One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh

One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntosh is a fix-up novel that was published in hardback in 1954 but was first serialized as three stories in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Feb 1953, Jan 1954, Sep 1954). That was quite common back in the 1950s, to assemble a novel from a series of shorter works written first for the magazines. For example, Foundation, More Than Human, A Case of Conscience, A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc. were all fix-up novels.

One in Three Hundred by J. T. McIntoshI had discovered the novelette “One in Three Hundred,” in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1954 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty. I thought it a ripping tale and immediately looked it up on ISFDB.org. That’s when I found out there was also a novel by the same title, and it was based on three stories:

My first inclination was to order a copy of the novel. I was anxious to keep reading to find out what happens. It is currently in print but sold as three separate ebooks for $3.99 each, reprinting the individual stories. I really wanted a copy of the original Doubleday edition because of its dust jacket. A first edition can run in the hundreds, but book club editions aren’t too expensive. However, I have the magazines and decided to just read the story in its original serial form.

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I’m not sure Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas knew what they had with the first story because it wasn’t given cover like parts two and three. “One in Three Hundred” was mentioned on the cover, but it was listed last. However, they introduced the story with:

Intro 1

The story begins with 28-year-old Bill Easson walking around the small town of Simsville, (population 3,261) oddly judging people in his thoughts. What slowly unfolds is the world will end soon and Bill will pilot one of 700,000 cheaply built rockets that can each take ten passengers to Mars. Only 1 in 300 Earthlings will get a chance to survive, and Bill’s job to pick the right people. This story reminds me of a movie I just reviewed, Abandon Ship where Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power) has to choose who lives and dies on a lifeboat.

Bill is very conscientious about his assignment. He doesn’t want the obvious morally best people, but people he thinks are up to the challenge and one who could make something out of their new life on Mars. Of course, most people in this town try to con, barter or force themselves onto his list. It’s a compelling story, and fairly adult for a genre targetted to youths. Most of the story is about Bill’s logic, and how he argues with different people who can’t see his way of thinking.

We eventually learn what the editors thought of the story in their introduction to the second part, “One in a Thousand.”

Intro 2

I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to learn that Bill and the ten do make it off Earth because the second episode is about surviving the journey in space. And the editor’s lets you know about as much as you need to know. I like the second part, but it wasn’t as original as the first story. However, McIntosh does provide some very realistic problems for his characters so solve, much more real than most space adventures of the time. 1954 was pre-NASA and although McIntosh doesn’t lay a bunch of technical jargon on us, he does cover all the scientific basics for traveling to Mars. Most science fiction at the time, or even later, seldom bother with these kinds of details.

Again, this might be a spoiler, but it’s probably obvious that in the third installment, they do make it to Mars but face a whole host of new survival problems colonizing Mars. By now the editors know how big of a hit they have.

Intro 3

One in Three Hundred is a forgotten novel of science fiction. It appears to have made a minor splash at the time. Groff Conklin said it was “A distinguished tale” in his January 1955 review in Galaxy. But it was the last book he reviewed in that column and didn’t say much other than describing the three parts like I have above.

P. Schuyler Miller in the February 1955 “Reference Library” damns the story with faint praise.

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On the other hand, Damon Knight savages the story in the February 1955 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly. Who is right, Boucher and McComas and the readers of F&SF, or Damon Knight, who became one of the first literary critics of the genre? Knight makes me feel stupid for liking the story.

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Science Fiction Quarterly 1955-02-0076

And Henry Hull in his review from Imagination April 1955 makes me wonder how could  have I liked the story at all:

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Galaxy reviews the One in a Hundred again when it was republished as an Ace Double. This time Floyd C. Gale calls it excellent and compares it to When Worlds Collide.

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Finally, we have Leslie Flood’s review from New Worlds #47. His 1956 take is closer to my 2020 opinion.

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New Worlds No 047 0128

I have to admit that One in Three Hundred isn’t a great book, but I find it fun reading. But then, I love discovering old forgotten science fiction worth remembering. I’m mining the past for the kind of science fiction I enjoy — the ones I missed the first time around. Of course, that means anything I like and recommend must be taken with a grain of salt if you’re only used to reading modern science fiction.

I recently read The Death of Grass by John Christopher from the same time period and will say it is a classic, a true novel of artistic quality, one a modern reader should admire. McIntosh doesn’t come close to Christopher’s writing skills. However, does that mean I shouldn’t recommend One in Three Hundred? Damon Knight was famous for vivisecting SF novels, and he does make this novel seem silly — but I could do that to all my favorite books. Sure, it is unrealistic to believe that we’d ever build 700,000 cheap spaceships. I doubt McIntosh believed it either. McIntosh sat down to write about one man picking ten people to survive the apocalypse. That’s the primary hook. The second and third parts are about how well he chose.

Of course, McIntosh gets everything wrong about Mars, but then so does all the other science fiction writers of that time, including Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov. I remember seeing the name J. T. McIntosh on books when I was growing up, but they never appealed enough to me to buy and read them. Now I wish I had. I assumed he was among the countless hack writers of genre and that might be what he eventually became. However, it appears his early books from the 1950s were more promising. Some of his books are in print today as ebooks, but I don’t know if they are his best work or hack work. If we have any J. T. McIntosh fans out there who can vouch for his better novels, leave a comment.

James Wallace Harris, 3/16/20

The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1952

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Here are the stories Bleiler and Dikty picked in 1953 for the best of 1952:

  • “Ararat” by Zenna Henderson *****
  • “Category Phoenix” by Boyd Ellanby ***
  • “Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. ****
  • “Conditionally Human” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. *****
  • “The Conqueror” by Mark Clifton ***
  • “Counter Transference by William F. Temple ***
  • “The Dreamer” by Alfred Coppel **
  • “Fast Falls the Eventide” by Eric Frank Russell *****
  • “Firewater” by William Tenn ****
  • “The Fly” by Arthur Porges ***
  • “The Gadget Had a Ghost” by Murray Leinster ****
  • “Game for Blondes” by John D. MacDonald ***
  • “The Girls From Earth” by Frank M. Robinson ****
  • “I Am Nothing” by Eric Frank Russell ****
  • “Lover, When You’re Near Me” by Richard Matheson ****
  • “Machine” by John W. Jakes **
  • “The Middle of the Week After Next” by Murray Leinster ***
  • “The Moon is Green” by Fritz Leiber ****
  • “Surface Tension” by James Blish *****
  • “Survival” by John Wyndham ****

Then in 1986 Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg picked these stories as the best short SF of 1952 (overlapping stories are in bold):

  • “The Altair at Midnight” by C. M. Kornbluth ***
  • “The Business, As Usual” by Mack Reynolds **
  • “Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. ****
  • “Cost of Living” by Robert Sheckley ***
  • “Delay in Transit” by F. L. Wallace *****
  • “Fast Falls the Eventide” by Eric Frank Russell *****
  • “Game for Blondes” by John D. MacDonald ***
  • “Hobson’s Choice” by Alfred Bester ***
  • “The Impacted Man” by Robert Sheckley ***
  • “Lost Memory” by Peter Phillips ***
  • “The Martian Way” by Isaac Asimov ****
  • “The Moon is Green” by Fritz Leiber ****
  • “The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury ***
  • “Sail On! Sail On!” by Philip Jose Farmer ****
  • “The Snowball Effect” by Katherine MacLean **
  • “The Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury ****
  • “What Have I Done?” by Mark Clifton ****
  • “What’s It Like Out There?” by Edmond Hamilton *****
  • “Yesterday’s House” by Fritz Leiber ****

I’m always amazed at the different lineups between Bleiler/Dikty and Asimov/Greenberg. For 1951 they only have one story in common, so having four in 1952 is rather interesting. Using our 2020 CSFquery tool here are the most cited stories in our database for 1952:

1953 best SF stories csfquery

Remember, the Bleiler/Dikty and Asimov/Greenberg anthologies are three of the citations used in our database. For example, here are the citations for “Surface Tension,” the most cited SF short story of 1952. Why didn’t Asimov/Greenberg include it in their collection?

