Blows Against The Empire: Alfred Bester’s 1953 Critique of Science Fiction

Before the tempest in this teapot begins to blow, let me quote Alfred Bester’s conclusion to his severe attack on science fiction from his 1953 essay “The Trematode: A Critique of Modern Science-Fiction:”

The Trematode is a parasite which infests the mussel and either destroys it or forces it to form a pearl. Science-fiction has infested us and we are waiting to see what the result will be. But one thing is certain: the end must be the metamorphosis of science-fiction. Whether it turns to rot or is transformed into a pearl, it will not continue to exist as an isolated organism much longer. For my part, I welcome this end. For my part, I foresee the pearl.

Bester is looking back over what many have called the Golden Age of Science Fiction and burning it down with his blaster. I wish I could find the fan reaction to this essay from back in the 1950s, but Google only returns seven results. And for those who aren’t familiar with the name Alfred Bester, he wrote two books in the 1950s that became classics: The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man. At the time Bester had a reputation for being a writing stylist and innovator. So getting a dressing down from one of our own must have been painful.

I wonder what I would have thought if I read and understood this essay in 1962 when I first began reading science fiction. Science fiction wasn’t popular then like it is today. Science fiction was one step up from comic books, and you were called retarded (their word back then) by your peers if you read comics. I remembered also being called a geek and zero for reading SF. Back then those terms were the social kiss of death. I had two buddies that read science fiction in high school and I remember being very hurt by George’s mother when she sat is down one day and gave us a serious talk about evils of reading science fiction. George’s mother was a sophisticated, well-educated, widely traveled woman, and I was always impressed with her thoughts, so it really hurt when she tried to convince us we were reading trash. She implied reading SF was a sign we were emotionally and intellectually immature. We thought we were Slans.

Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a great civil war within the science fiction genre, a war between the Old Wave and New Wave. If I had read Bester’s essay then I would have felt self-righteous because I was on the side of the New Wave and its attacks on the Old Wave were much like his attacks on SF in 1953. It was a painful time that mirrored the Generation Gap and the violent unrest between the folks for the Vietnam war and against it.

Today another civil war/generational divide seems to be emerging in our genre. I often see attacks on old science fiction and old science fiction writers. However, this time I feel like I’m surfing the Old Wave. Of course, I’m 68. I guess every so often science fiction rebels against itself. The Old Empire is attacked by the Young Turks. Probably one reason Star Wars has been so freakin’ popular is the merry band of pirates battling the evil empire motif resonates so well with the young in all ages. And once again the young feel so righteous, like the early Christians planning to overthrow Rome.

Science fiction has often suffered the slings and arrows of self-righteous critics, both from within and without. Civil wars are always the most painful, and I wonder if the current rebellion attempting to overthrow the Sci-Fi Empire will become as contentious as the New Way/Old Wave rebellion of the 1960s? Literary critics and scholars have periodically published attacks on the genre, but even though they rile the SF masses eventually they are ignored. What angers the true fans more than generation conflicts are traders to the cause, the Judas to the genre. On SF by Thomas M Disch offers a more recent attack on SF from a 21st-century book, and some fan opinions of Disch aren’t very nice. His publishers described On SF as “A last judgment on the genre from science fiction’s foremost critic.” Unfortunately, Disch was never very well known.

Bester and Disch say much in common. In fact, all the rockets launched against the empire have similar targets. These attacks generally cause flame wars but do they change anything? Sure, science fiction has become more politically correct over time, but then so has the rest of society.

I found Bester’s “The Trematode: A Critique of Modern Science Fiction” in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1953 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, first published in September of 1953. It’s doubtful you’ll be able to find a copy of this anthology. I’m hoping it’s out of copyright because I plan to quote all of it here. The reason why I’m paying particular attention to what Bester says is because of his opening paragraphs:

I HATE science-fiction for what it has been; I love it for what it will be. I am ashamed of science-fiction’s past, as I’m ashamed of the childhood that led me to it. I look to its future with hope, as I look with hope toward my own future development and maturity. I believe I do not speak for myself alone, but for all of us; for we are all alike in our sins and in our hopes.

When I was a boy I was blessed with a boy’s vivid curiosity about life and cursed with a boy’s timidity about facing life. I yearned for many things and could not face the reality of achieving them. I wanted to be a scientist. I received a micro¬scope for Christmas and spent interminable hours peering at drops of swamp water, but I never applied myself to zoology. I never could face the hard work, the study and discipline it re-quired. I merely peered through the microscope and imagined I was making great discoveries.

I wanted to be an astronomer. I read books on astronomy and gazed for hours at the illustrations, but I never learned the stars or even the constellations. I could not face the work. I was content to dream about space. I wanted to be a great chess player. I learned the moves but never applied myself to learn the game. I wanted to be a physician, an adventurer, a fullback, a composer—all the things that all boys want to be—and never became any of them because the reality of accomplishment was so much less glamorous than the dreams.

I don’t hate old science fiction, but there are those who do. Nor am I ashamed for science fiction’s past, although there are many who are. But I do agree with Bester, that all science fiction fans seek hope in what they read.

Because Bester’s judgment of himself is extremely similar to my own life, I figured his criticisms of SF might also resonate. I always had big ambitions but never made the effort. There is that old saying, “Those who can do, and those who can’t, teach.” Evidently, the ambitious who can’t even teach write science fiction, and those who can’t write science fiction read it.

