“True Names” vs. “Press Enter ▮”

True Names and Press Enter

Science fiction explores several landscapes. Outer space is the most widely known of these. Inner space has been the setting for a tiny fraction of science fiction, for example, The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny and The Lathe of Heaven (1971) by Ursula K. Le Guin. However, within my lifetime a whole new fictional territory emerged with cyberspace, the digital landscape. Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson is usually credit with starting the cyberpunk movement which made cyberspace famous, but many digital landscape stories existed before that.

The digital landscape needs both computers and networks to exist, so it’s easy to think that science fiction about cyberspace couldn’t exist before them. However, “The Machine Stops” (1909) by E. M. Forster essentially imagines cyberspace and machine intelligence without knowing about computers, binary mathematics, or stored data. It’s not hard to give some credit to Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland as an early explorer of the digital landscape, although we could consider mathematics to be a whole landscape itself.

“True Names” (1981) by Vernor Vinge prefigures everything that will become cyberpunk. Sadly, it’s never been reprinted much. In 1996 it was included in David Hartwell’s Visions of Wonder, a major retrospective anthology, and in 2001 it was reprinted in True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier edited by James Frenkel which collected many essays by famous computer scientists to introduce the story and explain why it blew their minds.

“Press Enter ▮” by John Varley came out in the May 1984 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, a few months before Neuromancer. That story is much more famous, winning the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards and being often reprinted.

Both “True Names” and “Press Enter ▮” presented science fiction readers with early visions of the digital landscape and both were horror stories about a machine intelligence emerging out of the internet. There have been so many stories about cyberspace and malevolent AI since then. It’s hard to remember these two stories are the Jules Verne and H. G. Wells tales of the subgenre. Both are available online, probably illegally, but you can read “True Names” and listen to “Press Enter ▮.”

“True Names” is the more fanciful of the two, really a fantasy story, because the protagonist, Roger Pollack (“Mr. Slippery”) enter cyberspace in a rather unbelievable way. Roger and his partner Debbie Charteris (“Erythrina”) paste sensors to their skulls and go into a trance to traverse the digital landscape using fantasy motifs of warlocks and magical powers. Vernor Vinge asks his readers to believe they can experience massive amounts of data in cyberspace as a form of expanded consciousness. It’s really just a fantasy portal no more realistic than C. S. Lewis’ back of a wardrobe. It’s an exciting story and moves extremely fast for being a novella, but unfortunately, neither Roger or Debbie are deeply developed as real humans or as their hacker alter egos Mr. Slippery and Erythrina. However, I was moved by the scene when we get to see who Debbie is as a real person.

Press-Enter-from-Asimovs

“Press Enter ▮” is far more realistic. Victor Apfel is a character of complexity. He is a semi-invalid Korean war vet living next to Charles Kluge, a master hacker. Kluge commits suicide and tricks Victor into discovering his body. The police hire Lisa Foo, another master hacker to process Kluge’s house full of computers and software. Victor and Lisa become friends, then lovers. Lisa is a Vietnam refuge, so she and Victor have a complex shared background with several Asian countries.

Neither Kluge or Lisa enter cyberspace, both just sit at terminals hours on end. They live in this reality and the cyber landscape can only be deciphered by data dredged from computer screens. This makes the horror of an emerging AI intelligence far scarier, and the ending particularly vivid.

I reread these two stories yesterday because I’m working on a list of my 35 favorite science fiction short stories. Piet Nel suggested limiting ourselves 35 stories because if they were published as a book it would be about the size as one of Gardner Dozois’ big anthologies. That means I’m going to have to leave out a lot of fondly remembered tales. I’ll have to decide between “True Names” and “Press Enter ▮” – because of their overlapping themes. I suppose I could argue back with Piet that we should consider 109 the limit. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s The Big Book of Science Fiction proves it is possible to go truly gigantic with an anthology.

In the end, I’ve decided to use “Press Enter ▮” for my list. “True Names” was more colorful and fantastic. But I have to consider it cyberfantasy, rather than cyber-SF. More than that, I envisioned Victor and Lisa way more than I could with Roger and Debbie.

Comparing the two stories helped me with my problem of picking favorite stories. As I’ve been going over the SF stories I love most and rereading them, I’ve discovered certain aspects inherent in stories are what makes me like them. These qualities are hard to label. All fiction must hook us, must contain a thread of suspense to keep us reading. I’ve been trying to identify those elements within a story that hooks me and keep me reading. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. The main character has to feel real. In fact, the more real the better. I have to identify with the character, even if I don’t like them. Stories that feel like I’m reading about a person experiencing a real event, even if I know it’s fictional or fantasy, is what grabs me most.
  2. The subject matter is next in importance. I can read a masterpiece of fiction about any subject, and admire it tremendously, but I only develop a psychic love affair with stories that involve my life-long pet topics.
  3. The story needs to explore philosophical problems I want to understand. I love stories the most that give me philosophical/spiritual/personal insight.

I’ve also learned there are elements in stories that make me want to stop reading.

  1. I’m turned off by prose that calls attention to the writer. I don’t want to be reminded that I’ve entered fiction-space.
  2. I don’t like artificial constructs. I know writers love to play around with how they tell a story, but if it jars my attention that detracts from my reading pleasure.
  3. Unbelievability is a reading buzzkill. I know when I reading the literature of the fantastic, but even it has to have a feel of believability.

Cyberspace and artificial reality are concepts that have emerged in our lifetime. We’ve watched writers work to make them believable, to create portals into this new digital landscape. The most realistic stories are those where humans wear goggles and suits. It is quite popular now to have stories where brains are recorded and people’s minds are transferred into artificial realities. I don’t accept brain downloading. I can accept it as a fantasy portal, but not as science fictional speculation.

We use to say the universe was everything, but now with multiple universes becoming accepted, I call the whole enchilada reality. Earth, outer space, inner space, and the digital landscape are all part of a single reality. Both inner space and digital space must be explained by the laws of reality.

Fiction space can work outside the laws of reality. However, I prefer stories that do.

I prefer “Press Enter ▮” to “True Names” because it confirms more with reality. But I also resonate better with the John Varley story because Victor and Lisa are compelling characters that come with realistically detailed biographies. Both stories deal with the same philosophical problem though — the threat of computer intelligence. And even here, I give the nod to Varley. Not that Vinge hasn’t created a powerful imaginative story, I just resonate better with Varley’s realism. I imagine other readers will prefer Vinge because his cyberspace is more colorful, and they accept that fiction space can work outside those laws of reality.

JWH

 

“Finnegan, Bring the Pain” by Joe M. McDermott

Analog Jul-Aug 2019

I read “Finnegan, Bring the Pain” by Joe M. McDermott because Greg Hullender gave it 5-stars at Rocket Stack Rank, saying it was “Hard-Hitting Tale of Different Kinds of Loss.” The story is in the latest issue of Analog (Jul-Aug 2019).

