“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.)

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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.

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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.

Serious Science Fiction

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers (1995)

I first read Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers back when it came out in 1995. I still have the first edition hardback (I wonder if it’s worth more now because Powers just won the Pulitzer Prize for his latest novel, The Overstory). I’ve been wishing for decades to hear an audiobook production of Galatea 2.2 and one finally came out in April (4/10/19), probably due to Richard Powers’ recent recognition. Galatea 2.2 is a literary science fiction novel of the highest order, although I doubt Powers or his publishers would want that said about it. And it’s doubtful that most science fiction fans will find it fun reading.

Galatea 2.2 is about a character named Richard Powers who is a writer spending a year in residence at a university named U working with computer scientists. Richard Powers the man attended and taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and for a time he was an adjunct member in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. Within the story, the character Richard Powers talks about writing books with titles that were the same as the real-life Richard Powers wrote. In fact, it’s very hard not to think of Galatea 2.2 as an autobiographical novel. The only trouble is readers don’t know where the line between fiction and fact lies.

Where Galatea 2.2 becomes serious science fiction is when Richard Powers the character is challenged by computer scientists to help them create a computer program that could pass the Master’s comp in literature, the same one Richard Powers the character and the human passed for their MA.

Is Richard Powers the character an AI version of Richard Powers the writer?

Most science fiction novels just tell us computers and robots are intelligent and sentient. They might do some sleight-of-hand waving and give us a few presto-chango words expecting us readers to believe what they say will be possible in the future. Galatea 2.2 is full of then-current scientific details about human cognition, language, and computer science. Powers the real writer builds up his story slowly while using an allegorical tale of his own life as an analogy to explain the complexity of human intelligence. Galatea 2.2 was written during the heyday of neural nets just as machine learning was taking its first baby steps. Why it’s science fiction is because Powers goes well beyond what science is capable of doing even today.

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers audiobook cover 2019

In many ways, Galatea 2.2 is closer to the film Her than Ex Machina because it’s so quiet and dry. The story is far more realistic and serious than most popular science fiction books and movies about sentient machines. This novel is about educating its readers of the real challenges of teaching a machine to understand fiction, but also revealing that humans aren’t the miracles our faiths claim. Often what we call brilliant intellect is a trick of the brain. Time and again Galatea 2.2 points out our own delusions and faults. At one point within the novel, several characters criticize the fictional Richard Powers for writing grim novels, advising him he’d sell more books by being upbeat. Powers the character has to explain that his writing goal is not to entertain them but to see a sense of truth in personal revelations. I assume that’s also true for the flesh and blood Powers writing this book. Galatea 2.2 is also meta-fiction.

Galatea 2.2 has a lot to say in the same way The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four have to say. It uses science fiction techniques for serious speculation. Science fiction fans often feel their genre is a serious matter, but all too often science fiction stories aren’t that serious. Science fiction fans are often insulted when literary writers claim they don’t write science fiction when their novels clearly use science fictional techniques. There is a reason why writers like Margaret Atwood or Ian McEwan avoid the label of science fiction – science fiction isn’t taken seriously by serious readers. The label science fiction is slapped on all kinds of books and is often a marketing sorting category for anything far out and not serious. Sorry fellow SF fans, but we’re seen as kooky.

Now writers within the genre have written books they wanted to be taken seriously. Dune by Frank Herbert and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin are two. Robert A. Heinlein tried to leave the genre when he wrote Strangers in a Strange Land but never achieved escape velocity. Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut were able to make their escape, but the man who bellowed the loudest against the label, Harlan Ellison never did.

There are countless novels written by authors who shun the label “science fiction” writer that write perfectly wonderful science fiction novels. For example, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. I doubt many people have ever asserted it was science fiction even though the science fiction genre has been writing about uplifted apes for decades.

Few people will call Galatea 2.2 a science fiction novel even though it’s about an AI that becomes self-aware, clearly the territory of science fiction. What’s the difference between a literary science fiction novel and a genre science fiction novel?

