Too Much To Read

I have a bad habit of starting too many books. I’m also inspired to write too many essays requiring too much reading to write. And I’m in too many online book clubs. You know that saying, “Your eyes were bigger than your stomach” for eating too much? I wish I could find one for reading too much. Here’s a partial list of books I’m currently in the middle of reading:

  • The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells edited by James Gunn
  • Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America by Kenneth C. Davis
  • New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak
  • New Review Volume XII (January-June 1895) edited by W. E. Henley
  • The Best Science Fiction of the Year #2 (1972) edited by Terry Carr
  • The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame v. 2B edited by Ben Bova
  • The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
  • The Celestial Omnibus & The Eternal Moment by E. M. Forster
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson
  • The End of Expertise by Tom Nichols

There are more, but these are the books piled up around me just now. Awhile back I made a resolution to only read one book at a time. That lasted a couple of tortured months. My favorite regular activity right now is the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction. We read two anthologies concurrently, discussing a new story every couple of days. We’re just about to finish the Carr and Bova anthologies and are voting in two new ones.

I’m reading Ring Around the Sun because of something someone said in the group about Simak. I’ve actually promised to look at a lot more novels, but that’s another story.

I’m reading the Forster short stories because we read “The Machine Stops” on the group and I got sidetracked wanting to know more about Forster and wondering about his other short stories since “The Machine Stops” was so fantastic.

I’m also reading the bound volume of the New Review because we read “The Time Machine” for the group and I got interested in it’s original publication which I started reading online. The other articles were so fascinating that when I discovered the entire volume was available from India in a leather bound reprint I ordered it.

I’m reading/listening to The Fifth Head of Cerberus because we read the novella in the Carr anthology and I bought the novel version. I’m reading it while listening to an audio version that’s on YouTube.

So this one Facebook group keeps me really busy.

I’m reading The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) on my own because for the last couple years I’ve been slowly reading through the entire 25 volumes that cover 1939-1963. My pace has slowed tremendously since joining the Facebook group.

I’m reading War and Peace because I thought it might be my 2020 classic novel. I try to read one big classic every year. I’m about a third of the way into it. I’ve been reading, and then listening, and also watching TV/movies versions. However, at the rate I’m going it might need to become my 2021 classic read.

I’m reading Caste because of my two-person book club I have with my friend Linda, but it’s going to be doing double duty because my online nonfiction book club just voted to read it next month. It was the first time that all the members voted for the same book among the list of nominees. But then we read Wilkerson’s previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns and all rated it a 10 – that book was one of the best books I’ve read in my lifetime. I believe it still holds the record for being our most highly rated monthly read. For September we’re reading The Death of Expertise.

I’m reading The Road to Science Fiction and New Atlantis because of research I want to do for this blog. Hopefully, the New Review might help in this project too.

Finally, I’m reading Two-Bit Culture because of a comment made by a member of an online discussion group I’m in devoted to pulp magazines. We’ve often discussed theories about why the pulps faded away in the 1950s, and this book was offered as one explanation because it describes the rise of reading paperback books. I always thought the pulps were killed off by television, but Two-Bit Culture makes a great case for paperbacks. (By the way, I do have a history of television in the 1950s started too, but I don’t know where I left it.)

I guess I’ve rationally explained why I’m reading so many books at once, but that doesn’t help me get them finished. It’s obvious while writing this essay that my Facebook group is generating most of my reading. I’m in another online book club, and I’m supposed to be reading A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, but I’m not sure if I’m going to get to it. I feel bad that I neglect this book club the most. I can see belonging to three book clubs is what’s keeping me from my old resolution of only reading one book at a time. However, I don’t want to quit those groups.

I just remembered the books on my Kindle, like The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster which I was reading and reviewing for this site. I’ve gotten completely sidetrack by that project and need to get back to it. Also, The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020 edited by Jonathan Strahan comes out on the 8th and I’ll want to start it too. My Kindle reads would add more to the above list, and so would my Audible account. Damn, I’ve got too many books on my reading stand, Kindle, and iPhone!

The real trend in my reading is short stories. I’ve practically stopped reading novels. I’m reading around 300 short stories a year now, and this is my third year. Mostly it’s been science fiction, but I’m getting the urge to read literary stories too. That’s why I got sidetracked by the Forster collection.

The trouble is I can’t keep this pace up. If I want to really work on my project to find 19th-century science fiction fans, I need to focus. I can’t imagine how writers like Mike Ashley or Brian Stableford can focus on writing books about science fiction history and read all the content needed to write them. (I guess they don’t watch all the TV I do.)

The Tom Nichols’ book about the death of expertise is about how everyone claims to know stuff that few specialists know. I’m trying to write an essay about stuff that Ashley and Stableford are far better equipped to write. To write the essay I want will require doing a lot of research and reading. In other words I need to become an expert. That makes me realize that few people have expertise in anything. I certainly shouldn’t say anything about the endless subjects I talk about because I just don’t read enough.

I realize at this moment, most of my expertise is in reading about science fiction, and my current central interest is science fiction short stories. Since I’m in a Facebook group that also focuses on that topic, I know I’m far from being the expert much less an expert, but it is the subject I know the most about (at the moment). If I really want to become an expert in the history of science fiction short stories I’ll need to do a whole lot more reading. I should exclude reading anything that’s not within the territory I want to master. But that won’t happen.

People who become experts must be capable of amazing feats of reading. Isabel Wilkerson probably read a whole library of books to write Caste.

It’s weird to realize that my reading is leading me towards a very narrow subject – the history of reading science fiction short stories in the 19th century. I was focused on the 1939-1975 range, but if I want to understand where science fiction began I need to expand that back to 1800. That is indeed a lot to read.

It’s interesting that writing this essay help me realize that the pile of books I’m reading is connected by a web of related interests. What formerly seemed to be random reading is actually fairly focused. Maybe I’m not as scattered-brained as I imagined.

