Deadly Serious Science Fiction

What if we had a special streaming service that showed us television from the year 2050 so we could watch the future unfold on our HDTVs at night. Would we change the way we live in this present? Would we steer towards the news and shows we wanted to come true and away from those that frightened? And what if over time we could see the future change as we changed ourselves little by little. Wouldn’t that validate the reality of those 2050 TV shows from the future?

Hasn’t that been what we thought science fiction has been doing all along?

We avoid committing ourselves because half of us doubt any speculations about the future. What if there was no doubt? What if we knew the future for certain? Would we act decisively? I’m not sure we would. Then what’s the value of serious science fiction?

Science fiction has always encouraged us to rush towards sense-of-wonder tomorrows and run away from scary dystopias. However, most people don’t take science fiction all that seriously, and for that matter, most science fiction never tries to be serious. On the other hand, sometimes a science fiction writer cries wolf. Should we listen?

Back in 1968 John Brunner offered us the deadly serious science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar. I read it in 1969 when I was 17 and I loathed the future Brunner envisioned for 2010. I did not want to grow up to live in John Brunner’s extrapolated timeline. What he foresaw horrified me with its relentless political unrest, ecological catastrophes, but worst of all were the portrayals of constant worldwide terrorism. Brunner’s scenes of senseless violence repulsed me bitterly. I wanted exciting stories about colonizing Mars, so his future wasn’t one I wanted. By the time 2010 rolled around forty-two years later, we all realized just how brilliant John Brunner’s novel had been at speculating about things to come.

No science fiction writer claims to predict the future. No science fiction book has predicted the future. But rereading Stand on Zanzibar in 2010 was goddamn eerie.

The Ministry for the Future is Kim Stanley Robinson’s deadly serious 2020 science novel about our near future, and it reminds me so much of Zanzibar.

Both novels are hard to read on many levels even if you ignore their doom and gloom. Neither are traditionally structured fiction. Stand on Zanzibar offered a continuing narrative every fourth chapter, but between that narrative were imagined news programs, journals, bulletins, press releases, short stories, book quotes, and readings from a pop culture philosophy called The Hipcrime Vocab by one Chad C. Mulligan. Brunner coined a lot of slang to give his future a realistic flare, which required the reader to pick up the lingo as they read along. Stand on Zanzibar is 582 pages of dense reading. All this puts a strain on its page turning appeal. Nevertheless, this novel has always been the epitome of serious science fiction (at least to me). Now it has competition.

The Ministry for the Future is also hard to read because it does not read like a normal novel. I’d say about twenty percent is the ongoing storyline, while most of the 106 chapters are lessons/lectures in either monologues/soliloquies or Socratic dialogues. Robinson doesn’t try to create the barrage of future pop culture sources that Brunner did. Instead, he writes to educate his reader about the many dimensions of solving problems associated with climate change. It’s not thrilling action, but it is thought provoking. And Robinson works so hard to be optimistic. He wants us to believe we still have a chance.

Science fiction has always convinced its fans that it’s about the future, but it’s not. Science fiction is nearly always about escapism from the today, and sometimes, it gives the illusion that it’s saying something insightful about tomorrow. Every so often we get a SF writer who attempts to extrapolate today’s trends into tomorrow’s catastrophes or marvels. Brunner and Robinson are such writers. In both 1968 and 2020, Brunner and Robinson play Cassandra, warning us we’d better get our shit together because hell is on the horizon.

I want to recommend The Ministry for the Future to everyone, but I must be honest and admit it’s not a fun read. Science fiction has always had a problem with infodumping, and this book is mostly infodumps. I find them fascinating, but most readers won’t. There’s practically no story to this novel other than pondering how to change the world to avoid a climate apocalypse.

But here’s the thing. The first chapter, which is told in regular fiction style, was more effective at scaring me about climate change than anything I’ve ever read. You can read it here. I highly recommend you take the time to do so. If the entire novel had this emotional intensity maybe it would scare readers into changing their lives. Unfortunately, most of the chapters are like this one. Like in Zanzibar, we leave the plot narrative frequently. And when it does return, half the time, it’s more infodumping. The story does get more attention over time, just don’t expect it to entertain like The Expanse books or The Murderbot Diaries.

I am not trying to turn you off from buying and reading The Ministry of the Future, but I am trying to do an honest sales job. Stand on Zanzibar is extremely hard to read too, but I’ve read it twice and want to read it again. I believe both books are easier to listen to then read. Robinson’s book is read by multiple narrators. This helps make the infodumps more dramatic. And since many parts of Zanzibar is supposed to come from radio and TV audio, it’s more natural to hear them than to read them. See if your inner voice can handle this:

Don’t worry, Robinson’s prose isn’t like this, and neither is most of Brunner’s. But Brunner does make a valiant effort to simulate future dazzle. Robinson doesn’t. His work might be called a philosophical novel with lectures, maybe like Hermann Hesse. Thinking about both books I realize I have some questions about science fiction that challenge my lifelong assumptions about the genre.

First, should science fiction attempt to shape the future? Is it hubris to try? Back in the 1940s and 1950s true believers like Robert A. Heinlein wrote stories about the glories of space travel hoping they would inspire young people to grow up and build rockets that went to the Moon and Mars. Just because that happened doesn’t mean science fiction can claim it as a feather in its cap, but maybe it helped. I don’t know. But if you read memoirs by most rocket scientists you’ll find passages about growing up reading science fiction.

If in the future we do avoid climate change, will we look back and say science fiction had a hand in getting us to act sooner? There is a sub-genre emerging out of science fiction called Cli-Fi, and once you study its nature you’ll see it has a long history. But is it effective? Is Kim Stanley Robinson succeeding at inspiring his readers to aim at a different future? By the way, he’s written other Cli-Fi novels, so he’s been working at this task for a long time.

One area where Robinson does succeed is defining the problem, but you have to read The Ministry of the Future to see how he does that. Then we need to reconvene in 2050 and discuss whether or not The Ministry for the Future got us to take different paths to get to that future.

But one last confession. I’ve read thousands of science fiction stories and novels, and it has changed how I think, but I’m not sure it ever changed how I act.

James Wallace Harris, 1/23/21

From Let’s Pretend to Literature

Why would a grown man write a short story for an adult science fiction magazine about toy people on a boy’s model railroad layout becoming alive and having their own thoughts? It’s one thing for Disney to create the Toy Story series for children that adults enjoy, but it’s really another thing to ask grownups to let’s pretend about toys having conscious minds. Or is it? Wasn’t The Twilight Zone in 1961 doing the same thing in its classic episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” about conscience toys hoping to escape an existential fate? And let’s not forget The Nutcracker or Babes in Toyland. The idea of toys having a secret life has been around a long time. Well, at least as long as kids have been playing let’s pretend, but why has the same theme survived for grownups in stories, novels, plays, operas, and ballets?

Chad Oliver, was an anthropologist who wrote “Transformer” for the November, 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a periodical that prided itself on having sophisticated adult readers. (Online copy here.) I read “Transformer” last night in The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg that was published in 1987. The story was reprinted again for Sci Fiction in 2005 (archived to read online). You can also listen an audio version at Radio Echos online. Finally, you can buy the Kindle edition of Far From This Earth: The Collection Short Stories of Chad Oliver Volume Two for $1.99 to get it and many other Chad Oliver short stories.

