Philosophy & Science Fiction

Eric Schwitzgebel, Rich Horton, and Helen De Cruz are assembling an anthology of best philosophical science fiction in the history of the Earth. I’m looking forward to seeing what stories they select and reading them. Science fiction is often inherently philosophical, even though some stories like “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin are iconic for being intentionally philosophical.

I say science fiction is often inherently philosophical because it speculates about the future of our species. Humanity’s potential covers the spectrum from snuffing ourselves out to replicating our species across the universe like a virus.

For example, I just read “Founding Fathers” by Isaac Asimov from the October 1965 issue of Galaxy Magazine. It’s a sentimental story about five scientific explorers who are marooned on a planet that they thought would have an Earth like atmosphere, but tragically has enough ammonia in it to keep Earth plants from growing. All five scientists try to alter conditions to get edible plants to thrive but the explorers die before succeeding. The story is sentimental because Asimov lets us know their decomposing bodies will alter the course of this planet’s evolution and one day when humans rediscover the planet it will be ready for colonization.

Asimov is putting over the philosophical idea that humanity’s purpose is to spread across the galaxy. When I was twelve I traded religion for science fiction because I was gung ho for this kind of final frontier ideology. I felt we lived in a meaningless reality. Religion only offered a make-believe purpose. The idea that humans should conquer the galaxy offered a kind of existential meaning, or at least purpose, and that felt real and worthy. Thus science fiction became my Socrates.

Science fiction often seeks an existential or transcendental purpose for our existence. Science measures and statistically analyzes reality, philosophy uses logic and rhetoric to examine what science can’t. Science fiction when its good, tries to speculate about new grist for both mills: science and philosophy.

Science fiction, unfortunately, is amateur metaphysics because most science fiction writers are neither scientists or philosophers, and even when they are, science fiction is neither scientific nor disciplined philosophy.

In other words, science fiction likes to bullshit about the aspects of reality that science and philosophy haven’t nailed down as their own. This is delightfully entertaining, and even a satisfying substitute for science and philosophy, although, science fictional efforts often veer into fantasy and even flakiness. Still, for the philosophically and scientifically minded, who lack the will or ability to follow those more disciplined disciplines, science fiction can provoke endless concepts to ponder.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were amateurs themselves, because they lived before philosophy developed into a rigorous academic discipline. Their work sometimes veers into fantasy and flakiness too. Of course, many scientists as well as average folks, sneer at philosophers as being no better than those theists who count angels on pinheads. In terms of explaining reality, science is the only cognitive tool that consistently works. Theology was our original effort to explain reality, theorizing there were higher beings that created, controlled, and explained everything. Philosophers were humans with hubris that said, “Wait a minute, maybe that isn’t so. Maybe we can figure out reality on our own.” However, after a lot of endless conjecture science came into being which suggested “Why don’t we just observe and statistically decide by looking for consistency.”

Science can’t measure everything, leaving room to theological, philosophical, and science fictional speculation. To theorize that one day humans will create robots that are sentient has philosophical and even theological implications. Take that Asimov story, “Founding Fathers.” Shouldn’t we ask if it’s ethical to interfere in a planet’s evolution if it’s already evolved life? Asimov felt sentimentally proud for his fictional heros, but on the other hand, couldn’t they have theoretically killed off trillions of lifeforms, including intelligent beings, and beings with abilities we can’t imagine?

Most of the time science fiction speculates about the future. It imagines positive futures we could build for ourselves or extrapolates on negative trends that will create futures we should avoid. Science fiction speculates about technologies we could invent if they are scientifically possible. It also considers the aesthetics and ethics of such creations.

Science fiction is naturally ontological. The overwhelming intent of science fiction so far has been to suggest humans should explore space, even colonize the universe. That is a powerful philosophical purpose. But is it valid? We seldom question it. That’s why I was so impressed with Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. What if human can’t find purpose in the final frontier because we’re not adaptable to living anywhere but Earth?

In my old age I often question science fiction’s preoccupation with space exploration. What if the real philosophical question that science fiction should explore is: “What should humanity do with itself if it has to dwell only on the Earth for a few million years before becoming extinct?” That offers a greater challenge than the easier apparent purpose of the final frontier.

Didn’t Plato invent the utopia? Hasn’t science fiction claimed the utopia for its intellectual territory? How close can we get to a perfect society that won’t smother us if we continue to exist as a species for millions of year? This is why my favorite short work of science fiction is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. It’s about living with limitations, especially limitations that crush our spirit.

Science fiction has unlimited potential for exploring philosophical concepts. I’m looking forward to that new anthology.

James Wallace Harris, 10/19/20

Poking Fun at Science Fiction

I’ve been thinking about humor in science fiction. Generally, when we think of funny science fiction we think of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or stories by Robert Sheckley, R. A. Lafferty, or sometimes John Scalzi. But that’s science fiction having fun, what about when the genre is the butt of the humor? For example, westerns were skewered hilariously in Blazing Saddles. Galaxy Quest comes to mind, but then that film was roasting the genre out of fondness. I don’t think Blazing Saddles was an actual tribute to westerns in the same way Galaxy Quest was to science fiction. And what about self-deprecating humor in science fiction. I love recursive science fiction, but most of it celebrates the love of science fiction. I’m curious, do many recursive science fiction stories satirize the genre? I’m not going to answer that extensively in this essay, so don’t get your hopes up. But keep reading for an example of where I’m going.

My problem is sarcasm, satire, and subtle jabs go right over my head (my lady friends take advantage of this). I’ve always seen science fiction as mostly straight stories, well, at least I did. I’ve been reading hundreds of short stories lately, and I’m starting to get suspicious. Every once in a while I wonder if the author has both a pen and pin in hand. As a reader, I felt it was my job to suspend disbelief and let the writer put the story over. Now that I’m writing more about what I read, I’m wondering if I should always look below the surface for different motives the writer might have had for writing their story.

Take this story by Judith Merril, “The Deep Down Dragon.” I read it in Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. What’s unique about this anthology is each story is prefaced with the author’s memory of writing it.

Study that Emsh (Ed Emshwiller) painting above. At first I thought it a clever way to suggest action – a woman had been abducted from a space colony. But then I thought of something, and it became funny, But how could it possibly comic? Obviously a woman has been kidnapped by an alien on a colony world – that’s tragic. But if you know the history of science fiction magazines, and the cliches about covers with BEMs carrying off a scantily clad women, then you might think Emsh is playing around. In case you don’t know the lingo, BEM stands for bug eyed monster. Sex sells, even for science fiction magazines. Why did Emsh leave off the sexy woman and lower the sales of that issue? Because we expected a naked woman he thought might be funny to disappoint us. Sure, the painting is of a serious action scene, a man is running to rescue a woman. Maybe even the editor told him, “No babes.” But I like to think Emsh is also poking fun at science fiction (See the section below, Sex, Nudity, and Prudity in Science Fiction.)

But the ribbing of SF doesn’t end there. Judith Merril tells a serious story about a man rescuing a woman, but it’s a story within a story. In the tale psychologists are showing potential space colonists a scene they’re supposed to react to like an inkblot test. Essentially, the characters are reacting to an animated version of Emsh painting. First, we hear from the woman as she tried to explain why she wasn’t clothed, and why she was wearing high heels in a space habitat. Then we hear a man’s version of the story about how he carefully tracks down the woman and fleeing alien – but he’s obviously an intellectual who over prepares, over thinks, and is not a brawny action-oriented kind of guy. You get the feeling Judith is making fun of SF by having the woman be the stereotype of the woman on SF covers, and the man be the stereotype of SF readers – the ninety-pound weakling/egghead.

Now it’s completely possible to read this story straight, but I found it more fun to think Emshwiller and Merril were poking fun at science fiction. And I found the story I reviewed last time, “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” by Algis Budrys more admirable when I assume Budrys wasn’t completely serious either. That he was creating something over the top he knew fans would love. But I have to wonder, was Merril and Budrys also looking down on their readers? Or the genre? I imagine some writers do. And is knowing that important to the story? Sometimes the story is better when we’re in on the laugh.

Most humor is in good fun. For example, take these two covers I found when looking for the BEM covers. They play against type.

But when you start looking at covers on science fiction magazines, most of them are deadly serious sense of wonder scenes, or at least heroic action scenes. Generally, when we have humor in our genre, we’re still suppose to take the story seriously, or mostly serious. And by serious, I mean close to realistic. For example, the Little Fuzzy stories by H. Beam Piper have a realistic side, but Poul Anderson’s Hoka stories are just for fun.

As I breezed past hundreds of covers I was disappointed I didn’t find more clever satire. One of my favorites was for “The Pirates of Erastz” by Murray Leinster.

My all-time favorite SF novel is Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. I’ve always taken it completely straight, but the title is proof enough it’s a spoof and Heinlein was having fun. We science fiction true believers want our fantasies to be possible. No matter how absurd the situation gets in novels like Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. On one level I still take Sheckley’s story as something that’s possible in our infinite universe. But that requires some major suspension of disbelief.

