How Many Hugo Award Winning Fanzines Can You Read Online?

 

Hugo winning fanzines

In the 1930s fans began publishing amateur magazines devoted to the science fiction genre. They were dubbed fanzines, as compared to prozines, where science fiction was published by professional writers and editors. Eventually, other pop culture fans created fanzines chronicling the subcultures of comics, horror movies, rock music, the counter-culture, etc.

In the 1950s when the Hugo awards began, a category for best fanzine was created. In recent years Retro Hugo voters looked back to the 1930s and 1940s, giving awards to now legendary titles that are almost impossible to find. Most fanzines had very small print runs. Reading them today reveals how readers of the past felt about science fiction, long before the genre became well known. Fanzines including gossip, feuds, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, art, letter columns, book reviews, and anything you’d read now on the web.

Since the advent of the internet, some fanzines have been digitized and put online. Fanac.org focuses on the fan history of the SF genre, especially fanzines from before 1980. eFanzines covers all kinds of zines, including current ones. The University of Iowa is digitizing 10,000 fanzines from Rusty Havelin’s collection. And ZineWiki is the encyclopedia of fanzine history. Fanzines chronicle the histories of subcultures. Fredric Wertham, M.D. who campaigned against comics in the 1950s as a negative influence on children, praised fanzines in the 1970s in his book The World of Fanzines, claiming they were a special form of creative communication.

Fanzines were the precursors to blogs and home pages. Fanzines allowed people to inter-network using postal services around the world. Access to a school ditto machine or an office Gestetner gave fans publishing power. The web, for the most part, killed off the fanzine because HTML serves the same purpose as the mimeograph, but cheaper and more efficiently.

A complete list of Hugo nominated fanzines and winners can be found at Wikipedia. Below are the fanzines that won the Hugo Awards. This is the smallest drop in the bucket compared to what was published. I’ve tried to find the best link possible to sample issues. In recent times the award for fanzines has gone to websites. The art of writing, editing, illustrating, and printing an amateur magazine is disappearing. Fanzines are still remembered by collectors who buy them on eBay and discussed on Facebook. However, they are disappearing quickly. Booksellers often refer to them as ephemera. I have been scanning a few issues of old zines and putting them on the Internet Archive, a library system that hopes to preserve everything that can be digitized. If you have old fanzines you might consider scanning them for IA. Especially if you believe your spouse will toss your collection in the recycle bin when you leave this world.

Retro Hugos

Hugos

  • 1955 – Fantasy Times (James V. Taurasi, Sr. and Ray Van Houten)
  • 1956 – Inside (Ron Smith), Science Fiction Advertiser (Ron Smith)
  • 1957 – Science-Fiction Times (James V. Taurasi, Sr., Ray Van Houten and Frank R. Prieto, Jr.)
  • 1959 – Fanac (Terry Carr, Ron Ellik)
  • 1960 – Cry of the Nameless (F. M. Busby, Elinor Busby, Burnett Toskey and Wally Weber)
  • 1961 – Who Killed Science Fiction? (Earl Kemp)
  • 1962 – Warhoon (Richard Bergeron)
  • 1963 – Xero (Richard and Pat Lupoff)
  • 1964 – Amra (George H. Scithers)
  • 1965 – Yandro (Robert and Juanita Coulson)
  • 1966 – ERB-dom (Camille Cazedessus, Jr.)
  • 1967 – Niekas (Edmund R. Meskys and Felice Rolfe)
  • 1968 – Amra (see 1965)
  • 1969 – Science Fiction Review (Richard E. Geis)
  • 1970 – Science Fiction Review (see 1968)
  • 1971 – Locus (Charles and Dena Brown)
  • 1972 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1973 – Energumen (Michael Glicksohn and Susan Wood)
  • 1974 – The Alien Critic (Richard E. Geis)
  • 1975 – The Alien Critic (see 1974)
  • 1976 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1977 – Science Fiction Review (see 1968)
  • 1978 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1979 – Science Fiction Review (see 1968)
  • 1980 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1981 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1982 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1983 – Locus (see 1971)
  • 1984 – File 770 (Mike Glyer)
  • 1985 – File 770 (see 1984)
  • 1986 – Lan’s Lantern (George “Lan” Laskowski)
  • 1987 – Ansible (David Langford)
  • 1988 – Texas SF Inquirer (Pat Mueller)
  • 1989 – File 770 (see 1984)
  • 1990 – The Mad 3 Party (Leslie Turek)
  • 1991 – Lan’s Lantern (see 1986)
  • 1992 – Mimosa (Richard Lynch and Nicki Lynch)
  • 1993 – Mimosa (see 1992)
  • 1994 – Mimosa (see 1992)
  • 1995 – Ansible (see 1987)
  • 1996 – Ansible (see 1987)
  • 1997 – Mimosa (see 1992)
  • 1998 – Mimosa (see 1992)
  • 1999 – Ansible (see 1987)
  • 2000 – File 770 (see 1984)
  • 2001 – File 770 (see 1984)
  • 2002 – Ansible (see 1987)
  • 2003 – Mimosa (see 1992)
  • 2004 – Emerald City (Cheryl Morgan)
  • 2005 – Plokta (Alison Scott, Steve Davies, and Mike Scott)
  • 2006 – Plokta (see 2005)
  • 2007 – Science-Fiction Five-Yearly (Lee Hoffman, Geri Sullivan, and Randy Byers)
  • 2008 – File 770 (see 1984)
  • 2009 – Electric Velocipede (John Klima)
  • 2010 – StarShipSofa (Tony C. Smith)
  • 2011 – The Drink Tank (Christopher Garcia and James Bacon)
  • 2012 – SF Signal (John DeNardo)
  • 2013 – SF Signal (John DeNardo, JP Frantz, and Patrick Hester)
  • 2014 – A Dribble of Ink (Aidan Moher)
  • 2015 – Journey Planet (James Bacon, Christopher J Garcia, Colin Harris, Alissa McKersie, and Helen J. Montgomery)
  • 2016 – File 770 (see 1984)
  • 2017 – Lady Business (Clare, Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay, and Susan)
  • 2018 – File 770 (see 1984)

James Wallace Harris, March 22, 2019

“Glory” by Greg Egan

exoplanet

Glory” by Greg Egan first appeared in The New Space Opera (2007) edited by Gardner Dozois. This is the 9th story discussed from The Very Best of the Best (2019) also edited by Gardner Dozois.

