“True Names” vs. “Press Enter ▮”

True Names and Press Enter

Science fiction explores several landscapes. Outer space is the most widely known of these. Inner space has been the setting for a tiny fraction of science fiction, for example, The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny and The Lathe of Heaven (1971) by Ursula K. Le Guin. However, within my lifetime a whole new fictional territory emerged with cyberspace, the digital landscape. Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson is usually credit with starting the cyberpunk movement which made cyberspace famous, but many digital landscape stories existed before that.

The digital landscape needs both computers and networks to exist, so it’s easy to think that science fiction about cyberspace couldn’t exist before them. However, “The Machine Stops” (1909) by E. M. Forster essentially imagines cyberspace and machine intelligence without knowing about computers, binary mathematics, or stored data. It’s not hard to give some credit to Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland as an early explorer of the digital landscape, although we could consider mathematics to be a whole landscape itself.

“True Names” (1981) by Vernor Vinge prefigures everything that will become cyberpunk. Sadly, it’s never been reprinted much. In 1996 it was included in David Hartwell’s Visions of Wonder, a major retrospective anthology, and in 2001 it was reprinted in True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier edited by James Frenkel which collected many essays by famous computer scientists to introduce the story and explain why it blew their minds.

“Press Enter ▮” by John Varley came out in the May 1984 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, a few months before Neuromancer. That story is much more famous, winning the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards and being often reprinted.

Both “True Names” and “Press Enter ▮” presented science fiction readers with early visions of the digital landscape and both were horror stories about a machine intelligence emerging out of the internet. There have been so many stories about cyberspace and malevolent AI since then. It’s hard to remember these two stories are the Jules Verne and H. G. Wells tales of the subgenre. Both are available online, probably illegally, but you can read “True Names” and listen to “Press Enter ▮.”

“True Names” is the more fanciful of the two, really a fantasy story, because the protagonist, Roger Pollack (“Mr. Slippery”) enter cyberspace in a rather unbelievable way. Roger and his partner Debbie Charteris (“Erythrina”) paste sensors to their skulls and go into a trance to traverse the digital landscape using fantasy motifs of warlocks and magical powers. Vernor Vinge asks his readers to believe they can experience massive amounts of data in cyberspace as a form of expanded consciousness. It’s really just a fantasy portal no more realistic than C. S. Lewis’ back of a wardrobe. It’s an exciting story and moves extremely fast for being a novella, but unfortunately, neither Roger or Debbie are deeply developed as real humans or as their hacker alter egos Mr. Slippery and Erythrina. However, I was moved by the scene when we get to see who Debbie is as a real person.

Press-Enter-from-Asimovs

“Press Enter ▮” is far more realistic. Victor Apfel is a character of complexity. He is a semi-invalid Korean war vet living next to Charles Kluge, a master hacker. Kluge commits suicide and tricks Victor into discovering his body. The police hire Lisa Foo, another master hacker to process Kluge’s house full of computers and software. Victor and Lisa become friends, then lovers. Lisa is a Vietnam refuge, so she and Victor have a complex shared background with several Asian countries.

Neither Kluge or Lisa enter cyberspace, both just sit at terminals hours on end. They live in this reality and the cyber landscape can only be deciphered by data dredged from computer screens. This makes the horror of an emerging AI intelligence far scarier, and the ending particularly vivid.

I reread these two stories yesterday because I’m working on a list of my 35 favorite science fiction short stories. Piet Nel suggested limiting ourselves 35 stories because if they were published as a book it would be about the size as one of Gardner Dozois’ big anthologies. That means I’m going to have to leave out a lot of fondly remembered tales. I’ll have to decide between “True Names” and “Press Enter ▮” – because of their overlapping themes. I suppose I could argue back with Piet that we should consider 109 the limit. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s The Big Book of Science Fiction proves it is possible to go truly gigantic with an anthology.

In the end, I’ve decided to use “Press Enter ▮” for my list. “True Names” was more colorful and fantastic. But I have to consider it cyberfantasy, rather than cyber-SF. More than that, I envisioned Victor and Lisa way more than I could with Roger and Debbie.

Comparing the two stories helped me with my problem of picking favorite stories. As I’ve been going over the SF stories I love most and rereading them, I’ve discovered certain aspects inherent in stories are what makes me like them. These qualities are hard to label. All fiction must hook us, must contain a thread of suspense to keep us reading. I’ve been trying to identify those elements within a story that hooks me and keep me reading. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. The main character has to feel real. In fact, the more real the better. I have to identify with the character, even if I don’t like them. Stories that feel like I’m reading about a person experiencing a real event, even if I know it’s fictional or fantasy, is what grabs me most.
  2. The subject matter is next in importance. I can read a masterpiece of fiction about any subject, and admire it tremendously, but I only develop a psychic love affair with stories that involve my life-long pet topics.
  3. The story needs to explore philosophical problems I want to understand. I love stories the most that give me philosophical/spiritual/personal insight.

I’ve also learned there are elements in stories that make me want to stop reading.

  1. I’m turned off by prose that calls attention to the writer. I don’t want to be reminded that I’ve entered fiction-space.
  2. I don’t like artificial constructs. I know writers love to play around with how they tell a story, but if it jars my attention that detracts from my reading pleasure.
  3. Unbelievability is a reading buzzkill. I know when I reading the literature of the fantastic, but even it has to have a feel of believability.

Cyberspace and artificial reality are concepts that have emerged in our lifetime. We’ve watched writers work to make them believable, to create portals into this new digital landscape. The most realistic stories are those where humans wear goggles and suits. It is quite popular now to have stories where brains are recorded and people’s minds are transferred into artificial realities. I don’t accept brain downloading. I can accept it as a fantasy portal, but not as science fictional speculation.

We use to say the universe was everything, but now with multiple universes becoming accepted, I call the whole enchilada reality. Earth, outer space, inner space, and the digital landscape are all part of a single reality. Both inner space and digital space must be explained by the laws of reality.

Fiction space can work outside the laws of reality. However, I prefer stories that do.

I prefer “Press Enter ▮” to “True Names” because it confirms more with reality. But I also resonate better with the John Varley story because Victor and Lisa are compelling characters that come with realistically detailed biographies. Both stories deal with the same philosophical problem though — the threat of computer intelligence. And even here, I give the nod to Varley. Not that Vinge hasn’t created a powerful imaginative story, I just resonate better with Varley’s realism. I imagine other readers will prefer Vinge because his cyberspace is more colorful, and they accept that fiction space can work outside those laws of reality.

JWH

 

Best Short Science Fiction 2018

Best Short Science Fiction 2018

1It’s the season for best-of-the-year anthologies. The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume Thirteen edited by Jonathan Strahan and The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 4 edited by Neil Clarke are already here, and Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 should be out next month. Sadly, Gardner Dozois died last year, so we won’t be seeing the Thirty-Sixth volume of his series. But we do have a new annual, The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories edited by Allan Kaster.

For years, Kaster has edited a best-of-the-year audiobook SF anthology at Audible.com, so I hope this new title is in addition, rather than replacing the old series. The Strahan and Kaster volumes are available at Audible.com now. I love hearing great short science fiction read by professional readers.

I’ve created a spreadsheet that tracks all the stories from the four anthologies and added information about the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for short stories and novelettes. I’ll add more stories and details as additional anthologies are published and awards are given. And if I get ambitious, I might even add links to those stories available online.

The most comprehensive guide to short science fiction for 2018 is Rocket Stack Rank’s “2818 Best SF/F.” My spreadsheet is more of a visual quick reference guide. I’m still learning to use all of RSR’s extensive features.

James Wallace Harris

“Finnegan, Bring the Pain” by Joe M. McDermott

Analog Jul-Aug 2019

I read “Finnegan, Bring the Pain” by Joe M. McDermott because Greg Hullender gave it 5-stars at Rocket Stack Rank, saying it was “Hard-Hitting Tale of Different Kinds of Loss.” The story is in the latest issue of Analog (Jul-Aug 2019).

