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

 

 

 

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

 

“Tani of Ekkis” by Aladra Septama

Tani of Ekkis by Aladra Septama

[This is part of a blogging group discussion of generation ships in science fiction.]

“Tani of Ekkis” by Aladra Septama from Amazing Stories Quarterly (Winter 1930) might be the first example of a generation ship story in science fiction. I can’t take credit for finding it, that goes to Brian Brown, a reader of old pulp magazines who told me about it. The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History 1934-2001 by Simone Caroti claims “The Living Galaxy” by Laurence Manning in the September 1934 issue of Wonder Stories is the first. Patrick Baker in “Generation Ships: The Science and Fiction of Interstellar Travel” credits “Proxima Centauri” by Murray Leinster in Astounding Stories (March 1935) as the first example. Although the SF Encyclopedia says the idea was suggested by a character in A Trip to Venus (1897) by John Munro, they also point to “Proxima Centauri.”

Tani of Ekkis generation shipI can find very little about Aladra Septama. ISFDB.org says its the pen name for Judson W. Reeves. He wrote six science fiction stories for Amazing Stories Quarterly in 1929 and 1930. Reeves is barely mentioned in The Gernsback Days by Mike Asley and Robert A. W. Lowndes. That book summarizes those Gernsback magazines, story by story and issue by issue, and says practically nothing about Reeves. One comment said Reeves’s stories needed cutting. That’s certainly true of this one.

That’s too bad I couldn’t find more about Reeves, because “Tani of Ekkis” is historically interesting for science fiction. It is not about humans building a generation ship, but about aliens from another star system building one to come to Jupiter. But all the elements of a generation ship story are there. A voyage of five hundred years. The fears of the people who start a voyage they won’t finish. Discussions about how the ship must be self-sufficient. Worries about people who are born during the voyage. Asking if ship born can even comprehend life on a planet when they arrive. And, the fear of not finding a habitable planet at the end of the voyage.

The story did have some twists. The crew develops suspended animation during the voyage. At first for just short periods of ten years to help preserve the food and supplies in case they needed to visit another solar system. Eventually, they perfect the process and people sleep for up to a hundred years at a time. This allowed the original crew to survive the entire trip. Tani is the wife of their leader, and mother of two children born during the voyage. She becomes the keeper of the calendar. Because she isn’t a scientist she regularly asks others for explanations of how things work, and we the readers receive the lessons. In other words, lots of infodumps.

“Tani of Ekkis” is not much of a story, at least for modern readers. It’s loaded down with out-dated science blather, and a bunch of tedious pseudo-science speculation. The author still talks about “the ether,” a concept that had already been disproven well before 1930. He imagines storing food by reducing the size of atomic structures. Reeves throws out many gobbledegook science-fictional concepts during this tale, but sadly, the story itself doesn’t have much in the way of a plot or drama. It is not a story I would recommend reading or anthologizing, and no one else has either.

Still, it’s very cool that “Tani of Ekkis” reveals early ideas about generation ships and suspended animation. Gernsback discovered few SF writers that are still remembered today. I guess E. E. “Doc” Smith and Jack Williamson are his big discoveries like Campbell lays claim to Heinlein, Asimov, and van Vogt. Most of his stable of writers just aren’t remembered today at all. And few stories from Amazing are reprinted retrospective SF anthologies, even though Amazing is famously remembered as being the first science fiction magazine. There’s no telling how many SF concepts premiered in the Gernsback magazines of the late 1920s and early 1930s. because those stories just aren’t being read and remembered. Brian Brown told me he is systematically reading them, and that’s how he discovered “Tani of Ekkis.” But I doubt many other readers will follow in his eye tracks.

You can read “Tani of Ekkis” here.

James Wallace Harris, 12/28/19

 

“Thirteen to Centaurus” by J. G. Ballard

Thirteen to Cenaurus by J. G. Ballard

“Thirteen to Centaurus” by J. G. Ballard is the fifth story in the Generation Ships in Science Fiction discussion originated by Joachim Boaz. You can read the story online here. I consider “Thirteen to Centaurus” a superior story. However, none of the generation ship stories we’ve read so far have been popularly anthologized, so they aren’t classics. Maybe it’s time to reconsider that.