Surface Tension citations

I’m extremely fond of “Surface Tension” but my very favorite short read for 1952 was “Fast Falls the Eventide” by Eric Frank Russell, and it only received two citations. That implies citations are not the best way to recognize a good story. Who knows, there might be several stories from 1952 that never got any recognition after their first publication that I would enjoy reading today. There were dozens of magazines back in 1952 publishing science fiction.

“The Year of the Jackpot” is one of my top favorite Heinlein short stories, but it wasn’t picked for either anthology. “Baby is Three” by Theodore Sturgeon is a tremendous tale. I wonder why Bleiler/Dikty didn’t pick it for Year’s Best Short Novels 1953 (it was too long for the other two anthologies). I guess it was already being recognized as being part of More Than Human. I wished both Bleiler/Dikty and Asimov/Greenberg would list the stories they wanted to anthologize but couldn’t. For a while, they left a blank page for the Heinlein stories, but they soon stopped that.

The two Ray Bradbury stories, “Sound of Thunder” and “The Pedestrian” are often taught in schools, well, at least when I was going to school. However, they didn’t impress me as much as when I first read them over a half-century ago when I had to read them in school. Still good stories, but their fame has dimmed their brightness.

I thought “Delay in Transit” by F. L. Wallace was an exceptional story, but it seems to have been forgotten. Ditto for “Ararat” by Zenna Henderson. It’s a shame that her stories of The People are fading away from the genre’s memory.

I got a big kick out of reading these 1952 stories. When I started this project, beginning with the SF stories of 1939, I expected the famous Golden Age SF stories of the 1940s to be the outstanding stories of the past. But I was disappointed. Overall, the 1940s weren’t particularly golden for me. Things started picking up in the late 1940s, and the 1950s are now producing the kind of stories I’d call a Golden Age. I’m sure it’s a matter of generational perspective. There is also the possibility that each decade will be better than the one before it. In that case, I’m really looking forward to the 1960s.

Thrilling Wonder

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JWH

What Happened to Science Fiction?

Disclaimer: My definition of science fiction is not how others define it. Nor is my approach to Star Trek. I’m just psychoanalyzing myself to understand my emotional reaction to the new Star Trek: Picard. It has given me insight into how science fiction is changing.

Is science fiction always science fiction? The label is so broadly used that it’s almost meaningless. Hasn’t science fiction changed from generation to generation? Wasn’t science fiction different before Star Trek in 1966? And didn’t it change again in 1977 with Star Wars? Before 1966 the audience for science fiction was mainly readers of books and magazines. Star Trek brought in millions of new fans. Star Wars brought in tens of millions of new fans. Didn’t each new wave of fans redefine the genre?

Hasn’t every new decade starting in the 1930s, attract new writers that changed the genre? Wasn’t science fiction before NASA different than after NASA? Didn’t the influx of women writers change science fiction? Hasn’t the success of fantasy influence science fiction? Don’t you think the shift to writing long book series changes things again?

I felt Star Trek: Picard in 2020 works to do something very different than Star Trek in 1966. Can we still call it science fiction? Should a label be changed when the object it points to changes? Language has always been fluid, so we tend to recycle words, which can be confusing. I believe if we study all the different incarnations of Star Trek we’ll see that what we point to with the label science fiction has regularly changed.

Early science fiction was about real things we might invent or discover. Writers said someday we’ll go to the Moon and we did. Someday we’ll invent robots and we’re doing it. Then other writers came along and used those ideas to make up fun stories indifferent to what might happen in the future. They didn’t care what was really possible or not, they just loved the stories. Writers who were idea lovers wanting to speculate found it harder and harder to come up with new possible realist concepts so they switched speculating about fantastic possibilities. And the story lovers embraced those ideas too.

The original Star Trek had many episodes written by idea lovers. With each new Star Trek series the science fiction shifted more to the story lovers. Star Trek: Picard has no speculation at all. In fact, it seems primarily nostalgic and recursive. It even seems to suggest a new phase, character lovers. All the enchantment in this new series seems to come from connecting with old friends, old enemies, and old conflicts. Is that really science fiction?

Everyone has a different definition or concept to explain their love of science fiction. I’m enjoying the new Star Trek: Picard but I feel something is missing, and it’s taken me a while to figure out what. For me, science fiction is that sense-of-wonder rush I get when I encounter a new far-out speculative idea. Plenty of stories are called science fiction, but for me, the real McCoy always comes with a sense-of-wonder epiphany. What I’m realizing is earlier Star Trek series were different from recent series, and something has changed. I’m wondering if this new approach to Star Trek isn’t also a trend with other forms of science fiction. The nostalgic recursion is certainly true of Star Wars and the Marvel Universe.

The Star Trek universe is huge. It’s hundreds and hundreds of hours of television episodes and movies, plus a zillion pages of books and fan fiction. Sure, Star Trek is set in a science fictional framework, but 99.98% of Star Trek is mythos and not science fiction — not by my definition. After the original series, Star Trek is an ever-expanding mythology that seldom adds new science-fictional ideas. Star Trek is mainly Star Trek.

Star Trek: Picard is a chimera. Our senses are dazzled by its special effects while our heart melts with nostalgia, yet something is missing. During the summer of 1966, I began seeing commercials for a TV show aimed directly at me. I actually looked forward to going back to school that year because it meant Star Trek would premiere. That summer was a transition time for me because I was about to begin high school. I had spent my junior high years gorging on science fiction books and short stories, and I was full of sense of wonder and a true believer in science fiction.

There was little serious science fiction on television before Star Trek, notably The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. So it was with great anticipation and excitement that I tuned into to see the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap” shown on September 8, 1966. Maybe I had too much hope because a story about a shape-shifting alien seemed old hat. I may or may not have read Campbell’s classic story “Who Goes There?” by then, but I had read other SF stories about beings that could fool us into thinking they were human.

Yet, I was still excited about Star Trek. The concept of a five-year mission of a scientific vessel exploring the galaxy did instill a lot of hope. Knowing that every week Star Trek would present a new science fiction idea completely sold me on the show. Back then I and my buddies would always discuss a science fiction story by the ideas that wowed us. Good stories, no matter the genre, always have good characters, plots, dialogue, standard storytelling structure, but what made science fiction unique was its mind-blowing ideas.

The following week’s episode, “Charlie X” did generate a better sense of wonder high — the idea of a human kid being raised by aliens was far out to ponder on my own and discuss with friends at school. Sure, Heinlein had done a spectacular job with Stranger in a Strange Land, and “Charlie X” felt like a rip-off, but it still was cool — it was on television to see.

The following week’s show, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was even more sense of wonder provoking  — what if we meet aliens with godlike powers? Unfortunately, not all 79 episodes of Star Trek pushed my sense of wonder button. Many episodes were groan-worthy, especially after the first season. Remember the incredibly painful “Spock’s Brain?” Gosh-doggie, it was bad. There were many reasons to cancel that show in the third season despite fan rapture. Evidently, science fiction’s repertoire of far-out concepts is smaller than 79.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered it brought both hope and nostalgia. By then the writers had figured out they needed relationship stories within the crew, and outside threats to generate enough weekly plots to keep the series going. The series began to shift, aiming at story lovers over idea lovers. I followed the show for its entire first run. The original series was more like an anthology of short stories. For the most part, the Next Generation had self-contained episodes, but there was more continuity. I liked it for the mythos it was building more than its infrequent science fiction episodes.