Science fiction fans are especially insulted when people claim it’s the quality of writing. And that’s not my answer, but often it’s true. No, my answer is the difference is often due to the level of characterization. My guess is most science fiction fans will feel most of Galatea 2.2 is boring. Genre science fiction tends to be action-oriented. Literary science fiction tends to contain biographical character detail that overwhelms the science fiction elements.

I often tell friends they can spot literary works because they feel like an autobiography when in the first person, and biography when in the third. Probably most science fiction fans will complain that too much of Galatea 2.2 is about Richard Powers and not enough is about Helen, the AI. And that will also be true of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, where the story is more about Charlie the human and not about Adam the machine. The reason why The Handmaid’s Tale is literary science fiction is that the story is more about Offred than Gilead. Genre science fiction writers would have focused more on the robots or the details of the theocracy using dramatic action and adventure. For contrast, compare with the characterization of Katniss Everdeen and the society of Panem in The Hunger Games.

Modern science fiction writers have moved more towards the literary by building up their characters, while literary writers are experimenting more with science fictional techniques in their stories. Two examples of meeting in the middle are The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger or The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. I think both literary and science fiction fans could love each of these stories.

I tend to doubt that most science fiction fans will enjoy Galatea 2.2 but I think they should give it a chance, especially the new audiobook edition, which is wonderfully narrated by David Aaron Baker. It was worth the wait for me.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

The Limits of Believability in Science Fiction

Skylark-Three

There are two kinds of believability in science fiction. The first is internal, does the story make sense in its own fictional reality? The second kind asks if the concepts in the story are believable in our reality? In this essay, I’m concerned with the second kind. I believe all science fiction readers have built-in bullshit detectors that vary in accuracy depending on the science they know. To complicate the problem, none of us know the real potential of science and technology.

Last year I started gorging on science fiction short stories. I’m reading stories from the last two hundred years, jumping around from decade to decade in no particular order. This is giving me a sense of what every generation feared and hoped for the future. What I discovered, and should have predicted but didn’t, is that every era has the same hopes and fears, they just apply their current science to their speculation. However, over time we accept the reality of what science teaches us while still wildly speculating about what science could still discover. It’s a form of neverending hope.

Those reading space operas today no longer expect futures where Dick Seaton hurls galaxies at his enemies, but they do believe our minds will be easily transferred between bodies (human, alien, artificial beings), virtual realities, machines, and spaceships. Every generation wants to go where no human has gone before, to escape the limits of mortality, and create what’s never been imagined.

When we’re young we’re willing to believe almost anything. However, the closer we get to knocking on heaven’s door the more we disbelieve. Aging means education and experience, lessons that define our boundaries of believability.

I’m almost finished reading The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois that collects 38 science fiction short stories first published from 2002-2017. It’s giving me a great overview of what 21st-century writers think what might be possible in the future. The trouble is, I doubt most of what they dream will come true.

One of the most popular science fiction themes of our time is brain downloading. Essentially, it’s a psychological replacement for accepting Jesus and attaining everlasting life. Sure, getting downloaded into a robot, clone, or artificial body is as entertaining to read as magically getting turned into a dog or cat, but my bullshit detectors start clicking loudly when science fiction acts like Harry Potter.

Science fiction shouldn’t be let’s play make-believe. There’s a huge difference between what if and if this goes on. Just because we can imagine it doesn’t make it possible. In recent decades some science fiction writers have pulled away from faster-than-light travel. And time travel is a much less popular plot device in serious science fiction. Yet most science fiction readers and writers ache to zip around the galaxy at whatever magical warp factor makes the story work, or escape a plot conundrum with a bit of time travel.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m 67 or reading science fiction for sixty years, but I’m now craving bullshit free SF stories. I now consider most stories labeled science fiction to be fantasy. Some writers even claim that science fiction is merely a subgenre of fantasy. I believe, or want to believe, that real science fiction is separate from fantasy. That science fiction is a genuine cognitive tool for speculating about what might be possible.