I first encountered Greg Egan when I read his novel Quarantine (1992). It impressed me greatly, yet, I have not followed his career closely. There is just a tremendous amount of good science fiction to read. I have read the reviews of his following novels and read a few of his shorter stories in the best-of-the-year annuals. Egan writes hard science fiction of the super-science variety, projecting humanity into the far future. Egan is far more hopeful for the potential of our species than I am.

“Glory” is about Joan and Anne, galactic citizens of the Amalgam, visiting a world that has not yet developed interstellar travel. Their adventure begins with two ingots of metallic hydrogen, one made of matter and the other anti-matter. These ingots are sculpted with neutrons and antineutrons until they are compressed into a needle one micron wide. I’ll quote Egan to give you a sample of his imagination:

The needle was structured like a meticulously crafted firework, and its outer layers ignited first. No external casing could have channeled this blast, but the pattern of tensions woven into the needle’s construction favored one direction for the debris to be expelled. Particles streamed backward; the needle moved forward. The shock of acceleration could not have been borne by anything built from atomic-scale matter, but the pressure bearing down on the core of the needle prolonged its life, delaying the inevitable. 

Layer after layer burned itself away, blasting the dwindling remnant forward ever faster. By the time the needle had shrunk to a tenth of its original size, it was moving at ninety-eight percent of light speed; to a bystander, this could scarcely have been improved upon, but from the needle’s perspective, there was still room to slash its journey’s duration by orders of magnitude. 

When just one thousandth of the needle remained, its time, compared to the neighboring stars, was passing five hundred times more slowly. Still the layers kept burning, the protective clusters unraveling as the pressure on them was released. The needle could only reach close enough to light speed to slow down time as much as it required if it could sacrifice a large enough proportion of its remaining mass. The core of the needle could only survive for a few trillionths of a second, while its journey would take two hundred million seconds as judged by the stars. The proportions had been carefully matched, though: out of the two kilograms of matter and antimatter that had been woven together at the launch, only a few million neutrons were needed as the final payload. 

By one measure, seven years passed. For the needle, its last trillionths of a second unwound, its final layers of fuel blew away, and at the moment its core was ready to explode, it reached its destination, plunging from the near-vacuum of space straight into the heart of a star. 

Even here, the density of matter was insufficient to stabilize the core, yet far too high to allow it to pass unhindered. The core was torn apart. But it did not go quietly, and the shock waves it carved through the fusing plasma endured for a million kilometers: all the way through to the cooler outer layers on the opposite side of the star. These shock waves were shaped by the payload that had formed them, and though the initial pattern imprinted on them by the disintegrating cluster of neutrons was enlarged and blurred by its journey, on an atomic scale it remained sharply defined. Like a mold stamped into the seething plasma, it encouraged ionized molecular fragments to slip into the troughs and furrows that matched their shape, and then brought them together to react in ways that the plasma’s random collisions would never have allowed. In effect, the shock waves formed a web of catalysts, carefully laid out in both time and space, briefly transforming a small corner of the star into a chemical factory operating on a nanometer scale. 

The products of this factory sprayed out of the star, riding the last traces of the shock wave’s momentum: a few nanograms of elaborate, carbon-rich molecules, sheathed in a protective fullerene weave. Traveling at seven hundred kilometers per second, a fraction below the velocity needed to escape from the star completely, they climbed out of its gravity well, slowing as they ascended. 

Four years passed, but the molecules were stable against the ravages of space. By the time they’d traveled a billion kilometers, they had almost come to a halt, and they would have fallen back to die in the fires of the star that had forged them if their journey had not been timed so that the star’s third planet, a gas giant, was waiting to urge them forward. As they fell toward it, the giant’s third moon moved across their path. Eleven years after the needle’s launch, its molecular offspring rained down on to the methane snow.

This is not the science fiction I grew up reading. I want to quote the whole opening that explains how Joan and Anne get to their destination, but that would involve quoting too much. I strongly recommend reading the story online just to experience the dazzling science fictional thinking of Greg Egan. I have no idea if any of his razzle-dazzling sleight of hand is scientifically possible, but Egan is a convincing preacher of the faith, of the faith that humanity has no limits in this universe.

However, once Egan gets Joan and Anne to the planet of Tira and Ghahar, two rival nations of beings call Noudah, the story slows down and becomes almost mundane in its plot. Joan and Anne are evidently what humans become in the far future, and they can download their essence (mind, soul?) into any machine or being. They appear to the Tiran and Ghahari in Noudah bodies. Joan and Anne each arrange to be intercepted by the two warring nations. Their stated and honest goal is to study the Niah, a race of sentient beings that had existed prior to the Noudah on this planet, and who were premiere mathematicians of the galaxy. The Niah existed for three million years but had disappeared over a million years earlier, leaving only tablets with their mathematical insights carved into them. Joan and Anne somehow know that the Noudah are building dams on Niah sites and want to excavate them before they are lost.

The real purpose of the story I believe is for Egan to present the idea of Seekers and Spreaders. The Niah are a race of seekers of knowledge. The Noudah are spreaders, wanting to conquer and colonize the galaxy. They are paranoid, fearing Joan and Anne are from another race of spreaders. Joan and Anne are really seekers though, just wanting to understand Niah math, so they have to do everything possible not to appear as spreaders.

Obviously, Homo sapiens will be spreaders. Our species is a cancerous growth spreading to every nook and cranny of Earth, and if we travel to other stellar systems, we’ll spread across those worlds too. (Hint to the title of Egan’s novel, Quarantine.)

I don’t know why Egan thinks we’ll become seekers in the future. Are Joan and Anne still Homo sapiens? Their minds can be copied and backed up, but are their minds like ours? I believe as long as our minds are tied to our biology we’ll be spreaders. But if we’re digitized maybe we could become seekers.

Here’s the thing about me and contemporary science fiction. I just don’t buy the concept of brain downloading. It’s as believable as everlasting life. We like to think we’re the Crown of Creation, but what happens when we discover we’re no more important to the universe than naked mole rats? The urge to spread is just a way to existentially define meaning to ourselves by the amount of territory we can cover. We might be sentient, but we’re no more significant than nitrogen to reality.

Science fiction writers are often philosophers. Science fiction often promotes the manifest destiny of the final frontier. Greg Egan obviously knows that spreading is pointless. But isn’t seeking equally pointless? The universe doesn’t care what we do. So does it matter if we or any other sentient beings spread or seek? And are those really the only choices for how to keep busy while existing in reality? What about art or hedonism? Sports and games? What about the Zen of just being?