I don’t want to say much about “Thirteen to Centaurus” since I don’t want to spoil any of its several plot twists and turns. However, in my previous reviews in this series, I mentioned an idea I had for a generation ship story, and it turns out Ballard already used it back in 1962. Of course, I wouldn’t have developed the idea the same way Ballard did. It does make me wonder if science fiction writers should read all the major stories from a theme before trying to take on a theme? On the other hand, if the average reader isn’t well-read in a theme, does it matter?

I want to believe that J. G. Ballard had read “Lungfish” by John Brunner when writing “Thirteen to Centaurus” because there is a certain synergy between them. The two stand out of the five stories we’ve read. Ballard and Brunner began their science fiction careers in Great Britain in the 1950s. Ballard was being published in New Worlds around the time of “Lungfish” so he probably read Science Fantasy too. I’m not so sure Ballard would have read the Judith Merril, Chad Oliver, or Clifford Simak stories in the American SF magazines, but “Thirteen to Centaurus” seems to reply to them. I have to assume there is a progression of logic when thinking about the consequences of humans living on a generation ship and all the writers are reaching the same or similar conclusions.

So far these SF writers believe humans can’t handle a generation ship mission psychologically. Is that why we mostly read about FTL travel? Several writers have suggested we’ll need to condition or even brainwash the generation ship crew. And all the stories have had an element of conspiracy in them, that for one reason or another the crews don’t know everything. More than one story worries that the ship born generations, the ones who didn’t volunteer for the mission will feel resentment or rebel against the mission. Would you be pissed in such a situation?

I’m hoping to see in future reads a sense of progression past these fears. I’d like to see positive stories about how humans adapt and even create new philosophies, perspectives, and hopes while living on a generation ship mission.

We’ve seen two kinds of story problems so far. First, the writers imagine the kinds of problems crews might encounter on real generation ship missions. Second, writers have imagined problems for the crews to make interesting plots. Before reading these stories I never considered the psychological problems generation ship crew would face. Now that I have, I can see a whole array of further speculation along those lines. Has Philip K. Dick ever written a generation ship story? PKD could have done some weird shit with this idea.

And there are all kinds of considerations the writers haven’t explored. The other day while brushing my teeth I wondered how many toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste must be stored on a generation ship for a mission that will last a hundred years. If a ship has 1,000 passengers, that’s a lot of toothbrushes. Or do they send along a factory that can make them? It’s certainly helped that we’ve developed 3D printers since these stories were written. But really, how do you equip a voyage for a century or millennia?

If the voyage begins with 1,000 crew members and they start having kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids, how many sleeping births will be needed? It sounds like a kind of algebra problem, doesn’t it?

None of the stories we’ve read so far had the ship stay in communication with Earth. Is it possible to have radio contact with Earth on a spaceship moving at one-tenth the speed of light? If a one-minute radio message is sent from Earth, how long does it take to record it at relativistic speeds on the ship? Heinlein created a wonderful setup in Time for the Stars with telepathic twins, one staying home and one leaving. If telepathy was possible, how does relativity effect it?

If a generation ship had a large telescope could it be networked with those on Earth or in the solar system to create a really large interferometer? If so, how much detail will we be able to observe in destination solar systems? In these early generation ship stories, the crews travel blindly to other systems hoping to find habitable planets. Knowing what we do about exoplanets and with telescope development, would that ever be true of real generation ship missions? Haven’t we passed the point where the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s story problems wouldn’t exist? I’m really looking forward to generation ship stories from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and so on.

Can we create a generation ship that won’t bring along most of the diseases that plague us on Earth? And if the crew does carry on colds or strains of flu, will they die out because the passengers all develop immunity, or will they mutate in such a small population? What happens to a generation ship crew if they encounter diseases at their destination?

I wonder what shipboard novelists would write about. What if they try to write about life on Earth without ever living on Earth. Can the ship born ever develop a realistic picture of life on a planet from movies and books? What kind of myths will they have about us?

Once we start thinking about the possibilities they are endless. So far, I think the stories we’ve read have been very good but limited in their speculation and imaginations. I’m looking forward to reading more.

I’m surprised that we don’t see more generation ship stories. I guess writers want FTL travel because they want a bunch of interstellar action. In Star Wars they can obviously travel between star systems faster than needing to pee because some of the Star Wars spaceships aren’t large enough for bathrooms. Basically, modern science fiction has made FTL spaceships the new fantasy portal, but they are no more realistic than the wardrobe in the C. S. Lewis stories.

Interstellar travel is probably impossible, but our best chance will be generation ships. I’m surprised we don’t see more of them in science fiction.