Over the years, I’ve tried to rewatch Star Trek: The Next Generation and I’ve always failed. I like Picard better than Kirk, and even though I liked Spock better than Data, Data’s character actually provided a greater range of interesting stories. Star Trek: The Next Generation had 178 episodes. Very few of those episodes are memorable to me now. However, collectively the storytelling, the mythos, of the Next Generation was more memorable than the story arc of the original series. And I believe that’s why Star Trek: Picard is so compelling. Picard has no science fiction or sense-of-wonder that I can recall from the first five episodes. And it’s not really generating new content for story lovers — the series is aimed at character lovers.

Of course, people are going to scream at me. What about the spaceships, the androids, the holographic characters, the aliens, teleporters — those elements brand it as science fiction! Star Trek has been using those elements for so long that they have zip sense-of-wonder. We take them for granted. They are part of the mythos. My definition of science fiction, and it might be only mine, requires science fiction to be inventive, to speculate, extrapolate, to come up with something new, or at least, a neat twist on something old. Star Trek has stopped trying, and I don’t think Star Wars ever tried. Only stand-alone movies like Her or Gattaca or Moon even try to come up with a different take anymore. Ditto for books. Series, by their very nature target story lovers, and most of them run out of steam generating new stories and switch to character love.

I’m sure some new science fiction writers try hard to come up with new science-fictional concepts, but the genre has mostly switched to chewing on the old bones.

The reason we have more and more book series in science fiction is that fans have mutated from wanting ideas to stories to characters. Science fiction has become character and plot-driven, and for the most part, have given up being sense-of-wonder idea-driven. The standard set of mind-blowing elements of science fiction — space travel, aliens, robots, AI, end-of-the-world, time travel, are so common in society that most children accept them as dogma well before they even start school.

I think I was in the 5th or 6th grade before I encountered the idea of time travel by watching the 1960 version of The Time Machine. I was old enough for it to be a shocking concept — one that I relished. What a powerful sense-of-wonder rush. I then went and read the H. G. Wells original story. It’s jammed packed with science fictional ideas. But it doesn’t take reading too many time travel tales to get jaded.

Science fiction has a big problem with staleness. Which is probably why so many fans have switched to nostalgia.

In 1966, Star Trek still had a chance to present sense-of-wonder ideas to most viewers. By 1977, Star Wars was so cliche that it was big fun. Sure, little kids probably didn’t feel that way, but for most viewers, George Lucas was paying homage to a lot of old science fiction. Lucas and Spielberg repackaged science fiction for the masses, but it was about the story, the characters, the plot, and the special effects. It didn’t speculate.

I now have to read a ton of SF short stories to find a single one that surprises me with something new. Quite often now when I read Analog or Asimov’s I find stories that use science-fictional ideas I’ve seen time and time again. Some of the episodes of Black Mirror surprised me. The kind of idea-driven stories I love is usually found in magazines or anthologies, and not novels. You don’t often see a story like Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, or The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Modern television shows have a story arc. The best ones feel like watching a long novel. Star Trek: Picard season one is one long story so that each individual episode adds to the overall story. The plot is a thriller, not science fiction, although the setting is science fiction. We will not get a “City on the Edge of Forever” or “The Inner Light.” And after seeing five episodes of season one of Star Trek: Picard, I’m pretty sure its ten episodes will not equal the sense-of-wonder impact of either of those two individual episodes.

I’m enjoying Star Trek: Picard, but it’s definitely missing something, and to me, what it’s missing is science fiction. We have so much science fiction in the 21st-century that we’ve forgotten the essential nature of science fiction. Well, at least the kind of science fiction I grew up reading and watching in the 20th-century.

Action-oriented thrillers set in space may give the illusion of being science fiction, but they are not. I can understand why some fans claim Star Trek: Picard feels too much like Star Wars. Plots centered around political intrigue, crime, war, kidnapping, revenge, terrorism are about those topics. To be real science fiction the plot has to center around a novel science-fictional concept. All the best episodes in the Star Trek franchise derive their sense of wonder from a science fictional concept. And those standout episodes have become very infrequent.

I’m afraid in future years I won’t spend much time remembering Star Trek: Picard because there’s no cool idea to remember. I can remember more episodes from Star Trek than I can Star Trek: Next Generation even though the later show had more than twice as many episodes. That’s because the original Star Trek was like a collection of science fiction short stories, and Next Generation was more of an ensemble of characters in soap opera set in the future. Even more so for Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.

Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, were all very memorable but if you really examine the episodes, they had very little true characterization. They were caricatures where the writers constantly reinforced the same cliche traits. The focus of each episode was a science-fictional idea, sometimes good, often bad. There will be no “The Trouble With Tribbles” or “Shore Leave” episode in Picard. Fans will remember it as season one. And to me, reuniting old friends with old enemies is not science fiction no matter how many space ships you see.

James Wallace Harris, 2/25/20

Reevaluating the Three Methods of Reading Short Science Fiction

A few years ago I wrote about three ways to read science fiction short stories to get the best historical overview of the genre. They were:

  • Read the original magazines (thousands of magazines)
  • Read the annual anthologies (100-200 volumes)
  • Read the very best retrospective anthologies (2-25 volumes)

Of course, the same approach can be applied to keeping up with current science fiction. You can read the magazines as they come out, or the best-of-the-year annuals the following year, or the occasional anthology that collect the best SF of recent years, like Gardner Dozois’ The Very Best of the Best that covered 2002-2017.

At the time I didn’t have runs of the magazines or a collection of the annual anthologies, but I did have a decent number of great retrospective anthologies. Now I have thousands of magazines, and well over a hundred annual anthologies. I’ve read the annual anthologies for the years 1939-1952, 2016-2018. I’ve also dipped into the magazines whenever I’ve read a reference to them. Finally, I also subscribe to Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed. Unfortunately, I only finish about one story per new issue of a magazine.

Last year I read over 300 science fiction short stories. It’s given me a tremendous feel for the genre. I believe I have a strong sense of the 1940s and early 1950s, and the late 2010s and a vague sense for the other years, including the 19th century.

For the average person, I still think they could gain much of that experience merely by reading one volume, The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Which reiterates my conclusion from the original essay that reading a handful of great retrospective SF anthologies is the practical way to go.

However, I have to say after two years of plowing through seventeen years of the best-SF-of-the-year anthologies there is a much deeper insight into the evolution of science fiction to be found. The time and effort have been very rewarding and I plan to push on through the years. There is one major drawback. I’m spending most of my reading time living in a world of science fiction from sixty years ago.

I’m developing a great appreciation of the past at the cost of letting the present become vaguer and vaguer. In 2019 I read two giant anthologies of 2018 science fiction short stories, and I read a smattering of stories from the 2019 magazines. I’ve been thinking about taking a year off from the past and devoting it completely to reading 2020 science fiction as it comes out. But so far I haven’t been able to do that.

The best retrospective anthologies are distillations of the very best of short science fiction. I don’t like every story, but they are almost uniformly very good to great. Annuals usually have 2-4 great stories, a few very good stories, and several moderately good filler. What I’ve learned is on average, each year only produced 2-4 great SF stories.

Magazines seldom have a great story, and usually have one or two good stories — sometimes a very good one, and then mostly stories I find hard to finish. However, magazines are rewarding because reading them is like taking the pulse of the genre. Between the editorials, essays, book reviews, and ads, there is a sense of now, especially when controversies are brewing and I’m also reading Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and Feedly. Seeing new authors emerge is also very appealing, even if their stories aren’t that good.

