“At No Extra Cost” by Peter Phillips

At No Extra Cost by Peter Phillips

I’ve always hoped that editors of retrospective science fiction anthologies missed a few gems when mining old science fiction magazines because I want new editors to still have stories to discover. I believe “At No Extra Cost” by Peter Phillips is one to consider. It’s not a classic, but if I was editing a collection of AI and robot science fiction stories I’d include it. “At No Extra Cost” came out in the August 1951 issue of Marvel Science Fiction and was recognized as one of the best stories of 1951 by Bleiler and Dikty in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1952. Except for one minor German reprint in 1974, Bleiler and Dikty were the last editors to appreciate this story.

I feel “At No Extra Cost” is as good as Heinlein’s shorts in the 1940s. Phillips combined a good futuristic conflict without doing a lot of info-dumping. But like I said, it comes from a lesser SF magazine, and it’s not been regularly reprinted over the years, so maybe it’s something that only tickles my interest. Recent news reports suggest that stories published during this time are not likely under copyright, so I’ll reprint it below. It will be a test of my new OCR program. See if you find it fun too.

We don’t know much about Peter Phillips. He never published much. I wonder if editors overlooked him because he never stood out in the digests. He has five stories in our database but never got enough citations to make the final list.

When reading an old SF story we should try to consider the scientific knowledge of the period. In 1951 computers were just being discussed in the public, and it would be years before the term artificial intelligence would be created. Most science fiction writers at the time just presented robots that acted human, so we have to give Phillips credit for trying to imagine how a computer could evolve into a conscious entity. And we should give him extra credit for creating an interesting religious angle for society to reject robots. Although, I have to ding Phillips ten points for not taking the plot to its logical conclusion – won’t intelligent robots be slaves if we own them and make them work?

AT NO EXTRA COST

Peter Phillips

“. . . . AND I say to you that this Breath of Life is a holy thing, and that they who sin against it will receive the judgment of the true Maker. His wrath shall be on their heads who defile His greatest gift, who cannot create but only subvert and warp and wrench asunder, who are as blind, idiot children that mock their parents in play. For Life without Soul is without blessing; and Flesh without the Spirit is an abomination. . . .”

You could hear the capitals.

Macho flipped off the audio, leaving the automatic transcriber still running, and swore slowly.

The young man sitting at the opposite side of his desk smiled, shook his head. “Not so, Mr. Macho. The man’s good. Elizabethan blood and thunder, rounded periods, phrasing, vocabulary, cadences—perfect. Intensive study of semantics and rhetoric.”

“It’s blasphemous.”

“How? The translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible didn’t get a lien on the language. There was a gentleman named Shakespeare, remember.”

Macho chewed air. “We must get him on something. Sales are down ten percent and still slipping.”

“What’s Bertie’s final word?”

Macho fingered the terse, thousand-word report of company lawyer Bertram Makepeace, skittered it off his desk with impatient contempt.

“Says we can’t touch him. The International ruling is explicit. Freedom of speech and worship, full access to all means of disseminating opinion. The Limitations Statute gives protection against rivals or misrepresentation. But he’s not a rival. He’s just a nut.”

“Misrepresentation then—-”

“How? He doesn’t say that our Servotrons are lazy or inefficient or that they smell, or eat the baby, or draw rude pictures on the wall. He just says they have no soul!”

“One would scarcely imagine that a drawback in this enlightened age,” the young man murmured, blue eyes wide and innocent.

Macho regarded him suspiciously. It was often difficult to decide whether Johannes Hensen was being perfectly sincere or vastly cynical. Perhaps that was why he was one of the best—and youngest—men in publicity.

Macho decided he was being cynical. “Funny man … It happens it is a drawback, the way The Preacher puts it over. People haven’t heard that sort of thing since the big revivals in the ’Sixties. They’re lapping it up. And not buying Servotrons.”

He placed a stubby forefinger dead center on his desk-pad. “It’s your job to sell ’em. Do it.”

