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)

 

 

“Glory” by Greg Egan

exoplanet

Glory” by Greg Egan first appeared in The New Space Opera (2007) edited by Gardner Dozois. This is the 9th story discussed from The Very Best of the Best (2019) also edited by Gardner Dozois.

I first encountered Greg Egan when I read his novel Quarantine (1992). It impressed me greatly, yet, I have not followed his career closely. There is just a tremendous amount of good science fiction to read. I have read the reviews of his following novels and read a few of his shorter stories in the best-of-the-year annuals. Egan writes hard science fiction of the super-science variety, projecting humanity into the far future. Egan is far more hopeful for the potential of our species than I am.

“Glory” is about Joan and Anne, galactic citizens of the Amalgam, visiting a world that has not yet developed interstellar travel. Their adventure begins with two ingots of metallic hydrogen, one made of matter and the other anti-matter. These ingots are sculpted with neutrons and antineutrons until they are compressed into a needle one micron wide. I’ll quote Egan to give you a sample of his imagination:

The needle was structured like a meticulously crafted firework, and its outer layers ignited first. No external casing could have channeled this blast, but the pattern of tensions woven into the needle’s construction favored one direction for the debris to be expelled. Particles streamed backward; the needle moved forward. The shock of acceleration could not have been borne by anything built from atomic-scale matter, but the pressure bearing down on the core of the needle prolonged its life, delaying the inevitable. 

Layer after layer burned itself away, blasting the dwindling remnant forward ever faster. By the time the needle had shrunk to a tenth of its original size, it was moving at ninety-eight percent of light speed; to a bystander, this could scarcely have been improved upon, but from the needle’s perspective, there was still room to slash its journey’s duration by orders of magnitude. 

When just one thousandth of the needle remained, its time, compared to the neighboring stars, was passing five hundred times more slowly. Still the layers kept burning, the protective clusters unraveling as the pressure on them was released. The needle could only reach close enough to light speed to slow down time as much as it required if it could sacrifice a large enough proportion of its remaining mass. The core of the needle could only survive for a few trillionths of a second, while its journey would take two hundred million seconds as judged by the stars. The proportions had been carefully matched, though: out of the two kilograms of matter and antimatter that had been woven together at the launch, only a few million neutrons were needed as the final payload. 

By one measure, seven years passed. For the needle, its last trillionths of a second unwound, its final layers of fuel blew away, and at the moment its core was ready to explode, it reached its destination, plunging from the near-vacuum of space straight into the heart of a star. 

Even here, the density of matter was insufficient to stabilize the core, yet far too high to allow it to pass unhindered. The core was torn apart. But it did not go quietly, and the shock waves it carved through the fusing plasma endured for a million kilometers: all the way through to the cooler outer layers on the opposite side of the star. These shock waves were shaped by the payload that had formed them, and though the initial pattern imprinted on them by the disintegrating cluster of neutrons was enlarged and blurred by its journey, on an atomic scale it remained sharply defined. Like a mold stamped into the seething plasma, it encouraged ionized molecular fragments to slip into the troughs and furrows that matched their shape, and then brought them together to react in ways that the plasma’s random collisions would never have allowed. In effect, the shock waves formed a web of catalysts, carefully laid out in both time and space, briefly transforming a small corner of the star into a chemical factory operating on a nanometer scale. 

The products of this factory sprayed out of the star, riding the last traces of the shock wave’s momentum: a few nanograms of elaborate, carbon-rich molecules, sheathed in a protective fullerene weave. Traveling at seven hundred kilometers per second, a fraction below the velocity needed to escape from the star completely, they climbed out of its gravity well, slowing as they ascended. 

Four years passed, but the molecules were stable against the ravages of space. By the time they’d traveled a billion kilometers, they had almost come to a halt, and they would have fallen back to die in the fires of the star that had forged them if their journey had not been timed so that the star’s third planet, a gas giant, was waiting to urge them forward. As they fell toward it, the giant’s third moon moved across their path. Eleven years after the needle’s launch, its molecular offspring rained down on to the methane snow.

