End-of-the-World Anthologies

Our reading group on Facebook is considering reading a science fiction theme anthology and I thought I’d look up all the end-of-the-world anthologies devoted the apocalyptic science fiction.


1956: The End of the World edited by Donald A. Wollheim

  • The Year of the Jackpot • (1952) • novelette by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Last Night of Summer • (1954) • short story by Alfred Coppel
  • Impostor • (1953) • short story by Philip K. Dick
  • Rescue Party • (1946) • novelette by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Omega • (1932) • short story by Amelia Reynolds Long
  • In the World’s Dusk • (1936) • short story by Edmond Hamilton

This old 1956 paperback is kind of expensive to buy, so not really practical for a group read. We need books that are readily available in libraries or are cheap to buy new or used.


1982: The Last Man on Earth edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh

  • Introduction (The Last Man on Earth) • (1982) • essay by Isaac Asimov
  • The Underdweller • (1974) • short story by William F. Nolan (a variant of Small World 1957)
  • Flight to Forever • (1950) • novella by Poul Anderson
  • Trouble with Ants • [City] • (1951) • novelette by Clifford D. Simak (a variant of The Simple Way)
  • The Coming of the Ice • (1926) • short story by G. Peyton Wertenbaker
  • The Most Sentimental Man • (1957) • short story by Evelyn E. Smith
  • Eddie for Short • (1953) • short story by Wallace West
  • Knock • (1948) • short story by Fredric Brown
  • Original Sin • (1946) • short story by S. Fowler Wright
  • A Man Spekith • (1969) • novelette by Richard Wilson
  • In the World’s Dusk • (1936) • short story by Edmond Hamilton
  • Kindness • (1944) • short story by Lester del Rey
  • Lucifer • (1964) • short story by Roger Zelazny
  • Resurrection • (1949) • short story by A. E. van Vogt (variant of The Monster 1948)
  • The Second-Class Citizen • (1963) • short story by Damon Knight
  • Day of Judgment • (1946) • short story by Edmond Hamilton
  • Continuous Performance • (1974) • short story by Gordon Eklund
  • The New Reality • (1950) • novelette by Charles L. Harness

I’d love it if we voted this one in, but again, it’s out-of-print and too expensive to buy used.


1985: Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg

  • Case 101: Ch’iu-Ch’iu’s Firestorm • poem by uncredited
  • Alibi • poem by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • Forewarning (an Introduction) • essay by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • Salvador • (1984) • short story by Lucius Shepard
  • The Store of the Worlds • (1959) • short story by Robert Sheckley
  • The Big Flash • (1969) • novelette by Norman Spinrad
  • Lot • [David Jimmon] • (1953) • novelette by Ward Moore
  • Day at the Beach • (1959) • short story by Carol Emshwiller
  • The Wheel • (1952) • short story by John Wyndham
  • Jody After the War • (1972) • short story by Edward Bryant
  • The Terminal Beach • (1964) • novelette by J. G. Ballard
  • Tomorrow’s Children • (1947) • novelette by Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop
  • Heirs Apparent • (1954) • novelette by Robert Abernathy
  • A Master of Babylon • (1966) • novelette by Edgar Pangborn
  • Game Preserve • (1957) • short story by Rog Phillips
  • By the Waters of Babylon • (1937) • short story by Stephen Vincent Benét
  • There Will Come Soft Rains • (1950) • short story by Ray Bradbury
  • To the Chicago Abyss • (1963) • short story by Ray Bradbury
  • Lucifer • (1964) • short story by Roger Zelazny
  • Eastward Ho! • (1958) • short story by William Tenn
  • The Feast of Saint Janis • (1980) • novelette by Michael Swanwick
  • “If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth …” • (1951) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Case 113: Ch’iu-Ch’iu’s Wow • poem by uncredited
  • A Boy and His Dog • [Vic and Blood • 2] • (1969) • novella by Harlan Ellison
  • My Life in the Jungle • (1985) • short story by Jim Aikin

This looks wonderful. Again, out of print. I wonder if I could convince several people to track down a used copy? That’s the weakness of the group. Even though we have hundreds of members, very few members join in the reading and discussion. Participating is depended on the availability of the anthology and I think the age of the stories. I feel most of our members prefer newer stories, while I prefer older ones. There are quite a few copies at ABEbooks for under $10 including shipping.


2010: The End of the World edited by Michael Kelahan

  • Introduction • essay by Michael Kelahan
  • Darkness • (2001) • poem by Lord George Gordon Byron [as by Lord Byron]
  • The Last Man • (1826) • short story by Anonymous
  • The Comet • (1839) • short story by S. Austin, Jr.
  • The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion • (1839) • short story by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Earth’s Holocaust • (1844) • short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Into the Sun • [Into the Sun • 1] • (1882) • short story by Robert Duncan Milne
  • Plucked from the Burning • [Into the Sun • 2] • (1882) • short story by Robert Duncan Milne
  • For the Ahkoond • (1909) • short story by Ambrose Bierce
  • The Crack of Doom • (1895) • novel by Robert Cromie
  • The Star • (1897) • short story by H. G. Wells
  • The Thames Valley Catastrophe • (1897) • short story by Grant Allen
  • A Corner in Lightning • (1898) • short story by George Griffith
  • Within an Ace of the End of the World • (1900) • short story by Robert Barr
  • The Last Days of Earth • (1901) • short story by Geo. C. Wallis
  • The End of the World • (1903) • short story by Simon Newcomb
  • Finis • (1906) • short story by Frank Lillie Pollock
  • The Scarlet Plague • (1912) • novella by Jack London
  • The Last Sunset • (1907) • short story by Edwin A. Start
  • The Machine Stops • (1909) • novelette by E. M. Forster
  • The Poison Belt • [Professor Challenger • 2] • (1913) • novel by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Nyarlathotep • [Dream Cycle] • (1920) • short fiction by H. P. Lovecraft

If the group was more scholarly I think this would be a good choice because it goes further back in time, which is interesting to me.


2016: This Way to the End Times edited by Robert Silverberg

  • Editor’s Introduction (The Eternal Adam) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • The Eternal Adam • (1957) • novelette by Jules Verne and Michel Verne
  • Editor’s Introduction (The Last Generation) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • The Last Generation: A Story of the Future • (1908) • novelette by James Elroy Flecker
  • Editor’s Introduction (Finis) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • Finis • (1906) • short story by Frank Lillie Pollock
  • Editor’s Introduction (The Coming of the Ice) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • The Coming of the Ice • (1926) • short story by G. Peyton Wertenbaker
  • Editor’s Introduction (N Day) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • N Day • (1946) • short story by R. S. Richardson [as by Philip Latham]
  • Editor’s Introduction (Guyal of Sfere) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • Guyal of Sfere • [Dying Earth] • (1950) • novella by Jack Vance
  • Editor’s Introduction (A Pail of Air) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • A Pail of Air • (1951) • short story by Fritz Leiber
  • Editor’s Introduction (Who Can Replace a Man?) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • Who Can Replace a Man? • (1958) • short story by Brian W. Aldiss
  • Editor’s Introduction (Heresies of the Huge God) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • Heresies of the Huge God • (1966) • short story by Brian W. Aldiss
  • Editor’s Introduction (The New Atlantis) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • The New Atlantis • (1975) • novelette by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Editor’s Introduction (When We Went to See the End of the World) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • When We Went to See the End of the World • (1972) • short story by Robert Silverberg
  • Editor’s Introduction (The Wind and the Rain) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • The Wind and the Rain • (1973) • short story by Robert Silverberg
  • Editor’s Introduction (The Screwfly Solution) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • The Screwfly Solution • (1977) • novelette by James Tiptree, Jr.
  • Editor’s Introduction (After-Images) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • After-Images • (1983) • short story by Malcolm Edwards
  • Editor’s Introduction (Daisy, in the Sun) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • Daisy, in the Sun • (1979) • short story by Connie Willis
  • Editor’s Introduction (Three Days After) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • Three Days After • (2014) • short story by Karen Haber
  • Editor’s Introduction (The Rain at the End of the World) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • The Rain at the End of the World • (1999) • short story by Dale Bailey
  • Editor’s Introduction (The End of the World as We Know It) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • The End of the World as We Know It • (2004) • short story by Dale Bailey
  • Editor’s Introduction (Final Exam) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • Final Exam • (2012) • short story by Megan Arkenberg
  • Editor’s Introduction (Prayers to the Sun by a Dying Person) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • Prayers to the Sun by a Dying Person • short story by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
  • Editor’s Introduction (Last and First Men) • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • Last and First Men (excerpt) • [Last and First Men] • (1966) • short fiction by Olaf Stapledon

This one is in print, $10 for the Kindle edition and $20 for the paperback. Plus it has introductions by Silverberg which are always worth reading.


2010: The End of the World edited by Martin H. Greenberg

  • Dancing Through the Apocalypse • essay by Robert Silverberg
  • The Hum • (2007) • short story by Rick Hautala
  • Salvador • (1984) • short story by Lucius Shepard
  • We Can Get Them for You Wholesale • (1984) • short story by Neil Gaiman
  • The Big Flash • (1969) • novelette by Norman Spinrad
  • Kindness • (1944) • short story by Lester del Rey
  • The Underdweller • (1974) • short story by William F. Nolan
  • Lucifer • (1964) • short story by Roger Zelazny
  • To the Storming Gulf • (1985) • novella by Gregory Benford
  • The Feast of Saint Janis • (1980) • novelette by Michael Swanwick
  • The Wheel • (1952) • short story by John Wyndham
  • Jody After the War • (1972) • short story by Edward Bryant
  • Salvage • [The Mormon Sea] • (1986) • novelette by Orson Scott Card
  • By Fools Like Me • (2007) • short story by Nancy Kress
  • The Store of the Worlds • (1959) • short story by Robert Sheckley
  • Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels • (1973) • short story by George R. R. Martin
  • If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth … • (1951) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Afterward • (2006) • short story by John Helfers
  • When We Went to See the End of the World • (1972) • short story by Robert Silverberg
  • Flight to Forever • (1950) • novella by Poul Anderson

Another anthology that’s available to buy. It even has an audiobook edition. That’s a big plus for me.