I believe a powerful short story often succeeds because it identifies a specific emotional insight. James Joyce called such storytelling moments epiphanies. I’m not sure I like Joyce’s label. I wish each literary emotion had its own identifiable noun. It would certainly help with reviewing fiction. Maybe if I thoroughly read The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows I could find it.

In “Finnegan, Bring the Pain” the emotion is what one feels when being left behind while someone you know, someone often much like yourself, gets away. In “Finnegan, Bring the Pain” Finnegan is a teenager who is a loser in school, who knows he’s going to have a shitty life, but his friend Wind, a girl who keeps his unrequited love at arm’s length, is leaving for Alpha Centauri.

Joe M. McDermott is aiming point-blank at science fiction fans who want to go into space but feel left behind. As a kid, I wanted to go to Mars. I’m sure most SF fans dream of traveling somewhere beyond Earth, so “Finnegan, Bring the Pain” should resonate well with its readers. My all-time favorite short work of science fiction is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, a novella that farms this emotion perfectly. (This emotion might also explain why my favorite science fiction movie is Gattaca.)

However, the essence of the “left behind” emotion applies in endless ways. I’ve read literary stories with characters who knew they could never escape their small-town life and make it in the big city, or with a low-level ball player watching a friend move up to the majors, or a poor soul desperately wanting to be rich, or an assistant professor realizing they’re never going to achieve their version of The Origin of Species or a would-be novelist who’d never write the great American novel.

After I realized I’d never go into space, I dreamed of writing science fiction, but the older I get the more I knew that dream has passed me by too. I read stories today like this one to inspire me to write. The dream isn’t completely dead, and I do feel left behind by young writers succeeding with ideas I wanted to explore.

Generally, science fiction is about people who achieve escape velocity. We want to live vicariously through characters who reach the stars. McDermott and Delany remind us that we don’t have the right stuff. That’s painful, but also cathartic.

I’ve always wanted to write a science fiction novel set in the future where all humans experience the “left behind” emotion when we discover that space travel isn’t practical for humans, but is perfect for robots. In this case, I want to be Wind, but I’m still Finnegan.

Finnegan resigns himself to mundane life, even one that has little successes. There is a secondary insight into the “left behind” emotion, and that is we do have a life that is ours, one that we have to accept and enjoy. My acceptance is by promoting SF stories I like and wish I had written.

Getting 5-stars at RSR doesn’t guarantee I’ll love a story, but it does inspire me to track them down. And to be balanced in my reporting, I have loved stories that Greg gave only 1-star. The real take-away of ratings and reviews: subscribe to the science fiction magazine, you won’t know what you’ll find until you read them. Don’t worry about all the stories you don’t like, find the ones you do. Analog has a great of variety among its stories. And if you do subscribe, as you read the stories, think about what each offers in terms of emotional insights. I believe the stories that deserve the most stars are the ones that resonate with your own deep emotions.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1950

The Years Best Short Science Fiction - 1950

1950 was a great year for SF short stories. Along with 1966 and 1982, they tie for having the most stories in one year on the updated Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories. Four memorable stories in one year is outstanding since many years have none, and only 1-2 is common. Also, before I read the two anthologies pictured above I was already familiar with 7 of the stories. That’s the most since I started this reading project of systematically reading through the best-SF-of-the-year anthologies starting with 1939.

1950 represents an evolution in mature science fiction writing. It also reflects the influence of magazines besides Astounding Science Fiction. The old timers in my youth considered the 1940s the Golden Age of Science Fiction, but for my generation, the 1950s is our Golden Age. I’m very excited to finally arrive in 1950 and look forward to reading through the decade.

In 1951 Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty selected the following 1950 science fiction short stories for The Best Science Fiction Stories 1951:

  • “The Santa Claus Planet” by Frank M. Robinson (original)
  • “The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out” by Reginald Bretnor (F&SF)
  • The Mindworm” by C. M. Kornbluth (Worlds Beyond)
  • “The Star Ducks” by Bill Brown (F&SF)
  • “Not to Be Opened” by Peter Grainger (as Roger Flint Young) (Astounding)
  • Process” by A. E. van Vogt (F&SF)
  • “Forget-Me-Not” by William F. Temple (Other Worlds)
  • “Contagion” by Katherine MacLean (Galaxy)
  • “Trespass!” by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson (Fantastic Story Quarterly)
  • Oddy and Id” by Alfred Bester (Astounding)
  • To Serve Man” by Damon Knight (Galaxy)
  • “Summer Wear” by L. Sprague de Camp (Startling Stories)
  • “Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson (F&SF)
  • “The Fox and the Forest” by Ray Bradbury (The Illustrated Man)
  • “The Last Martian” by Fredric Brown (Galaxy)
  • The New Reality” by Charles L. Harness (Thrilling Wonder)
  • “Two Face” by Frank Belknap Long (Weird Tales)
  • Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber (Galaxy)

In 1984 Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg picked these stories for The Great SF Stories 12 (1950):

  • “Not with a Bang” by Damon Knight (F&SF)
  • “Spectator Sport” by John D. MacDonald (Thrilling Wonder)
  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury (Collier’s)
  • “Dear Devil” by Eric Frank Russell (Other Worlds)
  • “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith (Fantasy Book)
  • “The Little Black Bag” by C. M. Kornbluth (Astounding)
  • “Enchanted Village” by A. E. van Vogt (Other Worlds)
  • Oddly and Id” by Alfred Bester (Astounding)
  • “The Sack” by William Morrison (Astounding)
  • “The Silly Season” by C. M. Kornbluth (F&SF)
  • “Misbegotten Missionary” by Isaac Asimov (Galaxy)
  • To Serve Man” by Damon Knight (Galaxy)
  • Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber (Galaxy)
  • “A Subway Named Mobius” by A. J. Deutsch (Astounding)
  • Process” by A. E. van Vogt (F&SF)
  • The Mindworm” by C. M. Kornbluth (Worlds Beyond)
  • The New Reality” by Charles L. Harness (Thrilling Wonder)

I’ve bolded the overlap. I’ve often wondered when Asimov and Greenberg made up their anthology did they consider what Bleiler and Dikty had done in the past? The Bleiler/Dikty books would have been rare even back in 1984, so I assume they didn’t. Or did they imagine that one day readers would judge the two books together for what they collectively say about the short science fiction of 1950?

And why did Bleiler and Dikty miss “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “Scanners Live in Vain,” “The Little Black Bag,” and  “The Silly Season” which all have become classics since then? Or do later readers discover value in stories that readers back in 1950 missed? “There Will Come Soft Rains” was included in The Martian Chronicles so it was being widely read as Bleiler and Dikty were assembling the volume. “The Little Black Bag” and “Scanners Live in Vain” were included in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1970, selected by the popular vote of science fiction writers, so it seems odd they weren’t recognized as instant classics. I think “The Silly Season” is an important miss, but they did include Kornbluth’s “The Mindworm.” Maybe Bleiler/Dikty didn’t want to use two of his stories?

If you look at the 60 short stories from 1950 that’s in our database order by total citations you’ll see both anthologies got most of the most remembered stories. But each anthology also recognized a few classics the other missed. I think the story they both missed which stands out the most is Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt.” It’s always remembered on fan polls but that’s probably because schools teach it.

Here are the stories that made it to the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list:

CSF-SF-1950

Notice that the top three stories won Retro Hugo Award for 1951. The only short stories/novelettes the fans voting for the retro Hugo that the two anthologies missed were “The Helping Hand” by Poul Anderson and “Okie” by James Blish. Neither anthology included any of the novella nominations. If you study the citation sources for the above stories you’ll see how each has remained popular in fan polls.

For these four stories, this was at least my fourth reading for each of them since the 1960s. Each time they get better and I notice more details. These stories should be read by any would-be writers wanting models to study. They are rich in ideas, dense with details, yet very told dramatically. These four stories are so obvious and famous that there’s little reason to discuss them. And I think the voters for the 1951 Retro Hugo Award also picked the obvious novella choice: “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert A. Heinlein.

The fun question to ask now: What is the best of the forgotten stories? I’m partial to “Contagion” by Katherine MacLean which I’ve already reviewed separately. I thought it a standout story for the time because MacLean was poking fun at male SF fans and gender issues.

