“Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

“Command Performance” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction (November 1952) and was retitled in 1965 to “Anybody Else Like Me?” for Miller’s second collection The View from The Stars. This was my third reading of the story. Previously read in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1953 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, and The Great Sf Stories 14 (1952) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I just listened to the story in The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. that was released on audio two weeks ago (June 2021).

Imagine you’re a science fiction writer and want to tell a story about a person who feels they are different from other people and one day they discover they’re a telepath when they finally meet someone like themselves. How would you plot such a story? I wouldn’t have done it like Walter M. Miller, Jr. did in “Command Performance,” and neither would you, but I was quite impressed with how he envisioned such an encounter playing out. Miller had an interesting take on how telepathy might work, and like many science fiction stories from the 1950s, it’s very psychological.

Most writers picture telepathy as people talking to each other without speaking aloud. Miller takes the concept much further. He has his characters, Lisa Waverly and Kenneth Grearly sharing thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, fantasies, and inputs from all five senses. Much like that old saying about walking in someone else’s shoes.

I wish “Command Performance”/”Anybody Else Like Me?” was a novel instead of a short story, and Miller had worked out Lisa’s and Kenneth’s relationship at length. However, it appears Miller never finished a fully completed published novel. Miller’s most famous book, A Canticle for Leibowitz was a fix-up novel based on three previously published stories. ISFDB only lists one story in the novel section, “The Reluctant Traitor,” probably a novella, that appeared in the January 1952 issue of Amazing Stories. Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was a novel he almost completed before committing suicide, was finished by Terry Bisson, and published after his death.

According to ISFDB, Walter M. Miller, Jr. published 41 works of short fiction in the 1950s, and one in 1997, so evidently writing novels wasn’t his thing. I found this essay by Terry Bisson, “A CANTICLE FOR MILLER; or, How I Met Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman but not Walter M. Miller, Jr.” to be quite interesting, revealing a few more tidbits about Miller. And now that I’m listening to The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. that just came out in audio, I’m finding each story makes me want to know more about Miller as a person. As Bisson points out, Miller did not want to meet people, and never even met his agent. That makes me even more curious about him.

I believe stories reveals details about their writers, even when writers desperately try to stay hidden. I’m only on the fourth story in this audiobook, and I’m guessing there will only be fourteen total if it’s based on the 1980 edition of the book of the same name. (Why hasn’t his other stories been collected?)

I can’t find much on Miller except his entries in Wikipedia and SF Encyclopedia. But at the beginning of his career he wrote this profile about himself for the September 1951 issue of Fantastic Adventures:

I believe this provides us with a few additional clues. Miller became a recluse making himself enigmatic. I don’t think Miller was telepathic, but he might have felt himself different from other people. But as I listen to his stories I can’t help but wonder about the man who wrote them. They are a strange take on science fiction, focusing on humans, and less about aliens and spaceships. Miller seemed more interested in psychology, philosophy, religion and aspects about mundane life. One reason why I’m so fond of science fiction of the 1950s is because the characters were often ordinary, just ones who encountered the fantastic in strange little ways.

I’m really enjoying this collection and looking forward to hearing all 22 hours. I then hope to reread A Canticle for Leibowitz before trying Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.

James Wallace Harris, 7/8/21

Update:

A friend sent me a chapter from Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl Weary where Merril recounts her affair with Walter M. Miller, Jr. while married to Frederik Pohl. It added many more puzzle pieces to my growing mental picture of Miller. I went to buy the book on Amazon and Amazon informed me I already had a copy. Now I need to read it.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a table of contents for the audiobook version of The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. but I’m hoping it’s the same as the 1980 hardback edition. That book seemed to combine the two previous paperback collections, Conditionally Human (1962) (3 novellas) and The View from the Future (1965) (9 stories and novelettes) and added two other stories for a total of 14. That leaves 27 stories uncollected. There were other collections of Miller’s stories, but they all seem to reprint from that same list of 14. Maybe they were all dogs, and not worth reprinting, but sometime I hope to read them too.

Let’s Build a Spaceship

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction group on Facebook has been reading through the Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction reader award short fiction finalists. “Minerva Girls” by James Van Pelt is about three teenage girls who build their own spaceship and go to the moon. I thought the story was a lot of fun, but one of our members said he couldn’t get into it because it was too unbelievable. Well, that’s true, believing children can invented anti-gravity and build their own spaceship out of a gas tank unearth from a service station is beyond farfetched, but it’s still a fun idea for a SF story. Coincidently, that plot is how I got into science fiction in the fifth grade by reading Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint.

Of course, it’s one thing to be a child and fantasize about of being a child space explorer, and being an old man believing a story about children inventing a spaceship. Obviously, realism didn’t get in my way of enjoying “Minerva Girls.” I started thinking about why and realized I’ve read a number of stories over my lifetime where kids build their own spaceship. It’s a neat little SF theme that doesn’t seem to ever go away.

Like I said in my last essay, cherished ideas acquired in childhood often have a habit of sticking with us for the rest of our lives, even if they have no possible reality. Most people learn the truth about Santa Claus at an early age yet keep the myth alive for the rest of their life. Who doesn’t love watching Miracle of on 34th Street every year?

Right after I read the Danny Dunn series I started in on the Tom Swift, Jr. books. These only reinforced the idea that kids could build anything that adults could.

Then a few years later in 1964 I discovered the Heinlein juveniles. In each book a teenager had adventures in space. I was now twelve, about to turn thirteen, and I still wanted to believe it was possible for a kid to build a rocket, yet I was old enough to realize that Heinlein’s book Rocket Ship Galileo was unbelievable. I knew what it took to build a rocket because I had faithfully followed every launch of Project Mercury and was reading about Project Gemini that would begin the following year. Rockets required a big hunk of a national budget and tens of thousands of grownups to build.

Then in the summer of 1966 I read a serial in If Magazine called “The Hour Before Earthrise” by James Blish where a kid builds a spaceship out of wood, powers it with anti-gravity, and goes to Mars. It was later published in book form as Welcome to Mars. By then I knew this was an idea too ridiculous to contemplate, yet I still enjoyed reading the story. I wanted to believe still, but I felt like a kid feeling too old for Santa.

There wasn’t a lot of YA science fiction when I was growing up – actually, there wasn’t a lot of science fiction period. But the genre had a reputation for being targeted at pre-adults. Many SF writers resented this, but I think it was mostly true. Today YA science fiction and fantasy is big business, and it’s not just consumed by teenagers. Evidently, adults want to vicariously be teenagers again and fantasize about having great adventures.

Part of me wants to reject my love of juvenile SF literature. That part of me wants science fiction to grow up too, and deal with reality. In particular, science fiction should explore realistic futures where going to the stars is impractical, and humanity accepts its destiny on Earth before we destroy it. But what kid wants to read that kind of science fiction? And it’s pretty obvious few adults want to read it either.