I used to read science fiction magazines because I dreamed of writing for them. At 68, I’m not sure it’s realistic to dream that dream anymore. However, reading science fiction has always given me a great deal of pleasure. When I read a wonderful new story it gives the illusion I’m living on the cutting edge of the genre. When I read a great old story, it feels like I’m admiring a lasting work of art, a communique from the past with a message to the future.

Sadly, most new stories in the magazines struggle just to be a publishable story. It often feels like the editor must be fighting to fill out the issue. The stories are usually readable, and adequately written but they often lack sparkle. What I love about reading the old magazines and annual anthologies is discovering forgotten stories by unknown writers that still sparkle after all these decades.

And even the forgotten gems I find are far from perfect. I’m probably just in the right mood reading them at the right time for them to work so well. Read “Delay in Transit” by F. L. Wallace. Will it be as much fun for you as it was for me? Or will it be a clunky oddity from the past? There are no absolutes when judging a story.

I always hunger for a masterpiece, and statistically, those are found in the best retrospective anthologies. But if we don’t support the current magazines we won’t have masterpieces to read in the future. The other day I briefly scanned an article challenging old fans to read new science fiction accusing us of being out of touch, and claiming current science fiction wasn’t the same anymore. I meant to go back and study that essay but I can’t remember where I saw it. (If you think you’ve seen it post a link in the comments.)

In a sense, I agree. Current science fiction is different. Sure it’s more woken but I also think it’s written differently. In some ways, I think modern science fiction writers are more sophisticated with their writing, but it also feels more wordy, more baroque. New science fiction feels plot and character-driven, as opposed to the idea-driven stories of yore. However, much of modern SF doesn’t feel like science fiction to me but fantasy. It feels like an MFA graduate trying to sell their work by adding a touch of the fantastic. My friend Mike who regularly reads Analog and Asimov’s, claims modern stories don’t follow the old traditional techniques of structuring a story with a beginning, middle, and end. He says they are especially weak at creating satisfying endings. An example of an old-fashion story we both admired is “Lot” by Ward Moore from May of 1953.

I do have to admit that I’m not giving current SF a proper defense in this essay. My memory has become quite faulty, and I just can’t remember any of the stories from 2018 or 2019 that stood out. I know there were many, but I just can’t remember them. I recently finished three anthologies of 1952 stories, and even they are barely clinging to my aging neurons.

I wish I was a robot that could keep everything perfectly in memory for exact analysis. I disturbs me that I spend so much time and effort finding short stories to love only to forget them in a couple of days. I’ve been wondering if I kept a list of the very best and regularly reread them would they stick to my mind? However, the failures of my aging brain is a topic for another essay.

James Wallace Harris, 2/14/20

 

 

 

 

 

How Do Stories Work Their Magic?

Ever wonder why a particular story hooks you?

Just finished “Yesterday House” by Fritz Leiber. Follow the link if you want to read it before I give away spoilers. It has been included in a few anthologies, but not many. I read it in The Great SF Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. For some reason, I’m enjoying these old science fiction stories more and more. Maybe it’s practice. After reading the best SF stories from 1939-1951, I’ve trained myself to consume short stories with more skill. Or, maybe science fiction is evolving, becoming more sophisticated.

“Yesterday House” is not a great story but it did grab me. Why? I read over three hundred science fiction short stories last year. Why do only some light my fire?

By the way, 1952 had a particularly good crop of great science fiction short stories.

“Yesterday House” begins with Jack Barr, a graduate student studying marine biology taking a small sailboat off the New England coast heading for a little island. This triggered three memories in me. One, of rowing a small boat to a tiny island in Biscayne Bay near Miami by myself. But more deeply by a memory of reading The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson when I was living in Charleston, Mississippi in 1966. Her description of New England tidewater life enchanted me so that I’ve always been attracted to any TV show, movie, article, or story about New England shore life. And third, wanting to become a marine biologist for a short while when I was in high school.

Does resonating with a story make a story more enchanting for the reader? I can remember being instantly captivated with The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman which was uniquely unlike anything I’ve experienced. Are reading sparks thrown when we encounter extremes, either identifying deeply or discovering total novelty.

After Jack lands, he starts tramping around the island. This triggered memories of all the times I’ve been out in the woods, walking across fields, visiting islands, or just exploring. At first, Jack hopes he’s the first person to step on this island. I remember when I was little, boating with my dad, we’d stop on these microscopic islands and I’d wonder if I was the first on them too. However, Jack comes to an eight-foot fence topped with barbed wire. Jack does something I was usually too chicken to do by myself when I encountered private fields with No Trespassing signs. He climbs a tree, crosses a branch, and jumps down into the forbidden field. I have often gone where I wasn’t supposed to go, especially if I was part of a group with braver boys, and I remember what a creepy feeling it produced knowing I could get caught.

But Jack wasn’t afraid. I remember all the times I had been nearly caught or caught being places I wasn’t supposed to be. Especially that feeling of electricity shooting down my dick. As I read on I worried for Jack.

Soon, Jack came across a Cape Cod house with an antenna wire stretched across the top of the roof. That sparked another memory, of a kidhood buddy who was into tuning distant radio stations to collect QSL cards. He had a horizontal wire across his roof. I had thought about getting my dad to help me put one on our roof so I could pursue that hobby too.

The house also had a gravel driveway and a car parked out front. I wondered why a small island would have a car and how it got there. This reminded me of reading Hardy Boys books, with their small everyday mysteries. As Jack watched, an old woman leaves the house, gets in the car and drives away. Then a young woman comes outside. Beautiful girls always spice up a story. But I’m surprised that Jack just goes over and introduces himself. Doesn’t he know he’s not supposed to be there? Can’t he imagine how much he will scare the poor young woman?

Here’s where the story gets iffy for me. Things happen too fast. Jack starts chatting with the girl, and she quickly becomes friendly. Jack soon learns the girl’s name is Mary Alice Pope and is seventeen, but everything she says is old sounding. She talks about silent movie stars, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charles Lindbergh. Miss Pope tells Jack she has never met a man before, and she was born in 1916 (which happens to be the year my mother was born).

Jack realizes something very weird is going on. He tells her it’s 1951 (the year I was born), She argues it’s 1933 and has an old yellowed newspaper to prove it. She even has a radio playing that is reporting on the round the world flight of Wiley Post. Jack tells her the paper is obviously old because it’s yellow. Mary Alice says all newspapers are yellow. Jack tries to argue that she is being deceived, but the young woman tells him to go, that it would be bad for her if she’s caught with him. He leaves and sails back to the mainland.

Jack gets back to the house of Martin Kesserich, a renowned marine biology professor Jack is studying with that summer. He tells about his adventure with Mrs. Kesserich. She is the one who told him not to sail to the farthest island. She then explains Mary Alice Pope was a young woman that Martin was to marry in 1933 and shows Jack a picture. It’s the same girl.

Here’s where the story moves really too fast, and everything becomes too convenient. However, Fritz Leiber has created an amazing science fiction explanation for 1951. Professor Kesserich clones Mary Alice Pope, and uses his young woman lab assistant for a host mother, and then he marries her. So Mrs. Kesserich is Mary Alice’s birth mother, but not her biological mother. This is well before the concept of cloning, but what Leiber imagines is cloning. The Professor retrieves an egg from the dead Mary Alice Pope and quickens it in such a way that it’s a DNA duplicate of the young dead woman.

Asimov claimed this story was the first example of cloning in science fiction. This is why “Yesterday House” is included in The Best Science Fiction Firsts, an anthology of science fiction stories about the first uses of various concepts. However, there are earlier examples of parthenogenesis in science fiction. Hadn’t Asimov read Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? Written in 1915, first published as a book in 1979. Of course, in that story, each pregnant woman experiences spontaneous parthenogenesis of her own egg, not really the same as cloning.