Science fiction reflects extreme forms of hope, fears, ambition, and destruction. It deals with desires so out there they are often indistinguishable from fantasy. For me, science fiction was a consolation prize — reality wasn’t what I wanted so I chose alternates fantasies that I preferred.

Shouldn’t we also consider Bester’s attacks on science fiction to also be personal attacks on our ability to deal with reality? I know I’m taking it personally because of how close I am to Bester’s own psychology.

And I was so naturally led to science-fiction, for that form of literature provided me with the fulfillment of my dreams at no more cost than a pleasant hour’s reading. I could read about the paradoxes of physics, the complexities of chemistry, the puz­zles of the social sciences. I could enjoy speculations and guesses and other men’s dreams; and after saturating myself with these stories, I could believe that I was a physicist, a chemist, a phi­losopher. I could delude myself into believing that I had ac­quired knowledge. I could feel superior to the boy who was a real life fullback but didn’t read stories about Relativity. I could feel superior to the rest of the world.

That was my escape from hard reality. It was the escape of most fans. Were you flunking a course in physics? Pooh! Read a story about time travel and be a physicist. Were you flunking math? Read about light years and feel superior to quadratic equations. Were you incapable of making friends? Dating girls? Getting along with your family? Escape into a story about the social problems on Centaurus. Read science-fiction and escape. That sentence is science-fiction’s past, and from that past we have inherited the vestigial remnants—the Three Immaturi­ties that are plaguing us today, intellectually, emotionally and technically.

If I had read this in high school or college, I would have heard the Twilight Zone music in the background. Bazinga – Bester burnt adolescent me to a crisp. I took physics, astronomy, and computers when I began college, but I just didn’t want to do the work, so I switched majors to English after two years. I’ve always wanted to be a scientist because I read science fiction. But for every science book I read, I probably read a hundred science fiction novels.

Intellectually, science-fiction is guilty of the naivete of the child and the over-simplification of the child. Its naiveté leads it to adopt fads, believe in nostrums, and discuss disci­plines of which it has only the most superficial understanding. I need mention no names. The followers of the “Bacon Wrote Shakespeare” cult and the interpreters of the Great Cipher have their blood brothers in science-fiction, as have the lunatic mem­bers of Gulliver’s Grand Academy of Lagado.

The political and sociological theorizing in science-fiction is puerile. Philosophic thought is absurdly commonplace. Serious discussions are generally on the level of a bull session of high school sophomores who are all rather pleased with themselves and snobbish toward the rest of the world—toward “The Mere,” as Ste. Daisy Ashford put it. There have been many ex­ceptions to this, of course; and there will be many exceptions to the rest of my analysis; but I am discussing the average.

It’s true that you will occasionally find fragments of good sense in science-fiction, but at best they are only parts of a whole which is not understood—tags and tatters of learning like the Latin aphorisms that every schoolboy remembers with ease but translates with difficulty. One result is that science-fiction makes no attempt to use the disciplines as tools. It cannot. It does not know how to handle them professionally. It peers through the microscope and dreams. Another result is distor­tion of idea development leading to false conclusions. The most serious result is a childish tendency to generalize. Lacking de­tailed knowledge and understanding of its subjects, failing to realize that speculation is not for amateurs, science-fiction takes refuge in simplification.

Oh, this is painful. And yes, I can remember all those epics arguments we had over such insanely stupid concepts — science fiction and otherwise. And of course, my generation was mixing science fiction, rock music, drugs, and New Age philosophy together by the 1970s. Baby Boomers just didn’t want to adultify. Our 1960s political revolution was also simplistic and childish. I can easily see why critics claim science fiction is fairytales for adults who refused to grow up.

Yes, we were taking refuge in simplification — but let’s be fair. Are fans of mysteries, westerns, romances, historicals, any more realistic and sophisticated. And we must ask: Does our choice in reading equal our approach to reality in everyday life?

Also in our defense, the reality we were trying to escape in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was epically bleak back then. We were going through multiple tsunamis of social change. Alvin Toffler even coined a term for it – Future Shock. But Bester was mainly talking about the 1930s and 1940s, and remember the shocks those folks went through. I’ve just read several books about science fiction in the 1940s and much of it was seeking transcendental change. And wasn’t the whole 1950s Dianetics/Scientology thing very much like the New Age stuff we were embracing in the 1970s?

Over-simplification might better be discussed as an aspect of science-fiction’s technical immaturity and inability to handle human beings. Let me consider it here, however, since that sec­tion will have more than enough to cover. The naive quality of the morality play in science-fiction stories is the best example of over-simplification. A reading of “Everyman” with its cast of Fellowship, Good Deeds, Knowledge, Beauty, Five Wits, etc., produces a strange effect. You recognize the startling similarity to science-fiction with its Martinet Generals, Industrial Ty­coons (divided into the Good Guys and the Bad Guys), Mis­understood Scientists, Inexplicable Aliens (who usually conceal Superior Powers under a Pastoral Culture), Callous Conquer­ors and Patriots in Revolt.

It is interesting to note that although science-fiction has be­come self-conscious about the naive simplicity of its cast, it has not attempted to remedy this by deeper characterization. It has clung to the morality characters but attempted to deceive the eye with quick shuffles. With a swift twist in the final para­graph, the Martinet turns out to be the Scientist at heart. The Wicked Politician is revealed as a Patriot. The Scientist is un­masked as an Industrial Tycoon (Bad Guys Division) and so on.

