Lords of the Psychon by Daniel F. Galouye

Daniel F. Galouye (1920-1976) was never a famous science fiction writer, but back in the 1950s and 1960s his shorter work appeared regularly in many of the SF magazines with the notable exception of Astounding/Analog. Galouye published five novels, three of which made it to my list of SF novels of the 1960s (Dark Universe, Lords of the Psychon, and Simulacron-3). Over the years, I’ve seen several mentions of his work and have meant to read them, but it hasn’t been until I got Lords of the Psychon in a batch of old paperbacks from eBay that I’ve had a chance. Galouye’s books aren’t rare, but they aren’t widely known either. Dark Universe and Simulacron-3 are currently in print, and Dark Universe is even available on Audible.com. Simulacron-3 inspired both a TV miniseries (World on a Wire) and a movie (The Thirteenth Floor), and some have called it an early cyberpunk novel. Not a bad legacy for a writer who is mostly forgotten.

Lords of the Psychon was a lot of fun to read, but not as much fun as I had with Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn, the SF book I read before it. Both of these 1960s novels deal with alien invasion. Both novels are set years after the aliens have conquered Earth. Both novels deal with a small group of humans hoping to overthrow the aliens. Both novels have a unique take on showing the alienness of the invaders.

Don’t read beyond this point if you hate any kind of spoilers.

In this section I’ll give you a bit more of the details but still try to avoid all plot spoilers. The 1950s was a time when many science fiction stories, especially in Astounding Science Fiction, explored psychic powers, ESP, or sometimes called psionics. I’ve always thought Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) was the pinnacle of that trend which quickly faded from popularity. I now see that Daniel F. Galouye had something more to add in 1963 with Lords of the Psychon. Actually, I feel the novel was inspired by Heinlein, and even feels somewhat like a 1950s Heinlein novel in tone. Galouye was a test pilot during WWII, so he also has a military background like Heinlein.

The setup for Lords of the Psychon is the speculation that the fundamental subatomic building blocks of reality can be controlled by thought, and this 1963 novel predates such woo-woo physics books as The Tao of Physics (1975) by Fritjof Capra and The Dancing Wu Li Masters (1979) by Gary Zukav. Basically, Galouye tortunes quantum mechanics to come up with a fun science fictional idea. Instead of swinging East like Capra and Zukav, Galouye keeps a western view of psychic powers.

Today, we think of such psionic themes as malarky, but I believe Galouye worked hard to pull off his speculative fiction. Eventually, the story moves towards Theodore Sturgeon and gestalt minds. In other words, I give Galouye credit for producing an evolutionary science fictional work.

I won’t go into plot details because I really don’t like any such spoilers myself, but I will reprint two reviews from 1963 that do, so read them at your own risk. The first is from Analog, November 1963 by P. Schuyler Miller.

I love reading reviews of books from when they first came out to see how my reaction is different. Miller praises Lords of the Psychon but claims Galouye’s first novel, Dark Universe, is the real standout. That means I need to read it soon.

S. E. Cotts reviews the novel in the August 1963 issue of Amazing Stories. I know nothing about Cotts, but I like her review. If you know anything about S. E. Cotts, leave a comment.

Cotts also gives away way too much of the plot for my taste. I’m still figuring out how to review fiction. I like the details of a story to unfold as the author intended. Both Miller and Cotts reveal things I prefer to learn for myself. However, I suppose they believe that a certain amount of plot details need to be given to hook the reader into buying the novel.

Rosemary Benton writing for Galactic Journey gives this novel 4.5 stars. Her 2018 review pretends to have been written in 1963. She also gives away quite a few plot points. Unlike Miller and Cotts, Benton seems to prefer Psychon over Dark Universe.

I believe Lords of the Psychon is a 4-star out of 5-star novel for those readers who delight in reading science fiction novels from the 1960s. I admire Galouye’s speculation even though I don’t think it’s scientific. I feel the novel is plotted tighter than modern SF novels, and is told with far fewer words, which is one of the reasons why I prefer older science fiction. Hopefully, that’s enough information for people who don’t like spoilers, but if it’s not, just read the three reviews above.

James Wallace Harris, 5/31/21

Ever Been Chased by Giants in Your Dreams?

The most read essay on my personal blog is “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” Evidently, I’m not the only person who runs from dinosaurs in their dreams, because 25-50 people daily find my essay on Google. I recently realized that I sometimes run from both human giants as well as giant space aliens in my dreams too. This obviously reveals my personal philosophy about the big dangers of life – keep a low profile. In my dreams the solution to avoiding being killed is to be quiet and hide from all the big monsters.

Warning: Don’t read this review. Just go read the book below to have the maximum fun. Don’t even read the blurbs on the cover. However, if you need more convincing, keep reading, I’ve kept the spoilers to the bare minimum.

