“Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #16 of 107: “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak

“Desertion” and its sequel “Paradise” are from the 1940s, the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction. They are also the middle stories from the classic science fiction fix-up novel City. “Desertion” was published in the November 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and “Paradise” in the June 1946 issue. If you haven’t read the stories please go read them now because I need to write about the details of each to make my point and that will give away major spoilers.

“Desertion” is the perfect story to make my case that 1940s science fiction was often about the next evolutionary step for our species. In a way, John W. Campbell, Jr. could be considered the Ralph Waldo Emerson of a 20th century transcendentalism, but we call it science fiction. I say that because many science fiction stories from the 1940s and 1950s were about breaking on through to the next stage of human existence. Maybe this desire was inspired by the actual horrors of WWII or the dreaded fears of Doomsday felt during the Cold War. Was science fiction our collective unconscious merely telling us we need to change before we destroyed ourselves and the planet? Or was it just another theme the science fiction muse has always entertained?

The VanderMeers did say in their introduction, “City was written out of disillusion…seeking after a fantasy world that would serve as a counterbalance to the brutality through which the world was passing.” That might be the realistic take on science fiction, that it offers fictional escape from reality, but growing up I believed science fiction’s purpose was to inspire us to create the futures we wanted to build, and divert us away from the futures we feared. In my old age science fiction has become my escape, my comfort food, but when I was young I believed in the potentials it promised. I have to wonder if young readers today find the genre a fiction of escape or hope? But even the one utopian Star Trek is now is about endless conflicts.

In “Desertion,” Kent Fowler has sent many men to their apparent death trying to colonize Jupiter by downloading their brains into genetically engineered creatures modeled on Jovian lifeforms that can survive the harsh conditions of Jupiter. The idea of adapting the human form to an alien environment is called pantropy, and “Desertion” is one of the early examples of the idea being used in science fiction. However, Simak takes the idea even further when Kent Fowler and his dog Towser are converted into the Jovian Lopers. Fowler just couldn’t ask another man to volunteer, so he underwent the process himself and taking his old dog with him. As Lopers, Fowler discovers that Towser is more intelligent than he ever imagined when they begin telepathic communication. The reasons his men never returned to the dome after being converted to Lopers was their minds expanded into a new stage of awareness and they couldn’t stand downgrading into human form again.

Five years later, Fowler does return to the dome in the story “Paradise.” He feels its essential that he let his fellow humans know about this greater stage of consciousness. In this story though, we also learn humanity is facing another crisis point in their development. Superior humans called mutants also exist, as do uplifted dogs, and intelligent robots. When Fowler tries to spread the word that paradise can be found on Jupiter, his message is suppressed by Tyler Webster who wants humans to stay human. Webster pleads with Fowler to withhold knowledge of the heaven on Jupiter because he fears all humans will rush to attain instant resurrection (my words).

“But I want you to think this over: A million years ago man first came into being—just an animal. Since that time he had inched his way up a cultural ladder. Bit by painful bit he has developed a way of life, a philosophy, a way of doing things. His progress has been geometrical. Today he does much more than he did yesterday. Tomorrow he’ll do even more than he did today. For the first time in human history, Man is really beginning to hit the ball. He’s just got a good start, the first stride, you might say. He’s going a lot farther in a lot less time than he’s come already. 

“Maybe it isn’t as pleasant as Jupiter, maybe not the same at all. Maybe humankind is drab compared with the life forms of Jupiter. But it’s man’s life. It’s the thing he’s fought for. It’s the thing he’s made himself. It’s a destiny he has shaped. 

“I hate to think, Fowler, that just when we’re going good we’ll swap our destiny for one we don’t know about, for one we can’t be sure about.” 

“I’ll wait,” said Fowler. “Just a day or two. But I’m warning you. You can’t put me off. You can’t change my mind.” 

“That’s all I ask,” said Webster. He rose and held out his hand. “Shake on it?” he asked.

Simak, Clifford D.. The Shipshape Miracle: And Other Stories (The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak Book 10) (pp. 83-84). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. 

“Desertion” is also an early example of mind uploading, a very popular theme in science fiction today. “Desertion” and “Paradise” also assume there would be life, even intelligent life on every planet of the solar system. The City stories are extremely positive about human potential. The collected motif of the City stories is humans have left the solar system and only intelligent dogs and robots remain to remember them, to tell their story. Childhood’s End used that theme too, about humanity leaving Earth for a new stage of evolution.

“Paradise” is also an early story about mutants. After Hiroshima, people feared radiation would create mutations that were either monsters or an evolutionary superior species. In “Paradise,” the mutants are that superior species, ones who are waiting for normal humans to get their act together. Mutants arrange for Tyler Webster to get a kaleidoscope that will trick his brain into opening its higher functionality. The kaleidoscope is like the toys from the future in “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” that trigger evolution in normal human children. Also within the same story is the idea that Martians had developed a philosophy that could trigger evolutionary uplift. Heinlein also worked this theme in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Sturgeon’s classic fix-up novel, More Than Human (1953) deals with mutants with wild talents, and the evolution of a gestalt mind. But this theme was repeated countless times in 1940s and 1950s science fiction.

In other words, “Desertion” is one of the bellwether stories our genre.

There used to be a common pseudo-science belief that humans only used 10% of their brains and we have the potential to unlock the mysterious 90%. This was a common myth in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and probably went back decades and decades. I just checked Wikipedia and found they had an entry on “The Ten Percent Brain Myth” that even mentions John W. Campbell.

A likely origin for the "ten percent myth" is the reserve energy theories of Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis who, in the 1890s, tested the theory in the accelerated raising of child prodigy William Sidis. Thereafter, James told lecture audiences that people only meet a fraction of their full mental potential, which is considered a plausible claim.[5] The concept gained currency by circulating within the self-help movement of the 1920s; for example, the book Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain includes a chapter on the ten percent myth that shows a self-help advertisement from the 1929 World Almanac with the line "There is NO LIMIT to what the human brain can accomplish. Scientists and psychologists tell us we use only about TEN PERCENT of our brain power."[6] This became a particular "pet idea"[7] of science fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell, who wrote in a 1932 short story that "no man in all history ever used even half of the thinking part of his brain".[8] In 1936, American writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas popularized the idea—in a foreword to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People—by including the falsely precise percentage: "Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability".[9]

The belief was based on the logic that feats of human endurance and mental powers have been displayed by Indian fakirs, hypnotists, yogis, mystics, tantric masters, psychics, shamans and other outliers with esoteric knowledge, and that proves we had all untapped potential. Science has since shown that we use 100% of our brains, and disproved all those pseudo-scientific claims.

Yet, back in the 1940s science fiction writers and readers, and especially John W. Campbell, Jr. believed humanity was on the verge to metamorphizing into Human 2.0 beings. That’s what “Desertion” and “Paradise” is about, and you see that same hope in so many other stories from the 1940s and 1950s. It’s also why John W. Campbell, Jr. and A. E. van Vogt went gaga over Dianetics in 1950. Please read Campbell’s editorial and L. Ron Hubbard’s article on the subject in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. We look down on Campbell today for believing in this malarkey, but Dianetics reflected the promise of all the stories he had been publishing. Campbell was desperate to quit promoting fairytales for adults and find an actual portal into the future then and now.

Sure, science fiction is fun stories set in the future, often about space travel, aliens, robots, and posthumans, but it also connects to real hopes and fears. The belief humans could transcend their present nature is a fundamental hope within the genre. A modern example is The Force in Star Wars, or the discipline of Vulcans in Star Trek. Clifford Simak spent his entire career writing stories about people who transcend our ordinary consciousness. And is this so weird and far out? We Baby Boomers dropped acid in the 1960s chasing higher states on consciousness, then in the 1970s we pursued all kinds of New Age therapies and ancient spiritual practices. Of course, since the Reagan years of the 1980s we’ve come down to Earth accepting human nature for what it is. We’ve stopped looking for transcendence and scientific utopias, accepting our normal Human 1.0 selves that pursue wealth, power, conquest, war, and commercialization of space and the future.

Reading the best science fiction stories of the 20th is a kind of psychoanalysis of our expectations about the future, both good and bad.

The anthology which up till now has been the gold standard for identifying the best science fiction of the 1895-1964 era is The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One which contains short stories, and the supplemental volumes Two A and Two B which contain novelettes and novellas. Volume One holds the top spot at “Best Science Fiction Anthologies” at Listopia/Goodreads. The stories were selected by members of Science Fiction Writers of America in the 1960s to recognize science fiction published before the Nebula Awards began in 1965.

