The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1948


Is there any reason to read SF short stories from 1948 in 2019? Over at the blog Doomsdayer, Zach read the Bleiler/Dikty anthology and judged it unworthy claiming the experience was “monumentally boring.” He went on to point out there was only one story was completely written by a woman, while another had a woman coauthor. He also noted that 8 of the 12 stories had no women characters at all while ethnicity was barely alluded to once. I can imagine that Zach is young and that most readers from recent generations will have his reaction to these 1948 SF short stories.

Escaping into the past feels like fiddling while Rome burns. We face so many social problems today that we barely have time to think about the countless threats to our future, so why look backward? These 1948 science fiction stories have nothing relevant to say to the people of 2019. So why read them?

I enjoy old science fiction, but I assume these stories won’t appeal to 99.9% of science fiction fans. A few are beautiful if beheld by the right beholder. Odds are, you aren’t that person. But who is? Who is the target reader for these 71-year-old science stories?

We want to believe that art is timeless and enduring, but it’s not. Enjoying these stories often depends on being a pop culture archeologist. Or a student of literary evolution. They are snapshots of our hopes and fears from 1948. Science fiction writers are known for their wild speculations about fantastic possibilities. For example, in “No Connection,”  Isaac Asimov imagines millions of years from now intelligent bears populating North America, and one of them learns that on a distant continent there is a high tech civilization populated by descendants of chimpanzees. Sounds fun, but it’s poorly written.

In 1948 there were many stories about how we’d destroy ourselves with atomic bombs but that’s not something we worry about today — we have other ways of destroying ourselves. Mostly these stories are too talky lacking in drama, structure, and emotion. Science fiction writers were still learning how to tell a story in 1948.

Once you begin sampling science fiction from different generations you realize that we ask the same questions over and over again. Asimov asks: What animal will replace homo sapiens when we fail? L. Sprague de Camp asked it in 1939 with “Living Fossil” and Pierre Boulle asked it again in 1963 with Planet of the Apes. Probably every generation since 1968 has been exposed to that idea via the latest remake of the Planet of the Apes films. To give Asimov extra credit, he gives his bears a superior civilization and suggests the evolved chimpanzees will have our trait of self-destruction.

Several of the stories from 1948 try to imagine superior humans and social structures, but their efforts are clumsy. It seems to me that few science fiction stories today attempt that, and instead imagine all the ways we can live with our bad traits. But is comparing the hopes of today against our hopes in the past make rereading these old stories worthwhile? Why do we continue to remember certain books, short stories, songs, and movies decades after they first appeared?

If I asked you to list the artwork from 1948 that you remember and cherish, could you? Unless you’re a major film buff, it’s doubtful you’d recall many of the top movies from 1948. Unless you’re an aficionado of an art form, it’s doubtful you cherish older works. For every Pride and Prejudice, there are a million forgotten works of fiction. Most people are happier with contemporary artistic escapes, with Game of Thrones or Fortnite.

I’m fascinated by how fiction is remembered over the decades. This website is devoted to identifying how those science fiction stories are retained in our collective memory. Sure, we call them classics, but that’s a loaded term because often readers feel classics should be the best stories of all time. I think of classics as those stories that keep hanging around and getting read regardless of their literary quality. We use statistical methods to search for ways to identify how stories are remembered and don’t deal with their aesthetic value.

1948 was a special year for science fiction. It was the first year that anthologists evaluated all the stories for a best-SF-of-the-year anthology. Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty also created an annoying titling standard we still use today. They named their book The Best Science Fiction 1949 but collected stories first published in 1948. WTF?! In 1983, when Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg retroactively collected their favorite short SF of 1948 they called their volume The Great SF Stories 10 (1948). So I’m reviewing two anthologies that collected the “best” science fiction short stories of 1948, one labeled 1949 and one 1948. That’s confusing. This year we’ll see anthologies called the best stories of 2019 but they will reprint 2018 stories.

I find it fascinating to compare what Bleiler/Dikty liked in 1949 with what Asimov/Greenberg liked in 1983, with the statistical analysis we did in 2018. Unfortunately, there’s no Retro Hugo awards 1949 for the 1948 stories. (Hugo awards are also one year off from the actual publication years.)

Here’s what Bleiler and Dikty picked back in 1949. I’ve bolded the stories the two anthologies have in common.

  • Mars is Heaven!” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Ex Machina” by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore)
  • The Strange Case of John Kingman” by Murray Leinster
  • “Doughnut Jockey” by Erik Fennel
  • Thang” by Martin Gardner
  • Period Piece” by John R. Pierce (J. J. Coupling)
  • Knock” by Fredric Brown
  • “Genius” by Poul Anderson
  • “And the Moon Be Still As Bright” by Ray Bradbury
  • “No Connection” by Isaac Asimov
  • In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras
  • “Happy Ending” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

Asimov and Greenberg pick these stories in 1983 as the best of 1948:

  • “Don’t Look Now” by Henry Kuttner
  • “He Walked Around the Horses” by H. Beam Piper
  • The Strange Case of John Kingman” by Murray Leinster
  • “That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril
  • “The Monster” by A. E. Van Vogt
  • “Dreams are Sacred” by Peter Phillips
  • Mars is Heaven!” by Ray Bradbury
  • Thang” by Martin Gardner
  • “Brooklyn Project” by William Tenn
  • “Ring around the Redhead” by John D. MacDonald
  • Period Piece” by J. J. Coupling
  • “Dormant” by A. E. Van Vogt
  • In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras
  • Knock” by Fredric Brown
  • “A Child is Crying” by John D. MacDonald
  • “Late Night Final” by Eric Frank Russell

I’ve tried to find other sources from the era where fans discuss their favorite stories. If I had time I’d go through the old fanzines to see what fans got excited about back then, but for now, I turned to Alva Rogers and his history A Requiem for Astounding, first published in 1964. I’m sure Rogers first read the stories as they came out in 1948, and then reread them for his book – so it’s not quite a 1948 perspective.

Rogers called the chapter on 1948 “The Threshold of Maturity,” claiming John W. Campbell was finally fulfilling his dream of making science fiction for mature readers. Rogers said Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures were serving up adolescent pap that was ignored by mature fans, and that Planet Stories was fun but still immature. He did say that Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories were the closest in competition to Astounding Science-Fiction. As I’ve read The Great SF Stories 1-9 (1939-1947) I have seen an evolution in storytelling development.

