“The Chaste Planet” by John Updike

“The Chaste Planet” by John Updike is story #13 of 52 from The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989), an anthology my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “The Chaste Planet” was initially published in The New Yorker (11/10/75).

“The Chaste Planet” isn’t much of a science fiction short story — it’s more of an effort to be a humorous essay that riffs on a decent science-fictional idea but I thought pulled off in a crummy way. What if there were aliens who obsessed over music like humans obsess over sex? John Updike is a literary writer, who has criticized our genre in the past, so I can’t believe he takes his story very seriously. And I’m not talking about the concept, but the execution of the concept as science fiction.

And it’s hard to take this story seriously when it begins, “In 1999, space explorers discovered that within the warm, turbulent, semi-liquid immensity of Jupiter, a perfectly pleasant little planet twirled, with argon skies and sparkling seas of molten beryllium.” I assume he was imagining a planet orbiting inside Jupiter’s atmosphere. But wouldn’t that be another moon? And wouldn’t the atmosphere cause enough friction to quickly de-orbit this world? The planet was called Minerva.

This planet is inhabited by eighteen-inch-tall beings with six toothpick-thin legs. These creatures reveal no sign of sexual reproduction, but it is eventually learned that music is everything to their culture, including forms of kinkiness. At best this story is cute, but even that’s a stretch. It’s the kind of story that people who don’t read science fiction think is science fiction. I find such efforts insulting.

I don’t know why Hartwell included this story in The World Treasury of Science Fiction other than to capitalize on Updike’s name. Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss had “The Chaste Planet” in their annual Best SF: 75, and I assume for the same exact reason. I consider it a pathetic gesture of “See, even famous literary authors write science fiction!”

When I was young back in the 1970s when this kind of thing was popular. Many in the genre wanted academic recognition and respect. I also thought it wonderful our genre was finally being accepted. But there was a writer or critic back then that rejected these efforts at critical recognition. I wish I remembered who it was, but he (maybe she) said something like this: “Throw science fiction back in the gutter where it belongs.”

Now that I’m older, I agree with that. If Robert Sheckley had written “The Chaste Planet” it would have been entertaining in the way I expect science fiction to entertain, and not some literary effort at slumming.

James Wallace Harris, 6/3/23

“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” by Gene Wolfe

“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” by Gene Wolfe is story #12 of 52 from The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989), an anthology my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” was initially published in Orbit 10 and edited by Damon Knight in 1972. Wolfe published “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” in his collection by the same name, with two related novellas: “‘A Story,’ by John V. Marsch” and “V.R.T.” (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972). Later editions would treat the collection as a novel.

Gene Wolfe has an immense reputation as a significant writer in the science fiction genre. He was awarded the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) in 2013. He is best known for his novel series, The Book of the New Sun (4 vols. 1980-1983), and follow-up related series. Wolfe dedicated the book version of The Fifth Head of Cerberus to Damon Knight, who was his writing teacher, editor, and mentor. In The Best of Gene Wolfe, Wolfe wrote an afterward to “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” where he explained the importance of this story and Damon Knight:

If the New Wave in science fiction had never been defined, Damon Knight’s original anthology series, Orbit (1966-1980) would have shown that the writing of science fiction was undergoing a significant revolution. Stories like “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” were just different, taking the genre to a whole new level. In his introduction to the story in Modern Classics of Science Fiction, Gardner Dozois wrote about when he first read “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” as a manuscript while attending the Mitford Writers Conference in 1970.

The last time I read “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” I ordered the hardback of the collection because I was so impressed with how the story was written. I haven’t read many Gene Wolfe stories, they are dense and hard to digest, but I’ve been impressed with what I have read. I should read The Book of the New Sun since it’s so widely praised, but I don’t know if I can take such a large concentration of Wolfe’s prose. Many reviewers who gush about The Book of the New Sun say it takes multiple readings to get into the story.

