I love when I discover a short story that pushes all my buttons. I regret that I didn’t discover such wonderful tales when they were first published, but I do have the consolation as an old jaded reader of finding a story that still thrills me. “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” by Gene Wolfe is one such story that I just read. It’s about a boy, Tackman Babcock, who survives a troubled “family life” by reading science fiction. Since I survived my bumpy upbringing by reading science fiction, I immediately bonded with Tackie.
I know, it has a confusing title. I’ve seen it collected in anthologies for years, and it always sounds like a collection of short stories by the author. When Gene Wolfe created his first short story collection the title became The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, as you can see above in the first edition, a 1980 paperback from Pocket Books. The 1997 edition is still available from Amazon. The original story, “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” was first published in Orbit 7 (1970) edited by Damon Knight has been reprinted many times, so you might already own a copy. However, if you just want to quickly enjoy the story right now, it’s available online for free as an audio podcast from PodCastle, episode 171. Just click and take forty-five minutes to hear the story, it has wonderful narration.
Maybe now you’ll understand the confusing title, but you’re probably wondering what book Tackie was reading? If you’d like to read speculation about possible books read the entry for this story at a wiki devoted to Gene Wolfe. I tend to think Wolfe was trying to capture the feel of many novels, stories, and famous characters so readers would imagine the ones they have read. I definitely thought of The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells, but I also thought of famous pulp stories, horror films, and cliff-hanging serials.
Wait, you didn’t go listen to the story? Or read it? Or remember reading it, and now you’re confused?
Tackie Babcock lives with his drug addicted mother in an old resort hotel. He isn’t supervised or well cared for, but his mother’s predatory boyfriend Jason, and a couple of aunts (May and Julie) keep an indifferent eye on him. We learn about Tackie’s inner life when Jason steals a paperback book that Tackie asked him to buy. The book has a lurid cover of a muscle bound man in rags battling a horrible half ape-half human creature. For the rest of the story, reality is interrupted by flashes from this novel. Captain Phillip Ransom adrift at sea for nine days arrives at a mysterious island and his captured by the mad Dr. Death, and his experimental creations. Eventually, we learn about other characters from Tackie’s real and imaginary world, including a beautiful native girl, Talar of the Long Eyes that Cpt. Ransom rescues from a fate worse than death. As the story progresses fiction and reality mix, so do who is good and who is bad.
If that doesn’t get you hooked, I don’t know what will. My parents were alcoholics, and we moved around a lot. From the time I started reading science fiction in the 5th grade until graduating, I attended nine different schools in three states. I forgot how many houses I lived in during that period, and I forgot how many times my parents split up. I’ve also forgotten how many drunken parental brawls I had to watch and hear, or how many times I was chauffeured around by drunk drivers. I survived all of that, and remember them as good times because I read science fiction. Without science fiction I’m not sure I would have had a happy childhood. I felt like Robert A. Heinlein was my father figure, Samuel R. Delany was my big brother, and Robert Sheckley was my crazy uncle.
I completely identified with Tackie Babcock. I wish I had read his story in 1970, but I’m thankful I finally found it in 2021.
James Wallace Harris, 3/5/21
p.s. Many of Gene Wolfe’s books including this one are available through Scribd.com, a subscription library. I mention it because I hope Scribd gets enough subscribers to survive. Think of it as Netflix for ebooks and audiobooks.
Raymond F. Jones has now hit two homers for me this week, with “The Colonists” flying out of the park. I was quite impressed with “The Memory of Mars” which I wrote about recently but I can’t decide if it’s a 4-star or 5-star story. I’d definitely give “The Colonists” a full 5-stars. The story is sophisticated in plot and science fictional speculation and is quite dramatic. I can’t understand why it isn’t a more famous science fiction story. Why didn’t Bleiler and Dikty or Asimov and Greenberg anthologize these stories in their best of the year annuals? Why haven’t they been anthologized is some of the big retrospective anthologies?
I don’t want to say much about the story because I don’t want to spoil its surprises. The story examines the psychology of colonists immigrating to another world. Why would anyone give up everything on Earth to go live so far away? For a 1954 science fiction story, it considers the reality of space travel far more realistically than most of its peers.
Maybe this story impressed me because as a teenager I would have given anything to become a colonist on Mars. The idea of building a completely new society on the red planet was the most creative endeavor I could imagine for mankind. However, Jones suggests that most colonists in history were running away from something, and I have to admit that would have been true of my adolescent self.
I was also impressed with the complicated plotting in “The Colonists.” Jones does a great job, and I think this story would make an excellent film. It’s a novelette, and one hour and thirty-five minutes on audio, making it film length.
I wonder why Raymond F. Jones never made it big in the genre, or why he’s a mostly a forgotten SF writer? He gets a small write-up in Wikipedia that shows he was a prolific short story writer, but he did produce at least a dozen novels. I’m now anxious to read more of his work. I bought RAYMOND F. JONES RESURRECTED: SELECTED SCIENCE FICTION STORIES OF RAYMOND F. JONES after reading “The Memory of Mars.” (Kindle for $3.99 or paperback for $15.99)
ISFDB reveals I also need to track down two of his out-of-print collections, The Toymaker (1951), that collects stories from the 1940s, and The Non-Statistical Man (1964), that gathers stories from the 1950s. I have no idea if I’ll like those stories as much as the two I read this week.
