“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

Let’s Build a Spaceship

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction group on Facebook has been reading through the Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction reader award short fiction finalists. “Minerva Girls” by James Van Pelt is about three teenage girls who build their own spaceship and go to the moon. I thought the story was a lot of fun, but one of our members said he couldn’t get into it because it was too unbelievable. Well, that’s true, believing children can invented anti-gravity and build their own spaceship out of a gas tank unearth from a service station is beyond farfetched, but it’s still a fun idea for a SF story. Coincidently, that plot is how I got into science fiction in the fifth grade by reading Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint.

Of course, it’s one thing to be a child and fantasize about of being a child space explorer, and being an old man believing a story about children inventing a spaceship. Obviously, realism didn’t get in my way of enjoying “Minerva Girls.” I started thinking about why and realized I’ve read a number of stories over my lifetime where kids build their own spaceship. It’s a neat little SF theme that doesn’t seem to ever go away.

Like I said in my last essay, cherished ideas acquired in childhood often have a habit of sticking with us for the rest of our lives, even if they have no possible reality. Most people learn the truth about Santa Claus at an early age yet keep the myth alive for the rest of their life. Who doesn’t love watching Miracle of on 34th Street every year?

Right after I read the Danny Dunn series I started in on the Tom Swift, Jr. books. These only reinforced the idea that kids could build anything that adults could.

Then a few years later in 1964 I discovered the Heinlein juveniles. In each book a teenager had adventures in space. I was now twelve, about to turn thirteen, and I still wanted to believe it was possible for a kid to build a rocket, yet I was old enough to realize that Heinlein’s book Rocket Ship Galileo was unbelievable. I knew what it took to build a rocket because I had faithfully followed every launch of Project Mercury and was reading about Project Gemini that would begin the following year. Rockets required a big hunk of a national budget and tens of thousands of grownups to build.

Then in the summer of 1966 I read a serial in If Magazine called “The Hour Before Earthrise” by James Blish where a kid builds a spaceship out of wood, powers it with anti-gravity, and goes to Mars. It was later published in book form as Welcome to Mars. By then I knew this was an idea too ridiculous to contemplate, yet I still enjoyed reading the story. I wanted to believe still, but I felt like a kid feeling too old for Santa.

There wasn’t a lot of YA science fiction when I was growing up – actually, there wasn’t a lot of science fiction period. But the genre had a reputation for being targeted at pre-adults. Many SF writers resented this, but I think it was mostly true. Today YA science fiction and fantasy is big business, and it’s not just consumed by teenagers. Evidently, adults want to vicariously be teenagers again and fantasize about having great adventures.

Part of me wants to reject my love of juvenile SF literature. That part of me wants science fiction to grow up too, and deal with reality. In particular, science fiction should explore realistic futures where going to the stars is impractical, and humanity accepts its destiny on Earth before we destroy it. But what kid wants to read that kind of science fiction? And it’s pretty obvious few adults want to read it either.

Yes, “Minerva Girls” is an unbelievable fantasy, but it’s also one we want to keep believing. I don’t mean to offend anyone by this comparison, but I wonder if the desire to believe in the science fiction we discovered in childhood isn’t akin to people who maintain their childhood religious beliefs in adulthood? What percentage of our society can’t put away childish things? I’m guessing a large percentage. Maybe the reality is we hold onto things we want to be real in the face of a reality we reject?

And reality does intrude into “Minerva Girls.” Selena and her friends have to contend with mean girls, studying things in school they didn’t want to learn, and the heartache of losing each other. They did have to come down to Earth after visiting the moon. They accepted the painful reality that their lifelong friendship was going to be broken up by two of their families moving to new cities.

There was another new bit of reality in this fantasy, instead of a trio of boys building a spaceship on their own, it was a trio of girls. In fact, in all these stories, the characters had to face plot pitfalls based on realistic everyday life hurdles. Fiction, even fantasy fiction, doesn’t work without a certain amount of realism.

I guess these stories are still appealing because wouldn’t it be fun to live in a reality where building a jalopy spaceship in the backyard could happen? Or converting an old Camry into a time machine?

James Wallace Harris, 6/20/21

What Was The Big Bang Beginning to Science Fiction?

The feeling I get when I contemplate the origins of science fiction is similar to what I felt as a kid when I asked, “Then, who created God?” And whenever I read a very old science fiction story I wonder if its science fictional ideas were original to that story, or had an even earlier writer originated those concepts? So far, it’s been like the famous Carl Sagan story, it’s turtles all the way down. Was there ever a Big Bang beginning to the science fiction universe? Go read The Book of Genesis. Isn’t the story of Noah a post-apocalyptic tale of science fiction? Don’t the stories of the Garden of Eden feel like science fictional speculations?

