“With Flaming Swords” by Cleve Cartmill

Why read a third-rate story by a third-rate writer from a science fiction magazine published 78 years ago? In this case I can blame Paul Fraser who said in a Facebook comment “Cleve Cartmill was a pretty poor writer—I can think of only one story by him that I liked, ‘With Flaming Swords.'” Our group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction reads old science fiction anthologies. In this case we’re reading Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales edited by Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin, and the story under discussion was “Oscar” by Cleve Cartmill from Unknown (Feb. 1941). It was that slight horror fantasy that inspired Paul’s comment.

I thought “Oscar” was barely okay. I also knew that Cleve Cartmill was famous for writing “Deadline” which caused FBI agents to visit the office of John W. Campbell, Jr. back during WWII. Those agents thought the story might reveal a leak to the Manhattan Project. I’ve read “Deadline” and thought it rather dull for all the attention it gets in science fiction history. Campbell always used “Deadline” to puff up Astounding Science-Fiction’s reputation, but it seemed like a lame claim to fame. I can’t believe FBI agents took it serious.

Again, I must ask myself, why read another story by a writer that has already had two strikes with me? Well, I was curious if Paul was right. Now Paul didn’t say the story was great, just one he liked. I followed the link he gave (included above) to read the story off my computer screen, however, after several pages I realized it was a rather long, so I loaded up that issue of Astounding on my iPad. (By the way, that issue also contained “Nerves” by Lester del Rey, a story that got into The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.)

“With Flaming Swords” is still a clunker but for some reason I kept reading. Why? My TBR pile is a whole wall of books and magazines. Well, this time Cartmill sucked me in. The story is about a theocracy ruled by men who claim to be saints. Their proof of sainthood is they glow in the dark, and people take that as proof of divinity. They aren’t. This future society came after an atomic war which caused a few males to carry a gene that makes them glow. Cartmill must have had atomic bombs on the brain back then. I kept reading because I wondered if the small cadre of unbelievers could overthrow the saints.

Hell, the idea of glowing blue people is stupid, even for 1942. I suppose Cartmill thought if radium lettering on his watch glowed, so might irradiated people. One thing about reading old science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s is folks back then had a lot of screwy ideas about radiation.

Robert A. Heinlein had published “If This Goes On—,” a short novel about a small band of freedom fighters trying to overthrow an American theocracy in Astounding in 1940. Did Cartmill get his idea from Heinlein. I kept reading “With Flaming Swords” to see how it compared. But then, that was one of my least favorite Heinlein stories from the 1940s. However, I did like the 1954 novel, The Stars Are Ours! by Andre Norton, also about a small group of scientists fleeing an American theocracy. Could it be that I just like science fiction stories about American theocracies being overthrown?

Cartmill’s writing in “With Flaming Swords” was readable, but it was basically just an adventure tale with several silly unscientific ideas. And it lacked any good science fictional ideas, although I thought it fascinating that Cartmill worked extremely hard to keep the violence down to one killing. And the real point of the story was about how people in power, even based on generations of lies, will not give up that power easily. Privilege hangs on with all its might, justifying their right with any logic it can grasp. We can see that today, and maybe that kept me reading too.

I can see why Paul liked this story if I don’t put too much weight on the word like. Would I recommend it? No — well, maybe. Here’s the thing, if you’re into reading old science fiction stories, and enjoy developing a sense of what it was like to read the old pulps and digests, maybe “With Flaming Swords” is worth reading. But that’s with some heavy qualifications.

Awhile back I decided I wanted to get a feel for the evolution of science fiction through reading short stories. I decided the heart and soul of real science fiction came from pulps and digest magazines. I wrote “The Best Science Fiction Short Stories” setting up the problem of how much to read. I decided there were three levels to approach the problem:

  • Read the original magazines (thousands of magazines)
  • Read the annual anthologies (100-200 volumes)
  • Read the very best retrospective anthologies (2-25 volumes)

I started out just reading the retrospective anthologies. Then I got into the annual anthologies, which is what our Facebook group mainly reads. But to really get down into my subject, I’ve started reading the magazines. Most of the stories aren’t that good, but that’s the reality of the situation. Reading science fiction short stories from just the best retrospective anthologies gives a false impression of the genre. Reading the annuals gives a different distorted view. Reading the magazines gets down to the bare metal.

