Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein

Sixth Column first appeared in the January, February, and March 1941 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction. For it, Heinlein used the pseudonym of Anson MacDonald, so it’s not considered part of his Future History series. Sixth Column is generally thought of as one of Heinlein’s bottom-of-the-barrel novels. Critics sometimes try to defend Heinlein by pointing out he wrote Sixth Column based on a story given to him by John W. Campbell, Jr., thus transferring some of the blame for this stinker to his editor. Also, it’s often dismissed as a racist Yellow Peril novel that was common back in the 1930s. Even if you ignore the racism, the story itself is silly and unbelievable. The story’s sense of reality is equal to a comic book.

The basic plot is six American servicemen are the sole survivors of an overwhelming attack on the United States that completely destroys all our military. We are occupied by soldiers from an unnamed Asian country, that Heinlein refers to as Pan Asian. The six surviving soldiers were in a hidden mountain bunker doing secret scientific research, and one of them just happens to be smarter than Einstein who can churn out exotic weapons based on theoretical physics. The story is about how they conquered the invaders and freed America.

Heinlein’s Sixth Column falls into the category of invasion literature. These were an early form of science fiction that began in the last third of the 19th century and ran until WWI. In England, the common fear was Germany would take over. But every country had authors that wrote scary stories about invasions from other countries. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Well is considered inspired by the invasion literature genre.

Since Sixth Column was written in 1940, and Japan had been invading countries since 1931, I have to assume Heinlein meant Japan when he wrote Pan Asian. It’s a shame Heinlein just didn’t write Japan and Japanese instead as he typed. It would seem much less racist now, and probably a bit prophetic at the time. Were there legal issues back then?

The Pan Asians who occupied America in this story completely controlled every aspect of Americans’ lives. They only allowed one freedom – the freedom of religion. Heinlein’s six soldiers invent a religion to spread to all the major cities as a cover and then use secret super weapons to defeat the enemy.

Sixth Column is readable, but that’s about all I can say for it. I did think the idea of creating a fake religion was neat. In another serial Heinlein wrote in 1940, “If This Goes On—” he has the U.S. overthrown by a theocracy. I’m reading that one now. Heinlein sure did like to think big in his plotting. The idea of six men repelling an entire invasion was exciting stuff in 1941, at least to pulp magazine readers. Heinlein loved creating characters that were confident in their abilities and could essentially do anything. Heinlein plotted Sixth Column better than Methuselah’s Children, his second three-part serial of 1941. I think that was due to focusing on fewer characters and a smaller scale if you can envision six men fighting off millions being a smaller setting than the events in Methuselah’s Children. But I do since Heinlein’s imagination ran to even bigger whoppers to believe in that story.

But even with this faint praise, I can’t recommend reading Sixth Column, unless you’re like me and studying all of Heinlein’s work.

James W. Harris

Methuselah’s Children by Robert A. Heinlein

Methuselah’s Children first appeared 81 years ago this summer, in the July, August, and September 1941 issues of Astounding Science-Fiction. In 1948, Erle Korshak gave Heinlein a $200 advance to publish the serial at Shasta Press. The revised and slightly expanded version should have been Heinlein’s third hardback book, but it didn’t get published until 1958. In 1967 Methuselah’s Children was included in The Past Through Tomorrow, Heinlein’s giant collection of Future History stories. The Past Through Tomorrow was widely distributed by the Science Fiction Book Club, so I expect many people have read this novel. Methuselah’s Children was first reprinted in paperback in 1962, having an extensive reprint history.

This past week while convalescing after surgery, I got hooked on reading early Heinlein. I needed reading material I could consume on my iPhone, and I’ve been meaning for years to reevaluate my adolescent love of Heinlein’s fiction. This seemed like a good time, and it made me feel more productive while lying around all day. I’ve finished Methuselah’s Children and The Sixth Column and working on Revolt in 2100. These are Heinlein’s first three novels (depending on how you measure wordage).

I expect to read even more from Heinlein’s pre-war stories. I feel like an academic studying his early work. I used to think that Heinlein had four periods where the stories were distinctively different. I grouped them into the Pre-WWII stories, the 1947-1959 stories, novels from the 1960s, and the later novels. Some of his books from the 1950s I have read many times, and are my favorites. Heinlein’s books from the 1960s I’ve read at least three times each, I think. I read most of the pre-WWII stories only once, except for the more famous anthologized short stories. I’ve read those several times. For his later work, I’ve only read those books either once, or I didn’t finish them.

I’m now realizing that Heinlein changed far less from period to period than I previously thought. A lot of the perceived differences were due to the markets that published the stories. His work at Putnam showed Heinlein at his most verbose. I’m now seeing those personal pet ideas he expounded on at length in his later novels revealed in his earlier works as mere asides. Despite editorial restraint or the limits of length, Heinlein expressed himself one way or another.

Heinlein was incredibly prolific before WWII. One estimate suggested that 20% of Astounding Science Fiction in 1941 was written by Heinlein using his own name or under pseudonyms. After the war, five of those stories were published as novels, even though they were very short, or fix-ups. Most of the famous Future History stories were written during this period. Before Heinlein quit writing to join the war effort in 1942, he wrote five tales that would be published as novels. I’ve read the first and last three times each, but the middle three only once.

  • Beyond This Horizon (1948, Fantasy Press) (Astounding April, May 1942)
  • Sixth Column (1949, Gnome Press) (Astounding, January, February, March 1941)
  • Revolt in 2100 (1953, Shasta) (Astounding, February, March 1940)
  • Methuselah’s Children (1958, Gnome Press) (Astounding, July, August, September 1941)
  • Orphans of the Sky (1964, Putnam) (Astounding, May, October 1941)

When I first started reading Methuselah’s Children I thought I must have first read it when I got The Past Through Tomorrow in 1967. It was considered the last story in Heinlein’s Future History, and the one that was set second furthest in the future. The characters in “Universe” and “Common Sense” (reprinted as Orphans of the Sky) lived the furthest in the future in Heinlein’s fictional universe. When I started writing this essay I remembered borrowing and reading Methuselah’s Children from Homestead Air Force Base Library in 1965 because that library had all of Heinlein’s Gnome, Fantasy Press, and Shasta’s editions. I distinctly remember its cover (see above).

I have not read Methuselah’s Children since then, and I barely remembered it. I can’t say it’s a great story. You can tell Heinlein was just learning how to write a novel. It’s rather episodic, with three main story arcs that go along with being serialized over three issues. And Heinlein hadn’t figured out how to plot a long story yet, nor was he particularly good at developing dramatic scenes. I believe Sixth Column had better plotting, and Revolt in 2100 had some better dramatic scenes. However, Methuselah’s Children is full of exciting science fictional ideas, referencing many of his other early stories that fit within the Future History timeline.

I’m not sure I’d recommend Methuselah’s Children to modern readers, although at Goodreads there were many reviewers who raved about it. Now that I’m rereading old Heinlein I’m also pondering why as I go along.

First, let’s consider the science fictional concepts presented by Heinlein for the readers of 1941.

  • Longevity. The Howard Family (the collective name, there were many surnames) began selective breeding in the 19th century by only marrying spouses that had four living grandparents. By the 22nd century, many of them were living close to two hundred years. The oldest, Lazarus Long, was 213 at the beginning of the novel, and somewhere between 50-75 years older at the end. No one knows for sure because of the time dilation of space travel. In 1941 Americans were still interested in eugenics, but the techniques used to achieve longevity in this story were merely animal husbandry. Heinlein should have known this wouldn’t work because we’ve never bred any long-lived farm animals.
  • Political Utopia. The story is set after the Crazy Years and the Second American Revolution, under a new constitution called The Covenant. Maximum political freedom was guaranteed. However, The Covenant breaks down when the average citizen learns that the Howard Family has longevity and they want to suspend its freedom and torture the Howard Family members into revealing their secret. It’s a shame that Heinlein didn’t flesh out this semi-utopian period.
  • STL and FTL Space Travel. The Howard Family escapes Earth by stealing the sister ship to the one in “Universe” and “Common Sense”. Their ship, the New Frontiers, starts out slow, but Andrew Jackson Libby, a character from Heinlein’s second published story, “Misfit” finds a way to soup up the engines to travel near light speed. Eventually, he learns how to make it go faster than light. That means in two 1941 stories Heinlein explores several ways to achieve interstellar travel.
  • Psychic Powers. Even though the Howard Family breed for longevity they still have birth defects (assumed from all that inbreeding). Heinlein is careful to point out how well they take care of these children. Some of those handicapped offspring had psychic powers, and that figured in the plot in a couple of places. Children with birth defects and psychic powers reminded me of stories by Philip K. Dick from the 1950s and 1960s. Heinlein’s aliens also have various degrees of psychic powers. In one instance, reminding me of Arthur C. Clarke’s stories Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is interesting for 1941. SF in the 1950s was known for its ESP stories.
  • Vastly Superior Aliens. The Howard Family refugees first encounter an alien species called the Jockaira, a pleasant, vaguely humanoid people that welcomes them to their planet. Then the Howards meet the real rulers of the planet and it scares the shit out of them. This is very interesting because John W. Campbell supposedly had some kind of unwritten editorial rule that forbade stories with superior aliens. For the rest of his writing career, Heinlein always claimed humans were the meanest, toughest species in the galaxy, but in this story, we run away with our tails between our legs.
  • Lotus Eater Aliens. The next planet has extremely nice aliens. Too nice.