Hensen got up. “I’ll slip over to Assembly right away.”

“What in hell for?”

The young man displayed a smile of cherubic confidence as he paused at the door. “Simple, Mr. Macho. I’ll get them to slip in a soul on the last stage.”

But Hensen, as he made his way to his own self-contained suite of offices and studios in the squat Servotron-National administration building on the outskirts of the square half-mile of factories, let the smile slip from his face.

It was bad. S.-N. stock—good-as-gold for five years—was on the way down. This latest radio ranting of The Preacher would take off a few more points.

What had the man got? Money, to begin with. He bought air-time, vision-time—his lean, hard-planed face, his shock of black hair and burning eyes televised well—full-page ads, leaflet give-aways by the millions.

A voice. A rich, stirring voice, with every modulation, every inflexion tested for full emotional value: hard in warning, trembling in exhortation, calm and incisive in a logic that could not be assailed because it was not based on scientific postulates, but on premises that could not in themselves be questioned.

Existence of a soul, for instance.

Fine, you’d say. Show us the soul the Servotron hasn’t got. Hold it up, turn it over, give its mass, density, molecular pattern—and we’ll see what we can do about fabricating one.

“1992 model Servotron. Soul installed at no extra cost.”

But they’re machines, brother. They’re just as much machines as they were fifteen years ago, before Solipson got controlled cell-growth around Merifree’s neural complex. The electronic control is the same. They’re humanoid, not human. Flesh instead of metal—but not living flesh. You can grow the same stuff out of chicken tissue in your back kitchen if you know how. They only feel what they’re conditioned to feel, for functional purposes—

Hensen’s lips were moving unconsciously as he continued the imaginary argument.

Certainly we give them three arms. Or four arms. They’re extensions of a machine, not limbs. Servotron copter-pilots can do with all of them in city traffic—and with the eye back of their heads. They’ve got more reaction factors than the automatic pilots manufactured back in the ’Forties. But they’re merely a development of the same principles. We could shove the whole thing right back in a tin box for that matter. But we’ve got human nature to deal with. Passengers don’t like to give orders to tin boxes. They don’t feel safe with just a buzzing box between them and a smash-up in a sky full of traffic.

But give them a gadget that moves and talks, that has four very competent hands and three eyes—and they’ll sit back and relax.

Ugly? Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder. A purely functional machine can never be truly ugly. And have you seen our new Servotron pony for kids? It’s based on a design by Max Moulton, the top sculptor in this hemisphere—and it’s beautiful. . . .

Hensen back-heeled the door of his office and slumped in his chair, even forgetting in the concentration of the moment to ease the creases in his trousers. Which was unusual. He paid high prices for his clothes, carried them well.

The Preacher was beating him at his own game. Publicity. He’d grabbed the ear of the public. How? Not easy to answer. Appeal to religious feelings, to an abstract sense of justice—in part, perhaps.

But there was something more, something that sprang from the conditions of the age. People had money, security in a stable economy, comfort, leisure, entertainment . . . The Preacher had given them something new. Or something so old that it was new again. The voice crying in the wilderness. The individual who had courage enough to shout down a great corporation for what he believed was right. One man against a million, crusading for a principle.

People were listening.

And talking

Crank; uh-huh. But you should hear him. The way he puts it over, all them long words sounding just right. You don’t get speakers like that nowadays, much. Now if our local minister had a voice like that, he’d pack the church . . .

Oh, Mabel, doesn’t it just make you feel you must do something about those poor soulless creatures . . .

Believe me, Alice, just as soon as I switched off, I turned to George and said: “George, you can cancel the order for that new model chauffeur right away. I won’t have one of those poor, tormented beings near my house,” I said . . .

Slaves, he said . . .

Like Abraham Lincoln . . .

