“The Monster” by Gérard Klein

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #33 of 107: “The Monster” by Gérard Klein

“The Monster” by French writer Gérard Klein was first published in October 1958 in Fiction #59, but later translated and reprinted in the September 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Later on it was collected in Thirteen French Science-Fiction Stories edited by Damon Knight. According to the VanderMeers in their introduction to the story in The Big Book of Science Fiction, Klein is quite a prolific science fiction writer in France. ISFDB lists five translations and a decent number of reprints for “The Monster.”

I found “The Monster” a compelling story until the ending. Marion, the stay-at-home wife of Bernard anxiously awaits her husband return from work. When she hears that an alien from space has been cornered in the park she begins to fret because she knows Bernard walks home through that park. The story tightens by Marion listening to radio broadcasts, and then by her efforts to get into the park which has been cordoned off by the police. The tension Klein builds is quite effective. We slowly learn that Bernard has been the one viction of the alien, and now the alien keeps calling out “Marion” in the voice Marion knows as Bernard’s.

The buildup for this story was quite nice, but the resolution was disappointing. We are shown how Marion has always been dependent on Bernard, but in the end we’re also told that too. The story isn’t about the alien, but Marion. I’m going to quote a significant part of the story from near the ending to explain my disappointment, and to discuss the nature of reading science fiction.

“I’m coming, Bernard,” said Marion, and she dropped the microphone and threw herself forward. She dodged the hands that tried to stop her and began running down the graveled path. She leaped over the copper-meshed web and passed between the gleaming tongues of the flamethrowers. 

“It’s a trap,” called a deep voice behind her. “Come back. The creature has absorbed some of your husband’s knowledge—it’s using it as a lure. Come back. That isn’t human. It has no face.” 

But no one followed her. When she turned her head, she saw the men standing up, grasping their lances and looking at her, horrified, their eyes and teeth gleaming with the same metallic light as the buttons of their uniforms. 

She rounded the pond. Her feet struck the cement pavement with soft, dull sounds, then they felt the cool, caressing touch of the grass again. 

She wondered even as she ran what was going to happen, what would become of her, but she told herself that Bernard would know for her, that he had always known, and that it was best that way. He was waiting for her beyond that black doorway through which his voice came with so much difficulty, and she was about to be with him. 

A memory came suddenly into her mind. A sentence read or heard, an idea harvested and stored away, to be milled and tasted now. It was something like this: men are nothing but empty shells, sometimes cold and deserted like abandoned houses, and sometimes inhabited, haunted by the beings we call life, jealousy, joy, fear, hope, and so many others. Then there was no more loneliness. 

And as she ran, exhaling a warm breath that condensed into a thin plume of vapor, looking back at the pale, contracted faces of the soldiers, dwindling at every step, she began to think that this creature had crossed space and searched for a new world because it felt itself desperately hollow and useless in its own, because none of those intangible beings would haunt it, and that she and Bernard would perhaps live in the center of its mind, just as confidence and anxiety, silence and boredom live in the hearts and minds of men. And she hoped that they would bring it peace, that they would be two quiet little lights, illuminating the honeycombed depths of its enormous, unknown brain. 

She shuddered and laughed. “What does it feel like to be eaten?” she asked herself. 

She tried to imagine a spoonful of ice cream melting between her lips, running cool down her throat, lying in the little dark warmth of her stomach. 

“Bernard,” she cried. “I’ve come.” She heard the men shouting behind her. “Marion,” said the monster with Bernard’s voice, “you took so long.” 

She closed her eyes and threw herself forward. She felt the cold slip down her skin and leave her like a discarded garment. She felt herself being transformed. Her body was dissolving, her fingers threading out, she was expanding inside that huge sphere, moist and warm, comfortable, and, she understood now, good and kind. 

“Bernard,” she said, “they’re coming after us to kill us.” 

“I know,” said the voice, very near now and reassuring. 

“Can’t we do anything—run away?” 

“It’s up to him,” he said. “I’m just beginning to know him. I told him to wait for you. I don’t know exactly what he’s going to do. Go back out into space, maybe? Listen.”

This is almost the end of the story, yet not the complete ending, but the part that’s worth discussing. The ending could be interpreted in several ways, but that’s true of most good stories. But I’m not particularly concerned about that at the moment. What I want to talk about is the difference between story and metaphor.

Story is the artificial world created by the writer. Metaphor is what the writer wants you to contemplate. I’m not against metaphor, but what I really love is story. As I read “The Monster” I got caught up in Marion’s worry for her husband, and wondering what kind of alien was trapped in the park. I assumed it was a real alien. At least a real story alien. What I got was a metaphor alien. And that disappointed me.

Klein had set up realistic situation and turned it into a page-turning story. But he didn’t give me a realistic story ending. This is the only story I’ve read by Gérard Klein. I have no idea what his work is like. But for my purposes I’m going to use “The Monster” as my example for science fiction in general.

Most science fiction writers are just storytellers. They might also include philosophical insights, metaphors, political messages, religious preaching, satire, etc., but their main goal is to tell a story. Think of it this way. We create all kinds of lies to convince children to believe that Santa Claus is real. That’s storytelling. But if we sat a kid down and said, Santa Claus is a metaphor to teach you about the goodness of giving I believe most kids will say, “Cut the crap. I knew you were lying to me. I loved the lies. Don’t spoil them now with some cheesy moral lesson.”

I wanted a real alien at the end of “The Monster.” Marion felt real. The story felt real up to the end. Why didn’t I get a real alien? All I got was some cheesy metaphor. I can accept Marion is dependent on Bernard. I can accept that people are hollow and lonely shells without other people. I can even accept that some belief, philosophy, religion will provide a shell to bind lonely people together. And I can even accept that Klein uses the alien to present his meaningful messages. I can even accept such messages don’t have to be true for the story to work. But where’s my fucking monster from space? How did it get here? What’s it like? How does it survive? What kind of environment does it need to live? What kind of technology does it use? Why would the police want to kill such a unique being? Where’s its spaceship? Why isn’t the alien as real as Marion?

In my old age I’ve come to love science fiction that immerses me into a fully-developed fictional world. Metaphors bridge fiction worlds with reality, and that’s fine if you like that kind of thing. But story comes first. And I want a whole story. Don’t lead me up to a point and yell, “Surprise!” Don’t break the goddamn fourth wall (unless it integrated into a much deeper story).