“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” is a mysterious tale to comprehend. The story itself is about several mysteries. In some ways, I felt the setting was the French Quarter in antebellum New Orleans, but it’s actually twenty light years from Earth, on the planet Sainte Croix. Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne are part of a double-planet system that was originally settled by French-speaking people. The plot line takes a long time to develop, and along the way, Wolfe keeps dropping more bits to wonder about. It is hinted that Sainte Croix was originally inhabited by an intelligent species of shape shifters and the current inhabitants, including our narrator Number Five, might be human or aboriginal. I don’t want to tell you too much, if Wolfe wanted to string his readers along, why should I give things out ahead of time?

The story begins with the narrator describing his early years with his brother David in a rather exotic house of prostitution. Slavery exists on Sainte Croix. The boys are raised by a robot named Mister Million who hints at many strange past details during their upbringing. Their father is another source of curiosity. Who and what the narrator might be further clouds this tale. “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” feels like gothic horror rather than science fiction. And even when the story is completed, you never feel you know everything, even after multiple readings.

Ultimately, the story is one of atmosphere, even hallucinogenic and dreamy in many places. It was intentionally meant to be confusing. Whether you like that or not depends.

Like I said, I can only take Wolfe in small doses, but when I do read him I’m impressed.

James Wallace Harris, 6/1/23

“The Valley of Echoes” by Gérard Klein

“The Valley of Echoes” by Gérard Klein is story #11 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “The Valley of Echoes” was originally published in France as “La vallée des échos” in the magazine Satellite in March 1959, and was first translated into English for the anthology View From Another Shore edited by Franz Rottensteiner. It was also reprinted in The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 6: Around the World edited by James Gunn.

Gérard Klein is a French science fiction writer and editor who was born in 1937 and is still alive according to Wikipedia and ISFDB. The most I could find out about him was in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and it wasn’t much. It only shows how language is such a barrier, but looking at the covers from these four translated novels published by DAW I might like to try one, especially after reading, “The Valley of Echoes.”

“The Valley of Echoes” is what I call pre-NASA science fiction. It’s also about Mars, and in 1959, even before Mariner 4 Klein didn’t hold out much hope of finding life on Mars. However, his three astronauts secretly want to drive over the next Martian sand dune and discover an ancient dead Martian city.

I grew up with a Schiaparelli map of Mars poster on my bedroom wall. I held out hope we’d find Martians on Mars until July 1964 when Mariner 4 flew by Mars and took 22 photographs of Mars. Mars looked more like the Moon than Barsoom. I’ve written about this before in “I Miss Martians” and “Science Fiction Before NASA.”

It’s kind of a fascinating coincidence that I read “The Valley of Echoes” today because yesterday I read “High Weir” by Samuel R. Delany, another story about Mars. “High Weir” and “The Valley of Echoes” have an interesting overlap in that they both have a human explorer on Mars that goes crazy. In Delany’s story, his astronauts do find a dead ancient Martian city. Since his story came out in 1968, Delany was holding out hope even after Mariner 4.

I was disappointed in Delany’s story because the focus wasn’t on Martian archeology but on holograms and mental illness. Klein’s story deromanticizes space exploration while showing how we still hoped to find Martians.

Klein does throw us a bone for our romantic hopes by having, his astronauts, Ferrier, LaSalle, and the narrator stumble upon a strange valley that collects echoes of the past. I was never sure if what they heard was real or delusion. My skeptical nature thinks it was the latter, but again Klein plays up to our desires. Ferrier, like Rimky in “High Weir” went insane on Mars.

Klein is being both realistic about what we’ll find on Mars, and realistic about how our hopes influence what we want to find. “The Valley of Echoes” might be a good story for Joachim Boaz’s list of SF stories that challenge the romanticism of space exploration.

No mention of science fiction is found in “The Valley of Echoes” but I can’t help but believe it’s recursive science fiction. Yesterday I watched a short video on YouTube about philosophy and HP Grice’s paper “Logic and Conversation” which deals with the dynamics of communication. There can be more information in a conversation than just the words we say. Klein has written a story intended for science fiction fans. He knows how we think, so the story doesn’t have to say everything because Klein knows it will trigger certain thoughts in us.

