Why Swallow Even One Porcupine?

 

2019-Sep-Oct F&SF

In the Sept/Oct 2019 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction science columnist Jerry Oltion wrote a piece called “Net Up or Net Down?” where he asks readers how scientifically accurate should science fiction stories be? For his first example, he uses The Martian by Andy Weir, which many readers consider good hard SF. The trouble is, the opening premise is not scientific at all. The story begins with a Martian lander taking off to avoid being blown over by a dust storm. But Oltion calculations predict the fastest recorded wind on Mars would feel like a 12mph breeze on Earth.

Now here’s the thing, I don’t know enough science in this situation to evaluate Oltion’s science. I wondered if gravity is 1/6th of that on Earth, does it mean things are easier to blow over? But then I remembered a 12mph breeze on Earth can make a kite fly, but not something metal like a garbage can. How many readers just accepted what Weir wrote as fact because it came from a science fiction story? Before science fiction became common, when it was considered trashy, kids would justify reading SF to their parents by claiming they learned science from reading science fiction. Does anyone really learn any kind of science from science fiction?

Oltion then mentions some other famous science fiction stories and their scientific problems. He goes on to say:

How scientifically accurate does a story have to be? Ever since Jules Verne, and probably before that, people have been arguing about that very question. Some people feel that the writer has to get every scientific detail correct or the story is flawed, while others feel that a writer can fudge a little for the sake of the story. A common rule of thumb is that the author gets one porcupine—i.e. the reader will swallow a porcupine for the sake of a good story, but they won’t swallow two.

But why should we have to swallow any porcupines? Why shouldn’t new science fiction stories be scientifically accurate as current scientific knowledge? I’m sure Weir could have found another reason to make Mark Watney a castaway on Mars.

It’s one thing to speculate beyond what science knows, but it’s another thing to ignore what it does.

Oltion also asks how we can love Star Wars which requires fans to swallow a pack of porcupines when we often reject other stories that are less fantastic as being unbelievable. His answer is we accept stories that have internal consistency. But I ask, why call that science fiction? Why not just call it fantasy? If we’re going to put science in the label, shouldn’t it mean something?

There is a story in this same issue, “Erase, Erase, Erase” by Elizabeth Bear that I find wonderful, compelling, and a great example of good writing. But it has neither fantasy or science fiction elements. It could have been published in a mundane literary magazine. I have no complaints that Bear’s story was published in F&SF, but that might not be true for everyone.

It feels like we’re reaching a stage where anything goes. In the SF/F genres, science fiction doesn’t have to be scientific, and fantasy doesn’t require fantasy. Of course, science fiction has never been scientific, even in the old days. Readers have been happily chowing down on porcupines forever and with great relish. Maybe I should just stop worrying about genre labels or literary standards. Stories are whatever we’re willing to read.

However, I think we all have our personal standards, they’re just not shared standards. Writers can write whatever they want and find an audience because readers are so different.

Personally, I want science fiction to be scientifically accurate to current science. That’s why I don’t enjoy space opera anymore, not with FTL ships. And the more I think about it, the more I doubt humans will ever colonize another world with an existing biosphere. As I become more skeptical about the science fiction I’ve consumed in the last 55 years, I’m thrilled when discovering science fiction that does feel realistic. I love it when a writer imagines something I think might be possible.

I guess I’m old and tired and I’ve had my fill of porcupines.

James Wallace Harris, 11/14/19

 

 

 

 

Does Science Fiction Have A Purpose?

 

1940-03 Astounding p122 bw

Norman Spinrad’s latest “On Books” column has caused some minor controversy, although I’m not sure why since everything in the column seems reasonable to me. Although I tend to like modern short science fiction more than he does. I do agree that the science fiction genre has been diluted with too much fantasy. I wish there were two completely separate genres. I’m also bothered by the fact that many younger readers don’t seem to distinguish between real science fiction and fantasy science fiction.

I found this statement by Spinrad the most interesting:

It tells us that fantasy has long since come to dominate SF. It tells us that many or perhaps even a majority of these SF writers do not have the education or indeed the inclination to learn the difference between science fiction and fantasy and to dish the result out to a populace that has more than enough confusion about the difference between reality and magic already.

It got me to thinking about the meaning of science fiction. To be able to distinguish science fiction from fantasy requires a precise definition of each. Too many have tried that for me to consider jumping into the fray. But I have thought of another angle of attack. What is the purpose of each?

Right now science fiction and fantasy seem to be fairy tales for older readers. And for these readers fantasy has a flavor of the past and science fiction has a flavor of the future. And if this is their sole purpose then it hardly matters if writers distinguish between the two. Especially if editors and readers are only looking for entertaining stories.

Since Spinrad is criticizing writers for not knowing the difference between science fiction and fantasy I must assume he believes there is a difference. I know I do, but are we deluding ourselves if no one else does?

There is an interesting aspect of this problem. The SF/F genre is the only genre where short fiction is thriving, still being bought by editors and read by readers. Would-be writers are attracted to its paying markets. What could be happening is hordes of writers looking to get published see this and have decided to its easier to get acceptance letters in our genre, and even get paid. They feel this market requires fantasy and science fiction elements in their stories so they add them. I’m guessing Spinrad feels these new writers don’t know the genre or its history and thus are just making stuff up that they believe is science fiction. Spinrad also feels they don’t know traditional storytelling techniques.

I’m an MFA dropout. Twenty years ago I took many creative writing courses and workshops but didn’t finish my degree. At the time my professors tried to steer us away from writing genre stories. The emphasis was on getting published in literary magazines. The MFA was a terminal degree for teaching in higher education, so the focus was on getting a job at a university. Being published in literary magazines counted towards an academic job. My courses promoted literary writing techniques, and these are different from genre story writing. I believe many SF/F writers in recent generations have taken MFA courses and that has influenced their writing style, and changed the genre.

There are practically no jobs for creative writing majors, even though the degree is promoted as a pathway into teaching. I’m guessing that’s why we’re seeing an influx of these writers into our genres. And for the most part, they didn’t grow up reading science fiction and fantasy magazines. However, that’s not their fault. Nor do I have any problem with them using our genre as an outlet for their creative hopes.

However, should science fiction be anything people want to write and call science fiction, or should it have a purpose? In 2004 DARPA created the Grand Challenge offering a million-dollar prize for the first autonomous vehicle to travel its predefined course. That was a very definite purpose. Science fiction doesn’t have such a highly focused purpose like DARPA’s, but does it at least have a vague purpose? One that goes beyond fairy tales for grown-ups.

I believe H. G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, and Robert A. Heinlein felt it did. Yet, describing that purpose is as difficult as defining science fiction. Science has the job of describing reality. But the term “science fiction” isn’t storytelling about describing reality. Ironically, that job belongs to literary fiction. Science fiction has taken on the job of trying to describe what science cannot yet describe but should eventually. To confuse the issue science fiction often speculates about possibilities that turn out to be impossible. Science fiction’s apparent purpose to explore territory science hasn’t but hopefully will. Fantasy doesn’t even go near this territory, nor does it try.

Good science fiction should be a cognitive tool for philosophically guessing what we might find in reality. Science fiction is fictionalized thought experiments. Whether science fiction is told using old-fashioned storytelling structures, or in newer MFA literary styles doesn’t matter. The real purpose of science fiction is to present philosophical insights into the event horizon between what is known and what is not.

The trouble is most “science fiction” writers, past or present, have taken these speculations and created fun fantasies. Star Wars is the perfect example. Star Wars has no extrapolation or speculation. Basically, Star Wars borrowed most of its themes and icons from Isaac Asimov, ones Asimov first created for speculative SF. Star Wars turned real science fiction into Disneyland fun science fiction. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It has a different purpose.