I believe a powerful short story often succeeds because it identifies a specific emotional insight. James Joyce called such storytelling moments epiphanies. I’m not sure I like Joyce’s label. I wish each literary emotion had its own identifiable noun. It would certainly help with reviewing fiction. Maybe if I thoroughly read The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows I could find it.

In “Finnegan, Bring the Pain” the emotion is what one feels when being left behind while someone you know, someone often much like yourself, gets away. In “Finnegan, Bring the Pain” Finnegan is a teenager who is a loser in school, who knows he’s going to have a shitty life, but his friend Wind, a girl who keeps his unrequited love at arm’s length, is leaving for Alpha Centauri.

Joe M. McDermott is aiming point-blank at science fiction fans who want to go into space but feel left behind. As a kid, I wanted to go to Mars. I’m sure most SF fans dream of traveling somewhere beyond Earth, so “Finnegan, Bring the Pain” should resonate well with its readers. My all-time favorite short work of science fiction is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, a novella that farms this emotion perfectly. (This emotion might also explain why my favorite science fiction movie is Gattaca.)

However, the essence of the “left behind” emotion applies in endless ways. I’ve read literary stories with characters who knew they could never escape their small-town life and make it in the big city, or with a low-level ball player watching a friend move up to the majors, or a poor soul desperately wanting to be rich, or an assistant professor realizing they’re never going to achieve their version of The Origin of Species or a would-be novelist who’d never write the great American novel.

After I realized I’d never go into space, I dreamed of writing science fiction, but the older I get the more I knew that dream has passed me by too. I read stories today like this one to inspire me to write. The dream isn’t completely dead, and I do feel left behind by young writers succeeding with ideas I wanted to explore.

Generally, science fiction is about people who achieve escape velocity. We want to live vicariously through characters who reach the stars. McDermott and Delany remind us that we don’t have the right stuff. That’s painful, but also cathartic.

I’ve always wanted to write a science fiction novel set in the future where all humans experience the “left behind” emotion when we discover that space travel isn’t practical for humans, but is perfect for robots. In this case, I want to be Wind, but I’m still Finnegan.

Finnegan resigns himself to mundane life, even one that has little successes. There is a secondary insight into the “left behind” emotion, and that is we do have a life that is ours, one that we have to accept and enjoy. My acceptance is by promoting SF stories I like and wish I had written.

Getting 5-stars at RSR doesn’t guarantee I’ll love a story, but it does inspire me to track them down. And to be balanced in my reporting, I have loved stories that Greg gave only 1-star. The real take-away of ratings and reviews: subscribe to the science fiction magazine, you won’t know what you’ll find until you read them. Don’t worry about all the stories you don’t like, find the ones you do. Analog has a great of variety among its stories. And if you do subscribe, as you read the stories, think about what each offers in terms of emotional insights. I believe the stories that deserve the most stars are the ones that resonate with your own deep emotions.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

The Year’s Best Short Science Fiction: 1950

The Years Best Short Science Fiction - 1950

1950 was a great year for SF short stories. Along with 1966 and 1982, they tie for having the most stories in one year on the updated Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories. Four memorable stories in one year is outstanding since many years have none, and only 1-2 is common. Also, before I read the two anthologies pictured above I was already familiar with 7 of the stories. That’s the most since I started this reading project of systematically reading through the best-SF-of-the-year anthologies starting with 1939.

1950 represents an evolution in mature science fiction writing. It also reflects the influence of magazines besides Astounding Science Fiction. The old timers in my youth considered the 1940s the Golden Age of Science Fiction, but for my generation, the 1950s is our Golden Age. I’m very excited to finally arrive in 1950 and look forward to reading through the decade.

In 1951 Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty selected the following 1950 science fiction short stories for The Best Science Fiction Stories 1951:

  • “The Santa Claus Planet” by Frank M. Robinson (original)
  • “The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out” by Reginald Bretnor (F&SF)
  • The Mindworm” by C. M. Kornbluth (Worlds Beyond)
  • “The Star Ducks” by Bill Brown (F&SF)
  • “Not to Be Opened” by Peter Grainger (as Roger Flint Young) (Astounding)
  • Process” by A. E. van Vogt (F&SF)
  • “Forget-Me-Not” by William F. Temple (Other Worlds)
  • “Contagion” by Katherine MacLean (Galaxy)
  • “Trespass!” by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson (Fantastic Story Quarterly)
  • Oddy and Id” by Alfred Bester (Astounding)
  • To Serve Man” by Damon Knight (Galaxy)
  • “Summer Wear” by L. Sprague de Camp (Startling Stories)
  • “Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson (F&SF)
  • “The Fox and the Forest” by Ray Bradbury (The Illustrated Man)
  • “The Last Martian” by Fredric Brown (Galaxy)
  • The New Reality” by Charles L. Harness (Thrilling Wonder)
  • “Two Face” by Frank Belknap Long (Weird Tales)
  • Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber (Galaxy)

In 1984 Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg picked these stories for The Great SF Stories 12 (1950):

  • “Not with a Bang” by Damon Knight (F&SF)
  • “Spectator Sport” by John D. MacDonald (Thrilling Wonder)
  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury (Collier’s)
  • “Dear Devil” by Eric Frank Russell (Other Worlds)
  • “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith (Fantasy Book)
  • “The Little Black Bag” by C. M. Kornbluth (Astounding)
  • “Enchanted Village” by A. E. van Vogt (Other Worlds)
  • Oddly and Id” by Alfred Bester (Astounding)
  • “The Sack” by William Morrison (Astounding)
  • “The Silly Season” by C. M. Kornbluth (F&SF)
  • “Misbegotten Missionary” by Isaac Asimov (Galaxy)
  • To Serve Man” by Damon Knight (Galaxy)
  • Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber (Galaxy)
  • “A Subway Named Mobius” by A. J. Deutsch (Astounding)
  • Process” by A. E. van Vogt (F&SF)
  • The Mindworm” by C. M. Kornbluth (Worlds Beyond)
  • The New Reality” by Charles L. Harness (Thrilling Wonder)

I’ve bolded the overlap. I’ve often wondered when Asimov and Greenberg made up their anthology did they consider what Bleiler and Dikty had done in the past? The Bleiler/Dikty books would have been rare even back in 1984, so I assume they didn’t. Or did they imagine that one day readers would judge the two books together for what they collectively say about the short science fiction of 1950?

And why did Bleiler and Dikty miss “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “Scanners Live in Vain,” “The Little Black Bag,” and  “The Silly Season” which all have become classics since then? Or do later readers discover value in stories that readers back in 1950 missed? “There Will Come Soft Rains” was included in The Martian Chronicles so it was being widely read as Bleiler and Dikty were assembling the volume. “The Little Black Bag” and “Scanners Live in Vain” were included in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1970, selected by the popular vote of science fiction writers, so it seems odd they weren’t recognized as instant classics. I think “The Silly Season” is an important miss, but they did include Kornbluth’s “The Mindworm.” Maybe Bleiler/Dikty didn’t want to use two of his stories?