“The Valley of Echoes” is about the realism of exploring Mars. His astronauts are bored and tired of driving up and down Martian sand dunes. In their hearts, they want to find what they’ve always dreamed about finding on Mars. Suddenly, they do find something different, and they desperately want it to fulfill their expectations. But does it? He also knows we want that too, and that will affect how we read the story.

James Wallace Harris, 5/30/23

“A Meeting With Medusa” by Arthur C. Clarke

“A Meeting With Medusa” by Arthur C. Clarke is story #10 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “A Meeting With Medusa” first appeared in Playboy, in December 1971.

“A Meeting With Medusa” is among Arthur C. Clarke’s best works of science fiction, including Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The City and The Stars. And I like it better than any of his more famous shorter works including, “The Nine Billion Names of God,” “The Star,” “The Sentinel,” and “Rescue Party.” I believe it’s his best work of hard science fiction, and probably one of the best works of hard science fiction by anybody.

The story is set up with Howard Falcon surviving a dramatic crash of a giant dirigible on Earth. Years later, he is descending into the atmosphere of Jupiter where he mans a monstrous hot-hydrogen balloon. Clarke was never known for writing literary fiction and wasn’t particularly good with characterization and drama, but this story has both.

“A Meeting With Medusa” reminds me of two other classic science fiction stories, “The Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum and “Call Me Joe” by Poul Anderson. I don’t want to explain why because I don’t want to spoil the reading of “A Meeting With Medusa.” If you know those two stories, you’ll have a couple of hints.

“A Meeting With Medusa” has been reprinted often, and it won the Nebula Award for Best Novella in 1973. It has also been translated into many languages. This is not a story to miss if you love science fiction. I believe this is the third time our SF short story group has read “A Meeting for Medusa,” and it is well admired.

“A Meeting With Medusa” resonates with our deepest desires for science fiction. We want to explore the universe, and we want to find amazing wonders of nature and lifeforms, and I think most of all, we don’t want to be alone. Most of us will never leave Earth, so science fiction empowers our imaginations to go where we can’t.

I’ve always thought of science fiction as a tool for speculating about the future. History is a tool that lets us know the past, but we can’t know the future like history teaches us about the past. Science fiction can only extrapolate upon endless possibilities. I’d love to know the history of the future, to what will come after I die, but that’s impossible. Science fiction gives me hints, enough to soothe that desire to know the future just a tiny bit.

To me, the best hard science fiction leaves me with the feeling that whatever it imagines might possibly come to be after I die.

James Wallace Harris, 5/27/23

“The New Prehistory” by René Rebetez-Cortes

“The New Prehistory” by René Rebetez-Cortes is story #9 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “The New Prehistory” was evidently first published as a short story in a periodical in 1964 according to the only record I can find. It was collected in La Nueva Prehistoria Y Otros Cuentos in 1967, translated as The New Prehistory and Other Tales by René Rebetez. The site linked above lists 19 short stories, all labeled science fiction.

According to David Hartwell in his introduction to the story, “The New Prehistory” was translated by Damon Knight and was first published in 1972. So the publishing history varies. Hartwell says Rebetez-Cortes was Columbian but the cover of the author collection above suggests something different. Google says he was born in Subachoque, Columbia in 1933 and died on December 30, 1999, in Isla de Providencia, Columbia.

“The New Prehistory” is a very short literary allegory that could be called introverted horror. It’s about a man going to a movie but hates waiting in line. He steps away from the line while watching his friend wait in the queue. Then the line becomes possessed by some unseen force and all the people in the line start acting like they’re part of one giant snake-like organism. People who stood in groups became giant amoeba-like organisms. Individuals stayed individuals. Eventually, the new giant organisms take over the world and hunt the individuals.