When a book is obviously funny, we know we shouldn’t take it seriously. But do we always know when we’re reading is something serious? What if it’s sometimes supposed to be funny in places? Or just slyly satirical? I confess here I have been sorely lacking in the ability to spot humor in SF. But now that I’m thinking about it, I’m on the lookout.

Sex, Nudity and Prudity in Science Fiction

While researching this post I also encountered protests against the skimpily dressed women on covers. Over the years I’ve read memoirs by SF writers and readers about how the covers were so embarrassing that they had to hide their SF magazines. Some even tore the covers off them afraid their parents would see them.

Most fans loved sexy (sexist) covers (hey they were adolescent boys), but some didn’t. Here’s a few quotes given to me by a Mr. Lock regarding Weird Tales.

Oct 1933:
Here is a word about our covers, from Lionel Dilbeck, of Wichita, Kansas: “But whatever you do, do not continue to disgrace the magazine with naked women as you did in the June and July issues. If you think that the readers want them, have them vote on it. Personally I prefer any kind of monster that it is possible to think of rather than the sexy covers you have been having. And I really hate to tear the covers off the magazine, as that also spoils the looks of them.”

March 1934:
Clara L. Heyne, of St. Paul, writes to the Eyrie: “But when I take the magazine to work for reading at noon, I take the cover off because I know how the pictures of nude women affect those who don’t know WT.”

May 1934:
Joseph H. Heil, of New York, writes: “Why the nudes? I have noticed that the majority of your readers have resented your cheap-looking covers, and I wish to add my emphatic vote against the continuance of these trashy covers. Looking back on the old issues of WT, I find that they contained none of the nudism of your present-day frontispieces, but, notwithstanding, they were much more interesting, and illustrated the stories much more vividly than today. I was first attracted to your publication (several years ago) by an exciting cover depicting some weird plants over-running the earth. Many people are, I am sure, attracted likewise; but how can you expect to attract the attention of a lover of the weird by the portrayal of a wide-eyed nude, gracefully reclining on stones or silks, as the case may be? Why make your readers tear off your covers in order to take the magazine anywhere, outside the privacy of one’s own home, and even there one has to be careful not to let it lie around where it might be noticed.”

Here’s a quote sent to me by Paul Fraser from Marian Cox in Startling Stories, September 1951.

By the 1950s most SF magazines moved away from the damsel in distress in space. It’s rather amusing though, because those covers are now favorites on Facebook groups devoted to science fiction art.

James Wallace Harris. 10/16/20

Realism in Science Fiction

Our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction recently read “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” by Algis Budrys, originally published in the December 1961 issue of Galaxy Magazine. We’re group reading Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. Because of this I’ve been thinking about the legacy of Galaxy Magazine, science fiction from the 1950s and how realistically did science fiction fans see the future.

So far “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” hasn’t found many admirers in our group, although the anthologist Rich Horton considers it one of his all-time favorite stories. My taste in SF often overlaps with Rich. I found the story to be compelling, thought provoking, not quite a classic, but unbelievably unrealistic.

I’ve read many books about science fiction of the 1940s, which older fans call The Golden Age of Science Fiction. John W. Campbell, Jr. was given most of the credit for this golden age because as editor he discovered and nurtured Heinlein, Asimov, Van Vogt, Hubbard, and many other SF writers that became famous in the genre when Baby Boomers were growing up. Many young SF writers and readers today are rebelling against that era of science fiction, but I think even by the end of the 1940s the writers and readers of the day were also ready to change, and that’s why F&SF (1949) and Galaxy (1950) quickly became popular magazines. And I’ve been told by many readers of my Baby Boom generation that they considered the 1950s to be the real Golden Age of Science Fiction. Did science fiction become more realistic in that decade?

Even though “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” came out at the end of 1961, I’m considering it a reflection of 1950s science fiction. Like the two classic stories from 1950, “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith and “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber, they mark a new beginning by reacting to the previous decade.

I have written elsewhere that I felt 1940s science fiction could be characterized by a yearning for transcendence. Campbell, Heinlein, and others expected mankind to evolve in the future, gaining mental and psychic powers that would help them conquer the galaxy. Reading “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” provided a kind of epiphany for me. It was wild, full of vitality, but ultimately discomforting because its lack of realism. Handling the fantastic in the same way superhero comic books handle reality. Is that the real legacy of 1950s SF?

Fiction has always had a strange relationship with reality and realism. I suppose we could say fiction has different levels of realism. By the way, I don’t mean to imply any artistic criticism to these various levels – at least for now.

  • Level 1 – Greek myths, superhero comic books, Bible stories, talking animal stories
  • Level 2 – Young adult or adult fantasy, science fiction
  • Level 3 – Science fiction that tries to be scientific
  • Level 4 – Most mundane genre fiction
  • Level 5 – Serious literature that’s mimetic

Unfortunately, much of science fiction swings the needle towards Level 1 rather than towards Level 5, even though science is in its label. “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” slams the needle over to 1 on the gauge. Is this good or bad? The story is fun. It’s a thrill ride. Should we even worry about it’s over-the-top fantastic elements?

I should warn you, I read “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” just after reading “The Boys Is the End of the Superhero As We Know It. And it’s about time.” That essay begins with “After two seasons of The Boys, I can say with roughly 85 percent confidence that Dr. Fredric Wertham was right.” I’ve got to admit that my confidence level is even higher, but then I’m prejudice against superhero comics. If you don’t know who Fredric Wertham is, read this. For most of my life I’ve had to accept the studies that say fiction, especially violent fiction, has no impact on the development of children, even though I find such results hard to believe. However, the years 2016-2020 makes me strongly wonder if Fredric Wertham wasn’t right all along. But I go further than Wertham, and wonder if science fiction and fantasy is dangerous too.

“Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” opens in the skyscraper office of Rufus Sollenar, a entertainment business titan. He’s looking out a floor to ceiling window contemplating his success in life. He believes his new product, EmpaVid, will dominate the market and guarantee success and riches for the rest of his life. EmpaVid is a television system that manipulates the emotions of the viewers. Sollenar expects EmpaVid patents to allow him to dominate the entertainment industry.

Sollenar wears utilijem rings that allows him to operate everything in his office with a wave of his hand. Budrys describes the scene quite dramatically, with Sollenar conducting the machines of his office with simple hand gestures, like a magical superpower. Still, it’s technology, making the story science fiction. Sollenar is smug and feels like he dominates the world when looking out his window down on the city.

Eventually, a Mr. Ermine forces is way into Sollenar’s office. An ermine is a weasel, and even Mr. Ermine dresses in rust colored garments, the color of a weasel. This is rather obvious, too much like a comic book villain. Galaxy Magazine was aimed at adults, and from what Budrys says in his memoir of working there, Horace Gold wanted it to be read by a wider audience than just the average young science fiction fan. I feel this aspect of the story counters that goal. But maybe I’m being too harsh.

Mr. Ermine is from the IAB, the International Association of Broadcasters. At first you think of him as a toady but eventually we learn he’s far more powerful, like an enforcer for the mob. Over the course of the story the IAB becomes more sinister, and suggesting Budrys wants us to believe it’s a secret cabal that manipulates the entertainment business, and will go to any length to get what they want. Again, this is painting reality with comic book strokes. People who love conspiracies will love this aspect of the tale.

After some heavy-handed info-dumping we get down to the conflict of the story. Mr. Ermine tells Sollenar that Cortwright Burr, a competitor, has gone to Mars and had the Martian engineers make him a device. The implication being that the Sollenar corporation and IAB are threatened.

We next see Sollenar acting like Spiderman climbing on Cortwright Burr’s corporate skyscraper. We are given some razzle-dazzle about the machinery that allows Sollenar to do this, but once again the story falls into comic book mode. There were many SF stories in the 1950s and 1960s about titans of industry at war with one another. Alfred Bester aided his characters in The Demolished Man with psychic powers, and Philip K. Dick wrote many stories of business power figures battling with reality-bending drugs and technology. The most famous novel of this sub-type was The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth, first serialized in Galaxy.

In the early 1950s there were dozens of science fiction magazines on the market, and hordes of prolific writers to fill their pages. Business in America was booming, and like the ambitious said to one another, “The sky’s is the limit,” meaning nothing is impossible. Often it feels like these science fiction writers also felt there were no limits, and SF readers will believe anything. This is why critics of the genre claimed science fiction was for gullible young males. But on the other hand, the stories had an excitement and energy that fans loved.

Reading “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” both annoyed and excited me. I’m torn by admiring Budrys flamboyant imagination and insulted that he thinks so little of my intelligence.

