Would Generation Ship Crews Ever Forget Their Mission?

Generation ships 1
Generation ships 2

Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations is running a series of reviews on generation ship stories. He even compiled a list of such SF tales. I’ve decided to read along. So far he’s covered “The Wind Blows Free” by Chad Oliver and “Spacebred Generations” by Clifford D. Simak (later renamed “Target Generations”). Joachim plans to do “Wish Upon a Star” by Judith Merril next. Science fiction has explored this theme often. Imagining a self-contained society that spends hundreds or thousands of years between the stars presents a wonderful challenge to writers.

I’ve loved the concept of generation ships since 1965 when I was 13 and read Orphans of the Sky (1963) by Robert A. Heinlein. This book was assembled from two magazine stories, “Universe” and “Common Sense” first published in 1941. At the time I thought Heinlein and science fiction must have invented the idea of generation ships, but I was wrong.  I highly recommend reading Wikipedia’s entry on the topic. Both the rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, and the space explorer theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky came up with the idea in America and Russia. And it was also described by J. D. Bernal in a 1929 nonfiction book speculating about the future, The World, The Flesh, & the Devil.

Because I’m going to discuss the ideas in the stories this essay will have spoilers.

Quite often in the early science fiction stories about generation ships, the crews forget they are on an interstellar mission. This makes for a sense-of-wonder climax based on characters experiencing what The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls a conceptual breakthrough. That’s an exciting plot device for the reader but would any generation ship crew ever forget their mission? Right from the beginning of the idea of generation ships in science fiction with “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years” (1940) by Don Wilcox writers have been intrigued by the idea that the passengers would forget.

The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox 1940

A generation ship is a spaceship that travels slower-than-light and takes many generations to reach its destination. Heinlein hit one into orbit by imagining the crew forgetting their mission. Their society collapses to the point where they believe the ship is their entire universe. Because the crew can’t see outside the ship they don’t know about the stars and the cosmos. This is such a delicious idea that Brian Aldiss reexamines it in his novel Starship (1958) (first called Non-Stop in the U.S.).

Now that I’m much older I find it very hard to believe the crew would forget they were on a generation ship. Such forgetting makes for a bang-up plot, but if you think about it, doesn’t make a lot of sense. To forget their mission would require a complete collapse of the ship’s society. Is that even possible? How could the ship continue to function? Writers tell us the ship is fully automatic, but I can’t believe that either.

Evidently, science fiction writers assume such forgetting is a powerful McGuffin to wow their readers. And I loved these plots when I first encountered them. However, I now believe such situations to be too contrived to be realistic. Such tricks by the writer are much like an O’Henry ending. The reader is set up from the get-go. Not that such storytelling shenanigans are bad, but I do think it gives readers the wrong impression about generation ships.

Of course, I haven’t read all science fiction stories about generation ships. Now that Joachim Boaz is systematically reading them for his blog, I’m wondering if any science fiction writer imagined a realistic generation ship. It’s fun discussing this at his site.

Slower-than-Light Travel

Even though Einstein has been validated time and again, science fiction writers have us zipping around the galaxy at several thousand times the speed of light (300,000 kph). The spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2, our only efforts to leave the solar system, poke along at 1/18,000th that speed. Some engineers have theorized we might achieve 1/10th to 1/5th lightspeed with our present and expected knowledge, however, even their ideas are extremely theoretical.

If we could travel at ten percent of the speed of light it would take a whole lifetime to get to the nearest star. Since it will probably take hundreds or thousands of years to travel the nearby stellar neighborhood we’d need the crew using suspended animation or build a ship where humans could live out several generations.

Suspended animation is probably no more realistic than faster-than-light travel.

Building an artificial world that is completely self-contained, self-sufficient, and can travel a significant fraction of the speed of life is not impossible but probably so. Still, it’s a very exciting idea to contemplate. Can we build a machine that works perfectly for 1,000 years? What is the optimal crew size? How do you design a society that can thrive in such a limited environment? How will this civilization get its energy? Will water and air leak out? Will the passengers find meaning in their lives? How would successive generations react when learning they have been forced into a limited role by their ancestors? What if you don’t like where you’re going?

The generation ship would have to contain a minimum viable population (MVP). We must assume it will be a colony ship. Any scientific exploration should be done by intelligent machines – why waste all those lives on just information? In my reading, I’ve seen MVP numbers ranging from 160-5,000. We often see stories now about sending frozen embryos or building machines that can sequence DNA from raw material but I’m going to assume frozen embryos can’t last 1,000 years, and building people from digital blueprints is a fantasy. If we could, it would invalidate the need for a generation ship. By the way, raising artificial children at the end of a long space voyage is a new theme science fiction writers are exploring.

Orphans in the Sky imagines a generation ship where the ship’s civilization collapses and the inhabitants forget they are on a spaceship. I love that idea as a science fiction story, but doubt it would happen. Crews on a generation ship would have lots of time on their hands and education would have a significant appeal. They would have a library of our entire history. They would be in contact with Earth. They would know everything about astronomy and cosmology. For Heinlein’s story to work the original passengers would have to be clueless dumbasses who didn’t care about anything intellectual and refused to teach their children. The original crew would be brilliant with a passionate hope for the mission. They would pass that on. For Heinlein and Wilcox to be right, their descendants would have de-evolve. How that could happen would make a great SF story. I wish Heinlein had written it before writing “Universe” and “Common Sense.”

Clifford Simak came up with a different idea in “Target Generations.” He tells us the original mission designers feared the crew would not psychologically survive knowing why they were on the ship, so hid the knowledge from them. That’s absolutely ridiculous if we think about it, but at least Simak’s realized Heinlein’s idea had problems. That’s what’s wonderful about science fiction, it evolves. It’s a dialog by writers over time.

Chad Oliver offers another twist in “The Wind Blows Free.” The passengers know they are on a spaceship but they haven’t been told it landed hundreds of years earlier. Selective crew members decide the generation ship’s inhabitants are too adapted to shipboard life to leave it. That’s a very compelling idea, but still not realistic. I don’t see how they could hide landing a ship, but more than that, it’s based on maintaining an absurd conspiracy theory. The practical solution to such a problem would be to land the ship and let people slowly migrate to the new world. I do buy that generation ship passengers might not want to leave the ship. I’m an old guy who has become very attached to my house. I wouldn’t want to start over either.

Too often science fiction ignores Occam’s razor to create a compelling plot. I’m hoping we’ll be reading stories where generation ships succeed, or if they fail, fail for realistic reasons. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson was an outstanding example of a space exploration failure that made sense.

Children of Time (2015) by Adrian Tchaikovsky did come up with a very real generation ship problem. Successive crew generations became resentful for having their lives committed to a project they didn’t choose. Some even want to abort the mission and return to Earth. This is the kind of realistic challenges I hope science fiction writers will imagine. There’s nothing wrong with coming up with a plot that wows the readers but ultimately makes no sense. A story is a story. But I like science fiction that imagines something that might be possible.

I like to think it’s science fiction’s job to consider all the possibilities before we actually build a generation ship. From early science fiction, we know not to create a society that will forget the mission. I also like the idea we have to worry about the resentment of the later generations. And we do have to worry about getting people comfortable living on a ship to living on a planet again.

We science fiction fans daydream of traveling in space. But can you imagine a future where children born in space wished they lived on Earth like us?

James Wallace Harris, 12/2/19

Ever Wonder Why You Read Science Fiction?

Angel's Egg by Edgar Pangborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angel's Egg 2 by Edgar Pangborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The angel offered him two choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there is the other alternative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Galaxy June 1951

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

James Wallace Harris, 11/26/19

Does Science Fiction Have A Purpose?

 

1940-03 Astounding p122 bw

Norman Spinrad’s latest “On Books” column has caused some minor controversy, although I’m not sure why since everything in the column seems reasonable to me. Although I tend to like modern short science fiction more than he does. I do agree that the science fiction genre has been diluted with too much fantasy. I wish there were two completely separate genres. I’m also bothered by the fact that many younger readers don’t seem to distinguish between real science fiction and fantasy science fiction.

