“True Names” vs. “Press Enter ▮”

True Names and Press Enter

Science fiction explores several landscapes. Outer space is the most widely known of these. Inner space has been the setting for a tiny fraction of science fiction, for example, The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny and The Lathe of Heaven (1971) by Ursula K. Le Guin. However, within my lifetime a whole new fictional territory emerged with cyberspace, the digital landscape. Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson is usually credit with starting the cyberpunk movement which made cyberspace famous, but many digital landscape stories existed before that.

The digital landscape needs both computers and networks to exist, so it’s easy to think that science fiction about cyberspace couldn’t exist before them. However, “The Machine Stops” (1909) by E. M. Forster essentially imagines cyberspace and machine intelligence without knowing about computers, binary mathematics, or stored data. It’s not hard to give some credit to Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland as an early explorer of the digital landscape, although we could consider mathematics to be a whole landscape itself.

“True Names” (1981) by Vernor Vinge prefigures everything that will become cyberpunk. Sadly, it’s never been reprinted much. In 1996 it was included in David Hartwell’s Visions of Wonder, a major retrospective anthology, and in 2001 it was reprinted in True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier edited by James Frenkel which collected many essays by famous computer scientists to introduce the story and explain why it blew their minds.

“Press Enter ▮” by John Varley came out in the May 1984 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, a few months before Neuromancer. That story is much more famous, winning the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards and being often reprinted.

Both “True Names” and “Press Enter ▮” presented science fiction readers with early visions of the digital landscape and both were horror stories about a machine intelligence emerging out of the internet. There have been so many stories about cyberspace and malevolent AI since then. It’s hard to remember these two stories are the Jules Verne and H. G. Wells tales of the subgenre. Both are available online, probably illegally, but you can read “True Names” and listen to “Press Enter ▮.”

“True Names” is the more fanciful of the two, really a fantasy story, because the protagonist, Roger Pollack (“Mr. Slippery”) enter cyberspace in a rather unbelievable way. Roger and his partner Debbie Charteris (“Erythrina”) paste sensors to their skulls and go into a trance to traverse the digital landscape using fantasy motifs of warlocks and magical powers. Vernor Vinge asks his readers to believe they can experience massive amounts of data in cyberspace as a form of expanded consciousness. It’s really just a fantasy portal no more realistic than C. S. Lewis’ back of a wardrobe. It’s an exciting story and moves extremely fast for being a novella, but unfortunately, neither Roger or Debbie are deeply developed as real humans or as their hacker alter egos Mr. Slippery and Erythrina. However, I was moved by the scene when we get to see who Debbie is as a real person.

Press-Enter-from-Asimovs

“Press Enter ▮” is far more realistic. Victor Apfel is a character of complexity. He is a semi-invalid Korean war vet living next to Charles Kluge, a master hacker. Kluge commits suicide and tricks Victor into discovering his body. The police hire Lisa Foo, another master hacker to process Kluge’s house full of computers and software. Victor and Lisa become friends, then lovers. Lisa is a Vietnam refuge, so she and Victor have a complex shared background with several Asian countries.

Neither Kluge or Lisa enter cyberspace, both just sit at terminals hours on end. They live in this reality and the cyber landscape can only be deciphered by data dredged from computer screens. This makes the horror of an emerging AI intelligence far scarier, and the ending particularly vivid.

I reread these two stories yesterday because I’m working on a list of my 35 favorite science fiction short stories. Piet Nel suggested limiting ourselves 35 stories because if they were published as a book it would be about the size as one of Gardner Dozois’ big anthologies. That means I’m going to have to leave out a lot of fondly remembered tales. I’ll have to decide between “True Names” and “Press Enter ▮” – because of their overlapping themes. I suppose I could argue back with Piet that we should consider 109 the limit. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s The Big Book of Science Fiction proves it is possible to go truly gigantic with an anthology.

In the end, I’ve decided to use “Press Enter ▮” for my list. “True Names” was more colorful and fantastic. But I have to consider it cyberfantasy, rather than cyber-SF. More than that, I envisioned Victor and Lisa way more than I could with Roger and Debbie.