In recent decades I’ve encountered many a science fiction fan who wondered what the table of contents would be to an updated Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume for 20th century science fiction if SF writers voted today. Any retrospective SF anthology that covers the 20th century is essentially competing with that wish. “Huddling Place” another story from Simak’s City was chosen for The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, but I’ve known many fans who thought they should have picked “Desertion.” Events in “Huddling Place” are referenced in “Paradise.” But if you look at the table of contents for the volumes One, Two A, and Two B, you’ll see several stories about next stage humans.

  • “Mimsy Were The Borogoves” (1944) – Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
  • “Huddling Place” (1944) – Clifford D. Simak
  • “That Only A Mother” (1948) – Judith Merril
  • “In Hiding” (1948) – Wilmar H. Shiras
  • “The Witches of Karres” (1949) – James H. Schmitz
  • “The Little Black Bag” (1950) – C. M. Kornbltuh
  • “Surface Tension” (1952) – James Blish
  • “Baby is Three” (1953) – Theodore Sturgeon
  • “Call Me Joe” (1957) – Poul Anderson
  • “Flowers for Algernon” (1959) – Daniel Keyes
  • “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (1962) – Cordwainer Smith

The Big Book of Science Fiction covers the same territory as The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volumes, and there is some overlap of contents, but I think it features less of the transcendental science fiction I’m talking about here. Maybe it’s stories are more realistic, but we have many stories to read before we know. But the acceptance of our existing human nature is understandable, because we don’t believe in those kinds of hidden talents anymore. Well, at least most scientifically minded adults. Wild talents and mutants have become the staple of comic book fiction. We have demoted those hopes to the level of children’s power fantasies.

I’ve often said science fiction beliefs replaced religious beliefs in the mid-20th century, and maybe now we’ve become atheists to science fiction too. If you doubt my assertion the SF replaced religion just think of Fowler as Jesus. He had died and was resurrected into a new life in heaven, and his soul has been expanded with great spirituality.

I even wonder if the VanderMeers included “Desertion” and “Surface Tension” for their use of the pantropy theme rather than psychic potential theme? Science fiction has given up on quickly evolved humans, and instead promotes technical transhumanism and genetically engineered Human 2.0 beings.

“Desertion” was probably a Top Ten story when I was young, and it’s still a 5-star favorite in my old age. But I now know there is no life on Jupiter and Mars, and I will never find the kind of transcendence that Fowler and Towser found. NASA probes have shown the solar system is sterile rocks, and nothing like what Simak imagined. Oh, we still hold out for life on Titan or some other moon’s deep ocean, but I doubt we’ll find it when we get there. Thus “Desertion” has become a fond fantasy from my youth, sort of like Santa Claus.

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 9/18/21

Update: I remember people saying we only use 5% of our brains, but research shows the figure used was 10%, so I made that change. I also found the quote from Wikipedia attributing Campbell to promoting the idea.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois

Even though I bought all 35 volumes of The Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois as they came out, I never read one from cover to cover until now. Their size was just too daunting. I finally overcame my fear of giant anthologies when I listened to The Very Best of the Best from beginning to end, and then again when the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction voted it in as a group read. For summer 2021 we read The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection. This is the first of the annuals I’ve finished. Reading and discussing a short story every other day is a great way to read an anthology, and I expect someday to read the other 34 volumes – with or without the group.

Since I’ve joined this Facebook group, I’ve been reading at least one short story a day. We keep two group reads going concurrently. Because I also read stories on my own I’ll read over four hundred short stories this year, maybe as many as five hundred. For the three years before joining the group, I read at least two to three hundred short stories each year. I’m slowly getting a feel for the form, since I’ve probably gotten my ten thousand hours in. However, it wasn’t dedicated study.

For this post I thought I’d reprint my Facebook comments on the twenty-four stories in this anthology. If I find time, I’ll write separate reviews of the stories I liked best. Here’s my rating system. One and two stars usually only show up in magazines.

*Writing level of a fiction workshop or amateur publication
**Writing level of semi-pro magazine, or lesser pro magazine story
***Solid story from a professional magazine, should be minimum level for an annual anthology
***+Solid story that I found particularly entertaining
****An exceptional story I know I’ll want to reread someday, or have already read many times
****+An exceptional story that’s almost a classic, something I’d anthologize
*****A classic that’s well anthologized and remembered
My Rating System

01 of 24 – “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard
F&SF (May 1985)

“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard is not science fiction, but magic realism that claims we can return to an past reality destroyed by modernity. The setting appears to be current day Honduras and the plot focuses on Esteban Caax, 44, a farmer, probably a descendent of the Azetecs. Esteban loves living in the country, and pursuing a simple life. However, his life is complicated when his wife Incarnación, 41, buys a battery powered TV on credit from Onofrio Esteves. Incarnación wants to move to town and take up modern ways.

Onofrio sold the TV to Incarnación to force Esteban into debt so he has to return to jaguar hunting. There is a rare black jaguar that’s keeping a tourist resort from being built, one that Onofrio and his son want to develop.

When Esteban goes hunting the jaguar he finds a beautiful woman, Miranda, in the jungle who suduces him. He eventually learns she is the black jaguar and she wants Esteban to return to an older, magical reality, part of his real heritage. At first Esteban refuses, but ultimately, he’s forced to follow Miranda into an ancient alternate existence.

Shepard’s writing is amazing and beautiful, and this story reminds me of “The Woman Who Rode Away” by D. H. Lawrence, another story about finding a way back to an older reality of the Aztecs, and one of my all-time favorite stories.

I’ve seen this theme enough times to wonder if people really do believe there are ancient ways to rediscover. I got to meet Shepard at Clarion West 2002. It’s a shame his work hasn’t stayed in print. The collection, THE BEST OF LUCIUS SHEPARD is available for the Kindle for $2.99. He has nothing on Audible. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucius_Shepard

Rating: ****+

02 of 24 – “Dogfight” by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick
Omni (July 1985)

You’ve heard of unreliable narrators, well, Deke is an unlikeable narrator. “Dogfight” by Michael Swanwick and William Gibson is now considered a Cyberpunk classic, and it brings back memories of all the excitement that literary movement generated in the 1980s. Many cyberpunk stories embraced a noirish quality of dark settings, involving criminal activities, and “Dogfight” fits the stereotype. Deke is a petty thief that finds his calling in a game of Spads & Fokkers. In a rundown bus stop, Tidewater Station, Deke discovers a crippled vet named Tiny playing out the role of Minnesota Fats with the game of Spads & Fokkers, and Deke decides to steal Tiny’s throne by becoming the Fast Eddie of the game.

Along the way Deke befriends a college girl with her own ambitions named Nance. Ultimately, Deke uses Nance, and brutually steals her dream and crushes Tiny’s purpose for being. Deke is elated to finally be good at something, ignoring the cost of his success the others paid.

The neat thing about “Dogfight” is the idea we’ll being able to jack into hardware and project 3D images that others can see. There is no explanation for how this works at all. We’re just told people can imagine tiny WWI planes and people will see them flying around the room fighting in aerial dogfights. That was the problem with most cyberpunk stories, they imagined computer technology doing things it will never do.

Rating: ****

03 of 24 – “Fermi and Frost” by Frederik Pohl
Asimov’s (January 1985)

This is the third reread for me, so I’m wonder if I didn’t read part or all of this anthology back when it came out. “Fermi and Frost” is barely a short story. It’s more of a meditation by Pohl on nuclear winter.

The story begins in the chaos of people trying to fly out of JFK knowing that the missiles are coming to hit New York. Harry Malibert lucks out and gets a flight to Iceland and rescues a nine-year-old boy named Timmy. Iceland barely survives the nuclear winter, and Harry becomes Timmy’s father. Pohl tells us they could have a happy ending or a bad one. I’m sure most readers picture the happy ending, where humanity survives.

I liked this story because I always liked stories about the last humans on Earth, but this one is barely a sketch on the subject.

Rating: ***

04 of 24 – “Green Days in Brunei” by Bruce Sterling
Asimov’s (October 1985)

“Green Days in Brunei” was a finalist for the novella Nebula, but it lost to the 800-pound gorilla “Sailing to Byzantium,” also in this anthology, as is “Green Mars” by KSM, another heavyweight.

The pacing of “Green Days in Brunei” felt like an condensed novel rather than a stretched short story. I believe it’s really hard to pull off a novella that feels perfect for its length. In this case, I was wanting more, not less. The plot of the story is rather sparse, a techie, Turner Choi, takes job in a country that’s fighting technology, Brunei, falls in love with a princess, and has to choose between East and West worlds. Sort of a reverse King and I.

