The Problems with Classic Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 5/1/22

Old and New Science Fiction

The Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction will begin discussing The Best Science Fiction of the Year v. 6 edited by Neil Clarke on April 24th for Group Read 38, and The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg for Group Reading 39 on April 29th. That means during May, June and some of July will be alternating between old and new science fiction short stories each day.

Silverberg and Greenberg compared their anthology to the two classic SF anthologies from 1946: The Best of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin, and Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas. For decades, readers found those two anthologies in their libraries and were standards for introducing readers to short science fiction. They hoped The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction would cover 1946-1979 like those two classic anthologies did for science fiction before 1946.

The Neil Clarke volume is his pick of the best short science fiction of 2020. Group Read 38 schedule. Group Read 39 schedule.

Now that I’m regularly reading old and new science fiction short stories I’m learning how both science fiction and writing science fiction are evolving. Part of my daily routine is reading the next day’s story, and then thinking about it when I’m going to sleep at night so that in the morning I can type up a short review for the group when I start my day. Belonging to this Facebook group has been a real education, kind of a graduate course in science fiction literature. More than that, it’s been a meditation on my lifelong relationship with science fiction. I’ll try to write longer reviews for this blog for those stories that really inspire me.

I hope Silverberg and Greenberg won’t mind me reprinting their short introduction because it says so much about remembering science fiction short stories. 75 years later, the CSFSS list only recalls one story from the Conklin anthology and four from the Healy/McComas book. 42 years later, the list remembers 10 from the stories Silverberg and Greenberg picked out. But how many of those 10 will remain in another 33 years?

James Wallace Harris, 4/23/22 – updated 4/27/22

“Boobs” by Suzy McKee Charnas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/13/22

Does Too Much Suspension of Disbelief Ruin a Story?

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

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

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

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

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

Speedbump #1

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

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

Speedbump #2

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

Great Idea #1

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

Speedbump #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expectation #1

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

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

Speedbump #4

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

Speedbump #5

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

Speedbump #6

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

Great Idea #2

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

I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

And just for that one moment

I could be you


Yes, I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

You’d know what a drag it is

To see you

Expectation #2

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

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

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

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

But this story didn’t follow my expectation.

Speedbump #7 and #8

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

Conclusion

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 4/1/22

When is a Forgotten SF Story Worth Ressurecting?

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

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

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

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

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

That line did nothing for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/17/22

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

Finishing The Big Book of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 3/15/22

“Craphound” by Cory Doctorow

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #105 of 107: “Craphound” by Cory Doctorow

Craphound” by Cory Doctorow belongs to that wonderful sub-sub-sub-genre, nostalgia stories by science fiction writers. Other classics of that theme are “Jeffty is Five” by Harlan Ellison, “Travels With My Cats” by Mike Resnick, and “A Scent of Sarsaparilla” by Ray Bradbury. I belong to several online groups where old science fiction fans dwell on old science fiction, and many of them collect all kinds of crap from when they grew up. The novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline resonates so well with certain readers because of its nostalgia for the 1980s.

Over my lifetime I’ve known many collectors of science fiction and their collections usually included memorabilia crap from the past. Forrest J. Ackerman, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison were known for their huge nostalgic collections (much of it toys). Just pay attention to Harlan Ellison’s house in the documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth. A few glimpses can be had in this preview from YouTube.

All during my school and college years, I thought science fiction was about the future, but ever since then, science fiction has been about the nostalgic past. There’s an article at The Economist, “If you think sci-fi is about the future, think again” that I’d love to read but it’s behind a paywall. It’s subtitled “An exhibition in London shows how much of science fiction is fuelled by nostalgia.” If anyone is a subscriber and is willing, send me a copy.

Cory Doctorow has tuned into these nostalgic readers with a story about Jerry and his best friend known as Craphound, an alien from outer space. Both are professional hunters of old crap that they resell for big dollars to the addicts of nostalgia. Sadly, their friendship is shattered one day when they get into a bidding war over an old suitcase of cowboy clothes and toys at the East Muskoka Volunteer Fire Department Ladies’ Auxiliary sale.

