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

Chronology of Books About Science Fiction

Modern Science Fiction by James Gunn

After reading Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (2018) by Alec Nevala-Lee I reread The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence (1989) by Alexei and Cory Panshin. These two books form an interesting synergy. They are about science fiction’s Golden Age of the 1940s, written over a generation apart, that leaves two distinct impressions. After finishing the Panshins’ book I remembered that the blog MarzAat reviewed a master’s thesis on science fiction that James Gunn wrote back in 1951. I figured Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis would be a third view of SF’s Golden Age of the 1940s, and it was. It’s also one of the earliest scholarly examinations of science fiction.

Gunn divides his book into two parts, one that focuses on the philosophy of science fiction, and the other on categorizing plots. I can only recommend this work to people like me who enjoy reading about the history of science fiction. I doubt Modern Science Fiction will appeal to average SF readers because of its academic nature. However, it is a unique early perspective on the genre. The Panshins’ book is a more compelling read because they tie everything together with a single theory. The Nevala-Lee book is more readable because biographies have a great common appeal.  Gunn writes an aerial overview and is a quick introduction to the genre at a time when few people knew it existed. I enjoyed it mostly for the stories Gunn picked to discuss. Often they were the same classics we remember today, but sometimes not.

I’ve now read five books that covered Astounding Science-Fiction in the 1940s – including A Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers and Astounding Days by Arthur C. Clarke that I read the year before last. I also read The Great SF Stories 1-12 (1939-1950) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, so I’m familiar with many of the stories themselves. I’m slowly getting a feel for how science fiction developed chronologically. I’m currently reading short SF from 1951.

The one book I recommend for understanding the science fiction stories of the 1940s is The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. It was quite insightful. I realized how we think of science fiction now, or even when I started reading it in the 1960s, is quite different from how writers and readers thought of it in the 1940s. The subtitle of his book is Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence and back then I believe science fiction was seeking transcendence that echoes the Transcendentalists of the 1850s. Science fiction from 1939-1949 had a kind of excitement like the counter-culture did in the 1960s.

There’s a reason why Campbell, van Vogt, and others went ga-ga for Dianetics, and Astounding couldn’t run enough ESP/psionics stories in the 1950s. James Gunn saw some of that too in his book, but he called it philosophical. We now pity Campbell and van Vogt being caught up in L. Ron Hubbard’s scam, but Dianetics and Scientology in the 1950s promised to give SF fans the transcendental uplift they dreamed of from reading science fiction in the 1940s. If this seems like a digression from the history of science fiction, it’s not. I believe studying science fiction as it evolved over time is rewarding. I wish the Panshins had written a comprehensive book about science fiction in the 1950s for me to read next. So far I can’t find anything like The World Beyond the Hill for that decade. I’m guessing science fiction changes every decade or with each new generation of readers. I believe my best bet for the 1950s is Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines From 1950 to 1970 by Mike Ashley.

The long introduction by Modern Science Fiction’s editor Michael R. Page is a gem of an overview of books about science fiction. Page says Gunn’s 1951 book-length thesis is probably just the fourth book about science fiction after Pilgrims Through Space and Time (1947) by J. O. Bailey, The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction (1941) by Philip Gove’s, and Voyages to the Moon (1948) by Marjorie Nicolson. The latter two were really about proto-SF, and Bailey’s book barely mentions the Golden Age. So Gunn’s book could be the first about Campbell’s Golden Age Astounding. It was written at a time when the non-SF-reading public was just learning the term science fiction, and Gunn spends part of his time introducing the genre. (See my essay “When Mainstream American Discovered Science Fiction.”  I reprint a Life Magazine article from 1951 telling its readers all about the world of science fiction and fandom.)

Because Page mentions so many books he considers carrying on Gunn’s work exploring science fiction I thought I’d list them as a checklist to acquire. I’ve owned and read many of them over the years, but I thought it would be nice to make this a chronological list to remember and share. I’m anxious to get into the 1950s and 1960s, after gorging on books about the 1940s.

Here are the books Page mentions. I’ve put a plus by the ones I’ve already read/own. Most cover more than one decade of SF history. Someone needs to write a history of the first decade of F&SF, Galaxy, and the big boom in science fiction. (Maybe Ashley’s has done just that.)

