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

 

“Then, When” by Eric Del Carlo

Asimovs SF Sep-Oct 2019

Mike, the guy who does the computer programming for this site, and I often talk about science fiction short stories. We both subscribe to Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF. Whenever one of us reads a story we like we tell the other to give it a try. To be honest, we don’t often find stories we really like, but when we do, we often like the same story. What’s rather fascinating when discovering a story you really love is assuming everyone will love it too, and discovering they don’t.

“Then, When” by Eric Del Carlo from Sept/Oct issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction was a big hit with both Mike and myself. I thought the story had a very clever science-fictional invention and Eri Del Carlo created a very moving story to showcase that idea. I thought the story so good that I wondered why it wasn’t the cover story, however, Carlo didn’t even get his name on the cover with the other authors.

Looking around the web “Then, When” is getting mixed reviews. Rocket Stack Rank called it an “Honorable Mention” but dinged the idea I thought so clever as being “pretty gross.” That made me consider the appeal I have to the idea. Sam Tomaino at SFRevue said “Really interesting idea and a great story.” Michelle Ristuccia over at Tangent Online  said, “Carlo expertly weaves Barrett’s first-person narrative to breathe new life into themes of self-actuation and introspection, bringing these existential questions down from the hypothetical heights of cloning and AIs to the personal connection of everyday decisions and our ability to redirect our own personal growth.”

I mention these different reviews not to justify my own opinion about the story, but to point out that stories aren’t good or bad, but whatever the beholder sees in them. It must be hard to be a magazine editor and try to guess what your readers will like. Or even see what your readers will see.

I love science fiction stories that have a cool imaginary invention in them. Eric Del Carlo imagines a fad in the future where a computer program can make a “mirror” of a person by observing their behavior. Think of a cross between Amazon’s Alexa and a deep fake video of yourself that talks and acts just like you on a computer or TV screen. In Carlo’s future, these mirrors have gone out of fashion. When Barrett, the main character, finds out his ex-girlfriend illegally made a mirror of him while they were together he’s annoyed. She kept it for companionship. Barrett at first thinks he will sell his mirror to a marketing research group but then decides to keep it. Of course, he is embarrassed to own what popular culture has decided is a narcissistic toy. This is probably why Greg Hullender thought it was a gross idea too. But I’m not so sure.

Wouldn’t hanging out with ourselves be enlightening? It’s very hard to know our own virtue and flaws. I’d probably be horrified talking to myself. I know if I had to listen to me make the stupid jokes my wife complains about I’d probably stop. Maybe I’d even learn how to pronounce all the words I stumble over. I’m a rather quiet person, so I’m not sure how much a mirror could learn from just watching me. Of course, if it read my blogs it would become a rather verbose bastard. If I had to listen to all the ideas I like to write about would I bore the crap out of myself?

What I really liked about the idea of mirrors is they are more realistic than mind downloading/uploading, which is a very popular concept in science fiction right now. I believe our minds are tightly integrated with our bodies and far too complex to ever be recorded. The idea of mind uploading is about as silly to me as when E. E. “Doc” Smith had his characters hurling galaxies at each other. But I can imagine an AI program studying people and imitating them so well that their speech and opinions would be very close to the original.

In the story, “Then, When” we are told that scientists don’t think the mirrors are sentient, but the ending leaves us thinking they might be. But like the mirror said, does it really matter if we can fool you into thinking we are?

Carlo comes up with a very nice emotional story where Barrett grows and changes by communicating with his mirror. However, I think the idea of mirrors is so good that I can imagine it catching on and other science fiction writers using the idea. Like I said, I think mirrors are a much better idea than mind-uploading and it seems zillions of stories are being written about that. Since reading, “Then, When” I’ve thought about a couple of ideas for stories using the concept of mirrors.

Think about how popular self-help books are today. Wouldn’t mirrors be instant feedback to how well a self-help book is working? Say, you’re a professor and you watch your mirror lecture would it inspire you to become a better lecturer? Or would people with low self-esteem be bummed out by their mirrors?