The morality play simplification of science-fiction is also re­vealed in its plots, and I wonder how many people have noticed that most science-fiction stories end at exactly the point where they should begin. This is a deadly sin in the arts and one of the standards by which you separate the men from the boys. What the stories amount to, as a rule, is an artificially masked exposition of a situation. When the situation is finally revealed, the story ends. The great classics of science-fiction have been the exceptions to this rule—stories which have courageously and imaginatively tackled problems, no matter how difficult. But in general, science-fiction is afraid to come to grips with its situations. It is afraid of complexities.

Okay, fans of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, as well as many fantasy classics should feel that jab here too. And should science fiction take all the hits when our current pop culture has so thoroughly embraced comic books and comic book movies?

We have to ask: Doesn’t Bester’s 1953 criticism apply to most of our current pop culture? Science fiction concepts have spread throughout our society. The fantastic has seeped into almost all forms of fiction. But just read on…

This reflects the childish yearning for a simple world. It re­flects the immature desire to find simple yes-no solutions for complicated problems. Let me cite one more example of this over-simplification. The story in which the protagonist solves a complex problem which has been baffling experts by turning up one simple factor which has been overlooked or ignored. In part this is merely the Dreams Of Glory of our youth, but more importantly, it is a childish refusal to accept the complexity of reality and the complex response demanded by reality. And out of this refusal arises the emotional immaturity of science ­fiction.

Science-fiction is terrified by life. Like the child who is fright­ened and depressed when he looks ahead at the dangers and responsibilities of adult life, science-fiction is panicky when it looks ahead at the dangers and responsibilities of the future. Its stories show this by their universal gloom. Man is doomed to various fates, none of them pleasant. There is no hope. There is no future. And out of this pretentious morbidity, science ­fiction manufactures an apology for its own inadequacy.

Science-fiction is afraid of the dark. Like the child who screams bloody murder when he’s locked up in a closet, science-fiction screams bloody murder whenever it takes a timid step into the unknown. What visions of horror does a child con­jure up out of the dark? Ghostly hands clawing it. Ferocious monsters assailing it. The very earth opening up and swallow­ing it. What visions of horror does science-fiction conjure up out of its insecurity? Ghastly plagues from laboratories. Ferocious monsters from space. The very earth falling apart in atomic disintegration.

Think about all the kinds of movies and television shows this applies to, and how widespread their popularity. Aren’t we terrified of life, of reality? If we aren’t, why do we spend so many hours every day immersed in fiction, and often fiction that’s science-fictional or fantasy?

But let’s go on. Bester’s psychoanalysis for science fiction before 1953 is very specific to a very tiny piece of the pop culture back then. People today have no idea how unknown science fiction was before 1950. The term “science-fiction” had to be explained to the general public in Life Magazine in the early 1950s. Back then the words were hyphenated, which meant the phrase was new. Hyphens are dropped from compound words when they become commonly used.

I know science fiction wasn’t the only source of immature thinking back in 1953. I grew up in the 1950s and remember people embracing UFOs, Edgar Cayce, Jean Dixon, nudism, Bridey Murphy, ESP, all kinds of quack medicine, endless wacky conspiracy theories, John Birch Society, building fallout shelters, a list that goes on and on.

This gloomy satisfaction with assured disaster and this ter­ror of the unknown are not the result of mature understanding and judgment, no matter how speciously science-fiction may ar­gue. They are emotional immaturity. They are the terror of the child who dreads what he does not understand and sees catastrophe lurking behind any closed door. They are a shock­ing admission that while science-fiction prattles about extra­polation, it is only shaking a bogey and frightening itself to death.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is science-fiction’s con­spiracy complex, which is an aspect of childish paranoia. The child, in its terror of what it does not understand, cannot fathom its relationship to the unknown. Viewing the universe with infantile egocentricity, it imagines that every phenomenon relates directly to itself. If the weather is good, it’s because the child has deserved it. If the weather is bad, it’s because the child is being punished. If the child has a success, it’s because the world is its friend and wishes it well. If the child has a failure, it’s because the world is its enemy and wishes it harm. To the mind of the child it is inconceivable that any event can take place without the fate of the child as its ultimate object. Mark Twain describes this attitude vividly in Chapter 54 of Life on the Mississippi.

It is astonishing how many science-fiction stories display this conspiracy complex, this tendency to regard man as the ulti­mate object of all phenomena. The grosser forms are familiar to all of us. We harbor secret enemies in our bosom who manip­ulate nature to own us, deceive us, exploit us, conspire against (and rarely for) us. We are unwitting members of a galactic organization which guides us, tests us, judges us, conspires against (and sometimes for) us. We are always the focal point of a conspiracy, malign or benign. Science-fiction rarely musters the emotional maturity to accept the fact that the universe is most probably entirely indifferent to our aims, ideals and fears, to our virtues and sins; and, what is more, should be.

Now, this next criticism surely isn’t specific to science fiction fans. Everything from comic books to religion, to political fanaticism, has to take some responsibility.

Another aspect of emotional immaturity is the Superman syndrome of science-fiction which is linked with the “One Man with the One Invention” symptom. I will discuss supermanism and the childish desire for the deus ex machina below. Here let me arraign the “One Man” who also belongs to the Pat- Solution Division of over-simplification. Science-fiction readers know him well. He is the one man responsible for saving the earth, destroying the earth, leading us to the light, leading us to doom, etc. Thoughtful people will recognize in him their old childhood inability to understand that the course of history is rarely diverted by single men or single incidents—that, in other words, an Adolph Hitler does not lead a country to Nazism, but rather, powerful economic forces of vast complexity create a totalitarian wave which crests in a Hitler but which might easily have crested in any one of a hundred men.