I know, I’m getting to be a grumpy all guy whining for his 100% science fiction stories.

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James Wallace Harris, 10/22/21

arris 10/22/21

“Pelt” by Carol Emshwiller

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #32 of 107: “Pelt” by Carol Emshwiller

“Pelt” first appeared in the November 1958 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. However, it was more recently recognized in the Library of America’s anthology, The Future is Female. LOA has a web page about Carol Emshwiller and a copy of the story to read online. Judith Merril included “Pelt” in her 1959 volume of the best SF stories of 1958, and again in her Best of the Best volume that collected her favorite stories from the first five years of her annual anthologies. However, “Pelt” only has a modest history of being reprinted.

“Pelt” is another variation of the first contact story, but with a nice twist. The story is told from the point of view of a dog, a companion to a human hunter on a new planet, Jaxa, hoping to make a killing in fur trading. I enjoyed watching how Emshwiller presented the dog’s point of view, but overall I didn’t really enjoy the story. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t sparkle. The insight of the story, its moral compass you might say, points to the evil we humans do. It felt modeled on mountain men from out west in the 1830s who were fur trappers and traders. Instead of killing a native American, the hunter kills a native Jaxan.

Like I said, seeing how a writer presents a dog’s POV was fun. I don’t think Emshwiller intended for her doggy protagonist to be uplifted or enhanced even though we’re shown a stream-of-conscience observation of events by the dog. The man is known to the dog as the master, and she is called many endearing names, including the Queen, and Aloora.

Emshwiller has the problem of revealing both the thoughts of the dog and alien to us.

The thing spoke to her then, and its voice was a deep lullaby sound of buzzing cellos. It gestured with a thick, fur-backed hand. It promised, offered, and asked; and she listened, knowing and not knowing.

The words came slowly. This…is…world. 

—

Here is the sky, the earth, the ice. The heavy arms moved. The hands pointed. 

We have watched you, little slave. What have you done that is free today? Take the liberty. Here is the earth for your four shoed feet, the sky of stars, the ice to drink. Do something free today. Do, do. 

Nice voice, she thought, nice thing. It gives and gives…something. 

Her ears pointed forward, then to the sides, one and then the other, and then forward again. She cocked her head, but the real meaning would not come clear. She poked at the air with her nose. Say that again, her whole body said. I almost have it. I feel it. Say it once more and maybe then the sense of it will come. 

But the creature turned and started away quickly, very quickly for such a big thing, and disappeared behind the trees and bushes. It seemed to shimmer itself away until the glitter was only the glitter of the ice and the black was only the thick, flat branches.


The alien even sounds like he could be Chief Joseph. Aloora knows the being is intelligent before the human, or at least that’s how it appears. But the human does see that the alien is holding something. Animals don’t usually hold objects in the wild.

The tiger thing held a small packet in one hand and was peering into it and pulling at the opening in it with a blunt finger. Suddenly there was a sweep of motion beside her and five fast, frantic shots sounded sharp in her ear. Two came after the honey-fat man had already fallen and lay like a huge decorated sack. 

The master ran forward and she came at his heels. They stopped, not too close, and she watched the master looking at the big, dead tiger head with the terrible eye. The master was breathing hard and seemed hot. His face was red and puffy looking, but his lips made a hard whitish line. He didn’t whistle or talk. After a time he took out his knife. He tested the blade, making a small, bloody thread of a mark on his left thumb. Then he walked closer and she stood and watched him and whispered a questioning whine. 

He stooped by the honey-fat man and it was that small, partly opened packet that he cut viciously through the center. Small round chunks fell out, bite-sized chunks of dried meat and a cheesy substance and some broken bits of clear, bluish ice. 

The master kicked at them. His face was not red anymore, but olive-pale. His thin mouth was open in a grin that was not a grin. He went about the skinning then. 

He did not keep the flat-faced, heavy head nor the blunt-fingered hands.

The master skins the alien but doesn’t take the head or hands, which has meaning in the ending. The hunter leaves the meat like buffalo hunters did in the old west. Why is Emshwiller telling us this story? Is she saying humans don’t change. That they will always exploit every frontier they conquer?

I have mentioned this before. But I believe some stories are good enough for a magazine publication. Then a few of them are worth republishing in an annual best-of-the-year collection, and then a fewer still are worthy of being remembered in a retrospective anthology. For me, “Pelt” is a 3-star story that I would have been happy to read in a magazine, but would have been disappointed to find in Merril’s annual anthology.

I think the story was well told, but I’m disappointed with its message and speculation. Even though the story is protesting awful aspects of humanity, it also assumes those aspects will be a part of us in the future. I believe much of the world has already turned against killing for fur, colonialism, and exploiting indigenous people. Sure, it still goes on, but we have changed a lot since 1958.

I’m not for censorship or cancel culture, but we need to think why we remember stories. It has often been said that science fiction isn’t about the future, but the present. And to a degree that’s true. But remembered science fiction is also a message from the past to the future, our present. And in that regard, I find “Pelt” a bit depressing, and even insulting. Emshwiller is suggesting that humans don’t change, that 19th century attitudes will exist in the future when interstellar space travel is possible. One of the reasons I dislike The Expanse series on television because it assumes we’ll carry 20th century attitudes towards war and diplomacy into the age of interplanetary travel.

Now I understand storytellers need conflict for their stories, but I’m disappointed when they use outdated conflicts, and I think this is the case in “Pelt.” I want to believe in the future we’ll no longer be killing for furs, or murdering indigenous beings, but who knows, maybe Emshwiller will be right. More than likely, Emshwiller modeled her conflict without thinking much about it, and I’m making too much out of it. In other words, it was just a little story she knocked out for F&SF, and I should just read it as such. But still, it was depressing. Imagine reading a story where humans enslave aliens, wouldn’t you find that offensive and depressing?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/21/21

“The Visitors” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #31 of 107: “The Visitors” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

“The Visitors” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky appears to have been written in 1958 according to ISFDB.org, but it gives no original Russian publication source. This older story feels like a trial run for the Strugatskys famous 1972 novel Roadside Picnic. However, the Wikipedia entry for that novel makes no mention of this earlier story about the visitors.