Remember, here’s the list of the posts in this discussion so far. Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations leads the group. He will announce the next story.

James Wallace Harris, 12/18/19

 

“Lungfish” by John Brunner

Science Fantasy 26 1957

This is part 3 [Part 1, Part 2] of a group discussion reviewing science fiction stories about generation ships in science fiction. “Lungfish” by John Brunner is the fourth story we’ve discussed and probably the most realistic so far. Reading these stories one after another is both delightful and enlightening. They are an education in writing science fiction. Not only are we learning about a sub-genre, but we see how one writer after the next sets up their version of a generation ship society and contrives a plot. It feels like each story is a reply to previous stories where writers are communicating across time with one another.

The Generation Starship in Science Fiction A Critical History 1934–2001While researching “Lungfish” I found The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934–2001 by Simone Caroti, a whole book analyzing this theme. I’ve gotten so intrigued by generation ship stories that I sprang for the $9.99 Kindle edition. Even though this work started out as an academic paper it’s very readable, and I’m learning a lot. It makes a great companion to our reading group. Caroti brings realistic considerations to topic. For example, it will probably be too expensive to ever build a generation ship.

I wonder if I’m developing an obsession on this theme. But the generation ship has always been one of my favorite sense-of-wonder ideas I found in science fiction. Of course, much of that sense-of-wonder came from reading Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein and it’s particular plot surprise.

If asked before starting this group discussion, how many generation ship stories I’ve read, I would have replied “A bunch.” But thinking about it since then, I realize it hasn’t been that many. I recall reading three novels, Orphans of the Sky, Non-Stop by Brian Aldis, and The Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, but only one short story came to mind, “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years” by Don Wilcox. When I saw Joachim Boaz’s list of generation ship stories it showed I wasn’t really that well-read after all, having read just eleven of the dozens of titles. Joining this group discussion has added four more. I don’t know how long Joachim will keep this project going, but I’m in for the long haul.

John Brunner uses his title “Lungfish” as a metaphor for comparing humans leaving Earth to live on other worlds to when fish first came out of the ocean to live on dry land. He also compares it to the pain of giving birth and being born. As a life-long science fiction fan, I always assumed going to another planet would be a thrill, but after reading these four stories I see that I haven’t thought things through. I’m an introvert with a touch of agoraphobia and would probably adapt well to shipboard life, but for most people, it would be mentally damaging. And if I’m honest with myself, starting life over on another planet would be terrifying and traumatic.

Heinlein, Simak, Oliver, Merril, and now Brunner show that leaving Earth won’t be easy. And there are two deeply psychological issues here that have taken me five stories to even start to see. One, folks growing up on a generation ship will not want to leave. And two, landing on another planet will not be as easy as Star Trek/Star Wars leads us to believe. I wonder if these early stories reveal anxieties about space travel before the time of real space travel? I’m curious to see if modern SF writers still consider such fears valid.

How many science fiction fans would enjoy living their science fictional fantasies?

I’ve reached an age where I hate to leave my house. I’ve made my home very comfortable and secure. Going places is uncomfortable and insecure. I completely understand why people raised on a generation ship would refuse to exit at end-of-voyage.

“Lungfish” feels the most realistic of the generation ship stories we’ve read so far, but even it has another conspiracy that I find unrealistic. Thirty-seven years isn’t that long, so we don’t have the problem of people forgetting their mission. But we again have the resentment of the second generation against the original crew. Brunner imagines the ship run like a corporation with a board of directors and a chairman. For 1957, Brunner is farsighted enough to make the chairman a woman, and many of the officers are women. But the original crew have retained their positions in the upper ranks of management to the resentment of their children born on the ship. Brunner recognizes the same kind of resentment between generations we see if the world today.

We readers can’t imagine what life outside the environment of Earth would be like. People raised inside a spaceship will have different mental perspectives on reality. “Lungfish” brings new insights to the generation ship theme. Overall, this story is top-notch, but I didn’t like the resolution of the problem. Reading these stories together I get the feeling that writers want a trick conclusion to their stories to entertain their readers and avoid a realistic solution that could be boring.

Anthology of Generation Ship SF Stories

I’ve been poking around and can find no evidence for an anthology of generation ship science fiction stories. I think our reading discussion should at least create a virtual anthology. It would be great to see a theme anthology like The Time Traveler’s Almanac by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer for generation ship stories. Here are the stories I’d recommend so far:

I’m hoping to find many more.

