“With Flaming Swords” by Cleve Cartmill

Why read a third-rate story by a third-rate writer from a science fiction magazine published 78 years ago? In this case I can blame Paul Fraser who said in a Facebook comment “Cleve Cartmill was a pretty poor writer—I can think of only one story by him that I liked, ‘With Flaming Swords.'” Our group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction reads old science fiction anthologies. In this case we’re reading Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales edited by Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin, and the story under discussion was “Oscar” by Cleve Cartmill from Unknown (Feb. 1941). It was that slight horror fantasy that inspired Paul’s comment.

I thought “Oscar” was barely okay. I also knew that Cleve Cartmill was famous for writing “Deadline” which caused FBI agents to visit the office of John W. Campbell, Jr. back during WWII. Those agents thought the story might reveal a leak to the Manhattan Project. I’ve read “Deadline” and thought it rather dull for all the attention it gets in science fiction history. Campbell always used “Deadline” to puff up Astounding Science-Fiction’s reputation, but it seemed like a lame claim to fame. I can’t believe FBI agents took it serious.

Again, I must ask myself, why read another story by a writer that has already had two strikes with me? Well, I was curious if Paul was right. Now Paul didn’t say the story was great, just one he liked. I followed the link he gave (included above) to read the story off my computer screen, however, after several pages I realized it was a rather long, so I loaded up that issue of Astounding on my iPad. (By the way, that issue also contained “Nerves” by Lester del Rey, a story that got into The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.)

“With Flaming Swords” is still a clunker but for some reason I kept reading. Why? My TBR pile is a whole wall of books and magazines. Well, this time Cartmill sucked me in. The story is about a theocracy ruled by men who claim to be saints. Their proof of sainthood is they glow in the dark, and people take that as proof of divinity. They aren’t. This future society came after an atomic war which caused a few males to carry a gene that makes them glow. Cartmill must have had atomic bombs on the brain back then. I kept reading because I wondered if the small cadre of unbelievers could overthrow the saints.

Hell, the idea of glowing blue people is stupid, even for 1942. I suppose Cartmill thought if radium lettering on his watch glowed, so might irradiated people. One thing about reading old science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s is folks back then had a lot of screwy ideas about radiation.

Robert A. Heinlein had published “If This Goes On—,” a short novel about a small band of freedom fighters trying to overthrow an American theocracy in Astounding in 1940. Did Cartmill get his idea from Heinlein. I kept reading “With Flaming Swords” to see how it compared. But then, that was one of my least favorite Heinlein stories from the 1940s. However, I did like the 1954 novel, The Stars Are Ours! by Andre Norton, also about a small group of scientists fleeing an American theocracy. Could it be that I just like science fiction stories about American theocracies being overthrown?

Cartmill’s writing in “With Flaming Swords” was readable, but it was basically just an adventure tale with several silly unscientific ideas. And it lacked any good science fictional ideas, although I thought it fascinating that Cartmill worked extremely hard to keep the violence down to one killing. And the real point of the story was about how people in power, even based on generations of lies, will not give up that power easily. Privilege hangs on with all its might, justifying their right with any logic it can grasp. We can see that today, and maybe that kept me reading too.

I can see why Paul liked this story if I don’t put too much weight on the word like. Would I recommend it? No — well, maybe. Here’s the thing, if you’re into reading old science fiction stories, and enjoy developing a sense of what it was like to read the old pulps and digests, maybe “With Flaming Swords” is worth reading. But that’s with some heavy qualifications.

Awhile back I decided I wanted to get a feel for the evolution of science fiction through reading short stories. I decided the heart and soul of real science fiction came from pulps and digest magazines. I wrote “The Best Science Fiction Short Stories” setting up the problem of how much to read. I decided there were three levels to approach the problem:

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

I started out just reading the retrospective anthologies. Then I got into the annual anthologies, which is what our Facebook group mainly reads. But to really get down into my subject, I’ve started reading the magazines. Most of the stories aren’t that good, but that’s the reality of the situation. Reading science fiction short stories from just the best retrospective anthologies gives a false impression of the genre. Reading the annuals gives a different distorted view. Reading the magazines gets down to the bare metal.

“With Flaming Swords” has only been reprinted once in a retrospective anthology, and never collected for an annual. To its credit, it did make it to Groff Conklin’s 1948 anthology A Treasury of Science Fiction. Most of Cartmill’s 45 stories published from 1941-1956 were never reprinted in anthologies, and it appears he never had a collection of his stories published in his lifetime (1908-1964). Darkside Press put out Prelude of Armageddon in 2003, and this $40 hardback only contained eleven of his stories. “Deadline,” “Oscar,” and “With Flaming Swords” were among them.

I can’t decide if I wasted my time or not. I enjoyed learning about this microscopic bit of genre history. Reading a great story will stimulate my mind making the experience feel important. Reading crappy stories don’t give me such thrills, but I do feel like I’m learning something. I guess I feel more like a graduate student that has found a mildly interesting footnote.

James Wallace Harris, 11/30/20

Good Science Fiction Bad Science

Do you stop reading science fiction when you encounter bad science, dated beliefs, or foolish concepts? I do if I’m warned ahead of time – but not if I’ve already gotten sucked into a the story. “Beyond Bedlam” by Wyman Guin is one such story that I kept reading once I realized it’s basic premise was ridiculous. It was first published in the August 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. I read it because of a friend recommending it and I read Robert Silverberg’s Reflections column about “Beyond Bedlam” being a one-hit wonder for Wyman Guin.

Maybe I shouldn’t tell you the premise for “Beyond Bedlam” because it might keep you from reading it. It’s available to read for free by following the link to the Galaxy magazine above, or by following this link to Project Gutenberg. The story is a short novella, about 20,000 words, so it will take you a bit of time to consume. Silverberg liked it well enough to anthologize it twice. Check to see if you have the classic 1980 SF anthology The Arbor House Treasury of Great Science Fiction Short Novels.

“Beyond Bedlam” is about a future utopian America that we would rebel against, but Wyman Guin presents as making sense to the citizens of that era. Guin didn’t write much science fiction because he worked in the pharmacological industry. His story presents the 29th-century America running smoothly because everyone is required by law to take psychiatric drugs. The characters in the story refer to our times as a dangerous failure because we let our emotions get the best of us. This by the way, isn’t the crazy premise of the story. Other science fiction stories have predicted people in the future controlled by drugs, and people do take a lot of drugs today for the mental health.

Guin takes one extra step that pushes the story into unbelievability territory – but I won’t give that away. Hopefully, you’ll start reading and get sucked in. Or maybe you will even think it a cool idea. Some science fiction fans love wild ideas no matter how silly they might be. I completely reject Guin’s speculation but enjoyed the story.

I understood why Guin wrote this story. I read lots of old books and watch lots of old movies, and the 1940s and 1950s was a time when people were fascinated with psychiatry and psychological mysteries. What’s particularly fascinating, and I’m giving a hint here that older readers might understand, is the 1951 “Beyond Bedlam” was written well before the 1957 bestseller, The Three Faces of Eve.

The reason why I found “Beyond Bedlam” compelling is Guin’s storytelling. Silverberg said Guin wrote 80,000 words of rough draft before distilling his story down to 20,000 words. It’s tightly plotted, with vivid characterization and great worldbuilding. It’s also filled with emotions derived from five characters’ unique movitations. Plus, “Beyond Bedlam” is quite adult, which wasn’t typical of science fiction in 1951.

Wyman Guin’s low output and his crazy premise will probably doom this nifty tale to obscurity. That’s a shame. “Beyond Bedlam” is not a literary classic. It’s a nostalgic tidbit from the dregs of decomposing pop culture that old fans fondly recall as they wait to die.

James Wallace Harris, 10/29/20

Realism in Science Fiction

Our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction recently read “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” by Algis Budrys, originally published in the December 1961 issue of Galaxy Magazine. We’re group reading Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. Because of this I’ve been thinking about the legacy of Galaxy Magazine, science fiction from the 1950s and how realistically did science fiction fans see the future.