Turner is an interesting creation set in the middle of a fascinating political/philosophical situation. Sterling has done a good job creating a computer geek trying to make it in a repressive society. Seria, the princess and love interest, is also interesting, but more contrived. I wished her character could have been fleshed out, and it would have been if this story had been a novel. Jimmy Brooke, the corrupt and aged rock star almost steals the story. He feels somewhat like a J. G. Ballard character. Moratuwa, the political prisoner, and Buddhist is another character needing more onpage time.

This 1985 near future cyberpunk story missed the internet but scored hits on the social changes. The reason this story is so interesting to read is all the details of the Brunai society, which tries to repress western technology but still wants to succeeed at finding work for its people. That’s a valid philosophical problem today.

Like most cyberpunk writers, Sterling vastly oversimplifies programming robots. In many ways, SF writers expected too much from computers, but often imagined too little.

Rating: ***+

05 of 24 – “Snow” by John Crowley
Omni (November 1985)

John Crowley was one of our teachers for the week at Clarion West 2002. I had not read anything by him at the time. I wish I had read “Snow” before I met him. What a beautiful story – but then I resonated with “Snow” because of my lifelong obsession with memory. I wanted wasp technology starting back in the 1950s. But I wouldn’t use it for remembering dead people. I’d want it for remembering my own life. I especially loved the randomness of the memories. “Snow” reminds me of one of my all-time favorite stories, “Appearance of Life” by Brian Aldiss.

Rating: *****

06 of 24 – “The Fringe” by Orson Scott Card
F&SF (October 1985)

Orson Scott Card continues the winning streak of great stories with “The Fringe.” Timothy Carpenter, is a wheelchair-bound teacher in a post-apocalyptic farming community who like Stephen Hawking speaks through a computer-generated voice. Because this 1985 story was probably before Hawking was famous I wonder if he was Card’s inspiration? And the use of the computer for speech synthesis and networks suggests Card could see into the future.

The plot of “The Fringe” is told in a straightforward narrative yet suggests complexity and layers. Carpenter, a hero of a rebuilding civilization because of his ideas on crop rotation, chooses to teach farm children on the fringe of that recovering civilization. The conflict of the story is between Carpenter and the students who hate him for turning in their fathers for their black market activities that undermine a community whose survival depends on interdependence. The story is surprisingly dramatic throughout, although Carpenter’s rescue is almost too good to believe possible.

Rating: ****+

07 of 24 – “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” by Karen Joy Fowler
Asimov’s (October 1985) 2nd story from this issue

Miranda suffers from lifelong guilt for dumping Daniel who then volunteered for the army during the Vietnam War and was killed. Decades later she encounters him again several times during lucid dream psychotherapy. At first, Daniel is a realistic mental projection, the same age as Miranda as if he had continued to live, but as the sessions progress, he becomes younger, and eventually Miranda witnesses Daniel kill a child, one Daniel shot thinking he has a grenade. Miranda becomes obsessed she’s learning details about Daniel’s real life that she couldn’t possibly know.

At the beginning of the story, the idea of lucid dreaming therapy sounds practical, but as the story progresses the encounters in the lucid dream world suggest that Miranda is somehow communicating with an afterlife Daniel, making the story into a supernatural fantasy. However, we are restrained by the title. Is Miranda just looking at a lake of artificial things?

This is another story I read back then that I couldn’t tell you anything about before rereading it, but as I read it came back to me, with the scene with Daniel killing the kid triggering a memory of horror I felt reading it the first time. I thought this story was quite effective and wonder how Paul can consider it mediocre.

Rating: ****

08 of 24 – “Sailing to Byzantium” by Robert Silverberg
Asimov’s SF (February 1985)

“Sailing to Byzantium” is not my all-time favorite SF story, but it should be. It’s an epic work of imagination that only a few science fiction stories surpass. I know it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “The Time Machine,” but it might equal the haunting mood of “The Vintage Season.” I still have a greater personal attachment to “The Star Pit.” Obviously, the Muse was with Silverberg when he wrote: “Sailing to Byzantium.”

Many science fiction writers have tried their hand at far-future stories, but “Sailing to Byzantium” comes closest at conveying what we can never know. What Silverberg works to do in this story is to explain to us what Phillips tries to convey to Willoughby.

Rating: *****

09 of 24 – “Solstice” by James Patrick Kelly
Asimov’s SF (June 1985)

“Solstice” is a horrifying examination of the sexual abuse of a clone. Tony Cage, who is a wealthy superstar drug designer has himself cloned, but in the cloning process had the clone made female. Cage raised the clone as Wynne who everyone thinks of as his daughter, but Cage sees as a version of himself. There are two other stories I know about that explore sex with the self theme, “All You Zombies—” by Heinlein, and David Gerrold’s THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF. Both of these stories used time travel to hook up a person with themselves, but Kelly uses cloning, so it’s not quite the same, but I think it’s meant to be.

Tony Cage is an egomaniac of the first order who doesn’t see Wynne as herself, but the perfect companion he is creating over time. Cage is educating Wynne to be him and is troubled when Wynne goes in her own direction. Cage even uses cold sleep to even out the years between them as Heinlein did in THE DOOR INTO SUMMER for his unrelated characters. As the story unfolds we see Cage’s obsession with Wynne grow and only get hints of what’s happening to Wynne, but in the climax of the story, we learn that Wynne suffered from deep psychological damage because she saw herself as a daughter of Cage.

The common belief is clones will be duplicates of a person, but they won’t be, and I believe Kelly’s insight is right, they will be our children.

This story is actually two stories, the one described above, and the story of Stonehenge. I was fascinated by all the infodumping about Stonehenge Kelly presented, and I assume it’s true, but I believe it diluted and damaged the main story. The dramatic conclusion of Tony and Wynne’s tale happens at a solstice event at Stonehenge and evidently, Kelly wanted to make that more impactful. For me, the blending of the two stories was clunky, and I would give this story a lower rating, but the other part is too powerful.

Rating: ****

10 of 24 – “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” by Avram Davidson
Amazing Stories (May 1985)

Cosimo Damiano, the King of the Single Sicily is aided by Dr. Engelbert Eszterhazy to ward off the attacks of Mr. Melanchthon Mudge who wants to steal Cosimo’s only possession of value, Duke Pasquale’s ring.

Avram Davidson’s charming prose is due to his creative use of names and nouns, and a lot of knowledge about old literature and history. However, why is this fantasy story in an anthology devoted to science fiction?

And “Duke Pasquale’s Ring” doesn’t even contain fantastical fantasy, it’s really a very gentle fantasy about what feels like medieval times when people believed in magic. This story reminds me of the Thomas Burnett Swann story we read. Both Swann and Davidson are enchanted by the past, by arcane mysteries and myths.

Not sure how to rate this story. It’s beautiful writing, but the story is all cotton candy, it expresses very little emotion or philosophy, other than the kindness of Eszterhazy for the poor deluded Cosimo. For now, I’ll say ***+ because I have no desire to read it again, although I can imagine fans of Davidson frequently returning to his kind of storytelling. It’s a very delicate form of escapism.

11 of 24 – “More Than the Sum of His Parts” by Joe Haldeman
Playboy

Joe Haldeman seems to suggest in “More Than the Sum of His Parts” that becoming a cyborg will go to our heads and make us into monsters, like a variation of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or maybe the moral was better bodies don’t make for better minds. I thought this was the weakest story in the collection so far, but it’s still pretty good. I did wonder if Playboy would have bought this story without the cyborg penis and description of its use?

Rating: ***+

12 of 24 – “Out of All Them Bright Stars” by Nancy Kress
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (March 1985)

Sally Gourley, a waitress, waits on a blue alien named John who her boss Charles demands she not serve. This story won the Nebula and was included in two textbooks devoted to science fiction, so it’s bound to be an important story, however it’s short and somewhat mysterious. Sally doesn’t feel the prejudice and hatred towards the alien, but then in the end she thinks: “And all at once I’m furious at John, furiously mad, as furious as I’ve ever been in my life.”

Why. I’ve read this story before, and I read it twice in a row tonight trying to figure out why Sally is furious at John. My guess is Sally doesn’t want to know there are better beings in the universe because she had to live with humans. In the last lines she’s responding to something John said:

“I make so little difference,” he says. Yeah. Sure.

Not only do humans look bad in comparison, Sally knows we aren’t going to change, even when we encounter Christ-like figures. I wonder if Kress was saying this to herself regarding her efforts to write enlightening stories?