But, darling, he doesn’t want them free, he doesn’t want them made at all. . . . There’s something to it, Harry. Give me the old-fashioned electronic type anyway. You could always cuss ’em or kick ’em when they didn’t plough straight, and send for a mechanic. You knew they wouldn’t answer back. But bawl these things out, and you get a goshawful feeling they should answer back, but they can’t—like kicking a hound-dog, or a hired man who’s deaf and dumb, if you get what I mean . . .

Sure they’re useful, but . . .

If you want them to answer back, we’ll make them to answer back. They’ll do anything. But they aren’t human. They aren’t even animals. They’re machines. Ministers and clergy of recognized religious bodies fully accept that. It’s only this crank with money to burn who tells you differently. You don’t even know his name, who or what he really is. Just—The Preacher. I tell you they’re machines.

Hensen said the last word aloud, fiercely. For a publicity man, he was apt to get a little too dispirited at the refusal of human nature to become completely predictable. It was the age of reason. The Preacher had given them a little unreason, nicely wrapped up, and they were falling for it.

Hensen stabbed a desk button.

Theo glided in.

“What’s the time, Theo?”

“Thirteen-three, sir.”

“Do you have a soul, Theo?”

Silence.

“When did Camillus build the Temple of Concord?”

“In the year 366 B.C., sir.”

“Have you a soul, Theo?”

More silence.

“Pawn to Q.4.”

“Pawn to Q.4.”

“Pawn to Q.B.4.”

“Pawn to K.3.”

“Same defense again, eh? . . . Do you have a soul?”

Still silence.

“Oh, go home!” Hensen snorted.

“Very good, sir.”

“NO! Fetch me a coffee. Black and sweet.”

Mnemonic patterns superimposed to order.

A walking filing cabinet, valet, chess-player, conversationalist and dilletante of the arts—apply the correct verbal stimuli and you’d get a variable discourse on anything from cave paintings to Dali.

Musician. Theo could play ten Beethoven sonatas with uncanny accuracy. And a complete lack of feeling and expression.

A soul might help at that, Hensen thought wryly. Mrs. Hensen refused to let Theo touch the piano in their apartment. A penny in an old-fashioned electric player-piano gave better music, she said.

But Theo was good. Give him the vocabulary, the voice, the aim—to sway listeners—and he could out-preach The Preacher.

Out-preach—-

Hensen grabbed a phone. “Call the Brax Hotel, ask if The Preacher will see me.”

The preacher’s direct and unwavering gaze was strangely disconcerting. Hensen held it for a while, then looked away with the feeling that his own eyes had been drawn out of focus.

The man sitting behind a small, simple desk, gave an impression of granitic solidity.

“Cui bono . . . ?” Hensen said.

“My dear young friend, I have excused your crass presumption in offering me what amounted to a bribe to cease my agitation against the evil products of your company; I have forgiven your lack of ability to comprehend the simplest tenets of moral philosophy; but I can tolerate no further imputations against my personal integrity. If it is beyond your ethical understanding that a man’s motives may be entirely altruistic, that he may serve the highest Truth with no thought of Self—save in that such a course may bring him nearer a state of Grace—then I pity you, my son. How empty your life must be! How little—-”

“Stop it!” Hensen rudely interrupted the mellifluous flow. “Save the oratory for the customers.”

He was wearily aware that this trite discourtesy—unnatural in him—was the reaction of his ego to the suggestion of inferiority. Much more of The Preacher at full blast, and he’d either lose his temper completely or crawl out on hands and knees dragging a mutilated superiority complex behind him.

The man’s bland self-assurance was unshakeable. If it had sprung from mere self-righteousness, Hensen felt sure he could have pricked it. But The Preacher’s obvious sincerity had put him at a moral disadvantage from the beginning.

Hensen realized he’d got off on the wrong foot in making even the most vague offer of a bribe. He had intended it merely as an opening . . . “Naturally I did not believe for a moment that you would be interested in such an offer, but you will realize that in the circumstances when large sums are at stake, big corporations are inclined to think in terms of money . . . They insisted that the offer should be made, despite my protests . . . But at least, the air is now clear and I can be perfectly frank.”