Keeping a low profile is exactly what Eric the Only doesn’t do in Of Men and Monsters, a classic science fiction novel by William Tenn. It’s an expansion of Tenn’s October 1963 story for Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, “The Men in the Walls.” I vaguely remember reading the novel back in the early 1970s, but decided to reread it yesterday because of reviews by Joachim Boaz and MarzAat. Luckily, I didn’t read their entire reviews ahead of time because they both have spoilers. I just got caught up with MarzAat’s enthusiasm responding to Joachim’s review, and grabbed my copy of book and started reading. In fact, it’s the first novel in decades that I’ve read in less than a day. Just fun, good old fashion science fiction. Joachim gives it four stars out of five, and that’s what my initial assessment was too, however…

Of Men and Monsters has a simple backstory. Giant aliens from space have conquered Earth and humans are thrown into a kind of dark age, living in the walls of alien buildings. The story is well told, and surprisingly engaging for such a simple premise. Eric the Only, is a member of one of many tribes trying to survive by stealing food from the aliens they call monsters. Each tribe has a competing philosophy about existence, and Eric the Only is a bright young man trying to figure out reality from many contradictory beliefs.

Think about giants in the Bible, or “Jack and the Beanstalk,” or the big and little episodes in Gulliver’s Travels, or “Giant Killer” by A. Bertram Chandler, or J. G. Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” (now animated for season 2 of Love, Death & Robots). And if you remember, the 1968 TV show Land of the Giants. I wonder if Willian Tenn was given any credit or money for his idea? He probably wasn’t as pugnacious and litigatious as Harlan Ellison. Well, the Land of the Giants is somewhat different, with castaway humans on the planet of giant aliens. Anyway, giants make up a tiny sub-sub-sub-genre that I believe triggers a certain psychological appeal. For some reason, pop culture returns to it fairly often.

Of Men and Monsters also reeks of another minor motif I’ve seen in science fiction, and that’s about life in the corridors. I remember reading the “Tumithak of the Corridors” stories in Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov, an anthology of his favorite science fiction stories he loved reading growing up in the 1930s. But life in the corridors was also the setting in Heinlein’s Orphans in the Sky (1963), a fixup novel based on “Universe” and “Common Sense” first published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1941, and in Brian Aldiss’ 1958 novel Non-Stop (called Starship in the U.S.). This motif often connects to the theme of forgotten civilization which we find in many science fiction and fantasy stories about the far future. Not only do we love stories about running from big beings like dinosaurs, King Kong, 50-foot high women, and giant space aliens, but we also love stories about forgetting who we were as a society.

The corridor motif also runs parallel with the back to the primitive theme in post apocalyptic stories of the 1950s. Science fiction writers have suggested in both books and movies that after a nuclear war civilization could be reduced to living like hunters and gathers again. Writers imagine our descendents forgetting the past, and picture these future humans like cavemen or 19th century native Americans. I vaguely remember some Andre Norton novels like this. Eric the Only wears just a leather jock strap, and the women of his tribe only wear their hair, but very long. His tribe use spears for weapons and live by rigid customs created by superstitions. Some readers might consider this aspect of the story satire on humanity, but I didn’t. It just felt logical to the plot.

I’ve tried very hard not to give the details here to Of Men and Monsters because I thoroughly enjoyed how the story unfolded. I wouldn’t have told you about the monsters being aliens but that tends to be in all reviews and on the cover blurbs. I will give one tiny spoiler that I found fascinating. The tunnels the humans live in are the air spaces of the insulation used by aliens in their buildings. That should give you an idea of relative size. All the cover art on the many book editions gets this wrong drawing the aliens only three or four times the size of humans. The aliens are immensely larger.

Probably reading Of Men and Monsters was so entertaining for me because I need some escapism. I had a CT scan Friday and I’m waiting the results. In other words I’m hiding from a big monster. But I also loved this book because it is so 1950s science fictional. It’s a retreat into my childhood and contained so many themes, ideas, motifs, and speculations that I loved when first discovering science fiction. Because of that I’ll give it 5-stars when I rate it for Goodreads. I’m sure a reader less prejudiced by nostalgia wouldn’t be so generous.

One last thing. Towards the end of the story William Tenn intrudes in the novel by allowing one of the characters to philosophize about humanity. That character says we’re kin to rats and roaches and we’ve not been kind to each other or to the other species we share the planet. I agree with what Tenn is preaching, but I felt this bit of philosophy dumping marred the story. The story itself had already inspired me to think of these things without being told. If this novel has a flaw it’s how modern knowledge that should have been forgotten was worked into the story. Either that, or Tenn should have developed the backstory of the Aaron tribe to explain how they could have retained that knowledge.

James Wallace Harris, 5/23/21

“The Star” by H. G. Wells

When I was young, reading science fiction thrilled me by giving me new ideas to ponder, ones I wasn’t getting from school. For example, when I was twelve, I read the When Worlds Collide/After Worlds Collide double decker by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. It provided three new wonders to inflame my mind. First, planets from outside the solar system could fly through our interplanetary space and even collide with the Earth. Imagining the end of the world provides no end of chilling speculation. People have been entertaining that vision since the Great Flood. Second, I was introduced to the idea that people could escape the end of the world. Wow, what a concept! And third, what if we found a dead city that was once occupied by aliens? What would it be like to walk among their ruins and imagine their lives from the clues they left?