Dear Devil by Eric Frank Russell - cover storyDear Devil” is my favorite Eric Frank Russell story so far in this reading project. It’s about another Martian invasion, but this time a very positive one. Don’t you miss Martians? Sure the story is sentimental and unrealistic, but if you loved the movie E.T. you’ll probably love “Dear Devel.”

“The New Reality” by Charles L. Harness reminds me somewhat of Greg Egan’s novel Quarantine because it’s about how our ideas of reality shape reality. The story is a gnarly philosophical fantasy about ontology. The story itself is a kind of a mess, lacking in structure and realistic dramatic action, but it’s filled with the kind of ideas that mess with your head, the kind that pot smokers and science fiction fans love.

The Sack” by William Morrison is not a great story, but it is a fun read. Explorers find an intelligent creature on an asteroid. It is the last of its kind, and it looks like a sack of potatoes. However, the Sack is so smart and willing to answer questions, that humans sell time with it like we do scheduling a supercomputer. The Sack is so effective at answering questions that nations and criminals want to kidnap it. The Sack claims it is always honest, but warns the human questioners that its knowledge might not always be beneficial.

“Misbegotten Missionary” by Isaac Asimov was later renamed “Green Patches” but I like the original name better. Asimov later realized that this story is similar to “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, his mentor. Space explorers visit a planet where all life is part of a single unified consciousness and this lifeform thinks humans are tragically incomplete since they are isolated individuals. The gestalt organism has a way of possessing humans to make them part of their whole. When the Captain of the first space ship lands on this planet and discovers his crew has been infected he blows his ship up. The story is about the second ship returning from the planet with a very clever hitchhiker. Because this tale has more story and less lecture, it’s one of Asimov’s more entertaining tales.

That’s one of the big problems of older science fiction, authors are inspired by far out ideas, but they don’t know how to present them dramatically. Many of these stories in these two anthologies are often interrupted by mini-lectures. That’s why “Scanners Live in Vain” and “Coming Attractions” were such standouts. Each is dense with ideas, but throw off their dazzling concepts as part of the action. They are dramatic and emotional.

Most of the stories in these two anthologies are still entertaining, but I believe most modern readers will find most of the second-string stories slight, clunky, outdated, or primitive. Aficionados of old SF will probably get a kick out of them.

Galaxy Oct Nov 1950

The first two issues of Galaxy, October and November 1950 contains
“Contagion,” “The Last Martian,” “Misbegotten Missionary,” “Coming Attraction,” and “To Serve Man” –  four stories for Bleiler/Dikty and three for Asimov/Greenberg. That’s a pretty impressive debut.

The impact of the new magazines F&SF and Galaxy is particularly impressive when you realize they were competing with Astounding’s 12 issues with just 4 and 3 issues respectively.

Off to read 1951 – the year I was born.

James Wallace Harris

 

“Contagion” by Katherine MacLean

Contagion by Katherine MacLean

“Contagion” by Katherine MacLean appeared in the very first issue of Galaxy Science Fiction in October of 1950. MacLean was in great company because the first issue also contained stories by Clifford Simak, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Fredric Brown, and Isaac Asimov. If you follow the link above you can read “Contagion” online, as well as the whole first issue of Galaxy. You can also listen to “Contagion” on YouTube from a LibriVox.org recording.

“Contagion” has been reprinted often, most notably in The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1951 edited by Bleiler and Dikty, Women of Wonder (1975) and the expanded Women of Wonder: The Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s (1995) both edited by Pamela Sargent, and most recently in The Future is Female! edited by Lisa Yaszek and published by the prestigious Library of America.

I just read “Contagion” in the Bleiler/Dikty volume as part of my project to read all the best-SF-of-the-year annuals in order starting with 1939. The story was not in The Great SF Stories 12 (1950) edited by Asimov and Greenberg. I wondered why. “Contagion” is not a great story, but it is a lot of fun, and is notable for a number of reasons. Back in 1950, there were damn few women SF writers, so Katherine MacLean stands out. But more importantly, MacLean deals with an idea that I’ve seldom seen other SF writers concern themselves with – can humans landing on other worlds survive their microscopic infections?

Kim Stanley Robinson dealt with this idea in Aurora just a few years ago. but at the moment these two examples are the only ones I can recall. Most SF yarns have their characters worry if they can breathe the air, drink the water, or eat the plants and animals.  However, most humans on Earth, if they were transported to a jungle in South America or Africa, would be at great risk of getting an infection. Why assume other planets are any less dangerous? KSM suggested it might be impossible to colonize any other world with an evolved biology, and I think he’s right. Visiting any other world with life might risk countless forms of dangerous infections like Ebola.

Little is known about Katherine MacLean. She seems to have been into hard science fiction and mostly wrote for Astounding/Analog, but that does include a lot of Psi-stories. I haven’t been able to find out much about her. She only produced three novels and three collections.

The Diploids by Katherine MacLeanThere are many benefits to my reading project. Not only do I get to watch science fiction evolve year by year, but I get to read a huge variety of stories by many authors I’ve never read before or even know about. There was an interview with Katherine MacLean in the July 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books I’d love to read. If anyone has a copy and could send me a scan it would be appreciated. I’m guessing that interview did help Andrew Liptak write “The Fantastic Foresight of Katherine MacLean” at Kirkus Review. That piece has the most information about MacLean I can currently find.

Joachim Boaz reviews her most famous book, Missing Man published in 1975 but based on her Nebula Award-winning 1971 story of the same name. Boaz rated it 5/5 (Near Masterpiece) which I’ve seldom seen him do. He says it’s one of the best sci-fi novels about telepathy ever. (Makes me want to buy a copy.)

<SPOILERS>

What makes “Contagion” so much fun to me is MacLean’s female perspective. The story is told in the third-person but follows June Walton closely. She is part of a team of human explorers landing on Minos that discover it had already been settled by human colonists when they come across a man named Patrick Mead in the jungle. Mead is a head taller than all the space explorers, is red-headed, wears only a loincloth, and has tremendous sexual magnetism. It’s fun as a male reader follow June as she observes Patrick’s impact on her fellow crew members, especially the women. June’s husband Max pales in comparison to Patrick and June feels bad she’s so attracted to the redheaded stranger.

Eventually, Patrick infects all the male space travelers even though they have been extremely careful to avoid infections. They wear spacesuits and use many decontamination methods. Patrick gives the men the “melting disease.” The women eventually save most of the men with antibodies from Patrick, but all the men go through a transformation and end up looking like Patrick – tall, muscular, and redheaded. The women in the crew are freaked out at first but quickly decided that their husbands and boyfriends easily reveal their personalities even though they all look the same. (I don’t know why but many SF writers have a thing for redheads.)  But here’s the kicker. Patrick’s sister shows up and the space explorers realize she will infect the women in the spaceship and they will all end up looking like her. Patrick’s sister is quite a beauty, but all the Earth women refuse to lose their individual looks. Several say they’d rather die. But do they have a choice?

I wondered if MacLean was having fun with all the male science fiction readers of 1950. I’m sure they were just as geeky then as they are today. MacLean has her spacewomen claiming they love their brainy guys, but they go nuts over Patrick. But what is she saying about women in general by having the spacewomen preferring death to all looking alike?

Is MacLean satirizing women’s vanity, or is it another dig at men? Maybe, MacLean is saying women don’t all want to be redheaded sex goddesses, which like I said, is a common ideal in science fiction magazine stories written by men.

</SPOILERS>

I’m not sure it’s politically correct to say female writers have a uniquely different perspective than male writers, but it seems like MacLean does so here, and is specifically targetting that belief in her story. Most older Sci-Fi tales avoided sex and gender issues and usually presented the most common stereotypes. Science fiction writers sometimes would have a hot woman in the spaceship that all the guys went nuts over, but I can’t remember them ever writing a story with a spaceship where the women crew members all going nuts over a hot guy. First of all, very few stories had spaceships where half the crew were women.

In “Contagion” Katherine MacLean anticipates a future in 1950 that’s more like what’s hinted at in Star Trek of 1966, although half the U.S.S. Enterprise’s command crew was not female. In her story, there is great equality males and females, and everyone is a scientist.

