Science Fiction Writers in Conversation with Each Other

Imagine a world where science fiction had never been invented. Could you have written the first science fiction story? Be honest now, and think hard about yourself and what I’m asking. Before Galileo, did anyone think the Moon was a world that could be visited? Once people heard Galileo saw mountains on the Moon with his telescope they began to imagine going there. Science fiction needed certain kinds of seed ideas to begin. When the seeds come from reality I’ll call that Stage 1 science fiction. We don’t see a lot of that kind of science fiction anymore. Maybe The Martian by Andy Weir when he tried to realistically portray growing potatoes on Mars or when a writer extrapolates on current events like John Brunner did in Stand on Zanzibar back in 1968 or what Kim Stanley Robinson did in The Ministry for the Future in 2020.

Once the genre got rolling, science fiction seeded itself. One story about a trip to the Moon inspired an infinity. I call that Stage 2 science fiction. In Stage 2 writers try to stick to reality but work off the collective knowledge of the genre. Eventually, science fiction was making copies of copies, where the inspiration had no connection with reality. I’ll call that Stage 3 science fiction.

Early stories about traveling to the Moon were Stage 1 because it’s not likely the authors had read each other’s work. But when Verne and Wells wrote their novels of lunar exploration a lot of their inspiration was Stage 2. When John Varley wrote his stories about a lunar colony, most of the science-fictional concepts within those stories had been germinating for generations in the genre – Stage 3.

I believe science fiction writers have an ongoing conversation that never ends. To take part in this conversation, publish a story. It can be Stage 1, 2, or 3. To be heard and answered requires writing something in Stage 1 or 2, or a very creative Stage 3.

This is why I’ve become fascinated by the forgotten writer Walter F. Moudy. The 1950s and 1960s were a fertile time for Stage 1 and Stage 2 stories. By the second half of the 1960s and early 1970s writers who made themselves noticed were writing a baroque Stage 3 science fiction to attract attention. For example, the works of Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and Robert Silverberg were based on old SF ideas told with new writing styles. Unfortunately, Moudy wrote Stage 3 stories in the same prose style that the classics of Stage 2 were written. His 1964-65 stories feel like they were written in 1954. One reason the New Wave writers of the 1960s were so important is they recognized that retelling Stage 2 stories in the same way, would get them ignored. The reason why Heinlein blazed onto the scene in 1939 is that he wrote Stage 1 stories with a new writing style, making his stories stand out.

I enjoy reading Walter F. Moudy in 2022 because I doubt I could write any better than he did, and he was responding to the stories I admired back then. His writing ability and knowledge of the genre were just good enough to get five works published and then become forgotten. As a would-be science fiction writer, I greatly identify with that. He wanted to join the conversation and made the effort to have his say. He just wasn’t heard, but now after decades, I’m listening.

While reading Walter F. Moudy’s meager output of science fiction I kept feeling his stories were inspired by the science fiction he and I both read. They made me wonder what he was trying to say in the ongoing conversation.

Of the five science fiction stories, I’ve read by Walter F. Moudy, “The Search for Man” is my favorite, although if I reread “The Survivor” or No Man On Earth I might change my mind. All were good fun, old-fashion science fiction, the kind my nostalgia loves. As I read “The Search for Man,” I kept wondering what science fiction Moudy had read that inspired this story. I can’t say for sure but this story about robots speculating about long-dead or gone humans reminded me of City by Clifford Simak. That “The Search for Man” set hundreds of years into the future speculated about our times and turned us into a religion reminded me of A Canticle for Leibowitz. That both the protagonists of No Man On Earth and “The Search for Man” were about a super-human and a super-robot reminded me of The Hampdenshire Wonder, Slan, Odd John, Chocky, Stranger in a Strange Land, and all the other science fiction stories about next-stage beings. Reading those two Moudy stories made me think about how I would have written a story on that theme. How much could I base it on reality, and how much would be inspired by other science fiction?

“The Search for Man,” begins with a baby being born, but it’s a strange birth, a kind of decanting that made me think of Brave New World. Then we learn the baby will only have three senses, and it will be put into a robotic baby’s body, the first of four body types it will use.

Moudy sets up a good mystery for us. Humans died out hundreds of years earlier, with all other animal life. The humans had tried to travel to the stars, but it appears their three missions had failed. The robot brains have improved their brains with genetics found in 12 human brains that had been preserved. The robots have found long-dead humans in various kinds of chambers that tried to create suspended animation. Their hope is to find a chamber with a viable human to resurrect. There are classes of robots that are archeologists and others that are priests that teach a strange religion based on their theories about humans. All of that is a very appealing setup for a story, at least for me.

I’m not sure Walter F. Moudy would have written “The Search for Man” without reading a lot of science fiction. Part of the conversation science fiction writers have is about science fictional ideas, but the other part is about how to present those ideas in a story. I felt “The Search for Man” was Moudy’s reply to both but in the language of 1950s science fiction. I wonder if he had been more of a stylist would he have made a greater impact?

“The Search for Man” was published in an original anthology In The Wake of Man that’s never been reprinted. I’ve been trying to get a copy, but it’s expensive, starting at $75 used. I had found a $10 copy for sale, but my order was canceled a couple days after I ordered it. Right now the only source for this story is a copy of In The Wake of Man at Archive.org. If you are a member, which is free, you can check it out for an hour to read online. Thanks to Joachim Boaz for finding that link.

Joachim Boaz and Rich Horton have also been writing about Walter F. Moudy. Rich is planning to review all of Moudy’s work soon.

James Wallace Harris, 6/30/22

Blowing Your Chance to Speak to the Future

Writers cherish the myth that their work will make their names immortal. And it is true we have remembered some authors for thousands of years. However, if you want to be heard across time, you have to write something timeless.

My friend Mike and I are fascinated by forgotten writers, especially forgotten science fiction writers. We can’t help but wonder why a writer quits after their initial success of selling a few stories or maybe a novel. Mike texted me the other day about such a writer he discovered in an interview with Geraldine Brooks in The New York Times.

It was part of their By the Book series, where all writers are asked the same standard questions. My favorite question: “What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?” Often this makes for an interesting title to chase down. Brooks said: “‘No Man on Earth,’ by Walter Moudy. The only other person I know who has read it is my son because I pressed it on him.”

So one well-regarded literary writer resurrects Walter F. Moudy 49 years after he died. That one little mention in the Times got me to read his novel. Maybe a few other people will too. And it’s a pretty good science fiction story for 1964. The question is, could it have been better? What would have made that novel stay in print? Is it worth reprinting? And do I recommend you read it?

You can read a pdf copy of No Man On Earth here.

It turns out that No Man On Earth is a forgotten science fiction novel by a forgotten science fiction writer, Walter F. Moudy (1929-1973). His ISFDB entry lists one novel and four short stories. This novel appeared in October of 1964, and then three of his four stories appeared in April and May of 1965, two in Fantastic and one in Amazing, both edited by Cele Lalli (Goldsmith). Moudy would have been in his mid-thirties. In 1966 he published another novel, The Ninth Commandment, probably not science fiction, and one I can’t track down. Finally, in 1975, after his death, Moudy had one more story, a novella, published in an original anthology, In the Wake of Man. The other two authors in that book were Gene Wolfe and R. A. Lafferty, pretty impressive company.

Besides No Man On Earth, I’ve read his three stories in Fantastic and Amazing, but it would cost me $75 to read his final story and that’s too much. For me, Walter F. Moudy’s science fiction legacy is that one novel, two short stories, and a novelette. Not much to go by, but still, I’m terribly envious since I’m a lifelong would-be science fiction writer. I’d give anything to have contributed even that much to the genre.

Why after his initial success in 1964-1966 did Moudy quit writing? And how did Roger Elwood get his last story? I guess Moudy tried one more time before he died to say something in print. But maybe Elwood had been holding it for years, and it was written in the mid-sixties. Reviewers haven’t been kind to it.