Yes, “Minerva Girls” is an unbelievable fantasy, but it’s also one we want to keep believing. I don’t mean to offend anyone by this comparison, but I wonder if the desire to believe in the science fiction we discovered in childhood isn’t akin to people who maintain their childhood religious beliefs in adulthood? What percentage of our society can’t put away childish things? I’m guessing a large percentage. Maybe the reality is we hold onto things we want to be real in the face of a reality we reject?

And reality does intrude into “Minerva Girls.” Selena and her friends have to contend with mean girls, studying things in school they didn’t want to learn, and the heartache of losing each other. They did have to come down to Earth after visiting the moon. They accepted the painful reality that their lifelong friendship was going to be broken up by two of their families moving to new cities.

There was another new bit of reality in this fantasy, instead of a trio of boys building a spaceship on their own, it was a trio of girls. In fact, in all these stories, the characters had to face plot pitfalls based on realistic everyday life hurdles. Fiction, even fantasy fiction, doesn’t work without a certain amount of realism.

I guess these stories are still appealing because wouldn’t it be fun to live in a reality where building a jalopy spaceship in the backyard could happen? Or converting an old Camry into a time machine?

James Wallace Harris, 6/20/21

Why Did I Like This Story?

Have you ever spent time thinking about why you like a particular story, movie, television show, song, photograph, painting, etc.? I believe most of us assume the critical ingredient is in the artwork itself. What if that’s not altogether true? What if our admiration also depends on what’s inside ourselves too?

I just read “Minla’s Flowers” by Alastair Reynolds in The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. It was the eleventh story in the anthology and the first one that grabbed me. The other ten were well-told tales, but they just didn’t resonate with my Sci-Fi soul. And that’s a hint at what I’m talking about. “Minla’s Flowers” pushed my buttons, but which buttons, and where did they come from?

People turn to genealogy when they want to know how their body got here, but it doesn’t explain the programming that went into creating their personality. What if we use the Butterfly Effect to explain the lineage of our personality and show where all beliefs, opinions, likes, dislikes, prejudices, loves, hates, fears, etc. that went into making who we think we are. What if the Big Bang origin of all our traits can be traced back to specific triggers, whether huge emotional explosions or tiny seeds of inspiration? Can we ever trace specific emotions back to the first flutter of butterfly wings?

This theory started taking form a few years ago when I realized I didn’t enjoy modern science fiction short stories as much as I loved older SF stories. Had I changed, or science fiction? It’s been sixty years since I started reading SF. It seems obvious that both myself and the genre have changed, but have we? The macro aspects of my personality and the genre haven’t I don’t think. But how many micro details reveal any real change? Both are complex system not easily understood, so my Freudian-like analysis will only be guesswork.

One hypothesis I’ve considered deals with information density. I know a lot more in 2021 than I did in 1962, and so does science fiction. My mind reads with a greater density of relatable knowledge, and modern SF prose is often written with a greater density of information and science fictional speculation. Yet science fiction themes don’t seem to change over time. About the only new themes to emerge during my lifetime is digital worlds and brain downloading/uploading, and both probably had precursors if I researched it enough. Last night I watched the 2019 British miniseries of The War of the World, and then started rereading the novel. It only reminds me of how I’ve been seeing shadows of Wells my whole life.

When I grew up SF stories had basic plots that exposed ordinary humans to usually one far-out bit of speculation. Now SF stories are written with a Phil Spector-like Wall of Speculation approach, embedding the plot and far-from-ordinary-humans into narratives of greater information density, especially the New Space Opera stories about the far future.

First off, I didn’t feel “Minla’s Flowers” was a five-star story, but I did feel it deserved a solid four-stars, mainly because I knew I’d want to reread it someday. In fact, I’ve already reread parts of it to compose my comment for our reading group at Facebook. That’s when I realized something. I liked “Minla’s Flowers” because it reminded me of so many other science fiction stories. Here’s my comment to the group:

Alastair Reynolds begins "Minla's Flowers" with a lone adventurer, Merlin, and his AI spaceship, Tyrant, falling out of subspace, Waynet, to make repairs on a planet, Lecythus, only to discover it inhabited by humans who had colonized it thousands of years ago and are currently at war, where he befriends an old scientist, Malkoha, and his daughter Minla.

I have to say all this triggered memories of Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers, Dr. Zarkov/Dr. Huer, and Dale Arden/Wilma Deering. "Minla's Flowers" is the first story in this collection that feels like Old Space Opera, and it was a lot of fun.

I thought for sure Reynolds was going to arrange for Merlin and Minla to become lovers ala cold sleep (think THE DOOR INTO SUMMER), but that didn't happen. Minla became his rival, even the antagonist of the story. Eventually, the plot of "Minla's Flowers" turns into the plot of WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, escaping a doomed planet by building a spacefaring nation in seventy years.

Since Merlin is needed for a future adventure by Reynolds, he undergoes a series of cold sleep timeouts, and only ages a few months during this story, while Minla reaches 80. That should remind me of several SF stories, but I can't recall any at the moment. (INTERSTELLAR?)

Reynolds extends this story time and again through philosophical and ethical issues of helping a civilization speed up its development. In this regard, Merlin's and Tyrant's roles remind me of Klaatu and Gort from the film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.

Because Reynolds embeds so much of the science fiction mythos into his story it caused the science fiction region of my soul to resonate with it. I know I will reread this story in the future, and it might even resonate more, but for now...

Rating: ****

Science fiction speculates on a limited number of subjects. One of the reasons I didn’t enjoy many of the ten stories before this one in The New Space Opera is because they speculated about topics I either discount, or I believe are too overused. Many of the stories in this anthology assume in the far future humans will have colonized the galaxy, and we’ll share it with aliens, intelligent robots, androids that look like us, cyborgs, humans that have achieve immortality, posthumans, transhumans, and downloaded humans. Decades ago it was common to see one of these elements as the basis of a science fiction story, but now it seems science fiction writers assume they will all coexist in the future, and somehow they must all be mentioned whenever writing a story about the far future. Actually, I’d find it a reading thrill for a writer to challenge these assumptions. It’s why I loved Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

New science fiction writers have to recycle old themes because developing new ones are next to impossible. And as a reader, at least for me, if I encounter too many stories using the same concepts, I get bored with them. I should probably avoid theme anthologies like The New Space Opera. Yet, I responded positively to “Minla’s Flowers” because it caused me to resonate with old SF I loved in adolescence. Freud was a big explorer of our subconscious mind, but did he ever suggest early sense of wonder experiences would create chimes in our personality that would ring in later years if we encounter similar wonders on the same wavelength?

Of course, I might need to be careful with line of self-analysis, or I might find out that everything I love and believe originated in old science fiction stories I first encountered in youth. I’ve often thought science fiction was my substitute for religion when it didn’t take when I was a kid.

“Minla’s Flowers” has one human, one AI spaceship, and an alien world populated by humans that colonized the planet so long ago they’ve forgotten how they got there. This simplicity of story elements reminds me of Old Space Opera. (Although Reynolds does keep trying to cram in even more science fictional elements I felt diluted the story.)

