Heinlein’s Super-Collections

Starting in 1950, Heinlein’s short stories were collected into several regular-sized collections as his career progressed. Then in 1967, he published his first super-collection, The Past Through Tomorrow. That single volume assembled nearly all of his Future History stories into one big book. It’s been reprinted a number of times, sometimes as a two-volume paperback. They are all out of print at the moment, and the various hardback and SFBC editions can sometimes be rather expensive to buy used. However, until someone publishes a well-considered Best of Robert A. Heinlein collection, The Past Through Tomorrow is the best single-volume collection of his short stories.

One of the most interesting of The Past Through Tomorrow reprints was from Gateway/Orion because it included the stories “Let There Be Light,” “Universe,” and “Common Sense,” three titles in the Future History series left out of the original hardback. There was even an ebook edition from that publisher, so you were lucky if you snagged it when it was in print. Not only does it seem to be the only complete version of the Future History stories according to ISFDB, but the stories are ordered by how they were set in Heinlein’s imaginary future. I’d love a great audiobook edition of this super-collection.

However, this still out leaves many of Heinlein’s most famous stories. Heinlein’s next super-collection came out in 1980, Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. I don’t recommend readers new to Heinlein buying this volume. It’s mostly rarely reprinted stories along with some obscure essays and trunk stories. Perfect for the hardcore Heinlein fan, but it will probably be disappointing to average readers. Nor do I recommend new readers buy Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master which came out in 1992, four years after Heinlein died. It does have some nice rare selections for the devoted Heinlein fan, but nothing that would impress a reader new to Heinlein. It does contain tributes by writers who loved Heinlein.

The next super-collection that contains good to great stories is The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein, which came out in 1999. Again, out of print, but it contains some of Heinlein’s best stories and is the perfect supplement to The Past Through Tomorrow.

The last super-collection is Off the Main Sequence: The Other Science Fiction Stories of Robert A. Heinlein. It was from the Science Fiction Book Club in 2005. The goal of the collection was to collect stories left out of The Past Through Tomorrow and other odds and ends that haven’t been well collected or anthologized. Again, I don’t recommend this volume for new Heinlein readers.

If you like what you read in The Past Through Tomorrow and The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein then I’d recommend tracking down a used copy of Off the Main Sequence. However, it might be easier to buy Heinlein’s original collection Assignment in Eternity that’s still in print to get “Jerry Was a Man,” which is a good story, “Gulf” which is an infamous story that I particularly dislike, and two rather bizarre stories “Elsewhen,” and “Lost Legacy.” But we’re treading into hardcore fan territory here.

Heinlein’s original collections seem to stay in print, in one form or another, and if you buy all of them, along with Methuselah’s Children you can mostly reassemble The Past Through Tomorrow. Here are their original covers:

James Wallace Harris, 10/23/22

“Let There Be Light” by Robert A. Heinlein

In 1939 Heinlein wrote several stories that were rejected by John W. Campbell. Heinlein wanted to save his name for stories appearing in Astounding and invented pen names for “lesser” publications. I think that was a bad idea. He sold “Let There Be Light” to Frederik Pohl for Super Science Stories and it was run under the Lyle Monroe byline. But if you look at the table of contents below, you’ll see that L. Sprague de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller weren’t protecting their Astounding reputations.

Heinlein should have used his own name for all of his stories. It would have helped out the smaller markets. Frederik Pohl practically begged Heinlein to let him publish it under his real name. Heinlein evidently felt anything Campbell rejected wasn’t first-class and he didn’t want his name associated with such stories. Heinlein obviously wanted to shape his public persona. Doesn’t that reveal a kind of egotism that disassociates flaws from their self-identity? Heinlein is perfect. Who knows who those other guys are?

Even when Campbell published two stories by Heinlein in a single issue he should have put Heinlein’s own name on them. Heinlein would have been an even greater phenomenon than he was, even with his flawed stories. Using all those names split up his reputation and momentum. And Heinlein shouldn’t have assumed Campbell was the arbiter of quality in science fiction.

“Let There Be Light” opens with Dr. Archibald Douglas getting a telegram from Dr. M. L. Martin. Martin informs Douglas “ARRIVING CITY LATE TODAY STOP DESIRE CONFERENCE COLD LIGHT YOUR LABORATORY TEN PM.” Douglas is affronted at the presumption that an unknown character could barge into his lab. Douglas consults Who’s Who in Science, and discovers Martin has a string of degrees and many prestige appointments and papers but is a biologist. Douglas figured a biologist cannot possibly connect to his work in physics.