Brian Aldiss invented something similar to a mirror for his 1976 story “Appearance of Life.” In his far future people can create memory cubes to give to other people like letters. In the story, a man finds two memory cubes from a divorced couple who hadn’t seen each other in years. Both wanted to get back together. He set the memory cubes next to each other so they talked back and forth within the limits of their recorded ability. After a while, each began to subtly repeat itself in their expressions of regret, love, and memories.

I believe if we had mirrors we might all find that our personalities are rather shallow. I don’t think there’s that much mind to upload. Our personalities are really mirrors of culture, and mainly a collection of likes and dislikes. We don’t do that much original thinking. Really, what we are, is a sentient bubble of consciousness that reacts to our bodily experiences, the environment, and culture.

Couldn’t a mirror become a microscope that lets us look into our soul? Would we agree with ourselves? Or would a mirror help us spot our dumbass behaviors and beliefs? I am reminded of a Bob Dylan song, “Positively 4th Street” and its last refrain:

I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you

I wonder if Dylan ever imagined seeing himself.

James Wallace Harris, October 31, 2019

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

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.

Untying a Knotted Plot

Yali on the Bosporus

I hope you have read “The Ocean Between the Leaves” by Ray Nayler from the July-August issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. I’ve read this story four times trying to follow all the plot twists so I’ll be giving away spoilers describing my thoughts from each reading. If you’ve read the story, it will be more fun to follow my bumbling efforts to figure things out. “The Ocean Between the Leaves” is not free to read online, but it was made into a free podcast read by the author. The story is about a young woman who works at a yali on the Bosphorus, maybe like the one pictured above. Ray Nayler has lived all over the world, so this tale is full of exotic details.

I hope Nayler doesn’t mind that I dissect his story. I’m doing it for several reasons. First, my friend Piet asked me to read the story to see what I thought about the plot. He was confused but got some help from Greg Hullender’s review at Rocket Stack Rank. Piet wondered if I would get the story in one reading. I didn’t. I also looked at Greg’s review, and then read it again. After two readings, I thought I got it. But there were many lingering plot questions that kept popping into my head. I then found the audio version and listened to it. Okay, I thought when I finished it this time, I’d gotten everything for sure now and laid down to take a nap. I woke up with more questions. (That pesky subconscious.) That’s when I thought about writing down my convoluted journey through this story.

I’m going to explain all my reading reactions to the story while I still remember them. I hope I don’t hurt Ray Nayler’s feelings. I’m trying not to criticize his story because I don’t know if the problems are with me the reader or with him the writer. The plot of the story is both simple and complicated. It’s simple in that not a whole lot happens, but it’s complicated by how the story is told. It’s intended as a mystery, one meant to make the reader keep guessing. By the way, the story is full of colorful details that make the story enjoyable on other levels, but ones I won’t comment on.

First Reading

Read it the first time on my iPhone 6s Plus while lying on a couch. To be honest, I read it somewhat fast and I just missed the whole issue of mindswapping. That’s a huge plot point to pass over. In my defense though, it wasn’t ever explicit. It was hidden to create a mystery.

I liked how “The Ocean Between the Leaves” started out about a young woman gardener, Feride, on a rich person’s estate. She pricks her finger and it gets infected. Three months later she’s still in intensive care. Nayler describes the infection in gruesome detail.

We’re now introduced to the doctor Melek and Feride’s brother Fahri. Fahri visits his sister every day and flirts with the doctor each time with a 5-minute date. On this day Fahri has a cut that the doctor fixes. Then he goes out to work. We learn that he isn’t rich and his sister’s bills are high. We learn that he makes money tagging skips. I assume this is attaching some kind of signaling device to people who are skipping out on something. His boss Tarik is shady and wears VR glasses. We also learn that Tarik is shaking Fahri down for a lot of money.

Fahri tries to catch three slips in one day to get ahead on the bills but is knocked out by the third slip.

Then the story jumps back in time. Feride is told she is going to die, but the state is going to transfer her mind to another body so she can wrap up her life and say goodbyes. I thought that was rather odd. She/we are told she will be an experiment. At the time, I thought it was an uncommon procedure.