Rating: ****

13 of 24 – “Side Effects” by Walter Jon Williams
F&SF (June 1985)

“Side Effects” is something that could have run in THE NEW YORKER because it was so well-written, and whatever mild science fiction it contained was minimal and slipstream.

I was quite impressed with this story and tried to imagine all the intellectual work that Walter Jon Williams had to put into it. It’s also still very relevant. Even after 35 years, it works as a near-future tale. Since I’m old, I’m having to take a lot of drugs, some of which doctors give me as samples. I often wonder if I’m a guinea pig. And they frequently cause side effects.

Rating: ****+

14 of 24 – “The Only Neat Thing to Do” by James Tiptree, Jr.
F&SF (October 1985) (2nd story from this issue)

I didn’t know Tiptree wrote space opera, although “The Only Neat Thing to Do” feels slightly familiar. As does most of the stories we’ve read from this anthology. It’s weird to think what my brain might retain after thirty-five years.

While reading this story I wondered about how Tiptree wrote it. Was she a fan of space opera beforehand? Had she read “The Cold Equations?” To write space opera requires thinking about interstellar travel and other space travel fiction. Tiptree’s sense of space travel feels like it came from Star Wars or Edmond Hamilton (in other words, not hard SF). And Coati Cass reminds me a lot of Heinlein’s title character in PODKAYNE OF MARS. Not only is Triptree writing space opera, but it’s also YA.

Overall, I loved this story, but it had some problems. The communication pipes don’t make sense. What’s their propulsion system? How do they navigate? How long do they take to get where they are going? Even with cold sleep, how long has Coati been gone?

Dozois sure could pick them this year. Four of the six finalists for the Nebula award for the novella are in this anthology. We have one more to read, “Green Mars.”

Rating: ****

15 of 24 – “Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling
Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985)

“Dinner in Audoghast” is an odd story to appear in a science fiction magazine. I try to imagine why Bruce Sterling wrote it. Picturing a long-forgotten African-Arab city is an interesting choice. I assume because William Gibson had made Japanese culture famous Sterling thought he might try it with Arab culture. George Alec Effinger also used Arab culture in a cyberpunk novel two years later in WHEN GRAVITY FAILS.

Audoghast was the western terminus of a trans-Saharan caravan system during a time when Arab culture was waxing and European culture was waning. It’s a fascinating time period to set a historical novel. Maybe Sterling wanted to write such a historical piece and added the leprous fortune-teller into the story to give it some reason for an SF magazine to publish it. Sterling certainly had to do the work of a historical fiction writer to write this story, and he found a wealth of details to paint a colorful setting.

Rating: ****

I don’t know if cyberpunk writers started this or not, but in the coming decades coopting foreign and historical cultures became big in science fiction. It’s led up to today’s World SF stories.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aoudaghost

16 of 24 – “Under Siege” by George R. R. Martin
Omni (October 1985)

On one hand, “Under Siege” is not the kind of story I enjoy. I’m not fond of alternate history. On the other hand, this is an impressive story. It showcases the kind of writing skills George R. R. Martin had before writing The Song of Ice and Fire books.

Again, we’re treated to another bit of history. Was this a fad back then for SF writers? I looked up the Siege of Sveaborg to see what Martin was working with. It seems like a rather esoteric point in time to pivot the future of the U.S.S.R.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Sveaborg

I admired what Martin was doing in the 1808 scenes, but I felt nothing for those characters. However, the narrator, the killer geek mutant narrating the story did grab me. Was his name ever given? I felt for him.

Rating: ***+

17 of 24 – “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” by Howard Waldrop
Omni (January 1985)

Reading “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” made me order THINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME: SELECT SHORT FICTION 1980-2005 by Howard Waldrop. I’ve read this story before, and a few other Waldrop stories and always loved him. Don’t know why I haven’t tried to read more from the guy. I’m amazed that Waldrop comes from Houston, Mississippi, because my mother’s folks are from that part of the country, and I’ve briefly lived in two small northern Mississippi towns and know what kind of upbringing Waldrop would have had. It’s not the kind that would produce these stories. Houston is not far from Oxford, the stomping grounds of William Faulkner.

“Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” is another nostalgia-driven story about a time I fondly remember. I started listening to the radio in the 1958-1963 era when many of the songs in the story first appeared. I even lived in Philadelphia in 1959 for a few months. I loved that glorious Doo-Wop music before it was shut out by the British Invasion in 1964-1965, it’s like imprinted on my soul. I also remember AM radio having Oldie-Goldie weekends. All the songs mentioned in the story push my nostalgia buttons like crazy. Even the UFO book Leroy was reading was probably one I read, because for a short while I gorged on UFO books, however, I mainly remember the crazy George Adamski.

The battle of the bands between Leroy and Kool-Tones and Bobby and the Bombers on November 9, 1965, that knocked out the lights of the northeast USA was one cool story.

Rating: *****

18 of 24 – “A Spanish Lesson” by Lucius Shepard
F&SF (December 1985)

Lucius Shepard creates a fake Roman à clef about his 17-year-old self vagabonding in Europe in 1964 and meeting two escaped clones from an alternate reality spawned by the evil soul of Hitler. This story is rather schizoid, mixing an On The Road memory with Nazi occult horror, where Adolf is a Lovecraftian elder god. Fictionalizing Nazis is dangerous artistic territory because it generally makes any work trivial in comparison to reality. Shepard would have been better off stealing from Lovecraft. Yet, there is a lot to admire in “A Spanish Lesson.”

The trouble with being an SF/F writer is needing to add the fantastic to every story so it can be sold to an SF/F market. The start of this story and the ending is far better than its SF/F elements. It’s too bad Shepard didn’t stick with straight Kerouac, with maybe a dash of Ballard. I really liked the dynamics of Shepard being the youngest member of an ex-pat community trying to earn some respect from the older cats that he thought were cooler, but were just pretenders.

Rating: ***+

19 of 24 – “Roadside Rescue” by Pat Cadigan
Omni (July 1985) – 2nd story from this issue

“Roadside Rescue” was a wham, bam, thank you ma’am kind of story, for us and the protagonist.

Rating: ****

20 of 24 – “Paper Dragons” by James P. Blaylock
Imaginary Lands

“Paper Dragons” is a story about the intersection of reality, fantasy, and science fiction. The narrator exists sometimes in the real world of ordinariness, sometimes in a fantasyland, and sometimes in a steampunk-like continuum. There were glittering aspects to this story, but it was often murky to me. I did relate to it in a couple of weird ways though. When I lived in south Florida there would be invasions of crabs. Millions of them would suddenly travel through our neighborhood. And I once found a furry caterpillar and put it in a gallon jar with branches from the bush I found it on. It made a cacoon and eventually emerged as a moth. I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t a butterfly.

Sorry, but I thought this was another story not suited for this anthology because it wasn’t science fiction. A slight case could be made that since Filby could assemble a dragon from pieces of metal that it’s science fiction, but it never felt science-fictional. Its tone was always a lament that fantasy was fading from the world.

Rating: ***+

21 of 24 – “Magazine Section” by R. A. Lafferty
Amazing Stories (July 1985)

I admired Lafferty’s writing and wild imagination in this tall tale but it’s another story that doesn’t belong in this collection. Lafferty does use the word “clone” but the cloning in this story is not the least bit science fiction.

What’s interesting about Lafferty is trying to categorize his writing. I wonder what he was like in person? Was he always pulling people’s legs and telling his tall tales to other people? He’s a kind of literary leprechaun, a class clown with print. He was capable of writing science fiction, PAST MASTER is an example, but for the most part, his stories aren’t science fiction in intent. Nor do they have the flavor of fantasy. His stories are fantastic, but not genre fantastical. It’s a shame the literary world didn’t embrace him because stories like his do appear in literary magazines.

Rating: ***+

22 of 24 – “The War at Home” by Lewis Shiner
Asimov’s Science Fiction (May 1985) (2nd story from this issue)

“The War at Home” is a punch in the gut. The Vietnam war comes to haunt America’s reality like a bad dream we can’t escape. Although the Safeway bit made me think of our times. Shiner’s story suggests chickens do come home to roost. But I wonder why he wrote it in 1985? That was ten years after the war ended. If civilizations suffer Karmic retribution, then we’re in for some bad shit, much worse than what’s going on now.

My overactive bladder means I never sleep long, so I wake up dreaming many times a night. The intensity of the opening dream sequence resonated with me. Like I said, this very short story was a punch in the gut. Hope it doesn’t give me bad dreams tonight.