2010: The Mammoth Book of the End of the World edited by Mike Ashley

  • The End of All Things • (2010) • essay by Mike Ashley
  • When We Went to See the End of the World • (1972) • short story by Robert Silverberg
  • The End of the World • (2002) • short story by Sushma Joshi
  • The Clockwork Atom Bomb • (2005) • short story by Dominic Green
  • Bloodletting • (1994) • short story by Kate Wilhelm
  • When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth • (2006) • novelette by Cory Doctorow
  • The Rain at the End of the World • (1999) • short story by Dale Bailey
  • The Flood • (1998) • short story by Linda Nagata
  • The End of the World Show • (2006) • short story by David Barnett
  • Fermi and Frost • (1985) • short story by Frederik Pohl
  • Sleepover • (2010) • novelette by Alastair Reynolds
  • The Last Sunset • (1996) • short story by Geoffrey A. Landis
  • Moments of Inertia • (2004) • novelette by William Barton
  • The Books • (2010) • short story by Kage Baker
  • Pallbearer • (2010) • novella by Robert Reed
  • And the Deep Blue Sea • (2005) • short story by Elizabeth Bear
  • The Meek • (2004) • short story by Damien Broderick
  • The Man Who Walked Home • (1972) • short story by James Tiptree, Jr.
  • A Pail of Air • (1951) • short story by Fritz Leiber
  • Guardians of the Phoenix • (2010) • novelette by Eric Brown
  • Life in the Anthropocene • (2010) • short story by Paul Di Filippo
  • Terraforming Terra • (1998) • novelette by Jack Williamson
  • World Without End • (2010) • short story by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre
  • The Children of Time • (2005) • short story by Stephen Baxter
  • The Star Called Wormwood • (2004) • short story by Elizabeth Counihan

Again, out of print, but it is available at ABEbooks.

2019: The End of the World and Other Catastrophes edited by Mike Ashley

For some reason, ISFDB.org doesn’t have a table of contents for Mike Ashley’s latest end-of-the-world anthology. But you can read about the stories in The BSFA Review. This is another anthology with older stories. That’s great for seeing how the theme evolved.


2010: The Last Man Anthology edited by Hunter Liguore

  • Timeline of Catastrophe, 2000-2010 • essay by uncredited
  • Snowmelt • short story by Lane Ashfeldt
  • Teddy and the Last Girl of Brighton Street • short story by William Wood
  • The End of the Beginning • poem by George Moore (I)
  • The Paperless Doctrine of 2152 • short story by Aaron M. Wilson
  • Origins • short story by Liz R. F. Coley
  • Ozymandias • (1818) • poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • Omega Museum • short story by Jaleta Clegg
  • Turning In • poem by Caitlin Kenzie Scott
  • Fire and Ice • (1920) • poem by Robert Frost
  • Under Erasure • short story by Murray Leder
  • The Star • (1897) • short story by H. G. Wells
  • Depletion • poem by Mark Brandon Allen
  • Old Gods at the Armageddon • short story by Jeffery Ryan Long
  • Helen of Troy • (1911) • poem by Sara Teasdale
  • Suicide of the World • short fiction by Andre Saglio
  • Nuclear Winter • poem by Nicolas Samaras
  • Gip • short story by Mark Taylor (I)
  • There Will Come Soft Rains • [The Martian Chronicles] • (1950) • short story by Ray Bradbury
  • The Last Man on Earth • short story by Big Jim Williams
  • Eclipse • poem by Alicia A. Curtis [as by Alicia Curtis]
  • The Last Day of Sanity • short story by Darryll B. Snyder
  • Immutable • poem by Janelle Schwartz
  • The Last Unicorn • short story by H. L. Liguore
  • The Last Hours • (1919) • poem by D. H. Lawrence
  • Cassandra • (1978) • short story by C. J. Cherryh
  • Cee-Cee was My Dog • poem by John Dudek
  • 水 (mi)? • short story by Jack Frey
  • My Blue Ribbon Pies • short story by Jacquelyn Fedyk
  • The Masque of the Red Death • (1845) • short story by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Finley’s Last Chapter • short fiction by Alexandra Wolfe
  • Life of a Child • short story by Samantha Boyette
  • The End of the World • (1911) • essay by Hilaire Belloc
  • Arturo • short story by M. Sullivan
  • Going Home • short story by Kodilynn Calhoun
  • Life Gaped Open • poem by Alan Gann
  • The Scarlet Plague • (1912) • novella by Jack London
  • The Last of Everything • poem by Cassandra Consiglio
  • Corridors • (1982) • short story by Barry N. Malzberg
  • The Last of the Great Coffee Shop Philosophers • short story by Koos Kombuis
  • Last Call • short story by Mark Edwards

This anthology seems to be more historical and covers territory outside of the science fiction genre. It’s not something the group would read but I think I’ll track down a copy.


2012: After edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

  • The Segment • short story by Genevieve Valentine
  • After the Cure • novelette by Carrie Ryan
  • Valedictorian • [The Trojan Girl • 2] • short story by N. K. Jemisin
  • Visiting Nelson • novelette by Katherine Langrish
  • All I Know of Freedom • short story by Carol Emshwiller
  • The Other Elder • juvenile • [Across the Universe] • short story by Beth Revis
  • The Great Game at the End of the World • novelette by Matthew Kressel
  • Reunion • short story by Susan Beth Pfeffer
  • Blood Drive • short story by Jeffrey Ford
  • Reality Girl • novelette by Richard Bowes
  • How Th’irth Wint Rong by Hapless Joey @ homeskool.gov • short story by Gregory Maguire
  • Rust with Wings • [7th Sigma • 0.5] • short story by Steven Gould
  • Faint Heart • novelette by Sarah Rees Brennan
  • The Easthound • (2012) • short story by Nalo Hopkinson
  • Gray • poem by Jane Yolen
  • Before • short story by Carolyn Dunn
  • Fake Plastic Trees • novelette by Caitlín R. Kiernan?
  • You Won’t Feel a Thing • [Shade’s Children milieu] • short story by Garth Nix
  • The Marker • short story by Cecil Castellucci

This is an original anthology that focuses on the post-apocalypse. I’m not sure if the group has ever read an original anthology.


2008: Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams

  • The End of the Whole Mess • (1986) • novelette by Stephen King
  • Salvage • [The Mormon Sea] • (1986) • novelette by Orson Scott Card
  • The People of Sand and Slag • (2004) • novelette by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Bread and Bombs • (2003) • short story by M. Rickert
  • How We Got in Town and Out Again • (1996) • novelette by Jonathan Lethem
  • Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels • (1973) • short story by George R. R. Martin
  • Waiting for the Zephyr • (2002) • short story by Tobias S. Buckell
  • Never Despair • (1997) • short story by Jack McDevitt
  • When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth • (2006) • novelette by Cory Doctorow
  • The Last of the O-Forms • (2002) • short story by James Van Pelt
  • Still Life with Apocalypse • (2002) • short story by Richard Kadrey
  • Artie’s Angels • (2001) • short story by Catherine Wells
  • Judgment Passed • novelette by Jerry Oltion
  • Mute • (2002) • short story by Gene Wolfe
  • Inertia • (1990) • novelette by Nancy Kress
  • And the Deep Blue Sea • (2005) • short story by Elizabeth Bear
  • Speech Sounds • (1983) • short story by Octavia E. Butler
  • Killers • (2006) • short story by Carol Emshwiller
  • Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus • (1988) • novelette by Neal Barrett, Jr.
  • The End of the World as We Know It • (2004) • short story by Dale Bailey
  • A Song Before Sunset • (1976) • short story by David Grigg
  • Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of Purple Flowers • (2007) • novelette by John Langan

Another title that’s in print and available on ebook and audio.


2015: Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams

  • The Tamarisk Hunter • (2006) • short story by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Deep Blood Kettle • (2013) • short story by Hugh Howey
  • Animal Husbandry • (2009) • short fiction by Seanan McGuire
  • “… For a Single Yesterday” • (1975) • novelette by George R. R. Martin
  • Chislehurst Messiah • (2011) • short story by Lauren Beukes
  • Colliding Branes • (2009) • short story by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling
  • Ellie • (1995) • novelette by Jack McDevitt
  • Foundation • [Razorland • 0.5] • (2012) • short story by Ann Aguirre
  • Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar) • (2002) • short story by Cory Doctorow
  • A Beginner’s Guide to Survival Before, During, and After the Apocalypse • (2013) • short story by Christopher Barzak
  • Wondrous Days • (2009) • short story by Genevieve Valentine
  • Dreams in Dust • (2012) • short story by D. Thomas Minton
  • By Fools Like Me • (2007) • short story by Nancy Kress
  • Jimmy’s Roadside Cafe • (2008) • short story by Ramsey Shehadeh
  • The Elephants of Poznan • (2000) • novelette by Orson Scott Card
  • The Postman • [The Postman] • (1982) • novella by David Brin
  • When We Went to See the End of the World • (1972) • short story by Robert Silverberg
  • The Revelation of Morgan Stern • (2013) • short story by Christie Yant
  • Final Exam • (2012) • short story by Megan Arkenberg
  • A Flock of Birds • (2002) • short story by James Van Pelt
  • Patient Zero • (2000) • short story by Tananarive Due
  • Soulless in His Sight • (2012) • short fiction by Milo James Fowler
  • Outer Rims • (2011) • short story by Toiya Kristen Finley
  • Advertising at the End of the World • (2009) • short story by Keffy R. M. Kehrli
  • How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth • (2007) • short story by Rachel Swirsky
  • Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back • (1986) • short story by Joe R. Lansdale
  • After the Apocalypse • (2011) • short story by Maureen F. McHugh
  • The Traditional • (2013) • short story by Maria Dahvana Headley
  • Monstro • (2012) • short story by Junot Díaz
  • Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince • (2013) • short story by Jake Kerr

Also, still in print including ebook and audio.


2019: Wastelands: The New Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams

  • Bullet Point • short fiction by Elizabeth Bear
  • The Red Thread • (2016) • short story by Sofia Samatar
  • Expedition 83 • short fiction by Wendy N. Wagner
  • The Last to Matter • (2018) • novelette by Adam-Troy Castro
  • Not This War, Not This World • short story by Jonathan Maberry
  • Where Would You Be Now • [The Bannerless Saga] • novelette by Carrie Vaughn (variant of Where Would You Be Now? 2018)
  • The Elephants’ Crematorium • (2018) • short story by Timothy Mudie
  • Bones of Gossamer • short fiction by Hugh Howey
  • As Good As New • (2014) • short story by Charlie Jane Anders
  • One Day Only • short fiction by Tananarive Due
  • Black, Their Regalia • (2016) • short story by Darcie Little Badger
  • The Plague • (2013) • short story by Ken Liu
  • Four Kittens • short fiction by Jeremiah Tolbert
  • Eyes of the Flood • short fiction by Susan Jane Bigelow
  • The Last Garden • (2017) • novelette by Jack Skillingstead
  • Through Sparks in Morning’s Dawn • short fiction by Tobias S. Buckell
  • Cannibal Acts • (2017) • short story by Maureen F. McHugh
  • Echo • short fiction by Veronica Roth
  • Shooting the Apocalypse • (2014) • novelette by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Hungry Earth • (2013) • short story by Carmen Maria Machado
  • Last Chance • (2017) • novelette by Nicole Kornher-Stace
  • A Series of Images from a Ruined City at the End of The World • short fiction by Joseph Allen Hill [as by Violet Allen]
  • Come on Down • short fiction by Meg Elison
  • Don’t Pack Hope • (2018) • short story by Emma Osborne
  • Polly Wanna Cracker? • short fiction by Greg van Eekhout
  • Otherwise • (2012) • novelette by Nisi Shawl
  • And the Rest of Us Wait • (2016) • novelette by Corinne Duyvis
  • The Last Child • short fiction by Scott Sigler
  • So Sharp, So Bright, So Final • short fiction by Seanan McGuire
  • Burn 3 • (2013) • novelette by Kami Garcia
  • Snow • (2015) • short story by Dale Bailey
  • The Air Is Chalk • short fiction by Richard Kadrey
  • The Future Is Blue • [Garbagetown • 1] • (2016) • novelette by Catherynne M. Valente
  • Francisca Montoya’s Almanac of Things That Can Kill You • (2014) • short story by Shaenon K. Garrity

Again, in print, including ebook and audiobook editions.