“With Flaming Swords” has only been reprinted once in a retrospective anthology, and never collected for an annual. To its credit, it did make it to Groff Conklin’s 1948 anthology A Treasury of Science Fiction. Most of Cartmill’s 45 stories published from 1941-1956 were never reprinted in anthologies, and it appears he never had a collection of his stories published in his lifetime (1908-1964). Darkside Press put out Prelude of Armageddon in 2003, and this $40 hardback only contained eleven of his stories. “Deadline,” “Oscar,” and “With Flaming Swords” were among them.

I can’t decide if I wasted my time or not. I enjoyed learning about this microscopic bit of genre history. Reading a great story will stimulate my mind making the experience feel important. Reading crappy stories don’t give me such thrills, but I do feel like I’m learning something. I guess I feel more like a graduate student that has found a mildly interesting footnote.

James Wallace Harris, 11/30/20

What I Love Best About SF Short Stories

Between retired life and the restrictions of the current pandemic I feel I’m living the life of a contemplative. A half-century ago in Ram Das’s book Be Here Now, I read how old age is the perfect time to go on a spiritual quest. But instead of studying the Upanishads or The Dark Night of the Soul, I read science fiction short stories to fuel my navel gazing.

My day always feels uplifted after I’ve read an exceptional SF short story. Not every story works to revs up my consciousness, but the ones that do have a special quality. And those special qualities aren’t usually found in stories outside of science fiction. I don’t know what to call those extra ingredients that peps up my day, but I wish I had a handy handle for them. All fiction have shared qualities of storytelling, characterization, plot, etc., but science fiction has clever bits of extra fun that I admire for their wild inventiveness. Usually, I just call them far-out ideas.

Because exploring why I love these stories will give away plot points, I should warn you these confessions will have spoilers. I’ll try to gently introduce each tale with a spoiler free hook, before giving away the good details. This should give you time to decide if you want to run off, and read the story instead.

Yesterday I read “Aristotle OS” by Tony Ballantyne, first published in 2007 in the original anthology Fast Forward 1 edited by Lou Anders, and reprinted in Year’s Best SF 13 edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. By the way, the Kindle version of the Year’s Best SF 13 is currently on sale at Amazon for $1.99. Many of the 17 others in the series are also on sale too.

“Aristotle OS” is about two brothers. Jon, the first person narrator always needing help with his computer, and Ken, his alcoholic sibling who spends most of his day in pubs yet has managed to retained enough brain cells to be a computer whiz. The science fiction of this story is Ken installs a series of new operating systems on Jon’s computer each named after a famous philosopher. With each upgrade, Jon must relearn how to use his computer because his files have been converted philosophically by the OS.

It helps to know a tiny bit about philosophy to understand this story, but I’m clueless about Kant. I can only speculate about the philosophical implications of Kant 2.0 OS. What we learn through reading the story is Jon has a lot of personal regrets. He also wishes Ken had taken a different path. The kicker to this story, which brought a few tears to my eyes, was when we see a utopian view of reality when Kant 2.0 OS converts the files on Jon’s computer, and filters those from the internet. Jon wonders why people couldn’t have acted differently to create that Kantian world, but Ken just asks for more brandy in his coffee, knowing humans can’t live up to the ideal of philosophers.

The theme of regret is very common in literature, but I found Ballantyne’s creation of philosophical operating systems to illustrate the theme very entertaining. By the way, I’m reading a new fantasy novel, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig who also uses a neat gimmick to explore regret. Nora, his protagonist, is consumed with regret and kills herself, but on the way to oblivion is offered the opportunity to explore the many alternate paths she could have taken.

Another creative science fiction story that was cocaine for my contemplations is “Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory. It first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction (9/2005), but was reprinted at Clarkesworld where you can read and listen to it online. Have you ever encountered the scientific and philosophical arguments claiming that consciousness is an illusion? I’ve run into a number of them over the years, and this story carefully entertains that argument and other psychological studies from recent years that suggests who we feel we are isn’t quite who we actually are.

Terry, our first person narrator is a young woman being released from a psychiatric hospital. She is being transferred into the care of Alice and Mitch, who claim to be her parents, but Terry refuses to accept that. Terry looks just like their daughter, Therese, a young woman who took an overdose of a new drug called Zen. Instead of killing Therese physically, it erased her identity, her ego, her sense of self. Terry is the personality that has grown back into Therese’s body. Terry is nothing like Therese.