If you look at the 60 short stories from 1950 that’s in our database order by total citations you’ll see both anthologies got most of the most remembered stories. But each anthology also recognized a few classics the other missed. I think the story they both missed which stands out the most is Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt.” It’s always remembered on fan polls but that’s probably because schools teach it.

Here are the stories that made it to the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list:

CSF-SF-1950

Notice that the top three stories won Retro Hugo Award for 1951. The only short stories/novelettes the fans voting for the retro Hugo that the two anthologies missed were “The Helping Hand” by Poul Anderson and “Okie” by James Blish. Neither anthology included any of the novella nominations. If you study the citation sources for the above stories you’ll see how each has remained popular in fan polls.

For these four stories, this was at least my fourth reading for each of them since the 1960s. Each time they get better and I notice more details. These stories should be read by any would-be writers wanting models to study. They are rich in ideas, dense with details, yet very told dramatically. These four stories are so obvious and famous that there’s little reason to discuss them. And I think the voters for the 1951 Retro Hugo Award also picked the obvious novella choice: “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert A. Heinlein.

The fun question to ask now: What is the best of the forgotten stories? I’m partial to “Contagion” by Katherine MacLean which I’ve already reviewed separately. I thought it a standout story for the time because MacLean was poking fun at male SF fans and gender issues.

Dear Devil by Eric Frank Russell - cover storyDear Devil” is my favorite Eric Frank Russell story so far in this reading project. It’s about another Martian invasion, but this time a very positive one. Don’t you miss Martians? Sure the story is sentimental and unrealistic, but if you loved the movie E.T. you’ll probably love “Dear Devel.”

“The New Reality” by Charles L. Harness reminds me somewhat of Greg Egan’s novel Quarantine because it’s about how our ideas of reality shape reality. The story is a gnarly philosophical fantasy about ontology. The story itself is a kind of a mess, lacking in structure and realistic dramatic action, but it’s filled with the kind of ideas that mess with your head, the kind that pot smokers and science fiction fans love.

The Sack” by William Morrison is not a great story, but it is a fun read. Explorers find an intelligent creature on an asteroid. It is the last of its kind, and it looks like a sack of potatoes. However, the Sack is so smart and willing to answer questions, that humans sell time with it like we do scheduling a supercomputer. The Sack is so effective at answering questions that nations and criminals want to kidnap it. The Sack claims it is always honest, but warns the human questioners that its knowledge might not always be beneficial.

“Misbegotten Missionary” by Isaac Asimov was later renamed “Green Patches” but I like the original name better. Asimov later realized that this story is similar to “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, his mentor. Space explorers visit a planet where all life is part of a single unified consciousness and this lifeform thinks humans are tragically incomplete since they are isolated individuals. The gestalt organism has a way of possessing humans to make them part of their whole. When the Captain of the first space ship lands on this planet and discovers his crew has been infected he blows his ship up. The story is about the second ship returning from the planet with a very clever hitchhiker. Because this tale has more story and less lecture, it’s one of Asimov’s more entertaining tales.

That’s one of the big problems of older science fiction, authors are inspired by far out ideas, but they don’t know how to present them dramatically. Many of these stories in these two anthologies are often interrupted by mini-lectures. That’s why “Scanners Live in Vain” and “Coming Attractions” were such standouts. Each is dense with ideas, but throw off their dazzling concepts as part of the action. They are dramatic and emotional.

Most of the stories in these two anthologies are still entertaining, but I believe most modern readers will find most of the second-string stories slight, clunky, outdated, or primitive. Aficionados of old SF will probably get a kick out of them.

Galaxy Oct Nov 1950

The first two issues of Galaxy, October and November 1950 contains
“Contagion,” “The Last Martian,” “Misbegotten Missionary,” “Coming Attraction,” and “To Serve Man” –  four stories for Bleiler/Dikty and three for Asimov/Greenberg. That’s a pretty impressive debut.

The impact of the new magazines F&SF and Galaxy is particularly impressive when you realize they were competing with Astounding’s 12 issues with just 4 and 3 issues respectively.

Off to read 1951 – the year I was born.

James Wallace Harris

 

“Contagion” by Katherine MacLean

Contagion by Katherine MacLean

“Contagion” by Katherine MacLean appeared in the very first issue of Galaxy Science Fiction in October of 1950. MacLean was in great company because the first issue also contained stories by Clifford Simak, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Fredric Brown, and Isaac Asimov. If you follow the link above you can read “Contagion” online, as well as the whole first issue of Galaxy. You can also listen to “Contagion” on YouTube from a LibriVox.org recording.

“Contagion” has been reprinted often, most notably in The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1951 edited by Bleiler and Dikty, Women of Wonder (1975) and the expanded Women of Wonder: The Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s (1995) both edited by Pamela Sargent, and most recently in The Future is Female! edited by Lisa Yaszek and published by the prestigious Library of America.

I just read “Contagion” in the Bleiler/Dikty volume as part of my project to read all the best-SF-of-the-year annuals in order starting with 1939. The story was not in The Great SF Stories 12 (1950) edited by Asimov and Greenberg. I wondered why. “Contagion” is not a great story, but it is a lot of fun, and is notable for a number of reasons. Back in 1950, there were damn few women SF writers, so Katherine MacLean stands out. But more importantly, MacLean deals with an idea that I’ve seldom seen other SF writers concern themselves with – can humans landing on other worlds survive their microscopic infections?

Kim Stanley Robinson dealt with this idea in Aurora just a few years ago. but at the moment these two examples are the only ones I can recall. Most SF yarns have their characters worry if they can breathe the air, drink the water, or eat the plants and animals.  However, most humans on Earth, if they were transported to a jungle in South America or Africa, would be at great risk of getting an infection. Why assume other planets are any less dangerous? KSM suggested it might be impossible to colonize any other world with an evolved biology, and I think he’s right. Visiting any other world with life might risk countless forms of dangerous infections like Ebola.

Little is known about Katherine MacLean. She seems to have been into hard science fiction and mostly wrote for Astounding/Analog, but that does include a lot of Psi-stories. I haven’t been able to find out much about her. She only produced three novels and three collections.

The Diploids by Katherine MacLeanThere are many benefits to my reading project. Not only do I get to watch science fiction evolve year by year, but I get to read a huge variety of stories by many authors I’ve never read before or even know about. There was an interview with Katherine MacLean in the July 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books I’d love to read. If anyone has a copy and could send me a scan it would be appreciated. I’m guessing that interview did help Andrew Liptak write “The Fantastic Foresight of Katherine MacLean” at Kirkus Review. That piece has the most information about MacLean I can currently find.

Joachim Boaz reviews her most famous book, Missing Man published in 1975 but based on her Nebula Award-winning 1971 story of the same name. Boaz rated it 5/5 (Near Masterpiece) which I’ve seldom seen him do. He says it’s one of the best sci-fi novels about telepathy ever. (Makes me want to buy a copy.)

