What Do You Do When You Become the Dead Old White Guy?

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When I was young I read new science fiction. It was cutting edge and hated by the old fans. Now that I’m old, I read that same science fiction, but it’s now old. It’s quaint and tired – to the young, but not to me.

Once upon a time, the foundation of higher education was based on the great books of the past. These classics were part of the Western Canon, or the Literary Canon, or just The Canon. Then young people started yelling, “Wait a minute! All these books are by dead old white guys.” The new people decided we should also have great books by women, writers of color, and non-Europeans. Being the old white guy meant being a cultural imperialist, a pariah. Now on the internet we see lists of classic books they are by authors who aren’t all white, male, or from Western civilization. Science fiction has never been part of the literary canon, but it’s classics have followed the same path.

However, in the future when the next generation of young writers and readers evaluate these revised lists of classic books, they are going to find their own version of the old white guy to rebel against. And it won’t always be a guy. For years younger feminists were nipping at the heals of Ursula K. Le Guin.

In the subculture of science fiction some people, usually old white guys, complain that women are winning all the Hugo awards. And I think that’s just great that they are. However, I don’t think the trend is about gender, but age. That younger SF readers are just tired of the old SF guard, and they’re just more women writers in the advancing guard. This generation wants their own time, and it’s here.

I’m getting old myself, and I don’t see the young rejecting old classics as ageism. One interesting aspect about getting old is we become invisible to the young. This bugs my friends. But I consider it natural. I remember as a kid in the 1960s seeing older dudes at parties in hippie attire, wearing long hair, smoking dope, pretending to be young. I thought they were invading of our territory — youth. These old guys would come to parties tell us about all the great stuff they’d done, expound on their mountains of knowledge, describe all the zillions of exotic places they’d visited, and it would make us high schoolers and college kids feel inexperienced and ignorant. Sure, it was old gray backs competing with the young males for women. I guess back then they were our version of the old white guy.

When I read Rebecca Solnit’s essay that inspired the term “mansplaining” I thought she was just talking about some old dude who needed to pontificate, hitting on her and her friend just like these old dudes who came to our parties in the sixties. Ultimately, I expect mansplaining will be less about gender, and more about lonely old folks cornering the young to lecture about what they love. I get my need to pontificate out in this blog. I don’t expect the young to even read it.

I know many people my age who see replacing the old for the new as a form of prejudice, but I don’t think it is. The weight of past creativity can crush current creativity. E. E. “Doc” Smith or Robert A. Heinlein or Samuel Delany can’t always be the greatest SF writers. The abundance of experience can take the oxygen out of new ideas. The young need vast open spaces to create. There are many ways to think about this. The weight of old art can discourage the young from trying. New art needs a fresh canvas to explore. And sometimes you remove the pictures on your fridge from your second grader to make room for your kindergartener.

But here’s the thing, sooner or later somebody gets to be the new old white guy. It’s part of life. Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders just won a Hugo for their savvy hip podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. I see them as youthful experts on what’s current in science fiction even though they’re well into middle age. Newitz and Anders report on current SF while I’m obsessed with the past. I greatly admire what they do, because I can’t. I even envy the hell out of them. But I can’t be that young again.

Although Newitz and Anders aren’t as young as the up-and-coming people they profile, they’re still in touch – for a while. They’re part of the first generation who rebelled against the old white guys of science fiction. I expect that one day a younger generation will rebel against their generation and they will become the new old white guys. By the way, I’m not singling them out for any reason other than they are the hippest of the new I know. I’m sure there will be even younger fans out there that will laugh at that. But part of getting old is learning to live with losing touch with whatever is currently hip. The reason why I don’t complain about the Hugos is I accept being unhip. I accept my state of exploring being old.

These days feels like a renaissance to the young. Their version of the Copernican revolution feels like it’s new, obviously right and perfect, and will always exist. Yet someday the political correctness of today will be the political incorrectness of tomorrow. Thus, the avant-garde becomes the old guard. That the books revered as classics today will fade with memory and go out-of-print. Some cherished works will even be sneered at as unsophisticated writing lacking in modern ethical understanding.

That’s just how things are. The more interesting aspect of getting old is finding our own territory. We don’t need to try to keep up with the young, or lord our “great classics” over them, but find our own creative spaces. We also can’t let our failure to keep up with the young to crush our own spirit and creativity.

At my age it’s a challenge to create anything at all, to be productive when the body and mind are in decline. I tell myself it’s okay to retreat into the past and enjoy the old SF canon, but I think it might also be interesting to create another canon, one for the last third of life that does include the new stories winning the Hugos. This week I read Brian Aldiss and Roger Zelazny, last week I read two novels by Mary Robinette Kowal, the week before that read an Isaac Asimov novel from the year I was born – 1951.

I don’t care who the Hugos are given to as long as they find me something good to read. I quite accept that my generation is being passed by. Here’s the odd thing, all those old dead white dudes in the Western Canon were truly great, however, you have to be old to really appreciate them. If by any chance a young person got this far in this essay, you’ll see what I mean if you live long enough.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

 

Fear of Giant Robots

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There’s a fun story in the latest issue of F&SF, “The Legend of Wolfgang Robotkiller” by Alex Irvine. It’s about a near-future where giant robots invade the earth and systematically work to exterminate humans with death rays. I’ve had dreams about huge robots, where us humans had to constantly hide from them. And this story reminded me of the 1954 Sci-Fi flick, Target Earth, I saw as a kid where robots terrorized a nearly deserted Chicago. That story really got me and my sister back then.

This makes me wonder if writers aren’t keying into a deep psychological fear of attack by large threats? One of my essays “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” is usually at the top of my stats each day. I wonder if it’s not just dinosaurs but any bigger-than-us attacker that trigger a deep-rooted fear inside us? I’ve also had dreams about giant humans and large aliens stomping around outside while I and others hide inside buildings. We stay away from windows because sometimes the monsters reach in an grab us like King Kong did with Fay Wray. Could this specific fear be why that old film is such a classic? Giant ape, giant robot, giant T-Rex, are they all the same fear?

Irvine’s story about Wolfgang Robotkiller fits into this psychological programming, but it’s also about how stories and legends are spread. On one hand, it’s about the last surviving humans in New York struggling to find food like rats (remember Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn?). Wolfgang Robotkiller is also about how the memes of hope are communicated. I’m not sure about its ending yet. I’ll need to reread it again. In some ways it makes me think of Joseph Campbell and in other ways, it makes me think about our pop culture.

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“The Legend of Wolfgang Robotkiller” reminds me of another science fiction theme – that of being the last person or persons on Earth. A lot of people fear that situation too, but for some reason, I find it fun and appealing. Movies like The World, The Flesh and the Devil, and The Quiet Earth or books like The Day of the Triffids and Earth Abides, where a character wakes up and finds everyone gone is very intriguing to me. Target Earth is about four people waking up separately, finding themselves absolutely alone, and then pounding the streets of Chicago hoping to find anyone else, especially someone who could explain what happened.

In the movie, it’s an invasion of huge robots, but the people don’t discover that right away. In the novelette that Target Earth was based on, “Deadly City” by Ivar Jorgenson from If (March 1953), it’s something else. The movie is dark, but the printed story is even grittier, more realistic, and darker. It’s Noir Science Fiction, even including sex, which was almost impossible to find in old science fiction magazines of the 1950s. You can download a pdf here, or read it online here.

One appeal of stories about the last humans on Earth is it makes readers ask what they would do in that situation. Generally, in all these tales it starts out with one person, who then finds a few others, leading to a battle to survive. “Deadly City” is about four loser misfits who miss the evacuation order. The story focuses on their personalities and how each handle’s the situation. In “The Legend of Wolfgang Robotkiller” the story is more about how survivors learn about what’s going on because without civilization there’s no TV news, iPhones or internet. In Earth Abides, The World, the Flesh, and The Devil, Target Earth, and “Deadly City” the characters eventually find the last newspaper published.

Lack of access to the news might be a third psychological factor in these stories. I just remembered David Brin’s The Postman. That character became a hero by delivering mail and news. Alex Irvine is also concerned with this need in Wolfgang Robotkiller.

Evidently being left alone, with a large predator, and no news is a wonderful plot device for storytelling. I wonder if it’s an ancestral memory from our cave-dwelling days — the fear of being left behind, having large animal stalking us and not know what happened to the rest of the tribe?