I do remember discovering Raymond F. Jones before, back in the 1960s when I was a young teenager reading all the Heinlein and Winston Science Fiction novels marketed for juveniles. Heinlein was tops, but Jones made a very good impression. I reread Son of the Stars and The Year When Stardust Fell last year. They were both fun, but not great. They didn’t jump out at me like “The Memory of Mars” and “The Colonists” did this week. I have no understanding of my critical judgement. Did I get excited about these stories because they’re actually good, the kind of good that other readers would recognize too, or was I just in the right mood for them at this moment in my life?
Our Facebook group is scheduled to read The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition edited by Judith Merril in February and March. This presents a kind of scavenger hunt to find the stories because most of the members do not have a copy of this 1960 book. Probably out of the 400 members only a handful have a copy. Luckily we have ISFDB.org to tell us where these stories from 1959 and 1960 were originally published and reprinted (click on title).
It annoys me that Merril didn’t stay within the 1959 boundary and included four stories from 1960. That makes it hard to compare this best-of-the-year anthology against others – although in 1959-1960 Merril was the sole contemporary annual anthologist. But in 1990 Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg revisited 1959 in their anthology The Great SF Stories 21 (1959), which included these stories (I’ve bolded stories that Merril also picked):
I can’t believe Asimov and Greenberg left out “Flowers for Algernon.” In the 1960 volume Asimov and Green also chose Merril’s picks “Mariana” by Fritz Leiber and “The Handler” by Damon Knight. That means nine Merril stories overlap with Asimov/Greenberg out of nineteen in her 5th annual edition.
Both anthologies missed “All You Zombies—” but then Heinlein is notoriously absent in a lot of anthologies. I assume it was too expensive to reprint his stories.
The 1960 Hugo Award nominations for short fiction from 1959 were:
“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes [F&SF Apr 1959] – winner
“The Alley Man” by Philip José Farmer [F&SF Jun 1959]
“The Pi Man” by Alfred Bester [F&SF Oct 1959]
“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon [F&SF Oct 1959]
“Cat and Mouse” by Ralph Williams [Astounding Jun 1959]
None of Merril’s 1960 stories were nominated for the Hugo, but Poul Anderson’s “The Longest Voyage” from 1960 was the winner in 1961. “Flowers for Algernon,” “All You Zombies—,” “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” and “The Pi Man” were in the The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Ninth Series for 1959 stories, and it should be considered another good source of 1959 SF short stories.
I love a gripping story that makes me anxious to find out what happens next. As soon as I started listening to “The Memory of Mars” by Raymond F. Jones I knew I was hooked. Mel Hastings, a reporter, is waiting to hear about his wife’s operation. But what was troubling him was what his wife Alice said before going into surgery: “As soon as I’m well again we’ll go to Mars for a vacation again, and then you’ll remember. It’s so beautiful there. We had so much fun—”
Mel Hastings knew they had never been to Mars. Mel’s mystery became my mystery, and I knew this story was going to be a ripping good yarn. But I also thought the story sounded like the beginning of “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick, a much more famous science fiction story from 1966, and known today by the title of the two movies that were based on it, Total Recall.
The mystery deepens when the surgeon tells Mel his wife has died and that she wasn’t human. Her internal organs were all different. Because Mel is a reporter he starts investigating his wife and was able to prove she was human until very recently with other medical records. Then he finds photos of Alice on Mars and souvenirs from a Martian vacation. Now, doesn’t that remind you of the PKD story? But it gets even more like “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”
Mel decides he must go to Mars to find out what happens but he has a deep phobia against space travel. He then goes to a medical specialist to erase that phobia and they discover Mel had gone on vacation to Mars with Alice. Now this is getting eerily like the PKD story. Could Dick have been inspired by “The Memory of Mars” to write his tale?
Mel Hastings has quite an adventure solving these mysteries with even more similarities to the PKD story. But I hope you’ll read “The Memory of Mars” to find out what happens.
I love finding old SF stories that are forgotten but still deserve to be read. “The Memory of Mars” was never reprinted in an anthology, and in only in one collection of stories by Raymond F. Jones mention above. You can see its reprint history here.
Raymond F. Jones had marginal success as a SF writer back in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. His biggest claim to fame was the film This Island Earth based off his fix-up novel of the same title. I became acquainted with his work as a kid reading his young adult novels for the Winston Science Fiction series (Son of the Stars, Planet of Light, The Year When Stardust Fell). I definitely need to read more of his work.
Besides all the anthologies pictured above I read parts of several other anthologies, many short stories from old and new magazines, and many stories off the internet. But this is nothing compared to what professional editors and anthologists read each year.
This experience has transformed the way I perceive and understand short fiction. There seems to be endless ways to construct a short story and just as many ways to give voice to the narrator(s). And although there seems to be a finite number of themes that science fiction explores there seems to be infinite ways of expressing them.