<SPOILERS>

What makes “Contagion” so much fun to me is MacLean’s female perspective. The story is told in the third-person but follows June Walton closely. She is part of a team of human explorers landing on Minos that discover it had already been settled by human colonists when they come across a man named Patrick Mead in the jungle. Mead is a head taller than all the space explorers, is red-headed, wears only a loincloth, and has tremendous sexual magnetism. It’s fun as a male reader follow June as she observes Patrick’s impact on her fellow crew members, especially the women. June’s husband Max pales in comparison to Patrick and June feels bad she’s so attracted to the redheaded stranger.

Eventually, Patrick infects all the male space travelers even though they have been extremely careful to avoid infections. They wear spacesuits and use many decontamination methods. Patrick gives the men the “melting disease.” The women eventually save most of the men with antibodies from Patrick, but all the men go through a transformation and end up looking like Patrick – tall, muscular, and redheaded. The women in the crew are freaked out at first but quickly decided that their husbands and boyfriends easily reveal their personalities even though they all look the same. (I don’t know why but many SF writers have a thing for redheads.)  But here’s the kicker. Patrick’s sister shows up and the space explorers realize she will infect the women in the spaceship and they will all end up looking like her. Patrick’s sister is quite a beauty, but all the Earth women refuse to lose their individual looks. Several say they’d rather die. But do they have a choice?

I wondered if MacLean was having fun with all the male science fiction readers of 1950. I’m sure they were just as geeky then as they are today. MacLean has her spacewomen claiming they love their brainy guys, but they go nuts over Patrick. But what is she saying about women in general by having the spacewomen preferring death to all looking alike?

Is MacLean satirizing women’s vanity, or is it another dig at men? Maybe, MacLean is saying women don’t all want to be redheaded sex goddesses, which like I said, is a common ideal in science fiction magazine stories written by men.

</SPOILERS>

I’m not sure it’s politically correct to say female writers have a uniquely different perspective than male writers, but it seems like MacLean does so here, and is specifically targetting that belief in her story. Most older Sci-Fi tales avoided sex and gender issues and usually presented the most common stereotypes. Science fiction writers sometimes would have a hot woman in the spaceship that all the guys went nuts over, but I can’t remember them ever writing a story with a spaceship where the women crew members all going nuts over a hot guy. First of all, very few stories had spaceships where half the crew were women.

In “Contagion” Katherine MacLean anticipates a future in 1950 that’s more like what’s hinted at in Star Trek of 1966, although half the U.S.S. Enterprise’s command crew was not female. In her story, there is great equality males and females, and everyone is a scientist.

Maybe I should reconsider my assessment of “Contagion” being just a light-weight fun story. Now that I think about it, maybe MacLean was saying a lot more than I thought on my first reading. That’s another thing I’m learning from this reading project. Most great stories need 2-4 readings before I can discern all their great attributes.

James Wallace Harris

“At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee

at_the_fall_by_eldarzakirov_dd572fh-pre

The above illustration by Eldar Zakirov is for “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee in the May-June issue of Analog. This story is exactly the kind of science fiction I love. I hope Alec Nevala-Lee won’t be offended when I say, “At the Fall” is great old-fashion science fiction. The story is about a little undersea robot named Eunice and its companion support robot named Wagner who travel thousands of miles under the ocean hoping to find their home. I can’t help but think of the City stories by Clifford Simak.

Eunice is a hexapod, a robot with six tentacle-like appendages. It is one of five hexapods “sisters” (Thetic, Clio, Dione, Galatea) each with their own support robot that generates their power. The five hexapods were created to study deep ocean vents. Because these robots work so far below the surface, beyond the range of radio, they were designed to work independently from human monitoring. They take turns returning to the surface to transmit their data and check in with scientists on a yacht. One day the yacht isn’t at the surface, but the little robots keep at their job. Eventually, after waiting a long time for the yacht to return, Eunice decides to return to Seattle where it was created but it has very limited abilities to make this journey. “At the Fall” is about Eunice’s trials and tribulations crossing thousands of kilometers of the ocean bottom. (In many ways Eunice’s efforts to survive, remind me of Mark Watney’s ingenuity in The Martian.)

Writing good robot stories is hard to pull off. All too often writers make their robots too human. Eunice neither looks human or thinks like a human, yet we feel for it as her. At least I did. I don’t know why it is female other than its name. Eunice has no gender traits, but I can’t stop thinking of it as a little girl. I wish Nevala-Lee had avoided this issue with a genderless name, but we humans anthropomorphize everything. And would this little robot be less charming if it had been called Hexapod-5? For myself, I would have been fine with that.

I wasn’t hugely worried about this gender issue in this story, but I do think science fiction needs to eventually teach its readers that robots and AI will not have gender. Even sexbots will be genderless. Gender comes out of biology. No matter how hard we want robots to be like us, they won’t be.

“At the Fall” belongs to the growing sub-sub-genre of cute robot stories, like Wall-E and “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer. At Nevala-Lee’s blog, he links to more about this story, including a conversation he had with Frank Wu who wrote a story about Karl 3478 who is also an underwater robot. I like this tiny sub-sub-genre. NASA was able to avoid the gender issue with their robots by naming them Spirit and Opportunity. A huge number of people from around the world became fans of these Martian robots and followed their exploits online for years. It’s quite logical to send robots into space and under the ocean, and they will slowly evolve more and more independence. I can easily believe an emergent AI intelligence could evolve in this type of robot.

I expect in the coming years for this sub-sub-genre to grow. It will be a challenge for SF writers to convey the mental view of these AI controlled robots. For decades science fiction writers assumed intelligent robots would think like us, and use our languages. This is completely short-sighted. The chasm between animal consciousness and machine consciousness will be vast. We can see how our minds evolved by looking at animals. We can see earlier forms of intelligence and emotions in their minds. We share their DNA. This won’t be true with robot minds.

Nevala-Lee did a good job at conveying Eunice’s thinking. Science fiction writers are limited by the tools of writing fiction when describing robotic POV. Quite often in “At the Fall” Nevala-Lee says Eunice experiences fear and anxiety. I’m not sure robots will have those emotions. Eunice spends a lot of time analyzing its plans because it knows it only has 30 kilometers of range for each power charge. But where would that fear and anxiety come from in a robot, aren’t those chemical reactions in a biological organism?

Language is another issue that Nevala-Lee skirts. Eunice’s world is very limited, and within the story, its grasp of English is limited too. But Eunice does say and think a few things that would be beyond its practical comprehension. The only way to explain what I mean is to recommend reading Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, which is a very serious literary novel about training an AI mind to understand English and literature. Powers uses far more scientific realism than most science fiction writers.

Neither of these issues hurt “At the Fall.” It’s an utterly enchanting story. There’s plenty of science to make it realistic. And it has a rather unique sense of wonder. Reading it suggests there is a growing future for robot stories. I believe stories about robots will unfold in the same way stories about did about space travel. Science fiction before NASA is distinctly different than those after NASA. As intelligent robots emerge in the real world fiction about them will change too. Any SF writer today wanting to write a cutting edge story about robots needs to think long and hard what real-life intelligent robots will be like. We need less anthropomorphizing and a lot more speculation about AI thinking. Nevala-Lee did a good job, but I hope future stories go further.

