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

Why Swallow Even One Porcupine?

 

2019-Sep-Oct F&SF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 11/14/19

 

 

 

 

Forgotten Science Fiction Writer: Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips bio at New Worlds bw

I have a growing fascination with forgotten writers. This began when I discovered a mention of a rare science fiction novel in an old fanzine, Phoenix by Lady Dorothy Mills published in 1926. That was the same year Amazing Stories began publishing. There wasn’t much science fiction published in hardback before the 1950s, and this was one was by a woman, an even rarer oddity. It took me about twenty years to track down a copy of Phoenix. I’ve since maintained a website devoted to Lady Dorothy Mills. At first, I’d get 2-3 inquires every year or two, but it’s now been years since anyone has shown any interest.

Over the past year, I’ve stumbled across three short stories by Peter Phillips. They were “Dreams Are Sacred,” “Manna,” and “At No Extra Cost.” I can’t say they are classics, but they were entertaining and eclectic. I liked them immediately. The Internet Science Fiction Database lists only 21 stories for Phillips, but two of them are the same story with different titles. It lists no published novels or short story collections. Philips died in 2012, but I did find a short biography of him in a 1958 issue of New Worlds, the issue of his last published science fiction story. There I learned that Phillips was a professional newspaper writer and editor, who had little time for writing fiction. The little bio also reported he had over thirty stories published, including detective stories. Wikipedia didn’t have much on Phillips, but the Science Fiction Encyclopedia had a concise but enticing write-up.

I decided I wanted to read the complete short stories of Peter Phillips. I had no trouble finding digital scans of all his original publications in science fiction magazines and one fanzine on the net. I’ve collected them into one digital CBR file for easy reading and study. Because of recent news reports about how millions of works published before 1964 are probably out of copyright I thought it would be safe to share this file. Maybe other science fiction fans would like to give Phillips a try too. Who knows, maybe a publisher will see a groundswell of interest in Phillips and publish a nice collection of his work. Here are the stories in the CBR file. Links show story publication history.

I enter a lot of data about science fiction into databases. Over the years I’ve noticed there are many writers who have just a handful of short stories published and then they disappeared. I’ve wondered what happened to them. Was getting published not the experience they dreamed about and worked so long to achieve? Is writing fiction more trouble than it’s worth? Did they not get the praise and attention they expected?

Phillips had some minor recognition. His name was only on one magazine cover, but a handful of his stories made it to some nice collectible anthologies.

“Dreams Are Sacred” were in these books:

Imagination Unlimied edited by Bleiler and Dikty

The Astounding-Analog Reader edited by Harrison and Aldiss

The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces edited by Silverberg and Greenberg

The Great SF Stories 10 edited by Asimov and Greenberg

The Road to Science Fiction v. 5 edited by James Gunn

The Night Fantastic edited by Poul and Karen Anderson

“Manna” was included in these anthologies:

The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin

The Science Fiction Argosy edited by Damon Knight

The Great SF Stories 11 edited by Asimov and Greenberg

Trips in Time edited by Robert Silverberg

“P-Plus” and “Unknown Quantity” were reprinted here:

No Place Like Earth edited by John Carnell

“Plagiarist” was reprinted in:

Future Tense edited by Kendell Foster Crossen

“Counter Charm” was included in:

Omnibus of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin

50 Short Science Fiction Tales edited by Asimov and Conklin

“At No Extra Cost” made this classic best-of-the-year anthology:

The Best Science Fiction Stories 1952 edited by Bleiler and Dikty

“She Who Laughs” was liked by Fred Pohl:

Assignment in Tomorrow edited by Frederik Pohl

“Lost Memory” is remembered here:

Gateway to Tomorrow edited by John Carnell

Second Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction edited by H. L. Gold

Science Fiction Terror Tales edited by Groff Conklin

The Coming of the Robots edited by Sam Moskowitz

Contact by Noel Keyes

The Great SF Stories 14 edited by Asimov and Greenberg

Machines that Kill edited by Fred Saberhagen

“University” was Phillips second story in:

Second Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction edited by H. L. Gold

“The Warning” was snagged by Judith Merril:

Beyond the Barriers of Space and Time edited by Judith Merril

“c/o Mr. Makepeace” was included in:

Operation Future edited by Groff Conklin

The Dark Side edited by Damon Knight

Listing out these anthologies (and I didn’t list the foreign and obscure reprints) shows that Phillips was liked by a number of anthology editors. Because most of these anthologies are old, it indicates that Phillips is being forgotten. That’s sad.