People and writers have always pondered the past and future in ideas that are now considered the domain of science fiction. I used to believe that science fiction couldn’t have existed before science, but then when did science begin? I’m sure flint chipping took a lot of experiments, statistics, and testing to perfect, which makes me wonder about our cave dwelling ancestors and what they imagined.

When I read an older science fiction novel now I like to imagine how the readers of its time thought about the ideas used within the story. For example, I just finished The Clockwork Man by E. V. Odle, first published in 1923. The story is about a creature that appears suddenly at a cricket match. It looks human but acts strange. During the course of the story we learn its from eight thousand years in the future and it’s something we’d call an android or cyborg today.

From my Scribd subscription I listened to the HiloBrow audiobook edition of The Clockwork Man, part of their original Radium Age of Science Fiction Series. A Summer 2020 note to the site promised to new series from MIT Press beginning in 2022, but there are several editions on Amazon now.

The intro to 2013 edition by Annalee Newitz is here. However, the novel is in the public domain and can be read at Project Gutenberg. Below is a reproduction of the original dust jacket from the 1923 American edition from Doubleday.

At first, when we are introduced to the clockwork man, I believe most modern readers will wonder if he is a robot. But as the story goes on, we realize the people of the period see him as human looking, with an odd bulge on the back of his head, which he hides with a hat and wig. Readers eventually learn that bulge is a clockwork mechanism that controls his biological processes. Not only does it give him superhuman senses, but great physical power, and even the ability to transport itself in time, space, and other dimensions.

E. V. Odle evidently believed in 8,000 years a lot can happen to the human race. The story feels like a comedy of errors at the beginning when this strange creature interrupts the cricket match, but gets more serious and philosophical as the story progresses. By the end of the tale, we have two twentieth century men arguing over whether evolution and technological progress has gone too far.

The essence of science fiction is exploring certain types philosophical questions. However, in every age the current scientific knowledge limits that exploration because the analogies and metaphors to describe the future depend on current technology. In 1923 Odle’s future man is imagined with clockwork technology. This is long before computers. L. Frank Baum imagined a similar mechanical man in Tik-Tok of Oz in 1914. The concept of robots emerged in 1921 with R.U.R., a Czech play about androids, but the idea of a mechanical being soon followed in science fiction in the 1930s. The idea of human created beings goes way back, each using the best technology of the day to imagine its creation.

Today we would consider it silly to build an AI being with clockwork technology. In the 1950s Philip K. Dick imagined robots made with vacuum tubes and tape loops, which we now groan at. Nowadays, we imagine AI beings constructed with computer silicon circuits. Fifty years from now, readers might consider using silicon circuits just as silly as clockwork or vacuum tubes. Remember, God made man with dust, and Mary Shelley had Frankenstein assembled his creature from stolen body parts. Our speculation about the future is always tied to what we know at the time. Reading The Clockwork Man made me think about what E. V. Odle had to work with in 1923.

We’re all quite familiar with all the philosophical issues surrounding robots, AI, cyborgs, and androids since science fiction has dwelled on them our entire lifetime in books, television, movies, and other art forms. But can you imagine how someone in 1923 could have contemplated the concept? Odle imagines new beings emerging from human machine combinations, which we since defined as the territory of cyborgs.

Yet, The Clockwork Man goes well beyond that. This visitor from the future finds 20th century humans rather limited, stuck in one three-dimensional dimension, whereas it can travel in time, space, and through multiple dimensions at will. It sees reality as a multiplicity of states. This is hard for us to imagine, but science fiction has often considered such possibilities.

Reading The Clockwork Man I can feel E. V. Odle struggling to imagine the potential of humanity. The story itself ranges from quaint to quixotic. During the course of the story the visitor from the future is both admired, feared, and pitied. It’s only towards the end does Odle give us a larger vision of the future, one that’s even more science fictional, closer to Stapledon than Wells.

"But must you always be like this?" he began, with a suppressed crying note in his voice. "Is there no hope for you?"