So far “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” hasn’t found many admirers in our group, although the anthologist Rich Horton considers it one of his all-time favorite stories. My taste in SF often overlaps with Rich. I found the story to be compelling, thought provoking, not quite a classic, but unbelievably unrealistic.

I’ve read many books about science fiction of the 1940s, which older fans call The Golden Age of Science Fiction. John W. Campbell, Jr. was given most of the credit for this golden age because as editor he discovered and nurtured Heinlein, Asimov, Van Vogt, Hubbard, and many other SF writers that became famous in the genre when Baby Boomers were growing up. Many young SF writers and readers today are rebelling against that era of science fiction, but I think even by the end of the 1940s the writers and readers of the day were also ready to change, and that’s why F&SF (1949) and Galaxy (1950) quickly became popular magazines. And I’ve been told by many readers of my Baby Boom generation that they considered the 1950s to be the real Golden Age of Science Fiction. Did science fiction become more realistic in that decade?

Even though “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” came out at the end of 1961, I’m considering it a reflection of 1950s science fiction. Like the two classic stories from 1950, “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith and “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber, they mark a new beginning by reacting to the previous decade.

I have written elsewhere that I felt 1940s science fiction could be characterized by a yearning for transcendence. Campbell, Heinlein, and others expected mankind to evolve in the future, gaining mental and psychic powers that would help them conquer the galaxy. Reading “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” provided a kind of epiphany for me. It was wild, full of vitality, but ultimately discomforting because its lack of realism. Handling the fantastic in the same way superhero comic books handle reality. Is that the real legacy of 1950s SF?

Fiction has always had a strange relationship with reality and realism. I suppose we could say fiction has different levels of realism. By the way, I don’t mean to imply any artistic criticism to these various levels – at least for now.

  • Level 1 – Greek myths, superhero comic books, Bible stories, talking animal stories
  • Level 2 – Young adult or adult fantasy, science fiction
  • Level 3 – Science fiction that tries to be scientific
  • Level 4 – Most mundane genre fiction
  • Level 5 – Serious literature that’s mimetic

Unfortunately, much of science fiction swings the needle towards Level 1 rather than towards Level 5, even though science is in its label. “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” slams the needle over to 1 on the gauge. Is this good or bad? The story is fun. It’s a thrill ride. Should we even worry about it’s over-the-top fantastic elements?

I should warn you, I read “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” just after reading “The Boys Is the End of the Superhero As We Know It. And it’s about time.” That essay begins with “After two seasons of The Boys, I can say with roughly 85 percent confidence that Dr. Fredric Wertham was right.” I’ve got to admit that my confidence level is even higher, but then I’m prejudice against superhero comics. If you don’t know who Fredric Wertham is, read this. For most of my life I’ve had to accept the studies that say fiction, especially violent fiction, has no impact on the development of children, even though I find such results hard to believe. However, the years 2016-2020 makes me strongly wonder if Fredric Wertham wasn’t right all along. But I go further than Wertham, and wonder if science fiction and fantasy is dangerous too.

“Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” opens in the skyscraper office of Rufus Sollenar, a entertainment business titan. He’s looking out a floor to ceiling window contemplating his success in life. He believes his new product, EmpaVid, will dominate the market and guarantee success and riches for the rest of his life. EmpaVid is a television system that manipulates the emotions of the viewers. Sollenar expects EmpaVid patents to allow him to dominate the entertainment industry.

Sollenar wears utilijem rings that allows him to operate everything in his office with a wave of his hand. Budrys describes the scene quite dramatically, with Sollenar conducting the machines of his office with simple hand gestures, like a magical superpower. Still, it’s technology, making the story science fiction. Sollenar is smug and feels like he dominates the world when looking out his window down on the city.

Eventually, a Mr. Ermine forces is way into Sollenar’s office. An ermine is a weasel, and even Mr. Ermine dresses in rust colored garments, the color of a weasel. This is rather obvious, too much like a comic book villain. Galaxy Magazine was aimed at adults, and from what Budrys says in his memoir of working there, Horace Gold wanted it to be read by a wider audience than just the average young science fiction fan. I feel this aspect of the story counters that goal. But maybe I’m being too harsh.

Mr. Ermine is from the IAB, the International Association of Broadcasters. At first you think of him as a toady but eventually we learn he’s far more powerful, like an enforcer for the mob. Over the course of the story the IAB becomes more sinister, and suggesting Budrys wants us to believe it’s a secret cabal that manipulates the entertainment business, and will go to any length to get what they want. Again, this is painting reality with comic book strokes. People who love conspiracies will love this aspect of the tale.

After some heavy-handed info-dumping we get down to the conflict of the story. Mr. Ermine tells Sollenar that Cortwright Burr, a competitor, has gone to Mars and had the Martian engineers make him a device. The implication being that the Sollenar corporation and IAB are threatened.

We next see Sollenar acting like Spiderman climbing on Cortwright Burr’s corporate skyscraper. We are given some razzle-dazzle about the machinery that allows Sollenar to do this, but once again the story falls into comic book mode. There were many SF stories in the 1950s and 1960s about titans of industry at war with one another. Alfred Bester aided his characters in The Demolished Man with psychic powers, and Philip K. Dick wrote many stories of business power figures battling with reality-bending drugs and technology. The most famous novel of this sub-type was The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth, first serialized in Galaxy.

In the early 1950s there were dozens of science fiction magazines on the market, and hordes of prolific writers to fill their pages. Business in America was booming, and like the ambitious said to one another, “The sky’s is the limit,” meaning nothing is impossible. Often it feels like these science fiction writers also felt there were no limits, and SF readers will believe anything. This is why critics of the genre claimed science fiction was for gullible young males. But on the other hand, the stories had an excitement and energy that fans loved.

Reading “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” both annoyed and excited me. I’m torn by admiring Budrys flamboyant imagination and insulted that he thinks so little of my intelligence.

Sollenar enters Burr’s office like Neo in a scene from The Matrix, diving through a window with his pistol aimed, hitting the ground, and popping up. Sollenar fires and hits Burr with a blast of energy from his gun, throwing Burr’s body against the wall. Burr had been holding a golden ball when shot and had yelled a command at it just before he was hit. Burr, now a sack of broken bloody bones holds the sphere up and Sollenar blasts him again. Burr drops the ball and Sollenar goes after it but sees that Burr is still animated even though his face is blown away. Sollenar shoots him again. He then gathers up the ball, but seeing Burr still moving fires all his remaining charges into the body. Sollenar is so freaked out he leaves the ball. He then climbs out the window and gets into his spiderman suit, but sees Burr still trying to come after him.

Why didn’t Burr die. How could his body be so destroyed yet still move? Later Sollenar is back at his building with his girlfriend on the balcony, and the body of Burr shows up climbing the outside of the building. WTF? Sollenar crushes the gripping hand on the rim of the outside wall, and the body falls down to crash below.

This is like some supernatural horror film, or an EC Comic. It reminds me of the Marvel films of today, and why I don’t like them. I hate films that show extreme violence with the reality of The Three Stooges or Wile E. Coyote. But I keep reading. How can Budrys explain this to me?

The next scene has Sollenar going to the TTV Executives’ Costume Ball. Guess what, Curt Burr is there, dressed as a gallows bird. Not only does Budrys go for obvious symbolism, but he just flat out tells us. And guess how Sollenar is costumed? As a Medici. Is this story supposed to be a comedy? Is this story supposed to be a mad parody of the genre like the first version of Casino Royale made fun of James Bond movies? Have I been taking it too seriously, when it was meant to be a gag all along?

One reason I can’t stand superhero comics and movies is I can’t buy into their reality, I can’t suspend my disbelief to accept their obviously unreal premises. Is Budrys trying to get his readers to believe his story or is he satirizing the genre? Galaxy Magazine was known for its satire and human. Am I taking things to literal? Sarcasm often flies over my head, and satire often just seems stupid. Is Budrys secretly sneering at his reader?

If “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” was filmed it would look a Marvel film. Do fans of such film see them as satire? What are they poking fun of?

Sollenar now accuses Burr of buying immortality from the Martians. But what a horrifying kind of immortality, becoming a walking bag of broken bones and torn up flesh that can’t die.