Target Earth 2

A wonderful variation on this theme is “Giant Killer” by A Bertram Chandler. But don’t look at the illustrations or read any descriptions before reading it.

James Wallace Harris

 

Why I See SF and Fantasy as Distinctive Genres

 

Fantasy

Fantasy fiction is not a language I normally speak, I’m mostly fluent in science fiction. I avoid the fantasy genre but I often end up reading fantasy stories. I’d prefer to only read science fiction, but for some reason, many editors and publishers mix the two together as though they were the same. When I read an anthology of SF/F stories it feels like I’ve gone to a rock concert but every other song is a chamber music quartet. Normally, I only buy science fiction, but the only best-of-the-year anthology on audio this year is Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 13. Since I love listening to science fiction short stories on audio, I bought the audiobook. I’ve now patiently listened to more fantasy than science fiction. I think I’m starting to understand fantasy’s lingo better even though I’m trying not to.

Distinguishing between science fiction and fantasy is more than dividing stories with magic and dragons in one pile and starships and aliens in another. I admit that sometimes fantasy and science fiction have similar goals, and even motifs and settings. I also admit that the qualities that make me shun many fantasy stories are also contained in many science fiction stories. Trying to discern those specific elements is the goal of this essay. But it’s very hard to point to what I feel by instinct.

The word fantasy can have different meanings. We often use it for the genre that includes magics, elves, wizards, dragons, etc. But the word also means something that is made up. All fiction is made up, but some fiction is philosophical about real life, while other stories are just stories. Trying to define genre labels is an impossible effort, but if we don’t work to precisely define our words we can’t communicate our feelings. What I call science fiction are stories that speculate about the future or the possibilities of what science has yet to discover. Stories about spaceships, aliens, and galactic empires that aren’t speculative or philosophical I call also fantasy. But that’s confusing because most people use the word fantasy for stories about magic, dragons, etc. To confuse the matter more, some stories labeled fantasy do seriously speculation about the past, or about alternative views about now or the future. Should that kind of story be labeled fantasy?

There is a third way to define the word fantasy. It is believing in something that’s not real or reacting to the world based on false assumptions. We often tell such people they are living in a fantasy world. Any genre can produce fantasy stories under this definition. In other words, we can have a fantasy tale, set in a fantasy genre, that is a philosophical fantasy.

Some people say all fiction is fantasy, and I can see their point. But we don’t need two words that mean the same thing. Yes, fiction is made up, but sometimes it’s about something, and sometimes it’s not. All the best fiction, regardless of genre, helps us model reality. At my stage in life, I want to avoid certain kinds of fantasy. But pointing to exactly what that means is difficult.

I have to even admit that some of the best stories in Strahan’s volume thirteen were the ones some people would label fantasy tales. Most reviewers consider The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to contain the best writing of all the printed SF/F magazines. It’s just damn hard to avoid fantasy. Yesterday, I read “Girls Who Never Stood a Chance” by Deborah Coates in the July-August issue of F&SF. It was a good, well-written, entertaining story. My friend Mike complained it ended abruptly as if it was the opening of a novel. I could see that. I did want to read more. But thematically, it was self-contained.

“Girls Who Never Stood a Chance” is a post-apocalyptic type story, and they are among my favorites. But here’s the problem for a science fiction reader – South Dakota has to be abandoned because of an infestation of dragons. WTF? Civil authorities issue a mandatory evacuation order for a good portion of the state, and this story is about a handful of girls who get left behind. The dragons are never developed or explained in this story other than to occasionally land on rooftops and look menacing. They do a fair amount of damage to the houses in their landings and take-offs, but they don’t breathe fire or show a desire to consume people.

Now here’s one difference between fantasy stories and science fiction. The threat in a fantasy story doesn’t have to have a real-world foundation. Something imaginary that’s scary is all that’s required. In science fictional after-the-collapse stories, science fiction writers take pains at providing a believable explanation. Science fiction readers want to believe what they fear can really happen in our world. If Deborah Coates had used an Ebola outbreak or radiation leakage as the cause of people fleeing South Dakota I would have been happier, and this story would have been science fiction because it contains no magic or other magical creatures.

In translating fantasy tropes for science fiction readers I think it’s important to understand fantasy uses ancient memes. Because these ancient memes have all been discredited by science it feels reading fantasy isn’t reality-based. Dragons, ghosts, malevolent fairies, pesky ancient deities, etc. are all part of make-believe or play-acting. Anything imaginative will spice up a fantasy story. And if you think about, science fiction is overrun with unbelievable aspects too. However, in Coates’ story, the real point of her post-apocalyptic story is to get her characters into a collapsed society. A storyteller needs a reason to eliminate 99.9% of the population to create a post-apocalyptic story. I guess a dragon infestation would run off most people.

I often wonder if fantasy writers are being symbolic. Is Coates using dragons as stand-ins for climate change, the return to ancient ways, unexplained chaos, or the revenge of Mother Nature? Or is she just wanting to tell a story without getting hung up on details?

If we ignore the cause of why 99.9% of the population rush out of South Dakota, we have the main theme of the story – abandoned young girls having to survive on their own. Coates gives realistic backstories to her girls. They were rejected by society, mistreated by parents and peers, abused by specific males, and oppressed by a male-dominated society. Guys do not come off well in this story. They are the evil threat, not the dragons.

Coates carefully develops the characters of Bess, True, Mallory, Shade, Liv and Jamie, and why each is left behind. We feel for them. We wonder how they will survive. Then the girls encounter a bunch of guys hunting dragons. Their real threat to their survival are males with guns running wild with no laws. Dragons no longer matter at all.

Part of the story’s solution involves the girls getting guns too. In a way, this makes the story a western, another distinctive genre. In westerns, violence is the solution. Threats are solved with guns. The reason why I love westerns is the same reason why I love post-apocalyptic science fiction – few people, no laws, and the survival of the fittest. (To be honest, I’d get my ass decommissioned pretty quick in a western or post-apocalyptic scenario.)

My problem with “Girls Who Never Stood a Chance” is not with the fantasy dragons, but with a fantasy ending. Coates wraps up her story is a realistic way if civilization still prevailed, but not for the normal post-apocalyptic ways of science fiction or westerns. Most male writers telling this story would have had the girls kill the guys. It would have been logical under the circumstances and given the story a finality. Mike and I probably felt the story didn’t end because we knew the guys would immediately come back – thus the lack of an ending. Maybe Coates is going to turn this into a novel and there will be a real ending in this story down the road a piece. I’ll be anxious to read it. (I wrote Coates and she said she’s thinking about it.)

The lesson here for translating fantasy motifs into something science fiction readers can understand. I could ignore the dragons because the core of the story was realistic.

The real reason why I avoid the fantasy genre is it uses magic. Sure, a lot of bad science fiction has techno-magic. Faster-than-light spaceships are no different from broom riding witches. I’m an atheist, so I don’t believe in God, gods, mythological creatures, magic, vampires, fairies, miracles, FTL, time travel, and so on. I don’t know why fantasy writers love those imaginary beings and concepts. I have to chalk it up to artistic aesthetics and personal style. But what I’ve learned from finding fantasy stories I like is to look for a core of realism. That language speaks to me.

One of my favorite stories in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Three is “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow. I’ve read it twice now. It’s moving. It makes me cry. It’s inspiring. But to be honest, the fantasy turns me off philosophically. But it’s going to take some explaining, and I hope I don’t offend any hardcore fantasy fans.

Often when I tell people I dislike fantasy they take it personally. They act like I’m prejudiced against fantasy. Many of my science fiction friends are baffled because they consider science fiction and fantasy to be one thing. But that blows my mind. I see them as distinctively different. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fantasy stories all the time. I prefer not to read them not because they are bad stories, but because they have a different philosophy on reality than I do.

When I first started reading I got hooked on the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. I was ten, and I read maybe all the Baum books and even some of the ones written by other writers after he died. Then when I was in college, and nineteen I decided to reread them. I couldn’t find them at the library. I found an article in an old issue F&SF that said some librarians had turned against Oz books because they promoted unrealistic expectations about life. I ended up buying a set and reread them. I realized those books had given me unrealistic expectations about life. (But I still love Baum’s fantasy world. I can’t let it go even though I know it was fantasy fentanyl.)