For 1941, this is some impressive science fiction, but is it for 2022? And was the writing all that impressive, even for 1941? Heinlein has a reputation for blazing onto the pulp scene as a far superior writer. I have my doubts in places. This is where I wonder if this story will survive the test of time. Heinlein loved writing stories where people had huge meetings in large halls to argue about their problems using Robert’s Rules of Order. These group meetings happened several times in Methuselah’s Children. To me, this was a cheating kind of infodump. And quite often it allows Heinlein to spout his philosophy using his protagonist. Lazarus Long is a popular character but could be a holier-than-thou know-it-all.

At the beginning of the novel, Mary Sperling is the leader of the Howard Family because of her age. It’s a shame Heinlein didn’t stick with this woman protagonist. Mary was the chairman of the board and the moderator at meetings where the various families send their representatives. But when Lazarus Long admits he’s older Mary gives him the gavel. From then on Lazarus conducts the meetings. Heinlein tries to make him sound like a cross between Mark Twain and Will Rogers, but in my mind, he failed. I never felt Lazarus showed the wisdom that a man of 213 years should have.

Heinlein loved his character Lazarus Long and brought him back in several stories. We’re told Lazarus wears a kilt with a gun (blaster) strapped between his legs. The jokes I could make about that. I was never sure he wore anything besides a kilt, but every chance he gets Lazarus will shuck his skirt. I’ve read that Heinlein was a nudist, and that concept shows up over and over again in his stories. I tried to imagine a hundred thousand naked people in a spaceship in zero-g and it brings out the Puritanical prude in me. The thought of being in a cabin with Lazarus long while floating in free space and being forced to stare at his two guns hurt this story.

Also, Lazarus often acted like he was ready to shoot first and ask questions later. Throughout Heinlein’s fiction, his characters ignore laws and often commit capital punishment for offenses that the law would seldom execute.

Lazarus Long has an ego the size of Texas. I’m sure Heinlein used all the incidents I saw as egotism as a way to prove that Lazarus was a competent man who could do anything. At one point, Lazarus shows how any man with moxie can bully his way through the telephone system to talk to the world leader. I wonder if Heinlein thought he could call up FDR anytime he wanted?

In another story arc, Lazarus steals an interstellar spaceship, buys a giant cargo vessel, and rescues over a hundred thousand people – all by himself. This really hurt the novel because it’s absolutely unbelievable. Methuselah’s Children would have been a much better story if the Howard Families totaled fewer than a thousand people. At one point Lazarus is moderating a meeting of all hundred thousand using televisors. That just seemed ridiculous to me. Try imagining Donald Trump interacting with a hundred thousand of his fans concurrently who wanted their say too.

And maybe Lazarus Long isn’t Heinlein, but I imagine this character is the person Heinlein wished he could be. Ditto for Jubal Harshaw, and all the other characters people think of as standing for Heinlein. The William Patterson biography of Heinlein hints that Heinlein was an unpopular cadet at the Naval academy and that he was very thinned-skinned.

Heinlein fans have often accused critics of not understanding that writers aren’t their characters. But for Heinlein, I believe he created a dominating character that he wished he could be. For some readers, this works. I’m guessing they’d like to be those characters too. And maybe I did too when I was a kid. Now, Heinlein’s supermen are unappealing, to say the least.

Still, I found Methuselah’s Children to be very readable and thought-provoking. The way the story handles the resentment over genetically enhanced humans was done better with Nancy Kress and her novel Beggars in Spain, so I’d recommend it before Methuselah’s Children.

In 1941 Heinlein was dealing with several ways of achieving interstellar travel. That was amazing at a time when most Americans pictured space travel like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordan series, where alien planets seem no further than the Moon. Heinlein worked to get his readers to imagine the immense distance between the stars and the limitations Einstein had put on space travel. Unfortunately, all that has been done countless times since. So I don’t know if young readers need to dig this far back in science fiction to find rewarding stories on those science fictional topics.

My main enjoyment in reading Methuselah’s Children is finding all the easter eggs linking to earlier Future History stories. Also, I liked that Heinlein kept imagining the United States being overthrown by various other forms of government. Even though I believe this 81-year-old story is unworthy of future pop culture recognition, it still entertained me because I’m a life-long Heinlein fan.

But I’m also seeing that I never really paid attention to Heinlein’s philosophy and politics. What mattered to me were the science fictional ideas. When I was young I wanted Heinlein to be read and loved by everyone. I wanted him to become a classic author like Charles Dickens. That just isn’t happening. If 10,000 novels are published every year, 99.999% of them will be forgotten, leaving about ten to fight for a slot in our long-term pop culture memory. If you look at Wikipedia’s list of 1941 fiction, Methuselah’s Children is there (probably because of an editor who is a Heinlein fan), but so are a bunch of books already forgotten. It’s funny, but from the list, the most memorable pieces of 1941 fiction for me were Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain and “Nightfall,” by Asimov. If we look at Wikipedia’s remembered films of 1941, I see far more that have retained some pop cultural vitality – especially Citizen Kane.

People probably wonder why I obsess over remembering the past, worrying about what will be remembered and what won’t. I’m just fascinated by what history and world culture retain from pop culture. What works of art can speak the furthest across time.

I started reading Heinlein when I was twelve, so maybe I’m now finalizing the project twelve years before I die. I’m seeking both closure and exorcism. When I retired I got heavily into reevaluating my past, but I’ve been doing that for a decade and I realize I don’t want to spend my last years looking backward. I want to get back to thinking about the future.

James Wallace Harris, 9/11/22

Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein

Why read an old science fiction novel? Maybe a friend recommended it. Or maybe you discovered an author you like and you’re reading all of their books. Or it was on a list of great science fiction novels. Or a YouTuber reviewed it. Maybe even, it was assigned in a class. In my case, and I think it’s true of most people my age, we’re rereading old SF novels we loved in our youth.

A better question to ask: Which old science fiction novels should we read? The obvious answer is the true classics. But what makes a book classic? I once calculated there were less than one hundred famous books from the 19th century that are regularly read today. Scholars and fans of 19th-century lit are familiar with more titles but I’m talking about the average bookworm. I’m going to assume as the 21st century progresses, we’ll collectively forget about most of the science fiction published in the 20th century.

I’m reading and rereading old science fiction because of nostalgia and to fill in the gaps in my knowledge about 20th-century science fiction. But as I do this I’m thinking about which books might survive long term. Doing that requires analyzing books for their various qualities. One way to do that is to recall what made me love a book then and try to figure out why it might be loved or hated today.

If I was thirteen years old today and read Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein which was first published in 1949, would I love it like I did when I read it at thirteen in 1964? I’m not sure I can answer that at 70 because my mind is clouded with nostalgia. Probably any 13-year-old today would laugh at Heinlein’s attitude toward women. But would kids today, especially those science-savvy kids, dismiss the book because Heinlein has Mars populated with life, even with beings more intelligent than humans? Or would they forgive him in the same way we forgive 19th-century writers like Jules Verne, and assume Heinlein was from some pre-scientific dark age and just didn’t know better?

Would the core story in this 1949 science fiction novel still be entertaining to any reader in 2022? People still find Journey to the Center of the Earth immensely entertaining even though they know Verne was full of lala regarding his science.

Red Planet was immensely appealing to me in 1964. It was about a boy, Jim Marlowe, and his friend Frank Sutton, living in a colony on Mars. Jim also had a pet Martian “rounder” that is somewhat intelligent and could speak some English. Because Mars is so cold the colonists must migrate between the south and north to avoid Martian winters. The plot involves Jim and Frank going away to boarding school and learning the corporation that owns the colony secretly wants to end the practice of migration to save money. Jim and Frank sneak away and travel across the Martian landscape to warn their parents, which eventually causes the colonists to revolt against the corporation. The plot also deals with the Martians and the conflict of intelligent species, so it’s very exciting.

In 1965 with the Mariner IV flyby probe we learned that Mars was much closer to being like the Moon than Earth and there would be no advanced life forms found there. Ever since then science fiction writers have been writing quite differently about Mars. Some readers felt NASA invalidated all the older science fiction about Mars, and some readers didn’t mind at all. I wonder what young readers growing up in the 21st century think when reading such stories. I know they are often quick to reject stories for woke reasons, and that’s understandable. I sometimes wonder if they ignore the less evolved attitudes of our ancestors, and the science we know about Mars, could older stories gain fans just because of their storytelling virtues?

