, but is it even possible? Imagining the impossible is impressive, but not as impressive as imagining the possible that hasn’t been discovered yet.

Can we imagine a process of communication that goes beyond language? We always fall back on telepathy. Would that be instantaneously sharing of words, or sharing sense organ input? If the Martians of Wells’ novel could read human minds, would they still kill and eat people, and destroy their civilization? Wouldn’t a superior alien have empathy and compassion for other beings? If we were really superior to animals would we eat them and kill them the way we do? Aren’t we just acting like animals that eat each other?

If you look at in the right light, Christianity was an effort to create a superior human. Unfortunately, few humans have ever achieved what Christian theory hoped to have achieved. Religions have routinely rediscovered compassion throughout history, but they’ve never been able to make humans compassionate. We see in Star Trek, at least in some episodes about the Prime Directive, how the Federation tried to codify a compassionate treatment of other beings, but often the plots don’t allow for it. Still, it’s a concrete example.

Science fiction writers keep trying to imagine a superior being and keep failing. I believe Heinlein tried with Stranger in a Strange Land, by giving his Martian named Smith superpowers. But Smith shows no compassion for lesser beings, and frequently vanishes them out of existence. Clarke tried with Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but again he falls back on godlike powers, and a lack of compassion for lesser beings. Remember, Earth and humans were destroyed when a new species of humans emerged. Why do we continually believe superior beings have the right to destroy lesser beings?

We seem stuck in a Groundhog Day loop regarding invading aliens. Did anything new really show up in Independence Day (1996) a century after The War of the Worlds, or will show up in The Tomorrow War that’s coming out on Amazon Prime? Isn’t it logical to assume any alien that’s invading us can’t be superior because they’re invading us? Superior beings don’t go around exterminating other beings? Conversely, we can’t be all that superior to the other species on this planet. Unless the only definition of superior is the ability to destroy. And how often in science fiction are we the alien invader? Just recall the film Avatar for an easy example. Or think of how we treated the aliens in District 9.

There are two stories I’ve read this year that dealt with this issue, but sadly, I can’t remember the title and author of either one. The first suggested there were two types of beings in the galaxy. One type wants to conquer the galaxy because they are spreaders. The other type wanted to explore the galaxy because they are seekers, seekers of knowledge. We like to think humanity is a seeker species, but we’re really spreaders.

The other story was about species genocide. A character had the military power to destroy a whole species of alien invaders, but worried about using it. The justification given to her claimed the galaxy was full of violent species that acted no better than murderers or thieves, so it was either kill or be killed, so she killed the invading aliens. As long as we’re a product of evolution do we always assume we have to keep playing its game.

My idea of a superior alien is one that can step outside of their evolutionary upbringing and can act with compassion and empathy towards their fellow species. But I also imagine, this superior species would also develop the ability to communicate precisely, way beyond the power of words, and understand reality. We only perceive reality indirectly, with very limited senses, and usually interpret what we perceive with a lot of bullshit desires. I’m guessing a real superior space alien would avoid us like a dangerous pathogen or generator of gamma ray bursts.

In the end, I wondered if Wells didn’t model his Martians on the English in Africa and India. That implies any science fiction about aliens is really about looking at ourselves in a mirror. Shouldn’t science fiction writer ask how we could become superior beings?

JWH