Visit Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations to join the discussion.

JWH – 12/11/19

 

“Wish Upon A Star” by Judith Merril

1958-12 The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

“Wish Upon A Star” by Judith Merril is the third story for Joachim Boaz’s discussion about generation ships in science fiction. See my original post for more details. Here are the reviews so far:

  • Science Fiction and Other Ruminations – Joachim Boaz gives the story a 4.25/5 (Good) rating and says: A radical story but a quiet one—a slice-of-life rumination where the action stays in the distance, in the board rooms and classrooms of the female crew, the places where men cannot go. Recommended.
  • MPorcius Fiction Log – MPorcius says: This story is successful–entertaining and interesting enough–but no big deal.  I have to admit I was expecting a more hardcore feminist or leftist story which trumpeted the benign rule of women and/or argued that gender roles are socially constructed and could easily be changed for the better by an enlightened elite.
  • Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud – Richard said: I gave this story three and a half stars because it’s not the revelation that it would’ve been sixty-one years ago to have women in charge. There’s a decent chance that’ll happen in the USA in 2020, or so I hope. It’s also a very small story, a slice of adolescent life; that’s not all that interesting to me personally. It’s fine as a story, it has good things to say about equality and the arbitrary nature of society and the fairness doctrine is far fleshier for its 1958 readers than it would’ve begun by being.
  • Also, there are some interesting comments at Young People Read Old SFF.
  • I’d rate it 4 out 5 stars. Not a classic, but a better-than-average story for the time. It’s worth reading for the generation ship angle, and for the feminist poke at male readers in 1958.

You can read “Wish Upon A Star” at the Internet Archive, or in these anthologies. It’s currently in print in Science Fiction by Women (1958-1963).

Update: After writing this essay I discovered an earlier story that describes the launch of the mission in "Wish Upon A Star." I strongly recommend reading it first.  It's called "Survival Ship" and you can read it here. It's a quick read and answers some of my questions I had with "Wish Upon A Star."

What I enjoy about reading generation ship science fiction is how each writer imagines a society adapting to the long voyage. What’s funny is none of the stories I’ve read have things working out like I imagine. I assume generation ships will have carefully planned societies, even utopian. The Simak story tells us at the end that the planners intended what happened, and I get the feeling Merril’s matriarchal society was carefully planned as well but neither writer talks about the planning details and the whys.

To build a ship and society that will voyage for a century or a millennium implies a kind of planned perfection. You’d think the designers of such a ship would build an experimental community on Earth to test out their ideas. That would make an interesting novel too. (And DAW just announced they are open to submissions from writers without agents.) Of course, Biosphere 2 failed rather spectacularly. Space colonies, in general, might be very difficult to pull off.

Setup for “Wish Upon A Star”

A generation ship named Survival, propelled by ion drives is approaching its destination after just one generation. The ship traveled at a good fraction of lightspeed. None of the original crew are older than 45. Some of their children have reached adulthood, while most are still teens and younger. In this ship, the command crew is female, while men work the gardens, take care of the children, and do other support work. The original crew consisted of twenty women and four men. As the ship approaches a time of landfall the men wonder if their roles will change. There is resentment among the males because the females have all the opportunity.

Merril’s story came out in January 1958, well before the second wave of feminism began in the 1960s. At this time job ads in the newspapers were divided between Men – Wanted and Women – Wanted, with nearly ever job type going to men.

Characters

  • Toshiko (Sheik) – 13-year-old boy protagonist
  • Sarah – the girl that Sheik wants for his girlfriend but resents her crew training
  • Naomi – 12-year-old girl Sheik resents because she’s in advance crew training and he’s not
  • Harendra (Hari) – 3-year-old boy in Sheik’s care
  • Abdur (Ab) – one of the four original male crew members in charge of plants, and fatherly mentor to Sheik
  • Bob – Sheik’s father and one of the four original male crew members
  • Lieutenant Johnson – an older second-generation woman in charge of Sheik and Sarah, who might have an eye out for young Sheik.

Story

The story begins with Sheik thinking “I WISH, I WISH, I WISH . . . .” Sheik, a young teen hiding in the shady shrubs, shirking work and daydreaming. We know he’s a passenger on a generation starship because of how we came to the story. Plus the editor tells us when introducing Judith Merril, “Here she turns her compassionate eye on the problems and inner conflicts of an adolescent boy who has lived his life on a starship commanded by women.” (Doesn’t that sound bias?)