Similarly, the child (and often science-fiction) imagines that had one certain man not been born, then his one great inven­tion would have been lost to the world forever. This is saying that had Leverrier not discovered Neptune, then Adams and the score of other mathematicians working on the same prob­lem would not have either. This is saying that had Bell not in­vented the telephone, then Gray, Dolbear and Drawbaugh (with whom he battled for years to establish priority) would not have invented it too. This is a childish refusal to recognize the brutal statistical truth of history, that the tail has never wagged the dog, that the stream of life produces incident, and not vice versa.

Supermanism (or supermachinism) is a common escape mechanism of the young. It may be roughly divided into the father complex and the talisman complex. When the child is in difficulties he either wishes for Daddy to come and rescue him or else he dreams about finding a magic amulet or a magic machine which will turn him into a superman and enable him to rescue himself. In neither case is the child prepared to meet the crisis on realistic terms. Similarly, science-fiction is not prepared to meet the present or the future on realistic terms. Either it dreams about Daddy Superman who will come along and rescue the world, or it dreams about the superman’s phy­lactery which, like a fairy’s wand, will be waved over the trou­ble and banish it.

The other side of supermanism is popular villainism. During World War II, the entertainment business fell into the habit of making the Nazi the villain. Whenever a writer was in doubt, he pinned the evil on a Nazi. Actors who specialized in German dialects had fat years. Today, of course, the Rus­sian dialecticians are popular. Radio, television and the motion pictures may indulge in such convenient practices without shame. They are frankly commercial and pretend to be no bet­ter than they are. But science-fiction has also been guilty, and science-fiction has no excuse. It has always preened itself, either openly or by implication, as advanced literature for the advanced intellect. And yet in times when cool thinking and sound judgment were vital, it has helped confuse the world picture as recklessly as any propagandist, politician or tabloid newspaper.

The next jab is rightly targetted to science fiction, and the one many literary critics use when attacking the genre.

But to my mind the most serious aspect of science-fiction’s emotional immaturity is its inability to understand human be­ings on an adult level. Like the “One Man” symptom, this is a part of the over-simplification tendency. The child classifies people according to his understanding of them. Since his un­derstanding is meager, his categories are simple. Consequently, the complex behavior of adults is a constant source of bewil­derment to him. It is also a constant source of bewilderment to science-fiction and is directly responsible for its technical im­maturity.

Science-fiction is like the boy who is afraid of people and takes refuge in his Chem-O set. Similarly, science-fiction has taken refuge in science to the detriment of its fiction. In the past this was no problem. The field had the charm of novelty. There were so many fascinating physical avenues to explore— space, time, dimensions, environments—that there was no need for understanding and development of human character. Un­fortunately, the novelty is fading today and there is a rising demand for mature character handling. But while science ­fiction keeps pace with the explorations of science, its aspects of character exploration have hardly been touched. The boy graduates to larger and larger Chem-O sets, but he refuses to come out of the nursery.

Consequently most science-fiction stories are peopled by mar­ionettes who jerk about on conventional strings and rarely carry conviction. Science-fiction can tell the reader the melting point of a solid on Mercury, the freezing point of a gas on Neptune, the explosion point of a nova in Andromeda, but it has no idea of the melting point, the freezing point and the explosion point of a human being. Yet surely we will all agree that the deter­mination of these points must be the object of all fiction.

A reader must be able to identify himself with the characters in a story. He must feel with them, suffer with them, win or lose with them. He cannot identify himself with them unless he be­lieves in them. He will not believe in them unless they are real. Because of the technical immaturity of science-fiction, characters have very rarely been real. Science-fiction is an extraordinary form of literature and has an extraordinary technical problem to overcome. It demands extra-powerful depth and realism of character to offset the strangeness of outre backgrounds and un­usual ideas. Let me explore this a little further.

A contemporary story in a contemporary magazine is usu­ally a picture of the life we all know. This is the essential ad­vantage of ordinary fiction over science-fiction. It always has the support of the contemporary scene to bolster it. If the characters are unbelievable, at least the scenes are real and recognizable. If the author has written an improbable story about unbeliev­able characters, he can camouflage this by using a contemporary background.

The reader will recognize the reality of the background, and often the background will impart its reality to the characters and the story. This misdirection is an old trick of the enter­tainment business. A very famous director achieved an enviable reputation for the realism of his plays by insisting that every­thing on stage be genuine. His doors were real doors with knobs and locks. His windows had real glass. The books could be read. The wine could be drunk. Everything about his produc­tions was real except the plays themselves. They were as arti­ficial as ever, but the public lost sight of the fact in the face of the overwhelming realism surrounding them.

This is an advantage science-fiction does not possess, and this is the technical pitfall into which it has fallen. Science-fiction’s stories are usually projected into the future, into space, often both. It has no reality of contemporary scene to support it. It must manufacture its locales as well as its characters; and what if the characters are unbelievable? Then the story is destroyed, for there is no familiar scene from which the characters can take color and acquire the semblance of reality. In science­fiction, characters must be extra strong, extra real, for they have no other support; in fact, as I pointed out before, they are in a worse position. They have the burden of outre backgrounds to carry in addition to the responsibility for themselves. And this is where science-fiction most often fails. Its characters rarely can carry themselves, let alone their locales.