Chad Oliver is another dead science fiction writer whose work is slowly fading away. He barely gets a write-up in Wikipedia. A fair number of his books are still in print for the Kindle and most are only a $1.99. My only previous experience reading Oliver was his Mists of Dawn (1952) as a kid back in the middle 1960s, a title from the wonderful Winston Science Fiction series for young adults. I reread Mists of Dawn recently when I was fondly remembering those books.

“Transformer” is a strange little story. Isaac Asimov and Marty Greenberg didn’t want to use it for their anthology of science fiction stories because they didn’t consider it science fiction, but the story got to both of them so much that they had to include it. In my younger days I would have dismissed this story as fantasy because of my prejudice against fantasy fiction, but in my old age I’m more accepting of up front make believing. (That reminds me of a Bob Dylan line, “I’m younger than that now.”)

In “Transformer” an old woman is talking to a person named Clyde, but right at the beginning she also addresses us readers while talking to Clyde:

You might stick around for a minute and listen, you see—things might get interesting.

One more thing we might as well clear up while we're at it. I can hear you thinking, with that sophisticated mind of yours: "Who's she supposed to be telling the story to? That's the trouble with all these first-person narratives." Well, Clyde, that's a dumb question, if you ask me. Do you worry about where the music comes from when Pinza sings in a lifeboat? I feel sorry for you, I really do. I'll tell you the secret: the music comes from a studio orchestra that's hidden in the worm can just to the left of the Nazi spy. You follow me? The plain, unvarnished truth is that I get restless when the town's turned off for a long time. I can't sleep. I'm talking to myself. I'm bored stiff, and so would you be if you had to live here for your whole life. But I know you're there, Clyde, or this wouldn't be getting through to you. Don't worry about it, though.

This is strictly for kicks.

This is Chad Oliver way of saying he knows we’re adults and gives us a wink-wink. Knowing he’s an anthropologist makes me wonder if this story has some kind of subtext about primitive minds, but I don’t think so. I think Oliver is choosing to be an adult and saying, “Let’s pretend.” However, his story of ELM POINT, a crummy toy town on a cheap model train layout in Willy Roberts’ attic is neither fun nor playful, it’s more like an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare.

Here’s the thing, we adults, we grown-ups, we mature intellectual beings, play let’s pretend all the time. Just before I read “Transformer” I finished up watching Bridgerton on Netflix, an 8-part miniseries where adult viewers pretend Jane Austen wrote a story with sex and nudity. Our make believe train set town is a film recreation of Regency England, a favorite fantasyland for romance aficionados. That recreation is no more accurate to reality than Willy’s train layout on an old piece of plywood. But we still have fun, don’t we?

In other words, most adults never stop playing let’s pretend either. We just stop needing the toys to jump start our fantasies. That reminds of a Philip K. Dick novel, The Three Stigmatas of Palmer Eldritch, where colonists on Mars shift their let’s pretend from using Perky Pat dolls and layouts to enhance their hallucinations on the drug Can-D, to then use the new drug Chew-Z that doesn’t require toys to shape the hallucinations. I must reconsider what Dick’s novel is saying in regards to what I’ve learned from this Chad Oliver’s story.

Chad Oliver is asking us about our fantasy life being transformed.

Willy Roberts surveyed his model railroad without pleasure. He could remember the time when it had given him a real hoot, but after all he was thirteen years old now. He felt slightly ashamed that he should want to mess with it at all, but it was better than getting kicked around in football by all the big guys in the neighborhood. And Sally had said she was going to the show with Dave Toney, damn her.

I remember getting two train sets for Christmas in 1959, when I was eight. I loved those toy trains, but they were quickly forgotten by the time I was nine. It’s hard to believe Willy is still playing with his at thirteen, but then I watch YouTube videos about guys my age spending fortunes on their elaborate model train layouts.

At what age are we supposed to give up playing let’s pretend? How many people ever do?

I’ll let you read most of “Transformer” for yourself if you want to. This 1954 story reminds me so much of when I was a kid in the 1950s. But Chad Oliver also reminds us that there’s a troublesome side to reality that always intrudes on our pretending. ELM POINT if fake, and poorly made. It has rubber trees and cellophane rivers. Our narrator tells us:

It isn't much of a life, to my way of thinking. You do the best you can, and get up whenever some dumb kid hits a button, and then you get tossed in the wastebasket. It seems sort of pointless.

And later on says:

I don't want you to get the idea that I'm just a sour old woman, Clyde, a kind of juvenile delinquent with arthritis. I'm not, really. You know, a long time ago, when Willy was younger, even ELM POINT wasn't so bad.
...
I'll tell you, though—it's funny. Sometimes, a long time ago, I'd go and sit down by that silly cellophane river and I'd almost get to where I liked it here.

Our narrator and the other denizens of ELM POINT decide to rebel against the tyranny of Willy Roberts, but things don’t go according to plan. After the failed coup Willy decides to sell off his train, layout, and toy citizens. Our narrator ends up in the house of another boy for his train set, but things aren’t as good.

That's right. ELM POINT looks like Utopia from where I'm sitting. Mark Borden, the one that bought me, can't afford a real model railroad set-up, and his house doesn't even have an attic. So about once a week he takes us all out of his dirty closet, sets up his lousy circle of track, and starts up his wheezing four-car freight train. It isn't even a scale model. Big deal.

Things are relative in both reality and our make believe worlds. We hope for better times, and sometimes remember the bad times weren’t that bad after all. We all play let’s pretend when we watch TV or read novels or even just kick back in our La-Z-Boys and fantasize. Could Chad Oliver be asking us to compare our lives to living in a badly constructed model railroad layout?

I’m also reading a nonfiction book, Evil Geniuses by Kurt Andersen that’s about how our political economy was shaped by the fantasies of rich Milton Friedman worshipping libertarians over the last fifty years. I’m also reading The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, a science fiction fantasy about the politics of the future after climate change starts killing people by the millions. Both books are deadly serious and ask us to stop playing let’s pretend and do something. But we don’t, do we? Why is playing let’s pretend so overwhelmingly alluring to us?

Am I reading too much into “Transformer?” Did you find something else? The story is haunting even though it’s a simply little fun tale for F&SF. More and more, I’m spending my let’s pretend time by reading old issues of F&SF. What does it say when I knowingly choose a cheap model railroad layout over reality?

Maybe the anthropologist in Chad Oliver is saying something in his story. Maybe it’s a neat little message in a bottle thrown on the ocean of fantasies.

James Wallace Harris, 1/5/21

The Cold Equations of Thinking Like a Dinosaur

Spoiler Warning: This is not a review, but thoughts for my short story discussion group. We’re discussing The Year’s Best SF 1 edited by David Hartwell, which is currently just 99 cents at Amazon for the Kindle edition. “Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly is the first story in the anthology, originally appearing in Asimov’s Science Fiction (June 1995). It won a Hugo for Best Novelette in 1996. If you haven’t read “Think Like a Dinosaur,” go find a copy and read it before reading my comments. It’s a wonderful story with plot elements you don’t want spoiled.