Spoiler Alert

At Rocket Stack Rank Greg Hullender assumes human civilization in this story collapses because of some sort of EMP apocalypse. I didn’t think that when reading the story. I assume the fall in “At the Fall” meant that humanity went over some kind of edge. I figured the humans in this story all died in chaos from all our societal sins causing a world-wide breakdown. That starvation, disease, environmental catastrophes, economic collapse, and a host of other failures did us in. That’s why I could easily imagine automatic solar-powered recharging stations still working.

I hope before humans do ourselves in, we do create intelligent robots that will replace us.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

 

 

Serious Science Fiction

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers (1995)

I first read Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers back when it came out in 1995. I still have the first edition hardback (I wonder if it’s worth more now because Powers just won the Pulitzer Prize for his latest novel, The Overstory). I’ve been wishing for decades to hear an audiobook production of Galatea 2.2 and one finally came out in April (4/10/19), probably due to Richard Powers’ recent recognition. Galatea 2.2 is a literary science fiction novel of the highest order, although I doubt Powers or his publishers would want that said about it. And it’s doubtful that most science fiction fans will find it fun reading.

Galatea 2.2 is about a character named Richard Powers who is a writer spending a year in residence at a university named U working with computer scientists. Richard Powers the man attended and taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and for a time he was an adjunct member in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. Within the story, the character Richard Powers talks about writing books with titles that were the same as the real-life Richard Powers wrote. In fact, it’s very hard not to think of Galatea 2.2 as an autobiographical novel. The only trouble is readers don’t know where the line between fiction and fact lies.

Where Galatea 2.2 becomes serious science fiction is when Richard Powers the character is challenged by computer scientists to help them create a computer program that could pass the Master’s comp in literature, the same one Richard Powers the character and the human passed for their MA.

Is Richard Powers the character an AI version of Richard Powers the writer?

Most science fiction novels just tell us computers and robots are intelligent and sentient. They might do some sleight-of-hand waving and give us a few presto-chango words expecting us readers to believe what they say will be possible in the future. Galatea 2.2 is full of then-current scientific details about human cognition, language, and computer science. Powers the real writer builds up his story slowly while using an allegorical tale of his own life as an analogy to explain the complexity of human intelligence. Galatea 2.2 was written during the heyday of neural nets just as machine learning was taking its first baby steps. Why it’s science fiction is because Powers goes well beyond what science is capable of doing even today.

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers audiobook cover 2019

In many ways, Galatea 2.2 is closer to the film Her than Ex Machina because it’s so quiet and dry. The story is far more realistic and serious than most popular science fiction books and movies about sentient machines. This novel is about educating its readers of the real challenges of teaching a machine to understand fiction, but also revealing that humans aren’t the miracles our faiths claim. Often what we call brilliant intellect is a trick of the brain. Time and again Galatea 2.2 points out our own delusions and faults. At one point within the novel, several characters criticize the fictional Richard Powers for writing grim novels, advising him he’d sell more books by being upbeat. Powers the character has to explain that his writing goal is not to entertain them but to see a sense of truth in personal revelations. I assume that’s also true for the flesh and blood Powers writing this book. Galatea 2.2 is also meta-fiction.

Galatea 2.2 has a lot to say in the same way The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four have to say. It uses science fiction techniques for serious speculation. Science fiction fans often feel their genre is a serious matter, but all too often science fiction stories aren’t that serious. Science fiction fans are often insulted when literary writers claim they don’t write science fiction when their novels clearly use science fictional techniques. There is a reason why writers like Margaret Atwood or Ian McEwan avoid the label of science fiction – science fiction isn’t taken seriously by serious readers. The label science fiction is slapped on all kinds of books and is often a marketing sorting category for anything far out and not serious. Sorry fellow SF fans, but we’re seen as kooky.

Now writers within the genre have written books they wanted to be taken seriously. Dune by Frank Herbert and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin are two. Robert A. Heinlein tried to leave the genre when he wrote Strangers in a Strange Land but never achieved escape velocity. Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut were able to make their escape, but the man who bellowed the loudest against the label, Harlan Ellison never did.

There are countless novels written by authors who shun the label “science fiction” writer that write perfectly wonderful science fiction novels. For example, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. I doubt many people have ever asserted it was science fiction even though the science fiction genre has been writing about uplifted apes for decades.

Few people will call Galatea 2.2 a science fiction novel even though it’s about an AI that becomes self-aware, clearly the territory of science fiction. What’s the difference between a literary science fiction novel and a genre science fiction novel?

Science fiction fans are especially insulted when people claim it’s the quality of writing. And that’s not my answer, but often it’s true. No, my answer is the difference is often due to the level of characterization. My guess is most science fiction fans will feel most of Galatea 2.2 is boring. Genre science fiction tends to be action-oriented. Literary science fiction tends to contain biographical character detail that overwhelms the science fiction elements.

I often tell friends they can spot literary works because they feel like an autobiography when in the first person, and biography when in the third. Probably most science fiction fans will complain that too much of Galatea 2.2 is about Richard Powers and not enough is about Helen, the AI. And that will also be true of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, where the story is more about Charlie the human and not about Adam the machine. The reason why The Handmaid’s Tale is literary science fiction is that the story is more about Offred than Gilead. Genre science fiction writers would have focused more on the robots or the details of the theocracy using dramatic action and adventure. For contrast, compare with the characterization of Katniss Everdeen and the society of Panem in The Hunger Games.

Modern science fiction writers have moved more towards the literary by building up their characters, while literary writers are experimenting more with science fictional techniques in their stories. Two examples of meeting in the middle are The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger or The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. I think both literary and science fiction fans could love each of these stories.

I tend to doubt that most science fiction fans will enjoy Galatea 2.2 but I think they should give it a chance, especially the new audiobook edition, which is wonderfully narrated by David Aaron Baker. It was worth the wait for me.

James Wallace Harris

 

 

Writers Aiming to Get Into Print are Aiming Too Low

 

Whatever-Counts-by-Frederik-Pohl-Galaxy-June-1959-edited

When writers sit down to write a short story they have several goals to accomplish. The first is to finish the first draft. Many would-be writers can do this much, but it involves many subgoals, like creating a hook, developing a plot, fleshing out characters, coming up with a satisfying ending, as well as technical goals of grammar, spelling, readability, and factuality.  The next step is to produce a polished draft. This is much harder because you want to give the story voice, style, and art. Then there’s the big hurdle of selling the story. To do that requires many sub-goals too. You have to find the right market that’s open and you have to impress the editors that the story is worth buying. Even if your story gets into print you still have many goals left depending on your ambition. A check might be all you want, or you might dream of writing a story that gets an award or anthologized. That means your goals while writing the story increase. And some writers have the goal of being remembered. They hope their stories will bring them a tiny sliver of immortality. To achieve that goal means thinking differently when starting the story.