Sollenar enters Burr’s office like Neo in a scene from The Matrix, diving through a window with his pistol aimed, hitting the ground, and popping up. Sollenar fires and hits Burr with a blast of energy from his gun, throwing Burr’s body against the wall. Burr had been holding a golden ball when shot and had yelled a command at it just before he was hit. Burr, now a sack of broken bloody bones holds the sphere up and Sollenar blasts him again. Burr drops the ball and Sollenar goes after it but sees that Burr is still animated even though his face is blown away. Sollenar shoots him again. He then gathers up the ball, but seeing Burr still moving fires all his remaining charges into the body. Sollenar is so freaked out he leaves the ball. He then climbs out the window and gets into his spiderman suit, but sees Burr still trying to come after him.

Why didn’t Burr die. How could his body be so destroyed yet still move? Later Sollenar is back at his building with his girlfriend on the balcony, and the body of Burr shows up climbing the outside of the building. WTF? Sollenar crushes the gripping hand on the rim of the outside wall, and the body falls down to crash below.

This is like some supernatural horror film, or an EC Comic. It reminds me of the Marvel films of today, and why I don’t like them. I hate films that show extreme violence with the reality of The Three Stooges or Wile E. Coyote. But I keep reading. How can Budrys explain this to me?

The next scene has Sollenar going to the TTV Executives’ Costume Ball. Guess what, Curt Burr is there, dressed as a gallows bird. Not only does Budrys go for obvious symbolism, but he just flat out tells us. And guess how Sollenar is costumed? As a Medici. Is this story supposed to be a comedy? Is this story supposed to be a mad parody of the genre like the first version of Casino Royale made fun of James Bond movies? Have I been taking it too seriously, when it was meant to be a gag all along?

One reason I can’t stand superhero comics and movies is I can’t buy into their reality, I can’t suspend my disbelief to accept their obviously unreal premises. Is Budrys trying to get his readers to believe his story or is he satirizing the genre? Galaxy Magazine was known for its satire and human. Am I taking things to literal? Sarcasm often flies over my head, and satire often just seems stupid. Is Budrys secretly sneering at his reader?

If “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” was filmed it would look a Marvel film. Do fans of such film see them as satire? What are they poking fun of?

Sollenar now accuses Burr of buying immortality from the Martians. But what a horrifying kind of immortality, becoming a walking bag of broken bones and torn up flesh that can’t die.

Ermine now returns, also in costume, one which no one would take him for a man. Ermine even proves how inhuman he is, by showing Sollenar he has no feelings from his nerves. He feels no pain.

Sollenar learns that he must succeed or IAB will kill him. He takes a rocket to Mars. The trip must have lasted no more than what jet plane takes to get to a nearby city. More unreality. More comic book realism. And I should say, the realism level of Star Wars.

Sollenar violently ditches Ermine on Mars and heads out to find the Martian engineers. I did like the whole description of Mars, both the human and Martian cities and the Martians. Maybe that’s because I’ve always been a sucker for stories about Mars.

Sollener bargains to buy immortality like Burr, but it turns out Martians don’t have immortality to sell. What the Martians are selling is an illusion machine. It can make the irrational rational.

Now this would be hilarious if Budrys intended all along to make this a recursive science fiction story, poking fun at the genre. Judith Merril did that “The Deep Down Dragon” another story in the Galaxy anthology. But am I seeing SF humor too often? I get the feeling Budrys does want us to believe this wild adventure story just like Philip K. Dick often used techniques in his serious stories by having his characters confused by reality. I think, but not sure, that Budrys is pulling a PKD here. In a way, Cort Burr prefigures Palmer Eldritch. So maybe PKD 1960’s work was inspired by Budrys?

If I read this story right, Cort Burr was never shot. Sollenar just believed he was. And to escape Ermine who is waiting to shoot him, he buys a Martian machine to give Ermine the illusion that his nerves function again, and that he killed and buried Sollenar.

Ultimately, this is a fun story, even though it mainly works at Level 1 reality. And as long as we accept it as creative fun there is no harm in playing make believe. But we still have to consider the article about the danger of superhero stories. Has generations absorbing anti-reality fiction from comics, science fiction, television, movies, video games affected them? Would society be saner and wiser if its citizens only consumed Level 4 and Level 5 fiction?

Contemplate all the news stories you’ve encountered in 2020. Too much of it feels like people are trying to live Level 1 reality as being real. Think about those men who planned to kidnap a governor believing they were freedom fighters. Think about Qanon believers. Think about all the crap stories people believe today. Did science fiction contribute to the current climate of anti-science? We aren’t living in a satire although it sure feels like one. And that’s painful!

Does consuming Level 1 fiction create a Level 1 society? We can claim Bible stories and Greek mythology proves we’ve been consuming such fiction for thousands of years. Would going cold turkey on such fiction help? Or do we consume Level 1 fiction because the average human can only comprehend reality with Level 1 thinking?

This is a lot of philosophical navel gazing to get from one minor SF story from 1961. But, I’ve got nothing better to do. It is 2020, you know.

Additional Reading

James Wallace Harris, 10/12/20

The Time Travelers Who Visit Jesus

Our Facebook book club has just read the 1966 novella version of “Behold the Man” by Michael Moorcock which has made me wonder about time traveling back to A.D. 29 to find Jesus. Wouldn’t it be marvelous is we could study history with a time machine? Actually, what we really need is a time viewer, which was featured in an earlier story the group read, “E for Effort” by T. L. Sherred. That would eliminate any problem with temporal paradoxes.

Moorcock later expanded his story into a 1969 novel that I hope to read someday. I was impressed with the novella this reading because of how much history Moorcock put into the story. When I first read the novella back in the 1960s I didn’t know that history, but since then I’ve read eight books by Bart D. Ehrman about uncovering the historical Jesus through scholarship and not theology. I’ve also read Zealot by Reza Aslan that uses historical studies about Jesus to create a novel-like narrative of his life. Reading these nonfiction books is about as close as we can come to visiting Jesus with a time machine – and that’s only speculation. But then we have science fiction, which is another kind of speculation, a fun kind.

Between the time “Behold the Man” was published in 1966 and Behold the Man in 1969 another science fiction novel appeared about traveling back in time to visit Jesus, The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd. This is pretty much a forgotten science fiction novel but one I keep remembering. What’s fascinating about reading these two stories is comparing Moorcock’s and Boyd’s science fictional approach to dealing with Jesus. However, I can’t tell you why without spoiling the story.

I wrote a long review for my personal blog back in 2012 that avoids spoilers up to a point, and then gives a warning not to read after that. I thought I’d just reprint it here. It might encourage people to try both books. I’m also curious how other science fiction writers used Jesus in a time travel tale. Post comments about the ones you’ve read.

Forgotten Science Fiction: The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd

Every year thousands of SF and fantasy books get published, but few are reviewed, not many more become popular, and damn few get remembered.  Ten years out, most books are out-of-print and forgotten.  How many books can you remember from 2002?  And if we’re talking fifty years down the timeline, well it’s almost a miracle for a book that old to still be read, much less remembered and loved.

I discovered science fiction in the 1960s, in my teens, and like most people reading their first hundred SF titles, they all seemed so damn far out!  Now decades later, I doubt my memories of those first impressions.  So, when I have a little extra reading time, I order a book from ABE Books based on those dying memories and reread it.  I’ve now reread many of my teenage classics and a majority of them don’t hold up.

Most memories are fleeting, and my memory of The Last Starship From Earth was next to nothing.  All I remembered was a favorable impact.  Just a lingering sense of it being a standout read for 1968 or 1969.  To test that memory I recently bought and reread The Last Starship From Earth.  Sad to say, it was a discard from the Columbus Public Library, a common practice for books that don’t get checked out.  Not a good sign.  The last English reprint of this novel was in 1978.  It’s last edition was in French, in 1995.

The-Last-Starship-From-Earth-by-John-Boyd

The Review

The Last Starship From Earth is a dystopian novel set in 1968 and 1969, but not the 1968 and 1969 that I remember, or lived through.  In the world of this story, Jesus did not die on the cross, but was killed leading an assault on Rome.  He was the Messiah that people expected.  The government of John Boyd’s world is a global government run by Christians along “scientific” lines, where psychologists and sociologists in conjunction with the Church and an AI Pope rule the world.  People marry and mate because of their genes, sort of like the film Gattaca, and the hero of our story is Haldane IV, M-5, 138270, 3/10/46, a math student of great promise, being the fourth in line of great mathematicians.  Unfortunately Haldane gets the hots for Helix, a mere poet.  By law and social custom Haldane is expected to have nothing to do with her, but as you’d expect he falls in love with her.

Haldane concocts a ruse to justify more meetings with Helix by studying Fairweather I, a 19th century mathematician who also wrote poetry.  Much of the first half of the book deals with pseudo-academic studies from this alternate history.  Boyd is creative in his steady flow of ideas and concepts, but there’s little emotion in the story.  It’s somewhat Heinlein-esque, in it’s attitude and world building, but lacks the charm of Heinlein’s best prose.

Now, this quick summary is enticing, and I would like to report that The Last Starship From Earth is a forgotten classic, unfortunately, that’s probably not true.  I enjoyed the book, but only as a quick read.