Part of the problem Spinrad complains about regarding not distinguishing science fiction from fantasy is most science fiction readers who read only fiction marketed as science fiction can’t distinguish serious science fiction from fun science fiction. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Anything that calls itself fantasy isn’t even part of this discussion. I am not worried that fantasy sells more than science fiction. It does bother me a little that fantasy is shelved with science fiction, but that’s only an inconvenience. It is more annoying that some magazines and anthologies want to package them together, so half the content I purchase isn’t wanted. But my real problem, and I think Spinrads’s too, is serious science fiction is being rejected by society totally embracing fun science fiction.

For most of its history, science fiction has had the reputation of being that silly Buck Rogers stuff. There were a few writers and editors that wanted science fiction to have more validity. Even today there are writers that use both science fiction and fantasy to express serious philosophical insights and worries. What’s even more ironic, is real serious science fiction often gets stripped of its label science fiction and reclassified at literature, such as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Handmaid’s Tale, and so on. Writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Harlan Ellison escaped the whole problem of defining science fiction by rejecting the label completely.

Like I said earlier, Spinrad and I might be suffering from a delusion, and so were Wells, Gernsback, Campbell, and Heinlein. That’s one reason why I’m reading and researching old science fiction. Were these guys on to something, or were they crazy, or boosting their egos with fantasies of self-importance? Alec Nevala-Lee’s book Astounding suggests they were egomaniacs using science fiction to make their lives significant. But I don’t know. In all those old pulp stories there’s a glint of gold. Was it fools gold or the real gold?

James Wallace Harris, 11/6/19

 

Let’s Try This Again, Explaining 1960s Science Fiction

Stranger in a Strange Land

In my last essay, I tried to explain my memory of science fiction from the 1960s by picking eight books I read back then that now gives me a singular feeling about that decade. I realize after several comments that I did not achieve my writing goal. I naively assumed that most SF fans would know these books and just the thought of them would trigger my personal impression of science fiction in the 1960s. I realize now that I can’t communicate by making connections to what I believe are common shared experiences. I must describe my POV in detail so it’s self-contained. That’s going to be difficult, to say the least.

Is it even possible to describe a decade to people who grew up after that decade? For that matter, are my perspectives on the 1960s anywhere close to anyone else’s living through that decade? I assumed if you read science fiction during the 1960s we might be close in our experiences, especially if you were reading the same books I did. But I am reminded of one of the most vivid lessons I experienced in the sixties. While on acid I had this realization, we were all essentially living on desert islands inside our heads and our best attempts to communicate where no better than putting messages into bottles and throwing them on the ocean hoping they’ll be found. We all want telepathy but must struggle to make Morse code do.

I picked Stranger in a Strange Land as my number one book not because it’s my favorite science fiction novel from the 1960s, but because I believe it captured the feel of the decade in science fiction for me. I was just 13 when I read Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in 1965. I came to the novel late, since it was first published in 1961, but I believe it was only the second novel I had read published in the 1960s. The first was A Wrinkle in Time in 1963.

Up till then, I had gorged on H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, the Oz books, the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift Jr. books, Heinlein’s juveniles, Andre Norton’s juveniles, and the Winston Science Fiction juveniles. Stranger in a Strange Land was my first adult novel, and it was a doozy to read at 13. But you have to understand the context in which I was reading it. In 1965 the Psychedelic Sixties hadn’t become trippy just yet. Life was mundane to the max. Going to school every day and thinking about growing up to a life of working in a factory or office wasn’t that exciting. I didn’t want to be my father or mother. Their lives seemed miserable and they fought all the time. I wanted a happier present and future, and I found that in science fiction.

In 1965 the black and white 1950s still held sway over most of the landscape. In 1964 The Beatles had landed with the British invasion on the AM radio shaking up my world. In the summer of 1965, I heard “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan and I realized I was nowhere hoping to go somewhere. Times really were a-changing. And it’s at that moment when I read Stranger in a Strange Land in the Avon paperback edition you see above.

I didn’t know it then but Heinlein had written a novel to reinvent himself and science fiction. I know this will drive some people crazy, but I believe Stranger in a Strange Land was the first New Wave science fiction novel of the 1960s. I’m sure this will also make Heinlein turn over in his grave, but his book really was different, experimental, and more literary than anything the genre science had produced before. Stranger in a Strange Land was colorful, although not quite as psychedelically dayglo as the 1960s would become. It had sex and nudity, which was different for SF, and titillating to my 13-year-old self. It also touted New Age like powers. And most of all, it represented a counter-culture. Not the counter-culture of the hippies, but still a counter-culture, which is why the hippies loved it.

During 1964-1966 I read all of Heinlein and a lot of lesser science fiction that was mostly from the 1950s. Then during 1967-1968, I started catching up with new SF books. I remember discovering both Dune and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep at the Coconut Grove Library in Miami, Florida. I remember pulling Dune off the shelf, and I was daunted away by its size. I think it was the biggest book I had read until then. Most science fiction novels usually came in around 200 pages or under. Stranger and Dune were big books. They were ambitious books. Heinlein and Herbert both aimed to hit one out of the solar system, and they did. Dune was mysterious, rich, dense, and hard for me to understand. I was only 16. It dealt with culture, ecology, and anthropology in strange and mysterious ways. I didn’t really understand it, but it felt epic, like the decade.

I can still picture in my head reaching up and pulling Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? down from the top shelf of the new 7-day books at the Coconut Grove Library. The cover was a strange pop-art collage that didn’t seem very science-fictional but I took it home and became hooked on Philip K. Dick. I mean, WTF!? I’m not sure when I first read The Man in the High Castle, but I listed it instead of Android for the 1960s because the idea of alternative history was so mind-blowing, and the 1960s were all about blowing our minds.

It was around this time I read Flowers for Algernon. I was now a senior in high school, and the turmoil of the 1960s was blazing away every night on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.  Even though Flowers was about Charlie Gordon, a guy who was born mentally slow, I felt I had started my teen years being slow and science fiction was speeding up my development. By then I was also dabbling in drugs and had taken my first trip. The idea of artificially improving oneself with chemistry and technology was the call of the Sirens, impossible to resist.

I wanted to go further and faster. I wanted to be stronger and smarter. I had grown up with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. We thought the future was so full of potential that everything could happen. I didn’t realize then, that like Charlie Gordon, I would come down from my high frontier high. Space travel was what astronauts with the right stuff got to do. That’s why reading Delany’s “The Star Pit” was so achingly beautiful while being exquisitely painful. That story made me realize the glass boundaries of the fish tank in which I lived. When I read Nova about dumbass young hippies like myself hitchhiking in space it launched me into orbit with its mind-expanding space opera. I was already hitchhiking around Dade county, meeting some of the dregs of society and I identified with Delany. I didn’t know he was black and gay, but I did feel he was young, which was so different from all the other science fiction authors at the time. He was less than a decade older than I.

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner scared the shit out of me in early 1969 when I was 17. This 1968 novel had all the impact of the nonfiction Future Shock, but that book would come out two years later in 1970, and become an international bestseller. It’s a shame Brunner’s book didn’t earn that fame. Science fiction imagines possibilities, but Stand on Zanzibar comes closest to any science fiction book of predicting the future that I’ve ever read. Brunner didn’t get the details right, but he imagined the world we live in now being dominated by terrorism, ecological collapse, political polarization, and information overload. Imagine if you were told about now fifty years ago. Would you want to grow up? That’s how powerful Stand on Zanzibar was to me back then.