Feride goes back to the yali where she worked but tells people she is her brother. The first time I read this I didn’t realize we had jumped back in time and didn’t realize this Fahri was the same as the Fahri we had already met. Feride/Fahri hears a story from the old head gardener Suat about fighting the system. The first time I read this, I didn’t understand how the story changed Feride into Fahri. I was confused by the pronouns of describing her in his body. I focused on Fahri’s effort to make money and the action surrounding him. I wondered if Feride had died and had been transferred to another becoming Fahri. I was totally confused by the plot. The two similar names Feride and Fahri kept tripping me up, and I didn’t understand why they were the same person. At first, they seemed to be two separate people, and then they were the same person. Probably all of this confusion was due to me reading too fast. But I think some of the confusion was due to information behind withheld from the reader. But I also considered I’m getting old and I’m not sure if I can keep enough of the story in my head to make all the puzzle pieces reveal the overall picture.

Second Reading

This time I read the story on my iPad mini while in my reading chair. I was more determined to read slowly, understand the story, and concentrate on the details. This time around I noticed several references to Fahri being a prince. I also admired the rich background details more in the story.

On my second reading, I paid more attention to the first line, “It began just like a fairy tale; an orphaned young woman pricked her finger on the thorn of a rose, and fell asleep.” With this reading, I only figured this line linked Feride pricking her finger and getting infected. I didn’t try to imagine what it might mean for the whole story.

I also noticed this time we’re told Feride means “the only one.” Now that’s an obvious clue, but only in hindsight. But we’re also told Feride believes it means “the lonely one.”

I had read Greg Hullender’s review with spoilers. The keyword he gave was androids. I remembered from the first reading there had been androids, but I assumed they looked artificial and were just slave workers on the docks. I didn’t realize that androids could look just like people. I realized I was reading a story much like Mindswap by Robert Sheckley where technology allowed people to easily swap minds between bodies. In the first reading, I thought Feride was being put into a clone body. Nor did I realize that the skippers Fahri chased were minds in rented bodies trying to run away with them.

In the second reading, I realized that Feride was given a three-day rental body to wrap up her life, and she decided to keep it and work to pay her medical bills to save herself. I still didn’t understand some things. Did she skip out with the three-day body, or got a third body on the black market.

However, the story simplified into one of a person saving themselves. That’s a pretty neat idea of paying for your own medical bills by working in another body while your sick body remained in a coma. Pretty cool. Happy ending.

However, more questions kept popping into my mind.

Third Reading

This time I listened to the podcast version. I love listening to science fiction stories. I would have made my second reading a listen if I had known about the podcast. This time I just “read” the story to enjoy it. I thought I had all the plot twists down. However, after the podcast was over, I put the story out of my mind. But once again new questions started bubbling up.

When we see Dr. Melek talking to Fahri in a man’s body the first time we don’t know that Feride is inside, but she would — wouldn’t she? The reader thinks the brother and doctor are flirting with each other. Doesn’t the doctor know that it’s her patient? But did she talk to Fahri like Feride was inside? Was this the same three-day body the Institute bought for Feride? If Fahri had been working for Tarik for a third of a year as a skip chaser, was Feride in a different rented body, or had she skipped out with the three-day body, or had she merely taken up the payments on the three-day body?

Why was Feride given a male body to close out her life? That seemed rather insensitive. And why didn’t Feride tell Suat that it was her? Why did she make up the story about her brother? Obviously, swapping bodies was common in this time period, so Suat shouldn’t have been shocked. Feride was given a chance to say goodbye to the only people she knew and loved. But she didn’t, why? Obviously, Nayler liked the idea of a sister and brother because it diverts the reader’s attention so they will think they are two different people in the story. But that confused me and almost ruined the story.

What happened to Fahri, or his body?