1980: After the Fall edited by Robert Sheckley

  • The Last Days of (Parallel?) Earth • short story by Robert Sheckley
  • The Day After the End of the World • short story by Harry Harrison
  • A Very Good Year … • (1979) • short story by Roger Zelazny
  • Fire and/or Ice • short story by Roger Zelazny
  • Exeunt Omnes • short story by Roger Zelazny
  • Sungrab • [Sam Space] • novelette by William F. Nolan
  • Where Are You Now, Erik Scorbic? • short story by K. Copeland Shea
  • Bud • short story by Ian Watson
  • The Making of Revelation, Part I • novelette by Philip José Farmer?
  • Rebecca Rubinstein’s Seventeenth Birthday • short story by Simon Gandolfi
  • The Revelation • short story by Thomas M. Disch
  • Nirvana Is a Nowhere Place • short story by Joel Schulman
  • Heir • short story by J. A. Lawrence
  • Afterword (Heir) • essay by J. A. Lawrence
  • The Kingdom of O’Ryan • novelette by Bob Shaw
  • Just Another End of the World • short story by Maxim Jakubowski

I imagine this collection by Sheckley is about finding humor at the end of the world. I think I would need it if I read all the other anthologies.


I think my pick would be Beyond Armaggedon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg.

I can’t believe I’ve found 14 anthologies about the end of the world or the post-apocalypse.

James Wallace Harris, 1/26/23

Baby Boomer Science Fiction

Science fiction stories are fairytales for teenagers that fuel their imaginations about the future. Science fiction creates myths about tomorrow for each new generation. And science fiction offers both hopes and fears about what’s to come. Readers from each new generation embrace their own flavor of science fiction.

The World Turned Upside Down is an anthology where the editors picked science fiction stories that wowed them when they were teens. Currently available in print for the Kindle for $8.99 or free online for misers and the poor. And for collectors, the hardback is readily available used. I dearly wish there were an audiobook edition because I’d love to hear these stories read by a professional reader.

David Drake (b. 1945) and Jim Baen (b. 1943) are from the Silent Generation (1925-1945). Eric Flint (b. 1947) is from the second year of the Baby Boomers (1946-1964). I was born in 1951, the fifth year. All three editors started reading science fiction in the 1950s and I started in 1962. I believe science fiction fans that discovered the genre in the 1950s and 1960s during the Baby Boomer era imprinted on a certain type of science fiction that’s distinctly different from later generations’ science fiction. I believe the stories in The World Turned Upside Down will appeal the most to Baby Boomers.

One significant extra to this anthology is the personal recollections from the three editors. The introductions and follow-ups are bite-size memoirs. The editorial comments added extra enjoyment to reading this anthology. And I felt on the same wavelength as the editors.

Picture a graph with a bell curve stretched out on the trailing edge. Each year hundreds (thousands?) of science fiction stories are published, but only a small number become popular and are embraced as favorites by a generation. The newest stories are the leading edge of the curve. Then the long stretched-out trailing edge is where stories are remembered as they fade away in pop culture memory. Growing up I mostly read science fiction short stories that were at the peak of the curve. They were mostly 5-20 years old. Now those stories are 55-70 years old.

As I’ve gotten older, that bulge has diminished. In The World Turned Upside Down 5 stories are from the 1930s, 5 from the 1940s, 15 from the 1950s, and 4 from the 1960s. You should be able to visualize the curve just from that tiny bit of data. Readers today from the current generations will like or know very few of these stories. They are now far away from the leading bulge of popular stories. In 20 years, that bulge in the 1950s will thin away in future anthologies. Anthologists whose teen years were during the 1980s or 2010s will seldom pick stories that old.

For the past couple of months, our Facebook group has been reading and discussing the 29 stories from The World Turned Upside Down. I thought the age of the group member had an impact on which stories they liked. Current with reading these old stories on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, we read newer stories from The Good New Stuff edited by Gardner Dozois on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I also thought the contrast to it in the comments was age-related. Austin Beeman reviewed The World Turned Upside Down on his blog and overall liked most of the stories, but the stories he responded to best were a bit different from my favorites. And I thought he liked stories in The Good New Stuff a lot more than I did. I believe he’s 25-30 years younger than I am. Jeppe Larsen reviewed the anthology on his blog and liked fewer stories. My hunch is he is younger. But it’s also possible, he’s not young, and like many people, just likes to keep up with the times. I actually prefer the older stuff, even if it feels old. And to also skew my impression, most of the active members are hardcore SF fans that love a wide range of science fiction.

Generally, a great story is usually liked by any age group, but less famous stories seem to have a generational appeal. My guess is writers write under the assumption they are speaking to the current generation but some of them end up speaking across the ages.

The stories in The World Turned Upside Down were first published from 1933 through 1967, but the most common decade represented was the 1950s. Here are the stories with my ratings (1-5 stars).

1930s

  • Shambleau • (1933) • novelette by C. L. Moore (*****)
  • Who Goes There? • (1938) • novella by John W. Campbell, Jr. (*****)
  • Black Destroyer • (1939) • novelette by A. E. van Vogt (*****)
  • Heavy Planet • (1939) • short story by Milton A. Rothman (***+)
  • Spawn • (1939) • novelette by P. Schuyler Miller (****+)

My father (b. 1920) would have been a teen when these stories came out. He was from the Greatest Generation (1901-1924). These are also stories that appeared with the generation of First Fandom. Those were the old guys of science fiction when I was a teen. I’m not sure if any of them are around anymore. The star of that era was E. E. “Doc” Smith. Most of the fiction from then felt dated in the 1960s and even more so in the 2020s, even to me, a guy who loves to read old science fiction.

1940s

  • Quietus • (1940) • short story by Ross Rocklynne (****)
  • Environment • (1944) • short story by Chester S. Geier (***+)
  • Rescue Party • (1946) • novelette by Arthur C. Clarke (*****)
  • Thunder and Roses • (1947) • novelette by Theodore Sturgeon (*****)
  • The Only Thing We Learn • (1949) • short story by C. M. Kornbluth (***+)

These stories came out during the teen years of the Silent Generation. This has been called The Golden Age of Science Fiction, but people who felt that are mainly dead. Stories collected in anthologies stay around for a few decades, and I was reading these stories as a teen in the 1960s. I thought 1940s SF was science fiction from the good old days. They felt somewhat dated when I read them in the 1960s, but they were still fun. Today, even to me, they feel quite quaint.

1950s

  • Liane the Wayfarer • (1950) • short story by Jack Vance (****)
  • Trigger Tide • (1950) • short story by Wyman Guin (***+)
  • A Pail of Air • (1951) • short story by Fritz Leiber (****+)
  • All the Way Back • (1952) • short story by Michael Shaara (***+)
  • Thy Rocks and Rills • (1953) • novelette by Robert E. Gilbert (****+)
  • Answer • (1954) • short story by Fredric Brown (*****)
  • The Cold Equations • (1954) • novelette by Tom Godwin (*****)
  • Hunting Problem • (1955) • short story by Robert Sheckley (****)
  • A Gun for Dinosaur • (1956) • novelette by L. Sprague de Camp (****)
  • The Last Question • (1956) • short story by Isaac Asimov (****+)
  • The Gentle Earth • (1957) • novella by Christopher Anvil (***+)
  • The Menace from Earth • (1957) • novelette by Robert A. Heinlein (*****)
  • Omnilingual • (1957) • novelette by H. Beam Piper (*****)
  • St. Dragon and the George • (1957) • novelette by Gordon R. Dickson (****)
  • The Aliens • (1959) • novelette by Murray Leinster (****)

Now, these were stories that were often anthologized in the 1960s when I was a teen and a number of them are considered classics. They seem just a little bit old to me when I was a teen. Like 1950s Rock and Rollers, who were in their twenties when I was a teen in the 1960s, but they were still so cool!

1960s

  • Code Three • (1963) • novella by Rick Raphael (***+)
  • Turning Point • (1963) • short story by Poul Anderson (***+)
  • Goblin Night • (1965) • novelette by James H. Schmitz (****)
  • The Last Command • (1967) • short story by Keith Laumer (****)

It’s interesting that these stories did come out when I was a teen, but they were some of my least favorites in the anthology, although still a lot of fun to read. I’m surprised Flint, Drake, and Baen picked them because none of them became classics. These kinds of stories were the salt of the Earth content of the SF magazines in the 1960s, but not the stories I thought defined the generation. At the time, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard, and Ursula K. Le Guin were the bright stars in the sky.

Even though fiction being called science fiction was around in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the general public recognized it. The 1950s was a boom time for science fiction when it regularly began appearing in book form – both paperback and hardback. Plus, it became popular in the movies and in the early days of television. In 1953 there were three dozen science fiction magazine titles being published. When I grew up stories from the 1950s boom felt like they defined the genre.

I felt the most famous SF from the 1950s would be the classics all my life and into the future. However, I’ve now lived long enough to see those stories age and fade away. It sometimes hurts me to see my favorite science fiction novels and short stories being forgotten, rejected or even vilified. This is why it’s difficult to recommend The World Turned Upside Down to younger readers. But I feel its stories capture an era so nicely. The stories aren’t the most famous Baby Boomer science fiction stories, but then the most famous stories are often over-anthologized while so many other good stories need to be remembered. I’m guessing Drake, Flint, and Baen wanted to preserve a picture of our era taken from a different angle. Of the stories I hadn’t read before, I was very glad to be introduced to them.

I would love to review each story one by one and natter about how they each aged and guess how each appealed to their generation. But this post is already longer than what 99% of internet readers read. I know, I’m way too verbose.

JWH

“Blowups Happen” by Robert A. Heinlein

Only dumbasses, egotists, and the delusional think they can predict the future, although there are a number of professions that try. I do believe Robert A. Heinlein was smart and sane enough to know he couldn’t see beyond the horizon of the moment, but he wrote plenty of stories that tried. “Blowups Happen” is one that stands out. Heinlein’s 1940 novelette imagines the dangers of commercializing atomic energy in peacetime. That was five years before Hiroshima.