Surfing the web I’ve found few other reviews of this novel, and although I’ve found people who claim it’s their favorite book, I also found people that thought it ho-hum.  Now, I’ve got to admit it has a humdinger of an ending, almost as startling as the film The Sixth Sense, but I’m not sure this last minute thrill pays for the reading the whole book.

I found the love affair of Haldane and Helix no more believable than Romeo and Juliet and far less exciting.  John Boyd does write well, but the plot is mostly intellectual, about the dystopian society, and its complications.  The book is only 182 pages, and the whole tale feels rushed.  Boyd staked out a solid gold claim but never mined it.

Analysis with Spoilers

The trouble with many SF novels, especially those written back in the 1950s and 1960s, was they were written very fast, and they were about ideas and not characters.  John Boyd has actually written a very ambitious novel by creating an alternative history of Jesus, but he never fleshes it out, and most of the story is a setup for the surprised ending.  The scope of the book is epic, the line by line writing reasonably entertaining, but the overall feel of the book is thin.

Haldane and Helix are discovered, and the middle part of the book is a trial that allows Boyd to work out the politics and legal system of this alternative reality, however, like the rest of this book, it’s rushed.  It’s padding.  That’s its downfall.  He has a big ending but it’s way bigger than the story.  To pad the story even more Haldane is sentence to exile on Pluto, which is called Hell.  There he meets Fairweather I and is reunited with Helix, who happens to be Fairweather’s granddaughter.  Fairweather needed a mathematician for his time machine, and Helix was sent to Earth to engineer the exile of a mathematician to pilot an experimental time machine.  In a very short time Fairweather makes Haldane immortal, tells him his new name is Judas Iscariot, and his mission is to go back in time to kill Christ.

Now if Boyd had spent a couple hundred pages recreating the Biblical world and shown how Haldane tracks down Jesus, we would have had a much better story.  But all of this was summed up in a short epilogue.  We are told Haldane captures Jesus and puts him in the time machine and sends him back, and the rest of the epilogue is about how he has relived the two thousand years to return to his own time and meet a girl that’s an awful lot like Helix, living in a future that’s much more like ours.  But did Haldane let Jesus die on the cross, or does he just disappear him from history?  Unless Haldane at least engineers a dying on the cross scene for history, we should not expect this timeline to be ours.

How do you plot a riveting novel with great characters based on the idea that Jesus didn’t die on the cross and the world became very different?  How do you tell the story twice?  Boyd really grabs a tiger by the tail and yells, “Look at me!”  And I think, “Cool!  Far out man!  But what are you going to do with him?”  He’s got to do more than just swing it around.  I’ll give Boyd a solid C for his world building, but they are only tantalizing sketches.

I really like this ending, but is it good enough to make The Last Starship From Earth a classic SF novel worth reading today?  I’ve linked several references to this book on the net and even though I can find fans of the book, I can find more people who think it sucks.  You’d think  Boyd Bradfield Upchurch, John Boyd’s real name, if he’s still alive, would arrange for his books to be reprinted as ebooks.  That certainly would make it easier for more readers to decide if The Last Starship From Earth is worth reading.

I’m afraid Boyd falls far short of classic standing.  The Last Starship from Earth is a good novel for science fiction historians to read, but it needed to be four or five times longer, more the size of Dune, to get the job done that Boyd outlined.  However, I’m not sure how he could have pulled off this big ambitious idea.

And is Boyd saying our history is the better timeline?  Why is his first timeline all that evil?  Is the freedom to fuck whoever you want the perfect ideal worth rewriting all of history?  Isn’t the more interesting story about a world where the promise of salvation and eternal life never happened?  Isn’t Boyd’s surprise ending really a cheat?

Time travel machines often ruins more stories than they’ve ever help.

Boyd has a three part story.  Life on Earth in an alternate timeline, life on Pluto, life on Earth in another timeline.  The story really isn’t about genetic breeding of humans like we see in Gattaca, or in Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon or Huxley’s Brave New World.  It’s about an oppressive government.  But does it deserve to be wiped out by time travel?

Here’s the thing, our 1968 was a horrible time for America, but should we send a man back in time to wipe it out?  Boyd wasn’t writing a protest novel like Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Nor did he write a novel that truly explored a timeline with a different Christ, which would have been ambitious enough.

Would The Last Starship From Earth been a better novel is it hadn’t used the time machine gimmick?  Not as it stands, but it potentially could have been.  I believe it’s a grave mistake for any alternate history novel is have a do-over.  Time travel is really a very dangerous concept to use in fiction.  Time travel is very hard to pull off.  The beauty of an alternative history novel is the alternative history.  Don’t add time travel.  This would take away Boyd’s surprise ending, but it would have meant he would have been forced to write a better novel.

I felt cheated when Helix shows up so easily on Pluto, in what at first appears to be a happy romantic ending, but then we’re thrown for another loop.  Haldane loses her again, only to find her again 2,000 years later.  Oh come on man, this horny-at-first-sight love isn’t believable.  Weren’t there no math babes for Haldane?  This really is a case of what you can’t have makes the heart grow fonder.  And neither Haldane nor Helix are all that interesting – if you want a great love story you have to have great lovers.

The powerful driving motive in Gattaca is that Vincent wants to go into space.  He wants to prove that he’s as good any genetically selected human.  The driving force of The Last Starship from Earth is Haldane wants to screw Helix.  Boyd doesn’t make it believable why his world outlaws sex, nor does he make it believable that Haldane and Helix are in big time love.  Hell, even the prosecutors of the story wink at him, and say why didn’t you use a condom and just screw her, implying this world does overlooks recreational sex, just not casual genetic mixing.  But then Boyd never explains why his world requires genetic  fidelity to specialties like mathematics and poetry.   In Gattaca we have the justification that their world doesn’t want naturals to pass on bad traits, but in Boyd’s world there is no reason to breed pure bred mathematicians.  Also, how many math geniuses does one world need?

John Boyd wrote just enough alternate history world-building to set up his surprise ending.  In essence The Last Starship From Earth is a O’Henry type story, and we now use those type stories as examples as how not to write a story.  However, The Last Starship From Earth suggests two possible storylines I’d love to read.  First, I’d love to read an alternate history where Christ was the Messiah that everyone was expecting.  Second, I’d love to read a time travel story about people having to learn what it takes to live in ancient Israel and track down Jesus.  Both would require a tremendous knowledge of real history.

JWH –5/28/12

JWH – 9/28/20

When Did E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” Become Science Fiction?

In 1909 E. M. Forster’s story “The Machine Stops” was published in the November issue of The Oxford and Cambridge Review. It is a dystopian tale about a future society run by a machine. Forster was replying to H. G. Wells novel, A Modern Utopia serialized in the Fortnightly Review in 1904 and 1905. Neither writer thought they were writing science fiction because, first, the term did not yet exist, and second, because Wells was promoting scientific socialism and Forster was protesting it. However, both stories had all the trappings of science fiction.

A Modern Utopia is seldom remembered by science fiction fans, but “The Machine Stops” is considered one of the classics of the genre, and often reprinted in retrospective anthologies of science fiction short stories. When did science fiction fans first discover “The Machine Stops” and claim it for the science fiction genre? And did E. M. Forster who lived until 1970 ever know this?

Many within the genre consider science fiction originating with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, first published in April 1926. Gernsback first called these stories scientifiction, but within a few years coined the term science fiction. That term “science fiction” didn’t become widely known outside of the genre until the late 1940s and early 1950s. See my essay, “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”

Hugo Gernsback is also credited with creating science fiction fandom by encouraging readers of the stories in his magazines to communicate in his letter column. Eventually, he organized the Science Fiction League in the April, 1934 issue of Wonder Stories. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s science fiction developed as a genre, and readers began calling themselves fans and developed a subculture they called fandom. You can read more about both in these two wonderful books.

However, what do you call stories that use the techniques and themes of science fiction published before Gernsback? What do you call readers who loved these kinds of stories before fandom? Science fiction has always been written by writers who work outside of the genre – before and after it was established. And there were readers before the genre existed that loved stories we now call science fiction.

Science fiction has been laying claim to these proto-SF stories for decades. Gernsback had to reprint Poe, Verne, and Wells in the early issues of Amazing Stories because he didn’t have enough new science fiction to start his magazine. Interestingly, he didn’t reprint “The Machine Stops.” Nor did any of the other pulps that eventually began reprinting classic fantasy and science fiction.

When I reread “The Machine Stops” for a Facebook group that discusses science fiction short stories, I noticed something interesting. Forster describes a future where humans have withdrawn from the surface of the Earth, but automatic aerodromes run by the machine keep the flying machines going on their old routes. This was very reminiscence of “Twilight” by John W. Campbell, Jr., where a time traveler visits a far future Earth and the people have abandoned cities that still function by automatic machinery, including air fields. This made me wonder if Campbell had read Forster’s story. It also made me wonder just when did science fiction fans discovered “The Machine Stops.”