“Glory” is a fun story. Most readers will just accept it as a story. I think of it as a kind of religious fantasy, showing faith in a different kind of heaven. As I read the 38 stories in this anthology, I experience them as stories, but also experience them as fears and hopes for the future.

James Wallace Harris, March 20, 2019

 

“Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper

Time-and-Time-Again-by-H.-Beam-Piper

Have you ever thought of an idea for a science fiction story, but before you could use it discovered the idea has already been used in another story? Last night I read “Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper and it uses an idea I’ve already tried in several story attempts. The idea is not really science fiction, but a fantasy version of “if I knew then what I know now,” but Piper throws in some pseudo-science gobbledygook and tries to pass it off as science fiction. Of course, in 1947, science fiction writers were ramping up for the 1950s, the SF Decade of Psi-Powers.

“Time and Time Again” originally appeared in the April 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It was reprinted in the classic retrospective anthology, A Treasury of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin in 1948. In 1956 it was made into an episode of X-Minus One radio show. I read just it in The Great SF Stories 9 (1947) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. The story is also available at Project Gutenberg. This was H. Beam Piper’s first published story.

I’m taking a short break from reading 21st-century SF to jump back to 1940s science fiction. I’ve discovered yet another way of classifying science fiction short stories. Sometimes I read SF magazines. Sometimes I read best-of-the-year annuals. Sometimes I read retrospective anthologies that claim to culled the very best short stories of the genre. They can be new or old magazines, annuals, or anthologies. This gives me three levels of quality and from past and current perspectives.

Reading science fiction magazines reveals that most stories aren’t that good. They’re good enough to get published, but most won’t make it into the best-of-last-year anthologies the following year. I’m reading a best-of-1947 volume, which contains these stories:

  • “Little Lost Robot” by Isaac Asimov
  • “Tomorrow’s Children” by Poul Anderson
  • “Child’s Play” by William Tenn
  • “Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper
  • “Tiny and the Monster” by Theodore Sturgeon
  • “E for Effort” by T. L. Sherred
  • “Letter to Ellen” by Chan Davis
  • “The Figure” by Edward Grendon
  • “With Folded Hands…” by Jack Williamson
  • “The Fires Within” by Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Zero Hour” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Hobbyist” by Eric Frank Russell
  • “Exit the Professor” by Lewis Padgett
  • “Thunder and Roses” by Theodore Sturgeon

Time has not been kind of science fiction. Only the very well-read in science fiction will know any of these titles. “E for Effort” and “With Folded Hands…” made it into volume 2 of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. “Little Lost Robot” became part of I, Robot. And “Thunder and Roses” is one of Theodore Sturgeon’s most famous tales. I doubt many science fiction fans born after 1990 will know these stories.

“Time and Time Again” uses an idea that’s a daydreaming fantasy of mine and one that I’ve tried to work into a story several times. (I did use a variation of it for my blog, “I Wish I Had A Time Machine To Save My Dad.”) Allan Hartley, age 43, dies and wakes back up in his 13-year-old body, but remembers everything that will happen to him for the next thirty years. Replay (1986) by Ken Grimwood was the first work I read that used this idea of reincarnating into one’s own life.

Is “Time and Time Again” a good story? In the July 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, “Time and Time Again” came in 1st in The Analytical Laboratory with a score of 3.11 out of 5 stories. Readers rank stories so a score of 1.0 would have meant every reader would have placed it first on their list. A score of 3.11 means it wasn’t a standout. “Time and Time Again” was good enough to get into Conklin’s big anthology, get produced as a radio show, and to be picked as one of the best SF stories of 1947 by Asimov and Greenberg. But on the whole, it’s not that good. Well, yes and no. If you have a fondness for 1940s science fiction, it has its charms, but if you read with a critical eye, the story is not that polished.

“Time and Time Again” did excite me, but only because it uses my pet idea. Have you ever fantasized about reincarnating into your younger self so you could relive your life knowing what you know now? Sometimes a far-out idea is all a story needs to make it likable. However, Piper really didn’t use the idea effectively, essentially throwing it away on a clunky plot. That’s one of the big faults of science fiction. Writers come up with a cool concept, but often cobble together any old plot to showcase their spiffy insight.

“Time and Time Again” is the earliest version of this theme that I know, and H. Beam Piper does come up with many of the same consequences that later writers have:

  1. Am I crazy?
  2. Can I pull off acting like a kid?
  3. Do I have to repeat what I’ve done before?
  4. Can I tell anyone?
  5. How can I make my own money?

Ken Grimwood covers all of this in the first replay of Jeff Winston’s life. Strangely, Winston dies at 43 too. Could that have been a homage to Piper? Actually, Piper’s ending does have other parallels to Replay. Where Grimwood gets brilliant is when he has Winston relive his life over and over again, each time feeling the need to do something different. Knowing the other possibilities that Grimwood explores made me feel less impressed with Piper’s story. And I guess that’s not fair – it might be the first to use this idea.

I wish someone would create an anthology of stories using this theme. I don’t know of any short stories that use this specific idea, but I bet they’re out there. If you know of any, please leave a comment.

Piper starts the story off by showing what happens to Allan, but eventually, he just has Allan lecturing and speculating. It’s a shame he couldn’t have come up with a fully dramatized plot.

Within “Time and Time Again” Allan mentions a 1923 fantasy novel, The High Place, by James Branch Campbell, and says the idea was also in Jurgen by the same author. But I don’t know what the specific idea he’s referring to. Allan also says Dunne’s Experiment With Time explores precognition. So I don’t know if Piper is more concerned with precognition and less with reincarnation into one’s own life. Piper could have used Allan Hartley wake up in his 13-year-old body just to give us a reason for his precognition, and not as a life do-over tale.

This story was written just after Hiroshima, and already science fiction is attributing magical events to atomic explosions. In the years to come, A-bombs would produce countless mutants with superpowers and portals to other dimensions.

Hartley wants to change history. That seems egotistical to me. It also seems comic bookish and juvenile too. Why would the universe give us a chance to relive our life? At a spiritual level, taking it beyond science and science fiction, wouldn’t such an opportunity be telling us to do a better job this time around and change ourselves, not the world? One common trend in science fiction from this era is the power fantasy, where one hero can save the world, solar, system, galaxy or universe. I think H. Beam Piper matured as a writer by the time he wrote his masterpiece, Little Fuzzy.