  • 1941 – The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction by Philip Gove
  • 1947 + Pilgrims Through Space and Time by J. O. Bailey
  • 1947 – Of Worlds Beyond (symposium) edited by Lloyd Arthur Eschbach
  • 1948 – Voyages to the Moon by Marjorie Nicholson
  • 1951 + Modern Science Fiction by James Gunn (master’s thesis)
  • 1951 – Modern Science Fiction (essays) edited by Reginald Bretnor
  • 1955 – Inquiry into Science Fiction by Basil Davenport
  • 1956 + In Search of Wonder by Damon Knight
  • 1959 + The Science Fiction Novel (symposium)
  • 1960 + New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis
  • 1963 + Explorers of the Infinite by Sam Moskowitz
  • 1964 + The Issue at Hand by James Blish
  • 1966 + Future Perfect by H. Bruce Franklin
  • 1966 + In Search of Wonder by Damon Knight (expanded edition)
  • 1966 + Seekers of Tomorrow by Sam Moskowitz
  • 1966 – Voices Prophesying War by I. F. Clarke
  • 1967 – The Future as Nightmare by Hillegas
  • 1968 – Yesterday’s Tomorrows by Armytage
  • 1970 – Into the Unknown by Robert M. Philmus
  • 1970 + More Issues at Hand by James Blish
  • 1970 + The Universe Makers by Donald A. Wollheim
  • 1971 + SF: The Other Side of Realism (essays) edited by Thomas Clareson
  • 1971 + Science Fiction: What It’s All About by Sam Lundwall
  • 1973 + Billion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove
  • 1974 – Science Fiction Reader’s Guide by L. David Allen
  • 1974 – New Worlds for Old by David Ketterer
  • 1975 + Alternate Worlds by James Gunn
  • 1976 + Anatomy of Wonder by Neil Barron
  • 1976 + A Pictorial History of Science Fiction by David Kyle
  • 1977 + The Creation of Tomorrow by Paul A. Carter
  • 1977 – Science Fiction: History, Science Fiction by Eric S. Rabkin
  • 1977 + The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel R. Delany
  • 1979 – The Pattern of Expectation 1644-2001 by I. F. Clarke
  • 1979 – Metamorphoses of Science Fiction by Darko Suvin
  • 1979 – The Known and the Unknown by Gary K. Wolfe
  • 1979 + The Science Fiction Encyclopedia by Peter Nichols and John Clute
  • 1979 + The World of Science Fiction by Lester del Rey
  • 1980 – Aliens and Linguists by Walter E. Meyer
  • 1980 – The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction by Patricia Warrick
  • 1981 – Alien Encounters by Mark Rose
  • 1982 – Terminal Visions by W. Warren Wagar
  • 1985 – Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 by Brian Stableford
  • 1986 + Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove
  • 1987 – Foundations of Science Fiction by J. J. Pierce
  • 1987 – Great Themes in Science Fiction by J. J. Pierce
  • 1989 – Rationalizing Genius by John Huntington
  • 1989 – When World Views Collide by J. J. Pierce
  • 1989 + The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin
  • 1990 – Understanding American Science Fiction 1926-1970 by Thomas Clareson
  • 1993 – The Magic that Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response to Technology by Albert I. Berger
  • 1994 – Odd Genre by J. J. Pierce
  • 1998 + The Mechanics of Wonder by Gary Westfahl
  • 2008 – The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csciery-Ronay
  • 2012 – Astounding Wonder by John Cheng
  • 2017 – Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System by John Rieder

Books Page Didn’t Mention Which I Own:

  • 1964 + A Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers
  • 1975 + Hell’s Cartographers (essays) edited by Brian W. Aldiss, Harry Harrison
  • 1980 + SF in Dimension by Alexei and Cory Panshin (expanded edition)
  • 1982 + The Engines of the Night by Barry N. Malzberg
  • 1984 + Age of Wonders by David G. Hartwell
  • 1986 + Dimensions of Science Fiction by William Sims Bainbridge
  • 1986 + Galaxy Magazine by David L. Rosheim
  • 1999 + Back in the Spaceship Again by Karen Sands, Marietta Frank
  • 1999 + Pioneers of Wonder by Eric Leif Davin
  • 2000 + Critical Theory and Science Fiction by Carl Freedman
  • 2000 + The Time Machines by Mike Ashley
  • 2003 + The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (essays) edited by Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn
  • 2004 + The Gernsback Days by Mike Ashley, Robert A. W. Lowndes
  • 2005 + Different Engines by Mark L. Brake, Reverend Neil Hook
  • 2005 + On SF by Thomas M. Disch
  • 2005 + Transformations by Mike Ashley
  • 2007 + Gateways to Forever by Mike Ashley
  • 2007 + The Gospel According to Science Fiction by Gabriel McKee
  • 2009 + Science Fiction and Philosophy edited by Susan Schneider (essays)
  • 2014 + New Atlantis: v. 3: The Resurgence of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford
  • 2014 + New Atlantis: v. 4: The Decadence of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford
  • 2016 + The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts
  • 2016 + New Atlantis: v. 1: The Origins of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford
  • 2016 + New Atlantis: v. 2: The Emergence of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford

You’d think with so much written about science fiction it would be well defined with a precise well-interpreted history.