I grew up being taught that atomic research during the war was an extremely well-guarded secret. What I didn’t know, and I assume most other people didn’t either, was how much atomic energy was widely discussed before the war. John W. Campbell, Jr. liked to brag about how the FBI came to his offices in 1944 because of Cleve Cartmill’s story “Deadline,” implying the G-men thought it gave away some of the secrets of the atomic bomb. I thought Heinlein’s story felt far more knowledgeable. I now have to assume the well-educated public before WWII knew far more than I ever imagined regarding atomic physics.

“Blowup Happens” is set in the near future from 1940 in the Astounding Science Fiction magazine version, and from 1950 as it was rewritten for the collection, The Man Who Sold The Moon. Those two dates are important because the story is about atomic power, and the magazine version was written before Hiroshima and the book version afterward.

The setup of the story is the United States has come to depend on atomic power even though a breeder reactor in Arizona could theoretically destroy the country or even the planet. The General Superintendent of the plant, King, has to hire one psychiatrist for every three engineers to monitor their work with the reactor because engineers have nervous breakdowns after a short career and must be continually replaced. King brings in Dr. Lentz, one of the country’s top psychiatrists to find ways that allow engineers to handle the stress.

Later in the story, Superintendent King learns that mathematical models that previously showed the reaction in the breeder reactor is probably controlled are wrong. New mathematics prove the reactor could go into a runaway reaction that would destroy the planet. If they bring down the breeder reactor the country would lose a good portion of its industrial power and ruin the economy. King knows the corporation that owns the plant won’t accept the new research because it would be financial ruin for it.

The solution to the problem has been emerging all along in a tangential subplot about two engineers, Erickson and Harper, developing atomic power for rockets.

“Blowups Happen” has a great deal of infodumping where Heinlein tries to educate his readers about the science behind atomic energy. Reading those passages today is tedious unless you are researching early speculation about atomic energy. So, how do we judge “Blowups Happen” as a story in 2022?

We want science fiction that is visionary. We want the future to be exciting. Ultimately, most, if not all science fiction becomes historical curiosities. Time has a way of eroding our genre. I didn’t like “Blowups Happen” when I first read it as a teen back in the 1960s. It was already too dated. Now that I’m rereading it in my seventies in 2022 I have to admire Heinlein’s speculation. “Blowups Happen” is an ambitious story. I’m starting to think science fiction writers are at their most ambitious when they are working closest to the present.

In “Blowups Happen” Heinlein explores the impact of atomic energy before the world is startled by the reality of Hiroshima. Sure, the idea of atomic power had been around since Einstein’s most famous equation. The reason why the science fiction of the 1950s had been so exciting is it just preceded NASA of the 1960s. And the reason why cyberpunk was so exciting in the 1980s is that it just preceded the World Wide Web in the 1990s. Science fiction writers get the details wrong, but they still anticipate the wonder and the chaos. This thought makes me rethink Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land anticipation of the 1960s.

When we judge an old science fiction story for its visionary qualities I think it’s important to look at the story’s original publication. “Blowups Happen” was first published in September 1940. It was first reprinted in The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin in 1946, and then in 1950, it was rewritten for The Man Who Sold the Moon. However, for that edition, Heinlein rewrote the story to include the knowledge of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. By 1950 the public and science readers knew much more about atomic energy. I’m guessing “Blowups Happen” was already outdated even in 1950.

Ten years makes a lot of difference in a science fiction story, although I doubt anyone in 1940 could have imagined what the next five years would bring, much less ten. Science fiction writers do not and cannot predict the future, but we do have to admire Heinlein for imagining the political implications of a country having atomic energy in 1940, and what the dangers might be for developing peacetime uses of atomic power. He gets the details wrong, but what he gets right is the essence of great science fiction. By the way, in the 1940 version, the power plant is called a bomb, but in 1950 the label was changed to pile. I’m guessing Heinlein imagined the power plant as being a controlled explosion.

Within the 1940 version, Heinlein described a nuclear explosion as “forty million times as explosive as TNT. The figure was meaningless that way. He thought of it, instead, as a hundred million tons of high explosive, two hundred million aircraft bombs as big as the biggest ever used.” To give his readers a better picture, Heinlein has his character say to himself about ordinary big bombs, “He had once seen such a bomb dropped when he had been serving as a temperament analyst for army aircraft pilots. The bomb had left a hole big enough to hide an apartment house. He could not imagine the explosion of a thousand such bombs, much, much less a hundred million of them.”

Then in the 1950 version, the same character thinks of it as “a hundred million tons of high explosive, or as a thousand Hiroshimas.” Heinlein didn’t need to write anything more. By then, readers had seen films about atomic explosions. They knew exactly what that meant, but in 1940 I doubt readers could imagine anything close to reality.

Psychiatry and psychology are so commonly talked about today that we also forget that it was new at one time. I’m an old movie fan, and psychiatry became a hot subject matter for films after WWII and into the 1950s. I’m guessing Heinlein was doing just as much speculation about the future impact of psychiatry as he was doing for atomic energy in “Blowups Happen.” But how sophisticated his Heinlein’s expectations about the field? Heinlein loved popular scientific speculations published in popular books of the 1930s. But he also was a fan of many pseudo-scientific works too, stuff we’d consider New Age today. In his Future History stories, Heinlein seemed just as interested in the soft sciences as the hard sciences.

Heinlein describes Dr. Lentz, the top psychiatrist of the day this way:

Notwithstanding King’s confidence, Lentz did not show up until the next day. The superintendent was subconsciously a little surprised at his visitor’s appearance. He had pictured a master psychologist as wearing flowing hair, an imperial, and having piercing black eyes. But this man was not overly tall, was heavy in his framework, and fat—almost gross. He might have been a butcher. Little, piggy, faded-blue eyes peered merrily out from beneath shaggy blond brows. There was no hair anywhere else on the enormous skull, and the apelike jaw was smooth and pink. He was dressed in mussed pajamas of unbleached linen. A long cigarette holder jutted permanently from one corner of a wide mouth, widened still more by a smile which suggested non-malicious amusement at the worst that life, or men, could do. He had gusto.

Heinlein, Robert. The Man Who Sold the Moon and Orphans of the Sky (p. 131). Baen Books. Kindle Edition. 

Is Heinlein serious about giving us a shrink that goes around in public in his pajamas? Is Heinlein just imagining a colorful future with odd fashions? Or is this satire? Would 1940 science fiction readers believe the fashions we see on TV today? Heinlein had his sociological speculations too. There is another scene at a bar where the atomic energy scientists go to unwind, that features a B-girl who is also a prostitute. Such women were common in the 1930s, but it was a lower-class thing. I got the feeling that Heinlein expected society would change its attitudes toward these women in the future.

But, we’re back to my original question. Is “Blowups Happen” a fun science fiction story to read in 2022? I don’t think so. Scientific lectures can slow a story, or even ruin it, but scientific lectures about out-of-date science are even harder to endure. Would “Blowups Happen” read better today if he had left out all the lectures? They weren’t needed for the story. Lester del Rey’s “Nerves” is another story about atomic energy from the 1940s that’s outdated, but it still works dramatically. It has problems with length, and some plotting, but overall, I remember it being a better story. I don’t know if Heinlein wanted to be educational, show off his knowledge, or provide evidence for his speculation, but I don’t think the story needed those infodumps.

“Blowups Happen” does offer one lesson for would-be science fiction writers. Speculating about the near future will have the greatest impact on current readers, but you risk writing a story with a limited shelf life. Most stories never become classics anyway, so I think Heinlein boosted his career significantly in 1940 by writing “Blowups Happen.” And there is a downside to writing far-future science fiction that’s pure storytelling. I find science fiction that feels like fantasy fiction far less appealing. Although “Blowups Happen” is now just a historical curiosity I still admire it for Heinlein’s ambition. I seldom find science fiction stories with that kind of ambition being written today.

Near-future SF stories with serious speculation do show up but are rare. I am impressed with The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler, and even though it just came out, I’ve already heard good things about it from several readers. There’s something exciting about science fiction that speculates about the near future with ideas that could come true.

James Wallace Harris, 12/12/22

“Coventry” by Robert A. Heinlein

“Coventry” by Robert A. Heinlein first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in July of 1940 and marks the end of his first year of publishing science fiction with eight stories. “Coventry” is also part of his Future History series and was first published in book form in Heinlein’s collection Revolt in 2100, which is still in print, including audio and ebook.

Heinlein’s legacy suggests he was hardcore libertarian, and that might have been true at times, but not always. “Coventry” shows a streak of liberalism or even utopianism. The “Coventry” of the title refers to land set aside for those citizens who do not want to abide by the Covenant, a future constitution of what the United States became after the Crazy Years. Under the Covenant, all citizens are guaranteed the freedom to pursue their happiness so long as they don’t commit violence against another citizen.

The story begins with the trial of David MacKinnon who is convicted of damaging another citizen’s freedom. David freely admits he punched out a guy but rationalizes he committed no offense because the guy had insulted him. The judge tells him that’s no excuse. I thought this was rather amusing because, in later Heinlein novels, Heinlein’s characters often claim that rudeness should be a capital offense, and sometimes his characters do kill people for being offensive.

David is given a choice: go to Coventry, or submit to psychological reeducation. David has a big ego, and he’s quite self-righteous about his actions, so he accepts being sent to Coventry. However, he has the illusion that it’s a wide-open frontier and he can go there and live in peace like a pioneer of old. He is allowed to take anything he wants into Coventry and converts his savings into fancy camping equipment.

Coventry is behind a giant force-field, and well guarded. David is told he can ask to leave at any time if he’s willing to undergo psychological reeducation. He swears that will never happen, and they open a portal in the barrier just large enough for David to drive his all-terrain vehicle through it. At first, Coventry seems like open free land, but soon David arrives at a guard station where he’s told he must pay customs duty. This enrages him and he refuses. The guards, which he thinks of as thugs, take all his possessions and start dividing them up. Once again, David goes before a court. He soon discovers that there are governments and laws within Coventry, three of them, each with their own approach to how things should be run. David is outraged that Coventry isn’t the unspoiled frontier he imagined. Again, he refuses to cooperate with the local laws and gets himself imprisoned. Eventually, David realizes he was wrong and wants to leave Coventry, but it’s not that easy.

It seems to me, Heinlein uses Coventry to model America in 1940, and the country of the Covenant to model how he imagines life should be in the United States. Heinlein also imagines another near utopia in his early novel Beyond This Horizon (Astounding, April and May 1942). Heinlein’s unpublished novel, For Us the Living written in 1938-1939 is also near utopian. Much of it was recycled for his early stories and Beyond This Horizon.

But after WWII, I’m not sure Heinlein ever imagined a positive big government again. Many of his stories, maybe even most, had characters trying to escape a big government by becoming a space pioneer, or by overthrowing a government. So it’s quite interesting to see Heinlein imagining a large well-run government. Wait — I’ve thought of one exception, Starship Troopers. If you can recall another, leave a comment.

