Where’s the Science Fiction?

I just finished watching the eight episodes of the first season of Night Sky on Amazon Prime. Like the little dumpy lady from that famous Wendy’s commercial, I kept asking “Where’s the science fiction?” Don’t get me wrong, I loved the story, well most of it, well the Sissy Spacek and J. K. Simmons storyline. And yes, the show does feature an interstellar portal system so it’s obviously science fiction, but is it really?

The main storyline focuses on Irene and Franklin York, a couple in their seventies coping with growing old and becoming less capable of taking care of themselves. I completely identify with their situation. For decades Irene and Franklin have made over 800 visits to a distant star system to view the landscape from a panoramic window of an interstellar transporter. They have always been afraid to leave the transporter room, so they just enjoy the view. We learn all of this fairly quickly in the first episode.

Then the story shifts to their mundane problems. The heart of the series is the married couple’s relationship, but their story is complicated by other users of the transporter system. I shall not mention them specifically because I don’t want to spoil the show for you. At first, I thought the show was going to be like Clifford Simak’s novel, Way Station. Or maybe a bit like Frederik Pohl’s Gateway. Night Sky does include elements of both, but only barely.

As the show picks up the action becomes a boring thriller. People are being chased and killed. We get a heavy that can kill a person by snapping their neck – boy that sure has become cliche. There are two mysterious factions that use the transporters, neither of which are aliens. The first season seems to be setting things up for the real action that will unfold in the second season.

But here’s my gripe. Science fiction is more than an interstellar transporter and a distant world. Real science fiction speculates about possibilities. It speculates about the possibilities of technology. It speculates about the future, either by extrapolating current trends or imagining new possibilities. It speculates about how stories are told. It plays with ideas. The best science fiction gives us something new to think about.

Science fiction is not good guys being chased by bad guys even if they use matter transporters. Irene and Franklin sat on their secret for twenty years because they didn’t want their lives ruined or have their home taken away. That was selfish. And they never used this wonderful gift other than to get out of the house on some evenings. That’s poor speculation by the writers. Real science fiction would have imagined how it would have changed their lives like Simak did in Way Station.

I often find modern science fiction missing the science fiction. Oh sure, modern science fiction loves the trappings of science fiction, the well-worn settings and themes of old science fiction, but it seldom tries to imagine new science fictional speculations.

Think about all the possibilities Irene and Franklin could have experienced with an interstellar transporter, especially ones that would have been realistically meaningful to a couple in their seventies. Something that went beyond the old movie Cocoon. And especially something that didn’t involve guys with guns. Guns have become such an integral element in our movies and television plots, and that has become so fucking boring.

A story about Irene and Franklin York finding an interstellar transporter has so much damn potential that it seems like a tragic waste to turn it into good guys versus a bad guys plot.

Real science fiction imagines something new. I miss that in science fiction. That’s why I ask, where’s the science fiction.

James Wallace Harris, 6/30/22

Interruptions

Several health issues have kept me from blogging and that’s annoying. I’ve gotten old and can’t do a lot of what I once could do, but I didn’t expect to be shut out of blogging. I have back problems and sometimes it keeps me from sitting at the computer. I’m writing this in a recliner on an old Chromebook. I’m also taking a drug that makes me feel out of it. However, I don’t want to give up. This post is a test to see how well I can work reclining using different equipment and tools. I’ve spent years getting my software tools just right, and now I must start over.

Luckily, WordPress is web-based. And my default browser on my Windows 11 machine is Chrome. However, I have no idea how to edit photos on a Chromebook — at least for now. I also used Notepad++ as my temporary memory. That’s where I keep ideas, and lists, and do my thinking by typing before I move over to WordPress. I’ve been contemplating getting a new machine for writing in bed and I’m considering Windows, Mac, and Chromebook.

I’m still participating in my daily science fiction short story discussion on Facebook but quite often I encounter stories I want to write about here. And there are topics I’d like to research and write about but don’t feel well enough to do it. For example, we’ve been reading SF stories from 2020 speculating about the effects of climate change on the future, and even though I’ve been thinking SF writers should write more about that topic, I’m starting to feel it’s a poor theme for science fiction.