I found this statement by Spinrad the most interesting:

It tells us that fantasy has long since come to dominate SF. It tells us that many or perhaps even a majority of these SF writers do not have the education or indeed the inclination to learn the difference between science fiction and fantasy and to dish the result out to a populace that has more than enough confusion about the difference between reality and magic already.

It got me to thinking about the meaning of science fiction. To be able to distinguish science fiction from fantasy requires a precise definition of each. Too many have tried that for me to consider jumping into the fray. But I have thought of another angle of attack. What is the purpose of each?

Right now science fiction and fantasy seem to be fairy tales for older readers. And for these readers fantasy has a flavor of the past and science fiction has a flavor of the future. And if this is their sole purpose then it hardly matters if writers distinguish between the two. Especially if editors and readers are only looking for entertaining stories.

Since Spinrad is criticizing writers for not knowing the difference between science fiction and fantasy I must assume he believes there is a difference. I know I do, but are we deluding ourselves if no one else does?

There is an interesting aspect of this problem. The SF/F genre is the only genre where short fiction is thriving, still being bought by editors and read by readers. Would-be writers are attracted to its paying markets. What could be happening is hordes of writers looking to get published see this and have decided to its easier to get acceptance letters in our genre, and even get paid. They feel this market requires fantasy and science fiction elements in their stories so they add them. I’m guessing Spinrad feels these new writers don’t know the genre or its history and thus are just making stuff up that they believe is science fiction. Spinrad also feels they don’t know traditional storytelling techniques.

I’m an MFA dropout. Twenty years ago I took many creative writing courses and workshops but didn’t finish my degree. At the time my professors tried to steer us away from writing genre stories. The emphasis was on getting published in literary magazines. The MFA was a terminal degree for teaching in higher education, so the focus was on getting a job at a university. Being published in literary magazines counted towards an academic job. My courses promoted literary writing techniques, and these are different from genre story writing. I believe many SF/F writers in recent generations have taken MFA courses and that has influenced their writing style, and changed the genre.

There are practically no jobs for creative writing majors, even though the degree is promoted as a pathway into teaching. I’m guessing that’s why we’re seeing an influx of these writers into our genres. And for the most part, they didn’t grow up reading science fiction and fantasy magazines. However, that’s not their fault. Nor do I have any problem with them using our genre as an outlet for their creative hopes.

However, should science fiction be anything people want to write and call science fiction, or should it have a purpose? In 2004 DARPA created the Grand Challenge offering a million-dollar prize for the first autonomous vehicle to travel its predefined course. That was a very definite purpose. Science fiction doesn’t have such a highly focused purpose like DARPA’s, but does it at least have a vague purpose? One that goes beyond fairy tales for grown-ups.

I believe H. G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, and Robert A. Heinlein felt it did. Yet, describing that purpose is as difficult as defining science fiction. Science has the job of describing reality. But the term “science fiction” isn’t storytelling about describing reality. Ironically, that job belongs to literary fiction. Science fiction has taken on the job of trying to describe what science cannot yet describe but should eventually. To confuse the issue science fiction often speculates about possibilities that turn out to be impossible. Science fiction’s apparent purpose to explore territory science hasn’t but hopefully will. Fantasy doesn’t even go near this territory, nor does it try.

Good science fiction should be a cognitive tool for philosophically guessing what we might find in reality. Science fiction is fictionalized thought experiments. Whether science fiction is told using old-fashioned storytelling structures, or in newer MFA literary styles doesn’t matter. The real purpose of science fiction is to present philosophical insights into the event horizon between what is known and what is not.

The trouble is most “science fiction” writers, past or present, have taken these speculations and created fun fantasies. Star Wars is the perfect example. Star Wars has no extrapolation or speculation. Basically, Star Wars borrowed most of its themes and icons from Isaac Asimov, ones Asimov first created for speculative SF. Star Wars turned real science fiction into Disneyland fun science fiction. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It has a different purpose.

Part of the problem Spinrad complains about regarding not distinguishing science fiction from fantasy is most science fiction readers who read only fiction marketed as science fiction can’t distinguish serious science fiction from fun science fiction. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Anything that calls itself fantasy isn’t even part of this discussion. I am not worried that fantasy sells more than science fiction. It does bother me a little that fantasy is shelved with science fiction, but that’s only an inconvenience. It is more annoying that some magazines and anthologies want to package them together, so half the content I purchase isn’t wanted. But my real problem, and I think Spinrads’s too, is serious science fiction is being rejected by society totally embracing fun science fiction.

For most of its history, science fiction has had the reputation of being that silly Buck Rogers stuff. There were a few writers and editors that wanted science fiction to have more validity. Even today there are writers that use both science fiction and fantasy to express serious philosophical insights and worries. What’s even more ironic, is real serious science fiction often gets stripped of its label science fiction and reclassified at literature, such as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Handmaid’s Tale, and so on. Writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Harlan Ellison escaped the whole problem of defining science fiction by rejecting the label completely.

Like I said earlier, Spinrad and I might be suffering from a delusion, and so were Wells, Gernsback, Campbell, and Heinlein. That’s one reason why I’m reading and researching old science fiction. Were these guys on to something, or were they crazy, or boosting their egos with fantasies of self-importance? Alec Nevala-Lee’s book Astounding suggests they were egomaniacs using science fiction to make their lives significant. But I don’t know. In all those old pulp stories there’s a glint of gold. Was it fools gold or the real gold?

James Wallace Harris, 11/6/19

 

“Then, When” by Eric Del Carlo

Asimovs SF Sep-Oct 2019

Mike, the guy who does the computer programming for this site, and I often talk about science fiction short stories. We both subscribe to Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF. Whenever one of us reads a story we like we tell the other to give it a try. To be honest, we don’t often find stories we really like, but when we do, we often like the same story. What’s rather fascinating when discovering a story you really love is assuming everyone will love it too, and discovering they don’t.

“Then, When” by Eric Del Carlo from Sept/Oct issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction was a big hit with both Mike and myself. I thought the story had a very clever science-fictional invention and Eri Del Carlo created a very moving story to showcase that idea. I thought the story so good that I wondered why it wasn’t the cover story, however, Carlo didn’t even get his name on the cover with the other authors.

Looking around the web “Then, When” is getting mixed reviews. Rocket Stack Rank called it an “Honorable Mention” but dinged the idea I thought so clever as being “pretty gross.” That made me consider the appeal I have to the idea. Sam Tomaino at SFRevue said “Really interesting idea and a great story.” Michelle Ristuccia over at Tangent Online  said, “Carlo expertly weaves Barrett’s first-person narrative to breathe new life into themes of self-actuation and introspection, bringing these existential questions down from the hypothetical heights of cloning and AIs to the personal connection of everyday decisions and our ability to redirect our own personal growth.”

I mention these different reviews not to justify my own opinion about the story, but to point out that stories aren’t good or bad, but whatever the beholder sees in them. It must be hard to be a magazine editor and try to guess what your readers will like. Or even see what your readers will see.

I love science fiction stories that have a cool imaginary invention in them. Eric Del Carlo imagines a fad in the future where a computer program can make a “mirror” of a person by observing their behavior. Think of a cross between Amazon’s Alexa and a deep fake video of yourself that talks and acts just like you on a computer or TV screen. In Carlo’s future, these mirrors have gone out of fashion. When Barrett, the main character, finds out his ex-girlfriend illegally made a mirror of him while they were together he’s annoyed. She kept it for companionship. Barrett at first thinks he will sell his mirror to a marketing research group but then decides to keep it. Of course, he is embarrassed to own what popular culture has decided is a narcissistic toy. This is probably why Greg Hullender thought it was a gross idea too. But I’m not so sure.

