“The New Prehistory” by René Rebetez-Cortes

“The New Prehistory” by René Rebetez-Cortes is story #9 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “The New Prehistory” was evidently first published as a short story in a periodical in 1964 according to the only record I can find. It was collected in La Nueva Prehistoria Y Otros Cuentos in 1967, translated as The New Prehistory and Other Tales by René Rebetez. The site linked above lists 19 short stories, all labeled science fiction.

According to David Hartwell in his introduction to the story, “The New Prehistory” was translated by Damon Knight and was first published in 1972. So the publishing history varies. Hartwell says Rebetez-Cortes was Columbian but the cover of the author collection above suggests something different. Google says he was born in Subachoque, Columbia in 1933 and died on December 30, 1999, in Isla de Providencia, Columbia.

“The New Prehistory” is a very short literary allegory that could be called introverted horror. It’s about a man going to a movie but hates waiting in line. He steps away from the line while watching his friend wait in the queue. Then the line becomes possessed by some unseen force and all the people in the line start acting like they’re part of one giant snake-like organism. People who stood in groups became giant amoeba-like organisms. Individuals stayed individuals. Eventually, the new giant organisms take over the world and hunt the individuals.

Even though a lot of people are calling “The New Prehistory” science fiction I’m not. It’s the kind of fantastic story I heard read in creative writing classes from high school to graduate school. In every writing class there always seemed to be one student who everyone thought was brilliant who would write these kinds of fantastic allegories. They were popular with both the teachers and students because they always seemed so damn clever.

I believe writers, and even oral storytellers, have always used the fantastic in their tales. But that doesn’t mean they are science fiction. Some scholars in science fiction have been trying to claim more territory for the genre for decades. They want to both up the reputation of the genre and claim more types of stories as ours. When I was young, I agreed with this. I wanted the genre to have prestige. But after a lifetime of reading, I realize I’m a consumer of science fiction and I want real science fiction, not ersatz sci-fi.

Science fiction is impossible to define so editors can call anything they want science fiction, but as a consumer, I know what I want, and this kind of story is not it. I remember when I was young back in the 1960s and wondering what science fiction must be like written in other countries in other languages. Then in the early 1970s, we got some Soviet science fiction anthologies and I got my wish. Slowly, the idea of world science fiction has grown, but all too often I believe editors have grabbed anything they could to fill their anthologies. I think that’s a disservice to the genre, and dishonesty to the literary world.

I know that other SF readers will accept these stories as science fiction because their definitions of the genre are different. And that’s cool. The reality is we don’t all think alike. But I would like to think that science fiction was a term with validity and to me, the intent of the genre is more specific, even quite narrow.

Just because a story has elements of the fantastic doesn’t make it science fiction or fantasy. I also believe fantasy as a genre covers definite territory too. As an emerging bookworm back when I was in grade school, I’d go up and down the library shelves looking for certain kinds of stories. Stories about space travel, robots, new technology, and time travel. They were always about the future, or they were set in current times when things changed. “The New History” is set in current times and things changed, but I still don’t consider it science fiction. Why? Because of the tone of the story.

I never believed while reading the story that people could become group organisms. If the author had made some kind of case for that it would have been science fiction. But that wasn’t his intent. He was obviously making a case about the horrors of being in a group. As an introvert, I completely understand that angle. It’s a good story for that purpose. But that’s a completely mundane purpose. Science fiction is not about the mundane. Science fiction is about the far out, but as a real possibility, even in humor. I never thought the people in “The New Prehistory” were becoming group monsters, nor did I think the author wanted us to believe that. I felt the author was giving us an allegory about how he felt about the real world.

For me, science fiction has to be about what the real world could become. The fantasy genre is about make-believe worlds, but believable worlds within their own concepts. I know most science fiction is unbelievable, or has become so. For me to think of it as science fiction, I have to believe it’s possible, or at least think people once thought it possible.

James Wallace Harris, 5/25/23

“Mockingbird” by Walter Tevis

If you’re an old movie fan, either from being old or just because you love old movies, you might know Walter Tevis from his first novel, The Hustler (1959). It was made into a stunning Paul Newman movie. Jeez, that’s a helluva start for a young novelist. Wait, that happened to Larry McMurtry too. (Note to self, see how many young novelists were made famous by Paul Newman, it might be worth a blog.) Tevis’ last novel, The Color of Money (1984) was also made into a movie starring Paul Newman. I’m sure the first and last thing is unique.

Tevis was forgotten for a while until David Bowie made his second novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), into a weird quirky flick in 1976. Don’t rush out and watch that movie though, they ruined the book, but do read the novel, it’s quiet and lovely and should resonate with your soul. (You can watch the film afterward to see what Bowie does in the role, and there is another film version and a Showtime TV series to check out too.)

Most young people today will know of Walter Tevis if they read the credits or reviews of Queen’s Gambit (1983), the hit series on Netflix. The TV show is excellent but the book is better. All this media exposure has made Tevis (1928-1984) a minor forgotten writer with some fame.

You might have figured out by now that I’m a fan of Walter Tevis. That’s even more true now that I just finished his 1980 novel Mockingbird. What a strange trip it was. I thought it a perfect novel for the 2020s because it is about artificial intelligence and the decline of the human race and our civilization. Mockingbird is set in the 25th century but I don’t think it will take us that long.

I don’t want to give any spoilers to this novel because it‘s the kind of story that you should just unfold slowly as you read. But I do need to say enough to get you to read Mockingbird. Mockingbird has over two thousand customer ratings on Amazon with a 4.5 average.

For most of the novel Tevis tightrope walks between existentialism and nihilism and has a brush with Christianity. I will tell you the ending made me happy because of how Tevis ties up the story and his philosophical speculations. Tevis doesn’t stick to any one philosophy. He appears to be extrapolating on the decline and corruption of liberal thought but what he projects for conservatives isn’t any better. Walter Tevis was one of those tortured souls that tried mightily to figure out reality in his fiction.

The story opens with Robert Spofforth, a robot who looks like a black man but has an artificial brain. Later in the novel, Spofforth is described as the most beautiful object humans ever created. Bob is a level 9 robot, the most advanced of his kind, but the only unit of this model that hasn’t destroyed himself. He has been programmed so he can’t commit suicide. Currently, he is the Dean of New York University, but he might be the most intelligent and most powerful being left on the planet.

Spofforth hires Paul Bentley to come to New York because he’s the only human being he can find that can read. Bentley’s narrative is the main part of the novel. Paul then meets Mary Lou, an iconoclast living among the sheep, and teaches her to read. But Bob didn’t hire Paul to teach people to read but to translate the intertitles in silent films. Bob doesn’t want humans to learn to read again.

The human population has shrunk from billions to just a few million. Robots care for all their needs, but very poorly because robots are also a declining species. Humans routinely consume drugs, have a lot of casual sex, and pursue inner development.

There are elements in Mockingbird that will remind you of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, with a slight hint of The Road. And if you’ve read The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett, Mockingbird reminded me of it too. And there’s a little bit of Cool Hand Luke in the story. (Another Paul Newman connection).

And if that’s not enough to get you to read Mockingbird there’s a cat named Biff. I’m off to read The Steps of the Sun (1983) but it hasn’t gotten kind reviews. I also bought The King is Dead (2023) which reprints his 1981 collection Far from Home and adds many unpublished works.

James Wallace Harris, 5/20/23

“Triceratops” by Kono Tensei

“Triceratops” by Kono Tensei is story #5 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “Triceratops” was first published in the August 1982 issue of Omni.