I was able to track down a few biographical details. Moudy was from Missouri, served in the Air Force from 1950 to 1953, got a degree in 1954, and then a law degree in 1957. He was Phi Beta Kappa. Moudy was married and had three children. In other words, he had a successful life and didn’t need to be a writer. Still, as I read his work over the last few days, I felt he had something to say. At least in No Man On Earth.

His three short stories were rather minor. The first, “The Dreamer,” was about a young man who wanted to get rich and famous as a space trader. The story was told like a fable. Its redeeming feature was a super-intelligent parrot. The second, “I Think They Love Me,” is about rock stars going to extreme lengths to survive hordes of screaming teenage girls. This was written a year after The Beatles hit America and was kind of cute, but not really worth remembering. The last, and the one most anthologized, is “The Survivor,” about a televised war game between America and Russia. It reminded me of The Hunger Games. This story came out in 1965 and was probably inspired by the 1964 Olympic games and the films Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe. “The Survivor” was gritty, detailed, and suggested each country sacrifice 100 men every four years in a fight to the death rather than risking total national annihilation.

Those three stories were somewhat entertaining, especially the last one, but they don’t leave the kind of impression that Moudy was making a statement. However, No Man On Earth does. Writers can make different kinds of statements. They can aim to write a better story than what’s written before. Or they can capture their times realistically in words. And common with science fiction writers, they can say something philosophical about reality. And there are so many other ways.

For example, I believe Robert Heinlein was influenced by the success of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand in 1957, and that’s why he aimed so high with Stranger in a Strange Land. In his later years, Heinlein repeatedly tried to convince fans that Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) were books that he wanted to be remembered for because they expressed his philosophy on freedom and responsibility.

My guess is Moudy was inspired by Stranger in a Strange Land when he wrote No Man On Earth. Heinlein’s main character Valentine Michael Smith is a human raised by Martians who taught him psychic powers. Moudy’s main character, Thad Stone, had a human mother and alien father and was a super-genius. Both novels are told with picaresque plotting. Both books comment on sex and society. Moudy has Stone tour many planets and visits many kinds of societies and civilizations. No Man On Earth ran 176 pages in its first publication, a slim paperback original to Stranger’s 408 pages in the G. P. Putnam’s Sons first-edition hardback. Heinlein was obviously trying to hit one out of the genre after over twenty years of being a big fish in a small pond. Frank Herbert also aimed sky high with Dune in 1965. It was also over 400 pages.

There are a lot of one-hit wonders in the book world but few writers struggle with their masterpieces like Harper Lee or John Kennedy Toole. My guess is Moudy knocked this novel out quickly and was probably paid around $750 for his paperback original and when it disappeared on the twirling wire racks after a couple of months felt his time was better spent being a lawyer. If he had written a 400-page monster and got it published by a major hardback publisher No Man On Earth might have had a better chance. He just didn’t aim high enough.

It would have also helped if he had written No Man On Earth in an innovative style that made the genre take notice, like Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land. Moudy’s story and writing reminded me a bit of Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955), Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror for Observers (1955), and Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), all books he could have read and could have inspired No Man On Earth.

Obviously, if Geraldine Brooks fondly remembers No Man On Earth in 2022 so it can’t be a stinker. I liked it quite a lot and rushed through it in two days because it was compelling in the old-fashion kind of science fiction I love. It’s great that Tevis’s 1963 novel is still remembered, and I think it’s a shame that Moudy’s book isn’t more remembered.

James Wallace Harris, 6/21/22

The Problems with Classic Science Fiction

The first problem I face with assembling my Top 100 Science Fiction Short Stories list is that I’m partial to crusty old SF stories that younger readers will feel are badly dated. Our discussion group read “Rescue Party” by Arthur C. Clarke for today. Here’s my comment:

Some members of the group, and not always the younger ones, have pointed out how dated parts of this story are today, and that the characterization is rather poor. Clarke was never a particularly good writer when it came to characterization, but this story was on par for 1946. Most of our group are older fans, and we’re used to older stories, so even with them, this story might not be a great story. Generally, people liked it, rating it 3-4 stars, with one person giving it 2.

You can read “Rescue Party” for yourself if you want. Here is the story in the original publication, and here it is again at Escape Pod with both audio and text. The group read the story from The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction that came out in 1980. Evidently, Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg considered “Rescue Party” a modern classic 42 years ago even though most anthologies back then were remembering Arthur C. Clarke with “Nine Billion Names of God” and “The Star.” One of our members said Clarke might be remembered for “A Meeting with Medusa” which came out in the 1970s and is a much more polished story by contemporary standards.

“Rescue Party” was anthologized in The World Turned Upside Down edited by David Drake, Eric Flint, and Jim Baen in 2004, but that anthology was promoted as collecting stories that we old SF fans loved when we were growing up. That’s certainly true for me because it has many old science fiction stories I love that I use for my Top 100 list of SF short stories.

In other words, I can make a list of the short science fiction stories I love, but if younger readers read those stories would they be disappointed? First, do I care? It’s my list. Actually, I do. I don’t want to waste readers’ reading time. Nor am I interested in trying to be a teacher pushing young people to read the SF classics.

I realize there are two solutions for me to pursue. One is to find the stories that are great science fiction and are well written that aren’t dated. There’s certainly plenty to choose from. And I might do that. But I had a different idea when I started work on this list. I wanted to show the evolution of science fictional ideas and my evolution as a science fiction reader. It’s not about recognizing the best stories. I no longer believe in the best of anything. This world is too complex and multiplex to order in ranks and ratings. I’ve already bogged down trying to rank my favorites numerically.

I want to start in the 19th century and progress to the 21st by reviewing the science fiction stories that evolved the genre. Contemporary readability or social correctness won’t matter. Figuring this out has given me a direction.

James Wallace Harris, 5/1/22

Assembling a List of My Favorite Science Fiction Short Stories

I’ve come to realize that one of the more important things to me in my life is my enjoyment of reading science fiction. I have many friends who love to travel and when they talk about themselves they often talk about where they’ve been. They make me feel guilty because I’ve traveled so little. I tell myself that I travel in my mind because I love to read. Thus making a list of favorite books is like making a list of places I’ve been.

Lately, I’ve been more interested in short trips — reading short stories. I’ve decided to assemble a list of short stories I love most over a lifetime of reading. I have about a hundred I’m pretty sure about, but there’s almost another two hundred I remember fondly that I need to reread before deciding. I’ve also decided that I need to be more selective and limit the final list to 100 or less. Or at least, define my Top 100, and Next 100. But I’m leaning toward forcing myself to pick my absolute favorite 100 SF short stories.

This has pushed me into thinking about the criteria by which I judge a story. Here are qualities I’ve come up with so far:

  • Sense of wonder
  • Storytelling
  • Emotion
  • Insight
  • Characterization
  • Writing
  • Memorable

For now, seven is enough. I can think of these qualities as The Seven Virtues of Fiction. Here are my two working lists. I’m far from finished. I’m going to have to do a lot of rereading. And I’ve been doing that since I joined a Facebook group that reads a science fiction short story a day and discusses each. It’s these group readings that have made me realize how important science fiction short stories are to me.

I could finish this project in one year if I quit the reading group and read one story a day. That probably won’t happen. Thus, it might take me years to finish. I’ve even thought of turning this project into a book like David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels.