Wouldn’t hanging out with ourselves be enlightening? It’s very hard to know our own virtue and flaws. I’d probably be horrified talking to myself. I know if I had to listen to me make the stupid jokes my wife complains about I’d probably stop. Maybe I’d even learn how to pronounce all the words I stumble over. I’m a rather quiet person, so I’m not sure how much a mirror could learn from just watching me. Of course, if it read my blogs it would become a rather verbose bastard. If I had to listen to all the ideas I like to write about would I bore the crap out of myself?

What I really liked about the idea of mirrors is they are more realistic than mind downloading/uploading, which is a very popular concept in science fiction right now. I believe our minds are tightly integrated with our bodies and far too complex to ever be recorded. The idea of mind uploading is about as silly to me as when E. E. “Doc” Smith had his characters hurling galaxies at each other. But I can imagine an AI program studying people and imitating them so well that their speech and opinions would be very close to the original.

In the story, “Then, When” we are told that scientists don’t think the mirrors are sentient, but the ending leaves us thinking they might be. But like the mirror said, does it really matter if we can fool you into thinking we are?

Carlo comes up with a very nice emotional story where Barrett grows and changes by communicating with his mirror. However, I think the idea of mirrors is so good that I can imagine it catching on and other science fiction writers using the idea. Like I said, I think mirrors are a much better idea than mind-uploading and it seems zillions of stories are being written about that. Since reading, “Then, When” I’ve thought about a couple of ideas for stories using the concept of mirrors.

Think about how popular self-help books are today. Wouldn’t mirrors be instant feedback to how well a self-help book is working? Say, you’re a professor and you watch your mirror lecture would it inspire you to become a better lecturer? Or would people with low self-esteem be bummed out by their mirrors?

Brian Aldiss invented something similar to a mirror for his 1976 story “Appearance of Life.” In his far future people can create memory cubes to give to other people like letters. In the story, a man finds two memory cubes from a divorced couple who hadn’t seen each other in years. Both wanted to get back together. He set the memory cubes next to each other so they talked back and forth within the limits of their recorded ability. After a while, each began to subtly repeat itself in their expressions of regret, love, and memories.

I believe if we had mirrors we might all find that our personalities are rather shallow. I don’t think there’s that much mind to upload. Our personalities are really mirrors of culture, and mainly a collection of likes and dislikes. We don’t do that much original thinking. Really, what we are, is a sentient bubble of consciousness that reacts to our bodily experiences, the environment, and culture.

Couldn’t a mirror become a microscope that lets us look into our soul? Would we agree with ourselves? Or would a mirror help us spot our dumbass behaviors and beliefs? I am reminded of a Bob Dylan song, “Positively 4th Street” and its last refrain:

I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you

I wonder if Dylan ever imagined seeing himself.

James Wallace Harris, October 31, 2019

Science Fiction Themes: A Little Help?

Woman in front of Jupiter

[Found this image on Facebook. Does anyone know its source? What an amazing idea.]

I want to revamp this site. We created a new version of the database which users can customize. It’s located at https://csfquery.com/. But the old lists and essays are still here, so there are actually two versions of the Classics of Science Fiction lists on the web now: the old longer version 4 with lots of alternative list views and essays and the new dynamic shorter version 5 with a list generator and no essays. We want to consolidate and make one consistent site. It’s really a big mess. Part of the problem is WordPress limits how we can present text and data, so we might need to go back to a web site where we have complete programming control.

Mike and I are talking about starting the whole project over from scratch. I’m thinking about making this site just a blog about nattering about science fiction and moving the Classics of Science Fiction lists to a website that’s database-driven. Mike and I both think we need more than just lists, but I don’t think we need a lot of essays. The goal is to encourage people to read science fiction books. Our lists show which science fiction books and short stories have been the most popular over the decades and we assumed revealing their popularity might encourage readers. And we do get people telling us they printed our lists and use them as guides to book buying and reading. However, we figure just plain lists are boring to web surfers.

We want to create a site with more pizzaz. So I’m thinking about different ways to present our data. Since neither one of us are artists the only way we can spice up the site with visuals is by using book and magazine covers. And I’ve always wanted to do more with science fiction themes. Right now we present our results by title, author, and year, but I’m thinking by theme might be more appealing for encouraging reading. My current plan to test is to create a home page of book covers, each representing a theme. I figure I could have a grid of 5 x 5 covers, or 6 x 6. That means 25 or 36 themes. So I organized the 108 books on v. 5 of the Classics of Science Fiction list by theme:

  1. Alien Archeology
    • 1960 – Rogue Moon
    • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
    • 1977 – Gateway
  2. Aliens – First Contact
    • 1898 – War of the Worlds
    • 1963 – Way Station
    • 1970 – Solaris
    • 1972 – Roadside Picnic
    • 1973 – Rendezvous with Rama
    • 1974 – The Mote in God’s Eye
    • 1996 – The Sparrow
  3. Alternate History
    • 1941 – Lest Darkness Fall
    • 1962 – The Man in the High Castle
  4. Apocalypse / Post-Apocalypse
    • 1949 – Earth Abides
    • 1951 – The Day of the Triffids
    • 1954 – I Am Legend
    • 1962 – The Drowned World
    • 1966 – The Crystal World
    • 1967 – The Einstein Intersection
    • 1975 – Dhalgren
    • 1976 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
    • 1978 – Dreamsnake
    • 2006 – The Road
  5. Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Robots
    • 1950 – I, Robot
    • 1952 – City
    • 1954 – The Caves of Steel
    • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
    • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
    • 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
    • 1989 – Hyperion
    • 1990 – The Fall of Hyperion
    • 1995 – The Diamond Age
  6. Artificial Life / Clones
    • 1818 – Frankenstein
    • 1976 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
    • 1896 – The Island of Doctor Moreau
    • 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
    • 2009 – The Windup Girl
  7. Colonizing the Solar System
    • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Revolution
    • 1992 – Red Mars
  8. Cyberpunk
    • 1984 – Neuromancer
    • 1992 – Cyberpunk
    • 2002 – Altered Carbon
  9. Utopia/Dystopia
    • 1924 – We
    • 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four
    • 1962 – A Clockwork Orange
    • 1985 – The Handmaid’s Tale
    • 2008 – The Hunger Games
  10. Ecology
    • 1989 – Grass
    • 2009 – The Windup Girl
  11. Evolution
    • 1930 – First and Last Men
    • 1935 – Odd John
    • 1937 – Star Maker
    • 1946 – Slan
    • 1953 – Childhood’s End
    • 1953 – More Than Human
    • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
  12. Extrapolation – If This Goes On …
    • 1968 – Stand on Zanzibar
    • 2009 – The Windup Girl
  13. Extrasensory Perception – Psychic Powers
    • 1946 – Slan
    • 1952 – The Demolished Man
    • 1953 – Childhood’s End
    • 1953 – Fahrenheit 451
    • 1953 – More Than Human
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1968 – Dragonflight
    • 1969 – Ubik
    • 1972 – Dying Inside
  14. Fantastic Ideas
    • 1971 – The Lathe of Heaven
    • 1971 – To Your Scattered Bodies Go
  15. Far Future
    • 1895 – The Time Machine
    • 1930 – Last and First Men
    • 1937 – Star Maker
    • 1956 – The City and the Stars
    • 1980 – The Book of the New Sun
  16. Galactic Empires
    • 1951 – The Foundation series
    • 1980 – The Snow Queen
    • 1986 – Speaker for the Dead
    • 1988 – The Player of Games
    • 1989 – Hyperion
    • 1990 – The Fall of Hyperion
    • 1991 – Barrayar
  17. Gender
    • 1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness
    • 1975 – The Female Man
    • 1986 – A Door Into Ocean
    • 2013 – Ancillary Justice
  18. Humor / Satire
    • 1953 – The Space Merchants
    • 1959 – The Sirens of Titan
    • 1963 – Cat’s Cradle
    • 1979 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  19. Immortality
    • 2002 – Altered Carbon
  20. Mars
    • 1917 – A Princess of Mars
    • 1956 – Double Star
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1992 – Red Mars
  21. Matter Transmission
    • 1956 – The Stars My Destination
    • 1960 – Rogue Moon
  22. Military SF
    • 1959 – Starship Troopers
    • 1974 – The Mote in God’s Eye
    • 1985 – Ender’s Game
  23. Ocean Space
    • 1872 – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
    • 1986 – A Door Into Ocean
  24. Parallel Universes
    • 1972 – The Gods Themselves
  25. Political Speculation
    • 1992 – China Mountain Zhang
  26. Religion
    • 1958 – A Case of Conscience
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1962 – A Wrinkle in Time
    • 1989 – Hyperion
  27. Sexuality
    • 1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness
    • 1975 – Dhalgren
    • 1992 – Ammonite
    • 1992 – China Mountain Zhang
  28. Sociology
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1965 – Dune
    • 1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness
    • 1974 – The Dispossessed
    • 1975 – Dhalgren
    • 1978 – Dreamsnake
    • 1986 – A Door Into Ocean
  29. Space Opera
    • 1966 – Babel-17
    • 1967 – Lord of Light
    • 1968 – Dragonflight
    • 1970 – Tau Zero
    • 1974 – The Mote in God’s Eye
    • 1981 – Downbelow Station
    • 1982 – Startide Rising
    • 1988 – Cyteen
    • 1988 – The Player of Games
    • 1992 – A Fire Upon the Deep
    • 1992 – Ammonite
    • 1999 – A Deepness in the Sky
    • 2002 – Altered Carbon
    • 2013 – Ancillary Justice
  30. Space Travel: Interplanetary
    • 1938 – Out of the Silent Planet
    • 1950 – The Martian Chronicles
  31. Space Travel: Interstellar
    • 1970 – Tau Zero
  32. Super Science
    • 1954 – Mission of Gravity
    • 1970 – Ringworld
    • 1985 – Blood Music
    • 1995 – The Diamond Age
  33. Time Travel
    • 1895 – The Time Machine
    • 1962 – A Wrinkle in Time
    • 1969 – Slaughterhouse-Five
    • 1980 – Timescape
    • 1992 – Doomsday Book
  34. Unexplored Earth
    • 1864 – Journey to the Center of Earth
  35. Uplifting
    • 1966 – Flowers for Algernon
    • 1983 – Startide Rising