"None," said the Clockwork man, and the word was boomed out on a hollow, brassy note. "We are made, you see. For us creation is finished. We can only improve ourselves very slowly, but we shall never quite escape the body of this death. We've only ourselves to blame. The makers gave us our chance. They are beings of infinite patience and forbearance. But they saw that we were determined to go on as we were, and so they devised this means of giving us our wish. You see, Life was a Vale of Tears, and men grew tired of the long journey. The makers said that if we persevered we should come to the end and know joys earth has not seen. But we could not wait, and we lost faith. It seemed to us that if we could do away with death and disease, with change and decay, then all our troubles would be over. So they did that for us, and we've stopped the same as we were, except that time and space no longer hinder us."

I wanted to know more about the Makers. For most of the novel we thought the clockwork man was the epitome of humanity from eight thousands years in the future, but now we learn there are other beings, even greater. I must assume Odle is warning us against taking the cybernetic path, and hints that a greater spiritual one is possible.

I’m not sure 21st century humans have such fears, because we’re racing as fast as we can to invent both creatures of silicon and to evolve ourselves into posthumans. This reminds me of the ending of the film Things to Come (1936) inspired by H. G. Wells:

PASSWORTHY: “My God! Is there never to be an age of happiness? Is there never to be rest?”

CABAL: “Rest enough for the individual man. Too much of it and too soon, and we call it death. But for MAN no rest and no ending. He must go on–conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time–still he will be beginning.”

PASSWORTHY: “But we are such little creatures. Poor humanity. So fragile–so weak.”

CABAL: “Little animals, eh?”

PASSWORTHY: “Little animals.”

CABAL: “If we are no more than animals–we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more–than all the other animals do–or have done.” (He points out at the stars.) “It is that–or this? All the universe–or nothingness…. Which shall it be, Passworthy?”

The two men fade out against the starry background until only the stars remain.

The musical finale becomes dominant.

CABAL’S voice is heard repeating through the music: “Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?”

I read The Clockwork Man because of reading Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books by Mike Ashley. British science fiction feels like it’s always been more philosophical than American science fiction, which has usually focused on the adventure and action side of Sci-Fi implications. Many of the books Ashley describes from the late 19th and early 20th century are ones I haven’t read. But Ashley shows those books explored science fictional concepts I thought originated in American science fiction during the 1940s and 1950s. I was wrong. I have to wonder, were those ideas original to the British in this earlier era of science fiction? I have another book that I haven’t read by Brian Stableford, The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds: The Evolution of French Roman Scientifique that explores French science fiction in the 1800s. Was France the Big Bang beginning of science fiction? Or will I find another turtle beneath the French?

James Wallace Harris, 4/20/21

“The Star” by H. G. Wells

When I was young, reading science fiction thrilled me by giving me new ideas to ponder, ones I wasn’t getting from school. For example, when I was twelve, I read the When Worlds Collide/After Worlds Collide double decker by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. It provided three new wonders to inflame my mind. First, planets from outside the solar system could fly through our interplanetary space and even collide with the Earth. Imagining the end of the world provides no end of chilling speculation. People have been entertaining that vision since the Great Flood. Second, I was introduced to the idea that people could escape the end of the world. Wow, what a concept! And third, what if we found a dead city that was once occupied by aliens? What would it be like to walk among their ruins and imagine their lives from the clues they left?

What’s remarkable about “The Star” by H. G. Wells, published in 1897, is its science fictional setup would work just as well today in 2021. The story describes people’s reactions from from around the world at that time, but the astronomical events and effects upon the Earth would be the same today. And I’m not sure people now would react much differently than they did then. What has changed is how the news is spread.

Nowadays I am fascinated by how science fiction short stories gain popularity and then fade from pop culture memory. They are usually remembered by anthologies. An editor of a good retrospective anthology knows the genre and tries to keep older stories alive. Every few years a new large retrospective anthology of short science fiction appears. Over time, the weakest older stories are left out of the latest anthology, and the best newer stories are added, revealing a kind of evolution.

Readers who buy genre retrospective anthologies are shown a kind of photograph of the history of short science fiction, with each new anthology trying capture the genre in a pose by how the editors want their readers to see its history. I’ve been dipping into The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer since it came out in 2016. Its oldest story is “The Star.” The Big Book of Science Fiction has nearly a hundred stories and I’ve read maybe a quarter of them. The VanderMeers worked to diversify the history of the genre by including more stories by women writers and translated stories by non-English speaking writers.

Their family portrait of science fiction looks somewhat different than Leigh Ronald Grossman’s group photo, Sense of Wonder, taken in 2011. Grossman’s oldest pick was “Mellonta Tauta” by Edgar Allan Poe from 1849. Grossman’s anthology is even larger than the VanderMeers’, but it includes a novel, novel extracts, and introductory essays. It’s meant to be a textbook for teaching the history of science fiction, but Grossman’s photo of the genre revealed a more traditional pose for the genre.