Comparing the two stories helped me with my problem of picking favorite stories. As I’ve been going over the SF stories I love most and rereading them, I’ve discovered certain aspects inherent in stories are what makes me like them. These qualities are hard to label. All fiction must hook us, must contain a thread of suspense to keep us reading. I’ve been trying to identify those elements within a story that hooks me and keep me reading. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. The main character has to feel real. In fact, the more real the better. I have to identify with the character, even if I don’t like them. Stories that feel like I’m reading about a person experiencing a real event, even if I know it’s fictional or fantasy, is what grabs me most.
  2. The subject matter is next in importance. I can read a masterpiece of fiction about any subject, and admire it tremendously, but I only develop a psychic love affair with stories that involve my life-long pet topics.
  3. The story needs to explore philosophical problems I want to understand. I love stories the most that give me philosophical/spiritual/personal insight.

I’ve also learned there are elements in stories that make me want to stop reading.

  1. I’m turned off by prose that calls attention to the writer. I don’t want to be reminded that I’ve entered fiction-space.
  2. I don’t like artificial constructs. I know writers love to play around with how they tell a story, but if it jars my attention that detracts from my reading pleasure.
  3. Unbelievability is a reading buzzkill. I know when I reading the literature of the fantastic, but even it has to have a feel of believability.

Cyberspace and artificial reality are concepts that have emerged in our lifetime. We’ve watched writers work to make them believable, to create portals into this new digital landscape. The most realistic stories are those where humans wear goggles and suits. It is quite popular now to have stories where brains are recorded and people’s minds are transferred into artificial realities. I don’t accept brain downloading. I can accept it as a fantasy portal, but not as science fictional speculation.

We use to say the universe was everything, but now with multiple universes becoming accepted, I call the whole enchilada reality. Earth, outer space, inner space, and the digital landscape are all part of a single reality. Both inner space and digital space must be explained by the laws of reality.

Fiction space can work outside the laws of reality. However, I prefer stories that do.

I prefer “Press Enter ▮” to “True Names” because it confirms more with reality. But I also resonate better with the John Varley story because Victor and Lisa are compelling characters that come with realistically detailed biographies. Both stories deal with the same philosophical problem though — the threat of computer intelligence. And even here, I give the nod to Varley. Not that Vinge hasn’t created a powerful imaginative story, I just resonate better with Varley’s realism. I imagine other readers will prefer Vinge because his cyberspace is more colorful, and they accept that fiction space can work outside those laws of reality.

JWH

 

Best Short Science Fiction 2018

Best Short Science Fiction 2018

1It’s the season for best-of-the-year anthologies. The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume Thirteen edited by Jonathan Strahan and The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 4 edited by Neil Clarke are already here, and Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 should be out next month. Sadly, Gardner Dozois died last year, so we won’t be seeing the Thirty-Sixth volume of his series. But we do have a new annual, The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories edited by Allan Kaster.

For years, Kaster has edited a best-of-the-year audiobook SF anthology at Audible.com, so I hope this new title is in addition, rather than replacing the old series. The Strahan and Kaster volumes are available at Audible.com now. I love hearing great short science fiction read by professional readers.

I’ve created a spreadsheet that tracks all the stories from the four anthologies and added information about the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for short stories and novelettes. I’ll add more stories and details as additional anthologies are published and awards are given. And if I get ambitious, I might even add links to those stories available online.

The most comprehensive guide to short science fiction for 2018 is Rocket Stack Rank’s “2818 Best SF/F.” My spreadsheet is more of a visual quick reference guide. I’m still learning to use all of RSR’s extensive features.

James Wallace Harris

“Finnegan, Bring the Pain” by Joe M. McDermott

Analog Jul-Aug 2019

I read “Finnegan, Bring the Pain” by Joe M. McDermott because Greg Hullender gave it 5-stars at Rocket Stack Rank, saying it was “Hard-Hitting Tale of Different Kinds of Loss.” The story is in the latest issue of Analog (Jul-Aug 2019).