Science fiction has improved tremendously since 1953 when dealing with characterization, but I still feel it is seldom close to the world of literary fiction. I’m currently listening to The Best American Short Stories 2019 and its stories are starkly different from the best stories in anthologies of science fiction. When I read literary fiction I feel like I’m reading fictionalize biography or autobiography. Literary fiction is very close to being inside people’s minds. Often the characters seem like hyper-realistic paintings of people, whereas science fiction characters usually feel like they are drawn like cartoons or caricatures — quick sketches, and sure some are even beautiful, but not the finely produced oil paintings like we see it the best literary fiction.

Next, Bester calls us out on our weird hopes for robots. Boy, he had no idea how big robots would become.

As a result, science-fiction has developed a style amounting to reportorial writing—so much so that I almost think it should change its name to science reportage. A great many stories con­tent themselves with the creation of a tool, device or mechanism which is described at great length. The customary conflict is a crisis in the operation of the gadget. The resolution is invariably the mechanical solution; but, I might add, in science­-fiction’s customary vein. Optimistic solutions—20%. Pessimistic —80%.

The inability to understand or handle human beings also is responsible for science-fiction’s predilection for robots and other anthropomorphic thinking devices. They are the easiest substitutes for people. I do not deny that such devices are an important aspect of the future, but does science-fiction realize how strangely it has handled them? They are never treated as tools. They are always transformed into members of society and treated with emotional implications.

It is as if a nineteenth century man were to write love stories about the twentieth century electronic devices which surely would seem as remarkable to him as the robot seems to us. But we don’t feel anything toward our tools today. We simply use them. Those of you who remember Mauldin’s cartoon of the weeping GI shooting his wrecked jeep will understand what I mean, and understand how ludicrously science-fiction has been behaving.

Just think of all the television shows with robots, androids, and sexbots. But it goes well beyond robots and computers. Just think of our relationships with our phones, cars, or toys.

Next Bester compares science fiction to children’s stories and fairy tales. I see that, but I also see science fiction is also a substitute for religion. Science fiction has a lot in common with famous Bible stories. God and angels are aliens. Heaven is outer space and other dimensions. Prayer is telepathy. Miracles are like superpowers. Isn’t the primary symbolism of religion to cast us as children of God?

In my discussion of over-simplification, I have already touched on the endings of science-fiction stories. Here I would like to discuss their beginnings and their technical resemblance to the fantasies of childhood. Like the child, science-fiction says to itself: Let’s pretend . . . and it’s off on the trail of make-believe. I suggest that the reader go through past and current publications and note how few stories are inspired by ideas about human behavior and how many are inspired by the gim­micks of Let’s Pretend.

Let’s pretend there are thinking machines which ----- Let’s pretend there is time-travel, so -----let’s pretend there is over­drive, faster than the speed of light, and ----- Let’s pretend there are robots, with which men delight to go to bed, but The gimmicks of Let’s Pretend are legion, and through them science-fiction makes the leap from reality to make-believe, building up its make-believe world with logic and care, fas­cinated by the chemistry and mechanics of this world, indiffer­ent to the human beings who inhabit it. The gimmicks are not there to illuminate the humans; the humans are there to dis­play the gimmicks—like mannikins in a store window.

Upon occasion, science-fiction creates a Pretend that is so novel and eye-catching that an entire trend is established, and a tradition is built up. This is much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula which blazed the trail for vampires in the nineteenth century and made such a profound impression on the Let’s Pretend school of fantasy writers that we have been afflicted with it ever since.

Now there are two very bad results from Let’s Pretendism. The first, and most obvious, is the divorce from reality which often takes the devout science-fiction reader out of this world and maroons him in the next or the coexistent. His real life suffers. I have been present at gatherings in times when the newspapers have been full of the most vital and controversial news, only to be entertained by the spectacle of two science­fiction faithful in passionate debate (to the exclusion of all else) about the best design for the robot. They almost came to blows.

The second result of Let’s Pretendism is the inbreeding of science-fiction. The tradition of a particular Pretend is built up so rapidly that before long science-fiction presumes that its read­ers have the necessary background to understand the ultimate developments and variations on the theme. Consequently, science-fiction begins to lose touch with itself, and becomes cryptic and incomprehensible to anybody except the faithful who, like our high school sophomores, become smug and pleased with themselves because they don’t need a score-card to follow today’s game, with the name and number of every gimmick.

You have to admit, we do an awful lot of let’s pretend in modern society. And it’s more than what we’re watching on television, seeing at the theater, or playing in video games. Aren’t conservatives engaging in let’s pretend climate change doesn’t exist? Aren’t liberals playing let’s pretend the government can solve all our social ills? There’s a deep psychological reason why science is rejected by this society.

This next part, including his conclusion really only relates to 1953, but it is ironic when we consider how popular science fiction has become in society.

This technical failure accounts for the comparative slowness of the general public in adopting science-fiction. It has been driven to it in recent years by the penetration of science into the everyday life of the everyday man, but the general public will not embrace science-fiction for long if science-fiction contin­ues on its old childish path. The public demands many things —mature thought for guidance, mature conflicts for emotional reassurance, mature technique so that it can identify, believe and be moved. Unless science-fiction can provide these, it will go the way of the detective story which it is now largely sup­planting.

We must face the fact that science-fiction can no longer con­tinue as a form of intellectual titillation for the childish, the neurotic, the lame, the halt and the blind. In recent years it has coasted on its waning novelty, entertaining the general pub­lic with its old tricks and puzzles while the maturing fans, who already know the devices, have waited impatiently for the rest of the world to catch up with them. Now we are all caught up and ready to move forward. There is only one direction. Science­fiction, henceforth, must deal with genuine human beings in genuine human conflicts.