I’m in a short story reading group on Facebook with over three hundred members, and there is no consistent reaction to stories. One reader can claim a story changed their life while another reader will tell us the story is unreadable. Are stories completely subjective, or do some achieve some kind of artistic objectiveness?
All my short story reading has inspired a number of wishes. I know, I’m always wishing for something. Even if I can’t have my wishes come true, I do love formulating them carefully.
I wish I could remember my favorite stories. After reading over 400 stories this year, and a 1,000 in the past three years wouldn’t it be great if I could tell you which ones I loved best? I can’t. All following wishes stem from this first wish.
I wish I had the discipline of keeping a log of everything I read with comments and annotations. It would be an external memory. I know a number of people who do this and it really seems to pays off. However, such effort does require more discipline than I can muster. Can you imagine logging and summarizing 1,000 stories?
I wish I could assemble my own anthologies of favorite stories if I can’t remember them or keep track of them. Unloved stories really aren’t worth remembering, are they? I’ve thought of photocopying my favorite stories and keeping them in a binder, folder, or box. That way I could could reread them easily, or sort them into different orderings – by themes, chronologies, or types. I also imagine myself scanning stories and saving them in CBR/PDF/Kindle collections, but I believe I would prefer holding physical copies.
I wish I could read and write about stories in such a way that I get more out of them. I believe one reading only gets me 20-25% of what the author intended. Multiple readings and writing essays gets me more of what’s there. I doubt I’ll ever achieve 100% reading efficiency, but I could become more proficient than I am now.
I hope I don’t burn out on reading short stories. I’m developing a tolerance, and that worries me. While some good stories are even more dazzling as I learn how to read better, other stories seem even more trivial. And there is a growing middle ground. Stories that are good, but not quite really good. My enjoyment might improve if I put some effort into discovery their hidden qualities. Do I spend more time with such stories, or search for newer stories that are immediately dazzling? There is a downside to constantly seeking more powerful fixes, I burn out churning through mediocre reading.
There is a dynamic to growing old that I’m becoming all too aware. That’s becoming jaded. There’s a wonderful essay I read in the The Guardian this morning, “The joys of being an absolute beginner – for life” that applies to what I’m saying here. It’s about maintaining the mind of being young when learning something new and then maintaining that attitude as you get old. That’s hard to do when you’re body is wearing out, and it’s also hard to do when you’ve done something a zillion times. But what’s the alternative if I give up trying?
Not only must I work on my wishes, but I must also work on the advice of this article.
Why would a grown man write a short story for an adult science fiction magazine about toy people on a boy’s model railroad layout becoming alive and having their own thoughts? It’s one thing for Disney to create the Toy Story series for children that adults enjoy, but it’s really another thing to ask grownups to let’s pretend about toys having conscious minds. Or is it? Wasn’t The Twilight Zone in 1961 doing the same thing in its classic episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” about conscience toys hoping to escape an existential fate? And let’s not forget The Nutcracker or Babes in Toyland. The idea of toys having a secret life has been around a long time. Well, at least as long as kids have been playing let’s pretend, but why has the same theme survived for grownups in stories, novels, plays, operas, and ballets?
Chad Oliver, was an anthropologist who wrote “Transformer” for the November, 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a periodical that prided itself on having sophisticated adult readers. (Online copy here.) I read “Transformer” last night in The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg that was published in 1987. The story was reprinted again for Sci Fiction in 2005 (archived to read online). You can also listen an audio version at Radio Echos online. Finally, you can buy the Kindle edition of Far From This Earth: The Collection Short Stories of Chad Oliver Volume Two for $1.99 to get it and many other Chad Oliver short stories.
Chad Oliver is another dead science fiction writer whose work is slowly fading away. He barely gets a write-up in Wikipedia. A fair number of his books are still in print for the Kindle and most are only a $1.99. My only previous experience reading Oliver was his Mists of Dawn (1952) as a kid back in the middle 1960s, a title from the wonderful Winston Science Fiction series for young adults. I reread Mists of Dawn recently when I was fondly remembering those books.
“Transformer” is a strange little story. Isaac Asimov and Marty Greenberg didn’t want to use it for their anthology of science fiction stories because they didn’t consider it science fiction, but the story got to both of them so much that they had to include it. In my younger days I would have dismissed this story as fantasy because of my prejudice against fantasy fiction, but in my old age I’m more accepting of up front make believing. (That reminds me of a Bob Dylan line, “I’m younger than that now.”)
In “Transformer” an old woman is talking to a person named Clyde, but right at the beginning she also addresses us readers while talking to Clyde:
You might stick around for a minute and listen, you see—things might get interesting.
One more thing we might as well clear up while we're at it. I can hear you thinking, with that sophisticated mind of yours: "Who's she supposed to be telling the story to? That's the trouble with all these first-person narratives." Well, Clyde, that's a dumb question, if you ask me. Do you worry about where the music comes from when Pinza sings in a lifeboat? I feel sorry for you, I really do. I'll tell you the secret: the music comes from a studio orchestra that's hidden in the worm can just to the left of the Nazi spy. You follow me? The plain, unvarnished truth is that I get restless when the town's turned off for a long time. I can't sleep. I'm talking to myself. I'm bored stiff, and so would you be if you had to live here for your whole life. But I know you're there, Clyde, or this wouldn't be getting through to you. Don't worry about it, though.