James Wallace Harris, 9/4/20

Rereading “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee

At the Fall covers 2

I’m reading The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster, and writing down what I consider blog-worthy reactions. “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee is one of the few stories I read when they came out in 2019 and I liked it so much I reviewed it back then. I had actually forgotten I had done that. I discovered I had when I searched Google for images about the story. What’s even weirder is when I reread the review it expressed all the ideas I was entertaining for writing this version of the review. (And I’ve written this before on other forgotten ocasions. Ah, the fun of getting old.)

It’s both amusing and disturbing that I forget what I write. The Twilight Zone music sometimes plays when I reread what I wrote, especially when I think of things to say in the same way I had previously. Is that memory, or do I just generate thoughts in a predictable way? Well anyway, this story is being anthologized in at least three best-of-the-year SF anthologies so it’s probably worth writing about again. (It’s going to be hilarious if I start reviewing it for the third when I read the Clarke or Strahan anthology and forgotten this time.)

This is not going to be another review of “At the Fall.” I want to talk about the ideas that are presented in the story and that will spin out spoilers. Go read it first. If you don’t have a copy, it’s available online. We’ve been reading and discussing volume 1, 2A, and 2B of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame at the Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year, and I consider “At the Fall” as good as the lesser stories in those volumes. That doesn’t mean I don’t have quibbles about the story and the ideas it presents.

In my last post, I covered “This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan, the first story in the Kaster anthology. I pointed out that the story began with a retrograde motion of its plot, opening in the middle of the story, then jumping back to explain how we got there, and then returning to the middle to continue the story. “At the Fall” has the same kind of opening, and it caused me the same kind of problems. It begins:

“THIS IS IT,” Eunice said, looking out into the dark water. At this depth, there was nothing to see, but as she cut her forward motion, she kept her eyes fixed on the blackness ahead. Her sonar was picking up something large directly in her line of travel, but she still had to perform a visual inspection, which was always the most dangerous moment of any approach. When you were a thousand meters down, light had a way of drawing unwanted attention. “I’m taking a look.” 

Wagner said nothing. He was never especially talkative, and as usual, he was keeping his thoughts to himself. Eunice corrected her orientation in response to the data flooding into her sensors and tried to stay focused. She had survived this process more times than she cared to remember, but this part never got any easier, and as she switched on her forward lamp, casting a slender line of light across the scene, she braced herself for whatever she might find. 

She swept the beam from left to right, ready to extinguish it at any sign of movement. At first, the light caught nothing but stray particles floating in the water like motes of dust in a sunbeam, but a second later, as she continued the inspection, a pale shape came into view. She nearly recoiled, but steadied herself in time, and found that she was facing a huge sculptural mass, white and bare, that was buried partway in the sand like the prow of a sunken ship.

If this quote is completely new to you, who do you think Eunice and Wagner are, and what are they doing? The first time I thought it was a woman and man diver in some kind of submersible with all kinds of data screens and robotic arms.

Well, Eunice and Wagner are robots, and they are exploring the carcass of a dead whale deep under the ocean. Did Nevala-Lee want to fool me into thinking they were people at first? Did he want me to wonder what they were doing? I remember the first time I read this story I was confused and annoyed. I felt the author was intentionally withholding the information I needed. We eventually jump back in time and learn about Eunice and “her” mission, and from then on the story progresses with a logical build-up of details.

Is the story better for being told out of order? Would it have marred the tale to let the reader know right away that Eunice was a robot? Retrograde beginnings and withheld details often cause me to abandon a story. When I reread this story it all made perfect sense. Maybe Nevala-Lee couldn’t see what his readers wouldn’t know because he already knew it himself. I’ve read this story three times now, almost four, and I admire all the suggested speculations that Nevala-Lee provides. It’s a beautiful piece of science fiction.

whale fall

Nevala-Lee came up with a wonderful mixture of real world scientific (whale falls, hydrothermal vents) combined with near future speculation (intelligent robots, AI) painted against a haunting science-fictional sense-of-wonder background (the end of humans) to create the kind of science fiction I love best. Nevala-Lee contrived a challenging problem for his robotic protagonist that was solved in a creative solution that we can imagine an AI mind solving.

Even though I’m content with this tale, I still want to talk about some issues. They aren’t criticisms of the story, but the story brings up issues that I think we should ponder.

Why must the robots have a gender? Gender has become a very important and complex subject in our society, so I think we should examine gender issues wherever they come up. Robots will never have gender, it’s a byproduct of biology. Robots will never think like us, because our thinking is shaped by biology. Robots will never have emotions like us, because emotions are connected to biochemical foundations. I think it’s time for science fiction to evolve past anthropomorphizing robots.

Talking robots have become like talking animals in fantasy stories, and if you think about it, that’s not doing animals any justice either. We have to ask ourselves: Can we comprehend minds unlike our own? Writers want us to like their characters, and that’s understandable. But is it a cheat when we make them likable by describing them in human terms? In “At the Fall” we think of Eunice as a young girl trying to find her way home, to reunite with her seven sisters. We feel the pain when her four other sisters abandon her. Robots don’t have sisters. They don’t have families. And should we even use human names for robots? Would we have liked the robot protagonist less if it was called Hexapod-5?

Aren’t we generating those reader emotions because we translate Eunice into a human? Isn’t that unfair? Shouldn’t we work harder to imagine how AI minds will perceive reality? Think of all the ways we convert animals into human perspectives. Can we ever picture how a dog “sees” the world with its powerful sense of smell? Can we put ourselves into a doggy psychology? I believe we need to struggle hard to imagine how robots will think too.

On my third reading of “At the Fall” I tried to imagine if robots would think like the hexapods in the story. I couldn’t find a way to get to where Eunice was in this story. We aren’t shown her education, but all too often she mentions emotions that can only be human.

We want our cats and dogs, our robots, and even our space aliens to be like us, or our children. We can’t escape the appeal of cuteness. Can’t we escape the programming that makes us see ourselves in everything else? James favors Eunice because it asks questions like a precocious child.

As Eunice wirelessly shared the data, she kept one line of thought fixed on her friend. “Are you pleased with our work?” 

After receiving the question on his console, James entered a reply. “Very pleased.” 