We are told it’s three months later when Melek and Fahri agree to go on daily 5-minute dates. But we also know Fahri has been using the body for a while as a skip tracer. We are told later he’s been doing it for months. Is it the same three months? When did Feride almost die and Melek buy her three days to wrap up her affairs? At the beginning of the three months. Why would a doctor spend so much money on a patient she didn’t know? Or had she gotten to know Feride well enough to fall in love with her? And like Greg Hullender asked, how did the hospital keep a nearly dead woman without her mind in stasis for months?

Fourth Reading

This time I read my physical copy of Asimov’s Science Fiction. I’m currently buying both the Kindle and paper copies. I’m trying to decide which I prefer. I still don’t know, each has their pluses and minuses. However, I’m annoyed as hell that the Kindle version doesn’t display on my Kindle for the PC. That sure would make reviewing stories so much easier. There are times when I’m tempted to buy an OCR program so I can grab quotes without retyping.

With this fourth reading, I’m starting to feel like Phil Conners from Groundhog Day. Opening line: “It began just like a fairy tale; an orphaned young woman pricked her finger on the thorn of a rose, and fell asleep.” This time around I remember the fairy tales Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and read about them at Wikipedia. But both involved pricked fingers and women who sleep in a spell. However, in Snow White, it’s the evil witch that pricks her finger, so I guess we’re talking Sleeping Beauty here. That means Fahri is going to be her own Prince or is it, Dr. Melek? Melek saves her from permanent sleep but only intending it to be for three days. Feride saves her own life, so is Feride her own Prince Charming? If Melek is in love with Feride and not Fahri, is she the rescuing Prince of this story?

Here’s the thing, Ray Nayler knew what he wanted to do with this story and then contrived to make it happen. Readers don’t know that intention, so they read the story guessing as they go what might be happening. I now wonder at the sequence of inspirations Nayler got for this story. Did he first intend for it to be about a woman who gets a three-day chance to close out her life with a mindswap and then gets the idea of Feride saving herself? Or was that the plan all along? Was the love story an afterthought, and the three-day mindswap added in to make a better ending?

Ah-ha! When we’re first told about Fahri and Dr. Melek, Melek asks, “How is your sister?” The POV is following closely to Fahri and it says, “They had met the first night Fahri came in to see his sister. Melek had sat across from him the same way, nearly three months ago now, when they first met.” This is all very definite, and probably why I was so confused in the first reading. At the beginning of the story, we were told that Feride had a brother she never had met. It’s three months after she falls ill. But Fahri has been visiting her for three months. This leads the reader to believe that Fahri is a real person, found out right away about Feride’s illness and came to see his sister.

In the first scene with Fahri and Melek, there is no foreshadowing of things to come. And there’s an indication that Fahri has been a skip chaser for some time because he’s worn out. Knowing what we know from previous readings for this story to work Feride nearly died immediately after entering the hospital and Dr. Melek bought her a three-day rental on a body right after she arrived. We are told that the Institute did this as an experiment, but the very ending of the story suggests that Melek spent her own money. Why?

This also suggests that Melek never saw the rental body, or Feride got a third body. But this now brings up another interesting question. Did Melek ever know that Fahri was really Feride? The last two paragraphs are:

     "But the expense. It must have been ... I remember struggling to pay ... it's thousands of lire a day ... you can't possibly afford ..."

     "Hush." Melek presses a finger to Feride's lips. "It's my choice to make, Fahri. And where else would I find such a hero? And who would I go on my five-minute dates with? Are you trying to make me drink my coffee alone?"

Notice Melek touches Feride but addresses her as Fahri. I assume, and that’s dangerous with this story, that Feride survives and Feride/Fahri is back in her original body. But when did Melek realize that Fahri was Feride? If Feride had stolen the three-day body, didn’t Melek know? When Feride is visiting Suat she’s already thinking of the body as Fahri. Wouldn’t Melek have seen this rental body? Feride in her new body awakes with Dr. Solmaz Haznader explaining things. But there’s another clue on page 105. Feride/Fahri asks Tarik about the Institute who rented the three-day body when Tarik offered him a job chasing skips. (I don’t know why it says Tahir in this paragraph and not Tarik. Is it another person, or a name change not corrected?)