It’s hard not to think of “Think Like a Dinosaur” as a retelling of “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. The plots are the same – nice girl must be spaced by nice guy because story logic dictates there is no other solution in the story’s reality. “The Cold Equations” is one of the most famous science fiction short stories in the genre. [You can read “The Cold Equations” online at Lightspeed Magazine.] Readers still argue for ways to save Marilyn even though the whole intent of writing the story is to kill her. Godwin’s point is the universe follows laws indifferent to human emotions and sometimes we just can’t save the girl. Kelly uses the same cold equations to kill Kamala. Instead of calling the logic the cold equations, Kelly calls it thinking like a dinosaur. Now this is not an insult to cold blooded reptiles. In the story, aliens that look like descendents from dinosaur type creatures offer to give Earth interstellar matter transmitter technology if they’re convinced humans can live up to the required rules of using it. They are called dinos in the story, and it’s implied they are far wiser than humans.

The main rule say the dinos is no duplicates. As soon as someone is transmitted to another stellar system the original must be destroyed. There’s a hint that the universe will balk at duplicates, but I didn’t find that clear. It might just be an arbitrary rule by the dinos. Maybe they’ve learned from experience that having multiples of the same being running around causes too much trouble. But this is the rule the dinos insist on for Earth to join the intergalactic community. By the way I’m reminded of Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. It too applies the cold equations to matter transmitted travelers that seem to reinforce the dinos thinking.

Matter transmitters are rarely the subject of science fiction. The most famous use of them is Star Trek, where I always assumed travelers were disassembled and then reassembled using the same atoms. If you read the article on Teleportation at Wikipedia, that method is called beaming. There is another method called Quantum teleportation, which is the kind used in “Think Like a Dinosaur” and Rogue Moon. In that method, the subject is scanned and reproduced with atomic particles at the receiving site. This means two copies exist after the transmission.

The premise of “Think Like a Dinosaur” is the universe demands we eliminate one copy. Now you can argue with the logic of this, but for James Patrick Kelley’s story, it’s a required truth. And we need it to be true so Michael must kill Kamala, in the same way Barton must kill Marilyn. I’m amused by those readers who trying to find a way out of this problem within the story, or demand that the story should have been different.

Why are such stories created? It’s a horrible premise that disturbs some readers. Do these stories feed some kind of kink in some readers who secretly get off on killing young women? I doubt it. I believe cold equation stories are a tiny subgenre of science fiction where the writer sets up a situation that illustrates being forced to make an extreme decision. Lot in “Lot” by Ward Moore abandons his wife and sons to save his daughter and himself when he realizes not everyone in his family has the instinct to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Lot knew his wife and boys could never let go over the old world, and thus wouldn’t make it in the new one. If you pay attention, you can spot other cold equation stories.

Of course, the real purpose of these stories is for the reader to put themselves in the situation and ask what would they do. Would you put Marilyn or Kamala in the air lock and punch the button that opens the outside door?

There is a TV version of “Think Like a Dinosaur” produced for the 1995 remake of The Outer Limits that perfectly illustrates how the writers and producers of that show couldn’t think like a dinosaur. That botched the ending by forcing additional motivations onto Michael. They also showed him being crushed by his decision. Either they didn’t understand the story, or they didn’t think television viewers could handle it.

I don’t know if Tom Godwin or James Patrick Kelly were offering lessons about reality, or just creating stories with tricked up plots. Robert A. Heinlein always wanted his readers to understand that exploring the galaxy would take guts, with explorers needing to make the tough choices that the universe requires in its cold equations.

On the other hand, I don’t think we’ll ever have matter transmitter technology that can send people, or even large inorganic objects. Like most readers who complain about “The Cold Equations” have shown, the situation where Marilyn could have stowed away should never have been possible. They wail at the unbelievability of the premise. As a person who has often moaned and groaned about unscientific and illogical science fiction I can understand these attacks. However, sometimes you just have to let a story be a story.

p.s.

There are stories where duplicates do happen and the stories reveal the problems of having duplicates. But I can’t remember any of them. If you do, please leave a comment.

James Wallace Harris, 12/9/20

“Death of a Spaceman” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

You can read "Death of a Spaceman" by Walter M. Miller, Jr. online at Project Gutenberg or listen to a rather good audio production at YouTube by NewThinkable.

When we love a story, do we love the words, or love what the words point to? With fiction, we’re drawn into some stories and repelled by others. What makes us care for a story? What aspects of the story resonate with our sense of self. (I wanted to say soul, but that’s too overblown, something a teenager would say. What part of the mind/body responds to art?) Most people never go beyond I love it or I hate when reacting to a story. But what is it about a story that we love or hate, what is it that we’re responding to and what is responding?

Joachim Boaz over at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations got me to read “Death of a Spaceman” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., a story that moved me. How did an old science fiction story affect me emotionally? What words and sentences in “Death of a Spaceman” triggered responses in my sensorium? How can staring at black marks on a white page set off emotions? Would any other series of words that set off the same series of emotions be considered equal to reading “Death of a Spaceman?” Could I reduce that short story to a series of statements that would read like a recipe for setting off those emotions? And if it’s possible to translate the story into a recipe/algorithm? Could I create a recipe that I could use as an outline for writing an emotional driven short story?

Here is a tally of my reactions to aspects of “Death of a Spaceman” that made me like it.