Now this is a delicious story about the illusions of self. In recent decades I’ve become more aware of my unconscious mind through dreams, meditation, studying psychology books, and observing my writing. I’m quite sure I sometimes write things my conscious mind couldn’t. Read the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

I suppose it would be much wiser to pursue spiritual wisdom with nonfiction books instead of science fiction. And I do, but for some reason I love the inventiveness of science fiction. I also love the subculture of science fiction I grew up with back in the 1960s. I read a story this week, “The Emperor of Mars” by Allen Steele that was a tribute to that subculture and upbringing. “The Emperor of Mars” was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction (6/2010) but was reprinted at Clarkesworld where you can read and listen to it online.

The story is about Jeff Halbert, a man working on Mars who gets bad news radioed from Earth. He falls to pieces. I really don’t want to spoil any of this story, but I will say if you love science fiction, especially all those stories about Mars, then you should read “The Emperor of Mars.” It’s a tribute to Mars fiction and the people who grew up loving it, and I was one for sure. To further endorse this story, let me say I had so many tears in my eyes by the end of “The Emperor of Mars” that I had to get up and go blow my nose. Sometimes we find stories about exactly who we are.

Another story I (re)read this week was “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. I don’t know how many times I’ve reread this story since I first read it in 1968. And I’ve written about it many times before including this long essay at Worlds Without End, one long one on this blog, and an entry at my personal blog, “The Limits of Limitations.” I read “The Star Pit” again for my Facebook group because it was up for discussion. That group is why I’m reading so many of these stories, and it’s my favorite past time right now.

“The Star Pit” is about a man named Vyme who made a lot of mistakes in life and tries to make up for it by helping young people. The story is also about how we are all fish in an aquarium butting out heads against the glass trying to go further. What’s most painful is knowing other fish that can. Delany during this period loved writing about the circular nature of life, and this story tells about circles within circles. Delany during this period also loved writing about prodigies who run into even younger prodigies.

I could go on with countless examples of why I crave consuming an intense SF story every day, but I hope you’ve gotten the point by now.

p.s.

At my personal blog I’m reviewing the 20 stories in The Best American Short Stories 2020. I guess I’ve become consumed by short stories. Literary fiction is a whole different trip.

James Wallace Harris, 11/21/20

Faith in Science Fiction

On a Facebook group devoted to reading science fiction I asked members if they’d stop reading a SF story if they thought the premise unscientific. The general consensus was no, that people read science fiction for storytelling not science. Good enough. On another thread a member asked if we should give up on science fiction about faster-than-light travel since science suggests that’s not possible. This time members objected because they felt we’d eventually find a way around the speed limit of light. I felt many of them were quite passionate about that too.

Over the years I’ve seen many heated discussions over science fictional concepts. That if you separate the concept from the science fiction, many fans will defend unscientific concepts. I believe science fiction has spread certain ideas that people now hold on faith as being possible. I believe a fair percentage of people now have a faith in a Star Trek/Star Wars kind of future where humanity roams the galaxy and colonizes other worlds. I believe a smaller percentage of the population, but a growing one, believes that brain downloading will be possible in the future. And, there’s another group that believes humans have, or have the potential for psychic powers. This group predates science fiction, but science fiction has claimed this concept too.

There is no scientific evidence that any of these three concepts have any validity at all. Some of the faithful of these beliefs say that science offers hope that interstellar travel, brain downloading, and psychic powers can or will exist, but I don’t think that’s really true. Many of these believers base their faith on the idea that science will eventually discover a way to achieve anything. One of their favorite bits of counter logic is to say that going faster than the speed of sound was considered scientifically impossible at one time, but we do it now. That wasn’t true either.

Their trump card is to always say we don’t know what science will discover. That’s true, but I also believe that’s a kind of faith, like faith in the unlimited power of God.

I can’t disprove that FTL is possible. I can’t prove we won’t develop psychic powers or never have our brains downloaded into robots or clones in the future. But the point I’m making isn’t about whether or not these things could exist. I’m fascinated that the faith in these concepts exist.

