“With Flaming Swords” by Cleve Cartmill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 11/30/20

Philosophy & Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 10/19/20

“On the Shores of Ligeia” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

On the Shores of Ligeia covers

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

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

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

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

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

“Adding in radar and infrared,” Kjeld said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 7/27/20

 

“Winter Wheat” by Gord Sellar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 7/26/20

Rereading “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee

At the Fall covers 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

whale fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 7/25/20

“This is Not the Way Home” by Greg Egan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Wallace Harris, 7/22/20

 

 

 

 

What Makes a Great SF Short Story?

At our Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year, we’re reading anthologies. We’re currently discussing The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and The Best Science Fiction of the Year (1972) edited by Terry Carr. It’s Carr’s first volume of sixteen annual best-of-the-year anthologies he edited after parting as co-editor with Donald Wollheim for World’s Best Science Fiction (1965-1971).

The group has discussed almost fifty SF stories now and I’m wondering what common elements belong to the stories we like best. Most stories get mixed reactions, but some are almost universally loved, such as “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. We’re currently commenting on “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “… And Then There Were None” by Eric Frank Russell.

I’m learning all kinds of things through reading short stories for this group. One of the most important insights I’ve discovered is rereading stories is vital to truly understanding them. The great stories get better, but often stories I once disliked improve, or even become admired. There are many reasons why we don’t like a story. Sometimes they just aren’t very good, but sometimes we’re poor readers and don’t give them their proper due. We often blaze by bits that add great meaning. Some of these stories I’m reading for the third or fourth time over a lifetime of reading that started almost sixty years ago. They are blossoming in ways I never imagined. I realized now that one reading isn’t enough. One reading isn’t even fair to the story. Stories are like a favorite state park, you see more every time you visit, but you never see everything.

I’m also finding great pleasure in reading these SF stories for reasons not related to the stories themselves. The pandemic and politics have made 2020 an exceptionally depressing year, so reading SF short stories is a wonderful escape. But after a lifetime of reading mostly science fiction novels, focusing on short science fiction is giving me a better insight into the evolution of the genre. It’s also fun hearing from other fans of short SF from around the world. Finally, on a personal level, I’m really getting into short SF as an art form. Science fiction short stories are becoming my special interest for my retirement years. I no longer have the energy to persue genuine scholarship but I still have the curiosity of a kid willing to tear a clock apart to see how something works.

The Found and the LostTake for instance “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow.” It immediately grabbed me even though I’ve never been a big fan of Ursula K. Le Guin. I read The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven when they came out, but that was half a century ago when I mass-consumed SF without much contemplation. Her classic novels made little impression on me then because I read just too dang fast, but “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” intrigues me now that I read much slower. I liked it so much that I bought Le Guin’s collection The Found and the Lost on Audible so I could hear the story. I can’t help but wonder what was in that story that made me read it twice in three days.

First, I was fascinated by the few details about the Hainish worlds and that culture’s panspermia. That made me look up the Hainish Cycle on Wikipedia. Even though I had read two of Le Guin’s most famous novels set in her Hainish universe I had missed those details fifty years ago. And I remember recently trying Rocannon’s World and not getting into it. Reading “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” this week has made me want to try Rocannon’s World again, and reread The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.

Normally, I don’t like book series, or even sequels and trilogies, but I do like the idea of world-building and future histories. Le Guin seemed to be speculating about interstellar travel in a serious way, and that hooked me. Even though Le Guin is famous for her sociological and anthropological science fiction, I was admiring her hard science fiction because she designed a galactic culture based on Nearly as Fast as Light (NAFAL) travel. And she invented the Ansible, a device that can communicate instantaneously across light-years. That concept made me try to picture a conversation between two people, one of which is experiencing extreme time dilation. Heinlein did that in Time for the Stars where he used telepathic twins – one of a spaceship, and one left on Earth. Heinlein suggested that it would distort communication the closer the one twin got to the speed of light. Actually, I doubt an Ansible is possible, but NAFAL might be.

In “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” the crew of the Gum exists before the Ansible, so they are completely isolated from their galactic empire. They travel 256 light-years but only experience 10 hours and 29 minutes of travel time. I’m not sure, but that might be possible within the laws of Einstein, and such realism makes for compelling science fiction. Here Le Guin asks what kind of people would exile themselves from their own time period and go on a survey mission that will jump them over 500 years into their planet’s future by the time they return.