Then there’s Mindswap by Robert Sheckley. The other SF novels I picked to define my view of 1960s science fiction are rather famous today, classics, even legendary. But few people remember Sheckley, and especially Mindswap. My all-time favorite science fiction novel when I was growing up was Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Heinlein. It’s a 1958 boys’ book that praises and parodies every science fictional fantasy we had back then. Clifford Russell wants to win a trip to the Moon by writing a bar soap jingle but ends up being captured by evil aliens in a flying saucer. Not only does he get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet in the Vega system and a lesser Magellanic cloud. Kip even got to time travel too.

In Mindswap Marvin Flynn gets to go a similar galactic adventure, but one more bizarre than any acid trip. Sheckley both delights and denigrates our childish desires for space adventures. Mindswap was a hip absurdity. But then the 1960s was incredibly absurd, among all the countless extreme adjectives that could be used to describe the decade. That’s why I picked these eight science fiction books to describe my fading impression of growing up in the 1960s.

Now, the last book, that came towards the very end of the decade in 1969. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s significant that it’s by a woman writer. It’s serious and heavy, and it’s about gender. Her worldbuilding had a human society where people cycled back and forth from male and female. Didn’t see that one coming, even after reading plenty of Delany. Le Guin was saying to the boys of science fiction you haven’t seen anything yet — get ready and let me show you where science fiction can really go. In many ways, The Left hand of Darkness is the first science fiction book that defines the 1970s. (And I probably didn’t actually get to it until 1970.)

It’s hard for me to imagine, even impossible I’m sure, to picture kids growing up today reading these books that blew my mind over and over again back in the 1960s. They will seem so tame, so old fashioned, and even unenlightened offensive. Maybe in another fifty years, these kids will have their minds blown by decades of future shock, and then they might comprehend the transition I felt growing up a caterpillar in the 1950s and emerging from my cocoon in 1965 to take flight in the late 1960s. In the 21st-century it feels like kids are born butterflies never knowing what it’s like to crawl on the ground.

My intuition tells me the 2020s will be the new 1960s. It a sense I feel deep down. I’m feeling the same vibes I felt back in 1965.

Today people think of the 1950s in terms of Happy Days, Grease, and Back to the Future. Kids today hate books like Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, but they are closer to the real 1950s. For me, the book that best captures my memories of the 1950s is Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick. The 1950s had a black and white look to them, even though I remember its colors. The eight science fiction books I picked were those books I remember reading that reminds me of how the 1950s went from mundane B&W to widescreen Technicolor. It’s only an illusion though. Pop culture is what paints over the dull primer of our decades, and underneath that is another reality.

James Wallace Harris, October 29, 2019

 

 

 

The Psychic Flavor of 1960s Science Fiction

On November 5, 2019, the Library of America (LoA) will drop American Science Fiction: Eight Classics Novels of the 1960s edited by Gary K. Wolfe. This is a critical recognition for science fiction because LoA endeavors to provide deluxe editions of worthy American literature. This set is a followup to the 2012 set, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s. I must wonder, are these seventeen novels how the future readers will remember science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s? Wolfe had limitations in making his selections. I assume he couldn’t use SF/F/H authors that LoA had already recognized like Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kurt Vonnegut in their prestigious uniform Library of America series editions. And I imagined he was limited by length, availability, and other publishing issues, so I doubt even these 8 books Wolfe has selected for the 1960s are the exact ones he would pick for our descendants.

Now, I know this is going to sound rather woo-woo of me, but my mind conjures a certain psychic flavor when I think of the phrase ‘1960s science fiction.” Maybe Wolfe also has such a psychic feeling too, and we might be close in what we’re feeling and we might not.

It’s like this. When I say “Statue of Liberty” most people will picture the same object in the mind. It might be from a different angle or have a different hue, but we’re all pretty much thinking the same thing. Now if I ask everyone to think “Ford Mustang” you might think of a yellow 1964 original model, while I might picture a black 1968 sweptback model. We’re still close. And if I said think of a “dog” you might picture a graceful collie with a long snout, and I might imagine a cute ugly pug with a flat face. Now we’re moving further apart. So when I say picture “1960s science fiction” we might not even be close.

If you grew up in the 1960s reading science fiction you might have a psychic flavor in your head for what you read back then. But if you grew up in more recent decades you might not have any sense of 1960s SF at all, or maybe a faint lingering flavor from reading a couple odd novels. To make this problem of communication even more difficult some people think movies, television shows, and even comics when they hear the phrase science fiction. I imagine to most SF fans, 1960s science fiction is defined by feelings for Star Trek. And as much as I loved Star Trek back then, suggesting it was 1960s science fiction would be like proposing Li’l Abner belongs in the Literary Canon to Harold Bloom.

Gary K. Wolfe has picked eight science fiction novels to remember the Sixties:

I read The High Crusade in junior high and barely remember it. It was fun, but has a 1950s flavor. I have read Way Station, Flowers for Algernon, This Immortal, and Nova multiple times. I’ve tried to read Past Master and Picnic on Paradise but never got into them. And I’m totally unfamiliar with Emphyrio. If I had to pick eight novels as the ingredients to create the complex flavor of 1960s science fiction Way Station, Flowers for Algernon and Nova would almost certainly be on my list at first thought.

Past Master and Picnic on Paradise were part of Terry Carr’s highly regarded Ace Science Fiction Specials. So was The Left Hand of Darkness. I can understand why Wolfe selected them even though I never could enjoy them myself. This means Wolfe’s psychic flavor for 1960s SF is a bit different than mine, and probably yours too. Rite of Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin would have been my pick from the Ace Specials, but I’m not sure if it would make my final eight. It did beat Past Master to win the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo.

To me the six most memorable science fiction novels of the 1960s were Stranger in a Strange Land, The Man in the High CastleDune, Flowers for AlgernonStand on Zanzibar and The Left Hand of Darkness. The Left Hand of Darkness and Dune stand at the top of the Classics of Science Fiction list. That leaves me just two slots. As much as I love Clifford Simak, and Way Station, I’m afraid it has the flavor of 1950s science fiction.

And let me be perfectly clear, these aren’t my favorite SF novels of the 1960s, but the ones I think defined the decade.

I consider Samuel R. Delany the main ingredient of the 1960s science fiction flavor, but I’m having a problem picking his one representative novel. To me, his perfect work is the novella “The Star Pit.” And if Babel-17 and Empire Star could be considered one novel I’d pick it. Empire Star is a novel mentioned by the characters inside Babel-17. However, I might go along with Wolfe and pick Nova because it stands stronger as a singular work even though emotionally it comes in second with me.

That leaves one other novel. The obvious choice is Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, but Vonnegut bitched and moaned he wasn’t a science fiction writer. He didn’t want to get pigeonholed into the low paying genre of science fiction. And Slaughterhouse-Five is the heavyweight champion among the literati for science fiction for the 1960s.

Actually, I remember the 1960s science fiction being owned by Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny. Wolfe picks This Immortal, and that’s a major part of the flavor of 1960s science fiction, but I’m not sure it holds up as well as I loved it back when. The obvious choice from Zelazny is Lord of Light. It’s a very sixties SF novel. And it would be my eighth novel in the set if I was picking them for other people.

However, I think I will use my last slot for a personal favorite and pick Mindswap by Robert Sheckley. The 1960s were known as the Psychedelic decade and Mindswap is psychedelic science fiction. So this is my recipe to create the science fiction flavor of the 1960s:

1960s SF

Of course, my 1960s were created with hundreds of science fiction novels. I could create a whole cookbook of flavors using different combinations of SF from the 1960s. And to be perfectly precise the ultimate recipe to understand 1960s science fiction is:

F&SF + Galaxy + If + Amazing + Fantastic + Analog + Worlds of Tomorrow

James Wallace Harris, October 25, 2019

 

Science Fiction Themes: A Little Help?