I’m going to read his stories and then maybe write about them. I don’t think they hold up for younger, modern readers, but they are interesting in a historical way regarding the genre. Phillips seemed up on current affairs in his tales, but then he was a newspaperman. Of the three I’ve read, they felt like he had a good sense of speculating about the future and social changes. They had some impact on readers of his day, but evidently not lasting impact. I’d like to explore why.

Most science fiction is eventually forgotten, but not all. I hear there are two television productions of The War of the Worlds coming out this fall. Why is that story enduring, but most other SF not?

James Wallace Harris

OA (Older Adult) Science Fiction

Man in His Time by Brian W. Aldiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 9/11/19

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

Untying a Knotted Plot

Yali on the Bosporus

I hope you have read “The Ocean Between the Leaves” by Ray Nayler from the July-August issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. I’ve read this story four times trying to follow all the plot twists so I’ll be giving away spoilers describing my thoughts from each reading. If you’ve read the story, it will be more fun to follow my bumbling efforts to figure things out. “The Ocean Between the Leaves” is not free to read online, but it was made into a free podcast read by the author. The story is about a young woman who works at a yali on the Bosphorus, maybe like the one pictured above. Ray Nayler has lived all over the world, so this tale is full of exotic details.

I hope Nayler doesn’t mind that I dissect his story. I’m doing it for several reasons. First, my friend Piet asked me to read the story to see what I thought about the plot. He was confused but got some help from Greg Hullender’s review at Rocket Stack Rank. Piet wondered if I would get the story in one reading. I didn’t. I also looked at Greg’s review, and then read it again. After two readings, I thought I got it. But there were many lingering plot questions that kept popping into my head. I then found the audio version and listened to it. Okay, I thought when I finished it this time, I’d gotten everything for sure now and laid down to take a nap. I woke up with more questions. (That pesky subconscious.) That’s when I thought about writing down my convoluted journey through this story.

I’m going to explain all my reading reactions to the story while I still remember them. I hope I don’t hurt Ray Nayler’s feelings. I’m trying not to criticize his story because I don’t know if the problems are with me the reader or with him the writer. The plot of the story is both simple and complicated. It’s simple in that not a whole lot happens, but it’s complicated by how the story is told. It’s intended as a mystery, one meant to make the reader keep guessing. By the way, the story is full of colorful details that make the story enjoyable on other levels, but ones I won’t comment on.

First Reading

Read it the first time on my iPhone 6s Plus while lying on a couch. To be honest, I read it somewhat fast and I just missed the whole issue of mindswapping. That’s a huge plot point to pass over. In my defense though, it wasn’t ever explicit. It was hidden to create a mystery.

I liked how “The Ocean Between the Leaves” started out about a young woman gardener, Feride, on a rich person’s estate. She pricks her finger and it gets infected. Three months later she’s still in intensive care. Nayler describes the infection in gruesome detail.

We’re now introduced to the doctor Melek and Feride’s brother Fahri. Fahri visits his sister every day and flirts with the doctor each time with a 5-minute date. On this day Fahri has a cut that the doctor fixes. Then he goes out to work. We learn that he isn’t rich and his sister’s bills are high. We learn that he makes money tagging skips. I assume this is attaching some kind of signaling device to people who are skipping out on something. His boss Tarik is shady and wears VR glasses. We also learn that Tarik is shaking Fahri down for a lot of money.

Fahri tries to catch three slips in one day to get ahead on the bills but is knocked out by the third slip.

Then the story jumps back in time. Feride is told she is going to die, but the state is going to transfer her mind to another body so she can wrap up her life and say goodbyes. I thought that was rather odd. She/we are told she will be an experiment. At the time, I thought it was an uncommon procedure.

Feride goes back to the yali where she worked but tells people she is her brother. The first time I read this I didn’t realize we had jumped back in time and didn’t realize this Fahri was the same as the Fahri we had already met. Feride/Fahri hears a story from the old head gardener Suat about fighting the system. The first time I read this, I didn’t understand how the story changed Feride into Fahri. I was confused by the pronouns of describing her in his body. I focused on Fahri’s effort to make money and the action surrounding him. I wondered if Feride had died and had been transferred to another becoming Fahri. I was totally confused by the plot. The two similar names Feride and Fahri kept tripping me up, and I didn’t understand why they were the same person. At first, they seemed to be two separate people, and then they were the same person. Probably all of this confusion was due to me reading too fast. But I think some of the confusion was due to information behind withheld from the reader. But I also considered I’m getting old and I’m not sure if I can keep enough of the story in my head to make all the puzzle pieces reveal the overall picture.