Even though a lot of people are calling “The New Prehistory” science fiction I’m not. It’s the kind of fantastic story I heard read in creative writing classes from high school to graduate school. In every writing class there always seemed to be one student who everyone thought was brilliant who would write these kinds of fantastic allegories. They were popular with both the teachers and students because they always seemed so damn clever.

I believe writers, and even oral storytellers, have always used the fantastic in their tales. But that doesn’t mean they are science fiction. Some scholars in science fiction have been trying to claim more territory for the genre for decades. They want to both up the reputation of the genre and claim more types of stories as ours. When I was young, I agreed with this. I wanted the genre to have prestige. But after a lifetime of reading, I realize I’m a consumer of science fiction and I want real science fiction, not ersatz sci-fi.

Science fiction is impossible to define so editors can call anything they want science fiction, but as a consumer, I know what I want, and this kind of story is not it. I remember when I was young back in the 1960s and wondering what science fiction must be like written in other countries in other languages. Then in the early 1970s, we got some Soviet science fiction anthologies and I got my wish. Slowly, the idea of world science fiction has grown, but all too often I believe editors have grabbed anything they could to fill their anthologies. I think that’s a disservice to the genre, and dishonesty to the literary world.

I know that other SF readers will accept these stories as science fiction because their definitions of the genre are different. And that’s cool. The reality is we don’t all think alike. But I would like to think that science fiction was a term with validity and to me, the intent of the genre is more specific, even quite narrow.

Just because a story has elements of the fantastic doesn’t make it science fiction or fantasy. I also believe fantasy as a genre covers definite territory too. As an emerging bookworm back when I was in grade school, I’d go up and down the library shelves looking for certain kinds of stories. Stories about space travel, robots, new technology, and time travel. They were always about the future, or they were set in current times when things changed. “The New History” is set in current times and things changed, but I still don’t consider it science fiction. Why? Because of the tone of the story.

I never believed while reading the story that people could become group organisms. If the author had made some kind of case for that it would have been science fiction. But that wasn’t his intent. He was obviously making a case about the horrors of being in a group. As an introvert, I completely understand that angle. It’s a good story for that purpose. But that’s a completely mundane purpose. Science fiction is not about the mundane. Science fiction is about the far out, but as a real possibility, even in humor. I never thought the people in “The New Prehistory” were becoming group monsters, nor did I think the author wanted us to believe that. I felt the author was giving us an allegory about how he felt about the real world.

For me, science fiction has to be about what the real world could become. The fantasy genre is about make-believe worlds, but believable worlds within their own concepts. I know most science fiction is unbelievable, or has become so. For me to think of it as science fiction, I have to believe it’s possible, or at least think people once thought it possible.

James Wallace Harris, 5/25/23

“The Golem” by Avram Davidson

“The Golem” by Avram Davidson is story #8 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “The Golem” was first published in the March 1955 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

You can read or listen to “The Golem” online here.

Avram Davidson (1923-1993) uses his own childhood pop culture references to get us to visualize the setting “The Golem” at the beginning of this 1955 story:

Anyone who attended the movies in the twenties or the early thirties has seen that street a thousand times. Past these bungalows with their half-double roofs, Edmund Lowe walked arm-in-arm with Leatrice Joy, and Harold Lloyd was chased by Chinamen waving hatchets. Under these squamous palm trees Laurel kicked Hardy and Woolsey beat Wheeler upon the head with a codfish. Across these pocket-handkerchief-sized lawns, the juveniles of the Our Gang comedies pursued one another and were pursued by angry fat men in golf knickers. On this same street—or perhaps on some other one of five hundred streets exactly like it. 

And he does the same thing at the end:

Presently the sound of the lawnmower whirred through the quiet air in the street just like the street where Jackie Cooper shed huge tears on Wallace Beery’s shirt and Chester Conklin rolled his eyes at Marie Dressler.

I assume that Davidson was nostalgic for the films he saw as a kid in the 1920s and 1930s but how many readers today will know them? I was familiar with all those names and images, but his story keyed in another era for me, the late 1950s and The Twilight Zone. I visualized Mr. and Mrs. Gumbeiner, an old Jewish couple sitting on their porch with their uninvited Golem guest as one of the comic episodes of that classic TV show.