When Douglas finally meets Martin, M. L. turns out to be Mary Lou, and she’s a beautiful young blonde. This is rather amusing since Heinlein makes all beautiful women redheads after he marries his third wife Virginia. In the 1940 magazine version, Mary Lou is compared to Sally Rand, who Heinlein and his wife Leslyn knew. In the 1950 book version, she’s compared to Marilyn Monroe. I’m surprised he didn’t switch it to a famous redhead. And Mary Lou can’t believe Archie is Dr. Douglas because he looks like a gangster. In the 1940 version, he’s compared to George Raft, but in the book version, no person is mentioned.

Heinlein did some other minor tweaking to the story when it was reprinted in book form. Strangely, the magazine version used the word hell frequently, and I think a damn was in there too, and Heinlein removed them. He also took out some of the gooiest of the sweet talk.

“Let There Be Light” turns into an invention story, but instead of featuring a mad scientist, Heinlein gives us two movie star lookalikes whose dialog sounds like it was written for a 1930s Warner Brothers picture. There’s a fair amount of scientific infodumping which lets the couple invent lighting that sounds like the LED overhead panel in my kitchen, and then solar panels. Of course, this isn’t much of a plot, so Heinlein throws in the conflict of evil corporations keeping innovative inventions off the market to protect the economics of older technology. That’s still not much of a plot.

Heinlein had spent years involved with California politics and was still griping about corruption. Even in the 1960s, I used to hear stories, often from my uncles, about how inventions were kept off the market, such as car engines that could get 200 miles to the gallon. There have always been conspiracy stories. Heinlein expresses other leftist ideas in the story too.

According to William Patterson, “Let There Be Light” was originally titled “Prometheus ‘Carries the Torch'” and it was also rejected by Thrilling Wonder Stories.

“Let There Be Light” isn’t a particularly good story. Its pluses, at least for us today, is it features a positive role for a female character. And it predicts solar power. So why did Campbell reject it? Patterson quotes Campbell’s rejection letter to Heinlein:

So Campbell is afraid of brainy women? That could explain a lot about Astounding/Analog. Heinlein loved brainy women, Leslyn and Virginia proved it. It’s just a shame he couldn’t write better dialogue when it came to men and women. It often seemed like poor dialogue cribbed from B-movie screwball comedies, and in his later novels, flirty dialogue sounded like a twelve-year-old girl trying to write a grownup romance after studying porn films.

Still, I enjoyed the story. It has no lasting value. We can stick a star on it for having a smart woman character, and another for predicting the solar energy industry. But that’s hardly enough to make it a good story for modern readers. Heinlein should have published it with his own name. He should have owned up to it. No one expects a writer to hit one out of the park every time they’re up to bat. And isn’t it odd that he wouldn’t put his name on it in 1940 for a magazine that few people would read, but would admit paternity when it came to a hardback publication in 1950?

Heinlein wasn’t the only contributor showing powerful women, the cover artist paints a fully-clothed woman shooting a BEM.

James Wallace Harris, 10/22/22

J. G. Ballard’s Double Debut

J. G. Ballard made his science fiction debut in two magazines, New Worlds Science Fiction and Science Fantasy, both dated December 1956. These are the first two stories in The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard which I just began listening to on audio. You can borrow a copy of the scanned hardback from the Internet Archive for one hour here. Amazon has a Kindle edition for just under $15. Or you can read “Prima Belladonna” online here, and listen to “Escapement” here. Links to radio and film versions are here.

New Worlds also profiled Ballard on the inside front cover.

Ballard’s story for New Worlds, “Escapement” was a very early time loop tale. “Prima Belladonna” in Science Fantasy was Ballard’s first Vermillion Sands story. Both stories were well-written and entertaining and both struck me as pure storytelling. No message, no theme, no psychological insights. As far as I could tell, neither had a point other than being an interesting story.

I was completely satisfied with both short stories, but I wondered if I should dismiss them for having no depth? Right after reading those stories, I read “The Cinderella Machine” by Michael G. Coney, first published in F&SF (Aug. 1976). It reminded me of a Vermillion Sands story. I checked and Coney is a British writer from Ballard’s generation. It too was a pure story. I wondered if Coney had been inspired by Ballard, or if writers from that generation just tended to write those kind of stories.

I suppose in each of these stories I could dig around and find something insightful or meaningful about them, but they seemed complete and self-contained, so why bother? I feel little need to describing these stories because the very act of reading them are what they are about. “Prima Belladonna” and “The Cinderella Machine” are set in artist colonies, featuring a striking women character who is not necessarily nice, and both include an exotic science fictional creature. “Escapement” is about a man who can’t understand why his wife doesn’t notice technical difficulties in the television show they are watching.

I could say Ballard and Coney are expressing some science fictional ideas. These ideas aren’t meaningful, or significant, or even insightful. They are just some weird creative shit that both authors thought up.