Yesterday, The Guardian ran “‘It drives writers mad’: why are authors still sniffy about sci-fi?” by Sarah Ditum. It’s another report about how literary writers sneer at science fiction even when they use its storytelling techniques in their work. Every few years essays like this appear, and science fiction fans get in a snit. The reality is published science fiction is not a successful publishing category and ambitious writers don’t want to get pigeonholed into our genre. It’s perfectly understandable. However, the cognitive tool of writing science fiction is very successful, and literary writers want to use it from time to time. Ian McEwan has just published Machines Like Me that is obviously science fiction. He wants his science fictional speculation taken seriously, thus the reason why he’s avoiding being classified as a science fiction writer. It sounds like Catch-22, but then the Yossarian’s Catch-22 meant something real too.

What some science fiction fans don’t understand is the average person might have better SF bullshit detectors than we do. It’s somewhat analogous to religious true believers being angered by skeptics who reject their truth out of hand. Faith in anything tends to disable bullshit detectors.

What I’m saying is either my age or my study of science fiction has made me a skeptic in my faith in science fiction. In other words, I’m becoming the Bart D. Ehrman of my religion – science fiction – by studying its history.

James Wallace Harris, 4/19/19

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper

Omnilingual-web

The Science Fiction Book Club on Facebook is discussing “Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper this week. I had never read this classic novelette before and enjoyed it immensely. It’s my kind of science fiction. “Omnilingual” was first published in the February 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction but has often been reprinted. You can read it online or listen to it here.

“Omnilingual” is what I now call Pre-NASA Science Fiction because it’s about anthropologists on Mars excavating the ruins of a Martian civilization that had died out 50,000 years ago. In the 1940s and 1950s, science fiction often assumed we weren’t the only intelligent beings in the solar system, usually imagining jungle civilizations on Venus, and cold desert civilizations on Mars. Of course, NASA space probes in the 1960s destroyed those assumptions. “Omnilingual” fits in nicely between Ray Bradbury’s Martian stories of the 1940s, and Roger Zelazny’s dazzling “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” from 1963. I’ve always felt Zelazny’s story was an ode to Pre-NASA Science Fiction.

“Omnilingual” is impressive for several reasons. First, the main character is female, and the explorers from Earth includes women scientists in their crew. That wasn’t common back then. Remember the all-male crew in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet? That how most science fiction imagined space exploration before Star Trek.

Piper presents the problems of translating unknown ancient Earth languages to give his science fiction story the feel of scientific authenticity. One of my favorite themes in science fiction is the archeology of dead alien civilizations. And, there’s one aspect to this story I can’t reveal because it would be a major spoiler, but I think Piper makes an original observation about how to translate dead alien languages without a Rosetta Stone. I’d really like to know if Piper’s idea was original with him.

Every science fiction story that explores ideas about alien civilizations speculates how other intelligent beings would be like us and could be different. Piper assumes the Martians were a whole lot like us. Would that be true? For example, the researchers find what they think is a scientific journal. Is a periodical that publishes scientific research a logical feature for any advanced civilization? I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s hard to imagine how scientific knowledge could be collected, stored, and transmitted in another way.

It’s really sad that Mars and Venus didn’t have intelligent life on them. Can you imagine what our world would be like if they did? Not science fiction imagining, but really what it would be like? Picture modern television with the extra diversity of Martians and Venusians. I think the popularity of Star Wars shows there’s a deep desire for living in a reality filled with many intelligent life forms and robots. We don’t want to be alone. This could also explain why many SF fans prefer classic mid-century science fiction stories.

I believe Piper’s goal in writing this story was to present his idea for finding a Rosetta Stone for translating alien languages. “Omnilingual” was written just before modern SETI began with the 1959 paper by Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi suggested frequencies for listening to alien signals and Frank Drake’s 1960 Project Ozma. I feel Piper had been reading histories of the pioneers who translating Earth’s dead languages and got the inspiration to think about dead alien languages. He also threw in some observations about rivalries between scientists and their academic ambitions.

Omnilingual-illo-1

Ultimately, the appeal of “Omnilingual” today is for modern science fiction readers to find nostalgic solace in a disappearing era of science fiction. That desire is reflected in two recent anthologies edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, Old Mars and Old Venus.

When I was a kid I would have given anything to grow up and been a part of the scientific crew in “Omnilingual.” I guess its a kind of psychological ailment I suffer as an older person wishing I had lived an alternate life history.