This is strictly for kicks.
This is Chad Oliver way of saying he knows we’re adults and gives us a wink-wink. Knowing he’s an anthropologist makes me wonder if this story has some kind of subtext about primitive minds, but I don’t think so. I think Oliver is choosing to be an adult and saying, “Let’s pretend.” However, his story of ELM POINT, a crummy toy town on a cheap model train layout in Willy Roberts’ attic is neither fun nor playful, it’s more like an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare.
Here’s the thing, we adults, we grown-ups, we mature intellectual beings, play let’s pretend all the time. Just before I read “Transformer” I finished up watching Bridgerton on Netflix, an 8-part miniseries where adult viewers pretend Jane Austen wrote a story with sex and nudity. Our make believe train set town is a film recreation of Regency England, a favorite fantasyland for romance aficionados. That recreation is no more accurate to reality than Willy’s train layout on an old piece of plywood. But we still have fun, don’t we?
In other words, most adults never stop playing let’s pretend either. We just stop needing the toys to jump start our fantasies. That reminds of a Philip K. Dick novel, The Three Stigmatas of Palmer Eldritch, where colonists on Mars shift their let’s pretend from using Perky Pat dolls and layouts to enhance their hallucinations on the drug Can-D, to then use the new drug Chew-Z that doesn’t require toys to shape the hallucinations. I must reconsider what Dick’s novel is saying in regards to what I’ve learned from this Chad Oliver’s story.
Chad Oliver is asking us about our fantasy life being transformed.
Willy Roberts surveyed his model railroad without pleasure. He could remember the time when it had given him a real hoot, but after all he was thirteen years old now. He felt slightly ashamed that he should want to mess with it at all, but it was better than getting kicked around in football by all the big guys in the neighborhood. And Sally had said she was going to the show with Dave Toney, damn her.
I remember getting two train sets for Christmas in 1959, when I was eight. I loved those toy trains, but they were quickly forgotten by the time I was nine. It’s hard to believe Willy is still playing with his at thirteen, but then I watch YouTube videos about guys my age spending fortunes on their elaborate model train layouts.
At what age are we supposed to give up playing let’s pretend? How many people ever do?
I’ll let you read most of “Transformer” for yourself if you want to. This 1954 story reminds me so much of when I was a kid in the 1950s. But Chad Oliver also reminds us that there’s a troublesome side to reality that always intrudes on our pretending. ELM POINT if fake, and poorly made. It has rubber trees and cellophane rivers. Our narrator tells us:
It isn't much of a life, to my way of thinking. You do the best you can, and get up whenever some dumb kid hits a button, and then you get tossed in the wastebasket. It seems sort of pointless.
And later on says:
I don't want you to get the idea that I'm just a sour old woman, Clyde, a kind of juvenile delinquent with arthritis. I'm not, really. You know, a long time ago, when Willy was younger, even ELM POINT wasn't so bad.
I'll tell you, though—it's funny. Sometimes, a long time ago, I'd go and sit down by that silly cellophane river and I'd almost get to where I liked it here.
Our narrator and the other denizens of ELM POINT decide to rebel against the tyranny of Willy Roberts, but things don’t go according to plan. After the failed coup Willy decides to sell off his train, layout, and toy citizens. Our narrator ends up in the house of another boy for his train set, but things aren’t as good.
That's right. ELM POINT looks like Utopia from where I'm sitting. Mark Borden, the one that bought me, can't afford a real model railroad set-up, and his house doesn't even have an attic. So about once a week he takes us all out of his dirty closet, sets up his lousy circle of track, and starts up his wheezing four-car freight train. It isn't even a scale model. Big deal.
Things are relative in both reality and our make believe worlds. We hope for better times, and sometimes remember the bad times weren’t that bad after all. We all play let’s pretend when we watch TV or read novels or even just kick back in our La-Z-Boys and fantasize. Could Chad Oliver be asking us to compare our lives to living in a badly constructed model railroad layout?
I’m also reading a nonfiction book, Evil Geniuses by Kurt Andersen that’s about how our political economy was shaped by the fantasies of rich Milton Friedman worshipping libertarians over the last fifty years. I’m also reading The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, a science fiction fantasy about the politics of the future after climate change starts killing people by the millions. Both books are deadly serious and ask us to stop playing let’s pretend and do something. But we don’t, do we? Why is playing let’s pretend so overwhelmingly alluring to us?
Am I reading too much into “Transformer?” Did you find something else? The story is haunting even though it’s a simply little fun tale for F&SF. More and more, I’m spending my let’s pretend time by reading old issues of F&SF. What does it say when I knowingly choose a cheap model railroad layout over reality?
Maybe the anthropologist in Chad Oliver is saying something in his story. Maybe it’s a neat little message in a bottle thrown on the ocean of fantasies.
Mark R. Kelly has come out with a new ranked list of well remembered science fiction short stories. You can view it here. I like to use the word remembered because some people get bent out of shape when seeing list titles with words like classics, great, best, in them. All of us who are in the business of creating lists try to come up with quantitative ways of recognizing which stories are remembered most, and that kind of implies the results are among the best or classics. Ultimately, it’s tracking reader memory. Kelly has an interesting system.