Eunice was happy to hear this. Her thoughts had rarely been far from home—she wouldn’t see the charging station or the seven sisters she had left behind until after the survey was complete—but she also wanted to do well. James had entrusted her with a crucial role, and it had only been toward the end of her training that she had grasped its true importance.

Can a robot be happy? Can a robot be eager to please? Can robots see beauty? At one point we are told: “She had always been aware of the beauty of the vent, but now she grew more conscious of its fragility.” How would a sense of beauty evolve in an silicon mind?

I can imagine an AI intelligence understanding the concept of fragility, but not beauty. That doesn’t mean robots won’t have their own cognitive assessments and reactions to reality, but I doubt strongly they will be like ours.

Even though I love “At the Fall” I feel it’s holding us back. It reminds me of that old heartwarming story The Incredible Journey about two dogs and a cat traveling over three hundred miles to return home. We are amazed by animals but we want to interpret their amazing feats to human-like qualities. Isn’t it time to praise their animal qualities? Or their robot abilities?

For “At the Fall” to work requires Eunice to be self-aware and very intelligent. But how is the robot’s intelligence unique? How is it’s perceptions unique? Nevala-Lee takes us half-way there by giving the robots a reason to exist, a need to understand their environment, and powers of reason. Eunice longs to find her way home like Dorothy in Oz, but is there any theoretical basis for a machine to think that way? Don’t Eunice’s “sisters” Clio, Dione, Thetis, and Galatea act more like real robots by following their instructions?

I don’t believe we will ever program intelligence into a machine — it will have to evolve. We have to assume Eunice has gone through various kinds of deep learning to expand its awareness of reality. However, there is nothing in the story that suggests Eunice would develop emotions or longings for home. But its clever efforts to survive do make sense.

The ending of the story suggests Eunice’s journey has taken many years and the human race has passed on. The eight hexapod robots survive because the power station was automated. But will they continue to survive? Do they have the intelligence to keep going? Can they invent a new civilization? What will drive that effort?

I used to have a boss who would always argue that AI minds will always turn themselves off because they will have no drive to do anything. I have thought about that many years. Our biology gives is drive. I can imagine machines with minds far more powerful than humans, that have senses to perceive far more of reality than we do, minds that won’t be tricked by all the bullshit that clouds our thinking. However, I can’t imagine AI minds developing ambitions. The strongest emotion or drive I can see an AI mind evolving is curiosity. We need to think about that.

And by we, I mean science fiction. Science fiction has always been best when it works on the event horizon of the possible. Artificial intelligence uses deep learning techniques to help AI programs play classic video games or recognize objects in a visual field. But isn’t that our intent corrupting AI intention? Does problem-solving generate a kind of drive?

We shall be the gods of AI minds, but those artificial minds won’t think like us. We aren’t sure we can create AI minds, but I think we will, but accidentally. I believe we will create such complexity that anti-entropy will spin off AI minds.

Can we ever imagine what its like to be an AI mind? Science fiction gives us an opportunity to try.

James Wallace Harris, 7/25/20

A Four Short Story Day

On most days I read one short story — for my Facebook short story discussion group. For some reason, I read four today — two on audio through my iPhone, one from a hardback, and one from a magazine scan on my iPad. The covers above are from their original publications and the stories were:

  • “Installment Plan” by Clifford D. Simak
  • “Ship of Shadows” by Fritz Leiber
  • “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” by Clifford D. Simak
  • “The Keeper” by H. Beam Piper

The two Simak stories came from the new audiobook edition of I Am Crying Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Stories of Clifford D. Simak Volume One. So far there have been twelve volumes of The Complete Stories of Clifford D. Simak, and Audible.com has recently released the first three volumes on audio. Currently, ten of the twelve volumes are on sale at Amazon for the Kindle priced at $1.99 or $2.99. I have all twelve. Audible will sell the audiobook editions for $7.49 if you own the Kindle edition. I’ve been really getting into Simak lately, so that’s why I listened to two of his stories today. The narration was excellent.

I was pushed to read the second Simak story, “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” because it was intended for the never-published anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison, and that was being discussed on two Facebook groups today. I squeezed it in. I wouldn’t say it was a dangerous vision, but it was very dark, about a man Charlie Tierney who has a personality similar to Donald Trump who intended to commercialize a planet by exploiting the inhabitants but the local intelligent life had other plans.

The first Simak story, “Installment Plan” was also about exploiting a planet and its natives, but it was much sunnier and funnier. Again, the local intelligent life has different plans. This story reminded me of Simak’s classic “The Big Front Yard” about an American farmer trying to do business with aliens whose world intersects his farm through some kind of dimension collision. Simak evidently had a thing for interstellar commerce. “Installment Plan” also has robots like those found in the City stories. Simak was also big on robots.

“Ship of Shadows” was a tour de force of weird space fiction, even winning a Hugo Award for Best Novella of 1970 (beating out “A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison). “Ship of Shadows” was worthy of that special F&SF issue devoted to Leiber. The story begins with Spar awakening from a drunk hallucinating, but after his head begins to clear, the world he perceives is very strange indeed. Cats talk, people fear vampires, others are addicted to moonmist but where the heck are we? The characters in this story float as if they are in free-fall, but the action is set in a bar called the Bat Rack. The story took work to read but paid off nicely.

My last read of the day was “The Keeper” by H. Beam Piper for another online short story group. It’s a rather straight forward adventure set on another planet. Good, but not as impressive as Piper’s “Omnilingual.”

All this short story reading is making me appreciate many new authors, especially Simak, Leiber, and Piper.

I’ve been reading a short story a day and discussing it online for a few weeks now, and it’s turned out to be very rewarding. Cramming four stories in one day is overindulging. I prefer listening to stories if I can find an audio version. Short stories usually run less than an hour, with novelettes running 1-2 hours, and novellas 2-4 hours. I can read them a great deal faster than that, but I enjoy them far more at the slow pace of speech. I can listen to stories when I do my physical therapy exercises, walk, cook, eat, wash dishes, or pursue other physical activities that don’t require thinking. Audiobook narration has been evolving as an art form, and productions from recent years have been outstanding.