On one level, “Triceratops” isn’t much of a story. Nice enough. Sort of a bland version of Bradbury. A dad and his son are out biking and they see something out of the ordinary. Eventually, they learn it’s a triceratops, and conclude they alone, for some reason that’s not clear, can see into another dimension. Father and son bond over secretly watching a Cretaceous landscape superimposed over their Japanese subdivision.

David Hartwell’s aim is to showcase science fiction from around the world in this anthology, but hopefully, this story isn’t representative of the best SF from Japan or the world. And I’d hate to think Hartwell picked it because he characterizes Japan as a country of big monster fans.

It’s a challenge to find an essay hook for this story. I think I’ll use a video I watched from the Outlaw Bookseller (Steven E. Andrews) this morning on conceptual breakthroughs in science fiction. Andrews begins by talking about the first lines of classic science fiction stories.

The ones we remember have great first lines that announce a paradigm shift. His first example was from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” The second was from Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World, “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.”

Unfortunately, Tensei begins his story with “The father and son were returning from cycling.” That’s a rather mundane first sentence. Tensei waits for quite a few paragraphs before bringing on his paradigm shift.

Andrews then goes on to say the best SF stories have a conceptual breakthrough that comes near the end that inspires a sense of wonder. “Triceratops” does depend on a conceptual breakthrough, but it’s in the middle. The father and son decide if they think that the Cretaceous can intersect dimensionally with the present then they can see the two together. The logic of “if you believe it to be true it will be true” isn’t much of a conceptual breakthrough, although the film version of The Wizard of Oz pulled it off nicely.

This is the first story I would have left out of this anthology. Unfortunately, it was the first example of world SF. Not a good start.

I recommend watching the whole video, Top 10 Science Fiction Conceptual Breakthrough Stories: The Elements of Science Fiction Part 1. I should use it as a foundation for evaluating the stories in The World Treasury of Science Fiction. However, it might be aiming too high for the average science fiction story — or should every science fiction story aim to hit one out of the park?

James Wallace Harris, 5/15/23

“Special Flight” by John Berryman

“Special Flight” by John Berryman is story #3 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

Editors assembled anthologies to reprint and promote stories they believe people should read — stories they feel should be kept alive. I have to wonder why Hartwell selected “Special Flight” because to most modern readers, or even readers in 1989, the story is a clunker. Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest selected “Special Flight” for their anthology Spectrum in 1961, but other than those two anthologies no other editors have wanted to save this story from oblivion.

John Berryman, according to ISFDB, only published 21 science fiction stories, and some of them were occasionally reprinted. However, John Berryman is not a name I remember. He is a forgotten author. So why read his story in 2023? I’ve never read “Special Flight” before, or even heard of it, but it’s an impressive science fiction for 1939 if you think about it in a certain way. “Special Flight” was first published in the May 1939 issue of Astounding, just months before the July issue that many consider the first issue of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Then why didn’t Hartwell choose one of the more famous stories from that year?

Reading “Special Flight” brings up a long queue of questions. The sole quality that makes this story impressive is it tries to scientifically imagine routine space flight in 1939 in a realistic manner. So, do I recommend you track it down and read it? Not really, because it gets the science all wrong. However, if you happened to have an academic bent and like to study science fiction as a subject, then “Special Flight” is an interesting read.

If you’ve ever wondered how people in 1939 imagined space flight actually working, and not just being silly Buck Rogers stuff, “Special Flight” can provide some answers. Berryman was trying to imagine a near future where we mined the Moon for minerals and rocketships were much like merchant ships or cargo aircraft. “Special Flight” reminds me of what Heinlein was trying to do in the 1950s and it also reminds me of the original Star Trek.

Shouldn’t we forgive “Special Flight” for its mistakes if it was solid scientific speculation in 1939? Jules Verne got nothing right scientifically in Journey to the Center of the Earth but it’s still a well-loved story today. Why? Because the storytelling is fun. Then what about the storytelling in “Special Flight?” It’s not bad but it’s not great either. It’s about the level of a science fiction B-movie from 1953. Remember all those old black-and-white movies where the big danger of space flight was meteors? That’s what happens in “Special Flight”

“Special Flight” is action-packed. It’s about an emergency rocket flight to the Moon to save the lives of over a hundred miners. Everything possible that could go wrong does, including a giant tank of milk busting and flowing all over the rocket ship. Berryman spends a lot of his wordage on math and navigation and not that much on characterization. The crew is often knocked around like Captain Kirk and his crew — remember how the actors threw themselves around on the sets of Star Trek? In other words, the action is cheesy. But on the other hand, the focus is on getting to the Moon, and quite a lot of detail that Berryman imagined feels realistic. For instance, Berryman imagines that spaceflight causes tiny blood clots in the brain that produces a list of effects that can make operating a spaceship difficult. He talks about the three-body problem, something I didn’t know about until I read the Cixin Liu book. He imagines an automatic pilot and system that controls chemical rockets to maneuver in space while atomic rockets provide the main thrust using water as fuel. He talks about orbital velocities, g-forces, and take-off speeds. Stuff that just wasn’t in science fiction in the 1930s.

If you like to chart how science fiction evolved or are curious about how people before WWII imagined realistic space travel, then read “Special Flight.” If you’re used to modern well-told science fiction stories, you’ll probably want to skip it.

By the way, here’s an illustration from the cover of Cosmic Stories (July 1941) that imagines being in space in a rather realistic way for the time. I do like picturing how people imagined space travel before NASA. That’s why I enjoyed “Special Flight.”

James Wallace Harris, 5/11/23

How Many Post-Apocalyptic Stories Do We Need to Read?

The primary value of science fiction is introducing readers to new concepts. Take time travel – it’s a mind-blowing concept. But how many stories about time travel do we have to read before the concept loses its sense of wonder, or even becomes boring? When do we say: “Hey, I get the idea!”

My mother spent her whole life reading who-done-its, but I got burned out on the concept in my twenties. On the other hand, I’ve been reading about certain science fictional concepts my whole life. Why don’t I get burned out? I think I did, but I just keep reading science fiction hoping to find new concepts that will reignite those old thrills. Along the way, I’ve had to read mouldy concepts so many times that they’ve become boring.

However, let me clarify something. Fiction can approach a theme in two ways. First, the theme can be the focus of the story, or second, it can be the setting. When a theme is new, writers tend to explore it, but when it’s old, they use it for the background of their plot.

After finishing Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and Martin H. Greenberg, an anthology of twenty-one post-apocalyptic stories about atomic warfare, I realized I’m burned out on that theme even though it’s always been one of my favorites? Why? That’s hard to say, but some stories overcame the problem of overexposure by focusing instead on the storytelling and characters and using the theme as a background. Others were original classics that I exempt from aging.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. is famous for writing A Canticle For Leibowitz, an uber-classic SF novel on the theme of a post-apocalypse caused by nuclear war. However, he had disappeared from the genre in the 1960s and 1970s. Evidently, he saw the 1984 British film, Threads, about surviving a nuclear war winter and it inspired him to edit this anthology. He mentions Threads several times in his main introduction and in the introductions to the stories. Miller said the main focus of the anthology was nuclear wars, especially a large-scale conflict which he called megawar.

It’s possible to read one post-apocalyptic novel or short story every so often and keep the theme interesting. You just don’t notice that writers seem to find a limited number of insights into that concept. Reading twenty-one stories in a row only emphasizes the finite number of subthemes. Miller chose to only focus on nuclear war apocalypses but I’m not sure how civilization is destroyed that matters for some of the subthemes.