I believe a powerful short story often succeeds because it identifies a specific emotional insight. James Joyce called such storytelling moments epiphanies. I’m not sure I like Joyce’s label. I wish each literary emotion had its own identifiable noun. It would certainly help with reviewing fiction. Maybe if I thoroughly read The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows I could find it.

In “Finnegan, Bring the Pain” the emotion is what one feels when being left behind while someone you know, someone often much like yourself, gets away. In “Finnegan, Bring the Pain” Finnegan is a teenager who is a loser in school, who knows he’s going to have a shitty life, but his friend Wind, a girl who keeps his unrequited love at arm’s length, is leaving for Alpha Centauri.

Joe M. McDermott is aiming point-blank at science fiction fans who want to go into space but feel left behind. As a kid, I wanted to go to Mars. I’m sure most SF fans dream of traveling somewhere beyond Earth, so “Finnegan, Bring the Pain” should resonate well with its readers. My all-time favorite short work of science fiction is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, a novella that farms this emotion perfectly. (This emotion might also explain why my favorite science fiction movie is Gattaca.)

However, the essence of the “left behind” emotion applies in endless ways. I’ve read literary stories with characters who knew they could never escape their small-town life and make it in the big city, or with a low-level ball player watching a friend move up to the majors, or a poor soul desperately wanting to be rich, or an assistant professor realizing they’re never going to achieve their version of The Origin of Species or a would-be novelist who’d never write the great American novel.

After I realized I’d never go into space, I dreamed of writing science fiction, but the older I get the more I knew that dream has passed me by too. I read stories today like this one to inspire me to write. The dream isn’t completely dead, and I do feel left behind by young writers succeeding with ideas I wanted to explore.

Generally, science fiction is about people who achieve escape velocity. We want to live vicariously through characters who reach the stars. McDermott and Delany remind us that we don’t have the right stuff. That’s painful, but also cathartic.

I’ve always wanted to write a science fiction novel set in the future where all humans experience the “left behind” emotion when we discover that space travel isn’t practical for humans, but is perfect for robots. In this case, I want to be Wind, but I’m still Finnegan.

Finnegan resigns himself to mundane life, even one that has little successes. There is a secondary insight into the “left behind” emotion, and that is we do have a life that is ours, one that we have to accept and enjoy. My acceptance is by promoting SF stories I like and wish I had written.

Getting 5-stars at RSR doesn’t guarantee I’ll love a story, but it does inspire me to track them down. And to be balanced in my reporting, I have loved stories that Greg gave only 1-star. The real take-away of ratings and reviews: subscribe to the science fiction magazine, you won’t know what you’ll find until you read them. Don’t worry about all the stories you don’t like, find the ones you do. Analog has a great of variety among its stories. And if you do subscribe, as you read the stories, think about what each offers in terms of emotional insights. I believe the stories that deserve the most stars are the ones that resonate with your own deep emotions.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

I Miss Martians

Martians - The Martian Chronicles

I think we can divide science fiction fans into two eras – before and after July 15, 1965. Before NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft flew by Mars there was a certain amount of hope that Mars could have been inhabited, or once inhabited. But those 22 grainy pictures that Mariner 4 sent back shocked us. Mars looked like the Moon, full of craters, a dead world. I was fourteen years old and devastated. I wanted Mars to be like Heinlein and Bradbury imagined.

I’m not sure SF readers today can know what it felt like before Mariner 4. Of course, science fiction was full of Martians, but so was popular culture. The Twilight Zone regularly featured Martians and Venusians. Martians were memes that appeared widely in newspapers, magazines, TV, comics, and movies. There was even a sitcom My Favorite Martian. People back then, even people who didn’t read science fiction, wanted to believe that Mars was an old world, occupied by intelligent beings.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Everyone remembers the menacing Martians of H. G. Wells, and many people remember the exotic Martians of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but I remember the Martians of Robert A. Heinlein. The first Heinlein novel I read was The Red Planet which came out in 1949 but I didn’t discover until 1964. Jim Marlowe its protagonist had a pet Martian he called Willis. It was round with three eyes and could parrot human speech. We eventually learn that Willis is a nymph and would metamorph into what the human settlers called the Old Ones. Heinlein later used these Old Ones in his classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land. They were wise, ancient, and had yogi like psychic powers.