What’s remarkable about “The Star” by H. G. Wells, published in 1897, is its science fictional setup would work just as well today in 2021. The story describes people’s reactions from from around the world at that time, but the astronomical events and effects upon the Earth would be the same today. And I’m not sure people now would react much differently than they did then. What has changed is how the news is spread.

Nowadays I am fascinated by how science fiction short stories gain popularity and then fade from pop culture memory. They are usually remembered by anthologies. An editor of a good retrospective anthology knows the genre and tries to keep older stories alive. Every few years a new large retrospective anthology of short science fiction appears. Over time, the weakest older stories are left out of the latest anthology, and the best newer stories are added, revealing a kind of evolution.

Readers who buy genre retrospective anthologies are shown a kind of photograph of the history of short science fiction, with each new anthology trying capture the genre in a pose by how the editors want their readers to see its history. I’ve been dipping into The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer since it came out in 2016. Its oldest story is “The Star.” The Big Book of Science Fiction has nearly a hundred stories and I’ve read maybe a quarter of them. The VanderMeers worked to diversify the history of the genre by including more stories by women writers and translated stories by non-English speaking writers.

Their family portrait of science fiction looks somewhat different than Leigh Ronald Grossman’s group photo, Sense of Wonder, taken in 2011. Grossman’s oldest pick was “Mellonta Tauta” by Edgar Allan Poe from 1849. Grossman’s anthology is even larger than the VanderMeers’, but it includes a novel, novel extracts, and introductory essays. It’s meant to be a textbook for teaching the history of science fiction, but Grossman’s photo of the genre revealed a more traditional pose for the genre.

Right now, I’m less concerned the overall image of the genre’s legacy than I am with understanding the evolution of science fictional ideas. I’d love to create a taxonomy of science fictional ideas and themes. When Groff Conklin assembled his first retrospective anthology back in 1946, The Best of Science Fiction, he divided the stories into six theme sections. Over the decades many anthologists have created theme anthologies. But it’s impossible to grasp all the far-out ideas of science fiction in just one anthology, or even a shelf of them. So, I’m going to work my way through several large retrospective anthologies, take notes, and plot my findings. Maybe I can come up with some way of showing an evolutionary tree of science fictional ideas.

I’ve decided “The Star” was inspired by astronomy, so the first theme I’m going to work on is Astronomical Science Fiction. However, did H. G. Wells think up his idea? Had Wells read Omega: The Last Days of the World by French astronomer Camille Flammarion which came out in 1894? When did the English edition first appear? Wells could also have read Olga Romanoff or, The Syren of the Skies by George Griffith serialized in Pearson’s Weekly (12/30/1893 – 8/4/1894). Both these stories are impact event stories. And then we must ask where did Flammarion get his idea? Jules Verne wrote Off on a Comet in 1877 about a comet that gives the Earth a glancing blow. Wells was savvy enough to know his planet didn’t need to impact the Earth, but it’s gravitation influence coming near us could wreak havoc on our planet.

I want to develop a classification scheme, a taxonomy, or even a mind map of how science fiction ideas evolve. Earlier writers imagined a comet hitting the Earth. Wells imagined a planet from outside the solar system, which is a much newer idea if you think about it. People were aware of comets, but how many Earthlings imagined a planet visiting the solar system? Then in the 1930s Balmer and Wylie imagined two visiting planets. By the way, Wells interstellar visitor is called a star in the title, but referred to as a planet in the story. People see it as a star in the sky.

Once you start considering the theme, thinking about astronomy can inspire all kinds of science fictional ideas. Wells used astronomy again at the end of The Time Machine when he used the Sun expanding into a red giant, and the Earth slowing its rotation.

I wish I had a better memory than I do so I could recall all the science fiction stories that used astronomy as the inspiration of its science fiction. Fred Hoyle used it for The Black Cloud a story about a dust cloud blocking the sun. But sometimes its fanciful astronomy. Poul Anderson imagined the solar system orbiting the Milky Way in Brain Wave and wondered what if the solar system passes through different kinds of radiation fields. Now this is unbelievable but fun, but what if the solar system had been in a radiation field that retarded intelligence and it moved out of that field? In Brain Wave humans and all living things become a bit smarter. Even more fanciful is Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, where he imagines the Earth encased in a spin membrane that slows time down. Of course, this moves outside the realm of Astronomical Science Fiction because the membrane was artificially created.

Getting back to real astronomy, consider the short story “Inconstant Moon” by Larry Niven from 1971. People notice the Moon is glowing strangely one night. Our narrator theorizes the Sun has gone nova and the world is about to be destroyed, but then figures a massive solar flare has occurred, which might be survivable. Notice how these Astronomical Science Fiction stories usually involve the destruction of the Earth.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle returned to the comet impact in 1977 with Lucifer’s Hammer. Comet and asteroid strikes seem to be the most common inspiration on Astronomical Science Fiction. But here is a list created by Andrew Fraknoi in 2019 that lists more recent science fiction based on astronomy and physics. Wells or “The Star” wasn’t mentioned. That’s the problem with creating a SF theme taxonomy, it’s like the biological world there are millions of examples to be classified.