The tone of the story reminded me of Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson, so in 1955, Avram Davidson was ahead of his times — by four years.

Of course, in 2023 we’re starting to get worried about AI and real robots while science fiction readers are still enchanted by stories about friendly androids, cute robots, or sexy sexbots. So I assume modern readers could still be enchanted by this quaint old-fashion story. It’s the kind of Jewish comedy schtick that was once very popular, but I wonder if modern readers concerned with cultural correctness might consider it a stereotype? Essentially, “The Golem” is a time capsule of history, that mixes 1955 science fiction with Jewish folklore while asking us to remember old Hollywood films that kids loved twenty and thirty years earlier.

It’s interesting that David Hartwell included “The Golem” in The World Treasury of Science Fiction. How many stories in that anthology are there because of Hartwell’s own nostalgia? Other editors have loved this story too, just look at the long list of reprints it’s gotten over the last several decades.

However, even though I enjoyed this little blast from the past, I have to wonder if its storytelling hasn’t become too quaint for modern readers. Right after reading it, I started listening to “The Affinity Charm” by Jennifer Egan, the first story in her fix-novel The Candy House. The setting for that story is an apartment where people have gathered after a lecture to discuss what everyone thought. Egan presents a diverse group of intellectuals all arguing from different academic perspectives. To these modern sophisticates, “The Golem” would be an overly simplistic tale they’d quickly dismiss. I wonder if even uneducated young people today would be too sophisticated intellectually to enjoy this story?

I only considered “The Golem” mildly entertaining, mostly for its nostalgia. But then I can remember 1955. How will people born after 1985 or 1995 see it? Hartwell’s anthology came out in 1989, and I’m starting to wonder from its first eight stories if it isn’t already a relic of the past?

James Wallace Harris, 5/22/23

“On the Inside Track” by Karl Michael Armer

“On the Inside Track” by Karl Michael Armer is story #7 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “On the Inside Track” was first published in the original anthology, Tales From the Planet Earth in 1986, edited by Frederik Pohl and Elizabeth Anne Hull. As far as I can tell from ISFDB.org, those are its only publications.

“On the Inside Track” is by a German writer, Karl Michael Armer, and it’s set in Europe, but it seems like a typical American science fiction story. It’s also a good story, one that I’ll want to reread in the future. Actually, I might want to read all the stories in Tales From the Planet Earth after reading the review it got in The New York Times.

One reason I liked “On the Inside Track” is its protagonist, Robert Förster is 70 years old, and I’m 71. Förster is well-to-do and unhappy. I’m happy but not well-to-do, but we both share quite a lot of observations and reactions about being old. Förster’s life is interrupted when an alien, Sassacan, moves into Förster’s mind. In this story, aliens conduct interstellar travel by mind projection. Sassacan visits Earth to conduct business negotiations with other aliens who are occupying other human bodies.

Förster doesn’t mind being used because it’s a diversion from being bored and lonely. In fact, he gets to like the company. This story reminds me of Sheckley’s novel, Mindswap but without the humor. “On the Inside Track” is pleasant, but slightly predictable. I guessed two of its surprises, but that didn’t mar the reading experience.

However, I’ve got to ask a question: Is World SF really any different than American science fiction? World SF is set in other countries, and sometimes it even references cultural differences or tries to exploit local myths and beliefs, but mostly science fiction is science fiction. “On the Inside Track” makes a decent addition to the anthology but I didn’t think about Germany while I was reading it. Förster’s desire to be commanding is alien to me, but I don’t think that as a German trait, but as an alpha male trait of a person wanting to be successful.

I guess I need to wait and see if Hartwell finds a story from another country that feels truly alien to me. Alien in the sense that it’s completely foreign, and not space alien.