It’s rather psychologically revealing, don’t you think? For years I’ve considered science fiction a kind of substitution for religion in modern times. Doesn’t the galactic empires of Star Trek/Star Wars represent a kind of Heaven/Nirvana/Valhalla? Doesn’t brain downloading represent a new way of finding life after death? Isn’t psychic powers wanting to become more like God?

I recently reread “Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson for our book club. On one hand it’s lovely fantasy science fiction, on the other hand, it’s a UFO cultist’s wildest wet dream. Carlotta, a sixteen-year-old girl is saved by space aliens and given everlasting life in the heavens with a great teleological explanation. What’s kind of funny is Wilson accepts the speed of light speed limit, and ignores psychic powers yet finds substitutes for both while basing everything on brain downloading. This story begs Freudian analysis, although I believe Freud is currently out of favor scientifically.

Probably most science fiction fans are rational enough to know these wonders aren’t meant for them, but they wish they were at some level, and have a kind of faith they might be possible for future people. And I’m sure most of them will deny their secret faith and claim science fiction is just fun stories.

Even if we’re completely scientific and aren’t tainted by these hopes we still love a good science fiction story based on the fantastic. Yesterday I read “An Infinite Summer” by Christopher Priest that was just beautiful. (see also Wikipedia, and Joachim Boaz)

“An Infinite Summer” is a very unique time travel love story that I doubt anyone would ever believe is possible. I believe it’s the purest form of fantasy science fiction. Most science fiction is fantasy science fiction. I do love scientific science fiction, but it’s not very common. (The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is an example.) I have often criticized fantasy science fiction for being unscientific. I think I’m wrong now. I believe I was really objecting to that whiff of faith I feel some people find in fantasy science fiction. In some ways faith is admirable, but in other ways, it’s a kind of sad hope for impossible dreams.

I love “An Infinite Summer” for being a work of art. It’s a beautiful work of imagination. So is “Utriusque Cosmi” is we only see it as fantasy science fiction. I guess what bothers me philosophically is faith in science fiction where we hope fantasy science fiction could become scientific science fiction.

By the way, I’d love to own a copy of Priest’s collection An Infinite Summer with this cover. Finding one is proving hard. But if anyone has a 300 dpi scan of it I’d love if you’d let me have a copy.

James Wallace Harris, 11/14/20

Good Science Fiction Bad Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 10/29/20

Philosophy & Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 10/19/20

Poking Fun at Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex, Nudity and Prudity in Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris. 10/16/20

Realism in Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Reading

James Wallace Harris, 10/12/20

My Changing Attitudes Towards Science Fiction Over a Lifetime

“The Gift” by Ray Bradbury – illustration Esquire Magazine, Dec. 1952

When I was young, science fiction was all about sense of wonder. This was back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I didn’t even know the phrase science fiction – I was just mesmerized by the images of rockets and space travel. Science fiction was rare shows I’d stumbleupon on television. We think we can remember what it’s like to be a child, but we can’t because we have a lifetime of words and concepts that children don’t have. Remember when you thought you could fly?

Then in 1961, when I was in the fifth grade I discovered Tom Swift Jr., Danny Dunn, and Oz books. This was just after the first Project Mercury mission. I also found nonfiction books about planes, rockets, and space, all at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. I knew more then, but didn’t really understand the concept of science. I recently read “People Soup” by Alan Arkin (yes, that Alan Arkin) in which he perfectly captured the attitude of ten-year-olds have towards science. Science and technology was magic that was real, and at ten I had unlimited faith in what science could do. So did Bob and Bonnie in Arkin’s story.

I’m not sure how aware of the world I was at age ten. I assume my vocabulary had grown since the late 1950s but was still quite small, and without the words to anchor ideas I’m not sure how much I could have understood conceptually about the science fiction I was consuming. Like I said, I didn’t even know that the fictional books, TV shows, and movies were even categorized by genre labels. Probably my awe and wonder was akin to ancient Greek children listening to the adventures of gods and goddesses. Isn’t it tragic that we believe the strongest in the fantasies we first encountered as children?

Then in the fall of 1964 I had an English teacher who gave me a recommended reading list. I was also taking science and math classes, and I loved reading popular science books. Still, I’m not sure how well I understood the concepts of science. That reading list included the writer Robert A. Heinlein, and I found his book Red Planet. I loved that novel and it inspired me to read astronomy books, especially books about Mars. It was then I knew I wanted to go to Mars in the same way Kip Russell wanted to go to the Moon in Have Space Suit-Will Travel.