I love all these lists because I love reading old science fiction short stories. I thought I’d compare several just for the fun of it, and help remind people there are lists out there that help find old science fiction short stories to read. By the way, January is Vintage Science Fiction Not-a-Challenge month accord to the Little Red Reviewer blog, and reading short stories count. If you read and review old SF you might post links to their site.
Kelly has a nice feature for his list, a photo of a recent anthology and a link to Amazon where you can buy that anthology. See our “The SF Anthology Problem — Solved” essay for which anthologies have the most remembered stories.
Click on the heading link to see each site’s full list of stories.
“Gossamer” by Stephen Baxter is about two women astronauts being marooned on Pluto. Back in 1964 I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel and my pre-adolescent self was thrilled by Kip’s adventures on Pluto. I desperately wanted to grow up and have such experiences too. Now, in 2020 at age 69, the thought of being an astronaut on Pluto seems bonkers. I didn’t really enjoy reading “Gossamer” even though it was a perfectly fine story. However, what’s weird, is I could reread Have Space Suit-Will Travel and thoroughly enjoy pretending to be Kip on Pluto again.
The younger unscientific me wanted science fiction to be real. The older scientific me and wants science fiction to be realistic. Do you grok the distinction? In 1964 I wanted my world to be science fictional. In 2020, I want my science fiction to be worldly. I’ve gotten half my wish, because the world has become very science fictional. However, science fiction has become more fantastic, more unbelievable, even the kind that claims to be based on hard science.
Our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction is discussing “Gossamer” because we’re reading through The Year’s Best SF 1 (1996) edited by David G. Hartwell. Hartwell also included “Gossamer” in his 2002 anthology The Hard SF Renaissance. He introduces the story in the The Year’s Best SF with:
Stephen Baxter writes in the hard science mode of Hal Clement and Robert L. Forward. This kind of SF is particularly valued by hard SF readers because it is comparatively scarce and requires intense effort by the writer to be accurate to known science. It produces innovative imagery that is peculiar to hard SF; that sparks that good old wow of wonderment. His novels began to appear in 1991 (Raft); the 1995 novel, The Time Ships, is his sequel, published 100 years later, to H.G. Wells's 1895 The Time Machine. Baxter's “Gossamer” appeared in Science Fiction Age, the most successful new SF magazine of the 1990s. His visions based on science are astonishingly precise and clear and that is what his fiction offers as foreground for our entertainment.
In his introduction to “Gossamer” in The Hard SF Renaissance, Hartwell quotes an interview with Baxter from Locus Magazine:
Looking back, things do change, in terms of influences. When I was young, I was influenced by the greats of the past, Wells and Clarke. When I was kind of cutting my teeth, writing a lot of stories and finally selling stories in the eighties, it was the people who were around at the time, the dominant figures: Benford and Bear in hard SF And now, my contemporaries, roughly: Paul McAuley, Peter Hamilton, Greg Egan. And I’ve met everybody else who s still alive, probably—not Egan, but Clarke and Benford, and Bear I’ve become quite friendly with.
With people like Bear and Benford, McAuley and Robinson, who are working off the same material as I’m working from—the new understanding of the planets, and so forth, the new understanding of cosmology (which is maybe more philosophy than science, because it’s untestable), we’re all coming from the same place. And you do have this dialogue, really, a conversation.
Even though “Gossamer” is from a quarter-century ago, I consider it and Baxter, Bear, Benford, McAuley, Robinson – all the New Space Opera and British Space Opera authors part of a new movement of Hard SF. They’ve yet to become old since I don’t know of a newer movement that has replaced them yet.
The trouble is I don’t find their hard science fiction particularly hard. It’s more Super-Science Fantasy for me. For example, in “Gossamer” people scoot around the solar system via a subway system of wormholes. Yes, mathematicians have thrown out theories about wormholes, but I remember from an episode of Nova, them saying that to open a 1-meter wormhole for 1-second would require the energy of converting the mass of Jupiter into energy.
I believe we’re talking the practicality of counting angels on pinheads. Science fiction writers have latched onto space drives, warp drives, wormholes, and banter them about with a bit of physics mumbo-jumbo and expect us to believe it’s hard science. Come on, this is no more believable than portals in C. S. Lewis fantasies. There are other theoretical interstellar propulsion systems that science fiction writers use — light-sails, ramjets, anti-matter, etc. that are a little more believable, but only if we’re very damn lucky, and a zillion technical issues don’t get in the way, which I expect they will.
As of now, I’m skeptical of any story where the characters go anywhere near a fraction of lightspeed. And I consider any story with FTL as science fantasy. Star Trek and Star Wars are in the same category as The Lord of the Rings to my adult mind. And I don’t think I’m alone. I think there’s a paradigm shift in science fiction by some writers and readers to disavow interstellar travel. My younger self loved galactic empires but my older self has become an atheist to those faiths.