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In “A Witch’s Guide” a black foster kid discovers books. He obviously has a miserable real life, and the librarian sees he needs hope. She is a witch and is able to use her powers to help him find the right fantasy books to escape into. Eventually, the librarian gives him a book of magic that lets him actually escape this reality. The message is we need the right books to forget our miserable life and with the help of magic, we could escape to a better reality. Nice sentiment, but a complete rejection of this existence.

</spoiler>

I had a childhood that would have psychologically damaged many kids. I found happiness (and escape) in science fiction. It was the same kind of solution that Alix Harrow writes about. I guess that’s one reason why I love her story – I identify with it. However, after a lifetime of escaping, I’ve discovered there is no escape. There is no magic. We have to come to terms with this plane of existence. There is probably no other.

Most science fiction is just as escapist as fantasy stories. And most science fiction embraces magical thinking too. <i>Star Wars</i> is pure fairytale and magical thinking. We need to start growing up.

What I want is science fiction that offers hope for living on planet Earth, and maybe Mars, our Moon, and a few other rocks in this solar system. The world is full of kids leading tragic lives like the one in “A Witch’s Guide.” I can accept reading fiction, even fantasy as a possible cure for unhappiness. I can’t accept, even within a story, that magic could save us. That rubs me the wrong way.

We all want to save that lonely kid with the red backpack. The solution is not portals to fantasy lands. It’s friends and hobbies. It’s learning to survive in this world. Jo Walton’s book Among Others covered the same kind of problem, but that book’s solution was joining a book club and making friends.

To me, the difference between science fiction and fantasy genres is an attitude towards what’s really possible. The best fantasy stories are symbolic of living in this world, and the worst science fiction books are those that promote a fantasy about what super-technology might give us someday.

When I read the Oz books as a child, I really wanted to go to the land of Oz. I loved fantasy and science fiction books so much I never wanted to grow up. It’s probably why started smoking dope and dropping acid a few years later. I was looking for a portal out of this world. Now that I’m on the home stretch of this life I don’t want to waste any more time with dreams that can’t come true. Even for fun.

Many of the stories in the Strahan collection are quite wonderful to read, but very few of them, even the so-called science fiction stories offer an old man much hope about my fellow humans surviving this reality in the next century.

I sometimes wonder if fantasy writers also ache for more realism. In “Field Biology of the Week Fairies” by Naomi Kritzer we have a fantasy story where fairies exist, but they confront a very down-to-earth fourteen-year-old girl, Amelia. I loved this story for its realism (even though it had fairies). By the way, there were an awful lot of fairies in this anthology, and not all of them came from the popular 2018 original anthology Robots vs Fairies.

There weren’t many science fiction stories of the kind I want. Some were more realistic than others. “Okay, Glory” by Elizabeth Bear was about an overly protective smart house. More of a realistic horror story.

“The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander took historical incidents and turned them into a fantasy tale. However, I have to wonder why she just didn’t go for straight literary realism. It was the historical details that made this story stand out, not the fantasy add-ons.

“When We Were Starless” was a good science fiction story, but set too far in the future to be relevant about today’s problems. I still enjoy far-future science fiction, but I respond to SF about the near future better. The further in the future an SF story is set, the more it feels like a fantasy to me.

“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory has the kind of realism I like. It wasn’t completely realistic, but it had a grittiness that I appreciated. I also liked it because it spanned a life-time, of never giving up.

“You Pretend Like You Never Met Me, and I’ll Pretend Like I Never Met You” by Maria Dahvana Headley is another darkly realistic fantasy tale. I would have loved this story even more if it had had no fantasy at all.

“Quality Time” by Ken Liu is the kind of near-present science fiction story I like best. It riffs just enough on reality to make it relevant.

Strahan’s anthology ends with “Firelight” by Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m not even sure what genre this story is supposed to be. On the surface, it feels like generic fantasy, but I think something lurks below the surface. Is Le Guin working in a genre beyond fantasy or science fiction — maybe adult allegory. Even though “Firelight” is full of tired fantasy motifs I get the feeling Le Guin is trying to tell us something personal, something beyond genre.

All the stories in Strahan’s anthology this year are creative and entertaining. The question for readers: Will every story speak the language of what they like to read?  I can imagine I’m not alone in wanting just my favorite genre stories. I imagine some fantasy fans plowing through the science fiction entries wondering why they are in the wrong genre pigeonhole.

James Wallace Harris

Update:

I know this essay is going to come across as schizophrenic. I’m struggling to explain why reading some fantasy stories feels like consuming a cubic meter of cotton candy while other stories feel like I’ve eaten a healthy meal. Writing these essays is a kind of self-psychoanalysis. I often fail to express the exact nature of my feelings. Part of this is due to poor writing, and part of this is due to hitting a wall of complexity. I often end up writing on a subject many times over the years to find clarity. I will certainly have to work on this one again.

“Finisterra” by David Moles

Cory and Catska Ench Finnisterra

“Finisterra” by David Moles was first published in the December 2007 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It has been reprinted a number of times, including online at Clarkesworld where you can read and listen to the story. The cover painting (above) for the story is by Cory and Catska Ench. This is the 10th review in a series, following the stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois.

“Finisterra” is supposed to be science fiction, but it feels like a mini-epic fantasy. Storytellers always have to top previous stories of a similar kind, so this tale is about hunting for an animal bigger than city or county.

“Pictures don’t do them justice, do they?” he said.

Bianca went to the rail and follows the naturalist’s gaze. She did her best to maintain a certain stiff formality around Fry; from their first meeting aboard Transient Meridian she’d had the idea that it might not be good to let him get too familiar. But when she saw what Fry was looking at, the mask slipped for a moment, and she couldn’t help a sharp, quick intake of breath.

Fry chuckled. “To stand on the back of one,” he said, “to stand in a valley and look up at the hills and know that the ground under your feet is supported by the bones of a living creature—there’s nothing else like it.” He shook his head.

At this altitude they were above all but the highest-flying of the thousands of beasts that made up Septentrionalis Archipelago. Bianca’s eyes tried to make the herd (or flock, or school) of zaratanes into other things: a chain of islands, yes, if she concentrated on the colors, the greens and browns of forests and plains, the grays and whites of the snowy highlands; a fleet of ships, perhaps, if she instead focused on the individual shapes, the keel ridges, the long, translucent fins, ribbed like Chinese sails.

The zaratanes of the archipelago were more different from one another than the members of a flock of birds or a pod of whales, but still there was a symmetry, a regularity of form, the basic anatomical plan— equal parts fish and mountain—repeated throughout, in fractal detail from the great old shape of Zaratán Finisterra, a hundred kilometers along the dorsal ridge, down to the merely hill-sized bodies of the nameless younger beasts. When she took in the archipelago as a whole, it was impossible for Bianca not to see the zaratanes as living things.

“Nothing else like it,” Fry repeated.

It’s hard to imagine creatures this large and still be real. Look closer again at the cover illustration. There’s a larger creature there. And even it isn’t large enough to be the creature in the story.

“Finisterra” isn’t meant to be speculative science fiction. This is Planet Stories for the 21st-century. Oh sure, it has its moral compass with an anti-poaching message, but really it’s an adventure tale, the kind you wish you could see at an IMAX theater in 3D. David Moles has done some wonderful worldbuilding, as has the nine stories that came before it in The Very Best of the Best. If there’s one lesson for the would-be science fiction writer in this anthology, it’s to master the techniques of world-building.

It’s serendipitous that I read “Finisterra” just before I watched Love, Death + Robots on Netflix, a series of 18 mostly animated short SF/F stories. Many of its short films were based on original short stories by science fiction writers. Love, Death + Robots is a great proof of concept that short SF/F would be very successful on television, and “Finisterra” would make a beautifully animated film. Of course, Dust has been making such short films for years for internet viewers, and now they offer Dustx channel for Roku owners. I hope all these short SF films and anthology shows get more people to read science fiction short stories and subscribe to the magazines.

Even though I thoroughly enjoyed Love, Death + Robots, I felt the variety of science fiction themes in the 18 short films limited. Its stories mainly focused on sex and violence with a lot of profanity, the kind that would appeal to teenage boys. I hope the producers of this series mine more SF stories from current genre magazines and select stories like “Finisterra” or the others in The Very Best of the Best to film.