This is not the science fiction I grew up reading. I want to quote the whole opening that explains how Joan and Anne get to their destination, but that would involve quoting too much. I strongly recommend reading the story online just to experience the dazzling science fictional thinking of Greg Egan. I have no idea if any of his razzle-dazzling sleight of hand is scientifically possible, but Egan is a convincing preacher of the faith, of the faith that humanity has no limits in this universe.

However, once Egan gets Joan and Anne to the planet of Tira and Ghahar, two rival nations of beings call Noudah, the story slows down and becomes almost mundane in its plot. Joan and Anne are evidently what humans become in the far future, and they can download their essence (mind, soul?) into any machine or being. They appear to the Tiran and Ghahari in Noudah bodies. Joan and Anne each arrange to be intercepted by the two warring nations. Their stated and honest goal is to study the Niah, a race of sentient beings that had existed prior to the Noudah on this planet, and who were premiere mathematicians of the galaxy. The Niah existed for three million years but had disappeared over a million years earlier, leaving only tablets with their mathematical insights carved into them. Joan and Anne somehow know that the Noudah are building dams on Niah sites and want to excavate them before they are lost.

The real purpose of the story I believe is for Egan to present the idea of Seekers and Spreaders. The Niah are a race of seekers of knowledge. The Noudah are spreaders, wanting to conquer and colonize the galaxy. They are paranoid, fearing Joan and Anne are from another race of spreaders. Joan and Anne are really seekers though, just wanting to understand Niah math, so they have to do everything possible not to appear as spreaders.

Obviously, Homo sapiens will be spreaders. Our species is a cancerous growth spreading to every nook and cranny of Earth, and if we travel to other stellar systems, we’ll spread across those worlds too. (Hint to the title of Egan’s novel, Quarantine.)

I don’t know why Egan thinks we’ll become seekers in the future. Are Joan and Anne still Homo sapiens? Their minds can be copied and backed up, but are their minds like ours? I believe as long as our minds are tied to our biology we’ll be spreaders. But if we’re digitized maybe we could become seekers.

Here’s the thing about me and contemporary science fiction. I just don’t buy the concept of brain downloading. It’s as believable as everlasting life. We like to think we’re the Crown of Creation, but what happens when we discover we’re no more important to the universe than naked mole rats? The urge to spread is just a way to existentially define meaning to ourselves by the amount of territory we can cover. We might be sentient, but we’re no more significant than nitrogen to reality.

Science fiction writers are often philosophers. Science fiction often promotes the manifest destiny of the final frontier. Greg Egan obviously knows that spreading is pointless. But isn’t seeking equally pointless? The universe doesn’t care what we do. So does it matter if we or any other sentient beings spread or seek? And are those really the only choices for how to keep busy while existing in reality? What about art or hedonism? Sports and games? What about the Zen of just being?

“Glory” is a fun story. Most readers will just accept it as a story. I think of it as a kind of religious fantasy, showing faith in a different kind of heaven. As I read the 38 stories in this anthology, I experience them as stories, but also experience them as fears and hopes for the future.

James Wallace Harris, March 20, 2019

 

“Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper

Time-and-Time-Again-by-H.-Beam-Piper

Have you ever thought of an idea for a science fiction story, but before you could use it discovered the idea has already been used in another story? Last night I read “Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper and it uses an idea I’ve already tried in several story attempts. The idea is not really science fiction, but a fantasy version of “if I knew then what I know now,” but Piper throws in some pseudo-science gobbledygook and tries to pass it off as science fiction. Of course, in 1947, science fiction writers were ramping up for the 1950s, the SF Decade of Psi-Powers.

“Time and Time Again” originally appeared in the April 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It was reprinted in the classic retrospective anthology, A Treasury of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin in 1948. In 1956 it was made into an episode of X-Minus One radio show. I read just it in The Great SF Stories 9 (1947) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. The story is also available at Project Gutenberg. This was H. Beam Piper’s first published story.

I’m taking a short break from reading 21st-century SF to jump back to 1940s science fiction. I’ve discovered yet another way of classifying science fiction short stories. Sometimes I read SF magazines. Sometimes I read best-of-the-year annuals. Sometimes I read retrospective anthologies that claim to culled the very best short stories of the genre. They can be new or old magazines, annuals, or anthologies. This gives me three levels of quality and from past and current perspectives.