Maybe I should reconsider my assessment of “Contagion” being just a light-weight fun story. Now that I think about it, maybe MacLean was saying a lot more than I thought on my first reading. That’s another thing I’m learning from this reading project. Most great stories need 2-4 readings before I can discern all their great attributes.

James Wallace Harris

“At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee

at_the_fall_by_eldarzakirov_dd572fh-pre

The above illustration by Eldar Zakirov is for “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee in the May-June issue of Analog. This story is exactly the kind of science fiction I love. I hope Alec Nevala-Lee won’t be offended when I say, “At the Fall” is great old-fashion science fiction. The story is about a little undersea robot named Eunice and its companion support robot named Wagner who travel thousands of miles under the ocean hoping to find their home. I can’t help but think of the City stories by Clifford Simak.

Eunice is a hexapod, a robot with six tentacle-like appendages. It is one of five hexapods “sisters” (Thetic, Clio, Dione, Galatea) each with their own support robot that generates their power. The five hexapods were created to study deep ocean vents. Because these robots work so far below the surface, beyond the range of radio, they were designed to work independently from human monitoring. They take turns returning to the surface to transmit their data and check in with scientists on a yacht. One day the yacht isn’t at the surface, but the little robots keep at their job. Eventually, after waiting a long time for the yacht to return, Eunice decides to return to Seattle where it was created but it has very limited abilities to make this journey. “At the Fall” is about Eunice’s trials and tribulations crossing thousands of kilometers of the ocean bottom. (In many ways Eunice’s efforts to survive, remind me of Mark Watney’s ingenuity in The Martian.)

Writing good robot stories is hard to pull off. All too often writers make their robots too human. Eunice neither looks human or thinks like a human, yet we feel for it as her. At least I did. I don’t know why it is female other than its name. Eunice has no gender traits, but I can’t stop thinking of it as a little girl. I wish Nevala-Lee had avoided this issue with a genderless name, but we humans anthropomorphize everything. And would this little robot be less charming if it had been called Hexapod-5? For myself, I would have been fine with that.

I wasn’t hugely worried about this gender issue in this story, but I do think science fiction needs to eventually teach its readers that robots and AI will not have gender. Even sexbots will be genderless. Gender comes out of biology. No matter how hard we want robots to be like us, they won’t be.

“At the Fall” belongs to the growing sub-sub-genre of cute robot stories, like Wall-E and “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer. At Nevala-Lee’s blog, he links to more about this story, including a conversation he had with Frank Wu who wrote a story about Karl 3478 who is also an underwater robot. I like this tiny sub-sub-genre. NASA was able to avoid the gender issue with their robots by naming them Spirit and Opportunity. A huge number of people from around the world became fans of these Martian robots and followed their exploits online for years. It’s quite logical to send robots into space and under the ocean, and they will slowly evolve more and more independence. I can easily believe an emergent AI intelligence could evolve in this type of robot.

I expect in the coming years for this sub-sub-genre to grow. It will be a challenge for SF writers to convey the mental view of these AI controlled robots. For decades science fiction writers assumed intelligent robots would think like us, and use our languages. This is completely short-sighted. The chasm between animal consciousness and machine consciousness will be vast. We can see how our minds evolved by looking at animals. We can see earlier forms of intelligence and emotions in their minds. We share their DNA. This won’t be true with robot minds.

Nevala-Lee did a good job at conveying Eunice’s thinking. Science fiction writers are limited by the tools of writing fiction when describing robotic POV. Quite often in “At the Fall” Nevala-Lee says Eunice experiences fear and anxiety. I’m not sure robots will have those emotions. Eunice spends a lot of time analyzing its plans because it knows it only has 30 kilometers of range for each power charge. But where would that fear and anxiety come from in a robot, aren’t those chemical reactions in a biological organism?

Language is another issue that Nevala-Lee skirts. Eunice’s world is very limited, and within the story, its grasp of English is limited too. But Eunice does say and think a few things that would be beyond its practical comprehension. The only way to explain what I mean is to recommend reading Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, which is a very serious literary novel about training an AI mind to understand English and literature. Powers uses far more scientific realism than most science fiction writers.

Neither of these issues hurt “At the Fall.” It’s an utterly enchanting story. There’s plenty of science to make it realistic. And it has a rather unique sense of wonder. Reading it suggests there is a growing future for robot stories. I believe stories about robots will unfold in the same way stories about did about space travel. Science fiction before NASA is distinctly different than those after NASA. As intelligent robots emerge in the real world fiction about them will change too. Any SF writer today wanting to write a cutting edge story about robots needs to think long and hard what real-life intelligent robots will be like. We need less anthropomorphizing and a lot more speculation about AI thinking. Nevala-Lee did a good job, but I hope future stories go further.

Spoiler Alert

At Rocket Stack Rank Greg Hullender assumes human civilization in this story collapses because of some sort of EMP apocalypse. I didn’t think that when reading the story. I assume the fall in “At the Fall” meant that humanity went over some kind of edge. I figured the humans in this story all died in chaos from all our societal sins causing a world-wide breakdown. That starvation, disease, environmental catastrophes, economic collapse, and a host of other failures did us in. That’s why I could easily imagine automatic solar-powered recharging stations still working.

I hope before humans do ourselves in, we do create intelligent robots that will replace us.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

 

 

The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1949

 

Years Best Short Science Fiction 1949

In 1950 Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty picked the following 1949 science fiction short stories for their second annual anthology The Best Science Fiction Stories – 1950:

  • Private Eye” by Henry Kuttner (Astounding, January 1949)
  • “Doomsday Deferred” by Will F. Jenkins (Saturday Evening Post, 9/24/49)
  • The Hurkle is a Happy Beast” by Theodore Sturgeon (The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949)
  • Eternity Lost” by Clifford Simak (Astounding, July 1949)
  • “Easter Eggs” by Robert Spencer Carr (Saturday Evening Post, 9/24/49)
  • “Opening Doors” by Wilmar H. Shiras (Astounding, March 1949)
  • “Five Years in the Marmalade” by Robert W. Krepps (Fantastic Adventures, July 1949)
  • “Dwellers in Silence” by Ray Bradbury (Planet Stories, Spring 1949)
  • “Mouse” by Fredric Brown (Wonder Stories, June 1949)
  • “Refuge for Tonight” by Robert Moore Williams (Blue Book Magazine, March 1949)
  • “The Life-Work of Professor Muntz” by Murray Leinster (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Jun 1949)
  • Flaw” by John D. MacDonald (Startling Stories,  January 1949)
  • “The Man” by Ray Bradbury (Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1949)

Astounding Science Fiction is no longer dominating. Why no stories from the Big 3 (Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke)? Robert A. Heinlein, probably the most popular science fiction writer at the time had five stories published in 1949 – “Our Fair City,” “Gulf,” “The Long Watch,” “Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon,” and “Delilah and the Space Rigger.” I’ve read the Heinlein wanted too much money to reprint his stories, or maybe Bleiler and Dikty just didn’t like Heinlein or felt he didn’t need the exposure.

If Heinlein wasn’t the most popular science fiction writer in 1949, then Ray Bradbury might have been because two of his stories were selected, and in 1984, Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg picked another for their anthology The Great SF Stories 11 (1949):

  • “The Red Queen’s Race” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, January 1949)
  • Flaw” by John D. MacDonald (Startling Stories, January 1949)
  • Private Eye” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (Astounding, January 1949)
  • “Manna” by Peter Phillips (Astounding, February 1949)
  • “The Prisoner in the Skull” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (Astounding, February 1949)
  • “Alien Earth” by Edmond Hamilton (Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1949)
  • “History Lesson” by Arthur C. Clarke (Startling Stories, May 1949)
  • Eternity Lost” by Clifford D. Simak (Astounding, July 1949)
  • “The Only Thing We Learn” by C. M. Kornbluth (Startling Stories, July 1949)
  • “Private – Keep Out!” by Philip MacDonald (The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949)
  • The Hurkle is a Happy Beast” by Theodore Sturgeon (The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949)
  • “Kaleidoscope” by Ray Bradbury (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949)
  • “Defense Mechanism” by Katherine MacLean (Astounding, October 1949)
  • “Cold War” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949)
  • “The Witches of Karres” by James H. Schmitz (Astounding, December 1949)

I’ve bolded the four stories that both collections picked. Asimov/Greenberg did add an Asimov and Clarke, but no Heinlein. And our system found even another Ray Bradbury story and picked a Heinlein:

CSFSS-1949.