Rogers thought the standout stories of 1948 (from Astounding) were:

  • “Now You See It” by Isaac Asimov
  • “Police Operation” by H. Beam Piper
  • “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras (one of the real sleepers of the year)
  • “Genius” by Poul Anderson (excellent)
  • “The Rull” by A. E. Van Vogt
  • “That Only A Mother” by Judith Merril (one of the most impressive debuts)

“Now You See It” became part of Second Foundation. “Genius” was a very tedious story in my mind that was based on a good idea. It’s about a future galactic empire ruled by psychologists (shades of Asimov) that experiment with a planet colonized by genetically engineered geniuses. “The Rull” became part of the fix-up novel, The War Against the Rull.

Rogers also mentioned some almost-as-good stories:

  • “There is No Defense,” “The Love of Heaven,” and “Unite and Conquer” by Theodore Sturgeon
  • “He Walked Around the Horses” by H. Beam Piper
  • “West Wind” and “The Strange Case of John Kingman” by Murray Leinster
  • “Her Majesty’s Aberration” and “The Great Air Monopoly” L. Ron Hubbard
  • “Ex Machina” by Henry Kuttner

Only three stories made our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list (those getting 5 or more citations) but I’m including the runner-ups, which got 3 or more citations.

  • “That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril (11)
  • “Mars is Heaven!” by Ray Bradbury (7)
  • “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras (5)
  • “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (4)
  • “The Strange Case of John Kingman” by Murray Leinster (3)
  • “Dreams Are Sacred” by Peter Phillips (3)

Only “Mars is Heaven!” and “In Hiding” are on all three lists. Both of those stories, and “That Only a Mother” made The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. So our statistical system works pretty good at identifying stories that are generally remembered.

Read Some of these Stories Online

I’d say the top four stories above are the ones worth reading most. But here’s a sampling to try for yourself. Links are to the stories at Internet Archive using scans of old pulp magazines.

That Only a Mother

That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril is about the fears of mutations caused by radiation. Right after Hiroshima, the public and science fiction worried that atomic research would lead to the birth of either monsters or superhuman mutants. I wasn’t impressed the first time I read this story, but it gets better and better with every new reading. “That Only a Mother” was reprinted again last year for The Future is Female! edited by Lisa Yaszek for the prestigious Library of America. “That Only a Mother” is also about a new superhuman, like “In Hiding.”

Mars is Heaven

Mars is Heaven!” is preserved in Ray Bradbury’s enduring classic The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury was considered literary back then, and he eventually left the genre, so he straddles two reading worlds. “Mars is Heaven” is so obviously scientifically wrong, yet so wonderfully right in its storytelling. I’ve read this story four or five times now, and it still reveals new pleasures. One of my all-time favorite SF short stories.

Bleiler and Dikty also included “And the Moon Be Still As Bright” – another wonderful story from The Martian Chronicles. Of all the stories here, this story is the most relevant to today. Bradbury wrote nostalgic feel-good stories that recognized the nastiness of the human race.

In Hiding

In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras is a forgotten classic. It’s my favorite science fiction story from 1948. “In Hiding” is a gentle story about a child genius that was so different from all the other similar stories from back then using that theme. “In Hiding” was also included in The Future is Female! Shiras wrote four sequels to this story and made them into the fix-up novel Children of the Atom (Gnome Press, 1953). That novel is mostly forgotten today, but I liked it well enough to buy a first edition copy to keep. And I noticed the other day on a  Facebook science fiction book club. people were fondly discussing Children of the Atom, so maybe someone will reprint it soon. Many readers don’t know that Shiras was a woman, which makes two of the three great SF stories from 1948 by female writers. Shiras thought out the consequences of an emergent new species of human far more carefully than any of her male writers.

The Strange Case of John Kingman

The Strange Case of John Kingman” by Murray Leinster is a very good story but not great, at least not compared to the three above. It’s about an alien that looks mostly human being put away in a mental hospital. It’s still a very readable story but lacks an emotional punch. And I think that’s key for a story to become the kind of classic that is remembered for years and years.

Dreams are Sacred

Dreams Are Sacred” by Peter Phillips still works too, and it prefigures Roger Zelazny’s The Dream Master (“He Who Shapes”) which won the Nebula award in 1966. A writer is in a psychotic coma and his psychiatrist invents a way to send an observer into his patient’s dreams. This is still a cool idea today. Imagine Don Quixote in an Edgar Rice Burroughs nightmare being rescued G.I. Joe.

He Walked Around the Horses

I’m partial to “He Walked Around the Horses” by H. Beam Piper. Campbell and some of the Astounding readers back in the 1930s and 1940s were intrigued by the writings of Charles Fort who collected supposedly true unexplained mysteries. Most readers considered Fort a nutjob and crank. Piper took a real case of a missing person and wrote an epistolary narrative about the man being found in an alternative universe where Napolean didn’t start a war. Piper’s story is still very readable today but isn’t really science fiction, but falls in the sub-genre of alternate history. It probably inspired Piper to write his Paratime series. H. Beam Piper is one of the writers I’ve rediscovered this past year that I think deserves more attention.

Ex Machina intro

Ex Machina” by Lewis Padgett was probably mostly written by Henry Kuttner and not C. L. Moore. Husband and wife tag team writers regularly wrote under the byline, Lewis Padgett. Back in the 1970s, I ran across a copy of Robots Have No Tails which collected all the Gallegher stories and was enchanted by it, but nowadays I have a hard time enjoying Kuttner’s stories. I found “Ex Machina” rather long and tedious until I came to this paragraph:

The social trend always lags behind the technological one. And while technology tended, in these days, toward simplification, the social pattern was immensely complicated, since it was partly an outgrowth of historical precedent and partly a result of the scientific advance of the era. Take jurisprudence. Cockburn and Blackwood and a score of others had established certain general and specific rules—say, regarding patents—but those rules could be made thoroughly impractical by a single gadget. The Integrators could solve problems no human brain could manage, so, as a governor, it was necessary to build various controls into those semi-mechanical colloids. Moreover, an electronic duplicator could infringe not only on patents but on property rights, and attorneys prepared voluminous briefs on such questions as whether "rarity rights" are real property, whether a gadget made on a duplicator is a "representation" or a copy, and whether mass-duplication of chinchillas is unfair competition to a chinchilla breeder who depended on old-fashioned biological principles. All of which added up to the fact that the world, slightly punch-drunk with technology, was trying desperately to walk a straight line. Eventually, the confusion would settle down.