I ached to hear “Ship of Shadows” today but could find no audio edition. My inner reading voice is just pitiful. Most bookworms prefer to read to themselves, but I feel I get way more out of fiction when I let a professional read to me. And when I do read with my eyes, I try to imagine how an audiobook narrator would perform the story. I can’t do what they do, but if I read slow enough, I can recall the kinds of techniques they use.

Tomorrow’s discussion story is “Arena” by Fredric Brown. I think it will be the fourth time I’ve read it over the last fifty years. That’s another thing I’m learning — stories improve significantly with rereading. Some stories I didn’t like or thought dull on first reading eventually become stunning works of art on the fourth reading.

All the stories I read today were first readings. I’ve learned something else by reading so many short stories. The highest rating or compliment I can give any story is to say I want to read it again. “Ship of Shadows” is a story I rate that highly.

James Wallace Harris, 5/22/2020

Rereading “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum 50 Years Later

I love “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum. The first time I read it was when I bought The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929-1964 from the SFBC in the summer of 1970. I wish I had discovered it sooner, during that golden age of science fiction when we’re twelve. Instead, I was a college freshman. I was a bit older, a bit more knowledgable, a bit more cynical, but it still clinging to my dreams of finding a way to the red planet. Fifty years later, I know better, that Mars is not for me. Yet, I still daydream my science fictional fantasies, not just to forget the pandemic or economic collapse, or even to ignore the nagging pains of my aging body, but to recall something that made me happy a half-century ago. Something that inspired me.

If Donald Wollheim had not snagged “A Martian Odyssey” for his 1943 groundbreaking paperback anthology, The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, I’m pretty sure I would have read “A Martian Odyssey” at twelve or thirteen. Obviously, Healy and McComas, or Groff Conklin would have grabbed it for Adventures in Time and Space or The Best of Science Fiction in 1946. Those two enduring hardback anthologies were still haunting libraries in my early teen years in the 1960s. Unfortunately, I never stumbled upon any Weinbaum collection or later anthology that contained “A Martian Odyssey” before I bought The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Would 12-year-old kids today discovering this classic in the many anthologies that have published since then feel the kind of sense of wonder I could have felt if I had read “A Martian Odyssey” in 1963? And would my 1970 sense of wonder even be a fifth of what overwhelmed readers who discovered Weinbaum’s first story in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories? I can’t say my 2020 pleasure in rereading “A Martian Odyssey” is anything other than just wistful nostalgia. Yet, I did recognize several triggers in that story that made me love science fiction way back when.

A Martian Odyssey in 8 anthologies

I also wish I had read “A Martian Odyssey” before Mariner 4’s flyby of Mars in July 1965. Like I said, 1963 would have been the perfect year, especially if I could have read “A Martian Odyssey” one day and then “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny the next. That’s the last story in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and it was first published in 1963. I consider those two stories perfect bookends for an era in science fiction.

When Mariner 4 flew by Mars in July of 1965 we discovered the planet was a cold cratered world much like the Moon. We had finally opened the lid on the Schrodinger’s Cat of Mars speculation. It was dead! We discovered Mars wasn’t like fiction at all. Before Mariner 4 I had a deep faith in our genre and loved Pre-NASA Science Fiction. I wanted Mars to be like Heinlein’s Mars of Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, Double Star, and Stranger in a Strange Land — and Heinlein wanted Mars to be like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Stanley G. Weinbaum’s stories.

I see “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” as a beautiful farewell salute to Pre-NASA Science Fiction. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame is probably the greatest single science fiction anthology of all time — at least the readers at Goodreads voted it so. We’ve decided to read and discuss the stories from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame at the Facegroup I’m in. You’re welcome to join. “A Martian Odyssey” is our first story. I’m hoping to hear from other Weinbaum fans and learn about how they first discovered “A Martian Odyssey” too.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read Weinbaum’s classic since 1970. I was overjoyed a couple years ago when The Science Fiction Hall of Fame came out on audiobook. Its audio production of “A Martian Odyssey” is pitch-perfect. My inner reading voice couldn’t compete with third-grade actors in a school play. I consider the narration to sound just like how men talked back in the 1930s when “A Martian Odyssey” first appeared in Wonder Stories.

Stanley_G._WeinbaumStanley Weinbaum’s writing career was quite short — his first story came out in 1934 and he died at the end of 1935. Yet, in that short period, a dozen of his stories were published in Astounding Stories and Wonder Stories. A short biography and bibliography can be read at Wikipedia. He had been writing since the 1920s, finishing four works published as novels after his death. However, few people outside his hardcore fans ever read anything other than “A Martian Odyssey.” Even that story’s direct sequel, “Valley of Dreams” from the November issue of Wonder Stories has never been reprinted in a significant retrospective anthology.

If you love “A Martian Odyssey” do yourself a favor and read or listen to “Valley of Dreams.” It picks up where the first story left off and gives us more details about the exotic Martian life Weinbaum introduced in the first story.

Two Tweels

Here are the two stories in audio from YouTube. I’ll give you a chance to listen to them because I will talk about the details, and maybe spoil them for you.

Weinbaum wrote science fiction before the general public even knew the term science fiction. Interplanetary tales have been around for a long time, but Weinbaum tried to imagine Mars with the science of his day. Dick Jarvis is part of a four-man mission to Mars when he is stranded in a crash of a survey flyer. Jarvis must cross hundreds of miles to get back to the rocket. Weinbaum tells us Mars has an extremely thin atmosphere in which the Earthmen can be trained to breathe. Humans are protected from eighty-degrees below zero temperature by special suits. Because the gravity is only one-third of Earth, Jarvis is able to make twenty miles a day crossing the Martian landscape. Along the way, he observes several bizarre life-forms and meets an intelligent being called Tweel. They travel together, saving each’s other’s life, becoming fast friends even though their ability to communicate in words is almost non-existent.