JWH

 

 

“The Purple Death” by W. L. Alden

The Purple Death by W. L. Alden

“The Purple Death” by W. L. Auden first appeared in the January 1895 issue of Cassell’s Family Magazine. I read it in my copy of Science Fiction by the Rivals of H. G. Wells edited by Alan K. Russell, but I also own The Wordsworth Collection of Science Fiction edited by David Stuart Davies, the other anthology that ISFDB.org says contains the story. However, it is also available to read online.

In the last decade, I’ve come to admire science fiction from the 19th-century and collected a number of anthologies that mine that era for early tales of sense-of-wonder. I dip into these volumes now and then, often to discover ideas I thought original to the golden age of pulp SF magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. It makes me wonder if anthologists shouldn’t scout the 18th-century for even earlier examples of common science fiction themes.

“The Purple Death” is a quiet story about an Englishman vacationing in Italy who meets Professor Schwartz, a mad scientist from Germany living the cottage next door. Schwartz wants to help the poor and downtrodden by reducing their numbers. He believes overpopulation is the source of the planet’s problems. His has a solution, one we’d call terrorism today. In fact, the description of his bioweapons of mass destruction and how he would deploy them sounds exactly like possibilities we regularly hear on the nightly news.

Wikipedia has little to say about Alden, other than he was Consul General in Rome, Italy from 1885-1890, appointed by Grover Cleveland. He brought the sport of canoeing to the United States and was the founding member of the American Canoe Association. That I thought strange since I assumed native Americans invented the canoe.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is a bit more revealing, with a concise rundown of his other SF/F tales. Their themes support my idea that many of the famous science fictional ideas of the 20th-century had earlier versions in the 19th. To quote SFE:

Alden's sf and fantasy seems to date only from around 1890 or so, his first title of genuine genre interest seeming to be A Lost Soul: Being the Confession and Defence of Charles Lindsay (1892), narrated by a physician who re-animates the frozen body of an Italian countess (see Sleeper Awakes), only to find that she has retained the amoral ways (see Sex) that caused her husband to immolate her in the first place. Most of the stories in Among the Freaks (coll of linked stories 1896) are tall tales, narrated by the owner of a freak show (but see Monsters); The Mystery of Elias G Roebuck and Other Stories (coll 1896) includes several fantasies and sf tales, including an interesting Apes as Human tale, "A Darwinian Schooner" (August 1893 Pall Mall Magazine) and several tales involving Inventions, a topic more intensely (and humorously) deployed in the stories assembled as Van Wagener's Ways (coll of linked stories 1898), in which the eponymous professor's inventions, all of which go wrong but which are not hoaxes, end with his death in something like a nuclear explosion. Drewitt's Dream (1902) is partially set on an Island Utopia. Alden was prolific and fluent, and further exploration of his works may uncover more material of interest.

I think I’d like to give A Lost Soul (1892) a try. In his bibliography, SFE also mentions A New Robinson Crusoe (1888), which also intrigues me.

By the way, I highly recommend Science Fiction Rivals of H. G. Wells if you can find a copy. They are getting expensive on the used market. I only snagged a copy of one without its dust jacket, so in some ways, I hate to make this recommendation, because I’d still like to find a cheap copy in its wrapper. However, it’s a cool volume, reprinting Victorian era SF from the magazines and including their original illustrations. It’s a shame there is no ebook or audiobook edition.

James Wallace Harris, April 2, 2019

 

“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson

Utriusque-Cosmi

“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson was first published in The New Space Opera 2 edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan in 2009. It’s been reprinted a number of times, including Clarkesworld where you can read and listened to it online. It is the 12th story I’ve reviewed from The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois.

Utriusque Cosmi was a two-volume work by Robert Fludd published in 1617 and 1621. You can see a facsimile copy of this book at Archive.org. It is a work of occult philosophy.

“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson is a teleological science fiction story, or maybe a fantasy claiming a different intelligent designer other than God. Robert Charles Wilson thinks big when he writes science fiction, like his story Spin, a 2005 novel which won the Hugo award.