That’s exceedingly perceptive for 1948, and if you realize by integrators Kuttner meant computers and electronic duplicators he meant 3D printers, it’s still insightful for 2019. I dislike the Gallegher stories today because I’m impatient with the drunk inventor and because Kuttner withholds information from the reader for suspense. However, if I saw this story dramatized for Black Mirror or the new Twilight Zone it’s zaniness might reconstitute itself.

The Lottery

The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson originally appeared in The New Yorker and is one of the most famous short stories ever written. I wouldn’t think most readers would think of “The Lottery” as science fiction, but it made it onto three SF fan polls of favorite stories. It does fall in the realm of speculating about alternate societies that sociological science fiction likes to explore. Ursula K. Le Guin did a much more science fictional version of the theme with her story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

No Connection Isaac Asimov

No Connection” by Isaac Asimov doesn’t fit into his Robot or Foundation series. Without the illustration, I wonder how soon many readers would have figured out the main character was a bear? I guessed gorilla. It’s funny but in all these stories, all intelligent beings smoke, even the bears.

James Wallace Harris

“Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp


Reprinted from Worlds Without End.

Read it now: Astounding Science-Fiction February 1939

You might own “Living Fossil” already in one these anthologies:

Warning: This column contains spoilers.

Let’s imagine we’re a science fiction writer back in the late 1930s. We don’t make much money, so we probably live in a cheap tenement house. There’s no air conditioning, so the windows are open, and the street sounds are pouring in. We have no computer or smartphone, no internet or television. We carefully read the morning and afternoon newspapers, listen to the radio and subscribe to Astounding Science Fiction, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Popular Science, and Scientific American. We often walk to the library in the evening. This is our world of information in 1939.

We’re sitting at the typewriter, smoking a cigarette, planning a story we hope to sell to Astounding Science-Fiction. We want an idea that will wow them and get us the cover. We want to produce the thought variant story. We have a solid knowledge of science fiction published in the pulps back to 1926, and we know the classics like Verne and Wells. Plus, we like to think we’re scientific and visionary.

If you’ve read science fiction short stories from this era you know the variety of wild ideas pitched to science fiction editors. Coming up with something different was essential. Science fiction was mostly idea driven until after the New Wave of the 1960s. Science fiction writers were expected to be as original as research scientists testing a new hypothesis.

“Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp has not been reprinted very often, and I find that surprising. Anyone seeing the interior illustration above will exclaim, “Oh my god, that’s Planet of the Apes!” But it’s 1939, not 1963 when Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes first appeared in English. How did de Camp get that idea? Was it astoundingly original in 1939, or are there older versions of the same idea in pulps I haven’t read?

Anyone who has read The Time Machine (1995) by H. G. Wells already knows about possible evolutionary descendants of Homo Sapiens. That novella also gave us the meme that death will one day come to both to our species and the Earth. And if you’ve read the brilliant Last and First Men (1930) by Olaf Stapledon then you’ve already entertained that 17 possible future species of humans could exist after us.

Is it so hard to imagine that L. Sprague de Camp asked himself, “What if humans became extinct, how long before another species would become intelligent?” This is one of my favorite science fiction themes: Who comes after us? Clifford Simak imagined intelligent dogs and robots in his lovely fix-up novel, City. Today we assume AI machines will replace us. But have you read the wonderful The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, or seen the television documentaries that were inspired by it? I wrote about them back in 2012. What if self-aware intelligence doesn’t rise up again?

Who comes after humans? “Living Fossil” speculates they could be capuchin monkeys from South America after 10 million years. The story opens with Nawputta, a zoologist and his guide Chujee riding their agoutis exploring northeast North America near Pittsburgh. Ten million years have made a lot of smaller species much larger in their world, and now the agoutis are as large as mules.

This is a pleasing idea, at least to me. I love to think if humans go extinct life on Earth will go on. De Camp even has his Jmu (the capuchin word equal to human) complain that humans used up all the metals and other resources. As Nawputta and Chujee cross the country looking for new specimens for their museum back home, they speculate about the dead civilization of man. After finding what remains of a large stone with a partial inscription on it, they start speculating:

Notice the part where they wish they could meet a live human? Well, that comes true, but not for a couple days. First, they meet another one of their kind by a campfire, Nguchoy tus Chaw, and he’s none too friendly. This part of the story reminds me of James Fenimore Cooper and his tales about the French and English using the Native Americas. Like Cooper’s stories, there’s all kind of dishonest shenanigans going on by ambitious colonists wanting to exploit the wilderness.

Nguchoy is a timber scout who is doing something shady. Our guys get suspicious of him. After he leaves they head further into the unknown country. Eventually, they find three dead humans, not fossils, with bullet holes in them. They figured Nguchoy shot them. For some reason, the zoologist decides he wants to find and kill a fresh human for a specimen. My friend Mike thought this ruined the story because earlier they had been wishing to find a human to talk to. I assumed they meant city dwelling humans, not humans who had to devolve back to living in caves. Here’s what happens:

This is where de Camp differs from Pierre Boulle. For the rest of the story, which is mainly an adventure narrative about Nawputta and Chujee fleeing for their lives in a territory of hostiles humans who weren’t afraid of their guns. Our sympathy is with the Capuchins. De Camp portrays humans like Native Americans in old westerns. They are fearless, ferocious, and treacherous. I don’t know if this is ironic or straight. I don’t know if de Camp was being satirical by having monkeys colonize the new world and then treat humans the same way Europeans treated the Native Americans. Or, if the story was to parallel how Cro Magnon killed off the Neanderthal. Or both. In either case, it’s accepted within this story for the monkeys to kill the humans.

In the Planet of the Apes, our perspective is on the side of the humans, and we want them to fight their way back to the top of the evolutionary heap. Boulle plays to our vanity so we want his humans to outwit the evolved apes. In “Living Fossil” de Camp doesn’t take sides but assumes a kind of naturalism where an intellectually advanced species will overcome a less advanced species.

But I have yet another theory. Maybe de Camp wanted to say humans aren’t the divinely chosen, the crown of God’s creation. Science, evolution, and the Enlightenment offer a view of reality where God isn’t needed or wanted. Readers who feel humans are special will object to this story. In fact, the faithful shouldn’t like this story at all, because it says humans aren’t the center of existence, won’t live forever, and are no different from the other animal species. In that sense, I think de Camp is sticking it to our collective egos.