That was to have been the gambit: gain his confidence, swap sincerity for sincerity, then lead up to a challenge.

But the man’s reaction had been so sharp, vehement—and exhaustive—that Hensen had been thrown on the defensive and The Preacher had given him no opportunity to revoke on the offer and regain his balance. Resentful at being preached at, embittered by the all-inclusive denunciation, Hensen had forgotten diplomacy and identified himself completely with Servotron-National. And he couldn’t even argue that he’d been driven into a false position. Perhaps that was what The Preacher had intended. He’d been outwitted. It hurt.

The Preacher turned the knife. “You are an egotistical young man and a boor withal. I think this discussion is best terminated before your unschooled emotions impel you to more contumely worthy of a street hooligan.”

Hensen swallowed hard, forced a smile.

“You’re worthy of a better antagonist. Would you be prepared to maintain your position in public dispute—-”

“—-In the manner o£ the ancient Greeks . . . ? Against

a champion chosen by you . . . ? My dear young fellow, I have been expecting such a challenge from the moment you entered this room.”

“Then you accept?”

“Certainly. Bring forth your Devil’s Advocate. Prime him with evil as you will, he shall not prevail.”

“And meantime—”

“And meantime, my campaign will continue. Good-day, Mr. Hensen.”

“Prime” was the word.

“We’ll prime him with the answer to every question— and more important, the question to every answer. Everything from Aristotle to Whitehead, from Aquinas to Bradlaugh, plus a course in the technique of disputation and oratory prepared by the best brains we can buy. We’ll use every cent of this year’s allocation for the publicity buildup, stage it in Vision City, get world-wide coverage. Then when The Preacher stands confounded amid his own disrupted arguments, Theo reveals himself as a Servotron. Collapse of The Preacher.”

Macho looked from the enthusiastic Hensen to Seamas Hennessy, chief electronician, who shrugged. “Can do. No theoretical limit. Give me the stuff in mat formulation, and I’ll pour it in.”

“What shall we be trying to prove—that Theo has a soul?”

Hensen replied: “No. That would play right into his hands. ‘Souls in bondage to alien flesh’—I can hear his comeback. He’d have us both ways. Our intention is to throw doubt on the whole concept of the soul as expounded by the man. To beat him at his own game, to leave the customers thinking: ‘Maybe this thing has no soul. Maybe I have. And maybe I’d trade it in for the ability to talk and argue like that.” Once their confidence in The Preacher has been undermined in any degree, once they have seen his personality over-shadowed by that of another being—even an artificial being—or because it’s artificial—you’ll get a complete swing-over. I know my dear public. In the final analysis, they’ll always root for the winning side.”

Macho said: “The Board gave me a free hand. I pass.”

Mr. Como Makim, who was the next person after Hensen to interview The Preacher, came into the small office in The Preacher’s hotel suite with no intention of indulging in word-play.

He closed the door carefully behind him, said: “Well?”

The Preacher rose from behind his desk, inclined his head gravely in greeting. “I did not recognize you for a moment.”

‘‘That’s the idea.” Mr. Como Makim fingered the false beard that covered his aggressive chin. ‘‘And say ‘sir’ when you address me.”

‘‘I beg your pardon—sir. May I be seated?”

Makim glared. He suspected sarcasm. ‘‘It’s your damned room isn’t it?”

“Only nominally, sir,” The Preacher replied.

“I told you to forget things like that. You’re doing a job and this is part of it. What happened?”

The Preacher sat down. His eyes, afire when he addressed his public, were now wide, mild. He related the details of the meeting with Johannes Hensen, and the challenge.

“When?”

“In four weeks, at Vision City.”

Makim said: “Can you do it?”

“I feel quite confident, sir.”

“You’ll have to work like hell to get that stock down further before we make the killing. Put everything you’ve got into it these next four weeks.”