And when I said Heinlein was being near utopian, I don’t mean he was advocating a perfect society, but one that was very well designed and had few problems. Heinlein obviously thought we could do much better than we were in 1940.

One of my friends regularly tells me she wishes the states could be divided up between conservatives and liberals so we didn’t have to live with each other. “Coventry” is Heinlein imagining this wish in a way. Most people accept the big government of the Covenant, while the anti-government folks are sent to a reservation where anything goes. What Heinlein does in the story is say anything goes leads to power structures run by strong men and gives three examples. One is a theocracy made of renegades from his earlier short novel, “If This Goes On—.”

Heinlein’s collection Revolt in 2100 includes “If This Goes On—,” “Coventry,” and “Misfit.” But you really need to read all the other early Future History stories, and to get them you need to track down a used copy of The Past Through Tomorrow. See my “Heinlein’s Super Collections” about which short stories collections to buy used.

Of course, what I’m calling a near utopia Heinlein might call a libertarian society. However, it is a big government running things so everyone is given the maximum freedom to pursue their happiness. I’m not sure theories about small government existed back then, not in the way some conservatives think about it now.

For those Heinlein fans who really want to get into Heinlein’s politics and philosophy, I highly recommend reading “Chapter 5: Heinlein and Civic Society” and “Chapter 6: Heinlein and the Civic Revolution” in Farah Mendlesohn’s The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein. I was at first somewhat disappointed with her book because she didn’t go story by story and write about each in depth. But as I write these reviews, I can see of the value of her writing about them theme by theme, referencing the stories by how each fit into Heinlein’s beliefs. It makes it hard to quote her about any particular story, but if you read each of her chapters as a whole, it has an overall cumulative summation of all of Heinlein’s stories.

“Coventry” came in first in the Analytical Laboratory but there were not any devoted letters about it in the letter column. I’ve been a little disappointed with the letter column because Campbell doesn’t give that much space to the discussion of stories. And quite often fans wrote about the artwork instead. At this time, Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard was still getting most of the story discussion comments. I need to read that novel. (“Brass Tacks” was divided into two sections. The first part was story comments, and the second section was devoted to science discussion. I think Campbell preferred spending space on this section more.)

James Wallace Harris, 12/3/22

Near vs. Far Science Fiction

I’ve recently turned 71 and beginning to realize, once again, that my taste in science fiction is changing due to aging. I’m in a Facebook group where we read and discuss one science fiction short story a day. That exposes me to many different kinds of science fiction, both old and new, covering the endless possible themes that science fiction explores.

I push myself to read every story, even when I’m not enjoying them. I try to give each story the best possible chance but things are starting to change. That could be for several reasons. After reading a couple thousand SF short stories over the last five years, I might be burning out on certain kinds of science fiction. And I’ve been having health problems, and I only have half the vitality I did just a few years ago. Meaning, I might not have the psychic energy to consume as much science fiction. Ultimately, I believe it’s because getting older is making me more down to Earth, changing what I want from science fiction. Then again, I might be getting old and just losing my patience.

For some of my Facebook comments, I’m starting to use the excuse that I didn’t like the story because it’s science fiction is too far away for me. By that I mean, the setting is too far away in space or time. I’ve never been much of a fan of fantasy, and science fiction that’s far away in space or time feels like fantasy fiction. Some of these stories are beautifully written, with fantastic world-building, and wonderful character development. I should like them just for the storytelling, but I don’t. I feel like I’m wasting my time. I just don’t care about characters that live in unbelievable settings.

I’m not sure this attitude is entirely consistent. I’ve been meaning to reread Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, which is set in the far future and is very fantasy-like. I’ve read it twice in the last half-century, and it’s a beautiful tale. Would I still like a book I loved before if its setting is too far away? I don’t know, but I’ll report if I ever reread it again. Right now, I tend to be forgiving of old science fiction. I’m harder on new science fiction.

I keep trying to read the New Space Opera writers, and I just can’t get into them. I want to read the Culture novels by Ian M. Banks. Theoretically, they’re something I think I’d love, but I just can’t get into them. They are too far away.

This week I started listening to The Mountain in the Sea, Ray Nayler’s first novel I believe. I’m loving it, but then its setting is very near, on Earth, in the foreseeable future. The basic plot is about discovering a species of octopus that are social, tool-making, and developing a language. Since I’ve recently read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery and watched My Octopus Teacher on Netflix, Nayler’s speculation is very realistic. And that makes his science fiction very near.

A second major theme of The Mountain in the Sea is artificial intelligence, and Nayler handles it in a very realistic way too, again making his science fiction very near. I’ve been admiring Nayler’s short stories for a while now, but sometimes they are about AI and downloading human minds into machines or people, and I find that science fiction too far away for me. In fact, I dislike the whole theme of brain downloading and uploading.

One thing Nayler does in his novel is quote two future nonfiction books: How Oceans Think by Dr. Ha Nguyen and Building Minds by Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan in chapter headings. These two authors are also characters in the book. This gives Nayler a clever way to infodump in his story and injects his story with philosophy and science.

There are several other themes in the novel that are valid to us today, slavery, over-fishing, exploiting the environment, loneliness, self-destruction on a personal and species level, and so on. This is a heavy book. I have a few hours left, so I can’t give away the ending, but I’m most anxious to find out what happens.

The Mountain in the Sea reminds me of other great near science fiction novels, such as Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, Timescape by Gregory Benford, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, and The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. It also reminds me of the popular science books by Dr. John C. Lilly, who was a famous dolphin researcher back in the 1960s, and who went on to explore states of inner space. I’m especially reminded of The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence and Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments. Books I read when I was young that has made me think about some of the things which Ray Nayler is making me think about again now that I’m old. It’s interesting that in the 1960s we thought dolphins were the closest intelligent species to us, but now we’re thinking it might be octopuses.

James Wallace Harris, 11/27/22

“Thy Rocks and Rills” by Robert Ernest Gilbert

How is it possible that I can rate a short story five stars out of five when it took 52 years to be anthologized for the first time? If countless editors passed it over for decades while looking for good SF stories to reprint, how can it possibly be any good? The story I’m talking about is “Thy Rocks and Rills” by Robert Ernest Gilbert. Ever heard of it? Ever heard of Gilbert? I haven’t on both counts.

“Thy Rocks and Rills” was originally published in the September 1953 issue of If. The first time it was reprinted was in 2005 in The World Turned Upside Down edited by Jim Baen, David Drake, and Eric Flint. You can also read the story on Project Gutenberg.

The goal of that anthology was to collect the stories that got the three editors excited about science fiction when they were teens. David Drake gave “Thy Rocks and Rills” this introduction:

I can understand why Drake responded to “Thy Rocks and Rills” that way, but it wasn’t how I reacted.

I’ve owned The World Turned Upside Down for years but I’m just now getting around to reading it because the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction is discussing its stories every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

When I read “Thy Rocks and Rills” yesterday I just thought, “Wow, oh wow!” However, others in the group have not been so enthusiastic. And I can understand that.

I don’t believe fiction can be rated on absolute terms. In fact, my subjective ratings will change every time I reread a story. There are elements in “Thy Rocks and Rills” that would have made me dislike this story on other days, especially the talking bull and calves. Yeah, it has talking farm animals and mules with Appaloosa coloring. If you read the descriptions closely, the male fashions in this future are as gaudy as any Elton John or Prince wore on stage.

“Thy Rocks and Rills” is over-the-top. And it’s from 1953. But it’s also weirdly prophetic. Gilbert predicts a painfully hot future. One where toxic masculinity dominates and everyone is gun crazy. In Gilbert’s future, people are quick-tempered and ready to duel. And most women are condemned to conform to male expectations, making their bodies tiny and slender, staying in their place, and sticking to chirpy women’s talk. Although, some women are different and get into duels with men. The hero of this story is Stonecypher, and this is how Gilbert describes his wife Catriona:

The villain of the story is Dan who makes a legal proposition to Catriona that enrages Stoncypher:

Oh, but the way, the story has ornithopters. I did say it was colorful. The reason we have talking farm animals is because of mutations from radiation. Gilbert is protesting bomb testing. He’s also protesting bullfighting or any kind of arranged animal fights. “Thy Rocks and Rills” is quite woke for 1953. The world-building in this novelette is quite impressive. The basic plot involves Stonecypher getting in a dual and not knowing how to use a gun, and his talking bull wanting to go into the bullfighting ring.

The results were not what I anticipated but they were very satisfying. However, the ending is brutal, but David Drake has already warned us about that. I’m afraid most readers won’t like the ending, but I think it’s realistic. I overcame my dislike of talking animals because this story is gritty and dark, and we’re living in a gritty and dark age, but then so was 1953.

I’m quite fond of science fiction short stories from 1953, especially the grim ones:

  • “Lot” by Ward Moore
  • Deadly City” by Paul W. Fairman
  • “The Last Day” by Richard Matheson
  • “One in Three Hundred” by J. T. McIntosh
  • “A Saucer of Loneliness” by Theodore Sturgeon
  • “A Case of Consciousness” by James Blish
  • “Four in One” by Damon Knight
  • “DP!” by Jack Vance
  • “Imposter” by Philip K. Dick
  • “The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn
  • The Model of a Judge” by William Morrison

If you know these stories, you’ll understand why I now list “Thy Rocks and Rills” among my favorites of 1953. I linked to the two that are available on Project Gutenberg. Six of them are in The Great SF Stories 15 (1953).

After reading science fiction for sixty years I’m having trouble finding new science fiction that wows me. Reading “Thy Rocks and Rills” Saturday morning gave me the kind of surprises I keep hoping to find in science fiction but seldom do anymore. “Thy Rocks and Rills” is perfect for an anthology called The World Turned Upside Down.

However, I can completely understand if it doesn’t work for you. The success of a story depends largely on what the reader brings to the story. I believe I’m just as cynical now as Gilbert was in 1953 and that made the story work for me. I was tuned into where Gilbert was coming from when he wrote it.

James Wallace Harris, 10/30/22

“Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein’s third published story, “Requiem” (Astounding Jan. 1940) is a salute to science fiction fans, or at least that’s how I read it. John W. Campbell, Jr. thought it overly sentimental but decided to run it anyway to see what his readers thought. They didn’t seem to like it either. “Requiem” came in next to last in March’s Analytical Laboratory. “Requiem” even lost to “Robbie” by Isaac Asimov in 2016’s Retro Hugo Awards for 1941, and that’s another overly sentimental tale.

In both cases, my evidence isn’t reliable since the Analytical Laboratory is based on mentions in letters to the editor, which generally favor comments on the serials, and Retro Hugo award voters seldom read all the finalists. They tend to vote for their favorite authors. But it’s the evidence I got, and it’s evidence Heinlein used to measure his success at the time.

