“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

A Four Short Story Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 5/22/2020

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

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

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

A Martian Odyssey in 8 anthologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Tweels

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 5/5/20

 

Why Review A Book You Can’t Buy?

Years Best Science-Fiction Novels 1953

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/6/20

Reevaluating the Three Methods of Reading Short Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 2/14/20