At the plot’s core, “Minla’s Flowers” is about a civilization that needs to flee its home planet to find a new world because their sun will be destroyed in seventy years. One of the first SF books I read with this theme was the omnibus When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide by by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. Has that story I read at age twelve shaped my response to future fiction? All my life I’ve thought humanity should colonize space to protect itself from extinction. Did that too come from Balmer and Wylie? Thinking about it now, I’m not sure it’s a practical or realistic idea. We were evolved for living on Earth, and all our space exploring fantasies may just be that.

Merlin fits the archetype for the science fiction hero, as does his sidekick. Where Reynolds took his story in an anti-tradition was with Minla, and that also thrilled me too. Is the right mixture for entertaining new science fiction a good bit of the tried and true, with a touch of the contrary?

Fiction is still magical. I don’t know how it works its spells. But now that I’m much older, and have consumed vast quantities of the genre, I sense patterns that my unconscious mind likes. It’s almost as if my unconscious mind learns and evolves, and maybe even has its own logic. I’m old and tired, and have a difficult time finding stories I still love, but every once in a while, something clicks. It’s a weird unexplainable experience.

James Wallace Harris, 6/19/21

“The Star” by H. G. Wells

When I was young, reading science fiction thrilled me by giving me new ideas to ponder, ones I wasn’t getting from school. For example, when I was twelve, I read the When Worlds Collide/After Worlds Collide double decker by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. It provided three new wonders to inflame my mind. First, planets from outside the solar system could fly through our interplanetary space and even collide with the Earth. Imagining the end of the world provides no end of chilling speculation. People have been entertaining that vision since the Great Flood. Second, I was introduced to the idea that people could escape the end of the world. Wow, what a concept! And third, what if we found a dead city that was once occupied by aliens? What would it be like to walk among their ruins and imagine their lives from the clues they left?

What’s remarkable about “The Star” by H. G. Wells, published in 1897, is its science fictional setup would work just as well today in 2021. The story describes people’s reactions from from around the world at that time, but the astronomical events and effects upon the Earth would be the same today. And I’m not sure people now would react much differently than they did then. What has changed is how the news is spread.

Nowadays I am fascinated by how science fiction short stories gain popularity and then fade from pop culture memory. They are usually remembered by anthologies. An editor of a good retrospective anthology knows the genre and tries to keep older stories alive. Every few years a new large retrospective anthology of short science fiction appears. Over time, the weakest older stories are left out of the latest anthology, and the best newer stories are added, revealing a kind of evolution.

Readers who buy genre retrospective anthologies are shown a kind of photograph of the history of short science fiction, with each new anthology trying capture the genre in a pose by how the editors want their readers to see its history. I’ve been dipping into The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer since it came out in 2016. Its oldest story is “The Star.” The Big Book of Science Fiction has nearly a hundred stories and I’ve read maybe a quarter of them. The VanderMeers worked to diversify the history of the genre by including more stories by women writers and translated stories by non-English speaking writers.

Their family portrait of science fiction looks somewhat different than Leigh Ronald Grossman’s group photo, Sense of Wonder, taken in 2011. Grossman’s oldest pick was “Mellonta Tauta” by Edgar Allan Poe from 1849. Grossman’s anthology is even larger than the VanderMeers’, but it includes a novel, novel extracts, and introductory essays. It’s meant to be a textbook for teaching the history of science fiction, but Grossman’s photo of the genre revealed a more traditional pose for the genre.

Right now, I’m less concerned the overall image of the genre’s legacy than I am with understanding the evolution of science fictional ideas. I’d love to create a taxonomy of science fictional ideas and themes. When Groff Conklin assembled his first retrospective anthology back in 1946, The Best of Science Fiction, he divided the stories into six theme sections. Over the decades many anthologists have created theme anthologies. But it’s impossible to grasp all the far-out ideas of science fiction in just one anthology, or even a shelf of them. So, I’m going to work my way through several large retrospective anthologies, take notes, and plot my findings. Maybe I can come up with some way of showing an evolutionary tree of science fictional ideas.

I’ve decided “The Star” was inspired by astronomy, so the first theme I’m going to work on is Astronomical Science Fiction. However, did H. G. Wells think up his idea? Had Wells read Omega: The Last Days of the World by French astronomer Camille Flammarion which came out in 1894? When did the English edition first appear? Wells could also have read Olga Romanoff or, The Syren of the Skies by George Griffith serialized in Pearson’s Weekly (12/30/1893 – 8/4/1894). Both these stories are impact event stories. And then we must ask where did Flammarion get his idea? Jules Verne wrote Off on a Comet in 1877 about a comet that gives the Earth a glancing blow. Wells was savvy enough to know his planet didn’t need to impact the Earth, but it’s gravitation influence coming near us could wreak havoc on our planet.

I want to develop a classification scheme, a taxonomy, or even a mind map of how science fiction ideas evolve. Earlier writers imagined a comet hitting the Earth. Wells imagined a planet from outside the solar system, which is a much newer idea if you think about it. People were aware of comets, but how many Earthlings imagined a planet visiting the solar system? Then in the 1930s Balmer and Wylie imagined two visiting planets. By the way, Wells interstellar visitor is called a star in the title, but referred to as a planet in the story. People see it as a star in the sky.

Once you start considering the theme, thinking about astronomy can inspire all kinds of science fictional ideas. Wells used astronomy again at the end of The Time Machine when he used the Sun expanding into a red giant, and the Earth slowing its rotation.

I wish I had a better memory than I do so I could recall all the science fiction stories that used astronomy as the inspiration of its science fiction. Fred Hoyle used it for The Black Cloud a story about a dust cloud blocking the sun. But sometimes its fanciful astronomy. Poul Anderson imagined the solar system orbiting the Milky Way in Brain Wave and wondered what if the solar system passes through different kinds of radiation fields. Now this is unbelievable but fun, but what if the solar system had been in a radiation field that retarded intelligence and it moved out of that field? In Brain Wave humans and all living things become a bit smarter. Even more fanciful is Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, where he imagines the Earth encased in a spin membrane that slows time down. Of course, this moves outside the realm of Astronomical Science Fiction because the membrane was artificially created.

Getting back to real astronomy, consider the short story “Inconstant Moon” by Larry Niven from 1971. People notice the Moon is glowing strangely one night. Our narrator theorizes the Sun has gone nova and the world is about to be destroyed, but then figures a massive solar flare has occurred, which might be survivable. Notice how these Astronomical Science Fiction stories usually involve the destruction of the Earth.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle returned to the comet impact in 1977 with Lucifer’s Hammer. Comet and asteroid strikes seem to be the most common inspiration on Astronomical Science Fiction. But here is a list created by Andrew Fraknoi in 2019 that lists more recent science fiction based on astronomy and physics. Wells or “The Star” wasn’t mentioned. That’s the problem with creating a SF theme taxonomy, it’s like the biological world there are millions of examples to be classified.

One interesting aspect of “The Star” (and When Worlds Collide) is it depends on astronomers to let the people of Earth know that something is about to happen. How often are astronomers the heroes of science fiction stories?