Rating: ****+

23 of 24 – “Rockabye Baby” by S. C. Sykes
Analog Science Fiction (Mid-December 1985)

“Rockabye Baby” feels like another one of those literary stories with an embedded fantastic element so it’s salable to a genre market. I thought the first part was excellent. The van crash, the hospital, the group home, the pursuit of drawing, all felt very realistic. Even the part of Sharkey chasing after an experimental treatment. But memories don’t equal a personality, so I don’t buy the fantastic element of the story.

I believe if the real focus of the story was the experimental treatment, the story should have started with Cody trying to rebuild his personality with cassette tapes. Now that would have been a great story too. This could have been a novel, but ISFDB doesn’t show that. Sykes has one other story and one novel listed in their database.

24 of 24 – “Green Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson
Asimov’s Science Fiction (September 1985)

“Green Mars” is a hard story to describe and rate. 70% of this long novella is about rock climbing, something I’m not particularly interested in. 20% is about terraforming Mars and the conflict between Red Mars and Green Mars philosophy, something I’m very interested in. And finally, 10% of the story is about Roger and Eileen, and issues with living 300 years, another aspect of the story I loved.

Even though I’m not interested in rock climbing, Robinson did some impressive writing in presenting this part of the story. I have read memoirs of mountain climbers with the details of rock climbing, and I think KSM gives more blow-by-blow details of climbing than those memoirs. Is KSM a rock climber himself?

I admire KSM’s books for their ideas. However, he seldom produces an emotional story for me, but by the end of “Green Mars” I was feeling this story emotionally.

Rating: ****+

James Wallace Harris, 4/16/21

“Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

“Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction (November 1952) and was retitled in 1965 to “Anybody Else Like Me?” for Miller’s second collection The View from The Stars. This was my third reading of the story. Previously read in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1953 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, and The Great Sf Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I just listened to the story in The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. that was released on audio two weeks ago (June 2021).

Imagine you’re a science fiction writer and want to tell a story about a person who feels they are different from other people and one day they discover they’re a telepath when they finally meet someone like themselves. How would you plot such a story? I wouldn’t have done it like Walter M. Miller, Jr. did in “Command Performance,” and neither would you, but I was quite impressed with how he envisioned such an encounter playing out. Miller had an interesting take on how telepathy might work, and like many science fiction stories from the 1950s, it’s very psychological.

Most writers picture telepathy as people talking to each other without speaking aloud. Miller takes the concept much further. He has his characters, Lisa Waverly and Kenneth Grearly sharing thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, fantasies, and inputs from all five senses. Much like that old saying about walking in someone else’s shoes.

I wish “Command Performance”/”Anybody Else Like Me?” was a novel instead of a short story, and Miller had worked out Lisa’s and Kenneth’s relationship at length. However, it appears Miller never finished a fully completed published novel. Miller’s most famous book, A Canticle for Leibowitz was a fix-up novel based on three previously published stories. ISFDB only lists one story in the novel section, “The Reluctant Traitor,” probably a novella, that appeared in the January 1952 issue of Amazing Stories. Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was a novel he almost completed before committing suicide, was finished by Terry Bisson, and published after his death.

According to ISFDB, Walter M. Miller, Jr. published 41 works of short fiction in the 1950s, and one in 1997, so evidently writing novels wasn’t his thing. I found this essay by Terry Bisson, “A CANTICLE FOR MILLER; or, How I Met Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman but not Walter M. Miller, Jr.” to be quite interesting, revealing a few more tidbits about Miller. And now that I’m listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. that just came out in audio, I’m finding each story makes me want to know more about Miller as a person. As Bisson points out, Miller did not want to meet people, and never even met his agent. That makes me even more curious about him.

I believe stories reveals details about their writers, even when writers desperately try to stay hidden. I’m only on the fourth story in this audiobook, and I’m guessing there will only be fourteen total if it’s based on the 1980 edition of the book of the same name. (Why hasn’t his other stories been collected?)

I can’t find much on Miller except his entries in Wikipedia and SF Encyclopedia. But at the beginning of his career he wrote this profile about himself for the September 1951 issue of Fantastic Adventures:

I believe this provides us with a few additional clues. Miller became a recluse making himself enigmatic. I don’t think Miller was telepathic, but he might have felt himself different from other people. But as I listen to his stories I can’t help but wonder about the man who wrote them. They are a strange take on science fiction, focusing on humans, and less about aliens and spaceships. Miller seemed more interested in psychology, philosophy, religion and aspects about mundane life. One reason why I’m so fond of science fiction of the 1950s is because the characters were often ordinary, just ones who encountered the fantastic in strange little ways.

I’m really enjoying this collection and looking forward to hearing all 22 hours. I then hope to reread A Canticle for Leibowitz before trying Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.

James Wallace Harris, 7/8/21

Update:

A friend sent me a chapter from Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl Weary where Merril recounts her affair with Walter M. Miller, Jr. while married to Frederik Pohl. It added many more puzzle pieces to my growing mental picture of Miller. I went to buy the book on Amazon and Amazon informed me I already had a copy. Now I need to read it.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a table of contents for the audiobook version of The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. but I’m hoping it’s the same as the 1980 hardback edition. That book seemed to combine the two previous paperback collections, Conditionally Human (1962) (3 novellas) and The View from the Future (1965) (9 stories and novelettes) and added two other stories for a total of 14. That leaves 27 stories uncollected. There were other collections of Miller’s stories, but they all seem to reprint from that same list of 14. Maybe they were all dogs, and not worth reprinting, but sometime I hope to read them too.

From Let’s Pretend to Literature

Why would a grown man write a short story for an adult science fiction magazine about toy people on a boy’s model railroad layout becoming alive and having their own thoughts? It’s one thing for Disney to create the Toy Story series for children that adults enjoy, but it’s really another thing to ask grownups to let’s pretend about toys having conscious minds. Or is it? Wasn’t The Twilight Zone in 1961 doing the same thing in its classic episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” about conscience toys hoping to escape an existential fate? And let’s not forget The Nutcracker or Babes in Toyland. The idea of toys having a secret life has been around a long time. Well, at least as long as kids have been playing let’s pretend, but why has the same theme survived for grownups in stories, novels, plays, operas, and ballets?

Chad Oliver, was an anthropologist who wrote “Transformer” for the November, 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a periodical that prided itself on having sophisticated adult readers. (Online copy here.) I read “Transformer” last night in The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg that was published in 1987. The story was reprinted again for Sci Fiction in 2005 (archived to read online). You can also listen an audio version at Radio Echos online. Finally, you can buy the Kindle edition of Far From This Earth: The Collection Short Stories of Chad Oliver Volume Two for $1.99 to get it and many other Chad Oliver short stories.

Chad Oliver is another dead science fiction writer whose work is slowly fading away. He barely gets a write-up in Wikipedia. A fair number of his books are still in print for the Kindle and most are only a $1.99. My only previous experience reading Oliver was his Mists of Dawn (1952) as a kid back in the middle 1960s, a title from the wonderful Winston Science Fiction series for young adults. I reread Mists of Dawn recently when I was fondly remembering those books.

“Transformer” is a strange little story. Isaac Asimov and Marty Greenberg didn’t want to use it for their anthology of science fiction stories because they didn’t consider it science fiction, but the story got to both of them so much that they had to include it. In my younger days I would have dismissed this story as fantasy because of my prejudice against fantasy fiction, but in my old age I’m more accepting of up front make believing. (That reminds me of a Bob Dylan line, “I’m younger than that now.”)

In “Transformer” an old woman is talking to a person named Clyde, but right at the beginning she also addresses us readers while talking to Clyde:

You might stick around for a minute and listen, you see—things might get interesting.

One more thing we might as well clear up while we're at it. I can hear you thinking, with that sophisticated mind of yours: "Who's she supposed to be telling the story to? That's the trouble with all these first-person narratives." Well, Clyde, that's a dumb question, if you ask me. Do you worry about where the music comes from when Pinza sings in a lifeboat? I feel sorry for you, I really do. I'll tell you the secret: the music comes from a studio orchestra that's hidden in the worm can just to the left of the Nazi spy. You follow me? The plain, unvarnished truth is that I get restless when the town's turned off for a long time. I can't sleep. I'm talking to myself. I'm bored stiff, and so would you be if you had to live here for your whole life. But I know you're there, Clyde, or this wouldn't be getting through to you. Don't worry about it, though.

This is strictly for kicks.