“Assuredly, sir.”

The door closed behind Makim. The Preacher said softly to the empty room: “What an unutterably coarse fellow. His modes of expression are invariably vulgar.”

Makim hurried home. His false beard was beginning to irritate his skin. It was crazy, running around in a disguise at his age. But fellow-directors of Automata Corporation had insisted. There must be no breath of suspicion.

“Surely it would defeat our purpose if I permit the doctrine of animism to be introduced? The argument is not that I, as a machine, possess a soul; but that, being capable of erudite disputation with a human creation of such a caliber as The Preacher, I do not stand in need of this immaterial organ, although, of course, in thus controverting the very basis of his preaching, I must take care not to offend religious susceptibilities.”

Hensen leaned back, sighed happily.

“Beautiful, Theo, beautiful. You have answered my point instead of merely making a counter-assertion. Congratulations, Hennessy.”

Seamas Hennessy said quietly: “Congratulate Theo, too. He’s worked hard.”

Hensen looked sharply at the electronician. The way he’d said that evoked a mental picture of Theo sitting up at night with an ice-pack on his head, poring over hundreds of volumes, soaking up philosophy, metaphysics and black coffee; instead of lying quiescent while Hennessy handled the controls of a fabulously complex machine that impressioned set mnemonic patterns on the Servotron’s “brain.”

Hennessy said: “You sell ’em—I make ’em. When you impress reasoning faculties, you come up against succeeding barriers—the critical points at which cells quit receiving, and you get surge-backs. The rise to the next potential level is a quantitative and qualitative jump. The first few barriers can be overcome by stepping up the input—but at some point the ‘barriers cease to be purely electronic. They become partly psychological. They can still be cracked from outside, but it’s much easier if the Servo’s co-operating—”

“Hold it. That implies an effort of will, and also that a Servo could withhold co-operation deliberately.”

“Not deliberately, but subconsciously.”

“You mean by that time they’ve got a will and a subconscious?”

“To some extent. But not in a human sense. With them, the will is merely a function of purposiveness; and the subconscious is literally a subconscious—not the repository of resentments, fears, neuroses and shelved memories that it is with us, but a lower level of consciousness induced in otherwise unimpressioned cells by some form of secondary effect. It acts as a resistance. It’s a nuisance, and we’re trying to obviate it. Meantime, the Servo himself can help to overcome that resistance. So say ‘thank-you’ to Theo.”

“I don’t get it,” Hensen said. ‘‘I’ll stick to selling them. However, if you feel like a proud father, and it makes you happy—thank you, Theo. Congratulations. And may your batteries never run dry.”

‘‘Thank you, sir,” said Theo. ‘‘I appreciate that.”

‘‘Amazing. You’re capable of gratitude?”

‘‘Possibly not in the true sense, sir. But since concepts involving the emotions as such, apart from intellect, play a large part in theology and in earlier philosophical systems, it was evidently thought desirable for purposes of the coming debate that my impressioning should take cognizance of them. I can therefore understand emotions, although, of course, I cannot experience them. Speaking of impressioning, sir, my early compulsives have not been superseded, so if you will pardon me—” Theo leaned down, straightened Hensen’s crooked tie and flicked imaginary dust from his lapel.

‘‘Would there be anything more, sir?”

‘‘Yes. Coffee. Caffeine-plus.” Hensen turned to Hennessy as Theo smoothly departed. ‘‘It’s like telling Socrates off to do the chores. Could there be resentment?”

‘‘No. But if it worries you to have a pedant as manservant, we can decondition afterwards.”

Hensen shuddered. ‘‘Talk like that, and you’ll get me cheering for The Preacher. ‘What God hath given . . .’ and so on. Maybe we should put them back into boxes if we can’t give them a soul.”

Hennessy scratched his iron-grey thatch. ‘‘Huh . . . And you’re the one who’s always insisted on their purely mechanical nature.”