Starting in the 1940s with short stories, later collected into a fix-up novel in 1950, Ray Bradbury gave the world The Martian Chronicles. His Martians were also old, wise, with great mental powers, but they were a dying race. Ray Bradbury’s science fiction never felt realistic, even back in the 1940s. His stories felt more like magical realism, or allegory, yet his Martian chronicles hold up better today than those by Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov.

A Rose for Eccelesiastes

Today Mars is a hostile environment for life. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is the SF standard model for Mars. But I miss Martians. I want Mars to be like Heinlein, Bradbury, and Roger Zelazny imagined.

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny came out in the November 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I’m pretty sure that Zelazny knew Mars would be like what Mariner 4 would show us, but he also loved the old Martians and wrote this beautiful eulogistic tale about them. I consider it the best story about Old Mars ever written.

Martians Go Home by Fredric Brown

Sure, Martians weren’t always nice. Sometimes they were evil, and other times they were annoying pests, like in Fredric Brown’s Martians, Go Home.

But I still miss Martians. I wish that Mariner 4 had sent us back 22 different pictures, ones with ancient cities visible. I’d love to write an alternative history novel about that, but I’d rather it had happened for real. Wikipedia has a long article about Martians in fiction. We can still read those stories, but wouldn’t it had been great if we had discovered Martians in 1965?

This solar system is too lonely, don’t you think? I wish the planets and moons were inhabited like Leigh Brackett and Stanley Weinbaum imagined. The universe is far out. Reality is so much more than we can ever discover, yet sometimes, I wish it was closer to fiction than fact.

Leigh Brackett

Weinbaum_Odyssey_1

James Wallace Harris

The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1950

The Years Best Short Science Fiction - 1950

1950 was a great year for SF short stories. Along with 1966 and 1982, they tie for having the most stories in one year on the updated Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories. Four memorable stories in one year is outstanding since many years have none, and only 1-2 is common. Also, before I read the two anthologies pictured above I was already familiar with 7 of the stories. That’s the most since I started this reading project of systematically reading through the best-SF-of-the-year anthologies starting with 1939.

1950 represents an evolution in mature science fiction writing. It also reflects the influence of magazines besides Astounding Science Fiction. The old timers in my youth considered the 1940s the Golden Age of Science Fiction, but for my generation, the 1950s is our Golden Age. I’m very excited to finally arrive in 1950 and look forward to reading through the decade.

In 1951 Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty selected the following 1950 science fiction short stories for The Best Science Fiction Stories 1951:

  • “The Santa Claus Planet” by Frank M. Robinson (original)
  • “The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out” by Reginald Bretnor (F&SF)
  • The Mindworm” by C. M. Kornbluth (Worlds Beyond)
  • “The Star Ducks” by Bill Brown (F&SF)
  • “Not to Be Opened” by Peter Grainger (as Roger Flint Young) (Astounding)
  • Process” by A. E. van Vogt (F&SF)
  • “Forget-Me-Not” by William F. Temple (Other Worlds)
  • “Contagion” by Katherine MacLean (Galaxy)
  • “Trespass!” by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson (Fantastic Story Quarterly)
  • Oddy and Id” by Alfred Bester (Astounding)
  • To Serve Man” by Damon Knight (Galaxy)
  • “Summer Wear” by L. Sprague de Camp (Startling Stories)
  • “Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson (F&SF)
  • “The Fox and the Forest” by Ray Bradbury (The Illustrated Man)
  • “The Last Martian” by Fredric Brown (Galaxy)
  • The New Reality” by Charles L. Harness (Thrilling Wonder)
  • “Two Face” by Frank Belknap Long (Weird Tales)
  • Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber (Galaxy)

In 1984 Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg picked these stories for The Great SF Stories 12 (1950):