Reading science fiction magazines reveals that most stories aren’t that good. They’re good enough to get published, but most won’t make it into the best-of-last-year anthologies the following year. I’m reading a best-of-1947 volume, which contains these stories:

  • “Little Lost Robot” by Isaac Asimov
  • “Tomorrow’s Children” by Poul Anderson
  • “Child’s Play” by William Tenn
  • “Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper
  • “Tiny and the Monster” by Theodore Sturgeon
  • “E for Effort” by T. L. Sherred
  • “Letter to Ellen” by Chan Davis
  • “The Figure” by Edward Grendon
  • “With Folded Hands…” by Jack Williamson
  • “The Fires Within” by Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Zero Hour” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Hobbyist” by Eric Frank Russell
  • “Exit the Professor” by Lewis Padgett
  • “Thunder and Roses” by Theodore Sturgeon

Time has not been kind of science fiction. Only the very well-read in science fiction will know any of these titles. “E for Effort” and “With Folded Hands…” made it into volume 2 of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. “Little Lost Robot” became part of I, Robot. And “Thunder and Roses” is one of Theodore Sturgeon’s most famous tales. I doubt many science fiction fans born after 1990 will know these stories.

“Time and Time Again” uses an idea that’s a daydreaming fantasy of mine and one that I’ve tried to work into a story several times. (I did use a variation of it for my blog, “I Wish I Had A Time Machine To Save My Dad.”) Allan Hartley, age 43, dies and wakes back up in his 13-year-old body, but remembers everything that will happen to him for the next thirty years. Replay (1986) by Ken Grimwood was the first work I read that used this idea of reincarnating into one’s own life.

Is “Time and Time Again” a good story? In the July 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, “Time and Time Again” came in 1st in The Analytical Laboratory with a score of 3.11 out of 5 stories. Readers rank stories so a score of 1.0 would have meant every reader would have placed it first on their list. A score of 3.11 means it wasn’t a standout. “Time and Time Again” was good enough to get into Conklin’s big anthology, get produced as a radio show, and to be picked as one of the best SF stories of 1947 by Asimov and Greenberg. But on the whole, it’s not that good. Well, yes and no. If you have a fondness for 1940s science fiction, it has its charms, but if you read with a critical eye, the story is not that polished.

“Time and Time Again” did excite me, but only because it uses my pet idea. Have you ever fantasized about reincarnating into your younger self so you could relive your life knowing what you know now? Sometimes a far-out idea is all a story needs to make it likable. However, Piper really didn’t use the idea effectively, essentially throwing it away on a clunky plot. That’s one of the big faults of science fiction. Writers come up with a cool concept, but often cobble together any old plot to showcase their spiffy insight.

“Time and Time Again” is the earliest version of this theme that I know, and H. Beam Piper does come up with many of the same consequences that later writers have:

  1. Am I crazy?
  2. Can I pull off acting like a kid?
  3. Do I have to repeat what I’ve done before?
  4. Can I tell anyone?
  5. How can I make my own money?

Ken Grimwood covers all of this in the first replay of Jeff Winston’s life. Strangely, Winston dies at 43 too. Could that have been a homage to Piper? Actually, Piper’s ending does have other parallels to Replay. Where Grimwood gets brilliant is when he has Winston relive his life over and over again, each time feeling the need to do something different. Knowing the other possibilities that Grimwood explores made me feel less impressed with Piper’s story. And I guess that’s not fair – it might be the first to use this idea.

I wish someone would create an anthology of stories using this theme. I don’t know of any short stories that use this specific idea, but I bet they’re out there. If you know of any, please leave a comment.

Piper starts the story off by showing what happens to Allan, but eventually, he just has Allan lecturing and speculating. It’s a shame he couldn’t have come up with a fully dramatized plot.

Within “Time and Time Again” Allan mentions a 1923 fantasy novel, The High Place, by James Branch Campbell, and says the idea was also in Jurgen by the same author. But I don’t know what the specific idea he’s referring to. Allan also says Dunne’s Experiment With Time explores precognition. So I don’t know if Piper is more concerned with precognition and less with reincarnation into one’s own life. Piper could have used Allan Hartley wake up in his 13-year-old body just to give us a reason for his precognition, and not as a life do-over tale.