My Top Favorites For Now

  1. 1967 – “The Star Pit” – Samuel Delany
  2. 1959 – “Flowers for Algernon” – Daniel Keyes
  3. 1895 – “The Time Machine” – H. G. Wells
  4. 1976 – “Appearance of Life” – Brian W. Aldiss
  5. 1963 – “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – Roger Zelazny
  6. 1946 – “Vintage Season” – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore
  7. 1957 – “The Menace From Earth” – Robert A. Heinlein
  8. 1941 – “Universe” – Robert A. Heinlein
  9. 1966 – “Empire Star” – Samuel R. Delany
  10. 1977 – “Jeffty is Five” – Harland Ellison
  11. 1984 – “Press ENTER ■” – John Varley
  12. 1991 – “Beggars in Spain” – Nancy Kress
  13. 1973 – “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  14. 1987 – “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” – Lawrence Watt-Evans
  15. 1950 – “Coming Attraction” – Fritz Leiber
  16. 1985 – “Snow” – John Crowley
  17. 1990 – “Bears Discover Fire” – Terry Bisson
  18. 1953 – “The Last Day” – Richard Matheson
  19. 1953 – “One in Three Hundred” – J. T. McIntosh
  20. 1953 – “Deadly City” – Paul W. Fairman as Ivar Jorgensen
  21. 2020 – “Two Truths and a Lie” – Sarah Pinsker
  22. 1944 – “Desertion” – Clifford D. Simak
  23. 1944 – “Huddling Place” – Clifford D. Simak
  24. 1961 – “The Moon Moth” – Jack Vance
  25. 1951 – “Angel’s Egg” – Edgar Pangborn
  26. 1953 – “Lot” – Ward Moore
  27. 1952 – “The Year of the Jackpot” – Robert A. Heinlein
  28. 1950 – “There Will Come Soft Rains” – Ray Bradbury
  29. 1934 – “The Martian Odyssey” – Stanley G. Weinbaum
  30. 1954 – “Fondly Fahrenheit” – Alfred Bester
  31. 1966 – “Light of Other Days” – Bob Shaw
  32. 1998 – “Story of Your Life” – Ted Chiang
  33. 1987 – “Rachel in Love” – Pat Murphy
  34. 1985 – “Sailing to Byzantium” – Robert Silverberg
  35. 1988 – “Kirinyaga” – Mike Resnick
  36. 1990 – “The Manamouki” – Mike Resnick
  37. 1909 – “The Machine Stops” – E. M. Forster
  38. 1948 – “Mars is Heaven!” – Ray Bradbury
  39. 1957 – “Omnilingual” – H. Beam Piper
  40. 1952 – “Baby Is Three” – Theodore Sturgeon
  41. 1966 – “Behold the Man” – Michael Moorcock
  42. 1995 – “Think Like a Dinosaur” – James Patrick Kelly
  43. 1980 – “The Ugly Chickens” – Howard Waldrop
  44. 1973 – “The Death of Doctor Island” – Gene Wolfe
  45. 1948 – “In Hiding” – Wilmar H. Shiras
  46. 2004 – “Travels with My Cats” – Mike Resnick
  47. 1956 – “The Country of the Kind” – Damon Knight
  48. 1954 – “A Canticle for Leibowitz” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  49. 1946 – “Rescue Party” – Arthur C. Clarke
  50. 1943 – “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore
  51. 1944 – “No Woman Born” – C. L. Moore
  52. 1952 – “Surface Tension” – James Blish
  53. 1960 – “The Voices of Time” – J. G. Ballard
  54. 1972 – “When It Changed” – Joanna Russ
  55. 1940 – “Requiem” – Robert A. Heinlein
  56. 1984 – “Bloodchild” – Octavia Butler
  57. 1939 – “Black Destroyer” – A. E. van Vogt
  58. 1912 – “The Scarlet Plague” – Jack London
  59. 1953 – “A Case of Conscience” – James Blish
  60. 1977 – “The Screwfly Solution” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  61. 1972 – “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” – Gene Wolfe
  62. 1965 – “The Saliva Tree” – Brian W. Aldiss
  63. 1956 – “The Man Who Came Early” – Poul Anderson
  64. 1988 – “The Last of the Winnebagos” – Connie Willis
  65. 1983 – “Speech Sounds” – Octavia Butler
  66. 1953 – “A Saucer of Loneliness” – Theodore Sturgeon
  67. 1969 – “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  68. 1957 – “Call Me Joe” – Poul Anderson
  69. 1947 – “With Folded Hands …” – Jack Williamson
  70. 1977 – “Ender’s Game” – Orson Scott Card
  71. 1970 – “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” – Gene Wolfe
  72. 1933 – “Shambleau” – C. L. Moore
  73. 1945 – “Giant Killer” – A. Bertram Chandler
  74. 1981 – “True Names” – Vernor Vinge
  75. 1951 – “The Quest for Saint Aquin” – Anthony Boucher
  76. 1952 – “Sail On! Sail On!” – Philip Jose Farmer
  77. 1955 – “The Star” – Arthur C. Clarke
  78. 1958 – “The Ugly Little Boy” – Isaac Asimov
  79. 2019 – “At the Fall” – Alec Nevala-Lee
  80. 1954 – “The End of Summer” – Algis Budrys
  81. 1952 – “What’s It Like Out There?” – Edmond Hamilton
  82. 1956 – “Brightside Crossing” – Alan E. Nourse
  83. 1998 – “Craphound” – Cory Doctorow
  84. 1956 – “Exploration Team” – Murray Leinster
  85. 1953 – “Four in One” – Damon Knight
  86. 1976 – “An Infinite Summer” – Christopher Priest
  87. 1954 – “The Music Master of Babylon” – Edgar Pangborn
  88. 2002 – “The Potter of Bones” – Eleanor Arnason
  89. 1940 – “Quietus” – Ross Rocklynne
  90. 1950 – “The Veldt” – Ray Bradbury
  91. 1959 – “The Alley Man” – Philip Jose Farmer
  92. 1955 – “The Darfsteller” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  93. 1939 – “The Day Is Done” – Lester del Rey
  94. 1957 – “The Lineman” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  95. 1966 – “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” – Philip K. Dick

Stories I need to reread or maybe read for the first time.