I can overlook bad science and some lack of wokeness. I even wrote an essay – “I Miss Martians” because I get a kick out of stories where the solar system is full of life and intelligence. But I remember a time before NASA’s probes when many people hoped that would be true. Will readers growing up after that time feel the same way? Is The War of the Worlds still a popular book with young readers?

Books are like people, they survive death in the memories of folks who loved them. But as those people die, who will keep the memories going? History keeps the memory of significant people alive. For a book to keep being read requires a similar kind of historical significance.

Red Planet was the first Heinlein story I read. That was back in the autumn of 1964 just before I turned thirteen, and before Mariner IV. My eighth-grade English teacher required us to read three books for each six-weeks grading period. Red Planet was on her approved list, and maybe the only science fiction title. I wished I remembered her name because I’ve always been thankful to her for introducing me to Heinlein. By the end of 1965, I believe I had read all of Heinlein that had been published in paperback and hardback up to that time.

The Heinlein juveniles won library awards and were recommended for young adults. In the late 1940s when few science fiction writers got published in hardback, Heinlein sold his young adult novels to Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publisher of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. After WWII Heinlein also broke into slick magazines with several SF stories published in Saturday Evening Post, and he even had a Hollywood movie, Destination Moon, made in 1950. And I have met countless people on the web testifying how much they loved the Heinlein juveniles growing up. I think they are why those twelve books stay in print. But after they die, do those twelve books have any literary or historical significance to keep them in print?

Heinlein’s words had a certain amount of respect around the time I was born in 1951 but I’m not sure his same words would be respected today. While liberals shame-censor books with woke concerns and conservatives seek to actually have books banned from school and public libraries I’m not sure how the books I loved as a kid would be judged today.

Red Planet made a great impact on me as a kid. Conservatives today would probably completely approve of Red Planet — the only fault they might find in it is I grew up to be a liberal. I’m afraid my liberal friends would not approve of this novel because Heinlein had a completely 1940s attitude towards the role of women in society. But his attitudes didn’t rub off on me because I completely embraced feminism in the 1960s. I did wince at all of Heinlein’s patriarchal sentiments when I reread Red Planet this weekend. What’s strange is just a few years later, in the 1950s Heinlein changed his attitude completely toward what jobs women could hold. Wonder what made him change? And should we retroactively forgive him for his 1940s attitudes?

I’ve wondered if Heinlein’s third wife, Ginny, changed Heinlein’s mind about women. Or did his science fictional instincts make him ask: What if women had the freedom to be who they wanted? In the 1950s Heinlein made women rocket scientists, spaceship pilots, and combat soldiers. He put them in leadership positions. Did he think of that himself? Or were there feminists in the 1950s who changed his mind? Is a feminist change in SF significant enough historically to keep Heinlein’s 1950s books in print?

My favorite part of Red Planet is the Martians. They appear to be the same Martians Heinlein uses in his 1961 novel Strange in a Strange Land. However, they don’t seem to be the same Martians in his 1956 novel, Double Star. And there’s even a recursive SF joke in Red Planet. Willis turns out might be a princess of sorts, bringing in an Edgar Rice Burroughs allusion. In Red Planet, the Martians have a ceremony with water and call Jim their “water friend” but in Strange in a Strange Land, Mike undergoes the same water ceremony and is called a “water brother.”

In other words, I don’t care if the real Mars is lifeless, but it’s amusing to see how Heinlein gave Mars an intelligent species for his books. Alan Brown in his review of the novel said he thought Stranger was actually a prequel to Red Planet. If Stranger in a Strange Land stays in print, will it help Red Planet be remembered by science fiction scholars as a footnote?

Actually, many themes that Heinlein covered in other books are touched upon in Red Planet. Heinlein was a nudist, and the men in this novel only wear jockey shorts on the inside and describe women wearing what Earth women would wear to the beach. A lot of cheesy 1950s science fiction movies pictured such skimpy attire for the future. Will some science fiction books be remembered for their bad visions of fashion of the future? I doubt Red Planet has enough of those.

The revolution in Red Planet has a lot of similarities to the revolution in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Many of Heinlein’s stories involve revolutions or overthrowing some kind of tyranny. And they often have a big committee meeting where everyone argues and abuse Robert’s Rules of Order. And all these stories involve innocents being killed to ramp up the emotions and justify the revolutionaries using deadly force. Heinlein loved replaying the American revolution. I’m pretty sure MAGA people, and even preppers would find Red Planet appealing for its politics.

What’s funny is Jim Marlowe throws fits over minor school rules claiming it violates his freedom. Heinlein loved the Navy Academy and Jim would have been considered a whiner there. The way freedom is defined in Red Planet is the same kind as people who didn’t want to wear masks during the pandemic defined it. Heinlein also spends a fair amount of time promoting gun ownership in this book. He also promotes a kind of frontier justice that many conservatives today would love.

I was disappointed with this rereading of Red Planet because Heinlein failed to make his Martian colony realistic, or even spend much time on how a colony would be built. Heinlein saw Mars as a solution to Earth’s overpopulation and a place for people wanting to be free to be pioneers. Both are absolutely ridiculous assumptions.

The Martians in Red Planet have the same ability to make people disappear as Valentine Michael Smith did in Stranger in a Strange Land. I find that concept extremely unethical in the way Heinlein uses it. It gives his characters a god-like power which Heinlein assumes his characters know what’s right and wrong and can make god-like judgments. In more than one novel Heinlein has stated that bad manners should be a capital offense. Again, this will probably appeal to the MAGA crowd.

In recent decades I’ve developed a theory that Heinlein wanted to be another Ayn Rand, especially after the success of Atlas Shrugged. He switched from writing short YA novels to long preachy adult novels after Ayn Rand became famous. And Heinlein promoted a similar kind of political philosophy. Before he died, Heinlein said in many places he wanted to be remembered for three novels: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I see those as his Ayn Rand novels, but the same political sentiments exist in Red Planet. I believe Heinlein knew most of his novels would be forgotten in the 21st century, and he intended to winnow out the ones he wanted and why. I never liked Heinlein’s politics, so as I’ve gotten older, I jettison his 1960s and later novels too. I love a lot of his 1940s work, but I know they have woke problems. And from 1960 on, they have had political and literary problems. That leaves me with his 1950s work. And as I reread it, I might revise my opinions on those stories too.

Heinlein also likes writing stories about advanced aliens judging humanity. Red Planet parallels Have Space Suit-Will Travel in this regard. I’m not sure this theme is strong enough in Red Planet to ensure its long-term survival.

I still enjoyed reading Red Planet this weekend. I’ve read it several times over my lifetime. It’s a nostalgic favorite, but not a top favorite. It’s too quaint for modern readers, but I don’t think it offers enough historical or literary value to last. And I can see why it would offend many readers.

When I was young I loved Heinlein’s books so much that I thought they would become classics, but I doubt that now. I wanted Heinlein to be the H. G. Wells of 20th-century science fiction. I’m starting to think he might be remembered like Edward Page Mitchell.

James Wallace Harris, 8/23/22

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

All people crave romance and sex, accomplishments and adventures, possessions and travel. Most of us settle for marriage and work while living our fantasies out vicariously in fiction. We use books, TV shows, movies, video games, or VR as substitutes for our desires. When fiction fails to satisfy we dine out, party, exercise, or travel. What we really want is to live a different life.

Knowing this should enlighten us about the fiction we choose. Are the stories we love most the ones we wished we were living?

Andy Weir’s latest book Project Hail Mary, left my eyes watery and my nose runny while listening to the last chapter on audio. I loved it. Is that the life I wished I was living? At 70, I know it’s an absurd fantasy and should answer that question with no. But when I was a teenager I would have said yes with great enthusiasm.

Nowadays, few science fiction books move me like that. And, I have to ask myself why. Did Project Hail Mary impact me in the same way the Heinlein juveniles did in the 1960s when I was twelve? Getting close to the end of life, I’m not sure I have much of a sense of wonder left, at least not the kind I had when reading science fiction in that golden age of being young.

When I discovered science fiction sixty years ago almost every story blew my mind with far-out ideas, giving me a tremendous sense of hope for the future, especially for the possibilities for my personal potential. Now, that I’m living in the future, with what little potential I have left, I see science fiction from a different vantage.

Project Hail Mary is one hell of a hopeful book and I enjoyed the hell out of it. I highly recommend reading it. If I had read it in 1964, or if I was 12 years old today, it would have made me a true believer in the science fiction faith. This week I read Weir’s novel and forgot about the world we see every evening on the NBC Nightly News, and I entered into a wonderful virtual reality created by Andy Weir’s skillful worldbuilding with words.

The entire time I listen to Project Hail Mary I marveled at Weir’s storytelling skills. He blended many of my favorite SF themes into an enchanting first-person narrative. Weir obviously imagined his novel as a movie, creating a lovable hero that will save the Earth. For some reason, science fiction blockbusters always seem to put Earth in final jeopardy. And many of them love having an average guy overcome an endless series of obstacles. Kurt Vonnegut gave some famous advice to would-be writers. He said: create a likable character and then do mean things to them. Andy Weir gives Ryland Grace a long series of impossible problems to solve.