If I had read “Gossamer” as a teenager I would have embraced it thoroughly. But at 69, I’m just not drinking the Kool-Aid. Actually, my Sense of Wonder has switched to Sense of Nostalgia. I delight in old science fiction that was never scientific, but I now admire it for what science fiction once meant to me. I guess it’s easier to find pleasure in old hopes, than finding new hopes in old age.
But It’s Just a Fun Story
I believe there are two kinds of science fiction. 99% of science fiction stories are just for fun. You get your characters into a fix and then get them out. The reader is amused. If such tales need wormholes and space warps to create exciting make-believe adventures, far-out. And that’s cool. And if Baxter intended “Gossamer” to fall into this group, then it’s a fun story.
However, there is that 1% of science fiction where I believe the science fiction writer is speculating about real possibilities, and I can’t help but believe any writer or story that claims to be Hard SF is not in this 1% group. These are the stories I read growing up in the 1960s that imagined technologies and explorations that I expected might come true in my lifetime. Apollo 11 validated such stories. As a kid I believed science fiction promoted interplanetary travel. I also believe we had a real space program because older generations had grown up reading science fiction and wanted to make it true.
The difference between then and now is I used to believe we’d also invent interstellar travel. Growing up has made me doubt that. Growing up has made me doubt a lot of science fictional ideas. I can forgive old science fiction for their hopes, but I’m just ultra-skeptical about the hopes of current science fiction. I keep wondering when will science fiction grow up.
If Baxter is suggesting that leaping around the solar system via wormhole stations will come true in future generations then I just don’t buy it as a story, especially as hard SF. Does that make sense to you? I’m not picking on the story, I’m picking on the science fiction speculation. I guess I’ve just got too old for Santa Claus Science Fiction.
Other Logical Problems
Even if we ignore the wormholes, I have other problems with “Gossamer.” In the story, two women, Cobh and Lvov, crash onto Pluto after unexpectedly traveling too fast in a wormhole. Cobh assures Lvov they will be safe but will have to wait 20 days in their spacesuits to be rescued. That hit me harder than the wormhole as being completely unbelievable. There’s scientific realism, but there’s also practical realism too.
Now this is picking on the story. There just isn’t any explanations for how they could live in their spacesuits for so long. How do they go to the bathroom? How do they eat and drink? How many tons of supplies must they carry around to keep those suits going? Where is the fuel for their scooters? Once the two woman are on Pluto they have no logistical problems, or even any problems with the cryogenic cold. That’s too unworldly for me.
Also, they’re on a scientific mission to study Pluto’s atmosphere. All their work could have been done by robots. If their society can create wormholes, I imagine their robots must be pretty damn spectacular. The worldly way would not involve human exploration of extreme environments.
But there’s one last piece of logic that bugs me. I can’t believe people would really want to visit Pluto in person. It’s like wanting to lounge in a tank of liquid nitrogen wearing a spacesuit. Sure, Baxter speculates they might find life there, but there’s nothing there but extreme cold, gases in cryogenic liquid form, and rocks. My worldliness tells me once people realize what space travel really means, we’re not going to have that many volunteers. In the next few decades as we go back to the Moon and on to Mars, I believe a new reality will be revealed and romantic science fictional notions about space travel will disappear.
When I was young going into space seem so fantastic, but now that I’m older the reality is most of the solar system is bathed in horrible radiations and lethal temperatures. Even Mars, my favorite planet, would be a horrible vacation destination. Oh, there will always be masochistic thrill-seeking explorers, but the practically of indulging such adventures will wane.
When I was young, exploring outer space seemed so romantic, adventuresome, and exotic. I thought the best possible thing to do in life would be to leave Earth. Now, that seems so damn crazy. Everything that’s wonderful and beautiful is on Earth. Maybe getting closer to death has made me wise to the reality of science fiction. Now the beauty of science fiction is remembering what it was like to be young and having those wild crazy dreams.
Spoiler Warning: This is not a review, but thoughts for my short story discussion group. We’re discussing The Year’s Best SF 1 edited by David Hartwell, which is currently just 99 cents at Amazon for the Kindle edition. “Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly is the first story in the anthology, originally appearing in Asimov’s Science Fiction (June 1995). It won a Hugo for Best Novelette in 1996. If you haven’t read “Think Like a Dinosaur,” go find a copy and read it before reading my comments. It’s a wonderful story with plot elements you don’t want spoiled.
It’s hard not to think of “Think Like a Dinosaur” as a retelling of “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. The plots are the same – nice girl must be spaced by nice guy because story logic dictates there is no other solution in the story’s reality. “The Cold Equations” is one of the most famous science fiction short stories in the genre. [You can read “The Cold Equations” online at Lightspeed Magazine.] Readers still argue for ways to save Marilyn even though the whole intent of writing the story is to kill her. Godwin’s point is the universe follows laws indifferent to human emotions and sometimes we just can’t save the girl. Kelly uses the same cold equations to kill Kamala. Instead of calling the logic the cold equations, Kelly calls it thinking like a dinosaur. Now this is not an insult to cold blooded reptiles. In the story, aliens that look like descendents from dinosaur type creatures offer to give Earth interstellar matter transmitter technology if they’re convinced humans can live up to the required rules of using it. They are called dinos in the story, and it’s implied they are far wiser than humans.