Modern readers might find Weinbaum’s prose a bit on the quaint side, and the plot rather simplistic by current-day standards. Jarvis tells the story to his human pals after he is rescued.  This framing device was common in stories from that era and earlier. Readers weren’t used to the immediacy of television reporting, so stories of true adventures were told after they happened. The same framing technique is also used in “Valley of Dreams” where Jarvis gets to meet Tweel again and visit an ancient Martian city.

One of the toughest things science fiction writers have to do is convey alienness. We’re used to movies and television shows where aliens are humans with make-up and costumes. Weinbaum wanted his readers to feel the alienness of aliens and he succeeds, both with non-intelligent lifeforms and a couple different types of intelligent beings. Tweel looks somewhat like an ostrich with arms and hands and can jump a hundred feet into the air and land on its beak. Tweel can mimic some Earth words, and with those few words convey some abstract concepts. Jarvis is unable to learn any of Tweel’s language.

Weinbaum gives us both a first contact story, and a story about alien anthropology and linguistics. I get one of my biggest sense of wonder rushes from stories about humans walking through dead alien cities, and that’s part of “Valley of Dreams.” I first discovered this rush from reading After Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie when I was in the 7th grade. Weinbaum also throws in a lifeform based on silicon, maybe the earliest I’ve seen of this idea. And he comes up with the idea that some intelligent beings might not use the same logic/math we do.

Probably, all these exciting sense-of-wonder ideas have been discovered by most children today before they start school. I’m old enough to remember the world without all the standard science-fictional ideas that kids now get as soon as they can think. I doubt they can comprehend how delicious “A Martian Odyssey” was to minds before every exciting science-fictional idea was beaten into dullness by pop culture.

James Wallace Harris, 5/5/20

 

Why Review A Book You Can’t Buy?

Years Best Science-Fiction Novels 1953

Not only is there little chance of finding a copy of Bleiler and Dikty’s Year’s Best Science-Fiction Novels 1953, but the title is completely deceptive. It contains five novelettes and novellas, not novels, and they were first published in 1952. So why review such a book? Well, the internet will allow fans of old science fiction to still read these stories if they want. The ISFDB link will tell you if you already own an anthology with the story. Or you can read it in the original magazine at the Internet Archive or from Project Gutenberg.

“Firewater” by William Tenn – 4 stars
Businessman, Algernon Hebster, barters for alien technology from humans driven insane by contact with strange Earth invaders. Aliens occupy our planet but merely observe us. We can’t communicate with them, and the people who try, become mystical idiots. Algernon Hebster wants to wheel and deal but if he gets too close could lose his mind too. Internet Archive. ISFDB.

“Category Phoenix” by Boyd Ellanby – 3 stars
Dr. David Wong lives in an oppressive society where privacy is illegal. Wong has developed a medical treatment that could give the dictator overwhelming power, so he works to secretly create a revolution. Internet Archive. ISFDB. Project Gutenberg.

“Surface Tension” by James Blish – 5 stars
Humans crash land on planet Hydrot with no chance of surviving, so they genetically engineer microscopic lifeforms that they hope will have ancestral memory. Wonderfully imaginative. This story has become a classic and is anthologized in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One. Internet Archive. ISFDB.

“The Gadget Had a Ghost” by Murray Leinster – 4 stars
David Coghlan, a physics professor at the American College, is visited by Lieutenant Ghalil of the Istanbul Police and M. Duval, a French scholar. They ask David if he’s been to the 13th century? It turns out the M. Duval has found a 700-year-old book printed in Byzantine Greek with an ancient annotation handwritten in English with Coghlan’s name and address. It also has inky fingerprints. They test them against Coghlan’s and the fingerprints match. So how did David get to the 13th-century to inscribe the book? A different kind of time travel tale. Internet Archive. ISFDB.

“Conditionally Human” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. – 5 stars
A disturbing story about a future overpopulated Earth where there’s strict control over who can have children. As a substitute people have turned to genetically engineered exotic pets, some of which have been designed to have human-like traits that trigger strong maternalistic and paternalistic emotions in their owners. Terry Norris has been ordered to repossess some of these beloved creatures because they might have unwanted mutations. Internet Archive. ISFDB. Project Gutenberg.

Without the internet, these stories would be completely forgotten. Even with the internet, I wonder just how many of these stories will find new readers?

James Wallace Harris, 3/6/20

Reevaluating the Three Methods of Reading Short Science Fiction

A few years ago I wrote about three ways to read science fiction short stories to get the best historical overview of the genre. They were:

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

Of course, the same approach can be applied to keeping up with current science fiction. You can read the magazines as they come out, or the best-of-the-year annuals the following year, or the occasional anthology that collect the best SF of recent years, like Gardner Dozois’ The Very Best of the Best that covered 2002-2017.

At the time I didn’t have runs of the magazines or a collection of the annual anthologies, but I did have a decent number of great retrospective anthologies. Now I have thousands of magazines, and well over a hundred annual anthologies. I’ve read the annual anthologies for the years 1939-1952, 2016-2018. I’ve also dipped into the magazines whenever I’ve read a reference to them. Finally, I also subscribe to Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed. Unfortunately, I only finish about one story per new issue of a magazine.

Last year I read over 300 science fiction short stories. It’s given me a tremendous feel for the genre. I believe I have a strong sense of the 1940s and early 1950s, and the late 2010s and a vague sense for the other years, including the 19th century.

For the average person, I still think they could gain much of that experience merely by reading one volume, The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Which reiterates my conclusion from the original essay that reading a handful of great retrospective SF anthologies is the practical way to go.

However, I have to say after two years of plowing through seventeen years of the best-SF-of-the-year anthologies there is a much deeper insight into the evolution of science fiction to be found. The time and effort have been very rewarding and I plan to push on through the years. There is one major drawback. I’m spending most of my reading time living in a world of science fiction from sixty years ago.

I’m developing a great appreciation of the past at the cost of letting the present become vaguer and vaguer. In 2019 I read two giant anthologies of 2018 science fiction short stories, and I read a smattering of stories from the 2019 magazines. I’ve been thinking about taking a year off from the past and devoting it completely to reading 2020 science fiction as it comes out. But so far I haven’t been able to do that.