James Wallace Harris, March 23, 2019

“The Little Goddess” by Ian McDonald

Asimovs-2005-06

“The Little Goddess” by Ian McDonald is the 3rd story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. This 2005 novella is part of McDonald’s India 2047 series, which features his award-winning novel, River of Gods from 2004. “The Little Goddess” is included in McDonald’s collection Cyberabad Days (2009).

When I started reviewing the stories in The Very Best of the Best one at a time, I only had a vague idea of why. I thought it would teach me about reviewing short stories, but I also thought it would teach me about the current state of writing science fiction. I’ve wanted to write science fiction ever since I started reading it in the 1960s. I took a creative writing class in high school, and then later took more classes in college. In 2002, when I was 51, I got up the money and used six weeks of saved vacation time to attend Clarion West. I wrote a lot of bad stories and read stacks of stories by other would-be writers. I could sense the difference between a professional story and an amateur effort, but I couldn’t define those differences or recreate them.

Last year I started binging on classic science fiction short stories. At the beginning of this year, I started binging science fiction stories from current science fiction magazines. I’m still struggling to discern what makes a good story. I’ve finished reading four stories so far in The Very Best of the Best and it’s obvious they’re magnitudes better than the average story I’m reading in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld. And those stories are magnitudes better than the stories I read in fiction writing workshops.

Back in Clarion West, we were told, I think by John Crowley, “That great writing is the accumulation of significant details.” And that’s what I see when I compare workshop stories, average published stories, classic SF, and the stories in this anthology. The four stories I’ve read so far are dense with significant details. By the way, Gardner Dozois was one of our weekly instructors as Clarion West in 2002. I wish I could remember everything he said. Now his last anthology is going to be my new writing workshop. I figure it will take me six weeks to finish this project, about the length of my stay at Clarion West.

Like the previous story I discussed, “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross, Ian McDonald’s story is also set in the near future where nanotechnology and AI have transformed our societies. “The Little Goddess” blends a disruptive post-cyberpunk future with ancient and modern cultures of India. In our current era of cultural appropriation brouhahas, I have to wonder why McDonald chose India for his science fictional setting. The story is a wonderful clash of modern dazzle-tech and ancient exotica, as its characters struggle to preserve modern myths in times of rampant future shock.

In 2019 I’m reading a British man’s 2005 view of future India. I could be reading writers from India imagining their own future. Of course, any anyone writing historical fiction would have to do the same kind of research to tell a story set in another culture. As an old guy (67) who grew up loving 1950s and 1960s science fiction, I’ve seen the genre go through many transformations. I can’t help but feel that recent decades are a baroque period where stories get longer and more ornamented with extra details. Back in the 1960s, Roger Zelazny started writing science fiction stories set in other cultures. Over the decades, science fiction has slowly become less Amerian-British. Anglo-American writers began setting their stories around the world, while concurrently and rather slowly science fiction writers from around the world have begun sending us their SF stories. What we’re learning is every country has writers thinking about the future, as well as writers who want to use their cultural heritage to flavor science fiction stories.

What it comes down to is science fiction is diversifying culturally yet still tells the same kind of stories. In every country, writers see their society being transformed by technology. We’re all rushing into a future that looks optimistic and depressing at the same time. Nearly all science fiction writers working the near future territory see AI, nanotechnology, networks, Big Data, robots, genetic engineering, computers, 3D printing, GPS, smartphones, etc. chewing up the social landscape.

By Nirmal Dulal - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14711984The question I keep asking is: Are these science fiction stories prophetic? For example, in “The Little Goddess” our first-person narrator, who begins the story by becoming a Kumari, at another point becomes a mule for AI smugglers. They embed tiny AI in her head, so while she’s smuggling the AI she experiences being a part of multiple minds. Is this just a razzle-dazzle futuristic fantasy thriller, or should we expect that kind of technology sometime soon? 2047 is only 28 years away, which is only as far as 1991 in our past. What science fiction writers like Ian McDonald and Charles Stross are trying to do is gauge the amount of future change by the amount of change we’ve already experienced. I’m old enough to remember 28 years times 2, which would be 1963, and I can readily confirm I’ve experienced a great deal of future shock in my life.

Science fiction does not have to be scientifically accurate, or possible, but that is something I do admire in science fiction. What always comes first is storytelling. And in these stories in The Very Best of the Best, the storytelling is excellent. Gardner Dozois should know, he’s read many thousands of stories. In the 35 years, he anthologized over a thousand stories just for his annual best-of anthology series. And the best of those best were distilled down into three anthologies, which The Very Best of the Best is the last.

“The Little Goddess” is one of 38 stories that Gardner Dozois thought were the best short science fiction to be published from 2002 to 2017. Anyone who wants to write science fiction should read The Very Best of the Best. What I’m doing in these reviews, is trying to figure out how I could write such science fiction too.

You have no name. You are Taleju, you are Kumari. You are the goddess. 

These instructions my two Kumarimas whispered to me as we walked between kneeling priests to the King in his plumed crown of diamonds and emeralds and pearls. The King namasted and we sat side by side on lion thrones and long hall throbbed to the bells and drums of Durbar Square. I remember thinking that a King must bow to me but there are rules even for goddesses.

Why does Ian McDonald begin his science fiction story by choosing a prepubescent girl who has been chosen to be a goddess in an obscure sect in India? That sounds like the beginning of a fantasy tale. Why does Eleanor Arnason create a fur-covered alien living in a primitive homosexual society on a distant world for her main character in “The Potter of Bones” or Charles Stross create an antagonist in “Rogue Farm” that’s a roving farm made from eight post-humans? Is the key to a classic SF story a highly unique character? “The Little Goddess” is a long story, a novella, and it doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s all detailed texture. This was also true for “The Potter of Bones.”

I am both reading and listening to these stories. I believe great writing shines when heard aloud read by a great narrator. I wish you could hear:

Smiling Kumarima and Tall Kumarima. I draw Tall Kumarima in my memory first, for it is right to give pre-eminence to age. She was almost as tall as a Westerner and thin as a stick in a drought. At first I was scared of her. Then I heard her voice and could never be scared of her again; her voice was kind as a singing bird. When she spoke you felt you now knew everything. Tall Kumarima lived in a small apartment above a tourist shop on the edge of Durbar Square. From her window she could see my Kumari Ghar, among the stepped towers of the dhokas. Her husband had died of lung cancer from pollution and cheap Indian cigarettes. Her two tall sons were grown and married with children of their own, older than me. In that time she had mothered five Kumari Devis before me. 

Now I remember Smiling Kumarima. She was short and round and had breathing problems for which she used inhalers, blue and brown. I would hear the snake hiss of them on days when Durbar Square was golden with smog. She lived out in the new suburbs up on the western hills, a long journey even by the royal car at her service. Her children were twelve, ten, nine and seven. She was jolly and treated me like her fifth baby, the young favourite, but I felt even then that, like the demon-dancing-men, she was scared of me. Oh, it was the highest honour any woman could hope for, to be the mother of the goddess—so to speak—though you wouldn’t think it to hear her neighbours in the unit, shutting yourself away in that dreadful wooden box, and all the blood, medieval, medieval, but they couldn’t understand. Somebody had to keep the King safe against those who would turn us into another India, or worse, China; someone had to preserve the old ways of the divine kingdom. I understood early that difference between them. Smiling Kumarima was my mother out of duty. Tall Kumarima from love.

I’m not sure if I could ever imagine all those details. Vivienne Leheny who reads the audio for this story conveys these words in a way my mind could never read on its own. By hearing these words read while looking at them on my iPad screen I realize both the personal details I’d have to invent and the voice of the character I’d have to create. This is a daunting challenge. McDonald keeps this up for over two hours, the length of a movie.

Reviewing the first two stories showed me the value of world-building in writing a science fiction story. “The Little Goddess” illustrates the value of voice and character. This project is evolving as I write. It’s becoming rewarding in ways I didn’t foresee. I hope I can finish it because it should offer me countless lessons that I can’t imagine at this early stage.

James Wallace Harris, March 2, 2019

 

 

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

 

Guest review by Tony Stewart. This essay first appeared at his blog, Breadtag Sagas.

A Case of Conscience by James Blish is #59 on the Classics of Science Fiction list.

I’ve been a keen science fiction reader most of my life, though less so in recent years as there seems to be less SciFi about. A box of my old books turned up out of a time warp and I’ve decided to re-read them.