One interesting aspect of “The Star” (and When Worlds Collide) is it depends on astronomers to let the people of Earth know that something is about to happen. How often are astronomers the heroes of science fiction stories?

It was on the first day of the New Year that the announcement was made, almost simultaneously from three observatories, that the motion of the planet Neptune, the outermost of all the planets that wheel about the sun, had become very erratic. Ogilvy had already called attention to a suspected retardation in its velocity in December. Such a piece of news was scarcely calculated to interest a world the greater portion of whose inhabitants were unaware of the existence of the planet Neptune, nor outside the astronomical profession did the subsequent discovery of a faint remote speck of light in the region of the perturbed planet cause any very great excitement. Scientific people, however, found the intelligence remarkable enough, even before it became known that the new body was rapidly growing larger and brighter, that its motion was quite different from the orderly progress of the planets, and that the deflection of Neptune and its satellite was becoming now of an unprecedented kind.

Few people without a training in science can realise the huge isolation of the solar system. The sun with its specks of planets, its dust of planetoids, and its impalpable comets, swims in a vacant immensity that almost defeats the imagination. Beyond the orbit of Neptune there is space, vacant so far as human observation has penetrated, without warmth or light or sound, blank emptiness, for twenty million times a million miles. That is the smallest estimate of the distance to be traversed before the very nearest of the stars is attained. And, saving a few comets more unsubstantial than the thinnest flame, no matter had ever to human knowledge crossed this gulf of space, until early in the twentieth century this strange wanderer appeared. A vast mass of matter it was, bulky, heavy, rushing without warning out of the black mystery of the sky into the radiance of the sun. By the second day it was clearly visible to any decent instrument, as a speck with a barely sensible diameter, in the constellation Leo near Regulus. In a little while an opera glass could attain it.

At the end of the 19th century the common person did not have access to television or the internet. This news would have been spread by telegraph and newspapers. Also, I doubt many citizens of the world understood much about astronomy back then. Since we know so much about astronomy now, and science fictional concepts, so I would think a science fiction writer would have a hard time coming up with a good new concept to set off people’s sense of wonder.

H. G. Wells worked imagine in his story the discovery of the event on different minds around the world. I think that’s why new writers get to retell old stories. Many science fictional concepts are quite old, so it’s the current culture that changes in new stories, not the science fiction.

And when next it rose over Europe everywhere were crowds of watchers on hilly slopes, on house-roofs, in open spaces, staring eastward for the rising of the great new star. It rose with a white glow in front of it, like the glare of a white fire, and those who had seen it come into existence the night before cried out at the sight of it. "It is larger," they cried. "It is brighter!" And, indeed the moon a quarter full and sinking in the west was in its apparent size beyond comparison, but scarcely in all its breadth had it as much brightness now as the little circle of the strange new star.

"It is brighter!" cried the people clustering in the streets. But in the dim observatories the watchers held their breath and peered at one another it is nearer," they said. "Nearer!"

And voice after voice repeated, "It is nearer," and the clicking telegraph took that up, and it trembled along telephone wires, and in a thousand cities grimy compositors fingered the type. "It is nearer." Men writing in offices, struck with a strange realisation, flung down their pens, men talking in a thousand places suddenly came upon a grotesque possibility in those words, "It is nearer." It hurried along wakening streets, it was shouted down the frost-stilled ways of quiet villages; men who had read these things from the throbbing tape stood in yellow-lit doorways shouting the news to the passersby. "It is nearer." Pretty women, flushed and glittering, heard the news told jestingly between the dances, and feigned an intelligent interest they did not feel. "Nearer! Indeed. How curious! How very, very clever people must be to find out things like that!"

Lonely tramps faring through the wintry night murmured those words to comfort themselves--looking skyward. "It has need to be nearer, for the night's as cold as charity. Don't seem much warmth from it if it is nearer, all the same."

"What is a new star to me?" cried the weeping woman kneeling beside her dead.

The schoolboy, rising early for his examination work, puzzled it out for himself--with the great white star shining broad and bright through the frost-flowers of his window. "Centrifugal, centripetal," he said, with his chin on his fist. "Stop a planet in its flight, rob it of its centrifugal force, what then? Centripetal has it, and down it falls into the sun! And this--!

"Do we come in the way? I wonder--"

The light of that day went the way of its brethren, and with the later watches of the frosty darkness rose the strange star again. And it was now so bright that the waxing moon seemed but a pale yellow ghost of itself, hanging huge in the sunset. In a South African City a great man had married, and the streets were alight to welcome his return with his bride. "Even the skies have illuminated," said the flatterer. Under Capricorn, two negro lovers, daring the wild beasts and evil spirits, for love of one another, crouched together in a cane brake where the fire-flies hovered. "That is our star," they whispered, and felt strangely comforted by the sweet brilliance of its light.