It’s very hard not to be gloom and doomy in a story about our future. And if it’s upbeat, it often comes across as Pollyannish. There’s nothing gosh-wow or sensawonderish about adapting to climate change. I’m even been theorizing that science fiction has never been about reality anyway.

Well, my back is protesting too much…

James Wallace Harris, 5/27/22

A Gift of Time by Jerry Merritt

I struggle to review and rate books. There are so many issues to consider. One important issue is reviewing against expectations. Sales blurbs, and even author’s opening chapters that you read at Amazon or at a bookstore can convince you to buy a book thinking it’s exactly what you want to read. But when you read the book, often the author takes it in another direction you didn’t anticipate. Should you judge the book by your disappointment? Of course not. But that’s hard not to do.

Here’s my review at Goodreads for A Gift of Time by Jerry Merritt:

I'm giving this book five stars because A Gift of Time is actually very readable and engaging. However, the book greatly disappointed me. I'd only give it three stars if I rated it by my expectations, but is it fair to rate a book poorly because the author didn't write the one you wanted?

When I read the blurb that said it was about an 80-year-old-man who got to live his life over again starting when he was a 10-year-old-boy I bought the book immediately. I loved that idea. And for a while, the story pursued that angle. But then it quit being about the lessons of living life over and became an action-oriented adventure with a time machine. That might please the average SF fan but I found it just a series of plot cliffhangers with no emotional depth. Luckily, it does have an emotionally satisfying ending. I just wanted it to be a different book. It could have been another Replay or The Midnight Library, and for a short while, it was.

First, the positives. I listened to this book and Christopher Lane’s narration was pitch-perfect. He’s the kind of audiobook narrator that does voices for the different characters and all the characters in this book sound like Merritt’s characterization. An author could not hope for more. Merritt is also an excellent storyteller. Micajah “Cager” Fenton is an old man driven by regrets. Aren’t we all. He is given a unique opportunity to live his life over starting at age ten. And for a while Merritt gives me exactly what I wanted. Can you imagine knowing what you know now and being back in your ten-year-old body? Cager’s first realization is how self-centered he was as a kid, and immediately changes his life by caring about other people.

Can you imagine a whole novel about someone reconsidering every point of their life with mature insight? That’s the story I wanted. And Merritt followed that plotline for a while. Then it switched to other directions, mainly ones driven by modern action-oriented plotting. I don’t want to go into specifics because that would spoil Merritt’s story. And many readers will like these new directions. I just didn’t care for them as much as the original story.

Part of my problem is time travel. It’s extremely hard to write a good time travel story. If you haven’t read many, then A Gift of Time might thrill you. But time travel can make plotting pointless. As a reader you realize the author can get away with anything. For me, that feels like cheap manipulation. I also feel the same about thrillers, which this novel also becomes. Some people love Disneyland, but I don’t. It’s all childish pretending to me. Thrillers are just fantasies about gunplay. A Gift of Time works through several genres. I suppose I should warn people one of them is like Law and Order: SVU. There’s also a bit of Southern Gothic which I loved quite a bit, but what I came for was the Ray Bradbury literary Sci-Fi. I wished the whole novel had been just those two.

Like I said, is it fair to wish that the writer wrote something else? This is Merritt’s book, and most readers at Goodreads loved this book. So take my laments with a grain of salt, especially if you’re young and not old and jaded. I did race through this novel because it’s an audiobook version of a page turner, and I’m seldom hooked by novels nowadays.

JWH

Let’s Build a Spaceship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 6/20/21

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis 2

This is one of the finest science fiction novels I’ve ever read. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

I listened to the audio edition, which runs 26 hours and 20 minutes. When I started listening I was immediately hooked, however, the pace of the plot is exceedingly slow. Several reviewers at Goodreads give it one star because they claim it needs severe editing. I thought that too — for a while.

I had read so many great reviews of this book that I felt compelled to stick with it. Around ten hours I thought about giving up because nothing was happening, but listening was still compelling. Around fifteen hours I said to myself I was glad I read this book but I’d never reread it. In the last few hours, I knew I would reread it again.