The genre has been in decline for some time, perhaps because we’ve entered an age of ignorance about science. An age it seems where peer reviewed science can be debated as if there could be another side. (One can always drag up an extreme scientist or pseudo-scientist, not part of the mainstream, to help.) Creationism or anti-evolution and climate science are good examples.

To counter creationism: Charles Darwin was a genius but he didn’t invent evolution. Darwin was wrong about several things because he didn’t have the knowledge at the time. The modern synthesis theory of evolution was formulated in the 1930s. It has never been challenged but has been built on by the revolution in molecular biology and computer technology. Most people are probably not abreast of recent developments. Take it from me anyone who doubts evolution now is on a hiding to nothing.


Spoiler warning

James Blish A Case of Conscience 1958 is an interesting example of the premise of faith versus science, but the contest never really happens in the book. I give a spoiler warning tongue-in-cheek, but if you really want to read the book maybe read it first before proceeding.

A Case of Conscience was the first book I re-read and I was underwhelmed. I did remember the Catholicism but the idea is not enough to save the book.

A Case of Conscience was originally written as a novella in 1953, then James Blish wrote the second part and it was published as a novel in 1958. It won a Hugo Award in 1959 and the original novella a belated Retrospective Hugo in 2004. In the 1958 Foreward James Blish describes how he had modified contemporary Catholic faith for the purposes of fiction in the future. He says he generally found support from within the Catholic Church for his book but acknowledges that he himself is agnostic.

case_of_conscience_if


The Story

Book 1

A Jesuit priest, who is also a world-class biologist, is part of the four-man team sent to explore the world of Lithia. The Lithians live in what seems to be a utopia, there’s no crime or war, they have a highly developed moral sense and yet they have no religion. One of the team wants to exploit the planet for its mineral wealth, but the priest feels they must place it in quarantine: the absence of God means it is the work of the devil. (Best SciFi Books)

Book 2

When they return to Earth the priest carries a fertilized egg as a special gift from a Lithian. The egg matures quickly and the juvenile Lithian Ambassador quickly apprehends most human information and knowledge. This is similar to L’Ingenue by Voltaire in 1767 and Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein in 1961 (‘The hippy bible’). Egtverchi (the hatched egg) is lonely and revolted by humanity his despair impels him to criticize society and to encourage riots amongst the mass of humans in the shelter cities. The UN Government decides to arrest him but he smuggles himself aboard a ship home, arriving just in time for Armageddon.

Meanwhile, ‘the priest’s own faith is tested as his commitment to Catholicism comes under question. But when, at the end, Lithia is destroyed, it is ambiguous whether this is the result of carelessness in the mineral extraction or because of the priest’s exorcism.’ (Best SciFi Books)


Analysis

The book is typical of Classic SciFi in its appalling characterisation and inability to portray women. Robert Heinlein follows a similar trend at times but also can do better when he wants to. Podkayne of Mars 1963 one of my favourite Heinlein books is written in the voice of a feisty teenager Podkayne, with an appalling (to her) younger brother.

csocon1958The planet of Lithia and the alien race are poorly described. Cleaver’s refusal to communicate across the planet to the other two scientists is not credible. That they don’t do anything, until it is time to leave, also stretches belief. When the four planetary commissioners get together to decide the fate of the planet, they behave like schoolboys. Cleaver, besides, feels free to do a side deal with the UN Government unbeknownst to the others.

Cleaver the bad physicist, who wants to turn Lithia into a nuclear arsenal is too cardboard even for caricature. Cleaver apparently ends by blowing Lithia up through incautious hurry and a poorly conceived experimental process. A romance and marriage between Michelis (one of the four scientists) and Liu, who look after the development of Egtverchi, is risible. The behaviour of Liu as a woman is not credible.

Ruiz-Sanchez, the Jesuit priest, is a mixture of contrasts, but his act of conscience is not credible because it isn’t well enough described. Ruiz-Sanchez’s Jesuitical analysis of literature — another case of conscience — which he is puzzling over in terms of the complex human interdependencies and moral relationships in a book he has been studying for months, for which he finally defines an ethical solution on Lithia is interesting. The book turns out to be Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. I haven’t read Finnegan’s Wake and so with the majority of humanity don’t know if what Blish is saying makes sense or is merely an intellectual conceit.

Egtverchi the alien is quite interesting as he grows up, but his persona is not well explained. His motivations are handled merely as a plot device.

The genius Lucien Le Comte des Bois-d’Averoigne who seems to have invented all of Earth’s current useful technology, including the space drive, is also interesting, but perhaps only because he remains off-stage.

The Pope, a massive Norwegian, who acknowledges Ruiz-Sanchez’s Manichean heresy, encourages him to explore exorcism as a private endeavour. The Pope has promise as a character but his part is only a walk-on.

The best idea in the book is that of the shelter cities growing out of the nuclear confrontation on Earth. The shelter race is like an arms race — reminiscent of Dr Strangelove where the ultimate advantage over the Russians comes down to the mineshaft gap. The Corridor Riots of 1993 are also mentioned. I liked that the Italians were too fond of aboveground and their shelter city under Rome wasn’t nearly as deep or extensive as everywhere else in the world.

Humanity as government, elite and masses is not shown in a good light in the book, nor is Catholicism. Today, how kindly would we accept a Jesuit priest who wanted to annihilate an alien planet because it is a tool of the devil?

The end of the book is disappointing and doesn’t really bring everything together. Lithia and its population and the mad physicist Cleaver disappear in a nuclear conflagration, or is it an exorcism?


Conclusion

Look I’ve managed to convince myself through the process of analysis that A Case of Conscience isn’t completely hopeless. It deserves its place in the 1950s SciFi pantheon, but not the place it was given in the lists I found (as #18, 30 or 38) of the best SciFi books ever written. The fourth list does not place it in the top 200.

1950s SciFi books do not have to be as awkward and clumsy as A Case of Conscience is. Some are brilliant stories and novel showcases for ideas. I recently read Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank, which is one of the first apocalyptic novels of the nuclear age. It is set in a small town in mid-Florida and is almost as chilling now, as it must have seemed then. And, we no longer believe that nuclear Armageddon hangs over us on a daily basis.

I’ll leave the last word to Manny at Goodreads who summarises the equivocalness of James Blish (his review is longer and worth reading):

I discovered James Blish when I was about 10 (I believe the first one I read was The Star Dwellers), and I have returned to him many times throughout my life. I don’t think I know any author who is quite as frustrating an example of Kilgore Trout syndrome. Wonderful ideas, but in most cases terrible execution: for every novel or short story that succeeds, at least three are left butchered and bleeding by the side of the road….

So it should be no surprise that A Case of Conscience is more of the same. We have discovered a planet peopled by an apparently gentle and civilized race, the Lithians, who are gradually revealed as being literally a creation of the Devil, intended to delude and ensnare humanity. The protagonist, a Jesuit priest, too late recognizes the Lithian ambassador to Earth for what he is, and is powerless to oppose him; this scenario, it occurs to me now, is rather like that in Black Easter. And then, after what everyone here agrees is a fantastic buildup, the whole book falls apart, leaving the reader frustrated over yet another disappointment. It’s genuinely tragic.

Tony StewartDr. Tony Stewart is a scientist (biology) and analyst by training. He has also run a strategic market research company, been an R&D consultant and a late starting artist. More recently he has been a volunteer involved in efforts to stop a dam and with and with the general issue of the poor treatment of displaced people in India. He was also a board member and ex-chair of PhotoAccess a community access facility for photography and multimedia. He is also an avid fan of classic science fiction.

Falling Off the Classics of Science Fiction List

Whenever we create a new version of the Classics of Science Fiction some titles get added and others dropped. My main reason for producing the list is to track how books are discovered and forgotten over time. Most books pass from public memory soon after they are printed, so to get on a best-of-the-best list and stay on it for years means a huge number of readers are recalling those titles decade after decade. Just study the List of Lists to see the 65 ways these books were remembered from 1949 – 2016. (Read the Introduction for our overall methodology.)

When books fall of the list, it doesn’t mean those books are no longer worthy of reading, but those titles have slipped from the minds of older readers and newer readers have never encountered them. Sometimes books are rediscovered, especially if they get new editions, produced as audio books, or made into films or television shows. Generally, books slide into obscurity. Old readers die off and younger readers never know what they missed.