I wish I had read this story dead cold. How soon would readers know the story is set on a starship? And when would they know what Sheik was wishing for. Sheik is upset, crying even, because Naomi, a girl younger than him had just left for “Special Sessions” getting to learn something he’s not allowed to study. We learn Sheik is destined to replace Abdur who runs the botanical room. He will have to take orders from Naomi, as Abdur now takes orders from Lieutenant Johnson – another woman.

We hear him think: “It just wasn’t fair! I wish I wish I was …”

Was he about to say he wish he was a girl? Then Sheik starts thinking about Sarah, a girl he wishes would ask him something. (Ask him out?) Sheik longs to have Sarah under the bushes, the shady escape he loves. But since he’s thirteen we have to assume he needs more than some company in his hide-out.

We slowly learn about the generation ship. Merril is more creative with the details than the previous stories. Evidently, it’s a large cylinder that spins along its axis to create artificial gravity. Too bad these stories don’t come with diagrams of the ship, because each writer has an image in mind, but I’m not sure they are good at conveying their ship’s design with words.

The ship’s farm is on the inside of the outside wall. There are artificial lights on the outside wall of an inner cylinder that provides their sky and quarters. Children are expected to spend a certain amount of time under these artificial lights for health reasons. This area of the ship belongs to the men who raise the crops. We quickly learn that men also raise the ship’s children. Sheik has two and three-year-olds under his charge, both girls and boys. The younger girls seem precocious, learning faster than the boys.

Merril provides gender role reversals for 1958. The story isn’t blatantly feminist. And this might be showing my ignorance, but I can’t recall any famous feminist books from the 1950s. Wikipedia only lists two books and an article. I do know from reading the outstanding When Everything Changed (2009) by Gail Collins that women had very few job choices in the 1950s. Plus Merril knew that most of the readers of F&SF then were teenage boys. There were some female readers and writers, but not many. It’s interesting in this story that the men never claim the women can’t pilot and navigate the ship. They just want better jobs too.

I really would have loved to know the readers’ reactions to this story when it came out in 1958. F&SF didn’t have a letter column. I wonder if any fanzines from the time discuss it? Fanac.org does have a chronological list of fanzines. (A few random reads tell me it will be quite a job to find any reaction to the story. Someone needs to build an index to fanzines.)

As “Wish Upon A Star” develops we learn the starship is nearing its destination. Its goal is a colony scoutship. They are looking for worlds to help depopulate an overcrowded Earth.  The men hope after they land they can have more involvement in decision making and diversity of work. They fear the women are secretly plotting to hold onto their power, or even choose not to land. We don’t know if this is true or not, or just a conspiracy theory of Bob’s.

Merril imagines more details of shipboard life than Simak and Oliver did for the two previous stories we discussed. Shiek is part of the second generation. Only half the crew quarters are used in the ship because they assumed they might need to travel longer, producing a third and fourth generation.

Merril sets up a very interesting situation in this story. She tells us: “This much was common knowledge and one further fact: that the original crew of twenty-four had included twenty women and four men for obvious biological race-survival reasons.”

Merril doesn’t go into the genetic diversity needed to start a colony, but we can read a lot into these numbers. We know that Sheik’s father is Bob, but we don’t know if Bob has four other wives. Why didn’t Merril go into these details? Sheik never mentions a sibling or having half-siblings. He does list several girls who he doesn’t want to mate with and calls them nasty. Could they be siblings? There’s a hint that he might have to mate with more than one girl and even considers Lieutenant Johnson.

The first generation is way out of whack when it comes to the female-male balance, but the second generation will have a 50-50 ratio. Sheik realizes this will bring change. I’m not a rocket scientist, but I wonder if starting with one-fourth of crew capacity on a generation ship saves on reaction mass? (The ship doesn’t gain mass with larger generations.)

Was Merril suggesting the colony will have more genetic diversity if the first generation had more mothers? She could have increased the diversity if the first 20 women were pregnant by men not from the ship, or got pregnant the first time by sperm donors from back on Earth. If that was true, did they need any men in the original crew? Maybe for “men’s” work, and then only four were needed. Did Merril ever write about writing this story? I’d love to know what she was thinking.