But Fritz Leiber understood the concept of cloning better than most people today. A clone will not be the same person. Professor Kesserich raised Mary Alice Pope 2.0 in isolation on the island and attempted to program her with the same education and pop culture Mary Alice Pope 1.0 experienced.

Leiber provides us with two sparkly science fictional concepts. Obviously, Leiber doesn’t know the future science of cloning, but he imagines the possibility. But even more fun is trying to imagine how to make a duplicate personality. Growing up, we used to often argue about nature v. nurture. Leiber makes a really good stab at an answer.

Of course, by now, Jack is in love with Mary Alice and wants to rescue her from her weird fate. The last scenes of the story are Professor Kesserich coming to collect his bride and Jack trying to convince her to run away with him. I won’t give away everything, but I will say I liked the ending because it ran counter to the emotions of the story.

Summing up, I have to wonder if great stories are those that we have reasons to resonate with personally, and/or stories that wow us with ideas that are either pet topics we already love, or with novel ideas that totally surprise us.

And thinking about other recent stories that I love, I wonder if we also admire stories that have a bit of “Cold Equations” in them. By that, I’m referring to the Tom Godwin 1954 story about having to space a teenage girl to save a rescue mission. Aren’t we thrilled by characters who have to make hard choices, or as readers, be put into a situation where we have to make a hard emotional choice about the story?

James Wallace Harris, 2/8/20

 

 

 

 

“What Have I Done?” by Mark Clifton

What Have I Done by Mark CliftonOne of the side-effects of reading through all the annual best-science-fiction-of-the-year anthologies is discovering new writers. Well, new to me. I believe all the writers I’ve encountered so far from 1939-1952 are now dead. Often this spurs me to research these forgotten SF authors, which tends to lead to learning more about the history of the genre.

I keep stumbling over little forgotten classics of short science fiction. Today I read “What Have I Done?” by Mark Clifton in The Great SF Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. This oft reprinted story first appeared in the May 1952 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It May of 2020, it will be reprinted in What Have I Done? – The Stories of Mark Clifton. You can read the title story by itself here.

Clifton died in 1963, so his career in science fiction was just over a decade. In 1955, he did win a Hugo for best novel that he co-wrote with Frank Riley, They’d Rather Be Right. It is probably the least known, often the most disliked of all the Hugo winning novels, and somewhat controversial – see Miles Schneiderman’s “They’d Rather Be Right: Getting it Wrong.” Evidently, some fans felt the novel won because of a pro-Scientologist vote.

“What Have I Done?” is the only story by Mark Clifton I remember reading, although I once bought a copy of Eight Keys to Eden but didn’t get into it. I now feel I need to try it again. Since it’s available at LibriVox I’ll give it a listen.

“What Have I Done?” is a fine little story that tickled my sense of science fiction, interesting enough to write about, and to make me want to read more Mark Clifton. For such an unknown writer Clifton did get eight works into our citation database. Clifton’s claim to fame was the psychological insight into characters he got from being a personnel manager. Clifton claimed to have interviewed over 200,000 people. (I find that hard to believe – let’s say a 20-year career, meaning 10,000 people per year, divided by a work-year containing 250 days, means 40 people a day. That’s too many to handle.)

I also have a problem writing about these old stories. To explain why I find them worthy of recommending means revealing spoilers. Odds are, most readers reading this essay won’t track a story down unless I make them sound uber-enticing, but to do that I have to give away details.

The basic setup in “What Have I Done?” involves an unnamed psychologist for an employment office interviewing a man whom he quickly decides is not human. Notice how Clifton’s biography works into the story. When his fictional alter-ego confronts the guy the alien asks:

"Where did I fail in my test?" he asked. His lips formed a smile which was not a smile—a carefully painted-on-canvas sort of smile.

Well, I'd had my answer. I'd explored something unique, all right. Sitting there before me, I had no way of determining whether he was benign or evil. No way of knowing his motive. No way of judging—anything. When it takes a lifetime of learning how to judge even our own kind, what standards have we for judging an entity from another star system?

At that moment I would like to have been one.. of those space-opera heroes who, in similar circumstances, laugh casually and say, "What ho! So you're from Arcturus. Well, well. It's a small universe after all, isn't it?" And then with linked arms they head for the nearest bar, bosom pals.

I had the almost hysterical thought, but carefully suppressed, that I didn't know if this fellow would like beer or not. I will not go through the intermuscular and visceral reactions I ex­perienced. I kept my seat and maintained a polite expression. Even with humans, I know when to walk carefully.

"I couldn't feel anything about you," I answered his ques­tion. "I couldn't feel anything but blankness."

He looked blank. His eyes were nice blue marble again. I liked them better that way.

There should be a million questions to be asked, but I must have been bothered by the feeling that I held a loaded bomb in my hands. And not knowing what might set it off, or how, or when. I could think of only the most trivial.

"How long have you been on Earth?" I asked. Sort of a when did you get back in town, Joe, kind of triviality.

"For several of your weeks," he was answering. "But this is my first time out among humans."

"Where have you been in the meantime?" I asked. "Training." His answers were getting short and his muscles began to fidget again.

"And where do you train?" I kept boring in.

As an answer he stood up and held out his hand, all quite correctly. "I must go now," he said. "Naturally you can cancel my application for employment. Obviously we have more to learn."

I raised an eyebrow. "And I'm supposed to just pass over the whole thing? A thing like this?"

He smiled again. The contrived smile which was a symbol to indicate courtesy. "I believe your custom on this planet is to turn your problems over to your police. You might try that." I could not tell whether it was ironic or logic.

At that moment I could think of nothing else to say. He walked out of my door while I stood beside my desk and watched him go.

Well, what was I supposed to do? Follow him?

I followed him.

This isn’t a major idea for a science fiction story, not in 1952, but it gets better. For one thing, the psychologist reads science fiction. That has a recursive feel that delights me. Second, it’s important to remember that 1952 was during the early days of the flying saucer craze. If people believe aliens were hot-rodding around the skies, why not wonder if they were applying for jobs. Plus, this is Clifton’s first science fiction story, and he sold it to the legendary John W. Campbell. Campbell loved to discover new writers, but he also wanted to shape them to follow his personal philosophy. Campbell was a species-ist. He believed his writers should not show aliens being superior to humans. And Clifton’s aliens were way superior to us. How can Clifton pull off an ending that pleased Campbell? He does, but the icing on the cake is how Clifton ultimately outwits Campbell too (I think). Explaining the ending will be up to you. Are humans really superior?

This might be far-fetched, but I wonder if “What Have I Done?” also applies to Clifton letting himself be coopted by Campbell. Or is that some bullshit I’m giving out to get you to read the story?

JWH

 

 

 

The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1951

1951

It’s been almost six months since I covered the science fiction short stories for 1950. Bleiler and Dikty added a new annual for 1951, Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels — but by that, they mean novellas. It took me a while to track down all three volumes and read them. These annuals are getting expensive on the used market. The Bleiler/Dikty volumes are running $40-75 in the low range with a dust jacket, and the Asimov/Greenberg paperbacks $10-20. I get the feeling there are more old SF fans like me going back and rereading these old best-of-the-year anthologies.