You may argue that what I urge is impossible. What, you may say, if a writer sets a story two thousand years from now? Will man be the same? Will his conflicts be the same? To this I answer with an emphatic yes. I do not believe man has changed, basically, from what he was in Christ’s time. The Bible bears me out. I do not believe he will be changed twenty centuries from now. He may know more or less. His symbols rnay vary. His speech and customs may alter; but he will be the same complex creature, suffering in the same basic con­flicts, fighting, loving, hating, searching for the answers to him­self and his place in the Universe.

Literature, it is said, must hold the mirror up to nature and enable man to understand himself. Science-fiction, let us say, must hold the mirror up to the future and enable man to fore­see himself. But the mirror of science-fiction must be as plane as mature judgment can make, as bright as courage can polish, as large as imagination can reach. No more of those Coney Is­land distortions, please. They’re for the amusement of children only. Science-fiction must come out of the nursery; it must emerge from its childish isolation and enter the universe of which it prattles but fears to join.

The Trematode is a parasite which infests the mussel and either destroys it or forces it to form a pearl. Science-fiction has infested us and we are waiting to see what the result will be. But one thing is certain: the end must be the metamorphosis of science-fiction. Whether it turns to rot or is transformed into a pearl, it will not continue to exist as an isolated organism much longer. For my part, I welcome this end. For my part, I foresee the pearl.

Has science fiction become a pearl? Or, in 2020, is Bester’s criticisms still on target? Over the years I’ve seen many blows against the empire, but it never collapses. Are the targets of Bester’s attacks on SF really just common aspects of human nature? Haven’t we always been that way, and won’t we always will be? Humans just love to make shit up. We love to pretend. We love to believe. We love to hope. We love to rationalize.

I have been an atheist most of my life. When people attack me for my atheism I tell them if there are 1,000 religions out there, you’d be an atheist to 999 of them. Maybe I felt smug being a 100% pure atheist and rejecting all 1,000 religions. But I’ve forgotten my own theory, that science fiction is a substitute for religion. So I’m also only an atheist to 999 religions and still have faith in 1, science fiction.

But why? How can I still believe when I know enough science to disprove most science fiction. I have to wonder if many older religious believers are like me, hanging on to my childish beliefs because I don’t want to be left with nothing. How many of the faithful don’t really believe in God and heaven on the inside, but just keep up with their religion because it’s nice to have something? And how many conservatives reject science because it would mean giving up a philosophy they’ve always cherished? Maybe I should be more sympathetic to climate change deniers. Maybe we’re all clinging to irrationality because it helps us get through the day.

Bester’s essay really hit home with me. I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to do real things in reality. And I did, to a degree. I spent 35 years working with computers. But the whole time I kept these fantasies going that never became real. And I kept reading the sacred literature my beliefs, science fiction.

Since I identify so well with what Bester said, I wonder if he felt other things I felt? Or did he break away? Bester did stop writing SF for a long time but eventually came back to the genre. I need to go search for essays he might have written before he died about his life in science fiction.

Last night I read “Ararat” by Zenna Henderson from 1952. It’s a science fiction story that has no science. In fact, it has ideas about superpowers and ESP that I detest. It’s part of her People series and I’ve read “Ararat” twice before over the years. It’s a lovely, gentle story that always brings tears to my eyes. I think it epitomizes why we prefer SF/F to reality. At 68 I find comfort and pleasure in reading such stories. I wonder what Alfred Bester was reading in his last years?

Bester knew right where to touch us where it hurts. He was good at playing psychoanalysis. I don’t think it’s wise to reject his insight. It’s something we should contemplate. It’s all grist for the mill, as Ram Das used to say. But he might have missed something. Maybe the faults aren’t in what we read.

James Wallace Harris, 2/15/20

“Thirteen to Centaurus” by J. G. Ballard

Thirteen to Cenaurus by J. G. Ballard

“Thirteen to Centaurus” by J. G. Ballard is the fifth story in the Generation Ships in Science Fiction discussion originated by Joachim Boaz. You can read the story online here. I consider “Thirteen to Centaurus” a superior story. However, none of the generation ship stories we’ve read so far have been popularly anthologized, so they aren’t classics. Maybe it’s time to reconsider that.

I don’t want to say much about “Thirteen to Centaurus” since I don’t want to spoil any of its several plot twists and turns. However, in my previous reviews in this series, I mentioned an idea I had for a generation ship story, and it turns out Ballard already used it back in 1962. Of course, I wouldn’t have developed the idea the same way Ballard did. It does make me wonder if science fiction writers should read all the major stories from a theme before trying to take on a theme? On the other hand, if the average reader isn’t well-read in a theme, does it matter?

I want to believe that J. G. Ballard had read “Lungfish” by John Brunner when writing “Thirteen to Centaurus” because there is a certain synergy between them. The two stand out of the five stories we’ve read. Ballard and Brunner began their science fiction careers in Great Britain in the 1950s. Ballard was being published in New Worlds around the time of “Lungfish” so he probably read Science Fantasy too. I’m not so sure Ballard would have read the Judith Merril, Chad Oliver, or Clifford Simak stories in the American SF magazines, but “Thirteen to Centaurus” seems to reply to them. I have to assume there is a progression of logic when thinking about the consequences of humans living on a generation ship and all the writers are reaching the same or similar conclusions.