Right now, I’m less concerned the overall image of the genre’s legacy than I am with understanding the evolution of science fictional ideas. I’d love to create a taxonomy of science fictional ideas and themes. When Groff Conklin assembled his first retrospective anthology back in 1946, The Best of Science Fiction, he divided the stories into six theme sections. Over the decades many anthologists have created theme anthologies. But it’s impossible to grasp all the far-out ideas of science fiction in just one anthology, or even a shelf of them. So, I’m going to work my way through several large retrospective anthologies, take notes, and plot my findings. Maybe I can come up with some way of showing an evolutionary tree of science fictional ideas.

I’ve decided “The Star” was inspired by astronomy, so the first theme I’m going to work on is Astronomical Science Fiction. However, did H. G. Wells think up his idea? Had Wells read Omega: The Last Days of the World by French astronomer Camille Flammarion which came out in 1894? When did the English edition first appear? Wells could also have read Olga Romanoff or, The Syren of the Skies by George Griffith serialized in Pearson’s Weekly (12/30/1893 – 8/4/1894). Both these stories are impact event stories. And then we must ask where did Flammarion get his idea? Jules Verne wrote Off on a Comet in 1877 about a comet that gives the Earth a glancing blow. Wells was savvy enough to know his planet didn’t need to impact the Earth, but it’s gravitation influence coming near us could wreak havoc on our planet.

I want to develop a classification scheme, a taxonomy, or even a mind map of how science fiction ideas evolve. Earlier writers imagined a comet hitting the Earth. Wells imagined a planet from outside the solar system, which is a much newer idea if you think about it. People were aware of comets, but how many Earthlings imagined a planet visiting the solar system? Then in the 1930s Balmer and Wylie imagined two visiting planets. By the way, Wells interstellar visitor is called a star in the title, but referred to as a planet in the story. People see it as a star in the sky.

Once you start considering the theme, thinking about astronomy can inspire all kinds of science fictional ideas. Wells used astronomy again at the end of The Time Machine when he used the Sun expanding into a red giant, and the Earth slowing its rotation.

I wish I had a better memory than I do so I could recall all the science fiction stories that used astronomy as the inspiration of its science fiction. Fred Hoyle used it for The Black Cloud a story about a dust cloud blocking the sun. But sometimes its fanciful astronomy. Poul Anderson imagined the solar system orbiting the Milky Way in Brain Wave and wondered what if the solar system passes through different kinds of radiation fields. Now this is unbelievable but fun, but what if the solar system had been in a radiation field that retarded intelligence and it moved out of that field? In Brain Wave humans and all living things become a bit smarter. Even more fanciful is Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, where he imagines the Earth encased in a spin membrane that slows time down. Of course, this moves outside the realm of Astronomical Science Fiction because the membrane was artificially created.

Getting back to real astronomy, consider the short story “Inconstant Moon” by Larry Niven from 1971. People notice the Moon is glowing strangely one night. Our narrator theorizes the Sun has gone nova and the world is about to be destroyed, but then figures a massive solar flare has occurred, which might be survivable. Notice how these Astronomical Science Fiction stories usually involve the destruction of the Earth.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle returned to the comet impact in 1977 with Lucifer’s Hammer. Comet and asteroid strikes seem to be the most common inspiration on Astronomical Science Fiction. But here is a list created by Andrew Fraknoi in 2019 that lists more recent science fiction based on astronomy and physics. Wells or “The Star” wasn’t mentioned. That’s the problem with creating a SF theme taxonomy, it’s like the biological world there are millions of examples to be classified.

One interesting aspect of “The Star” (and When Worlds Collide) is it depends on astronomers to let the people of Earth know that something is about to happen. How often are astronomers the heroes of science fiction stories?

It was on the first day of the New Year that the announcement was made, almost simultaneously from three observatories, that the motion of the planet Neptune, the outermost of all the planets that wheel about the sun, had become very erratic. Ogilvy had already called attention to a suspected retardation in its velocity in December. Such a piece of news was scarcely calculated to interest a world the greater portion of whose inhabitants were unaware of the existence of the planet Neptune, nor outside the astronomical profession did the subsequent discovery of a faint remote speck of light in the region of the perturbed planet cause any very great excitement. Scientific people, however, found the intelligence remarkable enough, even before it became known that the new body was rapidly growing larger and brighter, that its motion was quite different from the orderly progress of the planets, and that the deflection of Neptune and its satellite was becoming now of an unprecedented kind.