  1. 1897 – “The Thames Valley Catastrophe” – Grant Allen
  2. 1920 – “The Mad Planet” – Murray Leinster
  3. 1927 – “The Colour Out of Space” – H. P. Lovecraft
  4. 1928 – “The Revolt of the Pedestrians” – David H. Keller
  5. 1931 – “The Jameson Satellite” – Neil R. Jones
  6. 1931 – “The Man Who Evolved” – Edmond Hamilton
  7. 1932 – “Tumithak of the Corridors” – Charles R. Tanner
  8. 1934 – “Old Faithful” – Raymond Z. Gallun
  9. 1934 – “Sidewise in Time” – Murray Leinster
  10. 1934 – “Twilight” – John W. Campbell
  11. 1936 – “At the Mountains of Madness” – H. P. Lovecraft
  12. 1936 – “Devolution” – Edmond Hamilton
  13. 1937 – “The Sands of Time” – P. Schuyler Miller
  14. 1939 – “The Four-Sided Triangle” – William F. Temple
  15. 1939 – “Living Fossil” – L. Sprague de Camp
  16. 1939 – “Rust” – Joseph E. Kelleam
  17. 1940 – “Coventry” – Robert A. Heinlein
  18. 1940 – “Into the Darkness” – Ross Rocklynne
  19. 1941 – “Microcosmic God” – Theodore Sturgeon
  20. 1941 – “Nightfall” – Isaac Asimov
  21. 1941 – “Time Wants a Skeleton” – Ross Rocklynne
  22. 1942 – “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” – Robert A. Heinlein
  23. 1943 – “The Cave” – P. Schuyler Miller
  24. 1943 – “Daymare” – Fredric Brown
  25. 1943 – “The Halfling” – Leigh Brackett
  26. 1943 – “Q.U.R.” – Anthony Boucher
  27. 1947 – “E for Effort” – T. L. Sherred
  28. 1949 – “Gulf” – Robert A. Heinlein
  29. 1949 – “Manna” – Peter Phillips
  30. 1949 – “Private Eye” – Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore
  31. 1950 – “Liane the Wayfarer” – Jack Vance
  32. 1950 – “The Little Black Bag” – C. M. Kornbluth
  33. 1950 – “The Man Who Sold the Moon” – Robert A. Heinlein
  34. 1950 – “Scanners Live in Vain” – Cordwainer Smith
  35. 1950 – “The Silly Season” – C. M. Kornbluth
  36. 1951 – “Bettyann” – Kris Neville
  37. 1951 – “Beyond Bedlam” – Wyman Guin
  38. 1951 – “Brightness Falls from the Air” – Margaret St. Clair
  39. 1951 – “Dune Roller” – Julian May
  40. 1951 – “Izzard and the Membrame” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  41. 1951 – “The Marching Morons” – C. M. Kornbluth
  42. 1951 – “The Sentinel” – Arthur C. Clarke
  43. 1952 – “Bring the Jubilee” – Ward Moore
  44. 1952 – “Command Performance” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  45. 1952 – “Conditionally Human” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  46. 1952 – “Fast Falls the Eventide” – Erik Frank Russell
  47. 1952 – “Lost Memory” – Peter Phillips
  48. 1952 – “The Lovers” – Philip Jose Farmer
  49. 1952 – “The Martian Way” – Isaac Asimov
  50. 1953 – “Common Time” – James Blish
  51. 1953 – “DP!” – Jack Vance
  52. 1953 – “Imposter” – Philip K. Dick
  53. 1953 – “It’s a Good Life” – Jerome Bixby
  54. 1953 – “The Liberation of Earth” – William Tenn
  55. 1953 – “The Model of a Judge” – William Morrison
  56. 1953 – “Second Variety” – Philip K. Dick
  57. 1953 – “Specialist” – Robert Sheckley
  58. 1954 – “5,271,009” – Alfred Bester
  59. 1954 – “Let Me Live in a House” – Chad Oliver
  60. 1954 – “Memento Homo” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  61. 1954 – “The Midas Plague” – Frederik Pohl
  62. 1955 – “The Allamagoosa” – Eric Frank Russell
  63. 1955 – “Who?” – Algis Budrys
  64. 1956 – “Anything Box” – Zenna Henderson
  65. 1956 – “The Dead Past” – Isaac Asimov
  66. 1956 – “The Last Question” – Isaac Asimov
  67. 1956 – “The Minority Report” – Philip K. Dick
  68. 1956 – “Pilgrimage to Earth” – Robert Sheckley
  69. 1958 – “Or All the Seas with Oysters” – Avram Davidson
  70. 1958 – “Pelt” – Carol Emshwiller
  71. 1958 – “Who Can Replace a Man?” – Brian W. Aldiss
  72. 1959 – “All You Zombies—” – Robert A. Heinlein
  73. 1959 – “Day at the Beach” – Carol Emshwiller
  74. 1959 – “The Man Who Lost the Sea” – Theodore Sturgeon
  75. 1959 – “Plenitude” – Will Mohler
  76. 1960 – “The Fellow Who Married the Maxill Girl” – Ward Moore
  77. 1960 – “The Sound Sweep” – J. G. Ballard
  78. 1960 – “The Voice of Time” – J. G. Ballard
  79. 1961 – “The Dandelion Girl” – Robert F. Young
  80. 1961 – “Hothouse” – Brian W. Aldiss
  81. 1961 – “Monument” – Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
  82. 1961 – “The Ship Who Sang” – Anne McCaffrey
  83. 1961 – “The Sources of the Nile” – Avram Davidson
  84. 1962 – “The Dragon Masters” – Jack Vance
  85. 1962 – “Earthlings Go Home!” – Mack Reynolds
  86. 1964 – “The Terminal Beach” – J. G. Ballard
  87. 1965 – “He Who Shapes” – Roger Zelazny
  88. 1965 – “Man in His Time” – Brian W. Aldiss
  89. 1965 – “Traveler’s Rest” – David I. Masson
  90. 1966 – “Day Million” – Frederik Pohl
  91. 1966 – “The Lady Margaret” – Keith Roberts
  92. 1966 – “Neutron Star” – Larry Niven
  93. 1966 – “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” – R. A. Lafferty
  94. 1966 – “When I Was Miss Dow” – Sonya Dorman
  95. 1967 – “Baby, You Were Great” by Kate Wilhelm
  96. 1967 – “The Cloud Sculptures of Coral D” – J. G. Ballard
  97. 1967 – “Faith of Our Fathers” – Philip K. Dick
  98. 1967 – “Gonna Roll the Bones” – Fritz Leiber
  99. 1967 – “The Heat Death of the Universe” – Pamela Zoline
  100. 1967 – “Riders of the Purple Wage” – Philip Jose Farmer
  101. 1968 – “Nightwings” – Robert Silverberg
  102. 1969 – “Nine Lives” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  103. 1970 – “Slow Sculpture” – Theodore Sturgeon
  104. 1971 – “Inconstant Moon” – Larry Niven
  105. 1971 – “A Meeting with Medusa” – Arthur C. Clarke
  106. 1971 – “The Queen of Air and Darkness” – Poul Anderson
  107. 1971 – “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  108. 1971 – “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  109. 1972 – “Nobody’s Home” – Joanna Russ
  110. 1972 – “Patron of the Arts” – William Rotsler
  111. 1972 – “The Word for World is Forest” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  112. 1973 – “The Girl Who Plugged In” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  113. 1973 – “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  114. 1973 – “The Women Men Don’t See” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  115. 1974 – “Born with the Dead” – Robert Silverberg
  116. 1974 – “The Day Before the Revolution” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  117. 1975 – “A Galaxy Called Rome” – Barry N. Malzberg
  118. 1976 – “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  119. 1977 – “The Screwfly Solution” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  120. 1978 – “The Persistence of Vision” – John Varley
  121. 1979 – “Sandkings” – George R. R. Martin
  122. 1982 – “Burning Chrome” – William Gibson
  123. 1982 – “The Postman” – David Brin
  124. 1982 – “Souls” – Joanna Russ
  125. 1982 – “Swarm” – Bruce Sterling
  126. 1983 – “Blood Music” – Greg Bear
  127. 1985 – “The Lake Was Full of Artificial Things” – Karen Joy Fowler
  128. 1985 – “The Only Neat Thing to Do” – James Tiptree, Jr.
  129. 1985 – “Out of All Them Bright Stars” – Nancy Kress
  130. 1988 – “Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance?” – Howard Waldrop
  131. 1988 – “Schrödinger’s Kitten” – George Alec Effinger
  132. 1989 – “Dori Bangs” – Bruce Sterling
  133. 1989 – “The Edge of the World” – Michael Swanwick
  134. 1989 – “For I Have Touched the Sky” – Mike Resnick
  135. 1989 – “The Great Work of Time” – John Crowley
  136. 1989 – “The Mountains of Mourning” – Lois McMaster Bujold
  137. 1991 – “Griffin’s Egg” – Michael Swanwick
  138. 1993 – “Wall, Stone, Craft” – Walter Jon Williams
  139. 1994 – “The Martian Child” – David Gerrold
  140. 1994 – “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” – Mike Resnick
  141. 1995 – “The Lincoln Train” – Maureen F. McHugh
  142. 1995 – “Wang’s Carpets” – Greg Egan
  143. 1995 – “The Flowers of Aulit Prison” – Nancy Kress
  144. 1997 – “The Undiscovered” – William Sanders
  145. 1999 – “Ancient Engines” – Michael Swanwick
  146. 1999 – “macs” – Terry Bisson
  147. 2001 – “Fast Times at Fairmont High” – Vernor Vinge
  148. 2001 – “Hell Is the Absence of God” – Ted Chiang
  149. 2001 – “New Light on the Drake Equation” – Ian R. MacLeod
  150. 2001 – “Undone” – James Patrick Kelly
  151. 2003 – “The Empress of Mars” – Kage Baker
  152. 2005 – “The Calorie Man” – Paolo Bacigalupi
  153. 2005 – “Magic for Beginners” – Kelly Link
  154. 2008 – “Exhalation” – Ted Chiang
  155. 2008 – “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” – James Alan Gardner
  156. 2009 – “The Island” – Peter Watts
  157. 2010 – “The Sultan of the Clouds” – Geoffrey A. Landis
  158. 2010 – “The Things” – Peter Watts
  159. 2010 – “Under the Moons of Venus” – Damien Broderick
  160. 2011 – “After the Apocalypse” – Maureen F. McHugh
  161. 2011 – “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” – Kij Johnson
  162. 2012 – “Close Encounters” – Andy Duncan
  163. 2012 – “Mahiku West” – Linda Nagata
  164. 2014 – “Someday” – James Patrick Kelly
  165. 2014 – “Yesterday’s Kin” – Nancy Kress
  166. 2015 – “Gypsy” – Carter Scholz
  167. 2015 – “Today I Am Paul” – Martin L. Shoemaker
  168. 2017 – “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” – Tobias S. Buckell
  169. 2018 – “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” – Daryl Gregory
  170. 2019 – “The Archronology of Love” – Caroline M. Yoachim
  171. 2020 – “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” – Mercurio D. Rivera