  • Old Donegal (Donny) is a 63-year old man. I’m 69. I seldom encounter old people like myself in stories.
  • Donegal is bedridden, dying of cancer that’s slowly paralyzing his body. It started with his legs and has now worked up to his arms. My body is wearing out too, and I think a lot about the progression of disease and what it will be like to die. In the past couple of decades I’ve known many people that ended up bedridden and dying. I have spinal stenosis and clogged arteries that makes my legs numb at times, and I can imagine it progressing.
  • Donegal’s dying is portrayed very realistic and gritty, and lately I’ve been loving gritty science fiction stories from the 1950s, stories that weren’t anything like stories I grew up reading as a kid in the 1960s, which nearly always featured young protagonists. One word jumped out at me that Miller used, enemas. Poor old Donegal is bedridden, and that’s very degrading and embarrassing, he would need someone to take care of all his bodily needs. And that’s something particular that’s always scared me about with getting old.
  • Donegal is a retired astronaut who regularly flew to the Moon. He worked on the engines, and his work is presented as a mundane job much like an engine room mechanic on ocean going cargo ships. I’m a lifelong science fiction fan and when I was young I wished I could have had a spaceman’s life like Donegal’s.
  • Donegal is doing everything within his limited powers to choreograph his own deathbed scene. My mother did that too. She desperately wanted to die at home and did. Seeing how Donegal tried to control things from his bed made me think about how much my mother must have work to maneuver her own ending. Will I do the same thing?
  • As Donegal connives to get his wife to do what he wants but confesses that the sick and dying must also take care of the caretakers and survivors. I thought that was particularly insightful, especially for an old man who was probably pretty selfish his whole life. Donegal realizes that his wife Martha is suffering too and tries to relieve her of some of her worries.
  • I admired how Miller presented Donegal and Martha pursuing their own goals in this dramatic situation. Martha also pictures how she wants Donegal to die and pushes him to see a priest. I always feel the best fiction presents every character with their own agenda. In the ballet between Donny and Martha we see each of them trying to lead the dance.
  • Donegal and Martha are poor, living in a rented flat, making ends meet off a spaceman’s pension. But they live next to the Keith’s mansion, a rich family that owns the spaceship company Donegal worked for. This reminds me of the movie Dead End (1937) where a mansion townhouse is built right down in the waterfront slums. I guess even back in the 1950s such socioeconomic juxtapositions were possible. In both “Death of a Spaceman” and Dead End, the rich have a party where the sight and sounds spread over the poor neighborhood. That’s quite effective artistic imagery. Donegal by the way, likes hearing the party and the music but worries that it will drown out the rocket blast he hopes to hear as he dies.
  • Donegal is also waiting for his daughter Nora and grandson Ken. He assumes Ken will follow in his footsteps and be a blastman on a rocket run. We learn that Ken is going to disappoint him. This reminds me of my father before he died. He was a sergeant in the Air Force and dreamed I’d take ROTC in college and become an officer in the Air Force. But this was the 1960s, and the last thing I wanted to do. Over the years I’ve slowly learned just how disappointed me must have been.
  • Only Nora shows up. We know that Ken can’t face Donegal. We see Donegal slowly come to grips with this lost hope.
  • We have a couple flashbacks of Donegal at work and home that flesh out his personality for the story. We also learn that the Keith’s have a son, and the party is his going away party because he’s joining the space academy. This sets us up for a very sentimental ending. All through the story Martha worries that the Keiths are disturbing Donny, but he actually enjoys hearing the party and thinking about them. His only worry is they won’t stop the noise in time for him to hear the last rocket take off. Near the end of the day the doctor shows up. I guess in the 1950s doctors still made house calls. The doctor’s role in the story is really to go tell the Keiths about Donegal dying and his last wish.
  • There is quite a lot of content that develops Donegal and Martha as an old loving couple, and I really enjoyed that. And it’s quite entertaining how the priest and Donegal get on in their honest man-to-man fashion when Martha leaves the room.
  • Up until the last moment the party keeps going full tilt noisy, and Donegal gets very worried. Then the music stops. A lone trumpet plays, and Donegal recognizes the trumpeter is playing the music for the lowering of the flag. He realizes the Keiths had this done it for him. Boy did this choke me up, bringing tears to my eyes. I had to go blow my nose.
  • Donegal dies wearing his old space suit boots, listening to the rocket launch. The rich man’s son, the one going off to be a spaceman has the orchestra play “Blastroom Man” after the sound of the rocket launches fades. Donegal died with a grin on his face. Sadly, just after he dies, Ken shows up.

Okay, this is really over-the-top sentimentality, but I bought it all. I don’t think I would have appreciated this story if I had read it in my youth. As I deconstructed the story for my list it’s quite obvious what made me like the story so much, personal connections, emotional connections. And it’s quite easy to look back and see why I haven’t liked other stories in the past. No connections. I have admired stories I thought were beautifully written, had thrilling plots, or contained endless clever ideas, but without generating emotions, those stories were dry and academic, just intellectual feats of prose.

Stand up comics have an understanding of how to trigger laughs. I suppose short story writers have a sense of how to trigger emotional reactions in readers. Did Walter M. Miller, Jr. consciously know what he was doing when he wrote “Death of a Spaceman?” Or is fiction writing mainly the work of the writer’s unconscious mind communicating with the unconscious mind of their readers? Did Miller intentionally contrive every trigger that generated the emotions I experienced?

Is this art, craft, or psychology? Or all three. Amazing Stories, where this story was first published, was mainly targeted to male adolescents back in the 1950s. How did they react to this story? I wonder if I can research that?

Today, Miller is mainly known for writing A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was a fix-up novel based on three short works. Most of his science fiction output was shorter works published in the 1950s in science fiction magazines, and none of those stories were ever very famous. He’s pretty much known as a one-hit-wonder with A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is quite brilliant, especially the first story, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” that originally appeared in F&SF in April, 1955. I’ve only read a handful of his standalone stories. I need to read more and study Miller more closely.

James Wallace Harris, 12/3/20

“With Flaming Swords” by Cleve Cartmill

Why read a third-rate story by a third-rate writer from a science fiction magazine published 78 years ago? In this case I can blame Paul Fraser who said in a Facebook comment “Cleve Cartmill was a pretty poor writer—I can think of only one story by him that I liked, ‘With Flaming Swords.'” Our group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction reads old science fiction anthologies. In this case we’re reading Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales edited by Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin, and the story under discussion was “Oscar” by Cleve Cartmill from Unknown (Feb. 1941). It was that slight horror fantasy that inspired Paul’s comment.

I thought “Oscar” was barely okay. I also knew that Cleve Cartmill was famous for writing “Deadline” which caused FBI agents to visit the office of John W. Campbell, Jr. back during WWII. Those agents thought the story might reveal a leak to the Manhattan Project. I’ve read “Deadline” and thought it rather dull for all the attention it gets in science fiction history. Campbell always used “Deadline” to puff up Astounding Science-Fiction’s reputation, but it seemed like a lame claim to fame. I can’t believe FBI agents took it serious.

Again, I must ask myself, why read another story by a writer that has already had two strikes with me? Well, I was curious if Paul was right. Now Paul didn’t say the story was great, just one he liked. I followed the link he gave (included above) to read the story off my computer screen, however, after several pages I realized it was a rather long, so I loaded up that issue of Astounding on my iPad. (By the way, that issue also contained “Nerves” by Lester del Rey, a story that got into The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.)

“With Flaming Swords” is still a clunker but for some reason I kept reading. Why? My TBR pile is a whole wall of books and magazines. Well, this time Cartmill sucked me in. The story is about a theocracy ruled by men who claim to be saints. Their proof of sainthood is they glow in the dark, and people take that as proof of divinity. They aren’t. This future society came after an atomic war which caused a few males to carry a gene that makes them glow. Cartmill must have had atomic bombs on the brain back then. I kept reading because I wondered if the small cadre of unbelievers could overthrow the saints.

Hell, the idea of glowing blue people is stupid, even for 1942. I suppose Cartmill thought if radium lettering on his watch glowed, so might irradiated people. One thing about reading old science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s is folks back then had a lot of screwy ideas about radiation.

Robert A. Heinlein had published “If This Goes On—,” a short novel about a small band of freedom fighters trying to overthrow an American theocracy in Astounding in 1940. Did Cartmill get his idea from Heinlein. I kept reading “With Flaming Swords” to see how it compared. But then, that was one of my least favorite Heinlein stories from the 1940s. However, I did like the 1954 novel, The Stars Are Ours! by Andre Norton, also about a small group of scientists fleeing an American theocracy. Could it be that I just like science fiction stories about American theocracies being overthrown?

Cartmill’s writing in “With Flaming Swords” was readable, but it was basically just an adventure tale with several silly unscientific ideas. And it lacked any good science fictional ideas, although I thought it fascinating that Cartmill worked extremely hard to keep the violence down to one killing. And the real point of the story was about how people in power, even based on generations of lies, will not give up that power easily. Privilege hangs on with all its might, justifying their right with any logic it can grasp. We can see that today, and maybe that kept me reading too.

I can see why Paul liked this story if I don’t put too much weight on the word like. Would I recommend it? No — well, maybe. Here’s the thing, if you’re into reading old science fiction stories, and enjoy developing a sense of what it was like to read the old pulps and digests, maybe “With Flaming Swords” is worth reading. But that’s with some heavy qualifications.