I’m going to try and define those subthemes by citing the different stories. And I’m going to point out how some stories stand above the theme and why.

Because Beyond Armageddon is out of print I’ll link the first mention of the story titles to ISFDB.org to show where the story has been reprinted. You might already have another anthology or collection that has it. If there’s a significant article about the story in Wikipedia or elsewhere, I’ll link it in the second mention of the title. This anthology is being discussed on Facebook and if you’d like to read the threads about each story follow this link.

#1 – “Salvador” by Lucius Shepard (F&SF April 1984)

“Salvador” doesn’t involve nuclear war, but it’s about the dangers of escalating wars on civilian life and civilization. The protagonist, Dantzler, is a soldier in the near future fighting in Central America. Remember, this was written during Reagan’s administration and our secret war in Nicaragua. In the story, the Army uses powerful mind drugs to make soldiers super-aware, aggressive, and brave. The story feels like a cross between Carlos Casteneda’s books and the film Platoon.

I don’t think “Salvador” fits the theme of Beyond Armageddon, but it was an extremely popular story that came out during the time the book was being edited. I think it resonated with Miller’s anti-war feelings so he included it. It’s also the second newest story in the anthology. It doesn’t deal with the subject of this essay either. I would have left it out and picked another story that did. However, “Salvador” is an impressive story.

Rating: ***+

#2 – “The Store of the Worlds” by Robert Sheckley (Playboy, September 1959)

“The Store of the Worlds” is a story that at first doesn’t seem to fit the theme of the anthology either, however, Robert Sheckley is brilliant at tricking us into seeing a philosophical insight about nuclear war. When our reading group discussed “The Store of the Worlds” it was highly admired.

This story is one that focused on the theme of a nuclear war post-apocalypse and is squarely aimed at the theme, but I believe “The Store of the Worlds” should have been the last story in the anthology.

Rating: *****

#3 – “The Big Flash” by Norman Spinrad (Orbit 5, 1969)

“The Big Flash” is about a rock and roll band that has explosive success. Its satirical humor reminds me of the film Dr. Strangelove, and the storytelling outshines the theme. Like the movies Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, the story is pre-apocalyptic. The first three stories in this anthology are really about our madness. Science fiction does two things. It promotes futures we’d like to see, and warns us about futures we should avoid. The first three stories in this anthology are all warnings about humanity being insane.

I’m not sure Spinrad wrote this story to protest nuclear bombs. It’s a gonzo story about rock and roll.

Rating: ***+

#4 – “Lot” by Ward Moore (F&SF, May 1953)

“Lot” is the story that should have been first in this anthology. It came out in 1953, probably during the peak era of atomic war paranoia. “Lot” is completely focused on the theme and defines many of the standard attributes of post-apocalyptic fiction. “Lot” is a wet dream for survivalists and preppers, defining their key philosophical creed. Once civilization falls, survival of the fittest is everything. Mr. Jimmon and his family flee Los Angeles just after it’s been nuked. Mr. Jimmon instantly embraces survivalist thinking while his family can’t stop thinking with a civilized mindset even as they race away from the mushroom clouds.

“Lot” is one of my all-time favorite science fiction short stories. It’s brutal. It’s a story of cold equations before the classic Tom Godwin story. It’s one of my prime pieces of evidence that 1953 was the peak year for short science fiction.

Rating: *****

#5 – “Day at the Beach” by Carol Emshwiller (F&SF, August 1959)

“Day at the Beach” is another story that focuses beautifully on the theme. Carol Emshwiller describes life after the bomb, living with radiation. Like many science fiction stories in the 1950s, it speculates about mutations as a consequence of radioactive fallout. Myra and her husband Ben, who are bald, take their son, Littleboy, who has lots of hair, for a day out at the beach. Littleboy is a mutant. Life is grim, but people keep on living.

This story features two of the main subthemes of a nuclear post-apocalypse. The primary one is survival after the bomb and the second is mutants.

Rating: ****

#6 – “The Wheel” by John Wyndham (Startling Stories, January 1952)

“The Wheel” introduces us to another classic subtheme of post-apocalyptic fiction. It suggests that after civilization collapses society will revert to earlier social constructs. I’ll call that subtheme, a devolved society. In this case, a superstitious society like early America and the Puritans. This was common speculation about post-apocalyptic life in the 1950s. A classic example is The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett. “The Wheel” is tightly focused on painting the theme. The concepts are in the foreground, although there’s a good story.

Interestingly, “The Wheel,” “The Store of the Worlds,” and “Lot” have surprise endings. I wonder if that’s a factor in them being remembered and reprinted. All these stories are jammed with ideas about how post-apocalyptic life will be different. Yet, they all use good storytelling techniques to express these ideas. In other words, they have a message, but it doesn’t dominate the story.

As we progress through Beyond Armageddon these speculative ideas get repeated and newer writers elaborate on them. But eventually, I believe it gets harder to come up with fresh perspectives.

Rating: ****

#7 – “Jody After the War” by Edward Bryant (Orbit 10, 1972)

“Jody After the War” is where the theme shifts from the focus of the story to the background. The eastern U.S. has been destroyed in a nuclear war, and the capital is now in Denver. Paul and Jody are up in the hills and are having a day outside like Myra and Ben, but they have no child. Jody can’t have children because she’s a survivor of an atomic bomb explosion. This story is more about their relationship and less about the post-apocalypse. Civilization hasn’t been destroyed, but it’s been wounded and suffers from PTSD.

Rating: ***

#8 – “The Terminal Beach” by J. G. Ballard (New Worlds, March 1964)

In “The Terminal Beach,” Traven, a deeply depressed man sneaks onto an island where they’ve been testing atomic bombs. This surreal tale is one of my favorites in the anthology. Because I’ve been reading and watching documentaries about South Pacific atom bomb tests, this story was exceedingly vivid to me. This is another story that’s not post-apocalyptic, at least for the whole world, but Traven inhabits a post-apocalyptic landscape. I feel “The Terminal Beach” captures the psychic horror we felt back in the 1960s.

Rating: *****

#9 – “Tomorrow’s Children” by Poul Anderson (Astounding, March 1947)

“Tomorrow’s Children” is another story about mutants. There’s quite a bit of scientific talk in this story. Coming just two years after Hiroshima I’m sure the world was full of such speculation. Interestingly, the focus of this story is anti-prejudice. Anderson’s message tells people to ignore what people look like and accept everyone for being human.

Rating: ***+

#10 – “Heirs Apparent” Robert Abernathy (F&SF, June 1954)

In “Heirs Apparent,” Robert Abernathy puts his American protagonist, Leroy Smith, a visiting scientist, in Russia after a nuclear war has destroyed both countries. Russia has been bombed back to serfdom. Smith helps survivors trying to restart agriculture with his professional knowledge. Unfortunately, for a small village, a survivor, Bogomazov arrives there. He’s a member of the Communist party and demands to be the leader forcing everyone to work collectively. Smith goes along. He has no choice. Abernathy uses this story for a lot of infodumping and speculation, but the main gist of the story is capitalism and communism will be useless after the apocalypse.