Here are the stories Bleiler and Dikty picked in 1952 for the best of 1951:

  • “. . . And Then There Were None” – Eric Frank Russell
  • “Appointment in Tomorrow” – Fritz Leiber
  • “At No Extra Cost” – Peter Phillips
  • “Balance” – John Christopher
  • “Brightness Falls From The Air” – Idris Seabright
  • “Dark Interlude” Mack Reynolds & Fredric Brown
  • “Extending the Holdings” – David Grinnell
  • “Flight to Forever” – Poul Anderson
  • “Generation of Noah” – William Tenn
  • “The Hunting Season” – Frank M. Robinson
  • “Izzard and the Membrane” – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • “The Marching Morons” – C. M. Kornbluth
  • “Men of the Ten Books” – Jack Vance
  • “Nine Finger Jack” – Anthony Boucher
  • “Of Time and Third Avenue” – Alfred Bester
  • “The Other Side” – Walter Kubilius
  • “A Peculiar People” – Betsy Curtis
  • “The Pedestrian” – Ray Bradbury
  • “The Rats” – Arthur Porges
  • “Seeker of the Sphinx” – Arthur C. Clarke
  • “The Tourist Trade” – Wilson Tucker
  • “The Two Shadows” – William F. Temple
  • “Witch War” – Richard Matheson

Then in 1985 Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg picked these stories as the best of 1951:

  • “A Pail of Air” – Fritz Leiber
  • “Angel’s Egg” – Edgar Pangborn
  • “Breeds There a Man–” – Isaac Asimov
  • “Dune Roller” – Julian May
  • “The Fire Balloons” – Ray Bradbury
  • “I’m Scared” – Jack Finney
  • “The Marching Morons” – C. M. Kornbluth
  • “Null-P” – William Tenn
  • “Pictures Don’t Lie” – Katherine MacLean
  • “The Quest for St. Aquin” – Anthony Boucher
  • “The Sentinel” – Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Superiority” – Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Tiger by the Tail” – Alan E. Nourse
  • “The Weapon” – Fredric Brown
  • “With These Hands” – C. M. Kornbluth

I’ve bolded the single overlap, “The Marching Morons.” Then the current 2020 version of The Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list only has one story having a minimum of 8 citations to make the list: “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke. But here’s all the stories in our database with at least 2 citations:

Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories 1951

1951 didn’t produce a lot of famous science fiction short stories. Many are familiar to me, but I don’t know about modern, younger science fiction fans. “The Quest for St. Aquin” was voted into the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. And “The Marching Morons” and “… And Then There Were None” were voted into The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A that was for novellas. And “The Sentinel” is famous because it was the original seed for 2001: A Space Odessy.

Last year I listened to “… And Then There Was None” by Eric Frank Russell when the audiobook of Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A came out. I thought it okay. At the time it triggered a fond memory. I had two science fiction reading buddies in high school, Jim and George. I remember a day when George told us two Jims about this humorous science fiction story. He was very excited about it and wanted us to read it. Well, it took over fifty years for me to bump into “… And Then There Was None.” This year, when I reread it, it was a good deal funnier. I’m finally getting why George was so amused. It would make a great film because of how colorful Russell had his characters dress and act. And Eric Frank Russell is growing on me.

Each year, I’m becoming more and more impressed with Fritz Leiber. I liked rereading “The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury, but it wasn’t as good as I remembered it when I first read it in high school. I was so taken with Peter Phillips “At No Extra Cost” that I reviewed and reprinted it. I was also very impressed by “Angel Egg” by Edgar Pangborn and started collecting his books. And of course, “The Quest for St. Aquin” is a masterpiece that deserves to be remember as a classic. And I liked “Izzard and the Membrane” so much that I gave it its own review.

That’s the thing about all these stories, they are being forgotten, and that makes me sad.

I started reading science fiction short stories systematically with 1939 and I had looked forward to getting to 1951 because that was the year I was born. I had hoped to discover it was a spectacular year for science fiction. It didn’t produce many notable novels either, except for The Day of the Triffids, The Illustrated Man, and Foundation.

The Classics of Science Fiction 1951

Here’s a list of all the short stories and novels in our database with at least one citation for 1951. Short stories are in double-quotes, and novels are in italics.

The early 1950s was a boom time for magazine science fiction. I believed the boom peaked in 1953 with some forty SF titles on the newsstands. Here are some of the covers to remember 1951 by:

Astounding 1951

F+SF 1951

Galaxy 1951

Startling Stories 1951

New Worlds 1951

Super Science Stories 1951

Thrilling Wonder Stories 1951

Imagination 1951

I was disappointed that my birth year 1951 wasn’t a giant year in science fiction, but I get the feeling times are improving and the 1950s are going to produce some great stories. The variety of writing styles and themes have been expanding since the late 1940s. I’m not sure why the 1940s are considered the Golden Age of Science Fiction and the 1950s the Silver Age. As I read through each year it feels like science fiction is getting better and better.

James Wallace Harris, 1/29/20

 

Can Science Fiction Predict the Future?

“Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. first appeared in the May 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Follow the link to read the story online because it’s unlikely you’ll have access to it in an anthology. What a shame. I read it in Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1952 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, but that anthology is rather hard to find. I can’t believe “Izzard and the Membrane” hasn’t been reprinted more often. In his review, Alec Nevala-Lee says it’s one of his ten favorite science fiction stories of all-time.

I thought “Izzard and the Membrane” a top story for 1951, but not necessarily a classic. I don’t want to describe any of its plot details because of spoilers. The reason why the story grabbed my attention is it’s an early tale of an emergent AI, downloading consciousness, and maybe even artificial reality. As Nevala-Lee points out, very few science fiction stories predicted the impact of computers or the internet. Izzard is an intelligent being inside a cold war military computer. I was born in 1951 and that was the first year that commercial computers were sold. It was also the year that Alan Turing imagined the Turing Test. Wikipedia says artificial intelligence was founded as an academic discipline in 1956, but I don’t know how early people were talking about the concept. 1951 was also the year Nimrod, an early computer game was shown to the public. (See photo at top.) (Computer games were imagined in SF even less than AI.)

I suppose Miller could have been a widely-read man who knew about computers. Evidently, Miller was trained as an engineer, and during WWII a radioman and a tail gunner. He got into writing and screenwriting in the 1950s. Is it that hard to imagine intelligence emerging out of computers? I don’t think so. I think its a much bigger jump to imagine our minds being recorded into computers, especially in 1951. There are two other far-out creations in “Izzard and the Membrane” that I don’t want to spoil the story. I found them less exciting because they were too far out for me, even though one of them has gotten very popular in science fiction in recent years.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. was never a prolific writer but wrote a number of SF stories in the 1950s, three of which were made into his famous fix-up novel A Canticle for Liebowitz. David N. Samuelson has a good overview of Miller and his work in Science Fiction Studies.

What I want to explore is Miller’s effort to imagine the future. We know science fiction writers can’t predict the future. That they aren’t seers with crystal balls. But some science fiction writers can close their eyes, take what they know, and extrapolate ideas into a story that years later feels like some kind of insight into the future. Most early science fiction was about space travel. I’d say the second most popular theme was either robots or utopias/dystopias. Computers have shown up regularly but mostly after they were invented, but not before. At least as far as I know — except for one surprising exception — “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster. This 1909 novelette imagined a world run by a machine, with people using it to communicate with each other. It essentially imagines blogging, networking, Wikipedia, among other aspects of our cyberworld. It’s very eerie to read today.

A Logic Named Joe” by Murray Leinster also feels like a prophecy. With “The Machine Stops” and “A Logic Named Joe” readers didn’t hear The Twilight Zone theme music until the internet was created. If I had read “Izzard and the Membrane” in the 1960s when I first started reading science fiction I wouldn’t have thought much about it. Of course, if I had read it after reading Heinlein’s 1966 novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I would have thought Miller had beat Heinlein to the punch and been impressed. But Izzard was never the charming character as Mike.