This story was written just after Hiroshima, and already science fiction is attributing magical events to atomic explosions. In the years to come, A-bombs would produce countless mutants with superpowers and portals to other dimensions.

Hartley wants to change history. That seems egotistical to me. It also seems comic bookish and juvenile too. Why would the universe give us a chance to relive our life? At a spiritual level, taking it beyond science and science fiction, wouldn’t such an opportunity be telling us to do a better job this time around and change ourselves, not the world? One common trend in science fiction from this era is the power fantasy, where one hero can save the world, solar, system, galaxy or universe. I think H. Beam Piper matured as a writer by the time he wrote his masterpiece, Little Fuzzy.

James Wallace Harris, March 13, 2019

 

 

“The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” by Alastair Reynolds

Winged Woman

8th in a series: The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois

Although science fiction writers can write about anything, if you read enough science fiction you’ll discover a limited number of themes repeated in endless variations. The challenge to the writer is to tell an old story in a new way. In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” Alastair Reynolds uses the theme of a primitive society that barely remembers its former technological glory. There is a great sense of wonder to that idea. One of the earliest examples I can remember reading is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. In that story, our current world civilization had collapsed and a rather medieval one had taken its place. Characters marveled and wondered about artifacts from our time creating endless speculation about us with wrong assumptions.

In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” we’re again thrown back in time, or so we think. It feels like a 17th-century English town, but I’m not even sure we’re on Earth. Reynolds is famous for telling stories of the very far future. We do learn that their past had space travel and intelligent robots, but the people of this time have no understanding of that history, just shadowy myths. The story is about a 16-year-old girl, Kathrin Lynch, who is the daughter of the sledge maker trying to walk home without being sexually assaulted. She has in the past and knows it will happen again.

In the world of this story, whether far future Earth or a planet we settled that has forgotten that, knowledge is mostly based on superstition. This is a common aspect of our forgotten past theme. For example, the robots of their past are now the “jangling men” – a supernatural threat to scare children from straying too far.

Understanding the building blocks of this theme is not really important for enjoying this story. You can read or listen to it online. “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a wonderful tale because of how it’s told. Since I listened to it on the audiobook edition of The Very Best of the Best, the professional narration showcases Reynolds’ skills at conveying drama and emotion. By the way, I consider audio narration to be a magnifier, one that makes good and bad writing stand out. This might be true because audio converts printed words to something like watching a movie, allowing our ears to better judge the dialog.

I’m reading and reviewing these stories as writing lessons. From “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” I’m learning how Reynolds took an old theme and made it fresh. It involves a number of challenges. First, the setting of the story is old – even if it’s in our far future. Think about watching Game of Thrones on HBO. Is it set on Earth? Is it in the past or the future? How to capture those details without anachronisms?  Reynolds sets “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” in a time that feels like old England to me, where people still believed in witches, and towns are ruled by sheriffs. He overlays this with myths that feel even older, yet we learn were founded on our future.

The basic plot of this story could be set in any time. In fact, it could have been written in the 17th-century or today. What makes it good is the storytelling. The writing is simple. Reynolds explains little. But much happens in the one hour it takes to narrate the audio version. It’s rich in vivid details.

I do have one quibble with this tale, but I’m not sure if I can bring it up without spoiling it for some readers. But I will since these essays are about story construction. The solution to Kathrin’s problem is a powerful weapon. This works in fantasy or science fiction, but would it be politically correct in a contemporary literary story? If we read a New Yorker story about a young girl telling an older woman about how’s she’s being sexually preyed upon and the older woman gave her a 9mm to keep in her purse as a solution, would we accept that story?

I know many Americans would answer yes. But that’s not what I want to get into. This is about writing, and the question it poses is: Should stories offer plot solutions with dangerous implications? I’m a lifelong fan of westerns. One of the major themes of westerns is violence is the solution. Do we accept this only for fiction and video games, or psychologically too?