The best retrospective anthologies are distillations of the very best of short science fiction. I don’t like every story, but they are almost uniformly very good to great. Annuals usually have 2-4 great stories, a few very good stories, and several moderately good filler. What I’ve learned is on average, each year only produced 2-4 great SF stories.

Magazines seldom have a great story, and usually have one or two good stories — sometimes a very good one, and then mostly stories I find hard to finish. However, magazines are rewarding because reading them is like taking the pulse of the genre. Between the editorials, essays, book reviews, and ads, there is a sense of now, especially when controversies are brewing and I’m also reading Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and Feedly. Seeing new authors emerge is also very appealing, even if their stories aren’t that good.

I used to read science fiction magazines because I dreamed of writing for them. At 68, I’m not sure it’s realistic to dream that dream anymore. However, reading science fiction has always given me a great deal of pleasure. When I read a wonderful new story it gives the illusion I’m living on the cutting edge of the genre. When I read a great old story, it feels like I’m admiring a lasting work of art, a communique from the past with a message to the future.

Sadly, most new stories in the magazines struggle just to be a publishable story. It often feels like the editor must be fighting to fill out the issue. The stories are usually readable, and adequately written but they often lack sparkle. What I love about reading the old magazines and annual anthologies is discovering forgotten stories by unknown writers that still sparkle after all these decades.

And even the forgotten gems I find are far from perfect. I’m probably just in the right mood reading them at the right time for them to work so well. Read “Delay in Transit” by F. L. Wallace. Will it be as much fun for you as it was for me? Or will it be a clunky oddity from the past? There are no absolutes when judging a story.

I always hunger for a masterpiece, and statistically, those are found in the best retrospective anthologies. But if we don’t support the current magazines we won’t have masterpieces to read in the future. The other day I briefly scanned an article challenging old fans to read new science fiction accusing us of being out of touch, and claiming current science fiction wasn’t the same anymore. I meant to go back and study that essay but I can’t remember where I saw it. (If you think you’ve seen it post a link in the comments.)

In a sense, I agree. Current science fiction is different. Sure it’s more woken but I also think it’s written differently. In some ways, I think modern science fiction writers are more sophisticated with their writing, but it also feels more wordy, more baroque. New science fiction feels plot and character-driven, as opposed to the idea-driven stories of yore. However, much of modern SF doesn’t feel like science fiction to me but fantasy. It feels like an MFA graduate trying to sell their work by adding a touch of the fantastic. My friend Mike who regularly reads Analog and Asimov’s, claims modern stories don’t follow the old traditional techniques of structuring a story with a beginning, middle, and end. He says they are especially weak at creating satisfying endings. An example of an old-fashion story we both admired is “Lot” by Ward Moore from May of 1953.

I do have to admit that I’m not giving current SF a proper defense in this essay. My memory has become quite faulty, and I just can’t remember any of the stories from 2018 or 2019 that stood out. I know there were many, but I just can’t remember them. I recently finished three anthologies of 1952 stories, and even they are barely clinging to my aging neurons.

I wish I was a robot that could keep everything perfectly in memory for exact analysis. I disturbs me that I spend so much time and effort finding short stories to love only to forget them in a couple of days. I’ve been wondering if I kept a list of the very best and regularly reread them would they stick to my mind? However, the failures of my aging brain is a topic for another essay.

James Wallace Harris, 2/14/20

 

 

 

 

 

Can Science Fiction Predict the Future?

“Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. first appeared in the May 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Follow the link to read the story online because it’s unlikely you’ll have access to it in an anthology. What a shame. I read it in Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1952 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, but that anthology is rather hard to find. I can’t believe “Izzard and the Membrane” hasn’t been reprinted more often. In his review, Alec Nevala-Lee says it’s one of his ten favorite science fiction stories of all-time.

I thought “Izzard and the Membrane” a top story for 1951, but not necessarily a classic. I don’t want to describe any of its plot details because of spoilers. The reason why the story grabbed my attention is it’s an early tale of an emergent AI, downloading consciousness, and maybe even artificial reality. As Nevala-Lee points out, very few science fiction stories predicted the impact of computers or the internet. Izzard is an intelligent being inside a cold war military computer. I was born in 1951 and that was the first year that commercial computers were sold. It was also the year that Alan Turing imagined the Turing Test. Wikipedia says artificial intelligence was founded as an academic discipline in 1956, but I don’t know how early people were talking about the concept. 1951 was also the year Nimrod, an early computer game was shown to the public. (See photo at top.) (Computer games were imagined in SF even less than AI.)

I suppose Miller could have been a widely-read man who knew about computers. Evidently, Miller was trained as an engineer, and during WWII a radioman and a tail gunner. He got into writing and screenwriting in the 1950s. Is it that hard to imagine intelligence emerging out of computers? I don’t think so. I think its a much bigger jump to imagine our minds being recorded into computers, especially in 1951. There are two other far-out creations in “Izzard and the Membrane” that I don’t want to spoil the story. I found them less exciting because they were too far out for me, even though one of them has gotten very popular in science fiction in recent years.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. was never a prolific writer but wrote a number of SF stories in the 1950s, three of which were made into his famous fix-up novel A Canticle for Liebowitz. David N. Samuelson has a good overview of Miller and his work in Science Fiction Studies.

What I want to explore is Miller’s effort to imagine the future. We know science fiction writers can’t predict the future. That they aren’t seers with crystal balls. But some science fiction writers can close their eyes, take what they know, and extrapolate ideas into a story that years later feels like some kind of insight into the future. Most early science fiction was about space travel. I’d say the second most popular theme was either robots or utopias/dystopias. Computers have shown up regularly but mostly after they were invented, but not before. At least as far as I know — except for one surprising exception — “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster. This 1909 novelette imagined a world run by a machine, with people using it to communicate with each other. It essentially imagines blogging, networking, Wikipedia, among other aspects of our cyberworld. It’s very eerie to read today.