I figure clicking on a theme would take visitors to a page showing covers, titles, quotes from the book and about the book, along with useful links. The books and stories would be in order chronologically to show the evolution of a concept in science fiction. Our database would generate the list of the most popular stories and books for that theme to create the page. Using this visual approach we might expand the definition of classics. We try to keep the lists short, but a list of books for any particular theme would probably always be manageable – at least if we only include the most remembered titles. On Wikipedia, some SF themes have extremely long lists of titles. We’d only want to use the titles people are likely to enjoy reading.

The list of themes above is very close to a 6 x 6 grid, however, these aren’t the best theme labels. I’m wondering if I couldn’t consolidate them down to 25. I have Space Travel: Interplanetary and Space Travel: Interstellar. I could simplify with Space Travel that shows how science fiction imaged humans expanding away from Earth. But how is Space Travel different from Space Opera? Right now I’d say some SF books are about the efforts to explore, while others assume exploration is over and we’re busy living in space, colonizing, creating empires, developing new societies, fighting wars with each other and aliens.

I’d like a set of labels that immediately help readers find the kinds of science fiction books they want to read. Imagine going to Barnes & Noble’s science fiction section and seeing it subdivided by theme. (We focus just on science fiction, no fantasy.) I’d like if B&N did that, but would other people?

First all, does the science fiction genre neatly break down into definite sub-genres? I had trouble, which is why some books are under multiple themes. I do know readers who strongly prefer Alternate History and Military SF. But I also think of themes as a fascinating way of studying science fiction’s history. What was the first story about the end of the world or artificial intelligence? How did later writers expand and handle the theme? How often do readers encounter a theme, say Time Travel in the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and then want to read another time travel book? And do writers wanting to work a particular theme go back and see how other writers have explored it?

So I’m asking folks: What are your favorite SF themes and sub-genres? And if you’ve got the time, how would you categorize our genre’s main sub-genres?

Here’s an older effort I made to organize SF. If you like mind maps or any other visual tool, you’re welcome to show us them too in the comments.

SF Themes

James Wallace Harris, 10/18/19

 

I Guess Every Generation Needs An End-of-Civilization Novel

After finishing The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison it occurred to me that every generation might need its own end of civilization novel. One of my favorite books growing up was Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, about a disease that kills off most of humanity. It’s a great novel, so why does anyone need to write another novel about a disease that kills off most of humanity? Meg Elison’s novel is just as gripping as Earth Abides and leaves the same psychological taste in the mind, so in some ways, they are almost identical. But not quite.

Elison’s main character is a woman, and Elison gives a feminist view to the collapse of civilization that George R. Stewart could never have imagined back in 1949. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a last-woman-on-Earth novel for the #MeToo generation. (By the way, these books start off with the main character feeling they are the last person on Earth, but eventually find other people. I’d like to read one where the main character is really the last person on Earth.)

Science fiction has a set of standard concepts that every child eventually encounters. Space travel, aliens, time travel, and robots are the biggest science-fictional concepts kids learn about first, usually from television. The end of civilization and the post-apocalyptic new world does appear now and then in movies and television, but I believe many people don’t really grasp the idea fully until they read about it in a book. And I’m not sure how many people have read any end of civilization novels.

Everyone learns about Frankenstein but few people ever read Mary Shelley’s novel, which is a shame because the novel is so superior to the films. Fewer still know she wrote The Last Man, one of the earliest end of civilization novels. Ever since then such novels have come out infrequently but consistently. I’m wondering if every generation has one. When I was growing up in the 1950s we were afraid of The Bomb and WWIII, and read On the Beach by Neville Shute and Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. At the movies, we saw The World, The Flesh, and The Devil where Harry Belafonte was the last man on Earth until Inger Stevens showed up. I think it’s hard to convey the depth of loneliness in a film of believing you’re all alone in the world. A first-person novel is required.

Meg Elison trilogy

Like I said, science fiction has a set of defining concepts that the genre owns, and some are so popular that most people can’t remember when they first encountered them. Post-apocalyptic stories have become almost as common as space travel, but not quite. I don’t remember when I first encountered the idea. I can’t say if it was a book or movie, but I feel it was Earth Abides, which I read in my late teens. I’m wondering to fully get into the concept you have to read a book and be old enough to appreciate the idea. To grok the existential crisis of the collapse of society we need to understand civilization and imagine what it would be without it.

Meg Elison imagines being a woman without all the protections of law and order. In her story, women and children die off at a rate greater than men. Women are hidden or enslaved. Strong men take women away from weak men. They are raped and put on leashes, they are captured for group marriages, or they are aligned with men who are willing to kill and die for them. The unnamed midwife of this story is a woman who dresses as a man and hides from people. She is a loner traveling across the western states trying to survive while encountering many horrors. She feels the safest living alone but suffers from soul-crushing loneliness and boredom.

Elison’s story is not exactly a first-person point-of-view narrative. Her novel has a frame. It begins in the future, supposedly after civilization starts developing again, where boys are taught to copy the journals of the unnamed midwife. Part of Elison’s tale comes from journals, partly first-person, and part is an omniscient narrator. I wasn’t bothered by this mish-mash of techniques, but some reviewers have complained about it. It allows Elison to let us inside the head of the unnamed midwife – she actually goes by many aliases. But we also get to read the stories of other characters in their first-person voices, plus we get to hear what happens to people that the unnamed midwife never gets to know.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife has some similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale. I assume the boys are made to copy these journals so future men will be sensitive to women’s point of view. Elison also deals with patriarchal religions. And the framework suggests a new religion, which might be revealed in the later novels.