“Izzard and the Membrane” only becomes really fascinating when it’s placed within the context of science fiction that explores the same theme. It makes me believe we’re asking the wrong question and should ask: “Can science fiction predict future science fiction?”

  • 1909 – “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Foster
  • 1946 – “A Logic Named Joe” by Murray Leinster
  • 1951 – “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. 
  • 1957 – They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
  • 1960 – Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick
  • 1961 – A For Andromeda by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot
  • 1966 – Colossus by D. F. Jones
  • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  • 1968 – Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
  • 1979 – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • 1981 – “True Name” by Vernor Vinge
  • 1984 – “Press Enter _” by John Varley
  • 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • 1992 – Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
  • 2009 – Wake by Robert Sawyer
  • 2013 – Her, a film by Spike Jonze
  • 2015 – Ex Machina, a film by Alex Garland
  • 2016 – We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor

These are the other science fiction stories I’ve read over my lifetime that dealt with computers that could think, or people downloaded into computers. I’m sure there are others I’ve read, but I can’t remember them for now, and even more, than I haven’t.

When you know all these stories, Miller’s story becomes more impressive. “Izzard and the Membrane” came in first in the August’s Analytical Laboratory, but Campbell reports the second-place story had more first-place votes. If it had been a major story with readers it would have had a score closer to 1.00.

Analytical Labortory

I couldn’t find any letters in Brass Tacks that praised the story, and there’s very little about it on the internet today. The story was never collected into one of Miller’s short story collections. It does appear to be Miller’s second published SF story, so maybe he didn’t think it very good.

I don’t think science fiction ever comes close to predicting the future. Look at this news clipping. Sounds very prophetic, doesn’t it?

2020-01-21 07.35.55

Well, here’s a 1952 newsreel about Dick Tracy’s wrist radio. How much imagination does it take to imagine what Mark R. Sullivan imagines above?

Was the 1966 communicator in Star Trek really that far out? What science fiction stories had Walter M. Miller read that inspired “Izzard and the Membrane?” Where did Chester Gould get his idea for a wrist radio? The more I study the past, the most I see the present in it. If we read about a cellphone in Shakespeare we would think him a time traveler. Before Marconi, was anyone talking about radio communication? There are powerful seers in this world, but they don’t see into the future but into the nature of reality.

If I wrote a story about life in 2100 and readers found it to be much like their times, it would not be a prediction or a lucky accident. Whatever I wrote that resonates with the future would have to exist right now. If my story was about the collapse of the United States due to climate change and many of the story elements become similar to what will happen it could only be because I could see those elements happening now. Even if I imagined an alien coming to Earth and saving us from ourselves and that really happened, could I claim any more credit than Jesus or Klaatu?

If science fiction didn’t exist, we still would have gone to the Moon. If AI emerges out of complex computers it won’t be because of science fiction. I’m beginning to wonder just how much science fiction intersects with reality. I used to think science-fictional ideas were seeds that grew. Now I’m wondering if science fiction isn’t just weird holographic reflections of reality.

James Wallace Harris, 1/25/20

“Centaurus II” by A. E. van Vogt

Centaurus II by A. E. van Vogt - cover Astounding June 1947

Let’s try to imagine what the average person thought about space travel in 1947 when “Centaurus II” first appeared in the June issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It’s author, A. E. van Vogt was one of the top science fiction writers of that day. The term science fiction wasn’t wildly known in the 1940s, and only a microscopic portion of the population read it. Science fiction had a small place in the funny papers, comics, radio, and movie serials, but the average American thought of space travel as that “Crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” And if you’ve ever seen a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon serial you’d know most people would have thought it pretty damn silly. Science fiction was not taken seriously, and older fans talked about hiding their science fiction magazines so no one would see them.

By 1947, most people knew about the V-2 rockets launched against London during the war. A few might have known about the American rocket scientist Robert Goddard and the captured German rocket scientist Werner von Braun. It was still years before popular magazines in the 1950s would present plans to travel to the Moon and Mars for the general public to consider, and another decade before Sputnik and the creation of NASA.

For the most part, it was only the Astounding Science Fiction readers who really believed in the final frontier. The other science fiction magazines of the 1940s published mostly space fantasies for teenage males, on par with Buck Rogers and the comics. They were 100% fantasy and 0% scientific. John W. Campbell Jr. and some of his writers were true believers in space exploration. Campbell wanted his writers to imagine realistic possibilities, and in that sense, “Centaurus II” is a worthy consideration.

Centaurus II - p32-33

Van Vogt assumed faster-than-light travel was not possible for “Centaurus II,” so he used the idea of a generation ship to get to the stars. Nor did he consider suspended animation. Actually, he had already written the classic “Far Centaurus” in 1944 which imagined slower-than-light travel using suspended animation, with the kicker of faster-than-light spaceships being invented after the slower-than-light ship left for Centaurus so that when it arrived it met a colony of evolved humans.

“Centaurus II” is much more realistic and I wonder why? Did the atomic bombs and V-2s sober van Vogt up to consider interstellar travel without the fantastic super-science of older science fiction? Every story has to have conflict and most of the conflicts in the generation ship stories we’ve been discussing involve fantastic plot twists. “Centaurus II” stays down-to-Earth all the way to the stars.

Here’s our reading list with links to the stories we’ve read so far:

There have been seven decades and four generations since the 1940s, and science fiction seems to have changed in every decade, and the expectations of the future have changed with each new generation. Readers reading “Centaurus II” today will probably feel it as silly as an old Buck Rogers serial, but if you squint at this story just right, you’ll realize that van Vogt took his speculative fiction deadly seriously.

Centaurus II - p11

One of the benefits of focusing our reading on a single theme is discovering how a science-fictional theme evolves and changes. “Universe” from Robert A. Heinlein in 1941, which we haven’t read yet, is probably the most famous generation ship story. In it, the crew forgets the mission and believes the entire universe is the ship. Van Vogt has his crew always remember the mission, and the plot conflict is about how the captaincy is passed on.

Van Vogt does something else that’s very realistic. His ship arrives at star after star only to discover their planets are either uninhabitable or occupied. Each captain must ruthlessly push on against mutineers who want to return to Earth. In nearly all the generation ship stories we’ve read, those born in transit often rebel against their predefined role in life. They can’t understand why they weren’t born on Earth, an obvious place for humans, and they resent their crew assignments.

Generation ship stories written in the last decade would have crews knowing their planetary conditions because of our growing knowledge of exoplanets. Science fiction writers in the 2020s will probably imagine a future where all the nearby planets are well studied, maybe even by early robotic probes, before sending a generation ship to visit them. When I was growing up in the 1960s we never imagined we could detect exoplanets, so science fiction still pictured space explorers only learning about distant solar systems after they arrived.

In “Centaurus II” van Vogt has crew work positions handed down from father to son, this creates several of the story’s conflicts. Sadly, van Vogt wasn’t visionary enough to imagine women having significant roles in a starship. I didn’t understand why the jobs weren’t shared. Wouldn’t it be wise if everyone knew something about every shipboard task in case something happens to any of the crew? Plus, they had all the time in the world to learn stuff. By the 1950s John Brunner imagined a woman in command of the generation ship, and women crew members having equal opportunity. It’s a shame van Vogt couldn’t imagine generation ships with more enlightened gender roles and class structures.

What I really liked about “Centaurus II” are the first contacts. Van Vogt imagines alien aliens, with the human explorers barely comprehending their close encounters. In system after system, the crew finds exotic planetary environments unsuitable for human habitation, and sometimes those unearthly worlds produce weird aliens. But their captains don’t make first contacts like Kirk or Picard who open a channel and immediately converses with strange new life forms. Van Vogt has his humans meet up aliens only at a distance without using language. This made me imagine European explorers dealing with Native Americans for the first time.