To say “Utriusque Cosmi” is epic in scope is an epic understatement. The story starts out simple, with a woman named Carlotta going back in time to haunt her sixteen-year-old self. I won’t tell you where it ends up. Let’s just say this is one of the most unique ghost stories ever written with a science fictional explanation that would impress Olaf Stapledon.

My goal of slowly reviewing the 38 stories in The Very Best of the Best is not to critique the stories, but to use them to contemplate the nature of science fiction. “Utriusque Cosmi” is a mixture of literary and science fictional writing. Young Carlotta’s narrative if separated from the science fiction feels like something I’d read in the annual Best American Short Stories. In fact, it could have been written as a traditional ghost story inside any other theological view of reality.

What Wilson has done is come up with a teleological argument using a science fictional intelligent design. That’s both clever and somewhat psychoanalytically revealing of our genre. Both theists and Sci-Fi fans want reality to be different from what it actually is. That’s why I often consider science fiction to be a substitute for religion. Science fiction keeps dreaming of ways to give humans everlasting life in heaven. Science fiction writers have just come up with far more complex explanations of how this might happen. Religion is really a belief in magical incantations. God creates with the power of the Word – but then so do science fiction writers. SF readers just believe that science and technology will one day make their words come true.

“Utriusque Cosmi” is a lovely story of faith.

JWH

“The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory

Unpossible and Other Stories by Daryl Gregory

“The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory is the 11th story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. It originally appeared in Eclipse 2 but has been reprinted a number of times. You can read or listen to it online at Clarkesworld. Daryl Gregory has published seven novels, numerous short stories, and a handful of comic books/graphic novels. I believe this is the first story I’ve read by Gregory.

The setup of “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” is quite simple – a small country is attacked by a much larger country. Gregory said he was inspired by the U.S. attacking Iraq. Now picture the United States invading a small country not with stealth fighters but with superheroes. The story opens:

The 22nd Invasion of Trovenia began with a streak of scarlet against a gray sky fast as the flick of a paintbrush. The red blur zipped across the length of the island, moving west to east, and shot out to sea. The sonic boom a moment later scattered the birds that wheeled above the fish processing plant and sent them squealing and plummeting.

Elena said, “Was that—it was, wasn’t it?”

“You’ve never seen a U-Man, Elena?” Jürgo said.

“Not in person.” At nineteen, Elena Pendareva was the youngest of the crew by at least two decades, and the only female. She and the other five members of the heavy plate welding unit were perched 110 meters in the air, taking their lunch upon the great steel shoulder of the Slaybot Prime. The giant robot, latest in a long series of ultimate weapons, was unfinished, its unpainted skin speckled with bird shit, its chest turrets empty, the open dome of its head covered only by a tarp.

Elena is our point-of-view character from which we see her city destroyed and watch citizens struggles to survive the aftermath. It’s a clever anti-war story that makes me feel for these imaginary foreign people. Trovenia is characterized like a cold war era eastern bloc country. Its citizens parrot the standard propaganda against America yet distrust their own leaders. America uses its superhero power advantage to bully smaller nations, while Trovenia’s leader, Lord Grimm, brags of having equal superpowers to fight back.

This story is not my kind of story because I’m bored to blazes with superheroes and their superpowers, but I imagine fans who love the DC/Marvel universes will be entertained.

Science fiction and fantasy writers face a constant challenge of competing with the successes of movie franchises that make billions dominating the pop culture landscape. Our society has reached the science fiction saturation point decades ago, so it’s hard to come up with anything new that will dissolve into our Pop Culture Kool-Aid.

I feel sorry for struggling young writers. I’d like to think this story is also Gregory’s way of responding to superhero oppression. Even though “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” isn’t my kind of story, I still found it enjoyable, and maybe I did so because the superheroes are portrayed like V-1 and V-2 bombs rocketing over London during WWII – powerful caped menaces streaking across the skies terrifying ordinary people.

There are whole armies of talented writers out there hoping to get noticed. Their only weapon is typing out words, but those black pixels on white backlights must compete with 3D Imax blockbusters. Even though I have some problems with the stories in Love, Death + Robots, I’m still excited to see science fiction writers getting their short stories produced for the HDTV screen. “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” could make a visually stylish short film.