Few people without a training in science can realise the huge isolation of the solar system. The sun with its specks of planets, its dust of planetoids, and its impalpable comets, swims in a vacant immensity that almost defeats the imagination. Beyond the orbit of Neptune there is space, vacant so far as human observation has penetrated, without warmth or light or sound, blank emptiness, for twenty million times a million miles. That is the smallest estimate of the distance to be traversed before the very nearest of the stars is attained. And, saving a few comets more unsubstantial than the thinnest flame, no matter had ever to human knowledge crossed this gulf of space, until early in the twentieth century this strange wanderer appeared. A vast mass of matter it was, bulky, heavy, rushing without warning out of the black mystery of the sky into the radiance of the sun. By the second day it was clearly visible to any decent instrument, as a speck with a barely sensible diameter, in the constellation Leo near Regulus. In a little while an opera glass could attain it.

At the end of the 19th century the common person did not have access to television or the internet. This news would have been spread by telegraph and newspapers. Also, I doubt many citizens of the world understood much about astronomy back then. Since we know so much about astronomy now, and science fictional concepts, so I would think a science fiction writer would have a hard time coming up with a good new concept to set off people’s sense of wonder.

H. G. Wells worked imagine in his story the discovery of the event on different minds around the world. I think that’s why new writers get to retell old stories. Many science fictional concepts are quite old, so it’s the current culture that changes in new stories, not the science fiction.

And when next it rose over Europe everywhere were crowds of watchers on hilly slopes, on house-roofs, in open spaces, staring eastward for the rising of the great new star. It rose with a white glow in front of it, like the glare of a white fire, and those who had seen it come into existence the night before cried out at the sight of it. "It is larger," they cried. "It is brighter!" And, indeed the moon a quarter full and sinking in the west was in its apparent size beyond comparison, but scarcely in all its breadth had it as much brightness now as the little circle of the strange new star.

"It is brighter!" cried the people clustering in the streets. But in the dim observatories the watchers held their breath and peered at one another it is nearer," they said. "Nearer!"

And voice after voice repeated, "It is nearer," and the clicking telegraph took that up, and it trembled along telephone wires, and in a thousand cities grimy compositors fingered the type. "It is nearer." Men writing in offices, struck with a strange realisation, flung down their pens, men talking in a thousand places suddenly came upon a grotesque possibility in those words, "It is nearer." It hurried along wakening streets, it was shouted down the frost-stilled ways of quiet villages; men who had read these things from the throbbing tape stood in yellow-lit doorways shouting the news to the passersby. "It is nearer." Pretty women, flushed and glittering, heard the news told jestingly between the dances, and feigned an intelligent interest they did not feel. "Nearer! Indeed. How curious! How very, very clever people must be to find out things like that!"

Lonely tramps faring through the wintry night murmured those words to comfort themselves--looking skyward. "It has need to be nearer, for the night's as cold as charity. Don't seem much warmth from it if it is nearer, all the same."

"What is a new star to me?" cried the weeping woman kneeling beside her dead.

The schoolboy, rising early for his examination work, puzzled it out for himself--with the great white star shining broad and bright through the frost-flowers of his window. "Centrifugal, centripetal," he said, with his chin on his fist. "Stop a planet in its flight, rob it of its centrifugal force, what then? Centripetal has it, and down it falls into the sun! And this--!

"Do we come in the way? I wonder--"

The light of that day went the way of its brethren, and with the later watches of the frosty darkness rose the strange star again. And it was now so bright that the waxing moon seemed but a pale yellow ghost of itself, hanging huge in the sunset. In a South African City a great man had married, and the streets were alight to welcome his return with his bride. "Even the skies have illuminated," said the flatterer. Under Capricorn, two negro lovers, daring the wild beasts and evil spirits, for love of one another, crouched together in a cane brake where the fire-flies hovered. "That is our star," they whispered, and felt strangely comforted by the sweet brilliance of its light.

The master mathematician sat in his private room and pushed the papers from him. His calculations were already finished. In a small white phial there still remained a little of the drug that had kept him awake and active for four long nights. Each day, serene, explicit, patient as ever, he had given his lecture to his students, and then had come back at once to this momentous calculation. His face was grave, a little drawn and hectic from his drugged activity. For some time he seemed lost in thought. Then he went to the window, and the blind went up with a click. Half way up the sky, over the clustering roofs, chimneys and steeples of the city, hung the star.