There are two kinds of history – the sweeping history usually found in school and textbooks, and the everyday living kind of history full of details about ordinary living found in books by a new breed of historians. This novel is an everyday life time-travel story. If you loved Timescape by Gregory Benford you should like Doomsday Book. I believe time travel is impossible but these two books are the Hard SF of time travel.

Doomsday Book shows the intricate plotting of a J. K. Rowling novel combined with a fine sense of drama. Be warned, this story ultimately feels like a boxer is using your heart for a punching bag. It is relentless in its realism. Now I understand why the story needed so many words to be told.

I feel sorry for people who can’t listen to the audiobook edition of Doomsday Book read by Jenny Sterlin. There is no way I could have experienced this novel so deeply with my own wimpy inner reading voice.

James Wallace Harris

Will Climate Change Crush Our Science Fictional Dreams?

Science fiction true believers have such big hopes for the future but I have to wonder if climate change is going to derail their cherished extrapolations. Science fiction is mostly fantasy but it’s byproduct has been certain faiths in the future. At minimum, we believe humanity will colonize the Moon and Mars, and spread out to the asteroids and outer moons. At maximum, we hoped to explore the galaxy. We also assumed we’d transform the Earth into a sustainable technological civilization with many wonders, including life extension, sentient machines, genetically improved humans, uplifted animals, clones, cyborgs, and even posthumans. Sure, science fiction has produced many fears about tomorrow, but for the most part people expect Star Trek as our destiny.

Can we reach the promised land if we don’t reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back to 350ppm? Because we show no real signs of slowing the increase of CO2 should science fiction writers start rewriting the future? Was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future the last great hope of the genre saving its cherished futurisms?

If we had all jumped in and worked together starting in the 1980s and 1990s when we first learned about the problems of CO2 pollution we might have saved ourselves. But greedy people who preferred wealth for themselves over a sustainable future for everyone convinced enough people not to try. Some people still have hope we can divert the worst scenarios from coming true. However, the momentum of adding all that CO2 beyond 350ppm is too great to stop now. Those delays have doomed us.

The only way to avert the countless looming disasters would be to ban air travel, immediately replace all fossil fuel engines with electric motors powered by clean electricity, and probably get rid of the meat industry and maybe the pet industry, and pursue the the kind of austerity that terrifies the capitalists. That won’t happen, will it? We’re on a runaway train with such tremendous momentum that nothing can stop us but the crash. People still talk of changing things by 2030 and 2050, but I fear that’s delusional dreaming. We could still avert the worse disasters, but I doubt we will, and even the minor effects of climate change we’ll see in the next couple of decades will be enough to transform society in ways we’re regret bitterly.

Elon Musk might get people to Mars but we’ll discover two things. Living on Mars will not be the romantic fantasy that science fiction fans have always dreamed, and leaving Earth won’t save us. We’ll probably also return to the Moon, but we’ll discover trying to colonize it will be nearly impossible and we’ll learn the true value of the Earth and its biosystem that was so perfect for us.

As the years progress and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increases and the percentage of habitable land decreases I believe our desire for space travel will wane. We won’t have to wait for dramatic sea level rise for everyone to be convinced, heat waves will start to kill millions. Just read the first chapter of The Ministry for the Future to understand. I expect events like it will come true sometime this decade. We won’t need to see drowned cities to know the disciples of Ayn Rand have doomed us. Increasing weather catastrophes, declining food production, and mass migrations of refuges will make it plain enough we made the wrong decisions and believed the wrong people.

But I’m not forecasting complete gloom and doom. Science fiction will just have to create new futures that we’ll want. It will require a new faith in big government. We need to consciously design society so that it’s sustainable and egalitarian. Of course, that might be just as much a fantasy as interstellar travel. But do we really want a minimal government when everything is falling apart? We’re in this mess because we chose to ignore the problem. The only way to solve it will be to manage the hell out of it.

Science fiction writers can work towards two futures. One, where everyone is out for themselves, winners take all. Or, they can imagine futures created by cooperation, where we design creative and enjoyable societies, ones that control the invisible hand of the marketplace. No matter how bad it gets, we still have unlimited possibilities.