James Wallace Harris, 11/17/19

Heinlein’s Magazine Fiction

Heinlein first stories

I’m rereading The World Beyond the Hill (1989) by Alexei and Cory Panshin. It’s a brilliant, Hugo award-winning work (1990), that chronicles the Golden Age of Astounding Science-Fiction by focusing on John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and A. E. Van Vogt. If that sounds similar to Alec Nevala-Lee’s recent Hugo award-nominated book Astounding you’d be right. But each book tells a very different story covering the same history. Nevala-Lee felt L. Ron Hubbard was the big fourth rather than Van Vogt. The Panshins work to explain science fiction’s literary evolution in a historical context leaving you feeling their book is primary about science fiction. Whereas Nevala-Lee works to describe the psychology of the men who wrote this science fiction, leaving you feeling its a biography of these men. You need to read both books to get the big picture.

I’ve been a Heinlein fan since I was 12, but mostly for the work he wrote in the 1950s. Rereading The World Beyond the Hill inspires me to study Heinlein’s stories from the 1940s. The Panshins often point out there were contextual differences between the magazine publications and book publications, sometimes reflecting changes in Heinlein’s personal philosophy. The Panshins make a great case that Heinlein was doing truly groundbreaking SF writing in the 1940s that reshaped the genre. And they explain how John W. Campbell worked with Heinlein, Asimov, and Van Vogt to push science fiction in new directions.

I worry that the current attacks on Campbell’s many faults forget to consider his virtues. I believe anyone who vilifies Campbell because of the Nevala-Lee’s book should also give Campbell a fair shake by reading The World Beyond the Hill. I’m less concerned with the biographies of these men than how science fiction developed. After I finish rereading The World Beyond the Hill I plan to read The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein by Farah Mendlesohn.

The Panshins made a great case for how exciting science fiction was during the early years of Campbell’s editorship, especially regarding Heinlein. Their descriptions of Heinlein’s early stories reveal far more than I got when I read them. I’ve decided they deserve a close rereading.

The Panshins quote from Heinlein’s July 1941 Guest of Honor speech at the third Worldcon in Denver:

There won’t always be an England—nor a Germany, nor a United States, nor a Baptist Church, nor monogamy, nor the Democratic Party, nor the modesty tabu, nor the superiority of the white race, nor aeroplanes—they will go—nor automobiles—they’ll be gone, we’ll see them go. Any custom, technique, institution, belief, or social structure that we see around us today will change, will pass, and most of them we will see change and pass.

Heinlein worked to illustrate that in his early stories, especially the ones he called Future History stories. Later on Heinlein would admit his particular extrapolations were wrong, but I believe the essence of science fiction is the attempt to imagine such change.

As I read these books about Heinlein I want to study his development by rereading the stories as they were published. I looked around for a convenient list of them in chronological order but didn’t find any that I liked. So I made one.

Just looking at this list shows how productive Heinlein was in the 1940s, especially 1941.