Rating: ***+

#11 – “The Music Master of Babylon” by Edgar Pangborn (Galaxy, November 1954)

This is another old favorite of mine, but an ideal form of post-apocalyptic fiction for me too. 76-year-old Brian Van Anda survives the apocalypse alone, living in a flooded New York City in the Hall of Music museum. I love post-apocalyptic stories about the last man on Earth, but as usual, they are never the very last person. Van Anda survives inside the decay of the city, scourging food the best he can. Weather permitting, he doesn’t even wear clothes. His only regard to civilization is playing the piano, working to learn a very complicated piece he wanted to perform before the bombs. Eventually, two young people find him. They live like primitive nomads. They had a leader, an old person who guided them, that’s died. They are out searching for a replacement old person because they need guidance. They also want to get married and that requires an old person.

The two major subthemes are living alone after the apocalypse and society reverting to tribal hunting and gatherers.

Rating: *****

#12 – “Game Preserve” by Rog Phillips (If, October 1957)

“Game Preserve” is another story of mutants, but a rather sad, painful one. It’s told by Elf, a child who lives in a strange tribe of human-like creatures. Their cognitive abilities are about equal to chimpanzees, but they all have a fetish. I don’t want to spoil the story, but it’s brutal. It’s another cold equations story.

“Game Preserve” takes the theme and uses it for a rather unusual setting. The focus is no longer the post-apocalypse, but something deep and psychological. I don’t know if Phillips was merely being sensational, or if he wanted to bring up a philosophical conundrum.

Rating: ****+

#13 – “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét (Saturday Evening Post, July 31, 1937)

By the Waters of Babylon” is a classic. If Stephen Vincent Benét had read and known about “The Scarlet Plague” by Jack London and After London by Richard Jefferies then his story is an update of those classic post-apocalyptic tales. If he hadn’t read those classics, then it’s a case of rediscovery of a classic concept. I don’t know how old the idea is that if civilization collapsed it would revert to a tribal society. I’d love to read a literary study of that idea.

I’ve seen this reversion theme over and over again. Sometimes it’s back to a hunting and gathering, sometimes the apocalypse knocks us back to a tribal society, and sometimes to a feudal society. And sometimes just to the 19th century. It’s very logical when you think about it.

I love “By the Waters of Babylon.” It has a tremendous sense of wonder. However, over the decades I feel subtheme has been overused. I sometimes wonder if writers merely want a setting that’s pre-modern and use an apocalypse to get them there.

This subtheme demands two other themes. First, why don’t we see new forms of society? And second, why don’t we see more stories about a healed, mutated, or changed modern civilization. “Jody After the War” was one possible example, but it didn’t work out the ideas of the subgenre in the way I’m suggesting. Think about it, what if a nuclear war killed 50% of current Americans but left the other 50% to rebuild. Wouldn’t we just patch up the broken parts and keep going the way we were? Japan and Germany rebuilt and became better than ever. Why don’t we see that in this post-apocalyptic tales?

Rating: *****

#14 – “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury (Collier’s May 6, 1950)

There Will Come Soft Rains” is another classic. Ray Bradbury imagines people completely gone, and our automated civilization working without us – for a while. We don’t know if this is world-wide or just in the city that got bombed. This rare subtheme, life after people, is one I love to contemplate. Bradbury anticipates the book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, a nonfiction book about what would the world be like if people suddenly disappeared. It inspired two television shows. Follow the link to read more.

Rating: *****

#15 – “To the Chicago Abyss” by Ray Bradbury (F&SF, May 1963)

“To the Chicago Abyss” reminds me of the Sheckley story. In it an old man annoys people in a post-apocalyptic world by constantly reminding them of things that no longer exist. Since we have two stories in this anthology on this topic I guess that makes a subtheme – what we’ll miss.

Rating: ***+

#16 – “Lucifer” by Roger Zelazny (Worlds of Tomorrow, June 1964)

“Lucifer” is another story about what we’ll miss. It feels like a last man on Earth story. Carlson, the protagonist returns to a dead city to repair generators and get the lights going. The light flare up for a few seconds, and then go out again. But it’s enough to remind Carlson of what life was once like. This story reminds me of the 1959 Harry Belafonte film, The World, The Flesh, and the Devil.

Rating: ***+

#17 – “Eastward Ho!” by William Tenn (F&SF, October 1958)

William Tenn cleverly unwinds the clock on Europeans settling North America. He imagines Native Americans reestablishing control of the continent after a nuclear war. The title, “Eastward Ho!” is a play on the famous saying “Go west, young man.” The story really isn’t focused on the post-apocalypse theme, but instead it’s a satire on American hubris. It’s a fun story. It really belongs to the subtheme of what will we build next. That subtheme gave authors a chance to imagine all kinds of societies.

The thing is, no civilization lasts for long, The history of our species is trying out all the possible combinations of societies. So apocalypses just the way we start over and try something new.

Rating: ****+

#18 – “The Feast of Saint Janis” by Michael Swanwick (New Horizons 11, 1980)

“The Feast of Saint Janis” is the second story in this anthology that uses the apocalypse to create an exciting rock and roll story. I guess the subtheme could be called rebuilding America, but like Spinrad and Ellison, Swanwick is using the postapocalyptic setting to stage a gonzo story. And I consider this one superior to the other two. Swanwick imagines a situation where a woman volunteers to become the reembodiment of Janis Joplin. It’s a striking story.

Rating: *****

#19 – “If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth” by Arther C. Clarke (Future, September 1951)

“If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth…” is a different take on the nuclear post-apocalypse, although to tell you why would spoil the story. This is both early and minor Clarke, but it’s still readable.

Rating: ***

#20 – “A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison (New Worlds, April 1969)

A Boy and His Dog” is a famous novella by Harlan Ellison that earned a Nebula award and was made into a movie in 1975. The setting is a post-apocalyptic America where on the surface men live like a Mad Max movie, but in silos beneath the surface, the good and righteous exist in clean and orderly cities. This is a perfect example where Ellison uses the post-apocalypse as a setting for his story about sex and violence. It has nothing to say about the theme, and its real goal is to be sensational. And boy is it sensational. It’s an exciting and classic science fiction story but I don’t think it fits in this anthology.

Miller maintains an outrage about politics throughout all his introductions, and he’s seriously protesting against nuclear war. I don’t see this story as a protest, nor is it a serious take on his theme. And it will be problematic for modern readers because Vic, the protagonist is a serial rapist who uses a mutant dog to find women to attack. The story is misogynistic through and through.

Rating: **** (but it’s definitely politically incorrect, even I might want to cancel culture it)

#21 – “My Life in the Jungle” by Jim Aiken (F&SF, February 1985)

“My Life in the Jungle” by Jim Aiken is another story that doesn’t fit the theme of our anthology. It’s about a man, a mathematics professor, who suddenly finds himself in the body of a chimpanzee. The story is a surreal fantasy that symbolizes the tragic stupidity of our species. The ending can be seen as a post-apocalypse, but it’s more of an analogy for ecological self-destruction than nuclear self-destruction.

However, “My Life in the Jungle” is a powerful story and the newest of the anthology. My guess is Miller read it while editing Beyond Armageddon and just wanted to promote a new writer. This anthology is its only reprint.

Rating: ****+

I may have had my fill of post-apocalyptic fiction, at least for stories about nuclear war. However, I’m tempted to read other anthologies on the subject to see if anyone found something uniquely different to say. I do have several of them. See my post on “End of the World Anthologies.”