It was on the first day of the New Year that the announcement was made, almost simultaneously from three observatories, that the motion of the planet Neptune, the outermost of all the planets that wheel about the sun, had become very erratic. Ogilvy had already called attention to a suspected retardation in its velocity in December. Such a piece of news was scarcely calculated to interest a world the greater portion of whose inhabitants were unaware of the existence of the planet Neptune, nor outside the astronomical profession did the subsequent discovery of a faint remote speck of light in the region of the perturbed planet cause any very great excitement. Scientific people, however, found the intelligence remarkable enough, even before it became known that the new body was rapidly growing larger and brighter, that its motion was quite different from the orderly progress of the planets, and that the deflection of Neptune and its satellite was becoming now of an unprecedented kind.

Few people without a training in science can realise the huge isolation of the solar system. The sun with its specks of planets, its dust of planetoids, and its impalpable comets, swims in a vacant immensity that almost defeats the imagination. Beyond the orbit of Neptune there is space, vacant so far as human observation has penetrated, without warmth or light or sound, blank emptiness, for twenty million times a million miles. That is the smallest estimate of the distance to be traversed before the very nearest of the stars is attained. And, saving a few comets more unsubstantial than the thinnest flame, no matter had ever to human knowledge crossed this gulf of space, until early in the twentieth century this strange wanderer appeared. A vast mass of matter it was, bulky, heavy, rushing without warning out of the black mystery of the sky into the radiance of the sun. By the second day it was clearly visible to any decent instrument, as a speck with a barely sensible diameter, in the constellation Leo near Regulus. In a little while an opera glass could attain it.

At the end of the 19th century the common person did not have access to television or the internet. This news would have been spread by telegraph and newspapers. Also, I doubt many citizens of the world understood much about astronomy back then. Since we know so much about astronomy now, and science fictional concepts, so I would think a science fiction writer would have a hard time coming up with a good new concept to set off people’s sense of wonder.

H. G. Wells worked imagine in his story the discovery of the event on different minds around the world. I think that’s why new writers get to retell old stories. Many science fictional concepts are quite old, so it’s the current culture that changes in new stories, not the science fiction.

And when next it rose over Europe everywhere were crowds of watchers on hilly slopes, on house-roofs, in open spaces, staring eastward for the rising of the great new star. It rose with a white glow in front of it, like the glare of a white fire, and those who had seen it come into existence the night before cried out at the sight of it. "It is larger," they cried. "It is brighter!" And, indeed the moon a quarter full and sinking in the west was in its apparent size beyond comparison, but scarcely in all its breadth had it as much brightness now as the little circle of the strange new star.

"It is brighter!" cried the people clustering in the streets. But in the dim observatories the watchers held their breath and peered at one another it is nearer," they said. "Nearer!"

And voice after voice repeated, "It is nearer," and the clicking telegraph took that up, and it trembled along telephone wires, and in a thousand cities grimy compositors fingered the type. "It is nearer." Men writing in offices, struck with a strange realisation, flung down their pens, men talking in a thousand places suddenly came upon a grotesque possibility in those words, "It is nearer." It hurried along wakening streets, it was shouted down the frost-stilled ways of quiet villages; men who had read these things from the throbbing tape stood in yellow-lit doorways shouting the news to the passersby. "It is nearer." Pretty women, flushed and glittering, heard the news told jestingly between the dances, and feigned an intelligent interest they did not feel. "Nearer! Indeed. How curious! How very, very clever people must be to find out things like that!"

Lonely tramps faring through the wintry night murmured those words to comfort themselves--looking skyward. "It has need to be nearer, for the night's as cold as charity. Don't seem much warmth from it if it is nearer, all the same."

"What is a new star to me?" cried the weeping woman kneeling beside her dead.

The schoolboy, rising early for his examination work, puzzled it out for himself--with the great white star shining broad and bright through the frost-flowers of his window. "Centrifugal, centripetal," he said, with his chin on his fist. "Stop a planet in its flight, rob it of its centrifugal force, what then? Centripetal has it, and down it falls into the sun! And this--!

"Do we come in the way? I wonder--"

The light of that day went the way of its brethren, and with the later watches of the frosty darkness rose the strange star again. And it was now so bright that the waxing moon seemed but a pale yellow ghost of itself, hanging huge in the sunset. In a South African City a great man had married, and the streets were alight to welcome his return with his bride. "Even the skies have illuminated," said the flatterer. Under Capricorn, two negro lovers, daring the wild beasts and evil spirits, for love of one another, crouched together in a cane brake where the fire-flies hovered. "That is our star," they whispered, and felt strangely comforted by the sweet brilliance of its light.

The master mathematician sat in his private room and pushed the papers from him. His calculations were already finished. In a small white phial there still remained a little of the drug that had kept him awake and active for four long nights. Each day, serene, explicit, patient as ever, he had given his lecture to his students, and then had come back at once to this momentous calculation. His face was grave, a little drawn and hectic from his drugged activity. For some time he seemed lost in thought. Then he went to the window, and the blind went up with a click. Half way up the sky, over the clustering roofs, chimneys and steeples of the city, hung the star.

I would think in my taxonomy of science fiction for this theme I’d have to also classify the state of the world that received the story. Yet, isn’t the possibility of a roving body visiting out system still possible? Isn’t that why new SF writers in every generation can retell the story? Just research all the speculation the first known real interstellar visitor named Oumuamua caused? It reminded me of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

James Wallace Harris, 3/19/21

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

My job is to get you to read stories if you haven't. I'll try to make it easy for you by linking to a copy on the web if the story is available. I'll also tell you about anthologies where you can find the story. Then I'll start talking about the story. At first I'll be vague so as not to spoil the story, but hopefully intriguing enough to get to you to go read the story before continuing. As I progress I'll give more and more away.

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” is a magnificent work of second person prose that is as confusing as a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces without the box. As you read the story the picture is revealed with the placement of the last piece. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” was first published in October 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was reprinted in Best American Short Stories 1960, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction (Ninth Series, 1960), and Judith Merril’s annual anthology,The Fifth Annual of the Year’s Best SF (1960) where I just read it. It was up for a Hugo in 1960 but lost to “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, but wouldn’t any story lose to that story? “The Man Who Lost the Sea” is currently available to read online at Strange Horizons. Or jump over to Escape Pod to listen to the story.

I’ll illustrate how admired this story is by showing you some of the retrospective anthologies it’s been reprinted in over the years:

  • 1968 – Towards Infinity edited by Damon Knight
  • 1969 – First Step Outward edited by Robert Hoskins
  • 1977 – Alpha 8 edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 1983 – The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg
  • 1989 – The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell
  • 1990 – The Great SF Stories 21 (1959) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
  • 1997 – A Century of Science Fiction (1950-1959) edited by Robert Silverberg
  • 2005 – My Favorite Science Fiction Story edited by Martin H. Greenberg
  • 2016 – The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

I’m feeling guilty about not having read “The Men Who Lost the Sea” before now. How could I have missed it? To be honest, I’m not sure my younger self could have appreciated the story. The second person prose involving nonlinear events would have been difficult for my speed-reading younger self to comprehend. Just read the first paragraph:

Say you're a kid, and one dark night you're running along the cold sand with this helicopter in your hand, saying very fast witchy-witchy-witchy. You pass the sick man and he wants you to shove off with that thing. Maybe he thinks you're too old to play with toys. So you squat next to him in the sand and tell him it isn't a toy, it's a model. You tell him look here, here's something most people don't know about helicopters. You take a blade of the rotor in your fingers and show him how it can move in the hub, up and down a little, back and forth a little, and twist a little, to change pitch. You start to tell him how this flexibility does away with the gyroscopic effect, but he won't listen. He doesn't want to think about flying, about helicopters, or about you, and he most especially does not want explanations about anything by anybody. Not now. Now, he wants to think about the sea. So you go away.