When I think about writing fiction I seldom think of stories that involve violence. But pay attention to how often violence is integrated all the forms of fiction we consume. If I had written this story I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to create a rape scene. Nor would I have wanted the past technology to be symbolized by a weapon. I’m trying to imagine using this theme in a new way of my own making. What myths might our civilization give people thousands of years from now? What if in two hundred years climate change has totally wiped out our technological civilization? How will future people imagine our love of social media and computers? See, got a story idea already. But ideas are a penny a million. It’s the storytelling that counts, and “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a good lesson in that.

James Wallace Harris, March 11, 2019

“Where the Golden Apples Grow” by Kage Baker

Where the Golden Apples Grow by Kage Baker

“Where the Golden Apples Grow” by Kage Baker is the 7th story in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m reviewing its stories one-at-a-time not to judge them but to explore the current state of science fiction. Baker’s story is about colonizing Mars, which is my favorite theme in science fiction. Every story about a Mars colony is one writer’s idea of how humanity might build a civilization on the Red Planet. None have ever pictured it the way I imagined it, but that’s not a ding on their stories. The Very Best of the Best is 38 SF stories first published between 2002-2017.

“Where the Golden Apples Grow” is part of the late Kage Baker’s Mars Series. Like I said when reviewing the Robert Reed story, this anthology is getting me to read “newer” science fiction authors, taking me out of my mid-20th-century SF rut. I’ve read a few stories by Kage Baker before. Reading about these writers before writing the reviews shows me a much larger science fiction universe. That’s why I’m providing hyperlinks, in case you want to know more too.

Mars is the El Dorado of science fiction. It takes a furious amount of mouse-wheel scrolling to get through the lists of stories about Mars at Wikipedia. Colonizing Mars will be the fulfillment of one of science fiction’s oldest ambitions. Aren’t the efforts of every national space program driven by scientists who are stealth SF fans hoping to get to Mars?

When I started this project of reviewing these stories one-by-one, I said most of the stories in the anthology aren’t my kind of science fiction. This Kage Baker story is exactly my kind of SF. I was born in 1951. I started 1st grade just before Sputnik was launched, and graduate 12th grade just before Apollo 11. Science fiction has always been my Bible for space exploration religion. I thought for sure Mars would be colonized in my lifetime. I have a few years left, and I’m still hoping.

Science fiction can be about almost anything, and the stories in this anthology testify to that. But for me, science fiction has always been about what could happen from 1970-2100 in our solar system. Science fiction is a cognitive tool for speculation and extrapolation. Sure I love stories about interstellar exploration, time travel, utopias, dystopias, and the far future, but all those fictionalized speculations are too far out for me to believe might happen. I’ve always loved down-to-Mars science fiction.

I read science fiction because I wanted to know what might be the big possibilities in my lifetime, or what could happen in the decades after my death. I figured within the 1970-2100 timeframe, colonizing the Moon and Mars were about the limits of what I could realistically hope. I also assumed intelligent robots would evolve in that time period, and as a longshot, we might get lucky and make SETI contact. Exploring those themes are my kind of science fiction.

That being said, Kage Baker’s Mars is not my Mars. Every science fiction writer pictures Mars differently. Imagining how humans will settle on Mars is a kind of intellectual game. I figure Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars trilogy is the current champ to beat. Some writers ignore science and reality. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury’s Martian landscapes are like Oz for adults. Some writers try to guess what it might be like to start a colony, sort of like SimCity on another planet. Other writers like to begin their fiction after the colonies have been established. Baker imagines her Mars with truckers and farmers, capitalism and collectives, rich and poor, idealists and scientists, sort of like 1940s Americans with hi-tech on another planet.

Baker’s Mars seems to have evolved from science fiction ancestors she and I have in common, especially Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, and Farmer in the Sky. Kage Baker’s idea of how a Mars colony will develop might be closer to how Heinlein imagined it than Clarke, Bova, or Robinson.

Baker sets up her story by telling about the 2nd and 3rd boys born on Mars. Bill, is the son of a trucker, and he and his father haul ice back from the poles to a settlement at Mons Olympus. Ford, is the son of a farmer who works in a collective called Long Acres. Baker’s Mars is working class, settled by people from Earth who want freedom and opportunity, and who might be just a little bit crazy.