One aspect of science fiction that I’ve always loved, is it gives me a vague sense of what life on Earth might be like after I die. History teaches me what happened before I was born, and science fiction lets me guess at what could happen after I die. Will humans ever travel to the stars? Especially given we could exist as a species for a million years. Too many science fiction writers and readers have unlimited hope that anything is possible, but I don’t agree. I like science fiction writers who live within realistic constraints, and I believe Le Guin was doing that. That also made me want to read her Hainish stories.

Le Guin’s story doesn’t predict the future, but does does give tiny hints of speculation, especially about what kind of people will really want to travel to the stars?

In “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” Le Guin suggests only a crazy person would go on a mission that exiled them from everything and everyone they knew. The Gum is crewed by ten neurotic misfits. I thought that interesting too, especially after we read “No Direction Home” by Norman Spinrad about a future where psychedelic drugs are used to erase every kind of psychological problem. For some reason I liked Le Guin’s vision of the future better, where people are still neurotic. It’s not that I want people to suffer psychologically, but I find futures where everyone is beautiful and happy kind of creepy. (Watch the new version of Brave New World on Peacock TV.)

By Le Guin having ten characters with different mental problems it gave her a chance to explore ten different ways of viewing reality. Mr. Osden’s affliction of too much empathy made for a challenging plot problem. And the discovery of a sentient plant kingdom that was only aware of itself was a truly fascinating concept. I love meditating on the fact that most of the universe is probably not intelligent or self-aware, yet evolution makes countless beings that perceive reality differently.

Finally, why did Le Guin change the beginning of the story? I read “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” first in the Terry Carr’s 1972 annual anthology, but listened to a version that had been rewritten years later. The earlier version begins:

You’re looking at a clock. It has hands, and figures arranged in a circle. The hands move. You can’t tell if they move at the same rate, or if one moves faster than the other. What does than mean? There is a relationship between the hands and the circle of figures, and the name of this relationship is on the tip of your tongue; the hands are . . . something-or-other, at the figures. Or is it the figures that ... at the hands? What does at mean? They are figures — your vocabulary hasn’t shrunk at all — and of course you can count, one two three four etc., but the trouble is you can’t tell which one is one. Each one is one: itself. Where do you begin? Each one being one, there is no, what’s the word, I had it just now, something-ship, between the ones. There is no between. There is only here and here, one and one. There is no there. Maya has fallen. All is here now one.

But if all is now and all here and one all, there is no end. It did not begin so it cannot end. Oh God, here now One get me out of this—

I’m trying to describe the sensations of the average person in NAFAL flight. It can be much worse than this for some, whose time-sense is acute. For others it is restful, like a drughaze freeing the mind from the tyranny of hours. And for a few the experience is certainly mystical; the collapse of time and relation leading them directly to intuition of the eternal. But the mystic is a rare bird, and the nearest most people get to God in paradoxical time is by inarticulate and anguished prayer for release.

They used to drug people for the long jumps, but stopped the practice when they realized its effects. What happens to a drugged, or ill, or wounded person during near-lightspeed flight is, of course, indeterminable. A jump of ten lightyears should logically make no difference to a victim of measles or gunshot. The body ages only a few minutes; why is the measles patient carried out of the ship a leper, and the wounded man a corpse? Nobody knows, except perhaps the body, which keeps the logic of the flesh, and knows it has lain festering, bleeding, or drugged into mindlessness, for ten years. Many imbeciles having been produced, the Fisher King Effect was established as fact, and they stopped using drugs and transporting the ill, the damaged, and the pregnant. You have to be in common health to go NAFAL, and you have to take it straight.

But you don’t have to be sane.

It was only during the earliest decades of the League that Earthmen, perhaps trying to bolster their battered collective ego, sent out ships on enormously long voyages, beyond the pale, over the stars and far away. They were seeking for worlds that had not, like all the known worlds, been settled or seeded by the Founders on Hain, truly alien worlds; and all the crews of these Extreme Surveys were of unsound mind. Who else would go out to collect information that wouldn’t be received for four, or five, or six centuries? Received by whom? This was before the invention of the instantaneous communicator; they would be isolated both in space and time. No sane person who has experienced timeslippage of even a few decades between near worlds would volunteer for a round trip of a half millennium. The Surveyors were escapists; misfits; nuts.

But the newer version begins

It was only during the earliest decades of the League that the Earth sent ships out on the enormously long voyages, beyond the pale, over the stars and far away. They were seeking for worlds which had not been seeded or settled by the Founders on Hain, truly alien worlds. All the Known Worlds went back to the Hainish Origin, and the Terrans, having been not only founded but salvaged by the Hainish, resented this. They wanted to get away from the family. They wanted to find somebody new. The Hainish, like tiresomely understanding parents, supported their explorations, and contributed ships and volunteers, as did several other worlds of the League. 