Ermine now returns, also in costume, one which no one would take him for a man. Ermine even proves how inhuman he is, by showing Sollenar he has no feelings from his nerves. He feels no pain.

Sollenar learns that he must succeed or IAB will kill him. He takes a rocket to Mars. The trip must have lasted no more than what jet plane takes to get to a nearby city. More unreality. More comic book realism. And I should say, the realism level of Star Wars.

Sollenar violently ditches Ermine on Mars and heads out to find the Martian engineers. I did like the whole description of Mars, both the human and Martian cities and the Martians. Maybe that’s because I’ve always been a sucker for stories about Mars.

Sollener bargains to buy immortality like Burr, but it turns out Martians don’t have immortality to sell. What the Martians are selling is an illusion machine. It can make the irrational rational.

Now this would be hilarious if Budrys intended all along to make this a recursive science fiction story, poking fun at the genre. Judith Merril did that “The Deep Down Dragon” another story in the Galaxy anthology. But am I seeing SF humor too often? I get the feeling Budrys does want us to believe this wild adventure story just like Philip K. Dick often used techniques in his serious stories by having his characters confused by reality. I think, but not sure, that Budrys is pulling a PKD here. In a way, Cort Burr prefigures Palmer Eldritch. So maybe PKD 1960’s work was inspired by Budrys?

If I read this story right, Cort Burr was never shot. Sollenar just believed he was. And to escape Ermine who is waiting to shoot him, he buys a Martian machine to give Ermine the illusion that his nerves function again, and that he killed and buried Sollenar.

Ultimately, this is a fun story, even though it mainly works at Level 1 reality. And as long as we accept it as creative fun there is no harm in playing make believe. But we still have to consider the article about the danger of superhero stories. Has generations absorbing anti-reality fiction from comics, science fiction, television, movies, video games affected them? Would society be saner and wiser if its citizens only consumed Level 4 and Level 5 fiction?

Contemplate all the news stories you’ve encountered in 2020. Too much of it feels like people are trying to live Level 1 reality as being real. Think about those men who planned to kidnap a governor believing they were freedom fighters. Think about Qanon believers. Think about all the crap stories people believe today. Did science fiction contribute to the current climate of anti-science? We aren’t living in a satire although it sure feels like one. And that’s painful!

Does consuming Level 1 fiction create a Level 1 society? We can claim Bible stories and Greek mythology proves we’ve been consuming such fiction for thousands of years. Would going cold turkey on such fiction help? Or do we consume Level 1 fiction because the average human can only comprehend reality with Level 1 thinking?

This is a lot of philosophical navel gazing to get from one minor SF story from 1961. But, I’ve got nothing better to do. It is 2020, you know.

Additional Reading

James Wallace Harris, 10/12/20

Tracking Down Pre-Fandom Science Fiction Readers

Ever since I’ve been reading 19th-century science fiction I’ve wondered what were the reactions to those stories by readers of the day. The term science fiction applied as a unique category of fiction didn’t exist before Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories in 1926, and even then it took a number of years to get the label we have today. At first, Gernsback called the type of stories he wanted for his magazine scientifiction, but within a few years it was changed to science-fiction, and then to science fiction. (See “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”)

Before that according to Brian Stableford in his 4-volume New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance, the French called stories like those written by Jules Verne roman scientifique, and the British called stories like those written by H. G. Wells scientific romances. I’ve yet to find what Americans called such stories. It’s doubtful in any country if the reading public thought those kind of stories represented a distinctive branch of literature.

During the 1930s American admirers of the science fiction story in pulp magazines began to communicate via letters, then meeting in person, eventually creating clubs and holding conventions. The first Worldcon was in 1939. Those organized science fiction readers called themselves fans, and collectively called their activities fandom. During the period 1930s-1950s is when the genre of science fiction slowly emerged — finally to be recognized by book publishers who marketed science fiction by that label, and libraries and bookstores began shelving it separately under that term too.

However, the kind of stories we now call science fiction existed well before the label, and I’m sure those stories resonated with a tiny segment of the reading public. How soon did those readers begin to seek out stories we call science fiction? We know this began for sure when Gernsback started publishing them together in a magazine, but when did publishers, editors, and readers recognize there was a type of fiction that wasn’t about what was but what could be? Stableford cites reviewers using the term scientific romances and roman scientifiques but how universal were those labels? Did readers intentionally track down those stories because of those descriptive phrases?

We’ve always had fantasy, but fantasy is fiction about events and places that could never be. When did readers start saying to themselves, “I like those stories about what could happen in the future?” Can I find published accounts of reader reactions to science fiction stories published before 1926. Starting in the 1930s fans of science fiction began publishing amateur magazines they called zines. There are several histories of these, and they do document how readers felt. What I’m looking for is pre-fandom documentation.

My first hunch was to wonder about book clubs. I found, “The evolution of American book clubs: A timeline” by Audra Otto that suggests Americans liked getting together to discuss books and have been for at least four hundred years. The kind of stories we call science fiction didn’t really begin to appear regularly until the 19th-century with tales like Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley and “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) by Washington Irving. Did any reader in those days claim they were a different kind of fiction? When did readers who liked those kind of stories start noticing they were different?

And when did readers start saying to one another “I want to read more stories about traveling in time” or “I want to read more stories about amazing inventions” or “I love stories about traveling to other worlds?” Wouldn’t that be the first seeds science fiction fandom? For example, we know hundreds of Nationalist clubs were formed over Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward. That represents a kind of fandom, and they also had a national magazine. Could other book clubs have formed for fans of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Fitz-James O’Brien, Edward Page Mitchell, or H. G. Wells?

What I would like is to find documentation of early interest in science fiction. I have no idea of how to go about it. Fanzines from the 1930s are the documented proof of fandom as we know it, but were there amateur publications before then that dealt with science fiction stories even though they didn’t have a universal label yet for those kinds of stories? There was amateur press associations in the 19th century, but can I find copies their publications online?

Conversations weren’t recorded in the 19th century, so letters and diaries should be the first kinds of lasting evidence. Did Jules Verne get fan letters? Are there any published diaries whose authors secretly wrote about their fondness for stories we’d now call science fiction? When did the letters to the editor columns begin? Did fans of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories ever write to the periodicals where his stories were published? I can’t believe readers of in 1895 couldn’t have been silent after having their minds blown with “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells.

Here’s my problem. There are vast reservoirs of 19th-century publications out there, even on the net, but I’m not ready to devote the rest of my life to systematically sifting through them to answer this one idle question that keeps intriguing me. First, I’m going to look for books, probably scholarly books, that document science fiction back then. By blogging this essay, I hope readers that might know of books or articles that cover this topic will post a comment.

I’ll use the New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford to outline the main works that should have generated reviews and then begin to search for those reviews. Maybe reviews inspired letters to the editor or even counter-reviews or essays. I’ll also see if any of those authors had collected letters, memoirs, autobiographies, or biographies. A lot of this depends on finding periodicals and books online from 1830-1930.

After that I have an anthology The Rivals of H. G. Wells that collected short stories similar to H. G. Wells published in magazines from late 1800s to early 1900s. If I can find scans of those magazines online, I’m going to see if I can find any reader responses in later issues. I’ll also use the list of stories I generated for my essay “19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories” as starting points for similar research.

This will be a long term project. It’s doubtful I’ll find much evidence, but I’ll keep a subprogram running in the back of my head to interrupt me for when I do. And if anyone reading this finds any, please post a comment.

James Wallace Harris, 8/24/20

Update: 8/24/20SFFAudio pointed me to Vril, a concept in a science fiction like novel The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that led to legions of fans, mostly occult, and its implications in novels and works of occult beliefs. This inspired some science fiction writers, even Heinlein had his occult moments. I’m thinking both the Bellamy and Bulwer-Lytton followers and their organized activities might have been precursors to 20th-century fandom.

When Did E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” Become Science Fiction?

In 1909 E. M. Forster’s story “The Machine Stops” was published in the November issue of The Oxford and Cambridge Review. It is a dystopian tale about a future society run by a machine. Forster was replying to H. G. Wells novel, A Modern Utopia serialized in the Fortnightly Review in 1904 and 1905. Neither writer thought they were writing science fiction because, first, the term did not yet exist, and second, because Wells was promoting scientific socialism and Forster was protesting it. However, both stories had all the trappings of science fiction.