I’ve always wanted to write a story like “Where the Golden Apples Grow” because I’ve always wondered: What if the children of Mars and Moon colonists don’t see the High Frontier dream in the same way as their parents do? Would children growing up on Mars or the Moon fantasize about living on Earth like I fantasized about Mars? Can any child raised in 1/6th or 1/3rd gravity ever return to 1G? Bill and Ford don’t like their destinies, but what can they do?

I was quite moved by Baker’s story, and I have no quibbles with it as it stands as a story. However, she imagines three outcomes for a Mars colony that I don’t. First, she expects colonists to live and work on the surface. I’ve always figured there’s too much hard radiation raining down on Mars for that. I assumed colonists would have to live underground. Second, Baker imagines hordes of immigrants from Earth coming to Mars, with most of them doing hard-labor work. I imagined a few hundred highly-trained scientists seeding a Mars civilization with hordes of robot helpers. I don’t think it will ever be economically/environmentally practical to send too many rockets towards Mars. Third, Baker imagines capitalism will work on Mars. I think it will take centuries before Mars has a manufacturing or service economy. There will be no profit for Earth in colonizing Mars. Every dollar Earth spends on Mars will be a donation towards creating a space civilization, but that civilization will have to create a new kind of economy, and it will take centuries.

Now, these aren’t criticisms of this story. Most readers will read it, be entertained, and go on to their next read. But for some readers, a story like this is a proposed blueprint that begs to be discussed. Science fiction writers make a series of speculations as they tell their stories. When I was growing up my SF reading buddies and I would argue over those speculations. We stopped when we grew up, but I miss that. That’s what I want to bring back in these reviews.

For example, in “Where the Golden Apples Grow” the farmer buys a pair of boots for his son that has to be shipped from Earth. They would be very expensive. Mars has nothing to pay for those boots, nor does the farmer. See, this is where the fun of imagining how a colony on Mars would evolve. What is the best kind of boots to have on Mars? Plastic, leather, cloth, etc? Where does that material come from? Can it be made on Mars? How is the economy created to get everything made that people need to use? When you read “Where the Golden Apples Grow” think about that. What kind of engines and power sources do the long-haul truckers use on Mars? Where does the fuel come from? Mars or Earth? What are the roads made out of, and who built them? Can transparent panels be made to make walkways on Mars that shield residents from radiation? That’s what Baker implies. Where’s the factory that makes them? Where does all the machinery in it come from? Where do the raw materials come from? Can the Martian regolith be turned into fertile soil? Is there uranium on Mars?

Such questions are endless. And any good story about a Mars colony should try to answer some of them. But not in a lecturing way that would slow down the storytelling. Baker does this quite effectively. Her story is a moving dramatic tale, both in pace and emotion. I’ve often seen criticism for Robinson’s Mars trilogy because his speculation bogs down the story.

I consider Kage Baker’s “Where the Golden Apples Grow” to be as fun as one of Heinlein’s juveniles from the 1950s. That’s high praise from me.

James Wallace Harris, March 8, 2019

 

 

“Good Mountain” by Robert Reed

Floating islands

Writers of fantastic fiction face a unique challenge when they sit down to write. They can imagine anything happening anywhere anytime. Their only limitation is making their story readable. One difference between science fiction and fantasy is science fiction implies its stories are not pure fantasy but something reality could have generated. Robert Reed’s story, “Good Mountain” I believe was intended for the realm of the believable, but it feels somewhat like The Bible, not meant to be the literal truth but nonetheless, a message we should interpret.

Robert Reed is a prolific author whose superpower is imagination. I’m not sure “Good Mountain” gets the admiration it deserves. The reason I’m writing about this story is  “Good Mountain” is included in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois, which I’m reviewing one story at a time. This story struck many 2006 reviewers as among the best in One Million A.D., an original anthology edited by Gardner Dozois. But some of those reviewers have gotten distracted by the giant worms that the characters ride and ignored the story’s other more fantastic elements.