If you look close, only four stories have had citations from the 21st-century, and only two, “Gulf” by Heinlein, and “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” by Bradbury are remembered by fans recently. Our Classics of Science Fiction project shows how stories are slowly forgotten.

But what about how I felt reading these 1949 stories in 2019? To be honest, I’m struggling to retain them in memory. Most were just okay, even time-wasters. The story that really stuck out for me was “Alien Earth” by Edmond Hamilton, which I’ve already written about. Plus, Hamilton was writing about trees in 1949 that foresees such books as The Hidden Life of Trees (2015) by Peter Wohlleben and The Overstory (2019) by Richard Powers that just won the Pulitzer Prize.

The Ray Bradbury stories still work after all these years. In fact, my admiration for Bradbury is growing. His 1940s stories say so much about that decade and still, they seem relevant in the 2010s.

Most of the 1949 science fiction short stories were fun or clever but will probably offer little to modern readers.

One story, “Private Eye” by Kuttner and Moore, was very impressive but didn’t move me. Paul Fraser at SF Magazines really admired “Private Eye.” I want to reread it in the future because I think it will impress me more with a second reading. I wished someone would do an audiobook of Kuttner/Moore’s collected stories because they dominated the 1940s SF, yet I seldom enjoy their stories like I think I should. I’ve always loved “Vintage Season” but most of their stories seem to be more intellect than heart.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Opening Doors” by Wilmar Shiras, her sequel to “In Hiding” an all-time favorite of mine, but it didn’t have the impact of the first story and doesn’t stand on its own very well.

Nothing-Ever-Happens-on-the-Moon---Robert-A.-Heinlein

What Heinlein stories would I include. “Gulf” is a major story, but it’s subject major is something I find distasteful. I also found the novel Friday, which is a sequel to “Gulf” to be even more distasteful. I guess my favorite Heinlein for 1949 would be “Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon” – a two-part story from Boys Life. (Part 1, Part 2).

Bleiler and Dikty seem to have more stories from the first half of 1949, and Asimov and Greenberg more from the second half. Both looked at several magazines, getting away from Astounding is everything feeling. I’m not sure if I could find other stories worth anthologizing. Nor do I think I could pick enough 1949 SF stories to fill a whole book that’s I’d recommend to modern readers.

Starting last year I began reading the annual best-of-the-year SF anthologies in order. I began with the year 1939. Now that I’ve just finished 1949, it means I’ve covered the whole decade of the 1940s. I’m developing a sense that science fiction is evolving. But I will have to write about that at another time. I’ve started on the 1950 volumes, and the first four stories are already more exciting than any in 1949. My hunch is the 1950s will be the most exciting decade for science fiction.

James Wallace Harris, 6/12/19

“In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras

[This is reprinted from Worlds Without End – originally published 5/11/18]

“In Hiding” originally appeared in the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. You can read it online at the Internet Archive. You can also find this story in these books, which include:

Warning: This column contains mild spoilers

I just finished listening to the new audiobook edition of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B. “In Hiding” turned out to be my favorite story in the collection. I don’t think I’ve read it before, although it feels vaguely familiar. And I had no memory of ever encountering the author, Wilmar H. Shiras, before. It turns out Wilmar was a woman, making her only the third woman writer in the first three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

“In Hiding” is a quiet story about a boy who is so smart that he has to hide his intelligence from other kids and grown-ups. I thought it a remarkable story, and so did the readers of Astounding Science-Fiction back in November 1948. “In Hiding” scored first place in “The Analytical Laboratory,” with an average score of 1.54, meaning most readers put it at the top of their list. That doesn’t happen often. John W. Campbell, the editor had this to say:

Wilmar H. Shiras sent in her first science fiction story, “In Hiding.” I liked it and bought it at once. Evidently, I was not alone in liking it: it has made an exceptional showing in the Lab here—the sort of showing, in fact, that Bob Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, and Lewis Padgett made with their first yarns. I have reason to believe we’ve found a new front-rank author. Incidentally, there’s a sequel to “In Hiding” coming up in the March issue.

Shiras wrote two more stories for Campbell, “Opening Doors” (March 1949) and “New Foundations” (March 1950). In 1953 Shiras came out with Children of the Atom from Gnome Press by including the three Astounding stories and writing two more to create a collection. Although this book has been reprinted many times over the years, it’s not well-known, and Wilmar H. Shiras only wrote a handful of other stories, including three for Ted White’s Fantastic in the early 1970s. It’s a shame that Campbell was wrong about her, and she didn’t become a major science fiction writer. Wikipedia has damn little about Shiras. She got married at 18, had two boys and three girls. Children of the Atom is the main reason she is remembered, and only by a few old fans.

In Hiding

I found “In Hiding” to be a philosophically insightful science fiction story because of how Shiras dealt with the human mutant theme. There are some who claim (without documentation) that Children of the Atom inspired Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to create X-men comics. After the atomic bomb in 1945, radiation was used for all kinds of miracle mutations in comics, pulps, books, television shows, and movies. Radiation caused insects to grow as big as dinosaurs and for people to develop superpowers. Shiras took a quieter approach. Parents working at an atomic plant conceived mutant children with very high IQs. Normal looking, but very smart. I found that much more appealing than silly stories of oddities with superpowers.

I don’t know why, but science fiction has a long history of imagining Humans 2.0, and they invariably give our replacements telepathy and other psychic powers. I just don’t see that happening. Psi-powers are obviously borrowed from stories of gods, angels, and other magical beings in myths. Isn’t prayer telepathy with God? Don’t angels and demons teleport? Aren’t god-like beings always using telekinesis to act powerfully? I find it psychologically lame that SF writers assume evolution will lead to such talents. Superpowers appeal to the child in us. We want reality to be magical — it’s not.

Shiras takes a different approach, one I feel is more adult. Radiation can cause mutations. Sadly, most would be unwanted physical changes. But, Shiras suggests just a bump in smarts. Not god-like super-knowledge, but children smarter than average. In her stories, it’s implied the orphan children of the atomic plant workers have IQs greater than 150. They are orphans because the plant blows up.

“In Hiding” is about Tim, a boy a school psychologist discovers is a lot smarter than his B average grades imply. Over time the psychologist gains the confidence of the boy and learns Tim pretends to be a normal kid because he discovered at a very early age that other people, young or old, resents intelligence greater than theirs. Tim hides. He is raised by his grandparents who expect him to be well-behaved and quiet, and when he is, allows Tim to have privacy and a workshop in an old barn. By using the mail, and pseudonyms, Tim creates secret personalities that pursue various hobbies, conducts science experiments, breeds cats, completes college correspondence courses, sells stories to magazines, and writes articles for journals.

Science fiction has speculated about Homo superior or superior aliens since the 19th century. Almost always they imagine big heads and ESP. I think evolution is obviously working towards increased intelligence and self-awareness. I believe AI machines will be the next rung on the evolutionary ladder, but I also assume it is possible humans could undergo mutations that will lead to a new and improved biological species. But what is better? Marvel Comics mutants appeal to the child in us. What improvements would rational adults hope for? What new species of humans would have better adaptations for our current reality?

I’d say a species that is smart enough to live in cooperation with nature, one that doesn’t cause endless wars, mass extinctions and poisons the ecosystem. Science fiction and comic books can’t seem to conceive of that. If Wilmar H. Shiras had continued with her series, she might have. Science fiction shines at imagining dystopias but fails at speculating about utopias. Billions plan to go to heaven, but the most complete description of heaven in The Bible sounds like hell to me.

It’s sadly ironic, but Wilmar H. Shiras has been in hiding all these years.

James Wallace Harris

p.s. I found the picture of Children of the Atom on Google. Later I ordered the book from ABEbooks.com – and ended up with that exact copy.