  • “Not with a Bang” by Damon Knight (F&SF)
  • “Spectator Sport” by John D. MacDonald (Thrilling Wonder)
  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury (Collier’s)
  • “Dear Devil” by Eric Frank Russell (Other Worlds)
  • “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith (Fantasy Book)
  • “The Little Black Bag” by C. M. Kornbluth (Astounding)
  • “Enchanted Village” by A. E. van Vogt (Other Worlds)
  • Oddly and Id” by Alfred Bester (Astounding)
  • “The Sack” by William Morrison (Astounding)
  • “The Silly Season” by C. M. Kornbluth (F&SF)
  • “Misbegotten Missionary” by Isaac Asimov (Galaxy)
  • To Serve Man” by Damon Knight (Galaxy)
  • Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber (Galaxy)
  • “A Subway Named Mobius” by A. J. Deutsch (Astounding)
  • Process” by A. E. van Vogt (F&SF)
  • The Mindworm” by C. M. Kornbluth (Worlds Beyond)
  • The New Reality” by Charles L. Harness (Thrilling Wonder)

I’ve bolded the overlap. I’ve often wondered when Asimov and Greenberg made up their anthology did they consider what Bleiler and Dikty had done in the past? The Bleiler/Dikty books would have been rare even back in 1984, so I assume they didn’t. Or did they imagine that one day readers would judge the two books together for what they collectively say about the short science fiction of 1950?

And why did Bleiler and Dikty miss “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “Scanners Live in Vain,” “The Little Black Bag,” and  “The Silly Season” which all have become classics since then? Or do later readers discover value in stories that readers back in 1950 missed? “There Will Come Soft Rains” was included in The Martian Chronicles so it was being widely read as Bleiler and Dikty were assembling the volume. “The Little Black Bag” and “Scanners Live in Vain” were included in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1970, selected by the popular vote of science fiction writers, so it seems odd they weren’t recognized as instant classics. I think “The Silly Season” is an important miss, but they did include Kornbluth’s “The Mindworm.” Maybe Bleiler/Dikty didn’t want to use two of his stories?

If you look at the 60 short stories from 1950 that’s in our database order by total citations you’ll see both anthologies got most of the most remembered stories. But each anthology also recognized a few classics the other missed. I think the story they both missed which stands out the most is Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt.” It’s always remembered on fan polls but that’s probably because schools teach it.

Here are the stories that made it to the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list:

CSF-SF-1950

Notice that the top three stories won Retro Hugo Award for 1951. The only short stories/novelettes the fans voting for the retro Hugo that the two anthologies missed were “The Helping Hand” by Poul Anderson and “Okie” by James Blish. Neither anthology included any of the novella nominations. If you study the citation sources for the above stories you’ll see how each has remained popular in fan polls.

For these four stories, this was at least my fourth reading for each of them since the 1960s. Each time they get better and I notice more details. These stories should be read by any would-be writers wanting models to study. They are rich in ideas, dense with details, yet very told dramatically. These four stories are so obvious and famous that there’s little reason to discuss them. And I think the voters for the 1951 Retro Hugo Award also picked the obvious novella choice: “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert A. Heinlein.

The fun question to ask now: What is the best of the forgotten stories? I’m partial to “Contagion” by Katherine MacLean which I’ve already reviewed separately. I thought it a standout story for the time because MacLean was poking fun at male SF fans and gender issues.

Dear Devil by Eric Frank Russell - cover storyDear Devil” is my favorite Eric Frank Russell story so far in this reading project. It’s about another Martian invasion, but this time a very positive one. Don’t you miss Martians? Sure the story is sentimental and unrealistic, but if you loved the movie E.T. you’ll probably love “Dear Devel.”

“The New Reality” by Charles L. Harness reminds me somewhat of Greg Egan’s novel Quarantine because it’s about how our ideas of reality shape reality. The story is a gnarly philosophical fantasy about ontology. The story itself is a kind of a mess, lacking in structure and realistic dramatic action, but it’s filled with the kind of ideas that mess with your head, the kind that pot smokers and science fiction fans love.