By now I was in the eighth grade and my school was preparing us to think about the future of jobs, careers, and colleges. I knew immediately I wanted to become an astronaut. Within a year I had read most of what Heinlein had written, and his books were often inspirational about ambition, studying science, and space exploration. Then I read a career guide which gave the requirements for different kinds of jobs. I learned that astronauts needed 20-20 vision. I was devastated because I was a four-eyed nerd. After that I gave up considering careers and became a hedonist. I wished I had discovered computers back then, which is what I eventually got into. For the rest of junior and senior high I had to attend school, but I only applied myself at having fun – mostly reading science fiction and listening to rock and roll music. I did dabble in girls and drugs, but lacked talent to really pursue them properly.

For many years I just coasted. My parents were alcoholics and my family went through a long period of painful times. I used science fiction to ignore real life. Science fiction actually made me happy in a time when I should have been miserable. I’m quite thankful for that. Science fiction was a kind of virtual reality, one in which I escaped.

Then in the twelfth grade (1968/69) I took a creative writing course. I thought maybe I could become a professional science fiction writer. I wanted to be a prophet of space exploration, evening knowing I’d be like Moses and never reach the promised land. At the time I really thought the purpose of science fiction was to promote manned space travel. By then Star Trek mania had arrived and it seem to legitimize the idea that the final frontier was humanity’s destiny. Well, I believed it. I was quite naive and didn’t realize that the majority of population didn’t. Most SF fans and non-fans knew science fiction was merely entertainment.

I graduated high school just a couple months before the first Moon landing. If asked in the summer of 1969, I would have strongly predicted Americans would be on Mars by the 1980s, and humans would have explored most of the solar system by the year 2000. I hoped some kind of interstellar drive would be discovered and we’d be on to the stars before I died in the middle of the 21st-century. As we know I was as cracked as my crystal ball.

By the end of the 1970s I was married and working at a university that I’d stay at until I retired in 2013. For forty years I waited for us to go to Mars and we never did. Plenty of people wanted to go, but not enough to influence the politics involved. The will of the people never pushed for expanding into space. The high point of this period was Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, and several other science fiction novels that tried to seriously imagine colonizing Mars. Then came Robert Zubrin’s nonfiction books, A Case for Mars. Our society had everything we needed to go to the red planet, we just didn’t want to go. I was a true believer in a religion that most people were atheists.

During the past 55 years I probably read close to two thousand science fiction books. I also read hundreds of popular science books. I slowly grew up and realized that space travel isn’t what I dreamed about as a kid. When I was young I would have sold my soul to become a space explorer. Now, you couldn’t pay me to go. Over the decades I slowly learned I didn’t have the right stuff, and never had. I hate being sick, and most people get space sick. I hate discomfort, and space travel is very uncomfortable. I won’t or can’t push myself to my limits. Even if they had allowed astronauts needing glasses back in the 1960s, I never could have gotten into the program. I’m a dreamer, not a doer.

Even though I came to realize I wasn’t suited for space travel, I still hoped that a branch of humanity would colonize the Moon and Mars, and eventually we’d find a way to the stars. Science fiction was still my religion. I put my faith in science fiction. I loved science fiction books that worked to imagine the full potential of the human race. By then I had given up on fun science fiction. I didn’t like Star Wars because it wasn’t realistic.

In the last ten years I’ve read many essays and books that suggest that human space exploration is probably not practical. To me, the most important science fiction novel of this era was Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson was one of a few science fiction writers who were considering the possibility we would never go to the stars. Oh, we’ll probably go to Mars someday. And we’ll develop bases on the Moon, but interstellar travel is about as likely as time travel. I’ve read many science books since 2000 that have added to the evidence against manned space travel.

If I tell young science fiction fans I don’t think it’s possible to go to the stars they get upset. The dream doesn’t die. Why? There’s something deep in that belief we don’t understand.

It’s not physically impossible to travel between the stars, but it’s just not probable or practical for humans. It might not even be practical for machines. My current science fiction faith is in artificial intelligence. Machines are perfect for space travel, but I’ve even begun to wonder if a superintelligent AI might find the distances too far to cross.