In my review of the best short science fiction stories of 1959 I came across one story that hasn’t been well remembered but I thought was pretty darn good. It was “Whatever Counts” by Frederik Pohl in the June 1959 issue of Galaxy. (You can read it online if you follow the link.) My guess is Pohl’s primary goal was a paycheck, but I believe there’s internal evidence to suggest he was aiming much higher. However, I’m not sure how hard he worked at these higher goals. Back then science fiction writers had to crank out a steady stream of stories to pay the bills. I doubt Pohl was thinking much about winning a Hugo award or getting Judith Merril to anthologize his story. However, I feel “Whatever Counts” has several ideas that Pohl wanted to explore and spread. The question is, were those ideas innovative enough to still think about them sixty years later?

If your writing goal is just to get published then you can’t expect to achieve any of the higher goals. Most SF magazines are filled with stories that work, but few stand out. Average stories often make readers feel like they are wasting their reading time. I’ve talked to a lot of people about reading the SF magazines, and most feel lucky if they find one standout story in an issue.

Why do we still remember “All You Zombies—” and “Flowers for Algernon” from 1959 but not “Whatever Counts?” Both of those stories were made into movies, and they have been anthologized frequently over the years. Pohl did include “Whatever Counts” in his collection Abominable Earthman in 1963, but even that’s been forgotten. But then Pohl never had any classic collections like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles or Robert A. Heinlein’s The Green Hills of Earth. “Whatever Counts” wasn’t even included in The Best of Frederik Pohl. So why am I writing about it now?

Evidently, Gideon Marcus and I are among “Whatever Counts” few fans. We both felt it was an exceptional story for the June 1959 Galaxy. Why didn’t it achieve any of the greater successes for an SF short story? Can I make a case that it should be remembered? I’ve been thinking about that, and I have an analogy as to why we remember short stories. We remember those personal memories that were peak experiences. My theory is the best short fiction has to work like our peak experiences to be memorable.

I can recall just three memories from the first grade. I was still five when I started the first grade, and wouldn’t turn six for three months. One memory is walking to school for the first time on my own. I guess being new and scary made it memorable. I also remember being embarrassed when the teacher asked us if we knew our alphabet and I didn’t. Another memory-etching experience. And the last memory was of walking home one day and finding the doors locked. I couldn’t get in, and no one was home to let me in. I calmly went to sleep on the front porch but evidently, I was traumatized enough to record that memory.

In other words, we remember intense emotional experiences. Both “Flowers for Algernon” and “All You Zombies—” are emotionally charged. While “Whatever Counts” did have several moving scenes that I thought were vivid the story isn’t memorable. “Whatever Counts” opens with colonists in a spaceship floating in freefall trying to get a baby to burp. The baby is choking because it can’t easily spit up in weightlessness. The adults swing it to give it some gravity. This made me wonder if Fred Pohl’s wife had just had a child. But I also wondered if Pohl asked himself: Can babies survive space travel? “Whatever Counts” has a very realistic take on space travel for 1959. It was written before readers were familiar with seeing astronauts floating in freefall. While I read the story I realized Pohl did quite a lot of thinking about the real issues of space travel and first contact. The story is more than its plot.

In “Whatever Counts” fifty-eight humans arrive at a planet with an extinct civilization. They plan to start a colony in an abandoned alien city, but before they can set up base, they are captured by other aliens visiting the planet. The humans knew about the other aliens but didn’t expect them on this planet. They called them Gormen. There are enough ideas in this novelette to fill out a whole novel.

The story, once it gets down to business after an interesting setup unrelated to the plot, is about the mission psychologist, Howard Brabant, apparently aiding the enemy. The crew slowly comes to hate Brabant even though Brabant explains he’s trying to figure out how the Gormen think. Pohl is trying to get across the idea that humans are hindered by their conscious mind, something that is much talked about today, but not in 1959. Just read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Exploring how other intelligent creatures could think differently than humans is the main course of this story, and I believe Pohl did it well enough to make “Whatever Counts” worth reading today. However, he appears to digress in different directions, including one apparently gratuitous sex scene that was illustrated by Wally Wood. But even here, I’m guessing Pohl was trying to say something serious. Science fiction had a reputation of putting scantily clad women attacked by bug-eyed monsters on covers of its magazines. I think Pohl wanted to explore this meme realistically. And Pohl didn’t know in 1959 that soon UFO nuts would worry about little gray big-eyed aliens wanting to give humans medical exams.

Gormen-web

The “sex scene” is an unsettling situation for the characters, where the Gormen grab a female colonist and undress her in front of the other humans. Readers will find this scene distasteful wondering if Pohl is being gratuitous. To the human crew, they felt it was a sexual assault. But the psychologist knows it not. He knows the Gormen think of us as animals. (That made me wonder if animals think vets and researchers are sexually assaulting them at times.) One of the emotional impacts of the story is being helpless in the hands of a superior being. The Gormen treat humans like we do animals in a laboratory.

In a way, this relates to when Charlie Gordan in “Flowers for Algernon” realized he wasn’t smart and his “friends” were making him the butt of their jokes. Charlie realizes there are beings smarter than he, but later on when he becomes smarter than his “friends.” That’s two unique perspectives. As readers we see Charlie being dumber than us, but also smarter. Pohl is trying to convey how the Gormen are smarter than us.

I believe most people remember “Flowers for Algernon” because Charlies loses the intelligence he gained from the experiment. We fear that for ourselves. It hits us as highly tragic. But we don’t remember how Charlie felt being dumb among the smart people. That’s what Pohl was trying to do in “Whatever Counts.” We always assume that were just as good as any alien species, and will always find a way to beat them in a conflict. Pohl supports this belief, but for a while in his story, he was showing a way the Gormen were superior to us. The science fictional insight was Gormen didn’t know we had a subconscious mind that could think as fast as they did. That was an interesting insight for Pohl to have in 1959. Pohl should get more credit for his theory in a sixty-year-old science fiction story.

We have to give Pohl other credit for this story too. In a time when most science fiction writers had their characters cruising around the galaxy traveling faster-than-light from planet to planet taking as much travel time as we jet from city to city on Earth, Pohl had his colonist traveling at half the speed of light taking seven years to get to their destination. Most SF writers back then ignored weightlessness, but Pohl dealt with it. He also included women, smart women, but he didn’t have the foresight to give them equality of jobs. They weren’t crew, but passengers.

We remember “All You Zombies—” because every character is the same person. Heinlein used time travel to cleverly explain how it could happen. We remember “Flowers for Algernon” because a low IQ person gets transformed into a high IQ person. In each story, the gimmick is well plotted out as a series of emotional experiences of the main character. Ultimately, we remember the Heinlein story for its plotting dazzle, but we remember the Keyes story because it made us cry. Pohl leaves us with a few ideas to contemplate but his plot is patchy, and the emotional experiences aren’t focused. Most readers will remember Charlie Gordon, but not Howard Brabant.

How could Pohl have improved his story? First, he goes through three digressions before getting down to the main plot, including one on how people smoke in space. Second, he hides Brabant’s intention from the other characters and readers. This does make Brabant feel like he’s a toady for the Gormen, and I’m not sure readers like that. Being revealed as a hero at the last moment isn’t that redeeming for Brabant.