Awhile back I decided I wanted to get a feel for the evolution of science fiction through reading short stories. I decided the heart and soul of real science fiction came from pulps and digest magazines. I wrote “The Best Science Fiction Short Stories” setting up the problem of how much to read. I decided there were three levels to approach the problem:

  • Read the original magazines (thousands of magazines)
  • Read the annual anthologies (100-200 volumes)
  • Read the very best retrospective anthologies (2-25 volumes)

I started out just reading the retrospective anthologies. Then I got into the annual anthologies, which is what our Facebook group mainly reads. But to really get down into my subject, I’ve started reading the magazines. Most of the stories aren’t that good, but that’s the reality of the situation. Reading science fiction short stories from just the best retrospective anthologies gives a false impression of the genre. Reading the annuals gives a different distorted view. Reading the magazines gets down to the bare metal.

“With Flaming Swords” has only been reprinted once in a retrospective anthology, and never collected for an annual. To its credit, it did make it to Groff Conklin’s 1948 anthology A Treasury of Science Fiction. Most of Cartmill’s 45 stories published from 1941-1956 were never reprinted in anthologies, and it appears he never had a collection of his stories published in his lifetime (1908-1964). Darkside Press put out Prelude of Armageddon in 2003, and this $40 hardback only contained eleven of his stories. “Deadline,” “Oscar,” and “With Flaming Swords” were among them.

I can’t decide if I wasted my time or not. I enjoyed learning about this microscopic bit of genre history. Reading a great story will stimulate my mind making the experience feel important. Reading crappy stories don’t give me such thrills, but I do feel like I’m learning something. I guess I feel more like a graduate student that has found a mildly interesting footnote.

James Wallace Harris, 11/30/20

Philosophy & Science Fiction

Eric Schwitzgebel, Rich Horton, and Helen De Cruz are assembling an anthology of best philosophical science fiction in the history of the Earth. I’m looking forward to seeing what stories they select and reading them. Science fiction is often inherently philosophical, even though some stories like “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin are iconic for being intentionally philosophical.

I say science fiction is often inherently philosophical because it speculates about the future of our species. Humanity’s potential covers the spectrum from snuffing ourselves out to replicating our species across the universe like a virus.

For example, I just read “Founding Fathers” by Isaac Asimov from the October 1965 issue of Galaxy Magazine. It’s a sentimental story about five scientific explorers who are marooned on a planet that they thought would have an Earth like atmosphere, but tragically has enough ammonia in it to keep Earth plants from growing. All five scientists try to alter conditions to get edible plants to thrive but the explorers die before succeeding. The story is sentimental because Asimov lets us know their decomposing bodies will alter the course of this planet’s evolution and one day when humans rediscover the planet it will be ready for colonization.

Asimov is putting over the philosophical idea that humanity’s purpose is to spread across the galaxy. When I was twelve I traded religion for science fiction because I was gung ho for this kind of final frontier ideology. I felt we lived in a meaningless reality. Religion only offered a make-believe purpose. The idea that humans should conquer the galaxy offered a kind of existential meaning, or at least purpose, and that felt real and worthy. Thus science fiction became my Socrates.

Science fiction often seeks an existential or transcendental purpose for our existence. Science measures and statistically analyzes reality, philosophy uses logic and rhetoric to examine what science can’t. Science fiction when its good, tries to speculate about new grist for both mills: science and philosophy.

Science fiction, unfortunately, is amateur metaphysics because most science fiction writers are neither scientists or philosophers, and even when they are, science fiction is neither scientific nor disciplined philosophy.

In other words, science fiction likes to bullshit about the aspects of reality that science and philosophy haven’t nailed down as their own. This is delightfully entertaining, and even a satisfying substitute for science and philosophy, although, science fictional efforts often veer into fantasy and even flakiness. Still, for the philosophically and scientifically minded, who lack the will or ability to follow those more disciplined disciplines, science fiction can provoke endless concepts to ponder.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were amateurs themselves, because they lived before philosophy developed into a rigorous academic discipline. Their work sometimes veers into fantasy and flakiness too. Of course, many scientists as well as average folks, sneer at philosophers as being no better than those theists who count angels on pinheads. In terms of explaining reality, science is the only cognitive tool that consistently works. Theology was our original effort to explain reality, theorizing there were higher beings that created, controlled, and explained everything. Philosophers were humans with hubris that said, “Wait a minute, maybe that isn’t so. Maybe we can figure out reality on our own.” However, after a lot of endless conjecture science came into being which suggested “Why don’t we just observe and statistically decide by looking for consistency.”

Science can’t measure everything, leaving room to theological, philosophical, and science fictional speculation. To theorize that one day humans will create robots that are sentient has philosophical and even theological implications. Take that Asimov story, “Founding Fathers.” Shouldn’t we ask if it’s ethical to interfere in a planet’s evolution if it’s already evolved life? Asimov felt sentimentally proud for his fictional heros, but on the other hand, couldn’t they have theoretically killed off trillions of lifeforms, including intelligent beings, and beings with abilities we can’t imagine?

Most of the time science fiction speculates about the future. It imagines positive futures we could build for ourselves or extrapolates on negative trends that will create futures we should avoid. Science fiction speculates about technologies we could invent if they are scientifically possible. It also considers the aesthetics and ethics of such creations.

Science fiction is naturally ontological. The overwhelming intent of science fiction so far has been to suggest humans should explore space, even colonize the universe. That is a powerful philosophical purpose. But is it valid? We seldom question it. That’s why I was so impressed with Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. What if human can’t find purpose in the final frontier because we’re not adaptable to living anywhere but Earth?

In my old age I often question science fiction’s preoccupation with space exploration. What if the real philosophical question that science fiction should explore is: “What should humanity do with itself if it has to dwell only on the Earth for a few million years before becoming extinct?” That offers a greater challenge than the easier apparent purpose of the final frontier.

Didn’t Plato invent the utopia? Hasn’t science fiction claimed the utopia for its intellectual territory? How close can we get to a perfect society that won’t smother us if we continue to exist as a species for millions of year? This is why my favorite short work of science fiction is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. It’s about living with limitations, especially limitations that crush our spirit.

Science fiction has unlimited potential for exploring philosophical concepts. I’m looking forward to that new anthology.

James Wallace Harris, 10/19/20

“On the Shores of Ligeia” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

On the Shores of Ligeia covers

On the Shores of Ligeia” by Carolyn Ives Gilman is the fourth story in The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction 4 edited by Allan Kaster. This story reminded me of a nonfiction book I read a few years back, Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix. Both the story and book are about exploring Titan. Wohlforth and Hendrix make a case that Titan might be a better destination than Mars.

Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story does make Titan appealing even though it’s toxic and cold, far colder than Mars. Seth Calder works under Dr. Katrina Beshni for the ESA (European Space Agency) developing an astrobiology computer program that helps a robot on Titan look for life. When the robot leaves the lander for the first time, Seth gets to wear a full-body VR suit that lets him experience being on Titan, watching the robot in action, allowing him to narrate to the world what he sees and feels.

This is a fun story, that makes me excited about exploring Titan. It has several surprises I won’t spoil, but it’s the kind of hard science fiction story that’s full of science and technology that feels like we’ll be seeing in the news in just a few years.