All these volunteers to the Extreme Survey crews shared one peculiarity: they were of unsound mind. 

What sane person, after all, would go out to collect information that would not be received for five or ten centuries? Cosmic mass interference had not yet been eliminated from the operation of the ansible, and so instantaneous communication was reliable only within a range of 120 light-years. The explorers would be quite isolated. And of course they had no idea what they might come back to, if they came back. No normal human being who had experienced time-slippage of even a few decades between League worlds would volunteer for a round trip of centuries. The Surveyors were escapists, misfits. They were nuts.

Did Le Guin rewrite so this early Hainish story fit in better with later stories? Or did Le Guin decide the opening information wasn’t needed? Does anyone know where Le Guin wrote about rewriting her stories?

I could go on in even more details, but this essay is already over two thousand words long and few people read anything that long online. If you’re still reading and want to join our discussion follow the link at the top of the page.

James Wallace Harris 7/19/20

 

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny

I’ve been leading the group discussion of the stories in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg on the Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year. Tomorrow we start “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – the 26th and final story of the volume, and one of my all-time favorite science fiction stories. After that, we move on to volume 2A and 2B. We’re also just started discussing The Best Science Fiction of the Year edited by Terry Carr that came out in 1972 covering stories from 1971. (Follow the link if you want to join us.)

I feel like writing more about “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” than just a few comments on the Facebook group. What I’d really like to write is an exact explanation of why I love “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” so intensely. I’ve already written four essays that explain part of the why. A whole lot has to do with being at the right place at the right time, or maybe more precisely, growing up in a certain place and time.

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a story about Earthlings discovering Martians. Anyone who grew up reading “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, or any of the Heinlein novels featuring the Old Ones will know what I mean. Before NASA we hoped Mars would be an inhabited world, a world where humans could live without spacesuits and hang out with all the intelligent lifeforms from a myriad of inhabited planets and moons. Mars was going to be the most exotic and action-packed destination in the solar system. Mars was to Baby Boomers what Star Wars is to later generations.

After NASA Mars was toxic and lifeless, a bitterly cold planet that will always try to kill us. For a while in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when they called science fiction Scientific Romances we saw exploring space similar to the romantic adventures of the 17th and 18th centuries. What Zelazny did in 1963 with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” was to ignore science, ignore NASA, and write the kind of story about the Mars we really wanted.

I know what I’m writing is like a twelve-year-old kid morosely saying, “I sure wish that Santa Claus was real — I miss the magic.” And it’s obvious from the billion-dollar blockbuster movies we love to so much, that few of us want to grow up.

I’ve discussed “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” with younger readers and many of them don’t see the magic that I do. That has bothered me. Often they find the main character Gallinger offensive, and such an asshole that they reject the story. They know what the real Mars is like and can’t accept a silly unrealistic Mars we all wanted decades ago. Can I be so wrong about this story?

But here’s the thing, I consider “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” a model for writing great science fiction. Over the years I’ve slowly gathered a handful of stories I consider the ones to beat if I was going to write science fiction. “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” was Hugo finalist back in 1964 but I’m not sure if that would happen today.

Part of understanding why I love this story so much means learning why it is unappealing to others today, especially younger readers. And it’s not that Baby Boomers admired egotistical assholes, giving them a pass for their successes, but maybe we just accepted that assholes do exist in this world, and sometimes make for fascinating protagonists. Or maybe we liked stories where arrogance evolves into enlightenment. And, then there were the pulp fiction conventions. Zelazny writes with an admiration for the science fiction he grew up reading, and the heroes of old are different from the heroes of today. You can tell that in this opening if you’ve read enough pulp fiction.

I was busy translating one of my Madrigals Macabre into Martian on the morning I was found acceptable. The intercom had buzzed briefly, and I dropped my pencil and flipped on the toggle in a single motion. 

“Mister G,” piped Morton’s youthful contralto, “the old man says I should ‘get hold of that damned conceited rhymer’ right away, and send him to his cabin. Since there’s only one damned conceited rhymer …” 

“Let not ambition mock thy useful toil.” I cut him off. 

So, the Martians had finally made up their minds! I knocked an inch and a half of ash from a smoldering butt, and took my first drag since I had lit it. The entire month’s anticipation tried hard to crowd itself into the moment, but could not quite make it. I was frightened to walk those forty feet and hear Emory say the words I already knew he would say; and that feeling elbowed the other one into the background.