When you read new science fiction think about what the story implies. Is it based on old fantasies or new possibilities? Or is it just the same old mental escapes? We don’t need science fiction to be virtual realities to hide out from a reality we’ve ignored for too long already.

James Wallace Harris, Earth Day 2021

“Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam

Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam

You can read “Rust” here.

“Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam is about the last three robots on Earth, and I found it to be quite a moving little story. Humans are already gone or extinct. There’s a tiny, but growing sub-genre about the last robots on Earth. “Rust” was published in the October 1939 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction, well before Clifford Simak’s 1952 classic City. That collection of stories featured interconnecting narratives that described life on Earth after humans told by intelligent robots and dogs. Then there was the 2006 film Wall-E about a lonely little robot left on Earth. Most recently on Netflix, there was “Three Robots” as part of the show Love, Death + Robots based on a John Scalzi short story. And I’m sure there’s more.

I’ve loved all these last robots on Earth stories. It’s a shame that “Rust” isn’t a well-anthologized classic. Joseph E. Kelleam is a forgotten writer who published just a handful of stories and short novels. “Rust” was his first published story. It was reprinted in the 1953 anthology, The Robot and the Man edited by Martin Greenberg, and in 1979 in The Great Science Fiction Stories 1 (1939) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. Both of these books are long out of print. Follow the link above to read a scan of the original magazine publication at the Internet Archive.

I have always loved stories about robots, and this little tale about X-120, G-3a, and L-1716 pushed a number of emotional buttons. I have to wonder about that. They weren’t cute little bots, but huge hulking killing machines over twelve feet tall. But it doesn’t take much to like a robot, just watch this video of real robots from 2020 dancing to understand what I mean.

James Wallace Harris, 12/31/20

Do You Want a Robot Companion?

Have you ever wished you had a robot companion? Your own Robbie, B-9, R2D2, C-3PO or Gort? And I don’t mean a sexbot, let’s not go there. Let’s also ignore the idea of androids. Data on Star Trek is much too humanlike. Can one own a sentient machine? At what point does an intelligent machine need emancipation? Was B-9 an equal member of the crew on Lost in Space?  Was C-3PO salaried?

The problem is we all want a robot sidekick that’s no dumbass, but at what point are we really wanting a mechanical slave? I was shocked by Isaac Asimov’s short story “Robot Dreams” when Susan Calvin murders a robot when she realizes it’s sentient. Asimov uses the word destroyed, but wasn’t it murder? Somehow, Asimov’s robots are smart and useful but not sentient. Evidently, Asimov didn’t want to go there.

But what about the robot Jenkins in City by Clifford Simak? The classic SF fix-up novel City was assembled from several science fiction stories about robots and dogs. The stories are unified with intros that suggest the tales are being told by intelligent dogs and robots after humans have left the Earth. Jenkins was a faithful robot in service to many generations of the Webster family. Did Jenkins get a paycheck on Friday and get Thursdays and Sundays off? I don’t think so. Robots in science fiction often come across as slaves who love their masters. Why aren’t we revolted by that?

Can we ever have robots that cook and clean as well as any hired human and still not be sentient? I imagine any machine that can maneuver around a house and know what needs to be done will have such a complex awareness of this reality that we have to consider it self-aware. But still, wouldn’t it be great to have Alexa evolve into a mobile robot that could do all the household chores, including being a master electrician, plumber, painter,  tile/rug layer, carpenter, and even maintain the HVAC? And, of yes, do windows.

God, wouldn’t we all become such lazy asses? Still, an AI Jeeves would be a wonderful companion. But would that robot Jeeves turn us into Bertie Wooster? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please watch this:

Don’t we really want a robot companion that becomes our best possible friend? If you think deeply enough, don’t we want to own a robot that protects us like a guardian angel, is as all-knowing as God, and do our bidding like a genie (okay, go there, like Jeannie)? Don’t we want to build a machine that does things for us that other people won’t do? And, wouldn’t we want to perfect these mechanical companions until they had superpowers, even supernatural powers? Until they were superior to us?