In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, the population is killed off by a mysterious flu-like illness. During the cold war era, nuclear holocaust and biological weapons were usually the cause of leaving few people alive. A couple decades later it was nuclear winter or comet impact. Writers have come up with all kinds of ways of reducing the population down to near zero. These end of the world stories have humans almost becoming extinct, but not quite. Their stories are always about how a few people start over.

I’ve read a lot of these stories. They nearly all follow the same basic plot. A protagonist discovers they are alone. They wander about wondering what happened. Eventually, the protagonist encounters a few other people, but they quickly learn that other people can be dangerous. The stories continue with the search for food and shelter in the ruins, and after a lot of violence, people start finding a way to rebuild. The point of these stories is to tell us what life without civilization would be like. They also get into the foundation of right and wrong, and why people bond. It’s a good sub-genre for being philosophical. It’s a way to criticize the existing civilization and theorized about a better one.

Meg Elison covers all the bases. Her book has two sequels that are set in the same universe, but The Book of the Unnamed Midwife can stand alone just fine. I recommend it to any connoisseurs of end of civilization novels, or to any male that doesn’t fully comprehend the importance of the #MeToo movement. However, I should warn readers who like light and uplifting tales that this one is heavy and painful. I admire these kinds of books because they really make me think hard about existence, but I finish them psychologically worn out.

James Wallace Harris, October 8, 2019

Who Were the Korlevalulaw?

Brian W. Aldiss

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this essay. I sat down to review the short story “Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss. I thought I’d check Google before I started to see if I could find any history about the story. The first item returned was ‘“Appearance of Life” by Brian W. Aldiss‘ – a review of the story I had written back in 2009. I know my memory is deteriorating, but I found it hilarious that I had completely forgotten something I had written and I was about to write the very same thing then years later. I wish I had finished writing this new review before discovering my old review so I could have compared the two. I know I should be depressed over the existential holes in my memory, but nowadays, I just laugh at myself. I’m going to worry when I stop laughing.

Reading that forgotten review from a decade ago shows I damned the story with faint praise and use it for a jumping-off point to discuss the nature of science fiction. I will quote parts of it in this review. I liked “Appearance of Life” much better this time around. Most stories do get better with rereading. I’ve also learned since 2009, that the more I read works by a single author, the more I can map their range of abilities and interests. Back in the 1960s, Aldiss was among the Big Three of British SF writers: Aldiss, Ballard, and Clarke. His legacy has been fading in recent decades — but then so has most of the science fiction writers I grew up reading. I know I’ve pretty much forgotten about Aldiss since the end of the 1970s.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been gorging myself on science fiction short stories. I haven’t completely logged my 10,000 hours yet, but I’ve acquired a decent sense of the art form. Every SF short story must stand on its own, but it also competes with all other science fiction short stories. Science fiction by its nature is in conversation with itself. Science fiction is about ideas. The challenge to a creative SF writer is to come up with fresh insights to old ideas, and if they want to be cutting-edge, add a new idea to the genre’s repertoire.

Science fiction wants to be infinite in novelty but is often repetitious in routine, improvising on old melodies. Long term readers who have consumed a critical mass of science fiction will understand the genre recycles all the great concepts for each generation of young readers. Neophyte fans often feel they are experiencing a mind-blowing concept for the first time when reading current SF. They believe those ideas are new to them and original with the author they are reading. They can’t tell if the presentation is a brilliant revision or a tired retread. Nor do new SF readers understand that science fiction has evolved over time and gone through many revolutions in writing styles. It isn’t easy to spot the changing prose styles in science fiction as it is flipping through art history textbooks.

I’ve only read four novels by Aldiss, but only vaguely remember two, Hothouse and Non-Stop which I’ve read twice each. (Called The Long Afternoon of Earth and Starship when I read them in their first American editions back in the 1960s.) Over the decades I’ve only read a scattering of his short stories. I’m currently listening to The Best SF Stories by Brian W. Aldiss from Audible.com.

What got me interested in Aldiss again was Joachim Boaz’s review of The 1977 Annual World’s Best Science edited by Donald Wollheim. It contains “Appearance of Life” which Boaz rated 5/5 (Near Masterpiece). How could I resist that? Boaz said of the story, “It is powerful and mysterious. Aldiss at the height of his powers.”

Here is my original description of the story:

“Appearance of Life” can be found in these anthologies, but it’s not a very famous story.  I’m reading it because it’s the opening story from The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF edited by Donald A. Wollheim, a collection we’re reading in the Classic SciFi reading group.

The story opens with two sentences that sum up the story, “Something very large, something very small: a galactic museum, a dead love affair.  They came together under my gaze.”  The story immediately evokes the awe associated with tales about mysterious missing aliens who leave galactic ghost worlds behind, like the Krell that once lived on Altair IV in the film Forbidden Planet, or the strange civilization that once existed on Bronson Beta, from the novel After Worlds Collide. These were my first encounters with the sense of wonder brought on by discovering long dead alien cultures back in the 1960s, but it’s a very common cliché in science fiction that I see over and over again.  It’s odd what Aldiss does with this common idea.  His aliens are called the Korlevalulaw, a tongue-twisting name to say or think.

One cool idea in the story is the Korlevalulaw abandoned written writing, which is something our culture is doing now because of the Internet.  What will aliens discovering our civilization ever make of keyboards and LCD monitors?  Reading this short story also makes me wonder what if anything could be made of my life from the possessions I’ll leave behind.  Think about it.  Photographs tell more than anything else.  How long will this blog endure?

On the planet Norma, humans find a vast building that girdles the planet for sixteen thousand kilometers.  Humans have decided to use this alien construct that is impervious to the electro-magnetic spectrum as a museum to house the history of mankind.  Androids tirelessly store humanity’s artifacts, supervised by twenty human female staff members.  The narrator is a “Seeker” who gets to prowl the collection and develop theories.  The entire structure was left empty by the Korlevalulaw, and after ten centuries humans have filled several thousand hectares of space.

Seekers are specially trained people to intuit understanding from scant evidence, perfect for studying the junk left in this vast Smithsonian like attic a thousand light years away from Earth.  At the current rate it will take 15,500 years to fill the alien structure.  To the Seeker, the human artifacts are almost as alien to him as the Korlevalulaw is to us, because humans have been around for so long that they no longer look like 20th century people.  That’s a nice science fiction speculative concept to come up with, to be a far future anthropologist, and it’s not an uncommon idea.  H. G. Wells’ Time Traveler spent time in a far future human museum trying to figure out that changes that people experienced over 802 millennia.  So far, Aldiss hasn’t presented us with anything new in this story, yet.

The Seeker explores a spaceship from the time when humans were split 50-50 by gender and discovers a wedding ring.  In the Seeker’s time, gender population is 10 to 1 in favor of females.  We readers don’t know why, but it’s an interesting thing for Aldiss to throw out.  Eventually the Seeker discovers two cubes, from different spaceships, that were holographic recording devices.  By unbelievable luck, they are from a married couple that recorded messages to each other fifteen years apart, and were design to only respond to the face of their beloved, so the Seeker sets them together and lets the holograms chat out a long dead love affair in an out of sequence conversation of regret and love that is sixty-five thousand years old.

Jean and Chris’ love story takes a couple of pages to play out, but ultimately it seems completely mundane to me, even though they were separated by interstellar war.  I’m surprise Aldiss didn’t invent something new to add to marriage and love.

Now we come to the intent of the story, called the “secret of the universe” by the Seeker in his epiphany, “Like the images I had observed, the galactic human race was merely a projection.  The Korlevalulaw had created us – not as a genuine creation with free will, but as some sort of a reproduction.”  Then the Seeker decides his flash of intuition is nonsense, but we know that isn’t true by his final actions.

In the end the Seeker flees the world Norma to desperately seek out an isolated world to hide away from humanity, fearing that if he communicated his secret it would doom mankind.  And this is why I’m writing this review.  What is Aldiss really implying?  I think he’s saying something philosophical that’s more than making up a spooky SciFi story ending.  I feel Aldiss wants his story to be disturbing like those Mark Twain stories written in his collection Letters from the Earth, which featured Philip K. Dick paranoia about existence.