Woman in front of Jupiter

[Found this image on Facebook. Does anyone know its source? What an amazing idea.]

I want to revamp this site. We created a new version of the database which users can customize. It’s located at https://csfquery.com/. But the old lists and essays are still here, so there are actually two versions of the Classics of Science Fiction lists on the web now: the old longer version 4 with lots of alternative list views and essays and the new dynamic shorter version 5 with a list generator and no essays. We want to consolidate and make one consistent site. It’s really a big mess. Part of the problem is WordPress limits how we can present text and data, so we might need to go back to a web site where we have complete programming control.

Mike and I are talking about starting the whole project over from scratch. I’m thinking about making this site just a blog about nattering about science fiction and moving the Classics of Science Fiction lists to a website that’s database-driven. Mike and I both think we need more than just lists, but I don’t think we need a lot of essays. The goal is to encourage people to read science fiction books. Our lists show which science fiction books and short stories have been the most popular over the decades and we assumed revealing their popularity might encourage readers. And we do get people telling us they printed our lists and use them as guides to book buying and reading. However, we figure just plain lists are boring to web surfers.

We want to create a site with more pizzaz. So I’m thinking about different ways to present our data. Since neither one of us are artists the only way we can spice up the site with visuals is by using book and magazine covers. And I’ve always wanted to do more with science fiction themes. Right now we present our results by title, author, and year, but I’m thinking by theme might be more appealing for encouraging reading. My current plan to test is to create a home page of book covers, each representing a theme. I figure I could have a grid of 5 x 5 covers, or 6 x 6. That means 25 or 36 themes. So I organized the 108 books on v. 5 of the Classics of Science Fiction list by theme:

  1. Alien Archeology
    • 1960 – Rogue Moon
    • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
    • 1977 – Gateway
  2. Aliens – First Contact
    • 1898 – War of the Worlds
    • 1963 – Way Station
    • 1970 – Solaris
    • 1972 – Roadside Picnic
    • 1973 – Rendezvous with Rama
    • 1974 – The Mote in God’s Eye
    • 1996 – The Sparrow
  3. Alternate History
    • 1941 – Lest Darkness Fall
    • 1962 – The Man in the High Castle
  4. Apocalypse / Post-Apocalypse
    • 1949 – Earth Abides
    • 1951 – The Day of the Triffids
    • 1954 – I Am Legend
    • 1962 – The Drowned World
    • 1966 – The Crystal World
    • 1967 – The Einstein Intersection
    • 1975 – Dhalgren
    • 1976 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
    • 1978 – Dreamsnake
    • 2006 – The Road
  5. Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Robots
    • 1950 – I, Robot
    • 1952 – City
    • 1954 – The Caves of Steel
    • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
    • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
    • 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
    • 1989 – Hyperion
    • 1990 – The Fall of Hyperion
    • 1995 – The Diamond Age
  6. Artificial Life / Clones
    • 1818 – Frankenstein
    • 1976 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
    • 1896 – The Island of Doctor Moreau
    • 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
    • 2009 – The Windup Girl
  7. Colonizing the Solar System
    • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Revolution
    • 1992 – Red Mars
  8. Cyberpunk
    • 1984 – Neuromancer
    • 1992 – Cyberpunk
    • 2002 – Altered Carbon
  9. Utopia/Dystopia
    • 1924 – We
    • 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four
    • 1962 – A Clockwork Orange
    • 1985 – The Handmaid’s Tale
    • 2008 – The Hunger Games
  10. Ecology
    • 1989 – Grass
    • 2009 – The Windup Girl
  11. Evolution
    • 1930 – First and Last Men
    • 1935 – Odd John
    • 1937 – Star Maker
    • 1946 – Slan
    • 1953 – Childhood’s End
    • 1953 – More Than Human
    • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
  12. Extrapolation – If This Goes On …
    • 1968 – Stand on Zanzibar
    • 2009 – The Windup Girl
  13. Extrasensory Perception – Psychic Powers
    • 1946 – Slan
    • 1952 – The Demolished Man
    • 1953 – Childhood’s End
    • 1953 – Fahrenheit 451
    • 1953 – More Than Human
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1968 – Dragonflight
    • 1969 – Ubik
    • 1972 – Dying Inside
  14. Fantastic Ideas
    • 1971 – The Lathe of Heaven
    • 1971 – To Your Scattered Bodies Go
  15. Far Future
    • 1895 – The Time Machine
    • 1930 – Last and First Men
    • 1937 – Star Maker
    • 1956 – The City and the Stars
    • 1980 – The Book of the New Sun
  16. Galactic Empires
    • 1951 – The Foundation series
    • 1980 – The Snow Queen
    • 1986 – Speaker for the Dead
    • 1988 – The Player of Games
    • 1989 – Hyperion
    • 1990 – The Fall of Hyperion
    • 1991 – Barrayar
  17. Gender
    • 1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness
    • 1975 – The Female Man
    • 1986 – A Door Into Ocean
    • 2013 – Ancillary Justice
  18. Humor / Satire
    • 1953 – The Space Merchants
    • 1959 – The Sirens of Titan
    • 1963 – Cat’s Cradle
    • 1979 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  19. Immortality
    • 2002 – Altered Carbon
  20. Mars
    • 1917 – A Princess of Mars
    • 1956 – Double Star
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1992 – Red Mars
  21. Matter Transmission
    • 1956 – The Stars My Destination
    • 1960 – Rogue Moon
  22. Military SF
    • 1959 – Starship Troopers
    • 1974 – The Mote in God’s Eye
    • 1985 – Ender’s Game
  23. Ocean Space
    • 1872 – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
    • 1986 – A Door Into Ocean
  24. Parallel Universes
    • 1972 – The Gods Themselves
  25. Political Speculation
    • 1992 – China Mountain Zhang
  26. Religion
    • 1958 – A Case of Conscience
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1962 – A Wrinkle in Time
    • 1989 – Hyperion
  27. Sexuality
    • 1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness
    • 1975 – Dhalgren
    • 1992 – Ammonite
    • 1992 – China Mountain Zhang
  28. Sociology
    • 1961 – Stranger in a Strange Land
    • 1965 – Dune
    • 1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness
    • 1974 – The Dispossessed
    • 1975 – Dhalgren
    • 1978 – Dreamsnake
    • 1986 – A Door Into Ocean
  29. Space Opera
    • 1966 – Babel-17
    • 1967 – Lord of Light
    • 1968 – Dragonflight
    • 1970 – Tau Zero
    • 1974 – The Mote in God’s Eye
    • 1981 – Downbelow Station
    • 1982 – Startide Rising
    • 1988 – Cyteen
    • 1988 – The Player of Games
    • 1992 – A Fire Upon the Deep
    • 1992 – Ammonite
    • 1999 – A Deepness in the Sky
    • 2002 – Altered Carbon
    • 2013 – Ancillary Justice
  30. Space Travel: Interplanetary
    • 1938 – Out of the Silent Planet
    • 1950 – The Martian Chronicles
  31. Space Travel: Interstellar
    • 1970 – Tau Zero
  32. Super Science
    • 1954 – Mission of Gravity
    • 1970 – Ringworld
    • 1985 – Blood Music
    • 1995 – The Diamond Age
  33. Time Travel
    • 1895 – The Time Machine
    • 1962 – A Wrinkle in Time
    • 1969 – Slaughterhouse-Five
    • 1980 – Timescape
    • 1992 – Doomsday Book
  34. Unexplored Earth
    • 1864 – Journey to the Center of Earth
  35. Uplifting
    • 1966 – Flowers for Algernon
    • 1983 – Startide Rising

I figure clicking on a theme would take visitors to a page showing covers, titles, quotes from the book and about the book, along with useful links. The books and stories would be in order chronologically to show the evolution of a concept in science fiction. Our database would generate the list of the most popular stories and books for that theme to create the page. Using this visual approach we might expand the definition of classics. We try to keep the lists short, but a list of books for any particular theme would probably always be manageable – at least if we only include the most remembered titles. On Wikipedia, some SF themes have extremely long lists of titles. We’d only want to use the titles people are likely to enjoy reading.