James Wallace Harris, 4/30/22

“Boobs” by Suzy McKee Charnas

Today’s story at the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction group on Facebook is “Boobs” by Suzy McKee Charnas. You can read it here. In the first comment, Jeppe said he was surprised it won the Hugo, which was my reaction too. It is a slight story about a girl hitting puberty and becoming a werewolf, but it’s been reprinted quite a bit, indicating its popularity. The group is reading Hugo and Nebula Award Winners from Asimov’s Science Fiction edited by Sheila Williams.

So, I asked myself, “Why would this story win an award?” I came up with two theories, neither of which involves the quality of writing.

First, “Boobs” is about being different and being bullied. Kelsey is a young girl who is developing faster than her peers and when she starts wearing a bra gets the nickname Boobs from the school bully, Billy. This reminded me of a recent phone call with my old friend. Connell had been extra tall in high school and it had been an unpleasant time for him. He told me the reason why I hadn’t been bullied in school was that I had been average-looking. I didn’t stick out. And that was true. I was of average height, average looks, average clothes, and average intelligence.

“Boobs” is about sticking out and being ridiculed and bullied, and I have a feeling that might have been true for a lot of science fiction fans. A story that resonates deeply with an old hurt might get the vote on an award ballot.

The second reason probably deals with the same psychology. “Boobs” is revenge porn. Kelsey eventually kills and eats Billy when she’s in her werewolf state. That was a quite satisfying way to plot the story, but isn’t giving the class asshole the death penalty a little harsh? If you pay attention to stories and movies, revenge against bullies is a popular plot. Revenge might be the number one plot for westerns. Westerns are often about grown-up bullies, and the common solution is to kill them. The recent western, Power of the Dog, has been described as being about toxic masculinity. It’s about a bullied kid who gets his revenge. The deep-down desire to see violent people come to a violent end is probably another reason why “Boobs” got its votes for the Hugo.

And who knows, maybe if young girls did turn into werewolves and fed on bullies and stray dogs society would be much nicer. I bet guys like Putin or Trump would never have survived adolescence.

I thought the best thing about “Boobs” is how Charnas describes being a wolf, especially perceiving the world through smells. It was also interesting that “Boobs” was a science fiction story about a young girl getting her first period. “Even the Queen” by Connie Willis was also a Hugo award-winning short story about menstruation. Are there other SF stories on this topic? Enough to create an anthology? Have any of them won awards?

Although I thought “Boobs” was a slight story, I did think it was a good story. And it reinforces my belief that straightforward science fiction/fantasy stories set closer to the present, and ones readers can relate to emotionally, will be more successful than dazzling complicated stories set in the future.

All too often we expect award-winning stories to be profound, brilliant, dazzling, impressive, complex, etc. Maybe just pushing the right emotional button is all you need to get readers to like your story.

James Wallace Harris, 4/13/22

Is There Any New Territory for Science Fiction to Explore?

Ray Nayler had a successful year writing science fiction short stories in 2021. Three of his stories made the Asimov’s Readers’ Award Finalists poll: “A Rocket for Dimitrios” (novella), “Año Nuevo” (novelette), and “Muallim” (short story). That doesn’t include four other stories he had published in other magazines in 2021. The Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction has been reading and discussing all the finalist stories and Nayler’s stories have been popular with our group. We tend to be an older crowd that’s been reading science fiction for a long time, and Nayler’s stories fulfill our need for new science fiction that feels like older science fiction.

Before I say what I want to say, just let me assure you I’m not picking on Ray Nayler, but questioning science fiction in general. I enjoy Nayler’s stories and consider them among the best science fiction coming out today. I’m looking forward to his first novel, The Mountain in the Sea coming out in October.

While reading all the finalists for the Asimov’s Readers’ Award, and especially Nayler’s stories, I couldn’t help but wonder if science fiction has any new territory left to explore? All the stories seem to be variations on old themes. I always wanted to be a science fiction writer, but reading these stories made me think just how hard it must be to write new science fiction, especially original science fiction. Our Facebook group has read hundreds of SF stories, and it’s obvious that few stories succeed with a majority of our readers. Writing a major science fiction short story is very rare.

Nayler’s stories stood out for me of the sixteen finalists. They were the most enjoyable to read, and I felt the most successfully told. However, they all seemed like old friends wearing snazzy new threads. I can’t help but wonder if new science fiction writers ever come up with new science-fictional ideas? Or has our genre explored all the territory to be explored?

Of course, this is my problem since I’m 70 years old and I’ve been reading science fiction for 60 of those years. Younger readers might not see any problem at all. If you live long enough, you begin to feel like Solomon writing Ecclesiastes 1:9 and saying “There is nothing new under the sun.” That feels like an oxymoronic adage when talking about science fiction. (Yet, I felt “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” by Roger Zelazny was something new under the sun in 1963.)

My favorite of Nayler’s stories was “A Rocket for Dimitrios.” (Story links are to pdf files to read.) However, its plot was inspired by A Mask for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, called A Coffin for Dimitrios in the U.S., which better connects to Nayler’s title. I haven’t read that novel, but I’ve seen the Sidney Greenstreet/Peter Lorre movie from 1944, so that’s how I pictured it when reading Nayler’s novella. Both stories about Dimitrios overlap in interesting ways with exotic flavors.

“A Rocket for Dimitrios” is an alternate history story, so it’s a double retread, It’s rewriting history, and writing a classic mystery novel. That’s quite clever, and I think that points to Nayler solving the problem I’m discussing. If you can’t produce a new science fiction idea for a story, repackage old ones in clever ways. And is that what all the new science fiction writers must do today? Or, am I seeing something different? Are new writers reinventing science fiction with each new generation because they haven’t read the old science fiction? Is it a variation on the famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” by George Santayana?

“A Rocket for Dimitrios” is a sophisticated alternate political history that reflects a great deal of our current political reality. After America finds a crashed flying saucer in 1938 it becomes the sole superpower using advanced technology discovered in the UFO. The story creates an alternative geopolitical view from around 1960 I guess. (FDR is in his 7th term.) Because Nayler is in the foreign service and has been stationed in the Caucasus, he obviously knows the history of Turkey after the fall of the Ottomans. This local coloration gives the story its strongest appeal, but then that was true of the movie, and probably the novel.