What the hell is going on? Where are we? Who is the narrator? Sturgeon gives us the first clues in the second paragraph:

The sick man is buried in the cold sand with only his head and his left arm showing. He is dressed in a pressure suit and looks like a man from Mars. Built into his left sleeve is a combination time-piece and pressure gauge, the gauge with a luminous blue indicator which makes no sense, the clock hands luminous red. He can hear the pounding of surf and the soft swift pulse of his pumps. One time long ago when he was swimming he went too deep and stayed down too long and came up too fast, and when he came to it was like this: they said, "Don't move, boy. You've got the bends. Don't even try to move." He had tried anyway. It hurt. So now, this time, he lies in the sand without moving, without trying.

What can you say about this story so far? Later on when Sturgeon tries to give us more concrete clues can we really put them together yet?

Out and out the sick man forces his view, etching all he sees with a meticulous intensity, as if it might be his charge, one day, to duplicate all this. To his left is only starlit sea, windless. In front of him across the valley, rounded hills with dim white epaulettes of light. To his right, the jutting corner of the black wall against which his helmet rests. (He thinks the distant moundings of nausea becalmed, but he will not look yet.) So he scans the sky, black and bright, calling Sirius, calling Pleiades, Polaris, Ursa Minor, calling that . . . that . . . Why, it moves. Watch it: yes, it moves! It is a fleck of light, seeming to be wrinkled, fissured, rather like a chip of boiled cauliflower in the sky. (Of course, he knows better than to trust his own eyes just now.) But that movement . . .

Maybe it helps when Sturgeon lets us know the man is thinking about the past:

As a child he had stood on cold sand in a frosty Cape Cod evening, watching Sputnik's steady spark rise out of the haze (madly, dawning a little north of west); and after that he had sleeplessly wound special coils for his receiver, risked his life restringing high antennas, all for the brief capture of an unreadable tweetle-eep-tweetle in his earphones from Vanguard, Explorer, Lunik, Discoverer, Mercury. He knew them all (well, some people collect match-covers, stamps) and he knew especially that unmistakable steady sliding in the sky.

By now you should realize this story takes place in the guy’s head, but you still aren’t sure where the guy is or the identity of the annoying boy.

Have I gotten you interested? Have you gone back to the top of the page and followed the link to read the story? If not, let me give you a few more tantalizing clue. Have you read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce – another often reprinted short story? “The Man Who Lost the Sea” belongs to very special tiny subgenre of fiction, one that has deeply personal significance to me, see my essay “Did The First Movie You Ever See Haunt You For The Rest Of Your Life?” about the novel High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. You probably don’t know these guys but they wrote The Mutiny on the Bounty. Or, have you ever seen the ending to the 1966 movie Seconds with Rock Hudson?

Jeez, if I haven’t hooked you by now I give up. I’ve always been fascinated about the nature of memory and consciousness. I love this Theodore Sturgeon because he explores those concepts in one impactful story.

James Wallace Harris, 3/16/21

Surviving Childhood By Reading Science Fiction

I love when I discover a short story that pushes all my buttons. I regret that I didn’t discover such wonderful tales when they were first published, but I do have the consolation as an old jaded reader of finding a story that still thrills me. “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” by Gene Wolfe is one such story that I just read. It’s about a boy, Tackman Babcock, who survives a troubled “family life” by reading science fiction. Since I survived my bumpy upbringing by reading science fiction, I immediately bonded with Tackie.

I know, it has a confusing title. I’ve seen it collected in anthologies for years, and it always sounds like a collection of short stories by the author. When Gene Wolfe created his first short story collection the title became The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, as you can see above in the first edition, a 1980 paperback from Pocket Books. The 1997 edition is still available from Amazon. The original story, “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” was first published in Orbit 7 (1970) edited by Damon Knight has been reprinted many times, so you might already own a copy. However, if you just want to quickly enjoy the story right now, it’s available online for free as an audio podcast from PodCastle, episode 171. Just click and take forty-five minutes to hear the story, it has wonderful narration.

Maybe now you’ll understand the confusing title, but you’re probably wondering what book Tackie was reading? If you’d like to read speculation about possible books read the entry for this story at a wiki devoted to Gene Wolfe. I tend to think Wolfe was trying to capture the feel of many novels, stories, and famous characters so readers would imagine the ones they have read. I definitely thought of The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells, but I also thought of famous pulp stories, horror films, and cliff-hanging serials.

Wait, you didn’t go listen to the story? Or read it? Or remember reading it, and now you’re confused?

Tackie Babcock lives with his drug addicted mother in an old resort hotel. He isn’t supervised or well cared for, but his mother’s predatory boyfriend Jason, and a couple of aunts (May and Julie) keep an indifferent eye on him. We learn about Tackie’s inner life when Jason steals a paperback book that Tackie asked him to buy. The book has a lurid cover of a muscle bound man in rags battling a horrible half ape-half human creature. For the rest of the story, reality is interrupted by flashes from this novel. Captain Phillip Ransom adrift at sea for nine days arrives at a mysterious island and his captured by the mad Dr. Death, and his experimental creations. Eventually, we learn about other characters from Tackie’s real and imaginary world, including a beautiful native girl, Talar of the Long Eyes that Cpt. Ransom rescues from a fate worse than death. As the story progresses fiction and reality mix, so do who is good and who is bad.

If that doesn’t get you hooked, I don’t know what will. My parents were alcoholics, and we moved around a lot. From the time I started reading science fiction in the 5th grade until graduating, I attended nine different schools in three states. I forgot how many houses I lived in during that period, and I forgot how many times my parents split up. I’ve also forgotten how many drunken parental brawls I had to watch and hear, or how many times I was chauffeured around by drunk drivers. I survived all of that, and remember them as good times because I read science fiction. Without science fiction I’m not sure I would have had a happy childhood. I felt like Robert A. Heinlein was my father figure, Samuel R. Delany was my big brother, and Robert Sheckley was my crazy uncle.

I completely identified with Tackie Babcock. I wish I had read his story in 1970, but I’m thankful I finally found it in 2021.

James Wallace Harris, 3/5/21

p.s. Many of Gene Wolfe’s books including this one are available through Scribd.com, a subscription library. I mention it because I hope Scribd gets enough subscribers to survive. Think of it as Netflix for ebooks and audiobooks.