The list of themes above is very close to a 6 x 6 grid, however, these aren’t the best theme labels. I’m wondering if I couldn’t consolidate them down to 25. I have Space Travel: Interplanetary and Space Travel: Interstellar. I could simplify with Space Travel that shows how science fiction imaged humans expanding away from Earth. But how is Space Travel different from Space Opera? Right now I’d say some SF books are about the efforts to explore, while others assume exploration is over and we’re busy living in space, colonizing, creating empires, developing new societies, fighting wars with each other and aliens.

I’d like a set of labels that immediately help readers find the kinds of science fiction books they want to read. Imagine going to Barnes & Noble’s science fiction section and seeing it subdivided by theme. (We focus just on science fiction, no fantasy.) I’d like if B&N did that, but would other people?

First all, does the science fiction genre neatly break down into definite sub-genres? I had trouble, which is why some books are under multiple themes. I do know readers who strongly prefer Alternate History and Military SF. But I also think of themes as a fascinating way of studying science fiction’s history. What was the first story about the end of the world or artificial intelligence? How did later writers expand and handle the theme? How often do readers encounter a theme, say Time Travel in the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and then want to read another time travel book? And do writers wanting to work a particular theme go back and see how other writers have explored it?

So I’m asking folks: What are your favorite SF themes and sub-genres? And if you’ve got the time, how would you categorize our genre’s main sub-genres?

Here’s an older effort I made to organize SF. If you like mind maps or any other visual tool, you’re welcome to show us them too in the comments.

SF Themes

James Wallace Harris, 10/18/19

 

Why Isn’t There An Audiobook Of The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov?

Asimovs Robots

It all started when I saw an ad for The Prelude to Foundation on sale for the Kindle. I had read the Foundation trilogy back when I was a kid and I wondered if I read the Foundation series now should I read them in publication order or internal chronological order. I did some research and found these recommendations. Then a guy in my book club recommended a variation of those recommendations which included books not written by Asimov:

  1. The Complete Robot (no audiobook)
  2. Caves of Steel
  3. Naked Sun
  4. Robots of Dawn
  5. Robots and Empire
  6. The Stars, Like Dust
  7. Currents of Space
  8. Pebble in the Sky
  9. Prelude to Foundation
  10. Forward the Foundation
  11. Foundation’s Fear by Gregory Benford (no audiobook)
  12. Foundation and Chaos by Greg Bear (no audiobook)
  13. Foundation’s Triumph by David Brin (no audiobook)
  14. Foundation
  15. Foundation and Empire
  16. Second Foundation
  17. Foundation’s Edge
  18. Foundation and Earth

I love to listen to science fiction, so I was disappointed that the first book wasn’t on audio. However, there are three audiobooks available of Asimov’s short stories, I, Robot, Robot Dreams, and Robot Visions. I’m still going to have to read twelve short stories and the essays out of The Complete Robot, but it’s nice to know I can listen to 18 of them. Plus, Robot Dreams (1986) and Robot Visions (1990) have a handful of robot stories not in The Complete Robot (1982). Robot Dreams and Robot Visions have misleading titles. You’d think they’d be two collections all about robots, but they’re really collections of some of Asimov’s more popular stories and essays that feature a handful of robot stories.

The stories in The Complete Robot In the Audiobook
“A Boy’s Best Friend” (1975)
“Sally” (1953) Robot Dreams
“Someday” (1956) Robot Visions
“Point of View” (1975)
“Think!” (1977) Robot Visions
“True Love” (1977) Robot Dreams
“Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” (1942)
“Victory Unintentional” (1942)
“Stranger in Paradise” (1974)
“Light Verse” (1973)
“Segregationist” (1967) Robot Visions
“Robbie” (1940) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Let’s Get Together” (1957)
“Mirror Image” (1972) Robot Visions
“The Tercentenary Incident” (1976)
“First Law” (1956)
“Runaround” (1942) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Reason” (1941) I, Robot
“Catch that Rabbit” (1944) I, Robot
“Liar!” (1941) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Satisfaction Guaranteed” (1951)
“Lenny” (1958) Robot Visions
“Galley Slave” (1957) Robot Visions
“Little Lost Robot” (1947) I, Robot, Robot Dreams
“Risk” (1955)
“Escape!” (1945) I, Robot
“Evidence” (1946) I, Robot
“The Evitable Conflict” (1950) I, Robot, Robot Visions
“Feminine Intuition” (1969) Robot Visions
“—That Thou Art Mindful of Him!” (1974)
“The Bicentennial Man” (1976) Robot Visions

According to Wikipedia, these six robot stories were not in The Complete Robot:

  • “Robot Dreams” (found in Robot Dreams)
  • “Robot Visions” (found in Robot Visions)
  • “Too Bad!” (found in Robot Visions)
  • “Christmas Without Rodney” (found in Robot Visions)
  • “Cal” (found in Gold)
  • “Kid Brother” (found in Gold)

What has started as an idle whim thinking about reading Foundation series, has turned into a project to read all the Robot series. I really wish I could get The Complete Robot with all the stories and essays in an audiobook. Who makes the decisions about which older books get put on audio — do they have a suggestion box? Evidently, short story collections aren’t big sellers. I’ve been hoping for years to see the shorter works of Samuel R. Delany, but no luck so far. If I think about it, I can rattle off a whole list of SF authors whose short stories I’d like to listen to. The first three to come to mind are William Tenn, Zenna Henderson, and Robert F. Young.

It’s rather fascinating that Isaac Asimov’s science fiction career focuses so much on these two series. I’ve always thought space travel, aliens, and robots were the core of science fiction, so it’s odd that Asimov pretty much ignores aliens, although not completely. He said he did this earlier in his career so as not to conflict with John W. Campbell’s editorial belief in human superiority. And this is especially ironic since Asimov was a professor of biochemistry and probably could have produced some great hard science fiction about alien lifeforms.

My gut tells me the new Anthropocene will quickly be supplanted by an age of robots. I’d bet sometimes before the end of this century we will have self-aware robots that are much smarter than us. For many years Asimov’s stories about robots dominated the sub-genre. So I think it’s a good time to read and think about them. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing Asimov will be completely wrong in his speculations about intelligent machines. Asimov is famous for formulating his Three Laws of Robotics, but I doubt we will ever be able to implement them into sentient AI. The three laws made a great structure for fiction though.

Asimov along with Patricia S. Warrick and Martin H. Greenberg also edited Machines That Think: The Best Science Fiction Stories About Robots & Computers. I wish that anthology was also on audiobook, but alas such classic anthologies seldom get produced with professional narration.

Asimov - Machines That Think

It’s odd. I opened my email this morning, found an ad for The Prelude to Foundation, and by the end of the day, have been sidetracked into a reading plan that might take a year to finish.

By the way, there’s a new edition of The Complete Robot that came out in 2018. Unfortunately, it’s only available in paper, no ebook or audio.