Shouldn’t we psychoanalyze why we want to create robots? Isn’t science fiction another version of Genesis where we play God, and Robbie is the new Adam? And if you were one of those people that want a sexbot, think about why. Aren’t we really saying that want to replace humans because they fail us in some way or all ways? And isn’t the fear of the robotic overlords really a fear of inadequacy? Or maybe its cynical pessimism, we want to build intelligent machines because we know humans aren’t intelligent enough.

Once we give the work of running the world over to machines, where does it stop? Have you ever read The Humanoids by Jack Williamson? It’s not like science fiction didn’t warn us.

James Wallace Harris, 7/21/20

 

 

The 2020 Hugo Award Finalists

It’s summertime again, that period in the calendar where its time to read the Hugo finalists before the awards are announced at the end of summer. I’ve been following the Hugo Awards since the 1960s, but I’ve never attended a Worldcon. I have assumed, if I had, I would have met my people. I’m not so sure anymore. In recent years, as I’ve read the finalists for the short fiction awards, it’s felt like that fandom has left me behind — maybe a long, long time ago.

I want to read science fiction. I don’t want to read fantasy. I have nothing against fantasy, and often the finalist stories that are fantasy are well-told and engaging. Maybe a better way to explain how I feel is by relating a personal experience. Before I got married I used to hang out at Susan’s family home with her parents and brothers. This was usually on the weekend, and they always had golf on the TV. The whole family loved to watch golf, to talk about the players, quibble over the shots, argue their favorite courses, and I had to sit there and watch and listen. I have no interest in golf. I don’t hate it. I’m just not interested. That’s how I feel about fantasy.

I don’t know why fantasy is handcuffed to science fiction. To me, the two are as different as westerns, mysteries, and romances. Why are they lumped together? Why isn’t there an SFWA and an FWA? Of course, SFWA now stands for Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and I have to accept that. So, why not give out Hugos to science fiction stories, and Hobbits to fantasy stories? When I read the finalists for short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels, it feels like apples and oranges are competing.

Maybe most fans are now omnigenre readers, but to me, it feels like rock songs are up against classical music. It could also be philosophical to me. I see fantasy as allied with the supernatural, and science fiction allied with science. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in the supernatural. But also, the two genres have different facing perspectives. Fantasy looks to the past, while science fiction looks to the future. Wouldn’t you say they each have different artistic goals? In that sense, isn’t putting them up for an award like haikus competing with sonnets?

Then there is the confusing issue of writers who blend fantasy and science fiction together. In the past couple of days, I’ve read two of these. The first, “The Quest for Saint Aquin” by Anthony Boucher which uses the faulty logic that if robots believe in God, shouldn’t that be proof for humans? The second was, “How Long the Shadows Cast” by Kenji Yanagawa, about a space explorer who falls in love before a trip that will cause a 250-year time rift between him and his lover. That’s a great science fictional subject, but it gets confusing when reincarnation is brought into the story.

The reason why Saint Aquin is science fiction is the religion is just a belief within the story, but Shadows is fantasy because the reader is asked to believe in reincarnation to make the story work. Fantasy fans will say its only a story, and the belief is only for within the story. As a hardcore science fiction fan, I say adherence to science in science fiction is like the rules for writing haikus and sonnets — following them is part of the art form.

We live in an age where people want to reject science. I see lumping science fiction and fantasy as being part and parcel with this trend to reject science. I’m sure most bookworms will be miffed with me, and say, “They’re only goddamn stories, don’t take em so seriously.” But look at what’s happened to science fiction itself — it’s given up on science too. Most SF fans now accept a dogma that given enough time science can invent anything. They feel that gives science fiction writers permission to imagine anything. That’s heretical to me because that’s the foundation of fantasy.

And to be honest, science fiction has never been that rigorous when it comes to science. But that’s no justification for allowing the art form to degenerate into fantasy.

I’m old, and maybe grumpy. Most readers will think I’m creating a tempest in a teapot. And maybe that’s true. All I know is its no longer fun to care who wins a Hugo. And it’s getting harder and harder to find stories I really admire, even in periodicals that claim to publish science fiction.