“The Visitors” is yet another first contact story. I’ve lost count of the number we’ve read so far in The Big Book of Science Fiction. “The Visitors” lacks the originality that we discover in Roadside Picnic, but is still a good story. It’s a matter-of-fact account by one observer, K. N. Sergeyev, an archaeologist, who tells a first person story of meeting an alien, and then later quotes from his boss’s diary left at the landing site which describes a close encounter of the third kind. His boss, Boris Yanovich Lozovsky, ultimately volunteers for an encounter of the fourth kind by becoming a storaway on the alien’s ship. “The Visitors” was written during the height of UFO mania, but the story structure and description of events reminds me of The War of the Worlds.

In “The Visitors” we have a very simple account of aliens landing and two humans observing them gather cars, sheep, cows, and other odd bits, before leaving. Boris Yanovich gets to interact with them, but there is no real communication. All their activities are a mystery. Boris thinks they are intelligent machines, but Sergeyev describes them as looking like dog size spiders. I couldn’t help but think of an eight-legged version of the Boston Dynamics robot called Spot.

I enjoy first contact stories, even after reading hundreds of them over the last sixty years. You’d think I’d be burnt out by now. It’s doubtful we’ll ever meet aliens, so science fiction will reimagine the first encounter an infinite number of times. In some ways that’s very frustrating.

Shouldn’t we examine our unquenching thirst for science fiction, especially regarding specific ideas like first contact? Once we thoroughly understand the concept of first contact wouldn’t it be more efficient if we got on with other things? There is so much to learn about reality, why waste all this time with repeating endless speculations on what is essentially is a one sense-of-wonder insight. I’ve often thought we should replace science fiction with a set of concise nonfiction books, each volume covering one science fictional concept, revised and updated every five or ten years.

I have my own ideas of how we’ll make first contact. Someday humans will make a SETI connection with alien beings, and eventually we’ll start sending each other selfies. It might take decades or centuries to even work out a common language and communication standards. I believe most science fiction is overly optimistic in first contact SETI novels by having us intercepting pictures or video right from the start, decoding strange messages in days. I doubt that will happen. I should write a novel about how I picture it happening.

There seems to be a resurgence in UFO interest. Many books were written in the 1950s and 1960s about first encounters, and ufologists worked through all the ideas that science fiction writers have done. I sense the Strugatsky brothers were into UFOs, or they knew about that subculture because “The Visitors” feel more like a UFO report than SF a story.

Evidently, many of us have a strong desire to know we’re not alone in the universe. I’d like to read a novel where the focus is on how human societies change when that finally happens. Any recommendations?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/19/21

“Sector General” by James White

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #30 of 107: “Sector General” by James White

“Sector General” was first published in the November 1957 issue of New Worlds, and is the first story in the long running Sector General series. James White would eventually produce enough short stories and novels about his galactic hospital service that would span twelve books. “Sector General” was reprinted in the first book, Hospital Station.

As far as I can remember, this is the only story I’ve read by James White. “Sector General” is long, episodic, and ends rather abruptly. Dr. Conway is an idealistic young doctor with too many preconceived notions. In the course of the story, he’s forced to change his mind several times.

Most of the story is infodumping because White wants to world build his setup. The setting is a giant space station that serves as a hospital for any kind of alien species. Doctors can quickly acquire the needed biological knowledge for each species via education tapes downloaded into their brain.

If you love Star Trek and Star Wars you’ll probably love the Sector General series, it’s another galactic civilization. The writing in “Sector General” reminded me of a Star Trek novel, where the fun seems to be learning about an ever growing fictional universe.

“Sector General” did not work for me, although the series sounds interesting. It reminds me of other doctors in space stories by Murray Leinster and Alan E. Nourse. I find the premise of human doctors working on alien patients to be unrealistic, but still a neat idea. White chased after too many squirrels in “Sector General.” He was obviously more excited about all the ideas that came to him rather than focusing on storytelling structure. There was content for two good stories in “Sector General” if they had been worked out properly.

Rating: ***

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James Wallace Harris, 10/16/21

“Stranger Station” by Damon Knight

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #29 of 107: “Stranger Station” by Damon Knight

“Stranger Station” by Damon Knight is not a story I’ve read before. It was first published in the December 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and was reprinted in Knight’s second collection, In Deep. It has also been reprinted in many significant anthologies. I own ten of them.

I’ve never read a novel by Knight, and I can count the number of short stories I remember reading by him on one hand: “To Serve Man,” “The Country of the Kind,” “Four in One,” “The Handler,” and now “Stranger Station.” I’ve been impressed with all of them except “To Serve Man.” It’s okay, but The Twilight Zone adaptation spoiled it for me. However, I feel a kind of kinship with Knight because he created the Clarion writers workshops, and I attended Clarion West in 2002. I mostly remember Knight because of his original anthology series Orbit.

“Stranger Station” is exactly the kind of story I was hoping to find in The Big Book of Science Fiction — something I haven’t read that I regret not having read. I bought the SF Gateway Omnibus of Knight’s four collections: Far Out, In Deep, Off Centre, and Turning On after I read “Four in One,” but I haven’t started reading it yet. “Stranger Station” makes me want to find the time.

As I read “Stranger Station” I kept thinking this 1956 story should have been in Harlan Ellison’s 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions. I thought it exceptionally disturbing. I don’t remember reading “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” Knight’s story that was in that famous anthology. I barely remember reading Dangerous Visions in 1968, but can’t remember the specifics to any of the stories.

I didn’t think “Stranger Station” was disturbing because of daring content, but found it unsettling in the way Knight brought us into story, with Paul Wesson descending into madness, and leaving us with horrifying assessment of humans. Not only is the story well told, but it pushes the limits of science fiction for 1956.

Remember, these essays are not reviews. They’re my discussion for our group reads. There will be spoilers.

“Stranger Station” touches on several major science fiction themes: first contact, communication with aliens, ethnocentrism/xenocentrism, cultural humility, cultural shock, cultural imperialism, artificial intelligence, artificial gravity, and more. Knight guesses human spaceflight will take us to Titan by 1987. Of course, that’s wrong, but it could have been right if we had continued with Apollo era funding of space exploration and had not quit in 1972. Knight’s design of space station with artificial gravity is also very impressive for 1956, as his imagination for picturing an AI that reminded me of an evolved Alexa. If Knight had guessed at digitizing media I would have thought he had access to a time machine.