The main rule say the dinos is no duplicates. As soon as someone is transmitted to another stellar system the original must be destroyed. There’s a hint that the universe will balk at duplicates, but I didn’t find that clear. It might just be an arbitrary rule by the dinos. Maybe they’ve learned from experience that having multiples of the same being running around causes too much trouble. But this is the rule the dinos insist on for Earth to join the intergalactic community. By the way I’m reminded of Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. It too applies the cold equations to matter transmitted travelers that seem to reinforce the dinos thinking.
Matter transmitters are rarely the subject of science fiction. The most famous use of them is Star Trek, where I always assumed travelers were disassembled and then reassembled using the same atoms. If you read the article on Teleportation at Wikipedia, that method is called beaming. There is another method called Quantum teleportation, which is the kind used in “Think Like a Dinosaur” and Rogue Moon. In that method, the subject is scanned and reproduced with atomic particles at the receiving site. This means two copies exist after the transmission.
The premise of “Think Like a Dinosaur” is the universe demands we eliminate one copy. Now you can argue with the logic of this, but for James Patrick Kelley’s story, it’s a required truth. And we need it to be true so Michael must kill Kamala, in the same way Barton must kill Marilyn. I’m amused by those readers who trying to find a way out of this problem within the story, or demand that the story should have been different.
Why are such stories created? It’s a horrible premise that disturbs some readers. Do these stories feed some kind of kink in some readers who secretly get off on killing young women? I doubt it. I believe cold equation stories are a tiny subgenre of science fiction where the writer sets up a situation that illustrates being forced to make an extreme decision. Lot in “Lot” by Ward Moore abandons his wife and sons to save his daughter and himself when he realizes not everyone in his family has the instinct to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Lot knew his wife and boys could never let go over the old world, and thus wouldn’t make it in the new one. If you pay attention, you can spot other cold equation stories.
Of course, the real purpose of these stories is for the reader to put themselves in the situation and ask what would they do. Would you put Marilyn or Kamala in the air lock and punch the button that opens the outside door?
There is a TV version of “Think Like a Dinosaur” produced for the 1995 remake of The Outer Limits that perfectly illustrates how the writers and producers of that show couldn’t think like a dinosaur. That botched the ending by forcing additional motivations onto Michael. They also showed him being crushed by his decision. Either they didn’t understand the story, or they didn’t think television viewers could handle it.
I don’t know if Tom Godwin or James Patrick Kelly were offering lessons about reality, or just creating stories with tricked up plots. Robert A. Heinlein always wanted his readers to understand that exploring the galaxy would take guts, with explorers needing to make the tough choices that the universe requires in its cold equations.
On the other hand, I don’t think we’ll ever have matter transmitter technology that can send people, or even large inorganic objects. Like most readers who complain about “The Cold Equations” have shown, the situation where Marilyn could have stowed away should never have been possible. They wail at the unbelievability of the premise. As a person who has often moaned and groaned about unscientific and illogical science fiction I can understand these attacks. However, sometimes you just have to let a story be a story.
There are stories where duplicates do happen and the stories reveal the problems of having duplicates. But I can’t remember any of them. If you do, please leave a comment.
You can read "Death of a Spaceman" by Walter M. Miller, Jr. online at Project Gutenberg or listen to a rather good audio production at YouTube by NewThinkable.
When we love a story, do we love the words, or love what the words point to? With fiction, we’re drawn into some stories and repelled by others. What makes us care for a story? What aspects of the story resonate with our sense of self. (I wanted to say soul, but that’s too overblown, something a teenager would say. What part of the mind/body responds to art?) Most people never go beyond I love it or I hate when reacting to a story. But what is it about a story that we love or hate, what is it that we’re responding to and what is responding?
Joachim Boaz over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations got me to read “Death of a Spaceman” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., a story that moved me. How did an old science fiction story affect me emotionally? What words and sentences in “Death of a Spaceman” triggered responses in my sensorium? How can staring at black marks on a white page set off emotions? Would any other series of words that set off the same series of emotions be considered equal to reading “Death of a Spaceman?” Could I reduce that short story to a series of statements that would read like a recipe for setting off those emotions? And if it’s possible to translate the story into a recipe/algorithm? Could I create a recipe that I could use as an outline for writing an emotional driven short story?
Here is a tally of my reactions to aspects of “Death of a Spaceman” that made me like it.
Old Donegal (Donny) is a 63-year old man. I’m 69. I seldom encounter old people like myself in stories.
Donegal is bedridden, dying of cancer that’s slowly paralyzing his body. It started with his legs and has now worked up to his arms. My body is wearing out too, and I think a lot about the progression of disease and what it will be like to die. In the past couple of decades I’ve known many people that ended up bedridden and dying. I have spinal stenosis and clogged arteries that makes my legs numb at times, and I can imagine it progressing.
Donegal’s dying is portrayed very realistic and gritty, and lately I’ve been loving gritty science fiction stories from the 1950s, stories that weren’t anything like stories I grew up reading as a kid in the 1960s, which nearly always featured young protagonists. One word jumped out at me that Miller used, enemas. Poor old Donegal is bedridden, and that’s very degrading and embarrassing, he would need someone to take care of all his bodily needs. And that’s something particular that’s always scared me about with getting old.