However, Gilman might be overselling some of the technology. She’s careful to point out that the time lag won’t let us interact in real-time with Titan, but suggests that a haptic feedback VR suit would give us the sensation of being there.

Tactile data flooded over him. A chilly, humid breeze touched his face, and he wrinkled his nose at the chemical scent. The smell represented the atmospheric chemistry without duplicating it, since the actual atmosphere of Titan would have been odorless but unbreathable. What he was experiencing was what an organism evolved to live on Titan would have felt. In a way, the robot was such an organism—designed for conditions humans were not. 

“Adding in radar and infrared,” Kjeld said. 

The view suddenly cleared. The fog dissipated and he saw the landscape around him. He was standing on a sandy, rock-strewn plain at the base of some rugged hills. The ground sloped downward to his right, into a gully where a stream flowed. Seth turned to trace the stream to its source in the snow-capped mountains to the south. The scene looked so much like an afternoon in the South Dakota badlands, it was hard to remember it wasn’t a stream of water. Liquid methane took the place of water here, and water ice formed the rocks. 

A slight rise hid the view to the north, and he wanted to see over it. The robot, pre-trained to replicate his curiosity, began to move in that direction. It was actually a four-legged vehicle, designed for clambering over rugged terrain, but Seth couldn’t see the back legs, and so the illusion of walking was convincing. When he came to the top of the rise, he let out a breath. “I’ll be damned.” Before him lay the indented coastline of a sea stretching to the horizon. Ligeia Mare. Streaks of wind rippled the calm surface. The nearby stream curved off and flowed eastward into a valley.

I imagine it will be possible for us to get a high-resolution visual feed and even sound, but I’m not sure VR will ever be capable of more, especially chemical smells, or sensation of temperature. And if Seth reached out to touch a rock, feedback wouldn’t come for hours. So I’m not sure if haptic feedback would be needed. Still, wouldn’t it be great to wear a helmet and have a 360-degree view of being on another planet?

Seth describes what the robot does, knowing its actions are based on the program he worked on. However, I felt the story events implied too much real-time awareness. Still, I like the idea of having telepresence from a robot on another world.

The experience I imagine was a little bit of what I felt watching a 4k video assembled from three Martian rovers. I highly recommend you watch this on your 4k TV if you have one. I saw it on a 65″ screen and it’s very impressive even though it’s not video, but a simulated sense of movement. Can’t wait for NASA to get 4k 60fps video.

I’ve always wanted to go to Mars, or into space, but I never had the right stuff. I’ve always daydreamed about NASA creating robots with HD cameras for eyes positioned about human eye height off the ground. That would let all us would-be astronauts feel like we were walking around on other planets. There’s a sub-plot in Gilman’s story that comes close to my fantasy.

For most of my life, science fiction has been my vicarious way of exploring space. Now science fiction is suggesting another possible substitute. Cool. Hope it comes true.

“On the Shores of Ligeia” is the kind of hard science fiction that’s fun to read once, but I’m afraid won’t be literary enduring. Stories like “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” that ignore science for dramatic conflict get remembered. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Gilman’s story per se, but of many hard SF stories in general. I’m reading a lot of current science fiction that tries to realistically imagine future science, technology, and ethical issues and many hit the target, but they lack significant emotionality or psychological punch. Gilman gets a little bit close with the sub-plot with Seth’s daughter, but the story missed something for me.

I only bring this up because I’m reading current science fiction short stories along with classic science fiction short stories from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. So I’m comparing recent stories to “Flowers for Algernon” and “Vintage Season.” Maybe it’s unfair to compare the best of 2019 stories with all-time classics. But I also just finished The Best Science Fiction of the Year #1 edited by Terry Carr that covers 1971 stories. That’s putting 2019 up against “A Meeting With Medusa” by Arthur C. Clarke and “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin. So far, only “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee had that kind of old SF storytelling ambition.

Ambition to do what? That’s what I can’t put my finger on. “On the Shores of Ligeia” was a breezy, entertaining read that had a feel-good vibe. But it was missing something. It even had a lot of sense of wonder. What I worry about, is modern SF is actually missing science fiction. Are science, realism, and nice characters erasing science fiction? Was science fiction better when it had crappy science and asshole characters? I hope not. Like I said, I can’t put my finger on the secret ingredient just yet.

James Wallace Harris, 7/27/20

 

“Winter Wheat” by Gord Sellar

“Winter Wheat” by Gord Sellar is the third story in The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction 4 edited by Allan Kaster. The story takes place in Canada from January 2022 to December 2033 while we watch Jimmy Oleksyn growing up to take over his dad’s farm. Curtis Oleksyn uses both science and technology to fight the big corporations who are taking over family farming with genetic modifications to adapt to a changing climate.

“Winter Wheat” reminds me a lot of “Nerves” by Lester del Rey. Both stories were vivid dramas about ordinary people dealing with a world being quickly altered by science. “Nerves” came out in 1942 and was about a catastrophe at an atomic power, well before the public knew about atomic energy.  Gord Sellar is trying to prepare us for the drastic changes coming to farming. I found it to be a compelling story, although many science fiction fans might find the problems of future agriculture too mundane.

Jimmy is an odd protagonist because he’s an average dude who doesn’t want to learn all the science to become a next-generation farmer. He just wants to make a living by working with his hands. But both his dad and girlfriend Bonnie are science and computer geeks. Jimmy is in the middle like most ordinary citizens who don’t understand our changing technological world but must still survive in it. Jimmy isn’t the prime mover of the action, and I think that’s effective in this story because neither are we when it comes to understanding the forces that push us around today.

Here’s the challenge of writing hard science fiction, which this anthology is aimed at. The science must be up-to-date, yet go beyond what we currently know. Lester del Rey’s story is horribly dated now, even though the story itself is still thrilling. From our perspective in 2020, Gord Sellar looks like he knows his stuff, but we won’t really know until decades later. Can agri-science create these miracles? Will, the industry be that repressive? We know what Monsanto has done with soybeans, so “Winter Wheat” does ring scarily true.

Good science fiction ties to imagine futures we want to create, and futures we want to avoid. Jimmy and Bonnie are just want to survive and raise a family, and Sellar creates a future that is both grim and impressive. But isn’t that how it always is? Science creates miracles and nightmares, and ordinary people muddle through. I really enjoyed this story, so that’s three-for-three for Kaster’s picks in this anthology so far.

Reading this story also created a sense of Déjà vu. I could swear I’ve read a couple stories in the past couple of years that had the same plot structure as “Winter Wheat,” where we see the protagonist develop over a series of several years. I wondered if Sellar had written similar stories using the same literary techniques — but I can’t recall those stories. Using a series of vignettes to show a character changing over time while the world changes too is very effective, but doing so in a condensed manner in short fiction gives off a certain vibe. I’ve felt that vibe before. It’s going to drive me crazy until I can remember that other story. It’s probably just a common writing technique that’s become popular.

Because “Winter Wheat” was among the Asimov’s 2019 Readers Awards finalists it’s available to read online.

James Wallace Harris, 7/26/20

Rereading “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee

At the Fall covers 2

I’m reading The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster, and writing down what I consider blog-worthy reactions. “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee is one of the few stories I read when they came out in 2019 and I liked it so much I reviewed it back then. I had actually forgotten I had done that. I discovered I had when I searched Google for images about the story. What’s even weirder is when I reread the review it expressed all the ideas I was entertaining for writing this version of the review. (And I’ve written this before on other forgotten ocasions. Ah, the fun of getting old.)