Because the men resent the women for their status and jobs we assume Merril meant this story to be a role-reversal story, and it is. But it might be more. Maybe the women run the ship because Merril thinks they would be better. Merril doesn’t go into that, though. I need to reread it and read between the lines. When you have twenty Eves and four Adams, that seems to imply the men’s roles are less important. Was Merril criticizing traditional women’s roles in the 1950s? I’m surprised Merril didn’t imagine an all-female crew in the first generation. That would have been radical. Maybe too much even for her.

I also wondered if Merril had an idea that more women on a generation starship are more practical. But she didn’t make her case.

Before the story is over, things get more complicated. I’ll leave that for readers to discover. But we learn that Sheik wishes for more than Sarah even though Sarah is the main thing on his mind. I can’t help but wonder if Merril is making additional comments about men’s role in space colonies, or of science fiction fans.

On the other hand, Merril might not have thought a lot about her setup. It might have been a quick inspiration and she didn’t think through the implications. The story is mainly about Sheik wanting to hook up with Sarah and the complications he encounters. Those complications hint at what the society on the ship is like. I wish this had been a whole novel.

I do like the fact that the Clifford Simak story, like the Merril, considered the idea that the crew might prefer living on the ship living on a planet. Merril’s story is a little different. The men worry that the women might prefer it.

JWH – 12/8/19

New Appreciation for Isaac Asimov

I just finished Robot Dreams by Isaac Asimov. I first thought this would be another repackaging of his robot stories, but it was really another best of Isaac Asimov volume, including many of his most famous short stories except “Nightfall.” I’ve always thought of Asimov as an entertaining but mediocre writer. While listening to Robot Dreams, I realized my impression of Asimov came mostly from I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy, stories he wrote when he was very young in the 1940s, and I read as a teenager in the 1960s. After reading a handful of his books back then I mostly ignored Asimov except for his nonfiction, which I liked a lot.

Several years ago I reread The Naked Sun and really admired it. I had read it and The Caves of Steel in the SFBC edition of The Rest of the Robots and hadn’t particularly liked them. I’m not a fan of mysteries. But when I reread The Naked Sun I really got into it, not for the murder mystery, but for the tale of agoraphobia, something I could relate to in my old age. Now that I just finished a huge book of short stories and novelettes I realize I was wrong about Asimov being a bad writer. Several of these stories showed a good deal of storytelling finesse.

It was George Guidall, the narrator of the audiobook edition of Robot Dreams that really helped me see Asimov in a new light. I always felt Asimov was an idea writer who avoided writing emotional scenes, but Guidall’s reading revealed the feelings in these tales. I thought Asimov was a tone-deaf stylist, but Guidall showed me Asimov did have a sense of drama (sometimes). I now have to assume that Asimov was not a bad writer, but I was a bad reader. That’s not to say Asimov didn’t write a lot of forgettable science fiction. Logic tells us, not all of Asimov’s zillions of short stories are gems.

I still believe Isaac Asimov will never be considered a literary writer except that I came across “My Five Star Books.” It’s a long list of books from a lifetime of reading by a very serious reader. The Foundation Trilogy is on it. And it’s not a list of SF books. The list feels like a list of books that Harold Bloom would recommend, most of them were once part of Great Books collections. I guess I really need to reread the trilogy.

The Foundation Trilogy Everymans LibraryThen last year when PBS had it’s Great American Read The Foundation Trilogy was one of the few science fiction books that America voted in. It came in at #49 of the top 100 books. Even for a popular vote, not many genre science fiction titles made the list. Dune was #35. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was #39.

The Foundation Trilogy has even gotten an Everyman’s Library edition. But it’s kind of expensive at Amazon. Barnes and Nobel also have a similar priced deluxe hardback version. Amazon does have a Kindle edition of the trilogy on sale for $4.95 right now.

One problem with Asimov was he was so damn prolific. He wrote hundreds of books and hundreds of short stories, and I imagine thousands of essays. It’s very hard to pick out his best work, or even read through all his work to find the best. Actually, it’s painful to just read his bibliography.

Yesterday I was discussing with my online friend Piet about which books were Asimov’s best. What would we recommend to new readers? We came up with the idea of the minimum set of books needed to showcase Asimov’s work. What’s the smallest number of volumes needed to convey Asimov’s best work.

Another problem with recommending Asimov is I doubt young readers will like a lot of his stories because they feel too old fashioned. Which novels and stories do you think have lasting value that resonates with the youngest generations? Leave a comment.