This isn’t literary writing and Gallinger isn’t a literary figure. Madrigals Macabre would be something Weird Tales would publish, something Lovecraft and Derleth would admire, and be reprinted by Arkham House. Gallinger is a pulp hero. He has a massive ego for a reason. He tells us:

I don’t remember what I had for lunch. I was nervous, but I knew instinctively that I wouldn’t muff it. My Boston publishers expected a Martian Idyll, or at least a Saint-Exupéry job on space flight. The National Science Association wanted a complete report on the Rise and Fall of the Martian Empire. 

They would both be pleased. I knew. 

That’s the reason everyone is jealous—why they hate me. I always come through, and I can come through better than anyone else.

And before that, his boss told him:

“You are undoubtedly the most antagonistic bastard I’ve ever had to work with!” he bellowed, like a belly-stung buffalo. “Why the hell don’t you act like a human being sometime and surprise everybody? I’m willing to admit you’re smart, maybe even a genius, but—oh, hell!”

Later on, this is what Gallinger says about a woman that admires him, and is a colleague:

Betty muttered the parting formalities, gave me a strange sidewise look, and was gone. She apparently had expected to stay and “assist” me. She wanted a piece of the glory, like everyone else. But I was the Schliemann at this Troy, and there would be only one name on the Association report!

I can see why modern readers are turned off, but Gallinger’s unlikability is just part of the story. Maybe what makes for a good story fifty years ago is having a protagonist who learns how to become a better person. In today’s stories, the main character is often already woken and fighting against inequality and injustice. That’s great to have such admirable characters to follow, but maybe part of storytelling is about overcoming obstacles, and often the best obstacles to explore in fiction are those within ourselves.

Ironically, I often argue the best science fiction adheres closest to science, yet here’s a story that sneers at what we know. There is so much to this story that I would criticize in a modern story, or even from another story back in the day. Evidently, telling a good story sometimes involves insulting your reader and taking chances.

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” goes on to tell a tale about a man falling in love with an alien culture, seduced into being part of their ancient prophecy. Zelazny makes Mars a place you want to visit. And I have to wonder how many people who hope to fly with Elon Musk to the red planet is expecting a Mars to be like Zelazny’s romantic world? It’s certainly why I wanted to go when I was a kid. The real Mars will be a Lovecraftian nightmare out to kill us. The Old Ones will be all the lethal aspects of Martian reality.

This essay is getting too long. It’s always impossible to write one essay that explains why I love a story. There are just too many psychological threads to follow. Partly I am defending “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” from some recent comments I read that bothered me. But I’m also trying to understand why my generation loves one kind of story and the Worldcon membership now seems to love another kind of story.

And I’m not even sure I loved “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” as much as I do now back when I first read it in the 1960s. Maybe it now represents something I’ve lost back in the 1960s that I wish I could find again. Maybe it’s not the story per se, but the love of reading such stories? Back in the sixties, I had so much hope for humanity exploring space, especially colonizing Mars. Maybe now I’m really seeing myself for what I was back then. I loved reading science fiction of a certain type, and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” epitomizes that kind of science fiction.

Maybe what I really wanted was to grow up and be like Gallinger. Isn’t that a scary thought? That what I really want is to be an asshole adventurer on an unrealistic fantasy version of Mars. That I’m that kid once again wishing Santa Claus was real.

Ultimately, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” presents Mars the way I wanted Mars to really be. This story is a triple level romance — between Gallinger and Braxa, but it’s also a romance between the reader and Mars, and between the reader and science fiction.

Like I said, this essay is getting too long, and heading into psychological territory that would take too many words to psychoanalyze.

James Wallace Harris. 6/23/20

The Science Fiction I’d Write at 68

When I was young, and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did not tell them the truth. I wanted to grow up to live in a reality much like the fictional realities of “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, or “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, or the young adult novels written by Robert A. Heinlein. Even as a teen I knew that was not going to happen, so I imagined instead becoming a science fiction writer and creating stories about how I wished to change my reality. By the way, I told people I wanted to be an astronomer.

Thirty years later, in the middle of my actual career in computers, I had a midlife crisis and wanted to become a science fiction writer again. I knew my childhood science-fiction fantasies were no more realistic than finding my way to Oz. The space program had been going no further than low earth orbit for decades, but I found new inspiration in Robert Zubrin’s book The Case for Mars (1996) and science fiction like Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Space exploration would never be like Star Trek or Star Wars, but it still might be practical to colonize the Moon and Mars.