That’s what I love about these old pulp magazine stories. An ordinary writer could have big ideas and get paid a 1/2 cent a word by the top science fiction magazine of the day. Science fiction allows anyone the chance to defy the common belief, the accepted orthodoxy, or even speculate beyond proven scientific knowledge.

Science fiction allowed every writer to become a Darwin, explaining reality in fiction by using their own observations, speculations, and extrapolations. Sure, most science fiction writers came up with craptastic ideas, but so what, some of them were brilliantly imaginative, and often inspired a sense of wonder, at least in adolescent geeky boys of the times.

How would you answer this question today: “Who comes after humans?” Has science fiction already explored all the obvious possibilities? Already, science fiction has suggested endless variations on Superman and mutations. We’ve imagined countless evolved animals and machines taking over. We’ve imagined aliens moving in and kicking us out. But I’m positive, if I keep reading these old pulp magazines, I will find stories that will surprise me.

[I’m surprised “Living Fossil” didn’t get the cover for February 1939.]

James Wallace Harris

Writers Aiming to Get Into Print are Aiming Too Low



When writers sit down to write a short story they have several goals to accomplish. The first is to finish the first draft. Many would-be writers can do this much, but it involves many subgoals, like creating a hook, developing a plot, fleshing out characters, coming up with a satisfying ending, as well as technical goals of grammar, spelling, readability, and factuality.  The next step is to produce a polished draft. This is much harder because you want to give the story voice, style, and art. Then there’s the big hurdle of selling the story. To do that requires many sub-goals too. You have to find the right market that’s open and you have to impress the editors that the story is worth buying. Even if your story gets into print you still have many goals left depending on your ambition. A check might be all you want, or you might dream of writing a story that gets an award or anthologized. That means your goals while writing the story increase. And some writers have the goal of being remembered. They hope their stories will bring them a tiny sliver of immortality. To achieve that goal means thinking differently when starting the story.

In my review of the best short science fiction stories of 1959 I came across one story that hasn’t been well remembered but I thought was pretty darn good. It was “Whatever Counts” by Frederik Pohl in the June 1959 issue of Galaxy. (You can read it online if you follow the link.) My guess is Pohl’s primary goal was a paycheck, but I believe there’s internal evidence to suggest he was aiming much higher. However, I’m not sure how hard he worked at these higher goals. Back then science fiction writers had to crank out a steady stream of stories to pay the bills. I doubt Pohl was thinking much about winning a Hugo award or getting Judith Merril to anthologize his story. However, I feel “Whatever Counts” has several ideas that Pohl wanted to explore and spread. The question is, were those ideas innovative enough to still think about them sixty years later?

If your writing goal is just to get published then you can’t expect to achieve any of the higher goals. Most SF magazines are filled with stories that work, but few stand out. Average stories often make readers feel like they are wasting their reading time. I’ve talked to a lot of people about reading the SF magazines, and most feel lucky if they find one standout story in an issue.

Why do we still remember “All You Zombies—” and “Flowers for Algernon” from 1959 but not “Whatever Counts?” Both of those stories were made into movies, and they have been anthologized frequently over the years. Pohl did include “Whatever Counts” in his collection Abominable Earthman in 1963, but even that’s been forgotten. But then Pohl never had any classic collections like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles or Robert A. Heinlein’s The Green Hills of Earth. “Whatever Counts” wasn’t even included in The Best of Frederik Pohl. So why am I writing about it now?

Evidently, Gideon Marcus and I are among “Whatever Counts” few fans. We both felt it was an exceptional story for the June 1959 Galaxy. Why didn’t it achieve any of the greater successes for an SF short story? Can I make a case that it should be remembered? I’ve been thinking about that, and I have an analogy as to why we remember short stories. We remember those personal memories that were peak experiences. My theory is the best short fiction has to work like our peak experiences to be memorable.

I can recall just three memories from the first grade. I was still five when I started the first grade, and wouldn’t turn six for three months. One memory is walking to school for the first time on my own. I guess being new and scary made it memorable. I also remember being embarrassed when the teacher asked us if we knew our alphabet and I didn’t. Another memory-etching experience. And the last memory was of walking home one day and finding the doors locked. I couldn’t get in, and no one was home to let me in. I calmly went to sleep on the front porch but evidently, I was traumatized enough to record that memory.

In other words, we remember intense emotional experiences. Both “Flowers for Algernon” and “All You Zombies—” are emotionally charged. While “Whatever Counts” did have several moving scenes that I thought were vivid the story isn’t memorable. “Whatever Counts” opens with colonists in a spaceship floating in freefall trying to get a baby to burp. The baby is choking because it can’t easily spit up in weightlessness. The adults swing it to give it some gravity. This made me wonder if Fred Pohl’s wife had just had a child. But I also wondered if Pohl asked himself: Can babies survive space travel? “Whatever Counts” has a very realistic take on space travel for 1959. It was written before readers were familiar with seeing astronauts floating in freefall. While I read the story I realized Pohl did quite a lot of thinking about the real issues of space travel and first contact. The story is more than its plot.

In “Whatever Counts” fifty-eight humans arrive at a planet with an extinct civilization. They plan to start a colony in an abandoned alien city, but before they can set up base, they are captured by other aliens visiting the planet. The humans knew about the other aliens but didn’t expect them on this planet. They called them Gormen. There are enough ideas in this novelette to fill out a whole novel.

The story, once it gets down to business after an interesting setup unrelated to the plot, is about the mission psychologist, Howard Brabant, apparently aiding the enemy. The crew slowly comes to hate Brabant even though Brabant explains he’s trying to figure out how the Gormen think. Pohl is trying to get across the idea that humans are hindered by their conscious mind, something that is much talked about today, but not in 1959. Just read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Exploring how other intelligent creatures could think differently than humans is the main course of this story, and I believe Pohl did it well enough to make “Whatever Counts” worth reading today. However, he appears to digress in different directions, including one apparently gratuitous sex scene that was illustrated by Wally Wood. But even here, I’m guessing Pohl was trying to say something serious. Science fiction had a reputation of putting scantily clad women attacked by bug-eyed monsters on covers of its magazines. I think Pohl wanted to explore this meme realistically. And Pohl didn’t know in 1959 that soon UFO nuts would worry about little gray big-eyed aliens wanting to give humans medical exams.