The story begins with Ryland waking up in a strange hospital bed, not knowing who he is, where he’s from, or where he’s at. This is a neat storytelling trick. The novel breaks down into two tracks: the now and the past. Amnesia is the perfect excuse for creating flashbacks. Normally, I hate flashbacks, but Weir’s gimmick made me look forward to them.

I don’t want to tell you much about the novel and I want to beg you to get the audiobook version. The narrator acts out each character with a different voice, including accents for different nationalities. For the alien, Rocky, who speaks in musical tones which the audiobook plays, the narrator creates a charming accent for his English. The audiobook should have way more impact than just reading with your eyes.

Looking at reviews on Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon, some readers loved this novel, while many others complain it’s too tedious. Weir tells this story in one long series of problems that Ryland Grace solves, many of which involve science. I assume the readers who love this story are problem solvers. If you’re not, this book might not be for you.

Ryland Grace is the ultimate competent man who can do everything. This character attribute is why I loved the Heinlein juveniles as a kid. It’s why I also loved the recent Bobiverse books. That’s one of my big personal fantasies, being a generalist that knows everything and can do anything. I’m not. I’m half-ass at doing a lot of things, and I vaguely know a little about a lot.

Ryland Grace is the modern manifestation of Tom Swift. That might be another clue for you if you’re thinking about reading this book.

Another fantasy Project Hail Mary tunes into is being alone in the world. I love the last man on Earth type stories, the Robinson Crusoe types. Ryland Grace is alone in space for a lot of this story. He even meets his Man Friday. (I hope I’m not giving too much away.)

Ryland Grace is the hero that saves Earth, and that’s one fantasy this book promotes that’s not mine. I don’t like attention. However, because of the way Andy Weir presents Ryland Grace’s achievements, I didn’t feel getting attention was a theme of this story. In flashbacks, we learn that Ryland Grace loved being a junior high school teacher who enjoyed promoting science with his students. That’s another theme that Heinlein and Weir are into that doesn’t resonate with me, but I imagine it will for teachers. Project Hail Mary would be a great book to teach in an English or science class.

Now to the negatives – which I just ignored because I was enjoying the story so much. Ryland Grace pulls a rabbit out of the hat every time, and his mental abilities are unrealistic. Plus, the invented science for this story is too good to be true. If people love Superman for his fantasy physical feats, Ryland Grace is a Superman of intellectual feats. In other words, the reality of this story is closer to a comic book than literary fiction.

That brings us back to my original psychobabble. Why do we choose the fiction we do? Why do we love some stories way better than others? Do the same themes appeal to us our whole life, or do they change as we age?

The Heinlein juveniles made the biggest impact on me of anything I read as a teen. That’s because I wanted to be like the characters in those books, and I wanted to grow up and live adventures similar to those in the stories. I wanted those fantasies to become real.

I can’t possibly believe that at 70. I’m a great deal more aware of reality now. I shouldn’t buy into anything in Project Hail Mary. I should be too old to enjoy it, but I did. A simple answer is I know too much about reality, and yet, I loved reading this book because it help me escape from reality that’s becoming all too harsh and hard. And that might have been the reason I loved science fiction as a kid too. The 1960s were tough times for anyone to grow up in, and I had feuding alcoholic parents who dragged me and my sister from state to state. That made things worse. Is it any wonder I wanted a science fictional fantasy to be real? Is it any different today?

Project Hail Mary is not a young adult novel, but it has that kind of appeal. As a kid, I knew science fiction was fantasy but reading science fiction made me hope that reality would become more like science fiction. It didn’t. We have science-fictional technology, but not science-fictional lives. That’s what we wanted. That’s what I wanted then, and now. And I can only find that life in books, books like Project Hail Mary.

James Wallace Harris, 8/7/22

The Challenge of Writing a Significant Time Travel Tale

My aim is to review a time travel novel, Time’s Last Gift, by Philip José Farmer, but I need to explain my attitude towards time travel stories before I can pass judgment. I bought Time’s Last Gift because I read on the cover blurb that four scientists from the year 2070 travel back to 12,000 BC to study the Magdalenian culture. Since I’ve recently read a number of books on prehistory that plot appealed to me. I even read a large book just on locating the origin of the people who produced the proto-Indo-European language.

Within Time’s Last Gift, one character, Robert von Billmann is obsessed with finding the people who created the Proto-Indo-Hittite language. If you’re not interested in pre-history or the origins of language you might not want to bother with Time’s Last Gift – unless another factor appeals to you, but I want to wait and mention that after the spoilers warning. Let’s just say that John Gribardson, who was made leader of the expedition at the last minute has a very interesting backstory.

Does Time’s Last Gift stand on its own as a solid story and as a good addition to the time travel theme despite any details related to actual history or literary plot gimmicks? To me, a worthy time travel story has to add something different to the theme, otherwise, it’s just a romance, thriller, or historical novel that jumps around in time.

There have been countless science fiction books about time travel, but for me, I find very few of them worthy of using the theme. Most throw their characters into the past or the future and develop a story about that new setting. What I love is a time travel adventure that also explores the wonder of time and time travel. H. G. Wells set the bar very high with The Time Machine in 1895. I’m not sure any work has ever surpassed it for its sense of wonder.

There are so many time travel stories that Michael Main has created The Internet Time Travel Database. Town & Country Magazine listed their top 35 time travel books but only three of my top favorites make their list. Read This Twice found 92 favorite time travel books, and they do list many of my favorites. About Great Books lists 30-time travel books they think are great, and seven of my favorites are there, but I don’t consider many of those books really time travel stories. But that brings up another issue.

What is time travel? Replay by Ken Grimwood is one of my all-time favorite novels, but does Jeff Winston time travel? He repeats his life over and over. I call such fiction time loop stories. Stories such as The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig are really time loop stories too, which I consider a different theme than time travel stories. I’ve written about it before.

Are such literary classics as The Time Traveler’s Wife, Kindred, Slaughterhouse-Five, A Christmas Carol, and Woman on the Edge of Time really about time travel? Don’t they just use the gimmick of time travel to reveal deep characterization or explore social issues in a clever way? These are great novels, but I don’t really want to lump them into the kind of science fiction novel I’m pointing to. Nor do I want to consider all the novels that use time travel to hook people up romantically.

Real science fiction about time travel should make us think about the nature of time travel. Time’s Last Gift does do this. Time travel has always been plagued by paradoxes, but I believe Farmer has found a neat way around them. If a time traveler goes into the past and changes the future, it’s already happened. Whatever exists now, whether affected by time travel or not, is what is. Speculations about what might be changed are no different from what was changed. If a time traveler shows up in 12,000 BCE there was never a 12,000 BCE without a time traveler. Of course, that means everything that happens is fixed. Or is it? Does this theory about time travel require predestination? It could mean everyone has free will, but whichever way history plays out it only plays out once.

Most of Time’s Last Gift is about living in 12,000 BCE. The four scientists immediately befriend a small tribe of humans and learn their language. John Gribardsun even wears their clothing and hunts with their weapons, although he often uses his rifle when necessary to help feed the tribe. The main conflict of the story deals with the two scientists who are married, Rachel and Drummond Silverstein, and their breakup. Farmer suggests that time travel has a psychological effect, like a larger case of jet lag, and it wears on three of the scientists. Gribardsun seems immune. In fact, he thrives in the past, and his vitality attracts both Rachel and the young women of the tribe. Much of the novel is about whether or not Drummond is out to kill Gribardsun because of jealousy. I didn’t care for this part of the story. It felt like a contrived conflict to move the novel along. However, the story is very readable and kept me reading.

Beyond Here Lie Spoilers

In the 1950s Philip José Farmer wrote some very innovative science fiction stories – “The Lovers,” “The Alley Man,” “Sail On! Sail On!” and others. Then he created two series that were fairly successful, the Riverworld series and The World of Tiers. Farmer won the Hugo award for best novel for the first Riverworld story, To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971). I loved that novel when it came out because the main character was Sir Richard Francis Burton, the 19th-century explorer, and translator. And I loved the second book, The Fabulous Riverboat (1971) because it featured Mark Twain. I had read biographies of both men and that made me partial to those Farmer’s novels.

Over the decades I have come to feel that using a famous historical person as a character in a novel is a cheat, a way to sell books. But I also consider writing book series as a crutch for writers. For the rest of his life Farmer mostly churned out books for various series, and they were just so-so. He later refined the famous person gimmick by switching to writing about famous fictional characters, and this is where Time’s Last Gift comes in. John Gribardsun is Tarzan. It’s never said within the novel, but I guess it fairly quickly. If you’ve ever read a Tarzan novel, Time’s Last Gift feels like one and could have been Tarzan’s Time Machine.

There’s nothing wrong with book series, they do help writers to pay bills, but each book feels like just another episode in a TV series to me. If you love a series, that’s great. But for me, usually, only stand-alone novels can be great.