The master mathematician sat in his private room and pushed the papers from him. His calculations were already finished. In a small white phial there still remained a little of the drug that had kept him awake and active for four long nights. Each day, serene, explicit, patient as ever, he had given his lecture to his students, and then had come back at once to this momentous calculation. His face was grave, a little drawn and hectic from his drugged activity. For some time he seemed lost in thought. Then he went to the window, and the blind went up with a click. Half way up the sky, over the clustering roofs, chimneys and steeples of the city, hung the star.

I would think in my taxonomy of science fiction for this theme I’d have to also classify the state of the world that received the story. Yet, isn’t the possibility of a roving body visiting out system still possible? Isn’t that why new SF writers in every generation can retell the story? Just research all the speculation the first known real interstellar visitor named Oumuamua caused? It reminded me of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

James Wallace Harris, 3/19/21

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

My job is to get you to read stories if you haven't. I'll try to make it easy for you by linking to a copy on the web if the story is available. I'll also tell you about anthologies where you can find the story. Then I'll start talking about the story. At first I'll be vague so as not to spoil the story, but hopefully intriguing enough to get to you to go read the story before continuing. As I progress I'll give more and more away.

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” is a magnificent work of second person prose that is as confusing as a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces without the box. As you read the story the picture is revealed with the placement of the last piece. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” was first published in October 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was reprinted in Best American Short Stories 1960, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction (Ninth Series, 1960), and Judith Merril’s annual anthology,The Fifth Annual of the Year’s Best SF (1960) where I just read it. It was up for a Hugo in 1960 but lost to “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, but wouldn’t any story lose to that story? “The Man Who Lost the Sea” is currently available to read online at Strange Horizons. Or jump over to Escape Pod to listen to the story.

I’ll illustrate how admired this story is by showing you some of the retrospective anthologies it’s been reprinted in over the years:

  • 1968 – Towards Infinity edited by Damon Knight
  • 1969 – First Step Outward edited by Robert Hoskins
  • 1977 – Alpha 8 edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 1983 – The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg
  • 1989 – The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell
  • 1990 – The Great SF Stories 21 (1959) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
  • 1997 – A Century of Science Fiction (1950-1959) edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 2005 – My Favorite Science Fiction Story edited by Martin H. Greenberg
  • 2016 – The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

I’m feeling guilty about not having read “The Men Who Lost the Sea” before now. How could I have missed it? To be honest, I’m not sure my younger self could have appreciated the story. The second person prose involving nonlinear events would have been difficult for my speed-reading younger self to comprehend. Just read the first paragraph:

Say you're a kid, and one dark night you're running along the cold sand with this helicopter in your hand, saying very fast witchy-witchy-witchy. You pass the sick man and he wants you to shove off with that thing. Maybe he thinks you're too old to play with toys. So you squat next to him in the sand and tell him it isn't a toy, it's a model. You tell him look here, here's something most people don't know about helicopters. You take a blade of the rotor in your fingers and show him how it can move in the hub, up and down a little, back and forth a little, and twist a little, to change pitch. You start to tell him how this flexibility does away with the gyroscopic effect, but he won't listen. He doesn't want to think about flying, about helicopters, or about you, and he most especially does not want explanations about anything by anybody. Not now. Now, he wants to think about the sea. So you go away.

What the hell is going on? Where are we? Who is the narrator? Sturgeon gives us the first clues in the second paragraph:

The sick man is buried in the cold sand with only his head and his left arm showing. He is dressed in a pressure suit and looks like a man from Mars. Built into his left sleeve is a combination time-piece and pressure gauge, the gauge with a luminous blue indicator which makes no sense, the clock hands luminous red. He can hear the pounding of surf and the soft swift pulse of his pumps. One time long ago when he was swimming he went too deep and stayed down too long and came up too fast, and when he came to it was like this: they said, "Don't move, boy. You've got the bends. Don't even try to move." He had tried anyway. It hurt. So now, this time, he lies in the sand without moving, without trying.

What can you say about this story so far? Later on when Sturgeon tries to give us more concrete clues can we really put them together yet?

Out and out the sick man forces his view, etching all he sees with a meticulous intensity, as if it might be his charge, one day, to duplicate all this. To his left is only starlit sea, windless. In front of him across the valley, rounded hills with dim white epaulettes of light. To his right, the jutting corner of the black wall against which his helmet rests. (He thinks the distant moundings of nausea becalmed, but he will not look yet.) So he scans the sky, black and bright, calling Sirius, calling Pleiades, Polaris, Ursa Minor, calling that . . . that . . . Why, it moves. Watch it: yes, it moves! It is a fleck of light, seeming to be wrinkled, fissured, rather like a chip of boiled cauliflower in the sky. (Of course, he knows better than to trust his own eyes just now.) But that movement . . .