The Sack” by William Morrison is not a great story, but it is a fun read. Explorers find an intelligent creature on an asteroid. It is the last of its kind, and it looks like a sack of potatoes. However, the Sack is so smart and willing to answer questions, that humans sell time with it like we do scheduling a supercomputer. The Sack is so effective at answering questions that nations and criminals want to kidnap it. The Sack claims it is always honest, but warns the human questioners that its knowledge might not always be beneficial.

“Misbegotten Missionary” by Isaac Asimov was later renamed “Green Patches” but I like the original name better. Asimov later realized that this story is similar to “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, his mentor. Space explorers visit a planet where all life is part of a single unified consciousness and this lifeform thinks humans are tragically incomplete since they are isolated individuals. The gestalt organism has a way of possessing humans to make them part of their whole. When the Captain of the first space ship lands on this planet and discovers his crew has been infected he blows his ship up. The story is about the second ship returning from the planet with a very clever hitchhiker. Because this tale has more story and less lecture, it’s one of Asimov’s more entertaining tales.

That’s one of the big problems of older science fiction, authors are inspired by far out ideas, but they don’t know how to present them dramatically. Many of these stories in these two anthologies are often interrupted by mini-lectures. That’s why “Scanners Live in Vain” and “Coming Attractions” were such standouts. Each is dense with ideas, but throw off their dazzling concepts as part of the action. They are dramatic and emotional.

Most of the stories in these two anthologies are still entertaining, but I believe most modern readers will find most of the second-string stories slight, clunky, outdated, or primitive. Aficionados of old SF will probably get a kick out of them.

Galaxy Oct Nov 1950

The first two issues of Galaxy, October and November 1950 contains
“Contagion,” “The Last Martian,” “Misbegotten Missionary,” “Coming Attraction,” and “To Serve Man” –  four stories for Bleiler/Dikty and three for Asimov/Greenberg. That’s a pretty impressive debut.

The impact of the new magazines F&SF and Galaxy is particularly impressive when you realize they were competing with Astounding’s 12 issues with just 4 and 3 issues respectively.

Off to read 1951 – the year I was born.

James Wallace Harris

 

“At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee

at_the_fall_by_eldarzakirov_dd572fh-pre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler Alert

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

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

James Wallace Harris

 

 

 

 

Beta-test version 5 of The Classics of Science Fiction

On the edge of the galaxy by Virgil Finlay

We’re now testing version 5 of The Classics of Science Fiction that’s completely database-driven and is inherently expandable. We might not need to ever create a new version. Version 5 will automatically create updated lists as we add new data.

Try it out here:  https://csfquery.com

Version 3 was database driven and I always meant to rewrite it so I could add new citation lists on the fly. Version 4 was based on a program that processed a fixed number of citation lists. Mike took on the project to learn new programming languages and has produced an elegant design of simplicity and flexibility. We hope everything is self-evident. You can click on most data fields to get more information. You can click on headings to resort the list. You can click to show the citations, and click again to remove them. And there’s a list builder that allows users to create their own customized list.

We’ve also reset the minimum citations for our versions of the lists. For books, it’s now 12, for stories it’s 8. In the past, we had lower minimums which produced longer lists. We just hated that some of our favorite science fiction wouldn’t make the grade. We’ve eliminated that temptation to meddle and decided to stay close to 100 items for each list. That’s about the perfect length for a list of greats. We think this works out well because the results are all very famous stories. However, you can use the list builder to set your own criteria for generating the lists.

Totals for our lists will constantly change as we add new data and reset the rules.

We feel our lists are the most remembered science fiction books and stories. We don’t claim these are the best science fiction you’ll ever read, that’s up to you. Our goal has always been to identify those stories which are remembered over time. We hope to add new features that will allow users to even specify which citations to use so they can see what books were popular during different time periods.

We’ve also decided to leave all the essays about the project off the new site. We’ll leave version 4 up here, which has the history of the project and the old versions of the list.

Play with this new version and let us know what you think. Leave comments below.