The “sex scene” is an unsettling situation for the characters, where the Gormen grab a female colonist and undress her in front of the other humans. Readers will find this scene distasteful wondering if Pohl is being gratuitous. To the human crew, they felt it was a sexual assault. But the psychologist knows it not. He knows the Gormen think of us as animals. (That made me wonder if animals think vets and researchers are sexually assaulting them at times.) One of the emotional impacts of the story is being helpless in the hands of a superior being. The Gormen treat humans like we do animals in a laboratory.

In a way, this relates to when Charlie Gordan in “Flowers for Algernon” realized he wasn’t smart and his “friends” were making him the butt of their jokes. Charlie realizes there are beings smarter than he, but later on when he becomes smarter than his “friends.” That’s two unique perspectives. As readers we see Charlie being dumber than us, but also smarter. Pohl is trying to convey how the Gormen are smarter than us.

I believe most people remember “Flowers for Algernon” because Charlies loses the intelligence he gained from the experiment. We fear that for ourselves. It hits us as highly tragic. But we don’t remember how Charlie felt being dumb among the smart people. That’s what Pohl was trying to do in “Whatever Counts.” We always assume that were just as good as any alien species, and will always find a way to beat them in a conflict. Pohl supports this belief, but for a while in his story, he was showing a way the Gormen were superior to us. The science fictional insight was Gormen didn’t know we had a subconscious mind that could think as fast as they did. That was an interesting insight for Pohl to have in 1959. Pohl should get more credit for his theory in a sixty-year-old science fiction story.

We have to give Pohl other credit for this story too. In a time when most science fiction writers had their characters cruising around the galaxy traveling faster-than-light from planet to planet taking as much travel time as we jet from city to city on Earth, Pohl had his colonist traveling at half the speed of light taking seven years to get to their destination. Most SF writers back then ignored weightlessness, but Pohl dealt with it. He also included women, smart women, but he didn’t have the foresight to give them equality of jobs. They weren’t crew, but passengers.

We remember “All You Zombies—” because every character is the same person. Heinlein used time travel to cleverly explain how it could happen. We remember “Flowers for Algernon” because a low IQ person gets transformed into a high IQ person. In each story, the gimmick is well plotted out as a series of emotional experiences of the main character. Ultimately, we remember the Heinlein story for its plotting dazzle, but we remember the Keyes story because it made us cry. Pohl leaves us with a few ideas to contemplate but his plot is patchy, and the emotional experiences aren’t focused. Most readers will remember Charlie Gordon, but not Howard Brabant.

How could Pohl have improved his story? First, he goes through three digressions before getting down to the main plot, including one on how people smoke in space. Second, he hides Brabant’s intention from the other characters and readers. This does make Brabant feel like he’s a toady for the Gormen, and I’m not sure readers like that. Being revealed as a hero at the last moment isn’t that redeeming for Brabant.

The setup of “Whatever Counts” is similar to the 1955 noir classic The Desperate Hours where a family is imprisoned in their home by three escaped convicts. The humans were imprisoned by the Gormen. The story should have begun right away by letting us readers know the plot is about escaping. Whether or not we think Brabant is a traitor is another issue. It worked well with the William Holden character in the 1953 film Stalag 17, but having such a dual plot is harder to finesse.

I wonder if Pohl started out thinking “Whatever Counts” could be a novel because of his various digressions. I got to spend a few hours with Pohl back in the 1970s, and I wish I had known then what I know now so I could have asked him. I checked Pohl’s memoir, The Way the Future Was but couldn’t find anything on this story, although Pohl said he got paid 4 cents a word from Galaxy in the 1950s. Those digressions meant more dollars in his paycheck.

Even though I really like “Whatever Counts” I think it’s seriously flawed and Pohl only had the goal of paying the bills in writing it. Which is a shame, because it could have been so much better. I think this story shows that ideas are great in science fiction stories, but storytelling counts even more in the long run. “Whatever Counts” had enough compelling enough ideas to make it the standout story of the June 1959 issue of Galaxy, but the structure of the story kept it from being memorable over time. Judith Merril didn’t even give “Whatever Counts” an honorable mention that year in her best-of-the-year anthology in 1960, and it’s never been anthologized in a retrospective anthology.

Whatever Counts illustrated by Wally Wood Galaxy June 1959 2

Thinking about this story has made me think about the writing of short stories in general. It’s depressing to read so many blah stories in the new issues of my favorite SF magazines. I now see the reason why. The goal of getting into print is aiming too low. Pohl was also an editor and agent, so he knew story construction. My guess is he knew “Whatever Counts” to be good enough to stand out as a better story in a magazine, and not much more. The check on acceptance outweighed anything he might have gotten in the future.

That’s too bad. Looking at Pohl’s long list of publications shows that most of them aren’t remembered today. If he had written far fewer with more ambitious things would have been different. Gateway, his 1977 novel is well remembered. I think I need to go study it. Oddly, its main character was named Broadhead, which is somewhat like Brabant.

James Wallace Harris, May 10, 2019


The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1959


Few people think about 1959 today – at least not consciously. Yet, 1959 hangs around. If you hear “So What” by Miles Davis or “Take Five” by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, that year creeps back into your mind. And if you play “Moanin’” by Art Blakey – now that’s 1959 down and dirty! 59′ also returns if you throw on the Blu-ray of Some Like it Hot, Ben-Hur, Anatomy of a Murder, or catch a rerun of The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Bonanza, or The Untouchables. Three novels dominated The New York Times bestsellers list in 1959 were Doctor Zhivago, Exodus, and Advise and Consent, although it might be more common to be reading A Separate Peace, A Canticle for Leibowitz, or Starship Troopers today.

I’ve become an aficionado of short science fiction, a particularly minor aspect of pop culture, but even here 1959 still matters. I’ve always wanted to pick a year and read all the science fiction magazines that came out that year. But I’m lazy. However, back in 2014, Gideon Marcus did just that for his blog Galactic Journey. This week I read all his columns covering 1959.

I’ve always wondered if anthologists have missed great stories. Are there a few classics still to be unearthed? In 1960 Judith Merril told us which stories she liked from 1959. Bold ones are the titles Marcus also liked.