Donegal is a retired astronaut who regularly flew to the Moon. He worked on the engines, and his work is presented as a mundane job much like an engine room mechanic on ocean going cargo ships. I’m a lifelong science fiction fan and when I was young I wished I could have had a spaceman’s life like Donegal’s.
Donegal is doing everything within his limited powers to choreograph his own deathbed scene. My mother did that too. She desperately wanted to die at home and did. Seeing how Donegal tried to control things from his bed made me think about how much my mother must have work to maneuver her own ending. Will I do the same thing?
As Donegal connives to get his wife to do what he wants but confesses that the sick and dying must also take care of the caretakers and survivors. I thought that was particularly insightful, especially for an old man who was probably pretty selfish his whole life. Donegal realizes that his wife Martha is suffering too and tries to relieve her of some of her worries.
I admired how Miller presented Donegal and Martha pursuing their own goals in this dramatic situation. Martha also pictures how she wants Donegal to die and pushes him to see a priest. I always feel the best fiction presents every character with their own agenda. In the ballet between Donny and Martha we see each of them trying to lead the dance.
Donegal and Martha are poor, living in a rented flat, making ends meet off a spaceman’s pension. But they live next to the Keith’s mansion, a rich family that owns the spaceship company Donegal worked for. This reminds me of the movie Dead End (1937) where a mansion townhouse is built right down in the waterfront slums. I guess even back in the 1950s such socioeconomic juxtapositions were possible. In both “Death of a Spaceman” and Dead End, the rich have a party where the sight and sounds spread over the poor neighborhood. That’s quite effective artistic imagery. Donegal by the way, likes hearing the party and the music but worries that it will drown out the rocket blast he hopes to hear as he dies.
Donegal is also waiting for his daughter Nora and grandson Ken. He assumes Ken will follow in his footsteps and be a blastman on a rocket run. We learn that Ken is going to disappoint him. This reminds me of my father before he died. He was a sergeant in the Air Force and dreamed I’d take ROTC in college and become an officer in the Air Force. But this was the 1960s, and the last thing I wanted to do. Over the years I’ve slowly learned just how disappointed me must have been.
Only Nora shows up. We know that Ken can’t face Donegal. We see Donegal slowly come to grips with this lost hope.
We have a couple flashbacks of Donegal at work and home that flesh out his personality for the story. We also learn that the Keith’s have a son, and the party is his going away party because he’s joining the space academy. This sets us up for a very sentimental ending. All through the story Martha worries that the Keiths are disturbing Donny, but he actually enjoys hearing the party and thinking about them. His only worry is they won’t stop the noise in time for him to hear the last rocket take off. Near the end of the day the doctor shows up. I guess in the 1950s doctors still made house calls. The doctor’s role in the story is really to go tell the Keiths about Donegal dying and his last wish.
There is quite a lot of content that develops Donegal and Martha as an old loving couple, and I really enjoyed that. And it’s quite entertaining how the priest and Donegal get on in their honest man-to-man fashion when Martha leaves the room.
Up until the last moment the party keeps going full tilt noisy, and Donegal gets very worried. Then the music stops. A lone trumpet plays, and Donegal recognizes the trumpeter is playing the music for the lowering of the flag. He realizes the Keiths had this done it for him. Boy did this choke me up, bringing tears to my eyes. I had to go blow my nose.
Donegal dies wearing his old space suit boots, listening to the rocket launch. The rich man’s son, the one going off to be a spaceman has the orchestra play “Blastroom Man” after the sound of the rocket launches fades. Donegal died with a grin on his face. Sadly, just after he dies, Ken shows up.
Okay, this is really over-the-top sentimentality, but I bought it all. I don’t think I would have appreciated this story if I had read it in my youth. As I deconstructed the story for my list it’s quite obvious what made me like the story so much, personal connections, emotional connections. And it’s quite easy to look back and see why I haven’t liked other stories in the past. No connections. I have admired stories I thought were beautifully written, had thrilling plots, or contained endless clever ideas, but without generating emotions, those stories were dry and academic, just intellectual feats of prose.
Stand up comics have an understanding of how to trigger laughs. I suppose short story writers have a sense of how to trigger emotional reactions in readers. Did Walter M. Miller, Jr. consciously know what he was doing when he wrote “Death of a Spaceman?” Or is fiction writing mainly the work of the writer’s unconscious mind communicating with the unconscious mind of their readers? Did Miller intentionally contrive every trigger that generated the emotions I experienced?
Is this art, craft, or psychology? Or all three. Amazing Stories, where this story was first published, was mainly targeted to male adolescents back in the 1950s. How did they react to this story? I wonder if I can research that?
Today, Miller is mainly known for writing A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was a fix-up novel based on three short works. Most of his science fiction output was shorter works published in the 1950s in science fiction magazines, and none of those stories were ever very famous. He’s pretty much known as a one-hit-wonder with A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is quite brilliant, especially the first story, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” that originally appeared in F&SF in April, 1955. I’ve only read a handful of his standalone stories. I need to read more and study Miller more closely.