Experience SF readers will have read many stories about our species exploring the galaxy. Galactic empires are an over-explored territory. When considering intelligent life in the galaxy stories tend to fall into three camps: humans are the only intelligent beings (Foundation series by Asimov), intelligent beings show up infrequently (“Appearance of Life”) and the galaxy is teaming with life (Star Wars, Star Trek). One of the common assumptions of the infrequent model is intelligent beings evolve, spread through the galaxy, and then die out or evolve into a higher nonmaterial existence leaving the galaxy unoccupied again. Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey both take the evolution to a higher plane of existence route.

The stories of alien archaeology where humans only find the material remains of a vast civilization of disappeared inhabitants is one of my favorite themes. Often in these stories, the mystery is to solve why the ancient aliens disappeared. Characters usually feel that will lead to either of three outcomes. First, such as the works of Olaf Stapledon, show humans an evolutionary/spiritual purpose to follow. Second, they feel it’s some kind of test, a rite of passage, to joining the league of advanced beings. Third, there is a drive to acquire the knowledge and technology of these senior beings. I believe Aldiss was trying to come up with something different in “Appearance of Life.”

The famous science fiction editor John W. Campbell didn’t like the idea of humans being inferior to aliens, so we often see Homo sapiens as the top dog in the galaxy. I’d say most science fiction writers assume the galaxy is full of intelligent life, but humans will play a significant role, and no species will truly dominate. Most galactic empire stories are about the high tech potential of humans but fall short of becoming non-physical energy beings.

In “Appearance of Life” Aldiss opens with:

Something very large, something very small: a galactic museum, a dead love affair. They came together under my gaze.

The museum is very large. Less than a thousand light years from Earth, countless worlds bear constructions which are formidably ancient and inscrutable in purpose. The museum on Norma is such a construction.

We suppose that the museum was created by a species which once lorded it over the galaxy, the Korlevalulaw. The spectre of the Korlevalulaw has become part of the consciousness of the human race as it spreads from star-system to star-system. Sometimes the Korlevalulaw are pictured as demons, hiding somewhere in a dark nebula, awaiting the moment when they swoop down on mankind and wipe every last one of us out, in reprisal for having dared to invade their territory. Sometimes the Korlevalulaw are pictured as gods, riding with the awfulness and loneliness of gods through the deserts of space, potent and wise beyond our imagining.

The two opposed images of the Korlevalulaw are of course images emerging from the deepest pools of the human mind. The demon and the god remain with us still.

 

I believe that opening captures the routine reactions of most science fictions stories about missing ancient aliens. Humanity has spent thousands of years speculating what God and Satan, or gods and demons, are like. How is that any different than speculating about possible superior alien beings? There is an ineffable quality to that problem that we never tire of putting into words.

Most SF stories predict we will be able to communicate with any alien species we encounter. Aldiss has major doubts. In “The Failed Men” also from The Best SF Stories by Brian W. Aldiss Aldiss casts more doubts on our ability to communicate between vastly different cultures. In “Appearance of Life” Aldiss uses a clever analogy with the talking holographic heads of Jean and Chris to explain why humans will never understand the Korlevalulaw. Aldiss’ insight is we can’t talk to each other, so there will be no communication possible between humans and gods, or humans and advanced aliens, or even humans and average aliens.

The Seeker who narrates this story is trained to synthesize ideas and experiences. In the end, he claims to have an insight into the secrets of the universe. However, like his insight at the beginning of the story, it parallels ancient theology, that the Korlevalulaw created us as their art. How is that different from the Biblical idea that we’re created in God’s image?

In my original essay I concluded:

Aldiss doesn’t sell his idea to me.  Having humanity be the art of an alien culture is no more real to me than believing man was made in God’s image, although I find it fascinating that billions of humans desperately refashion their lives to fit three thousand year old writings that shaped the long lost twelve tribes of Israel.

The trouble with science fiction writers is they don’t believe their own ideas, they just like to churn out weird concepts to mess with our heads.  The best science fiction concepts are the ones we want to accept, like space travel and life extension, so I’m surprised this story has even gotten the attention it has.   I’m betting most people liked it for the setup, for the sense of wonder buildup, even though it wasn’t original, and the weird ending didn’t mean much to most readers, but I could be wrong.

Now for the second thoughts a decade later. 

With each science fiction story I read I ask myself a number of question:

  1. Do I want to read this story again?
  2. Is this story worth writing about?
  3. Should I recommend it?
  4. Is it on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list?
  5. Is it a story that contemporary readers will like?
  6. Is it a story that is essential in the history of science fiction?
  7. Would I put it on my all-time favorite SF short story list?

For this review, I read the story, then bought the audiobook collection so I could listen to it, and I’m even reading it again for writing this review because I find it pleasantly compelling. And I’m pretty sure I’ll come back to it again in the future, maybe many times.

Since I’m writing about it, that answers question #2. I do recommend it, but the chance of readers finding a copy is damn small unless they own one of these old anthologies, or is willing to buy it on audio. I can’t find any print or ebook editions for sale.

“Appearance of Life” did not make it to the final Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. It only got 2 citations, one for the Wollheim anthology, and one for the Gunn anthology, The Road to Science Fiction Volume 5: The British Way. Currently, the minimum number of citations to get on the list is 8, and that grows over time. It’s extremely doubtful “Appearance of Life” will become a classic, either for our list or with science fiction fans.

Would young new readers of science fiction like the story today? My one data point is Joachim Boaz who is in his early thirties. But Boaz isn’t like most fans, he’s a historian, and also loves the history of science fiction.

Compared to other classic SF short stories, it’s doubtful many will consider “Appearance of Life” significant in the history of science fiction. Part of the problem is it came out in an obscure original anthology, and then it’s never been reprinted in an enduring retrospective anthology. Another factor in hiding its light under a bushel is the Aldiss star is fading.

Two of the definitive retrospective anthologies from recent years  The Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer and Sense of Wonder (2011) by Leigh Grossman had a large percentage of stories from the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. Huge anthologies like these come out every few years and help keep SF short stories alive in the minds of new readers. Between them and fan polls, it’s about the only way older stories are remembered. But who knows, maybe between Joachim Boaz and myself we can get more people to read “Appearance of Life.”

Finally, I am considering putting “Appearance of Life” on my all-time favorite SF short story list I’m constructing. However, that list is limited. If I was creating 1,000 Science Fiction Short Stories to Read Before You Die it would be on it. Even if I was creating something like Billboard’s Top 100 All-Time Great SF Stories I might include it. However, I’m not sure if it will fit on my Jim Harris’ Top 40 playlist.

My Top 40 playlist is the science fiction stories I want to keep rereading as I get old and approach checking out. The ones I want to remember as my mind fades away. But what makes a story worth cherishing in your fading memory tontine? Before my friend John Williamson died, he got down to loving only two things: the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. My favorites list is growing now, still below 50 titles, and it might eventually reach 100 before my mind pushes me to start thinning it out.

What ultimately matters with a short story or even a novel, is what lingers in the mind. With “Appearance of Life” the images of a giant museum, two memory cubes of lovers in an endless loop of conversation, and the Seeker running away to find absolute solitude. That ending keeps reminding me of the ending to ” Press Enter ▮” by John Varley.

Isn’t getting old and approaching death also a withdrawal into solitude? Do we keep the stories we understand best, and throw out the rest? Or do we keep the stories we don’t understand, and winnow out those that become obvious? I don’t know what my last novel will be, the one I’ll keep reading to the end. But I do know the short story that will win the tontine, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. “Appearance of Life” is still in the rotation for now.

I do believe Brian W. Aldiss had a personal epiphany writing “Appearance of Life.” I’m not sure how well he expressed it, or how well I’m perceiving it. Like the story suggests, communication is not possible. But don’t we always keep trying? This is my second attempt to communicate my reaction to “Appearance of Life.” I don’t know if I’ve done a better job or not.