Virgil Finley -Jackpot- Galaxy 1956-10

Many of the titles that dropped off version 4 of the Classics of Science Fiction were books published before 1950. For version 3, we used several lists for library collection development, or critical histories of science fiction. For version 4, we had more fan polls. Version 3 had many short stories collections and anthologies that didn’t make it to version 4. Plus, many classic titles from 1950-1975 fell off. I assume newer readers aren’t discovering those books.

I feel version 4 is a better list than version 3. Most of the second half of version 3 didn’t make it to version 4. Which makes me wonder if the bottom half of version 4 will disappear when we create version 5 in ten years.

Here are the titles that fell of the list this time. The ones in red are books I’ve reread in the recent years and personally believe should be on version 4. There are plenty of books on the list below I still plan to reread. And there are stories below I have reread recently that don’t belong on the list. I won’t say which.

  • 334 (1972) by Thomas Disch
  • The Absolute at Large (1927) by Karel Čapek
  • Across the Zodiac (1880) by Percy Greg
  • Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) edited by Harlan Ellison
  • Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell
  • Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (1952) edited by John W. Campbell
  • Back to Methuselah (1921) by George Bernard Shaw
  • The Battle of Dorking (1871) by Sir George Chesney
  • Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov
  • Behold the Man (1969) by Michael Moorcock
  • The Best of C. L. Moore (1975) by C. L. Moore
  • The Best of C. M. Kornbluth by C. M. Kornbluth
  • The Best of Henry Kuttner (1975) by Henry Kuttner
  • The Best of Science Fiction (1946) edited by Groff Conklin
  • Beyond Apollo (1972) by Barry N. Malzberg
  • The Big Time (1961) by Fritz Leiber
  • The Black Cloud (1957) by Fred Hoyle
  • Brain Wave (1954) by Poul Anderson
  • Bring the Jubilee (1953) by Ward Moore
  • Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad
  • Casey Agonistes (1973) by Richard McKenna
  • Chronopolis and Other Stories (1971) by J. G. Ballard
  • The Chrysalids (1955) by John Wyndham
  • The Clockwork Man (1923) by E. V. Odle
  • The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer Lytton
  • Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn
  • The Death of Grass (1956) by John Christopher
  • Deathbird Stories (1975) by Harlan Ellison
  • Deathworld (1960) by Harry Harrison
  • Deluge (1927) by S. Fowler Wright
  • The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth and Other Stories (1971) by Roger Zelazny
  • Dorsai (1976) by Gordon Dickson
  • Downward to the Earth (1970) by Robert Silverberg
  • The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny
  • The Dying Earth (1950) by Jack Vance
  • E Pluribus Unicorn (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon
  • The Embedding (1973) by Ian Watson
  • Engine Summer (1979) by John Crowley
  • Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler
  • Final Blackout (1948) L. Ron Hubbard
  • The Girl in the Golden Atom (1922) by Ray Cummings
  • Gray Lensman (1951) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift
  • The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) by J. D. Beresford
  • Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • The Iron Dream (1972) by Norman Spinrad
  • Islands in the Net (1988) by Bruce Sterling
  • The Lensman Series (1948) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • The Listeners (1972) by James Gunn
  • The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett
  • Looking Backward (1880) by Edward Bellamy
  • The Lost World (1912) by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Lovers (1961) by Philip José Farmer
  • The Machine Stops and Other Stories (1909) by E. M. Forster
  • Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison
  • Man Plus (1976) by Frederik Pohl
  • A Martian Odyssey and Other Science Fiction Tales (1975) by Stanley G. Weinbaum
  • The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) by John Wyndham
  • A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn
  • Norstrillia (1975) by Cordwainer Smith
  • Nova (1968) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Of All Possible Worlds (1955) by William Tenn
  • On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute
  • On the Wings of Song (1979) by Thomas Disch
  • The Past Through Tomorrow (1967) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Perelandra (1943) by C. S. Lewis
  • The Persistence of Vision (1978) by John Varley
  • Play Piano (1952) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Poison Belt (1913) by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (1970) edited by Robert Silverberg
  • The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (1976) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Science Fiction of Jack London (1975) by Jack London
  • She (1886) by H. Rider Haggard
  • The Sheep Look Up (1972) by John Brunner
  • The Short Stories of H. G. Wells (1927) by H. G. Wells
  • Sirius (1944) by Olaf Stapledon
  • The Skylark of Space (1946) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Lewis Stevenson
  • That Hideous Strength (1945) by C. S. Lewis
  • To-Morrow’s Yesterday (1932) by John Gloag
  • Under Pressure (1956) by Frank Herbert
  • Untouched by Human Hands (1954) by Robert Sheckley
  • A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay
  • The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber
  • War of the Newts (1936) by Karel Čapek
  • The Weigher of Souls (1931) by Andrew Maurois
  • Who Goes There? (1948) by John W. Campbell
  • The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz
  • Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) Marge Piercy
  • The World Below (1930) by S. Fowler Wright

James Wallace Harris – slightly revised from Worlds Without End.

The Genesis of Science Fiction

If the genesis of the knife, gun, and the missile is the obsidian blade, thrown rock and spear, what then is the genesis of science fiction? Years ago Brian Aldiss, in his book The Trillion Year Spree, made a good case that science fiction began with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Recently, Mark L. Brake and Neil Hook, in Different Engines, suggested science fiction evolved from Johannes Kepler’s 1634 story, Somnium (The Dream), inspired by the Copernican revolution. Numerous writers have claimed stories from ancient Greece and Rome dealt with science fictional concepts long before the age of science. I think we can go back further still, to The Book of Genesis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Vedas, even the earliest of ancient literature, and assume that science fictional stories were always told in prehistory.

Genesis_600x400

Most ancient literature is religious, and I don’t mean to disrespect anyone’s faith, but if we can read these works not through sacred hopes, or secular scholarship, but through the eyes of creative storytelling, we’ll see these tales as dazzling adventures, full of wonder and excitement, like any summer blockbuster. Wouldn’t these same stories told today, using modern writing techniques, be published as science fiction and fantasy? This idea occurred to me while reading several science novels last year when I kept noticing their Biblical themes.

It’s hard to make a case for science fiction existing before science, but is science really the core of what we call science fiction? Aren’t science fiction fans drawn to fantastic possibilities? Wouldn’t any story about travel to other worlds be science fiction? Isn’t Heaven in the same direction as Mars or Alpha Centauri? Wouldn’t any story about a superior being visiting Earth be shelved in the SF/F section today? How is God different from an ancient, all-powerful alien? Aren’t all gods, non-human invaders? Aren’t angels, aliens from the skies? Don’t celestial realms sound like other dimensions? Aren’t all the powers of gods just telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, psychokinesis and matter transmission? Aren’t all the ancient religious works from thousands of years ago really tales of fantastic adventures? Think about it—doesn’t Greek mythology sound exactly like superhero comics?

Yuval Noah Harari, in his international bestseller, Sapiens, psychoanalyzes our species, marking three giant milestones in our development: the Scientific Revolution 500 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago, and the Cognitive Revolution 17,000 years ago. We’ve probably been making up science fictional tales for 17,000 years.

My referencing The Bible is not meant to claim science fiction is religious or religion is science fiction, but to suggest the origins of science fiction go back further than we imagined. I’m saying our love of far-out concepts began as soon as we tried to understand reality and make up explanations—two aspects of the Cognitive Revolution. Since we didn’t begin to write things down until 5,000 years ago, that leaves 12,000 years of oral storytelling. My bet is extrapolation and speculation began with Harari’s Cognitive Revolution. It’s not hard to imagine Neolithic folk sitting around the fire speculating about all kinds of possibilities that later became the myths and religions of prehistory.

Three of the top science fiction novels from 2015 feel like retellings of Bible stories. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, is a modern variant of Noah’s Ark from The Book of Genesis (which has even older forms), as well as updating Adam and Eve (this time with seven Eves). Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, Aurora, is about a generation space ship, and if you think about it, Noah’s ark was a generation ship. Robinson’s story could also be a retelling of Exodus and the search for a promised land. And in The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi plays a Prophet warning us about a Biblical-sized doom to come.

Folks living in the 21st century love to believe we’re the crown of creation. We assume we’re at the pinnacle of evolutionary development, and superior to our ancestors. Yet, how much of our psychology stays the same from one generation to the next? One way to know is by reading the earliest forms of writing, like The Bible, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and The Odyssey, stories composed in prehistory and written down at the dawn of writing. Reading these stories connect us to Neolithic minds and thoughts. What if those stories weren’t sacred or secular, but speculation? And isn’t that the heart of science fiction?