  • “No Fire Burns” by Avram Davidson (Playboy)
  • No, No, Not Rogov!” by Cordwainer Smith (If)
  • “The Shoreline at Sunset” by Ray Bradbury (F&SF)
  • “The Dreamsman” by Gordon R. Dickson (Star Science Fiction No. 6)
  • “Multum in Parvo” by Jack Sharkey (The Gent)
  • Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (F&SF)
  • A Death in the House” by Clifford D. Simak (Galaxy)
  • “Mariana” by Fritz Leiber (Fantastic)
  • Day at the Beach” by Carol Emshwiller (F&SF)
  • “Plenitude” by Will Mohler (F&SF)
  • The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon (F&SF)
  • “Make a Prison” by Lawrence Block (Science Fiction Stories)
  • What Now, Little Man?” by Mark Clifton (F&SF)

Why did Merril miss “All You Zombies—” by Robert A. Heinlein that year? It was on her honorable mention list. I’ve read in later years Heinlein wanted too much to reprint his stories so it might have been true in 1960 too. Gideon Marcus didn’t read Fantastic, the 1959 men’s magazines, or original anthologies, so he gave no opinion on those stories.

Also, in 1960, fans voted the Hugo award for Best Short Fiction:


  • “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (F&SF)


  • “The Alley Man” by Philip José Farmer (F&SF)
  • “The Pi Man” by Alfred Bester (F&SF)
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon (F&SF)
  • “Cat and Mouse” by Ralph Williams (Astounding)

Why wasn’t “All You Zombies—” among the top stories nominated for a Hugo? Fans loved three stories that Merril overlooked – “The Alley Man,” “The Pi Man” and “Cat and Mouse.” All three were on her honorable mention list, but it included over a hundred stories. Those three weren’t popular with Gideon Marcus either.

We never know if the stories anthologists published as the best of the year are their exact best of the year, or the stories they could get the rights to publish.

In 1990 Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg told us their favorite in The Great SF Stories 21 (1959). Stories in bold are those that Merril didn’t pick in 1960.

  • Make a Prison” by Lawrence Block (Science Fiction Stories)
  • The Wind People” by Marion Zimmer Bradley (If)
  • “No, No, Not Rogov!” by Cordwainer Smith (If)
  • What Rough Beast?” by Damon Knight (F&SF)
  • The Alley Man” by Philip José Farmer (F&SF)
  • “Day at the Beach” by Carol Emshwiller (F&SF)
  • The Malted Milk Monster” by William Tenn (Galaxy)
  • The World of Heart’s Desire” by Robert Sheckley (Playboy)
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon (F&SF)
  • “A Death in the House” by Clifford D. Simak (Galaxy)
  • The Pi Man” by Alfred Bester (F&SF)
  • “Multum in Parvo” by Jack Sharkey (The Gent)
  • “What Now, Little Man?” by Mark Clifton (F&SF)
  • Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chan Davis (The Expert Dreamers)

Asimov and Greenberg added 8 stories that Merril didn’t anthologize, while still ignoring “Cat and Mouse” but remembered “The Pi Man.” In the early years of their series, Asimov and Greenberg would give the Heinlein stories they wanted to include a placeholder page in their anthologies. It told readers they couldn’t get the rights to publish Heinlein’s story, but they would have included it as one of the best of the year stories. They stopped even that recognition after a while. I assumed “didn’t get the rights” meant they didn’t want to pay Heinlein’s price.

In 2014 Gideon Marcus identified his favorites at Galactic Journey. His is a longer list than the others. The stories below are Gideon’s 5-stars or highly recommended, or his Galactic Stars Awards recommendations. I’ve cobbled this list together from my reading notes, and they are in no order. I’ve bolded stories the others didn’t recognize.

  • “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (F&SF)
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon (F&SF)
  • “What Rough Beast” by Damon Knight (F&SF)
  • This Earth of Hours” by James Blish (F&SF)
  • To Fell a Tree” by Robert F. Young (F&SF)
  • The Good Work” by Theodore L. Thomas (If)
  • The City of Force” by Daniel Galouye (Galaxy)
  • The Sky People” by Poul Anderson (F&SF)
  • Cat and Mouse” by Ralph Williams (Astounding)
  • Seeling” by Katherine MacLean (Astounding)
  • Whatever Counts” by Frederik Pohl (Galaxy)
  • Return to Prodigal” by J. T. McIntosh (If)
  • “Death in the House” by Clifford D. Simak (Galaxy)
  • The Aliens” by Murray Leinster (Astounding)
  • Someone to Watch Over Me” by Christopher Grimm (Galaxy)
  • Operation Incubus” by Poul Anderson (F&SF)
  • “What Now, Little Man?” by Mark Clifton (F&SF)

Marcus finally confirms the Hugo nominated “Cat and Mouse.” Most of the previously unremembered stories that Marcus rediscovered were not on anybody else’s list. “The Aliens” was reprinted in The World Turned Upside Down, ed. Drake, Baen, and Flint, 2004, and “The Sky People” were on a list of all-time favorite stories by Gardner Dozois. My guess is these stories need to be reread and reevaluated, but they might be like Pohl’s “Whatever Counts” – just standout stories for the issue, and not all-time classics. I thought “Whatever Counts” was quite innovative – it opens with a dramatic scene of parents trying to burp a baby in freefall and eventually explores different states of consciousness. If I was doing an anthology of Forgotten 1950s SF Stories, I’d include it. But I can’t say it’s a classic like “So What” or “Take Five” are for 1959 jazz. SF’s version of those jazz classics would be “Flowers for Algernon” and “All You Zombies—”

Marcus didn’t say much about “All You Zombies—” but he did rate the March F&SF issue at 4 to 4.5 stars, meaning there must have been some 5-star stories in that issue. He never said which ones, and he did say that F&SF had eleven 5-star stories for 1959. I can only identify eight by reading the columns. Maybe “All You Zombies—” was one. Because Marcus didn’t gush over the obvious classics, maybe he was specifically trying to promote overlooked stories.

In 2018 we created The Classics of Short Science Fiction that identified just four stories from 1959. They each had five or more citations – the requirement to make the list. They were:

  • “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (12)
  • “All You Zombies—” by Robert A. Heinlein (11)
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea by Theodore Sturgeon (7)
  • “The Pi Man” by Alfred Bester (5)

If Merril and Asimov/Greenberg anthologies had included “All You Zombies—” it would have gotten 14 citations, making it the most remembered SF story of 1959. It’s interesting that both “All You Zombies—” and “Flowers for Algernon” have been made into movies.