“The Colonists” by Raymond F. Jones

Raymond F. Jones has now hit two homers for me this week, with “The Colonists” flying out of the park. I was quite impressed with “The Memory of Mars” which I wrote about recently but I can’t decide if it’s a 4-star or 5-star story. I’d definitely give “The Colonists” a full 5-stars. The story is sophisticated in plot and science fictional speculation and is quite dramatic. I can’t understand why it isn’t a more famous science fiction story. Why didn’t Bleiler and Dikty or Asimov and Greenberg anthologize these stories in their best of the year annuals? Why haven’t they been anthologized is some of the big retrospective anthologies?

“The Colonists” was first published in the June 1954 issue of If. Follow the link to read it in a scan of the original magazine. Or you can read it various formats from Project Gutenberg. However, I highly recommend the excellent audio narrated version at YouTube.

I don’t want to say much about the story because I don’t want to spoil its surprises. The story examines the psychology of colonists immigrating to another world. Why would anyone give up everything on Earth to go live so far away? For a 1954 science fiction story, it considers the reality of space travel far more realistically than most of its peers.

Maybe this story impressed me because as a teenager I would have given anything to become a colonist on Mars. The idea of building a completely new society on the red planet was the most creative endeavor I could imagine for mankind. However, Jones suggests that most colonists in history were running away from something, and I have to admit that would have been true of my adolescent self.

I was also impressed with the complicated plotting in “The Colonists.” Jones does a great job, and I think this story would make an excellent film. It’s a novelette, and one hour and thirty-five minutes on audio, making it film length.

I wonder why Raymond F. Jones never made it big in the genre, or why he’s a mostly a forgotten SF writer? He gets a small write-up in Wikipedia that shows he was a prolific short story writer, but he did produce at least a dozen novels. I’m now anxious to read more of his work. I bought RAYMOND F. JONES RESURRECTED: SELECTED SCIENCE FICTION STORIES OF RAYMOND F. JONES after reading “The Memory of Mars.” (Kindle for $3.99 or paperback for $15.99)

ISFDB reveals I also need to track down two of his out-of-print collections, The Toymaker (1951), that collects stories from the 1940s, and The Non-Statistical Man (1964), that gathers stories from the 1950s. I have no idea if I’ll like those stories as much as the two I read this week.

I do remember discovering Raymond F. Jones before, back in the 1960s when I was a young teenager reading all the Heinlein and Winston Science Fiction novels marketed for juveniles. Heinlein was tops, but Jones made a very good impression. I reread Son of the Stars and The Year When Stardust Fell last year. They were both fun, but not great. They didn’t jump out at me like “The Memory of Mars” and “The Colonists” did this week. I have no understanding of my critical judgement. Did I get excited about these stories because they’re actually good, the kind of good that other readers would recognize too, or was I just in the right mood for them at this moment in my life?

James Wallace Harris, 2/6/21

“The Memory of Mars” by Raymond F. Jones

I love a gripping story that makes me anxious to find out what happens next. As soon as I started listening to “The Memory of Mars” by Raymond F. Jones I knew I was hooked. Mel Hastings, a reporter, is waiting to hear about his wife’s operation. But what was troubling him was what his wife Alice said before going into surgery: “As soon as I’m well again we’ll go to Mars for a vacation again, and then you’ll remember. It’s so beautiful there. We had so much fun—”

Mel Hastings knew they had never been to Mars. Mel’s mystery became my mystery, and I knew this story was going to be a ripping good yarn. But I also thought the story sounded like the beginning of “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick, a much more famous science fiction story from 1966, and known today by the title of the two movies that were based on it, Total Recall.

Before we go any further you might like to stop and read “The Memory of Mars.” It’s available in a scan of the original issue of Amazing Stories from December 1961. Or you can read it online at Project Gutenberg. But I recommend listening to this excellent audio production at YouTube. Or you can buy Raymond F. Jones Resurrected: Selected Science Fiction Stories of Raymond F. Jones for the Kindle for $3.99 or paperback for $15.99 which I did because I wanted to read more of his stories.

The mystery deepens when the surgeon tells Mel his wife has died and that she wasn’t human. Her internal organs were all different. Because Mel is a reporter he starts investigating his wife and was able to prove she was human until very recently with other medical records. Then he finds photos of Alice on Mars and souvenirs from a Martian vacation. Now, doesn’t that remind you of the PKD story? But it gets even more like “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”

Mel decides he must go to Mars to find out what happens but he has a deep phobia against space travel. He then goes to a medical specialist to erase that phobia and they discover Mel had gone on vacation to Mars with Alice. Now this is getting eerily like the PKD story. Could Dick have been inspired by “The Memory of Mars” to write his tale?

Mel Hastings has quite an adventure solving these mysteries with even more similarities to the PKD story. But I hope you’ll read “The Memory of Mars” to find out what happens.

I love finding old SF stories that are forgotten but still deserve to be read. “The Memory of Mars” was never reprinted in an anthology, and in only in one collection of stories by Raymond F. Jones mention above. You can see its reprint history here.

Raymond F. Jones had marginal success as a SF writer back in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. His biggest claim to fame was the film This Island Earth based off his fix-up novel of the same title. I became acquainted with his work as a kid reading his young adult novels for the Winston Science Fiction series (Son of the Stars, Planet of Light, The Year When Stardust Fell). I definitely need to read more of his work.

James Wallace Harris, 2/6/21

From Let’s Pretend to Literature

Why would a grown man write a short story for an adult science fiction magazine about toy people on a boy’s model railroad layout becoming alive and having their own thoughts? It’s one thing for Disney to create the Toy Story series for children that adults enjoy, but it’s really another thing to ask grownups to let’s pretend about toys having conscious minds. Or is it? Wasn’t The Twilight Zone in 1961 doing the same thing in its classic episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” about conscience toys hoping to escape an existential fate? And let’s not forget The Nutcracker or Babes in Toyland. The idea of toys having a secret life has been around a long time. Well, at least as long as kids have been playing let’s pretend, but why has the same theme survived for grownups in stories, novels, plays, operas, and ballets?

Chad Oliver, was an anthropologist who wrote “Transformer” for the November, 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a periodical that prided itself on having sophisticated adult readers. (Online copy here.) I read “Transformer” last night in The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg that was published in 1987. The story was reprinted again for Sci Fiction in 2005 (archived to read online). You can also listen an audio version at Radio Echos online. Finally, you can buy the Kindle edition of Far From This Earth: The Collection Short Stories of Chad Oliver Volume Two for $1.99 to get it and many other Chad Oliver short stories.

Chad Oliver is another dead science fiction writer whose work is slowly fading away. He barely gets a write-up in Wikipedia. A fair number of his books are still in print for the Kindle and most are only a $1.99. My only previous experience reading Oliver was his Mists of Dawn (1952) as a kid back in the middle 1960s, a title from the wonderful Winston Science Fiction series for young adults. I reread Mists of Dawn recently when I was fondly remembering those books.

“Transformer” is a strange little story. Isaac Asimov and Marty Greenberg didn’t want to use it for their anthology of science fiction stories because they didn’t consider it science fiction, but the story got to both of them so much that they had to include it. In my younger days I would have dismissed this story as fantasy because of my prejudice against fantasy fiction, but in my old age I’m more accepting of up front make believing. (That reminds me of a Bob Dylan line, “I’m younger than that now.”)