One reason I’m late posting my comments for this story is I’ve read it twice trying to figure it out. Philosophically it seems to be the opposite of “The Country of the Kind” where society has apparently found an exceptional cruel way to deal with lawbreakers with kindness. In “Stranger Station” Knight suggests the solution to fight an alien invasion is hate. But are they really what he’s saying in both cases? The man who considers himself King of the World in “The Country of the Kind” makes a case that society’s rebels deserve compassion too. But Paul Wesson’s solution to the alien’s invasion plan is an act of hate like the character in “The Country of the Kind.”

Science fiction writers seldom try to deal with the problem of alien contact. Most SF stories present aliens like Star Trek and Star Wars. Some aliens are friends, some are enemies, but being around them is no big deal. Knight imagines aliens that drive us insane and we drive them insane. In his story, one human and one alien meet every twenty years at a specially designed space station. They do not meet face-to-face, and they aren’t even supposed to see each other via video. Just being near each other causes psychic distress.

Knight has set up a story about contact between an advanced society and a backward society. In this case, we’re the backward society. It reminds me of stories about cargo cults. We have latched onto a biological byproduct from the aliens’ body that produces longevity and make a fetish of it like a crudely designed model plane. We almost worship the golden fluid, and set up a highly ritualized meeting place where we encounter the aliens, kowtow to their wonders.

In the story, Paul Wesson discovers the aliens are preconditioning us with love so that when we finally do attain interstellar travel we won’t destroy their culture with hate. Wesson resists this and fights back with hate, causing the giant alien the writhe in so much pain that it shakes apart the space station and dies.

What is Knight telling us? Is it a very dark judgment of the human race? At the end we’re told that the computer, Aunt Jane, is also expressing love. My current guess is Knight believes we’ll destroy AI minds too with our hate because of resentment. I currently can’t tell if Knight goes beyond cynicism in this story to any higher judgments.

This is another story that has taught me there were far more great science fiction writers back in the day than I discovered growing up. In the 1960s I barely got beyond the Big Three (Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov) by discovering Delany-Zelazny-Ellison and a couple other writers like Brunner and PKD. I’m having BIG FUN in my old age discovering other writers from the 1950s and 1960s that I should have discovered way back then.

I doubt I’ve even begun to fathom this story. I will need to reread it several times, but as if now:

Rating: *****

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James Wallace Harris, 10/15/21

“The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #28 of 107: “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was obviously aiming to tell the tallest tall tale he could imagine when he wrote “The Last Question” for the November 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly. And what a whopper! No one has ever claimed to have caught a bigger fish. Hell, “The Last Question” is the most hubric statement ever made about mankind. Asimov was known for his ego, and he assumes our species is just as egotistical. But then, science fiction has never been timid about thinking big.

Asimov claimed “The Last Question” was his favorite story he ever wrote. See this quote I stole from Wikipedia:

Why is it my favorite? For one thing I got the idea all at once and didn't have to fiddle with it; and I wrote it in white-heat and scarcely had to change a word. This sort of thing endears any story to any writer. Then, too, it has had the strangest effect on my readers. Frequently someone writes to ask me if I can give them the name of a story, which they think I may have written, and tell them where to find it. They don't remember the title but when they describe the story it is invariably 'The Last Question'. This has reached the point where I recently received a long-distance phone call from a desperate man who began, "Dr. Asimov, there's a story I think you wrote, whose title I can't remember—" at which point I interrupted to tell him it was 'The Last Question' and when I described the plot it proved to be indeed the story he was after. I left him convinced I could read minds at a distance of a thousand miles.

“The Last Question” is stuffed full of science fictional ideas, and has often been dramatically presented at planetarium shows. At the ISFDB.org the story is also listed with quite a number of topic tags for such a short story. Unfortunately, the tag system hasn’t been widely implement yet. I’d love to know all the other SF stories that deal with “reboot” and “heat death of the universe.” I know Tau Zero by Poul Anderson was a reboot story, but it has a different topic tag for that concept – “big crunch.”

“The Last Question” reminds me of an old cartoon. Let’s see how well my memory works. The cartoon showed a giant mainframe computer and two men in lab coats in front of it. One scientist had typed in “Is there a God?” and on the printer the other scientist reads, “There is now.” I’ve always wondered if that cartoon inspired Asimov to write “The Last Question.” I can’t find a copy of that cartoon on the net, but if anyone has a copy please post a link in the comments. On the other hand, the cartoonist may have gotten their idea from the Asimov story.

“The Last Question” is very popular and there’s many audio versions on the net, including this one read by Leonard Nimoy.

In 1956 when this story was written, computers were huge machines that filled large rooms and were only getting bigger. Most people had not seen one, but they were often discussed in pop culture, frequently within jokes. People considered them thinking machines. 1956 was also around the time that artificial intelligence became an academic discipline.

I thought it amusing that Asimov imagines a “Microvac” computer, but even then his micro was quite large. Did science fiction writers ever imagine small personal computers before small personal computers were invented?

Overall, “The Last Question” is a gem of a story, and one that epitomizes the idea story in science fiction. Asimov quickly sketches in a series of characters at every temporal stage of the story, and even though they lack depth of characterization, they capture different stages of humanity that have been imagined before in science fiction. Jerrodd’s family reminds me of the family Stone in Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones. VJ-23X of Lameth was a common futuristic character type in 1930s science fiction, like the kind that Edmond Hamilton, Neil R. Jones, or Raymond Z. Gallun wrote, and Zee Prime recalls what Olaf Stapledon imagined in Last and First Men or Star Maker.

In other words, this is a very science fictional story. And to steal from Aldous Huxley, “The Last Question” reflects the Perennial Philosophy of Science Fiction, which believes humanity will go on no matter what. If our planet dies we’ll find another one. If we lose our star, we’ll build another one. If we outgrow this galaxy, we’ll take over all the rest. If the universe dies, we’ll create another. Nothing is going to stop us. It’s certainly a positive philosophy, but is it a healthy one?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/11/21

“The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #27 of 107: “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith

At first, I was disappointed to see “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was the next story in The Big Book of Science Fiction. I was hoping for a story new to me, instead of another reread. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” seemed too fresh in my mind and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it. But I have this thing about rereading stories. I’ve disciplined myself to always reread a work when encountering it again in another anthology. Experience has taught me it’s well worth the time and effort, and that was the case this time too.