If you add in stories that got at least three citations the list would expand to:

  • “The Wind People” by Marion Zimmer Bradley (4)
  • “The Store of the Worlds” by Robert Sheckley (3)
  • “No, No, Not Rogov!” by Cordwainer Smith (3)
  • “The Alley Man” by Philip José Farmer (3)

When we do version 2.0 of The Classics of Short Science Fiction these four stories might get more citations, especially if I use Gideon’s picks as a citation source – that would at least put “The Wind People” on The Classics of Short Fiction list (unless I up the minimum citation requirement – now at 5).

If someone in 2019 created a new anthology series for the best short SF of the year, what should it contain? After 60 years have the classic short SF finally been identified? And if an anthologist in 2059 collected The Best Short SF of 1959 would they see the same classics we do today? Are there still SF stories from 1959 that haven’t revealed their genius yet?

And as Paul Fraser pointed out the stories above are mostly American and that Marcus didn’t read the British SF magazines New Worlds, Science Fantasy or Science Fiction Adventures. And the above lists ignore the rest of the world. We know Merril knew about Russian science fiction because she edited an anthology of Russian SF. Hopefully, by 2059 we’ll know more about the best 1959 SF short stories from around the world.

You can play with our database to create lists of best stories of the year lists.

James Wallace Harris, May 4, 2019

Reading Old Science Fiction Magazines


This year Galactic Journey is up for the Hugo Award for Best Fanzine.  The website is subtitled: “55 Years Ago: Science Fact and Fiction” which explains the clever idea on which the site is based. Founder, Gideon Marcus, traveled fifty-five years back in time when he began his blog and reviews the science fiction of that era. Mostly he reviews science fiction magazines as they come out, but also discusses SF movies, TV shows, and some books, along with science news of interest to science fiction readers. His journey began in 2013 when he jumped back to 1958, just a year after Sputnik was launched, but he’s now up to reporting on 1964, which includes a review of the latest issue of New Worlds.

Over the years I’ve read Galactic Journey erratically. I subscribe via RSS feed, and when a new post shows up I would read it if I had time. However, during this past year, I’ve slowly switched to old science fiction magazines as my favorite SF reading. It’s become my favorite form of escapism. I’ve even customized my iPad to read Galactic Journey. Weeks ago I jumped back to the beginning of Galactic Journey and began to read forward. I always keep the site open in my Chrome browser. I also keep my CBR reader active, so when I read a positive review of a story, I download the magazine in my CBR app and read the story right away. I used to keep a list of stories I wanted to read someday. Reading the story immediately has made a big difference in enjoying Galactic Journey.

You see, I have a vast collection of old science fiction magazines in digital format making this possible. In recent years fans of old magazines began scanning them to preserve and share. This began as a somewhat secret activity because it violates copyright law, but it’s now pretty much out in the open. I’m not sure if anyone really cares about old magazines to worry about their copyright. There are probably a few dozen scanners who want to preserve the decaying pulps for digital libraries, and maybe two or three hundred old readers who fondly remember these magazines. This is an exceedingly small subculture who love an incredibly tiny aspect of past pop culture.

The Internet Archive which is backed by a California library system has become the leading special collections library of old pulps and digests. See their Pulp Magazine Archive. Other sites around the net offer digital scans of old SF magazines for downloading too. Each issue is about 75-150mb on average in CBR format and 10-20mb in pdf format, so they are time-consuming to download and take up a lot of space on your hard drive.  On eBay, you can buy complete runs of a classic SF magazine on DVD for a few dollars which can save a lot of tedious downloading work. Internet Archive has an online viewer that makes casual reading easy. also has an online viewer that is very visually appealing, but they far fewer issues.

Because these old magazines have become available, whole magazine issues are being reviewed like at Galactic Journey. Other reviewers include Rich Horton at Black Gate, Paul Fraser at SF Magazines, and a few other sites with less regularity. Paul Fraser has a handy Reviews Index by magazine title with links to reviews of individual issues from almost four dozen SF/F magazine titles.

I subscribe and read many of the current SF magazines, while also systematically reading through all the annual best-SF-of-the-year collections, as well as anthologies that cover the complete history of science fiction. What I’m discovering while gorging on all this short fiction is I tend to like science fiction best from the 1950s and 1960s. Galactic Journey has pulled me back into the past, and it has reached a point in time so that it’s now reviewing the SF magazines I read when I was growing up.

And I’m not sure if my preference for old science fiction is pure nostalgia. I just finished reading The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois that claimed to be the 38 finest short science fiction stories published from 2002-2017. On average, I’d say these modern stories were more sophisticated and better written than SF stories from the 1950s, but I wouldn’t say they were more fun to read. The modern stories were more scientific and politically correct, but they offer far fewer settings in which I’d want to vicariously dwell.

Sadly, the future has changed during my lifetime. Maybe its a bit pathetic to jump back in time to read old science fiction magazines. Maybe it even reveals a psychological problem. But I find a distinct pleasure in reading these old science fiction mags at this stage in my life. I’m now reliving the 1960s in my sixties, and soon I’ll be reliving the 1970s in my seventies. A philosopher once said an unexamined life isn’t worth living. I think we also need to reexamine our futures too.


I hope Galactic Journey wins the Hugo.

James Wallace Harris, May 2, 2019

The Limits of Believability in Science Fiction


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/19/19








“Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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




Decoding Short Stories


I read mainly science fiction short stories, but my theories about decoding short stories apply to any genre. Lately, I have been reading science fiction from a number of time periods. I’m systematically reviewing the stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois which covers stories 2002-2017. I’m also reading The Great SF Stories 9 (1947) edited by Asimov and Greenberg. I’ve started reading Science Fiction Rivals of H. G. Wells edited by Alan K. Russell that covers SF in the 1890s. I just bought Best SF: 1968 edited by Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss because I want to study the science fiction of 1967.

Concurrently to reading science fiction, I’ve started reading short stories by D. H. Lawrence from the early 20th-century and bought an audiobook anthology of classic literary short stories that cover a century in scope. Because of all this short story reading, I’m beginning to notice patterns. I imagine whenever someone sits down to write a short story they have a goal in telling their story. The subtle variations of each are endless, but I think I see a taxonomy of writing targets. Many short stories begin with vague goals and then fill in with increasing details. Some of the target outlines include:

  • Biography
  • Autobiography
  • Fictional realism
  • Retelling/Reporting
  • Travelogue
  • Humor
  • History
  • Mystery
  • Fantasy
  • Science Fiction

Literary writers are like realistic painters. They want to capture all the details of their subjects, whether they are writing about themselves or people they know. Marcel Proust and Jack Kerouac wrote thinly disguised stories based on their own experiences (autobiography). Hemingway and Fitzgerald liked to observe the people around them (biography). If you read any annual edition of The Best American Short Stories, the most intense stories often feel like they are based on real-life events (fictional realism) but aren’t. MFA programs teach their students the writing skills to pull this off. Finally, some literary writers love to find a great true story and turn it into fiction (retelling/reporting).