All the best stories are stories that feature solid storytelling. But it seems to me, all great stories go one step further. A perfect example is Bob Shaw’s “The Light of Other Days.” It’s a solid story. It has a science fiction invention. But it’s deeply moving. You can listen to it here.

Ballard’s and Coney’s stories lack the moving part. Does that mean they can never be 5-star stories? I consider “Escapement” a three-star plus story. I consider “Belladonna” and “The Cinderella Machine” to be just squeaking by four-star stories. By the way, I give stories I believe are well-written and professional three stars. If I like them a lot, I add a plus. Four-star stories are ones I look forward to reading again. Five-star stories are classics that will stand the test of time, and are often ones I’ve read several times over my lifetime.

I really admire pure story stories. I just don’t know if I should recommend them to other people.

I do know one thing though. I’d rather read a good pure story without depth than a poorly told story that tries to be deep.

James Wallace Harris, 10/9/22

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies by Barry N. Malzberg

I’ve been reading recursive science fiction lately, and one of the most famous recursive science fiction stories is Barry N. Malzberg’s “A Galaxy Called Rome.” Recursive science fiction is science fiction about science fiction. Sometimes this is a story that mentions science fiction, sometimes it’s a story about science fiction writers, their fans, and science fiction conventions, and sometimes it’s in-jokes about the genre, other times recursive science fiction is about the writing of science fiction, and that’s the case with “A Galaxy Called Rome.”

“A Galaxy Called Rome” has been reprinted often you can find it in these anthologies and collections. I read it in the anthology Inside the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories About SF edited by Mike Resnick in 1992. I highly recommend that volume if you can find it, but it was only published once by Avon. Probably the cheapest collection of Malzberg’s stories is The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg because the Kindle edition is only $4.99. However, Malzberg expanded “A Galaxy Called Rome” into a short novel, Galaxies, and it’s available for $1.99 for the Kindle edition at Amazon.

Malzberg is known for his recursive science fiction, especially since he seems to have experienced a great deal of existential angst over being a science fiction writer. NESFA even came out with a collection of his recursive SF called The Passage of the Light: The Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg.

“A Galaxy Called Rome” is a novelette composed of 14 short chapters. It first appeared in the July 1975 issue of F&SF and has been anthologized a number of times. It is probably Malzberg’s most famous work of short science fiction. 

Malzberg expanded the same story into 49 chapters for a 1975 short novel version retitled Galaxies. Malzberg gained attention for a handful of science fiction novels in the first half of the 1970s. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Beyond Apollo but got a fair amount of recognition for Galaxies, The Falling Astronauts, and Herovit’s World. He went on to publish prolifically in and outside of the genre

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies are also works of what the literary world calls metafiction – fiction about fiction. I prefer the novelette version of the story because the novelette is my favorite length for science fiction. However, the longer version of the story, Galaxies, lets Malzberg dig deeper into the nature of writing science fiction.

I want to recommend this story, but with carefully considered restrictions. If you read science fiction for escape this story isn’t for you. Well, if you want to know why you read science fiction for escape, then you might want to read it. This story is for people who like to intellectually examine everything and take things apart. This story is for readers who love academic exercises in cleverness. This story is for readers who want to know how magic tricks work.

I alternated reading Galaxies with listening to Red Rising by Pierce Brown. It was an excellent contrast. Red Rising is exactly what most science fiction readers want to read. The story immediately sucks the reader into a fantasy reality. It’s designed for your mind to forget the real world and immerse yourself in a fantasy about Mars. The reader is expected to buy into its make-believe. Galaxies on the other hand constantly remind the reader of our reality while describing how a science fiction writer goes about their business of fooling the reader.

Reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” or Galaxies could ruin your love of science fiction. Or it could make you appreciate escapist literature all the more. I know when I would switch to Red Rising after reading a dozen chapters of Galaxies I felt like that guy in The Matrix, Cypher, who wanted to take the blue pill and enjoy the juicy steak. And that might be a good analogy. Reading Malzberg is like taking the red pill and seeing an ugly reality. It might be philosophically enlightening to know the realness of reality, but it’s still grim and gritty.

This is probably why Malzberg never became a popular sci-fi writer, he was too hung up on reality. Most of the recursive science fiction I read in Inside the Funhouse was big fun. Recursive science fiction comes in many flavors but they can be roughly divided into two kinds. One kind celebrates our addiction, and the other makes you feel like you’re withdrawing from heroin. Reading “A Galaxy Called Rome” is like learning about Santa Claus as a kid, it hurts but makes you feel grown up. Reading Galaxies can feel like the agony of soul searching before deciding on becoming an atheist.