What if the writer of the Noah myth was the Steven Spielberg of his day, inspired by the same thoughts that inspired Neal Stephenson to write Seveneves? Didn’t the story of Noah make an epic disaster flick? What if the same story was told for the same reasons thousands of years ago? Haven’t we always had end-of-the-world stories? Is the invention of gods and heavens significantly different from imagining aliens and distant planets? Our long ago ancestors didn’t know about other worlds, so they had powerful beings coming from the sky, mountain tops, under the ocean, or deep underground. If they had known about cosmology, wouldn’t their gods come from the stars, or had God come from outside the Universe?

If we start looking at our species in a holistic way, like Yuval Noah Harari, we’ve changed far less in the last 17,000 years than our hubris fools us. If we study ancient stories we can see there are aspects of fiction that we constantly repeat, both in history and prehistory. I believe the early books from antiquity, like The Book of Genesis, come out of oral storytelling traditions that reflect ideas descended from the deepest prehistory. If we compare the oldest writings from the past to the newest stories about the future, we’ll see how little we’ve changed.

Think about The Game of Thrones – when and where is it set? Does it matter? Doesn’t it have a timeless quality? George R. R. Martin’s success is based on universal themes that could be prehistory or a post-history apocalypse. Aren’t most epic fantasies set in a rich potentiality of prehistory? And why do so many galactic empire stories feature an aristocracy? Why does the future often seem like the past? Star Wars is set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Remember what happened in Battlestar Galactica?

One of the oldest stories we have, “The Shipwrecked Sailor,” is from 2200 BCE. Not as exciting as Robinson Crusoe or The Martian, but still based on the same idea. How far back in time do stories about sole survivors enthrall our kind? How far in the future will we continue to use the same plot?

One of the startling lessons of anthropology is Neanderthals made the same stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years with few signs of innovation. Compared to the constant “progress” of our species, that’s kind of sad. Homo erectus spent two million years doing essentially the same thing. We’ve very proud of our quick ascension above the animals. Yet, just admiring change creates a delusion. If we look at fiction, we can see we’ve been working the same themes for seventeen thousand years, just like the Neanderthals worked the same stone scrapers for all their existence.

Science fiction glories in the growth of science and technology. But do our thoughts and emotions reflect the same evolutionary progress as our inventions? Shouldn’t we attribute our marvels to culture, and not individuals? Our technological culture is fast changing and innovative, but are we? If we read ancient literature, we’ll see the same human motivations in our ancestors that compel us to read science fiction today. Don’t we really see that the cultural landscape is changing, with people staying the same? Wouldn’t our science fiction and fantasy, if transported and translated back in time, have the same appeal to our ancient ancestors?

I assume the writers of The Book of Genesis worked to explain reality with the concepts they had at hand. Is it significantly different from how we explain reality today, either with science or science fiction? Doesn’t the story about the Garden of Eden, where humans once lived among the animals without clothes and acquired language, ring familiar to what anthropology tells us?  And isn’t the story about the tree of knowledge of good and evil just a metaphor of explaining how we become self-aware? Do neuroscientists have better explanations?

And isn’t every story about a spaceship landing on a new world, another story of Genesis? Isn’t the desire to terraform Mars copying what God did for Earth in The Book of Genesis? Isn’t the fashioning of Adam from dust, and the Gollum from clay, similar to our desire to fashion robots from silicon? Doesn’t the idea of reincarnation sound like brain downloading? Does it matter if we find immortality through afterlife or medicine?

Which would be more thrilling: going to heaven or shipping out on the USS Enterprise?

– James Wallace Harris (reprinted from Book Riot)

Framework for Science Fiction Criticism

Most reviewers work to identify books worthy of becoming bestsellers. Here at Classics of Science Fiction we work to identify the science fiction books worthy of calling classics. Bestsellers are new books everyone wants to read. Classics are old books readers don’t want to forget. Are the qualities that make a bestseller succeed when new the same as those that make a classic unforgettable when old?

frpaul_01_amazquar_1929win_ralph124cMike and I have been reading and rereading many of the books on the Classics of Science Fiction by Rank and to be honest, we don’t think some of them are very good. We wonder if books that excited readers fifty years ago will still excite new readers today? 94 of the 193 books on version 3 of the Classics of Science Fiction fell off the list when creating version 4. As I point out in my essay “Can Science Fiction Books Become Classics” for 19th-century literary classics, barely one book a year is popularly remembered. It’s doubtful that science fiction titles will even come close to that average. About one tenth of those 19th-century books could be called science fiction.

If you look at the Classics of Science Fiction by Year list, it’s pretty obvious that remembered books thin out over time. For example, only five science fiction books are remembered for the 1930s and only one (Brave New World) by the public at large. There are seven for the 1940s, with again, only one (Nineteen Eighty-Four) remembered widely outside of science fiction. There are 23 titles for the 1950s. None are famous in the mainstream, although six have been made into movies, and three of them (The Day of the Triffids, I Am Legend, Starship Troopers) have been filmed more than once. There are 28 titles for the 1960s, with eight made into films. The most famous are A Wrinkle in Time, The Man in the High Castle, Dune, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as Blade Runner, and Slaughterhouse-Five. Are there aspects shared by these eleven titles from 1930-1969 that could consistently identify a classic book?

I’d bet in a hundred years only three will be widely remembered: Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Slaughterhouse-Five. Interestingly, none deal with space travel. So, my guess is what makes a bestseller is not what makes a classic. And if Mike and I develop a framework of criticism for identifying classic science fiction, it will be different than one for reviewing new books.

Because science fiction can be so many things to so many people it’s difficult to judge books in a way that people will agree. For some readers, science fiction is thrilling adventure fiction that might have little or no scientific speculation. Are such stories poor science fiction because they lack science? For most readers, a book like The Martian by Andy Weir earns both an A+ for storytelling and A+ for science. If we compared it to a book like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which I would give an A+ for storytelling and an A+ for 1980s nostalgia, but an N/A for science speculation. Is it science fiction? And how should I review an old novel from the 1970s, where the storytelling is average for back then, but would be considered inadequate by modern standards?

voyage-dans-la-luneShould we even review bad books? Maybe that should be rephrased to: Should we review books we don’t like? This site is about identifying the books that are remembered, but consequently, it also spots those being forgotten. If we identify the qualities that make a book lasting, shouldn’t we also identify the qualities that make it forgettable?

Neither one of us wants to bad-mouth books, especially if the author is still alive. We could just write about books we admire, but does that give the whole picture? I am currently reading Time is the Simplest Thing (1961) by Clifford D. Simak. It’s not one of his best. The story is about a future where humans learn that it’s too dangerous for our bodies to space travel, so we explore the galaxy with soul projection, telepathy, and teleportation. The storytelling was adequate for when it was written, but probably creaky to young readers of today.

However, for readers with great nostalgia for 1950s science fiction, Time is the Simplest Thing might be big fun. I doubt today’s young readers will enjoy this book, and it won’t be remembered in the next century as a classic. But is it worth writing about and analyzing? Science fiction feels like it’s about the future, but every story is really about the author, and when he wrote it. And that’s the key for identifying books that have the potential to be future classics. The qualities I love in books by Jane Austen or Mary Shelley are ones that are meaningful to me two hundred years down the timestream.

Bestsellers tell us about our times. Classics tell us about their times and our times. Which might explain why books fall off the list. Quite often fifty-year-old books make us wince. Reading books that old can show us how politically incorrect we’ve become in a half-century. Reading even older books, such as E. E. Smith space opera, can make us laugh at how silly we thought about space travel in the 1920s and 1930s. Book reviews back then didn’t know their science was naive, but we do now.

There are aspects of fiction that should be considered for both bestsellers, potential classics, and actual classics. Storytelling, characterization, plotting and writing are essential. For science fiction, we need to add extrapolation, speculation, science, and world-building. For example, in this regard, speculation about psychic abilities is what condemns Time is the Simplest Thing to the dustheap. Simak created a modest speculative idea with minor characterization, little details of setting, so-so plot, and only barely adequate storytelling skills for 1961 paperback writing. His theme of prejudice is strong, but its vehicle is weak.