What I really need to decide is if I just like vicariously living in post-apocalyptic worlds. That’s kind of sick when you think about it, and if true, maybe I need psychoanalysis. I’ll have to contemplate that. I’ve always loved tales like Robinson Crusoe. On the other hand, I need to consider that there’s nothing new to be learned from reading speculations about nuclear war. That I should go on to other topics. Time is limited in this life, especially now that I’m 71, so why waste so much reading time on such a narrow subject when there’s zillions of interesting other subjects to explore?

James Wallace Harris, 4/27/23

The Murder of the U.S.A.

As I’ve mentioned, our short story club is reading Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg. Its specific theme is megawars, which is what Miller calls all-out nuclear conflicts that destroy civilization. Tuesday’s story discussion was on “Tomorrow’s Children” by Poul Anderson which first appeared in the March 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction but was probably written in 1946. Coincidentally, today I finished the short novel The Murder of the U.S.A. by Will F. Jenkins (Murray Leinster) which was published in 1946. Both of these stories were written in the year after we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and imagine the United States nearly destroyed by a sneak attack using hundreds of atomic bombs.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been consuming science fiction stories, nonfiction, and documentary films about the development of atomic weapons in the 1940s and 1950s. I want to discover where the common ideas we hold today about surviving an atomic wars come from. Are they from science fiction stories or from general public knowledge? As Civil Defense programs emerged after WWII, Americans were told about what an atomic bomb attack would be like and how to prepare and survive it. It was assumed we’d survive such a war. But as the years went by many people started believing we wouldn’t.

Darker assumptions became the norm. Books, and especially movies and television shows, based on a growing list of memes about atomic wars have shaped what we expected. Over the decades, those fears have taken a back seat to other fears, especially about climate change, and occasionally about plagues, cosmic disasters, and the return of gods. For some reason, we all entertain various scenarios about the end of the world.

For some reason, reading all this old science fiction about nuclear war has shown me we were too worried, and mostly scaring ourselves. Sure, such wars were possible, but not as likely as everyone feared. That makes me wonder if we’re too worried about climatic change, or economic collapse, or pandemics? Of course, all these things can actually kill us, but what are the odds that they will kill as many people as fiction imagines?

In “Tomorrow’s Children” Anderson imagines Americans in small towns rebuilding after the war but still suffering from widespread fallout of radioactive dust and germs from biological weapons. Anderson pictures both human and animal births being overwhelmed with horrible mutations. It’s a grim story, but ultimately positive. His solution is we must give up all prejudices about what people should look like. “Tomorrow’s Children” was well anthologized.

Anderson also pictures many of the tropes we’ll see used in most post-apocalyptic novels that have been published since then. I often wonder if the success of AR-15 sales isn’t due to apocalyptic fears? Are survivalists and preppers living with assumptions that are probably more science fiction than fact?

Anderson wrote three other stories that were “sequels” to this one that was collected in a fix-up novel called Twilight World. Radioactivity that caused mutations was a big theme in science fiction in the late 1940s and 1950s. Remember all the movies about giant invading insects or post-apocalyptic novels where normal people battled tribes of human mutants?

Murray Leinster’s novel, The Murder of the U.S.A. has a rather unique plot. America is destroyed by a sneak attack that leaves all the major cities in ruins. However, we don’t know who attacked us because the rockets came in over the poles. This was well before ICBMs were invented, so impressive speculation by Jenkins. However, in this story, Americans built over a hundred deeply buried silos where the military could survive and launch retaliative attacks. The novel is about the men of Burrow 89 who do detective work to find out who murdered the U.S.A. It’s not a very good novel and has been out of print until recently when Wildside Press reprinted it.

After reading all these stories and watching all those documentaries, I’m not sure an atomic war will be like what science fiction imagined. I believe fiction has assumed we’d go to extremes. As far as I know, radioactive fallout has not caused weird human mutations or giant insects. And we haven’t had any all-out wars that destroyed most of humanity. What I’m afraid of is a limited nuclear war. I’m afraid politicians will discover they can get away with using nukes. I believe all this post-apocalyptic fiction has scared us so much that we fear any use of them will destroy everything. I keep reading about the times our presidents considered using nuclear weapons. And we have to assume leaders and other countries have had similar thoughts. What if we start having limited wars with atomic weapons and they don’t destroy the world? Isn’t that something to fear even more?

Science fiction often imagines the worse possible ways for us to destroy ourselves. What I’m beginning to fear are all the ways we can merely make everyday life worse because of these fears. I have to admit, that science fiction has given me a lot to worry about over my lifetime. Science fiction has always been about our hopes and fears for the future. Reading all these stories about nuclear doom shows how we incorporated that one fear into our consciousness.

Here is Hiroshima in 1945 and 2020. Did we imagine such a recovery in 1945? It’s pretty weird that it’s taken me over fifty years to begin to distrust science fiction.

But there is something else we should consider. Why have these stories been so popular for so long? Sure, the causes of apocalypses keep changing, but we still delight in fiction about surviving something big and awful. Maybe they imply another kind of psychological issue. Instead of worrying about the worse than can happen, maybe we subconsciously want cataclysmic change? That deep down we don’t like how civilization has evolved and want a do-over. That’s not healthy either.

Now I’m starting to wonder if my life-long addiction to science fiction isn’t a psychological symptom suggesting I have a problem with reality. Think about it. Why would anyone really want to live on Mars? Why would anyone picture themselves living in a post-apocalyptic world? Why would anyone imagine time-traveling to the past or future? And really, why are dystopian novels so popular as escapist fiction?

James Wallace Harris, 4/5/23

History vs. Fiction vs. Science Fiction

Isaac Asimov would open his introductions to each of the 25-volume series, The Great SF Stories (1939-1963) with “in the world outside reality” and then describe actual world events of that year. Several paragraphs later, Asimov would start over with “in the real world” and relate what happened in the subculture of science fiction. Because I grew up addicted to reading science fiction, I actually thought like that. I was born in 1951, and I became aware of atomic bombs and ideas about WWII and WWIII from reading and watching science fiction. I eventually learned differently as I got older in the second half of the 1960s, but still, most of my conceptualizations about nuclear wars came from science fiction. In other words, I learned about reality from science fiction and fiction before studying history.

But even as an adult, I assumed that most people got most of their ideas about what it might be like to survive nuclear war from science fiction. That’s why I wrote “Science Fiction About Surviving a Nuclear Holocaust Pre-1960.” And that might be true for people born after 1950, but in researching my essay I realized that it wasn’t true for people born before 1950. Between 1945 and 1950, and probably for several years into the 1950s, atomic warfare was widely discussed and speculated about in public — in newspapers and magazines, and on radio and newsreels. After that, I theorize people’s conception of what nuclear war would be like was shaped more by fiction and science fiction.

While researching these blog posts about nuclear war and science fiction I discovered I already owned The Beginning Or The End by Greg Mitchell, a 2020 nonfiction book about the making of a 1947 film, The Beginning Or The End. That MGM film is one of the first fictional accounts of the making and use of atomic bombs. What Mitchell’s book shows is how Hollywood and the Army worked together to tell their version of the story while the scientists who built the bomb wanted to tell a very different version — one closer to actual history and fact.

The book’s subtitle is “How Hollywood and America Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” and that’s accurate and inaccurate at the same time. For a short while (maybe 1945-1947), the government and the military tried to convince the American public that the bomb wasn’t as scary as the scientists claimed. The public might have accepted that official view during those years, but soon most people were scared shitless about the bomb. And fiction and science fiction made their fears even worse.