I assume Farmer didn’t use the name Tarzan in the book because of being sued by the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, but ISFDB even lists Time’s Last Gift among the Tarzan novels. Philip José Farmer wasn’t the only writer to continue the character. More importantly, it’s part of Farmer’s Wold Newton series where he brings many famous characters from literature into the real world. If you really like this kind of publishing gimmick, then Time’s Last Gift might excite you.

I find the Wold Newton idea fascinating in conception, but lackluster in execution. It capitalizes on the readers’ love of famous books and characters and I consider that exploitation. Heinlein did the same thing in his later books bringing back his own favorite characters and tieing them into his favorite fictional worlds. The idea is neat, but again, the execution was horrible.

As a time travel novel, Time’s Last Gift is mediocre – readable and somewhat interesting. The plot moves along well enough. The John Gribardsun character is appealing but his adventures back in 12,000 BCE aren’t that significant. If you enjoy the idea that it’s an alternate origin story for Tarzan, and Farmer makes him immortal, then you might enjoy the book more.

I judge time travel stories by how creative they are at dealing with time travel. For example, Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—” uses time travel and gender reassignment in a unique way. David Gerrold uses The Man Who Folded Himself to allow a time traveler to really get to know himself. Jack Finney in Time and Again used historical photographs to enhance his novel. Kurt Vonnegut combined memoir and fiction brilliantly. Connie Willis has explored both drama and comedy in her time travel novels. Of course, Wells illustrated both evolution and cosmology to his 19th-century readers. Wells inspired the Dying Earth genre and the idea that humanity will spin off different new species. Olaf Stapledon ran away with that idea with his novel Last and First Men.

With time travel stories, writers need to go big or go home. Philip José Farmer knew this. This is why he tacked on the Wold Newton afterward in a 1977 later edition. If you think Wold Newton is cool, then that might make Time’s Last Gift a good time travel story. If not, you might want to pass on it.

Here's a list of my favorite time travel stories.

1895 - THE TIME MACHINE by H. G. Wells
1934 - "Twilight" by John W. Campbell
1935 - "Night" by John W. Campbell
1941 - "Time Wants a Skeleton" by Ross Rocklynne
1941 - "By His Bootstraps" by Robert A. Heinlein
1943 - "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore
1946 - "Vintage Season" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore 
1951 - "I'm Scared" by Jack Finney
1952 - "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury
1952 - "Hobson's Choice" by Alfred Bester
1953 - "Who's Cribbing" by Jack Lewis
1956 - "A Gun for Dinosaur" by L. Sprague de Camp
1956 - "The Man Who Came Early" by Poul Anderson
1957 - THE DOOR INTO SUMMER by Robert A. Heinlein 
1957 - "Soldier from Tomorrow" by Harlan Ellison
1958 - THE TIME TRADERS by Andre Norton
1958 - "Poor Little Warrior!" by Brian Aldiss
1958 - "The Ugly Little Boy by Isaac Asimov
1958 - "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" by Alfred Bester
1959 - "All You Zombies---" by Robert A. Heinlein
1964 - FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD by Robert A. Heinlein
1964 - "When Time Was New" by Robert F. Young
1965 - "Traveller's Rest" by David I. Masson
1966 - "Behold the Man" by Michael Moorcock and BEHOLD THE MAN (1969)
1967 - "Hawksbill Station" by Robert Silverberg
1968 - THE LAST STARSHIP FROM EARTH by John Boyd
1969 - SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
1970 - TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney
1970 - THE YEAR OF THE QUIET SUN by Wilson Tucker
1971 - DINOSAUR BEACH by Keith Laumer
1973 - THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF by David Gerrold
1976 - "The Hertford Manuscript" by Richard Cowper
1967 - "Infinite Summer" by Christopher Priest
1980 - TIMESCAPE by Gregory Benford
1982 - "Firewatch" by Connie Willis
1985 - "Sailing to Byzantium" by Robert Silverberg
1988 - "Ripples in the Dirac Sea" by Geoffrey A. Landis
1992 - DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis
1995 - THE TIME SHIPS by Stephen Baxter
1995 - FROM TIME TO TIME by Jack Finney
1998 - TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis
2003 - THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger

Time Travel Anthologies

The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF and The Time Travel MEGAPACK is currently 99 cents at Amazon for the Kindle edition.

James Wallace Harris, 7/30/22

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies by Barry N. Malzberg

I’ve been reading recursive science fiction lately, and one of the most famous recursive science fiction stories is Barry N. Malzberg’s “A Galaxy Called Rome.” Recursive science fiction is science fiction about science fiction. Sometimes this is a story that mentions science fiction, sometimes it’s a story about science fiction writers, their fans, and science fiction conventions, and sometimes it’s in-jokes about the genre, other times recursive science fiction is about the writing of science fiction, and that’s the case with “A Galaxy Called Rome.”

“A Galaxy Called Rome” has been reprinted often you can find it in these anthologies and collections. I read it in the anthology Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories About SF edited by Mike Resnick in 1992. I highly recommend that volume if you can find it, but it was only published once by Avon. Probably the cheapest collection of Malzberg’s stories is The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg because the Kindle edition is only $4.99. However, Malzberg expanded “A Galaxy Called Rome” into a short novel, Galaxies, and it’s available for $1.99 for the Kindle edition at Amazon.

Malzberg is known for his recursive science fiction, especially since he seems to have experienced a great deal of existential angst over being a science fiction writer. NESFA even came out with a collection of his recursive SF called The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg.

“A Galaxy Called Rome” is a novelette composed of 14 short chapters. It first appeared in the July 1975 issue of F&SF and has been anthologized a number of times. It is probably Malzberg’s most famous work of short science fiction. 

Malzberg expanded the same story into 49 chapters for a 1975 short novel version retitled Galaxies. Malzberg gained attention for a handful of science fiction novels in the first half of the 1970s. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Beyond Apollo but got a fair amount of recognition for Galaxies, The Falling Astronauts, and Herovit’s World. He went on to publish prolifically in and outside of the genre

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies are also works of what the literary world calls metafiction – fiction about fiction. I prefer the novelette version of the story because the novelette is my favorite length for science fiction. However, the longer version of the story, Galaxies, lets Malzberg dig deeper into the nature of writing science fiction.

I want to recommend this story, but with carefully considered restrictions. If you read science fiction for escape this story isn’t for you. Well, if you want to know why you read science fiction for escape, then you might want to read it. This story is for people who like to intellectually examine everything and take things apart. This story is for readers who love academic exercises in cleverness. This story is for readers who want to know how magic tricks work.

I alternated reading Galaxies with listening to Red Rising by Pierce Brown. It was an excellent contrast. Red Rising is exactly what most science fiction readers want to read. The story immediately sucks the reader into a fantasy reality. It’s designed for your mind to forget the real world and immerse yourself in a fantasy about Mars. The reader is expected to buy into its make-believe. Galaxies on the other hand constantly remind the reader of our reality while describing how a science fiction writer goes about their business of fooling the reader.

Reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” or Galaxies could ruin your love of science fiction. Or it could make you appreciate escapist literature all the more. I know when I would switch to Red Rising after reading a dozen chapters of Galaxies I felt like that guy in The Matrix, Cypher, who wanted to take the blue pill and enjoy the juicy steak. And that might be a good analogy. Reading Malzberg is like taking the red pill and seeing an ugly reality. It might be philosophically enlightening to know the realness of reality, but it’s still grim and gritty.

This is probably why Malzberg never became a popular sci-fi writer, he was too hung up on reality. Most of the recursive science fiction I read in Inside the Funhouse was big fun. Recursive science fiction comes in many flavors but they can be roughly divided into two kinds. One kind celebrates our addiction, and the other makes you feel like you’re withdrawing from heroin. Reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” is like learning about Santa Claus as a kid, it hurts but makes you feel grown up. Reading Galaxies can feel like the agony of soul searching before deciding on becoming an atheist.

I ended up highlighting almost ten percent of Galaxies when reading the Kindle version. I won’t show all these quotes because that would probably be a copyright violation, but I do want to show enough of them to give people a chance to understand what Malzberg is doing. Malzberg is very open and straightforward with his intentions as stated in this first section.

It’s rather interesting that Malzberg tells us how the idea of the story within a story came to him. Well, the idea for the story he’s going to use to discuss writing. In the course of reading a novel about writing a novel, we will develop a whole story with characters, setting, plot, and conflict. However, we won’t experience that story like we normally do. Imagine being served a meal and instead of enjoying eating it, we put it under scientific analysis.

One thing Malzberg doesn’t do is try to imagine what we readers think while reading all of this. We readers are also part of the process. As I read Galaxies I got the idea that Malzberg both loved and hated science fiction. I got the impression he wanted to be a respected writer of hard SF, but his sense of reality conflicted with the fantasy nature of writing escapist literature.