The first book we both recommend is a one-volume edition of The Foundation Trilogy. That used to be one of the main enticements to the old Science Fiction Book Club. I reread the first book, Foundation a few years ago and was very disappointed. After discovering so much positive press I want to give the trilogy another chance. However, the Foundation series is huge. I assume only Asimov’s most fanatical fans will read all of it.

After the trilogy, Piet recommended The Complete Robot next. It’s a one-volume of all the robot short stories but lacks the two classic robot novels. I’m reading through that volume now. I wished I had an audio edition, but no such luck. I’m not so sure I’d recommend it to new readers anyhow because it’s a very large collection with too many stories that aren’t Asimov’s best. However, it is considered the first book to read if you want to read the entire merged Robot/Foundation series.

But I’m thinking more about a volume to give people that would convince readers that Asimov was a better writer than his reputation suggests. Being prolific is a significant distinction, but not one when it comes to quality. Asimov had many collections of short stories, several labeled his best, but none were the right mix of stories, and often they were Costco pallets of stories that would overwhelm new readers

Our CSFquery list-builder tells me Asimov had 54 stories from all our citation sources. Only three made it to our Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list: “Nightfall,” “The Bicentennial Man” and “The Last Question.” One of my favorites, “The Ugly Little Boy” was popular with fans being on the 1999 Locus All-Time Poll, 2012 Locus All Centuries Poll, ISFDB Most Viewed Short Stories, and Sci-Fi List Top 200 Stories. Other popular stories were “Reason,” “Robbie,” and “Liar!” his famous older robot stories, as well as “Robot Dreams” a newer robot story and his most remembered space story, “The Martian Way.”

Readers would get most of Asimov’s most admired stories if they bought Robot Dreams and Robot Visions. Links are to Wikipedia that has lists of their contents and links to essays about each short story. They are available as ebooks and audiobooks. They have more stories than most readers need, but they contain almost all of Asimov’s best stories except “Nightfall.”

I’ve read that Asimov considered “The Last Question” his best story, and “The Ugly Little Boy” his second and third best story. “The Last Question” is a total idea story, and even though it’s far out, it doesn’t have much heart. “Nightfall” is Asimov’s most famous story but I’ve read it so many times I can’t judge it anymore. Again, it’s an idea story. I’d pick “The Ugly Little Boy” as Asimov’s top story. It does have emotional impact, almost too much.

The reason why I admire “The Ugly Little Boy” so much is how brilliantly Asimov sets up the ending. I could feel it coming from his careful groundwork and he cut us off perfectly leaving readers with a great deal to ponder. I think Asimov’s best stories were the ones where he put his characters through much suffering, even to the point of being cruel or evil. Timmie and Edith’s fate is particularly horrific.

I also thought “Lest We Remember” had an emotional wallop too. In it John Heath, an average guy is given a drug that improves his memory and he becomes exceptional. Susan Collins his fiancée who was smarter than John doesn’t like the new John, and neither does John’s co-workers and employers. The story has some nice dramatic twists I didn’t expect from Asimov.

I believe it is when Asimov plots a dramatic story with emotional realism that I feel he’s a much better writer. And some of these stories prove he has that skill. That’s why I like his story “Hostess” about an alien invasion with a horrifying twist. These three stories have strong women characters. In the early days of his career, Asimov was known for leaving women out of his stories. When Asimov was a teen he even wrote fan letters to Astounding advocating a no girls allowed policy in science fiction. (See Partners in Wonder by Eric Leif Davin as the source of this juicy bit of info.) So it’s ironic that the mature Asimov discovered feminine empowerment.

Asimov did create Susan Calvin for his robot stories, and she was a fascinating character, but I was shocked by Susan Calvin in “Robot Dreams” where she’s “Cold Equations” murderous.

Rereading Asimov’s short stories make me think about his literary legacy. I feel The Foundation Trilogy will last a while longer, but I don’t know about Asimov’s short stories. For a man who wrote almost 500 books, I’m finding it very hard to pick which works that will have lasting power. I haven’t read The Gods Themselves, so I can’t say anything about it yet, but it’s probably Asimov’s most popular standalone novel.

I know several people that admire the Foundation stories a great deal, plus I’ve been reading a lot about it in recent months. I figure I need to really give The Foundation Trilogy another chance and read it carefully. I believe after I read Robot Visions I’ll be finished with Asimov’s stories. I will have read maybe three dozen out of more than 200. I don’t think I’ll need to be a completest.

Useful Links:

James Wallace Harris, 12/3/19