I love “Requiem”. It’s a solid, well-constructed story, with vivid characters and a satisfying ending, one with an emotional punch. The story is quite simple. D. D. Harriman is a rich old man who made his pile commercializing space travel. He contacts a couple down-and-out space jockeys, McIntyre the pilot, and Charlie the mechanic, about taking him to the Moon. Harriman has a weak heart and is legally forbidden to travel to space. Harriman promises to finance the whole deal and they get to keep the rocketship which would put them back into space too. The law was correct, Harriman couldn’t handle space travel, and he died right after they land on Luna. But he dies happy and satisfied.

I figured Harriman was a stand-in for Heinlein. Going to the Moon was Heinlein’s lifelong dream, even back in 1940. Heinlein uses Harriman again in 1950 for “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” I bet Heinlein cast himself as Harriman in his own Walter Mitty fantasies, at least until he created Jubal Harshaw. This quote from the story is Heinlein projecting his own personal feelings into the future:

“Captain, it’s the one thing I’ve really wanted to do all my life—ever since I was a young boy. I don’t know whether I can explain it to you, or not. You young fellows have grown up to rocket travel the way I grew up to aviation. I’m a great deal older than you are, at least fifty years older. When I was a kid practically nobody believed that men would ever reach the Moon. You’ve seen rockets all your lives, and the first to reach the Moon got there before you were a young boy. When I was a boy they laughed at the idea. 

“But I believed—I believed. I read Verne, and Wells, and Smith, and I believed that we could do it—that we would do it. I set my heart on being one of the men to walk on the surface of the Moon, to see her other side, and to look back on the face of the Earth, hanging in the sky. 

“I used to go without my lunches to pay my dues in the American Rocket Society, because I wanted to believe that I was helping to bring the day nearer when we would reach the Moon. I was already an old man when that day arrived. I’ve lived longer than I should, but I would not let myself die . . . I will not!—until I have set foot on the Moon.”

Heinlein, Robert. The Man Who Sold the Moon and Orphans of the Sky (pp. 292-293). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.  

William Patterson, Jr. documents two cases that showed Heinlein was an early supporter of space travel outside of science fiction.

Late in January Heinlein joined the new American Interplanetary Society that had been formed in December 1930 in New York, with fourteen charter members. Heinlein had membership number 22. He told people about it in the Navy—Buddy Scoles, especially—and found that he was considered something of a “goof” because rockets were “crazy Buck Rogers stuff”—toys, at best.12 The first bulletin he received from the society contained a report of a visit by French Academician Robert Esnault-Pelterie13 on January 27, 1931, saying he thought it might be possible to travel to the Moon and return as soon as fifteen years from now—1946.

Patterson, William H. . Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 (p. 148). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition. 

In 1934 after the American Interplanetary Society changed its name to the American Rocket Society. We need to remember, in the 1930s, there was very little rocket development, and Robert H. Goddard’s rockets barely got into the sky, much less leave the Earth. Heinlein had zeroed in on this industry at almost the beginning.

One day at the Denver Athletic Club when he was judging a fencing match, he met Robert Cornog, a young engineer working on Boulder Dam and about to apply for graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley; they found they had the same birthday, five years apart (Cornog was born in 1912)—and both had joined the American Rocket Society. They became friendly thereafter.

Patterson, William H. . Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 (pp. 166-167). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition. 

And the story, “Requiem” attacks one of Heinlein’s most hated foes, the Nanny State. Luckily, for us, Heinlein didn’t lecture about this but showed it. That’s why writing teachers always bitch about show don’t tell. And it’s the second reason why I admire this story because I did love the sentimentality for my first reason. I admire Heinlein most when he constructs a proper short story, and “Requiem” is one for sure.

Heinlein was an enigma. Throughout his life and work, he rebelled against excess control in the government, yet he worshiped the military way of life, which is extremely regulated. Heinlein’s characters love to follow the rules and find ways to skirt them. The illegal moon rocket site in “Requiem” was later reused in Rocketship Galileo.

But there is a third aspect to “Requiem” that I detect from reading about Heinlein. Heinlein tried his hand at politics in the mid-1930s. And one of the things I’m sure he learned was how to flatter the voters. I believe “Requiem” was a statement of Heinlein’s beliefs and a bit of flattery for science fiction fans. Heinlein was campaigning to be the leader of science fiction. To do that he had to impress the fans with his stories, and himself. This is my first bit of evidence:

They smoked in silence for a while, each thinking about the coming trip and what it meant to him. Old Harriman tried to repress the excitement that possessed him at the prospect of immediate realization of his life-long dream. 

“Mr. Harriman—” 

“Eh? What is it, Charlie?” 

“How does a guy go about getting rich, like you did?” 

“Getting rich? I can’t say; I never tried to get rich. I never wanted to be rich, or well known, or anything like that.” 

“Huh?” 

“No, I just wanted to live a long time and see it all happen. I wasn’t unusual; there were lots of boys like me—radio hams, they were, and telescope builders, and airplane amateurs. We had science clubs, and basement laboratories, and science-fiction leagues—the kind of boys who thought there was more romance in one issue of the Electrical Experimenter than in all the books Dumas ever wrote. We didn’t want to be one of Horatio Alger’s Get-Rich heroes either, we wanted to build spaceships. Well, some of us did.” 

“Jeez, Pop, you make it sound exciting.” 

“It was exciting, Charlie. This has been a wonderful, romantic century, for all of its bad points. And it’s grown more wonderful and more exciting every year. No, I didn’t want to be rich; I just wanted to live long enough to see men rise up to the stars, and, if God was good to me, to go as far as the Moon myself.” He carefully deposited an inch of white ash in a saucer. “It has been a good life. I haven’t any complaints.”

Heinlein, Robert. The Man Who Sold the Moon and Orphans of the Sky (pp. 300-301). Baen Books. Kindle Edition. 

Just before Heinlein wrote “Life-Line” he made contact with Los Angeles science fiction fans. This could have encouraged him to get into writing for science fiction magazines, or Heinlein might have been on a recon mission to get to know the fans. This is from the column “Far West Facts” in the Ad Astra #4, a Chicago fanzine published in November of 1939 by Farwest Jack Erman.

Then from the same column, in issue #5 dated January 1940, we get this tidbit.

I believe Heinlein was older than many of the LASFS fans, and he and Leslyn made an impression by writing up some fake news stories and having them printed as from the local paper. They also impressed the younger fans by hosting a meeting and being gracious and sophisticated hosts. These two instances were before “Misfit” would appear, and a couple of months before “Requiem” would hit the stands.

Heinlein had instant success with “Life-Line” but Campbell returned the first version of “Misfit.” And Campbell had been bouncing other stories Heinlein had been cranking out and so Heinlein was looking at other markets to sell them to, including Fred Pohl’s Astonishing Stories, a bottom-of-the-barrel market. My guess is he felt elated with “Life-Line” but then had a string of rejections, which blew his confidence, and Heinlein started studying the markets and fans. My guess is Heinlein wrote “Requiem” to endear himself to his audience. To show them he was one of them, and he believed in their cause.

Early fans were true believers in the potential of space travel. It’s almost impossible for people today to understand how the average American felt about science fiction. It was that “crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” And if you’ve ever seen a Buck Rogers serial, you’ll know what I mean. And rocket research in the U.S. was barely beginning. It wasn’t until the end of WWII when the world was shocked by atomic bombs and V-2 rockets that science fiction had any public validity. Science fiction fans felt they could see the future.

“Requiem” was Heinlein’s way of telling science fiction fans that they were special. When Heinlein wrote a letter thanking Campbell for buying “If This Goes On—” he submitted “Requiem” and said, “Enclosed is a short [“Requiem”]. I hope you like it. In a way, it’s my pet.”

Campbell bought it right away in August 1939, but said he didn’t like it, but would use it as an experiment to see if the readers would. But evidently, it didn’t go over like he expected. First, Campbell spoiled the story by adding four lines at the end that Heinlein thought completely spoiled the tone of the ending. They were:

Charlie looked toward the relaxed figure propped up on the bed of Lunar pumice, face fixed toward the Earth. "Well,' he grunted, "he hit the Moon—"

I only found one letter that mentions “Requiem.”

That was in the March issue. “If This Goes On—” started serializing in February, and that’s when Heinlein started getting some real notice in the letter column. But again, it was a serial, and they usually got the most attention. It also got him his first cover.

“Requiem” is one of my favorite Heinlein short stories, maybe second to my favorite, “The Menace From Earth.” However, that order might change as I haven’t read many of them for years, and might discover forgotten gems as I reread all of Heinlein’s short stories for this project. I believe Farah Mendlesohn also admired “Requiem” a great deal because she spent many pages in The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein discussing the story in her Rhetoric chapter. I would reprint it except its length would probably trigger a copyright violation, but I will copy the first two pages. Campbell wanted to reject “Requiem” because it was too sentimental, but Mendlesohn recognized sentiment as one of Heinlein’s major virtues as a science fiction writer:

As I reread Heinlein, I’m trying very hard to forget the older Heinlein that dominates my memories. We need to remember the young Heinlein. Actually, we need to picture Heinlein as he was when he wrote each story. Most readers expect a story to be self-contained and work as a stand-alone work of art. That’s fine for superficial enjoyment. But I see Heinlein as wanting to influence or even shape the future, and he used science fiction as his tool.

James Wallace Harris, 10/14/22

What Motivated Heinlein to Write Science Fiction?

To get the most out of my rereading Heinlein project, I figure I need to hold up on reading the stories and get an idea of why Heinlein wanted to write. There are two schools of thought on studying literature. One holds that a work of fiction must stand on its own. I can buy that. But second, believes in knowing as much as possible about the context in which the work was created. And I can buy that too. For my rereading Heinlein project, I’ve decided to get to know as much about Heinlein as possible and to study what others have written about Heinlein.

This effort is going to be rather haphazard because I don’t plan to devote all my time to studying and reading Heinlein. Nor am I scholarly or disciplined enough to systematically collect and analyze data. I shall alternate between reading about Heinlein, reading a story by Heinlein, and writing about my reaction to the two. I will probably revise what I blog as I go along and learn more.

Over the years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with reading Heinlein. As a kid, I wanted to grow up and be like him, a science fiction writer. He was my hero. But, by the time I graduated high school and started college, I realized Heinlein was on the far side of the 1960s generation gap. He was now the enemy. Heinlein was pro-Vietnam war. I was against it. Heinlein was in the Old Wave of science fiction writers. I sided with the New Wave writers. When I was young, Heinlein felt like a liberator of thoughts, but by my late teens, he seemed like an oppressor. What really turned me off to Heinlein was I Will Fear No Evil which came out in 1970. He had changed. But then, so had I.