Second Reading

This time I read the story on my iPad mini while in my reading chair. I was more determined to read slowly, understand the story, and concentrate on the details. This time around I noticed several references to Fahri being a prince. I also admired the rich background details more in the story.

On my second reading, I paid more attention to the first line, “It began just like a fairy tale; an orphaned young woman pricked her finger on the thorn of a rose, and fell asleep.” With this reading, I only figured this line linked Feride pricking her finger and getting infected. I didn’t try to imagine what it might mean for the whole story.

I also noticed this time we’re told Feride means “the only one.” Now that’s an obvious clue, but only in hindsight. But we’re also told Feride believes it means “the lonely one.”

I had read Greg Hullender’s review with spoilers. The keyword he gave was androids. I remembered from the first reading there had been androids, but I assumed they looked artificial and were just slave workers on the docks. I didn’t realize that androids could look just like people. I realized I was reading a story much like Mindswap by Robert Sheckley where technology allowed people to easily swap minds between bodies. In the first reading, I thought Feride was being put into a clone body. Nor did I realize that the skippers Fahri chased were minds in rented bodies trying to run away with them.

In the second reading, I realized that Feride was given a three-day rental body to wrap up her life, and she decided to keep it and work to pay her medical bills to save herself. I still didn’t understand some things. Did she skip out with the three-day body, or got a third body on the black market.

However, the story simplified into one of a person saving themselves. That’s a pretty neat idea of paying for your own medical bills by working in another body while your sick body remained in a coma. Pretty cool. Happy ending.

However, more questions kept popping into my mind.

Third Reading

This time I listened to the podcast version. I love listening to science fiction stories. I would have made my second reading a listen if I had known about the podcast. This time I just “read” the story to enjoy it. I thought I had all the plot twists down. However, after the podcast was over, I put the story out of my mind. But once again new questions started bubbling up.

When we see Dr. Melek talking to Fahri in a man’s body the first time we don’t know that Feride is inside, but she would — wouldn’t she? The reader thinks the brother and doctor are flirting with each other. Doesn’t the doctor know that it’s her patient? But did she talk to Fahri like Feride was inside? Was this the same three-day body the Institute bought for Feride? If Fahri had been working for Tarik for a third of a year as a skip chaser, was Feride in a different rented body, or had she skipped out with the three-day body, or had she merely taken up the payments on the three-day body?

Why was Feride given a male body to close out her life? That seemed rather insensitive. And why didn’t Feride tell Suat that it was her? Why did she make up the story about her brother? Obviously, swapping bodies was common in this time period, so Suat shouldn’t have been shocked. Feride was given a chance to say goodbye to the only people she knew and loved. But she didn’t, why? Obviously, Nayler liked the idea of a sister and brother because it diverts the reader’s attention so they will think they are two different people in the story. But that confused me and almost ruined the story.

What happened to Fahri, or his body?

We are told it’s three months later when Melek and Fahri agree to go on daily 5-minute dates. But we also know Fahri has been using the body for a while as a skip tracer. We are told later he’s been doing it for months. Is it the same three months? When did Feride almost die and Melek buy her three days to wrap up her affairs? At the beginning of the three months. Why would a doctor spend so much money on a patient she didn’t know? Or had she gotten to know Feride well enough to fall in love with her? And like Greg Hullender asked, how did the hospital keep a nearly dead woman without her mind in stasis for months?

Fourth Reading

This time I read my physical copy of Asimov’s Science Fiction. I’m currently buying both the Kindle and paper copies. I’m trying to decide which I prefer. I still don’t know, each has their pluses and minuses. However, I’m annoyed as hell that the Kindle version doesn’t display on my Kindle for the PC. That sure would make reviewing stories so much easier. There are times when I’m tempted to buy an OCR program so I can grab quotes without retyping.