The Complete Robot (2018)

Asimov’s Robot Stories in order of publication:

  1. (1940) “Robbie”
  2. (1941) “Liar!”
  3. (1941) “Reason”
  4. (1942) “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray”
  5. (1942) “Runaround”
  6. (1942) “Victory Unintentional”
  7. (1944) “Catch That Rabbit!”
  8. (1945) “Escape!”
  9. (1946) “Evidence”
  10. (1947) “Little Lost Robot”
  11. (1950) “The Evitable Conflict”
  12. (1951) “Satisfaction Guaranteed”
  13. (1953) “Sally”
  14. (1954) The Caves of Steel
  15. (1955) “Risk”
  16. (1956) “First Law”
  17. (1956) “Someday”
  18. (1957) “Galley Slave”
  19. (1957) “Let’s Get Together”
  20. (1957) The Naked Sun
  21. (1958) “Lenny”
  22. (1967) “Segregationist”
  23. (1969) “Feminine Intuition”
  24. (1972) “Mirror Image”
  25. (1973) “Light Verse”
  26. (1974) “Stranger in Paradise”
  27. (1974) “. . . That Thou Art Mindful of Him”
  28. (1975) “A Boy’s Best Friend”
  29. (1975) “Point of View”
  30. (1976) “The Bicentennial Man”
  31. (1976) “The Tercentenary Incident”
  32. (1977) “Think!”
  33. (1977) “True Love”
  34. (1983) The Robots of Dawn
  35. (1985) Robots and Empire
  36. (1986) “Robot Dreams”
  37. (1988) “Christmas Without Rodney”
  38. (1989) “Too Bad!”
  39. (1990) “Kid Brother”
  40. (1990) “Robot Visions”
  41. (1991) “Cal”

This shows Isaac Asimov never stopped thinking about robots. Asimov died in 1992.

James Wallace Harris

I Guess Every Generation Needs An End-of-Civilization Novel

After finishing The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison it occurred to me that every generation might need its own end of civilization novel. One of my favorite books growing up was Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, about a disease that kills off most of humanity. It’s a great novel, so why does anyone need to write another novel about a disease that kills off most of humanity? Meg Elison’s novel is just as gripping as Earth Abides and leaves the same psychological taste in the mind, so in some ways, they are almost identical. But not quite.

Elison’s main character is a woman, and Elison gives a feminist view to the collapse of civilization that George R. Stewart could never have imagined back in 1949. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a last-woman-on-Earth novel for the #MeToo generation. (By the way, these books start off with the main character feeling they are the last person on Earth, but eventually find other people. I’d like to read one where the main character is really the last person on Earth.)

Science fiction has a set of standard concepts that every child eventually encounters. Space travel, aliens, time travel, and robots are the biggest science-fictional concepts kids learn about first, usually from television. The end of civilization and the post-apocalyptic new world does appear now and then in movies and television, but I believe many people don’t really grasp the idea fully until they read about it in a book. And I’m not sure how many people have read any end of civilization novels.

Everyone learns about Frankenstein but few people ever read Mary Shelley’s novel, which is a shame because the novel is so superior to the films. Fewer still know she wrote The Last Man, one of the earliest end of civilization novels. Ever since then such novels have come out infrequently but consistently. I’m wondering if every generation has one. When I was growing up in the 1950s we were afraid of The Bomb and WWIII, and read On the Beach by Neville Shute and Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. At the movies, we saw The World, The Flesh, and The Devil where Harry Belafonte was the last man on Earth until Inger Stevens showed up. I think it’s hard to convey the depth of loneliness in a film of believing you’re all alone in the world. A first-person novel is required.

Meg Elison trilogy

Like I said, science fiction has a set of defining concepts that the genre owns, and some are so popular that most people can’t remember when they first encountered them. Post-apocalyptic stories have become almost as common as space travel, but not quite. I don’t remember when I first encountered the idea. I can’t say if it was a book or movie, but I feel it was Earth Abides, which I read in my late teens. I’m wondering to fully get into the concept you have to read a book and be old enough to appreciate the idea. To grok the existential crisis of the collapse of society we need to understand civilization and imagine what it would be without it.

Meg Elison imagines being a woman without all the protections of law and order. In her story, women and children die off at a rate greater than men. Women are hidden or enslaved. Strong men take women away from weak men. They are raped and put on leashes, they are captured for group marriages, or they are aligned with men who are willing to kill and die for them. The unnamed midwife of this story is a woman who dresses as a man and hides from people. She is a loner traveling across the western states trying to survive while encountering many horrors. She feels the safest living alone but suffers from soul-crushing loneliness and boredom.

Elison’s story is not exactly a first-person point-of-view narrative. Her novel has a frame. It begins in the future, supposedly after civilization starts developing again, where boys are taught to copy the journals of the unnamed midwife. Part of Elison’s tale comes from journals, partly first-person, and part is an omniscient narrator. I wasn’t bothered by this mish-mash of techniques, but some reviewers have complained about it. It allows Elison to let us inside the head of the unnamed midwife – she actually goes by many aliases. But we also get to read the stories of other characters in their first-person voices, plus we get to hear what happens to people that the unnamed midwife never gets to know.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife has some similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale. I assume the boys are made to copy these journals so future men will be sensitive to women’s point of view. Elison also deals with patriarchal religions. And the framework suggests a new religion, which might be revealed in the later novels.

In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, the population is killed off by a mysterious flu-like illness. During the cold war era, nuclear holocaust and biological weapons were usually the cause of leaving few people alive. A couple decades later it was nuclear winter or comet impact. Writers have come up with all kinds of ways of reducing the population down to near zero. These end of the world stories have humans almost becoming extinct, but not quite. Their stories are always about how a few people start over.

I’ve read a lot of these stories. They nearly all follow the same basic plot. A protagonist discovers they are alone. They wander about wondering what happened. Eventually, the protagonist encounters a few other people, but they quickly learn that other people can be dangerous. The stories continue with the search for food and shelter in the ruins, and after a lot of violence, people start finding a way to rebuild. The point of these stories is to tell us what life without civilization would be like. They also get into the foundation of right and wrong, and why people bond. It’s a good sub-genre for being philosophical. It’s a way to criticize the existing civilization and theorized about a better one.

Meg Elison covers all the bases. Her book has two sequels that are set in the same universe, but The Book of the Unnamed Midwife can stand alone just fine. I recommend it to any connoisseurs of end of civilization novels, or to any male that doesn’t fully comprehend the importance of the #MeToo movement. However, I should warn readers who like light and uplifting tales that this one is heavy and painful. I admire these kinds of books because they really make me think hard about existence, but I finish them psychologically worn out.

James Wallace Harris, October 8, 2019

Do We Still Need Science Fiction?

Spaceflight pioneers Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert H. Goddard, and Hermann Oberth all claimed their careers were inspired by reading Jules Verne. If you read interviews or memoirs from almost any space scientist they will say they were inspired by science fiction. I imagine if you asked scientists working with robotics and artificial intelligence the same kind of questions, they would also say they were inspired by science fiction too. Millions of people work in fields that were once considered science fictional. Do we still need science fiction to inspire students to study these endeavors? In fact, isn’t science fiction now a distraction?

Are there new theoretical ideas in science fiction stories being written about today that would inspire young people to grow up and make them real? Science fiction has always served two purposes. First, it speculated about reality. Second, it was escapist entertainment that helped us escape reality. Of the new science fiction produced today, how much of it helps us speculate about reality and how much helps us escape?

If you really cared about space exploration aren’t there enough nonfiction books to study to fill lifetimes? More than that, you can major in space sciences and actually work in the space industry. Why read about robots when you can build them? Why read about AI minds when you can be programming them? Why read stories about life extension and cyborg enhancements when you can be working to make them happen?