My father died in 1970 when I was 18. We often locked horns over the same social and political issues that turned me against Heinlein. When I got older, I often wondered what my dad was really like because I eventually realized I had never gotten to know him. I had rebelled against his older self, and one I judged too quickly because I was young and impatient. I had no clue about my dad’s younger self. The same was true for Heinlein. Now that I’m old myself, I believe I need to go back and figure out these men. What did they originally want? I don’t have much evidence for who my father was, but I do for Heinlein.

While reading Heinlein’s early stories I get the impression he wasn’t like the other science fiction writers. I assumed he had grown up reading science fiction and science fiction was the obvious choice when Heinlein decided to make money by writing. Samuel Johnson is famous for saying, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but that doesn’t explain what they choose to write about. I’m starting to doubt if Heinlein was a trufan of science fiction because he had so many other interests. I wondered if he considered writing in other genres or even writing nonfiction? I know Heinlein read science fiction, but he also read lots of other kinds of fiction and especially nonfiction. Heinlein had diverse interests, and even though he read and wrote science fiction, and occasionally interacted with fandom, I’m not sure if he really thought of himself as a science fiction fan and writer.

All the details I cite below about Heinlein’s life come from Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 by William H. Patterson.

From 1925 to 1934 Heinlein’s goal was to be a naval officer. In 1934 he was forced to retire because of TB. This military experience provided great knowledge for his later writing career, but I don’t think he would have become a writer while in the Navy. Although he did get experience writing for his ship’s newspaper. Heinlein trained as an engineer at Annapolis and became a ballistic officer with special training on a new computing machine. Heinlein like doing.

In the 1920s Heinlein started reading science fiction when The Skylark of Space was serialized in Amazing Stories. Over the years he read various SF magazines, but I don’t know how often. Heinlein was widely read in other areas. But most writers end up writing what they like to read, so I assume Heinlein had a science fiction addiction too.

In 1930 Heinlein became the 22nd member of The American Rocket Society. Right from the beginning, they were thinking about traveling to the Moon. Quite a few of Heinlein’s stories were set on the Moon.

In 1932 Heinlein met and married Leslyn MacDonald, who was 26, and he was 23. Leslyn had a master’s in philosophy, was very liberal politically, acted in local theatrical productions, directed workshops in experimental theater, was a published writer, had a job as Assistant Director of the Music Department at Columbia Pictures, and maybe even did some script doctoring for them. The Heinleins had an open marriage, and belong to nudist colonies in Colorado and California. Leslyn was an equal partner, even though she was probably better educated, smarter, and far more philosophical. And she probably had more worldly experience. Leslyn also had an interest in mystical and spiritual traditions, and her mother was a Theosophist. Heinlein read to her The Time Stream by John Taine which was being serialized in Science Wonder Stories (December 1931- March 1932). She got him to read Tertium Organum by P. D. Ouspensky, a student of George Gurdjieff. Leslyn had a tremendous impact on Heinlein becoming a science fiction writer, and even the subjects we wrote about. At the time both were left-leaning socialists who shared progressive political ideas and New Age and occult philosophies.

Heinlein’s ambition after leaving the Navy was to start on a master’s and work up to a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy at Caltech. Unfortunately, at the time he graduated from the Navy college at Annapolis, it didn’t confer bachelor’s degrees, so he couldn’t go directly into graduate school. If he could have followed this path he might have eventually become an SF writer on the side, but I tend to doubt it. Again, Heinlein’s drive was to do. However, the failure to become a scientist seems to be a common trait among science fiction writers.

Next, Heinlein and Leslyn threw themselves in the 1934 election for California’s governor. The Heinleins backed Upton Sinclair, the famous muck-raking writer and socialist turned democrat to run for governor of California. The Republicans launch an all-out smear campaign against Sinclair. This taught Heinlein a lot about dirty politics. After Sinclair lost, he pushed ahead with EPIC (End Poverty in California) and the Heinleins joined that crusade. They worked with Sinclair and got to know him, and Sinclair admired their dedication to the cause and put Heinlein in some higher-up positions. Heinlein got to work with Oakies and immigrants, as well as Hollywood star do-gooders. He saw the horrors of how the poor were treated. Heinlein even ran for a local position and lost, but learned a great deal about grassroots politics. All of this was grist for the meal of his first novel, For Us, The Living. Heinlein had gotten more writing experience working on EPIC publications. That experience was starting to add up.

The Heinleins had bought a small house in Laurel Canyon, but one they really couldn’t afford on just his military retirement paycheck. Heinlein’s health depended on a low-stress life, so he couldn’t handle regular work. This is when he decided to try writing for a living. He wrote For Us, The Living, but it failed to sell. That novel really wasn’t science fiction, even though it was about the future. It was Heinlein presenting ideas on how to create a better America. The novel promoted concepts like guaranteed incomes and psychiatric rehabilitation instead of prison for criminals. Heinlein could have become a nonfiction writer instead of a fiction writer. This explains why there is so much infodumping, lecturing, and even preaching in his books.

There was practically no science fiction being published in book form in the 1930s. Heinlein wanted to be a futurist, but they didn’t exist back then. Being an officer in the Navy, or a politician meant being a leader, a man of action, and a doer. I felt from the biographical material I’ve read, that Heinlein wanted to lead, influence, build, and especially, invent. However, he was out of options. Maybe he could at least be an influencer by writing.

All along, Heinlein had been reading science fiction, but I’m not sure how much. When he sold “Life-Line” to Astounding for $70, he discovered he had a platform for his progressive ideas and a way to pay his mortgage. John W. Campbell, Jr. had higher ambitions too. Both men wanted to do something real but found their niche in writing and publishing fantasies about the future.

As I reread Heinlein’s fiction I need to remember what Heinlein really wanted. I’m sure this bled out in his stories. Samuel Goldwyn is famous for a quote he probably didn’t say, “If you have a message, call Western Union.” Heinlein always had a message. Sometimes I’ve held that against him, but I realize now, all the best stories do have a message.

Some fiction is just a story. Something entertaining to occupy your time. But all the best writers have something to say. The true art of fiction is to communicate a great deal without the reader feeling they are being lectured.

In judging Heinlein’s stories as I read them, I need to decide how well he wove his message into his fiction. I need to come up with a method to evaluate stories on several levels at once. But that’s another essay.

James Wallace Harris, 10/8/22

“Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein

“Misfit” (Astounding, Nov. 1939) was Heinlein’s second published story and his first about space travel. It’s also his first work of juvenile fiction, or what we call YA today. Heinlein renamed FDR’s New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) the Cosmic Construction Corps for this future space adventure. I thought that was a really neat idea. And Heinlein created one of his favorite characters, Andrew Jackson Libby, who would reappear in Methuselah’s Children in 1941, and yet again in four of Heinlein’s 1970s and 1980s novels. Eventually, Libby would become a woman, Elizabeth Andrew Jackson Libby, but we won’t get into that for a very long time. Some fans even consider Max Jones of Starman Jones a repackaging of the Libby character, but I don’t.

I never liked the way Heinlein reused his characters because he eventually turned characters I loved into characters I hated. But that’s another subject to deal with in future essays.

The plot of “Misfit” isn’t very complicated. Libby is a young man who we follow into space. Like many of the boys on the ship, Libby experiences space sickness at first but eventually adapts to living in free fall. His crew arrives at a small asteroid called HS-5388, or just Eighty-Eight. Their job is to build habitats and rocket engines into the rock. Their goal is to reposition the asteroid into an orbit between Earth and Mars to make it into an emergency shelter for space travelers.

There’s little conflict or drama in the story. The only surprise in the story is we learn that Libby has a savant’s ability for mathematics, and saves the day when their “computer” conks out. Heinlein calls Libby a lightning calculator and gives him the nickname “Slipstick” – a slang term for a slide rule. In this1939 story, the word computer was not used. They called their computer an “integral calculator.” Boy, wouldn’t Heinlein have wowed us today if he had imagined a handheld calculator instead of a slide rule? (I loved using my slide rule in my math classes back in the 1960s and 1970s. I wish I had kept it.)

This is why I said in my review of “Life-Line” that I thought “Life-Line” was a much better story than “Misfit.” In “Life-Line” Heinlein gets us hooked right away on whether or not Hugo Pinero’s invention is real, and the whole story focuses on that plotline. “Misfit” is a story where this happens, then this happens, and then another thing happens until we reach an end. It’s still a good story, but it doesn’t have a tight plot. Even the dramatic scene of Libby saving the day when putting the asteroid into its new orbit isn’t done with much drama. Still, the “Misfit” is readable and likable, but its deadpan style makes me think of the old TV show Dragnet.

Heinlein had a side to him that just enjoyed explaining how things worked. My favorite part of the story was Heinlein showing us what weightlessness would be like. I thought he got it very right for 1939. And I checked to see if he hadn’t updated the story later, but he hadn’t. I don’t know if any writer back then worked out what living in microgravity would be like. I was very impressed. They call Libby Pinky, I guessed because of his red hair and complexion.

The ship’s loudspeaker blatted out, “All hands! Free flight in ten minutes. Stand by to lose weight.” The Master-at-Arms supervised the rigging of grab-lines. All loose gear was made fast, and little cellulose bags were issued to each man. Hardly was this done when Libby felt himself get light on his feet—a sensation exactly like that experienced when an express elevator makes a quick stop on an upward trip, except that the sensation continued and became more intense. At first it was a pleasant novelty, then it rapidly became distressing. The blood pounded in his ears, and his feet were clammy and cold. His saliva secreted at an abnormal rate. He tried to swallow, choked, and coughed. Then his stomach shuddered and contracted with a violent, painful, convulsive reflex and he was suddenly, disastrously nauseated. After the first excruciating spasm, he heard McCoy’s voice shouting. 

“Hey! Use your sick-kits like I told you. Don’t let that stuff get in the blowers.” Dimly Libby realized that the admonishment included him. He fumbled for his cellulose bag just as a second temblor shook him, but he managed to fit the bag over his mouth before the eruption occurred. When it subsided, he became aware that he was floating near the overhead and facing the door. The chief Master-at-Arms slithered in the door and spoke to McCoy. 

“How are you making out?”  

“Well enough. Some of the boys missed their kits.”  

“Okay. Mop it up. You can use the starboard lock.” He swam out.  

McCoy touched Libby’s arm. “Here, Pinkie, start catching them butterflies.” He handed him a handful of cotton waste, then took another handful himself and neatly dabbed up a globule of the slimy filth that floated about the compartment. “Be sure your sick-kit is on tight. When you get sick, just stop and wait until it’s over.” Libby imitated him as best as he could. In a few minutes the room was free of the worst of the sickening debris. McCoy looked it over, and spoke: 

“Now peel off them dirty duds, and change your kits. Three or four of you bring everything along to the starboard lock.” 

At the starboard spacelock, the kits were put in first, the inner door closed, and the outer opened. When the inner door was opened again the kits were gone—blown out into space by the escaping air. Pinkie addressed McCoy, “Do we have to throw away our dirty clothes too?” 