I would think in my taxonomy of science fiction for this theme I’d have to also classify the state of the world that received the story. Yet, isn’t the possibility of a roving body visiting out system still possible? Isn’t that why new SF writers in every generation can retell the story? Just research all the speculation the first known real interstellar visitor named Oumuamua caused? It reminded me of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

James Wallace Harris, 3/19/21

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

My job is to get you to read stories if you haven't. I'll try to make it easy for you by linking to a copy on the web if the story is available. I'll also tell you about anthologies where you can find the story. Then I'll start talking about the story. At first I'll be vague so as not to spoil the story, but hopefully intriguing enough to get to you to go read the story before continuing. As I progress I'll give more and more away.

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” is a magnificent work of second person prose that is as confusing as a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces without the box. As you read the story the picture is revealed with the placement of the last piece. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” was first published in October 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was reprinted in Best American Short Stories 1960, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction (Ninth Series, 1960), and Judith Merril’s annual anthology,The Fifth Annual of the Year’s Best SF (1960) where I just read it. It was up for a Hugo in 1960 but lost to “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, but wouldn’t any story lose to that story? “The Man Who Lost the Sea” is currently available to read online at Strange Horizons. Or jump over to Escape Pod to listen to the story.

I’ll illustrate how admired this story is by showing you some of the retrospective anthologies it’s been reprinted in over the years:

  • 1968 – Towards Infinity edited by Damon Knight
  • 1969 – First Step Outward edited by Robert Hoskins
  • 1977 – Alpha 8 edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 1983 – The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg
  • 1989 – The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell
  • 1990 – The Great SF Stories 21 (1959) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
  • 1997 – A Century of Science Fiction (1950-1959) edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 2005 – My Favorite Science Fiction Story edited by Martin H. Greenberg
  • 2016 – The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

I’m feeling guilty about not having read “The Men Who Lost the Sea” before now. How could I have missed it? To be honest, I’m not sure my younger self could have appreciated the story. The second person prose involving nonlinear events would have been difficult for my speed-reading younger self to comprehend. Just read the first paragraph:

Say you're a kid, and one dark night you're running along the cold sand with this helicopter in your hand, saying very fast witchy-witchy-witchy. You pass the sick man and he wants you to shove off with that thing. Maybe he thinks you're too old to play with toys. So you squat next to him in the sand and tell him it isn't a toy, it's a model. You tell him look here, here's something most people don't know about helicopters. You take a blade of the rotor in your fingers and show him how it can move in the hub, up and down a little, back and forth a little, and twist a little, to change pitch. You start to tell him how this flexibility does away with the gyroscopic effect, but he won't listen. He doesn't want to think about flying, about helicopters, or about you, and he most especially does not want explanations about anything by anybody. Not now. Now, he wants to think about the sea. So you go away.

What the hell is going on? Where are we? Who is the narrator? Sturgeon gives us the first clues in the second paragraph:

The sick man is buried in the cold sand with only his head and his left arm showing. He is dressed in a pressure suit and looks like a man from Mars. Built into his left sleeve is a combination time-piece and pressure gauge, the gauge with a luminous blue indicator which makes no sense, the clock hands luminous red. He can hear the pounding of surf and the soft swift pulse of his pumps. One time long ago when he was swimming he went too deep and stayed down too long and came up too fast, and when he came to it was like this: they said, "Don't move, boy. You've got the bends. Don't even try to move." He had tried anyway. It hurt. So now, this time, he lies in the sand without moving, without trying.

What can you say about this story so far? Later on when Sturgeon tries to give us more concrete clues can we really put them together yet?

Out and out the sick man forces his view, etching all he sees with a meticulous intensity, as if it might be his charge, one day, to duplicate all this. To his left is only starlit sea, windless. In front of him across the valley, rounded hills with dim white epaulettes of light. To his right, the jutting corner of the black wall against which his helmet rests. (He thinks the distant moundings of nausea becalmed, but he will not look yet.) So he scans the sky, black and bright, calling Sirius, calling Pleiades, Polaris, Ursa Minor, calling that . . . that . . . Why, it moves. Watch it: yes, it moves! It is a fleck of light, seeming to be wrinkled, fissured, rather like a chip of boiled cauliflower in the sky. (Of course, he knows better than to trust his own eyes just now.) But that movement . . .