With this fourth reading, I’m starting to feel like Phil Conners from Groundhog Day. Opening line: “It began just like a fairy tale; an orphaned young woman pricked her finger on the thorn of a rose, and fell asleep.” This time around I remember the fairy tales Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and read about them at Wikipedia. But both involved pricked fingers and women who sleep in a spell. However, in Snow White, it’s the evil witch that pricks her finger, so I guess we’re talking Sleeping Beauty here. That means Fahri is going to be her own Prince or is it, Dr. Melek? Melek saves her from permanent sleep but only intending it to be for three days. Feride saves her own life, so is Feride her own Prince Charming? If Melek is in love with Feride and not Fahri, is she the rescuing Prince of this story?

Here’s the thing, Ray Nayler knew what he wanted to do with this story and then contrived to make it happen. Readers don’t know that intention, so they read the story guessing as they go what might be happening. I now wonder at the sequence of inspirations Nayler got for this story. Did he first intend for it to be about a woman who gets a three-day chance to close out her life with a mindswap and then gets the idea of Feride saving herself? Or was that the plan all along? Was the love story an afterthought, and the three-day mindswap added in to make a better ending?

Ah-ha! When we’re first told about Fahri and Dr. Melek, Melek asks, “How is your sister?” The POV is following closely to Fahri and it says, “They had met the first night Fahri came in to see his sister. Melek had sat across from him the same way, nearly three months ago now, when they first met.” This is all very definite, and probably why I was so confused in the first reading. At the beginning of the story, we were told that Feride had a brother she never had met. It’s three months after she falls ill. But Fahri has been visiting her for three months. This leads the reader to believe that Fahri is a real person, found out right away about Feride’s illness and came to see his sister.

In the first scene with Fahri and Melek, there is no foreshadowing of things to come. And there’s an indication that Fahri has been a skip chaser for some time because he’s worn out. Knowing what we know from previous readings for this story to work Feride nearly died immediately after entering the hospital and Dr. Melek bought her a three-day rental on a body right after she arrived. We are told that the Institute did this as an experiment, but the very ending of the story suggests that Melek spent her own money. Why?

This also suggests that Melek never saw the rental body, or Feride got a third body. But this now brings up another interesting question. Did Melek ever know that Fahri was really Feride? The last two paragraphs are:

     "But the expense. It must have been ... I remember struggling to pay ... it's thousands of lire a day ... you can't possibly afford ..."

     "Hush." Melek presses a finger to Feride's lips. "It's my choice to make, Fahri. And where else would I find such a hero? And who would I go on my five-minute dates with? Are you trying to make me drink my coffee alone?"

Notice Melek touches Feride but addresses her as Fahri. I assume, and that’s dangerous with this story, that Feride survives and Feride/Fahri is back in her original body. But when did Melek realize that Fahri was Feride? If Feride had stolen the three-day body, didn’t Melek know? When Feride is visiting Suat she’s already thinking of the body as Fahri. Wouldn’t Melek have seen this rental body? Feride in her new body awakes with Dr. Solmaz Haznader explaining things. But there’s another clue on page 105. Feride/Fahri asks Tarik about the Institute who rented the three-day body when Tarik offered him a job chasing skips. (I don’t know why it says Tahir in this paragraph and not Tarik. Is it another person, or a name change not corrected?)

"I'll deal with the institute," Tahir said, "That's what you'll be paying me for. That' and your nice new body not full of poisonous bacteria. And your other body, drifting on the edge of death. And the price for all three together is going to be very, very high."

He’s paying off the Institute, the rental on the new body, and the medical care of the original body. But we don’t know if he keeps the three-day rental or gets a new body.

Because of Tarik/Tahir conversation with Dr. Haznader I think the Institute story is real, and wonder about Melek’s involvement. Then why does Feride think at the end of the story that Melek paid for everything? But the lengthy discussion of the Institute’s research suggests that they planned all along for Feride to use the rental body for an extended period. So Feride/Fahri stayed in the same body.

But now I have a whole new theory. Feride thanks Melek for the three additional days. Maybe Melek didn’t pay for mindswap, but just three more days of healthcare. And that all the story about mindswapping was in Feride’s feverous mind. Oh no, do I need to read this story again? But wait, Melek thinks about Fahri and mentions their 5-minute dates, so that can’t be right either.

This could go on forever, but it stops here.

(I hope.)

Asimovs Science Fiction July-August 2019

James Wallace Harris, 9/1/19

p.s. – To further explain how hard it was to read this story and write this essay I wrote: “Quantifying My Cognitive Decline.” I believe aging is affecting my reading ability.