Don’t let my enthusiasm for this story suggest it’s a masterpiece, it’s not, but it’s very good. I keep trying to ascertain what would put it over the top but that’s hard to put into words. The story is a third person account of Jopale, a refuge, who meets two significant characters on his fleeing journey, Brace the worm conductor, and Do-ane, a secretive woman with a large book. None of these figures have any literary depth to them, but they each stand for something like characters in a parable. “Good Mountain” is like an oracle, you can read anything into its message. I read it as a metaphor for climate change and the end of our civilization, but I think it will work with any end-of-the-something scenario.

I want to use the word “recapitulate” to describe “Good Mountain” in the same way I used it to review “The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason. Reed and Arnason use their stories of alien worlds to recapitulate what goes on in our world. They feel like fables or allegories. In “Good Mountain” the characters call themselves human, but we don’t know if they’re Homo sapiens. They do not know about space travel or Earth. In some ways, this story reminds me of Asimov’s “Nightfall.” Jopale’s planet is a strange one, comprised of floating islands that occasionally coalesce into continents long enough for civilizations to arise, but eventually come apart in cycles of natural catastrophes. Reed creates a beautiful biosystem of islands made of wood, with their roots dangling into the ocean, floating on a planetary sea that always faces its star, with a civilization built without metal. Fire and methane are what these people fear.

Arnason and Reed are plowing the same pasture in the science fiction landscape. They accept the challenge of writing the fantastic by creating whole worlds, but they aren’t the kind of worlds that true believers of the final frontier expect humans to colonize. Reed and Arnason aren’t science fiction writers working to scientifically imagine life on exoplanets. Their worlds are metaphorical. Their worlds aren’t NASA discoverable, but Impressionistic worlds of their imagination. Their stories remind me of N. K. Jemison’s recent work, the kind of science fiction that evolved out of Ursula K. Le Guin’s tales in the 1960s.

I get the feeling Robert Reed has much to say about our reality, but he speaks his mind in the language of science fiction. I’m not sure I can properly translate his communique because of its metaphorical nature. I can’t tell if he’s just telling us about a screwy dream, or if he wishes to be like an Old Testament prophet, preaching “The End is Near.” The story’s final twist would have given Philip K. Dick a Cheshire Cat smile.

“Good Mountain” is about Jopale fleeing fires racing across the continent. He rides a giant worm to a distant port, traveling with others hoping to escape to their collective doom. The escapees bring mockmen, their servant/slaves, who may or may not be human, but which give the story an extra twist that I can’t decipher. Along the way, this worm of fools hears a whispered tale, one that offers an enchanted sliver of hope, causing each to selfishly seek their own salvation at the expense of the others. Throughout this story, the citizens of this exotic land always act on self-interest without guilt, except for Brace, the worm handler. That’s why this story feels like a morality play.

One of the benefits of reading a science fiction anthology is learning about new authors and new types of science fiction. I’ve read a few stories by Robert Reed over the years but never researched into his background. For instance, I did not know about his Greatship series, of which “Good Mountain” somehow fits late in its cycle, so I’m now intrigued to find out more. Also, this story could be meta-fiction about science fiction, another avenue to pursue.

“A favorite science fiction writer of mine is William Faulkner!” Reed told Locus in an interview in 1998. That might be a clue to why I liked this story. It’s not my normal kind of science fiction. Both “Good Mountain” and “The Potter of Bones” are novellas and are my favorite stories of the six I’ve read so far in The Very Best of the Best. I’m just beginning my journey through this vast anthology. Reading and writing about it has become a course in science fiction. You can jump back to the beginning of my journey here and follow the links of the stories I’ve reviewed so far.

Read other reviews of “Good Mountain” at:

James Wallace Harris, March 6, 2019

“Tin Marsh” by Michael Swanwick

Venus

When is it appropriate to call bullshit on the science fiction in science fiction? Michael Swanick’s story, “Tin Marsh” is set on Venus. It’s about a woman and man who team up to prospect for metal on Venus but who come to intensely hate each other. The story is a compelling read that makes turning the pages easy, but its setup is completely unbelievable to me.

Since we’re reviewing the stories in The Very Best of the Best, an anthology of science fiction first published between 2002 and 2017, I think the title challenges us to ask: What is great science fiction and are these stories the very best examples of the art.