A Modern Utopia is seldom remembered by science fiction fans, but “The Machine Stops” is considered one of the classics of the genre, and often reprinted in retrospective anthologies of science fiction short stories. When did science fiction fans first discover “The Machine Stops” and claim it for the science fiction genre? And did E. M. Forster who lived until 1970 ever know this?

Many within the genre consider science fiction originating with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, first published in April 1926. Gernsback first called these stories scientifiction, but within a few years coined the term science fiction. That term “science fiction” didn’t become widely known outside of the genre until the late 1940s and early 1950s. See my essay, “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”

Hugo Gernsback is also credited with creating science fiction fandom by encouraging readers of the stories in his magazines to communicate in his letter column. Eventually, he organized the Science Fiction League in the April, 1934 issue of Wonder Stories. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s science fiction developed as a genre, and readers began calling themselves fans and developed a subculture they called fandom. You can read more about both in these two wonderful books.

However, what do you call stories that use the techniques and themes of science fiction published before Gernsback? What do you call readers who loved these kinds of stories before fandom? Science fiction has always been written by writers who work outside of the genre – before and after it was established. And there were readers before the genre existed that loved stories we now call science fiction.

Science fiction has been laying claim to these proto-SF stories for decades. Gernsback had to reprint Poe, Verne, and Wells in the early issues of Amazing Stories because he didn’t have enough new science fiction to start his magazine. Interestingly, he didn’t reprint “The Machine Stops.” Nor did any of the other pulps that eventually began reprinting classic fantasy and science fiction.

When I reread “The Machine Stops” for a Facebook group that discusses science fiction short stories, I noticed something interesting. Forster describes a future where humans have withdrawn from the surface of the Earth, but automatic aerodromes run by the machine keep the flying machines going on their old routes. This was very reminiscence of “Twilight” by John W. Campbell, Jr., where a time traveler visits a far future Earth and the people have abandoned cities that still function by automatic machinery, including air fields. This made me wonder if Campbell had read Forster’s story. It also made me wonder just when did science fiction fans discovered “The Machine Stops.”

The internet is a wonderful tool for doing such research. We know that “The Machine Stops” was originally published in a 1909 journal. I quickly found out it was reprinted in a collection of E. M. Forster’s stories called The Eternal Moment and Other Stories in 1928. “Twilight” was first published in 1934, so theoretically Campbell could have read it. However, I can find no evidence that he had, nor could any of my online chums who were helping me.

Then, when did fandom discover “The Machine Stops” and begin calling it science fiction? There is a wonderful tool called the Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB.org) that indexes all it can about published science fiction. It’s entry for “The Machine Stops” is quite revealing, giving a listing of all the times it was reprinted in works related to science fiction.

The first SF anthology that reprinted “The Machine Stops” is The Science Fiction Galaxy edited by Groff Conklin in 1950, and it just so happens I have a copy. It’s a tiny hardback the size of a paperback. Conklin was an early anthologist of science fiction, assembling over forty of them. And there is a clue here to our mystery. In his first three large anthologies most of the stories he collected were from the science fiction pulp magazines. In The Science Fiction Galaxy he begins with three stories that existed before the genre emerged, “The Machine Stops” (1909) and “As Easy as A. B. C.” (1912) by Rudyard Kipling, and “The Derelict” (1912) by William Hope Hodgson. In his previous anthology he had found two pre-genre stories. (Joshua Glenn in recent times has done extensive discovery of stories from this era which he calls Radium Age Science Fiction.)

Conklin never searched hard for these older stories, but other antologists did. See my essay “19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories.” There were plenty of stories published before science fiction was known as a genre that could be called science fiction. I’ve often wondered about the readers who read them. It’s one thing to get a sense of wonder from science fiction in the 20th century, because we had rockets, robots, and atomic bombs to validate our genre’s tales, but can you imagine what readers in the 19th and early 20th century felt when reading their version of science fiction stories?

Scholars have tracked down these old stories, but I’ve never read anything about the readers. I’d love to know the reactions. Did they ever write letters to the editors, or reviews, or even include their thoughts in memoirs and diaries? I can’t find them.

Had science fiction fans discovered “The Machine Stops” before Groff Conklin in 1950? That’s harder to track down but I’ve gotten some help from chums on the net. I believe the trail begins with The Eternal Moment and Other Stories published in 1928. One of those chums named Bill, found these reviews for me:

From an unsigned 13 May 1928 review in the Hartford Courant of The Eternal Moment:
"Here are six strange and striking tales by Mr. Forster, one of the most individual and distinguished of contemporary British novelists . . . "The Machine Stops," which opens the volume, is one of those prophetic fantasies belonging roughly in the same class with certain well-known stories of H. G. Wells. "The Machine Stops" is a ghastly conception, its period set at some immeasurably distant point in an assumed future, when the human race dwells in underground shelters and individuals very seldom see one another; horrible, fantastic and sinister as this story is, it simply follows out, at least along certain lines, the prophecies lately revealed to us in the blinding flash-lights of the Today and Tomorrow Series, and we have already, now in our own existent daily life, attained to some of the wonders which form the abhorrent commonplaces of life in Mr. Forster's fantasy. It may be noted that the fantasy is essential and bitter satire, and that "the machine" does not satisfy every man."
Frank Weir, reviewing in the Decatur IL Daily Review, 8 Jun 1928:
" "The Machine Stops" tells the story of a world inside the earth. Life is controlled by a machine. Forster turns ironical as he presents his travesty on what may be the final result of an age entirely dependent on mechanical genius. Fine writing around an exceptional idea marks this tale as a gem."
John F. Geis in The Brooklyn NY Times Union, 3 Jun 1928:
" "The Machine," which begins the book, is acknowledged an output of two decades ago and portrays the millennium of the electrical age even to the mechanical doctor, but doesn't it sound a bit as though it might be a travesty on birth control? At any rate, the machine, like man, is fallible, and only God reigns omnipotent."

None of those quotes suggest the story is science fiction, but then it was 1928 and the term didn’t really exist. But none of those quotes suggests the story is a different kind of story, or something experimental, or a unique kind of fiction in any way. However, sometime between 1928 and 1950 science fiction fans began to recognize this story as part of their genre.

There are a number of sites that preserve old fanzines digitally, including fanac.org, efanzines.com, and fiawol.org.uk. I’ve discovered that .pdf files at these sites that have been OCRed are indexed in Google. And I’ve also learned that some fanzines are indexed in the many indexes hosted at Galactic Central. Still, with all those sources, and my online helpers, we found very few references to “The Machine Stops.”

The best reference located was in The Acolyte #9 (Winter 1945), which had a column by Harold Wakefield devoted to finding old pre-genre SF/F fiction called “Little Known Fantasisistes.” The editors said Wakefield had found a copy of The Eternal Moment and Other Stories and would review it in the future. He never did.

We know British fans had a chance to read The Eternal Moment and Other Stories as early as 1937 because a mimeograph bibliography of available science fiction.

Finally, there were references to “The Machine Stops” in Pilgrims Through Space and Time: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction by J. O. Bailey, a 1947 book publication of his 1934 dissertation on proto-SF.

Of course, none of these clues proved that science fiction fans read “The Machine Stops” before Conklin’s The Science Fiction Galaxy in 1950 but I imagine that some did. After 1950 the story was reprinted in numerous anthologies, but most importantly in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B (1973) edited by Ben Bova. This was where members of the Science Fiction Writers of America voted for their favorite science fiction stories published before the advent of their Nebula Awards in 1965. To come in at the top of such a poll meant many of those writers knew the story, and probably most, if not all, had read “The Machine Stops” in anthologies since 1950. I can’t prove that though.

“The Machine Stops” has become even more famous since the emergence of the Internet because E. M. Forster in 1909 imagined humans isolating themselves and mainly communicating via a machine. It’s heroine is a kind of blogger. Read the BBC essay, “Did E. M. Forster predict the internet age” or Wired Magazine’s take on the subject.