The setup of “Whatever Counts” is similar to the 1955 noir classic The Desperate Hours where a family is imprisoned in their home by three escaped convicts. The humans were imprisoned by the Gormen. The story should have begun right away by letting us readers know the plot is about escaping. Whether or not we think Brabant is a traitor is another issue. It worked well with the William Holden character in the 1953 film Stalag 17, but having such a dual plot is harder to finesse.

I wonder if Pohl started out thinking “Whatever Counts” could be a novel because of his various digressions. I got to spend a few hours with Pohl back in the 1970s, and I wish I had known then what I know now so I could have asked him. I checked Pohl’s memoir, The Way the Future Was but couldn’t find anything on this story, although Pohl said he got paid 4 cents a word from Galaxy in the 1950s. Those digressions meant more dollars in his paycheck.

Even though I really like “Whatever Counts” I think it’s seriously flawed and Pohl only had the goal of paying the bills in writing it. Which is a shame, because it could have been so much better. I think this story shows that ideas are great in science fiction stories, but storytelling counts even more in the long run. “Whatever Counts” had enough compelling enough ideas to make it the standout story of the June 1959 issue of Galaxy, but the structure of the story kept it from being memorable over time. Judith Merril didn’t even give “Whatever Counts” an honorable mention that year in her best-of-the-year anthology in 1960, and it’s never been anthologized in a retrospective anthology.

Whatever Counts illustrated by Wally Wood Galaxy June 1959 2

Thinking about this story has made me think about the writing of short stories in general. It’s depressing to read so many blah stories in the new issues of my favorite SF magazines. I now see the reason why. The goal of getting into print is aiming too low. Pohl was also an editor and agent, so he knew story construction. My guess is he knew “Whatever Counts” to be good enough to stand out as a better story in a magazine, and not much more. The check on acceptance outweighed anything he might have gotten in the future.

That’s too bad. Looking at Pohl’s long list of publications shows that most of them aren’t remembered today. If he had written far fewer with more ambitious things would have been different. Gateway, his 1977 novel is well remembered. I think I need to go study it. Oddly, its main character was named Broadhead, which is somewhat like Brabant.

James Wallace Harris, May 10, 2019

 

“Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper

Omnilingual-web

The Science Fiction Book Club on Facebook is discussing “Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper this week. I had never read this classic novelette before and enjoyed it immensely. It’s my kind of science fiction. “Omnilingual” was first published in the February 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction but has often been reprinted. You can read it online or listen to it here.

“Omnilingual” is what I now call Pre-NASA Science Fiction because it’s about anthropologists on Mars excavating the ruins of a Martian civilization that had died out 50,000 years ago. In the 1940s and 1950s, science fiction often assumed we weren’t the only intelligent beings in the solar system, usually imagining jungle civilizations on Venus, and cold desert civilizations on Mars. Of course, NASA space probes in the 1960s destroyed those assumptions. “Omnilingual” fits in nicely between Ray Bradbury’s Martian stories of the 1940s, and Roger Zelazny’s dazzling “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” from 1963. I’ve always felt Zelazny’s story was an ode to Pre-NASA Science Fiction.

“Omnilingual” is impressive for several reasons. First, the main character is female, and the explorers from Earth includes women scientists in their crew. That wasn’t common back then. Remember the all-male crew in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet? That how most science fiction imagined space exploration before Star Trek.

Piper presents the problems of translating unknown ancient Earth languages to give his science fiction story the feel of scientific authenticity. One of my favorite themes in science fiction is the archeology of dead alien civilizations. And, there’s one aspect to this story I can’t reveal because it would be a major spoiler, but I think Piper makes an original observation about how to translate dead alien languages without a Rosetta Stone. I’d really like to know if Piper’s idea was original with him.

Every science fiction story that explores ideas about alien civilizations speculates how other intelligent beings would be like us and could be different. Piper assumes the Martians were a whole lot like us. Would that be true? For example, the researchers find what they think is a scientific journal. Is a periodical that publishes scientific research a logical feature for any advanced civilization? I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s hard to imagine how scientific knowledge could be collected, stored, and transmitted in another way.

It’s really sad that Mars and Venus didn’t have intelligent life on them. Can you imagine what our world would be like if they did? Not science fiction imagining, but really what it would be like? Picture modern television with the extra diversity of Martians and Venusians. I think the popularity of Star Wars shows there’s a deep desire for living in a reality filled with many intelligent life forms and robots. We don’t want to be alone. This could also explain why many SF fans prefer classic mid-century science fiction stories.

I believe Piper’s goal in writing this story was to present his idea for finding a Rosetta Stone for translating alien languages. “Omnilingual” was written just before modern SETI began with the 1959 paper by Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi suggested frequencies for listening to alien signals and Frank Drake’s 1960 Project Ozma. I feel Piper had been reading histories of the pioneers who translating Earth’s dead languages and got the inspiration to think about dead alien languages. He also threw in some observations about rivalries between scientists and their academic ambitions.

Omnilingual-illo-1

Ultimately, the appeal of “Omnilingual” today is for modern science fiction readers to find nostalgic solace in a disappearing era of science fiction. That desire is reflected in two recent anthologies edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, Old Mars and Old Venus.

When I was a kid I would have given anything to grow up and been a part of the scientific crew in “Omnilingual.” I guess its a kind of psychological ailment I suffer as an older person wishing I had lived an alternate life history.

JWH

 

 

Decoding Short Stories

the-misses-vickers-crop

I read mainly science fiction short stories, but my theories about decoding short stories apply to any genre. Lately, I have been reading science fiction from a number of time periods. I’m systematically reviewing the stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois which covers stories 2002-2017. I’m also reading The Great SF Stories 9 (1947) edited by Asimov and Greenberg. I’ve started reading Science Fiction Rivals of H. G. Wells edited by Alan K. Russell that covers SF in the 1890s. I just bought Best SF: 1968 edited by Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss because I want to study the science fiction of 1967.

Concurrently to reading science fiction, I’ve started reading short stories by D. H. Lawrence from the early 20th-century and bought an audiobook anthology of classic literary short stories that cover a century in scope. Because of all this short story reading, I’m beginning to notice patterns. I imagine whenever someone sits down to write a short story they have a goal in telling their story. The subtle variations of each are endless, but I think I see a taxonomy of writing targets. Many short stories begin with vague goals and then fill in with increasing details. Some of the target outlines include:

  • Biography
  • Autobiography
  • Fictional realism
  • Retelling/Reporting
  • Travelogue
  • Humor
  • History
  • Mystery
  • Fantasy
  • Science Fiction

Literary writers are like realistic painters. They want to capture all the details of their subjects, whether they are writing about themselves or people they know. Marcel Proust and Jack Kerouac wrote thinly disguised stories based on their own experiences (autobiography). Hemingway and Fitzgerald liked to observe the people around them (biography). If you read any annual edition of The Best American Short Stories, the most intense stories often feel like they are based on real-life events (fictional realism) but aren’t. MFA programs teach their students the writing skills to pull this off. Finally, some literary writers love to find a great true story and turn it into fiction (retelling/reporting).