The basic formula for writing science fiction is to think up a far-out idea and then contrive a plot to embed that idea into a story. The very best science fiction will push the limits of our imagination by speculating on just what might be possible. The very best science fiction is in the box with Schroedinger’s cat. Science fiction has to wait for science to open the box.

Early science fiction wondered if humans could go to the Moon or Mars in a time when we knew little about the solar system. In what I call Pre-NASA Science Fiction, writers imagined Venus and Mars to be habitable worlds that often included intelligent life. Post-NASA science fiction has had to live with what its space probes discovered. Modern science fiction still tries to imagine us living on almost any piece of real estate in the solar system, but is that realistic? I believe science fiction should be judged on scientific realism, and readers need to call bullshit when they see it.

“Tin Marsh” has us believing humans could work on Venus and make a profit. Swanwick has his characters living in power suits that withstand the heat, pressure, and corrosive atmosphere of Venus. I call bullshit on this idea for two reasons. I don’t believe such suits could ever be engineered, nor will mining metal on Venus ever be profitable. No one will invest trillions to earn billions.

Now the plot of “Tin Marsh” is more believable. Two people working closely come to hate each other. Simple enough. Happens all the time. “Tin Marsh” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2006. 20th-century science fiction has been much criticized for the lack of female characters, so in this 21st-century story, gender is balanced with one male (MacArthur) and one female (Patang). The trouble is the gender equality ends there. Patang has driven MacArthur to murder.

The story has MacArthur chasing Patang across the surface of Venus to kill her slowly. MacArthur wants to torture Patang as much as possible before she dies. He hates her that much. And the reasons why MacArthur hates Patang are all the clichéd reasons men hate women. Of course, the reverse is also true. Is the story about Patang trying to survive being murdered, or is it really about why working with women on Venus would drive a man crazy? Because we’re told the story from Patang’s POV, we feel it’s about violence against women. But some male readers are going to identify with MacArthur. And what does the ending say about who is right?

Relying on violence as a plot driver is the core problem of this story, the same as the last story I reviewed, “Dead Men Walking” by Paul McAuley. McAuley’s story also featured a female character in a role that would have been previously given to a male. In both cases, the female role is contrived and connected with violence. In the McAuley story, the woman is given the equal opportunity to play a sadistic Jack-the-Ripper type killer, while Patang is just a sharped tongue woman who ends up torturing her partner in madness.

Is this story the very best of the best? It depends on the rules of judgment. Is it well-written and readable by SF standards? Yes. Is it full of action? Yes. Is it set in an exotic locale? Yes. Will it push emotional buttons? Yes. Does it stand out against its competition? Yes.

Is it scientific? No. Does it offer any ideas about how humans could actually work on Venus? No? Does it expand the frontiers of science fiction? No. Does it say anything about the heart in conflict with itself? Not really. Is it politically correct? You decide.

I have to wonder if Gardner Dozois assumes the very best of science fiction only requires certain writing features but not others? Although science fiction is hugely popular in our society, it’s not a popular reading category, especially for short stories. Writers have to produce a product that editors will buy, and editors have to buy stories that readers will read. For decades science fiction short stories were a product mostly consumed by adolescent males, but that’s changing. Is this 2006 story already PC dated in 2019? Doesn’t society change faster than science fiction imagines it?

Short stories also have to compete with novels, television shows, video games, movies and other kinds of modern entertainment. Short stories were at their peak of popularity before 1950, and they’ve been in decline ever since. Gardner Dozois was the most successful editor of short science fiction since John W. Campbell Jr. He should have the pulse of readers of short science fiction.

I have to assume Dozois knew his market. But I’m not sure if I’m in that market. Science fiction means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The psychological common denominator of science fiction’s appeal is hope and fears about the future. But do we evaluate our possible futures with science fiction, or just use the genre to escape the present? That’s something I have to ask while reviewing these stories.

Believing humans will ever work on Venus is a fantasy. It makes me wonder if science fiction even tries to be realistic anymore? Are writers of science fiction merely using highly imaginative but contrived ideas to sell stories?

I believe we have to ask if our science fiction writers are Baron Munchausen or H. G. Wells?

James Wallace Harris, March 4, 2019