Fictional characters Sylvia Aldstatt, Alvin Greenly, and Chief Inspector Rafik Bayar are mixed with alternate history characterizations of Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hedy Lamarr. Greenly is in the OSS and Aldstatt is a medium that uses alien technology to speak to the dead Dimitrios Makropoulos. This story is far more complex than the other nominated stories for the Asimov’s Reader Awards which suggests a growing writing maturity by Nayler. This was my second reading of this story and I rate it a strong four stars out of five.

Even though this is a fun story I can’t help but believe it’s Nayler’s philosophical statement about current world affairs. In that sense, it’s quite interesting to compare “A Rocket for Dimitrios” to David Brooks’ latest editorial in The New York Times. Both Nayler and Brooks want to be positive, but they see the growing trend toward nationalistic thinking since the 2016 election, and it’s not positive. The obvious connection to both story and essay is humans are an intelligent species, just not quite intelligent enough to survive. Both Nayler and Brooks are hopeful, I’m not.

Muallim” is a wonderful story about a teaching robot and a student-teacher in Khynalry, Azerbaijan. The plot is rather simple, about how the village tricks the student teacher who wants to change their old ways, but the story is far richer. I think we should ask why? “Muallim” is an exceptional science fiction story, but what makes it so?

The obvious answer is the setting. Naylor’s foreign service experience, knowledge of languages, along with being a keen observer of local details, infuses wonderful details into this story. Would this story have been as good if it was set in Los Angeles? Maybe, but I think not. An exotic setting can really make an old science fiction theme stand out.

Writers have reached the saturation point with writing about robots and AI. It’s extremely hard to do anything different. The foreign color of this story is what made it impressive. The story itself is just a retelling that sentient robots are just as good as humans.

I also think “Muallim” shines because it’s built on layers. The outsider, the student-teacher, rejects what Irada, the female blacksmith, and the other villagers want for their children. But then, there are other people outside of the village, who reject the robot. We know these people have been there for hundreds of years and they don’t like change, but some of them do accept the robot. Azerbaijan is in a part of the world where some of the oldest civilizations began. There’s quite a contrast between old and new. Finally, I think the story stands out for characterization. I rate it a strong four stars out of five.

Año Nuevo” caressed all my science fiction zones but didn’t give me a sense-of-wonder orgasm. That might be due to me being old. I liked Nayler’s story mostly because he’s writing good old-fashioned science fiction in an era when good old-fashioned science fiction is being left behind.

“Año Nuevo” uses twin storylines to effectively evoke two classic science fiction themes: the alien that’s unlike us, and the Jesus alien. Science fiction writers have always been challenged to describe a real alien first encounter. Of course, Nayler pulls a twist on this one and a good twist at that. Where my uncertainty comes from regarding this story is with the Jesus alien.

I’m calling aliens who bring us salvation, uplift, transcendence, or special powers, the Jesus alien. Religion has always worked in that psychological territory, so it’s interesting when science fiction offers alien saviors. I remember Arthur C. Clarke covering this topic several times. It always aroused suspicion in me, but then I’m an atheist.

We’re actually given two reasons for Bo’s transformation from a surly teenager to a loving son – he’s infected by the alien, and he has sex with Aliyah, neither of which should have brought about such a dramatic personality transformation. I also thought it too melodramatically cliche that Bo was brutally beaten by Aliyah’s brothers. That plot choice hurt the story for me. It would have passed if the story had been set in Azerbaijan but not in modern America.

Nayler is a skilled writer, but I can also see the machinations in his storytelling. This is the third finalist story in the Asimov’s Reader Awards by Nayler that our Facebook group has read. Such prolific output requires a certain amount of hackwork. “Muallim” and “A Rocket for Dimitrios” felt more original than “Año Nuevo,” but all three reveal Nayler’s approach to writing science fiction. Ray Nayler knows what readers love, hopes to give them more, and is succeeding. I give this story a strong three stars.

Nayler isn’t breaking any new ground but he’s entertaining and very readable. Is there any new territory to be found in our genre anymore? That’s the trouble with being an old science fiction reader, we’ve read it all before.

JWH

Does Too Much Suspension of Disbelief Ruin a Story?

The willing suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy many forms of fiction, especially science fiction. On the other hand, at what point does ignoring reality ruin a story?

Some readers and moviegoers are willing to accept anything the story asks of them. If the story moves along quickly and is exciting, most readers aren’t going to stop and ask questions. Other readers will slow, pause, or even stop reading when they hit a logical speedbump.

Yesterday I read “Glitch” by Alex Irvine. I hope the author won’t mind me using his story as a lecture about the overuse of the suspension of disbelief. It’s up for the Asimov’s Science Fiction 36th Annual Readers Award. You can read it here. It’s a fun story based on a neat idea. Several people in our short story group rated it highly, with one member giving it five stars out of five.

I liked “Glitch,” but I hit several speedbumps where I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

The story begins with Kyle Brooks waking up in a hospital room wondering how he got there. We quickly learn that Kyle was killed in a terrorist attack by a white supremacist. His mind had been backed up and he had a new body without scars, tattoos, or piercings. That implied to me it was a clone.

Speedbump #1

Where did Kyle’s new body come from? Since the doctor examines Shari’s wounds and gives her a prescription it’s implied that it’s right after the bombing. Did they grow a clone body in hours? Did they have one in storage? No one else in our group asked about this.

Obviously, Irvine wants to ignore this, so I will too. Mind uploading is a very popular topic in science fiction right now, although it’s been around for decades. I fondly remember Mindswap by Robert Sheckley from 1966 and less fondly I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein from 1970. I don’t believe mind swapping will ever be possible but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for stories about this theme. It is a fun concept.

Speedbump #2

We quickly learn that Kyle isn’t alone in his new body. For some reason, Brian, the terrorist bomber is sharing Kyle’s mind. This is much harder to believe. Kyle is at a special hospital for restoring minds. Evidently, it’s quite a regulated business. How in the world could two people be in one mind? Irvine does some hand waving that is completely unsatisfactory to me.

Great Idea #1

However, this is a very cool plot twist so once again I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. The possibility of a liberal who is about to marry a person of color coexisting with a white supremacist is a great fictional situation. Again, I let my suspension of disbelief go. I love the possibility of a bad guy walking a mile in the shoes of a good guy.

Speedbump #3

The police show up at Kyle’s house the next day. They have evidence that suggests the terrorist bomber is inside Kyle’s mind, but Kyle tells them no, even though he knows Brian is there. The cops even tell Kyle that if he’s lying, he can be prosecuted as a conspirer for Brian’s crime. This is the hardest part of the story for me to buy. Kyle should have immediately told the cops that Brian was in his mind. Kyle obviously doesn’t want him there, and he has no resources to remove him, why wouldn’t he ask for help from people who did have the resources?

I know why Irvine made this plot choice. He wanted Kyle to become the action hero of the story. Personally, I always find stories where an ordinary person becomes an action hero to be completely unbelievable. I really don’t want to suspend my disbelief on this point, but I’ve got to buy into it because I want to know how Kyle rids himself of Brian.

This is why I’ve stopped watching thrillers and action movies because movies have made everything with this kind of comic book logic. Comic book logic is the most extreme version of suspension of disbelief. Anything is possible. All a writer must do is say it’s so. They expect the reader to accept that whatever is suggested is real. No critical thinking is assumed as standard.

Alex Irvine does write for comics and I’m afraid “Glitch” descends into full comic book logic from here on out. As the plot speeds up, so does the frequency in which Irvine asks us to suspend our disbelief. Irvine isn’t alone in doing this. It’s become a common practice in science fiction stories that involve action.

Science fiction books used to be more realistic. Movies and television shows have always leaned towards comic book logic. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon started out as comic strips in the newspapers. In modern times, as comic book movies have dominated box office sales, comic book logic has infected all genres of movies based on action. I think this has inspired science fiction writers to use it more and more in their books and short stories.