Maybe it helps when Sturgeon lets us know the man is thinking about the past:

As a child he had stood on cold sand in a frosty Cape Cod evening, watching Sputnik's steady spark rise out of the haze (madly, dawning a little north of west); and after that he had sleeplessly wound special coils for his receiver, risked his life restringing high antennas, all for the brief capture of an unreadable tweetle-eep-tweetle in his earphones from Vanguard, Explorer, Lunik, Discoverer, Mercury. He knew them all (well, some people collect match-covers, stamps) and he knew especially that unmistakable steady sliding in the sky.

By now you should realize this story takes place in the guy’s head, but you still aren’t sure where the guy is or the identity of the annoying boy.

Have I gotten you interested? Have you gone back to the top of the page and followed the link to read the story? If not, let me give you a few more tantalizing clue. Have you read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce – another often reprinted short story? “The Man Who Lost the Sea” belongs to very special tiny subgenre of fiction, one that has deeply personal significance to me, see my essay “Did The First Movie You Ever See Haunt You For The Rest Of Your Life?” about the novel High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. You probably don’t know these guys but they wrote The Mutiny on the Bounty. Or, have you ever seen the ending to the 1966 movie Seconds with Rock Hudson?

Jeez, if I haven’t hooked you by now I give up. I’ve always been fascinated about the nature of memory and consciousness. I love this Theodore Sturgeon because he explores those concepts in one impactful story.

James Wallace Harris, 3/16/21

Deadly Serious Science Fiction

What if we had a special streaming service that showed us television from the year 2050 so we could watch the future unfold on our HDTVs at night. Would we change the way we live in this present? Would we steer towards the news and shows we wanted to come true and away from those that frightened? And what if over time we could see the future change as we changed ourselves little by little. Wouldn’t that validate the reality of those 2050 TV shows from the future?

Hasn’t that been what we thought science fiction has been doing all along?

We avoid committing ourselves because half of us doubt any speculations about the future. What if there was no doubt? What if we knew the future for certain? Would we act decisively? I’m not sure we would. Then what’s the value of serious science fiction?

Science fiction has always encouraged us to rush towards sense-of-wonder tomorrows and run away from scary dystopias. However, most people don’t take science fiction all that seriously, and for that matter, most science fiction never tries to be serious. On the other hand, sometimes a science fiction writer cries wolf. Should we listen?

Back in 1968 John Brunner offered us the deadly serious science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar. I read it in 1969 when I was 17 and I loathed the future Brunner envisioned for 2010. I did not want to grow up to live in John Brunner’s extrapolated timeline. What he foresaw horrified me with its relentless political unrest, ecological catastrophes, but worst of all were the portrayals of constant worldwide terrorism. Brunner’s scenes of senseless violence repulsed me bitterly. I wanted exciting stories about colonizing Mars, so his future wasn’t one I wanted. By the time 2010 rolled around forty-two years later, we all realized just how brilliant John Brunner’s novel had been at speculating about things to come.

No science fiction writer claims to predict the future. No science fiction book has predicted the future. But rereading Stand on Zanzibar in 2010 was goddamn eerie.

The Ministry for the Future is Kim Stanley Robinson’s deadly serious 2020 science novel about our near future, and it reminds me so much of Zanzibar.

Both novels are hard to read on many levels even if you ignore their doom and gloom. Neither are traditionally structured fiction. Stand on Zanzibar offered a continuing narrative every fourth chapter, but between that narrative were imagined news programs, journals, bulletins, press releases, short stories, book quotes, and readings from a pop culture philosophy called The Hipcrime Vocab by one Chad C. Mulligan. Brunner coined a lot of slang to give his future a realistic flare, which required the reader to pick up the lingo as they read along. Stand on Zanzibar is 582 pages of dense reading. All this puts a strain on its page turning appeal. Nevertheless, this novel has always been the epitome of serious science fiction (at least to me). Now it has competition.

The Ministry for the Future is also hard to read because it does not read like a normal novel. I’d say about twenty percent is the ongoing storyline, while most of the 106 chapters are lessons/lectures in either monologues/soliloquies or Socratic dialogues. Robinson doesn’t try to create the barrage of future pop culture sources that Brunner did. Instead, he writes to educate his reader about the many dimensions of solving problems associated with climate change. It’s not thrilling action, but it is thought provoking. And Robinson works so hard to be optimistic. He wants us to believe we still have a chance.

Science fiction has always convinced its fans that it’s about the future, but it’s not. Science fiction is nearly always about escapism from the today, and sometimes, it gives the illusion that it’s saying something insightful about tomorrow. Every so often we get a SF writer who attempts to extrapolate today’s trends into tomorrow’s catastrophes or marvels. Brunner and Robinson are such writers. In both 1968 and 2020, Brunner and Robinson play Cassandra, warning us we’d better get our shit together because hell is on the horizon.

I want to recommend The Ministry for the Future to everyone, but I must be honest and admit it’s not a fun read. Science fiction has always had a problem with infodumping, and this book is mostly infodumps. I find them fascinating, but most readers won’t. There’s practically no story to this novel other than pondering how to change the world to avoid a climate apocalypse.