Inbetween literary writers and genre writers are humor and travel writers. Sometimes their stories are based on the truth, but often they stretch it. There’s a difference between nonfiction humor and travel writers and the fictionalized kind, although if you could read the minds of writers of the nonfiction kind you’d find they often fudged the truth with a bit of fictionalizing.

Genre writers nearly always open Microsoft Word and begin their story purely from their imaginations. For example, I just read “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander, one of the stories nominated for a Hugo award this year. Nothing in her story has ever existed in reality, it all came from Bolander’s ability to make stuff up. Bolander begins:

Once upon a time, long, long, long, long, long, long, ago, there were three raptor sisters, hatched beneath a lucky star. They lived in a wood together, they stole sheep and cattle together, and all in all, there was no tighter-knit hunting pride of matriarchal dromaeosauridae between the mountains and the sea.

Fantasy writers are bound by their Guild to create fantastic beasts. Using raptors was fun and clever. Melding a medieval fairytale about a Prince and Princess with Jurassic Park nasties is one of the reasons Bolander is up for an award, but not the only reason. Recasting Prince Charming as a doofus, creating an anti-princess Princess, while poking fun at traditional little girl fantasies, are some of the others.

My point in referencing Bollander’s story is to show the challenge of writing a fantasy short story. There’s no need for biographical or autobiographical characters, and the use of history barely exists and what is used is completely distorted.

When John Singer Sargent painted “The Misses Vickers” above he was creating a visual biography of Florence, Mabel, and Clara Vickers. When we read Henry James or Edith Wharton, we feel they are painting with words to capture 19th-century people they knew. Genre writers can base their characters, settings, and times on real people, places, and events, but they usually don’t. However, they can create characters, settings and times that feel like they were real or could be real. The reason why Game of Thrones and Harry Potter stories are so popular is they feel real.

When I read Thomas Hardy or D. H. Lawrence I feel they’re accurately describing village life in England. I expect their characters could be based on real people, and the scenes they describe could be real places. I don’t expect that from genre writers.

But here’s the thing, great writing is the accumulation of significant details. Writers can crib those details from reality, or they can make them up. It’s my theory that the best science fiction has a feeling of realness, such as Timescape by Gregory Benford, or Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, or Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel.

On the other hand, the best fantasy is realistically painted with imagined details, like Tolkien or Rowling. There is an uncanny valley effect in fantasy too, like in computer animation. A fantasy that feels somewhat real, but not quite, is disturbing. Think of all those cheap fantasy films that feel campy today. Then think about why you love Game of Thrones on HBO.

When you read a short story you’re decoding both the writer’s goal and their coding. To fairly judge a story requires decoding that goal while reading the story. Sadly, all too often it’s to crank out 7,500 words to sell at 10 cents a word. Too many writers use seat-of-their-pants plotting and grab details out of the air as fast as they type. The end product of a work of realism or imagination should still feel realistic even if the physics of the genre world is much different from ours.

I believe when a writer sits down to write a short story they have a goal in mind. As readers, we need to decipher that goal to properly appreciate the story. To judge a story we need to decide if the goal is both worthy and met. I have a problem with reading some genres, such as fantasy stories, because it’s just not my thing. However, I should not judge those genres by my tastes but by figuring out the target of the story and deciding if it was hit.

When I read fantasy stories I often feel like I went to a rock concert and classical music was played. Sometimes the classical music wins me over, and sometimes it doesn’t. I feel the world of science fiction is being replaced by fantasy, even the stories with spaceships and robots. It’s a challenge for me to read modern SF/F because of my personal interests, but I’m trying to judge these works by their own goals. I’m using this site to explore the art and nature of short stories. I was going to ignore all fantasy fiction, but that’s becoming very hard to do.

My goal is to get away from judging fiction by my personal tastes and instead work to understand how a story works by decoding its own goal.

lawrence alma-tadema



“The Purple Death” by W. L. Alden

The Purple Death by W. L. Alden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, April 2, 2019


“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson


“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson was first published in The New Space Opera 2 edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan in 2009. It’s been reprinted a number of times, including Clarkesworld where you can read and listened to it online. It is the 12th story I’ve reviewed from The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois.

Utriusque Cosmi was a two-volume work by Robert Fludd published in 1617 and 1621. You can see a facsimile copy of this book at It is a work of occult philosophy.

“Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson is a teleological science fiction story, or maybe a fantasy claiming a different intelligent designer other than God. Robert Charles Wilson thinks big when he writes science fiction, like his story Spin, a 2005 novel which won the Hugo award.

To say “Utriusque Cosmi” is epic in scope is an epic understatement. The story starts out simple, with a woman named Carlotta going back in time to haunt her sixteen-year-old self. I won’t tell you where it ends up. Let’s just say this is one of the most unique ghost stories ever written with a science fictional explanation that would impress Olaf Stapledon.

My goal of slowly reviewing the 38 stories in The Very Best of the Best is not to critique the stories, but to use them to contemplate the nature of science fiction. “Utriusque Cosmi” is a mixture of literary and science fictional writing. Young Carlotta’s narrative if separated from the science fiction feels like something I’d read in the annual Best American Short Stories. In fact, it could have been written as a traditional ghost story inside any other theological view of reality.

What Wilson has done is come up with a teleological argument using a science fictional intelligent design. That’s both clever and somewhat psychoanalytically revealing of our genre. Both theists and Sci-Fi fans want reality to be different from what it actually is. That’s why I often consider science fiction to be a substitute for religion. Science fiction keeps dreaming of ways to give humans everlasting life in heaven. Science fiction writers have just come up with far more complex explanations of how this might happen. Religion is really a belief in magical incantations. God creates with the power of the Word – but then so do science fiction writers. SF readers just believe that science and technology will one day make their words come true.

“Utriusque Cosmi” is a lovely story of faith.