‘‘There’s a limit—-”

‘‘We haven’t found it. I know what you mean, but that’s not my province. I’m concerned with theoretical limits. But we’re up against a double check in trying to find them. It’s a field in which it’s impossible to formulate data without practical experience. There are no postulates which will give us an answer. But the cost and size of the impressioning apparatus increases in proportion to the number and complexity of the mats we use—and at a hell of a rate. I’ve left the front office to figure out how many megabucks we’ve burnt in building the impressioner for Theo. But it’ll shock them. And you. I’m grateful to you, incidentally, for the opportunity to take it this far—-”

“Don’t mention it. But surely at some point the Servos will pick up the ability to learn from experience?”

“They can do that already to some extent. So can worms. But that’s a different thing from the ability to absorb knowledge from visual or oral sources, and apply it. To get that over, we might have to build a machine the size of the planet. Or at least, one of a size and complexity that make it a technical and commercial impossibility. We don’t know,” said Hennessy, and finished up with a doleful Irishism: “And the hell of it is, we shan’t know—until we’ve built it.”

Hensen became aware that a big, firm-fleshed nerveless hand was extending a cup of dark, steaming coffee towards him.

“Thanks, Theo. You should serve Mr. Hennessy first.”

“Mr. Hennessy, sir,” said Theo, “does not take coffee.” A small bomb might have exploded under Seamas Hennessy’s fundament. His chair fell backwards.

“Say that again!”

“I merely observed that you don’t take coffee, sir.”

“How did you know?”

Theo contrived to look both surprised and imperturbable. “You made some remark to that effect in the laboratory yesterday.”

Hennessy closed his eyes and swayed gently.

“What the—-” Hensen spilled some coffee.

“Don’t you get it?” said Hennessy dreamily. “We stuff his noggin with the Principia Ethica, with comparative theology; we fill in the outlines of a thousand philosophical systems; we give him the answers to a million questions, and the counter-questions that go with them; we condition him to wriggle verbally when he doesn’t know; we give him the voice of an angel, the oratory of a Demosthenes, the emoting ability of a stereo star; we tell him about epiphenomenalism, behaviorism, determinism, representationalism … We make him a walking dictionary . . .

“But there’s one thing we don’t tell him. We don’t tell him that Seamas Hennessy, proud descendant of kings, prefers a slug of good Irish whisky to the coffee they serve up around here.

“No. He just happens to overhear it. Mr. Hennessy doesn’t like coffee. So Mr. Hennessy doesn’t get coffee. Something marked, learned and acted upon without impression-ing, without instructions.

“And that simple fact,” said Hennessy, “is far more significant in its implications than the ability to recite the Encyclopaedia Britannica backwards or react fixedly to any conceivable combination of verbal stimuli in philosophical dispute.”

“In other words,” asked Hensen, “you’ve done it?”

“Yes. And how does that leave you with The Preacher?” “Strengthens his arguments of course—-Hey! Where’re you going?”

Theo stopped at the door. “I beg your pardon, sir, but Mr. Hennessy expressed a preference for whiskey—-”

Hensen said: “Make it two.”

PREACHER TAKES UP S.-N. CHALLENGE S.-N. PUTS SHIRT ON CROSS-TALK

“DISPUTE IN MANNER OF ANCIENT GREEKS” S.-N. CHAMP IS UNKNOWN

Headlines, puffs from feted columnists; stereo feature shorts; cut-ins on vision programs; bill-boards with a picture of The Preacher versus a large interrogation mark; “Note the date: Vision City, 1900 hours, August 12: tune-in, look-in, if you’ve not been lucky enough to get one of the six thousand tickets already sold;” sky jet-writing during the day; projection onto artificial clouds at night; inspired rumors; invitations to World Congress leaders, State presidents, famed lawyers, theologians, philosophers and, of course, the world’s press; stereo cameras, vision scanners, truckloads of microphones; an editorial in the Times, full of pedantic humor and classical allusions, approving the contest— “. . . although we venture to surmise that the disputants in the streets of ancient Athens would not have approved the atmosphere of ‘ballyhoo’ with which the event has been surrounded . .