Why would aliens want our old crap? Well, without Craphound (which Doctorow uses for his domain name) the story wouldn’t be science fiction, and Doctorow couldn’t have sold it to a science fiction market. Without Craphound the story would just be about a loser with arrested development making a living by going to garage sales and Goodwill stores. Without Craphound, the story would be about people like us. Just imagine if you’re yard sale copilot was an ET.

Nostalgic SF is closely related to Recursive SF. If I could remember better, I could cite a long list of stories where science fiction stories longingly look back to the past.

In recent years I’ve been collecting old science fiction anthologies and a fair amount of old science fiction magazines and fanzines. I was just looking at my wall of bookshelves and thinking about all the people that once held those books and magazines. There must have been thousands of folks like me. Mike Resnick was one since I bought some fanzines on eBay with mailing labels addressed to him. When I die my wife will liquidate my collection and it will go to new collectors. Some of my things would make garage sale craphounds very happy. Who knows, maybe one of them will be an alien.

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 3/15/22

“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #104 of 107: “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Warning: Don’t read this essay if you haven’t read “Story of Your Life,” or at least seen Arrival. I want to explore how and why this story works and that means spoilers, and “Story of Your Life” is much too lovely to spoil for anyone. There are copies on the internet and it can be found in many anthologies, but it’s best to own a copy of Stories of Your Life and Others.

Today I read “Story of Your Life” for the third time, and watched Arrival for the second time. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang is the epitome of what science fiction strives to achieve. There were many stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction that I don’t believe deserve that label, but this story does. Science fiction is notoriously hard to define because everyone wants to define it differently, but I’d like to think “Story of Your Life” fits within everyone’s definition of science fiction.

For me, the best science fiction does two things, and the greatest does three. The best science fiction stories combine wonderful storytelling with a sense of wonder. Sense of wonder emerges when readers are taken from the edge of current science to the forefront of tomorrow’s science. What elevates a 4-star story into a 5-star story is when it emotionally, spiritually, and philosophically transcends. Ted Chiang is transcendent in “Story of Your Life.”

Chiang asks, what if we meet aliens that perceive reality differently from us? What if we see reality linearly, and they see it holistically — could we communicate? Science fiction, for the most part, has always assumed we’ll bridge the language divide with aliens quickly. Chiang’s story asks, “Wait, what if that’s not true?” It’s one thing to question the possibility, it’s another thing altogether to show how the difficulties could unfold. It’s even greater when the writer takes us through the process so we see why too.

Time and again, Chiang presents us with an idea and the evidence to support the idea. For example when Louise Banks, the linguist in the story, realizes that the Heptapods’ written language was not patterned on its spoken language. That’s kind of mindblowing until Chiang reminds us that there have been written languages in human cultures that didn’t follow the structure of their spoken languages. Would we have ever deciphered ancient Eygptian hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone?

According to Wikipedia, Chiang spent five years studying linguistics before writing this story.

“Story of Your Life” is actually twin narratives, two stories. The first is a third-person narrative relating Louise’s and Gary Donnelly’s work with the Heptapods to learn their language. The other story is a second-person narrative of Louise talking to her daughter.

The twin narratives represent a linear story and a holistic story. One is how humans think, and the other is how Heptapods perceive. From our perspective, they know the future. When Louise begins to understand that this might be possible she struggles to understand how and what are its implications. Louise imagines someone having the Book of Ages where everything that’s ever happened is written down. Humans perceive reality as if reading such a book word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, but the Heptapods know it all at once.

This is the great leap forward that science fiction makes to inspire a sense of wonder. This explains how the second-person narrative of the story works.

“Story of Your Life” also presents science facts too. Unfortunately, these are often perceived as infodumps by science fiction readers. Infodumps can burden a tale. In this story, I was quite entertained by them, especially Fermat’s Principle. It’s very hard to teach science within a science fiction story. I took many science courses in high school and college and read hundreds of popular science books, but my science knowledge is rather flimsy and fading. This is the first time I’ve encountered Fermat’s Principle, even even though it wasn’t entirely mind-blowing, it hurt my head to contemplate. Who sticks things like this into science fiction and gets away with it? Not many writers. Ted Chiang does.