James Wallace Harris, March 13, 2019

 

 

“The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” by Alastair Reynolds

Winged Woman

8th in a series: The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois

Although science fiction writers can write about anything, if you read enough science fiction you’ll discover a limited number of themes repeated in endless variations. The challenge to the writer is to tell an old story in a new way. In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” Alastair Reynolds uses the theme of a primitive society that barely remembers its former technological glory. There is a great sense of wonder to that idea. One of the earliest examples I can remember reading is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. In that story, our current world civilization had collapsed and a rather medieval one had taken its place. Characters marveled and wondered about artifacts from our time creating endless speculation about us with wrong assumptions.

In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” we’re again thrown back in time, or so we think. It feels like a 17th-century English town, but I’m not even sure we’re on Earth. Reynolds is famous for telling stories of the very far future. We do learn that their past had space travel and intelligent robots, but the people of this time have no understanding of that history, just shadowy myths. The story is about a 16-year-old girl, Kathrin Lynch, who is the daughter of the sledge maker trying to walk home without being sexually assaulted. She has in the past and knows it will happen again.

In the world of this story, whether far future Earth or a planet we settled that has forgotten that, knowledge is mostly based on superstition. This is a common aspect of our forgotten past theme. For example, the robots of their past are now the “jangling men” – a supernatural threat to scare children from straying too far.

Understanding the building blocks of this theme is not really important for enjoying this story. You can read or listen to it online. “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a wonderful tale because of how it’s told. Since I listened to it on the audiobook edition of The Very Best of the Best, the professional narration showcases Reynolds’ skills at conveying drama and emotion. By the way, I consider audio narration to be a magnifier, one that makes good and bad writing stand out. This might be true because audio converts printed words to something like watching a movie, allowing our ears to better judge the dialog.

I’m reading and reviewing these stories as writing lessons. From “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” I’m learning how Reynolds took an old theme and made it fresh. It involves a number of challenges. First, the setting of the story is old – even if it’s in our far future. Think about watching Game of Thrones on HBO. Is it set on Earth? Is it in the past or the future? How to capture those details without anachronisms?  Reynolds sets “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” in a time that feels like old England to me, where people still believed in witches, and towns are ruled by sheriffs. He overlays this with myths that feel even older, yet we learn were founded on our future.

The basic plot of this story could be set in any time. In fact, it could have been written in the 17th-century or today. What makes it good is the storytelling. The writing is simple. Reynolds explains little. But much happens in the one hour it takes to narrate the audio version. It’s rich in vivid details.

I do have one quibble with this tale, but I’m not sure if I can bring it up without spoiling it for some readers. But I will since these essays are about story construction. The solution to Kathrin’s problem is a powerful weapon. This works in fantasy or science fiction, but would it be politically correct in a contemporary literary story? If we read a New Yorker story about a young girl telling an older woman about how’s she’s being sexually preyed upon and the older woman gave her a 9mm to keep in her purse as a solution, would we accept that story?

I know many Americans would answer yes. But that’s not what I want to get into. This is about writing, and the question it poses is: Should stories offer plot solutions with dangerous implications? I’m a lifelong fan of westerns. One of the major themes of westerns is violence is the solution. Do we accept this only for fiction and video games, or psychologically too?

When I think about writing fiction I seldom think of stories that involve violence. But pay attention to how often violence is integrated all the forms of fiction we consume. If I had written this story I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to create a rape scene. Nor would I have wanted the past technology to be symbolized by a weapon. I’m trying to imagine using this theme in a new way of my own making. What myths might our civilization give people thousands of years from now? What if in two hundred years climate change has totally wiped out our technological civilization? How will future people imagine our love of social media and computers? See, got a story idea already. But ideas are a penny a million. It’s the storytelling that counts, and “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a good lesson in that.

James Wallace Harris, March 11, 2019

“Second Quarter and Counting” by James Van Pelt

Analog Mar-Apr 2019

“Second Quarter and Counting” by James Van Pelt from the March-April 2019 issue of Analog is a story about rejuvenation. Todd has just turned 70 and is overjoyed to be swimming in the 70-74 age group, where he’ll be the youngest competing with the oldest. Todd tells Grace he’s tired of constantly losing to 65-year-olds in the 65-69 age group.

This simple short story is about wanting to be young again. The two characters, Todd and Grace, have known each other since high school. Even though they married other people, they have stayed in touch at swimming meets. Todd has always chased any therapy, supplement, regimen, exercise, diet, that would have kept him young and in shape. At the swim race, he tells Grace he won’t see her for a couple of years because he’s undergoing a process called Backspin that will rejuvenate his body. He warns her he might lose memories in the process, but the rewards will be starting over with a twenty-something body.

This story struck a chord with me for several reasons. First, I’m 67 so I can identify with Todd. Second, and more importantly, the theme of rejuvenation is central to Phoenix by Lady Dorothy Mills, a forgotten novel from 1926 that I discovered in the early 1990s and have been obsessed with since. Phoenix is about an elderly woman who undergoes a process of becoming twenty-looking again. The same plot is also used for Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling in 1996, fifty years later. I find it fascinating how often this idea shows up in science fiction.

I’m sure the idea of an older person being transformed into a younger person has been used in countless tales since pre-history. Myths about the Fountain of Youth go deep into our dark collective mind. Plus, for centuries science has actually dreamed of achieving rejuvenation.

“Second Quarter and Counting” is a simple story whose main virtue is the backstory about a lifelong involvement in swimming competitions. At Rocket Stack Rank James Van Pelt tells Greg Hullender the reviewer about his own real-life swimming experience, and it turns out that Greg is also a competitive swimmer. Both men are slightly younger than I am, so I assume we all know well what aging does to a person. That makes the story work well for us older readers, but what about younger ones?

The reason I feel compelled to write about this story is the theme of rejuvenation. Todd and Grace’s commitment to a long painful procedure tells readers just how willing they are for a second chance in life. Unfortunately, this is a short story and we don’t learn what life is like after becoming young again. In both Phoenix and Holy Fire, it gets complicated.

I have to wonder something else too. Is being young again a complete fantasy, or could science actually reset our clocks? I divide science fiction themes into two kinds. Those that promote an idea we’re going to make real, and those that are just far out fantasies. I’m 99.9999999% sure that time travel is just a fun idea for fiction. I’m about 99.9% sure that faster-than-light travel will always remain fictional. However, I’m about 50% convinced that humans will one day colonize Mars and about 75% sure that we’ll create self-aware sentient machines. I’m not sure at all where to place the odds on rejuvenation. I guess it’s still in the box with Schroedinger’s cat.