James Wallace Harris

The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1949

 

Years Best Short Science Fiction 1949

In 1950 Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty picked the following 1949 science fiction short stories for their second annual anthology The Best Science Fiction Stories – 1950:

  • Private Eye” by Henry Kuttner (Astounding, January 1949)
  • “Doomsday Deferred” by Will F. Jenkins (Saturday Evening Post, 9/24/49)
  • The Hurkle is a Happy Beast” by Theodore Sturgeon (The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949)
  • Eternity Lost” by Clifford Simak (Astounding, July 1949)
  • “Easter Eggs” by Robert Spencer Carr (Saturday Evening Post, 9/24/49)
  • “Opening Doors” by Wilmar H. Shiras (Astounding, March 1949)
  • “Five Years in the Marmalade” by Robert W. Krepps (Fantastic Adventures, July 1949)
  • “Dwellers in Silence” by Ray Bradbury (Planet Stories, Spring 1949)
  • “Mouse” by Fredric Brown (Wonder Stories, June 1949)
  • “Refuge for Tonight” by Robert Moore Williams (Blue Book Magazine, March 1949)
  • “The Life-Work of Professor Muntz” by Murray Leinster (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Jun 1949)
  • Flaw” by John D. MacDonald (Startling Stories,  January 1949)
  • “The Man” by Ray Bradbury (Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1949)

Astounding Science Fiction is no longer dominating. Why no stories from the Big 3 (Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke)? Robert A. Heinlein, probably the most popular science fiction writer at the time had five stories published in 1949 – “Our Fair City,” “Gulf,” “The Long Watch,” “Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon,” and “Delilah and the Space Rigger.” I’ve read the Heinlein wanted too much money to reprint his stories, or maybe Bleiler and Dikty just didn’t like Heinlein or felt he didn’t need the exposure.

If Heinlein wasn’t the most popular science fiction writer in 1949, then Ray Bradbury might have been because two of his stories were selected, and in 1984, Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg picked another for their anthology The Great SF Stories 11 (1949):

  • “The Red Queen’s Race” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, January 1949)
  • Flaw” by John D. MacDonald (Startling Stories, January 1949)
  • Private Eye” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (Astounding, January 1949)
  • “Manna” by Peter Phillips (Astounding, February 1949)
  • “The Prisoner in the Skull” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (Astounding, February 1949)
  • “Alien Earth” by Edmond Hamilton (Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1949)
  • “History Lesson” by Arthur C. Clarke (Startling Stories, May 1949)
  • Eternity Lost” by Clifford D. Simak (Astounding, July 1949)
  • “The Only Thing We Learn” by C. M. Kornbluth (Startling Stories, July 1949)
  • “Private – Keep Out!” by Philip MacDonald (The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949)
  • The Hurkle is a Happy Beast” by Theodore Sturgeon (The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949)
  • “Kaleidoscope” by Ray Bradbury (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949)
  • “Defense Mechanism” by Katherine MacLean (Astounding, October 1949)
  • “Cold War” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949)
  • “The Witches of Karres” by James H. Schmitz (Astounding, December 1949)

I’ve bolded the four stories that both collections picked. Asimov/Greenberg did add an Asimov and Clarke, but no Heinlein. And our system found even another Ray Bradbury story and picked a Heinlein:

CSFSS-1949.

If you look close, only four stories have had citations from the 21st-century, and only two, “Gulf” by Heinlein, and “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” by Bradbury are remembered by fans recently. Our Classics of Science Fiction project shows how stories are slowly forgotten.

But what about how I felt reading these 1949 stories in 2019? To be honest, I’m struggling to retain them in memory. Most were just okay, even time-wasters. The story that really stuck out for me was “Alien Earth” by Edmond Hamilton, which I’ve already written about. Plus, Hamilton was writing about trees in 1949 that foresees such books as The Hidden Life of Trees (2015) by Peter Wohlleben and The Overstory (2019) by Richard Powers that just won the Pulitzer Prize.

The Ray Bradbury stories still work after all these years. In fact, my admiration for Bradbury is growing. His 1940s stories say so much about that decade and still, they seem relevant in the 2010s.