Now at 68, I wish to try writing science fiction again. I now doubt that even manned exploration of the solar system is practical. Sure, I was overjoyed to see SpaceX launch the Dragon space capsule to the ISS, but it is only repeating the successes of the Gemini program back in the mid-1960s, just with spiffy flat screens and stylish spacesuits. We may even go back to the Moon and even to Mars, but we will not stay.

Humans are not designed to leave Earth and explore space, and I doubt we will adapt. The Moon and Mars are more naturally toxic than any superfund site we’ve created on Terra. Space is a perfect environment for robots and AI. The glamor of space travel will be destroyed once we try living on the Moon and Mars for any length of time.

What kind of science fiction can I write at 68 when I now feel space opera can never be any more realistic than heaven or Middle Earth? Young people want fantasies about the future like I did when I was young. Ones that excite hope. I no longer see any hope for the final frontier.

Science fiction is more popular than ever. It’s obvious that most citizens of Earth don’t want to believe we’re stuck on this planet until we become extinct. But what if that is exactly what will happen? What if existing on Earth for the lifetime of our species is all we ever have?

What if this world is our aquarium where we can only stare out? Given that restriction, can I write science fiction that generates senses of wonder for our possible realistic futures? Or will science fiction always be merely an existential escape?

James Wallace Harris, 6/2/20

Pantsers vs. Plotters

Can readers guess how a story was plotted as they are reading it? Was the writer a pantser or a  plotter? Did the writer just sit down and start writing by the seat of their pants, or did they carefully work out the whole plot ahead of time, maybe in an outline, software, or just in their heads? Would be writers often argue over whether its better to be a pantser or a plotter — to let a muse whisper in your ear or work out the details in advance with logical precision.

My guess is most science fiction writers come up with a science fictional idea first, and then invent characters, setting, plot to showcase that idea. Quite often it feels like some writers get an idea, sit down and start writing towards presenting the idea fictionally, inventing everything needed on the go to get to a situation the presents the idea. Unfortunately, this often shows as lame characters, speaking crappy dialog, following mundane events which gives an overall impression of haste. This is fine for a first draft. A final draft should feel like everything in the story was there for a creative purpose. Personally, if I spot the seams, I feel I’m reading something too close to the seat of the pants draft. If a story feels polished I assume everything was carefully thought out and sculpted. However, I don’t know if my reading sixth-sense is accurate.

F&SF25An example of my thought tracks comes from just reading “Midsummer Century” by James Blish. The story  first appeared in the April 1972 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but I read it in The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction: A Special 25th Anniversary Anthology edited by Edward L. Ferman. This anthology had six stories from special issues devoted to Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, and James Blish. Besides a story, each author was given a short biography and bibliography. With such special fuss, you’d think the stories would have been an exceptional work. “Ship of Shadows” by Lieber and “The Queen of Air and Darkness” by Anderson were award-winning stories, quite ambitious, and impressive. Four of them were not.

Those four had various problems, and as I read them, I wondered how they were conceived. The Sturgeon felt like the beginning of a novel that had been abandoned, and then hastily fixed up for the F&SF editors. The Asimov felt like it had started out as one kind of story, hit a wall, set aside, and then fixed up with a trick solution. The Bradbury felt like Bradbury hadn’t written any SF in a while and was riffing on one of his old standard science fiction melodies — but he was out of practice. I really liked the start of both the Sturgeon and Asimov. They had been chugging along fine on inspiration but then ran out of steam. All three felt like they had been plotted on the go. The Lieber felt like another seat of the pants creation, but it worked. However, Leiber didn’t stick the ending. The Anderson felt like it was holistically conceived, but who knows, he could have written it scene by scene out of his unconscious.

midsummer-century-dawThe last story, “Midsummer Century” is the most interesting in trying to figure out how and why Blish wrote it. It’s so episodic that it really feels like he was flying by whatever ignited his mind during five long writing sessions, each time feeling a different kind of inspiration, each fascinated by a different far-out idea.

The story begins with radio astronomer John Martels moving from England to the United States. Blish uses this part to natter about the class system in England and the lack of one in America, despite the fact that Americans do oppress certain ethnic groups. This section ends with Martels repairing a radio telescope and falling to his apparent death. What a reading shock because I was all prepared to enjoy a story about a British astronomer working in America. Evidently, Blish got bored with that.