Each time I forget why I love this story, but whenever I start rereading all the details I admired comes back to me. Cordwainer Smith has created a delicious tale for people who love cats and space travel, and I’m his perfect target audience.

I have to wonder why Smith wrote this story? It came out in the October 1955 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, just before the dawn of the Space Age. The story speculates we’ll eventually discover dangers in interstellar space that we can’t fathom consciously. Unknown threats that will drive us mad. Eventually in Smith’s fictional universe, we’ll discover that people with telepathic powers partnered with cats with telepathic powers can overcome those dangers. Humans perceive those unknowable attackers as dragons, and cats see them as rats.

In the 1950s there were countless stories about telepathy, ESP, psionics, and other psychic superpowers. There were a fair number of stories about humans having psychic bonds with cats, with other Earthly animals, as well as all kinds of alien space creatures. Did people in the 1950s really believe the space was going to be full of psychological barriers, that humans were going to develop psi-powers in the future, and we’d communicate with animals and aliens with our minds? Or were those the futures we wanted?

As a kid I thought science fiction was speculation about possibilities just around the corner, maybe within my lifetime, but now as an old person, I wonder if I ever really believed that? I think I did. Or at least, I think I hoped. Was I just a gullible kid who wanted to believe in science fictional theories. Had I put my own hopes for the future into the hands of writers who were only making shit up to tell a neat story? Or is there an inbetween position, where writers were making stuff up, but they also kind of believed their own bullshit?

Paul Linebarger, the real person behind the byline “Cordwainer Smith” was quite a serious and well-educated dude, even writing a textbook Psychological Warfare. Since “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was written in the middle of Cold War, when psychological warfare and brainwashing were topical topics, it’s easy to see the inspiration of the story. But why blend that heavy subject with sentimental fluff about cats? Imagine The Manchurian Candidate with several cute cat scenes.

Do stories need to make sense? Do stories about serious topics need to be serious and logical? “The Game of Rat and Dragon” has been reprinted extensively, including four of the giant doorstop SF retrospective anthologies of this century. Why is that?

Why do science fiction readers keep reading this story? Is it just our love of cats? Do we still hope people will become psychic? Or fear space might have psychological barriers? Or is it merely a story, well told, that entertains us for a few minutes?

The obvious answer is yes, it’s just a little story. But time and time again, I have to wonder why science fiction resonates with us. Science fiction has become immensely popular. As a society we have a vast appetite for fiction and an unquenchable thirst for novelty. Are we bored with reality and need all the books, movies, television shows, and video games we can consume which features interesting fictional realities? Why am I spending so much of my remaining life reading science fiction?

And what about the ending? Isn’t it questioning another normalcy? Doesn’t Underhill love the cat, Lady May, just a little too much? A nurse shows interest in him, and then feels rebuffed because Underhill can only ask about a cat. Should we wonder about Underhill rejecting human company for feline? Or does that line up with our own preference for pet companions? Or is it symbolic for our preference for fiction over life?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/10/21

“Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #26 of 107: “Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz

Science fiction fans usually discover the genre when young, enchanted by its sense of wonder, even becoming addicted to the fantastic for the rest of their lives. I can understand why I was captivated by tall tales in my adolescence but why didn’t I ever outgrow them? After forty years of adult reality, why do I still enjoy children’s fantasies?

This is my second reading of “Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz during the past year. Last July I read it in The Great SF Stories 17 (1955) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. “Grandpa” was first published in the February 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and it’s been well anthologized since. This was a great pick by the VanderMeers because “Grandpa” deserves preserving, and Schmitz deserves better recognition. And it allows me to bring up the topic of young adult (YA) literature in science fiction.

“Grandpa” has never been marketed as YA, but the protagonist is just 15. In 1955 there was quite a lot of YA science fiction being published. Literary critics considered the whole genre aimed at adolescents. Heinlein had his much-loved novels from Charles Scribner’s (the Heinlein Juveniles), Andre “Alice” Norton’s novels were popular, as were the Winston Science Fiction series, and Isaac Asimov had his Lucky Starr series. Plus quite a few SF writers were cranking out books intended for young readers. Most of the many SF magazines knew their audience ran young. The early days of television had a number of popular science fiction adventure shows aimed at kids. I’d say the 1950s and 1960s was a transition time for American childhood, as kids switched from dreaming of becoming cowboys when they grew up, to hoping to become spacemen. (I know I should say cowpeople and spacepeople but it just doesn’t sound right.)

YA lit is all about having young protagonists for young readers to identify. That’s why I call “Grandpa” YA fiction. “Grandpa” is an engaging adventure story that would be empowering to a teenage reader, the kind who cast themselves as action heros in their daydreaming. I’d also call Schmitz’s most famous story, “The Witches of Karres” YA too. And the Telzey Amberdon series is based on a female character who started out as a 15-year-old character.

“Grandpa” is part of The Hub series that ran mainly in Astounding and Analog, a science fiction magazine aimed at adults, but I believe most of its readers got hooked on it in their teens, I know I did. Grandpa, the title character, is a giant floating beast that’s usable as a watercraft. That’s incredibly cool. This world is full of strange symbiotic pairs, and that’s really neat too. And the biology and ecology of this world is rich and complicated and far from understood. Far out. Aren’t these elements the common denominator of science fiction? My favorite YA books of childhood were Heinlein’s juveniles, and they certainly had all these elements and more.

“Grandpa” has everything a teen reader loves about science fiction. Space explorers, colonists on an alien worlds, exotic animals that are both dangerous and pet worthy, freedom from parents, carrying a gun and getting to use it, life and death struggles, belonging to an elite organization while still being a rogue free thinker. This applies to most of the YA science fiction I read in junior high. It’s still the basis for many popular science fiction movies today.

We should ask ourselves: Why does this formula appeal so to us? It’s often been observed how YA fiction finds ways to get young protagonists free of their parents. Cord is just fifteen in this story, and I expect a lot of fifteen-year-olds would love to be out on their own like him. But at that age we really don’t want to join the 9-to-5 mundane world of work. Space is our fairyland. Mars would be great, but we really want a world teaming with endless lifeforms, but not many humans. A few intelligent aliens might be fun, but not too many of those either. We want a world where we can roam and explore without too many responsibilities, and especially without adult supervision.