These early sections are quite seductive, but I must warn anyone considering buying Galaxies that the going will get tough. “A Galaxy Called Rome” is the light fluffy version to read for those who aren’t ready to climb a mountain. Even though Galaxies is only 154 pages long, it’s a Ph.D. dissertation on deconstructing science fiction novel writing.

The story within this novel is about Lena Thomas who is the only living crew member of an FTL spaceship, Skipstone, that carries a cargo of 515 dead people in cryonic suspension. The year is 3902. Like in Heinlein’s novel, The Door Into Summer, rich people with diseases invest their estates and freeze their bodies in the hopes of one day being revived and cured. Those estates pay for the development of interstellar travel. Those dead people will eventually communicate with Lena like the dead in PKD’s Ubik when Lena and the Skipstone get trapped in the black galaxy. This allows Malzberg to explore metaphysical and religious themes in writing a novel. The ship also has robots programmed with human minds that help Malzberg explore other science fictional themes. His story notes get more and more extensive while getting more and more complicated. This also allows Malzberg to show how worldbuilding and plotting are developed as a writer tells their story.

Malzberg uses all this exploration in writing a science fiction novel to also speculate about the future. He imagines our civilization collapsing and being completely forgotten and a new world civilization rising in the following nineteen centuries. Malzberg imagines we’ll face limitations we can’t overcome and wild possibilities that far exceed today’s limitations.

Much of this novel is about being a writer, and specifically a writer of science fiction. You get hints along the way that Malzberg might be jealous of famous literary writers like Cheever and Updike, at other times you might feel his resentment at not being more successful at being a science fiction writer. But Malzberg is confident of his own gifts too.

In some of the actual passages of the novel, the dialog reminds me of Sheckley or Adams, or maybe even PKD, and even then Malzberg keeps making digs at science fiction.

Over time, the conflicts Malzberg provides for Lena’s story become repetitious. He knows he’s padding this novel, and even talks about how writers do pad their novels. The second half of Lena’s story becomes one long dark night of her soul struggling to escape the black galaxy. I have to wonder if such soul searching also plagues Malzberg.

Eventually, you wonder if Malzberg can find an ending to Lena’s story. Chapter after chapter he tortures the poor woman, and we can’t imagine any possible happy ending. Yet, Malzberg gives us a very strange ending that I was quite happy to read. I guess he took pity on us.

Reading Galaxies makes me doubt reading science fiction, but then I’ve doubted my addiction to our genre for decades. As a young person back in the 1960s and 1970s I thought science fiction was a wonderful tool for thinking about all the possibilities of the future, both good and bad. But after living to the year 2022, which was a very futuristic sounding year back in 1965, I know the future is everything we never imagined.

Contrasting Galaxies with Red Rising it’s quite obvious that science fiction’s purpose is escape. And the genius of writing science fiction is creating stories set in fictional worlds that are so compelling we forget this one. By Malzberg intruding into his novel and telling us everything only shows we don’t want the author intruding into our stories. Some philosophers have speculated that God invented our reality and walked away from his creation and that’s a great thing. That knowing God’s intention would ruin his/her/its art. I always felt Heinlein destroyed his career after he started poking his nose into his stories.

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies were written as the New Wave in science fiction was fading and postmodernism fiction in the literary world was becoming old hat. It was an impressive experiment of the times, but as far as I know, readers have lost interest in such experiments. The Post Moderns of our times demand wokeness in fiction but not the metafictional kind. If anything, modern SF readers want longer voyages of fictional escape with far greater feats of worldbuilding.

It would be interesting to see someone write a version of Galaxies today that reveals what today’s SF writers go through to entertain their readers in the 2020s.

James Wallace Harris, 7/23/22

Mainstream Science Fiction

Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility is straight-ahead science fiction but it doesn’t feel like a genre novel. Explaining why will be hard. Science fiction has always avoided clear definition and trying to discern the difference between hardcore genre science fiction and literary science fiction might prove equally elusive. For most readers, it doesn’t even matter.

Sea of Tranquility was both entertaining and well-written. I liked it quite a lot. Many readers at Goodreads loved this short novel and gave the story five stars. However, the story was missing something for me. It lacked the intense impact I get from classic genre science fiction I love, even ones not as well told as Sea of Tranquility.

Most modern science fiction aims to be as dashing as Hans Solo but Sea of Tranquility was as mundane as a computer programmer. I considered that a positive but I have to admit the story had a certain blandness even though it dealt with many big science fictional concepts.

I do not want to tell you about those concepts because the way Mandel rolls them out makes it fun to explore the plot clue by clue. If you don’t want to read the novel but want to know a precise summary, Wikipedia has a blow-by-blow overview. However, I do want to tell you enough to want to read it. In the year 2401 Gaspery-Jacques learns about three anomalies in history. In the years 1912 a man named Edwin, in 2020 a woman named Mirella, and in 2203 a woman named Olive had the same bizarre experience that they’ve recorded in various ways in their own times. Historians in the 25th century find those records and decide they might be clues to an amazing hypothesis. Gaspery-Jacques decides he wants to be the person that solves the mystery even though he’s only an uneducated house detective for a hotel in a colony on the Moon. Lucky for Gaspery-Jacques, his sister is a brilliant scientist with connections.

BEWARE – Spoilers Ahead

To get into my discussion of mainstream science fiction versus genre science fiction will require giving away the story. The structure of Sea of Tranquility is much like another mainstream science fiction novel, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas was far richer and more intense than Sea of Tranquility, more like a genre novel. Both deal with epic concepts, but only Cloud Atlas felt epic in the storytelling. Mandel gives us a much quieter story and that’s often a trait of mainstream science fiction. Its tone is like two other recent mainstream science fiction novels, Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro and Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan.

Sea of Tranquility explores the idea that our reality is a simulation. In the 25th century, scientists have a very carefully controlled type of time travel. They theorize the anomalies experienced by Edwin, Mirella, and Olive might be glitches in the simulation software. After five years of training, they send Gaspery-Jacques back to interview each of these people. We don’t know that right away, because Mandel at first tells each of their stories chronologically in time. I’m thinking of reading the book again to see if knowing that they are being interviewed by a time traveler changes how I experience the story. I guessed this might be happening because loose-lips by some reviewers said the book is a time travel novel. It would have been more fun not knowing that.

That’s another difference between mainstream science fiction and genre science fiction. Their stories often begin ordinarily and feel mundane and the science-fictional concepts creep into the tale. Genre science fiction often begins like the opening of a heavy metal concert, while mainstream science fiction begins with a quiet chamber quartet before a cerebral symphony.

Genre science fiction writers love to crank the volume to 11 and keep it there, while mainstream science fiction unfolds gently at volume 4 and politely increases to 6 or 7 at carefully chosen moments. If you compare Hyperion by Dan Simmons to Sea of Tranquility you’ll know what I mean.

Sea of Tranquility is science fiction for PBS Masterpiece. Station Eleven was Mandel’s polar opposite of Mad Max: Fury Road. Even though Sea of Tranquility explores such a deafening concept as the simulation hypothesis it does so in a whisper. A genre novelist writing the same story would have had epic rents in the fabric of reality, killing millions while its heroes save the universe at the last minute. Mandel’s hero eerily validates the hypothesis with a kind of “Ummm, that’s weird.”

Sea of Tranquility is also a pandemic novel about a writer writing a novel about a pandemic just before a pandemic hits. Olive Llewellyn is a novelist who lives on the Moon but tells of her publicity tour on Earth just before a brutal plague spreads across Earth in 2203. I assume Olive’s details and feelings about promoting a book came from Mandel’s own experience. Some of the characters in this novel were in Mandel’s previous novel, The Glass Hotel, and Edwin’s full name is Edwin St. John St. Andrew. Since he shares a middle name with Mandel I have to wonder if he was an ancestor of hers? Now I have to read The Glass Hotel. One of my favorite writers, Larry McMurty liked to recycle characters in other novels.

Finally, I wonder if fans of science fiction by Margaret Atwood, Hilary St. John Mandel, or Kazuo Ishiguro would also be fans of Dan Simmons, Iain M. Banks, and James S. A. Corey? Or vice versa? Let me know how you feel.

James Wallace Harris, 7/4/22

Science Fiction Writers in Conversation with Each Other

Imagine a world where science fiction had never been invented. Could you have written the first science fiction story? Be honest now, and think hard about yourself and what I’m asking. Before Galileo, did anyone think the Moon was a world that could be visited? Once people heard Galileo saw mountains on the Moon with his telescope they began to imagine going there. Science fiction needed certain kinds of seed ideas to begin. When the seeds come from reality I’ll call that Stage 1 science fiction. We don’t see a lot of that kind of science fiction anymore. Maybe The Martian by Andy Weir when he tried to realistically portray growing potatoes on Mars or when a writer extrapolates on current events like John Brunner did in Stand on Zanzibar back in 1968 or what Kim Stanley Robinson did in The Ministry for the Future in 2020.