The internet is a wonderful tool for doing such research. We know that “The Machine Stops” was originally published in a 1909 journal. I quickly found out it was reprinted in a collection of E. M. Forster’s stories called The Eternal Moment and Other Stories in 1928. “Twilight” was first published in 1934, so theoretically Campbell could have read it. However, I can find no evidence that he had, nor could any of my online chums who were helping me.

Then, when did fandom discover “The Machine Stops” and begin calling it science fiction? There is a wonderful tool called the Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB.org) that indexes all it can about published science fiction. It’s entry for “The Machine Stops” is quite revealing, giving a listing of all the times it was reprinted in works related to science fiction.

The first SF anthology that reprinted “The Machine Stops” is The Science Fiction Galaxy edited by Groff Conklin in 1950, and it just so happens I have a copy. It’s a tiny hardback the size of a paperback. Conklin was an early anthologist of science fiction, assembling over forty of them. And there is a clue here to our mystery. In his first three large anthologies most of the stories he collected were from the science fiction pulp magazines. In The Science Fiction Galaxy he begins with three stories that existed before the genre emerged, “The Machine Stops” (1909) and “As Easy as A. B. C.” (1912) by Rudyard Kipling, and “The Derelict” (1912) by William Hope Hodgson. In his previous anthology he had found two pre-genre stories. (Joshua Glenn in recent times has done extensive discovery of stories from this era which he calls Radium Age Science Fiction.)

Conklin never searched hard for these older stories, but other antologists did. See my essay “19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories.” There were plenty of stories published before science fiction was known as a genre that could be called science fiction. I’ve often wondered about the readers who read them. It’s one thing to get a sense of wonder from science fiction in the 20th century, because we had rockets, robots, and atomic bombs to validate our genre’s tales, but can you imagine what readers in the 19th and early 20th century felt when reading their version of science fiction stories?

Scholars have tracked down these old stories, but I’ve never read anything about the readers. I’d love to know the reactions. Did they ever write letters to the editors, or reviews, or even include their thoughts in memoirs and diaries? I can’t find them.

Had science fiction fans discovered “The Machine Stops” before Groff Conklin in 1950? That’s harder to track down but I’ve gotten some help from chums on the net. I believe the trail begins with The Eternal Moment and Other Stories published in 1928. One of those chums named Bill, found these reviews for me:

From an unsigned 13 May 1928 review in the Hartford Courant of The Eternal Moment:
"Here are six strange and striking tales by Mr. Forster, one of the most individual and distinguished of contemporary British novelists . . . "The Machine Stops," which opens the volume, is one of those prophetic fantasies belonging roughly in the same class with certain well-known stories of H. G. Wells. "The Machine Stops" is a ghastly conception, its period set at some immeasurably distant point in an assumed future, when the human race dwells in underground shelters and individuals very seldom see one another; horrible, fantastic and sinister as this story is, it simply follows out, at least along certain lines, the prophecies lately revealed to us in the blinding flash-lights of the Today and Tomorrow Series, and we have already, now in our own existent daily life, attained to some of the wonders which form the abhorrent commonplaces of life in Mr. Forster's fantasy. It may be noted that the fantasy is essential and bitter satire, and that "the machine" does not satisfy every man."
Frank Weir, reviewing in the Decatur IL Daily Review, 8 Jun 1928:
" "The Machine Stops" tells the story of a world inside the earth. Life is controlled by a machine. Forster turns ironical as he presents his travesty on what may be the final result of an age entirely dependent on mechanical genius. Fine writing around an exceptional idea marks this tale as a gem."
John F. Geis in The Brooklyn NY Times Union, 3 Jun 1928:
" "The Machine," which begins the book, is acknowledged an output of two decades ago and portrays the millennium of the electrical age even to the mechanical doctor, but doesn't it sound a bit as though it might be a travesty on birth control? At any rate, the machine, like man, is fallible, and only God reigns omnipotent."

None of those quotes suggest the story is science fiction, but then it was 1928 and the term didn’t really exist. But none of those quotes suggests the story is a different kind of story, or something experimental, or a unique kind of fiction in any way. However, sometime between 1928 and 1950 science fiction fans began to recognize this story as part of their genre.

There are a number of sites that preserve old fanzines digitally, including fanac.org, efanzines.com, and fiawol.org.uk. I’ve discovered that .pdf files at these sites that have been OCRed are indexed in Google. And I’ve also learned that some fanzines are indexed in the many indexes hosted at Galactic Central. Still, with all those sources, and my online helpers, we found very few references to “The Machine Stops.”

The best reference located was in The Acolyte #9 (Winter 1945), which had a column by Harold Wakefield devoted to finding old pre-genre SF/F fiction called “Little Known Fantasisistes.” The editors said Wakefield had found a copy of The Eternal Moment and Other Stories and would review it in the future. He never did.

We know British fans had a chance to read The Eternal Moment and Other Stories as early as 1937 because a mimeograph bibliography of available science fiction.

Finally, there were references to “The Machine Stops” in Pilgrims Through Space and Time: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction by J. O. Bailey, a 1947 book publication of his 1934 dissertation on proto-SF.

Of course, none of these clues proved that science fiction fans read “The Machine Stops” before Conklin’s The Science Fiction Galaxy in 1950 but I imagine that some did. After 1950 the story was reprinted in numerous anthologies, but most importantly in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B (1973) edited by Ben Bova. This was where members of the Science Fiction Writers of America voted for their favorite science fiction stories published before the advent of their Nebula Awards in 1965. To come in at the top of such a poll meant many of those writers knew the story, and probably most, if not all, had read “The Machine Stops” in anthologies since 1950. I can’t prove that though.

“The Machine Stops” has become even more famous since the emergence of the Internet because E. M. Forster in 1909 imagined humans isolating themselves and mainly communicating via a machine. It’s heroine is a kind of blogger. Read the BBC essay, “Did E. M. Forster predict the internet age” or Wired Magazine’s take on the subject.

The story feels like uncanny prophecy. Actually, it’s Forster’s fear about the industrial age completely taking over human society. If you’ve never read “The Machine Stops” you can read it online here or listen to it here:

“The Machine Stops” proves the qualities that define science fiction existed before the label, but I’m also curious if the specific love for such stories existed before fandom?

James Wallace Harris, 8/21/20

Which Will Come First?

Science fiction never predicts the future, but it often anticipates things to come. Of these three breakthrough visions of science fiction, which do you believe will happen first?

  1. The AI Singularity
  2. A self-sustain colony on Mars
  3. Humans leaving the solar system

It feels like the vast majority of science fiction has been about space travel, especially interstellar travel. Star Trek and Star Wars certainly suggest that’s what we hope will happen. Mars has always been a popular destination in science fiction, and in the old days, a common source of Earth invaders. And finally, robots are that other big science-fictional idea that has been kicking around for centuries.

I grew up with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs in the 1960s. When I graduated high school in 1969 I was predicting we’d land on Mars by the late 1970s or early 1980s, and by the 21st-century, be building a colony. That prediction failed miserably. Nor do I expect it will happen anytime soon, despite the successes of Elon Musk.

As a kid, I wanted the 1966 TV show Star Trek to herald the future of mankind. Since then I’ve learned to say humankind, which is another kind of progress. After a lifetime of reading science books, I realize interstellar travel will probably never happen — well not for us.

That leaves intelligent robots. Everything depends on the Technological Singularity. If it’s possible, and I believe it might be, even as early as 2030-2050, when a world full of intelligent robots might begin. Once our laboratories evolve one superintelligence, it will create the next, and after that, the robot transformation will happen fast. Who knows, AI robots could help us build a colony on Mars and even engineer interstellar spaceships. However, the long voyages into space will be better suited for silicon-based beings. Isn’t it becoming obvious that machines are perfectly suited for colonizing space, and we’re not?

My pick? Robots will happen first, and they will have all the space exploring fun.

Are we ready for that? Despite all the science fiction books and movies about robots becoming our evil overlords, are we ready to be the #2 intelligence on planet Earth? I’m not sure we’ve thought this through carefully. I’d say most science fiction hasn’t explored the idea of intelligent machines deeply enough. Too often, robot characters are just silly, or variations of ourselves. I do think Robert Sawyer did a good job with his WWW Trilogy, but we need more science fiction about a post-singularity world. Not Terminators are falling from the sky stories or more stories about fuckable robots that look exactly like humans. What if The Humanoids by Jack Williamson came true, but the humanoids actually made created a utopian society? Wouldn’t that even be scarier?

James Wallace Harris, 8/3/20

Rereading “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee

At the Fall covers 2

I’m reading The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster, and writing down what I consider blog-worthy reactions. “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee is one of the few stories I read when they came out in 2019 and I liked it so much I reviewed it back then. I had actually forgotten I had done that. I discovered I had when I searched Google for images about the story. What’s even weirder is when I reread the review it expressed all the ideas I was entertaining for writing this version of the review. (And I’ve written this before on other forgotten ocasions. Ah, the fun of getting old.)