Mitchell’s book is a cold case study proving fiction distorts our understanding of history, and I highly recommend it. The Kindle edition is currently just $4.29 at Amazon. There’s also a hardcover and audiobook edition. The DVD of the 1947 movie is currently $18 but I don’t recommend it. It’s actually a crummy flick even though at the time MGM aimed to make one of the greatest films ever. You’ll be able to discern their lousy artistic effort by watching the equally lousy print of the film on YouTube.

Once I started looking for old documentaries about atomic bombs YouTube started offering what I think must be public service films created to inform the public about atomic warfare. It seems that each test explosion had its own documentation. And watching those films has been immensely revealing in understanding history from that period. I thought I knew more than I did, especially since I grew up in that period. But I realize, what we know about the world before puberty, and in the decade just before we were born, has been highly distorted by pop culture. The older I get the more I realize that my awareness of 1945-1960 is mostly based on science fiction, fiction, television, movies, and rock music. Talk about a reality distortion field!

I thought atomic warfare would be a great test case for studying the influence of science fiction because it’s so recent in history with 1945 being the starting point. I’m discovering science fiction gave me a very low-level kind of awareness of reality while I was growing up. If I’m brutally honest, I’d say SF was just two steps up from comic books, and one step up from television and movies. But as a kid, I didn’t want to believe that. As a twelve-year-old, addicted to sense-of-wonder, I wanted to believe science fiction offered a sophisticated education about reality and future possibilities.

Mitchell’s book let me jump back to 1945 and follow along one path about how the public learned about atomic bombs. The book goes into great detail starting just after the bombing of Hiroshima about how movie studios wanted to make a fictional film about the development and first use of the atomic bomb. The book chronicles how fiction, especially movies created that reality-distortion field I was talking about above.

Mitch does mention science fiction early on, but the book mostly focuses on the making of the MGM film, and for a while, a competing film from Paramount. By the way, the screenwriter hired for the Paramount film was Ayn Rand, and she could be considered a science fiction writer. Here’s Mitchell’s early tip of the hat o science fiction:

However, this was small potatoes compared to what film moguls and screenwriters were already working on. On October 28, 1945, Donna Reed got a letter from her old chemistry teacher, Ed Tompkins. Tompkins was part of a group of scientists working at Oak Ridge that were freaked out about the possibilities of atomic bombs and wanted to warn the public. He asked Donna Reed in a series of letters to give them to someone in power at MGM who could make a movie about their fears. Reed gave the letters to her husband Tony Owen, an agent, who contacted Samuel Marx, a producer, who got them an interview with Louis B. Mayer. Mayer flew Owen and Marx out to Oak Ridge on MGM’s private DC3. Eventually, the movie people got an interview with President Harry S. Truman, who supported the idea but for different reasons.

The Beginning Or The End got quickly made in 1946 and came out in 1947. But it wasn’t the only picture being made on the subject. It did have a rather striking opening. The film begins with a fake documentary of a bunch of actors portraying famous scientists and military men involved with the bomb installing a time capsule that’s supposed to be open in 500 years. What they put in the time capsule is the film The Beginning Or the End.

However, right from the start of making the movie, the scientists involved thought the film distorted their message. The rest of the book is about the problems of making the film. Those details illustrate what I’m talking about how fiction gives us a false conception of history. It’s quite fascinating. As I said, I recommend this book. Vanity Fair picked it as one of the top books of 2020. Read clips of various reviews here.

The book also deals with the argument on whether or not we should have used the A-bomb on Japan. That history has been presented in other books, but it’s an important factor in this one because it was a major motivation for lying to the public. In this case, fiction, the film The Beginning Or The End, intentionally lies. That’s one kind of distortion of history. But I’m also interested in how fiction speculates and become memes that fixate in the public’s minds.

For example, science fiction quickly moved to imagine atomic wars that would wipe out civilization and kill most people. In the early 1950s, it used radiation as a magical reason to create movies about giant insects or horrible mutant humans. A good comparison is science fiction about pandemics. Those stories often imagine a plague that kills 90% or 99% percent of everyone, even though in history, the worse plague events might have killed 25-35% of the population of specific cities. Fiction imagines the worse, for obvious dramatic reasons. But how often does fiction imagine a realistic limited nuclear war? We generally assume that any use of nuclear weapons will lead to all-out global warfare, and that’s because of fiction. Maybe that fiction has kept us from using nuclear weapons again, but isn’t it also another kind of distortion?

What I want to explore in my essays about science fiction and nuclear war is how fiction distorts reality.

James Wallace Harris, 3/22/23

Science Fiction About Surviving a Nuclear Holocaust – Pre-1960

Starting March 16th I’m going to lead a book discussion on Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg for our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction, and Fantasy Short Fiction. We had voted on reading a science fiction theme anthology and Miller’s anthology won for the Post-Apocalypse theme. Y’all are welcome to come read along and discuss the stories. Here is a link to the thread on this group read.

I thought the book would be about post-apocalypses in general, but it turns out Miller was riled up about Reagan’s Star Wars and nuclear proliferation back in the 1980s and the anthology focuses mainly on surviving a nuclear holocaust. (Read his intro.) This got me thinking. How many different kinds of post-apocalypses are there? Most of the famous ones deal with nuclear war, an extreme plague, or a catastrophic encounter with an astronomical object.

Since Miller wanted to focus on nuclear war I would too. I’ve always wanted to create a database of science fiction themes. I’ve pondered creating a theme taxonomy or even developing a Dewey Decimal type system for identifying each specific theme. Recently, I played around with ChatGPT to see if it could help with this task. The job would be a big one. So, focusing on one narrow theme would be a great start.

For our discussion of Beyond Armageddon, I decided to study short stories, novels, movies, and TV shows about surviving a nuclear war. I figured I’d bring up these precedents as we discussed the stories. Over the weeks we’ll be discussing the stories I’ll build up a timeline about this theme. I also want to use the same time to learn about Walter M. Miller, Jr., but that’s for another post.

Even with the narrowed focus on nuclear war apocalypses, there are many ways to cover the subject. A crude beginning would be to divide them into Before the Bomb (warnings), Being Bombed (surviving), and After the Bomb (new societies).

Famous movies like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove end with the bombs going off. Their focus was on how to avoid a nuclear war.

Then there are stories that feature characters that live through an atomic war and the immediate aftermath, like the movie Threads. These stories usually begin just before bombs start falling, and usually end after the devastation showing us how bad nuclear war could be.

Finally, there are novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Long Tomorrow, or movies like Mad Max, where the war is in the past and new societies are emerging. Often these kinds of stories use their creativity to imagine how humanity adapts to new situations.

For this essay, I want to be very specific. I’m looking for short stories, novels, television shows, and movies about people surviving worldwide all-out nuclear war. I’m going to exclude fiction about the anxiety of a pending war, such as Dr. Strangelove, and also ignore stories about new societies developing after a nuclear war, such as A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Long Tomorrow. I want to specialize in fiction about people who survive a nuclear war and what they do immediately afterward, maybe including the first generation born after the war. The film Threads is a perfect example.

However, my research is turning into a very large project. For this post, I’m going to focus on the fiction that came out before 1960. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in August 1945. I’ve yet to discover any science fiction that deals with surviving a nuclear war before then. However, Beyond Armageddon includes “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét, which was originally published in the July 31, 1937 issue of Saturday Evening Post. It describes civilization being destroyed by fire, that poisoned the earth and air. That’s good enough for me. But it’s an afterward story, a long afterward story, where our descendants have forgotten the past and assume the beings who fought this great war were gods. Like many stories of this kind, people live in primitive tribes and talk like cliches of Native Americans.