The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1948

1948-sf

Is there any reason to read SF short stories from 1948 in 2019? Over at the blog Doomsdayer, Zach read the Bleiler/Dikty anthology and judged it unworthy claiming the experience was “monumentally boring.” He went on to point out there was only one story was completely written by a woman, while another had a woman coauthor. He also noted that 8 of the 12 stories had no women characters at all while ethnicity was barely alluded to once. I can imagine that Zach is young and that most readers from recent generations will have his reaction to these 1948 SF short stories.

Escaping into the past feels like fiddling while Rome burns. We face so many social problems today that we barely have time to think about the countless threats to our future, so why look backward? These 1948 science fiction stories have nothing relevant to say to the people of 2019. So why read them?

I enjoy old science fiction, but I assume these stories won’t appeal to 99.9% of science fiction fans. A few are beautiful if beheld by the right beholder. Odds are, you aren’t that person. But who is? Who is the target reader for these 71-year-old science stories?

We want to believe that art is timeless and enduring, but it’s not. Enjoying these stories often depends on being a pop culture archeologist. Or a student of literary evolution. They are snapshots of our hopes and fears from 1948. Science fiction writers are known for their wild speculations about fantastic possibilities. For example, in “No Connection,”  Isaac Asimov imagines millions of years from now intelligent bears populating North America, and one of them learns that on a distant continent there is a high tech civilization populated by descendants of chimpanzees. Sounds fun, but it’s poorly written.

In 1948 there were many stories about how we’d destroy ourselves with atomic bombs but that’s not something we worry about today — we have other ways of destroying ourselves. Mostly these stories are too talky lacking in drama, structure, and emotion. Science fiction writers were still learning how to tell a story in 1948.

Once you begin sampling science fiction from different generations you realize that we ask the same questions over and over again. Asimov asks: What animal will replace homo sapiens when we fail? L. Sprague de Camp asked it in 1939 with “Living Fossil” and Pierre Boulle asked it again in 1963 with Planet of the Apes. Probably every generation since 1968 has been exposed to that idea via the latest remake of the Planet of the Apes films. To give Asimov extra credit, he gives his bears a superior civilization and suggests the evolved chimpanzees will have our trait of self-destruction.

Several of the stories from 1948 try to imagine superior humans and social structures, but their efforts are clumsy. It seems to me that few science fiction stories today attempt that, and instead imagine all the ways we can live with our bad traits. But is comparing the hopes of today against our hopes in the past make rereading these old stories worthwhile? Why do we continue to remember certain books, short stories, songs, and movies decades after they first appeared?

If I asked you to list the artwork from 1948 that you remember and cherish, could you? Unless you’re a major film buff, it’s doubtful you’d recall many of the top movies from 1948. Unless you’re an aficionado of an art form, it’s doubtful you cherish older works. For every Pride and Prejudice, there are a million forgotten works of fiction. Most people are happier with contemporary artistic escapes, with Game of Thrones or Fortnite.

I’m fascinated by how fiction is remembered over the decades. This website is devoted to identifying how those science fiction stories are retained in our collective memory. Sure, we call them classics, but that’s a loaded term because often readers feel classics should be the best stories of all time. I think of classics as those stories that keep hanging around and getting read regardless of their literary quality. We use statistical methods to search for ways to identify how stories are remembered and don’t deal with their aesthetic value.

1948 was a special year for science fiction. It was the first year that anthologists evaluated all the stories for a best-SF-of-the-year anthology. Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty also created an annoying titling standard we still use today. They named their book The Best Science Fiction 1949 but collected stories first published in 1948. WTF?! In 1983, when Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg retroactively collected their favorite short SF of 1948 they called their volume The Great SF Stories 10 (1948). So I’m reviewing two anthologies that collected the “best” science fiction short stories of 1948, one labeled 1949 and one 1948. That’s confusing. This year we’ll see anthologies called the best stories of 2019 but they will reprint 2018 stories.

I find it fascinating to compare what Bleiler/Dikty liked in 1949 with what Asimov/Greenberg liked in 1983, with the statistical analysis we did in 2018. Unfortunately, there’s no Retro Hugo awards 1949 for the 1948 stories. (Hugo awards are also one year off from the actual publication years.)

Here’s what Bleiler and Dikty picked back in 1949. I’ve bolded the stories the two anthologies have in common.

  • Mars is Heaven!” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Ex Machina” by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore)
  • The Strange Case of John Kingman” by Murray Leinster
  • “Doughnut Jockey” by Erik Fennel
  • Thang” by Martin Gardner
  • Period Piece” by John R. Pierce (J. J. Coupling)
  • Knock” by Fredric Brown
  • “Genius” by Poul Anderson
  • “And the Moon Be Still As Bright” by Ray Bradbury
  • “No Connection” by Isaac Asimov
  • In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras
  • “Happy Ending” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

Asimov and Greenberg pick these stories in 1983 as the best of 1948:

  • “Don’t Look Now” by Henry Kuttner
  • “He Walked Around the Horses” by H. Beam Piper
  • The Strange Case of John Kingman” by Murray Leinster
  • “That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril
  • “The Monster” by A. E. Van Vogt
  • “Dreams are Sacred” by Peter Phillips
  • Mars is Heaven!” by Ray Bradbury
  • Thang” by Martin Gardner
  • “Brooklyn Project” by William Tenn
  • “Ring around the Redhead” by John D. MacDonald
  • Period Piece” by J. J. Coupling
  • “Dormant” by A. E. Van Vogt
  • In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras
  • Knock” by Fredric Brown
  • “A Child is Crying” by John D. MacDonald
  • “Late Night Final” by Eric Frank Russell

I’ve tried to find other sources from the era where fans discuss their favorite stories. If I had time I’d go through the old fanzines to see what fans got excited about back then, but for now, I turned to Alva Rogers and his history A Requiem for Astounding, first published in 1964. I’m sure Rogers first read the stories as they came out in 1948, and then reread them for his book – so it’s not quite a 1948 perspective.

Rogers called the chapter on 1948 “The Threshold of Maturity,” claiming John W. Campbell was finally fulfilling his dream of making science fiction for mature readers. Rogers said Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures were serving up adolescent pap that was ignored by mature fans, and that Planet Stories was fun but still immature. He did say that Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories were the closest in competition to Astounding Science-Fiction. As I’ve read The Great SF Stories 1-9 (1939-1947) I have seen an evolution in storytelling development.

Rogers thought the standout stories of 1948 (from Astounding) were:

  • “Now You See It” by Isaac Asimov
  • “Police Operation” by H. Beam Piper
  • “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras (one of the real sleepers of the year)
  • “Genius” by Poul Anderson (excellent)
  • “The Rull” by A. E. Van Vogt
  • “That Only A Mother” by Judith Merril (one of the most impressive debuts)

“Now You See It” became part of Second Foundation. “Genius” was a very tedious story in my mind that was based on a good idea. It’s about a future galactic empire ruled by psychologists (shades of Asimov) that experiment with a planet colonized by genetically engineered geniuses. “The Rull” became part of the fix-up novel, The War Against the Rull.

Rogers also mentioned some almost-as-good stories:

  • “There is No Defense,” “The Love of Heaven,” and “Unite and Conquer” by Theodore Sturgeon
  • “He Walked Around the Horses” by H. Beam Piper
  • “West Wind” and “The Strange Case of John Kingman” by Murray Leinster
  • “Her Majesty’s Aberration” and “The Great Air Monopoly” L. Ron Hubbard
  • “Ex Machina” by Henry Kuttner

Only three stories made our Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list (those getting 5 or more citations) but I’m including the runner-ups, which got 3 or more citations.

  • “That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril (11)
  • “Mars is Heaven!” by Ray Bradbury (7)
  • “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras (5)
  • “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (4)
  • “The Strange Case of John Kingman” by Murray Leinster (3)
  • “Dreams Are Sacred” by Peter Phillips (3)

Only “Mars is Heaven!” and “In Hiding” are on all three lists. Both of those stories, and “That Only a Mother” made The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. So our statistical system works pretty good at identifying stories that are generally remembered.