James Wallace Harris, 6/9/20

A Four Short Story Day

On most days I read one short story — for my Facebook short story discussion group. For some reason, I read four today — two on audio through my iPhone, one from a hardback, and one from a magazine scan on my iPad. The covers above are from their original publications and the stories were:

  • “Installment Plan” by Clifford D. Simak
  • “Ship of Shadows” by Fritz Leiber
  • “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” by Clifford D. Simak
  • “The Keeper” by H. Beam Piper

The two Simak stories came from the new audiobook edition of I Am Crying Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Stories of Clifford D. Simak Volume One. So far there have been twelve volumes of The Complete Stories of Clifford D. Simak, and Audible.com has recently released the first three volumes on audio. Currently, ten of the twelve volumes are on sale at Amazon for the Kindle priced at $1.99 or $2.99. I have all twelve. Audible will sell the audiobook editions for $7.49 if you own the Kindle edition. I’ve been really getting into Simak lately, so that’s why I listened to two of his stories today. The narration was excellent.

I was pushed to read the second Simak story, “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air” because it was intended for the never-published anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison, and that was being discussed on two Facebook groups today. I squeezed it in. I wouldn’t say it was a dangerous vision, but it was very dark, about a man Charlie Tierney who has a personality similar to Donald Trump who intended to commercialize a planet by exploiting the inhabitants but the local intelligent life had other plans.

The first Simak story, “Installment Plan” was also about exploiting a planet and its natives, but it was much sunnier and funnier. Again, the local intelligent life has different plans. This story reminded me of Simak’s classic “The Big Front Yard” about an American farmer trying to do business with aliens whose world intersects his farm through some kind of dimension collision. Simak evidently had a thing for interstellar commerce. “Installment Plan” also has robots like those found in the City stories. Simak was also big on robots.

“Ship of Shadows” was a tour de force of weird space fiction, even winning a Hugo Award for Best Novella of 1970 (beating out “A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison). “Ship of Shadows” was worthy of that special F&SF issue devoted to Leiber. The story begins with Spar awakening from a drunk hallucinating, but after his head begins to clear, the world he perceives is very strange indeed. Cats talk, people fear vampires, others are addicted to moonmist but where the heck are we? The characters in this story float as if they are in free-fall, but the action is set in a bar called the Bat Rack. The story took work to read but paid off nicely.

My last read of the day was “The Keeper” by H. Beam Piper for another online short story group. It’s a rather straight forward adventure set on another planet. Good, but not as impressive as Piper’s “Omnilingual.”

All this short story reading is making me appreciate many new authors, especially Simak, Leiber, and Piper.

I’ve been reading a short story a day and discussing it online for a few weeks now, and it’s turned out to be very rewarding. Cramming four stories in one day is overindulging. I prefer listening to stories if I can find an audio version. Short stories usually run less than an hour, with novelettes running 1-2 hours, and novellas 2-4 hours. I can read them a great deal faster than that, but I enjoy them far more at the slow pace of speech. I can listen to stories when I do my physical therapy exercises, walk, cook, eat, wash dishes, or pursue other physical activities that don’t require thinking. Audiobook narration has been evolving as an art form, and productions from recent years have been outstanding.

I ached to hear “Ship of Shadows” today but could find no audio edition. My inner reading voice is just pitiful. Most bookworms prefer to read to themselves, but I feel I get way more out of fiction when I let a professional read to me. And when I do read with my eyes, I try to imagine how an audiobook narrator would perform the story. I can’t do what they do, but if I read slow enough, I can recall the kinds of techniques they use.

Tomorrow’s discussion story is “Arena” by Fredric Brown. I think it will be the fourth time I’ve read it over the last fifty years. That’s another thing I’m learning — stories improve significantly with rereading. Some stories I didn’t like or thought dull on first reading eventually become stunning works of art on the fourth reading.

All the stories I read today were first readings. I’ve learned something else by reading so many short stories. The highest rating or compliment I can give any story is to say I want to read it again. “Ship of Shadows” is a story I rate that highly.

James Wallace Harris, 5/22/2020