As adult readers, we still want this kind of adventure too. But at 70, how can I identify with a 15-year-old protagonist? Why is this story still fun? Why am I even nostalgic for this type of fiction? Which I am. And if I crave such adventures why not just go have real adventures? When I was a teen growing up in Miami I would sometimes visit my Uncle Jack out at the Conservation Club in the Everglades. I got to ride swamp buggies and airboats and see giant alligators and other wildlife — not too different from Cord’s fictional adventures. But I preferred saying home and reading science fiction. What’s that all about? My only adventures in nature today are when I visit the Botanic Gardens for a walk. Why do I prefer imaginary worlds to the real world? What’s in fiction adventures that keep us addicted to them our whole life?

Now it’s one thing for a teenager to read “Grandpa,” but it should be a whole different experience for a old guy like me to read. It wasn’t. It made me wish I was fifteen again, and living Cord’s adventure. When I was a teenager I hoped when I grew up space travel would be common and I could have such adventures. That’s why the recent SpaceX Inspiration4 mission was so exciting to people.

However, I have to wonder, what would be age appropriate science fiction for me to read at seventy? I guess that’s why people are so excited about 90-year-old William Shatner going into space in a couple of weeks, we never want to give up that dream about the final frontier.

James H. Schmitz was popular at Astounding/Analog and often got the cover, but he is seldom remembered today. He did write a lot of books, many still in print, but I seldom meet people who talk about them. I wonder if they appeal to girls because he often used female protagonists? (And did boys like having those girl characters?) I found this essay by Mercedes Lackey writing about Schmitz in the introduction to Agent of Vega and Other Stories. I don’t know if it’s cool or legal to quote so much, but I she expresses exactly how we get captured by science fiction when young:

There's a commercial on cable stations lately that talks about moments of epiphany—moments when you understand something that changes your life.  

I've had at least one of those moments—and when it was over, my life had been changed forever.  

It was when, when I was eleven or thereabouts, I went looking in the living room for something to read.  

Now, in my house, books were everywhere and there was very little my brother and I were forbidden to read. We both had library cards as soon as we got past "Run, Spot, run," and by the time I was nine I was coming home with armloads of books every week and still running out of things to read before the week was over. By the time I was ten, I had special permission to take books out of the adult section—yes, in those dark days, you needed a permission slip from your parents to read things that weren't in the children's section.  

Now, the peculiar thing here is that although I read anything that looked like a fairy-tale and every piece of historical fiction I could find, I hadn't discovered classic juvenile science fiction. I can't think why—unless it was because my library didn't have any. It was a very small branch library, and I hadn't yet learned that you could request anything that was in the card-catalog for the whole county-wide system. It might also have been because my branch library had helpfully segregated the juvenile section into "Boys" and "Girls," and I wasn't brave enough to cross the invisible line-of-death dividing the two. I do recall reading two little books called Space Cat and Space Cat Meets Mars and loving them—and also something called City Under the Back Steps about a kid who gets shrunk and joins an ant colony—but that was in a different library, before we moved, and perhaps the books hadn't been so helpfully segregated there. Be that as it may, although I was knee-deep in the historical novels of Anya Seton and Rosemary Sutcliff by then, I hadn't ventured into the adult Science Fiction section. I hadn't fallen headfirst into Andre Norton's myriad worlds, I hadn't joined Heinlein's resourceful heroes, I hadn't discovered Anderson, Asimov, Clarke, Nourse, Simak. . . .  

All that was about to change. Because my father had.   

My father was a science fiction reader; in our house, where library books were everywhere, it was my father who bought the paperbacks. They were divided pretty equally in thirds—suspense (including spy-novels), war, and science fiction.  

It was the start of summer vacation, I had already bored through my stack of nine books, and we weren't going back to the library for another two days. I was desperate. I ventured into the living room, and picked up James Schmidt's Agent of Vega.   

I'm not sure why. It certainly wasn't the cover—in those days, science fiction books were sporting rather odd abstract paintings—possibly trying to divorce themselves from the Bug Eyed Monsters of the pulp covers so that they could be taken Seriously. That wasn't going to happen, not in the Sixties, but you couldn't fault the editors for trying. It wasn't the title—I hadn't a clue what, or who, Vega was, and I wasn't interested in the James Bond books (yet) that featured the only other "agent" I knew of. Perhaps it was just desperation. I asked politely if I could read it, was granted permission, and trotted away to my room with my prize.  

Five minutes later, it was true love.  

It was an epiphany.  

Here was everything I had been looking for—exotic settings, thrills, adventure, heroines who were just as resourceful and brave as the heroes, and something more. There was a magic in the words, but there was more than that. It was imagination.   

No one, no one, since my fairy-tales, had written like this. This James Schmitz fellow seemed as familiar with androids and alien planets as I was with the ice-cream man and the streets of my hometown.  

And here, for the first time, I encountered psionics.   

Psi! There was even an abbreviation for it! Telepathy! Telekinesis! Teleportation! Empathy! Precognition!  

Oh, these were words to conjure with! Better than the magic of the fairy-tales, these were scientific which meant that someone, somewhere (oh let it be me! Me!) might find a way to get one of these powers for himself!  

Much has been made of the "sense of wonder" that science fiction evokes, and believe me, there was nothing to evoke that sense quite like the worlds of James Schmitz. Especially for someone who had never read anything like this before. The man had the right stuff; no doubt of it. By the time that I was done with that book, I was well and truly hooked.  And my life had just taken that irrevocable, epiphanal change.  

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James Wallace Harris, 10/7/21

“Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #24 of 107: “Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver

Now that we’ve reached the 1950s in our group discussion of The Big Book of Science Fiction, I think we should try and remember the historical context that gave birth to our genre. Although science fiction was part of the pulp magazine tradition of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the American public at large hadn’t discovered science fiction yet. During WWII the atomic bomb and V-2 rockets opened their eyes. In the late 1940s the flying saucer mania got people thinking about invasions from space and aliens. Then around 1950 a flood of science fiction TV shows, movies, comics, paperbacks, magazines, and hardbacks hit pop culture causing the Baby Boomers to grow up with the genre. (I chronicled all this in “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”)

Science fiction writers were in the unique position to prepare America and the world for the future. John W. Campbell Jr. was the prophet for the space age urging his disciples to write positive fiction about the potential of the future. Not everyone was so optimistic, but their stories usually appeared in the dozens of new digest size magazines that were part of a publishing boom in science fiction, which competed with Astounding Science Fiction.