Maybe it helps when Sturgeon lets us know the man is thinking about the past:

As a child he had stood on cold sand in a frosty Cape Cod evening, watching Sputnik's steady spark rise out of the haze (madly, dawning a little north of west); and after that he had sleeplessly wound special coils for his receiver, risked his life restringing high antennas, all for the brief capture of an unreadable tweetle-eep-tweetle in his earphones from Vanguard, Explorer, Lunik, Discoverer, Mercury. He knew them all (well, some people collect match-covers, stamps) and he knew especially that unmistakable steady sliding in the sky.

By now you should realize this story takes place in the guy’s head, but you still aren’t sure where the guy is or the identity of the annoying boy.

Have I gotten you interested? Have you gone back to the top of the page and followed the link to read the story? If not, let me give you a few more tantalizing clue. Have you read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce – another often reprinted short story? “The Man Who Lost the Sea” belongs to very special tiny subgenre of fiction, one that has deeply personal significance to me, see my essay “Did The First Movie You Ever See Haunt You For The Rest Of Your Life?” about the novel High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. You probably don’t know these guys but they wrote The Mutiny on the Bounty. Or, have you ever seen the ending to the 1966 movie Seconds with Rock Hudson?

Jeez, if I haven’t hooked you by now I give up. I’ve always been fascinated about the nature of memory and consciousness. I love this Theodore Sturgeon because he explores those concepts in one impactful story.

James Wallace Harris, 3/16/21

“The Memory of Mars” by Raymond F. Jones

I love a gripping story that makes me anxious to find out what happens next. As soon as I started listening to “The Memory of Mars” by Raymond F. Jones I knew I was hooked. Mel Hastings, a reporter, is waiting to hear about his wife’s operation. But what was troubling him was what his wife Alice said before going into surgery: “As soon as I’m well again we’ll go to Mars for a vacation again, and then you’ll remember. It’s so beautiful there. We had so much fun—”

Mel Hastings knew they had never been to Mars. Mel’s mystery became my mystery, and I knew this story was going to be a ripping good yarn. But I also thought the story sounded like the beginning of “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick, a much more famous science fiction story from 1966, and known today by the title of the two movies that were based on it, Total Recall.

Before we go any further you might like to stop and read “The Memory of Mars.” It’s available in a scan of the original issue of Amazing Stories from December 1961. Or you can read it online at Project Gutenberg. But I recommend listening to this excellent audio production at YouTube. Or you can buy Raymond F. Jones Resurrected: Selected Science Fiction Stories of Raymond F. Jones for the Kindle for $3.99 or paperback for $15.99 which I did because I wanted to read more of his stories.

The mystery deepens when the surgeon tells Mel his wife has died and that she wasn’t human. Her internal organs were all different. Because Mel is a reporter he starts investigating his wife and was able to prove she was human until very recently with other medical records. Then he finds photos of Alice on Mars and souvenirs from a Martian vacation. Now, doesn’t that remind you of the PKD story? But it gets even more like “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”

Mel decides he must go to Mars to find out what happens but he has a deep phobia against space travel. He then goes to a medical specialist to erase that phobia and they discover Mel had gone on vacation to Mars with Alice. Now this is getting eerily like the PKD story. Could Dick have been inspired by “The Memory of Mars” to write his tale?

Mel Hastings has quite an adventure solving these mysteries with even more similarities to the PKD story. But I hope you’ll read “The Memory of Mars” to find out what happens.

I love finding old SF stories that are forgotten but still deserve to be read. “The Memory of Mars” was never reprinted in an anthology, and in only in one collection of stories by Raymond F. Jones mention above. You can see its reprint history here.

Raymond F. Jones had marginal success as a SF writer back in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. His biggest claim to fame was the film This Island Earth based off his fix-up novel of the same title. I became acquainted with his work as a kid reading his young adult novels for the Winston Science Fiction series (Son of the Stars, Planet of Light, The Year When Stardust Fell). I definitely need to read more of his work.

James Wallace Harris, 2/6/21

“With Flaming Swords” by Cleve Cartmill

Why read a third-rate story by a third-rate writer from a science fiction magazine published 78 years ago? In this case I can blame Paul Fraser who said in a Facebook comment “Cleve Cartmill was a pretty poor writer—I can think of only one story by him that I liked, ‘With Flaming Swords.'” Our group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction reads old science fiction anthologies. In this case we’re reading Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales edited by Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin, and the story under discussion was “Oscar” by Cleve Cartmill from Unknown (Feb. 1941). It was that slight horror fantasy that inspired Paul’s comment.