Once the genre got rolling, science fiction seeded itself. One story about a trip to the Moon inspired an infinity. I call that Stage 2 science fiction. In Stage 2 writers try to stick to reality but work off the collective knowledge of the genre. Eventually, science fiction was making copies of copies, where the inspiration had no connection with reality. I’ll call that Stage 3 science fiction.

Early stories about traveling to the Moon were Stage 1 because it’s not likely the authors had read each other’s work. But when Verne and Wells wrote their novels of lunar exploration a lot of their inspiration was Stage 2. When John Varley wrote his stories about a lunar colony, most of the science-fictional concepts within those stories had been germinating for generations in the genre – Stage 3.

I believe science fiction writers have an ongoing conversation that never ends. To take part in this conversation, publish a story. It can be Stage 1, 2, or 3. To be heard and answered requires writing something in Stage 1 or 2, or a very creative Stage 3.

This is why I’ve become fascinated by the forgotten writer Walter F. Moudy. The 1950s and 1960s were a fertile time for Stage 1 and Stage 2 stories. By the second half of the 1960s and early 1970s writers who made themselves noticed were writing a baroque Stage 3 science fiction to attract attention. For example, the works of Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and Robert Silverberg were based on old SF ideas told with new writing styles. Unfortunately, Moudy wrote Stage 3 stories in the same prose style that the classics of Stage 2 were written. His 1964-65 stories feel like they were written in 1954. One reason the New Wave writers of the 1960s were so important is they recognized that retelling Stage 2 stories in the same way, would get them ignored. The reason why Heinlein blazed onto the scene in 1939 is that he wrote Stage 1 stories with a new writing style, making his stories stand out.

I enjoy reading Walter F. Moudy in 2022 because I doubt I could write any better than he did, and he was responding to the stories I admired back then. His writing ability and knowledge of the genre were just good enough to get five works published and then become forgotten. As a would-be science fiction writer, I greatly identify with that. He wanted to join the conversation and made the effort to have his say. He just wasn’t heard, but now after decades, I’m listening.

While reading Walter F. Moudy’s meager output of science fiction I kept feeling his stories were inspired by the science fiction he and I both read. They made me wonder what he was trying to say in the ongoing conversation.

Of the five science fiction stories, I’ve read by Walter F. Moudy, “The Search for Man” is my favorite, although if I reread “The Survivor” or No Man On Earth I might change my mind. All were good fun, old-fashion science fiction, the kind my nostalgia loves. As I read “The Search for Man,” I kept wondering what science fiction Moudy had read that inspired this story. I can’t say for sure but this story about robots speculating about long-dead or gone humans reminded me of City by Clifford Simak. That “The Search for Man” set hundreds of years into the future speculated about our times and turned us into a religion reminded me of A Canticle for Leibowitz. That both the protagonists of No Man On Earth and “The Search for Man” were about a super-human and a super-robot reminded me of The Hampdenshire Wonder, Slan, Odd John, Chocky, Stranger in a Strange Land, and all the other science fiction stories about next-stage beings. Reading those two Moudy stories made me think about how I would have written a story on that theme. How much could I base it on reality, and how much would be inspired by other science fiction?

“The Search for Man,” begins with a baby being born, but it’s a strange birth, a kind of decanting that made me think of Brave New World. Then we learn the baby will only have three senses, and it will be put into a robotic baby’s body, the first of four body types it will use.

Moudy sets up a good mystery for us. Humans died out hundreds of years earlier, with all other animal life. The humans had tried to travel to the stars, but it appears their three missions had failed. The robot brains have improved their brains with genetics found in 12 human brains that had been preserved. The robots have found long-dead humans in various kinds of chambers that tried to create suspended animation. Their hope is to find a chamber with a viable human to resurrect. There are classes of robots that are archeologists and others that are priests that teach a strange religion based on their theories about humans. All of that is a very appealing setup for a story, at least for me.

I’m not sure Walter F. Moudy would have written “The Search for Man” without reading a lot of science fiction. Part of the conversation science fiction writers have is about science fictional ideas, but the other part is about how to present those ideas in a story. I felt “The Search for Man” was Moudy’s reply to both but in the language of 1950s science fiction. I wonder if he had been more of a stylist would he have made a greater impact?

“The Search for Man” was published in an original anthology In The Wake of Man that’s never been reprinted. I’ve been trying to get a copy, but it’s expensive, starting at $75 used. I had found a $10 copy for sale, but my order was canceled a couple days after I ordered it. Right now the only source for this story is a copy of In The Wake of Man at Archive.org. If you are a member, which is free, you can check it out for an hour to read online. Thanks to Joachim Boaz for finding that link.

Joachim Boaz and Rich Horton have also been writing about Walter F. Moudy. Rich is planning to review all of Moudy’s work soon.

James Wallace Harris, 6/30/22

Blowing Your Chance to Speak to the Future

Writers cherish the myth that their work will make their names immortal. And it is true we have remembered some authors for thousands of years. However, if you want to be heard across time, you have to write something timeless.

My friend Mike and I are fascinated by forgotten writers, especially forgotten science fiction writers. We can’t help but wonder why a writer quits after their initial success of selling a few stories or maybe a novel. Mike texted me the other day about such a writer he discovered in an interview with Geraldine Brooks in The New York Times.

It was part of their By the Book series, where all writers are asked the same standard questions. My favorite question: “What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?” Often this makes for an interesting title to chase down. Brooks said: “‘No Man on Earth,’ by Walter Moudy. The only other person I know who has read it is my son because I pressed it on him.”

So one well-regarded literary writer resurrects Walter F. Moudy 49 years after he died. That one little mention in the Times got me to read his novel. Maybe a few other people will too. And it’s a pretty good science fiction story for 1964. The question is, could it have been better? What would have made that novel stay in print? Is it worth reprinting? And do I recommend you read it?

You can read a pdf copy of No Man On Earth here.

It turns out that No Man On Earth is a forgotten science fiction novel by a forgotten science fiction writer, Walter F. Moudy (1929-1973). His ISFDB entry lists one novel and four short stories. This novel appeared in October of 1964, and then three of his four stories appeared in April and May of 1965, two in Fantastic and one in Amazing, both edited by Cele Lalli (Goldsmith). Moudy would have been in his mid-thirties. In 1966 he published another novel, The Ninth Commandment, probably not science fiction, and one I can’t track down. Finally, in 1975, after his death, Moudy had one more story, a novella, published in an original anthology, In the Wake of Man. The other two authors in that book were Gene Wolfe and R. A. Lafferty, pretty impressive company.

Besides No Man On Earth, I’ve read his three stories in Fantastic and Amazing, but it would cost me $75 to read his final story and that’s too much. For me, Walter F. Moudy’s science fiction legacy is that one novel, two short stories, and a novelette. Not much to go by, but still, I’m terribly envious since I’m a lifelong would-be science fiction writer. I’d give anything to have contributed even that much to the genre.

Why after his initial success in 1964-1966 did Moudy quit writing? And how did Roger Elwood get his last story? I guess Moudy tried one more time before he died to say something in print. But maybe Elwood had been holding it for years, and it was written in the mid-sixties. Reviewers haven’t been kind to it.

I was able to track down a few biographical details. Moudy was from Missouri, served in the Air Force from 1950 to 1953, got a degree in 1954, and then a law degree in 1957. He was Phi Beta Kappa. Moudy was married and had three children. In other words, he had a successful life and didn’t need to be a writer. Still, as I read his work over the last few days, I felt he had something to say. At least in No Man On Earth.

His three short stories were rather minor. The first, “The Dreamer,” was about a young man who wanted to get rich and famous as a space trader. The story was told like a fable. Its redeeming feature was a super-intelligent parrot. The second, “I Think They Love Me,” is about rock stars going to extreme lengths to survive hordes of screaming teenage girls. This was written a year after The Beatles hit America and was kind of cute, but not really worth remembering. The last, and the one most anthologized, is “The Survivor,” about a televised war game between America and Russia. It reminded me of The Hunger Games. This story came out in 1965 and was probably inspired by the 1964 Olympic games and the films Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe. “The Survivor” was gritty, detailed, and suggested each country sacrifice 100 men every four years in a fight to the death rather than risking total national annihilation.

Those three stories were somewhat entertaining, especially the last one, but they don’t leave the kind of impression that Moudy was making a statement. However, No Man On Earth does. Writers can make different kinds of statements. They can aim to write a better story than what’s written before. Or they can capture their times realistically in words. And common with science fiction writers, they can say something philosophical about reality. And there are so many other ways.

For example, I believe Robert Heinlein was influenced by the success of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand in 1957, and that’s why he aimed so high with Stranger in a Strange Land. In his later years, Heinlein repeatedly tried to convince fans that Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) were books that he wanted to be remembered for because they expressed his philosophy on freedom and responsibility.