“Let Me Live in a House” first appeared in the March 1954 issue of Universe Science Fiction, from a group of low-budget magazines edited by Raymond A. Palmer, former editor of Amazing Stories, and creator of Fate Magazine. Ray Palmer was major promoter of UFO fiction and nonfiction, and a legendary nut-ball in the SF world. In other words, Palmer was what Philip K. Dick called a Crap Artist. People now consider John W. Campbell a nut, but we should remember back in the 1950s and 1960s all science fiction readers were consider geeky, nerdy, nutty, and social zeroes. One reason I’m reviewing the BBofSF is to retrace the steps of my philosophical development from reading science fiction. Back then, I was a crap artist much like Jack Isidore in PKD’s Confessions of a Crap Artist, which is my favorite work by Philip K. Dick.

“Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver is the kind of story I was hoping to find in The Big Book of Science Fiction — one that I hadn’t read and one that deserved to be rediscovered and preserved. Chad Oliver is an author I’ve been curious about lately. I read his The Mists of Dawn as a kid because it was part of the Winston Science Fiction series, and I reread that novel last year when I got nostalgic for those old YA SF novels. Recently, I was quite taken with his story “Transformer” and wrote about it in “From Let’s Pretend Literature.” Now with “Let Me Live in a House” I’m feeling a need to read more Oliver. Luckily, several of his novels and collections are available at Amazon for $1.99 each for the Kindle editions.

Chad Oliver is little known today, even Wikipedia doesn’t say much about him. Usually, when people mention him, they mention he was anthropologist. I did find this nice “Annotated Bibliography and Guide” to his work.

Oliver explores two major science-fictional themes in “Let Me Live in a House.” The first is about the brutality of space. This story was written well before Sputnik and the creation of NASA. I was impressed that Oliver predicted that only people with the Right Stuff would become astronauts. He also speculated that space would be psychologically hostile to humans, and the premise of this tale is astronauts will need to take their culture with them to survive. We’re shown four astronauts on Ganymede, living in twin track houses, with two married couples playing neighbors and best friends. This opening reminds me of the kind of stories Philip K. Dick was writing in the 1950s, where people live inside artificial delusions.

The two couples, Gordon and Helen Collier, and Bart and Mary Walters, have been conditioned to think they are living an ordinary suburban life of playing cards and watching TV. The men occasionally monitor conditions on Ganymede from a hidden room but they try not to think about where they are. Gordon is starting to crack, becoming aware that he’s pretending, becoming more and more paranoid. Then one night they hear a strange noise while playing cards:

Gordon Collier walked nervously out of the room, followed by Barton. He clenched his fists, feeling the clammy sweat in the palms of his hands, and fought to keep the fear from surging up within him. They walked into a small hall and Gordon pressed a button. A section of the wall slid smoothly back on oiled runners, and the two men walked into the white, brightly lighted equipment room. 

Gordon kept his hand steady and flipped on the outside scanners. He couldn’t see a thing. He tried the tracer screen, and it was blank. Barton tried the radio, on the off chance that someone was trying to contact them. There was silence. 

They checked the radar charts for the past hour. They were all quite normal—except the last one. That one had a streak on it, a very sharp and clear and unmistakable streak. It was in the shape of an arc, and it curved down in a grimly familiar way. It started far out in space and it ended. Outside—outside in the ice and the rocks and the cold. 

“Probably a meteor,” Barton suggested. 

“Probably,” Gordon agreed dubiously, and made a note to that effect in the permanent record. 

“Well, what else could it have been?” Barton challenged. 

“Nothing,” Gordon admitted. “It was a meteor.” 

They swung the wall shut again, covering the tubes and screen and coils with flowered wallpaper and Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. They returned to the living room, where their wives still sat around the card table waiting for them. The room was as comfortable as ever, and the tri-di set was on again. 

It was all just as they had left it, Gordon thought—but it was different. The room seemed smaller, constricted, isolated. The temperature had not changed, but it was colder. Millions and millions of miles flowed into the room and crawled around the walls…. 

“Just a meteor, I guess,” Gordon said. 

They went on with their game for another hour, and then Barton and Mary went home to bed. Before they left, they invited Gordon and Helen to visit them the next night.
 

As Gordon becomes undone we slowly learn how Oliver predicts living in space will be a psychic burden. This reminds me of the brilliant story by Edmond Hamilton, “What’s It Like Out There?” that came out in 1952, two years before this story. Joachim Boaz has a review of that story which is part of a series about SF that shows the brutality of living in space. The 1950s was a time when psychiatry was a popular topic at parties and in fiction, so this makes sense, and besides Oliver was an anthropologist. Space was still a huge unknown, so such stories are an obvious speculation. However, they weren’t common in the genre because most science fiction fans were gung-ho to explore space. These were not the kind of stories that John W. Campbell Jr. would publish.

I grew up in the 1960s readily accepting the faith of a high frontier, a true believer in SPACE. As a kid, I loved Heinlein’s 1950 novel about Ganymede, Farmer in the Sky. Heinlein saw space like Americans in the 19th century thought of the West. His novel starkly contrasts with “Let Me Live in a House,” and had all the positive sentimentality of Little House on the Prairie. I’m not sure I could I would have enjoyed reading “Let Me Live in a House” when I was a teen.

Oliver adds a second SF theme in “Let Me Live in a House,” that was far more common, that of first contact. He applies that same kind of fear and paranoia he did about exploring space to it. It turns out the noise Gordon and Bart hear is a spaceship, and a few nights later there is a knock on their door. This reminds me of the classic Fredric Brown story, “Knock,” based on the the idea of the last man on Earth sits in a room alone and hears a knock upon the door.

When Gordon opens the door a man that looks like the portrait of Bart’s grandfather comes in. Of course, it’s an alien, and we eventually learn it projects a human image because its physical features are two horrible for the humans to witness. Gordon must escape this illusion and overcome the alien in a battle of logic.

In my post about “Prott” by Margaret St. Clair, I talked about the problem SF writers have with first contact stories. Oliver deals with those problems in a number of ways. The alien obviously has great mental powers, even telepathy, and can communicate in English. And we don’t get to know the alien because it disguises itself as a human. Gordon does get to see what the alien really looks like, which is so gruesome that it drives him mad. Remember how Greek philosophers said if we could see the face of God we’d go mad?