Much of the science fictional alchemy to convert old into young involves magic-tech incantations. The current word that goes with the wand-waving, is nanobots. Google offers 105 scholarly results on a search for “nanobots and telomeres.” The specific theme of rejuvenation isn’t as common as science fiction’s other theme of battling old age – life extension. Immortals and near-immortals show up regularly in science fiction. Plus, the new hot SF trend in recent decades is brain downloading, a kind of high-tech reincarnation.

I would say rejuvenation is not as popular as space travel, time travel, robots, aliens, and various kinds of utopias, dystopias, and apocalypses, but speculations on how not to die is a solid theme in science fiction. I’m not sure if it’s ever been worked out realistically in fiction. The typical approach is seen in Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, where transformed old people act young, stupid, and randy.

Is that how it would be? Phoenix (1926) by Lady Dorothy Mills and John Frankenheimer film Seconds (1966) starring Rock Hudson suggest there will be some distinctive downsides to being an old mind in a young body. I wish James Van Pelt would extend his short story into a novel and explore that. In “Second Quarter and Counting” Backspin technology does claim to erase a lot of the mind so it might not be an issue.

I’m not sure I’d want to be rejuvenated if I end up with a 20-something mind. It took me 67 years to evolve this mind, I’d hate to have to start over. Nor am I sure I’d want to have a 70-something mind in a 20-something body. I think all those hormones would feel more like possessive demons than alluring desires. But it might be different for most people, who’d love to be 20-something again, even at the cost of being immature, stupid, and horny all the time.

There’s a second moral in this tale though. Todd and Grace work hard at staying healthy, which also means youthful. Shouldn’t we work to be good at being old? The story made me want to get into better shape. I know many young people who are addicted to exercise. We have a youth-obsessed culture and I’m pretty sure if rejuvenation is ever invented it will be used. But if it’s not, isn’t seeking to optimize what we have the real alternative?

James Wallace Harris, March 10, 2019

 

 

 

“Where the Golden Apples Grow” by Kage Baker

Where the Golden Apples Grow by Kage Baker

“Where the Golden Apples Grow” by Kage Baker is the 7th story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m reviewing its stories one-at-a-time not to judge them but to explore the current state of science fiction. Baker’s story is about colonizing Mars, which is my favorite theme in science fiction. Every story about a Mars colony is one writer’s idea of how humanity might build a civilization on the Red Planet. None have ever pictured it the way I imagined it, but that’s not a ding on their stories. The Very Best of the Best is 38 SF stories first published between 2002-2017.

“Where the Golden Apples Grow” is part of the late Kage Baker’s Mars Series. Like I said when reviewing the Robert Reed story, this anthology is getting me to read “newer” science fiction authors, taking me out of my mid-20th-century SF rut. I’ve read a few stories by Kage Baker before. Reading about these writers before writing the reviews shows me a much larger science fiction universe. That’s why I’m providing hyperlinks, in case you want to know more too.

Mars is the El Dorado of science fiction. It takes a furious amount of mouse-wheel scrolling to get through the lists of stories about Mars at Wikipedia. Colonizing Mars will be the fulfillment of one of science fiction’s oldest ambitions. Aren’t the efforts of every national space program driven by scientists who are stealth SF fans hoping to get to Mars?

When I started this project of reviewing these stories one-by-one, I said most of the stories in the anthology aren’t my kind of science fiction. This Kage Baker story is exactly my kind of SF. I was born in 1951. I started 1st grade just before Sputnik was launched, and graduate 12th grade just before Apollo 11. Science fiction has always been my Bible for space exploration religion. I thought for sure Mars would be colonized in my lifetime. I have a few years left, and I’m still hoping.

Science fiction can be about almost anything, and the stories in this anthology testify to that. But for me, science fiction has always been about what could happen from 1970-2100 in our solar system. Science fiction is a cognitive tool for speculation and extrapolation. Sure I love stories about interstellar exploration, time travel, utopias, dystopias, and the far future, but all those fictionalized speculations are too far out for me to believe might happen. I’ve always loved down-to-Mars science fiction.

I read science fiction because I wanted to know what might be the big possibilities in my lifetime, or what could happen in the decades after my death. I figured within the 1970-2100 timeframe, colonizing the Moon and Mars were about the limits of what I could realistically hope. I also assumed intelligent robots would evolve in that time period, and as a longshot, we might get lucky and make SETI contact. Exploring those themes are my kind of science fiction.

That being said, Kage Baker’s Mars is not my Mars. Every science fiction writer pictures Mars differently. Imagining how humans will settle on Mars is a kind of intellectual game. I figure Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars trilogy is the current champ to beat. Some writers ignore science and reality. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury’s Martian landscapes are like Oz for adults. Some writers try to guess what it might be like to start a colony, sort of like SimCity on another planet. Other writers like to begin their fiction after the colonies have been established. Baker imagines her Mars with truckers and farmers, capitalism and collectives, rich and poor, idealists and scientists, sort of like 1940s Americans with hi-tech on another planet.

Baker’s Mars seems to have evolved from science fiction ancestors she and I have in common, especially Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, and Farmer in the Sky. Kage Baker’s idea of how a Mars colony will develop might be closer to how Heinlein imagined it than Clarke, Bova, or Robinson.

Baker sets up her story by telling about the 2nd and 3rd boys born on Mars. Bill, is the son of a trucker, and he and his father haul ice back from the poles to a settlement at Mons Olympus. Ford, is the son of a farmer who works in a collective called Long Acres. Baker’s Mars is working class, settled by people from Earth who want freedom and opportunity, and who might be just a little bit crazy.

I’ve always wanted to write a story like “Where the Golden Apples Grow” because I’ve always wondered: What if the children of Mars and Moon colonists don’t see the High Frontier dream in the same way as their parents do? Would children growing up on Mars or the Moon fantasize about living on Earth like I fantasized about Mars? Can any child raised in 1/6th or 1/3rd gravity ever return to 1G? Bill and Ford don’t like their destinies, but what can they do?

I was quite moved by Baker’s story, and I have no quibbles with it as it stands as a story. However, she imagines three outcomes for a Mars colony that I don’t. First, she expects colonists to live and work on the surface. I’ve always figured there’s too much hard radiation raining down on Mars for that. I assumed colonists would have to live underground. Second, Baker imagines hordes of immigrants from Earth coming to Mars, with most of them doing hard-labor work. I imagined a few hundred highly-trained scientists seeding a Mars civilization with hordes of robot helpers. I don’t think it will ever be economically/environmentally practical to send too many rockets towards Mars. Third, Baker imagines capitalism will work on Mars. I think it will take centuries before Mars has a manufacturing or service economy. There will be no profit for Earth in colonizing Mars. Every dollar Earth spends on Mars will be a donation towards creating a space civilization, but that civilization will have to create a new kind of economy, and it will take centuries.