But here’s the thing. The first chapter, which is told in regular fiction style, was more effective at scaring me about climate change than anything I’ve ever read. You can read it here. I highly recommend you take the time to do so. If the entire novel had this emotional intensity maybe it would scare readers into changing their lives. Unfortunately, most of the chapters are like this one. Like in Zanzibar, we leave the plot narrative frequently. And when it does return, half the time, it’s more infodumping. The story does get more attention over time, just don’t expect it to entertain like The Expanse books or The Murderbot Diaries.

I am not trying to turn you off from buying and reading The Ministry of the Future, but I am trying to do an honest sales job. Stand on Zanzibar is extremely hard to read too, but I’ve read it twice and want to read it again. I believe both books are easier to listen to then read. Robinson’s book is read by multiple narrators. This helps make the infodumps more dramatic. And since many parts of Zanzibar is supposed to come from radio and TV audio, it’s more natural to hear them than to read them. See if your inner voice can handle this:

Don’t worry, Robinson’s prose isn’t like this, and neither is most of Brunner’s. But Brunner does make a valiant effort to simulate future dazzle. Robinson doesn’t. His work might be called a philosophical novel with lectures, maybe like Hermann Hesse. Thinking about both books I realize I have some questions about science fiction that challenge my lifelong assumptions about the genre.

First, should science fiction attempt to shape the future? Is it hubris to try? Back in the 1940s and 1950s true believers like Robert A. Heinlein wrote stories about the glories of space travel hoping they would inspire young people to grow up and build rockets that went to the Moon and Mars. Just because that happened doesn’t mean science fiction can claim it as a feather in its cap, but maybe it helped. I don’t know. But if you read memoirs by most rocket scientists you’ll find passages about growing up reading science fiction.

If in the future we do avoid climate change, will we look back and say science fiction had a hand in getting us to act sooner? There is a sub-genre emerging out of science fiction called Cli-Fi, and once you study its nature you’ll see it has a long history. But is it effective? Is Kim Stanley Robinson succeeding at inspiring his readers to aim at a different future? By the way, he’s written other Cli-Fi novels, so he’s been working at this task for a long time.

One area where Robinson does succeed is defining the problem, but you have to read The Ministry of the Future to see how he does that. Then we need to reconvene in 2050 and discuss whether or not The Ministry for the Future got us to take different paths to get to that future.

But one last confession. I’ve read thousands of science fiction stories and novels, and it has changed how I think, but I’m not sure it ever changed how I act.

James Wallace Harris, 1/23/21

The Cold Equations of Thinking Like a Dinosaur

Spoiler Warning: This is not a review, but thoughts for my short story discussion group. We’re discussing The Year’s Best SF 1 edited by David Hartwell, which is currently just 99 cents at Amazon for the Kindle edition. “Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly is the first story in the anthology, originally appearing in Asimov’s Science Fiction (June 1995). It won a Hugo for Best Novelette in 1996. If you haven’t read “Think Like a Dinosaur,” go find a copy and read it before reading my comments. It’s a wonderful story with plot elements you don’t want spoiled.

It’s hard not to think of “Think Like a Dinosaur” as a retelling of “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. The plots are the same – nice girl must be spaced by nice guy because story logic dictates there is no other solution in the story’s reality. “The Cold Equations” is one of the most famous science fiction short stories in the genre. [You can read “The Cold Equations” online at Lightspeed Magazine.] Readers still argue for ways to save Marilyn even though the whole intent of writing the story is to kill her. Godwin’s point is the universe follows laws indifferent to human emotions and sometimes we just can’t save the girl. Kelly uses the same cold equations to kill Kamala. Instead of calling the logic the cold equations, Kelly calls it thinking like a dinosaur. Now this is not an insult to cold blooded reptiles. In the story, aliens that look like descendents from dinosaur type creatures offer to give Earth interstellar matter transmitter technology if they’re convinced humans can live up to the required rules of using it. They are called dinos in the story, and it’s implied they are far wiser than humans.

The main rule say the dinos is no duplicates. As soon as someone is transmitted to another stellar system the original must be destroyed. There’s a hint that the universe will balk at duplicates, but I didn’t find that clear. It might just be an arbitrary rule by the dinos. Maybe they’ve learned from experience that having multiples of the same being running around causes too much trouble. But this is the rule the dinos insist on for Earth to join the intergalactic community. By the way I’m reminded of Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. It too applies the cold equations to matter transmitted travelers that seem to reinforce the dinos thinking.

Matter transmitters are rarely the subject of science fiction. The most famous use of them is Star Trek, where I always assumed travelers were disassembled and then reassembled using the same atoms. If you read the article on Teleportation at Wikipedia, that method is called beaming. There is another method called Quantum teleportation, which is the kind used in “Think Like a Dinosaur” and Rogue Moon. In that method, the subject is scanned and reproduced with atomic particles at the receiving site. This means two copies exist after the transmission.