Oliver is predicting we won’t be able to live in space, and that we really won’t be able to handle aliens — other than our tried and true method of dealing with xenophobia. Is the reason why this story isn’t well known because of its negative attitude towards space exploration? And did the VanderMeers anthologize it because of its contrarian take? What’s interesting is three of their stories, “Prott,” “Let Me Live in a House,” and “The Microscopic Giants” were first anthologized in Science Fiction Terror Tales edited by Groff Conklin. I wonder if they read that anthology? We have to give both Conklin and the VanderMeers credit for mining stories out of the lesser science fiction magazines. In 1954, Astounding, Galaxy, and F&SF were the big three, but there were a couple dozen other science fiction magazines coming out at that time. Have anthologists read them all?

The science fiction short stories that appeared in the 1950s were ones I read in old anthologies I checked out of libraries in the 1960s. From now on, as we progress through the BBofSF, we’ll be reading stories I consumed over the last sixty years, as well as ones I missed. It’s time to reevaluate everything that went into the evolution of my thinking.

Collectively, I’d say people still believe in the John W. Campbell view of the future. We’re still gung-ho on space exploration. But there’s still a chance for Chad Oliver’s speculation to be valid. We might not survive space psychologically or biologically. But we should also ask: Why do we want to go into space? Did the romance of science fiction impregnate those desires into us? We have a lot of stories to read that might help us answer those questions?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/3/21

“The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn

Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #23 of 107: “The Liberation of Earth” by William Tenn

The Liberation of Earth” was first published in the May 1953 issue of Future Science Fiction. It hasn’t been widely reprinted, but it’s been in all the versions of Brian Aldiss’s The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus and it’s in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. I believe I’ve only read it once before, in The Great SF Stories 15 (1953) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I owned a copy Of All Possible Worlds back in the 1960s and might have first read it then, but just can’t remember. For a short time in my adolescence I was into William Tenn because I had found an old copy of Galaxy Science Fiction with “Time Waits for Winthrop,” and that amused me. I remember seeking out his stories, but don’t remember what I read. I recently read Of Men and Monsters and loved it. In my review I made a case that people should try to read Tenn’s only novel without encountering any spoilers — don’t even read the blurbs on the book cover.

I am less taken with “The Liberation of Earth.” Oh, it’s good enough, and fun, I’m just not keen on satire in my old age. However, it might be a problem with presentation. My inner reading voice is not very impressive, especially for sarcasm and other forms of comic snideness. Comedy depends heavily on presentation. “The Liberation of Earth” is a long monologue describing the invasions and liberations by two groups of aliens, the Dendi and the Troxxt, who use the Earth like the U.S. and Russia fought over third world countries for their client states.

If I could have heard “The Liberation of Earth” read by a professional narrator I might have been wowed by all the relevant satire. The VanderMeers really tout its greatness, especially as an antiwar work that was originally inspired by the Korean War. And I do imagine if the people of Afghanistan read this story today they could relate to the “joys” of being liberated time and again.

I think there is another target for Tenn’s satire in this story — science fiction — especially the cherished notion that humanity would be welcomed as an equal partner into a wise galactic federation. “The Liberation of Earth” came out after The Day the Earth Stood Still, so I wondered if it was also harpooning it?

However, there is another issue I should mention. I believe I’ve come to want a certain kind of storytelling, and this narrowing of my tastes leaves me a bit closeminded about other kinds of storytelling. I like stories with characters I can get to know and care about. I don’t have to like them, but they have to involve me. “The Liberation of Earth” only has an unnamed narrator, and not someone we get to know. When Australia is turned to ash it was only an abstraction. If there had been an Australian character we had come to care about, it might have mattered. Like the Australians in the novel On the Beach. The one William Tenn story I do remember well and love, is the novel Of Monsters and Men, and that was because of Eric the Only. I followed Eric through many adventures, and we solved the mysteries of his world together.

I recently listened to The Best of Walter M. Miller Jr. on audiobook. Many of the stories in that collection were exactly the kind I love, with captivating characters, dramatic plots, presented by a very talented professional narrator. I’ve been listening to the Miller stories over the same weeks I’ve been reading The Big Book of Science Fiction, and the contrast is stark. Too many of the stories in the BBofSF just depend on ideas and cleverness, and that’s not enough for me. And to be honest, I can’t believe it’s enough for any reader. However, that’s another thing I’m learning from group reading these stories on Facebook. Everyone likes different kinds of science fiction.

Miller stories are just the right kind for me, even though they aren’t particularly famous in science fiction history, and some of them are a bit weird and strange, even for science fiction. But gosh, they’re great stories, with great storytelling — again, at least for me. Since this collection isn’t even in print at the moment maybe they aren’t the right kind of storytelling for a lot of SF fans. The audiobook I listened to is new, but narrates a collection last published back in 1980. My absolute favorite is “The Darfsteller.” It was first published in the January 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. I believe it was the first novelette to win the Hugo Award even though it’s a novella. I’m guessing the magazine version was much shorter. After that three stories are tied for second place as my favorites: “The Lineman,” “Conditionally Human,” and “Dark Benediction.” Although if I listened to the book again I might pick other stories out of the 14 in this collection. And I should probably give a trigger warning that these stories might be offensive to modern readers who expect characters in the past to have 21st-century enlightened views.

I’d really wish the audiobook publishers of the Miller collection would do one for Tenn. In fact, there are many science fiction authors I love who mainly wrote short stories and there’s no audiobook editions of their work. Several of those authors are in print from NESFA Press, including William Tenn. Audible Studios has done one NESFA book that I know of, His Share of Glory by C. M. Kornbluth. I wish they’d do them all. With a good audio narrator I might even love “The Liberation of Earth.” I have found that audiobooks can often get me to enjoy books I don’t enjoy reading.

Many of the stories we’ve read in The Big Book of Science Fiction have been disappointing to some of our membership, but then others in the group have liked them. It’s really hard to judge fiction. It seems the VanderMeers prefer kinds of storytelling I don’t, but like I said, presentation matters. So does mood. I’ve changed my mind about stories because my mood had changed. And then there’s age. I think we resonate with stories differently depending on our age. I don’t remember if I read “The Liberation of Earth” back in the 1960s, but I’m pretty sure I would have liked it much better when I was young.

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James Wallace Harris, 10/2/21