I also recently read The Stars Are Ours! (1954) and Star Born (1957) by Andre Norton. The first book is about a future America oppressed by a religious government that hunts down scientists and suppresses science and technology. Scientists flee to the stars. The second book takes place generations later, where a spaceship from a more enlightened America finds the colonists of the first mission. The two stories were fun for me, but then I like old science fiction. If I was honest, I don’t think they hold up. They are barely remembered today, so it’s doubtful they will become classics in the future. Is there any point in writing about them? If our critical framework included the history of science fiction and its ideas, it might.

However, if our goal is to find and understand why books are remembered over time, there’s little value in studying books that don’t work. Just because I have an affection for these orphans, and feel pained because they are dying, doesn’t mean they deserve a lot of our time.

Which bring me back to writing about the best books and developing criteria for spotting why they might last. I haven’t discovered those criteria yet. I don’t know why books last. We’ve developed a statistical method for tracking the books that are hanging in there, but we have no explanations as to why they are lasting.

 

 

Why Did Arthur C. Clarke Write 2001: A Space Odyssey?

When we read 19th century science fiction novels, like Frankenstein, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or The Time Machine, we don’t think those books accurately describe the past. We read them as timeless stories and disregard when they were written. Most readers consider them standalone works of art. However, readers with inclinations to literary sleuthing will study why Mary Shelley, Jules Verne or H. G. Wells wrote their stories. Even though those tales weren’t about actual events in the 1800s, those stories tell us a great deal about when they were written. Writers react to their local space and time, revealing their own psychological history, even when they are imagining life in the future.

arthur-c-clarke

When recently rereading 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, I tried to imagine how people in 2116 would remember Clarke, and the year 1968. I assumed future readers will look back on the 1960s in the same way I wonder about the 1860s while reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I first read 2001: A Space Odyssey months after I saw Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Back then, I saw it as a story about the future. Looking back from 2016, I realize it’s a story about the 1960s, and Arthur C. Clarke.

2001: A Space Odyssey works a number of science fictional themes common for its time:

  • Ancient aliens nudged the cognitive evolution of early humans
  • Humans travel to the Moon and planets in the near future
  • Ancient aliens put device on the Moon to let them know when we leave Earth
  • Humans will invent artificial intelligence that surpasses our own
  • AI can be a threat and our successors
  • Earth will be horribly overpopulated by the 21st century
  • Ancient aliens left an interstellar subway for humans to use
  • The goal of evolution is pure disembodied intelligence
  • The Omega point of evolution is indistinguishable from God

When 2001: A Space Odyssey first premiered in theaters, film goers and critics were blown away. Many, if not most, were baffled by the ending. I’m not sure younger generations realize what an event 2001: A Space Odyssey was when it first came out. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on Miami Beach, when it opened as a “road show” – we had to buy advanced tickets for reserved seats. Science fiction up till then had been books and magazines that geeky introverts read, and science fiction films and television shows were aimed at adolescents (although many adults watched them). Science fiction fandom was a tiny subculture. 2001: A Space Odyssey gave science fiction recognition and class. Unfortunately, much of it’s audience left the show baffled, babbling about the trippy light-show, and the weird ending.

The novel 2001: A Space Odyssey was written concurrent with the film, and is not a novelization of the movie. 2001: A Space Odyssey did not appear on versions 1-3 of the Classics of Science Fiction, but recently popped up on version 4, with 17 citation lists. It was on 46% of the lists it could have been on. If you look at those lists you’ll see the story is gaining in popularity. Why? I have to assume that’s partly due to the lasting impact of the Stanley Kubrick film, but since I just reread the novel, I think it might be because of the novel itself. It does hold up. And it does explain the mysteries in the movie.

However, I’m wondering why Arthur C. Clarke wrote this story, and why it appeals to so many more people today. Would you want to be Dr. David Bowman? Did Clarke? This is his second novel where humans transcend their bodily form. I’ve always thought of Clarke as an engineer, but in Childhood’s End (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), he’s a mystic. Of course, Clarke’s first novel, Against the Fall of Night, is about humanity ten billion years in the future. It makes me wonder if Clarke was discontent with his era, and his puny physical form. Did Clarke secretly want god-like powers? Don’t all kids who read superhero comics?

We think science fiction is about the future, but that’s not really true. Science fiction is always about the present. In 1953, when Childhood’s End was first published, the Doomsday Clock was at just 2 minutes to midnight. Is it any wonder that Clarke believed we needed to throw everything away on planet Earth and start over? In the 1950s, even the most hard-science SF magazine, Astounding Stories, had embraced ESP and psychic research. By the time 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, we were living in the Age of Aquarius, and the pop culture had become psychedelic. The Doomsday Clock had moved back to 7 minutes to midnight. Did space travel and New Age philosophies give us hope?

By 1991 the Doomsday Clock had eased back to 17 minutes to midnight. I think during all those years 2001: A Space Odyssey had lesser appeal. In 2015, the clock was moved up to 3 minutes till midnight. I expect it will go to 2 minutes soon. I’m wondering if renewed interest in this novel is due to dire times? Certainly the 2016 election makes everyone feel humanity is too stupid to survive without help from higher powers. But how many people would really want ancient aliens to provide our salvation? Personally, I find the idea insulting, and wondered why Clarke embraced such notions. Then again, I recently wrote “Rejecting Some Science Fictional Ideas” suggesting that Clarke’s novel parallels our desire for religion.

Although it’s not perfectly clear in the movie, the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, explains how an ancient alien intelligence interferes with the evolutionary development of prehuman hominids. Isn’t the opening of the film and novel really another version of the Garden of Eden myth? Instead of a Sky God creating Adam and Eve, a Sky God implants knowledge into the minds of our distant ancestors who live among the animals. It causes them to leave Eden. And if you think about, aren’t the endings of both stories the same – humans are transformed into spiritual beings, leaving Earth to dwell in the heavens with the Sky God?

Now, did Arthur C. Clarke believe this himself, or did he feel as a writer that if he tapped into an archetypal theme it would sell more books? Isn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey a perfect story for apocalyptic times? Does this not explain why Childhood’s End was recently made into a television mini-series? When I was growing up everyone felt WWIII was imminent, believing we’d all be blown to smithereens, with civilization devolving into The Flintstones. We’re now living with the threat of the collapse of civilization again, and AR-15s are selling like comic books. On the intellectual stock market, religion is up, rational thinking is down.

Would 2001: A Space Odyssey or Childhood’s End be appealing stories if times were good? Both tales abandoned Earth. Maybe they appeal to us now because we think Earth is quickly becoming used up, and we need some place to go. It might also explain the rising appeal of dystopian novels.

How else does 2001: A Space Odyssey recall the 1960s? Aren’t the themes I listed above common in many 1960s science fiction novels? Didn’t Heinlein’s 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, set the stage for 1960s and science fiction? It was also about superior aliens uplifting humans and transcending the body. It introduced a space-age religion. Doesn’t Way Station by Clifford Simak from 1963 hint at the interstellar highway system Dave Bowman travels? Are the computers in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Colossus: The Forbin Project, The God Machine, and They’d Rather Be Right brothers and sisters to HAL 9000?

Doesn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey seem to crib themes from The Phenomenon of Man, the 1959 philosophical work by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, about his theory of human evolution and the Omega Point?

But will many modern readers even know about those influences? If the only book from 1968 to be remembered in 2116 is 2001: A Space Odyssey, how could they? I doubt it will be – but isn’t that how we remember the past? What other books do we remember from 1818 but Frankenstein? Aren’t most folks mental models of history from surviving novels, without any other existing historical context? If you look at other 1968 novels, do any of them portray an accurate portrait of that year? Airport by Arthur Hailey, Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer, and Couples by John Updike might be more realistic paintings of mundane existence. I remember 1968, and on the surface, they are close. But novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Stand on Zanzibar and 2001: A Space Odyssey remind me of a psychological view of 1968. They were the most popular novels from that year that ended up on the Classics of Science Fiction list. Do I remember 1968 that way because I read those novels back then, or because that’s also how I felt in 1968?

I doubt Arthur C. Clarke believed ancient aliens monkeyed with our ancestors, or wait for us up in the sky. Maybe he thought they were fun ideas, or even hoped such things were true on his bad days. Most of Clarke’s stories are about about humans engineering their own future.

That’s the science fictional past I remember. As I reread the other Classics of Science Fiction novels in my social security years, I no longer dream of the future, but struggle to remember my science fictional past.

James Wallace Harris
Auxiliary Memory