This is Chad Oliver way of saying he knows we’re adults and gives us a wink-wink. Knowing he’s an anthropologist makes me wonder if this story has some kind of subtext about primitive minds, but I don’t think so. I think Oliver is choosing to be an adult and saying, “Let’s pretend.” However, his story of ELM POINT, a crummy toy town on a cheap model train layout in Willy Roberts’ attic is neither fun nor playful, it’s more like an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare.

Here’s the thing, we adults, we grown-ups, we mature intellectual beings, play let’s pretend all the time. Just before I read “Transformer” I finished up watching Bridgerton on Netflix, an 8-part miniseries where adult viewers pretend Jane Austen wrote a story with sex and nudity. Our make believe train set town is a film recreation of Regency England, a favorite fantasyland for romance aficionados. That recreation is no more accurate to reality than Willy’s train layout on an old piece of plywood. But we still have fun, don’t we?

In other words, most adults never stop playing let’s pretend either. We just stop needing the toys to jump start our fantasies. That reminds of a Philip K. Dick novel, The Three Stigmatas of Palmer Eldritch, where colonists on Mars shift their let’s pretend from using Perky Pat dolls and layouts to enhance their hallucinations on the drug Can-D, to then use the new drug Chew-Z that doesn’t require toys to shape the hallucinations. I must reconsider what Dick’s novel is saying in regards to what I’ve learned from this Chad Oliver’s story.

Chad Oliver is asking us about our fantasy life being transformed.

Willy Roberts surveyed his model railroad without pleasure. He could remember the time when it had given him a real hoot, but after all he was thirteen years old now. He felt slightly ashamed that he should want to mess with it at all, but it was better than getting kicked around in football by all the big guys in the neighborhood. And Sally had said she was going to the show with Dave Toney, damn her.

I remember getting two train sets for Christmas in 1959, when I was eight. I loved those toy trains, but they were quickly forgotten by the time I was nine. It’s hard to believe Willy is still playing with his at thirteen, but then I watch YouTube videos about guys my age spending fortunes on their elaborate model train layouts.

At what age are we supposed to give up playing let’s pretend? How many people ever do?

I’ll let you read most of “Transformer” for yourself if you want to. This 1954 story reminds me so much of when I was a kid in the 1950s. But Chad Oliver also reminds us that there’s a troublesome side to reality that always intrudes on our pretending. ELM POINT if fake, and poorly made. It has rubber trees and cellophane rivers. Our narrator tells us:

It isn't much of a life, to my way of thinking. You do the best you can, and get up whenever some dumb kid hits a button, and then you get tossed in the wastebasket. It seems sort of pointless.

And later on says:

I don't want you to get the idea that I'm just a sour old woman, Clyde, a kind of juvenile delinquent with arthritis. I'm not, really. You know, a long time ago, when Willy was younger, even ELM POINT wasn't so bad.
...
I'll tell you, though—it's funny. Sometimes, a long time ago, I'd go and sit down by that silly cellophane river and I'd almost get to where I liked it here.

Our narrator and the other denizens of ELM POINT decide to rebel against the tyranny of Willy Roberts, but things don’t go according to plan. After the failed coup Willy decides to sell off his train, layout, and toy citizens. Our narrator ends up in the house of another boy for his train set, but things aren’t as good.

That's right. ELM POINT looks like Utopia from where I'm sitting. Mark Borden, the one that bought me, can't afford a real model railroad set-up, and his house doesn't even have an attic. So about once a week he takes us all out of his dirty closet, sets up his lousy circle of track, and starts up his wheezing four-car freight train. It isn't even a scale model. Big deal.

Things are relative in both reality and our make believe worlds. We hope for better times, and sometimes remember the bad times weren’t that bad after all. We all play let’s pretend when we watch TV or read novels or even just kick back in our La-Z-Boys and fantasize. Could Chad Oliver be asking us to compare our lives to living in a badly constructed model railroad layout?

I’m also reading a nonfiction book, Evil Geniuses by Kurt Andersen that’s about how our political economy was shaped by the fantasies of rich Milton Friedman worshipping libertarians over the last fifty years. I’m also reading The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, a science fiction fantasy about the politics of the future after climate change starts killing people by the millions. Both books are deadly serious and ask us to stop playing let’s pretend and do something. But we don’t, do we? Why is playing let’s pretend so overwhelmingly alluring to us?

Am I reading too much into “Transformer?” Did you find something else? The story is haunting even though it’s a simply little fun tale for F&SF. More and more, I’m spending my let’s pretend time by reading old issues of F&SF. What does it say when I knowingly choose a cheap model railroad layout over reality?

Maybe the anthropologist in Chad Oliver is saying something in his story. Maybe it’s a neat little message in a bottle thrown on the ocean of fantasies.

James Wallace Harris, 1/5/21

“With Flaming Swords” by Cleve Cartmill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 11/30/20

Good Science Fiction Bad Science

Do you stop reading science fiction when you encounter bad science, dated beliefs, or foolish concepts? I do if I’m warned ahead of time – but not if I’ve already gotten sucked into a the story. “Beyond Bedlam” by Wyman Guin is one such story that I kept reading once I realized it’s basic premise was ridiculous. It was first published in the August 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. I read it because of a friend recommending it and I read Robert Silverberg’s Reflections column about “Beyond Bedlam” being a one-hit wonder for Wyman Guin.

Maybe I shouldn’t tell you the premise for “Beyond Bedlam” because it might keep you from reading it. It’s available to read for free by following the link to the Galaxy magazine above, or by following this link to Project Gutenberg. The story is a short novella, about 20,000 words, so it will take you a bit of time to consume. Silverberg liked it well enough to anthologize it twice. Check to see if you have the classic 1980 SF anthology The Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels.

“Beyond Bedlam” is about a future utopian America that we would rebel against, but Wyman Guin presents as making sense to the citizens of that era. Guin didn’t write much science fiction because he worked in the pharmacological industry. His story presents the 29th-century America running smoothly because everyone is required by law to take psychiatric drugs. The characters in the story refer to our times as a dangerous failure because we let our emotions get the best of us. This by the way, isn’t the crazy premise of the story. Other science fiction stories have predicted people in the future controlled by drugs, and people do take a lot of drugs today for the mental health.

Guin takes one extra step that pushes the story into unbelievability territory – but I won’t give that away. Hopefully, you’ll start reading and get sucked in. Or maybe you will even think it a cool idea. Some science fiction fans love wild ideas no matter how silly they might be. I completely reject Guin’s speculation but enjoyed the story.

I understood why Guin wrote this story. I read lots of old books and watch lots of old movies, and the 1940s and 1950s was a time when people were fascinated with psychiatry and psychological mysteries. What’s particularly fascinating, and I’m giving a hint here that older readers might understand, is the 1951 “Beyond Bedlam” was written well before the 1957 bestseller, The Three Faces of Eve.

The reason why I found “Beyond Bedlam” compelling is Guin’s storytelling. Silverberg said Guin wrote 80,000 words of rough draft before distilling his story down to 20,000 words. It’s tightly plotted, with vivid characterization and great worldbuilding. It’s also filled with emotions derived from five characters’ unique movitations. Plus, “Beyond Bedlam” is quite adult, which wasn’t typical of science fiction in 1951.

Wyman Guin’s low output and his crazy premise will probably doom this nifty tale to obscurity. That’s a shame. “Beyond Bedlam” is not a literary classic. It’s a nostalgic tidbit from the dregs of decomposing pop culture that old fans fondly recall as they wait to die.

James Wallace Harris, 10/29/20

Poking Fun at Science Fiction

I’ve been thinking about humor in science fiction. Generally, when we think of funny science fiction we think of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or stories by Robert Sheckley, R. A. Lafferty, or sometimes John Scalzi. But that’s science fiction having fun, what about when the genre is the butt of the humor? For example, westerns were skewered hilariously in Blazing Saddles. Galaxy Quest comes to mind, but then that film was roasting the genre out of fondness. I don’t think Blazing Saddles was an actual tribute to westerns in the same way Galaxy Quest was to science fiction. And what about self-deprecating humor in science fiction. I love recursive science fiction, but most of it celebrates the love of science fiction. I’m curious, do many recursive science fiction stories satirize the genre? I’m not going to answer that extensively in this essay, so don’t get your hopes up. But keep reading for an example of where I’m going.