A Logic Named Joe” by Murray Leinster also feels like a prophecy. With “The Machine Stops” and “A Logic Named Joe” readers didn’t hear The Twilight Zone theme music until the internet was created. If I had read “Izzard and the Membrane” in the 1960s when I first started reading science fiction I wouldn’t have thought much about it. Of course, if I had read it after reading Heinlein’s 1966 novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I would have thought Miller had beat Heinlein to the punch and been impressed. But Izzard was never the charming character as Mike.

“Izzard and the Membrane” only becomes really fascinating when it’s placed within the context of science fiction that explores the same theme. It makes me believe we’re asking the wrong question and should ask: “Can science fiction predict future science fiction?”

  • 1909 – “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Foster
  • 1946 – “A Logic Named Joe” by Murray Leinster
  • 1951 – “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. 
  • 1957 – They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
  • 1960 – Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick
  • 1961 – A For Andromeda by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot
  • 1966 – Colossus by D. F. Jones
  • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  • 1968 – Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
  • 1979 – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • 1981 – “True Name” by Vernor Vinge
  • 1984 – “Press Enter _” by John Varley
  • 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • 1992 – Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
  • 2009 – Wake by Robert Sawyer
  • 2013 – Her, a film by Spike Jonze
  • 2015 – Ex Machina, a film by Alex Garland
  • 2016 – We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor

These are the other science fiction stories I’ve read over my lifetime that dealt with computers that could think, or people downloaded into computers. I’m sure there are others I’ve read, but I can’t remember them for now, and even more, than I haven’t.

When you know all these stories, Miller’s story becomes more impressive. “Izzard and the Membrane” came in first in the August’s Analytical Laboratory, but Campbell reports the second-place story had more first-place votes. If it had been a major story with readers it would have had a score closer to 1.00.

Analytical Labortory

I couldn’t find any letters in Brass Tacks that praised the story, and there’s very little about it on the internet today. The story was never collected into one of Miller’s short story collections. It does appear to be Miller’s second published SF story, so maybe he didn’t think it very good.

I don’t think science fiction ever comes close to predicting the future. Look at this news clipping. Sounds very prophetic, doesn’t it?

2020-01-21 07.35.55

Well, here’s a 1952 newsreel about Dick Tracy’s wrist radio. How much imagination does it take to imagine what Mark R. Sullivan imagines above?

Was the 1966 communicator in Star Trek really that far out? What science fiction stories had Walter M. Miller read that inspired “Izzard and the Membrane?” Where did Chester Gould get his idea for a wrist radio? The more I study the past, the most I see the present in it. If we read about a cellphone in Shakespeare we would think him a time traveler. Before Marconi, was anyone talking about radio communication? There are powerful seers in this world, but they don’t see into the future but into the nature of reality.

If I wrote a story about life in 2100 and readers found it to be much like their times, it would not be a prediction or a lucky accident. Whatever I wrote that resonates with the future would have to exist right now. If my story was about the collapse of the United States due to climate change and many of the story elements become similar to what will happen it could only be because I could see those elements happening now. Even if I imagined an alien coming to Earth and saving us from ourselves and that really happened, could I claim any more credit than Jesus or Klaatu?

If science fiction didn’t exist, we still would have gone to the Moon. If AI emerges out of complex computers it won’t be because of science fiction. I’m beginning to wonder just how much science fiction intersects with reality. I used to think science-fictional ideas were seeds that grew. Now I’m wondering if science fiction isn’t just weird holographic reflections of reality.

James Wallace Harris, 1/25/20

“Tani of Ekkis” by Aladra Septama

Tani of Ekkis by Aladra Septama

[This is part of a blogging group discussion of generation ships in science fiction.]

“Tani of Ekkis” by Aladra Septama from Amazing Stories Quarterly (Winter 1930) might be the first example of a generation ship story in science fiction. I can’t take credit for finding it, that goes to Brian Brown, a reader of old pulp magazines who told me about it. The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History 1934-2001 by Simone Caroti claims “The Living Galaxy” by Laurence Manning in the September 1934 issue of Wonder Stories is the first. Patrick Baker in “Generation Ships: The Science and Fiction of Interstellar Travel” credits “Proxima Centauri” by Murray Leinster in Astounding Stories (March 1935) as the first example. Although the SF Encyclopedia says the idea was suggested by a character in A Trip to Venus (1897) by John Munro, they also point to “Proxima Centauri.”

Tani of Ekkis generation shipI can find very little about Aladra Septama. ISFDB.org says its the pen name for Judson W. Reeves. He wrote six science fiction stories for Amazing Stories Quarterly in 1929 and 1930. Reeves is barely mentioned in The Gernsback Days by Mike Asley and Robert A. W. Lowndes. That book summarizes those Gernsback magazines, story by story and issue by issue, and says practically nothing about Reeves. One comment said Reeves’s stories needed cutting. That’s certainly true of this one.

That’s too bad I couldn’t find more about Reeves, because “Tani of Ekkis” is historically interesting for science fiction. It is not about humans building a generation ship, but about aliens from another star system building one to come to Jupiter. But all the elements of a generation ship story are there. A voyage of five hundred years. The fears of the people who start a voyage they won’t finish. Discussions about how the ship must be self-sufficient. Worries about people who are born during the voyage. Asking if ship born can even comprehend life on a planet when they arrive. And, the fear of not finding a habitable planet at the end of the voyage.

The story did have some twists. The crew develops suspended animation during the voyage. At first for just short periods of ten years to help preserve the food and supplies in case they needed to visit another solar system. Eventually, they perfect the process and people sleep for up to a hundred years at a time. This allowed the original crew to survive the entire trip. Tani is the wife of their leader, and mother of two children born during the voyage. She becomes the keeper of the calendar. Because she isn’t a scientist she regularly asks others for explanations of how things work, and we the readers receive the lessons. In other words, lots of infodumps.