As my beliefs about science fiction grow more skeptical it’s became harder to enjoy science fiction. At least, enjoy it with the same attitude I had growing up. But I have a heavy science fiction habit. I know I need to either give up science fiction or find a new purpose for it.

After I discovered Audible.com in 2002, that purpose was nostalgia. I bought audiobook editions of all the science fiction books I loved reading during the previous forty years. I saw these stories in a new light. I was able to psychologically analyze my younger selves and realize a lifetime of delusional thinking.

I discovered science fiction had never been particularly serious to begin with. Sure, the final frontier true believers read science fiction, but most of them went on to become scientists and engineers. There was never much science to be learned in science fiction. If you really want humanity to explore space you need to become a rocket scientist or politician, not a science fiction fan or writer.

This brought about a new understanding of science fiction. It’s an art form. Sure, a rather minor art form. But I had invested a lifetime of studying this art and it was too late to take up another. My new attitude towards science fiction is studying its history. That makes me sometimes feels like an English major (which I was), and sometimes a scholar of religion or mythology. Other times, it feels like I’m an art historian. Science fiction writers craft stories, and a lot art and creativity goes into that craft.

My new attitude towards science fiction is admiring the craft of inventing science fictional ideas while embedding them into fiction. My reading has shifted away from novels. It just takes too much time to study novels, and there’s are too many SF novels to make a comprehensive study this late in life. I’ve found science fiction short stories to be just the right size to collect and analyze. I can read 300+ short stories a year. I have two bookcases of SF anthologies, mostly the annual best-of-the-year anthologies, but also lots of genre retrospective and theme anthologies. It’s a manageable amount of territory to explore, but I should probably specialize even more.

To get some idea of the scope of this microscopic patch of literary history read Mark R. Kelly’s site on SF anthologies. Now when I read a science fiction story I wonder how and why the author wrote it, and what readers could get out of it. I consider fiction a message in a bottle, from one lonely conscious mind to another. What are we really coding and decoding when we write and read science fiction?

I could live another ten, twenty, or even thirty years, although I tend to believe I’ll have a statistical average length of life. In any event, I might have enough time to change my mind one or more times about science fiction. I don’t think I can give it up. Years ago I saw a television news story about priests and preachers who have lost their faith. Many of them continued on in their jobs because it was too late to retrain. I’ve lost my faith in science fiction, but not my love. To keep that love going requires constantly repurposing my approach to the genre.

JWH

The Time Travelers Who Visit Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Review

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis with Spoilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH –5/28/12

JWH – 9/28/20

Too Much To Read

I have a bad habit of starting too many books. I’m also inspired to write too many essays requiring too much reading to write. And I’m in too many online book clubs. You know that saying, “Your eyes were bigger than your stomach” for eating too much? I wish I could find one for reading too much. Here’s a partial list of books I’m currently in the middle of reading:

  • The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells edited by James Gunn
  • Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America by Kenneth C. Davis
  • New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak
  • New Review Volume XII (January-June 1895) edited by W. E. Henley
  • The Best Science Fiction of the Year #2 (1972) edited by Terry Carr
  • The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame v. 2B edited by Ben Bova
  • The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
  • The Celestial Omnibus & The Eternal Moment by E. M. Forster
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson
  • The End of Expertise by Tom Nichols

There are more, but these are the books piled up around me just now. Awhile back I made a resolution to only read one book at a time. That lasted a couple of tortured months. My favorite regular activity right now is the Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction. We read two anthologies concurrently, discussing a new story every couple of days. We’re just about to finish the Carr and Bova anthologies and are voting in two new ones.

I’m reading Ring Around the Sun because of something someone said in the group about Simak. I’ve actually promised to look at a lot more novels, but that’s another story.

I’m reading the Forster short stories because we read “The Machine Stops” on the group and I got sidetracked wanting to know more about Forster and wondering about his other short stories since “The Machine Stops” was so fantastic.

I’m also reading the bound volume of the New Review because we read “The Time Machine” for the group and I got interested in it’s original publication which I started reading online. The other articles were so fascinating that when I discovered the entire volume was available from India in a leather bound reprint I ordered it.

I’m reading/listening to The Fifth Head of Cerberus because we read the novella in the Carr anthology and I bought the novel version. I’m reading it while listening to an audio version that’s on YouTube.