Now, these aren’t criticisms of this story. Most readers will read it, be entertained, and go on to their next read. But for some readers, a story like this is a proposed blueprint that begs to be discussed. Science fiction writers make a series of speculations as they tell their stories. When I was growing up my SF reading buddies and I would argue over those speculations. We stopped when we grew up, but I miss that. That’s what I want to bring back in these reviews.

For example, in “Where the Golden Apples Grow” the farmer buys a pair of boots for his son that has to be shipped from Earth. They would be very expensive. Mars has nothing to pay for those boots, nor does the farmer. See, this is where the fun of imagining how a colony on Mars would evolve. What is the best kind of boots to have on Mars? Plastic, leather, cloth, etc? Where does that material come from? Can it be made on Mars? How is the economy created to get everything made that people need to use? When you read “Where the Golden Apples Grow” think about that. What kind of engines and power sources do the long-haul truckers use on Mars? Where does the fuel come from? Mars or Earth? What are the roads made out of, and who built them? Can transparent panels be made to make walkways on Mars that shield residents from radiation? That’s what Baker implies. Where’s the factory that makes them? Where does all the machinery in it come from? Where do the raw materials come from? Can the Martian regolith be turned into fertile soil? Is there uranium on Mars?

Such questions are endless. And any good story about a Mars colony should try to answer some of them. But not in a lecturing way that would slow down the storytelling. Baker does this quite effectively. Her story is a moving dramatic tale, both in pace and emotion. I’ve often seen criticism for Robinson’s Mars trilogy because his speculation bogs down the story.

I consider Kage Baker’s “Where the Golden Apples Grow” to be as fun as one of Heinlein’s juveniles from the 1950s. That’s high praise from me.

James Wallace Harris, March 8, 2019

 

 

“Good Mountain” by Robert Reed

Floating islands

Writers of fantastic fiction face a unique challenge when they sit down to write. They can imagine anything happening anywhere anytime. Their only limitation is making their story readable. One difference between science fiction and fantasy is science fiction implies its stories are not pure fantasy but something reality could have generated. Robert Reed’s story, “Good Mountain” I believe was intended for the realm of the believable, but it feels somewhat like The Bible, not meant to be the literal truth but nonetheless, a message we should interpret.

Robert Reed is a prolific author whose superpower is imagination. I’m not sure “Good Mountain” gets the admiration it deserves. The reason I’m writing about this story is  “Good Mountain” is included in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois, which I’m reviewing one story at a time. This story struck many 2006 reviewers as among the best in One Million A.D., an original anthology edited by Gardner Dozois. But some of those reviewers have gotten distracted by the giant worms that the characters ride and ignored the story’s other more fantastic elements.

Don’t let my enthusiasm for this story suggest it’s a masterpiece, it’s not, but it’s very good. I keep trying to ascertain what would put it over the top but that’s hard to put into words. The story is a third person account of Jopale, a refuge, who meets two significant characters on his fleeing journey, Brace the worm conductor, and Do-ane, a secretive woman with a large book. None of these figures have any literary depth to them, but they each stand for something like characters in a parable. “Good Mountain” is like an oracle, you can read anything into its message. I read it as a metaphor for climate change and the end of our civilization, but I think it will work with any end-of-the-something scenario.

I want to use the word “recapitulate” to describe “Good Mountain” in the same way I used it to review “The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason. Reed and Arnason use their stories of alien worlds to recapitulate what goes on in our world. They feel like fables or allegories. In “Good Mountain” the characters call themselves human, but we don’t know if they’re Homo sapiens. They do not know about space travel or Earth. In some ways, this story reminds me of Asimov’s “Nightfall.” Jopale’s planet is a strange one, comprised of floating islands that occasionally coalesce into continents long enough for civilizations to arise, but eventually come apart in cycles of natural catastrophes. Reed creates a beautiful biosystem of islands made of wood, with their roots dangling into the ocean, floating on a planetary sea that always faces its star, with a civilization built without metal. Fire and methane are what these people fear.

Arnason and Reed are plowing the same pasture in the science fiction landscape. They accept the challenge of writing the fantastic by creating whole worlds, but they aren’t the kind of worlds that true believers of the final frontier expect humans to colonize. Reed and Arnason aren’t science fiction writers working to scientifically imagine life on exoplanets. Their worlds are metaphorical. Their worlds aren’t NASA discoverable, but Impressionistic worlds of their imagination. Their stories remind me of N. K. Jemison’s recent work, the kind of science fiction that evolved out of Ursula K. Le Guin’s tales in the 1960s.

I get the feeling Robert Reed has much to say about our reality, but he speaks his mind in the language of science fiction. I’m not sure I can properly translate his communique because of its metaphorical nature. I can’t tell if he’s just telling us about a screwy dream, or if he wishes to be like an Old Testament prophet, preaching “The End is Near.” The story’s final twist would have given Philip K. Dick a Cheshire Cat smile.

“Good Mountain” is about Jopale fleeing fires racing across the continent. He rides a giant worm to a distant port, traveling with others hoping to escape to their collective doom. The escapees bring mockmen, their servant/slaves, who may or may not be human, but which give the story an extra twist that I can’t decipher. Along the way, this worm of fools hears a whispered tale, one that offers an enchanted sliver of hope, causing each to selfishly seek their own salvation at the expense of the others. Throughout this story, the citizens of this exotic land always act on self-interest without guilt, except for Brace, the worm handler. That’s why this story feels like a morality play.

One of the benefits of reading a science fiction anthology is learning about new authors and new types of science fiction. I’ve read a few stories by Robert Reed over the years but never researched into his background. For instance, I did not know about his Greatship series, of which “Good Mountain” somehow fits late in its cycle, so I’m now intrigued to find out more. Also, this story could be meta-fiction about science fiction, another avenue to pursue.

“A favorite science fiction writer of mine is William Faulkner!” Reed told Locus in an interview in 1998. That might be a clue to why I liked this story. It’s not my normal kind of science fiction. Both “Good Mountain” and “The Potter of Bones” are novellas and are my favorite stories of the six I’ve read so far in The Very Best of the Best. I’m just beginning my journey through this vast anthology. Reading and writing about it has become a course in science fiction. You can jump back to the beginning of my journey here and follow the links of the stories I’ve reviewed so far.