My guess is Moudy was inspired by Stranger in a Strange Land when he wrote No Man On Earth. Heinlein’s main character Valentine Michael Smith is a human raised by Martians who taught him psychic powers. Moudy’s main character, Thad Stone, had a human mother and alien father and was a super-genius. Both novels are told with picaresque plotting. Both books comment on sex and society. Moudy has Stone tour many planets and visits many kinds of societies and civilizations. No Man On Earth ran 176 pages in its first publication, a slim paperback original to Stranger’s 408 pages in the G. P. Putnam’s Sons first-edition hardback. Heinlein was obviously trying to hit one out of the genre after over twenty years of being a big fish in a small pond. Frank Herbert also aimed sky high with Dune in 1965. It was also over 400 pages.

There are a lot of one-hit wonders in the book world but few writers struggle with their masterpieces like Harper Lee or John Kennedy Toole. My guess is Moudy knocked this novel out quickly and was probably paid around $750 for his paperback original and when it disappeared on the twirling wire racks after a couple of months felt his time was better spent being a lawyer. If he had written a 400-page monster and got it published by a major hardback publisher No Man On Earth might have had a better chance. He just didn’t aim high enough.

It would have also helped if he had written No Man On Earth in an innovative style that made the genre take notice, like Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land. Moudy’s story and writing reminded me a bit of Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955), Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror for Observers (1955), and Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), all books he could have read and could have inspired No Man On Earth.

Obviously, if Geraldine Brooks fondly remembers No Man On Earth in 2022 so it can’t be a stinker. I liked it quite a lot and rushed through it in two days because it was compelling in the old-fashion kind of science fiction I love. It’s great that Tevis’s 1963 novel is still remembered, and I think it’s a shame that Moudy’s book isn’t more remembered.

James Wallace Harris, 6/21/22

Is There Any New Territory for Science Fiction to Explore?

Ray Nayler had a successful year writing science fiction short stories in 2021. Three of his stories made the Asimov’s Readers’ Award Finalists poll: “A Rocket for Dimitrios” (novella), “Año Nuevo” (novelette), and “Muallim” (short story). That doesn’t include four other stories he had published in other magazines in 2021. The Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction has been reading and discussing all the finalist stories and Nayler’s stories have been popular with our group. We tend to be an older crowd that’s been reading science fiction for a long time, and Nayler’s stories fulfill our need for new science fiction that feels like older science fiction.

Before I say what I want to say, just let me assure you I’m not picking on Ray Nayler, but questioning science fiction in general. I enjoy Nayler’s stories and consider them among the best science fiction coming out today. I’m looking forward to his first novel, The Mountain in the Sea coming out in October.

While reading all the finalists for the Asimov’s Readers’ Award, and especially Nayler’s stories, I couldn’t help but wonder if science fiction has any new territory left to explore? All the stories seem to be variations on old themes. I always wanted to be a science fiction writer, but reading these stories made me think just how hard it must be to write new science fiction, especially original science fiction. Our Facebook group has read hundreds of SF stories, and it’s obvious that few stories succeed with a majority of our readers. Writing a major science fiction short story is very rare.

Nayler’s stories stood out for me of the sixteen finalists. They were the most enjoyable to read, and I felt the most successfully told. However, they all seemed like old friends wearing snazzy new threads. I can’t help but wonder if new science fiction writers ever come up with new science-fictional ideas? Or has our genre explored all the territory to be explored?

Of course, this is my problem since I’m 70 years old and I’ve been reading science fiction for 60 of those years. Younger readers might not see any problem at all. If you live long enough, you begin to feel like Solomon writing Ecclesiastes 1:9 and saying “There is nothing new under the sun.” That feels like an oxymoronic adage when talking about science fiction. (Yet, I felt “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” by Roger Zelazny was something new under the sun in 1963.)

My favorite of Nayler’s stories was “A Rocket for Dimitrios.” (Story links are to pdf files to read.) However, its plot was inspired by A Mask for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, called A Coffin for Dimitrios in the U.S., which better connects to Nayler’s title. I haven’t read that novel, but I’ve seen the Sidney Greenstreet/Peter Lorre movie from 1944, so that’s how I pictured it when reading Nayler’s novella. Both stories about Dimitrios overlap in interesting ways with exotic flavors.

“A Rocket for Dimitrios” is an alternate history story, so it’s a double retread, It’s rewriting history, and writing a classic mystery novel. That’s quite clever, and I think that points to Nayler solving the problem I’m discussing. If you can’t produce a new science fiction idea for a story, repackage old ones in clever ways. And is that what all the new science fiction writers must do today? Or, am I seeing something different? Are new writers reinventing science fiction with each new generation because they haven’t read the old science fiction? Is it a variation on the famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” by George Santayana?

“A Rocket for Dimitrios” is a sophisticated alternate political history that reflects a great deal of our current political reality. After America finds a crashed flying saucer in 1938 it becomes the sole superpower using advanced technology discovered in the UFO. The story creates an alternative geopolitical view from around 1960 I guess. (FDR is in his 7th term.) Because Nayler is in the foreign service and has been stationed in the Caucasus, he obviously knows the history of Turkey after the fall of the Ottomans. This local coloration gives the story its strongest appeal, but then that was true of the movie, and probably the novel.

Fictional characters Sylvia Aldstatt, Alvin Greenly, and Chief Inspector Rafik Bayar are mixed with alternate history characterizations of Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hedy Lamarr. Greenly is in the OSS and Aldstatt is a medium that uses alien technology to speak to the dead Dimitrios Makropoulos. This story is far more complex than the other nominated stories for the Asimov’s Reader Awards which suggests a growing writing maturity by Nayler. This was my second reading of this story and I rate it a strong four stars out of five.

Even though this is a fun story I can’t help but believe it’s Nayler’s philosophical statement about current world affairs. In that sense, it’s quite interesting to compare “A Rocket for Dimitrios” to David Brooks’ latest editorial in The New York Times. Both Nayler and Brooks want to be positive, but they see the growing trend toward nationalistic thinking since the 2016 election, and it’s not positive. The obvious connection to both story and essay is humans are an intelligent species, just not quite intelligent enough to survive. Both Nayler and Brooks are hopeful, I’m not.

Muallim” is a wonderful story about a teaching robot and a student-teacher in Khynalry, Azerbaijan. The plot is rather simple, about how the village tricks the student teacher who wants to change their old ways, but the story is far richer. I think we should ask why? “Muallim” is an exceptional science fiction story, but what makes it so?

The obvious answer is the setting. Naylor’s foreign service experience, knowledge of languages, along with being a keen observer of local details, infuses wonderful details into this story. Would this story have been as good if it was set in Los Angeles? Maybe, but I think not. An exotic setting can really make an old science fiction theme stand out.

Writers have reached the saturation point with writing about robots and AI. It’s extremely hard to do anything different. The foreign color of this story is what made it impressive. The story itself is just a retelling that sentient robots are just as good as humans.

I also think “Muallim” shines because it’s built on layers. The outsider, the student-teacher, rejects what Irada, the female blacksmith, and the other villagers want for their children. But then, there are other people outside of the village, who reject the robot. We know these people have been there for hundreds of years and they don’t like change, but some of them do accept the robot. Azerbaijan is in a part of the world where some of the oldest civilizations began. There’s quite a contrast between old and new. Finally, I think the story stands out for characterization. I rate it a strong four stars out of five.

Año Nuevo” caressed all my science fiction zones but didn’t give me a sense-of-wonder orgasm. That might be due to me being old. I liked Nayler’s story mostly because he’s writing good old-fashioned science fiction in an era when good old-fashioned science fiction is being left behind.

“Año Nuevo” uses twin storylines to effectively evoke two classic science fiction themes: the alien that’s unlike us, and the Jesus alien. Science fiction writers have always been challenged to describe a real alien first encounter. Of course, Nayler pulls a twist on this one and a good twist at that. Where my uncertainty comes from regarding this story is with the Jesus alien.

I’m calling aliens who bring us salvation, uplift, transcendence, or special powers, the Jesus alien. Religion has always worked in that psychological territory, so it’s interesting when science fiction offers alien saviors. I remember Arthur C. Clarke covering this topic several times. It always aroused suspicion in me, but then I’m an atheist.

We’re actually given two reasons for Bo’s transformation from a surly teenager to a loving son – he’s infected by the alien, and he has sex with Aliyah, neither of which should have brought about such a dramatic personality transformation. I also thought it too melodramatically cliche that Bo was brutally beaten by Aliyah’s brothers. That plot choice hurt the story for me. It would have passed if the story had been set in Azerbaijan but not in modern America.

Nayler is a skilled writer, but I can also see the machinations in his storytelling. This is the third finalist story in the Asimov’s Reader Awards by Nayler that our Facebook group has read. Such prolific output requires a certain amount of hackwork. “Muallim” and “A Rocket for Dimitrios” felt more original than “Año Nuevo,” but all three reveal Nayler’s approach to writing science fiction. Ray Nayler knows what readers love, hopes to give them more, and is succeeding. I give this story a strong three stars.

Nayler isn’t breaking any new ground but he’s entertaining and very readable. Is there any new territory to be found in our genre anymore? That’s the trouble with being an old science fiction reader, we’ve read it all before.

JWH