In “Transformer” an old woman is talking to a person named Clyde, but right at the beginning she also addresses us readers while talking to Clyde:

You might stick around for a minute and listen, you see—things might get interesting.

One more thing we might as well clear up while we're at it. I can hear you thinking, with that sophisticated mind of yours: "Who's she supposed to be telling the story to? That's the trouble with all these first-person narratives." Well, Clyde, that's a dumb question, if you ask me. Do you worry about where the music comes from when Pinza sings in a lifeboat? I feel sorry for you, I really do. I'll tell you the secret: the music comes from a studio orchestra that's hidden in the worm can just to the left of the Nazi spy. You follow me? The plain, unvarnished truth is that I get restless when the town's turned off for a long time. I can't sleep. I'm talking to myself. I'm bored stiff, and so would you be if you had to live here for your whole life. But I know you're there, Clyde, or this wouldn't be getting through to you. Don't worry about it, though.

This is strictly for kicks.

This is Chad Oliver way of saying he knows we’re adults and gives us a wink-wink. Knowing he’s an anthropologist makes me wonder if this story has some kind of subtext about primitive minds, but I don’t think so. I think Oliver is choosing to be an adult and saying, “Let’s pretend.” However, his story of ELM POINT, a crummy toy town on a cheap model train layout in Willy Roberts’ attic is neither fun nor playful, it’s more like an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare.

Here’s the thing, we adults, we grown-ups, we mature intellectual beings, play let’s pretend all the time. Just before I read “Transformer” I finished up watching Bridgerton on Netflix, an 8-part miniseries where adult viewers pretend Jane Austen wrote a story with sex and nudity. Our make believe train set town is a film recreation of Regency England, a favorite fantasyland for romance aficionados. That recreation is no more accurate to reality than Willy’s train layout on an old piece of plywood. But we still have fun, don’t we?

In other words, most adults never stop playing let’s pretend either. We just stop needing the toys to jump start our fantasies. That reminds of a Philip K. Dick novel, The Three Stigmatas of Palmer Eldritch, where colonists on Mars shift their let’s pretend from using Perky Pat dolls and layouts to enhance their hallucinations on the drug Can-D, to then use the new drug Chew-Z that doesn’t require toys to shape the hallucinations. I must reconsider what Dick’s novel is saying in regards to what I’ve learned from this Chad Oliver’s story.

Chad Oliver is asking us about our fantasy life being transformed.

Willy Roberts surveyed his model railroad without pleasure. He could remember the time when it had given him a real hoot, but after all he was thirteen years old now. He felt slightly ashamed that he should want to mess with it at all, but it was better than getting kicked around in football by all the big guys in the neighborhood. And Sally had said she was going to the show with Dave Toney, damn her.

I remember getting two train sets for Christmas in 1959, when I was eight. I loved those toy trains, but they were quickly forgotten by the time I was nine. It’s hard to believe Willy is still playing with his at thirteen, but then I watch YouTube videos about guys my age spending fortunes on their elaborate model train layouts.

At what age are we supposed to give up playing let’s pretend? How many people ever do?

I’ll let you read most of “Transformer” for yourself if you want to. This 1954 story reminds me so much of when I was a kid in the 1950s. But Chad Oliver also reminds us that there’s a troublesome side to reality that always intrudes on our pretending. ELM POINT if fake, and poorly made. It has rubber trees and cellophane rivers. Our narrator tells us:

It isn't much of a life, to my way of thinking. You do the best you can, and get up whenever some dumb kid hits a button, and then you get tossed in the wastebasket. It seems sort of pointless.

And later on says:

I don't want you to get the idea that I'm just a sour old woman, Clyde, a kind of juvenile delinquent with arthritis. I'm not, really. You know, a long time ago, when Willy was younger, even ELM POINT wasn't so bad.
...
I'll tell you, though—it's funny. Sometimes, a long time ago, I'd go and sit down by that silly cellophane river and I'd almost get to where I liked it here.

Our narrator and the other denizens of ELM POINT decide to rebel against the tyranny of Willy Roberts, but things don’t go according to plan. After the failed coup Willy decides to sell off his train, layout, and toy citizens. Our narrator ends up in the house of another boy for his train set, but things aren’t as good.

That's right. ELM POINT looks like Utopia from where I'm sitting. Mark Borden, the one that bought me, can't afford a real model railroad set-up, and his house doesn't even have an attic. So about once a week he takes us all out of his dirty closet, sets up his lousy circle of track, and starts up his wheezing four-car freight train. It isn't even a scale model. Big deal.

Things are relative in both reality and our make believe worlds. We hope for better times, and sometimes remember the bad times weren’t that bad after all. We all play let’s pretend when we watch TV or read novels or even just kick back in our La-Z-Boys and fantasize. Could Chad Oliver be asking us to compare our lives to living in a badly constructed model railroad layout?

I’m also reading a nonfiction book, Evil Geniuses by Kurt Andersen that’s about how our political economy was shaped by the fantasies of rich Milton Friedman worshipping libertarians over the last fifty years. I’m also reading The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, a science fiction fantasy about the politics of the future after climate change starts killing people by the millions. Both books are deadly serious and ask us to stop playing let’s pretend and do something. But we don’t, do we? Why is playing let’s pretend so overwhelmingly alluring to us?

Am I reading too much into “Transformer?” Did you find something else? The story is haunting even though it’s a simply little fun tale for F&SF. More and more, I’m spending my let’s pretend time by reading old issues of F&SF. What does it say when I knowingly choose a cheap model railroad layout over reality?

Maybe the anthropologist in Chad Oliver is saying something in his story. Maybe it’s a neat little message in a bottle thrown on the ocean of fantasies.

James Wallace Harris, 1/5/21

I’m Having a Problem With Science Fiction – And It’s Due to Getting Older

“Gossamer” by Stephen Baxter is about two women astronauts being marooned on Pluto. Back in 1964 I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel and my pre-adolescent self was thrilled by Kip’s adventures on Pluto. I desperately wanted to grow up and have such experiences too. Now, in 2020 at age 69, the thought of being an astronaut on Pluto seems bonkers. I didn’t really enjoy reading “Gossamer” even though it was a perfectly fine story. However, what’s weird, is I could reread Have Space Suit-Will Travel and thoroughly enjoy pretending to be Kip on Pluto again.

The younger unscientific me wanted science fiction to be real. The older scientific me and wants science fiction to be realistic. Do you grok the distinction? In 1964 I wanted my world to be science fictional. In 2020, I want my science fiction to be worldly. I’ve gotten half my wish, because the world has become very science fictional. However, science fiction has become more fantastic, more unbelievable, even the kind that claims to be based on hard science.