Read other reviews of “Good Mountain” at:

James Wallace Harris, March 6, 2019

“Tin Marsh” by Michael Swanwick

Venus

When is it appropriate to call bullshit on the science fiction in science fiction? Michael Swanick’s story, “Tin Marsh” is set on Venus. It’s about a woman and man who team up to prospect for metal on Venus but who come to intensely hate each other. The story is a compelling read that makes turning the pages easy, but its setup is completely unbelievable to me.

Since we’re reviewing the stories in The Very Best of the Best, an anthology of science fiction first published between 2002 and 2017, I think the title challenges us to ask: What is great science fiction and are these stories the very best examples of the art.

The basic formula for writing science fiction is to think up a far-out idea and then contrive a plot to embed that idea into a story. The very best science fiction will push the limits of our imagination by speculating on just what might be possible. The very best science fiction is in the box with Schroedinger’s cat. Science fiction has to wait for science to open the box.

Early science fiction wondered if humans could go to the Moon or Mars in a time when we knew little about the solar system. In what I call Pre-NASA Science Fiction, writers imagined Venus and Mars to be habitable worlds that often included intelligent life. Post-NASA science fiction has had to live with what its space probes discovered. Modern science fiction still tries to imagine us living on almost any piece of real estate in the solar system, but is that realistic? I believe science fiction should be judged on scientific realism, and readers need to call bullshit when they see it.

“Tin Marsh” has us believing humans could work on Venus and make a profit. Swanwick has his characters living in power suits that withstand the heat, pressure, and corrosive atmosphere of Venus. I call bullshit on this idea for two reasons. I don’t believe such suits could ever be engineered, nor will mining metal on Venus ever be profitable. No one will invest trillions to earn billions.

Now the plot of “Tin Marsh” is more believable. Two people working closely come to hate each other. Simple enough. Happens all the time. “Tin Marsh” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2006. 20th-century science fiction has been much criticized for the lack of female characters, so in this 21st-century story, gender is balanced with one male (MacArthur) and one female (Patang). The trouble is the gender equality ends there. Patang has driven MacArthur to murder.

The story has MacArthur chasing Patang across the surface of Venus to kill her slowly. MacArthur wants to torture Patang as much as possible before she dies. He hates her that much. And the reasons why MacArthur hates Patang are all the clichéd reasons men hate women. Of course, the reverse is also true. Is the story about Patang trying to survive being murdered, or is it really about why working with women on Venus would drive a man crazy? Because we’re told the story from Patang’s POV, we feel it’s about violence against women. But some male readers are going to identify with MacArthur. And what does the ending say about who is right?

Relying on violence as a plot driver is the core problem of this story, the same as the last story I reviewed, “Dead Men Walking” by Paul McAuley. McAuley’s story also featured a female character in a role that would have been previously given to a male. In both cases, the female role is contrived and connected with violence. In the McAuley story, the woman is given the equal opportunity to play a sadistic Jack-the-Ripper type killer, while Patang is just a sharped tongue woman who ends up torturing her partner in madness.

Is this story the very best of the best? It depends on the rules of judgment. Is it well-written and readable by SF standards? Yes. Is it full of action? Yes. Is it set in an exotic locale? Yes. Will it push emotional buttons? Yes. Does it stand out against its competition? Yes.

Is it scientific? No. Does it offer any ideas about how humans could actually work on Venus? No? Does it expand the frontiers of science fiction? No. Does it say anything about the heart in conflict with itself? Not really. Is it politically correct? You decide.

I have to wonder if Gardner Dozois assumes the very best of science fiction only requires certain writing features but not others? Although science fiction is hugely popular in our society, it’s not a popular reading category, especially for short stories. Writers have to produce a product that editors will buy, and editors have to buy stories that readers will read. For decades science fiction short stories were a product mostly consumed by adolescent males, but that’s changing. Is this 2006 story already PC dated in 2019? Doesn’t society change faster than science fiction imagines it?

Short stories also have to compete with novels, television shows, video games, movies and other kinds of modern entertainment. Short stories were at their peak of popularity before 1950, and they’ve been in decline ever since. Gardner Dozois was the most successful editor of short science fiction since John W. Campbell Jr. He should have the pulse of readers of short science fiction.

I have to assume Dozois knew his market. But I’m not sure if I’m in that market. Science fiction means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The psychological common denominator of science fiction’s appeal is hope and fears about the future. But do we evaluate our possible futures with science fiction, or just use the genre to escape the present? That’s something I have to ask while reviewing these stories.

Believing humans will ever work on Venus is a fantasy. It makes me wonder if science fiction even tries to be realistic anymore? Are writers of science fiction merely using highly imaginative but contrived ideas to sell stories?

I believe we have to ask if our science fiction writers are Baron Munchausen or H. G. Wells?

James Wallace Harris, March 4, 2019

 

“Dead Men Walking” by Paul McAuley

Life-After-Wartime-by-Paul-McAuley

“Dead Men Walking” by Paul McAuley is the fourth story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m reviewing this anthology one story at a time while contemplating the nature of writing science fiction. “Dead Men Walking” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2006. In 2007 it was recognized as one of the best stories of the year by both the Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer annuals. In 2013 “Dead Men Walking” was reprinted in Clarkesworld (read/listen) and in Pual McAuley’s ebook collection, Life After Wartime, part of his Quiet War series.

“Dead Men Walking” is the first story in The Very Best of the Best that I thought of as traditional straight-ahead science fiction. The story is told in the first person by a man who is dying. He’s recording his last thoughts for whoever discovers his body. This immediately reminded me of the classic film D.O.A. – not the newer 1988 film, but the great 1949 version with Edmond O’Brien. It’s a highly specialized writing challenge to pull off a first-person account of a dying character. McAuley’s effort is tight and succeeds. However, by its very nature, a murder victim’s POV involves violence.