I ended up highlighting almost ten percent of Galaxies when reading the Kindle version. I won’t show all these quotes because that would probably be a copyright violation, but I do want to show enough of them to give people a chance to understand what Malzberg is doing. Malzberg is very open and straightforward with his intentions as stated in this first section.

It’s rather interesting that Malzberg tells us how the idea of the story within a story came to him. Well, the idea for the story he’s going to use to discuss writing. In the course of reading a novel about writing a novel, we will develop a whole story with characters, setting, plot, and conflict. However, we won’t experience that story like we normally do. Imagine being served a meal and instead of enjoying eating it, we put it under scientific analysis.

One thing Malzberg doesn’t do is try to imagine what we readers think while reading all of this. We readers are also part of the process. As I read Galaxies I got the idea that Malzberg both loved and hated science fiction. I got the impression he wanted to be a respected writer of hard SF, but his sense of reality conflicted with the fantasy nature of writing escapist literature.

These early sections are quite seductive, but I must warn anyone considering buying Galaxies that the going will get tough. “A Galaxy Called Rome” is the light fluffy version to read for those who aren’t ready to climb a mountain. Even though Galaxies is only 154 pages long, it’s a Ph.D. dissertation on deconstructing science fiction novel writing.

The story within this novel is about Lena Thomas who is the only living crew member of an FTL spaceship, Skipstone, that carries a cargo of 515 dead people in cryonic suspension. The year is 3902. Like in Heinlein’s novel, The Door Into Summer, rich people with diseases invest their estates and freeze their bodies in the hopes of one day being revived and cured. Those estates pay for the development of interstellar travel. Those dead people will eventually communicate with Lena like the dead in PKD’s Ubik when Lena and the Skipstone get trapped in the black galaxy. This allows Malzberg to explore metaphysical and religious themes in writing a novel. The ship also has robots programmed with human minds that help Malzberg explore other science fictional themes. His story notes get more and more extensive while getting more and more complicated. This also allows Malzberg to show how worldbuilding and plotting are developed as a writer tells their story.

Malzberg uses all this exploration in writing a science fiction novel to also speculate about the future. He imagines our civilization collapsing and being completely forgotten and a new world civilization rising in the following nineteen centuries. Malzberg imagines we’ll face limitations we can’t overcome and wild possibilities that far exceed today’s limitations.

Much of this novel is about being a writer, and specifically a writer of science fiction. You get hints along the way that Malzberg might be jealous of famous literary writers like Cheever and Updike, at other times you might feel his resentment at not being more successful at being a science fiction writer. But Malzberg is confident of his own gifts too.

In some of the actual passages of the novel, the dialog reminds me of Sheckley or Adams, or maybe even PKD, and even then Malzberg keeps making digs at science fiction.

Over time, the conflicts Malzberg provides for Lena’s story become repetitious. He knows he’s padding this novel, and even talks about how writers do pad their novels. The second half of Lena’s story becomes one long dark night of her soul struggling to escape the black galaxy. I have to wonder if such soul searching also plagues Malzberg.

Eventually, you wonder if Malzberg can find an ending to Lena’s story. Chapter after chapter he tortures the poor woman, and we can’t imagine any possible happy ending. Yet, Malzberg gives us a very strange ending that I was quite happy to read. I guess he took pity on us.

Reading Galaxies makes me doubt reading science fiction, but then I’ve doubted my addiction to our genre for decades. As a young person back in the 1960s and 1970s I thought science fiction was a wonderful tool for thinking about all the possibilities of the future, both good and bad. But after living to the year 2022, which was a very futuristic sounding year back in 1965, I know the future is everything we never imagined.

Contrasting Galaxies with Red Rising it’s quite obvious that science fiction’s purpose is escape. And the genius of writing science fiction is creating stories set in fictional worlds that are so compelling we forget this one. By Malzberg intruding into his novel and telling us everything only shows we don’t want the author intruding into our stories. Some philosophers have speculated that God invented our reality and walked away from his creation and that’s a great thing. That knowing God’s intention would ruin his/her/its art. I always felt Heinlein destroyed his career after he started poking his nose into his stories.

“A Galaxy Called Rome” and Galaxies were written as the New Wave in science fiction was fading and postmodernism fiction in the literary world was becoming old hat. It was an impressive experiment of the times, but as far as I know, readers have lost interest in such experiments. The Post Moderns of our times demand wokeness in fiction but not the metafictional kind. If anything, modern SF readers want longer voyages of fictional escape with far greater feats of worldbuilding.

It would be interesting to see someone write a version of Galaxies today that reveals what today’s SF writers go through to entertain their readers in the 2020s.

James Wallace Harris, 7/23/22

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