Story Issue Magazine
“Life-Line” 1939-08 Astounding
“Misfit” 1939-11 Astounding
“Requiem” 1940-01 Astounding
“If This Goes On –” p1 1940-02 Astounding
“If This Goes On –” p2 1940-03 Astounding
“Successful Operation” 1940-Spring Futuria Fantasia as “Heil!”
“Let There Be Light” 1940-05 Super Science Stories
“The Roads Must Roll” 1940-06 Astounding
“Coventry” 1940-07 Astounding
“Blow-Ups Happen” 1940-09 Astounding
“Magic, Inc.” 1940-09 Unknown
“Sixth Column” p1 1941-01 Astounding
“Sixth Column” p2 1941-02 Astounding
“Sixth Column” p3 1941-03 Astounding
“–And He Built a Crooked House” 1941-02 Astounding
“Logic of Empire” 1941-03 Astounding
“Beyond Doubt” 1941-04 Astonishing Stories
“They” 1941-04 Unknown
“Solution Unsatisfactory” 1941-05 Astounding
“Universe” 1941-05 Astounding
“–We Also Walk Dogs” 1941-07 Astounding
“Methuselah’s Children” p1 1941-07 Astounding
“Methuselah’s Children” p2 1941-08 Astounding
“Methuselah’s Children” p3 1941-09 Astounding
“Lost Legacy” (excerpt) 1941-08 Super Science Novels Magazine
“Elsewhen” 1941-09 Astounding
“By His Bootstraps” 1941-10 Astounding
“Common Sense” 1941-10 Astounding
“Lost Legacy” 1941-11 Super Science Stories
“My Object All Sublime” 1942-02 Future combined with Science Fiction
“Goldfish Bowl” 1942-03 Astounding
“Pied Piper” 1942-03 Astonishing Stories
“Beyond This Horizon” p1 1942-04 Astounding
“Beyond This Horizon” p2 1942-05 Astounding
“Waldo” 1942-08 Astounding
“The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag 1942-10 Unknown Worlds
“The Green Hills of Earth” 1947-02-08 Saturday Evening Post
“Space Jockey” 1947-04-26 Saturday Evening Post
“Columbus Was a Dope” 1947-05 Startling Stories
“It’s Great to Be Back” 1947-07-26 Saturday Evening Post
“Jerry Was a Man” 1947-10 Thrilling Wonder Stories
“Water is for Washing” 1947-11 Argosy
“The Black Pits of Luna” 1948-01-10 Saturday Evening Post
“Gentlemen, Be Seated” 1948-05 Argosy Magazine
“Ordeal in Space” 1948-05 Town & Country
“Our Fair City” 1949-01 Weird Tales
“Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon” p1 1949-04 Boy’s Life
“Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon” p2 1949-05 Boy’s Life
“Gulf” p1 1949-11 Astounding
“Gulf” p2 1949-12 Astounding
“Delilah and the Space-Rigger” 1949-12 The Blue Book
“The Long Watch” 1949-12 The American Legion Magazine
“Farmer in the Sky” p1 1950-08 Boy’s Life
“Farmer in the Sky” p2 1950-09 Boy’s Life
“Farmer in the Sky” p3 1950-10 Boy’s Life
“Farmer in the Sky” p4 1950-11 Boy’s Life
“Between Planets” p1 1951-09 The Blue Book
“Between Planets” p2 1951-10 The Blue Book
“The Puppet Masters” p1 1951-09 Galaxy
“The Puppet Masters” p2 1951-10 Galaxy
“The Puppet Masters” p3 1951-11 Galaxy
“The Year of the Jackpot” 1952-03 Galaxy
“The Rolling Stones” p1 1952-09 Boy’s Life as “Tramp Space Ship”
“The Rolling Stones” p2 1952-10 Boy’s Life as “Tramp Space Ship”
“The Rolling Stones” p3 1952-11 Boy’s Life as “Tramp Space Ship”
“Project Nightmare” 1953-04/05 Amazing Stories
“Sky Lift” 1953-11 Imagination
“The Star Beast” p1 1954-05 F&SF
“The Star Beast” p2 1954-06 F&SF
“The Star Beast” p3 1954-07 F&SF
“Double Star” p1 1956-02 Astounding
“Double Star” p2 1956-03 Astounding
“Double Star” p3 1956-04 Astounding
“The Door Into Summer” p1 1956-10 F&SF
“The Door Into Summer” p2 1956-11 F&SF
“The Door Into Summer” p3 1956-12 F&SF
“The Menace from Earth” 1957-08 F&SF
“Citizen of the Galaxy” p1 1957-09 Astounding
“Citizen of the Galaxy” p2 1957-10 Astounding
“Citizen of the Galaxy” p3 1957-11 Astounding
“Citizen of the Galaxy” p4 1957-12 Astounding
“The Man Who Traveled in Elephants” 1957-10 Saturn
“Tenderfoot in Space” p1 1958-05 Boy’s Life
“Tenderfoot in Space” p2 1958-06 Boy’s Life
“Tenderfoot in Space” p3 1958-07 Boy’s Life
“Have Space Suit-Will Travel” p1 1958-08 F&SF
“Have Space Suit-Will Travel” p2 1958-09 F&SF
“Have Space Suit-Will Travel” p3 1958-10 F&SF
“All You Zombies …” 1959-03 F&SF
“Starship Troopers” p1 1959-10 F&SF
“Starship Troopers” p2 1959-11 F&SF
“Podkayne of Mars” p1 1962-11 If
“Podkayne of Mars” p2 1963-01 If
“Glory Road” p1 1963-07 F&SF
“Glory Road” p2 1963-08 F&SF
“Farnham’s Freehold” p1 1964-07 If
“Farnham’s Freehold” p2 1964-08 If
“Farmham’s Freehold” p3 1964-10 If
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” p1 1965-12 If
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” p2 1966-01 If
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” p3 1966-02 If
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” p4 1966-03 If
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” p5 1966-04 If
“I Will Fear No Evil” p1 1970-07 Galaxy
“I Will Fear No Evil” p2 1970-08/09 Galaxy
“I Will Fear No Evil” p3 1970-10/11 Galaxy
“I Will Fear No Evil” p4 1970-12 Galaxy

James Wallace Harris, 11/5/19

“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?


James Wallace Harris, 9/28/19

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


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


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 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.)


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.


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


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


“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.


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)


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?


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.