Inbetween literary writers and genre writers are humor and travel writers. Sometimes their stories are based on the truth, but often they stretch it. There’s a difference between nonfiction humor and travel writers and the fictionalized kind, although if you could read the minds of writers of the nonfiction kind you’d find they often fudged the truth with a bit of fictionalizing.

Genre writers nearly always open Microsoft Word and begin their story purely from their imaginations. For example, I just read “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander, one of the stories nominated for a Hugo award this year. Nothing in her story has ever existed in reality, it all came from Bolander’s ability to make stuff up. Bolander begins:

Once upon a time, long, long, long, long, long, long, ago, there were three raptor sisters, hatched beneath a lucky star. They lived in a wood together, they stole sheep and cattle together, and all in all, there was no tighter-knit hunting pride of matriarchal dromaeosauridae between the mountains and the sea.

Fantasy writers are bound by their Guild to create fantastic beasts. Using raptors was fun and clever. Melding a medieval fairytale about a Prince and Princess with Jurassic Park nasties is one of the reasons Bolander is up for an award, but not the only reason. Recasting Prince Charming as a doofus, creating an anti-princess Princess, while poking fun at traditional little girl fantasies, are some of the others.

My point in referencing Bollander’s story is to show the challenge of writing a fantasy short story. There’s no need for biographical or autobiographical characters, and the use of history barely exists and what is used is completely distorted.

When John Singer Sargent painted “The Misses Vickers” above he was creating a visual biography of Florence, Mabel, and Clara Vickers. When we read Henry James or Edith Wharton, we feel they are painting with words to capture 19th-century people they knew. Genre writers can base their characters, settings, and times on real people, places, and events, but they usually don’t. However, they can create characters, settings and times that feel like they were real or could be real. The reason why Game of Thrones and Harry Potter stories are so popular is they feel real.

When I read Thomas Hardy or D. H. Lawrence I feel they’re accurately describing village life in England. I expect their characters could be based on real people, and the scenes they describe could be real places. I don’t expect that from genre writers.

But here’s the thing, great writing is the accumulation of significant details. Writers can crib those details from reality, or they can make them up. It’s my theory that the best science fiction has a feeling of realness, such as Timescape by Gregory Benford, or Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, or Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel.

On the other hand, the best fantasy is realistically painted with imagined details, like Tolkien or Rowling. There is an uncanny valley effect in fantasy too, like in computer animation. A fantasy that feels somewhat real, but not quite, is disturbing. Think of all those cheap fantasy films that feel campy today. Then think about why you love Game of Thrones on HBO.

When you read a short story you’re decoding both the writer’s goal and their coding. To fairly judge a story requires decoding that goal while reading the story. Sadly, all too often it’s to crank out 7,500 words to sell at 10 cents a word. Too many writers use seat-of-their-pants plotting and grab details out of the air as fast as they type. The end product of a work of realism or imagination should still feel realistic even if the physics of the genre world is much different from ours.

I believe when a writer sits down to write a short story they have a goal in mind. As readers, we need to decipher that goal to properly appreciate the story. To judge a story we need to decide if the goal is both worthy and met. I have a problem with reading some genres, such as fantasy stories, because it’s just not my thing. However, I should not judge those genres by my tastes but by figuring out the target of the story and deciding if it was hit.

When I read fantasy stories I often feel like I went to a rock concert and classical music was played. Sometimes the classical music wins me over, and sometimes it doesn’t. I feel the world of science fiction is being replaced by fantasy, even the stories with spaceships and robots. It’s a challenge for me to read modern SF/F because of my personal interests, but I’m trying to judge these works by their own goals. I’m using this site to explore the art and nature of short stories. I was going to ignore all fantasy fiction, but that’s becoming very hard to do.

My goal is to get away from judging fiction by my personal tastes and instead work to understand how a story works by decoding its own goal.

lawrence alma-tadema

JWH

 

“The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory

Unpossible and Other Stories by Daryl Gregory

“The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory is the 11th story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. It originally appeared in Eclipse 2 but has been reprinted a number of times. You can read or listen to it online at Clarkesworld. Daryl Gregory has published seven novels, numerous short stories, and a handful of comic books/graphic novels. I believe this is the first story I’ve read by Gregory.

The setup of “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” is quite simple – a small country is attacked by a much larger country. Gregory said he was inspired by the U.S. attacking Iraq. Now picture the United States invading a small country not with stealth fighters but with superheroes. The story opens:

The 22nd Invasion of Trovenia began with a streak of scarlet against a gray sky fast as the flick of a paintbrush. The red blur zipped across the length of the island, moving west to east, and shot out to sea. The sonic boom a moment later scattered the birds that wheeled above the fish processing plant and sent them squealing and plummeting.

Elena said, “Was that—it was, wasn’t it?”

“You’ve never seen a U-Man, Elena?” Jürgo said.

“Not in person.” At nineteen, Elena Pendareva was the youngest of the crew by at least two decades, and the only female. She and the other five members of the heavy plate welding unit were perched 110 meters in the air, taking their lunch upon the great steel shoulder of the Slaybot Prime. The giant robot, latest in a long series of ultimate weapons, was unfinished, its unpainted skin speckled with bird shit, its chest turrets empty, the open dome of its head covered only by a tarp.

Elena is our point-of-view character from which we see her city destroyed and watch citizens struggles to survive the aftermath. It’s a clever anti-war story that makes me feel for these imaginary foreign people. Trovenia is characterized like a cold war era eastern bloc country. Its citizens parrot the standard propaganda against America yet distrust their own leaders. America uses its superhero power advantage to bully smaller nations, while Trovenia’s leader, Lord Grimm, brags of having equal superpowers to fight back.

This story is not my kind of story because I’m bored to blazes with superheroes and their superpowers, but I imagine fans who love the DC/Marvel universes will be entertained.

Science fiction and fantasy writers face a constant challenge of competing with the successes of movie franchises that make billions dominating the pop culture landscape. Our society has reached the science fiction saturation point decades ago, so it’s hard to come up with anything new that will dissolve into our Pop Culture Kool-Aid.

I feel sorry for struggling young writers. I’d like to think this story is also Gregory’s way of responding to superhero oppression. Even though “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” isn’t my kind of story, I still found it enjoyable, and maybe I did so because the superheroes are portrayed like V-1 and V-2 bombs rocketing over London during WWII – powerful caped menaces streaking across the skies terrifying ordinary people.

There are whole armies of talented writers out there hoping to get noticed. Their only weapon is typing out words, but those black pixels on white backlights must compete with 3D Imax blockbusters. Even though I have some problems with the stories in Love, Death + Robots, I’m still excited to see science fiction writers getting their short stories produced for the HDTV screen. “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” could make a visually stylish short film.

And that might be another reason why Gregory features superheroes in his story – he imagined it being filmed as he wrote it.

James Wallace Harris, March 26, 2019 (Happy Anniversary Susan)