I’m not knocking “Dead Men Walking” but I’ve reached an age where violence in fiction is not the page-turning force it was when I was younger. I no longer care whodunit. However, I can still watch and read mysteries and thrillers for their settings and characters.  This story takes place on Ariel, the fourth-largest moon of Uranus. Ariel is a cryogenically cold world I doubt humans will ever settle, but Paul McAuley builds a prison there. However, because of the low gravity, McAuley makes it sound rather appealing place to live or read about:

I have a one-room treehouse. It’s not very big and plainly furnished, but you can sit on the porch of a morning, watch squirrel monkeys chase each other through the pines. I’m a member of Sweat Lodge #23. I breed singing crickets, have won several competitions with them. Mostly they’re hacked to sing fragments of Mozart, nothing fancy, but my line has good sustain and excellent timbre and pitch. I hope old Willy Gup keeps it going … I like to hike too, and climb freestyle. I once soloed the Broken Book route in Prospero Chasma on Miranda, twenty kilometres up a vertical face, in fifteen hours. Nowhere near the record, but pretty good for someone with a terminal illness. I’ve already had various bouts of cancer, but retroviruses dealt with those easily enough. What’s killing me—what just lost the race to kill me—is a general systematic failure something like lupus. I couldn’t get any treatment for it, of course, because the doctors would find out who I really am. What I really was. I suppose that I had a year or so left. Maybe two if I was really lucky. It wasn’t much of a life, but it was all my own.

Roy Bruce is about to die. He’s outside the habitat, lying in the cold with little oxygen to breath, and useless legs. This tale is how he got there. It’s a good story, one that would have trilled pulp readers in the 1940s and 1950s. I enjoyed listening to it, however, I would have preferred to know more about life on Ariel than about another casualty of war. Those treehouses and crickets piqued my interest. That’s the kind of details I love in science fiction.

“Dead Men Walking” works very well as a shorter work. It’s well plotted. It begins with a bang and ends with satisfaction. Even though I also greatly admired “The Potter of Bones” and  “The Little Goddess” with their highly creative world-building and textured details, they were both novellas that went on too long.  “Dead Men Walking” is a novelette, and for me personally, that’s about the perfect length for science fiction. I love science fiction at its shorter lengths, but usually, a short story is too short, and a novella is too long, and novelettes are just right.

However, short stories and novelettes need resolvable conflicts, and all too often in space adventures, that involves killing humans or aliens. One of the aspects of fiction I want to study while reading The Very Best of the Best is how often violence is used as the plot engine. Think about all the science fiction movies and television shows you watch. How many use war, crime, killers, invasions, etc to keep your interest? The conflict in “Rogue Farm” was resolved in death. Violence often tends to make science fiction feel like fodder for adolescent males. For example, how many successful video games aren’t shooters of some kind? By the way, the two novellas had little or no violence.

Like I said in an earlier essay about this anthology, these stories are great reads but usually, they aren’t my kind of science fiction. Creating non-violent conflict in stories is a challenge. Of course, the next story is all about violence.

James Wallace Harris, March 3, 2019

“Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross

Rogue Farm by Charles Stross

Stories by Charles Stross often have a gonzo-tech view of the future. The illustration above shows a farmer with a semi-automatic shotgun and his wife in a battle-suit defending the farm they are squatting on against a roving “farm” that is a collective of post-humans hoping to leave Earth for Jupiter. “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross is the second story in Gardner Dozois’ The Very Best of the Best, an anthology of short science fiction published from 2002-2017.

Yesterday I began my contemplation of writing science fiction by reviewing the first story, “The Potter of Bones.” My conclusion was great science fiction requires a richness of world-building. In “Rogue Farm” Charles Stross looks into the near future, after the technological singularity, to see our lives transformed. The fictional world Stross builds is our current society in savage decline as it metamorphizes into a new society infected by intelligent machines. There’s a civil war between humans and post-humans, and readers aren’t sure which side to take.

Stross accepts the inevitability of technological singularity, feeling sorry for the vanquished, but not condemning the usurpers. The rogue farm of the story is a 21st-century Frankenstein we feel sympathy for while rooting for the farmer who wants to destroy it. “Rogue Farm” is a much more successful story than “The Potter of Bones” being reprinted at least 7 times, performed for Escape Pod and made into a short film.

By all the yardsticks but one, I believe “Rogue Farm” should be measured as excellent short science fiction. It’s well written, it’s cutting edge science fiction, it’s entertaining, it has a high density of science fictional ideas, it’s very damn creative, and it’s delightfully weird, a modern-day Alice in Wonderland. My only criticism is I disagree with Stross on how the technological singularity will unfold in the future. I don’t doubt we’ll have sentient machines, but I do doubt we’ll ever have a brain-machine interface that will allow us to integrate with machines like Stross imagines.

My personal speculation is humans will be left behind. We will not be uplifted by becoming cyborgs or transformed by nanobots, or re-engineered by gene manipulation into post-human greatly different from what we are now, or have our minds downloaded into clones, robots or virtual realities. Maybe this is Luddite thinking on my part, but I don’t think there is any science to support digitizing our soul.

Some readers will believe that Stross is extrapolating a possible future, but I don’t. That means I have to accept “Rogue Farm” as a clever fantasy, and not science fiction. I know I have a rather extreme and strict definition of science fiction that doesn’t jive with commonly accepted definitions. And if I’m wrong and science can create a mind-machine interface between cell and circuit, this story will fit my definition.

Since “Rogue Farm” is in an anthology of science fiction short stories labeled the very best of the best, I have to assume its state-of-the-art science fiction. And I believe that’s perfectly true by the common definition of science fiction. But by my definition, I assume writers and readers of science fiction are playing a very precise game. The goal of this game is to speculate about the future using extrapolation based on all the science we currently know.

Science fiction makes assumptions that are often disproven. H. G. Wells theorized that we could time travel by suggesting time was just the fourth dimension. We have learned a lot more about the nature of time since then, and time travel is probably impossible. Science fiction writers have been imagining faster-than-light travel for about a century, even though Einstein disproved it before they started.

I think the future intelligence of computers is almost unlimited. And I believe Homo sapiens can be intentionally improved and redesigned. I just don’t think our minds can be transferred to machines, or even interfaced with them. I believe our bodies can be supplemented with machines, but I just can’t see how my thoughts can be augmented by digital minds. Like I said, I could be wrong, so science fiction is the perfect place to speculate about the possibilities. We can make muscle-machine interfaces, and we can make the pattern recognition abilities of our current physical senses interface with electronic devices, and we’re even working on brain scanning technology that can carefully discern the activity of our brains, but I just can’t see how we’re going to bridge that last mile between chemical thoughts and digital thoughts.

Of course, isn’t this the exact territory of the science fiction event horizon? The science fiction stories I fantasize writing deal with this exact issue. And maybe that’s why I’m skeptical of the world-building of Charles Stross – I would just build it somewhat differently.

James Wallace Harris, March 1, 2019