"I'll deal with the institute," Tahir said, "That's what you'll be paying me for. That' and your nice new body not full of poisonous bacteria. And your other body, drifting on the edge of death. And the price for all three together is going to be very, very high."

He’s paying off the Institute, the rental on the new body, and the medical care of the original body. But we don’t know if he keeps the three-day rental or gets a new body.

Because of Tarik/Tahir conversation with Dr. Haznader I think the Institute story is real, and wonder about Melek’s involvement. Then why does Feride think at the end of the story that Melek paid for everything? But the lengthy discussion of the Institute’s research suggests that they planned all along for Feride to use the rental body for an extended period. So Feride/Fahri stayed in the same body.

But now I have a whole new theory. Feride thanks Melek for the three additional days. Maybe Melek didn’t pay for mindswap, but just three more days of healthcare. And that all the story about mindswapping was in Feride’s feverous mind. Oh no, do I need to read this story again? But wait, Melek thinks about Fahri and mentions their 5-minute dates, so that can’t be right either.

This could go on forever, but it stops here.

(I hope.)

Asimovs Science Fiction July-August 2019

James Wallace Harris, 9/1/19

p.s. – To further explain how hard it was to read this story and write this essay I wrote: “Quantifying My Cognitive Decline.” I believe aging is affecting my reading ability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Science Fiction of the Year Anthologies

 

Best Science Fiction of the Year

Just how many great science fiction short stories are published every year? So far there are eight best-of-the-year volumes you can buy or order right now at Amazon, with the possibility of four more that had volumes last year.

At Amazon (some due soon):

  1. The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 4 – Neil Clarke
  2. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Thirteen – Jonathan Strahan
  3. The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 – Rich Horton
  4. The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019 – John Joseph Adams
  5. The Year’s Top AI and Robot Stories – Allan Kaster
  6. Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF 5 – David Afsharirad
  7. Nebula Awards Showcase 2019 – Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  8. Best of British Science Fiction 2018 – Donna Scott

Had volumes last year that might show up:

  1. The Long List Anthology: Volume 4 – David Steffen
  2. The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 10 – Allan Kaster
  3. The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 8 – Allan Kaster
  4. Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction – Steve Berman

Every year I hope all the best-of-the-year volumes will show up on audio. So far this year, only the Jonathan Strahan anthology is available as an audiobook. I love listening to short fiction read by a professional reader, so this is a disappointing year. In the years past the Allan Kaster anthologies were available at Audible.com, but not so far this year. I hope that changes. I was most anxious to hear The Year’s Top AI & Robot Stories.

Eight, and maybe twelve anthologies provide a lot of stories to read, but there is overlap in these anthologies which I’m tracking in a spreadsheet. My list isn’t completely up-to-date but currently has 92 stories.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

2019 Hugo Award Reports and Statistics

For those who like to analyze the numbers, here are two reports from the 2019 WorldCon.

There’s actually a lot of rules, regulations, bylaws, and statistics that go into the nominations and voting. Here is the Hugo Awards FAQ and Voting System description.

3,097 ballots were cast for the regular Hugo, and 834 for the Retro Hugo. Not all members vote. I think those two figures gives me an interesting clue. I’ve always wanted to know how many young fans read old science fiction. Less than 1/3rd of the Worldcon membership was interested in the Retro Hugo awards. I’d sure love to know the age distribution of those 834 voters.

Analyzing both of these results reports lets us see just how popular each story was. Although in the fiction categories there were some very clear winners, it’s obvious from the voting that we should go out and read more than just the winners. The only winner I haven’t read is the novella “Artificial Condition” by Martha Wells and I hear it’s wonderful.

JWH

“The Saliva Tree” by Brian W. Aldiss

F&amp;SF 1968-09

I wished F&SF had interior illustrations. This September 1965 cover for “The Saliva Tree” does not convey the story at all, other than abstract eerieness. Yet, it deserves a bunch of distinctive black-and-white illos. Of course, the monster in this story is invisible, and thus hard to illustrate. “The Saliva Tree” should have inspired a cover painting of Victorians set against the background of a bucolic English farm expressing fear over bizarre changes in plants and farm animals.