Most of the 1949 science fiction short stories were fun or clever but will probably offer little to modern readers.

One story, “Private Eye” by Kuttner and Moore, was very impressive but didn’t move me. Paul Fraser at SF Magazines really admired “Private Eye.” I want to reread it in the future because I think it will impress me more with a second reading. I wished someone would do an audiobook of Kuttner/Moore’s collected stories because they dominated the 1940s SF, yet I seldom enjoy their stories like I think I should. I’ve always loved “Vintage Season” but most of their stories seem to be more intellect than heart.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Opening Doors” by Wilmar Shiras, her sequel to “In Hiding” an all-time favorite of mine, but it didn’t have the impact of the first story and doesn’t stand on its own very well.

Nothing-Ever-Happens-on-the-Moon---Robert-A.-Heinlein

What Heinlein stories would I include. “Gulf” is a major story, but it’s subject major is something I find distasteful. I also found the novel Friday, which is a sequel to “Gulf” to be even more distasteful. I guess my favorite Heinlein for 1949 would be “Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon” – a two-part story from Boys Life. (Part 1, Part 2).

Bleiler and Dikty seem to have more stories from the first half of 1949, and Asimov and Greenberg more from the second half. Both looked at several magazines, getting away from Astounding is everything feeling. I’m not sure if I could find other stories worth anthologizing. Nor do I think I could pick enough 1949 SF stories to fill a whole book that’s I’d recommend to modern readers.

Starting last year I began reading the annual best-of-the-year SF anthologies in order. I began with the year 1939. Now that I’ve just finished 1949, it means I’ve covered the whole decade of the 1940s. I’m developing a sense that science fiction is evolving. But I will have to write about that at another time. I’ve started on the 1950 volumes, and the first four stories are already more exciting than any in 1949. My hunch is the 1950s will be the most exciting decade for science fiction.

James Wallace Harris, 6/12/19

Serious Science Fiction

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers audiobook cover 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris

 

 

“Alien Earth” by Edmond Hamilton

Alien-Earth-by-Edmond-Hamilton

“Alien Earth” by Edmond Hamilton first appeared in the April 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. It has seldom been reprinted. I just discovered it in an old copy of The Great SF Stories 11 (1949) which came out in 1984. In other words, this story is mostly forgotten. You can read it online at the Internet Archive.

Edmond Hamilton got his start in Weird Tales in the 1920s but eventually wrote extensively for many kinds of pulps and comics. Today he is mainly remembered, if he’s remembered at all, for his space opera, especially as the primary author of Captain Future. Because of this, when I turned the page of this anthology and saw it was by Edmond Hamilton I groaned inwardly. I wasn’t in the mood for a silly space opera. Instead, I got a contemporary adventure tale that grabbed me and I grabbed back.

I don’t know why “Alien Earth” is not better remembered because I found it very readable and compelling. Within a few paragraphs, I was thinking what a great writer Hamilton was, and impressed he could do something so different. The opening line was just right, “The dead man was standing in a little moonlit clearing in the jungle when Farris found him.” The dead man, described as a typical Laos tribesman, wasn’t entirely dead. I don’t know my 1949 geography, but I’m guessing this is French Indochina. So the story starts out as a jungle adventure in a science fiction magazine. It was both realistic and fantastic, and ultimately, wonderfully speculative.

I can’t describe much of the story without creating spoilers, but let’s say it reminds me of the stories of Carlos Castenada I read back in my New Age phase in the late 1970s. It deals with states of consciousness and could easily have been popular during the New Wave period of science fiction back in the 1960s, something J. G. Ballard could have written.

I have an ongoing fantasy about editing an anthology of forgotten science fiction stories. “Alien Earth” is a story I’d want to include. Read it, and let me know what you think. I fear I might love stories that few others would love too since so often the stories I’d want for my imaginary anthology are not ones many remember. Maybe I should call my anthology Forgotten Science Fiction for Readers Like Me. It might sell 17 copies.

Thrilling Wonder Stories April 1949

James Wallace Harris