Read Some of these Stories Online

I’d say the top four stories above are the ones worth reading most. But here’s a sampling to try for yourself. Links are to the stories at Internet Archive using scans of old pulp magazines.

That Only a Mother

That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril is about the fears of mutations caused by radiation. Right after Hiroshima, the public and science fiction worried that atomic research would lead to the birth of either monsters or superhuman mutants. I wasn’t impressed the first time I read this story, but it gets better and better with every new reading. “That Only a Mother” was reprinted again last year for The Future is Female! edited by Lisa Yaszek for the prestigious Library of America. “That Only a Mother” is also about a new superhuman, like “In Hiding.”

Mars is Heaven

Mars is Heaven!” is preserved in Ray Bradbury’s enduring classic The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury was considered literary back then, and he eventually left the genre, so he straddles two reading worlds. “Mars is Heaven” is so obviously scientifically wrong, yet so wonderfully right in its storytelling. I’ve read this story four or five times now, and it still reveals new pleasures. One of my all-time favorite SF short stories.

Bleiler and Dikty also included “And the Moon Be Still As Bright” – another wonderful story from The Martian Chronicles. Of all the stories here, this story is the most relevant to today. Bradbury wrote nostalgic feel-good stories that recognized the nastiness of the human race.

In Hiding

In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras is a forgotten classic. It’s my favorite science fiction story from 1948. “In Hiding” is a gentle story about a child genius that was so different from all the other similar stories from back then using that theme. “In Hiding” was also included in The Future is Female! Shiras wrote four sequels to this story and made them into the fix-up novel Children of the Atom (Gnome Press, 1953). That novel is mostly forgotten today, but I liked it well enough to buy a first edition copy to keep. And I noticed the other day on a  Facebook science fiction book club. people were fondly discussing Children of the Atom, so maybe someone will reprint it soon. Many readers don’t know that Shiras was a woman, which makes two of the three great SF stories from 1948 by female writers. Shiras thought out the consequences of an emergent new species of human far more carefully than any of her male writers.

The Strange Case of John Kingman

The Strange Case of John Kingman” by Murray Leinster is a very good story but not great, at least not compared to the three above. It’s about an alien that looks mostly human being put away in a mental hospital. It’s still a very readable story but lacks an emotional punch. And I think that’s key for a story to become the kind of classic that is remembered for years and years.

Dreams are Sacred

Dreams Are Sacred” by Peter Phillips still works too, and it prefigures Roger Zelazny’s The Dream Master (“He Who Shapes”) which won the Nebula award in 1966. A writer is in a psychotic coma and his psychiatrist invents a way to send an observer into his patient’s dreams. This is still a cool idea today. Imagine Don Quixote in an Edgar Rice Burroughs nightmare being rescued G.I. Joe.

He Walked Around the Horses

I’m partial to “He Walked Around the Horses” by H. Beam Piper. Campbell and some of the Astounding readers back in the 1930s and 1940s were intrigued by the writings of Charles Fort who collected supposedly true unexplained mysteries. Most readers considered Fort a nutjob and crank. Piper took a real case of a missing person and wrote an epistolary narrative about the man being found in an alternative universe where Napolean didn’t start a war. Piper’s story is still very readable today but isn’t really science fiction, but falls in the sub-genre of alternate history. It probably inspired Piper to write his Paratime series. H. Beam Piper is one of the writers I’ve rediscovered this past year that I think deserves more attention.

Ex Machina intro

Ex Machina” by Lewis Padgett was probably mostly written by Henry Kuttner and not C. L. Moore. Husband and wife tag team writers regularly wrote under the byline, Lewis Padgett. Back in the 1970s, I ran across a copy of Robots Have No Tails which collected all the Gallegher stories and was enchanted by it, but nowadays I have a hard time enjoying Kuttner’s stories. I found “Ex Machina” rather long and tedious until I came to this paragraph:

The social trend always lags behind the technological one. And while technology tended, in these days, toward simplification, the social pattern was immensely complicated, since it was partly an outgrowth of historical precedent and partly a result of the scientific advance of the era. Take jurisprudence. Cockburn and Blackwood and a score of others had established certain general and specific rules—say, regarding patents—but those rules could be made thoroughly impractical by a single gadget. The Integrators could solve problems no human brain could manage, so, as a governor, it was necessary to build various controls into those semi-mechanical colloids. Moreover, an electronic duplicator could infringe not only on patents but on property rights, and attorneys prepared voluminous briefs on such questions as whether "rarity rights" are real property, whether a gadget made on a duplicator is a "representation" or a copy, and whether mass-duplication of chinchillas is unfair competition to a chinchilla breeder who depended on old-fashioned biological principles. All of which added up to the fact that the world, slightly punch-drunk with technology, was trying desperately to walk a straight line. Eventually, the confusion would settle down.

That’s exceedingly perceptive for 1948, and if you realize by integrators Kuttner meant computers and electronic duplicators he meant 3D printers, it’s still insightful for 2019. I dislike the Gallegher stories today because I’m impatient with the drunk inventor and because Kuttner withholds information from the reader for suspense. However, if I saw this story dramatized for Black Mirror or the new Twilight Zone it’s zaniness might reconstitute itself.

The Lottery

The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson originally appeared in The New Yorker and is one of the most famous short stories ever written. I wouldn’t think most readers would think of “The Lottery” as science fiction, but it made it onto three SF fan polls of favorite stories. It does fall in the realm of speculating about alternate societies that sociological science fiction likes to explore. Ursula K. Le Guin did a much more science fictional version of the theme with her story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

No Connection Isaac Asimov

No Connection” by Isaac Asimov doesn’t fit into his Robot or Foundation series. Without the illustration, I wonder how soon many readers would have figured out the main character was a bear? I guessed gorilla. It’s funny but in all these stories, all intelligent beings smoke, even the bears.

James Wallace Harris

Writers Aiming to Get Into Print are Aiming Too Low

 

Whatever-Counts-by-Frederik-Pohl-Galaxy-June-1959-edited

When writers sit down to write a short story they have several goals to accomplish. The first is to finish the first draft. Many would-be writers can do this much, but it involves many subgoals, like creating a hook, developing a plot, fleshing out characters, coming up with a satisfying ending, as well as technical goals of grammar, spelling, readability, and factuality.  The next step is to produce a polished draft. This is much harder because you want to give the story voice, style, and art. Then there’s the big hurdle of selling the story. To do that requires many sub-goals too. You have to find the right market that’s open and you have to impress the editors that the story is worth buying. Even if your story gets into print you still have many goals left depending on your ambition. A check might be all you want, or you might dream of writing a story that gets an award or anthologized. That means your goals while writing the story increase. And some writers have the goal of being remembered. They hope their stories will bring them a tiny sliver of immortality. To achieve that goal means thinking differently when starting the story.

In my review of the best short science fiction stories of 1959 I came across one story that hasn’t been well remembered but I thought was pretty darn good. It was “Whatever Counts” by Frederik Pohl in the June 1959 issue of Galaxy. (You can read it online if you follow the link.) My guess is Pohl’s primary goal was a paycheck, but I believe there’s internal evidence to suggest he was aiming much higher. However, I’m not sure how hard he worked at these higher goals. Back then science fiction writers had to crank out a steady stream of stories to pay the bills. I doubt Pohl was thinking much about winning a Hugo award or getting Judith Merril to anthologize his story. However, I feel “Whatever Counts” has several ideas that Pohl wanted to explore and spread. The question is, were those ideas innovative enough to still think about them sixty years later?

If your writing goal is just to get published then you can’t expect to achieve any of the higher goals. Most SF magazines are filled with stories that work, but few stand out. Average stories often make readers feel like they are wasting their reading time. I’ve talked to a lot of people about reading the SF magazines, and most feel lucky if they find one standout story in an issue.

Why do we still remember “All You Zombies—” and “Flowers for Algernon” from 1959 but not “Whatever Counts?” Both of those stories were made into movies, and they have been anthologized frequently over the years. Pohl did include “Whatever Counts” in his collection Abominable Earthman in 1963, but even that’s been forgotten. But then Pohl never had any classic collections like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles or Robert A. Heinlein’s The Green Hills of Earth. “Whatever Counts” wasn’t even included in The Best of Frederik Pohl. So why am I writing about it now?