The result of this is that readers don’t just suspend their disbelief at basic conceptual science fiction ideas, they have turned it off for any kind of characterization or plotting. We’re asked to accept the absurd, the impossible, the unbelievable, the illogical, the inane, actions people would never do, to move the plot forward, usually at a breakneck speed.

When I point this out most people tell me, “It’s just a story – chill out.” And I suppose that would be okay if we were all five years old and still believed in Santa Claus. But if you look at our society, comic book logic has corrupted all ages in all levels of society. The world is filling up with gullible people who expect reality to be like comic books and movies. They expect anything is possible, they want anything they believe to be true. Is this because of the fiction we consume? Has the suspension of disbelief needed for fiction transferred to how we live our lives?

One of the early critics of science fiction suggested that good science fiction should only have one suspension of disbelief per story. That after the fantastic concept everything else should be realistic. This is true for two other stories I’ve read recently, “Fire Watch” by Connie Willis and “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler. The first gives the ability to time travel to historians, and the second has a plague that destroys speech. After those starting points, we’re not asked to suspend our disbelief again. Both short stories are classics of science fiction.

I believe the science fiction norm has changed over time so that writers seek to cram in as many speculative ideas as possible because it keeps their readers constantly thrilled. The side-effect of this paradigm shift is that we’re asked to suspend our disbelief over and over.

If “Glitch” had only expected me to believe that mind swapping will be happening after the mid-21st century, and two minds could occupy one body, I would have been happy to let the story unfold. In fact, I was looking forward to several possibilities playing out. I’ll call these Expectations.

Expectation #1

I wanted Irvine to work out how two minds in one body would function. The old saying about walking a mile in my shoes has come true, so I wanted to see what would happen. How much of our personality is determined by our body and how much is determined by our experiences? Would Brian, the white supremacist, change because he was in a new environment?

Irvine didn’t go in that direction. Irvine spent the rest of the story having Kyle do everything possible to rid himself of Brian. Now that’s logical, but since we’re in a story about two people in one body, I wanted to imagine how that would work. Basically, it works just enough to maintain an action-oriented plot where Kyle would become a hero. I can accept that, but I also expected Kyle’s actions to save himself would be realistic from now on in the story. I also expected Kyle to grow from this experience, gain insights, or have an epiphany. Nobody grows in this story.

Speedbump #4

To save himself and prove to the police he’s not guilty of cooperation under the habeas mentis law, Kyle figures he needs to find the bad guys, stop the next bomb, and prove himself the hero. This has become such a cliché plot point that I groaned at having to read it. In science fiction, there is a suspension of disbelief over fantastic ideas, but in storytelling in general, there’s also a suspension of disbelief in basic plotting. This plot motivation is so tired that I usually stop reading or watching. Still, I wanted to find out how Kyle rids himself of Brian.

Speedbump #5

Kyle decides he needs help and remembers a programmer from work named Abdi. The magical hacker is the new fairy godmother in fiction. Abdi can quickly solve all of Kyle’s problems with his band of fellow hackers and cog swappers.

Speedbump #6

Irvine introduces us to cog swapping. Kyle needed a hospital to put a copy of his mind back into his body, but Abdi and his merry band can swap minds and stream real-time brain backups with tiny nifty gadgets. Think magic wands. This is when the story got downright stupid. I no longer could suspend disbelief at all. It was now moving a comic book panel speed.

Great Idea #2

When Kyle reaches the hideout of the bomb makers he is attacked by Brian in his body. It turns out the Brian in Kyle’s head is a copy, and the Brian with a body has no need of him. Kyle’s Brian is furious at being betrayed. This is a fantastic plotting idea. If Great Idea #1 is having the bad guy in the good guy’s head, walking a mile in his shoes, then Great Idea #2 is having the bad guy see himself. This reminds me of Bob Dylan’s song “Positively 4th Street.”

I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

And just for that one moment

I could be you


Yes, I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

You’d know what a drag it is

To see you

Expectation #2

If we could travel back in time one week and spend that week with ourselves, would we like each other? When the real Brian showed up in “Glitch” I was thrilled. This was a new plot twist. This was something different. And it inspired my hopes that the story would turn around.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an old saying that should have applied here. My first expectation was internal Brian to change because of walking a mile in Kyle’s shoes. My second expectation was that the internal Brian would side with Kyle to fight external Brian. I saw this as a great symbolic solution to the story. Internal Brian would change, help Kyle catch external Brian, and then fade away inside of Kyle as Brian’s evil personality was overwritten by Kyle’s goodness. That’s what the doctors told Kyle would happen at the beginning of the story.

This would be deeply positive symbolism. By the story’s logic, we should blow up all white supremacists. That’s its solution to racism. But that’s not a practical solution in the real world. We need to overwrite racism with positive personality traits. We need racists to see that they are wrong. Simple fiction has simple bad guys with simple solutions – kill the bad guys. That’s Old Testament thinking. New Testament thinking involves conversions and salvation.

Simple fiction needs bad guys to kill without remorse. Terrorists are the safe one-dimensional bad guy to use in fiction. I wanted “Glitch” to go deeper.

But this story didn’t follow my expectation.

Speedbump #7 and #8

Kyle kills external Brian by setting off the bomb. This was clearly foreshadowed early in the story. Kyle awakes in the same hospital that he did at the beginning of the story. He is free of internal Brian. How? Abdi’s magic of course. If it was that easy, why didn’t the hospital erase Brian at the beginning of the story? And Kyle has another new body. Where the hell does all these clones of Kyle keep coming from?

Conclusion

“Glitch” was fun to read. I tripped over one speedbump after another. I’m old, so I’m probably too judgmental and cranky. I thought Irvine has a great idea for a novel. The story unfolds much too fast. It should have been longer with subplots and proper pacing. It needs depth and subtlety. Even with the existing plot, it would probably make a lot of readers happy. I wouldn’t want to read it though, not as is. However, if it was fixed without all the speedbumps I might.

It would be entirely unfair for me to expect Irvine to write a story other than the one he wrote. I have to wonder if other readers aren’t like me and as they read react to stories with ups and downs, or with hopes that the tale will go in different directions and explore the territory the story inspires in our minds?

James Wallace Harris, 4/1/22

1971 WSFA-Analog Poll of Best SF Short Stories by Michael T. Shoemaker

With building our database, Classics of Science Fiction, we love to find data sources from the past so we can show how science fiction novels and short stories are remembered over time. We call each source a citation. It’s much harder to find data on the popularity of short stories, so I was very happy when Ken Papai posted to Facebook about P. Schuyler Miller’s discussion of a 1971 poll on the best SF short stories of all time. The poll was featured in Miller’s column, The Reference Library in the October and November 1971 issues of Analog Science Fiction. The poll was conducted for Miller by Michael Shoemaker for the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA). Ken found this mention while reading Wikipedia.

Ken’s post inspired a web hunt for me. Miller’s two essays summarized the poll, but I wanted to see Shoemaker’s results. I went to Google but it was no help. Then I went to Fanac.org, the archive of fanzines hoping to find a fanzine from that period that printed the results. I had no luck because it has so many fanzines from 1971. Then Dave Hook in our group thought of looking up Shoemaker in ISFDB.org and found that Shoemaker had published the results in the WSFA Journal #77 for June-July 1971. I then went back to Fanac.org and found that issue to read, and the article by Shoemaker. Then Piet Nel sent me a Word document with the results taken from an SFADB page he saw long ago. Finally, I think it was Dave who found the old SFADB listing on the Wayback Machine. The SFADB listing is the easiest to read. However, I have compiled Shoemaker’s WSFA article with Miller’s two articles into a pdf if you want to read the originals.

I write about all this to show the value of the internet, and especially tools like ISFDB, SFADB, and Fanac.org. But it also shows the value of making friends on Facebook and belonging to a group devoted to reading science fiction short stories. I love these internet treasure hunts for information.