“The Saliva Tree” is Aldiss paying homage to H. G. Wells, but the story would have been a delight to readers of Weird Tales in the 1920s. It contains a horror from space. Aldiss won a Nebula award for “The Saliva Tree” and he deserved it. Sadly, finding this story will be difficult. It’s been reprinted often, but not in any famous anthologies you might have on your bookshelf. Maybe a good reason to order a used copy of the rare volume three of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. There’s a Kindle edition of The Saliva Tree; and Other Strange Growths. And it’s also available in audio at Audible.com as The Best SF Stories of Brian W. Aldiss. I listened to it two days ago, but I’m already enjoying a rereading in print. For stories I really love, I want to read with both my eyes and ears.

Gregory Rolles, a young man in his early twenties belongs to a class where he doesn’t work. He busies himself by writing letters to famous people and journals. He wants to write a book, The Socialist Naturalist. Gregory is a modern 19th-century man of science, a dreamer of utopias, one who hopes to join the ranks of the experienced advocates of free love. His hero is H. G. Wells. Gregory admires a local farmer Joseph Grendon for installing an electric generator on his farm. Gregory regularly visits the farm to learn about electricity with the father but falls in love with the farmer’s daughter, Nancy.

The story begins when Gregory and his friend Bruce Fox seeing a meteor streak across the sky looking like it might have landed somewhere out of town (Cottersall, East Anglia), maybe on Grendon’s farm. The next day Gregory goes to visit.

The Saliva Tree ebook coverFrom there the story leisurely unfolds. What makes Aldiss’ tale so delightful is he knows the Victorians didn’t comprehend the concepts of science fiction we do. Spaceships, UFOs, and alien invaders weren’t part of their consciousness, and they didn’t have the language to either describe their fantastic experiences or even the concepts to analyze. It takes the characters in this story a very long time to theorize why unnatural events are happening in their dull as dirt lives. They keep wanting to explain the unknown in terms they do know, thus unseeing what should be seen.

Another reason why this story is so much fun to read is Aldiss uses a lot of ideas from early H. G. Wells stories and novels. “The Saliva Tree” is logical, realistic, mundane, yet twisted by a Victorian kind of fantastic.

To me, the reason why “The Saliva Tree” is such a pleasant diversion is that Aldiss focuses on his characters and not the science fiction. Pay attention when you read science fiction. What percentage of the wordage goes into the science fiction world-building and what percentage describe ordinary human experiences? Stories, where most of the words are about people, tend to be more engaging. There’s enough going on in this story that it could have left out the monster from space and still had plenty of plot to be a page-turner. Gregory slowly realizes he wants Nancy but encounters stiff resistance from a farmhand rival. And he’s baffled by the Grendon family considering him useless. They can’t comprehend how Gregory could become a good husband or son-in-law since he doesn’t work. Nancy sees him as a rich layabout and isn’t even attracted to his wealth. Gregory’s scientific ideas about progress only annoy Mr. Grendon’s practicality and independence.

The alien menace reminds me more of H. P. Lovecraft than H. G. Wells. Aldiss takes a very long time to fully reveal the monster which slowly alters the whole natural foundation of the Grendon farm. I don’t want to say too much, because this is a story you should let unfold without too much preconception.

Yet, I have to wonder what makes this retro-SF story so entertaining? Maybe this 1965 tale anticipates the charm of steampunk. When I was growing up we reviled the Victorians for being narrow-minded, but over the decades more and more people have become Anglophiles because of Masterpiece Theater. We now see Victorians as trailblazers for the 20th-century. Besides, most of us only understand science in a mechanical pre-Einsteinian way. “The Saliva Tree” has a gross-out monster that’s different, which is what made the film Tremors so much fun. Plus the story is self-referential to science fiction. I believe most science fiction fans love a good recursive SF story, I know I do. Like I said, I’m already rereading this story.

James Wallace Harris