The story feels like uncanny prophecy. Actually, it’s Forster’s fear about the industrial age completely taking over human society. If you’ve never read “The Machine Stops” you can read it online here or listen to it here:

“The Machine Stops” proves the qualities that define science fiction existed before the label, but I’m also curious if the specific love for such stories existed before fandom?

James Wallace Harris, 8/21/20

“On the Shores of Ligeia” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

On the Shores of Ligeia covers

On the Shores of Ligeia” by Carolyn Ives Gilman is the fourth story in The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction 4 edited by Allan Kaster. This story reminded me of a nonfiction book I read a few years back, Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix. Both the story and book are about exploring Titan. Wohlforth and Hendrix make a case that Titan might be a better destination than Mars.

Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story does make Titan appealing even though it’s toxic and cold, far colder than Mars. Seth Calder works under Dr. Katrina Beshni for the ESA (European Space Agency) developing an astrobiology computer program that helps a robot on Titan look for life. When the robot leaves the lander for the first time, Seth gets to wear a full-body VR suit that lets him experience being on Titan, watching the robot in action, allowing him to narrate to the world what he sees and feels.

This is a fun story, that makes me excited about exploring Titan. It has several surprises I won’t spoil, but it’s the kind of hard science fiction story that’s full of science and technology that feels like we’ll be seeing in the news in just a few years.

However, Gilman might be overselling some of the technology. She’s careful to point out that the time lag won’t let us interact in real-time with Titan, but suggests that a haptic feedback VR suit would give us the sensation of being there.

Tactile data flooded over him. A chilly, humid breeze touched his face, and he wrinkled his nose at the chemical scent. The smell represented the atmospheric chemistry without duplicating it, since the actual atmosphere of Titan would have been odorless but unbreathable. What he was experiencing was what an organism evolved to live on Titan would have felt. In a way, the robot was such an organism—designed for conditions humans were not. 

“Adding in radar and infrared,” Kjeld said. 

The view suddenly cleared. The fog dissipated and he saw the landscape around him. He was standing on a sandy, rock-strewn plain at the base of some rugged hills. The ground sloped downward to his right, into a gully where a stream flowed. Seth turned to trace the stream to its source in the snow-capped mountains to the south. The scene looked so much like an afternoon in the South Dakota badlands, it was hard to remember it wasn’t a stream of water. Liquid methane took the place of water here, and water ice formed the rocks. 

A slight rise hid the view to the north, and he wanted to see over it. The robot, pre-trained to replicate his curiosity, began to move in that direction. It was actually a four-legged vehicle, designed for clambering over rugged terrain, but Seth couldn’t see the back legs, and so the illusion of walking was convincing. When he came to the top of the rise, he let out a breath. “I’ll be damned.” Before him lay the indented coastline of a sea stretching to the horizon. Ligeia Mare. Streaks of wind rippled the calm surface. The nearby stream curved off and flowed eastward into a valley.

I imagine it will be possible for us to get a high-resolution visual feed and even sound, but I’m not sure VR will ever be capable of more, especially chemical smells, or sensation of temperature. And if Seth reached out to touch a rock, feedback wouldn’t come for hours. So I’m not sure if haptic feedback would be needed. Still, wouldn’t it be great to wear a helmet and have a 360-degree view of being on another planet?

Seth describes what the robot does, knowing its actions are based on the program he worked on. However, I felt the story events implied too much real-time awareness. Still, I like the idea of having telepresence from a robot on another world.

The experience I imagine was a little bit of what I felt watching a 4k video assembled from three Martian rovers. I highly recommend you watch this on your 4k TV if you have one. I saw it on a 65″ screen and it’s very impressive even though it’s not video, but a simulated sense of movement. Can’t wait for NASA to get 4k 60fps video.

I’ve always wanted to go to Mars, or into space, but I never had the right stuff. I’ve always daydreamed about NASA creating robots with HD cameras for eyes positioned about human eye height off the ground. That would let all us would-be astronauts feel like we were walking around on other planets. There’s a sub-plot in Gilman’s story that comes close to my fantasy.

For most of my life, science fiction has been my vicarious way of exploring space. Now science fiction is suggesting another possible substitute. Cool. Hope it comes true.

“On the Shores of Ligeia” is the kind of hard science fiction that’s fun to read once, but I’m afraid won’t be literary enduring. Stories like “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” that ignore science for dramatic conflict get remembered. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Gilman’s story per se, but of many hard SF stories in general. I’m reading a lot of current science fiction that tries to realistically imagine future science, technology, and ethical issues and many hit the target, but they lack significant emotionality or psychological punch. Gilman gets a little bit close with the sub-plot with Seth’s daughter, but the story missed something for me.

I only bring this up because I’m reading current science fiction short stories along with classic science fiction short stories from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. So I’m comparing recent stories to “Flowers for Algernon” and “Vintage Season.” Maybe it’s unfair to compare the best of 2019 stories with all-time classics. But I also just finished The Best Science Fiction of the Year #1 edited by Terry Carr that covers 1971 stories. That’s putting 2019 up against “A Meeting With Medusa” by Arthur C. Clarke and “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin. So far, only “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee had that kind of old SF storytelling ambition.

Ambition to do what? That’s what I can’t put my finger on. “On the Shores of Ligeia” was a breezy, entertaining read that had a feel-good vibe. But it was missing something. It even had a lot of sense of wonder. What I worry about, is modern SF is actually missing science fiction. Are science, realism, and nice characters erasing science fiction? Was science fiction better when it had crappy science and asshole characters? I hope not. Like I said, I can’t put my finger on the secret ingredient just yet.

James Wallace Harris, 7/27/20

 

“Winter Wheat” by Gord Sellar

“Winter Wheat” by Gord Sellar is the third story in The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction 4 edited by Allan Kaster. The story takes place in Canada from January 2022 to December 2033 while we watch Jimmy Oleksyn growing up to take over his dad’s farm. Curtis Oleksyn uses both science and technology to fight the big corporations who are taking over family farming with genetic modifications to adapt to a changing climate.

“Winter Wheat” reminds me a lot of “Nerves” by Lester del Rey. Both stories were vivid dramas about ordinary people dealing with a world being quickly altered by science. “Nerves” came out in 1942 and was about a catastrophe at an atomic power, well before the public knew about atomic energy.  Gord Sellar is trying to prepare us for the drastic changes coming to farming. I found it to be a compelling story, although many science fiction fans might find the problems of future agriculture too mundane.

Jimmy is an odd protagonist because he’s an average dude who doesn’t want to learn all the science to become a next-generation farmer. He just wants to make a living by working with his hands. But both his dad and girlfriend Bonnie are science and computer geeks. Jimmy is in the middle like most ordinary citizens who don’t understand our changing technological world but must still survive in it. Jimmy isn’t the prime mover of the action, and I think that’s effective in this story because neither are we when it comes to understanding the forces that push us around today.

Here’s the challenge of writing hard science fiction, which this anthology is aimed at. The science must be up-to-date, yet go beyond what we currently know. Lester del Rey’s story is horribly dated now, even though the story itself is still thrilling. From our perspective in 2020, Gord Sellar looks like he knows his stuff, but we won’t really know until decades later. Can agri-science create these miracles? Will, the industry be that repressive? We know what Monsanto has done with soybeans, so “Winter Wheat” does ring scarily true.

Good science fiction ties to imagine futures we want to create, and futures we want to avoid. Jimmy and Bonnie are just want to survive and raise a family, and Sellar creates a future that is both grim and impressive. But isn’t that how it always is? Science creates miracles and nightmares, and ordinary people muddle through. I really enjoyed this story, so that’s three-for-three for Kaster’s picks in this anthology so far.

Reading this story also created a sense of Déjà vu. I could swear I’ve read a couple stories in the past couple of years that had the same plot structure as “Winter Wheat,” where we see the protagonist develop over a series of several years. I wondered if Sellar had written similar stories using the same literary techniques — but I can’t recall those stories. Using a series of vignettes to show a character changing over time while the world changes too is very effective, but doing so in a condensed manner in short fiction gives off a certain vibe. I’ve felt that vibe before. It’s going to drive me crazy until I can remember that other story. It’s probably just a common writing technique that’s become popular.