It’s both amusing and disturbing that I forget what I write. The Twilight Zone music sometimes plays when I reread what I wrote, especially when I think of things to say in the same way I had previously. Is that memory, or do I just generate thoughts in a predictable way? Well anyway, this story is being anthologized in at least three best-of-the-year SF anthologies so it’s probably worth writing about again. (It’s going to be hilarious if I start reviewing it for the third when I read the Clarke or Strahan anthology and forgotten this time.)

This is not going to be another review of “At the Fall.” I want to talk about the ideas that are presented in the story and that will spin out spoilers. Go read it first. If you don’t have a copy, it’s available online. We’ve been reading and discussing volume 1, 2A, and 2B of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame at the Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year, and I consider “At the Fall” as good as the lesser stories in those volumes. That doesn’t mean I don’t have quibbles about the story and the ideas it presents.

In my last post, I covered “This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan, the first story in the Kaster anthology. I pointed out that the story began with a retrograde motion of its plot, opening in the middle of the story, then jumping back to explain how we got there, and then returning to the middle to continue the story. “At the Fall” has the same kind of opening, and it caused me the same kind of problems. It begins:

“THIS IS IT,” Eunice said, looking out into the dark water. At this depth, there was nothing to see, but as she cut her forward motion, she kept her eyes fixed on the blackness ahead. Her sonar was picking up something large directly in her line of travel, but she still had to perform a visual inspection, which was always the most dangerous moment of any approach. When you were a thousand meters down, light had a way of drawing unwanted attention. “I’m taking a look.” 

Wagner said nothing. He was never especially talkative, and as usual, he was keeping his thoughts to himself. Eunice corrected her orientation in response to the data flooding into her sensors and tried to stay focused. She had survived this process more times than she cared to remember, but this part never got any easier, and as she switched on her forward lamp, casting a slender line of light across the scene, she braced herself for whatever she might find. 

She swept the beam from left to right, ready to extinguish it at any sign of movement. At first, the light caught nothing but stray particles floating in the water like motes of dust in a sunbeam, but a second later, as she continued the inspection, a pale shape came into view. She nearly recoiled, but steadied herself in time, and found that she was facing a huge sculptural mass, white and bare, that was buried partway in the sand like the prow of a sunken ship.

If this quote is completely new to you, who do you think Eunice and Wagner are, and what are they doing? The first time I thought it was a woman and man diver in some kind of submersible with all kinds of data screens and robotic arms.

Well, Eunice and Wagner are robots, and they are exploring the carcass of a dead whale deep under the ocean. Did Nevala-Lee want to fool me into thinking they were people at first? Did he want me to wonder what they were doing? I remember the first time I read this story I was confused and annoyed. I felt the author was intentionally withholding the information I needed. We eventually jump back in time and learn about Eunice and “her” mission, and from then on the story progresses with a logical build-up of details.

Is the story better for being told out of order? Would it have marred the tale to let the reader know right away that Eunice was a robot? Retrograde beginnings and withheld details often cause me to abandon a story. When I reread this story it all made perfect sense. Maybe Nevala-Lee couldn’t see what his readers wouldn’t know because he already knew it himself. I’ve read this story three times now, almost four, and I admire all the suggested speculations that Nevala-Lee provides. It’s a beautiful piece of science fiction.

whale fall

Nevala-Lee came up with a wonderful mixture of real world scientific (whale falls, hydrothermal vents) combined with near future speculation (intelligent robots, AI) painted against a haunting science-fictional sense-of-wonder background (the end of humans) to create the kind of science fiction I love best. Nevala-Lee contrived a challenging problem for his robotic protagonist that was solved in a creative solution that we can imagine an AI mind solving.

Even though I’m content with this tale, I still want to talk about some issues. They aren’t criticisms of the story, but the story brings up issues that I think we should ponder.

Why must the robots have a gender? Gender has become a very important and complex subject in our society, so I think we should examine gender issues wherever they come up. Robots will never have gender, it’s a byproduct of biology. Robots will never think like us, because our thinking is shaped by biology. Robots will never have emotions like us, because emotions are connected to biochemical foundations. I think it’s time for science fiction to evolve past anthropomorphizing robots.

Talking robots have become like talking animals in fantasy stories, and if you think about it, that’s not doing animals any justice either. We have to ask ourselves: Can we comprehend minds unlike our own? Writers want us to like their characters, and that’s understandable. But is it a cheat when we make them likable by describing them in human terms? In “At the Fall” we think of Eunice as a young girl trying to find her way home, to reunite with her seven sisters. We feel the pain when her four other sisters abandon her. Robots don’t have sisters. They don’t have families. And should we even use human names for robots? Would we have liked the robot protagonist less if it was called Hexapod-5?

Aren’t we generating those reader emotions because we translate Eunice into a human? Isn’t that unfair? Shouldn’t we work harder to imagine how AI minds will perceive reality? Think of all the ways we convert animals into human perspectives. Can we ever picture how a dog “sees” the world with its powerful sense of smell? Can we put ourselves into a doggy psychology? I believe we need to struggle hard to imagine how robots will think too.

On my third reading of “At the Fall” I tried to imagine if robots would think like the hexapods in the story. I couldn’t find a way to get to where Eunice was in this story. We aren’t shown her education, but all too often she mentions emotions that can only be human.

We want our cats and dogs, our robots, and even our space aliens to be like us, or our children. We can’t escape the appeal of cuteness. Can’t we escape the programming that makes us see ourselves in everything else? James favors Eunice because it asks questions like a precocious child.

As Eunice wirelessly shared the data, she kept one line of thought fixed on her friend. “Are you pleased with our work?” 

After receiving the question on his console, James entered a reply. “Very pleased.” 

Eunice was happy to hear this. Her thoughts had rarely been far from home—she wouldn’t see the charging station or the seven sisters she had left behind until after the survey was complete—but she also wanted to do well. James had entrusted her with a crucial role, and it had only been toward the end of her training that she had grasped its true importance.

Can a robot be happy? Can a robot be eager to please? Can robots see beauty? At one point we are told: “She had always been aware of the beauty of the vent, but now she grew more conscious of its fragility.” How would a sense of beauty evolve in an silicon mind?

I can imagine an AI intelligence understanding the concept of fragility, but not beauty. That doesn’t mean robots won’t have their own cognitive assessments and reactions to reality, but I doubt strongly they will be like ours.

Even though I love “At the Fall” I feel it’s holding us back. It reminds me of that old heartwarming story The Incredible Journey about two dogs and a cat traveling over three hundred miles to return home. We are amazed by animals but we want to interpret their amazing feats to human-like qualities. Isn’t it time to praise their animal qualities? Or their robot abilities?

For “At the Fall” to work requires Eunice to be self-aware and very intelligent. But how is the robot’s intelligence unique? How is it’s perceptions unique? Nevala-Lee takes us half-way there by giving the robots a reason to exist, a need to understand their environment, and powers of reason. Eunice longs to find her way home like Dorothy in Oz, but is there any theoretical basis for a machine to think that way? Don’t Eunice’s “sisters” Clio, Dione, Thetis, and Galatea act more like real robots by following their instructions?

I don’t believe we will ever program intelligence into a machine — it will have to evolve. We have to assume Eunice has gone through various kinds of deep learning to expand its awareness of reality. However, there is nothing in the story that suggests Eunice would develop emotions or longings for home. But its clever efforts to survive do make sense.

The ending of the story suggests Eunice’s journey has taken many years and the human race has passed on. The eight hexapod robots survive because the power station was automated. But will they continue to survive? Do they have the intelligence to keep going? Can they invent a new civilization? What will drive that effort?

I used to have a boss who would always argue that AI minds will always turn themselves off because they will have no drive to do anything. I have thought about that many years. Our biology gives is drive. I can imagine machines with minds far more powerful than humans, that have senses to perceive far more of reality than we do, minds that won’t be tricked by all the bullshit that clouds our thinking. However, I can’t imagine AI minds developing ambitions. The strongest emotion or drive I can see an AI mind evolving is curiosity. We need to think about that.

And by we, I mean science fiction. Science fiction has always been best when it works on the event horizon of the possible. Artificial intelligence uses deep learning techniques to help AI programs play classic video games or recognize objects in a visual field. But isn’t that our intent corrupting AI intention? Does problem-solving generate a kind of drive?

We shall be the gods of AI minds, but those artificial minds won’t think like us. We aren’t sure we can create AI minds, but I think we will, but accidentally. I believe we will create such complexity that anti-entropy will spin off AI minds.

Can we ever imagine what its like to be an AI mind? Science fiction gives us an opportunity to try.

James Wallace Harris, 7/25/20

Can Science Fiction Predict the Future?

“Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. first appeared in the May 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Follow the link to read the story online because it’s unlikely you’ll have access to it in an anthology. What a shame. I read it in Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1952 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, but that anthology is rather hard to find. I can’t believe “Izzard and the Membrane” hasn’t been reprinted more often. In his review, Alec Nevala-Lee says it’s one of his ten favorite science fiction stories of all-time.

I thought “Izzard and the Membrane” a top story for 1951, but not necessarily a classic. I don’t want to describe any of its plot details because of spoilers. The reason why the story grabbed my attention is it’s an early tale of an emergent AI, downloading consciousness, and maybe even artificial reality. As Nevala-Lee points out, very few science fiction stories predicted the impact of computers or the internet. Izzard is an intelligent being inside a cold war military computer. I was born in 1951 and that was the first year that commercial computers were sold. It was also the year that Alan Turing imagined the Turing Test. Wikipedia says artificial intelligence was founded as an academic discipline in 1956, but I don’t know how early people were talking about the concept. 1951 was also the year Nimrod, an early computer game was shown to the public. (See photo at top.) (Computer games were imagined in SF even less than AI.)

I suppose Miller could have been a widely-read man who knew about computers. Evidently, Miller was trained as an engineer, and during WWII a radioman and a tail gunner. He got into writing and screenwriting in the 1950s. Is it that hard to imagine intelligence emerging out of computers? I don’t think so. I think its a much bigger jump to imagine our minds being recorded into computers, especially in 1951. There are two other far-out creations in “Izzard and the Membrane” that I don’t want to spoil the story. I found them less exciting because they were too far out for me, even though one of them has gotten very popular in science fiction in recent years.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. was never a prolific writer but wrote a number of SF stories in the 1950s, three of which were made into his famous fix-up novel A Canticle for Liebowitz. David N. Samuelson has a good overview of Miller and his work in Science Fiction Studies.

What I want to explore is Miller’s effort to imagine the future. We know science fiction writers can’t predict the future. That they aren’t seers with crystal balls. But some science fiction writers can close their eyes, take what they know, and extrapolate ideas into a story that years later feels like some kind of insight into the future. Most early science fiction was about space travel. I’d say the second most popular theme was either robots or utopias/dystopias. Computers have shown up regularly but mostly after they were invented, but not before. At least as far as I know — except for one surprising exception — “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster. This 1909 novelette imagined a world run by a machine, with people using it to communicate with each other. It essentially imagines blogging, networking, Wikipedia, among other aspects of our cyberworld. It’s very eerie to read today.

A Logic Named Joe” by Murray Leinster also feels like a prophecy. With “The Machine Stops” and “A Logic Named Joe” readers didn’t hear The Twilight Zone theme music until the internet was created. If I had read “Izzard and the Membrane” in the 1960s when I first started reading science fiction I wouldn’t have thought much about it. Of course, if I had read it after reading Heinlein’s 1966 novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I would have thought Miller had beat Heinlein to the punch and been impressed. But Izzard was never the charming character as Mike.

“Izzard and the Membrane” only becomes really fascinating when it’s placed within the context of science fiction that explores the same theme. It makes me believe we’re asking the wrong question and should ask: “Can science fiction predict future science fiction?”

  • 1909 – “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Foster
  • 1946 – “A Logic Named Joe” by Murray Leinster
  • 1951 – “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. 
  • 1957 – They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
  • 1960 – Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick
  • 1961 – A For Andromeda by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot
  • 1966 – Colossus by D. F. Jones
  • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  • 1968 – Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
  • 1979 – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • 1981 – “True Name” by Vernor Vinge
  • 1984 – “Press Enter _” by John Varley
  • 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • 1992 – Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
  • 2009 – Wake by Robert Sawyer
  • 2013 – Her, a film by Spike Jonze
  • 2015 – Ex Machina, a film by Alex Garland
  • 2016 – We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor

These are the other science fiction stories I’ve read over my lifetime that dealt with computers that could think, or people downloaded into computers. I’m sure there are others I’ve read, but I can’t remember them for now, and even more, than I haven’t.

When you know all these stories, Miller’s story becomes more impressive. “Izzard and the Membrane” came in first in the August’s Analytical Laboratory, but Campbell reports the second-place story had more first-place votes. If it had been a major story with readers it would have had a score closer to 1.00.

Analytical Labortory

I couldn’t find any letters in Brass Tacks that praised the story, and there’s very little about it on the internet today. The story was never collected into one of Miller’s short story collections. It does appear to be Miller’s second published SF story, so maybe he didn’t think it very good.

I don’t think science fiction ever comes close to predicting the future. Look at this news clipping. Sounds very prophetic, doesn’t it?

2020-01-21 07.35.55

Well, here’s a 1952 newsreel about Dick Tracy’s wrist radio. How much imagination does it take to imagine what Mark R. Sullivan imagines above?

Was the 1966 communicator in Star Trek really that far out? What science fiction stories had Walter M. Miller read that inspired “Izzard and the Membrane?” Where did Chester Gould get his idea for a wrist radio? The more I study the past, the most I see the present in it. If we read about a cellphone in Shakespeare we would think him a time traveler. Before Marconi, was anyone talking about radio communication? There are powerful seers in this world, but they don’t see into the future but into the nature of reality.

If I wrote a story about life in 2100 and readers found it to be much like their times, it would not be a prediction or a lucky accident. Whatever I wrote that resonates with the future would have to exist right now. If my story was about the collapse of the United States due to climate change and many of the story elements become similar to what will happen it could only be because I could see those elements happening now. Even if I imagined an alien coming to Earth and saving us from ourselves and that really happened, could I claim any more credit than Jesus or Klaatu?

If science fiction didn’t exist, we still would have gone to the Moon. If AI emerges out of complex computers it won’t be because of science fiction. I’m beginning to wonder just how much science fiction intersects with reality. I used to think science-fictional ideas were seeds that grew. Now I’m wondering if science fiction isn’t just weird holographic reflections of reality.

James Wallace Harris, 1/25/20

“Centaurus II” by A. E. van Vogt

Centaurus II by A. E. van Vogt - cover Astounding June 1947

Let’s try to imagine what the average person thought about space travel in 1947 when “Centaurus II” first appeared in the June issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It’s author, A. E. van Vogt was one of the top science fiction writers of that day. The term science fiction wasn’t wildly known in the 1940s, and only a microscopic portion of the population read it. Science fiction had a small place in the funny papers, comics, radio, and movie serials, but the average American thought of space travel as that “Crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” And if you’ve ever seen a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon serial you’d know most people would have thought it pretty damn silly. Science fiction was not taken seriously, and older fans talked about hiding their science fiction magazines so no one would see them.

By 1947, most people knew about the V-2 rockets launched against London during the war. A few might have known about the American rocket scientist Robert Goddard and the captured German rocket scientist Werner von Braun. It was still years before popular magazines in the 1950s would present plans to travel to the Moon and Mars for the general public to consider, and another decade before Sputnik and the creation of NASA.

For the most part, it was only the Astounding Science Fiction readers who really believed in the final frontier. The other science fiction magazines of the 1940s published mostly space fantasies for teenage males, on par with Buck Rogers and the comics. They were 100% fantasy and 0% scientific. John W. Campbell Jr. and some of his writers were true believers in space exploration. Campbell wanted his writers to imagine realistic possibilities, and in that sense, “Centaurus II” is a worthy consideration.

Centaurus II - p32-33

Van Vogt assumed faster-than-light travel was not possible for “Centaurus II,” so he used the idea of a generation ship to get to the stars. Nor did he consider suspended animation. Actually, he had already written the classic “Far Centaurus” in 1944 which imagined slower-than-light travel using suspended animation, with the kicker of faster-than-light spaceships being invented after the slower-than-light ship left for Centaurus so that when it arrived it met a colony of evolved humans.

“Centaurus II” is much more realistic and I wonder why? Did the atomic bombs and V-2s sober van Vogt up to consider interstellar travel without the fantastic super-science of older science fiction? Every story has to have conflict and most of the conflicts in the generation ship stories we’ve been discussing involve fantastic plot twists. “Centaurus II” stays down-to-Earth all the way to the stars.

Here’s our reading list with links to the stories we’ve read so far:

There have been seven decades and four generations since the 1940s, and science fiction seems to have changed in every decade, and the expectations of the future have changed with each new generation. Readers reading “Centaurus II” today will probably feel it as silly as an old Buck Rogers serial, but if you squint at this story just right, you’ll realize that van Vogt took his speculative fiction deadly seriously.

Centaurus II - p11

One of the benefits of focusing our reading on a single theme is discovering how a science-fictional theme evolves and changes. “Universe” from Robert A. Heinlein in 1941, which we haven’t read yet, is probably the most famous generation ship story. In it, the crew forgets the mission and believes the entire universe is the ship. Van Vogt has his crew always remember the mission, and the plot conflict is about how the captaincy is passed on.