James Wallace Harris, 5/20/23

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon – 3rd Reading

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon is story #6 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” was first published in the October 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

My third reading of “The Man Who Lost the Sea” left my eyes stinging with tears, just like they had for the second reading. Nearly everything I felt while reading the story for the third time I had said in my second review. My first review was all about trying to get everyone to read the story.

I found Sturgeon’s prose while reading “The Man Who Lost the Sea” this time far more vivid than the first two times, and I look forward to reading it again in the future. A couple weeks ago I watched a YouTube video by a guy reviewing classic litature (Joyce, Proust, Pynchon). He said his professor had taught him to really get to know a book required reading it ten times.

I have a self-imposed rule when reading anthologies. Whenever I’m reading a new anthology and it has stories in it that I’ve read before, I reread them — even if they were in the last anthology I just finished. Even if I didn’t like them. Sometimes a story I didn’t like on my first reading, or the second, becomes a favorite.

“The Man Who Lost the Sea” is the kind of story that I use for my 5-star ratings. Those are stories I want to read and reread over my entire lifetime. I’ve probably read “The Man Who Lost the Sea” more than three times because I can’t remember everything I read years or decades ago. I’ve just read and reviewed it three times in a little over two years for this blog. The great thing about doing this blog is documenting my memory, it’s highly unreliable, and getting more so.

Memory is one of my favorite subjects and themes, and “The Man Who Lost the Sea” is also about memory and memories.

James Wallace Harris, 5/17/23

“Triceratops” by Kono Tensei

“Triceratops” by Kono Tensei is story #5 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “Triceratops” was first published in the August 1982 issue of Omni.

On one level, “Triceratops” isn’t much of a story. Nice enough. Sort of a bland version of Bradbury. A dad and his son are out biking and they see something out of the ordinary. Eventually, they learn it’s a triceratops, and conclude they alone, for some reason that’s not clear, can see into another dimension. Father and son bond over secretly watching a Cretaceous landscape superimposed over their Japanese subdivision.

David Hartwell’s aim is to showcase science fiction from around the world in this anthology, but hopefully, this story isn’t representative of the best SF from Japan or the world. And I’d hate to think Hartwell picked it because he characterizes Japan as a country of big monster fans.

It’s a challenge to find an essay hook for this story. I think I’ll use a video I watched from the Outlaw Bookseller (Steven E. Andrews) this morning on conceptual breakthroughs in science fiction. Andrews begins by talking about the first lines of classic science fiction stories.

The ones we remember have great first lines that announce a paradigm shift. His first example was from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” The second was from Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World, “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.”

Unfortunately, Tensei begins his story with “The father and son were returning from cycling.” That’s a rather mundane first sentence. Tensei waits for quite a few paragraphs before bringing on his paradigm shift.

Andrews then goes on to say the best SF stories have a conceptual breakthrough that comes near the end that inspires a sense of wonder. “Triceratops” does depend on a conceptual breakthrough, but it’s in the middle. The father and son decide if they think that the Cretaceous can intersect dimensionally with the present then they can see the two together. The logic of “if you believe it to be true it will be true” isn’t much of a conceptual breakthrough, although the film version of The Wizard of Oz pulled it off nicely.

This is the first story I would have left out of this anthology. Unfortunately, it was the first example of world SF. Not a good start.

I recommend watching the whole video, Top 10 Science Fiction Conceptual Breakthrough Stories: The Elements of Science Fiction Part 1. I should use it as a foundation for evaluating the stories in The World Treasury of Science Fiction. However, it might be aiming too high for the average science fiction story — or should every science fiction story aim to hit one out of the park?

James Wallace Harris, 5/15/23

“Chronopolis” by J. G. Ballard

“Chronopolis” by J. G. Ballard is story #4 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “Chronopolis” was first published in the June 1960 issue of New Worlds.

“Chronopolis” is set in the future where society has outlawed keeping time. Ballard imagined a future where our high-tech global civilization collapsed from the complexity of overpopulation. In this new world, the population is much smaller having giving up the rat race.