My problem is sarcasm, satire, and subtle jabs go right over my head (my lady friends take advantage of this). I’ve always seen science fiction as mostly straight stories, well, at least I did. I’ve been reading hundreds of short stories lately, and I’m starting to get suspicious. Every once in a while I wonder if the author has both a pen and pin in hand. As a reader, I felt it was my job to suspend disbelief and let the writer put the story over. Now that I’m writing more about what I read, I’m wondering if I should always look below the surface for different motives the writer might have had for writing their story.

Take this story by Judith Merril, “The Deep Down Dragon.” I read it in Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. What’s unique about this anthology is each story is prefaced with the author’s memory of writing it.

Study that Emsh (Ed Emshwiller) painting above. At first I thought it a clever way to suggest action – a woman had been abducted from a space colony. But then I thought of something, and it became funny, But how could it possibly comic? Obviously a woman has been kidnapped by an alien on a colony world – that’s tragic. But if you know the history of science fiction magazines, and the cliches about covers with BEMs carrying off a scantily clad women, then you might think Emsh is playing around. In case you don’t know the lingo, BEM stands for bug eyed monster. Sex sells, even for science fiction magazines. Why did Emsh leave off the sexy woman and lower the sales of that issue? Because we expected a naked woman he thought might be funny to disappoint us. Sure, the painting is of a serious action scene, a man is running to rescue a woman. Maybe even the editor told him, “No babes.” But I like to think Emsh is also poking fun at science fiction (See the section below, Sex, Nudity, and Prudity in Science Fiction.)

But the ribbing of SF doesn’t end there. Judith Merril tells a serious story about a man rescuing a woman, but it’s a story within a story. In the tale psychologists are showing potential space colonists a scene they’re supposed to react to like an inkblot test. Essentially, the characters are reacting to an animated version of Emsh painting. First, we hear from the woman as she tried to explain why she wasn’t clothed, and why she was wearing high heels in a space habitat. Then we hear a man’s version of the story about how he carefully tracks down the woman and fleeing alien – but he’s obviously an intellectual who over prepares, over thinks, and is not a brawny action-oriented kind of guy. You get the feeling Judith is making fun of SF by having the woman be the stereotype of the woman on SF covers, and the man be the stereotype of SF readers – the ninety-pound weakling/egghead.

Now it’s completely possible to read this story straight, but I found it more fun to think Emshwiller and Merril were poking fun at science fiction. And I found the story I reviewed last time, “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” by Algis Budrys more admirable when I assume Budrys wasn’t completely serious either. That he was creating something over the top he knew fans would love. But I have to wonder, was Merril and Budrys also looking down on their readers? Or the genre? I imagine some writers do. And is knowing that important to the story? Sometimes the story is better when we’re in on the laugh.

Most humor is in good fun. For example, take these two covers I found when looking for the BEM covers. They play against type.

But when you start looking at covers on science fiction magazines, most of them are deadly serious sense of wonder scenes, or at least heroic action scenes. Generally, when we have humor in our genre, we’re still suppose to take the story seriously, or mostly serious. And by serious, I mean close to realistic. For example, the Little Fuzzy stories by H. Beam Piper have a realistic side, but Poul Anderson’s Hoka stories are just for fun.

As I breezed past hundreds of covers I was disappointed I didn’t find more clever satire. One of my favorites was for “The Pirates of Erastz” by Murray Leinster.

My all-time favorite SF novel is Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. I’ve always taken it completely straight, but the title is proof enough it’s a spoof and Heinlein was having fun. We science fiction true believers want our fantasies to be possible. No matter how absurd the situation gets in novels like Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. On one level I still take Sheckley’s story as something that’s possible in our infinite universe. But that requires some major suspension of disbelief.

When a book is obviously funny, we know we shouldn’t take it seriously. But do we always know when we’re reading is something serious? What if it’s sometimes supposed to be funny in places? Or just slyly satirical? I confess here I have been sorely lacking in the ability to spot humor in SF. But now that I’m thinking about it, I’m on the lookout.

Sex, Nudity and Prudity in Science Fiction

While researching this post I also encountered protests against the skimpily dressed women on covers. Over the years I’ve read memoirs by SF writers and readers about how the covers were so embarrassing that they had to hide their SF magazines. Some even tore the covers off them afraid their parents would see them.

Most fans loved sexy (sexist) covers (hey they were adolescent boys), but some didn’t. Here’s a few quotes given to me by a Mr. Lock regarding Weird Tales.

Oct 1933:
Here is a word about our covers, from Lionel Dilbeck, of Wichita, Kansas: “But whatever you do, do not continue to disgrace the magazine with naked women as you did in the June and July issues. If you think that the readers want them, have them vote on it. Personally I prefer any kind of monster that it is possible to think of rather than the sexy covers you have been having. And I really hate to tear the covers off the magazine, as that also spoils the looks of them.”

March 1934:
Clara L. Heyne, of St. Paul, writes to the Eyrie: “But when I take the magazine to work for reading at noon, I take the cover off because I know how the pictures of nude women affect those who don’t know WT.”

May 1934:
Joseph H. Heil, of New York, writes: “Why the nudes? I have noticed that the majority of your readers have resented your cheap-looking covers, and I wish to add my emphatic vote against the continuance of these trashy covers. Looking back on the old issues of WT, I find that they contained none of the nudism of your present-day frontispieces, but, notwithstanding, they were much more interesting, and illustrated the stories much more vividly than today. I was first attracted to your publication (several years ago) by an exciting cover depicting some weird plants over-running the earth. Many people are, I am sure, attracted likewise; but how can you expect to attract the attention of a lover of the weird by the portrayal of a wide-eyed nude, gracefully reclining on stones or silks, as the case may be? Why make your readers tear off your covers in order to take the magazine anywhere, outside the privacy of one’s own home, and even there one has to be careful not to let it lie around where it might be noticed.”

Here’s a quote sent to me by Paul Fraser from Marian Cox in Startling Stories, September 1951.

By the 1950s most SF magazines moved away from the damsel in distress in space. It’s rather amusing though, because those covers are now favorites on Facebook groups devoted to science fiction art.

James Wallace Harris. 10/16/20

Realism in Science Fiction

Our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction recently read “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” by Algis Budrys, originally published in the December 1961 issue of Galaxy Magazine. We’re group reading Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. Because of this I’ve been thinking about the legacy of Galaxy Magazine, science fiction from the 1950s and how realistically did science fiction fans see the future.

So far “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” hasn’t found many admirers in our group, although the anthologist Rich Horton considers it one of his all-time favorite stories. My taste in SF often overlaps with Rich. I found the story to be compelling, thought provoking, not quite a classic, but unbelievably unrealistic.

I’ve read many books about science fiction of the 1940s, which older fans call The Golden Age of Science Fiction. John W. Campbell, Jr. was given most of the credit for this golden age because as editor he discovered and nurtured Heinlein, Asimov, Van Vogt, Hubbard, and many other SF writers that became famous in the genre when Baby Boomers were growing up. Many young SF writers and readers today are rebelling against that era of science fiction, but I think even by the end of the 1940s the writers and readers of the day were also ready to change, and that’s why F&SF (1949) and Galaxy (1950) quickly became popular magazines. And I’ve been told by many readers of my Baby Boom generation that they considered the 1950s to be the real Golden Age of Science Fiction. Did science fiction become more realistic in that decade?

Even though “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” came out at the end of 1961, I’m considering it a reflection of 1950s science fiction. Like the two classic stories from 1950, “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith and “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber, they mark a new beginning by reacting to the previous decade.

I have written elsewhere that I felt 1940s science fiction could be characterized by a yearning for transcendence. Campbell, Heinlein, and others expected mankind to evolve in the future, gaining mental and psychic powers that would help them conquer the galaxy. Reading “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” provided a kind of epiphany for me. It was wild, full of vitality, but ultimately discomforting because its lack of realism. Handling the fantastic in the same way superhero comic books handle reality. Is that the real legacy of 1950s SF?

Fiction has always had a strange relationship with reality and realism. I suppose we could say fiction has different levels of realism. By the way, I don’t mean to imply any artistic criticism to these various levels – at least for now.

  • Level 1 – Greek myths, superhero comic books, Bible stories, talking animal stories
  • Level 2 – Young adult or adult fantasy, science fiction
  • Level 3 – Science fiction that tries to be scientific
  • Level 4 – Most mundane genre fiction
  • Level 5 – Serious literature that’s mimetic

Unfortunately, much of science fiction swings the needle towards Level 1 rather than towards Level 5, even though science is in its label. “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” slams the needle over to 1 on the gauge. Is this good or bad? The story is fun. It’s a thrill ride. Should we even worry about it’s over-the-top fantastic elements?