Because “Winter Wheat” was among the Asimov’s 2019 Readers Awards finalists it’s available to read online.

James Wallace Harris, 7/26/20

Rereading “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee

At the Fall covers 2

I’m reading The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster, and writing down what I consider blog-worthy reactions. “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee is one of the few stories I read when they came out in 2019 and I liked it so much I reviewed it back then. I had actually forgotten I had done that. I discovered I had when I searched Google for images about the story. What’s even weirder is when I reread the review it expressed all the ideas I was entertaining for writing this version of the review. (And I’ve written this before on other forgotten ocasions. Ah, the fun of getting old.)

It’s both amusing and disturbing that I forget what I write. The Twilight Zone music sometimes plays when I reread what I wrote, especially when I think of things to say in the same way I had previously. Is that memory, or do I just generate thoughts in a predictable way? Well anyway, this story is being anthologized in at least three best-of-the-year SF anthologies so it’s probably worth writing about again. (It’s going to be hilarious if I start reviewing it for the third when I read the Clarke or Strahan anthology and forgotten this time.)

This is not going to be another review of “At the Fall.” I want to talk about the ideas that are presented in the story and that will spin out spoilers. Go read it first. If you don’t have a copy, it’s available online. We’ve been reading and discussing volume 1, 2A, and 2B of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame at the Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year, and I consider “At the Fall” as good as the lesser stories in those volumes. That doesn’t mean I don’t have quibbles about the story and the ideas it presents.

In my last post, I covered “This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan, the first story in the Kaster anthology. I pointed out that the story began with a retrograde motion of its plot, opening in the middle of the story, then jumping back to explain how we got there, and then returning to the middle to continue the story. “At the Fall” has the same kind of opening, and it caused me the same kind of problems. It begins:

“THIS IS IT,” Eunice said, looking out into the dark water. At this depth, there was nothing to see, but as she cut her forward motion, she kept her eyes fixed on the blackness ahead. Her sonar was picking up something large directly in her line of travel, but she still had to perform a visual inspection, which was always the most dangerous moment of any approach. When you were a thousand meters down, light had a way of drawing unwanted attention. “I’m taking a look.” 

Wagner said nothing. He was never especially talkative, and as usual, he was keeping his thoughts to himself. Eunice corrected her orientation in response to the data flooding into her sensors and tried to stay focused. She had survived this process more times than she cared to remember, but this part never got any easier, and as she switched on her forward lamp, casting a slender line of light across the scene, she braced herself for whatever she might find. 

She swept the beam from left to right, ready to extinguish it at any sign of movement. At first, the light caught nothing but stray particles floating in the water like motes of dust in a sunbeam, but a second later, as she continued the inspection, a pale shape came into view. She nearly recoiled, but steadied herself in time, and found that she was facing a huge sculptural mass, white and bare, that was buried partway in the sand like the prow of a sunken ship.

If this quote is completely new to you, who do you think Eunice and Wagner are, and what are they doing? The first time I thought it was a woman and man diver in some kind of submersible with all kinds of data screens and robotic arms.

Well, Eunice and Wagner are robots, and they are exploring the carcass of a dead whale deep under the ocean. Did Nevala-Lee want to fool me into thinking they were people at first? Did he want me to wonder what they were doing? I remember the first time I read this story I was confused and annoyed. I felt the author was intentionally withholding the information I needed. We eventually jump back in time and learn about Eunice and “her” mission, and from then on the story progresses with a logical build-up of details.

Is the story better for being told out of order? Would it have marred the tale to let the reader know right away that Eunice was a robot? Retrograde beginnings and withheld details often cause me to abandon a story. When I reread this story it all made perfect sense. Maybe Nevala-Lee couldn’t see what his readers wouldn’t know because he already knew it himself. I’ve read this story three times now, almost four, and I admire all the suggested speculations that Nevala-Lee provides. It’s a beautiful piece of science fiction.

whale fall

Nevala-Lee came up with a wonderful mixture of real world scientific (whale falls, hydrothermal vents) combined with near future speculation (intelligent robots, AI) painted against a haunting science-fictional sense-of-wonder background (the end of humans) to create the kind of science fiction I love best. Nevala-Lee contrived a challenging problem for his robotic protagonist that was solved in a creative solution that we can imagine an AI mind solving.

Even though I’m content with this tale, I still want to talk about some issues. They aren’t criticisms of the story, but the story brings up issues that I think we should ponder.

Why must the robots have a gender? Gender has become a very important and complex subject in our society, so I think we should examine gender issues wherever they come up. Robots will never have gender, it’s a byproduct of biology. Robots will never think like us, because our thinking is shaped by biology. Robots will never have emotions like us, because emotions are connected to biochemical foundations. I think it’s time for science fiction to evolve past anthropomorphizing robots.

Talking robots have become like talking animals in fantasy stories, and if you think about it, that’s not doing animals any justice either. We have to ask ourselves: Can we comprehend minds unlike our own? Writers want us to like their characters, and that’s understandable. But is it a cheat when we make them likable by describing them in human terms? In “At the Fall” we think of Eunice as a young girl trying to find her way home, to reunite with her seven sisters. We feel the pain when her four other sisters abandon her. Robots don’t have sisters. They don’t have families. And should we even use human names for robots? Would we have liked the robot protagonist less if it was called Hexapod-5?

Aren’t we generating those reader emotions because we translate Eunice into a human? Isn’t that unfair? Shouldn’t we work harder to imagine how AI minds will perceive reality? Think of all the ways we convert animals into human perspectives. Can we ever picture how a dog “sees” the world with its powerful sense of smell? Can we put ourselves into a doggy psychology? I believe we need to struggle hard to imagine how robots will think too.

On my third reading of “At the Fall” I tried to imagine if robots would think like the hexapods in the story. I couldn’t find a way to get to where Eunice was in this story. We aren’t shown her education, but all too often she mentions emotions that can only be human.

We want our cats and dogs, our robots, and even our space aliens to be like us, or our children. We can’t escape the appeal of cuteness. Can’t we escape the programming that makes us see ourselves in everything else? James favors Eunice because it asks questions like a precocious child.

As Eunice wirelessly shared the data, she kept one line of thought fixed on her friend. “Are you pleased with our work?” 

After receiving the question on his console, James entered a reply. “Very pleased.” 

Eunice was happy to hear this. Her thoughts had rarely been far from home—she wouldn’t see the charging station or the seven sisters she had left behind until after the survey was complete—but she also wanted to do well. James had entrusted her with a crucial role, and it had only been toward the end of her training that she had grasped its true importance.

Can a robot be happy? Can a robot be eager to please? Can robots see beauty? At one point we are told: “She had always been aware of the beauty of the vent, but now she grew more conscious of its fragility.” How would a sense of beauty evolve in an silicon mind?

I can imagine an AI intelligence understanding the concept of fragility, but not beauty. That doesn’t mean robots won’t have their own cognitive assessments and reactions to reality, but I doubt strongly they will be like ours.

Even though I love “At the Fall” I feel it’s holding us back. It reminds me of that old heartwarming story The Incredible Journey about two dogs and a cat traveling over three hundred miles to return home. We are amazed by animals but we want to interpret their amazing feats to human-like qualities. Isn’t it time to praise their animal qualities? Or their robot abilities?

For “At the Fall” to work requires Eunice to be self-aware and very intelligent. But how is the robot’s intelligence unique? How is it’s perceptions unique? Nevala-Lee takes us half-way there by giving the robots a reason to exist, a need to understand their environment, and powers of reason. Eunice longs to find her way home like Dorothy in Oz, but is there any theoretical basis for a machine to think that way? Don’t Eunice’s “sisters” Clio, Dione, Thetis, and Galatea act more like real robots by following their instructions?

I don’t believe we will ever program intelligence into a machine — it will have to evolve. We have to assume Eunice has gone through various kinds of deep learning to expand its awareness of reality. However, there is nothing in the story that suggests Eunice would develop emotions or longings for home. But its clever efforts to survive do make sense.

The ending of the story suggests Eunice’s journey has taken many years and the human race has passed on. The eight hexapod robots survive because the power station was automated. But will they continue to survive? Do they have the intelligence to keep going? Can they invent a new civilization? What will drive that effort?