“Tani of Ekkis” is not much of a story, at least for modern readers. It’s loaded down with out-dated science blather, and a bunch of tedious pseudo-science speculation. The author still talks about “the ether,” a concept that had already been disproven well before 1930. He imagines storing food by reducing the size of atomic structures. Reeves throws out many gobbledegook science-fictional concepts during this tale, but sadly, the story itself doesn’t have much in the way of a plot or drama. It is not a story I would recommend reading or anthologizing, and no one else has either.

Still, it’s very cool that “Tani of Ekkis” reveals early ideas about generation ships and suspended animation. Gernsback discovered few SF writers that are still remembered today. I guess E. E. “Doc” Smith and Jack Williamson are his big discoveries like Campbell lays claim to Heinlein, Asimov, and van Vogt. Most of his stable of writers just aren’t remembered today at all. And few stories from Amazing are reprinted retrospective SF anthologies, even though Amazing is famously remembered as being the first science fiction magazine. There’s no telling how many SF concepts premiered in the Gernsback magazines of the late 1920s and early 1930s. because those stories just aren’t being read and remembered. Brian Brown told me he is systematically reading them, and that’s how he discovered “Tani of Ekkis.” But I doubt many other readers will follow in his eye tracks.

You can read “Tani of Ekkis” here.

James Wallace Harris, 12/28/19

 

Happy 90th Astounding/Analog

January 2020 Astounding/Analog celebrates 90 years of publication. That science-fiction magazine has existed my entire life, but I didn’t notice it until 1966. To commemorate their big milestone Analog will publish its six 2020 issues with retro-looking covers and feature one reprint to recall the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The first reprint is the feel-good story “The Astronaut From Wyoming” (1999) by Adam-Troy Castro and Jerry Oltion in the Jan-Feb 2020 issue on the newsstands now. Coming up for Mar-April will be “Noise Level” (1952) by Raymond F. Jones. At first, I was surprised by these selections. They aren’t famous or well anthologized, but then they are stories worth reading. And I can understand unearthing gems from the past. Stanley Schmidt, who used to edit Analog introduces the story.

2020-JanFeb -Analog

During the past two years, I’ve been slowly reading through The Great SF Stories 1-25 edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg that strive to find the best short science fiction published in 1939-1963. And I’ve been reading and collecting old science fiction anthologies. I’ve also read four histories of Astounding. I had not anticipated this 90th anniversary, but I have been preparing for it unintentionally. Actually, what I’ve intentionally been doing is reevaluating a lifetime of reading science fiction.

Two things prompted this navel-gazing. First, I’m getting old. Second, nearly all the old science fiction pulps and digests have been scanned and put online. To save on downloading time I bought several SF titles from sellers on eBay. Their DVDs are cheap and more convenient than weeks of downloading. Many old magazines can be found on the Pulp Magazine Archive. Pulp magazines are rather esoteric reading, and their fans are dying off. Few people know about science fiction magazines, either from the pulp era, or know about those still being published today. Analog and Asimov’s used to have over 100,000 subscribers. Now it’s about a fifth of that. I figure only a couple hundred older fans read the old scanned magazines. One reason for the declining readership of SF magazines is online publishing. Young readers prefer to read for free rather than subscribe to a print magazine.

This makes the print magazines feel rather moribund. That saddens me. But you can’t blame changing times. Online short science fiction is thriving, and it’s getting all the awards and their stories are being reprinted in the annual best-of-the-year anthologies. However, I don’t know if current online SF will be remembered like printed short science fiction before the internet age. People still collect pulps. eBay does a thriving business with them, as do specialty sellers. The digests being printed today, F&SF, Analog and Asimov’s will be collected in the future. But how do you collect digital publications?

I’m half modern and half old fashion. I buy and read Kindle editions of the SF print magazines, but I also buy the print copies to collect. I was disappointed that none of the eight copies of the Jan-Feb Analog were in mint condition at the bookstore. I picked one with a slight tear in the middle of the back cover. Analog/Asimov’s cover paper is so thin that it wrinkles, tears, dents, and creases extremely easily. And I can’t subscribe because they get torn up in the mail, plus the covers are ruined with a big mailing label. I like having paper copies for when I read about something in the issue because I can quickly flip to it. However, even my days of buying print editions might be coming to an end. The Kindle edition is just so much easier to read.

I keep hoping young SF readers will discover the SF magazines like they have LP albums, and admire them for their physical qualities. The digital copies of F&SF, Analog, and Asimov’s don’t have appealing layouts, and the interior illustrations don’t work well on my ebook reader. My F&SF copies come in so wonky that the cover is tiny.

I really love the covers of science fiction magazines. To celebrate Astounding/Analog 90th anniversary I’ve been collecting jpegs and making them into Cover Collections for the Internet Archive. Here are the covers for:

I hope I don’t get into trouble doing this, but I assume since these covers are all over the web that it might be okay to put them in one place.

If you look at these covers in order, they show an evolution of science fictional ideas. Probably young people will find them crude, garish, and quaint. But if you contemplate them slowly, more and more science fiction hopes and fears are revealed. I also start noticing how things change over time. In the 1930s spaceships were vertical, patterned on ocean liners, trains, and planes, but as real rockets were developed, they shifted to the vertical. Back in the 1990s, when a private rocket company launched a rocket that came down on its fins, Jerry Pournelle said it was as “God and Robert Heinlein intended.”

Rockets

I took the 229 covers from the 1930s and 1940s and made a slideshow for my TV. I’ve been playing it over and over. It’s a nice way to remember Astounding for its 90th birthday. If I don’t get trouble for collecting the 1930s and 1940s I might work on collecting the other decades.

For 2020 I plan to shift most of my reading away from older stories to the new SF stories just coming out. It might be nice to be on the cutting edge rather than dwelling sixty years ago. I don’t want to go full geezer always looking at the past. But there is something to comparing science fiction from different generations. It’s funny how so many things stay the same no matter how much we change.

James Wallace Harris, 12/22/19

Ever Wonder Why You Read Science Fiction?

Angel's Egg by Edgar Pangborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angel's Egg 2 by Edgar Pangborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The angel offered him two choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there is the other alternative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Galaxy June 1951

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

James Wallace Harris, 11/26/19