I should warn you, I read “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” just after reading “The Boys Is the End of the Superhero As We Know It. And it’s about time.” That essay begins with “After two seasons of The Boys, I can say with roughly 85 percent confidence that Dr. Fredric Wertham was right.” I’ve got to admit that my confidence level is even higher, but then I’m prejudice against superhero comics. If you don’t know who Fredric Wertham is, read this. For most of my life I’ve had to accept the studies that say fiction, especially violent fiction, has no impact on the development of children, even though I find such results hard to believe. However, the years 2016-2020 makes me strongly wonder if Fredric Wertham wasn’t right all along. But I go further than Wertham, and wonder if science fiction and fantasy is dangerous too.

“Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” opens in the skyscraper office of Rufus Sollenar, a entertainment business titan. He’s looking out a floor to ceiling window contemplating his success in life. He believes his new product, EmpaVid, will dominate the market and guarantee success and riches for the rest of his life. EmpaVid is a television system that manipulates the emotions of the viewers. Sollenar expects EmpaVid patents to allow him to dominate the entertainment industry.

Sollenar wears utilijem rings that allows him to operate everything in his office with a wave of his hand. Budrys describes the scene quite dramatically, with Sollenar conducting the machines of his office with simple hand gestures, like a magical superpower. Still, it’s technology, making the story science fiction. Sollenar is smug and feels like he dominates the world when looking out his window down on the city.

Eventually, a Mr. Ermine forces is way into Sollenar’s office. An ermine is a weasel, and even Mr. Ermine dresses in rust colored garments, the color of a weasel. This is rather obvious, too much like a comic book villain. Galaxy Magazine was aimed at adults, and from what Budrys says in his memoir of working there, Horace Gold wanted it to be read by a wider audience than just the average young science fiction fan. I feel this aspect of the story counters that goal. But maybe I’m being too harsh.

Mr. Ermine is from the IAB, the International Association of Broadcasters. At first you think of him as a toady but eventually we learn he’s far more powerful, like an enforcer for the mob. Over the course of the story the IAB becomes more sinister, and suggesting Budrys wants us to believe it’s a secret cabal that manipulates the entertainment business, and will go to any length to get what they want. Again, this is painting reality with comic book strokes. People who love conspiracies will love this aspect of the tale.

After some heavy-handed info-dumping we get down to the conflict of the story. Mr. Ermine tells Sollenar that Cortwright Burr, a competitor, has gone to Mars and had the Martian engineers make him a device. The implication being that the Sollenar corporation and IAB are threatened.

We next see Sollenar acting like Spiderman climbing on Cortwright Burr’s corporate skyscraper. We are given some razzle-dazzle about the machinery that allows Sollenar to do this, but once again the story falls into comic book mode. There were many SF stories in the 1950s and 1960s about titans of industry at war with one another. Alfred Bester aided his characters in The Demolished Man with psychic powers, and Philip K. Dick wrote many stories of business power figures battling with reality-bending drugs and technology. The most famous novel of this sub-type was The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth, first serialized in Galaxy.

In the early 1950s there were dozens of science fiction magazines on the market, and hordes of prolific writers to fill their pages. Business in America was booming, and like the ambitious said to one another, “The sky’s is the limit,” meaning nothing is impossible. Often it feels like these science fiction writers also felt there were no limits, and SF readers will believe anything. This is why critics of the genre claimed science fiction was for gullible young males. But on the other hand, the stories had an excitement and energy that fans loved.

Reading “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” both annoyed and excited me. I’m torn by admiring Budrys flamboyant imagination and insulted that he thinks so little of my intelligence.

Sollenar enters Burr’s office like Neo in a scene from The Matrix, diving through a window with his pistol aimed, hitting the ground, and popping up. Sollenar fires and hits Burr with a blast of energy from his gun, throwing Burr’s body against the wall. Burr had been holding a golden ball when shot and had yelled a command at it just before he was hit. Burr, now a sack of broken bloody bones holds the sphere up and Sollenar blasts him again. Burr drops the ball and Sollenar goes after it but sees that Burr is still animated even though his face is blown away. Sollenar shoots him again. He then gathers up the ball, but seeing Burr still moving fires all his remaining charges into the body. Sollenar is so freaked out he leaves the ball. He then climbs out the window and gets into his spiderman suit, but sees Burr still trying to come after him.

Why didn’t Burr die. How could his body be so destroyed yet still move? Later Sollenar is back at his building with his girlfriend on the balcony, and the body of Burr shows up climbing the outside of the building. WTF? Sollenar crushes the gripping hand on the rim of the outside wall, and the body falls down to crash below.

This is like some supernatural horror film, or an EC Comic. It reminds me of the Marvel films of today, and why I don’t like them. I hate films that show extreme violence with the reality of The Three Stooges or Wile E. Coyote. But I keep reading. How can Budrys explain this to me?

The next scene has Sollenar going to the TTV Executives’ Costume Ball. Guess what, Curt Burr is there, dressed as a gallows bird. Not only does Budrys go for obvious symbolism, but he just flat out tells us. And guess how Sollenar is costumed? As a Medici. Is this story supposed to be a comedy? Is this story supposed to be a mad parody of the genre like the first version of Casino Royale made fun of James Bond movies? Have I been taking it too seriously, when it was meant to be a gag all along?

One reason I can’t stand superhero comics and movies is I can’t buy into their reality, I can’t suspend my disbelief to accept their obviously unreal premises. Is Budrys trying to get his readers to believe his story or is he satirizing the genre? Galaxy Magazine was known for its satire and human. Am I taking things to literal? Sarcasm often flies over my head, and satire often just seems stupid. Is Budrys secretly sneering at his reader?

If “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” was filmed it would look a Marvel film. Do fans of such film see them as satire? What are they poking fun of?

Sollenar now accuses Burr of buying immortality from the Martians. But what a horrifying kind of immortality, becoming a walking bag of broken bones and torn up flesh that can’t die.

Ermine now returns, also in costume, one which no one would take him for a man. Ermine even proves how inhuman he is, by showing Sollenar he has no feelings from his nerves. He feels no pain.

Sollenar learns that he must succeed or IAB will kill him. He takes a rocket to Mars. The trip must have lasted no more than what jet plane takes to get to a nearby city. More unreality. More comic book realism. And I should say, the realism level of Star Wars.

Sollenar violently ditches Ermine on Mars and heads out to find the Martian engineers. I did like the whole description of Mars, both the human and Martian cities and the Martians. Maybe that’s because I’ve always been a sucker for stories about Mars.

Sollener bargains to buy immortality like Burr, but it turns out Martians don’t have immortality to sell. What the Martians are selling is an illusion machine. It can make the irrational rational.

Now this would be hilarious if Budrys intended all along to make this a recursive science fiction story, poking fun at the genre. Judith Merril did that “The Deep Down Dragon” another story in the Galaxy anthology. But am I seeing SF humor too often? I get the feeling Budrys does want us to believe this wild adventure story just like Philip K. Dick often used techniques in his serious stories by having his characters confused by reality. I think, but not sure, that Budrys is pulling a PKD here. In a way, Cort Burr prefigures Palmer Eldritch. So maybe PKD 1960’s work was inspired by Budrys?

If I read this story right, Cort Burr was never shot. Sollenar just believed he was. And to escape Ermine who is waiting to shoot him, he buys a Martian machine to give Ermine the illusion that his nerves function again, and that he killed and buried Sollenar.

Ultimately, this is a fun story, even though it mainly works at Level 1 reality. And as long as we accept it as creative fun there is no harm in playing make believe. But we still have to consider the article about the danger of superhero stories. Has generations absorbing anti-reality fiction from comics, science fiction, television, movies, video games affected them? Would society be saner and wiser if its citizens only consumed Level 4 and Level 5 fiction?

Contemplate all the news stories you’ve encountered in 2020. Too much of it feels like people are trying to live Level 1 reality as being real. Think about those men who planned to kidnap a governor believing they were freedom fighters. Think about Qanon believers. Think about all the crap stories people believe today. Did science fiction contribute to the current climate of anti-science? We aren’t living in a satire although it sure feels like one. And that’s painful!

Does consuming Level 1 fiction create a Level 1 society? We can claim Bible stories and Greek mythology proves we’ve been consuming such fiction for thousands of years. Would going cold turkey on such fiction help? Or do we consume Level 1 fiction because the average human can only comprehend reality with Level 1 thinking?

This is a lot of philosophical navel gazing to get from one minor SF story from 1961. But, I’ve got nothing better to do. It is 2020, you know.

Additional Reading

James Wallace Harris, 10/12/20

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