So far these SF writers believe humans can’t handle a generation ship mission psychologically. Is that why we mostly read about FTL travel? Several writers have suggested we’ll need to condition or even brainwash the generation ship crew. And all the stories have had an element of conspiracy in them, that for one reason or another the crews don’t know everything. More than one story worries that the ship born generations, the ones who didn’t volunteer for the mission will feel resentment or rebel against the mission. Would you be pissed in such a situation?

I’m hoping to see in future reads a sense of progression past these fears. I’d like to see positive stories about how humans adapt and even create new philosophies, perspectives, and hopes while living on a generation ship mission.

We’ve seen two kinds of story problems so far. First, the writers imagine the kinds of problems crews might encounter on real generation ship missions. Second, writers have imagined problems for the crews to make interesting plots. Before reading these stories I never considered the psychological problems generation ship crew would face. Now that I have, I can see a whole array of further speculation along those lines. Has Philip K. Dick ever written a generation ship story? PKD could have done some weird shit with this idea.

And there are all kinds of considerations the writers haven’t explored. The other day while brushing my teeth I wondered how many toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste must be stored on a generation ship for a mission that will last a hundred years. If a ship has 1,000 passengers, that’s a lot of toothbrushes. Or do they send along a factory that can make them? It’s certainly helped that we’ve developed 3D printers since these stories were written. But really, how do you equip a voyage for a century or millennia?

If the voyage begins with 1,000 crew members and they start having kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids, how many sleeping births will be needed? It sounds like a kind of algebra problem, doesn’t it?

None of the stories we’ve read so far had the ship stay in communication with Earth. Is it possible to have radio contact with Earth on a spaceship moving at one-tenth the speed of light? If a one-minute radio message is sent from Earth, how long does it take to record it at relativistic speeds on the ship? Heinlein created a wonderful setup in Time for the Stars with telepathic twins, one staying home and one leaving. If telepathy was possible, how does relativity effect it?

If a generation ship had a large telescope could it be networked with those on Earth or in the solar system to create a really large interferometer? If so, how much detail will we be able to observe in destination solar systems? In these early generation ship stories, the crews travel blindly to other systems hoping to find habitable planets. Knowing what we do about exoplanets and with telescope development, would that ever be true of real generation ship missions? Haven’t we passed the point where the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s story problems wouldn’t exist? I’m really looking forward to generation ship stories from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and so on.

Can we create a generation ship that won’t bring along most of the diseases that plague us on Earth? And if the crew does carry on colds or strains of flu, will they die out because the passengers all develop immunity, or will they mutate in such a small population? What happens to a generation ship crew if they encounter diseases at their destination?

I wonder what shipboard novelists would write about. What if they try to write about life on Earth without ever living on Earth. Can the ship born ever develop a realistic picture of life on a planet from movies and books? What kind of myths will they have about us?

Once we start thinking about the possibilities they are endless. So far, I think the stories we’ve read have been very good but limited in their speculation and imaginations. I’m looking forward to reading more.

I’m surprised that we don’t see more generation ship stories. I guess writers want FTL travel because they want a bunch of interstellar action. In Star Wars they can obviously travel between star systems faster than needing to pee because some of the Star Wars spaceships aren’t large enough for bathrooms. Basically, modern science fiction has made FTL spaceships the new fantasy portal, but they are no more realistic than the wardrobe in the C. S. Lewis stories.

Interstellar travel is probably impossible, but our best chance will be generation ships. I’m surprised we don’t see more of them in science fiction.

Remember, here’s the list of the posts in this discussion so far. Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations leads the group. He will announce the next story.

James Wallace Harris, 12/18/19

 

Would Generation Ship Crews Ever Forget Their Mission?

Generation ships 1
Generation ships 2

Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations is running a series of reviews on generation ship stories. He even compiled a list of such SF tales. I’ve decided to read along. So far he’s covered “The Wind Blows Free” by Chad Oliver and “Spacebred Generations” by Clifford D. Simak (later renamed “Target Generations”). Joachim plans to do “Wish Upon a Star” by Judith Merril next. Science fiction has explored this theme often. Imagining a self-contained society that spends hundreds or thousands of years between the stars presents a wonderful challenge to writers.

I’ve loved the concept of generation ships since 1965 when I was 13 and read Orphans of the Sky (1963) by Robert A. Heinlein. This book was assembled from two magazine stories, “Universe” and “Common Sense” first published in 1941. At the time I thought Heinlein and science fiction must have invented the idea of generation ships, but I was wrong.  I highly recommend reading Wikipedia’s entry on the topic. Both the rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, and the space explorer theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky came up with the idea in America and Russia. And it was also described by J. D. Bernal in a 1929 nonfiction book speculating about the future, The World, The Flesh, & the Devil.

Because I’m going to discuss the ideas in the stories this essay will have spoilers.

Quite often in the early science fiction stories about generation ships, the crews forget they are on an interstellar mission. This makes for a sense-of-wonder climax based on characters experiencing what The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls a conceptual breakthrough. That’s an exciting plot device for the reader but would any generation ship crew ever forget their mission? Right from the beginning of the idea of generation ships in science fiction with “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years” (1940) by Don Wilcox writers have been intrigued by the idea that the passengers would forget.

The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox 1940

A generation ship is a spaceship that travels slower-than-light and takes many generations to reach its destination. Heinlein hit one into orbit by imagining the crew forgetting their mission. Their society collapses to the point where they believe the ship is their entire universe. Because the crew can’t see outside the ship they don’t know about the stars and the cosmos. This is such a delicious idea that Brian Aldiss reexamines it in his novel Starship (1958) (first called Non-Stop in the U.S.).