And that might be another reason why Gregory features superheroes in his story – he imagined it being filmed as he wrote it.

James Wallace Harris, March 26, 2019 (Happy Anniversary Susan)

 

 

“The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” by Alastair Reynolds

Winged Woman

8th in a series: The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois

Although science fiction writers can write about anything, if you read enough science fiction you’ll discover a limited number of themes repeated in endless variations. The challenge to the writer is to tell an old story in a new way. In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” Alastair Reynolds uses the theme of a primitive society that barely remembers its former technological glory. There is a great sense of wonder to that idea. One of the earliest examples I can remember reading is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. In that story, our current world civilization had collapsed and a rather medieval one had taken its place. Characters marveled and wondered about artifacts from our time creating endless speculation about us with wrong assumptions.

In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” we’re again thrown back in time, or so we think. It feels like a 17th-century English town, but I’m not even sure we’re on Earth. Reynolds is famous for telling stories of the very far future. We do learn that their past had space travel and intelligent robots, but the people of this time have no understanding of that history, just shadowy myths. The story is about a 16-year-old girl, Kathrin Lynch, who is the daughter of the sledge maker trying to walk home without being sexually assaulted. She has in the past and knows it will happen again.

In the world of this story, whether far future Earth or a planet we settled that has forgotten that, knowledge is mostly based on superstition. This is a common aspect of our forgotten past theme. For example, the robots of their past are now the “jangling men” – a supernatural threat to scare children from straying too far.

Understanding the building blocks of this theme is not really important for enjoying this story. You can read or listen to it online. “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a wonderful tale because of how it’s told. Since I listened to it on the audiobook edition of The Very Best of the Best, the professional narration showcases Reynolds’ skills at conveying drama and emotion. By the way, I consider audio narration to be a magnifier, one that makes good and bad writing stand out. This might be true because audio converts printed words to something like watching a movie, allowing our ears to better judge the dialog.

I’m reading and reviewing these stories as writing lessons. From “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” I’m learning how Reynolds took an old theme and made it fresh. It involves a number of challenges. First, the setting of the story is old – even if it’s in our far future. Think about watching Game of Thrones on HBO. Is it set on Earth? Is it in the past or the future? How to capture those details without anachronisms?  Reynolds sets “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” in a time that feels like old England to me, where people still believed in witches, and towns are ruled by sheriffs. He overlays this with myths that feel even older, yet we learn were founded on our future.

The basic plot of this story could be set in any time. In fact, it could have been written in the 17th-century or today. What makes it good is the storytelling. The writing is simple. Reynolds explains little. But much happens in the one hour it takes to narrate the audio version. It’s rich in vivid details.

I do have one quibble with this tale, but I’m not sure if I can bring it up without spoiling it for some readers. But I will since these essays are about story construction. The solution to Kathrin’s problem is a powerful weapon. This works in fantasy or science fiction, but would it be politically correct in a contemporary literary story? If we read a New Yorker story about a young girl telling an older woman about how’s she’s being sexually preyed upon and the older woman gave her a 9mm to keep in her purse as a solution, would we accept that story?

I know many Americans would answer yes. But that’s not what I want to get into. This is about writing, and the question it poses is: Should stories offer plot solutions with dangerous implications? I’m a lifelong fan of westerns. One of the major themes of westerns is violence is the solution. Do we accept this only for fiction and video games, or psychologically too?

When I think about writing fiction I seldom think of stories that involve violence. But pay attention to how often violence is integrated all the forms of fiction we consume. If I had written this story I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to create a rape scene. Nor would I have wanted the past technology to be symbolized by a weapon. I’m trying to imagine using this theme in a new way of my own making. What myths might our civilization give people thousands of years from now? What if in two hundred years climate change has totally wiped out our technological civilization? How will future people imagine our love of social media and computers? See, got a story idea already. But ideas are a penny a million. It’s the storytelling that counts, and “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a good lesson in that.

James Wallace Harris, March 11, 2019