Ted Chiang is basically performing a magic trick upon his readers. He uses real science several times as a diversion so we will believe in the science fiction illusion he creates. I do not believe there is any being that comprehends reality holistically like the Heptapods. Theists claim God can but I’m an atheist. But for the sake of this story, I suspend my disbelief and let it be true. Science fiction doesn’t have to be realistic, it just has to feel within the realm of reality.

Louise learns just enough of the Heptapod’s written language to start thinking in it, and that affects her dreams. She can’t consciously perceive holistically like they do, but her unconscious mind can, its perceptions leaking out in dreams and visions creating the second-person story.

My mind aches while trying to imagine how Ted Chiang constructed this intricate story. There are certain stories I consider writing models that new science fiction writers need to beat. “Story of Your Life” set the pace in 1998. It’s definitely a 5-star story, but it’s more than that. A few great science fiction stories are also philosophical, and they go beyond great storytelling.

In the end, we know that Louise has been talking to her daughter in dream sequences. The daughter was born after the Heptapods left after the story ends. She died young. On first reading or first viewing of Arrival, we assumed her daughter died before the story starts. Louise learns during the story, and before we do, that she is seeing the future. Sadly, she also knows her daughter’s life will be brief, and when and how she will die. For us who live linear lives, we know what a tremendous burden such knowledge would be. Yet, Louise fully embraces her tragic future. She accepts the ecstasy and the agony.

As far as I can find, Chiang never gives the daughter a name, but in the movie, they make a special point to let us know it’s Hannah. I wonder why for each case. The screenwriters also change the name of the aliens from Flapper and Raspberry to Abbott and Costello. In this case, I prefer the screenwriters’ choice.

What Chiang tells us if we perceived reality holistically, if we’re omniscient, we’d still choose to follow our paths. This questions the whole idea of free will. It’s Buddhism versus Christianity. But we don’t get so technical when we experience this story, it evokes an epiphany in Louise, but one that we should resonate with emotionally.

Many will ask, why did Louise agree to have a baby when she knew her daughter would die from a horrible disease? With the Heptapod’s way of perceiving choice isn’t a factor. Acceptance is a path in Eastern philosophy.

I should mention that Arrival tacks on some extra storylines. It often appears that moviemakers believe that science fiction audiences want their heroes to save the world. “Story of Your Life” is quiet and personal. Arrival ramps up the politics and adds in a save the world plot. I have to wonder if the general population would have admired the film just as much without it?

James Wallace Harris, 3/12/22

p.s. I’ve been reading but not reviewing some of the last stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction. If I don’t have anything new to say after I’ve already oversaid everything, I decided just not to say anything.

“Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” by Geoffrey Maloney

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #101 of 107: “Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” by Geoffrey Maloney

“Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” by Geoffrey Maloney is about aliens who have come to the Earth and leave. Their motives are mysterious. They leave behind crypto machines that look like large teletypes that print on ancient-looking paper. In the story, an unnamed narrator travels with his girlfriend who hopes to meet one of the last aliens before they leave. The narrator becomes petty and jealous for being ignored. Ultimately he finds out that his girlfriend has learned about what the aliens have said about us and it’s not very nice, but true.

The mood of this story reminds me of the Strugatsky brother’s novel, Roadside Picnic. The aliens in that story are completely unknowable. In Maloney’s story, we knew the aliens were here and got to know them some, but they and their mission were always a mystery. Back in the 1950s, there were two famous science fiction stories where aliens judged humanity, the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the novel Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. But the theme is reasonably common.

Quite often in science fiction, we hope aliens will save us from ourselves, a Christ-like role. But every so often, science fiction writes about aliens who judge us, an Old Testament God-like role. In this story, the aliens are more like Margaret Mead coming to live with us for a while. At the end of this short story, we learn one question that horrifies the aliens about us. The narrator worries that the aliens will be sending an executioner, but I get the feeling these aliens are more gentle, so they would probably only put up signs – Warning! Insane Creatures.

“Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” is a nice science fiction story. Not great, but does the job and creates a neat mood. It’s part of a larger work called Tales from the Crypto-System. I’m slightly tempted to try the book, except that it’s too expensive at Amazon, and there is no Kindle edition. A $2.99 Kindle edition might rescue it from obscurity. Infinity Plus gave it a nice review back in 2005. Some of it can be read from Google Books, and I might try more of it when I have time.

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James Wallace Harris, 3/6/22

“The Remoras” by Robert Reed

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #99 of 107: “The Remoras” by Robert Reed

“The Remoras” by Robert Reed was first published in the May 1994 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and has been reprinted a number of times since then. “The Remoras” is set in the far future, on a spaceship as large as a planet, crewed by immortal humans and aliens, who are taking a grand tour around the Milky Way.

The story is part of Reed’s The Great Ship Universe series, but I’ve only read a few of its many entries. My favorite was “Good Mountain,” but it wasn’t set on the Great Ship. I’ve Googled around hoping to find an overview of the Great Ship stories but couldn’t find one. It includes the novels Marrow and The Well of Stars, as well as the collection The Great Ship, but there are other books in the series according to GoodReads.

“The Remoras” is a Quee Lee story, she is a passenger on the Great Ship that is on a 500,000-year voyage that will make one orbit of the Milky Way. This story imagines the far future, when posthumans live lives we can’t imagine.

We have to assume Reed’s goal with this story is to speculate about immortality and posthuman societies, yet the story starts off with a very contemporary-sounding situation. Quee Lee is lounging around in her luxury apartment when a person name Orleans comes to her door wanting 52,000 credits her husband Perri owes. That sounds like a 1940s film noir beginning. I have a pet peeve against plots that use cliche pulp fiction plot conflicts.

We are told we’re in a giant spaceship but we don’t feel it – yet. The person at the door is a man, but not like anyone now in existence. Orleans is a Remora, humans that have mutated themselves by exposure to radiation from working on the outside of the ship. They were tagged with the name Remoras after the fish that follow sharks and feed off their skin. The Remoras are also immortal, but to normal humans look grossly disfigured by cancers. For example, Orleans has an eye that looks like a sea anemone.

At first, Quee Lee mistrusts Orleans and tells him she will tell her husband and he will have to deal with his debt. All of this first part of the story disappointed me. I find the idea of a ship as big as a planet taking passengers on a half-million-year orbit of the Milky Way to be too unbelievable. I also find the idea of longevity extending to hundreds of thousands of years to be unbelievable. And I felt nothing Reed gave us helped me see the possibilities.

But in the second half of the story, when Quee Lee goes to visit Orleans and decides she wants to temporarily experience being a Remora, the story got good. For some reason, I could buy the idea that humans could mutate themselves by consciously directing cancers and genetic alterations. It’s not that I believe such actions are possible in our reality, but Reed made them believable in his story, and that’s what counts.

And to make his story even more fun, he takes us through several plot twists. There is a scene when Quee Lee is on the surface of the ship describing a tremendous light show of lasers destroying comets before they could hit the ship that reminded me of the “Tears in the Rain” speech by Roy Batty in Blade Runner. It goes like this: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain… Time to die.”

What Quee Lee saw wasn’t so eloquently and succinctly stated, but the imagery was just as impressive, like an experience Roy Batty would have seen in his short lifetime.

Reed’s story is super-science on a vast scale. Many writers of modern space opera try to imagine such far futures, but for me, they fail. I can imagine humans living for hundreds of years, but not hundreds of thousands of years. I can imagine humans traveling across the galaxy, but not in ships as big as planets. The Great Ship stories push the boundaries for what I consider credible science fiction. However, once this story zeroed in on one relationship that involves a very short period of time involving exact details I got into it.

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James Wallace Harris, 3/6/22