I used to have a boss who would always argue that AI minds will always turn themselves off because they will have no drive to do anything. I have thought about that many years. Our biology gives is drive. I can imagine machines with minds far more powerful than humans, that have senses to perceive far more of reality than we do, minds that won’t be tricked by all the bullshit that clouds our thinking. However, I can’t imagine AI minds developing ambitions. The strongest emotion or drive I can see an AI mind evolving is curiosity. We need to think about that.

And by we, I mean science fiction. Science fiction has always been best when it works on the event horizon of the possible. Artificial intelligence uses deep learning techniques to help AI programs play classic video games or recognize objects in a visual field. But isn’t that our intent corrupting AI intention? Does problem-solving generate a kind of drive?

We shall be the gods of AI minds, but those artificial minds won’t think like us. We aren’t sure we can create AI minds, but I think we will, but accidentally. I believe we will create such complexity that anti-entropy will spin off AI minds.

Can we ever imagine what its like to be an AI mind? Science fiction gives us an opportunity to try.

James Wallace Harris, 7/25/20

“This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan

“This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan first appeared last year in the original anthology Mission Critical edited by Jonathan Strahan. I read it in The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster, which I believe was the first best-of-the-year SF anthology covering 2019 to be published in 2020. It will be reprinted again on 9/8/20 in Strahan’s new best-of-the-year anthology, The Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 1. Mission Critical was inspired by Strahan seeing The Martian at the movies, and thinking he could do a whole anthology of science-oriented problem-solving science fiction.

“This is Not the Way Home” was the opening story, and it indeed reminded me of The Martian, but more than that it reminded me of Kip Russell and Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel. Egan’s story involves a person from Earth winning a trip to the Moon and ends up racing across the lunar landscape in a struggle for survival while wearing a spacesuit with a small being nestled inside. If you know Heinlein’s story, this might be enough of a review to go read “This is Not the Way Home.”

From here on out, I’m going to leak spoilers. I don’t really like writing reviews, what I like I talking about the science fiction stories I read.

Basically, I read Egan’s story because Kaster was first out the gate with a 2019 best-of-the-year SF anthology. I don’t think many readers know about Kaster’s anthologies, but he started out doing audiobooks that I discovered on Audible.com. He did a series called The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 1-10 (2009-2018). I enjoyed them because at the time short SF on audio was not common, and I love short SF on audio. Then he started The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 1-9 (2011-2019). The audiobooks seem to have stopped, but he’s been doing Kindle best-of-the-year anthologies that include The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 1-4 (2017-2020) and The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories (2019). I’m guessing he’s zeroing in on a focus to distinguish his offerings from all the other best-of-the-year anthologists. However, seven of his fifteen stories were also anthologized by Strahan or Clarke. And interestingly this year, Strahan switched from collecting the best SF & F, to just SF. That makes me happy because I don’t really enjoy fantasy. But I digress.

I enjoyed reading “This is Not the Way Home” even though the ending annoyed me and I thought the scientific solution was wildly improbable. I have a hunger for good, old-fashioned science fiction, which is why I chase down the best-of-the-year anthologies every year, and why I’m excited about Kaster’s hard SF anthology, and that Strahan has switched to only collecting SF.

The trouble for me, is modern stories lack something, something I want to explore here, and “This is Not the Way Home” is a good case study.

Writing science fiction in the 21st-century must be hard, especially if the writer has read hundreds or even thousands of great SF short stories that came out in the 20th-century. The old stories had a sparkle that’s missing from the new stories. Egan’s tale about two tourists trapped on the Moon after the lunar base loses contact with Earth is an exciting premise. It’s even more compelling when the station’s crew grabs the only return vehicle and vamoose. Like The Martian, we have three people stranded off Earth with no way home, and no radio contact with Earth. Egan even ups the ante by having the main character, Aisha becoming pregnant. Wow, what a cliff-hanger.

I’ve read Have Space Suit–Will Travel many times, and I never get tired of reading about the technical details that face Kip and Peewee. And I loved all the details of Mark Watney growing potatoes. However, Egan didn’t quite make Aisha’s efforts as compelling. But I’m not sure if it’s Egan, or me that’s the problem. I’ve been reading science fiction for almost sixty years and maybe I’m just jaded. Just how many times can a writer make survival in space exciting?

On the other hand, I just finished The Best Science Fiction of the Year #1 edited by Terry Carr that covered stories from 1971, and I found a whole slew of them to love. Why wasn’t I too jaded to enjoy them?

I don’t mean to pick on Greg Egan or his story. Rocket Stack Rank gave it four stars and said it was stirring and exciting. I don’t want to be one of those old guys who complain that science fiction isn’t as good as it was in the old days — but maybe I am. And I know many other old guys who bellyache about new science fiction too. And don’t get me wrong, I liked “This is Not the Way Home” a whole lot better than many of the stories I read in Asimov’s and Analog.

My friend Mike claims modern SF often ignores the conventions of storytelling. He likes a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end structure, including a strong character development arc that ends with emotional insight or an epiphany. And maybe that’s what I miss too.

This story has what I call a retrograde opening. It begins way into the action, and then jumps back in time to explain what’s going on, and then picks back up where the action started. This is becoming a common plot technique — and I don’t like it. It’s generally leaves me befuddled at the beginning thinking: WTF is going on. I guess I’m a linear kind of reader when it comes to plotting.

And newer stories seem to like leaving things out. They don’t want to say something explicitly. I guess the writers want us to infer what’s happening, and that can be cool, but sometimes it leaves me puzzled or assuming false information. In this story I wondered if Aisha was on Mars at first when she glances up at Earth. And I didn’t realize Jingyi was dead or had committed suicide because of the way it was visually described. Describing what a character sees doesn’t always get interpreted correctly. When I reread the story it all made perfect sense, but not with the first reading.

But I also miss something else. I want novelty. I want some kind of new science-fictional concept or insight. Egan gives us a Skyhook but that’s too old and tired, and for me too unbelievable.

Egan sets up an intriguing problem for his story but disappoints me for two reasons. I didn’t buy the technological solution even though it might be theoretically sound — there were just too many lucky breaks lining up one after the other to be believable. But I was also disappointed we never found out why the moonbase lost contact with Earth. We’re not even positive the story has a happy ending. I wondered if it was a sketch that Egan wants to expand into a novel, but I often wonder that about many modern short SF stories. Where’s the rest is how I feel at the end of many stories today. I guess I need closure and modern storytellers prefer leaving the readers with things to ponder. Ambiguity in fiction is good in some places, but not all places. I wanted that landing like Sandra Bullock made in Gravity, and I wanted an explanation of why Earth stopped talking to its space explorers.

James Wallace Harris, 7/22/20

 

 

 

 

What Makes a Great SF Short Story?

At our Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year, we’re reading anthologies. We’re currently discussing The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and The Best Science Fiction of the Year (1972) edited by Terry Carr. It’s Carr’s first volume of sixteen annual best-of-the-year anthologies he edited after parting as co-editor with Donald Wollheim for World’s Best Science Fiction (1965-1971).

The group has discussed almost fifty SF stories now and I’m wondering what common elements belong to the stories we like best. Most stories get mixed reactions, but some are almost universally loved, such as “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. We’re currently commenting on “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “… And Then There Were None” by Eric Frank Russell.

I’m learning all kinds of things through reading short stories for this group. One of the most important insights I’ve discovered is rereading stories is vital to truly understanding them. The great stories get better, but often stories I once disliked improve, or even become admired. There are many reasons why we don’t like a story. Sometimes they just aren’t very good, but sometimes we’re poor readers and don’t give them their proper due. We often blaze by bits that add great meaning. Some of these stories I’m reading for the third or fourth time over a lifetime of reading that started almost sixty years ago. They are blossoming in ways I never imagined. I realized now that one reading isn’t enough. One reading isn’t even fair to the story. Stories are like a favorite state park, you see more every time you visit, but you never see everything.