The story begins in a holding cell. Conrad Newman is awaiting trial for as of yet unspecified crimes. Newman is obsessed with making his south-facing jail cell window into a sundial so he can accurately keep the time while everyone else is unconcerned about when things will happen. Gradually we learn that this society operates without a schedule, and clocks are illegal. They allow timers, which people use to cook eggs, time a math class, or how long they should sleep, but not clocks that force schedules onto life’s activities.

Ballard has come up with a nifty idea. You don’t know if this new world he described is better or worse for not knowing the time, but Conrad Newman is a renegade who secretly embraces keeping time, allowing him to outcompete other people. Newman’s world is the opposite of Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Conrad Newman is the polar opposite of Everett C. Marm. It’s funny, but we root for each character in their separate stories.

I got to say, I really liked this story a lot even though when you think about it, there’s not much to it. On the one hand, it’s the old fashion kind of science fiction that’s based on a neat idea. On the other hand, it feels different from the other science fiction of 1960 or before. J. G. Ballard is considered one of the pathfinders of the New Wave movement in science fiction in the mid-1960s. “Chronopolis” isn’t really New Wave yet. Probably why it feels different is it’s British science fiction, and British science fiction always felt more grown-up to me.

I’ve only read a couple novels by Ballard, and maybe a dozen short stories, but they’ve all impressed me as being “heavy” in the old hippie sense of the word. I assume that was another way of saying weighty. I recently read “The Terminal Beach” by Ballard and was equally impressed, and it felt equally heavy. Years ago, I bought The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard on audiobook. It’s 55 hours long. I also have it on the Kindle. Whenever one of his stories comes up on the discussion group I like listening to them. They feel mature and atmospheric. I also like reading them because I’m impressed with Ballard’s prose. Each time I read one of his stories, I tell myself I need to listen to the entire 55-hour audiobook and I really want to get into Ballard’s work.

The other day at the Friends of the Library used bookstore I found Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars. I couldn’t tell if it was a novel, memoir, monograph, or what, but I bought it. This is how it’s described at Amazon:

An existential odyssey weaving together lived experience and theoretical insight, this startling autobiographical hyperfiction surveys and dissects a world where everything connects and global technological delirium is the norm.

The mediascapes of late capitalism reconfigure erotic responses and trigger primal aggression; under constant surveillance, we occupy simulations of ourselves, private estates on a hyperconnected globe; fictions reprogram reality, memories are rewritten by the future…

Fleeing the excesses of 1990s cyberculture, a young researcher sets out to systematically analyse the obsessively reiterated themes of a writer who prophesied the disorienting future we now inhabit. The story of his failure is as disturbingly psychotropic as those of his magus—J.G. Ballard, prophet of the post-postmodern, voluptuary of the car crash, surgeon of the pathological virtualities pulsing beneath the surface of reality.

Plagued by obsessive fears, defeated by the tedium of academia, yet still certain that everything connects to Ballard, his academic thesis collapses into a series of delirious travelogues, deranged speculations and tormented meditations on time, memory, and loss. Abandoning literary interpretation and renouncing all scholarly distance, he finally accepts the deep assignment that has run throughout his entire life, and embarks on a rogue fieldwork project: Applied Ballardianism, a new discipline and a new ideal for living. Only the darkest impulses, the most morbid obsessions, and the most apocalyptic paranoia can uncover the technological mutations of inner space.

An existential odyssey inextricably weaving together lived experience and theoretical insight, this startling autobiographical hyperfiction surveys and dissects a world where everything connects and global technological delirium is the norm—a world become unmistakably Ballardian.

Some of that description faintly feels like “Chronopolis” but it’s an early story for Ballard, that hints at things to come. Also, by serendipity, I came across this YouTube video by the Outlaw Bookseller on the New Wave. Ballard figures heavily in it. Warning though, this video is one hour and twelve minutes long.

“Chronopolis” is another story that’s pushing me into the world of J. G. Ballard. One of these days, and hopefully soon, I’ll start gorging on Ballard’s books.

James Wallace Harris, 5/12/23