I will add this citation source to the database. It will help reflect how readers in 1971 remembered the science fiction short stories they loved. That’s why I find fascinating about this work, how novels and stories are remembered and forgotten. I’ve been thinking about getting Mike to program our system so we can show what stories were popular for any given year. Right now our results are cumulative for all citation source years. You can use the List Builder feature to show what stories were popular up to 1971, but that reflects all the citation sources through now. What I think would be cool is to pick a year, or range of years, and show what people remembered for just that time period.

Mike Shoemaker’s article shows what short stories were remembered in 1971. You can pick any single citation source now to see what short stories were remembered for the year the citation was created. But it would be cool to compare what readers in 1972 remembered versus what readers in 2022 remembered.

By the way, even if you’re not interested in how I found this poll, you might find Shoemaker’s opinion of it interesting. He was distressed that certain stories were popular, stories I love. That’s the thing about polls and meta-lists. They don’t always reflect our opinions. Shoemaker also noted that the recent Science Fiction Hall of Fame probably had a lot of impact on the voting.

Finally, one last nod to Fanac.org. It has the fanzine Lan’s Lantern #30 that ran my article that was the origin of our Classics of Science Fiction database.

James Wallace Harris, 3/27/22

When is a Forgotten SF Story Worth Ressurecting?

Today I read “it walks in beauty” by Chan Davis, first published in Star Science Fiction (January 1958) edited by Frederik Pohl. You can read the magazine version here. It was reprinted 9/3/3 in SciFiction at SciFi.com by Ellen Datlow who rediscovered the author’s original version. That version is in print in It Walks in Beauty, a collection of stories and essays by Chandler Davis edited by Josh Lukin. That collection was reviewed at The New York Review of Science Fiction by Mark Rich, who also provides biographical background on the mysterious Chan Davis that I won’t repeat here. However, I learned from Rich’s essay that the version I read today was altered by Frederick Pohl, which Lukin explains in an introduction:

Only looking at the two versions quickly I felt Pohl improved the story. Especially, with the opening line:

“Harriet waved to Max from the end of its row, but Max’s thoughts were far away.”

I kept rereading it wondering why Harriet was being referred to as its. Was Harriet a robot I wondered? In the Davis version, the opening line is:

“I love Luana,” said Max dreamily, leaning against the ladder that ran up the towering vat of Number 73.”

That line did nothing for me.

“it walks in beauty” is not a great story except that it plays with pronouns. Sexually attractive females are shes, but women who work are its or careers. Because we’ve become a pronoun conscious society, this makes this science fiction story from 1958 very interesting in 2022.

Max is in love with Luana, an exotic dancer. Women who want sex and babies become star performers that men chase, which is why Davis originally called the story “The Star System.” These women do everything they can to appear sexually attractive to men. They are also the women men marry. The women who want careers wear their hair short like men, wear pants, don’t get married, and don’t have children. In this story, they are ignored by men, treated like coworkers, and referred to with the pronoun it, or collectively as careers rather than girls or shes.

Chan Davis characterized men as single-minded. They equate love with sex, accept career women as equals or even professional superiors, but they don’t think of them as women. Paula is a career that is friendly and encouraging to Max, helping him to advance at his job. Max asks Paula if she wants to come with him to Luana’s dance club. He expects her to be one of the guys who’d want to watch a stripper. Eventually, Paula reveals to Max that she has a sexual side but Max can’t accept that, even when she tricks him into seeing her with a wig and make-up. He’s horrified at her pretending to be a woman, and can’t accept it when Paula tells him that Luana wears and wig and dresses up too for the part. And it really blows Max’s mind when Paula tries to convince him that playing the sexy girl role is offensive to women.

There’s a lot to admire in this 1958 science fiction story. Why then, hasn’t it been reprinted in major science fiction anthologies? Maybe in the 1950s they never imagined society playing around with pronouns? Maybe they didn’t like the idea of women having careers or the suggestion that being a sex object was an act. In 2022 people might appreciate this story more.

It’s like the famous story, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster. It’s a great story for 1909, but it became a fantastic story after the internet became real.

I’m partial to 1950s science fiction, so the story might impress me in ways that modern readers will miss. I’m impressed that it stands out in hindsight. In 1958 I was seven, but if I had been ten years older, I still don’t think I would have picked up on the pronoun thing so quickly. The difference between the Pohl edit and Davis’ original is Pohl throws the reader into the pronoun thing and Davis waits to explain it. Pohl, as a skilled writer and editor, knew it was savvier to let the reader learn in context. He wanted to give the story teeth.

Chan Davis didn’t stick around the science fiction field for long. He was a social activist back in the 1950s so he had more important things to deal with. There’s an interview with Davis by Lukin in The Cascadia Subduction Zone v. 1 n. 1 (January 2011). This sidebar might tempt you to read it:

James Wallace Harris, 3/17/22

p.s. In case you’re wondering, I now use screenshots of quotes because my WordPress theme doesn’t word wrap in some browsers the preformatted mode I used for quotes.

Finishing The Big Book of Science Fiction

After finishing “Craphound,” I decided to go ahead and read “The Slynx” by Tatyana Tolstaya and “Baby Doll” by Johanna Sinisalo and finish The Big Book of Science Fiction. That gave me a real sense of accomplishment because The Big Book of Science Fiction is probably the largest book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read War and Peace. I’m guessing TBBofSF is even longer than The Bible.

I don’t have any final assessment on this anthology. It’s just too damn big to judge as a whole. I did complain about many of the stories, but on the other hand, it has a massive amount of great science fiction too. The other day it was on sale for $2.99 for the Kindle edition at Amazon, and I thought what a wonderful bargain. I wished I hadn’t owned it already so I could get in on such a deal.

“The Slynx” was a good science fiction story, about Moscow in the far future after an atomic war where people only remember “The Blast.” The story is about civilization being thrown back into the Dark Ages. People live by myths and superstitions. Mutations are common. This kind of story was very popular in the 1950s, and Wikipedia refers to them as nuclear holocaust fiction. Among my favorites are A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett. What struck me most was how Tolstaya portrayed people’s thinking in this future much like how I imagined people thinking in prehistory.

I’ve read “Baby Doll” before, but I’m not sure where. I might have read it years ago when I first bought The Big Book of Science Fiction and tried a few stories from it. At the time, I never imagined I would read it from cover to cover. “Baby Doll” is a disturbing story about the near future where the main character is an eight-year-old girl who tries to be as sexualized as possible from the clues she gets from society and her peers. It came out in 2002 and imagined a near future where grade school children would emulate the dress styles, language, and behaviors they got from watching porn and adult reality shows. I can’t help but wonder how much of that is true today? Imagine if the MTV Awards show could be sent back in time to the people in the 1950s. What would they think?

My sister recently told me she tried to get her very young granddaughter to wear something less provocative to school and the kid got upset claiming her granny was slut shaming her. I doubt “Baby Doll” could be taught in a 7th grade English class, but I sure would love to hear what the students would say about it.

On the same day finishing The Big Book of Science Fiction, I also finished Star Science Fiction Stories, the first in a series edited by Frederik Pohl from 1953. That means Group Read 27 and 35 are finishing for our Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction. It also means Group Read 36, Asimov’s SF Magazine Poll Finalists for 2021 starts 21st March, and Group Read 37, Hugo and Nebula Award Winners from Asimov’s Science Fiction edited by Sheila Williams will start a few days after that. It’s a coincidence that our 36th group read will be the 36th annual readers’ awards for Asimov’s Science Fiction.

So for the next several weeks, the Facebook group will be reading and discussing SF stories from the 1980s and 1990s, and 2021. If you’re interested and use Facebook drop by. I won’t be reviewing every one of these stories here, but I’ll probably write about the ones that impress me most.

James Wallace Harris, 3/15/22