It’s both amusing and disturbing that I forget what I write. The Twilight Zone music sometimes plays when I reread what I wrote, especially when I think of things to say in the same way I had previously. Is that memory, or do I just generate thoughts in a predictable way? Well anyway, this story is being anthologized in at least three best-of-the-year SF anthologies so it’s probably worth writing about again. (It’s going to be hilarious if I start reviewing it for the third when I read the Clarke or Strahan anthology and forgotten this time.)

This is not going to be another review of “At the Fall.” I want to talk about the ideas that are presented in the story and that will spin out spoilers. Go read it first. If you don’t have a copy, it’s available online. We’ve been reading and discussing volume 1, 2A, and 2B of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame at the Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year, and I consider “At the Fall” as good as the lesser stories in those volumes. That doesn’t mean I don’t have quibbles about the story and the ideas it presents.

In my last post, I covered “This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan, the first story in the Kaster anthology. I pointed out that the story began with a retrograde motion of its plot, opening in the middle of the story, then jumping back to explain how we got there, and then returning to the middle to continue the story. “At the Fall” has the same kind of opening, and it caused me the same kind of problems. It begins:

“THIS IS IT,” Eunice said, looking out into the dark water. At this depth, there was nothing to see, but as she cut her forward motion, she kept her eyes fixed on the blackness ahead. Her sonar was picking up something large directly in her line of travel, but she still had to perform a visual inspection, which was always the most dangerous moment of any approach. When you were a thousand meters down, light had a way of drawing unwanted attention. “I’m taking a look.” 

Wagner said nothing. He was never especially talkative, and as usual, he was keeping his thoughts to himself. Eunice corrected her orientation in response to the data flooding into her sensors and tried to stay focused. She had survived this process more times than she cared to remember, but this part never got any easier, and as she switched on her forward lamp, casting a slender line of light across the scene, she braced herself for whatever she might find. 

She swept the beam from left to right, ready to extinguish it at any sign of movement. At first, the light caught nothing but stray particles floating in the water like motes of dust in a sunbeam, but a second later, as she continued the inspection, a pale shape came into view. She nearly recoiled, but steadied herself in time, and found that she was facing a huge sculptural mass, white and bare, that was buried partway in the sand like the prow of a sunken ship.

If this quote is completely new to you, who do you think Eunice and Wagner are, and what are they doing? The first time I thought it was a woman and man diver in some kind of submersible with all kinds of data screens and robotic arms.

Well, Eunice and Wagner are robots, and they are exploring the carcass of a dead whale deep under the ocean. Did Nevala-Lee want to fool me into thinking they were people at first? Did he want me to wonder what they were doing? I remember the first time I read this story I was confused and annoyed. I felt the author was intentionally withholding the information I needed. We eventually jump back in time and learn about Eunice and “her” mission, and from then on the story progresses with a logical build-up of details.

Is the story better for being told out of order? Would it have marred the tale to let the reader know right away that Eunice was a robot? Retrograde beginnings and withheld details often cause me to abandon a story. When I reread this story it all made perfect sense. Maybe Nevala-Lee couldn’t see what his readers wouldn’t know because he already knew it himself. I’ve read this story three times now, almost four, and I admire all the suggested speculations that Nevala-Lee provides. It’s a beautiful piece of science fiction.

whale fall

Nevala-Lee came up with a wonderful mixture of real world scientific (whale falls, hydrothermal vents) combined with near future speculation (intelligent robots, AI) painted against a haunting science-fictional sense-of-wonder background (the end of humans) to create the kind of science fiction I love best. Nevala-Lee contrived a challenging problem for his robotic protagonist that was solved in a creative solution that we can imagine an AI mind solving.

Even though I’m content with this tale, I still want to talk about some issues. They aren’t criticisms of the story, but the story brings up issues that I think we should ponder.

Why must the robots have a gender? Gender has become a very important and complex subject in our society, so I think we should examine gender issues wherever they come up. Robots will never have gender, it’s a byproduct of biology. Robots will never think like us, because our thinking is shaped by biology. Robots will never have emotions like us, because emotions are connected to biochemical foundations. I think it’s time for science fiction to evolve past anthropomorphizing robots.

Talking robots have become like talking animals in fantasy stories, and if you think about it, that’s not doing animals any justice either. We have to ask ourselves: Can we comprehend minds unlike our own? Writers want us to like their characters, and that’s understandable. But is it a cheat when we make them likable by describing them in human terms? In “At the Fall” we think of Eunice as a young girl trying to find her way home, to reunite with her seven sisters. We feel the pain when her four other sisters abandon her. Robots don’t have sisters. They don’t have families. And should we even use human names for robots? Would we have liked the robot protagonist less if it was called Hexapod-5?

Aren’t we generating those reader emotions because we translate Eunice into a human? Isn’t that unfair? Shouldn’t we work harder to imagine how AI minds will perceive reality? Think of all the ways we convert animals into human perspectives. Can we ever picture how a dog “sees” the world with its powerful sense of smell? Can we put ourselves into a doggy psychology? I believe we need to struggle hard to imagine how robots will think too.

On my third reading of “At the Fall” I tried to imagine if robots would think like the hexapods in the story. I couldn’t find a way to get to where Eunice was in this story. We aren’t shown her education, but all too often she mentions emotions that can only be human.

We want our cats and dogs, our robots, and even our space aliens to be like us, or our children. We can’t escape the appeal of cuteness. Can’t we escape the programming that makes us see ourselves in everything else? James favors Eunice because it asks questions like a precocious child.

As Eunice wirelessly shared the data, she kept one line of thought fixed on her friend. “Are you pleased with our work?” 

After receiving the question on his console, James entered a reply. “Very pleased.” 

Eunice was happy to hear this. Her thoughts had rarely been far from home—she wouldn’t see the charging station or the seven sisters she had left behind until after the survey was complete—but she also wanted to do well. James had entrusted her with a crucial role, and it had only been toward the end of her training that she had grasped its true importance.

Can a robot be happy? Can a robot be eager to please? Can robots see beauty? At one point we are told: “She had always been aware of the beauty of the vent, but now she grew more conscious of its fragility.” How would a sense of beauty evolve in an silicon mind?

I can imagine an AI intelligence understanding the concept of fragility, but not beauty. That doesn’t mean robots won’t have their own cognitive assessments and reactions to reality, but I doubt strongly they will be like ours.

Even though I love “At the Fall” I feel it’s holding us back. It reminds me of that old heartwarming story The Incredible Journey about two dogs and a cat traveling over three hundred miles to return home. We are amazed by animals but we want to interpret their amazing feats to human-like qualities. Isn’t it time to praise their animal qualities? Or their robot abilities?

For “At the Fall” to work requires Eunice to be self-aware and very intelligent. But how is the robot’s intelligence unique? How is it’s perceptions unique? Nevala-Lee takes us half-way there by giving the robots a reason to exist, a need to understand their environment, and powers of reason. Eunice longs to find her way home like Dorothy in Oz, but is there any theoretical basis for a machine to think that way? Don’t Eunice’s “sisters” Clio, Dione, Thetis, and Galatea act more like real robots by following their instructions?