Now that I’m much older I find it very hard to believe the crew would forget they were on a generation ship. Such forgetting makes for a bang-up plot, but if you think about it, doesn’t make a lot of sense. To forget their mission would require a complete collapse of the ship’s society. Is that even possible? How could the ship continue to function? Writers tell us the ship is fully automatic, but I can’t believe that either.

Evidently, science fiction writers assume such forgetting is a powerful McGuffin to wow their readers. And I loved these plots when I first encountered them. However, I now believe such situations to be too contrived to be realistic. Such tricks by the writer are much like an O’Henry ending. The reader is set up from the get-go. Not that such storytelling shenanigans are bad, but I do think it gives readers the wrong impression about generation ships.

Of course, I haven’t read all science fiction stories about generation ships. Now that Joachim Boaz is systematically reading them for his blog, I’m wondering if any science fiction writer imagined a realistic generation ship. It’s fun discussing this at his site.

Slower-than-Light Travel

Even though Einstein has been validated time and again, science fiction writers have us zipping around the galaxy at several thousand times the speed of light (300,000 kph). The spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2, our only efforts to leave the solar system, poke along at 1/18,000th that speed. Some engineers have theorized we might achieve 1/10th to 1/5th lightspeed with our present and expected knowledge, however, even their ideas are extremely theoretical.

If we could travel at ten percent of the speed of light it would take a whole lifetime to get to the nearest star. Since it will probably take hundreds or thousands of years to travel the nearby stellar neighborhood we’d need the crew using suspended animation or build a ship where humans could live out several generations.

Suspended animation is probably no more realistic than faster-than-light travel.

Building an artificial world that is completely self-contained, self-sufficient, and can travel a significant fraction of the speed of life is not impossible but probably so. Still, it’s a very exciting idea to contemplate. Can we build a machine that works perfectly for 1,000 years? What is the optimal crew size? How do you design a society that can thrive in such a limited environment? How will this civilization get its energy? Will water and air leak out? Will the passengers find meaning in their lives? How would successive generations react when learning they have been forced into a limited role by their ancestors? What if you don’t like where you’re going?

The generation ship would have to contain a minimum viable population (MVP). We must assume it will be a colony ship. Any scientific exploration should be done by intelligent machines – why waste all those lives on just information? In my reading, I’ve seen MVP numbers ranging from 160-5,000. We often see stories now about sending frozen embryos or building machines that can sequence DNA from raw material but I’m going to assume frozen embryos can’t last 1,000 years, and building people from digital blueprints is a fantasy. If we could, it would invalidate the need for a generation ship. By the way, raising artificial children at the end of a long space voyage is a new theme science fiction writers are exploring.

Orphans in the Sky imagines a generation ship where the ship’s civilization collapses and the inhabitants forget they are on a spaceship. I love that idea as a science fiction story, but doubt it would happen. Crews on a generation ship would have lots of time on their hands and education would have a significant appeal. They would have a library of our entire history. They would be in contact with Earth. They would know everything about astronomy and cosmology. For Heinlein’s story to work the original passengers would have to be clueless dumbasses who didn’t care about anything intellectual and refused to teach their children. The original crew would be brilliant with a passionate hope for the mission. They would pass that on. For Heinlein and Wilcox to be right, their descendants would have de-evolve. How that could happen would make a great SF story. I wish Heinlein had written it before writing “Universe” and “Common Sense.”

Clifford Simak came up with a different idea in “Target Generations.” He tells us the original mission designers feared the crew would not psychologically survive knowing why they were on the ship, so hid the knowledge from them. That’s absolutely ridiculous if we think about it, but at least Simak’s realized Heinlein’s idea had problems. That’s what’s wonderful about science fiction, it evolves. It’s a dialog by writers over time.

Chad Oliver offers another twist in “The Wind Blows Free.” The passengers know they are on a spaceship but they haven’t been told it landed hundreds of years earlier. Selective crew members decide the generation ship’s inhabitants are too adapted to shipboard life to leave it. That’s a very compelling idea, but still not realistic. I don’t see how they could hide landing a ship, but more than that, it’s based on maintaining an absurd conspiracy theory. The practical solution to such a problem would be to land the ship and let people slowly migrate to the new world. I do buy that generation ship passengers might not want to leave the ship. I’m an old guy who has become very attached to my house. I wouldn’t want to start over either.

Too often science fiction ignores Occam’s razor to create a compelling plot. I’m hoping we’ll be reading stories where generation ships succeed, or if they fail, fail for realistic reasons. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson was an outstanding example of a space exploration failure that made sense.

Children of Time (2015) by Adrian Tchaikovsky did come up with a very real generation ship problem. Successive crew generations became resentful for having their lives committed to a project they didn’t choose. Some even want to abort the mission and return to Earth. This is the kind of realistic challenges I hope science fiction writers will imagine. There’s nothing wrong with coming up with a plot that wows the readers but ultimately makes no sense. A story is a story. But I like science fiction that imagines something that might be possible.

I like to think it’s science fiction’s job to consider all the possibilities before we actually build a generation ship. From early science fiction, we know not to create a society that will forget the mission. I also like the idea we have to worry about the resentment of the later generations. And we do have to worry about getting people comfortable living on a ship to living on a planet again.

We science fiction fans daydream of traveling in space. But can you imagine a future where children born in space wished they lived on Earth like us?

James Wallace Harris, 12/2/19

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