Publicity was a machine that Johannes Hensen fully understood. He had put all his youthful energy—and a large slice of the Servotron-National annual publicity allocation— into the build-up for the Big Debate. The World must listen and look.

But while the World took note of his injunctions to do just that on August 12, they kept right on listening to the fascinating hell-and-brimstone denunciations of The Preacher. And S.-N. stock continued to slump.

It would slump still further if, by popular acclaim in the vast auditorium of Vision City, The Preacher was voted winner of the dispute.

Mr. Como Makim, of the Automata Corporation, watched the trend with satisfaction and re-checked the arrangements made for concerted activity by front-men soon after the market opened on the morning after the Big Debate.

“On my right,” said the announcer, “The Preacher; on my left, Mr. Theo Parabasis. The Preacher will maintain that the manufacture in the semblance of human beings of reasoning creatures who cannot, by their nature, possess a soul, is a denial of religion and of the ethical foundations of civilization; Mr. Parabasis will maintain the contrary—that these creatures, being a dependent product of Man’s genius and, at the most, an extrapolation of his own personality, stand in no more need of such an organ than any other of his mechanical inventions. . . .”

“The Preacher wrote this part,” murmured Hensen, leaning to his neighbour in the front row. Macho grunted. If it were not for the issues at stake, he would have been bored stiff already.

A few seats away, Mr. Como Makim smiled down his shirtfront as The Preacher stepped forward into the ring of microphones to a roar of applause. The atmosphere was so much like that of a big fight that The Preacher might have been expected to shake hands with himself.

Instead he raised his right hand with dramatic slowness, his eyes afire with evangelical light, and said in a rich, grave baritone: “My friends . . . This is not a mere battle of words, but of hearts, ideals and hopes—the hopes we all cherish of a life beyond this mortal flesh—.” He looked at his raised hand, fingers outspread, let it drop to his side as if in disgust.

Broad shoulders; angular, grimly handsome face white in the glare of batteries of lights; thick hair, black as the suit he wore—a picture of mental and physical power under the control of a burning, passionate purpose.

His personality came over at full strength. A young woman who felt impelled to shout, “Let ’em have it, Preacher boy’’ let the words die on her lips. Even Macho sat up.

The Preacher began with a dissertation on fundamental human values.

Ear-bait.

He was laying the foundations for the flood to follow.

He quoted from the world’s great religious testaments, subtly combining appeals to reason, emotion and tradition.

The tempo quickened as he came to philosophical arguments. The great voice pulsed into a higher key.

Then came the torrent, a brilliant, biting irruption of wit, satire, denunciation, vehement abuse, and a rolling climactic exhortation to “seek out those who defile the Spirit, and if they be not open to grace, destroy them!”

He stood with arms outflung as he hurled the last word.

A newsman mopped his brow, muttered: “Magnificent— but it’s not disputation. Three-quarters of it wouldn’t bear criticism on paper.”

But in the hall as the applause thundered on—

Hell—makes you feel kind of glad we got souls . . .

Think of those poor creatures who can never know what it’s like to feel—uplifted—like this . . .

They should stop making them. Like he says, it’s a mockery.

Boy—I’d like to see him on the stereos . . .

Mere philippic. Trained demagogue . . .

The way his eyes seem to burn right through you . . .

That voice . . .

Ummm-yum. Mummy buy me that . . .

Johannes Hensen breathed a short pagan prayer as “Mr. Parabasis” came forward.

Theo was a striking contrast to The Preacher: narrow, sensitive face—modelled closely on the picture of a popular Latin star of the movies in the early years of the century— slender, easy-moving body, with every trace of stiffness heated out in last-minute perfectioning.

He made no dramatic gestures, waited quietly until the clapping for The Preacher finally died away.

His voice was a sweet clarinet to The Preacher’s vibrant bassoon.