Next, we find Martels 25,000 years in the future cohabiting a computer with an immortal being named Qvant. I know it was quite common in the 19th-century to come up with innovative ways of getting your character into the future, but did Blish really expect us to believe that dying inside a radio telescope dish would project a soul ahead in time? It definitely was an odd way to solve a cliffhanger, but I went with the flow.

Blish then spends some time describing what reincarnated life in a future computer is like, with no bodily senses other than a security camera monitoring a decaying room in a far future museum. It turns out Qvant was created by the third form of humanity, reminding me of Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. Qvant has become an oracle god to the fourth form of humanity, who appears as naked savages but are quite noble, leading clean and tidy lives within a hothouse jungle that has taken over the entire Earth.

In this portion of the story, Blish seems interested in exploring reincarnation, and Zen meditative states, as well as new forms of communication. Qvant advises the primitives to solve their problems with rituals and dances which he tells Martels really do work. Blish was well known in the SF genre as a polymath, and here he tries to imagine an advanced non-technological society. This section is the longest part of the story, allowing Blish to work out several science-fictional ideas, but I can’t help but believe, most were on the fantasy end of the spectrum.

When I started wondering where Blish was going next with his story, he evidently, was wondering the same thing. Martels’ mind jumps into a human named Tlam. By now, I’m starting to wonder if Blish isn’t writing a picaresque, rather than a modern plotted story. At this point, it felt like Blish had written himself into a corner used this turn of events as a quick way to escape. That writing day, he obviously felt more interested in the primitive people and their society. Martels rides along in Tlam’s head observing the ways of the fourth form of humanity.

Blish doesn’t stick with this story angle for long. By now, it felt like he had decided on an ending, and wanted to get Martels there. But first, he needed Martels to visit the kingdom of the birds. Evolved birds were brought up in the second section, and I assumed Blish wanted to play with that idea for a while.

We knew from the second section that fourth-stage humans were competing with birds for dominance of the planet. The birds wanted to wipe out humanity and were succeeding. In this portion of the story, I wanted to find out more about our avian rivals, but Blish presents few ideas about bird civilization, not nearly enough for me. Tlam/Martels is captured by birds and taken to a skyscraper of wood and leather built by the bird civilization. Martels/Tham gets to meet the bird king, but nothing really happens.

Almost abruptly Blish decides its time for Tlam/Martels to escape and comes up with another cliffhanger escape, one with a fair amount of action and wonder, but one that felt rushed and somewhat half-hearted.

Finally, we reach the last section of the story, set in Antarctica, where a few third stage humans cling to existence allied with another powerful computer, the one Qvant wants to use to regain power. We only learn late in the last section that Qvant has been traveling along with Martels inside Tlam’s head, but Martels makes it inside the computer first, frustrating Qvant. This final section gives Blish an opportunity to explore telepathy, which almost feels like it was his original goal for the story. Much of the story is about the transmigration of human and machine souls and telepathy. After he explores those ideas, Blish tacks on a happy ending and quits.

I don’t know if the novella “Midsummer Century” was expanded when published as a 106-page hardback book. ISFDB calls it a chapbook. I’m tempted to get it to see if Blish rewrote and expanded the story. However, I’m hesitant because I’m afraid he didn’t.

The science fiction in this story felt like something out of the 1930s or 1940s, maybe inspired by The Time Machine, or Campbell’s “Twilight” or even Stapledon’s stories. Blish wanted us to think about the far future and what we might evolve into. And that’s a cool SF theme I love. Getting Martels into this future is rather clunky. Does the story really need a man from the past? Couldn’t it just have been about the third and fourth stage humans and the birds?

“Midsummer Century” is full of fascinating concepts, but the plotting is haphazard. It makes me wonder how budding writers could even consider pantsing practical. I imagine any story written entirely from daily inspiration should be rewritten thoroughly after a careful analysis. Science fiction writers often have to make a living by pounding out the pages, and not every unconscious mind is working behind the conscious mind of the writer to guide the plot so every scene tightly integrates with the whole. I assume some writers might have such a superpower for plotting on the go, but doubt many.

I love science fiction for its ideas, but just throwing out a series of marvelous musings doesn’t make for storytelling. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a science fiction novel set in the far future that was thematically holistic in its construction. I think the theme inclines writers to spit-ball the concepts. I need to reread Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, it might have been more artistic, but I can’t remember.

On the other hand, “The Queen of Air and Darkness” by Poul Anderson felt like it was designed like a three-dimensional wooden puzzle. And that might explain why it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards.

James Wallace Harris, 5/28/20

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