“Huh uh, we’ll just give them a dose of vacuum. Take ’em into the lock and stop ’em to those hooks on the bulkheads. Tie ’em tight.” 

This time the lock was left closed for about five minutes. When the lock was opened the garments were bone dry—all the moisture boiled out by the vacuum of space. All that remained of the unpleasant rejecta was a sterile powdery residue. McCoy viewed them with approval. “They’ll do. Take them back to the compartment. Then brush them—hard—in front of the exhaust blowers.” 

The next few days were an eternity of misery. Homesickness was forgotten in the all-engrossing wretchedness of spacesickness. The Captain granted fifteen minutes of mild acceleration for each of the nine meal periods, but the respite accentuated the agony. Libby would go to a meal, weak and ravenously hungry. The meal would stay down until free flight was resumed, then the sickness would hit him all over again. 

On the fourth day he was seated against a bulkhead, enjoying the luxury of a few remaining minutes of weight while the last shift ate, when McCoy walked in and sat down beside him. The gunner’s mate fitted a smoke filter over his face and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply and started to chat. 

“How’s it going, bud?” 

“All right, I guess. This spacesickness—Say, McCoy, how do you ever get used to it?” 

“You get over it in time. Your body acquires new reflexes, so they tell me. Once you learn to swallow without choking, you’ll be all right. You even get so you like it. It’s restful and relaxing. Four hours sleep is as good as ten.” 

Libby shook his head dolefully. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.” 

“Yes, you will. You’d better anyway. This here asteroid won’t have any surface gravity to speak of; the Chief Quartermaster says it won’t run over two per cent Earth normal. That ain’t enough to cure spacesickness. And there won’t be any way to accelerate for meals either.” 

Libby shivered and held his head between his hands.

Heinlein, Robert A.. Revolt in 2100 (pp. 191-193). Spectrum Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

You can compare the current Kindle edition to the 1939 magazine edition:

This is pretty amazing when you think that most Americans at the time only knew science fiction from Buck Rogers and Flash Gorden newspaper comic strips, radio shows, and serials. But even in the hardcore science fiction of Astounding Science-Fiction, I just don’t remember reading anything from that era that dealt with this kind of realism. Over the years I’ve paid attention to illustrations of free fall in old science fiction magazines, and one of my favorites is the July 1941 cover of Cosmic Stories.

A fun essay to write for the future would be chronicling the history of how writers imagined weightlessness in space. I think even 19th-century writers knew about it, but I just don’t think any writer dealt with space sickness before. If you know otherwise, leave a comment.

Another example of Heinlein just explaining things is when he tells us how they found the asteroid:

Locating one asteroid among a couple of thousand is not as easy as finding Trafalgar Square in London—especially against the star-crowded backdrop of the galaxy. You take off from Terra with its orbital speed of about nineteen miles per second. You attempt to settle into a composite conoid curve that will not only intersect the orbit of the tiny fast-moving body, but also accomplish an exact rendezvous. Asteroid HS-5388, ‘Eighty-eight,’ lay about two and two-tenths astronomical units out from the sun, a little more than two hundred million miles; when the transport took off it lay beyond the sun better than three hundred million miles. Captain Doyle instructed the navigator to plot the basic ellipsoid to tack in free flight around the sun through an elapsed distance of some three hundred and forty million miles. The principle involved is the same as used by a hunter to wing a duck in flight by ‘leading’ the bird in flight. But suppose that you face directly into the sun as you shoot; suppose the bird can not be seen from where you stand, and you have nothing to aim by but some old reports as to how it was flying when last seen?

Heinlein, Robert A.. Revolt in 2100 (p. 193). Spectrum Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

Where did Heinlein learn this? Were there popular science books that speculated on space travel back then? Or did he just imagine it? Later on in the story, when they are trying to position the asteroid in its new orbit, we get a lesson on celestial mechanics. I believe Heinlein was a ballistics officer when he was in the Navy, so that makes sense. And I believe he was an amateur astronomer. Heinlein loved to have his characters use mathematics, and I remember Heinlein in interviews telling how he and his wife would get out butcher paper and calculate orbits for his stories.

As a kid, Heinlein made me want to study math and science. I wished I could have been like Kip Russell in Have Space Suit–Will Travel who applied himself vigorously with disciplined self-study. I can say Heinlein made me wish that about myself, but I never did. I took a bunch of math classes, but I only applied myself in a half-ass fashion. I also bought a telescope and read popular science books, but I just never worked hard at learning what Heinlein expected of his characters. As I got older, I even wished I could live my life over so I could be more like the characters in Heinlein’s juveniles. When I retired, I even planned to study math again, and go back to college and get a master’s in computer science. I didn’t. I bought a bunch of math books and realized I had forgotten nearly everything I had once known about mathematics. I got onto the Khan Academy website and started over with third-grade math. By the time I got to six-grade math, I realized it just wasn’t going to happen. But that desire came from reading the Heinlein juveniles back in the 1960s.

“Misfit” came in dead last in the AnLab (Feb. 1940). But “Misfit” was in an issue with the Gray Lensmen serial. Evidently, the readers back then weren’t impressed with Heinlein’s speculations about space sickness like I am now. Maybe they never imagined space sickness and didn’t want to believe it. One reader in the letter column wrote to tell Campbell there were people who could math in their heads like Libby. But I didn’t find anyone else that got excited about the story.

Campbell does push Heinlein In Times To Come for his current serial If This Goes On—. That story might be considered Heinlein’s first novel, depending on its length in the magazine. When it was revised and slightly expanded for Revolt in 2100, it was considered a novel-length by ISFDB.

James Wallace Harris, 10/1/22

“Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein

The contrast is striking to read “Life-Line” right after reading and reviewing For Us, The Living. Did Heinlein hitchhike over to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for the 1939 Spring semester? “Life-Line” is a well-structured short story told dramatically, attributes sorely lacking in his trunk novel. How did he make such a quantum leap in writing?

“Life-Line” has a simple plot. Dr. Hugo Pinero invents a device that can give the date of a person’s birth and death. It’s based on the idea that every being exists in time as one long 4th-dimensional organism. Scientists think Pinero is a crackpot. When his machine works and causes havoc with the insurance industry they take him to court to get an injunction from using it. Pinero proposes to the court a scientific test which the judge accepts. One insurance CEO ordered a contract killing on Pinero. But before he dies we see one tear-jerking scene where Pinero tests a young married couple. The wife is pregnant. He refuses to tell the couple their results claiming his machine has become misaligned. He tried to keep them from leaving, but they eventually do and are killed outside his office by a speeding car. The scientists finally admit that Pinero’s technique was real when they find he accurately predicted his own death, and they destroy all the test predictions based on their own lives.

Farah Mendlesohn in her book, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein suggests Heinlein modeled his writing on the movies. I can believe that. The dialog in “Life-Line” feels like MGM films from the mid-1930s. It’s easy to picture Hugo Pinero played by Edward G. Robinson. Robinson sometimes played ethnic characters with accents, and Dr. Pinero has the same bellicose pugnacity that Robinson did in his movies. The gangster Mr. Bidwell of Amalgamated Insurance hired to kill Pinero comes across just like Humphrey Bogart in Kid Gallahad, even though Heinlein gives the gangster character just a couple of lines and a few words of description.

“Life-Line” also has several scenes that also remind me of 1930s movies, and they might be a clue to where Heinlein got his Public Argument writing technique I keep seeing in his stories. The story begins with Pinero arguing with a committee from the Science Academy. Next, he banters around with a group of news reporters. This reminds me of more than one Frank Capra film. Next, we see Pinero argue his case with a judge and lawyer for the insurance companies in court. I can see why he uses the Public Argument technique, it provides drama because it’s often used in movies, especially old movies from the 1930s, ones Heinlein should have seen — and studied.

I know when I first read “Life-Line” because in 1966 I bought a little Ace paperback for 40 cents, The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. I got the story again in The Past Through Tomorrow in 1967. It was first collected in Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon in 1950, but that was the year before I was born. By the way, my Baen Kindle edition of The Man Who Sold the Moon / Orphans of the Sky copy has an important missing section, the one where Bidwell hires the gangster. This time I listened to the Brilliance Audio edition of The Man Who Sold the Moon narrated by Buck Schirner — he did a fantastic job with 1930s-style voicing and accents.

To check the August 1939 Astounding edition to the current edition, I listened to the audio version while eye-reading a digital scan of the magazine. For the most part, the story was the same. Heinlein tweaked a few paragraphs to read better, and he changed one date from 1939 to 1951. I’ll try to use this comparison technique whenever I can. I wished I had used it on the few stories I’ve already reviewed.

The first time I read “Life-Line” I didn’t like the story. In fact, I remember being disappointed. I was used to Heinlein juveniles from Scribners and Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land from Putnam. And I just didn’t like the idea of a machine that predicts when people would die — it didn’t seem scientific. However, over the years, whenever I’ve reread “Life-Line” the story has gotten better and better. And when I listened to the audio version, with the dramatic reading, I’ve been very impressed with how well-written the story is, and how dramatic Heinlein made the scenes. I also thought the dialog was impressive too because it reminded me of MGM movie dialog. “Life-Line” isn’t James Joyce or even Ernest Hemingway, but it’s pretty damn good 1939 pulp fiction.

I just discovered there’s a student film version of “Life-Line.” It’s just now being released. This suggests the story still has impact and validity. That’s great.

“Life-Line” shows Heinlein could write. And write better than the average writer for science fiction magazines at the time. I have to wonder how much editing John W. Campbell did on the story. It seems whenever Heinlein isn’t reigned in, he pontificates. “Life-Line” does have a few short infodumps, but they are legit, fitting within the story’s logic.

I can’t tell what kind of impact Heinlein made with Astounding readers with his first story. He came in second in the AnLab poll, to a Lester del Rey story. Campbell did not single Heinlein out for any special praise in the editorial content, although in the AnLab (Oct. 1939) he did say there were three first-published writers in the August issue. I found two readers in the letter columns that mention the story. One wished for more stories like “Life-Line,” and the other said the story was well-written and dramatic and wished it had been novel length.

Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg picked “Life-Line” to include in their The Great SF Stories 1 (1939), but that was decades later. Alexei Panshin was rather hard on the story in Heinlein in Dimension. Of Heinlein’s first two stories, he thought “Misfit” the better of the two, and “Life-Line” wasn’t particularly good. I just read “Misfit,” and disagree. It’s a good story, but I think “Life-Line” is much better. It’s more unified. “Misfit” is a bit episodic.

“Life-Line” is not a favorite in the retrospective anthologies, most editors and readers prefer other Heinlein stories. I’m curious if it holds up with young readers today. It has an average of 3.91 stars out of 5 on Goodreads, with 906 readers rating it. 268 gave it 5 stars, and 338 gave it 4 stars. Not bad.

James Wallace Harris, 9/30/22