Evidently, Gideon Marcus and I are among “Whatever Counts” few fans. We both felt it was an exceptional story for the June 1959 Galaxy. Why didn’t it achieve any of the greater successes for an SF short story? Can I make a case that it should be remembered? I’ve been thinking about that, and I have an analogy as to why we remember short stories. We remember those personal memories that were peak experiences. My theory is the best short fiction has to work like our peak experiences to be memorable.

I can recall just three memories from the first grade. I was still five when I started the first grade, and wouldn’t turn six for three months. One memory is walking to school for the first time on my own. I guess being new and scary made it memorable. I also remember being embarrassed when the teacher asked us if we knew our alphabet and I didn’t. Another memory-etching experience. And the last memory was of walking home one day and finding the doors locked. I couldn’t get in, and no one was home to let me in. I calmly went to sleep on the front porch but evidently, I was traumatized enough to record that memory.

In other words, we remember intense emotional experiences. Both “Flowers for Algernon” and “All You Zombies—” are emotionally charged. While “Whatever Counts” did have several moving scenes that I thought were vivid the story isn’t memorable. “Whatever Counts” opens with colonists in a spaceship floating in freefall trying to get a baby to burp. The baby is choking because it can’t easily spit up in weightlessness. The adults swing it to give it some gravity. This made me wonder if Fred Pohl’s wife had just had a child. But I also wondered if Pohl asked himself: Can babies survive space travel? “Whatever Counts” has a very realistic take on space travel for 1959. It was written before readers were familiar with seeing astronauts floating in freefall. While I read the story I realized Pohl did quite a lot of thinking about the real issues of space travel and first contact. The story is more than its plot.

In “Whatever Counts” fifty-eight humans arrive at a planet with an extinct civilization. They plan to start a colony in an abandoned alien city, but before they can set up base, they are captured by other aliens visiting the planet. The humans knew about the other aliens but didn’t expect them on this planet. They called them Gormen. There are enough ideas in this novelette to fill out a whole novel.

The story, once it gets down to business after an interesting setup unrelated to the plot, is about the mission psychologist, Howard Brabant, apparently aiding the enemy. The crew slowly comes to hate Brabant even though Brabant explains he’s trying to figure out how the Gormen think. Pohl is trying to get across the idea that humans are hindered by their conscious mind, something that is much talked about today, but not in 1959. Just read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Exploring how other intelligent creatures could think differently than humans is the main course of this story, and I believe Pohl did it well enough to make “Whatever Counts” worth reading today. However, he appears to digress in different directions, including one apparently gratuitous sex scene that was illustrated by Wally Wood. But even here, I’m guessing Pohl was trying to say something serious. Science fiction had a reputation of putting scantily clad women attacked by bug-eyed monsters on covers of its magazines. I think Pohl wanted to explore this meme realistically. And Pohl didn’t know in 1959 that soon UFO nuts would worry about little gray big-eyed aliens wanting to give humans medical exams.

Gormen-web

The “sex scene” is an unsettling situation for the characters, where the Gormen grab a female colonist and undress her in front of the other humans. Readers will find this scene distasteful wondering if Pohl is being gratuitous. To the human crew, they felt it was a sexual assault. But the psychologist knows it not. He knows the Gormen think of us as animals. (That made me wonder if animals think vets and researchers are sexually assaulting them at times.) One of the emotional impacts of the story is being helpless in the hands of a superior being. The Gormen treat humans like we do animals in a laboratory.

In a way, this relates to when Charlie Gordan in “Flowers for Algernon” realized he wasn’t smart and his “friends” were making him the butt of their jokes. Charlie realizes there are beings smarter than he, but later on when he becomes smarter than his “friends.” That’s two unique perspectives. As readers we see Charlie being dumber than us, but also smarter. Pohl is trying to convey how the Gormen are smarter than us.

I believe most people remember “Flowers for Algernon” because Charlies loses the intelligence he gained from the experiment. We fear that for ourselves. It hits us as highly tragic. But we don’t remember how Charlie felt being dumb among the smart people. That’s what Pohl was trying to do in “Whatever Counts.” We always assume that were just as good as any alien species, and will always find a way to beat them in a conflict. Pohl supports this belief, but for a while in his story, he was showing a way the Gormen were superior to us. The science fictional insight was Gormen didn’t know we had a subconscious mind that could think as fast as they did. That was an interesting insight for Pohl to have in 1959. Pohl should get more credit for his theory in a sixty-year-old science fiction story.

We have to give Pohl other credit for this story too. In a time when most science fiction writers had their characters cruising around the galaxy traveling faster-than-light from planet to planet taking as much travel time as we jet from city to city on Earth, Pohl had his colonist traveling at half the speed of light taking seven years to get to their destination. Most SF writers back then ignored weightlessness, but Pohl dealt with it. He also included women, smart women, but he didn’t have the foresight to give them equality of jobs. They weren’t crew, but passengers.

We remember “All You Zombies—” because every character is the same person. Heinlein used time travel to cleverly explain how it could happen. We remember “Flowers for Algernon” because a low IQ person gets transformed into a high IQ person. In each story, the gimmick is well plotted out as a series of emotional experiences of the main character. Ultimately, we remember the Heinlein story for its plotting dazzle, but we remember the Keyes story because it made us cry. Pohl leaves us with a few ideas to contemplate but his plot is patchy, and the emotional experiences aren’t focused. Most readers will remember Charlie Gordon, but not Howard Brabant.

How could Pohl have improved his story? First, he goes through three digressions before getting down to the main plot, including one on how people smoke in space. Second, he hides Brabant’s intention from the other characters and readers. This does make Brabant feel like he’s a toady for the Gormen, and I’m not sure readers like that. Being revealed as a hero at the last moment isn’t that redeeming for Brabant.

The setup of “Whatever Counts” is similar to the 1955 noir classic The Desperate Hours where a family is imprisoned in their home by three escaped convicts. The humans were imprisoned by the Gormen. The story should have begun right away by letting us readers know the plot is about escaping. Whether or not we think Brabant is a traitor is another issue. It worked well with the William Holden character in the 1953 film Stalag 17, but having such a dual plot is harder to finesse.

I wonder if Pohl started out thinking “Whatever Counts” could be a novel because of his various digressions. I got to spend a few hours with Pohl back in the 1970s, and I wish I had known then what I know now so I could have asked him. I checked Pohl’s memoir, The Way the Future Was but couldn’t find anything on this story, although Pohl said he got paid 4 cents a word from Galaxy in the 1950s. Those digressions meant more dollars in his paycheck.

Even though I really like “Whatever Counts” I think it’s seriously flawed and Pohl only had the goal of paying the bills in writing it. Which is a shame, because it could have been so much better. I think this story shows that ideas are great in science fiction stories, but storytelling counts even more in the long run. “Whatever Counts” had enough compelling enough ideas to make it the standout story of the June 1959 issue of Galaxy, but the structure of the story kept it from being memorable over time. Judith Merril didn’t even give “Whatever Counts” an honorable mention that year in her best-of-the-year anthology in 1960, and it’s never been anthologized in a retrospective anthology.

Whatever Counts illustrated by Wally Wood Galaxy June 1959 2

Thinking about this story has made me think about the writing of short stories in general. It’s depressing to read so many blah stories in the new issues of my favorite SF magazines. I now see the reason why. The goal of getting into print is aiming too low. Pohl was also an editor and agent, so he knew story construction. My guess is he knew “Whatever Counts” to be good enough to stand out as a better story in a magazine, and not much more. The check on acceptance outweighed anything he might have gotten in the future.

That’s too bad. Looking at Pohl’s long list of publications shows that most of them aren’t remembered today. If he had written far fewer with more ambitious things would have been different. Gateway, his 1977 novel is well remembered. I think I need to go study it. Oddly, its main character was named Broadhead, which is somewhat like Brabant.

James Wallace Harris, May 10, 2019