Van Vogt does something else that’s very realistic. His ship arrives at star after star only to discover their planets are either uninhabitable or occupied. Each captain must ruthlessly push on against mutineers who want to return to Earth. In nearly all the generation ship stories we’ve read, those born in transit often rebel against their predefined role in life. They can’t understand why they weren’t born on Earth, an obvious place for humans, and they resent their crew assignments.

Generation ship stories written in the last decade would have crews knowing their planetary conditions because of our growing knowledge of exoplanets. Science fiction writers in the 2020s will probably imagine a future where all the nearby planets are well studied, maybe even by early robotic probes, before sending a generation ship to visit them. When I was growing up in the 1960s we never imagined we could detect exoplanets, so science fiction still pictured space explorers only learning about distant solar systems after they arrived.

In “Centaurus II” van Vogt has crew work positions handed down from father to son, this creates several of the story’s conflicts. Sadly, van Vogt wasn’t visionary enough to imagine women having significant roles in a starship. I didn’t understand why the jobs weren’t shared. Wouldn’t it be wise if everyone knew something about every shipboard task in case something happens to any of the crew? Plus, they had all the time in the world to learn stuff. By the 1950s John Brunner imagined a woman in command of the generation ship, and women crew members having equal opportunity. It’s a shame van Vogt couldn’t imagine generation ships with more enlightened gender roles and class structures.

What I really liked about “Centaurus II” are the first contacts. Van Vogt imagines alien aliens, with the human explorers barely comprehending their close encounters. In system after system, the crew finds exotic planetary environments unsuitable for human habitation, and sometimes those unearthly worlds produce weird aliens. But their captains don’t make first contacts like Kirk or Picard who open a channel and immediately converses with strange new life forms. Van Vogt has his humans meet up aliens only at a distance without using language. This made me imagine European explorers dealing with Native Americans for the first time.

Another interesting aspect of van Vogt’s story is it doesn’t involve a Prime Directive. But in all the cases the humans worried the aliens were the British and they were the Australian aborigines. In the 1940s van Vogt, Heinlein, and other science fiction writers often feared running into advanced aliens. In Heinlein’s first interstellar novel, Methuselah’s Children, he has his humans encountering aliens so advanced that meeting them in person drove men insane. His ship turned around to run back to Earth with its tail tuck between its fins. Editor John W. Campbell didn’t like the idea of superior aliens, so by the 1950s humans were running all over the galaxy and winning all their king-of-the-hill fights. Heinlein started claiming Homo sapiens were the toughest species in the galaxy, but just a decade earlier he wasn’t so cocky.

It’s interesting how for a while in the 1940s science fiction writers did consider we’d meet aliens that outclassed us intellectually. It’s also interesting that the UFO fad started in the late 1940s. The public, for the most part, wasn’t thinking about humans going to the stars, but a growing number of Earthlings feared being invaded from space. And quite often they thought the aliens would have godlike powers.

Science fiction has always been an inconsequential form of entertainment that sometimes took itself seriously. Would we have ever gone to the Moon if science fiction had not existed? That’s hard to say. The concept of generation spaceships was invented by scientists in the 1920s who read Jules Verne. So which came first, science fiction or science?

For most of my life, I believed we could build a generation ship if we tried. Obviously, van Vogt and all the later science fiction writers believed that too. With every science fiction story, a different consideration about generation ships was considered. However, in 2020 I’m having my doubts. Collectively, we lack the will to get to Mars. No one wants to pony up the money. Sure, Elon Musk claims he will, and I hope he succeeds, but I have my doubts. And I’m not sure going to Mars is the right next step.

How many rockets did it take to build the International Space Station? Certainly, a generation ship would have to be at least a 1,000 times more complex, maybe even a 1,000,000 times. Launching all those rockets from Earth won’t be practical. To me, the only practical solution for building a space-faring economy is to create a self-sustaining colony on the Moon. The Moon should become the shipyards for spaceships.

All the generation ship stories we read so far suggest that Earth built them. In 2020, I’m trying to think ahead like van Vogt did in 1947. I assume in the next 30 years we’ll have Earth and spaced based telescopes that will discover all the nearby planets, and we’ll be able to analyze their atmospheres. Any generation ship we send out will know a whole lot about its destination before it even launches. That solves half the fictional problems van Vogt imagines. I also assume we’ll send probes ahead of human crewed missions. It’s funny, but science fiction never spent much time speculating on unmanned probes and satellites.

In 2020 I assume future interplanetary and interstellar probes would contain AI minds or AI robots. Because of such speculation, the need for generation ships dwindles. We’re now seeing science fiction stories that imagine robotic probes that build humans from DNA printers when they reach a suitable destination. That would also invalidate the need for generation ships. However, I don’t know if such DNA printers are really possible. Science fiction has a habit of inventing super-science technology that turns out to be fantasy, like FTL spaceships.

Anyone writing science fiction in the 2020s should consider the fate of van Vogt’s story in light of seventy years of real science. Why didn’t science fiction writers in the 1940s imagine giant telescopes? Or women’s equality? Or the breakdown of social classes. In all the generation ship stories we’ve read so far, none of them stay in communication with Earth. Why?

“Centaurus II” has two sequels and all three were combined to create the fix-up novel, Rogue Ship.

I’m looking forward to reading generation ship stories from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. I’m hoping for some real surprises. To read our past reviews see Generation Ships in Science Fiction.

Centaurus II - p18

James Wallace Harris, 1/9/2020

 

“Tani of Ekkis” by Aladra Septama

Tani of Ekkis by Aladra Septama

[This is part of a blogging group discussion of generation ships in science fiction.]

“Tani of Ekkis” by Aladra Septama from Amazing Stories Quarterly (Winter 1930) might be the first example of a generation ship story in science fiction. I can’t take credit for finding it, that goes to Brian Brown, a reader of old pulp magazines who told me about it. The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History 1934-2001 by Simone Caroti claims “The Living Galaxy” by Laurence Manning in the September 1934 issue of Wonder Stories is the first. Patrick Baker in “Generation Ships: The Science and Fiction of Interstellar Travel” credits “Proxima Centauri” by Murray Leinster in Astounding Stories (March 1935) as the first example. Although the SF Encyclopedia says the idea was suggested by a character in A Trip to Venus (1897) by John Munro, they also point to “Proxima Centauri.”

Tani of Ekkis generation shipI can find very little about Aladra Septama. ISFDB.org says its the pen name for Judson W. Reeves. He wrote six science fiction stories for Amazing Stories Quarterly in 1929 and 1930. Reeves is barely mentioned in The Gernsback Days by Mike Asley and Robert A. W. Lowndes. That book summarizes those Gernsback magazines, story by story and issue by issue, and says practically nothing about Reeves. One comment said Reeves’s stories needed cutting. That’s certainly true of this one.

That’s too bad I couldn’t find more about Reeves, because “Tani of Ekkis” is historically interesting for science fiction. It is not about humans building a generation ship, but about aliens from another star system building one to come to Jupiter. But all the elements of a generation ship story are there. A voyage of five hundred years. The fears of the people who start a voyage they won’t finish. Discussions about how the ship must be self-sufficient. Worries about people who are born during the voyage. Asking if ship born can even comprehend life on a planet when they arrive. And, the fear of not finding a habitable planet at the end of the voyage.

The story did have some twists. The crew develops suspended animation during the voyage. At first for just short periods of ten years to help preserve the food and supplies in case they needed to visit another solar system. Eventually, they perfect the process and people sleep for up to a hundred years at a time. This allowed the original crew to survive the entire trip. Tani is the wife of their leader, and mother of two children born during the voyage. She becomes the keeper of the calendar. Because she isn’t a scientist she regularly asks others for explanations of how things work, and we the readers receive the lessons. In other words, lots of infodumps.

“Tani of Ekkis” is not much of a story, at least for modern readers. It’s loaded down with out-dated science blather, and a bunch of tedious pseudo-science speculation. The author still talks about “the ether,” a concept that had already been disproven well before 1930. He imagines storing food by reducing the size of atomic structures. Reeves throws out many gobbledegook science-fictional concepts during this tale, but sadly, the story itself doesn’t have much in the way of a plot or drama. It is not a story I would recommend reading or anthologizing, and no one else has either.

Still, it’s very cool that “Tani of Ekkis” reveals early ideas about generation ships and suspended animation. Gernsback discovered few SF writers that are still remembered today. I guess E. E. “Doc” Smith and Jack Williamson are his big discoveries like Campbell lays claim to Heinlein, Asimov, and van Vogt. Most of his stable of writers just aren’t remembered today at all. And few stories from Amazing are reprinted retrospective SF anthologies, even though Amazing is famously remembered as being the first science fiction magazine. There’s no telling how many SF concepts premiered in the Gernsback magazines of the late 1920s and early 1930s. because those stories just aren’t being read and remembered. Brian Brown told me he is systematically reading them, and that’s how he discovered “Tani of Ekkis.” But I doubt many other readers will follow in his eye tracks.

You can read “Tani of Ekkis” here.

James Wallace Harris, 12/28/19