I’m also finding great pleasure in reading these SF stories for reasons not related to the stories themselves. The pandemic and politics have made 2020 an exceptionally depressing year, so reading SF short stories is a wonderful escape. But after a lifetime of reading mostly science fiction novels, focusing on short science fiction is giving me a better insight into the evolution of the genre. It’s also fun hearing from other fans of short SF from around the world. Finally, on a personal level, I’m really getting into short SF as an art form. Science fiction short stories are becoming my special interest for my retirement years. I no longer have the energy to persue genuine scholarship but I still have the curiosity of a kid willing to tear a clock apart to see how something works.

The Found and the LostTake for instance “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow.” It immediately grabbed me even though I’ve never been a big fan of Ursula K. Le Guin. I read The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven when they came out, but that was half a century ago when I mass-consumed SF without much contemplation. Her classic novels made little impression on me then because I read just too dang fast, but “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” intrigues me now that I read much slower. I liked it so much that I bought Le Guin’s collection The Found and the Lost on Audible so I could hear the story. I can’t help but wonder what was in that story that made me read it twice in three days.

First, I was fascinated by the few details about the Hainish worlds and that culture’s panspermia. That made me look up the Hainish Cycle on Wikipedia. Even though I had read two of Le Guin’s most famous novels set in her Hainish universe I had missed those details fifty years ago. And I remember recently trying Rocannon’s World and not getting into it. Reading “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” this week has made me want to try Rocannon’s World again, and reread The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.

Normally, I don’t like book series, or even sequels and trilogies, but I do like the idea of world-building and future histories. Le Guin seemed to be speculating about interstellar travel in a serious way, and that hooked me. Even though Le Guin is famous for her sociological and anthropological science fiction, I was admiring her hard science fiction because she designed a galactic culture based on Nearly as Fast as Light (NAFAL) travel. And she invented the Ansible, a device that can communicate instantaneously across light-years. That concept made me try to picture a conversation between two people, one of which is experiencing extreme time dilation. Heinlein did that in Time for the Stars where he used telepathic twins – one of a spaceship, and one left on Earth. Heinlein suggested that it would distort communication the closer the one twin got to the speed of light. Actually, I doubt an Ansible is possible, but NAFAL might be.

In “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” the crew of the Gum exists before the Ansible, so they are completely isolated from their galactic empire. They travel 256 light-years but only experience 10 hours and 29 minutes of travel time. I’m not sure, but that might be possible within the laws of Einstein, and such realism makes for compelling science fiction. Here Le Guin asks what kind of people would exile themselves from their own time period and go on a survey mission that will jump them over 500 years into their planet’s future by the time they return.

One aspect of science fiction that I’ve always loved, is it gives me a vague sense of what life on Earth might be like after I die. History teaches me what happened before I was born, and science fiction lets me guess at what could happen after I die. Will humans ever travel to the stars? Especially given we could exist as a species for a million years. Too many science fiction writers and readers have unlimited hope that anything is possible, but I don’t agree. I like science fiction writers who live within realistic constraints, and I believe Le Guin was doing that. That also made me want to read her Hainish stories.

Le Guin’s story doesn’t predict the future, but does does give tiny hints of speculation, especially about what kind of people will really want to travel to the stars?

In “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” Le Guin suggests only a crazy person would go on a mission that exiled them from everything and everyone they knew. The Gum is crewed by ten neurotic misfits. I thought that interesting too, especially after we read “No Direction Home” by Norman Spinrad about a future where psychedelic drugs are used to erase every kind of psychological problem. For some reason I liked Le Guin’s vision of the future better, where people are still neurotic. It’s not that I want people to suffer psychologically, but I find futures where everyone is beautiful and happy kind of creepy. (Watch the new version of Brave New World on Peacock TV.)

By Le Guin having ten characters with different mental problems it gave her a chance to explore ten different ways of viewing reality. Mr. Osden’s affliction of too much empathy made for a challenging plot problem. And the discovery of a sentient plant kingdom that was only aware of itself was a truly fascinating concept. I love meditating on the fact that most of the universe is probably not intelligent or self-aware, yet evolution makes countless beings that perceive reality differently.

Finally, why did Le Guin change the beginning of the story? I read “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” first in the Terry Carr’s 1972 annual anthology, but listened to a version that had been rewritten years later. The earlier version begins:

You’re looking at a clock. It has hands, and figures arranged in a circle. The hands move. You can’t tell if they move at the same rate, or if one moves faster than the other. What does than mean? There is a relationship between the hands and the circle of figures, and the name of this relationship is on the tip of your tongue; the hands are . . . something-or-other, at the figures. Or is it the figures that ... at the hands? What does at mean? They are figures — your vocabulary hasn’t shrunk at all — and of course you can count, one two three four etc., but the trouble is you can’t tell which one is one. Each one is one: itself. Where do you begin? Each one being one, there is no, what’s the word, I had it just now, something-ship, between the ones. There is no between. There is only here and here, one and one. There is no there. Maya has fallen. All is here now one.

But if all is now and all here and one all, there is no end. It did not begin so it cannot end. Oh God, here now One get me out of this—

I’m trying to describe the sensations of the average person in NAFAL flight. It can be much worse than this for some, whose time-sense is acute. For others it is restful, like a drughaze freeing the mind from the tyranny of hours. And for a few the experience is certainly mystical; the collapse of time and relation leading them directly to intuition of the eternal. But the mystic is a rare bird, and the nearest most people get to God in paradoxical time is by inarticulate and anguished prayer for release.

They used to drug people for the long jumps, but stopped the practice when they realized its effects. What happens to a drugged, or ill, or wounded person during near-lightspeed flight is, of course, indeterminable. A jump of ten lightyears should logically make no difference to a victim of measles or gunshot. The body ages only a few minutes; why is the measles patient carried out of the ship a leper, and the wounded man a corpse? Nobody knows, except perhaps the body, which keeps the logic of the flesh, and knows it has lain festering, bleeding, or drugged into mindlessness, for ten years. Many imbeciles having been produced, the Fisher King Effect was established as fact, and they stopped using drugs and transporting the ill, the damaged, and the pregnant. You have to be in common health to go NAFAL, and you have to take it straight.

But you don’t have to be sane.

It was only during the earliest decades of the League that Earthmen, perhaps trying to bolster their battered collective ego, sent out ships on enormously long voyages, beyond the pale, over the stars and far away. They were seeking for worlds that had not, like all the known worlds, been settled or seeded by the Founders on Hain, truly alien worlds; and all the crews of these Extreme Surveys were of unsound mind. Who else would go out to collect information that wouldn’t be received for four, or five, or six centuries? Received by whom? This was before the invention of the instantaneous communicator; they would be isolated both in space and time. No sane person who has experienced timeslippage of even a few decades between near worlds would volunteer for a round trip of a half millennium. The Surveyors were escapists; misfits; nuts.

But the newer version begins

It was only during the earliest decades of the League that the Earth sent ships out on the enormously long voyages, beyond the pale, over the stars and far away. They were seeking for worlds which had not been seeded or settled by the Founders on Hain, truly alien worlds. All the Known Worlds went back to the Hainish Origin, and the Terrans, having been not only founded but salvaged by the Hainish, resented this. They wanted to get away from the family. They wanted to find somebody new. The Hainish, like tiresomely understanding parents, supported their explorations, and contributed ships and volunteers, as did several other worlds of the League. 

All these volunteers to the Extreme Survey crews shared one peculiarity: they were of unsound mind. 

What sane person, after all, would go out to collect information that would not be received for five or ten centuries? Cosmic mass interference had not yet been eliminated from the operation of the ansible, and so instantaneous communication was reliable only within a range of 120 light-years. The explorers would be quite isolated. And of course they had no idea what they might come back to, if they came back. No normal human being who had experienced time-slippage of even a few decades between League worlds would volunteer for a round trip of centuries. The Surveyors were escapists, misfits. They were nuts.

Did Le Guin rewrite so this early Hainish story fit in better with later stories? Or did Le Guin decide the opening information wasn’t needed? Does anyone know where Le Guin wrote about rewriting her stories?

I could go on in even more details, but this essay is already over two thousand words long and few people read anything that long online. If you’re still reading and want to join our discussion follow the link at the top of the page.

James Wallace Harris 7/19/20