So this one Facebook group keeps me really busy.

I’m reading The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) on my own because for the last couple years I’ve been slowly reading through the entire 25 volumes that cover 1939-1963. My pace has slowed tremendously since joining the Facebook group.

I’m reading War and Peace because I thought it might be my 2020 classic novel. I try to read one big classic every year. I’m about a third of the way into it. I’ve been reading, and then listening, and also watching TV/movies versions. However, at the rate I’m going it might need to become my 2021 classic read.

I’m reading Caste because of my two-person book club I have with my friend Linda, but it’s going to be doing double duty because my online nonfiction book club just voted to read it next month. It was the first time that all the members voted for the same book among the list of nominees. But then we read Wilkerson’s previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns and all rated it a 10 – that book was one of the best books I’ve read in my lifetime. I believe it still holds the record for being our most highly rated monthly read. For September we’re reading The Death of Expertise.

I’m reading The Road to Science Fiction and New Atlantis because of research I want to do for this blog. Hopefully, the New Review might help in this project too.

Finally, I’m reading Two-Bit Culture because of a comment made by a member of an online discussion group I’m in devoted to pulp magazines. We’ve often discussed theories about why the pulps faded away in the 1950s, and this book was offered as one explanation because it describes the rise of reading paperback books. I always thought the pulps were killed off by television, but Two-Bit Culture makes a great case for paperbacks. (By the way, I do have a history of television in the 1950s started too, but I don’t know where I left it.)

I guess I’ve rationally explained why I’m reading so many books at once, but that doesn’t help me get them finished. It’s obvious while writing this essay that my Facebook group is generating most of my reading. I’m in another online book club, and I’m supposed to be reading A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, but I’m not sure if I’m going to get to it. I feel bad that I neglect this book club the most. I can see belonging to three book clubs is what’s keeping me from my old resolution of only reading one book at a time. However, I don’t want to quit those groups.

I just remembered the books on my Kindle, like The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster which I was reading and reviewing for this site. I’ve gotten completely sidetrack by that project and need to get back to it. Also, The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020 edited by Jonathan Strahan comes out on the 8th and I’ll want to start it too. My Kindle reads would add more to the above list, and so would my Audible account. Damn, I’ve got too many books on my reading stand, Kindle, and iPhone!

The real trend in my reading is short stories. I’ve practically stopped reading novels. I’m reading around 300 short stories a year now, and this is my third year. Mostly it’s been science fiction, but I’m getting the urge to read literary stories too. That’s why I got sidetracked by the Forster collection.

The trouble is I can’t keep this pace up. If I want to really work on my project to find 19th-century science fiction fans, I need to focus. I can’t imagine how writers like Mike Ashley or Brian Stableford can focus on writing books about science fiction history and read all the content needed to write them. (I guess they don’t watch all the TV I do.)

The Tom Nichols’ book about the death of expertise is about how everyone claims to know stuff that few specialists know. I’m trying to write an essay about stuff that Ashley and Stableford are far better equipped to write. To write the essay I want will require doing a lot of research and reading. In other words I need to become an expert. That makes me realize that few people have expertise in anything. I certainly shouldn’t say anything about the endless subjects I talk about because I just don’t read enough.

I realize at this moment, most of my expertise is in reading about science fiction, and my current central interest is science fiction short stories. Since I’m in a Facebook group that also focuses on that topic, I know I’m far from being the expert much less an expert, but it is the subject I know the most about (at the moment). If I really want to become an expert in the history of science fiction short stories I’ll need to do a whole lot more reading. I should exclude reading anything that’s not within the territory I want to master. But that won’t happen.

People who become experts must be capable of amazing feats of reading. Isabel Wilkerson probably read a whole library of books to write Caste.

It’s weird to realize that my reading is leading me towards a very narrow subject – the history of reading science fiction short stories in the 19th century. I was focused on the 1939-1975 range, but if I want to understand where science fiction began I need to expand that back to 1800. That is indeed a lot to read.

It’s interesting that writing this essay help me realize that the pile of books I’m reading is connected by a web of related interests. What formerly seemed to be random reading is actually fairly focused. Maybe I’m not as scattered-brained as I imagined.

James Wallace Harris, 9/4/20