The premise of “Think Like a Dinosaur” is the universe demands we eliminate one copy. Now you can argue with the logic of this, but for James Patrick Kelley’s story, it’s a required truth. And we need it to be true so Michael must kill Kamala, in the same way Barton must kill Marilyn. I’m amused by those readers who trying to find a way out of this problem within the story, or demand that the story should have been different.

Why are such stories created? It’s a horrible premise that disturbs some readers. Do these stories feed some kind of kink in some readers who secretly get off on killing young women? I doubt it. I believe cold equation stories are a tiny subgenre of science fiction where the writer sets up a situation that illustrates being forced to make an extreme decision. Lot in “Lot” by Ward Moore abandons his wife and sons to save his daughter and himself when he realizes not everyone in his family has the instinct to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Lot knew his wife and boys could never let go over the old world, and thus wouldn’t make it in the new one. If you pay attention, you can spot other cold equation stories.

Of course, the real purpose of these stories is for the reader to put themselves in the situation and ask what would they do. Would you put Marilyn or Kamala in the air lock and punch the button that opens the outside door?

There is a TV version of “Think Like a Dinosaur” produced for the 1995 remake of The Outer Limits that perfectly illustrates how the writers and producers of that show couldn’t think like a dinosaur. That botched the ending by forcing additional motivations onto Michael. They also showed him being crushed by his decision. Either they didn’t understand the story, or they didn’t think television viewers could handle it.

I don’t know if Tom Godwin or James Patrick Kelly were offering lessons about reality, or just creating stories with tricked up plots. Robert A. Heinlein always wanted his readers to understand that exploring the galaxy would take guts, with explorers needing to make the tough choices that the universe requires in its cold equations.

On the other hand, I don’t think we’ll ever have matter transmitter technology that can send people, or even large inorganic objects. Like most readers who complain about “The Cold Equations” have shown, the situation where Marilyn could have stowed away should never have been possible. They wail at the unbelievability of the premise. As a person who has often moaned and groaned about unscientific and illogical science fiction I can understand these attacks. However, sometimes you just have to let a story be a story.

p.s.

There are stories where duplicates do happen and the stories reveal the problems of having duplicates. But I can’t remember any of them. If you do, please leave a comment.

James Wallace Harris, 12/9/20

Good Science Fiction Bad Science

Do you stop reading science fiction when you encounter bad science, dated beliefs, or foolish concepts? I do if I’m warned ahead of time – but not if I’ve already gotten sucked into a the story. “Beyond Bedlam” by Wyman Guin is one such story that I kept reading once I realized it’s basic premise was ridiculous. It was first published in the August 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. I read it because of a friend recommending it and I read Robert Silverberg’s Reflections column about “Beyond Bedlam” being a one-hit wonder for Wyman Guin.

Maybe I shouldn’t tell you the premise for “Beyond Bedlam” because it might keep you from reading it. It’s available to read for free by following the link to the Galaxy magazine above, or by following this link to Project Gutenberg. The story is a short novella, about 20,000 words, so it will take you a bit of time to consume. Silverberg liked it well enough to anthologize it twice. Check to see if you have the classic 1980 SF anthology The Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels.

“Beyond Bedlam” is about a future utopian America that we would rebel against, but Wyman Guin presents as making sense to the citizens of that era. Guin didn’t write much science fiction because he worked in the pharmacological industry. His story presents the 29th-century America running smoothly because everyone is required by law to take psychiatric drugs. The characters in the story refer to our times as a dangerous failure because we let our emotions get the best of us. This by the way, isn’t the crazy premise of the story. Other science fiction stories have predicted people in the future controlled by drugs, and people do take a lot of drugs today for the mental health.

Guin takes one extra step that pushes the story into unbelievability territory – but I won’t give that away. Hopefully, you’ll start reading and get sucked in. Or maybe you will even think it a cool idea. Some science fiction fans love wild ideas no matter how silly they might be. I completely reject Guin’s speculation but enjoyed the story.

I understood why Guin wrote this story. I read lots of old books and watch lots of old movies, and the 1940s and 1950s was a time when people were fascinated with psychiatry and psychological mysteries. What’s particularly fascinating, and I’m giving a hint here that older readers might understand, is the 1951 “Beyond Bedlam” was written well before the 1957 bestseller, The Three Faces of Eve.

The reason why I found “Beyond Bedlam” compelling is Guin’s storytelling. Silverberg said Guin wrote 80,000 words of rough draft before distilling his story down to 20,000 words. It’s tightly plotted, with vivid characterization and great worldbuilding. It’s also filled with emotions derived from five characters’ unique movitations. Plus, “Beyond Bedlam” is quite adult, which wasn’t typical of science fiction in 1951.

Wyman Guin’s low output and his crazy premise will probably doom this nifty tale to obscurity. That’s a shame. “Beyond Bedlam” is not a literary classic. It’s a nostalgic tidbit from the dregs of decomposing pop culture that old fans fondly recall as they wait to die.

James Wallace Harris, 10/29/20

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