Science Fiction Themes: A Little Help?

Woman in front of Jupiter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SF Themes

James Wallace Harris, 10/18/19

 

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

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

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

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

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

Meg Elison trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, October 8, 2019

Who Were the Korlevalulaw?

Brian W. Aldiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is my original description of the story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In “Appearance of Life” Aldiss opens with:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

In my original essay I concluded:

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

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

Now for the second thoughts a decade later. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris

“Contagion” by Katherine MacLean

Contagion by Katherine MacLean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<SPOILERS>

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

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

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

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

</SPOILERS>

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris

“At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee

at_the_fall_by_eldarzakirov_dd572fh-pre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler Alert

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

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

James Wallace Harris

 

 

 

 

“In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras

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

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

Warning: This column contains mild spoilers

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

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

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

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

In Hiding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris

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

Serious Science Fiction

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers audiobook cover 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris

 

 

The Limits of Believability in Science Fiction

Skylark-Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/19/19

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper

Omnilingual-web

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnilingual-illo-1

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

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

JWH

 

 

“The Purple Death” by W. L. Alden

The Purple Death by W. L. Alden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, April 2, 2019