Our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction is discussing “Gossamer” because we’re reading through The Year’s Best SF 1 (1996) edited by David G. Hartwell. Hartwell also included “Gossamer” in his 2002 anthology The Hard SF Renaissance. He introduces the story in the The Year’s Best SF with:

Stephen Baxter writes in the hard science mode of Hal Clement and Robert L. Forward. This kind of SF is particularly valued by hard SF readers because it is comparatively scarce and requires intense effort by the writer to be accurate to known science. It produces innovative imagery that is peculiar to hard SF; that sparks that good old wow of wonderment. His novels began to appear in 1991 (Raft); the 1995 novel, The Time Ships, is his sequel, published 100 years later, to H.G. Wells's 1895 The Time Machine. Baxter's “Gossamer” appeared in Science Fiction Age, the most successful new SF magazine of the 1990s. His visions based on science are astonishingly precise and clear and that is what his fiction offers as foreground for our entertainment.

In his introduction to “Gossamer” in The Hard SF Renaissance, Hartwell quotes an interview with Baxter from Locus Magazine:

Looking back, things do change, in terms of influences. When I was young, I was influenced by the greats of the past, Wells and Clarke. When I was kind of cutting my teeth, writing a lot of stories and finally selling stories in the eighties, it was the people who were around at the time, the dominant figures: Benford and Bear in hard SF And now, my contemporaries, roughly: Paul McAuley, Peter Hamilton, Greg Egan. And I’ve met everybody else who s still alive, probably—not Egan, but Clarke and Benford, and Bear I’ve become quite friendly with.
 
With people like Bear and Benford, McAuley and Robinson, who are working off the same material as I’m working from—the new understanding of the planets, and so forth, the new understanding of cosmology (which is maybe more philosophy than science, because it’s untestable), we’re all coming from the same place. And you do have this dialogue, really, a conversation. 

Even though “Gossamer” is from a quarter-century ago, I consider it and Baxter, Bear, Benford, McAuley, Robinson – all the New Space Opera and British Space Opera authors part of a new movement of Hard SF. They’ve yet to become old since I don’t know of a newer movement that has replaced them yet.

The trouble is I don’t find their hard science fiction particularly hard. It’s more Super-Science Fantasy for me. For example, in “Gossamer” people scoot around the solar system via a subway system of wormholes. Yes, mathematicians have thrown out theories about wormholes, but I remember from an episode of Nova, them saying that to open a 1-meter wormhole for 1-second would require the energy of converting the mass of Jupiter into energy.

I believe we’re talking the practicality of counting angels on pinheads. Science fiction writers have latched onto space drives, warp drives, wormholes, and banter them about with a bit of physics mumbo-jumbo and expect us to believe it’s hard science. Come on, this is no more believable than portals in C. S. Lewis fantasies. There are other theoretical interstellar propulsion systems that science fiction writers use — light-sails, ramjets, anti-matter, etc. that are a little more believable, but only if we’re very damn lucky, and a zillion technical issues don’t get in the way, which I expect they will.

As of now, I’m skeptical of any story where the characters go anywhere near a fraction of lightspeed. And I consider any story with FTL as science fantasy. Star Trek and Star Wars are in the same category as The Lord of the Rings to my adult mind. And I don’t think I’m alone. I think there’s a paradigm shift in science fiction by some writers and readers to disavow interstellar travel. My younger self loved galactic empires but my older self has become an atheist to those faiths.

If I had read “Gossamer” as a teenager I would have embraced it thoroughly. But at 69, I’m just not drinking the Kool-Aid. Actually, my Sense of Wonder has switched to Sense of Nostalgia. I delight in old science fiction that was never scientific, but I now admire it for what science fiction once meant to me. I guess it’s easier to find pleasure in old hopes, than finding new hopes in old age.

But It’s Just a Fun Story

I believe there are two kinds of science fiction. 99% of science fiction stories are just for fun. You get your characters into a fix and then get them out. The reader is amused. If such tales need wormholes and space warps to create exciting make-believe adventures, far-out. And that’s cool. And if Baxter intended “Gossamer” to fall into this group, then it’s a fun story.

However, there is that 1% of science fiction where I believe the science fiction writer is speculating about real possibilities, and I can’t help but believe any writer or story that claims to be Hard SF is not in this 1% group. These are the stories I read growing up in the 1960s that imagined technologies and explorations that I expected might come true in my lifetime. Apollo 11 validated such stories. As a kid I believed science fiction promoted interplanetary travel. I also believe we had a real space program because older generations had grown up reading science fiction and wanted to make it true.

The difference between then and now is I used to believe we’d also invent interstellar travel. Growing up has made me doubt that. Growing up has made me doubt a lot of science fictional ideas. I can forgive old science fiction for their hopes, but I’m just ultra-skeptical about the hopes of current science fiction. I keep wondering when will science fiction grow up.

If Baxter is suggesting that leaping around the solar system via wormhole stations will come true in future generations then I just don’t buy it as a story, especially as hard SF. Does that make sense to you? I’m not picking on the story, I’m picking on the science fiction speculation. I guess I’ve just got too old for Santa Claus Science Fiction.

Other Logical Problems

Even if we ignore the wormholes, I have other problems with “Gossamer.” In the story, two women, Cobh and Lvov, crash onto Pluto after unexpectedly traveling too fast in a wormhole. Cobh assures Lvov they will be safe but will have to wait 20 days in their spacesuits to be rescued. That hit me harder than the wormhole as being completely unbelievable. There’s scientific realism, but there’s also practical realism too.

Now this is picking on the story. There just isn’t any explanations for how they could live in their spacesuits for so long. How do they go to the bathroom? How do they eat and drink? How many tons of supplies must they carry around to keep those suits going? Where is the fuel for their scooters? Once the two woman are on Pluto they have no logistical problems, or even any problems with the cryogenic cold. That’s too unworldly for me.

Also, they’re on a scientific mission to study Pluto’s atmosphere. All their work could have been done by robots. If their society can create wormholes, I imagine their robots must be pretty damn spectacular. The worldly way would not involve human exploration of extreme environments.

But there’s one last piece of logic that bugs me. I can’t believe people would really want to visit Pluto in person. It’s like wanting to lounge in a tank of liquid nitrogen wearing a spacesuit. Sure, Baxter speculates they might find life there, but there’s nothing there but extreme cold, gases in cryogenic liquid form, and rocks. My worldliness tells me once people realize what space travel really means, we’re not going to have that many volunteers. In the next few decades as we go back to the Moon and on to Mars, I believe a new reality will be revealed and romantic science fictional notions about space travel will disappear.

When I was young going into space seem so fantastic, but now that I’m older the reality is most of the solar system is bathed in horrible radiations and lethal temperatures. Even Mars, my favorite planet, would be a horrible vacation destination. Oh, there will always be masochistic thrill-seeking explorers, but the practically of indulging such adventures will wane.

When I was young, exploring outer space seemed so romantic, adventuresome, and exotic. I thought the best possible thing to do in life would be to leave Earth. Now, that seems so damn crazy. Everything that’s wonderful and beautiful is on Earth. Maybe getting closer to death has made me wise to the reality of science fiction. Now the beauty of science fiction is remembering what it was like to be young and having those wild crazy dreams.

James Wallace Harris, 12/19/20