James Wallace Harris

“Contagion” by Katherine MacLean

Contagion by Katherine MacLean

“Contagion” by Katherine MacLean appeared in the very first issue of Galaxy Science Fiction in October of 1950. MacLean was in great company because the first issue also contained stories by Clifford Simak, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Fredric Brown, and Isaac Asimov. If you follow the link above you can read “Contagion” online, as well as the whole first issue of Galaxy. You can also listen to “Contagion” on YouTube from a LibriVox.org recording.

“Contagion” has been reprinted often, most notably in The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1951 edited by Bleiler and Dikty, Women of Wonder (1975) and the expanded Women of Wonder: The Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s (1995) both edited by Pamela Sargent, and most recently in The Future is Female! edited by Lisa Yaszek and published by the prestigious Library of America.

I just read “Contagion” in the Bleiler/Dikty volume as part of my project to read all the best-SF-of-the-year annuals in order starting with 1939. The story was not in The Great SF Stories 12 (1950) edited by Asimov and Greenberg. I wondered why. “Contagion” is not a great story, but it is a lot of fun, and is notable for a number of reasons. Back in 1950, there were damn few women SF writers, so Katherine MacLean stands out. But more importantly, MacLean deals with an idea that I’ve seldom seen other SF writers concern themselves with – can humans landing on other worlds survive their microscopic infections?

Kim Stanley Robinson dealt with this idea in Aurora just a few years ago. but at the moment these two examples are the only ones I can recall. Most SF yarns have their characters worry if they can breathe the air, drink the water, or eat the plants and animals.  However, most humans on Earth, if they were transported to a jungle in South America or Africa, would be at great risk of getting an infection. Why assume other planets are any less dangerous? KSM suggested it might be impossible to colonize any other world with an evolved biology, and I think he’s right. Visiting any other world with life might risk countless forms of dangerous infections like Ebola.

Little is known about Katherine MacLean. She seems to have been into hard science fiction and mostly wrote for Astounding/Analog, but that does include a lot of Psi-stories. I haven’t been able to find out much about her. She only produced three novels and three collections.

The Diploids by Katherine MacLeanThere are many benefits to my reading project. Not only do I get to watch science fiction evolve year by year, but I get to read a huge variety of stories by many authors I’ve never read before or even know about. There was an interview with Katherine MacLean in the July 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books I’d love to read. If anyone has a copy and could send me a scan it would be appreciated. I’m guessing that interview did help Andrew Liptak write “The Fantastic Foresight of Katherine MacLean” at Kirkus Review. That piece has the most information about MacLean I can currently find.

Joachim Boaz reviews her most famous book, Missing Man published in 1975 but based on her Nebula Award-winning 1971 story of the same name. Boaz rated it 5/5 (Near Masterpiece) which I’ve seldom seen him do. He says it’s one of the best sci-fi novels about telepathy ever. (Makes me want to buy a copy.)

<SPOILERS>

What makes “Contagion” so much fun to me is MacLean’s female perspective. The story is told in the third-person but follows June Walton closely. She is part of a team of human explorers landing on Minos that discover it had already been settled by human colonists when they come across a man named Patrick Mead in the jungle. Mead is a head taller than all the space explorers, is red-headed, wears only a loincloth, and has tremendous sexual magnetism. It’s fun as a male reader follow June as she observes Patrick’s impact on her fellow crew members, especially the women. June’s husband Max pales in comparison to Patrick and June feels bad she’s so attracted to the redheaded stranger.

Eventually, Patrick infects all the male space travelers even though they have been extremely careful to avoid infections. They wear spacesuits and use many decontamination methods. Patrick gives the men the “melting disease.” The women eventually save most of the men with antibodies from Patrick, but all the men go through a transformation and end up looking like Patrick – tall, muscular, and redheaded. The women in the crew are freaked out at first but quickly decided that their husbands and boyfriends easily reveal their personalities even though they all look the same. (I don’t know why but many SF writers have a thing for redheads.)  But here’s the kicker. Patrick’s sister shows up and the space explorers realize she will infect the women in the spaceship and they will all end up looking like her. Patrick’s sister is quite a beauty, but all the Earth women refuse to lose their individual looks. Several say they’d rather die. But do they have a choice?

I wondered if MacLean was having fun with all the male science fiction readers of 1950. I’m sure they were just as geeky then as they are today. MacLean has her spacewomen claiming they love their brainy guys, but they go nuts over Patrick. But what is she saying about women in general by having the spacewomen preferring death to all looking alike?

Is MacLean satirizing women’s vanity, or is it another dig at men? Maybe, MacLean is saying women don’t all want to be redheaded sex goddesses, which like I said, is a common ideal in science fiction magazine stories written by men.

</SPOILERS>

I’m not sure it’s politically correct to say female writers have a uniquely different perspective than male writers, but it seems like MacLean does so here, and is specifically targetting that belief in her story. Most older Sci-Fi tales avoided sex and gender issues and usually presented the most common stereotypes. Science fiction writers sometimes would have a hot woman in the spaceship that all the guys went nuts over, but I can’t remember them ever writing a story with a spaceship where the women crew members all going nuts over a hot guy. First of all, very few stories had spaceships where half the crew were women.

In “Contagion” Katherine MacLean anticipates a future in 1950 that’s more like what’s hinted at in Star Trek of 1966, although half the U.S.S. Enterprise’s command crew was not female. In her story, there is great equality males and females, and everyone is a scientist.

Maybe I should reconsider my assessment of “Contagion” being just a light-weight fun story. Now that I think about it, maybe MacLean was saying a lot more than I thought on my first reading. That’s another thing I’m learning from this reading project. Most great stories need 2-4 readings before I can discern all their great attributes.

James Wallace Harris

“At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee

at_the_fall_by_eldarzakirov_dd572fh-pre

The above illustration by Eldar Zakirov is for “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee in the May-June issue of Analog. This story is exactly the kind of science fiction I love. I hope Alec Nevala-Lee won’t be offended when I say, “At the Fall” is great old-fashion science fiction. The story is about a little undersea robot named Eunice and its companion support robot named Wagner who travel thousands of miles under the ocean hoping to find their home. I can’t help but think of the City stories by Clifford Simak.

Eunice is a hexapod, a robot with six tentacle-like appendages. It is one of five hexapods “sisters” (Thetic, Clio, Dione, Galatea) each with their own support robot that generates their power. The five hexapods were created to study deep ocean vents. Because these robots work so far below the surface, beyond the range of radio, they were designed to work independently from human monitoring. They take turns returning to the surface to transmit their data and check in with scientists on a yacht. One day the yacht isn’t at the surface, but the little robots keep at their job. Eventually, after waiting a long time for the yacht to return, Eunice decides to return to Seattle where it was created but it has very limited abilities to make this journey. “At the Fall” is about Eunice’s trials and tribulations crossing thousands of kilometers of the ocean bottom. (In many ways Eunice’s efforts to survive, remind me of Mark Watney’s ingenuity in The Martian.)

Writing good robot stories is hard to pull off. All too often writers make their robots too human. Eunice neither looks human or thinks like a human, yet we feel for it as her. At least I did. I don’t know why it is female other than its name. Eunice has no gender traits, but I can’t stop thinking of it as a little girl. I wish Nevala-Lee had avoided this issue with a genderless name, but we humans anthropomorphize everything. And would this little robot be less charming if it had been called Hexapod-5? For myself, I would have been fine with that.

I wasn’t hugely worried about this gender issue in this story, but I do think science fiction needs to eventually teach its readers that robots and AI will not have gender. Even sexbots will be genderless. Gender comes out of biology. No matter how hard we want robots to be like us, they won’t be.