Science fiction has always helped us imagine tomorrow, either to inspire us to create better futures from our dreams, or avoid the nightmares by extrapolating on our sinful ways. Yet, how much science fiction is written today that is actually useful? Is science fiction best use today to let us pretend we aren’t here? The world has a lot of problems, peoples’ lives are filled with stress. So escapism is a needed commodity.

Hasn’t fantasy supplanted science fiction? Star Wars is immensely popular, but has it ever speculated about anything real? Isn’t it just a spaced theme Disneyland? And doesn’t most hard science fiction speculate about futures so far ahead that they are fantasies too? How often do we get books like The Windup Girl or Aurora that make us think hard about the future? Books like Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale are still incredibly useful but how often do we get genuine warnings like them? All too often modern dystopian novels are just escapist adventures for teenagers.

Do we need any more novels advocating space travel when the world is full of public and private space programs? Do we need any more novels about conscious machines when we’re speeding ever faster towards building them? Has the only value of science fiction become another opiate of the masses?

Where are the modern science fiction visionaries who are imagining things we haven’t imagine but need to build? What books being written today will be mentioned by future scientists as their inspiration for creating new technologies and social systems? Or has science fiction imagined all the possibilities already?

I hope readers can provide me with long lists of relevant stories and novels. Can you think of any SF story about something you want to see created in the real world that people aren’t already working on today?

James Wallace Harris. 10/1/19

[I got the idea for this essay while watching Last Call For Titan! on Prime Video last night. I realized while listening to the interviews with the scientists who built the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft as well as the authors of Beyond Earth who advocate human missions to Titan that we don’t need science fiction anymore. Not when real people can accomplish what they did with the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft and plan future missions to Titan.]

 

 

Forgotten Science Fiction Writer: Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips bio at New Worlds bw

I have a growing fascination with forgotten writers. This began when I discovered a mention of a rare science fiction novel in an old fanzine, Phoenix by Lady Dorothy Mills published in 1926. That was the same year Amazing Stories began publishing. There wasn’t much science fiction published in hardback before the 1950s, and this was one was by a woman, an even rarer oddity. It took me about twenty years to track down a copy of Phoenix. I’ve since maintained a website devoted to Lady Dorothy Mills. At first, I’d get 2-3 inquires every year or two, but it’s now been years since anyone has shown any interest.

Over the past year, I’ve stumbled across three short stories by Peter Phillips. They were “Dreams Are Sacred,” “Manna,” and “At No Extra Cost.” I can’t say they are classics, but they were entertaining and eclectic. I liked them immediately. The Internet Science Fiction Database lists only 21 stories for Phillips, but two of them are the same story with different titles. It lists no published novels or short story collections. Philips died in 2012, but I did find a short biography of him in a 1958 issue of New Worlds, the issue of his last published science fiction story. There I learned that Phillips was a professional newspaper writer and editor, who had little time for writing fiction. The little bio also reported he had over thirty stories published, including detective stories. Wikipedia didn’t have much on Phillips, but the Science Fiction Encyclopedia had a concise but enticing write-up.

I decided I wanted to read the complete short stories of Peter Phillips. I had no trouble finding digital scans of all his original publications in science fiction magazines and one fanzine on the net. I’ve collected them into one digital CBR file for easy reading and study. Because of recent news reports about how millions of works published before 1964 are probably out of copyright I thought it would be safe to share this file. Maybe other science fiction fans would like to give Phillips a try too. Who knows, maybe a publisher will see a groundswell of interest in Phillips and publish a nice collection of his work. Here are the stories in the CBR file. Links show story publication history.

I enter a lot of data about science fiction into databases. Over the years I’ve noticed there are many writers who have just a handful of short stories published and then they disappeared. I’ve wondered what happened to them. Was getting published not the experience they dreamed about and worked so long to achieve? Is writing fiction more trouble than it’s worth? Did they not get the praise and attention they expected?

Phillips had some minor recognition. His name was only on one magazine cover, but a handful of his stories made it to some nice collectible anthologies.

“Dreams Are Sacred” were in these books:

Imagination Unlimied edited by Bleiler and Dikty

The Astounding-Analog Reader edited by Harrison and Aldiss

The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces edited by Silverberg and Greenberg

The Great SF Stories 10 edited by Asimov and Greenberg

The Road to Science Fiction v. 5 edited by James Gunn

The Night Fantastic edited by Poul and Karen Anderson

“Manna” was included in these anthologies:

The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin

The Science Fiction Argosy edited by Damon Knight

The Great SF Stories 11 edited by Asimov and Greenberg

Trips in Time edited by Robert Silverberg

“P-Plus” and “Unknown Quantity” were reprinted here:

No Place Like Earth edited by John Carnell

“Plagiarist” was reprinted in:

Future Tense edited by Kendell Foster Crossen

“Counter Charm” was included in:

Omnibus of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin

50 Short Science Fiction Tales edited by Asimov and Conklin

“At No Extra Cost” made this classic best-of-the-year anthology:

The Best Science Fiction Stories 1952 edited by Bleiler and Dikty

“She Who Laughs” was liked by Fred Pohl:

Assignment in Tomorrow edited by Frederik Pohl

“Lost Memory” is remembered here:

Gateway to Tomorrow edited by John Carnell

Second Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction edited by H. L. Gold

Science Fiction Terror Tales edited by Groff Conklin

The Coming of the Robots edited by Sam Moskowitz

Contact by Noel Keyes

The Great SF Stories 14 edited by Asimov and Greenberg

Machines that Kill edited by Fred Saberhagen

“University” was Phillips second story in:

Second Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction edited by H. L. Gold

“The Warning” was snagged by Judith Merril:

Beyond the Barriers of Space and Time edited by Judith Merril

“c/o Mr. Makepeace” was included in:

Operation Future edited by Groff Conklin

The Dark Side edited by Damon Knight

Listing out these anthologies (and I didn’t list the foreign and obscure reprints) shows that Phillips was liked by a number of anthology editors. Because most of these anthologies are old, it indicates that Phillips is being forgotten. That’s sad.

I’m going to read his stories and then maybe write about them. I don’t think they hold up for younger, modern readers, but they are interesting in a historical way regarding the genre. Phillips seemed up on current affairs in his tales, but then he was a newspaperman. Of the three I’ve read, they felt like he had a good sense of speculating about the future and social changes. They had some impact on readers of his day, but evidently not lasting impact. I’d like to explore why.

Most science fiction is eventually forgotten, but not all. I hear there are two television productions of The War of the Worlds coming out this fall. Why is that story enduring, but most other SF not?

James Wallace Harris

OA (Older Adult) Science Fiction

Man in His Time by Brian W. Aldiss

Science fiction is youthful literature. Its bestsellers are often YA titles. Overall SF fans are mostly young, as are the protagonists in SF. My hunch is most science fiction readers discover science fiction early in life and eventually put it away for other interests as they get older. There’s a certain percentage of SF fans that stay loyal their whole life, but often they stick with the kind of science fiction they grew up reading. We just don’t see much science fiction aimed at readers in their last third of life, or feature lead characters in their waning years. There’s a reason for this – science fiction is future-oriented, and old readers don’t have much of a future.

Last year I started reading anthologies that collect the best SF of the year. Annual best-of-the-year anthologies first appeared in 1949, but Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg produced a retrospective annual series starting with 1939. So far, I’ve read the best stories for 1939-1950, a time period often referred to as The Golden Age of science fiction when John W. Campbell reigned as supreme editor of the genre with his magazine Astounding Science-Fiction. I feel less than a quarter of these stories still work in 2019 and for a reader my age. For the most part, the genre was youthful, the writers youthful, and the readers were youthful. There was an abundance of optimism back then.