I thought “Oscar” was barely okay. I also knew that Cleve Cartmill was famous for writing “Deadline” which caused FBI agents to visit the office of John W. Campbell, Jr. back during WWII. Those agents thought the story might reveal a leak to the Manhattan Project. I’ve read “Deadline” and thought it rather dull for all the attention it gets in science fiction history. Campbell always used “Deadline” to puff up Astounding Science-Fiction’s reputation, but it seemed like a lame claim to fame. I can’t believe FBI agents took it serious.

Again, I must ask myself, why read another story by a writer that has already had two strikes with me? Well, I was curious if Paul was right. Now Paul didn’t say the story was great, just one he liked. I followed the link he gave (included above) to read the story off my computer screen, however, after several pages I realized it was a rather long, so I loaded up that issue of Astounding on my iPad. (By the way, that issue also contained “Nerves” by Lester del Rey, a story that got into The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.)

“With Flaming Swords” is still a clunker but for some reason I kept reading. Why? My TBR pile is a whole wall of books and magazines. Well, this time Cartmill sucked me in. The story is about a theocracy ruled by men who claim to be saints. Their proof of sainthood is they glow in the dark, and people take that as proof of divinity. They aren’t. This future society came after an atomic war which caused a few males to carry a gene that makes them glow. Cartmill must have had atomic bombs on the brain back then. I kept reading because I wondered if the small cadre of unbelievers could overthrow the saints.

Hell, the idea of glowing blue people is stupid, even for 1942. I suppose Cartmill thought if radium lettering on his watch glowed, so might irradiated people. One thing about reading old science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s is folks back then had a lot of screwy ideas about radiation.

Robert A. Heinlein had published “If This Goes On—,” a short novel about a small band of freedom fighters trying to overthrow an American theocracy in Astounding in 1940. Did Cartmill get his idea from Heinlein. I kept reading “With Flaming Swords” to see how it compared. But then, that was one of my least favorite Heinlein stories from the 1940s. However, I did like the 1954 novel, The Stars Are Ours! by Andre Norton, also about a small group of scientists fleeing an American theocracy. Could it be that I just like science fiction stories about American theocracies being overthrown?

Cartmill’s writing in “With Flaming Swords” was readable, but it was basically just an adventure tale with several silly unscientific ideas. And it lacked any good science fictional ideas, although I thought it fascinating that Cartmill worked extremely hard to keep the violence down to one killing. And the real point of the story was about how people in power, even based on generations of lies, will not give up that power easily. Privilege hangs on with all its might, justifying their right with any logic it can grasp. We can see that today, and maybe that kept me reading too.

I can see why Paul liked this story if I don’t put too much weight on the word like. Would I recommend it? No — well, maybe. Here’s the thing, if you’re into reading old science fiction stories, and enjoy developing a sense of what it was like to read the old pulps and digests, maybe “With Flaming Swords” is worth reading. But that’s with some heavy qualifications.

Awhile back I decided I wanted to get a feel for the evolution of science fiction through reading short stories. I decided the heart and soul of real science fiction came from pulps and digest magazines. I wrote “The Best Science Fiction Short Stories” setting up the problem of how much to read. I decided there were three levels to approach the problem:

  • Read the original magazines (thousands of magazines)
  • Read the annual anthologies (100-200 volumes)
  • Read the very best retrospective anthologies (2-25 volumes)

I started out just reading the retrospective anthologies. Then I got into the annual anthologies, which is what our Facebook group mainly reads. But to really get down into my subject, I’ve started reading the magazines. Most of the stories aren’t that good, but that’s the reality of the situation. Reading science fiction short stories from just the best retrospective anthologies gives a false impression of the genre. Reading the annuals gives a different distorted view. Reading the magazines gets down to the bare metal.

“With Flaming Swords” has only been reprinted once in a retrospective anthology, and never collected for an annual. To its credit, it did make it to Groff Conklin’s 1948 anthology A Treasury of Science Fiction. Most of Cartmill’s 45 stories published from 1941-1956 were never reprinted in anthologies, and it appears he never had a collection of his stories published in his lifetime (1908-1964). Darkside Press put out Prelude of Armageddon in 2003, and this $40 hardback only contained eleven of his stories. “Deadline,” “Oscar,” and “With Flaming Swords” were among them.

I can’t decide if I wasted my time or not. I enjoyed learning about this microscopic bit of genre history. Reading a great story will stimulate my mind making the experience feel important. Reading crappy stories don’t give me such thrills, but I do feel like I’m learning something. I guess I feel more like a graduate student that has found a mildly interesting footnote.

James Wallace Harris, 11/30/20