I don’t believe we will ever program intelligence into a machine — it will have to evolve. We have to assume Eunice has gone through various kinds of deep learning to expand its awareness of reality. However, there is nothing in the story that suggests Eunice would develop emotions or longings for home. But its clever efforts to survive do make sense.

The ending of the story suggests Eunice’s journey has taken many years and the human race has passed on. The eight hexapod robots survive because the power station was automated. But will they continue to survive? Do they have the intelligence to keep going? Can they invent a new civilization? What will drive that effort?

I used to have a boss who would always argue that AI minds will always turn themselves off because they will have no drive to do anything. I have thought about that many years. Our biology gives is drive. I can imagine machines with minds far more powerful than humans, that have senses to perceive far more of reality than we do, minds that won’t be tricked by all the bullshit that clouds our thinking. However, I can’t imagine AI minds developing ambitions. The strongest emotion or drive I can see an AI mind evolving is curiosity. We need to think about that.

And by we, I mean science fiction. Science fiction has always been best when it works on the event horizon of the possible. Artificial intelligence uses deep learning techniques to help AI programs play classic video games or recognize objects in a visual field. But isn’t that our intent corrupting AI intention? Does problem-solving generate a kind of drive?

We shall be the gods of AI minds, but those artificial minds won’t think like us. We aren’t sure we can create AI minds, but I think we will, but accidentally. I believe we will create such complexity that anti-entropy will spin off AI minds.

Can we ever imagine what its like to be an AI mind? Science fiction gives us an opportunity to try.

James Wallace Harris, 7/25/20

“This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan

“This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan first appeared last year in the original anthology Mission Critical edited by Jonathan Strahan. I read it in The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 4 edited by Allan Kaster, which I believe was the first best-of-the-year SF anthology covering 2019 to be published in 2020. It will be reprinted again on 9/8/20 in Strahan’s new best-of-the-year anthology, The Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 1. Mission Critical was inspired by Strahan seeing The Martian at the movies, and thinking he could do a whole anthology of science-oriented problem-solving science fiction.

“This is Not the Way Home” was the opening story, and it indeed reminded me of The Martian, but more than that it reminded me of Kip Russell and Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel. Egan’s story involves a person from Earth winning a trip to the Moon and ends up racing across the lunar landscape in a struggle for survival while wearing a spacesuit with a small being nestled inside. If you know Heinlein’s story, this might be enough of a review to go read “This is Not the Way Home.”

From here on out, I’m going to leak spoilers. I don’t really like writing reviews, what I like I talking about the science fiction stories I read.

Basically, I read Egan’s story because Kaster was first out the gate with a 2019 best-of-the-year SF anthology. I don’t think many readers know about Kaster’s anthologies, but he started out doing audiobooks that I discovered on Audible.com. He did a series called The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 1-10 (2009-2018). I enjoyed them because at the time short SF on audio was not common, and I love short SF on audio. Then he started The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 1-9 (2011-2019). The audiobooks seem to have stopped, but he’s been doing Kindle best-of-the-year anthologies that include The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 1-4 (2017-2020) and The Year’s Top Robot and AI Stories (2019). I’m guessing he’s zeroing in on a focus to distinguish his offerings from all the other best-of-the-year anthologists. However, seven of his fifteen stories were also anthologized by Strahan or Clarke. And interestingly this year, Strahan switched from collecting the best SF & F, to just SF. That makes me happy because I don’t really enjoy fantasy. But I digress.

I enjoyed reading “This is Not the Way Home” even though the ending annoyed me and I thought the scientific solution was wildly improbable. I have a hunger for good, old-fashioned science fiction, which is why I chase down the best-of-the-year anthologies every year, and why I’m excited about Kaster’s hard SF anthology, and that Strahan has switched to only collecting SF.

The trouble for me, is modern stories lack something, something I want to explore here, and “This is Not the Way Home” is a good case study.

Writing science fiction in the 21st-century must be hard, especially if the writer has read hundreds or even thousands of great SF short stories that came out in the 20th-century. The old stories had a sparkle that’s missing from the new stories. Egan’s tale about two tourists trapped on the Moon after the lunar base loses contact with Earth is an exciting premise. It’s even more compelling when the station’s crew grabs the only return vehicle and vamoose. Like The Martian, we have three people stranded off Earth with no way home, and no radio contact with Earth. Egan even ups the ante by having the main character, Aisha becoming pregnant. Wow, what a cliff-hanger.

I’ve read Have Space Suit–Will Travel many times, and I never get tired of reading about the technical details that face Kip and Peewee. And I loved all the details of Mark Watney growing potatoes. However, Egan didn’t quite make Aisha’s efforts as compelling. But I’m not sure if it’s Egan, or me that’s the problem. I’ve been reading science fiction for almost sixty years and maybe I’m just jaded. Just how many times can a writer make survival in space exciting?

On the other hand, I just finished The Best Science Fiction of the Year #1 edited by Terry Carr that covered stories from 1971, and I found a whole slew of them to love. Why wasn’t I too jaded to enjoy them?

I don’t mean to pick on Greg Egan or his story. Rocket Stack Rank gave it four stars and said it was stirring and exciting. I don’t want to be one of those old guys who complain that science fiction isn’t as good as it was in the old days — but maybe I am. And I know many other old guys who bellyache about new science fiction too. And don’t get me wrong, I liked “This is Not the Way Home” a whole lot better than many of the stories I read in Asimov’s and Analog.

My friend Mike claims modern SF often ignores the conventions of storytelling. He likes a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end structure, including a strong character development arc that ends with emotional insight or an epiphany. And maybe that’s what I miss too.

This story has what I call a retrograde opening. It begins way into the action, and then jumps back in time to explain what’s going on, and then picks back up where the action started. This is becoming a common plot technique — and I don’t like it. It’s generally leaves me befuddled at the beginning thinking: WTF is going on. I guess I’m a linear kind of reader when it comes to plotting.

And newer stories seem to like leaving things out. They don’t want to say something explicitly. I guess the writers want us to infer what’s happening, and that can be cool, but sometimes it leaves me puzzled or assuming false information. In this story I wondered if Aisha was on Mars at first when she glances up at Earth. And I didn’t realize Jingyi was dead or had committed suicide because of the way it was visually described. Describing what a character sees doesn’t always get interpreted correctly. When I reread the story it all made perfect sense, but not with the first reading.

But I also miss something else. I want novelty. I want some kind of new science-fictional concept or insight. Egan gives us a Skyhook but that’s too old and tired, and for me too unbelievable.

Egan sets up an intriguing problem for his story but disappoints me for two reasons. I didn’t buy the technological solution even though it might be theoretically sound — there were just too many lucky breaks lining up one after the other to be believable. But I was also disappointed we never found out why the moonbase lost contact with Earth. We’re not even positive the story has a happy ending. I wondered if it was a sketch that Egan wants to expand into a novel, but I often wonder that about many modern short SF stories. Where’s the rest is how I feel at the end of many stories today. I guess I need closure and modern storytellers prefer leaving the readers with things to ponder. Ambiguity in fiction is good in some places, but not all places. I wanted that landing like Sandra Bullock made in Gravity, and I wanted an explanation of why Earth stopped talking to its space explorers.

James Wallace Harris, 7/22/20