After a lifetime of reading science fiction, I feel the genre has a problem with maturity. However, that might be because I’m 67 and I’m having trouble finding science fiction that’s relevant in my waning years. Science fiction doesn’t want to grow up. Even when science fiction deals with a serious subject the treatment is often YA. In the past, I guess the editors and writers knew most of their readers were under 25. Campbell was acclaimed in the 1940s for producing a science fiction magazine for adults. Well, at least readers in their twenties and thirties.

The genre matured in the 1950s when The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction appeared, and the major New York publishers began publishing science fiction in hardback. The New Wave in the 1960s pushed the genre even further into growing up. Then in the 1970s academics started teaching about the genre, boosting the maturity a bit more. On average, science fiction books have gotten larger, more ambitious, better written, and a bit more adult. The genre left the young adult stage, but most adult science fiction today is still aimed at readers in their restless twenties or maturing thirties. I seldom find SF books that reflect the maturity of middle-age, much less old age.

Since 1977 science fiction has been taken over by movies and television, and readership for the magazines has dwindled. At one time Analog had 130,000 paying readers, but now it’s one-sixth or one-seventh of that. Star Wars has lowered the maturity of science fiction, and science fiction based on comics reduces its concepts to childishness. There is little movie science fiction that appeals to the mature mind. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Star Wars or superhero movies, but from my age perspective, they are for children. Too much of science fiction suffers from arrested development, especially the films and television SF. I have to admit that I didn’t tire of being a YA until my forties.

I write this because I just listened to The Best SF of Brian W. Aldiss from Audible, which I believe is based on the collection Man in His Time: The Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian W. Aldiss which came out in 1988. These stories have completely derailed me from my best-of-the-year reading project. His stories have grabbed my attention because they are different and for the most part serious and adult. I read a couple of Aldiss novels and a handful of short stories way back when but have mostly forgotten about him and his work. In researching Brian W. Aldiss, I think most SF fans have forgotten him too. Three of the books I bought were library discards and they had date-due paper glued in their back. None of them seem to have ever been checked out.

If you look at the entry for Brian W. Aldiss in Wikipedia, most of his bibliography has no separate linked entries, and the content for those that do are often skimpy. That implies that he doesn’t have the fans to keep his work alive, which is a terrible shame. If you look at the bibliography for Robert A. Heinlein at Wikipedia nearly every last novel and short story has a link to its own entry in the encyclopedia, and often they are extensive.

Part of the problem is Aldiss is English, and English science fiction writers other than Arthur C. Clarke have never been hugely popular in the United States. Aldiss and J. G. Ballard achieved a certain level of success. And readers have always loved the odd novel from John Wyndham or John Christopher, but for the most part, I don’t see these names mentioned when people state their favorite SF writers today. Sure, some of the New Space Opera writers from Great Britain have gained a swelling of new fans in the last two decades, but I really don’t know how big their fanbase is compared to American SF writers.

1I assume part of my attraction for Aldiss right now is he’s both serious and British. I’ve gotten into Aldiss so much that I bought and read his memoir about writing, Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith’s. Aldiss does a lot of name dropping in that book, referring to British science fiction and literary writers, and to be honest, I know of only a small percentage of those supposedly famous people. It’s like an alternate universe of science fiction. I’m incredibly thankful for pulp scanners because I can now look up works in New Worlds, Science Fantasy, and Interzone.

Brian Aldiss isn’t OA, but he is MA (Middle Adult Science Fiction), and his stories feel like they are more serious and adult than most SF that was written by his American contemporaries. The stories I listened to were:

  • “Outside” (1955)
  • “The Failed Man” (1956)
  • “All the World’s Tears” (1957)
  • “Poor Little Warrior!” (1958)
  • “Who Can Replace a Man?” (1958)
  • “Man on Bridge” (1964)
  • “The Girl and the Robot with Flowers” (1965)
  • “The Saliva Tree” (1965)
  • “Man in His Time” (1965)
  • “Heresies of a Huge God” (1966)
  • “Confluence” (1967)
  • “Working in the Spaceship Yards” (1969)
  • “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” (1969)
  • “Sober Noises of Morning in a Marginal Land” (1971)
  • “The Dark Soul of the Night” (1976)
  • “Appearance of Life” (1976)
  • “Last Orders” (1976)
  • “Door Slams in Fourth World” (1982)
  • “The Gods in Flight” (1984)
  • “My Country ‘Tis Not Only of Thee” (1986)
  • “Infestation” (1986)
  • “The Difficulties Involved in Photographing Nix Olympica” (1986)

Aldiss published over 300 short stories, and his collected short stories run 5 volumes just for the 1950s and 1960s. Except for “The Saliva Tree” which won a Nebula, and “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” which was the inspiration for Spielberg’s film A.I., these tales aren’t that well known, at least with American readers and anthologies. Aldiss has 41 short stories in our database with at least one citation, but none of them made it to our list Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories which required a minimum of 8 citations.

This is an exciting change for me and reading science fiction, I’m really digging Aldiss. I even bought Apertures: A Study of the Writings of Brian W. Aldiss by Brian Griffin and David Wingrove. Aldiss says in his memoir that they did a good job covering his work. My copy is also a library discard and no one had ever checked it out either.

Of these stories I wish “Appearance of Life” which I’ve written about twice already, and “The Saliva Tree” were on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list. I’ve also written about “The Saliva Tree.”

There’s a story in The Best SF Science Fiction of Brian W. Aldiss that divides his work, “The Girl and the Robot with Flowers” from 1965. In this story, a character named Brian W. Aldiss is talking to his wife about his struggle to write his latest science fiction story. He tells his wife the plot and she said it sounded like a pretty good run-of-the-mill SF story, but it also felt like something from Poul Anderson, and Brian replies, it also sounded like something from an anthology edited by Harry Harrison. Brian the character tells his wife that he’s pretty sure Michael Moorcock at New Worlds or Fred Pohl at Galaxy would buy it. Then the Brain W. Aldiss character goes on to narrate to the reader why he didn’t want to write anymore 1950s kind of science fiction. All that interplanetary stuff wasn’t about real-life or his life.

Could this be Aldiss’ conversion to the New Wave? Could this have been when Aldiss decided to become a grown-up SF writer? Of course, his novels after that seem to have lost readers in America. It wasn’t until his Helliconia Trilogy in the 1980s did he make a comeback, and even then only with limited popularity among the average American SF fan.

Science fiction has gotten more exciting in the last two decades as it has gotten more diverse writers and readers. It is taken seriously. I believe The Calculating Stars which just won the Hugo is a serious novel that has an adult appeal. But its heroine Elma York is just in her twenties. I loved her story. Yet, it’s about an alternate past that I wished had happened (except for the reason the world changes) that might appeal to people my age. But it’s POV still focuses on the very young. Philosophically it asks why we didn’t go to Mars. That’s what I asked too when I was young. Now I ask, why did so many of us have that Mars fantasy?

I’m looking for science fiction aimed at people in their seventh decade of life that takes reality deadly serious and explores realistic possibilities. Modern science fiction books like The Calculating Stars still work well for me, but I still want something different. Something philosophically deeper. I might need to leave the genre, but for now, I’m picking up the trail where Brian Aldiss and J. G. Ballard diverged in the 1960s.

James Wallace Harris, 9/11/19

Be sure and read MarzAat’s review of this book, “Man in His Time; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax,” which gives each story its own review. That’s what I sat down to do when I started writing this essay. But my memory forgets stories almost as fast as I read them, so it’s a real struggle for me to review anthologies and collections. I wish I could have reviewed <i>Man in His Time</i> like MarzAat.