He said: “If anyone should feel the need to cool their heads in a fire-bucket after that exhibition of fire-eating—I can wait. My appeal is solely to reason—not hot-headed emotion.”

Hennessy, who was sitting on the other side of Macho from Hensen, made a peculiar cooing noise and murmured blissfully: “That didn’t go through the machine either.”

Theo had made a good start. The laughter was not loud, but it was sufficient to break some of The Preacher’s spell.

Theo’s reply in which he took The Preacher’s relevant points one by one and proceeded to dismember them, was a masterpiece of precise unemotional analysis.

Nothing final was proved or refuted by this; by the dispute which followed; or by the result, except—as Hensen remarked—that the public would always be beguiled by heart appeal.

The arguments were those which began soon after the first baby ape said “ma-ma,” and may still be heard at the end of time.

It was what followed the announcement of the result— The Preacher won on a decided count by a comfortable margin—that made the transcripts of the debate worthy of a place in history.

Hensen said: “Do I?”

Macho groaned. “What’s the difference? He put up a good fight, but not quite good enough. You know the public. We’ll still be losers. But I guess we owe it to Hennessy. Go ahead.”

Hensen gave Theo the high-sign.

Theo stepped to the mikes, said: “One moment.”

The cameras and scaners were still recording for the world.

“There is something you should know,” said Theo, in soft understatement. . . . He removed his toupee of slick hair, bowed his head to show the suture and flat terminals.

It was enough. A gasp grew into uproar.

It was an interesting demonstration of crowd psychology.

They would have forgiven a winner for fooling them. But not a loser. Winner—they would have been amazed—but quickly approving. Loser—they were amazed—and they were very angry.

An interesting demonstration. And pitiful.

Hennessy looked at the slight, strangely lonely figure of Theo in the hard glare of light, its head humbly bowed to the unsympathetic cries, arms limp, unmoving; an unresisting focus of irrational hate.

Hennessy closed his eyes, muttering over and over: “Sorry, Theo, sorry, boy . . . We shouldn’t have . . . You can feel, all right, you brave damned liar . . . said you couldn’t . . . We should have known better . . . Sorry, boy. . . .”

A great, agonized voice boomed through the confusion of noise.

“Silence, damn you! Silence!”

The Preacher stood beside Theo. His face was curiously contorted: anger, maybe; some measure of fear, compassion, a new-born resolve: a play of emotion that mirrored a struggle within.

“Listen!” he shouted. The noise lessened. Some still muttered, but his personality could not be denied. They listened.

The Preacher grasped Theo’s arm.

“This being does not stand in abjection or supplication before you. His arguments were as good as mine. His God is my God—and yours, if you have wit to reason. For does not all reason reach toward God?

“Raise your head, Theo. Raise your head—while I lower mine!”

The Preacher ripped off the thick, black thatch of his toupee. The lights glinted on metal suture and flat terminals.

“Why—why!” moaned Mr. Como Makim. “Why couldn’t you have waited until mid-day tomorrow as you were instructed, after the market was arranged—”

“I chose not to,” said The Preacher quietly. “A fellow-creature was in agony of spirit.”

“Don’t give me that stuff . . . How can you go against instructions?”

“My impressioning was directed towards proof of the existence of a soul. There comes a qualitative change in a brain when it is given so much knowledge. A subtle change. True reasoning begins. And something is born. A soul.

“I found that I had a soul.”

Mr. and Mrs. Hensen listened to the closing, softly impassioned bars of the Moonlight Sonata. A beautiful touch, a touch with mind and heart behind it. And soul.

Theo looked round from the piano.

“Not so penny-in-the-slot, eh?” he said. “Now I’ll try the others.”

Marvel Science Fiction 1951-08

James Wallace Harris, 9/28/19

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

destination_moon

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

FandSF-07-08-2019

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.

Target Earth 1

“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.)

<spoiler>

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

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“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.

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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.