“At the Fall” belongs to the growing sub-sub-genre of cute robot stories, like Wall-E and “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer. At Nevala-Lee’s blog, he links to more about this story, including a conversation he had with Frank Wu who wrote a story about Karl 3478 who is also an underwater robot. I like this tiny sub-sub-genre. NASA was able to avoid the gender issue with their robots by naming them Spirit and Opportunity. A huge number of people from around the world became fans of these Martian robots and followed their exploits online for years. It’s quite logical to send robots into space and under the ocean, and they will slowly evolve more and more independence. I can easily believe an emergent AI intelligence could evolve in this type of robot.

I expect in the coming years for this sub-sub-genre to grow. It will be a challenge for SF writers to convey the mental view of these AI controlled robots. For decades science fiction writers assumed intelligent robots would think like us, and use our languages. This is completely short-sighted. The chasm between animal consciousness and machine consciousness will be vast. We can see how our minds evolved by looking at animals. We can see earlier forms of intelligence and emotions in their minds. We share their DNA. This won’t be true with robot minds.

Nevala-Lee did a good job at conveying Eunice’s thinking. Science fiction writers are limited by the tools of writing fiction when describing robotic POV. Quite often in “At the Fall” Nevala-Lee says Eunice experiences fear and anxiety. I’m not sure robots will have those emotions. Eunice spends a lot of time analyzing its plans because it knows it only has 30 kilometers of range for each power charge. But where would that fear and anxiety come from in a robot, aren’t those chemical reactions in a biological organism?

Language is another issue that Nevala-Lee skirts. Eunice’s world is very limited, and within the story, its grasp of English is limited too. But Eunice does say and think a few things that would be beyond its practical comprehension. The only way to explain what I mean is to recommend reading Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, which is a very serious literary novel about training an AI mind to understand English and literature. Powers uses far more scientific realism than most science fiction writers.

Neither of these issues hurt “At the Fall.” It’s an utterly enchanting story. There’s plenty of science to make it realistic. And it has a rather unique sense of wonder. Reading it suggests there is a growing future for robot stories. I believe stories about robots will unfold in the same way stories about did about space travel. Science fiction before NASA is distinctly different than those after NASA. As intelligent robots emerge in the real world fiction about them will change too. Any SF writer today wanting to write a cutting edge story about robots needs to think long and hard what real-life intelligent robots will be like. We need less anthropomorphizing and a lot more speculation about AI thinking. Nevala-Lee did a good job, but I hope future stories go further.

Spoiler Alert

At Rocket Stack Rank Greg Hullender assumes human civilization in this story collapses because of some sort of EMP apocalypse. I didn’t think that when reading the story. I assume the fall in “At the Fall” meant that humanity went over some kind of edge. I figured the humans in this story all died in chaos from all our societal sins causing a world-wide breakdown. That starvation, disease, environmental catastrophes, economic collapse, and a host of other failures did us in. That’s why I could easily imagine automatic solar-powered recharging stations still working.

I hope before humans do ourselves in, we do create intelligent robots that will replace us.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

 

 

“In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras

[This is reprinted from Worlds Without End – originally published 5/11/18]

“In Hiding” originally appeared in the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. You can read it online at the Internet Archive. You can also find this story in these books, which include:

Warning: This column contains mild spoilers

I just finished listening to the new audiobook edition of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B. “In Hiding” turned out to be my favorite story in the collection. I don’t think I’ve read it before, although it feels vaguely familiar. And I had no memory of ever encountering the author, Wilmar H. Shiras, before. It turns out Wilmar was a woman, making her only the third woman writer in the first three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

“In Hiding” is a quiet story about a boy who is so smart that he has to hide his intelligence from other kids and grown-ups. I thought it a remarkable story, and so did the readers of Astounding Science-Fiction back in November 1948. “In Hiding” scored first place in “The Analytical Laboratory,” with an average score of 1.54, meaning most readers put it at the top of their list. That doesn’t happen often. John W. Campbell, the editor had this to say:

Wilmar H. Shiras sent in her first science fiction story, “In Hiding.” I liked it and bought it at once. Evidently, I was not alone in liking it: it has made an exceptional showing in the Lab here—the sort of showing, in fact, that Bob Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, and Lewis Padgett made with their first yarns. I have reason to believe we’ve found a new front-rank author. Incidentally, there’s a sequel to “In Hiding” coming up in the March issue.

Shiras wrote two more stories for Campbell, “Opening Doors” (March 1949) and “New Foundations” (March 1950). In 1953 Shiras came out with Children of the Atom from Gnome Press by including the three Astounding stories and writing two more to create a collection. Although this book has been reprinted many times over the years, it’s not well-known, and Wilmar H. Shiras only wrote a handful of other stories, including three for Ted White’s Fantastic in the early 1970s. It’s a shame that Campbell was wrong about her, and she didn’t become a major science fiction writer. Wikipedia has damn little about Shiras. She got married at 18, had two boys and three girls. Children of the Atom is the main reason she is remembered, and only by a few old fans.

In Hiding

I found “In Hiding” to be a philosophically insightful science fiction story because of how Shiras dealt with the human mutant theme. There are some who claim (without documentation) that Children of the Atom inspired Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to create X-men comics. After the atomic bomb in 1945, radiation was used for all kinds of miracle mutations in comics, pulps, books, television shows, and movies. Radiation caused insects to grow as big as dinosaurs and for people to develop superpowers. Shiras took a quieter approach. Parents working at an atomic plant conceived mutant children with very high IQs. Normal looking, but very smart. I found that much more appealing than silly stories of oddities with superpowers.

I don’t know why, but science fiction has a long history of imagining Humans 2.0, and they invariably give our replacements telepathy and other psychic powers. I just don’t see that happening. Psi-powers are obviously borrowed from stories of gods, angels, and other magical beings in myths. Isn’t prayer telepathy with God? Don’t angels and demons teleport? Aren’t god-like beings always using telekinesis to act powerfully? I find it psychologically lame that SF writers assume evolution will lead to such talents. Superpowers appeal to the child in us. We want reality to be magical — it’s not.

Shiras takes a different approach, one I feel is more adult. Radiation can cause mutations. Sadly, most would be unwanted physical changes. But, Shiras suggests just a bump in smarts. Not god-like super-knowledge, but children smarter than average. In her stories, it’s implied the orphan children of the atomic plant workers have IQs greater than 150. They are orphans because the plant blows up.

“In Hiding” is about Tim, a boy a school psychologist discovers is a lot smarter than his B average grades imply. Over time the psychologist gains the confidence of the boy and learns Tim pretends to be a normal kid because he discovered at a very early age that other people, young or old, resents intelligence greater than theirs. Tim hides. He is raised by his grandparents who expect him to be well-behaved and quiet, and when he is, allows Tim to have privacy and a workshop in an old barn. By using the mail, and pseudonyms, Tim creates secret personalities that pursue various hobbies, conducts science experiments, breeds cats, completes college correspondence courses, sells stories to magazines, and writes articles for journals.

Science fiction has speculated about Homo superior or superior aliens since the 19th century. Almost always they imagine big heads and ESP. I think evolution is obviously working towards increased intelligence and self-awareness. I believe AI machines will be the next rung on the evolutionary ladder, but I also assume it is possible humans could undergo mutations that will lead to a new and improved biological species. But what is better? Marvel Comics mutants appeal to the child in us. What improvements would rational adults hope for? What new species of humans would have better adaptations for our current reality?

I’d say a species that is smart enough to live in cooperation with nature, one that doesn’t cause endless wars, mass extinctions and poisons the ecosystem. Science fiction and comic books can’t seem to conceive of that. If Wilmar H. Shiras had continued with her series, she might have. Science fiction shines at imagining dystopias but fails at speculating about utopias. Billions plan to go to heaven, but the most complete description of heaven in The Bible sounds like hell to me.

It’s sadly ironic, but Wilmar H. Shiras has been in hiding all these years.

James Wallace Harris

p.s. I found the picture of Children of the Atom on Google. Later I ordered the book from ABEbooks.com – and ended up with that exact copy.