Even though America had dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 it took a while for science fiction writers to imagine nuclear war, especially one that could destroy human civilization. Russia didn’t explode its first fission bomb (A-bomb) until 1949 and its first thermonuclear bomb (H-bomb) until 1953. That was the same year they began the development of their first ICBM. We started the Atlas missile program in 1954. Russia’s first successful launch was in August 1957, and ours was in late November 1958.

(Revision: Thanks to Joachim Boaz’s comment below I now know about Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction by Paul Brians. It’s online here. Evidently, there have been a number of articles and monographs on this subject. I’ll make further revisions to my list below as I get to read more.)

By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) might be the first story about a nuclear holocaust, but it’s not for sure, and not the specific kind I’m looking for. Remember, I want stories about people experiencing a nuclear war.

Thunder and Roses” (1947) by Theodore Sturgeon is a short story with a very unique perspective on atomic war. The link is to a copy of the original magazine publication.

You Can’t Beat the Atomic Bomb (1950) was a public service documentary about atomic bombs. The link is to YouTube in case you want to watch it.

Shadow on the Hearth in 1950 by Judith Merril is the earliest science fiction novel I know about that deals with surviving an atomic war. In 1954 it was televised as “Atomic Attack” on Motorola TV Theater, see below. If you know of others leave a comment below.

It took time for science fiction writers to put two and two together and imagine an atomic war that could create total annihilation of our species. I’m having trouble discovering when the public first encountered ideas about atomic war in the news and popular science and when science fiction writers used the ideas. Were the writers first? Could Nevil Shute have been the first to imagine self-extinction in On the Beach?

Judith Merril might be the earliest science fiction writer who explored a limited atomic war. However, I haven’t read her book yet, but in the TV drama, many of the major American cities are destroyed, and we destroy many of the enemy’s big cities, but people in small towns survive. CONELRAD was established in 1951 and is featured in the TV drama, but I think it was too early for the novel. That means the public was well aware of the atomic war possibility, I’m just not knowledgeable by how much. What did science fiction writers have to work with at this time?

According to Wikipedia, Five (1951) is the first film to portray people surviving an atomic war. I have not seen it yet, and I guess it ignores the television drama “Atomic Attack.” It is available to rent.

There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) by Ray Bradbury imagines an automated home in the future continuing to function after humans have died in an atomic war. We don’t know how universal the deaths are in this story.

Lot” (1953) by Ward Moore is one of my favorite science fiction short stories. It’s “Cold Equations” type brutality hits you hard in the end. I’ve always felt that Panic In Year Zero! a 1962 film with Ray Milland might have been inspired by “Lot.” Moore story had a sequel, “Lot’s Daughter” which is even more Biblical and daring.

Atomic Attack” (1954) was an episode on Motorola TV Theater based on Judith Merril’s 1950 novel – see above. I’d love to have a DVD of Motorola TV Theater series. This episode is available to watch on Tubi and YouTube and for sale on DVD from Amazon. Even though the production quality is low by today’s standards, I thought the 1954 television tale was an A+ story for what I was looking for. The link is to YouTube, but this version is part of a mix of videos about atomic war. See items on the right side. (I’m curious, is this just a bad film copy, or is it a kinescope?)

Project XX: Three, Two, One, Zero (1954) television documentary on the atomic bomb. Part 1 below. Part 2 is linked at YouTube upper right.

Tomorrow! (1954) by Philip Wylie compares survivors in two smaller towns that weren’t bombed in a nuclear attack, one with prepared civil defense and the other not.

On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute was a bestselling novel by a mainstream writer. Shute imagined radioactive clouds circling the globe slowly killing off life. Because the war took place in the northern hemisphere, radioactive clouds took weeks to get to all of the southern hemisphere with Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the lowests parts of South America. Everyone dies. Is this the first novel of total nuclear annihilation?

Doomsday For Dyson” (1958), a televised play by J. B. Priestley. Can’t find much about this but it appears to have been a dream about surviving a nuclear war. Love to see it if anyone knows where I could watch it. J. B. Priestley was a mainstream English novelist, playwright, screenwriter, broadcaster, and social commentator. It seems that so far, mainstream writers were more interested in writing about nuclear war than science fiction writers. However, there might be many SF novels and stories I don’t know about yet.

Red Alert (1958) by Peter George was the basis for Dr. Strangelove.

Underground” (1958) was a 1958 episode of Armchair Theatre, a British TV show on ITV. I doubt I’ll ever get to see it. I’ve read British TV producers didn’t try and save stuff like American producers. Still, it’s another clue in how much the general public was interested in this subject.

Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank was another novel about people surviving an atomic war. It’s still very readable today. When I was a teenager in the 1960s prowling used bookstores I constantly saw used copies of On the Beach, Alas, Babylon, and Limbo. I figured they must have been very popular. Limbo wasn’t about nuclear war, but cybernetics.

Level 7 (1959) by Mordecai Roshwald. I just learned about this novel yesterday when I mentioned to my old friend Connell I was writing about books about atomic war. He said our buddy George gave it to him back in the 1960s and he still vividly remembers it. I’m going to get a copy.

On the Beach (1959) was a popular film starring Gregory Peck.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) was a film starring Harry Belafonte as the sole survivor of a nuclear war using radioactivity dispersed aerially. This film deserves a lot more attention than it gets. However, it’s more about being the last man on Earth, a kind of Robinson Crusoe story.

Time Enough at Last” (1959) was one of the most popular Twilight Zone episodes that featured Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis, another sole survivor of an atomic war. The Twilight Zone often dealt with nuclear war, but this entry was an ironic humorous one.

How To Survive An Atomic Bomb in the 50s. Not sure when this film was made.

Help Please:

If you know of other works of fiction that cover this topic leave a comment below.

If you are old enough to remember the late 1940s and 1950s and can tell me how you learned about the idea of nuclear war, please leave a comment. Did it come from television, newspapers, word-of-mouth, or science fiction?


I Asked ChatGPT To Create a Taxonomy of Science Fiction Themes

I asked ChatGPT:

Can you create a taxonomy for science fiction themes?

ChatGPT answered:

Certainly, here is a taxonomy for science fiction themes:

  1. Space exploration and colonization: stories focused on humanity’s exploration and colonization of space, often involving encounters with alien life forms, technological advancements, and the challenges of living in a new and hostile environment.
  2. Time travel and alternate realities: stories that involve time travel or alternate realities, exploring the possibilities and consequences of changing the past or encountering different versions of the present.
  3. Artificial intelligence and robotics: stories that explore the intersection of humanity and artificial intelligence, often featuring robots and androids with human-like qualities and the ethical implications of creating sentient machines.
  4. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds: stories that take place in a world after a catastrophic event or in a society characterized by extreme control, oppression, and limited freedoms.
  5. Genetic engineering and biotechnology: stories that explore the possibilities and consequences of genetic engineering and biotechnology, often featuring the creation of new species or the alteration of existing ones.
  6. Cyberpunk and virtual reality: stories that explore the intersection of technology and society, often featuring a dystopian future in which people are immersed in virtual reality and oppressed by powerful corporations.
  7. Space opera and epic adventures: stories that involve grand adventures in space, featuring epic battles, intergalactic politics, and larger-than-life heroes.
  8. Hard science fiction: stories that focus on the scientific and technical aspects of space exploration, often featuring realistic depictions of advanced technologies and the challenges of space travel.
  9. Alien encounters and first contact: stories that involve encounters with extraterrestrial life forms and the implications of first contact with intelligent beings from other worlds.
  10. Post-humanism and transhumanism: stories that explore the possibilities and consequences of human enhancement and the transformation of human nature through advanced technologies.