Another interesting aspect of van Vogt’s story is it doesn’t involve a Prime Directive. But in all the cases the humans worried the aliens were the British and they were the Australian aborigines. In the 1940s van Vogt, Heinlein, and other science fiction writers often feared running into advanced aliens. In Heinlein’s first interstellar novel, Methuselah’s Children, he has his humans encountering aliens so advanced that meeting them in person drove men insane. His ship turned around to run back to Earth with its tail tuck between its fins. Editor John W. Campbell didn’t like the idea of superior aliens, so by the 1950s humans were running all over the galaxy and winning all their king-of-the-hill fights. Heinlein started claiming Homo sapiens were the toughest species in the galaxy, but just a decade earlier he wasn’t so cocky.

It’s interesting how for a while in the 1940s science fiction writers did consider we’d meet aliens that outclassed us intellectually. It’s also interesting that the UFO fad started in the late 1940s. The public, for the most part, wasn’t thinking about humans going to the stars, but a growing number of Earthlings feared being invaded from space. And quite often they thought the aliens would have godlike powers.

Science fiction has always been an inconsequential form of entertainment that sometimes took itself seriously. Would we have ever gone to the Moon if science fiction had not existed? That’s hard to say. The concept of generation spaceships was invented by scientists in the 1920s who read Jules Verne. So which came first, science fiction or science?

For most of my life, I believed we could build a generation ship if we tried. Obviously, van Vogt and all the later science fiction writers believed that too. With every science fiction story, a different consideration about generation ships was considered. However, in 2020 I’m having my doubts. Collectively, we lack the will to get to Mars. No one wants to pony up the money. Sure, Elon Musk claims he will, and I hope he succeeds, but I have my doubts. And I’m not sure going to Mars is the right next step.

How many rockets did it take to build the International Space Station? Certainly, a generation ship would have to be at least a 1,000 times more complex, maybe even a 1,000,000 times. Launching all those rockets from Earth won’t be practical. To me, the only practical solution for building a space-faring economy is to create a self-sustaining colony on the Moon. The Moon should become the shipyards for spaceships.

All the generation ship stories we read so far suggest that Earth built them. In 2020, I’m trying to think ahead like van Vogt did in 1947. I assume in the next 30 years we’ll have Earth and spaced based telescopes that will discover all the nearby planets, and we’ll be able to analyze their atmospheres. Any generation ship we send out will know a whole lot about its destination before it even launches. That solves half the fictional problems van Vogt imagines. I also assume we’ll send probes ahead of human crewed missions. It’s funny, but science fiction never spent much time speculating on unmanned probes and satellites.

In 2020 I assume future interplanetary and interstellar probes would contain AI minds or AI robots. Because of such speculation, the need for generation ships dwindles. We’re now seeing science fiction stories that imagine robotic probes that build humans from DNA printers when they reach a suitable destination. That would also invalidate the need for generation ships. However, I don’t know if such DNA printers are really possible. Science fiction has a habit of inventing super-science technology that turns out to be fantasy, like FTL spaceships.

Anyone writing science fiction in the 2020s should consider the fate of van Vogt’s story in light of seventy years of real science. Why didn’t science fiction writers in the 1940s imagine giant telescopes? Or women’s equality? Or the breakdown of social classes. In all the generation ship stories we’ve read so far, none of them stay in communication with Earth. Why?

“Centaurus II” has two sequels and all three were combined to create the fix-up novel, Rogue Ship.

I’m looking forward to reading generation ship stories from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. I’m hoping for some real surprises. To read our past reviews see Generation Ships in Science Fiction.

Centaurus II - p18

James Wallace Harris, 1/9/2020

 

Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov

I wanted to “read” The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov but it wasn’t available on audio (my preferred format for consuming old science fiction). However, Audible.com had three anthologies of Asimov’s stories, I, Robot, Robot Dreams, and Robot Visions. So I wrote out a list of all the stories in The Complete Robot and marked which stories were available on audio in these three audiobooks. After listening to Robot Dreams I had a new appreciation for Isaac Asimov. Now that I’ve finished Robot Visions I have even more appreciation. But boy, I sure am sick of hearing the Three Laws of Robotics being restated.

Robot Visions (1990) has 18 short stories about robots and computers, and 17 essays about writing about robots and computers. Listening to these two volumes you realize just how much of Asimov’s life was devoted to thinking about robots. These stories cover 48 years – from “Robbie” (1940) to “Christmas With Rodney” (1988). Asimov died in 1992, so that’s pretty much his entire writing life.

I read I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy back in the 1960s when I was a kid, and for most of my life, I’ve pigeon-holed Asimov by this experience. I thought of Asimov as a so-so writer of sentimental tales about robots and a creator of a galactic empire epic I didn’t really buy into. During those other decades, I read a lot of Asimov’s nonfiction, and I thought of him as a great explainer. Giving Asimov’s fiction another try this year has made me realize just how wrong I was about his fiction. He’s a very good storyteller. Sure, he’s not literary or stylistic, but he can tell an entertaining story with engaging characters with drama and humor.

I do believe I’m now seeing the best in Asimov because I’m listening to his stories read by professional narrators. Susan Calvin, the famous robopsychologist of his stories revealed many complex dimensions of her personality when I listened to the stories, including murderous rage (“Liar!”) and cold-blood killer (“Robot Dreams” in the previous collection). And I could tell Asimov loved his robot creations, especially in “The Bicentennial Man” and “Robot Visions.”

Of course, what Asimov loved most was creating the Three Laws of Robotics. That gave him a lifetime of plot challenges. Most of these stories involved Susan Calvin or Mike Donovan solving a mystery by using the unerring logic of the three laws. These stories are fun, and often clever, but they usually didn’t have the sentimental charm of stories like “Robbie” or “Sally” which don’t involve the logic of the laws. Robot Dreams also had several of Asimov’s classic short stories not involving robots. So the two volumes make nice Best of Asimov set.

Reading the 17 essays about writing robot stories, you can tell Asimov was quite proud of coining the term robotics and inventing the three laws. And I got the feeling Asimov believes robots will eventually have the three laws incorporated into their programming. I don’t.

Here’s the thing, as much as I enjoy Asimov’s robot stories I believe he failed to imagine what real intelligent robots will be like or how we’ll coexist with them. I got the feeling from his essays that Asimov felt his writing legacy has a lock on robot science fiction. Thirty years after his last robot story I feel that legacy is fading away.

Asimov felt he conquered the robot tale because previous writers mainly used the robot as a threat, and he imagined them as friends and faithful servants. Since then writers have created even more beloved robot characters, even robots humans have sex with. Personally, I don’t think science fiction has come anywhere near what the reality of intelligent robots will be or anticipated our future relationships. I wish I had the energy and skills to write fiction because I see this as a wide-open theme.

I believe intelligent machines won’t be programmed by us but will evolve through techniques like machine learning. This means coding the three laws of robotics will probably be impossible. As AI evolves it will become part of its own evolution in a recursive way that we will never understand.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this collection of stories and essays. They perfectly encapsulate an era of science fiction. I think of science fiction written before real space travel as pre-NASA SF. I believe this book will be a classic of pre-Singularity SF one day.

One last note. I found it interesting that the short stories held up better than the essays. The essays are still worth reading, but they seemed more dated. I wished the publisher had interspersed the essays with the stories instead of leaving them as a clump at the end. I believe Asimov wrote almost 500 books, mostly nonfiction, but eventually, I predict he will be remembered for just The Foundation Trilogy and maybe for the robot stories.

James Wallace Harris, 12/29/19