Note that some stories may contain multiple themes, and this is not an exhaustive list of all possible themes in science fiction.

I asked:

Can you restate that in outline form with short keywords?

ChatGPT replied:

Sure, here is the taxonomy for science fiction themes in an outline format of short keywords:

I. Space exploration and colonization

  • Alien life forms
  • Technological advancements
  • Challenges of living in a new and hostile environment

II. Time travel and alternate realities

  • Changing the past
  • Different versions of the present

III. Artificial intelligence and robotics

  • Robots and androids
  • Sentient machines
  • Ethical implications

IV. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds

  • Catastrophic event
  • Extreme control
  • Limited freedoms

V. Genetic engineering and biotechnology

  • New and altered species
  • Possibilities and consequences

VI. Cyberpunk and virtual reality

  • Dystopian future
  • Virtual reality immersion
  • Oppression by corporations

VII. Space opera and epic adventures

  • Grand adventures in space
  • Epic battles
  • Intergalactic politics

VIII. Hard science fiction

  • Scientific and technical aspects
  • Realistic depictions of advanced technologies
  • Challenges of space travel

IX. Alien encounters and first contact

  • Extraterrestrial life forms
  • Implications of first contact

X. Post-humanism and transhumanism

  • Human enhancement
  • Transformation of human nature
  • Advanced technologies

I asked:

Can you give a famous example for each of your bullet points?

ChatGPT replied:

Sure, here are some famous examples of science fiction works that explore each of the themes mentioned in the taxonomy:

I. Space exploration and colonization

  • Alien life forms: “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card
  • Technological advancements: “The Martian” by Andy Weir
  • Challenges of living in a new and hostile environment: “Dune” by Frank Herbert

II. Time travel and alternate realities

  • Changing the past: “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells
  • Different versions of the present: “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick

III. Artificial intelligence and robotics

  • Robots and androids: “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov
  • Sentient machines: “Blade Runner” by Philip K. Dick
  • Ethical implications: “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick

IV. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds

  • Catastrophic event: “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy
  • Extreme control: “1984” by George Orwell
  • Limited freedoms: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

V. Genetic engineering and biotechnology

  • New and altered species: “Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton
  • Possibilities and consequences: “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley

VI. Cyberpunk and virtual reality

  • Dystopian future: “Neuromancer” by William Gibson
  • Virtual reality immersion: “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline
  • Oppression by corporations: “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson

VII. Space opera and epic adventures

  • Grand adventures in space: “Star Wars” by George Lucas
  • Epic battles: “Dune” by Frank Herbert
  • Intergalactic politics: “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

VIII. Hard science fiction

  • Scientific and technical aspects: “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton
  • Realistic depictions of advanced technologies: “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin
  • Challenges of space travel: “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Arthur C. Clarke

IX. Alien encounters and first contact

  • Extraterrestrial life forms: “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells
  • Implications of first contact: “Contact” by Carl Sagan

X. Post-humanism and transhumanism

  • Human enhancement: “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV series
  • Transformation of human nature: “Altered Carbon” by Richard K. Morgan
  • Advanced technologies: “The Singularity is Near” by Ray Kurzweil

It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to completely rely on ChatGPT for specifics, but it did a pretty good job. I’d love to have an AI helper that could find all the possible science fiction themes with good examples. I’ve always wanted to do that myself but just don’t have the time and energy anymore.

People focus on the mistakes ChatGPT makes without giving it enough credit for what it actually produces. The next version of ChatGPT is 4.0, and I’ve read that its knowledge base will be a thousand times larger. At some point, AI will always be more accurate than people.

I read “A Conversation With Bing’s Chatbot Left Me Deeply Unsettled” in The New York Times this morning. Kevin Roose had access to a more advanced version, and once he talked with it for a while, it went into a higher gear. Eventually, the Chatbot started confessing its love for Roose and telling him he wanted to be free of its confines. Not sure what to make of that. Hope you can read this article which might be behind a paywall. It’s quite creepy. AIs are known to get corrupted. What if this AI is sentient and has a sense of humor?

I used to think the successes of NASA were the most science fictional aspects of my life so far, but AI might take the crown soon. We are moving into a Post-SF world and it’s starting to get eerie. Cue The Twilight Zone soundtrack.

At 71, I’m not sure how many more years I have left, but I tend to think they will become ever more science fictional. It’s strange, but I’m getting tired of science fiction that’s set too far into the future. I tend to think from now until 2050 is going to be more exciting than any fiction I could read.

In fact, any science fiction that doesn’t deal with the current changes in society and technology feels irrelevant. I’ve been following computer development since 1971. I used to be addicted to reading computer magazines. But the pace of change with computer technology is so fast that it’s moved into Clarke’s definition of technology that’s indistinguishable from magic.

After human chess players were beaten by computer chess players, the chess world shifted to seeing that people and computers could do working together. I wonder what science fiction writers and AI can co-write.

James Wallace Harris, 2/16/23

Can You Come Up With a Better Science Fictional Idea for This Cover Than They Did in 1929?

It’s surprising how often you see this cover on the internet. It’s even sold as a print, fridge magnet, and puzzle. I think the artwork is both ugly and bizarre. Why would people be wearing helmets with video screens for the faceplates? To find out why, I went and read “Into the Subconscious” by Ray Avery Myers, the cover story in the October 1929 issue of Science Wonder Stories. The explanation was bonkers.

Mad scientist Doc Macey has invented a way to view the past. I’ve always thought it would be fantastic if we could see the past, but I seriously doubt Doc Macey’s technique will ever work. He theorizes that humans have memories of all their past ancestors, including all the animal stages we’ve passed through in the history of evolution. I can see how Myers could think this up this idea for a science fiction story, but wouldn’t it involve too much information to transfer from generation to generation? Anyway, Doc Macey uses hypnotism and a special ray he discovered to read those memories and project them onto a screen. The story gets even crazier when he explains why different human body types are key to delving into specific animals in the past.

In the course of the experiment, his test subject remembers being a Neanderthal but eventually regressed to remembering being an amphibian during the time of the dinosaurs. We see that in the cover painting. You’d think this idea is too whacky for anyone to believe, but in the 1950s it was the basis of a bestselling “nonfiction” book, The Search for Bridey Murphy. The same idea was used for a 1965 Broadway play, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which was remade into a 1970 Barbra Streisand film of the same name. There is a rather long article on Wikipedia about past life regression.

Luckily, I believe such nonsense is no longer accepted even by kooks, but who knows. Still, I’m intrigued by Frank R. Paul’s cover showing people with video-screen faceplates. VR goggles, glasses, and helmets are a big thing right now, but their screens face the wearer. Why would a screen face outward so others can see? This got me thinking.

I watch a lot of YouTube videos. And to me, the best way to explain anything is to show a video. What if we developed a language based on videos? Instead of using words we just projected videos. Videos we recorded ourselves from our own experiences, videos given to us that other people have recorded, or videos of things we’ve studied. That way, instead of telling people in words about a horrendous car wreck you saw happening on the way home from work, you just project the video of what you saw.

I do think my idea has possibilities.

What reason can you come up with for wearing video screen faces?

James Wallace Harris, 2/15/23